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Saving the Legacy of the Brahmo Samaj

By Sanjoy Chanda

The Brahmo Samaj was established on the foundation of universalism. There is a Vedic sloka which says: “ekam sat, biprabahudhavadanti” – truth is one, the sages call it by different names.  Raja Rammohun Roy was a man of religion. We know him as a reformer and an activist. But the motivating factor behind all his actions was his great religiosity. Throughout his life he had been a seeker of truth, a seeker of the true religion. That is why he studied the scriptures of all the great religions of the world in great details. From his studies he came to the realization that the essence of the teachings of all religions is the same. Unfortunately, over the ages, every religion undergoes distortions. Sometimes rituals become more important than the religion itself.  Sometimes the priestly class, for their own selfish reasons, introduce distortions and encourage superstitions which supersede the original teachings. Sometimes a wise man might try to deliver a moral advice through a story. But people, over a period of time, forget the advice and start believing the story. Stripped of all these corruptions, distortions, superstitions and meaningless rituals, the core principles of all great religions – Hinduism of the Vedas and the Upanishads, Islam, Christianity – are essentially the same. They all propagate unity of God, immortality of the soul and ethical discipline as the basis of spiritual life. Rammohun recognized that a religion based on these principles will represent the common central teachings of the scriptures of all these historic religions and thus be truly a ‘universal religion’. By establishing the Brahmo Samaj he gave practical form to his vision of universal religion, central to which is the belief in one and only formless Supreme Spirit.

An invisible but all-pervading God is the essence of our faith. This concept is very clearly explained in the Chhandyogya Upanishad through the story of Svetketu. Svetketu had spent several years studying the Vedas. But when he came back home after completion of his studies, his father, the learned and wise Uddalaka Aruni, realised that though he had learnt the texts well, the underlying message had escaped him. So, the father offered to teach him and Svetketu readily agreed.

His father asked Svetketu to bring a fruit from a nearby banyan tree and break open the fruit. “What do you see in it?” he asked. “Very small seeds, sir”, answered Svetketu. “Break one of them, my son”. After the seed was broken, Svetketu was asked “What do you see in it?” “Nothing at all, sir” was the answer. Then the father said to him: “My son, from the essence of the seed that you cannot see, comes in truth this huge banyan tree. Believe me, my son, an invisible and subtle essence is the spirit of the whole universe. That is the Supreme Spirit.”

Svetketu urged his father to explain further and was asked to bring a lump of salt and place it in a bowl of water. He was asked to come back next morning. Next morning his father said to him: “bring me the lump of salt you put into the water last night”. Svetketu could not find it because it had dissolved in the water. His father then said: “taste the water from this side. How is it?”

“It is salty.”

“Taste the water from the other side. How is it?”

“It is salty and I do not see any salt, I only see water.”

The father then said: “In the same way, o my son, you cannot see the spirit. But in truth he is here. An invisible and subtle essence is the spirit of the whole universe. That is reality. That is truth.”

Like the salinity of water indicates the presence of salt in it, God reveals himself through his creation. He is beyond our conception, but not beyond our knowledge and faith – we can comprehend him through his manifestations in nature. If we take a glass full of water and place a piece of chalk into it, the chalk absorbs water till all its pores are full. Similarly, God is all around us as well as within us.

Apart from the worship of the one and only formless Supreme Spirit, Rammohun’s concept of Brahmo Samaj embraced the principle of promoting bonding between people of different castes, creeds and religions. He stated that religious service in a Brahmo mandir will “promote charity, morality, piety, benevolence, virtue and strengthening the bonds of union between men of all religious persuasions and creeds”. Brahmo samaj is based on the concept of unity – unity of Godhead, unity of mankind. Our motto is “Fatherhood of God and brotherhood of man”. We believe that as God’s children all human beings are born equal and should be treated with equal love, respect and dignity.

Today if we look around the world, we find that conflicts are going on in different areas and, ironically, a majority of them are in the name of religion. Religious fundamentalism is one of the greatest menaces in the world. In our country also forces of disunity are active. In this atmosphere, Brahmoism is most relevant. The universalism of Brahmo faith, its message of dismantling all barriers which separate man from man and creating relationships based on love, understanding and tolerance holds the key to this problem.

We, the current generation of Brahmos, are the inheritors, the trustees of the great Brahmo legacy. It is incumbent on us to not only save this legacy, but to try and propagate it and pass it on to the next generation.

There is the story that when King Charles I of England was defeated in the Civil War, he was captured by the rebels, tried and sentenced to death. His successors lost control of the throne. Some loyal subjects of Charles kept their hope alive that someone from his bloodline would regain his throne. It is said that Charles’ crown was in the secret possession of a loyal family. Every generation took an oath to protect the crown. When the crown was handed over by a father to his son, the oath taken was in a question and answer form: “What shall we give for it?” “All that is ours.” “Why shall we give it?” “For the sake of the trust.”

The lofty ideals of the Brahmo Samaj are more valuable than a king’s crown. This legacy of ours should be saved at any cost. It is a legacy handed over to us by our illustrious forefathers. Today let us make a commitment to save this great legacy of ours. Let us take this oath in the form of two questions and their answers: “What shall we give for it?” “All that is ours.” “Why shall we give it?” “For the sake of the trust.”

If we want the Brahmo legacy to survive, if we want the Brahmo movement to progress, if we want to propagate its message to the society at large, the younger generation has to be involved. They are our future, they are the future of our movement. However, it is incumbent on us to motivate and make them take the oath we have talked about with all sincerity. The world we live in is constantly changing. Everything around us changes – the environment changes, with the change of social environment our lifestyle changes, with the advance of technology our outlook changes, our priorities change. To keep up with this changing world, I feel that our samaj also has to change. While the principles on which Brahmo Samaj stands, its ideals and its message are universal, we probably have to adapt them to the changed circumstances. We have to examine how today’s generation can best relate to Brahmo Samaj, how they would like to practice their faith. The best way to protect our legacy, our belief, our faith is, I believe, to change the practices from our way to their way, so that it appeals to the future generation. The task before us, as the current custodians of the Brahmo Samaj and Brahmo Dharma, is to be agents of this change and to find the right path ahead. We need to introspect. We need to think, to discuss and to involve different groups from different samajes. We need to involve young people in our discussions to find out what kind of changes would meet their expectations, their aspirations. Once we identify the changes that are required, we have to decide on an action plan to achieve them. This will have to be done with the full participation of the young generation. At the same time we must ensure that the core principles of Brahmo faith are not compromised in any way.

So, we have a goal in view and let us leave no stone unturned to achieve that. I repeat the last four lines of the English poet HW Longfellow’s famous poem “A Psalm of Life”:

“Let us, then be up and doing,

With a heart for any fate,

Still achieving, still pursuing, Learn to labour and to wait.”

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