The Function of Religion

There is but ONE Eternal Truth, one universal, infinite and changeless Spirit of Love, Truth and Wisdom, impersonal, therefore bearing a different name with every nation, one Light for all, in which the whole Humanity lives and moves, and has its being. Like the spectrum in optics, giving multicoloured and various rays, which are yet caused by one and the same sun, so theologies and sacerdotal systems are many. But the Universal religion can only be one, if we accept the real, primitive meaning of the root of that word. We, Theosophists, so accept it; and therefore say, "We are all brothers—by the laws of Nature, of birth, and death, as also by the laws of our utter helplessness from birth to death in this world of sorrow and deceptive illusions. Let us, then, love, help, and mutually defend each other against this spirit of deception; and while holding to that which each of us accepts as his ideal of truth and reality—i.e., to the religion which suits each of us best—let us unite ourselves to form a practical nucleus of a Universal Brotherhood of Humanity WITHOUT DISTINCTION OF RACE, CREED, OR COLOUR.

—H. P. Blavatsky (Lucifer, April 1888)

What is the function of religion? Most People think that "religion" prepares an individual for some future existence. Some religions are considered to have arisen as the result of reform to the existing religious system by a prophet-reformer, while some are claimed to be revelations of a Supreme Being. There are many religions and people of each religion have their own God and their own ideas of God. Crusades have been fought in the name of religion—often between two groups of people belonging to the same religion—each praying to the same God to vanquish the other.

Religion, as it is generally understood, is opposed to the spirit of science—which is one of inquiry and investigation. However, scientific method is empirical while that of religion is dogmatic. Science does not depend on external authority such as a Pope or Pundit, but appeals to some reasonable evidence that an intelligent mind can understand. A true scientist does not take refuge in dogmatism.

Each religion claims that its scriptures are unique because they are the utterances of God and hence infallible. Nowadays, literal infallibility is not so much insisted upon except by a few fundamentalists. To divest religion of dogmas, tradition and myths is to make it empty. Hence religious authorities condemn all attempts that undermine their belief in scriptures. Dr. S. Radhakrishnan points out the failure of the religions to perform their real function, thus:

The inadequacy of religion is evident from the disparity between outward allegiance and inward betrayal. Religion is confused with the mechanical participation in the rites or passive acquiescence in the dogmas. Many of those who observe the forms of not model their lives on the precepts they profess....We must live religion in truth and deed and not merely profess it in words.

Unfortunately religions tend to keep people apart. Humanity is broken up into a number of separate worlds each with its particular religious tradition. To sustain a world community, we need unity, if not identity of spiritual outlook and aspiration. The root meaning of the word "religion" suggests that it should be a binding force. (Recovery of Faith, pp. 21-22 and 30)

Every creed discourages its followers from inquiring into the rationality of the belief they hold sacred. Many eminent scientists blindly follow their creed. When it comes to religion they forfeit the use of their minds, which is the prerogative of man.

When a person, who has the power to inquire, to think, to investigate and analyze, believes in sectarian and religious beliefs and dogmas, he actually forfeits his faculty of thinking. It is his duty to find out whether the belief is universal, impersonal and eternal or not. If not, never accept it. One should have a scientific mind and readiness to accept the truth from whichever quarter it may come. H.P.B. writes:

He who believes his own religion on faith, will regard that of every other man as a lie, and hate it on that same faith. Moreover, unless it fetters reason and entirely blinds our perceptions of anything outside our own particular faith, the latter is no faith at all, but a temporary belief, the delusion we labour under, at some particular time of life. Moreover, "faith without principles is but a flattering phrase for willful positiveness or fanatical bodily sensations," in Coleridge's clever definition....(U.L.T. Pamphlet No. 1, p. 2)

People following different creeds have their beliefs that are not logical. Most people feel that religion is determined by birth in a particular family or the community to which one belongs. It is the duty of man to understand the meaning of life, of religious beliefs and customs, and if they appeal to his mind, learn to apply them in life.

True Religion must give us a basis for thinking, and consequently, a basis for acting; it must give us an understanding of nature, of ourselves and of other beings. Religion is a bond uniting men together—not a particular set of dogmas or beliefs—binding not only all Men, but also all Beings and all things in the entire Universe, into one grand whole. (The Friendly Philosopher, p. 211)

Religious differences arise because of ignorance and become dangerous to human society and its peace when blind belief energizes them. While we may quarrel with the outward forms, mechanical rites, and social superstitions, which unfortunately have acquired the sanctity of religion, through many centuries—and which have really hindered the growth of the true spirit of religion—the fundamental principles of religion, viz., an ever deepening awareness of the divine presence and compassion for humanity, are never forgotten or superseded. This is the true spirit of religion. The worth of any religious tradition depends upon its teachings about God, Nature and Man. H.P.B. writes:

Theosophy is not a Religion, we say, but RELIGION itself, the one bond of unity, which is so universal and all-embracing that no man, as no speck—from gods and mortals down to animals, the blade of grass and atom—can be outside of its light. Therefore, any organization or body of that name must necessarily be a UNIVERSAL BROTHERHOOD. (U.L.T. Pamphlet No. 1, p. 5)

John Bunyan said, "Religion is the best armour that man can have, but it is the worst cloak." Religion awakens and unfolds in us humility, piety, and unselfishness, but unfortunately it also breeds hypocrisy, humbug, cant, credulity and fanaticism. Religion enables and leads the earnest seeker to the path of light and Truth, through inquiry and honest search for truth. Thus:

The...function of religion is dual: first, to give to man knowledge about his own Soul and Spirit by which he can ennoble his mind and elevate his feelings; secondly, to give to man strength born of perception to be a good neighbour to his fellow-men, to be a helper of the needy and to be an...efficient servant of humanity. (The Brotherhood of Religions, Introduction)

Seek this wisdom by doing service, by strong search, by questions and by humility; the wise who see the truth will communicate it unto thee. (Gita, IV)

This shows that religion, in its true sense, tends towards unity and wholeness; on the other hand, religions based on a set of dogmas and beliefs tend towards separateness, dividing man from man. Those who follow them can never know what true religion is, until they learn to think for themselves. Each one of us should try to look for that spark of Tathagata light within, and knowledge will arise spontaneously in the course of time. As the definition of religion indicates, the binding power is the very essence of "true religion" and it always tends towards greater harmony. When such harmony is established, various distinctions and barriers, which are man-made, fall away before one integrating and uniting force.

The religious instinct is one of the most forceful of human instincts. By the aid of right knowledge man can press that instinct into his own service and so can secure for himself the peace of enlightenment; and more, become instrumental in bringing that inner peace of conviction and of faith to his fellow-men. On the other hand, allowing his mind to be corrupted by false knowledge and sordid notions man becomes the slave of that instinct and soon learns to feel hatred and jealousy which are potent causes of riots and of wars....India suffers from the evil effects of religious fanaticism: communal riots, rooted in creedal superstitions, have blackened the fair name of the Motherland. (The Brotherhood of Religions, Introduction)

Unfortunately, religious fanaticism and religious riots are not peculiar to India but have become a universal phenomenon.

Down the ages, Great Instructors of humanity have taught certain truths from which human ignorance and credulity have time and again drawn away our minds and hearts. Sri. Krishna, in the Bhagavad-Gita, speaks of efforts made, periodically, to teach mankind the same old Truths that enable us to destroy unrighteousness and to take the path of righteousness. The message given out by H.P.B. in 1875 is but the resuscitation of the same old Brahma Vidya to which she gave the name Theosophy.

The motto of the Theosophical Society [and of the United Lodge of Theosophists today] has been "There is no religion higher than Truth." Theosophy defines religion as Dharma. Dharma has been defined in Karnaparva of the Mahabharata as "that which supports, that which holds together the people."

Let us take to heart these inspiring words from the pen of Henri-Frederic Amiel:

Religion is not a method, it is a life, a higher and supernatural life, mystical in its root and practical in its fruits, a communion with God, a calm and deep enthusiasm, a love which radiates, a force which acts, a happiness which overflows. Religion, in short, is a state of the soul....I feel so little interest in these ecclesiastical struggles...for dogma, criticism, the Church, are not religion; and it is religion, the sense of a divine life, which matters. "Seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you." The most holy is the most Christian; this will always be the criterion which is least deceptive. "By this ye shall know my disciples, if they have love one to another." [Italics ours.]

Goodness is the heart of man. All that the word Goodness means is "getting access to one's real heart." In its true and original state the heart did not experience pleasure, anger, grief or delight. But once a man begins to pursue his own private ends, harassed by rage and desire, he ceases to be in any proper sense a man. If on the other hand, he can overcome the personal cravings of his human heart and return to the impersonal state that belongs to the heart of Tao, then he will regard others just as he regards himself, will regard things just as he regards men, and the true original state of this man's nature will be manifested. Henceforward he will be seen to treat his parents as parents should be treated, to show consideration to his inferiors and affection towards all creatures, all of which will follow spontaneously from workings of his real, unspoiled heart....If a man can for a single day return to the original state, go back to the always-so, then the ten thousand things will be for him all of like form and condition, and wherever he goes there will be Goodness. That is why the Master said, "If for a single day a man can overcome his personal self and return to li [the natural], everything under Heaven for that man turns into Goodness."

The Analects of CONFUCIUS

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