The Parliament of Religions, Town Hall, Calcutta (Concluding the year-long celebrations of the birth centenary of Pramahansa Ramkrishna) 1st March, 1937
The Parliament of Religions that is commencing to-day is one of the items, perhaps the last item in the programme of year-long celebrations in connection with the Centenary of the birth, or as others would have it, the advent into this world of Pramahansa Ramkrishna.
This Parliament of Religions has evoked cordial responses from far and near. The participants who are present in person are going to deal with the problems of religion, life, moral welfare, spirituality and social progress from varied points of view. I shall confine myself in recording just a few reminiscences of mine in regard to the great saint as well as placing in the philosophical and historical perspectives his special contributions to the realm of human thought and action.
In his early boyhood Ramakrishna took part in popular shows and exhibitions e.g., Krishnalila and Gajan songs. On the death of his elder brother, he became priest at the Kali bari (temple of Kali) of Dakshineswar near Calcutta. He wanted to see Kali, the Divine Mother, and threatened to stab himself to death if Kali would not deign to appear. He was half-mad and at last he had, as he thought, a vision of Kali.
He then began to practise austerities. He took on himself a vow to abjure lust and gold (Kama and Kanchana).
He sought to experience each religion in its entirety in Sadhana or spiritual discipline. Now he would be a Moslem Fakir, with appropriate rituals, attitudes and garb, and now a Christian neophyte, stricken with a sense of sin and crying for salvation. There was nothing of mere pose or mere imagination in all this. In the same was Vaishnava Sankirtan and music were added to his religious exercises.
Among early personal influences on Ramakrishna is to be noted that of Saint Dayananda Saraswati, founder of the Arya Samaj. Dayananda took his stand on the Vedas as teaching the one universal Religion and fought all idolatry in a militant mood, but his influence on Ramakrishna could not be lasting or deep. Ramakrishna’s genuineness led him to revolt against Hindu practices; he would repudiate caste and even serve the “Methar” which could hardly have been pleasing to the orthodox Vedic brotherhood. He felt himself drawn to Totapuri and other saints and these manifold experiences prepared him for his mission in life. It was Totapuri who initiated him into Sannyasa.
He came under the influence of Brahmo Samaj also. The New Dispensation as preached by Brahmananda Keshabchandra gave him a keen sense of certain social evils and immoralities which had corrupted latter-day Hindu religion and religious practices.
Ramakrishna was a composite personality. He worshipped the one in all and the all in one and he saw no contradiction but only fuller reality in this. So also he reconciled Sakar and Nirakar Upasana. For him there was nothing in the material form of the deity but God manifesting Himself. The antagonism between matter and spirit did not exist for him.
Like most Hindu Saints he had an inexhaustible store of homely sayings, adages, metaphors, allegories, parables, which could bring spiritual truths home to the meanest understanding and even to the child.
Rammohun Roy, in a very real sense the father of modern India, sought the Universal Religion, the common basis of the Hindu. Moslem, Christian and other faiths. He found that each of these great religions was based on this common faith with a certain distinctive historical and cultural embodiment. It is fundamental to note that Rammohun played two roles in his own person. First he was a profound universalist and in this capacity he formulated the creed of what has been called Neo-theo-philanthropy (a new love of God and man) on positive and constructive lines. He construed the Gayatri on this basis. And strange to say this Hindu became one of the three fathers of the Unitarian creed and worship in the West.
In the second place Rammohun was a Nationalist Reformer and functioned in three different ways.
As a Hindu reformer he gave a Unitarian redaction of the Hindu Shastras from the Vedanta and as a Moslem defender of the faith he wrote Tufatul Mowahidin and Manazaratum Adiyan which were potential works. And finally as a Christian he gave a Unitarian version of the entire body of the scriptures, old and new, in his controversies with the Christian missionaries. Rammohun was thus in himself a universalist and three nationalists all in one.
Maharshi Devendranath organised the creed, rituals and Anusthans in the Adi-Brahmo-Samaj on a Hindu Upanishadic basis.
The work of formulating a Universal Religion free from Hindu or Christian theology fell to Brahmananda Keshabchandra Sen, who attempted thic on an eclectic basis, and thus organised rituals and modes of worship. In his earlier days Keshabchandra made Christianity the central religion but in later life he was drawn more and more to Vaishnavism for emotional and religious exercises. This was selective eclecticism. He thus variegated and fulfilled religious experiences as well as concepts, rituals and worship in a way never attempted before. Buddhism, Christianity, Islam and Vaishnavism, not to mention other religions, each contributed its essence and substance to Keshabchandra’s Religion of the New Dispensation and what was new was the eclectic cult and culture.
The next step (and it was indeed a fundamental innovation) was taken by Paramhansa Ramkrishna. The Paramhansa would experience each cult and religion in its totality or as one whole experience.
Keshabchandra would emphasise the central essence of each religion and acknowledge its truth. In this sense Keshabchandra would say, ‘It is not that every religion contains truth but every religion is true.’ But as there are different religions, it follows that they convey different aspects of truth. They transcribe not a part but the whole of life, each from one fundamental standpoint. But the religions contend with one another. Each claims that its positive standpoint is the only true standpoint and all other standpoints are erroneous. But Keshabchandra differed. He viewed life from all these different standpoints eclectically. He selected from each religion what he considered its essence, both theoretical as well as practical. He formulated a collection of all these partial aspects in the Brahmo faith and more especially in the New Dispensation creed. Put more briefly, Keshabchandra’s view is that every religion as represented by the central essence is true. But it does not contain the whole truth which can be viewed only from an eclectic standpoint.
The New Dispensation would select the ‘distinctive’ central essence from each religion and make a collection, a ‘bouquet’ of followers as it were. Here it was that Ramakrishna differed from Keshabchandra. Indeed he differed from the predecessors in two essential aspects. First, he maintained that the practices of each religion with its rituals and disciplines gave its essence more really and vitally than its theoretical dogmas or creeds. Secondly, it was Ramakrishna’s conviction that it is not by selective eclecticism but by syncretism and whole-hearted acceptance of a religion that its full value and worth could be realised and experienced.
Ramakrishna held that selective extracts would kill the vital element in each religion. He would be a Hindu with the Hindu, a Moslem with the Moslem and a Christian with a Christian in order to experience the whole truth and efficacy of each of those religions. But he would not practice different religious disciplines or hold different creeds at one and the same time. The observances, practices and rituals of each religion are organic to it. He would tentatively accept the whole creed and ritual of the Moslem (or of the Christian catholic) in order to experience efficacy and truth.
Ramakrishna was thus a cosmic humanist in Religion and not a mere nationalist. He gave the impulse initiative to universal human and this must be completed in our age. Humanism has now various phases and developments. Leaving out Comte’s positive humanism with its worship of the ‘grande-être’ and Bahaism with its later offshoot ‘Babism’, the religion of human brotherhood (bhai), we may turn to later phases such as the new concepts of religion without a God (as in Julian Huxley). This is not all. Impersonal ideas of Truth, Beauty or Goodness have sometimes replaced the old faith in a personal God. And it is merely the religious sentiment which claims its own pabulum in our day. A passion for science, for philosophy or for scientific philosophy, a passion for art or for ‘rasa’ (æsthetic sentiment) in general is the badge of modernism in our culture and seeks to displace much of the old religious sentiment.
Our present quest is for a Parliament of Religions, a quest which we seek to voice in this assembly. But this is only a stepping stone to a Parliament of Man or a Federation of World Cultures.
Articles of faith, creed and dogmas divide man from man but we seek in religion a meeting ground of humanity. What we want is not merely universal religion in its quintessence, not merely an eclectic religion by compounding the distinctive essences, theoretical as well as practical, of the different religions, but experience as a whole as it is unfolded itself in the history of man. And this can be realised by the ultimate realisation of God in Man and the man in God.
Religion in a broader sense is to be distinguished from the religion in the concrete. As such it is a force that organises life and life’s activities. All cultures and in fact, all concepts are dominated by the idea of religion. Food, sex-relations, the family, tribal life and warfare are all regulated by the religious idea. Empirical science and folk life are grouped round the central idea of religion. And, in course of the progress, the higher religions are evolved. The Parliament of Religions is thus to be conceived as but the apex of this ascending course of religious evolution.
Religious expression, however, is not only expression of the ultimate experience. We have also science, philosophy, or better scientific philosophy, art or the æsthetic sensibility, (rasa sentiment or rasanubhuti) or mystical experience, all these being phases of humanism. And the consummation is to be found in cosmic humanism which frees mankind from its limitations of outlook by finding man in the universe and the universe in man. And we seek it to be free not of this or that state but of the solar system and stellar systems and beyond, in one word, of the Universe. Our immediate objective today is a Parliament of Religions. But to my view this is only a prelude to larger Parliament, the Parliament of man, voicing the federation of world cultures, as I have said, and what this will seek to establish is a synthetic view of life conceived not statically but dynamically as a progressive evolution of society.