Distinctive Characteristics of Indian Religion: Part III

“Indian religion cannot be described by any of the definitions known to the occidental intelligence. In its totality it has been a free and tolerant synthesis of all spiritual worship and experience. Observing the one Truth from all its many sides, it shut out none. It gave itself no specific name and bound itself by no limiting distinction. Allowing separative designations for its constituting cults and divisions, it remained itself nameless, formless, universal, infinite, like the Brahman of its agelong seeking. Although strikingly distinguished from other creeds by its traditional scriptures, cults and symbols, it is not in its essential character a credal religion at all but a vast and many-sided, an always unifying and always progressive and self-enlarging system of spiritual culture.” (CWSA, Vol. 20, p. 193)

Based on the discussion so far, here are some distinctive characteristics of Indian Religion, or rather Indian outlook on Religion, as discussed in various writings of Sri Aurobindo, particularly his essays on Indian Culture.

1. All beings are to the Indian mind portions of the Divine, evolving souls, and sure of an eventual release into the spirit.

2. The ancient idea of the adhikāra must be taken into account in order to understand the peculiar character of Indian religion. (adhikāra may be understood as capacity, something in the immediate power of a man’s nature that determines by its characteristics his right to this or that way of spiritual practice).

3. In most other religious systems, we find a high-pitched spiritual call and a difficult and rigid ethical standard far beyond the possibilities of man’s half-evolved, defective and imperfect nature.

4. These religious systems present a sharp division of two extremes as a picture of our life: the saint and the worldling; the religious and the irreligious; the good and the bad; the pious and the impious; souls accepted and souls rejected; the sheep and the goats; the saved and the damned; the believer and the infidel. These are the two categories set constantly before us. All between is a confusion, a tug of war, an uncertain balance.

5. Indian religion, on the other hand, emphasizes that it is only through a gradual self-preparation throughout life that an individual progresses on the path of inner evolution, and becomes ready for a more direct spiritual call for pursuing the highest aim of life, that of seeking the Divine.

6. Indian religio-spiritual culture recognizes man’s highest and inmost aspiration for seeking the Divine and accepts spiritual pursuit as the highest aim of human life. This is indeed something quite unique to Indian religion, in the sense that religions that emerged in places other than India accepted spiritual pursuit as an optional aim one may have in one’s life but not necessarily as the goal which becomes the basis for how everything else is organized in life.

7. All must feel, as the good in them grows or, more truly, the divine element in them finds itself and becomes conscious, the ultimate touch and call of their highest self and through that call the attraction to the Eternal and Divine. But actually, in life there are infinite differences between man and man; some are more inwardly evolved, others are less mature, many if not most are infant souls, incapable of great steps and difficult efforts. The Indian outlook on religion firmly holds that each individual needs to be dealt with according to his nature and his soul stature.

8. It is because Indian religion places spiritual goal at the highest pedestal and as the one thing essential in terms of the aims of life, everything else in life is organized with this aim and its pursuit in vision. Thus, we get the social organization of individual and collective life – the triple quartette of four purusharthatas, four ashramas, and four varnas.

9. A wide open-mindedness for and acceptance of diversity of religious and spiritual paths are also fundamental ideas of Indian religion.

10. An alert readiness to acknowledge new light capable of enlarging the old tradition has always been characteristic of the religious mind in India.

11. Hinduism or Indian religion is inherently a non-dogmatic, inclusive and pluralistic religion.

12. A living and moving, not a rigid continuity, has been the characteristic turn of the inner religious mind of India. A lot of synthesis or integration of religious traditions takes place as part of the living nature of religion in India. Sikhism and Indian Sufism are two big examples of such synthesis of very different religious traditions. We have also seen several other smaller syntheses which served some temporary purposes and were somewhat limited in their scope (Brahmo Samaj and Kabir Panth might be examples of that). We have also seen religions emerging as a result of the religious revivalist tendency, Arya Samaj may be an example of that. In the words of Sri Aurobindo: “The inner principle of Hinduism, the most tolerant and receptive of religious systems, is not sharply exclusive like the religious spirit of Christianity or Islam; as far as that could be without loss of its own powerful idiosyncrasy and law of being, it has been synthetic, acquisitive, inclusive. Always it has taken in from every side and trusted to the power of assimilation that burns in its spiritual heart and in the white heat of its flaming centre to turn even the most unpromising material into forms for its spirit.” (CWSA, Vol. 20, pp. 133-134)

13. This naturally relates to another point about emergence of new religions. In the Indian context, we see that new religious traditions emerge not only because the old one is no longer valid or is not willing to change with the changing times, but a new religion emerges because a new spiritual realization has happened. India has been the cradle of a very wide range and diversity of spiritual realizations (and this may also be because of the deeper inherent value of complete spiritual freedom that Indian culture provides), and so we find all kinds of new religions, faith systems, folk religious traditions, etc. that start with these spiritual realizations. Modern Indian spiritual gurus are an expression of this very aspect of Indian spiritual culture. Because the modern times mostly represent the age of mind and reason, we find a greater tendency in these modern spiritual movements (some of which may be roughly equated to religions) to emphasize the mental ideals of harmony, peace and brotherhood in the world. But on a deeper level the core of most of these movements is about self-realization.

14. When speaking of Indian outlook on religion, we may also mention that over the last several centuries religions that came to India from elsewhere such as Islam and Christianity have also been impacted by some of the Indian religious-spiritual traditions, at least in many outer aspects. There has also been some softening of these Abrahamic religions’ more exclusive belief-claims. This is not to say that more literalist or fundamentalist or exclusive or aggressive versions don’t exist in these religions. It may also be mentioned that conservative or literalist or exclusive streaks exist also in some Hindu and Sikh traditions).

15. To an Indian religious mind, the least important part of religion is its dogma; the religious spirit matters, not the theological credo. On the contrary, to a mind touched
more by the Abrahamic religious outlook a fixed intellectual belief is the most important part of a religion; it is its core of meaning, it is the thing that distinguishes it from others.

16. Unlike Abrahamic religions, an Indian outlook on religion holds that there are no true and false religions, but rather all religions are true in their own way and degree. Each is one of the thousand paths to the One Eternal.

17. Liberty of religious practice and a complete freedom of thought in religion have always been fundamental to Indian religious-spiritual traditions.

18. In the Indian outlook on religion the simultaneous necessity of a firm spiritual order (sampradaya) as well as an unrestrained spiritual freedom was always perceived. This was provided for in various ways and not in any one formal, external or artificial manner.

a. It was founded in the first place on the recognition of an ever-enlarging number of authorised scriptures.

b. Another instrument of order was the power of family and communal tradition, kuladharma, persistent but not immutable.

c. A third was the religious authority of the highly learned Brahmins. As priests they officiated as the custodians of observance, but it must also be noted that not much consideration was given to the priesthood. It was more as Vedic scholars, as men of great learning that Brahmins performed a much more important and respected role than the officiating priesthood could claim. It was in this role that they stood as the exponents of religious tradition and were a strong power to conserve and preserve the tradition.

d. Finally, and most characteristically, most powerfully, a spiritual order was secured by the succession of Gurus or spiritual teachers, parampara, who preserved the continuity of each spiritual system and handed it down from generation to generation. At the same time, because of their sadhana and spiritual realisation these gurus also had the power, unlike the priest and the Pundit, to enrich freely the significance and develop the practice of a particular spiritual order/sampradaya.

Beloo Mehra is a student of Sri Aurobindo and writes on topics related to education, culture and society. Many years of experience in the field of education and research led her to the discovery that the central thing is to constantly un school oneself and become a freer and truer learner. She enjoys playing several roles Life offers a woman – with a hope to learn from all that happens and doesn’t happen, and with a wish to gradually become free of those roles because only then the possibility of the birth of true actor (or the non-actor) within exists

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