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Devotion and Rationalism

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By Hanumanprasad Poddar

Mr. Poddar is widely known for his beneficial work as Controlling Editor of India’s leading religious magazine, KALYANA KALPATARU, and is the motivating force behind the renowned Gita Press.

Gross rationalism is the order of the day, and to raise one’s voice against the same may be regarded as a betrayal of thickheadedness. To those of my readers, however, who have a devotional temperament, I venture to submit with great humility my views on the subject, which are directly concerned with the path of Devotion. By opposing rationalism I should not be misunderstood as totally denouncing reason. Wisdom consists in making use of reason, which is essential for devotion; but, in the event of our reasoning faculty developing to such an extent that it may give rise to wrong notions in our mind and sap the vital fluid of reverence for sacred things, a wise devotee would do well to bid adieu to such reason, and fall back upon faith.

By “gross” rationalism I mean sophistical or perverse reasoning, which is a great hindrance on the path of Devotion. An excess of reasoning in spiritual culture involves greater risk of fall than blind faith. Those who are given to reasoning, squander away the most valuable time of their lives in hairsplitting. They cannot remain steadfast in any spiritual discipline whatsoever. Those, however, who are equipped with faith utilize their time in traversing a considerable distance of their journey towards their destination.

Ramakrishna Paramhansa used to repeat a parable in this connection: Two friends visited a mango grove. One of them busied himself in taking measurements, counting the number of trees comprised therein and assessing its value, while the other sat down and began to enjoy the very best mangoes, with the permission of the keeper of the grove. Now let us decide who is the wiser of the two—the man who kept himself busy in counting the trees or he who ate the mangoes. Reason tells us that the latter is undoubtedly the wiser, inasmuch as be chooses the substance and derives satisfaction. Similarly, it is by betaking oneself to God with a devout heart that one secures genuine bliss.

Truth cannot be realized by unremitting study of the Scriptures, by passing examinations, testing scholarly knowledge, by dint of intellectual power, or by outwitting unsophisticated folk in verbal jugglery by enmeshing them in the cobweb of sophistry. The subtle reason which is necessary for investigating truth cannot be had by reasoning: it can be had only with the help of pure faith flowing from a guileless heart and by surrendering oneself to the Lord; for the divine faculty can be attained by Divine Grace only. To quote the words of the Lord Himself, the following are eligible for obtaining such faculty from the Lord:

Those who have their mind fixed on Me alone, who have dedicated their very lives to Me, who talk of Me at every moment, trying to edify one another, who are ever contented and pleased,

On those ever united (with Me) and remembering Me with love I am pleased to confer that intellectual equipment by means of which they are enabled to reach Me. (Gita 10.9-10)

It is this intellectual equipment that we should verily acquire. That is the supreme art and the highest science. For without it we can never grasp the real truth, and without comprehending the real truth we cannot secure supreme happiness. We may feel gratified to think that the promotion of arts and crafts and the progress of scientific discoveries and inventions have advanced our material welfare; but what is the value of this welfare in our mortal existence? Death is bound to come and with it the extinction of all earthly happiness and prosperity as something belonging to dream-life. No amount of technical and scientific knowledge can arm us against the horrible pangs of death. A holy man was once pleased to narrate a parable in this connection, which is reproduced below:

Once upon a time a young man who had just finished his education and had acquired proficiency in several arts and sciences was crossing a stream by means of a boat. He looked at the azure sky and asked the boatman whether he knew astronomy. “No,” said the boatman, “I have never heard this name.” The youth observed that the boatman had wasted a quarter of his life, and pitied his lot. Not long afterwards the youth came in sight of beautiful green fields and trees rich with foliage on the banks of the river, and enquired of the boatman if he had a knowledge of Botany. The boatman again replied in the negative, on which the young man remarked that he had recklessly wasted half of his life if he had not learnt Botany. The young man then gazed on the swift-running stream and asked the boatman if he knew Mathematics. To this the boatman again gave a negative reply, adding that he did not know even the rudiments of a science, and that he made his living on rowing. The youth took him to be a damned idiot and spoke to him scornfully thus:

“What do you know about these sciences, a fool as you are? You have wasted three-quarters of your life.”

While the conversation was thus going on, a furious storm came up all of a sudden. The waters of the river rose high, the boat began to toss about and was in no time filled with water. Seeing danger ahead, the boatman jumped into the water and began to swim. The young man, who could not swim in spite of all his scientific knowledge, now realized the seriousness of the situation, his own helplessness, and the futility of his versatile knowledge, and the words “God! save me!” escaped from his lips even against his will. The boatman, while swimming, asked him whether he did not know swimming. The young man piteously replied that he did not.

The boatman felt great sympathy for the young man and said, “Indeed, I am very sorry for you. Your whole life has been wasted. Please remember the Lord now.”

Just as one who does not know swimming cannot but be drowned when left to himself in water, however proficient he may be in the various arts and sciences, so no amount of secular education or learning can enable us to cross the ocean of worldly existence, which is full of misery. It is therefore futile and foolish to pride on these. The goal of human life is to learn that art and acquire that proficiency which can enable us to cross the unfortunate ocean of metempsychosis, and to secure everlasting freedom from the pinching bonds of sins and afflictions, grief and doubt, disease and death; and this cannot be acquired by reasoning. Subtle reason or the higher form of devotion is that art. By this alone can one fully realize the essence of truth of the Divine Principle and secure immunity from afflictions.

Reasoning or intellectual power alone cannot enable one to apply one’s mind to devotion. In fact, devotion is not capable of being put to the test of reason. Mahatma Gandhi, while writing on the glories of the Divine Name in one of the old numbers of the KALYANA observed that the greatness of the Divine Name cannot be proved by reason; it can only be realized by means of faith. He is perfectly right in saying so. When even the greatness of the Divine Name cannot be conceived by reason, how ridiculous it is to seek to know God, whose Maya (enrapturing power) makes the world appear totally different from what it really is, by means of intellect or reasoning. The fact that a particular individual cannot prove the existence of God by means of reasoning does not negate His existence. However much man may take pride in disproving God, engrossed as man is in sensuous pleasures, his intellect clouded by infatuation; however much he may prattle and pride on his intellectual capacity, his doing so cannot make any difference in the existence and perpetuity of God. Of course, one who is proud of his intellectual powers and is infatuated by the charms of Maya is carried away far from the possibility of realizing the truth. It is futile to endeavour to bring round those who regard God as disproved, even though His existence is patent at every step. They will not be persuaded to believe in Him even if He were to appear in Person before them. When Lord Sri Krishna manifested His wonderful Universal Form in the Court of King Dhritarashtra and kept the whole assemblage spell-bound, Duryodhana, due to his captious nature, refused to believe in His divinity. Besides this, God does not feel the necessity of convincing the dialecticians of His existence by appearing before them in Person. They alone are able to realize Him through His Grace who betake themselves to the Lord with reverence and naive faith. It has been well said by Goswami Tulasidas:

He alone is able to know You to whom You make Yourself known.

The incredulous who give undue importance to their reasoning faculty, dismiss the revelations of devotees from Prahlada and Dhruva down to Tulasidas, Suradas, Mira, Narasi, Chaitanya and others of the mediaeval times as fictitious. To these people they are the outcome of the wild imagination of dreaming poets or stories concocted by the blind followers and admirers of the devotees themselves. For them it is just like that. The existence of God is a fact realized and substantiated by eminent saints and seers through a prolonged course of austere penance. God, however, would not care to get Himself substantiated. Hence it is impossible for those who do not recognize Him to attain Him. But no one should be misled to think that unbelievers are exempt from the operation of the Divine Laws. Under the Divine Dispensation, Nature (Prakriti) invariably causes the good and evil cosequences of their actions to accrue to them, and they are bound to reap the fruits of their actions even though unwilling to do so. Of course, those who do not recognize His existence are no longer afraid of Him, and absence of the fear of God is the principal factor in encouraging an individual to indulge in sinful deeds. Those who do not entertain any fear of divine retribution do not scruple in perpetrating the most heinous crimes.

Man is saved from falling into sin mainly by five kinds of fears: (1) fear of God, (2) fear of morality, (3) fear of society, (4) fear of state laws and (5) fear of bodily harm. Man abstains from committing adultery, for instance, for fear of displeasing God, destroying merit, incurring opprobium in society or being ostracized, being convicted by a court of law and spoiling bodily health. Out of these five considerations the first two are the most important; for it is these considerations which deter a man from committing mental sins of horrible nature. A man will surely forbear from a sinful act as soon as he comes to realize that God, Who is omnipresent and the inner Controller of all, is witnessing it, or that it will destroy his merit. But where both these considerations are absent there is no scruple left to deter him from committing mental sins at least. The absence of these two considerations is also helpful in inciting one to commit even bodily sins or those pertaining to speech. One who is Godfearing and scrupulous continues to regard himself as guilty even though he may be acquitted by a court of law or exonerated by society.

There are quite a number of cases in which the true facts never come to the notice of the Government or society. Even if the Government or society suspects a particular individual, he is held not-guilty in the absence of sufficient ocular proof. That is why habitual offenders who do not entertain fear of God or morality persist in their sinful activities by evading the law or destroying tangible proof incriminating them. Fear of Government or society does not prove effective in putting a stop to their crimes. That is why the tendency to perpetrate crimes by evading the law, as well as the number of crimes, is increasing with great rapidity, notwithstanding the fact that fresh enactments are being added to the Statute Books every day with a view to check crimes. The main cause of this deplorable state of affairs is that fear of God and the Divine Law has more or less disappeared, with the consequence that our life has become unbridled, licentious and sinful.

The ever-new accretions to the body of laws, while they enable accomplished offenders to escape scot-free through their resourcefulness, are proving a source of great hardship to unsophisticated innocent folk who are unable to defend themselves and prove their innocence and are ignorant of legal chicanery. The result is that in course of time they find themselves compelled by force of circumstances to acquire a criminal tendency. It is regretable that the world is fast drifting towards such a deplorable state of affairs. It is absence of fear of God and the Divine Law that makes even those who proclaim themselves theists and believers to cast amorous glances at ladies even in places of worship, and thus aggravate their sins. Imposters in the garb of Acharyas, missionaries and religious heads, are engaged in exploiting the masses in the name of God, and sacrifice the interests of their country and community at the altar of personal gain in a clandestine way by posing as patriots and servants of their community. Things are going from bad to worse day by day even as fear of God and the Divine Law is gradually diminishing.

Fear of injuring one’s health is the only consideration that is effective in deterring men from committing sins. But, in the first instance, all sins do not involve the risk of injuring one’s health; and, secondly, one can succeed to a certain extent in arming oneself against this risk. Although it is true that hypocrisy is fast gaining ground under the names of God and Religion, and true lovers of God and truly religious men can be counted on fingers, and although it is equally true that the existence and growth of an empty Godless rationalism is largely traceable to the above-mentioned facts, it must be admitted that such a type of rationalism can never enable the world to grasp the real truth. It will gradually tend to extinguish the faint light of faith that still lingers in the minds of sincere people, and the result will be a reign of unbridled license all around. It is equally true, on the other hand, that a religion which rests on blind faith cannot exist eternally. But this is not the case with our religion. This eternal God-inspired religion, founded by Indian sages and seers-which can easily stand as a universal religion embracing as it does the truths of all other religions of the world-is not so hollow and does not stand on flimsy grounds. The fundamental truths of this religion can be grasped only with the help of a highly refined intellect or mental faculty, and such a faculty cannot be acquired by mere reasoning. It can be had only by long practice of devotion.

Real worship of God is not possible without faith. One may not have studied the sacred books, one may be lacking in scriptural knowledge, yet he can approach God by mere faith. Hence it is that even those who are inferior in birth, social status, learning, riches, physical strength, appearance, reputation, merit and so on, but who are exclusively and faithfully devoted to the Lord and regard Him as the sole Object of their love, have been recognized as eligible for betaking themselves to the Lord, to whatever sex they may belong. This is what Prahlada says:

I hold the pariah who has dedicated his mind, speech, activity, money, nay, his very life to God Vishnu, the Supreme Lord, far superior to a Brahmin endowed with twelvefold virtues; for whereas the former can purify his whole ancestry, the Brahmin who is puffed up with pride cannot. (Srimad Bhagwatam 7.9.7)

God can be attained by those alone who betake themselves to the Lord with supreme faith, as is corroborated by the Lord Himself:

They who with their mind fixed on Me and constantly engaged in remembering Me worship Me, with faith supreme endowed; these, in My opinion, are the best of yogis. (Gita XII, 2)

The concluding verse of the same chapter, which has been designated as Bhakti Yoga, runs:

The devotees who endowed with faith and sole devotion to Me, partake of this life-giving wisdom as stated above, (in other words, who worship Me in accordance with the precepts laid down in the previous verses), are surpassingly dear to Me. (Gita 17.20)

The above exposition establishes it beyond doubt that worship is impossible without faith, that without worship one cannot feel the Divine Grace, that no one can attain God or the real truth without His Grace, and that without realizing God one cannot be rid of afflictions for all time to come.

It therefore behooves us all to guard against falling into the meshes of sophistical reasoning, and to acquire faith by moulding our conduct in accordance with the principles inculcated in the Scriptures dealing with Devotion; and, developing the faith thus generated into supreme devotion, to engage in genuine worship of God in order that we may be able to attain Him Who is the Supreme Goal of human existence as early as possible. The span of our life is very short, and time once gone never comes back. Let us then be up and doing, losing no time in vain and frivolous pursuits.

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