From the book “Problem of Spiritual Life”
Sarah: In Judaism, there is an idea that God makes contracts and pacts. What does that mean?
Swamiji: Covenants. In the Old Testament there are plenty of covenants mentioned. Covenant means an agreement with God.
Sarah: But, if He is Absolute, how can there be a covenant?
Swamiji: The Jews do not believe in God as the Absolute. He is, to them, a Transcendent Being. He is above the world, and, therefore, you can contact Him as you contact anybody in the world. The extra-cosmic transcendence of God is the concept of God in all Semitic religions. It is so in Judaism, in Christianity, in Islam, in Zoroastrianism, which are the four Semitic religions. Each one considers God as extra-cosmic, which means to say, above the universe; therefore, you can have your agreement, con tract, prayer or covenant, whatever you call it. You can approach a big boss and have some kind of understanding with him. God looks like a boss because of this transcendence beyond the universe. You pray to God looking up to the skies. Why do you look up to the skies when you pray to God? You have a feeling that He is not in this world. He is above and is not here.
But there is nothing wrong with it; it is one stage of religion. In this stage of religion, God is envisaged as a transcendent extra-cosmic power to which you can look for help by surrender, devotion and submission. But that is not the only meaning of religion. There are other stages where the distance between man and God diminishes. In this concept of the transcendence of God as an extra-cosmic reality, there is a lot of distance. You do not know how far God is-there is an endless distance in space and time. Afterwards, the distance becomes less and less in the acceptance of God, not merely as a Transcendent Being, but also as immanent in all creation, right here and now.
God is not so far as you imagined Him to be earlier. He is also near; He is present in every atom. That is the second stage of religion. The third stage is where you yourself cannot be standing there outside Him, because of the all-pervadingness of God . These are the three stages of religion: transcendence, immanence and universality. All the three stages are valid; they are good in their own way. These are developmental stages of an ascent gradually from inadequate concepts to more adequate ones. So, all religions are good. There is nothing wrong with them; they are all different degrees of approach in an ascending order.
Sarah: And the Jews have an idea that they are chosen people, that they are a separate people from the rest of the world. What is the meaning? Why do they even come to that concept?
Swamiji: It is also one stage of thinking. You are a devotee of God, and so you consider non-devotees as not so equal to you. Suppose you are honestly a devotee of God and find others are atheists; don’t you think that they are a little inferior to you? Though you are not supposed to think like that, you have somehow a predilection to think that these non-devotee atheists are inferior and you are a superior person. Whether you are justified in thinking like that or not, it is left to you to judge. A holy man thinks that unholy people are damned. Now, is he justified in thinking so? He may be or may not be; it is a point of view. There may be some truth and validity in their feeling that they are chosen people because they are really devoted to God; but whether they are justified in thinking that others are inferior, that is a different matter.
Sarah: But there is no idea that certain people are chosen for certain rules-they are all equal with different rules? Is there any idea of that as truthful?
Swamiji: Everybody has a role to play. It does not mean that one is superior or inferior to the other.
Sarah: But there are different rules?
Swamiji: Different laws and different positions-each one is placed in different positions and stations in life, and from the point of view of the particular station in which you are placed, your work is decided. It does not mean that you are superior or inferior. You are fit for that, and others are fit for another thing. You cannot say that a shopkeeper is superior to the farmer, or a farmer is superior to the shopkeeper. They are doing different kinds of occupation in society, meant for the stability of humanity. Nobody is superior, nobody is inferior. So, each one has to play a role according to the circumstances in which one is placed, and there is no question of comparison. Nobody is chosen, actually speaking; everybody is chosen. If all are children of God, who is not chosen-unless you believe that some are not the creation of God?
Swamiji: There are about eleven religions in this world, what you may call the major religions-Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Taoism, Confucianism, Shintoism. There are minor sects which you need not regard as actual religions. There are subdivisions like Sufism and mystical Christianity. All these have to be studied to understand the multiple patterns of the religious approach of mankind in its struggle to know the Ultimate Reality. All religions are good, but they look very funny when they compare and contrast themselves with others.
The whole point about the religions is that they are like many roads leading to one peak of a mountaintop, where they will all merge into one single spot. If this is accepted, there will be fraternity and brotherly feeling among the religions in the world. But there is an isolated tendency to assert each religion as a complete presentation of reality in itself, which has also the tendency to reject other approaches. Then comes clash and communal skirmish leading to social and political catastrophe. Like many rays of the sun are the many religions in the world. If one ray of the sun is competing with another ray, what would it be like? You have not only to tolerate the validity of another person’s approach, but also accept the justifiability of that effort. Merely tolerating in a condescending manner is no good. You are not reluctantly tolerating the viewpoint of some person. That would make you place yourself in a position of superiority. There is a validity in the approach of all. You cannot say that a child is just blabbering nonsense. Rather, it is asking for something which is absolutely necessary for it in the condition in which it is placed at that time. It does not mean that a child is inferior to a genius; comparison is always odious. Never compare anything and contrast anything. Take everything for what it is.
Larry: Swamiji, what I find so perplexing is that I meet such wise and intelligent people in my own religion and other religions, but I don’t…
Swamiji: You are one of them.
Larry: Thank you, Swamiji. But I do not understand why, for example, within my own religion, which I know best, so many of these people feel that only this approach is the correct approach.
Swamiji: That is the whole problem. It is absence of the requisite broad-mindedness. Why do you call people “Children of God,” if one cannot have any consideration for another?
Larry: They have consideration for others, but they feel that because Moses received the word directly from God, this word is absolutely immutable and is the only expression, for a Jew, of God’s will. And my question is, how did that come to be?
Swamiji: This attitude is present in all the religions of the West-namely, the Semitic religions. The transcendence of God, which is their concept of God, cuts off the world from God and converts the world into an evil den of Satan, and the earlier you are rid of it, the better for you. That is why extreme asceticism, monasticism, and things of that kind, and a condemnation of oneself arise. Asceticism often goes to such an extent of self-condemnation that the very existence of oneself is considered as an evil, a fall into the realm of demoniac activities. It is an unfortunate thing to imagine that some people are permanently meant for damnation. Even in India, we have certain theological doctrines of this kind.
There are some concepts, even in India, among certain circles of theology, which very funnily have held that there are certain people who are intended for eternal salvation, and others for eternal purgatory, and a third for eternal damnation. It looks very repugnant to hold views of this kind. Their God creates somebody only for hell, somebody only for heaven, somebody only for a cycle up and down. God does not create three sections like that. It is a travesty of religious approach to think that God created a world of sin and evil and He stands above it uncontaminated, and, then, the way of getting rid of this involvement in evil in the world becomes a great problem. If the soul is really a sinner, it can never be redeemed and if it is capable of being redeemed, it is not really a sinner. Such theology has an internal discrepancy. They are inadequate religions.
You cannot love God by hating someone else. The whole point in religion is misconstrued. Love God and hate the world. Then, why not love the world and hate God? Even that is good enough for some. There are people who feel that way. There are stages of approach in religion: the transcendental approach, the mystical approach, and the universal approach, to which everything has to tend one day or the other. The study of comparative religions is very good and necessary.
Sarah: You say each one is a separate path to the same goal. Is it important to follow all the details of each path?
Swamiji: All the details necessary for assisting you in your onward movement should be followed.
Sarah: How do you make that determination?
Swamiji: Your soul will tell you, which is the guide, the seeker and the goal. When you take lunch, you know what are the things you must eat and what you need not eat; don’t you understand? Twenty things are served on the plate. Do you eat all the twenty? You know which of these are necessary for you. Your feelings, your requirements at that moment, will tell you what it is that is essential for you. You are the judge, yourself.
Sarah: Will it not be the ego that is just judging them, choosing what would be easier for it to follow?
Swamiji: When you love God as the Universal Being, the ego does not arise. There is no ego there. You must see things in the light of the universality that you are approaching. The ego will not stand before that non-ego. Mentally, you have to place yourself in the context of being in the presence of God Himself, as if the Almighty is looking at you. And, at that time, what will you do? Suppose the Almighty is seeing you just now, and you are sure that He is looking. At that moment, what will you do? Will you commit any mistake, any wrong? Everything will be chosen rightly at that time. So, feel yourself as being in the proximity of God. You are in the presence of God even now. The only thing is that you are not accepting it. With millions of eyes is the Almighty looking at you always. What will you do at that time? Whatever you do at that time is your religion. Religion is that which you do in the presence of God.
Sarah: In Western religions, when people purify themselves and reach to a high level, they still God as a king or maybe as Jesus, but still as a figure. Even though they’ll say God is one, they don’t go to the point to say that He is a Universal Absolute Being in the same expressions that people use here. What has stopped them?
Swamiji: Their mind can go only to that level; it has not gone further. The mind stops at certain levels. There are stages of evolution of the mind. It can accept certain things, and beyond that it cannot go. It does not mean that the mind will be thinking only like that forever. For some time it will think like that; afterwards, it will evolve further. You cannot expect everybody in the world to think alike. Do you want all people in the world to think the same thought? How is it possible? They are born at different times and so they will also think differently, but everybody will think everything at the proper time. It is a question of time and evolutionary process.
Evolution is an ascent. It is a rising, as you have come from mineral to plant and plant to animal and animal to man; and even in the stage of human thought, there are varieties of levels, and everyone is not in one level only. It is not possible for everyone to be in the same psychological level. Otherwise, everybody would be the same-all people in the world would be thinking the same thought. That is not possible because of differing stages of psychological evolution.
Sarah: So, does that mean that things began at different stages? It did not all begin at the same time?
Swamiji: It began with matter, and then became vegetable. Vegetables do not think of God, and you cannot find fault with them merely because trees are not meditating on God Almighty. What do you say?. They are also existing in one level, and it is perfectly all right. Just because you have some idea of God, you don’t expect a cow also to think like that. Why should you so expect? It has got its own way of thinking. It has one level, one stage, and you should not compare. The mind can think only up to one level; it cannot go beyond. But, afterwards, it will change its vision by a further advance of perspective.
Sarah: How come there are still rocks? Is evolution connected with chronological time?
Swamiji: It is not chronological, rather it is an all-round, universal movement. It is not beginning somewhere and ending somewhere else. It Is a wholesome cosmological self-adjustment.
Sarah: And why are some minds allowed to develop?
Swamiji: Nobody is so allowing. It takes place automatically. No one is allowing a child to grow into an adult. It is a spontaneous movement of the universe into higher levels. It is automatic; nobody is “allowing” it.
There is nobody there to do that work. There is none outside the world. The world itself is doing it within itself.
Sarah: When one gets to a high level, let’s say of God as king or Jesus, what. . .
Swamiji: That is one stage of thinking. You are thinking in terms of time. When you think of anything in terms of time and space, it looks very far and distant. That is why God looks distant. You are thinking in terms of space and time-because space is very wide and it has distance; therefore, when the mind thinks in terms of that, naturally, you foist the distance on God also, and He seems to be far away. God, however, is not a temporal level. It is eternity.
Sarah: Why doesn’t Truth or Brahman break through those misconceptions? If people have gotten so high at that point, why wouldn’t the misconceptions break? If they were real seekers of truth, why didn’t it?
Swamiji: That misconception also will go away in due course. It cannot always be there; it has to pass. Everything has its own time and course. It will break through; it is a question of time.