Swami Vivekananda. "Essence of Vedanta philosophy— the wisdom of the Vedas, Upanishads and Bhagavad Gita in modern scientific terms."
(Delivered in the Universalist Church, Pasadena, California, January 28, 1900)
No search has been dearer to the human heart than that which brings to us light from God. No study has taken so much human energy, whether in times past or present, as the study of the soul, of God, and of human destiny. However deeply immersed we are in our daily occupations, in our ambitions, in our work, sometimes in the midst of the greatest of our struggles there comes a pause; the mind stops and wants to know something beyond this world. Sometimes it catches glimpses of a realm beyond the senses, and a struggle to get at it is the result. Thus it has been throughout the ages in all countries. Man has wanted to look beyond, wanted to expand himself; and all that we call progress, evolution, has always been measured by that one search, the search for human destiny, the search for God.
As our social struggles are represented, among different nations, by different social organizations, so man's spiritual struggles are represented by various religions. And as different social organizations are constantly quarrelling, are constantly at war with each other, so these spiritual organizations have been constantly at war with each other, constantly quarrelling. Men belonging to a particular social organization claim that the right to live belongs only to them, and so long as they can, they want to exercise that right at the cost of the weak. We know that just now there is a fierce struggle of that sort going on in South Africa.' Similarly each religious sect has claimed the exclusive right to live. And thus we find that though nothing has brought man more blessings than religion, yet at the same time there is nothing that has brought him more horror than religion. Nothing has made more for peace and love than religion; nothing has engendered fiercer hatred than religion. Nothing has made the brotherhood of man more tangible than religion; nothing has bred more bitter enmity between man and man than religion. Nothing has built more charitable institutions, more hospitals for men and even for animals, than religion; nothing has deluged the world with more blood than religion.
We know, at the same time, that there has always been an opposing undercurrent of thought; there have always been parties of men, philosophers, students of comparative religion, who have tried and are still trying to bring about harmony in the midst of all these jarring and discordant sects. As regards certain countries these attempts have succeeded, but as regards the whole world they have failed. Then again, there are some religions, which have come down to us from the remotest antiquity, imbued with the idea that all sects should be allowed to live-that every sect has a meaning, a great idea, imbedded in it, and therefore all sects are necessary for the good of the world and ought to be helped. In modern times the same idea is prevalent, and attempts are made from time to time to reduce it to practice. But these attempts do not always come up to our expectations, up to the required efficiency. Nay, to our great disappointment, we sometimes find that we are quarrelling all the more.
Now, leaving aside dogmatic study and taking a common-sense view of the thing, we find at the start that there is a tremendous life-power in all the great religions of the world. Some may say that they are unaware of this; but ignorance is no excuse. If a man says, "I do not know what is going on in the external world, therefore the things that are said to be going on there do not exist," that plea is inexcusable. Now, those of you who are watching the movement of religious thought all over the world are perfectly aware that not one of the great religions of the world has died. Not only so; each one of them is progressing. The Christians are multiplying, the Mohammedans are multiplying, and the Hindus are gaining ground; the Jews also are increasing in numbers, and as a result of their activities all over the world, the fold of Judaism is constantly expanding.
Only one religion of the world-an ancient, great religion-is dwindling away, and that is the religion of Zoroastrianism, the religion of the ancient Persians. After the Mohammedan conquest of Persia, about a hundred thousand of these people came to India and took shelter there, and some remained in Persia. Those who were in Persia, under the constant persecution of the Mohammedans, dwindled till there are at most only ten thousand. In India there are about eighty thousand of them, but they do not increase. Of course, there is an initial difficulty: they do not convert others to their religion. And then, this handful of persons living in India, with the pernicious custom of cousin-marriage, does not multiply. With this single exception, all the great religions are living, spreading, and increasing.
We must remember that all the great religions of the world are very ancient-not one has been formed at the present time-and that every religion of the world had its origin in the region between the Ganges and the Euphrates. Not one great religion has arisen in Europe; not one in America-not one. Every religion is of Asiatic origin and belongs to that part of the world. If what the modern scientists say is true, that the survival of the fittest is the test, these religions prove by their still being alive that they are yet fit for some people. And there is a reason why they should live: they bring good to many. Look at the Mohammedans, how they are spreading in some places in southern Asia, and spreading like wildfire in Africa. The Buddhists are spreading over central Asia all the time. The Hindus, like the Jews, do not convert others; still, gradually other races are coming within Hinduism and adopting the manners and customs of the Hindus and falling into line with them. Christianity, you all know, is spreading-though I am not sure that the results are equal to the energy put forth. The Christians' attempt at propaganda has one tremendous defect, and that is the defect of all Western institutions: the machine consumes ninety per cent of the energy; there is too much machinery. Preaching has always been the business of the Asiatics. The Western people are grand in organization-social institutions, armies, governments, and so forth. But when it comes to preaching religion, they cannot come near the Asiatics, whose business it has been all the time-and they know it, and do not use too much machinery.
This, then, is a fact in the present history of the human race: that all these great religions exist and are spreading and multiplying. Now, there is a meaning, certainly, to this; and had it been the will of an all-wise and all-merciful Creator that one of these religions should alone exist and the rest die, it would have become a fact long, long ago. If it were a fact that only one of these religions was true and all the rest were false, by this time it would have covered the whole world. But this is not so; not one has gained all the ground. All religions sometimes advance, sometimes decline. Now, just think of this: in your own country there are more than sixty millions of people, and only twenty-one millions profess a religion of some sort. So it is not always progress. In every country, probably, if the statistics were taken, you would find that the religions sometimes progress and sometimes go back. Sects are multiplying all the time. If the claim of any one religion that it has all the truth, and that God has given it all that truth in a certain book, be true, why then are there so many sects? Not fifty years pass before there are twenty sects founded upon the same book. If God has put all the truth in certain books, He does not give us those books in order that we may quarrel over texts. That seems to be the fact. Why is this? Even if a book were given by God which contained all the truth about religion, it would not serve the purpose, because nobody could understand the book. Take the Bible, for instance, and all the sects that exist among the Christians. Each one puts its own interpretation upon the same text, and each says that it alone understands that text and all the rest are wrong. So with every religion. There are many sects among the Mohammedans and among the Buddhists, and hundreds among the Hindus.
Now, I place these facts before you in order to show you that any attempt to bring all humanity to one method of thinking in spiritual things has been a failure and always will be a failure. Every man who starts a theory, even at the present day, finds that if he goes twenty miles away from his followers they will make twenty sects. You see that happening all the time. You cannot make all conform to the same ideas; that is a fact, and I thank God that it is so. I am not against any sect. I am glad that sects exist, and I only wish they may go on multiplying more and more. Why? Simply because of this: If you and I and all who are present here were to think exactly the same thoughts, there would be no thoughts for us to think. We know that two or more forces must come into collision in order to produce motion. It is the clash of thought, the differentiation of thought, that awakens thought. Now, if we all thought alike, we should be like Egyptian mummies in a museum, looking vacantly at one another's faces-no more than that. Whirls and eddies occur only in a rushing, living stream. There are no whirlpools in stagnant, dead water.
When religions are dead, there will be no more sects; it will be the perfect peace and harmony of the grave. But so long as mankind thinks, there will be sects. Variation is the sign of life, and it must be there. I pray that sects may multiply so that at last there will be as many sects as human beings and each one will have his own method, his individual method of thought, in religion.
Such a situation, however, exists already. Each one of us is thinking in his own way. But this natural thinking has been obstructed all the time and is still being obstructed. If the sword is not used directly, other means are used. Just hear what one of the best preachers in New York says. He preaches that the Filipinos should be conquered because that is the only way to teach Christianity to them! They are already Catholics; but he wants to make them Presbyterians, and for this he is ready to lay all this terrible sin of bloodshed upon his race. How terrible! And this man is one of the greatest preachers of this country, one of the best informed men. Think of the state of the world when a man like that is not ashamed to stand up and utter such arrant nonsense; and think of the state of the world when an audience cheers him. Is this civilization? It is the old blood-thirstiness of the tiger, the cannibal, the savage, coming out once more under new names in new circumstances. What else can it be? If such is the state of things now, think of the horrors through which the world passed in olden times, when every sect was trying, by every means in its power, to tear to pieces the other sects. History shows that the tiger in us is only asleep; it is not dead. When opportunities come it lumps up and, as of old, uses its claws and fangs. And apart from the sword, apart from material weapons, there are weapons still more terrible: contempt, social hatred, and social ostracism.
Now, these afflictions that are hurled against persons who do not think exactly in the same way we do are the most terrible of all afflictions. And why should everybody think just as we do? I do not see any reason. If I am a rational man, I should be glad that they do not think just as I do. I do not want to live in a grave-like land. I want to be a man in a world of men. Thinking beings must differ; difference is the first sign of thought. If I am a thoughtful man, certainly I ought to like to live among thoughtful persons, where there are differences of opinion.
Then arises the question: How can all this variety be true? If one thing is true, its negation is false. How can contradictory opinions be true at the same time? This is the question which I intend to answer. But I shall first ask you: Are all the religions of the world really contradictory? I do not mean the external forms in which great thoughts are clad. I do not mean the different buildings, languages, rituals, books, and so forth, employed in various religions, but I mean the internal soul of every religion. Every religion has a soul behind it, and that soul may differ from the soul of another religion; but are they contradictory? Do they contradict or supplement each other?-that is the question.
I took up this question when I was quite a boy, and have been studying it all my life. Thinking that my conclusion may be of some help to you, I place it before you. I believe that they are not contradictory; they are supplementary. Each religion, as it were, takes up one part of the great, universal truth and spends its whole force in embodying and typifying that part of the great truth. It is therefore addition, not exclusion. That is the idea. System after system arises, each one embodying a great ideal; ideals must be added to ideals. And this is how humanity marches on.
Man never progresses from error to truth, but from truth to truth-from lesser truth to higher truth, but never from error to truth. The child may develop more than the father; but was the father inane? The child is the father plus something else. If your present stage of knowledge is much higher than the stage you were in when you were a child, would you look down upon that earlier stage now? Will you look back and call it inanity? Your present stage is the knowledge of childhood plus something more.
Then again, we know that there may be almost contradictory points of view of a thing, but they all point to the same thing. Suppose a man is journeying towards the sun and as he advances he takes a photograph of the sun at every stage. When he comes back, he has many photographs of the sun, which he places before us. We see that no two are alike; and yet who will deny that all these are photographs of the same sun, from different standpoints? Take four photographs of this church from different corners. How different they would look! And yet they would all represent this church. In the same way, we are all looking at truth from different standpoints, which vary according to our birth, education, surroundings, and so on. We are viewing truth, getting as much of it as these circumstances will permit, colouring it with our own feelings, understanding it with our own intellects, and grasping it with our own minds. We can know only as much of truth as is related to us, as much of it as we are able to receive. This makes the difference between man and man and sometimes even occasions contradictory ideas. Yet we all belong to the same great, universal truth.
My idea, therefore, is that all these religions are different forces in the economy of God, working for the good of mankind, and that not one can become dead, not one can be killed. Just as you cannot kill any force in nature, so you cannot kill any one of these spiritual forces. You have seen that each religion is living. From time to time it may retrogress or go forward. At one time it may be shorn of a good many of its trappings; at another time it may be covered with all sorts of trappings. But all the same, the soul is ever there; it can never be lost. The ideal which every religion represents is never lost, and so every religion is intelligently on the march.