A religion that is based on the central truth of a comprehensive universal spirit cannot support an inflexible dogmatism. It adopts an attitude of toleration not as a matter of policy or expediency but as a principle of spiritual life. Toleration is a duty, not a mere concession. In pursuance of this duty Hinduism has accepted within its fold almost all varieties of belief and doctrine and treated them as authentic expressions of the spiritual endeavour, however antithetic they may appear to be.
Hinduism warns us that each of us should be modest enough to realize that we may perhaps be mistaken in our views and what others hold with equal sincerity is not a matter for ridicule. If we believe that we have the whole mind of God we are tempted to assume that any one who disagrees with us is wrong and ought to be silenced.
The Hindu shared Aristotle’s conviction that a view held strongly by many is not usually a pure delusion. If any view has ennobled and purified human life over a wide range of space, time, and circumstance, and is still doing the same for those who assimilate its concept, it must embody a real apprehension of the Supreme Being. For Hinduism, though God is formless, he yet informs and sustains countless forms. He is not small and partial, or remote and ineffable. He is not merely the God of Israel or of Christendom but the crown and fulfilment of you and me, of all men and all women, of life and death, of joy and sorrow. No outward form can wholly contain the inward reality, though every form brings out an aspect of it.
In all religions, from the lowest to the highest, man is in contact with an invisible environment and attempts to express his view of the Divine by means of images. The animist of the Atharva-Veda, who believes that nature is full of spirits, is religious to the extent that he is convinced of the Divine presence and interpenetration in the world and nature. The polytheist is right to the extent that the Divine is to be treated on the analogy of human consciousness rather than any other empirical thing.
The gods of the Vedas resemble the Supreme no more than shadows resemble the sun, but, even as the shadows indicate where the sun is, the Vedic deities point to the direction in which the Supreme reality lies. All forms are directing their steps towards the one God, though along different paths.
The real is one, though it is expressed in different names, which are determined by climate, history, and temperament. If each one follows his own path with sincerity and devotion he will surely reach God. Even inadequate views help their adherents to adapt themselves more successfully to their environment, to order their experiences more satisfactorily, and to act on their environment more creatively.
In the great crises of life, our differences look petty and unworthy. All of us have the same urge towards something of permanent worth, the same sense of awe and fascination before the mystery that lies beyond and within the cosmos, the same passion for love and joy, peace and fortitude.
If we judge the saving power of truth from its empirical effects we see that every form of worship and belief has a strange power which enables us to escape from our littleness and become radiant with a happiness that is not of this world, which transforms unhappy dens into beautiful homes and converts men and women of easy virtue and little knowledge into suffering servants of God. All truth is God’s truth and even a little of it can save us from great troubles.
Besides, the truth of religion is, as Troeltsch declared, ‘polymorphic’. The light is scattered in many broken lights and there is not anywhere any full white ray of divine revelation. Truth is found in all religions, though in different measures. The different revelations do not contradict but on many points confirm one another. For the Hindu; religions differ not in their object but in their renderings of its nature.
The Hindu attitude to religious reform is based on an understanding of the place of religion in human life. A man’s religion is something integral in his nature. It is like a limb, which grows from him, grows on him, and grows out of him. If we take it away from him we mutilate his humanity and force it into an unnatural shape. We are all prejudiced in favour of what is our own.
In spite of all logic we are inclined to believe that the home into which we are born is the best of all possible homes, that our parents are not as others are, and we ourselves are perhaps the most reasonable excuse for the existence of the human race on earth. If strangers are sceptical, it is because they do not know.
These prejudices serve a useful purpose within limits. Mankind would never have progressed to this high estate if it had not been for this partiality for our homes and parents, our art and culture, our religion and civilization. If each pushes this prejudice to the extreme point, competition and warfare will result, but the principle that each one should accept his own tradition as the best for him requires to be adopted with due care that it is not exaggerated into contempt and hatred for other traditions.
Hinduism admits this principle of historical continuity, recognizes its importance for man’s advancement, and at the same time insists on equal treatment for others’ views. Trying to impose one’s opinions on others is neither so exciting nor as fruitful as joining hands in an endeavour to attain a result much larger than we know.
Besides, truth will prevail and does not require our propaganda. The function of a religious reacher is only to assist the soul’s natural movement towards life. The longing for an ideal life may be hidden deep, overlaid, distorted, misunderstood, ill expressed, but it is there and is never wholly lacking.
It is man’s birthright which he cannot barter away or squander. We have to reckon with it and build on its basis. It does not matter what conception of God we adopt so long as we keep up a perpetual search after truth. The great Hindu prayers are addressed to God as eternal truth to enlighten us, to enable us to grasp the secret of the universe better and better.
There is no finality in this process of understanding. Toleration in Hinduism is not equivalent to indifference to truth. Hinduism does not say that truth does not matter. It affirms that all truths are shadows except the last, though all shadows are cast by the light of truth. It is one’s duty to press forward until the highest truth is reached. The Hindu method of religious reform or conversion has this for its aim.
Conversion is not always by means of argument. By the witness of personal example, vital changes are produced in thought and life. Religious conviction is the result, not the cause of religious life. Hinduism deepens the life of spirit among the adherents who belong to it, without affecting its form. All the gods included in the Hindu pantheon stand for some aspect of the Supreme.
Brahma, Vishnu, and Siva bring out the creative will, saving love and fearful judgement of the Supreme. Each of them to its worshippers becomes a name of the Supreme God. The Harivamsa, for example, tells us that Vishnu is the Supreme God, taught in the whole range of the Scriptures, the Vedas, the Ramavana, the Puranas, and the epics. The same description is given of Siva, who has Rudra for his Vedic counterpart. He becomes the highest God. Sakti, the Mother Goddess, in her different forms represents the dynamic side of Godhead. Whatever form of worship is taken up by the Hindu faith it is exalted into the highest.
The multiplicity of divinities is traceable historically to the acceptance of pre-existing faiths in a great religious synthesis where the different forms are interpreted as modes, emanations, or aspects of the one Supreme. In the act of worship, however, every deity is given the same metaphysical and moral perfections. The labels on the bottles may vary, but the contents an. exactly the same.
That is why, from the Rig-Veda onwards, Hindu thought has been characterized by a distinctive hospitality. As the Bhagavad Gita has it:’ Howsoever men approach me, so do I welcome them, for the path men take from every side is mine.’ Hinduism did not shrink from the acceptance of every aspect of God conceived by the mind of man, and, as we shall see, of every form of devotion devised by his heart.
For what counts is the attitude of sincerity and devotion and not the conception, which is more or less intellectual. Kierkegaard says: ‘If of two men one prays to the true God without sincerity of heart, and the other prays to an idol with all the passion of an infinite yearning, it is the first who really prays to an idol, while the second really prays to God. Dominated by such an ideal, Hinduism did not believe in either spiritual mass-production or a standardized religion for all.
The great wrong that which we can call the sin of idolatry, is to acquiesce in anything less than the highest open to us. Religion is not so much faith in the highest as faith in the highest one can reach. At whatever level our understanding may be, we must strive to transcend it. We must perpetually strive to lift up our eyes to the highest conception of God possible for us and our generation.
The greatest gift of life is the dream of a higher life. To continue to grow is the mark of a religious soul. Hinduism is bound not by a creed but by a quest, not by a common belief but by a common search for truth. Every one is a Hindu who strives for truth by study and reflection, by purity of life and conduct, by devotion and consecration to high ideals, who believes that religion rests not on authority but on experience.