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Religiosity Versus Religion

Part 16 of the Bhagavad Gita for Awakening

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Seeing should not always be believing

“All that glitters is not gold” is especially true in the realm of religion. I can never hear that adage without remembering a walk I once took with the Russian Orthodox (OCA) Archbishop of Chicago. I was spending the weekend with him as I usually did at that time, and we were just wandering around aimlessly in the pre-spring weather, getting rather far from his small apartment next door to the renowned Holy Trinity Cathedral.

As we walked along, suddenly to our right loomed a huge church. It was painted a dark blue in the tradition of the Ukraine and topped with immense sparkling gold onion domes. At the peak of the roof in front was a gigantic Russian-style triple-bar cross, also covered in gold leaf.

“Oh, look!” I exclaimed while pointing. “An Orthodox church.”

The archbishop looked at me reproachfully. “All that glitters is not gold,” he said. “Go see.” And he waved his hand toward the structure. So over I went and found by reading the sign by the door that it indeed was not an Orthodox church–not at all. “You must be careful,” was the laconic admonition I received upon returning to the bishop. “Do not believe your eyes all the time.”

This is very much true in the world of religion. All that looks godly is not necessarily godly. Often the opposite. Speaking of the religionists of his day, Saint Paul simply said: “They have a zeal of God, but not according to knowledge” (Romans 10:2).

Just because we believe in God (or at least in our concept of God) and are sincere and motivated means little in the sphere of the spirit. Rather, it is imperative that our religion be “according to knowledge.” Regarding this Krishna now says:

Real religion

Just because we believe in God (or at least in our concept of God) and are sincere and motivated means little in the sphere of the spirit. Rather, it is imperative that our religion be “according to knowledge.” Regarding this Krishna now says:

The ignorant, delighting in the word of the Veda, proclaim this flowery speech: “There is nothing else” (2:42).

This verse may surprise us, especially since the Vedas are usually spoken of with highest reverence. But the truth is that there has been a great deal of progress in Indian philosophy over the past centuries since Krishna spoke these words.

The supreme teacher of wisdom, Shankara, was born at a time when Vedic religion was at its lowest ebb–so much so, that only a small minority even professed to follow it, the majority having abandoned its empty and superstitious ritualism for the superior spiritual perspective of Buddhism, which rejected the Vedas. Shankara’s mission was to show that the ritualistic obsession of those who followed the karma-kanda–the ritual portion of the Veda–and who taught that Vedic ritual is the only path to perfection, were utterly wrong. By his masterly commentaries on the Brahma (Vedanta) Sutras, the Upanishads, the Gita, and the Yoga Sutras, he restored the original teachings of the ancient rishis and saved the very existence of Sanatana Dharma.

Today adherents of that Dharma study the Vedas to discover the wisdom hidden therein, not to simply recite them in a superstitious manner. Credit must especially be given to the nineteenth-centuary reformer, Swami Dayananda Saraswati, for first expounding the Vedas as purely spiritual texts that only appear to deal with externalities. Yet Krishna’s words are still relevant, for throughout the world (including India) religious people are following only the external appearances of holy scriptures, and are intent only in getting “the good things of life” while in this world and going to a “heaven” after death that is nothing more than a version of the earth without the flaws. Gaining heaven and avoiding hell, getting reward and avoiding punishment–in other words, greed and fear–are their motives. The life of the spirit simply does not come into it. In fact, “there is nothing else” to their religion but their selfish purposes.

A profile of ignorance

Krishna has already told us that the sole purpose of yoga is the realization of the Self and the liberation that produces. It is not hard to conceive that this should also be the intent of religion, but it rarely is. For, lacking true knowledge and wisdom, the various religions set forth ways and means that are oriented toward just about everything material and egoic, not toward knowledge of the Self or the means to attain it. Just the opposite, they push their followers further into the mire of material consciousness, even promising them eternal physical embodiment after a mythical resurrection from the dead: a resurrection into matter instead of resurrection into spirit!

I do not mean to be pointing the finger only at Western religion. The popular religion of the East is even more adept at turning words of wisdom into nonsense–and very cleverly and plausibly, too. To gauge the truth of this assertion, read the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita and then take a broad look at contemporary Indian religion, and even yoga, in their popular forms. Are they the same? Almost never, no matter how much the Upanishads and Gita may be invoked by those whose entire religious practices are contrary or extraneous (irrelevant) to the philosophy of the ancient sages. This is a very serious and unfortunate situation.

Very often those who want to follow the way of the Gita and the Upanishads are deflected from that path by the very ones who claim to teach it and whom they trust as viable authorities. As Swami Prabhavananda’s translation puts it: “Those who lack discrimination may quote the letter of the scripture, but they are really denying its inner truth.” Krishna outlines the character and methods of such misleaders.

Those of desire-filled natures, intent on heaven, offering rebirth as actions’ fruit, performing many and various rites, are aimed at the goal of enjoyment and power (2:43).

Desire-filled. I must confess that these words of Krishna take me back to the religion of my childhood. I was fortunate enough to be raised in a spiritually serious church. The theology was full of holes and absurd in many (most) aspects, but the attitude was right on the beam: “Know ye not that the friendship of the world is enmity with God? Whosoever therefore will be a friend of the world is the enemy of God” (James 4:4). We understood that the world spoken of here was not the world of divine manifestation but the artificial structure of human society based on the egoic ignorance of human beings. To be a friend of the world means to be trapped in the realm of time and space, as well as the delusions perpetuated by humanity through the ages.

Not only Jesus, but we, too, can say with confidence: “I am not of the world” (John 17:14). For “the world” is everything that denies and covers up who we really are. It is only rational, then, to heed the admonition: “Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world” (I John 2:15-16). We must note that the evils here listed are not said to come from “the devil,” but from the world.

Most religion is sociopathic, and a fundamental trait of a sociopath is denial of any responsibility. Everything and everyone is responsible for the sociopath’s problems except himself. Such religion teaches people that some invisible evil forces or visible instruments of those forces are what makes them do wrong. But Saint John tells us that it is the distortion produced by our association and identity with the material and the relative world that impels us to folly.

Speaking of the desire-filled teachers of religion, the Apostle says: “They are of the world: therefore speak they of the world, and the world heareth them” ( I John 4:5). As Krishna states, these religionists are full of desires. Their minds are so warped by the fever of these desires, they see themselves and others in a completely twisted perspective. Their fundamental impulses are corrupted and lead to increasing corruption and ultimate destruction. Their whole way of looking at life is hopelessly distorted. And being sociopathic their major intent is to force everyone into their world view.

These people are the enemies of both the wise and the foolish. The wise they wish to subvert, silence, or destroy lest truth free their dupes from their grasp. On the other hand they are determined to keep the ignorant in the dark and in servitude to them and their ideas. So vast is the number of the ways in which they accomplish this, it is difficult to delineate them. Just take a look around, and everything you see will be–or at least reflect–their wiles and ways. If they were not a real danger to the sadhaka, Krishna would not bother to speak about them to Arjuna.

Intent on heaven. They obsessively grasp at every wisp of the world they see and proudly proclaim that their possession is a sign of divine favor, fulfillment of God’s will for them, and proof that they are pleasing to God and right in their views. Yet they know that earthly gain inevitably ends in loss, and that even before the loss many defects are encountered and many failures to please or satisfy. This should turn any sensible person away from externality to seek the true satisfaction that is only found within. But they are not sensible, these dwellers in their own mirage, so they do not look within themselves but beyond this world to a heavenly world of blessed reward where no defect can mar their enjoyment of astral materiality. Consequently their scriptures and their propaganda is filled with descriptions of bright, beautiful, and happy worlds which will be the reward of those who subscribe to their religion and follow their demands.

Although they seem to have their sights on heaven, they are really hankering after the things of earth without their innate deficiencies. So even when they supposedly yearn for heaven they are really desiring earth. Some of them are so caught in this obsession that they assure their adherents that some time in the future they will all rise from the dead in immortal physical bodies and live forever on this earth that has been somehow cleansed and perfected.

Of course these delights are not just for the picking up. They are the rewards of a pleased and placated divinity. They are the carrots held out to the eager donkeys that follow them.

Offering rebirth. Yet, as Krishna points out, all they really offer is “rebirth as actions’ fruit.” How true this is of most religionists, whether clerical or lay. Desire for external material things or situations must come to fulfillment–this is the fundamental law. For karma is thought as well as act. Those who desire aught of the world shall inherit the world over and over through continued rebirth. Even desire for a heaven that is really only the earth without fault or loss brings us back to the earth itself. What to say, then, of the doctrine of the eventual resurrection of the body and eternal dwelling in that body? Such an aspiration can only lead to more and more births in a physical body, since the heaven of such people is only really the earth–just as their “God” is only themselves.

The great teachers come and proclaim that freedom from karma and rebirth is possible. And they show us the way to freedom. But their supposed followers instantly degrade the message and build up a religion that only perpetuates the old bondage. They promise life and deliver death. “A wonderful and horrible thing is committed in the land; the prophets prophesy falsely, and the priests bear rule by their means; and my people love to have it so” (Jeremiah 5:30-31). This is evidence that no one religion has a franchise on ignorance and bondage.

Performing many and various rites, are aimed at the goal of enjoyment and power. Lord Krishna is not speaking only of the people outside India. Throughout the Indian subcontinent right now millions are streaming in and out of temples, paying money for rituals and blessings that are intended to give them whatever they might want, and the three deities of ritualism–Pleasure, Power, and Prosperity–are diligently served by a greedy and materialistic priesthood. Those of us in the West whose contact with India has been in the form of visiting Indian spiritual teachers and yogis look at all this with a spiritual perspective completely incongruous with the truth. “Look at those vast and beautiful temples!” we enthuse, “all monuments to the spiritual aspiration and devotion of the people.” Not at all. And almost never. Those temples are monuments to greed and superstition as well as fear–both fear of lacking material things and of incurring the wrath of the skittish deities whose scriptural “biographies” are welterings of lust, anger, jealousy, vengefulness, and ego–just like their devotees.

Our situation is very much like that of some friends of mine who often went to India to visit the ashram of a renowned spiritual figure. Since they could not understand the saint’s language, every word spoken in the ashram by the saint and the visitors seemed embodiments of spirituality, and the Western devotees felt edified every moment. But when my friends began picking up some knowledge of the language they found that most of the conversation was mundane and inane–in keeping with the consciousness of the local people who came to the ashram for the same motives they went to temples: “Give Me!” Most devotees in India are devoted only to themselves and to the saints as fulfillers of their desires. As one very famous Indian saint said to a crowd of such people: “When I give you what you want you love me, but when I do not give you what you want you hate me.” This saint, like Jesus, certainly “knew what was in man” (John 2:24-25).

But back to the ritualists. They do indeed prescribe labyrinthine rites whose complexity demand a trained and well-paid priesthood. Sometimes the rituals are very obvious pullings of the Divine Vending Machine’s handle, and sometimes they are masked with sentimentality passed off as devotion. One such, for example, is the extremely popular Satyanarayan Puja. This takes hours of ritual offerings, singing, and recitation of the glories of Vishnu (Narayana). But the glories recited are really accounts of all the amazing worldly advantages that have supposedly been gained through the ritual itself. In other words, God is not glorified at all–the ritual is glorified. It is just a Hindu religious version of the old patent remedy shows so popular in nineteenth and early twentieth century America, sort of a holy infomercial for the puja. To sponsor or attend such an event is considered a mark of devotion, but of devotion to what? Or whom? Do they worship the gods or the goods?

Such purveyors of worldly goods through worldly gods also teach elaborate modes of behavior as well to gain the goods. These range from long and arduous pilgrimages culminating in more rituals and generous gifts to temples and priests, to avoiding things the gods supposedly do not like and always having at hand what they do like, to the wearing of emblems honoring the chosen deity, to long recitations of the deity’s praises, to elaborate personal worship of the deity in a home shrine, to fasting or abstaining from work on days specially devoted to or favored by the deity. Millions of poor Indians fast and worship annually on a day whose observance is guaranteed by the popular scriptures to bring lifelong prosperity by a single observance. No one seems to notice they stay poor year after year. They even assure others that the observance is sure to gain wealth to all who engage in it. The same is true of another day whose observance guarantees the conception and birth of a son (sorry, girls). So barren and sonless couples devoutly observe it year after year with no result–not even a resulting skepticism regarding its efficacy. The money just keeps rolling in–or out, depending on which side you find yourself. And that is the whole idea, really. For notice that Krishna does not say the rituals convey power and pleasure; only that they are supposed to.

The unhappy result

To those attached to enjoyment and power, their minds drawn away by this speech, is not granted steady insight in meditation (2:44).

Prabhavananda: “Those whose discrimination is stolen away by such talk grow deeply attached to pleasure and power. And so they are unable to develop that concentration of the will which leads a man to absorption in God.”

The above is a remarkable statement. The word chetasam means both “thought” and “mind.” In other words, the extravagant promises of ignorant religion, and the scrambling and scratching after the things of this world erode the mind and heart, the higher intelligence of human beings, and the power of the Self that is to be set forth to reveal itself. That is why he has already urged Arjuna to “rid yourself of the bondage of karma” which leads only to rebirth. “The yogi should fix his awareness constantly on the Self,… without desires or possessions” (6:10).

Krishna outlines to us the hierarchy of control in our own makeup, saying: “They say that the senses [indriyas] are superior [to the body], the mind [manasa] is superior to the senses, the intellect [buddhi] is superior to the mind, and much superior to the intellect is the supreme intelligence [param buddhi]” (3:42-43).

Putting forth our mind power to obtain the objects of desire destroys the true intelligence of the Self and substitutes the delusions of the ego, and so “steady insight in meditation is not granted.” The Sanskrit literally says, rather awkwardly (in English): “And so the resolute-natured intelligence [buddhi] is not granted in meditation [actually: samadhi].” That is, the highest state of meditation–samadhi–cannot be attained, and the illumined will-power of the buddhi cannot come into force. How terrible! Yet there is a hopeful truth here, as well. If we constantly cut off our desires and addiction to their objects, we will develop the will that enables us to unite ourselves to Brahman.

“Thus constantly engaging himself in the practice of yoga, that yogi, freed from evil, easily contacting [touching] Brahman, attains boundless happiness” (6:28).

Read the next article in the Bhagavad Gita for Awakening: Perspective on Scriptures

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Introduction to The Bhagavad Gita for Awakening

Preface to The Bhagavad Gita for Awakening

Bhagavad Gita for Awakening links:

  1. The Battlefield of the Mind
  2. On the Field of Dharma
  3. Taking Stock
  4. The Smile of Krishna
  5. Birth and Death–The Great Illusions
  6. Experiencing the Unreal
  7. The Unreal and the Real
  8. The Body and the Spirit
  9. Know the Atman!
  10. Practical Self-Knowledge
  11. Perspective on Birth and Death
  12. The Wonder of the Atman
  13. The Indestructible Self
  14. “Happy the Warrior”
  15. Buddhi Yoga
  16. Religiosity Versus Religion
  17. Perspective on Scriptures
  18. How Not To Act
  19. How To Act
  20. Right Perspective
  21. Wisdom About the Wise
  22. Wisdom About Both the Foolish and the Wise
  23. The Way of Peace
  24. Calming the Storm
  25. First Steps in Karma Yoga
  26. From the Beginning to the End
  27. The Real “Doers”
  28. Our Spiritual Marching Orders
  29. Freedom From Karma
  30. “Nature”
  31. Swadharma
  32. In the Grip of the Monster
  33. Devotee and Friend
  34. The Eternal Being
  35. The Path
  36. Caste and Karma
  37. Action–Divine and Human
  38. The Mystery of Action and Inaction
  39. The Wise in Action
  40. Sacrificial Offerings
  41. The Worship of Brahman
  42. Action–Renounced and Performed
  43. Freedom (Moksha)
  44. The Brahman-Knower
  45. The Goal of Karma Yoga
  46. Getting There
  47. The Yogi’s Retreat
  48. The Yogi’s Inner and Outer Life
  49. Union With Brahman
  50. The Yogi’s Future
  51. Success in Yoga
  52. The Net and Its Weaver
  53. Those Who Seek God
  54. Those Who Worship God and the Gods
  55. The Veil in the Mind
  56. The Big Picture
  57. The Sure Way To Realize God
  58. Day, Night, and the Two Paths
  59. The Supreme Knowledge
  60. Universal Being
  61. Maya–Its Dupes and Its Knowers
  62. Worshipping the One
  63. Going To God
  64. Wisdom and Knowing
  65. Going To The Source
  66. From Hearing To Seeing
  67. The Wisdom of Devotion
  68. Right Conduct
  69. The Field and Its Knower
  70. Interaction of Purusha and Prakriti
  71. Seeing the One Within the All
  72. The Three Gunas
  73. The Cosmic Tree
  74. Freedom
  75. The All-pervading Reality
  76. The Divine and the Demonic
  77. Faith and the Three Gunas
  78. Food and the Three Gunas
  79. Religion and the Three Gunas
  80. Tapasya and the Three Gunas
  81. Charity and the Three Gunas
  82. Sannyasa and Tyaga
  83. Deeper Insights On Action
  84. Knowledge, Action, Doer, and the Three Gunas
  85. The Three Gunas: Intellect and Firmness
  86. The Three Kinds of Happiness
  87. Freedom
  88. The Great Devotee
  89. The Final Words
  90. Glossary

Visit our e-library page for Free Downloads of this and other ebooks in various formats.

Read the Maharshi Gita, an arrangement of verses of the Bhagavad Gita made by Sri Ramana Maharshi that gives an overview of the essential message of the Gita.

Read The Bhagavad Gita (arranged in verses for singing) by Abbot George Burke (Swami Nirmalananda Giri).

Read about the meanings of unfamiliar terms in A Brief Sanskrit Glossary

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