The Prison of Religion
And the Freedom in Vedic Culture
By Stephen Knapp (Sri Nandanandana dasa)
The reason why I call it "The Prison of Religion" is that religion, when used improperly or without the real essence of spiritual truth, can also be a way of confining and restricting people of their understanding of the universe and themselves, and higher spirituality through the use of fear, guilt, violence, and the oppression of anything that shows a different view than what is being indoctrinated into society through a particular religion. It has been the most militant of religions that has suppressed the ancient avenues of reaching higher levels of understanding our multidimensional nature. Thus, by mere blind faithin whatever the church or priests are giving us, or allowing us to know, we are kept in a lower consciousness than what is really possible. In this way, higher realms of thought, wisdom, love, and knowledge are kept away from the masses. After all, knowledge is power, which means your ignorance is my strength. To keep power over others, the church and other religious institutions have systematically abolished a wide range of spiritual and esoteric knowledge that would, otherwise, give mankind the ultimate freedom. And because people who understand their true spiritual nature and the power that lies within them become impossible to manipulate, it is necessary to keep this knowledge hidden. So the idea would be to keep the truly spiritual knowledge concealed while creating and perpetuating a religion, or a standard of "science," that keeps people bound by the above mentioned factors: fear, guilt, violence, and intimidation.
To tread outside the accepted jurisdiction of knowledge or understanding, or outside the rules of the institution, will bring fear. Questioning the present system, or doubting its effectiveness, or desiring to know more about God or whatever else you would like to understand than what the church provides, will bring guilt, at least for those who consider themselves dedicated followers. In this way, some churches or religions have tried to make such ancient sciences as astrology, yoga, meditation, or the deepest understandings of the soul, and much more, to look evil or even absurd, and, thus, be dismissed, or preferably even outlawed. We need to understand and recognize this pattern, which is used in numerous places in the world.
In this regard, reports have been given about how huge libraries and collections of ancient and esoteric books have been destroyed or were kept out of circulation from the public. This indicates the methodical removal of various levels of spiritual and metaphysical knowledge from society, while claiming that anything other than the established doctrine of the church is satanic, evil, and hell-bound. The Christian Inquisition, for example, was a wonderful method of producing this effect. Even today we can see how some people are so influenced by this tyrannical tendency that they still are afraid of looking at anything other than what the Church condones. However, most of these people are totally unaware of the "pagan" heritage found in Christianity or Judaism, which makes it very similar to pre-Christian ways, but with a different name. It is practically the same medicine yet in a different bottle. To remove this understanding from public knowledge, it became necessary that whenever Christianity or other militant religions conquered a country or culture, the first thing that was done was to capture or destroy all of the ancient sacred texts, or the ways of its worship, such as the temples and deities. However, any organization that destroys the ancient knowledge and historical records of a civilization is never going to present the true history of the world, or the spiritual wisdom of any previous culture. In this way, the view of history is controlled and the population is kept in ignorance and under subtle restraint. And the people who are allowed to understand any of the truth are those of the elite or who are already in power.
By taking a look at the history of the conventional or western religions, for example, a person can see to what extent such an institution will go to maintain power and control, especially when it feels threatened by what it does not understand. Furthermore, the dark history of some of the religions, for example, represents the fanatically narrow-minded side of it that has continued to the present day in the form of fundamentalists thinking that if a religion or culture is not Christian, or is not Islam, then it must be of the devil or against God. Or at least its followers will not go to heaven. Such fundamentalistic people are often ready to dismiss or criticize other spiritual paths and cultures without understanding them. They may see a ceremony or ritual of another religion and immediately say it is heathen or devil worship or Satanic, without realizing that it is the worship of the same Supreme Being that they worship.
The point is that all people have to have the freedom to find themselves to the fullest extent on whatever path it takes, providing it is a bona fide or genuine path. So how do we make sure we can continue to have this freedom? By understanding each other and the different cultures of the world and the various paths of self-discovery. And by recognizing the value that they have to offer, as we find in the Eastern traditions, such as Sanatana-dharma. We must also bury our preconceived prejudices that are based on our immature feelings of superiority because, spiritually speaking, we are all the same. We just have to attain that spiritual vision to see the reality of it. And the path we take to do that is the only difference among us.
One problem with the religions that primarily are based on belief and faith is that they can become an effective means of manipulating the masses who follow it. If you can convince people to believe that by doing something they can go to heaven, then you can get them to do almost anything. For example, Pope Urban II implied to the soldiers who were going out on the first crusade that if they died in the name of Christ, they would ascend to heaven and live in the association of God. Thus, they rode out to fearlessly and mercilessly conquer the "heathens" or non-believers, and were willing to die to reach heaven.
This is the same effect we see with the Palestinian youth, that if they die in the name of Islam they will immediately go to the seventh level of heaven and take pleasure in wondrous gardens in the company of beautiful virgins. The more fantastic the heaven, the more hope and conviction will be seen in the followers. It is a pattern that anyone can begin to recognize once you are aware of it.
Another problem with this is that the beliefs that are given to you to accept often change with time, or according to the needs of the church or mosque to keep a congregation. As explained in an issue of Newsweek magazine (August 12, 2002), the concept of heaven has changed with the ages. "Dante saw heaven as the universe, and Thomas Aquinas thought of it as a brilliant place, full of light and knowledge. In the 18th century, Emanuel Swedenborg imagined heaven as a tangible world, with public gardens and parks." Nowadays you can imagine heaven to be whatever you need it to be. This gives impetus for you to do whatever you feel you should do for your beliefs, and have it justified by your religion. However, in actuality, in the Bible, the Koran, or Torah, there is little in the way of specific information of where or what is heaven. And this leaves much for the imagination, and allows the priest or Imam to say almost anything about it, which is then gobbled up by the gullible followers.
Another problem with religious processes that rely mostly on faith and belief is that peer pressure and the need for conformity and acceptance or approval stifles and restricts oneís ability to develop or inquire to oneís fullest. We often see children tolerated for their deep and thoughtful questions on spiritual themes, while the adults fear to reveal their ignorance of the topics, or will even stifle a childís inquisitiveness, or anybody elseís if they seem to ask too many questions. So such religions act like self-policing institutions wherein individuals are not encouraged to develop their own spiritual realizations or ask too many questions, or show any doubts or uncertainties regarding the teachings. They are encouraged to leave it up to faith and the dictates of the institution. They are told that we are not meant to know certain things, and that faith alone in a particular savior or the power of the church is enough to take you to heaven. But if you lack faith or question it, or do not follow the dictates of the church or scripture, you will not go to heaven. You will not receive Godís grace. Thus, you must look good in the eyes of the church authorities and your fellow members or there will be no room for you, and, thus, you will be sent to hell.
The second kind of fear is the fear that you may be wrong, or the church and its doctrines may be wrong, or there may be weaknesses in its philosophy. So people become defensive of their beliefs, defending it like life itself. Thus, they condemn and criticize those who are of other religions without trying to understand them. Sometimes you can observe this amongst the sects in the same religion. We already see so many divisions within Christianity, as well as Islam and Judaism. And each one often feels they are the only ones that are true followers of Jesus or Mohammed, and all others are going to hell. So it can become extremely divisive even within the same faith, which then leads not only to quarrels but also to war, terrorism, and so many needless killings.
In fact, some people of particular religions may feel it is their God-given mandate that when someone is a so-called non-believer, he should be converted and "saved" at whatever cost, and then deprived of any freedom to follow an alternative view. A person in another religion may brand "nonbelievers" as infidels, and thus feel it is his duty to convert, destroy, or even kill such a person. In either case, they may use coercion, manipulation, or simply take advantage of poor and vulnerable people to bring them over to their faith. And in both cases, the people of these religions feel they are doing Godís work, and that they are justified in what they do.
The premise that all spiritual knowledge must be connected with one distinct or localized savior is itself a stifling factor in allowing individuals to progress in spiritual understanding. There is so much more that could be learned if they did not feel that if something is not connected with their particular savior or scripture, then it must be evil, Satanic or wrong. In this way, if it is not in the Bible or Koran, for example, they refuse to acknowledge the value of any additional spiritual knowledge if it comes from a different culture or source. Thus, they act with fear or contempt toward anything outside their own sphere of familiarity or acceptability, or like people who are proud of their own ignorance and narrow-mindedness.
The straightjacket of Western theological dogma keeps a person from looking at additional resources that could supply answers for questions not considered in western thought, or at possibilities that are elementary in Eastern traditions. What is wrong with learning newer ways of connecting with our higher selves, and with each other and with God? What is wrong with allowing our hearts and minds to expand with new vibrancy, new insights and confidence? Why not allow ourselves new hope and understanding in regard to the purpose of the universe and the nature of God, even if we look to different sources of knowledge? Why not allow ourselves to take up the path that provides the means for direct perception of spiritual reality? Who knows what additional information we can add to what we already know, or newer ways to incorporate and develop ourselves into people who are better and more aware and spiritually developed. This is natural for those who participate in the Vedic system.
In light of this it is interesting to point out that in 1991 a letter was released from the Vatican to the Bishops which criticized zen and such spiritual practices as yoga and meditation. The letter was written by Cardinal Ratzinger, who is now the Pope at the time of this writing, but the document was also approved by Pope John Paul II. The letter warned against the sensations of spiritual well-being that one gets from practicing yoga or meditation, and said that this could lead to schizophrenia, moral deviations, or even psychic disorders, and degenerate to a cult of the body. Now on what basis do they make these claims? Are they simply using fear tactics to dissuade people from investigating such paths? Of course, if one improperly practices a complicated form of yoga, such as kundalini-yoga, there may be some adverse affects. But for the most part, yoga and real transcendental meditation means to fix the mind and become absorbed, at least for certain lengths of time, on that which is transcendent, which is God. This is real spirituality. So what is wrong with this when this is the goal of any spiritual path? Why would they issue such a letter, unless they are once again simply trying to condemn every other form of religion? If this is the case, this signifies that they are not really interested in true spirituality or in helping people with spiritual advancement. They are more interested in control over their flock. Yoga and meditation have existed for thousands of years before Christianity ever came along. Why should people not look at other cultures to get answers and experiences that are not found in conventional Western religions? The reluctance to do so is merely a reflection of the fear and misunderstanding that people have. Nonetheless, many Christians have risen to new levels of understanding biblical teachings by studying and practicing various aspects of the Vedic path.
We have to remember that a true religion paves the way for everyone to become spiritually aware, and to establish his or her own relationship with the Supreme. And the Vedic system is an ideal means for supplying that. If a religion is not based on the higher principles of self-realization, but is merely based on dogmatic rules and regulations that it forces on others, then it becomes a trap based on fear, guilt, oppression, and intimidation. One must not be afraid to break free from such a trap. It is greater to see Godís love manifested in many sages belonging to different traditions at different times and places, among different people. Thus, the Vedic spiritual knowledge is for everyone and can assist anyone in their spiritual development. After all, if I, a Westerner can do it, then anyone can do it.
THE FREEDOM IN VEDIC CULTURE
It is refreshing to see that you usually do not have the kind of divisiveness or criticism that is described above in the Vedic system. It is much more open and provides the individual the freedom to pursue the level of experience that he or she needs for his or her own development and still be a part of the Vedic process. You can especially see this at such huge gatherings as the Kumbha Mela festival where millions of people come together from all aspects and schools of thought within the Vedic fold. It shows that anyone can pursue their own level of spiritual development and inquiry without being restricted from within an institution or church. One can become a part of whatever line of spiritual thought or practice one needs to be in and still be considered on the Vedic path, though there are various systems that bring a person to different levels of development, consciousness, and higher perception.
For these reasons, India must remain the homeland of a living and dynamic Vedic culture. This will allow the world to retain some of the deepest knowledge and methods of attaining the most profound spiritual insights that have been known to mankind. Thus, India should defend itself from the risk of further partition or divisions of its land. If India is divided up any more, and portions of the country are taken by others, Vedic culture could dwindle or even be lost over the long-term, except for small colonies of Vedic practitioners here and there. This may indeed be what many people would like to see. Yet, if Vedic culture is lost, the world will not even realize the treasure of human development that will disappear. Then such deep spiritual knowledge and insights will begin to permanently fade away from society.
Once India and Vedic culture is diluted or stamped out, along with other decreasing numbers of indigenous traditions within it, then in time the whole world will be fitted with the straightjacket of Western thought and strict monotheistic religion. Thus, it will be more easily controlled by the establishment, whether that be government or religious, etc. Then individual freedom for the pursuit of higher understanding and spiritual happiness will be limited to the constraints as dictated by whatever regional monotheistic views reign in that area.
The Vedic culture and philosophy offers deep insights into spiritual knowledge that can be found no where else. It provides for levels of thought and knowledge of the soul and the Supreme and the spiritual reality that are hardly matched elsewhere. I can safely say this because I, having been raised a practicing Christian, also seriously studied in depth all the major religions, and continue to do so, before having studied and then taking up the Vedic path. The Vedic philosophy clearly outlines the processes by which a person can uplift or purify oneís own consciousness to perceive for themselves the spiritual strata and recognize oneís true spiritual identity, which is the essence of all spiritual progress, and from which all further development grows. Many are those noteworthy sages and saints of the past who have followed this path successfully, and left profound teachings for the rest of us. For this reason, Vedic culture is the last bastion of deep and genuine spiritual truth and freedom. It is a culture that allows full liberty of investigation for the individual to practice and reach the highest levels of spiritual perception known to humanity. This is also why it should be clearly understood and preserved for the benefit of all.
Another article that may help shed more light on this topic is "Organized Religion" by Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thankur.
[This article and more information at www.stephen-knapp.com]