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Fool’s Gold in Religion

Fool's GoldSeeing 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. 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. I was spending the weekend with him as I usually did at that time.

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 Orthodox-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 snapped. “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 watch,” was the laconic admonition I received upon returning to the bishop. “Do not believe your eye 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).

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 ones proclaim this flowery discourse, delighting in the letter of the Veda and saying, ‘There is nothing else.’” (Bhagavad Gita 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 invoke them in superstitious manner. Credit must especially be given to the nineteenth 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.

Next: How to Avoid Ignorance Disguised as Wisdom, a continuation of Fool’s Gold in Religion.

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