3 – Conflict of Religions: The book as word of God – Virendra Parekh


Virendra Parekh“The truth came to the Rishis of India—the mantra-drashtas, the seers of thought—and will come to all Rishis in the future, not to talkers, not to book-swallowers, not to scholars, not to philologists, but to seers of thought.” – Swami Vivekananda

Every major religion has a sacred book which contains the revealed knowledge received by its founder and forms the core of its spiritual, theological and ethical teachings. Hinduism has shruti literature, comprising the four Veda samhitas along with associated Brahmanas, Aranyakas and Upanishads. The book (shruti in Hinduism) is regarded as word of God and, therefore, self-evident.

Men and women, entangled in their own plights and problems, sins and sorrows, have little time or inclination for calm reflection, balanced arguments or deep meditation. They want a standard to live by, some rules in the rough and tumble of life which they can accept as valid. By providing them a framework of thought, a code of right and wrong, the Book humanises their nature and lifts them to a higher level. Even those who are incapable of insight get a glimpse of the life of the spirit from the sacred scripture.

Every society which is heir to a tradition usually places a halo of sanctity around the book, which helps transmit its culture and ensure continuity of civilisation. Its tradition gets an inestimable advantage in terms of power and permanence. A living tradition casts generation after generation into a particular mould, imparting a distinct personality, individuality to the society.

There is no denying the importance of authority and the value of tradition. Tradition prevents us from lapsing into individualistic rationalism and ultimate negation. By guiding our personal intuitions with the accumulated wisdom of the race, it protects us from the waywardness of our wandering whims.

All this is true, the sceptics will say, but why should we accept any book—sacred or mundane—on authority? Some traditions will scoff at the question, regarding it as an expression of lack of faith, an affront to the believers, a blasphemy deserving suitable punishment. Hinduism welcomes it and seeks to answer it squarely and clearly.

For a Hindu, religion starts from and returns to an experiential datum. Religion is not an unquestioning acceptance of abstract beliefs or celebration of ceremonies. It is an experience, an insight into the nature of reality (darshana). The Vedas register the intuitions of the perfected souls. They are not so much dogmatic dicta as transcripts from life. They record the spiritual experiences of souls strongly endowed with the sense for reality. They are held to be authoritative on the ground that they express the experiences of the experts in the field of religion. “I know the great Purusha, who is luminous, like the sun and beyond darkness. Only by knowing him does one pass over death; there is no other way to the Supreme Goal.” (Vedāhametaṃ puruṣaṃ mahānta-mādityavarṇaṃ tamasaḥ parastāt tameva viditvātimṛtyumeti nānyaḥ panthā vidyate’yanāya. – Shvet. Up. 3-8)

This experience is not a subjective fancy; it is the response of the whole personality, the integrated self to the central reality. Religious experience is of a self-certifying character. It is svat siddha.

If the utterances of the Vedas were not of a universal character, they would have no claim to our belief. As Dr. Randhakrishnan puts it, the Hindu attitude to the Vedas is one of trust tempered by criticism. Trust because the truths revealed in the Vedas are capable of being re-experienced on compliance with ascertained conditions. That, indeed, is the subject matter of Patanjali’s Yogasutra and numerous other texts. The Gita recognises jnana  (knowledge), karma (selfless action) and bhakti (devotion) as equally valid means of self-realisation.

Hindu scriptures enjoin a man to choose his means and purify and uplift his consciousness to realise within his own self in this very life the spiritual experience recorded in Vedas. The trust, the faith that Hinduism expects from a spiritual seeker (sadhaka) is of a similar type that a book of science demands from a student conducting an experiment. The Hindu attitude to religious text is critical because however valid and valuable the testimony of past ages may be, it cannot deprive the present age of its right to inquire and sift the evidence.

Dr. Radhakrishnan points out that witnesses to the personal sense of the divine are not confined to the East. Socrates and Plato, Plotinus and Porphyry, Augustine and Dante, Bunyan and Wesley, and numberless others, testify to the felt reality of God. It is as old as humanity and is not confined to any one people. In India, mystic saints like Gorakhnath, Ravidas, Bhai Sahib, Gangasati, Dungarpuri and countless others have poured out their visions in simple and yet highly effective language through their devotional songs (bhajans). Their musings leave us in no doubt about the commonality of their experience.

While the religious experience—experience of the Real in the language of philosophy, God in the language of theology—is self-certifying, it is also beyond intellectual comprehension and verbal description. It cannot be limited by anything, nor can it be defined in any way. As the Kena Upanishad says “There the eye goes not, nor speech nor the mind. … It is other than the known, it is above the unknown”. (Na tatra chakshurgachchhati na vaggachchhati no man: anyadeva tadviditadatho aviditadadhi. – Kena Up. 1.3-4)

The wise are, therefore, unwilling to describe it. Upanishads describes Brahma negatively as neti neti (not this, not this). The self is silent, it says (shanto’yamatma). Lao Tze says that Tao which can be expressed is not the unchanging Tao, the Name that can be named is not the unchanging name; that he who knows Tao can be recognised by the fact that he is reluctant to speak of it.

And yet men find it impossible to keep away from speaking about this extraordinary experience. Naturally, their expressions differ vastly for two important reasons. First, the difference in temperament. The same reality is apprehended differently by different people depending on their personality and experience. Religious experience is psychologically mediated. The Svetasvatara Upanisad says that “This God, the maker of all, the great spirit ever seated in the hearts of creatures, is fashioned by the heart, the understanding, and the will. They who know that become immortal.” (Eṣa devo visvakarma mahatma sada jananaṃ hṛdaye sanniviṣṭaḥ hṛda maniṣa manasabhiklṛpto ya etad viduramṛtaste bhavanti. – Sveta. Up. 4-17)

Each mystic spells out the mystery of God according to his own endowment, personal, racial, and historical. As the Rig Veda says the wise describe the same truth variously (ekam sat vipra bahudha vadanti). The experience itself is many-sided (vishvatomukham) and capable of multiple interpretations (anekarthatam). God is all that we call him and much more. Some Christian mystics declare that they see in the highest mystical vision the blessed Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Ghost. Orthodox Muslim mystics deny this triune conception. The conflicting descriptions of God do not deny the reality of God; they only show the inadequacy of the human mind.

There is, however, another equally important reason for conflicting accounts of the mystical experience. Dr. Radhakrishnan points out that spiritual perception, like other kinds of perception, is liable to error and requires the testing processes of logical thought. In order to be able to say that religious experience reveals reality, in order to be able to transform religious certitude into logical certainty, we are obliged to give an intellectual account of the experience, says the great philosopher. Beliefs that foster and promote the spiritual life of the soul must be in accordance with the nature and the laws of the world with which it is their aim to bring us into harmony. There is no inherent conflict between religion and reason, intellect and intuition. We should be wary when we discover such a conflict.

Yoga goes a step further and asks for purification of mind, intellect and consciousness. An impure mind cannot receive the divine light in all its radiance, just as a dust-smeared mirror cannot reflect the object accurately. Yoga insists that the spiritual aspirant should first be established in sila, yama (self-restraint) and niyama (ethical discipline). It cares only for a samadhi rooted in an ethical life.

As Ram Swarup points out, yogic samadhi and yogic prajna give not only self-knowledge, but also knowledge of God or Gods. The spiritual seeker on the inner journey realises his oneness with the God within and the world without. He realises advaita, he realises that God alone is, which is different from saying that there is only one God. He is united with all humanity, indeed all creation—animate and inanimate. “At one extreme of my being I am one with the stones and woods, at the other I feel that I am separate from all,” says Rabindranath Tagore in Sadhana. All are part of a cosmic holiness and goodness. This inner realisation of the unity of universe is the source of shastras like Upanishads, Gita, the Pitakas, the Mahabharata and Ramayana.

There is, however, an opposite development, as Ram Swarup points out in his Hindu View of Christianity and Islam. Vyasa, the great commentator on Patanjali’s Yogadarshana points out that the mind has five habitual states or planes (bhumis): mudha (dull or inert), kshitpa (restless), vikshitpa (scattered), ekagra (one-pointed or concentrated) and nirudhdha (stopped). Vyasa goes on to make a very significant statement that samadhi is natural to all the five states, but issues a warning that the samadhi of the first three are non-yogic and samadhis of only the last two bhumis are yogic. Only the yogic samadhi leads to spiritual development.

Unfortunately, the traditional commentators on Patanjali’s Yogadarshana neglected to develop this hint and focused only on the yogic samadhi. Vishdhdhi Marga, the great Buddhist treatise on yoga also follows the same path. It observes that samadhi is of many kinds, but discussing them all would cause distraction. It then goes on to discuss samadhi of the kushala chitta or a purified mind.

Much confusion and damage has been caused by the confusion of the two types (yogic and non-yogic) of samadhis with each other. One agrees with Ram Swarup that it would have aided our clarity of thought if traditional commentators had discussed both the kinds of samadhis in detail.

The Gita provides an indirect hint. Shraddha (faith), yagna  (sacrifice), tapas (austerity), dana (charity) are all noble concepts. The Gita shows that when the same ideas are processed by different kinds of consciousness, it leads to very different orientation and action. The Gita discusses three types of shraddhatapas, yagna and dana and sharply distinguishes their pure and elevating sattvika (pure) forms from their rajasik (selfish, passionate)and tamasika (dark, inert) imitations. In their sattvika form, they uplift man spiritually; in their rajasika and tamasika form, they promote ego, arrogance, hypocrisy or ignorance of and indifference to the sacred.

Developing Vyasa’s hint, Ram Swarup says that even lower bhumis (kamabhumis) have their characteristic samadhis, trances or their own revelations. As projections of a mind in some kind of samadhi, they acquire an unusual intensity, strength of conviction and tenacity of purpose (mudhagraha) which they would not otherwise have. The non-yogic samadhis generate a sense of superiority, exclusivity and self-righteousness in the individual. They project ego-gods, desire-gods and give birth to dvesha dharmas (hate religions) and moha dharmas (delusive ideologies).

The books rooted in non-yogic samadhis have a very different orientation and atmosphere from the ones rooted in yogi samadhis. For example, the God of Patanjala Yoga is free from all limiting qualities like desire, aversion, hankering, ego and nescience; free from all actions and their consequences, present or future, active or latent. In yogic terminology, he is free from klesha-karma-vipaka-ashaya. The God of the Bible and the Quran, on the other hand, is intolerant, jealous, cruel and partial. His favours are reserved for his followers and he could be ruthless in testing their loyalty.

Under the rajasika impulse of ego-projection, the Book becomes an instrument of aggression. Ram Swarup, who explored the theory and practice of yoga in great detail, says that truths of kamabhumi and krodhbhumi are seldom received unalloyed. They are touched by intrusion of truths from yogabhumi above. However, it only serves to strengthen the self-righteousness of the receiving mind. The jihad, crusade, conversion and dawah become spiritual duties, commandments of God, religious obligations and full-time vocations and tasks of the believers. The results are there for all to see.


  1. The Hindu View of Life,  S. Radhakrishnan, London, 1927.
  2. An Idealist View of Life, S. Radhakrishnan, London, 1932.
  3. Hindu View of Christianity and Islam, Ram Swarup, New Delhi, 1992.

› Virendra Parekh is a senior journalist of 45 years’ standing. He writes in English and Gujarati on economics and politics as also on issues related to Indian civilisation, history and cultural nationalism. Currently, he is Executive Editor of Vyapar, a 72-year-old Mumbai-based Gujarati bi-weekly economy, business and investment.

Meister Eckhart (c. 1260 – c. 1328)

The Godhead, according to Meister Eckhart, is the universal and eternal Unity comprehending and transcending all diversity.

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