The Ramakrishna Mission's motto is: "For one's own liberation and for the good of the world." Liberation of the soul is the promise of all religions and their central teaching. It is this promise that distinguishes religion from all other quests of life. Prophets and saints, mystics and philosophers, theologians and scriptures assure us of ultimate liberation from the pain and suffering of life. All seekers, whether Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, or Muslim, dualist, qualified non-dualist, or non-dualist, strive for liberation. All believe that through liberation they will attain immortality. The desire for immortality is inherent in human nature. Desiring immortality, people beget children, create works of art, erect monuments, sacrifice their self-interest, and practice charity, contemplation, and prayer. What is the meaning of liberation? What really happens to one who becomes liberated?
The general consensus among the religions of the world is that liberation is eternal life in heaven and that such liberation, which is possible only after death, is the reward for the virtuous and the believers. The non-believers and the sinners go to hell to expiate their wrongful actions on earth. Enjoyment in heaven and suffering in hell are described in the scriptures of different traditions in vivid terms. But the religions vary in their views of the nature of liberation, how to attain it, and how to verify it. Some claim that liberation is reserved only for their own followers and ask for unquestioning faith in their dogma. Others claim that liberation is only for the elected and chosen ones-and not universal. Immortality for some is physical, for others, spiritual. Some insist that liberation is dependent on effort, and to others it is solely a matter of faith. Again, some traditions declare that our life on earth is only for one term, and therefore there is only one opportunity to strive for liberation. Others speak of the law of rebirth and of many terms of life.
The questions that are often raised by the scientific-minded, and quite reasonably so, are the following:
(1) If liberation is possible only after death, how can the reality of such liberation be verified? The conditions on the two sides of the grave are different. The dead do not come back to testify about the validity of heaven. Scriptural assurances are not enough to silence our doubt, since, having been written by human hands, they are subject to human error. Could it be that the ideas of heaven and liberation are merely the result of pious imagination? Such doubt persists. There is the story of a mountain climber who was trying to scale a 5,000 foot peak. At one point he lost his balance and began to fall uncontrollably. Desperately grabbing hold of the stump of a tree, he found himself hanging in mid-air. An avowed atheist, the man did not believe in any prayer or in the hereafter. But facing this harrowing situation, he look toward heaven and called out, "Is there any one to save me?" To his utter surprise, he heard a deep voice resounding from the sky, saying, "My son, let go thy hold. I shall bear thee up." There was a pause, and then the man again looked toward heaven and asked, "Is there anyone else?"
(2) Are the descriptions of the hereafter true? If so, why do the accounts differ? Immortality in heaven has been described as being of infinite duration, that is, not bound by time. But how can everlasting life be described in terms of time? What begins in time must end in time. Heavenly life has been described as enjoyment without suffering, youth without old age, pleasure without pain-a claim which is untenable from the point of view of reason. The subtle or spiritual body through which one experiences heavenly happiness cannot last for ever. How can an embodied person be immortal? Can it be that our individual desires create our ideas of heaven and that our definition of heaven changes with the change of our desires? So Swami Vivekananda says:
"Everyone's idea of pleasure is different. I have seen a man who is not happy unless he swallows a lump of opium every day. He may dream of a heaven where the land is made of opium. That would be a very bad heaven for me. Again and again in Arabian poetry we read of a heaven with beautiful gardens through which rivers run. I have lived much of my life in a country where there is too much water; many villages are flooded and thousands of lives are sacrificed every year. So my heaven would not have gardens through which rivers flow; I would have a land where very little rain falls. Our pleasures are always changing."[i]
(3) One cannot imagine how a soul which has a beginning in time can be without end. The claim that the soul is created at the time of birth and that life is for only one term lacks a rational basis. Such an idea fails to explain the inequalities that exist between one person and another in the physical, mental, moral, and spiritual spheres. To say that such inequalities are all due to the environment and upbringing is not an adequate explanation. To attribute such inequalities to the will of God only makes God cruel and whimsical. Most people die as sinners and consequently if there is only one term of life, it must follow that most are destined to suffer eternally in hell. How is it possible that the soul, being an integral portion of God, can be punished forever? To believe in the eternal punishment of the soul for the mistakes of a few years on earth is absurd.
(4) The assertion of some traditions that theirs is the only way raises very serious doubts about their validity. Such a claim is possible only in a non-moral universe created by an unjust God. Claims of exclusiveness have prompted some traditions to proselytize and at times persecute. Such claims have prompted these traditions to increase the number of the faithful by forcible conversion and to eliminate the unfaithful by means of extermination.
In a recent article in The New York Times, the author Karen Armstrong writes:
"Is acceptance of Jesus Christ necessary for salvation? That is the question threatening to split the Dutch Reformed Church in America, which has about 200,000 members. The Rev. Richard A. Rhem, pastor of Christ Community Church in Spring Lake, Mich., has said he no longer believes that Jesus is the only route to God. Through their own religions, he argues, Jews, Muslims and Buddhists can be admitted to heaven. His stance shocked the regional Reformed Church authorities, who censured Mr. Rhem in July. But the pastor has been supported by his congregation as well as by some Christian churches in other denominations. Christians have been arguing about the salvation of unbelievers for at least 1,600 years. (Before that, the religion's struggle for survival overshadowed concerns about the fate of unbelievers.) But the debate has an urgency in the late 20th century because of our expanded understanding of other religions....Christians like Mr. Rhem find it difficult to believe that a just and merciful God would damn millions of well-meaning men and women merely because they have not found faith in Jesus. Others insist that the Christian faith is an indispensable requirement for eternal beatitude....In this century, the two tendencies have struggled against a backdrop of greater religious communication. Our new knowledge and new technology make the old isolation of the world's religions seem parochial and outdated. Christians are discovering that despite their obvious differences, the great world religions are in profound agreement about essential spiritual issues. People are now beginning to seek inspiration from more than one religion....In the 21st century, people of all faiths will have to decide whether to embrace the new globalization by expressing it in religious terms or to react vehemently against it and retreat into denominational ghettos."[ii]
Exclusiveness always creates suspicion. Spirituality is a universal phenomenon, not the exclusive possession of any particular faith. No religious tradition has a monopoly of Truth. Moral and ethical virtues of purity, compassion, truthfulness, and self-sacrifice-the means to liberation-are common to all traditions. All are children of one and the same God, to whom all return at the time of liberation. Prophets and saints of different religions are the messengers of that one God. Different religions are only the different paths to reach Him. Those who deny these facts deny God Himself.
An individual brought up today with a scientific outlook insists on the rule of law. In the classroom and the workplace he is encouraged to raise honest doubt and make critical enquiry about everything, and thus he feels puzzled when he is asked to accept the teachings of a scripture or the tenets of a particular tradition as infallible. Two reasons are generally invoked in support of infallibility: Such teachings and tenets have been handed down from ancient times and our ancestors believed in them. Yet mere belief in liberation does not make it real for us. Until Galileo told us otherwise, the world used to believe that the sun moves around the earth. If the laws of science work everywhere and at all times, should not the same laws apply to religion? Science has thrown open a window on the cosmos, which is now regarded as infinite. Our sun is a speck on the edge of a vast galaxy-one of innumerable galaxies, and our earth is a mere particle of dust circling that speck. The creation did not begin at a certain time on a particular day; it evolved through billions of years. The view of a universe with God at the top, the devil below, and the human world in between can be accepted by only the most naive.
Science demands deduction from facts, not from dogmas. In religion too we must draw our conclusions from facts, and not attempt to create facts based upon preconceived conclusions. Too often in religious matters reason has been used as a means of reinforcing our prejudices. The strict methods of science require us to accept a proposition only when we are in a position to prove it. Skeptics think that the notion of liberation is nothing but wishful thinking on the part of some visionaries who hope to fulfill their heart's desire for eternal life, in defiance of the laws of science.
[i]. Vivekananda: The Yogas and Other Works, chosen and with a biography by Swami Nikhilananda, Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center, New York, 1984, p. 265.
[ii]. "Whose Heaven Is It?," by Karen Armstrong, in The New York Times, August 31, 1996, p. 21.