On the morning of Friday, July 3, 1187 A. D., Guy of Lusignan, crowned king of Jerusalem, led his army of Frankish Crusaders out from their camp at Sephoria and marched eastward to the relief of Tiberias on the Sea of Galilee, then under siege by the forces of Saladin, Sultan of Egypt. This was the greatest army the Christians of the East had ever assembled, consisting of 1,200 knights, about 2, 000 light native cavalry, and close to 10, 000 infantry. Saladin, camped at Kafr Sebt somewhat south of Guy’s line of march, had likewise the greatest army he had so far commanded—a mainly mounted force slightly more numerous than the Franks.
Though by our nation-in-arms standards of today these were minute quantities of men, they were nevertheless about to fight one of the decisive battles of world history, a battle with significance to the student of spiritual enlightenment as much as to the student of military or political affairs. For this was a “religious” war, as indeed the entire Crusading movement was a “religious” phenomenon; and the uses and misuses of religion in this context are important to us in enquiring into the nature of relations between God and man.
The Battle Of Hattin
Had the Christian leaders possessed the least regard for strategy, they could not have chosen to move as they did on this day, for the road before them was devoid of water—except for one well which proved to be empty—and almost devoid of shade. It was the hottest part of the year, and the heavily armored knights almost at once began to suffer the pangs of thirst, quickly exhausting their drinking supplies. Yet Tiberias lay near, not twenty miles forward, and the very thought of Eschiva Countess of Tripoli, who was alone commanding the defense of the castle there, fired them with enthusiasm.
Saladin, who had learned of his enemies’ movement along the northern road, had meanwhile brought his camp to the village of Hattin in their path, and joyfully sent out swarms of skirmishers to hamstring the Crusaders. This they did by riding in upon the vanguard, which was commanded by Raymond Count of Tripoli, Eschiva’s husband, loosing sheets of arrows, and then riding off before the Christians could close upon them in counter-attack. They pursued the same tactics upon the flanks and rear, thus pinning Guy’s mighty cavalcade down in the merciless heat of the desert.
By afternoon the harried, desperate Frankish force reached the plateau above Hattin, Saladin’s headquarters which barred the way to Tiberias. Between the Crusaders and the village lay a hill with two peaks, called the Horns of Hattin. The northern summit was believed to be the Mount of Beatitudes mentioned in the New Testament, from which Jesus Christ had delivered his message of blessed peace to the world. It was soon to be a scene of carnage and agony for those who wore his emblem.
About this time Count Raymond rode in from the van to urge King Guy forward, asserting that, unless they reached the Sea of Galilee or the River Jordan that day, all would be lost. Guy agreed, but then received word from his rearguard, commanded by Gerard of Ridfort, Grand Master of the Knights Templars, that the troops in that quarter could go no farther. Guy now reversed his previous decision, and ordered his men to camp below the Horns. Hearing this, Raymond rode back from the front crying, “Ah, Lord God! The war is over! We are dead men, and the kingdom is fallen!”
The Sultan of Egypt was of the same mind. He had long prayed for the opportunity to catch his opponents out in the open, away from their impregnable castles, and now at last his moment had come. He exploited it to the full, offering the Franks no rest throughout the night. His men set fire to the brush on the hillside, thus sending billows of fumes into the camp of the already thirst-choked Christians. They kept up a constant bombardment of arrows, and rent the night air with cries of “Allah Akbar!” (God is most great!) and “La ilala il Allah!” (There is no other god but God!)
In the morning the Crusaders found themselves utterly surrounded. Though Count Raymond was able to fight his way some distance forward with his knights in the vanguard, the infantry panicked in the face of Saladin’s relentless archers, and fled up the Horns. Guy, unable to draw them down, at last pitched his tent near them, on the summit of the northern peak. He now made use of one of the most potent stimulants to morale any commander ever possessed: he raised as his standard the True Cross, the very one on which Jesus Christ had been crucified. Inlaid with gold and jewels, it had long been the sacred trust of the kings of Jerusalem, and had more than once before accompanied these fierce men of the West in battle. Today it was nearly all they had left in the way of strategies.
The sight of the Cross sent a shiver of hope through the heartsick Christians, and they rallied round Guy’s red tent, supplicating the sacred object, begging for a miracle to save them. While the rank and file thus turned to the God they claimed to serve, Guy turned to Count Raymond, and asked him what to do. Almost alone among the Frankish leaders, the Count of Tripoli had from the start opposed the dangerous expedition to relieve Tiberias, but jealous and headstrong counsels had turned Guy from his advice. Now the fate of the army was placed in his hands.
Raymond at once organized his knights as best he could and charged against the Moslem ring that encircled them. Taki ed-Din, the Saracen commander of that section, gauging the fury end desperation of this attempt, ordered his forces to part before the Christian onslaught. After the breakout had been accomplished, he moved his men back into place. Thus Raymond escaped, but the bulk of the Christian army, along with its leaders, remained pinned down on the Horns of Hattin. Unable to even consider a rear attack upon the enemy with his meager and exhausted forces, Raymond rode on, while Saladin mounted assault after assault upon the Frankish camp.
Terrific fighting took place at this point, the cornered Crusaders battling with such ferocity that we are told the Sultan himself once blanched and pulled at his beard in dismay. But in the end the triumph was his, an almost unqualified triumph, which entailed the annihilation of Christian military power in the Holy Land. Furthermore, the True Cross had fallen into the hands of the Moslem.
To many Christians this was a disaster not only of exterior political importance, it was a personal calamity of the soul, for Christian men had fought under the shadow of the Holy Cross in the Christian cause—and lost to the infidel. Was its power, then, less than the power of the worldly sword? To many, this seemed the case. More than any other single event, the Battle of the Horns of Hattin marks the point at which secular power began its ascendancy over the Church in the West, for it marked the point at which Popes, divine decrees, miracles and faith had failed. Unable to conceive that Islam might be “right” and Christianity “wrong,” people preferred to think that men were suddenly on their own in the world, with God on no one’s side.
The Question Of The Crusades
And yet, even the least discerning of readers will have wondered if there wasn’t more to the story of the True Cross’ failure than appears on the surface. And there was. A close examination of events leading up to this epic confrontation reveals several interesting and significant facts:
1. Guy had been made king in violation of sacred oaths taken by all the leading barons and churchmen of Jerusalem, including himself. They had promised the dying leper-king, Baldwin IV, that they would leave the choice of a successor in the hands of the rulers of Europe, while Raymond was to act as regent.
2. Saladin had gathered his army to attack the Christians only after they repeatedly violated truces made with him in good faith. It was their practice to attack the rich caravans which passed along the road between Damascus and Mecca, plundering and slaughtering without conscience.
3. The great army which opposed the Saracens at Hattin had originally been gathered not for that purpose, but to destroy Raymond of Tripoli, the rightful ruler (as regent) of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. Only last minute developments forced these two factions into alliance against the Moslem threat.
4. The Holy Cross, whose loss so bereaved all Christendom, seems to have been less highly regarded before the battle. Heraclius, Patriarch of Jerusalem, had declined to bring it on the campaign when ordered to do so by Guy, because he preferred to remain in the Holy City with his mistress, the fabulous Paschia de Riveri. Therefore he sent the holy relic in the care of the Prior of the Sepulchre instead.
More could be said, but I think the point is made. The “Christian” cause was hardly Christian. The Crusaders, whatever their original motives may have been, had by 1187 devolved into little more than merciless robber barons who covered their vicious activities with a cloak of religious sanctity. Yet calling oneself a Christian, and even sporting the relics of Christianity, is not the same thing as being a follower of Christ, as Christ himself declared in his Gospels.
Generally speaking, all people tend to accept the faith into which they are born as “true,” and use that faith as a symbol of personal superiority and, when pressed—as the Crusaders at Hattin were pressed—they will expect the God Who nominally leads their sect to protect them. This sort of religious consciousness is, of course, hypocritical to a fine degree. It makes God the servant of man, which is the reverse of what is actually taught in the great Scriptures of the world. And, when God fails to sanctify our actions, fill our pockets, and protect us when retribution for our misdeeds arrives, our faith is broken like a fragile bubble. This sort of faith, the sort which was defeated in 1187 by the loss of the True Cross, is not real faith to begin with. It is, more correctly, a social convention meant to justify our personal desires, a tool and not an honest belief in the supremacy of God.
Still, the whole question of the Crusades remains. Why are there different faiths in the first place if, as all civilized religions agree, there is only one God? And, granted that different faiths represent different ways of worshipping the same God, why do the various devotees of that God come from time to time to swords’ points?
In considering the second question we should remember that Saladin, like all good Moslems, thought the Christians no more than pagans because of their worship of the Virgin Mary, a clear instance of demigod worship in the eyes of the Arabs. And the Christians, of course, held the Saracens to be infidels simply because they revered Lord Jesus as a prophet and not as the only Son of God. Yet members of the two faiths, with all the grim and pitiless hatred between them, never doubted that both were ultimately following the same God. This is the great madness of the Crusades, and it has been to many a skeptic proof positive of the harmfulness and senselessness of strong religious convictions.
The present writer suggests that the solution to the riddles indicated by the Crusades cannot be found in the standard teachings of Christianity or Islam, nor in those of Judaism. No faith which holds itself as “true” to the exclusion of all others can adequately explain co-existing religions. In the Vedic writings of India, however, the enquirer may be surprised to find that all religions and forms of worship are explained and, what’s more, accepted; while the basic teaching of love of Krishna, the Supreme Godhead, is maintained as “true.”
The Vedic religious viewpoint has generally been regarded by scholars as bewilderingly liberal. In the words of one writer, “It affirms almost everything and denies almost nothing.” This, however, does not so much indicate how blindly superstitious the people of India have been as it shows the truly universal scope of the Vedic writings. And it is because of their scope, as well as the systematic and scientific approach to spiritual wisdom which they present, that these writings offer us the hope of solving our religious riddles, both old and new.
There is a Vedic analysis, for example, of the stages of consciousness possessed by worshippers of God. The least developed devotee recognizes only two principles in existence: himself and God. All else is excluded, or condemned. Of course, his identification of God as, more or less, his own private possession extends to his family, his society, his nation and culture. He and his belong to God, and God belongs to them—exclusively. It is not difficult to see that this rudimentary worship of God, held to be highly imperfect by the Vedic standard, is the sort typified in the men of the Crusades. And this sheds some light upon their actual position, for they did truly worship God, but their understanding of Him, of His ways and His will and service, were imperfect.
It is not a far step from this narrow, elementary concept of God to the point of outright hypocrisy. First of all the Lord is the ruler and protector of one’s life and community; next He becomes the symbol of their special superiority, and at last He is an excuse for their inebrieties—the servant rather than the master. For this reason the elementary stage of God consciousness, though it is surely transcendental and entails “salvation”—that is, release from the bondage of material Nature—can be seen to be a dangerous, unsteady platform. In this position, the risk of falling into unabashed hypocrisy is always present.
The next stage of devotion recognizes four principles: God, His devotees, those who hate or oppose Him, and the innocent, who can be swayed either way. The man who has advanced to this stage of consciousness is held to be highly beneficial to society. He is sane in the surest sense, capable of distinguishing right from wrong, and is able to preach the philosophy of God consciousness to the world without mangling or perverting it, as tends to happen with devotees in the less advanced stage. He does not hold a Moslem to be different from a Christian, but judges men on the basis of their love for God, and not on the specific way they go about developing that love.
While making it a point to oppose the atheistic section of human society, the devotee in the second stage of advancement attempts to bring the innocent—generally the greater portion of humanity—to an awareness of spiritual life and values. This is his primary endeavor, and is held in all the world’s great scriptural texts to be the most elevated form of service to the Godhead.
The final or most advanced form of devotional awareness is very, very rare, and is known as the stage of pure, unadulterated love of God. At this point, the devotee sees all beings of whatever shape or form or position—human and non-human alike as servants of the Supreme Godhead. Even the atheist, even the inanimate objects of Nature are visible to him as instruments of the will of God, aspects of the Lord’s perfect plan of Creation.
Such a pure devotee is considered fully merged in transcendental love for God, and in this position he is unable to preach or to chastise, for he sees no ill or harm, no opposition to the supremacy of God. Yet his association, the very sight of him, is enough to awaken the spiritual emotions of love which lie dormant in every being. And this applies not only to humans but to all creatures, as was exhibited by Lord Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, the Perfect Devotee, Who drew even the beasts of the jungle into the service of God.
The worshipper who reaches this platform of pure consciousness is, therefore, the most miraculous of men, for he offers to others—by his very existence—the hope of ultimate perfection, and the taste of true spiritual bliss.
God And Demigod
The Vedas further explain why it is that different religions worship God in different ways, and why the various religions often have distinctly different concepts of God. This is an extremely valuable contribution to our religious understanding, for these seeming inconsistencies have been the greatest unsolved problems of theologians in modern times. Many thinkers have, of course, tended to gloss over them by embracing monism, the concept that God is really a blank, featureless light or state of unity, and that our concepts of Him are ours alone, and do not actually describe the Absolute. But this is contrary to the direct teachings of our Scriptures, for the God of the Bible, of the Koran and of at least the larger portion of the Vedic writings is a Person. We can, if we like, simply reject these Scriptures, or any sections of them that don’t fit our needs, but this course inevitably leads away from knowledge of the Absolute. The Absolute cannot, by definition, be relative, and once the wisdom which is coming from the Absolute is cast aside, only relativity—each man conjuring up a God of his own—remains .
The Vedic wisdom offers the religionist a third alternative between monism and narrow sectarian prejudice. It states that, though all standard Scriptures come to man from the Absolute, the presentation which is made depends upon three things: the time in history at which this knowledge is delivered, the place of delivery, and the character of the people to whom it is delivered. An example of this may be found in the question of meat-eating. In the first chapter of the Holy Bible, Adam is told by God, “Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in the which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for meat.” This, of course, was at the time when Adam was in Eden, where there was no lack of fruits and herbs to keep him healthy.
Later in the Bible, after the Flood, we read:
And God blessed Noah and his sons, and said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth. And the fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth, and upon every fowl of the air, upon all that moveth upon the earth, and upon all the fishes of the sea; into your hand they are delivered. Every moving thing that liveth shall be meat for you; even as the green herb have I given you all these things.
When living conditions had changed, man was permitted to live by eating meat. However, in the earlier, abundant state, this was not allowed. Likewise in the Vedic texts, which were presented in the generally affluent lands of India, meat-eating is forbidden except under special circumstances. The like ought to apply, as well, to our affluent contemporary civilization.
Although the rituals and methods of devotion change, however, the Vedic writings state that the essence of all forms of religion is the same: to develop love of God. Even Buddhism, which preaches ultimate nihilism, cannot dispense with devotion to the Buddha. And in the theistic religions, of course, this principle is always paramount.
At this point the question arises: Whose God is really God? We can agree that love for God is the universally true core of religion, but to which of the many distinct forms of God should our love be directed? Lord Rama Chandra, Lord Sri Krishna, the Buddha, Allah, Jehovah, the Father of Christianity, Vishnu, the Lord of Light adored in Zoroastrianism—these are clearly distinct concepts. And by our normal methods of reasoning we cannot elude the fact that, if only one of them is “true,” the others must be false.
We return, then, to that Vedic viewpoint which “affirms almost everything and denies almost nothing.” The Vedic view is that, though there is one Godhead, and though that Godhead has a specific form, He remains unlimited. And, because of His absolute or unlimited nature, He expands Himself into limitless other forms. And all of these forms of God, by the Vedic standard, are equally God. None is false, and none are in opposition to the others. They offer various aspects of the inconceivable varieties of opulence, beauty, power, splendor and wisdom of the One God.
This is not, it should be noted, polytheism. Nor is it demigod worship, for these direct expansions of Godhead are carefully distinguished from the agencies of material Nature. They are not temporary—born at some time and meant to die at some time and they are not restricted as to power or place.
What this view of the limitless forms and opulences of God presents us with is a system of thought leading to actual realization of the full nature of the Absolute through love, without making it a matter of faith to disparage other worshippers of God. And it is, further, the only view of the Absolute which actually affirms its “absoluteness”—all others impose limitations upon God which, in the final analysis, must be seen as inappropriate.
Toward Universal Religion
The writer, then, suggests that it is possible to resolve the quandaries into which religious man has fallen by reference to the Vedic sources, the oldest and most comprehensive Scriptures existing in the world today. I would further state that without such a broad-minded reference, religion in this age of intensive analysis and comparison is doomed to become the province solely of crackpots, fanatics and scholars—a realm apart from the life of the common man. These Vedic Scriptures do not reject, but rather uphold all the great, civilized religions of the world. And it is by this reference that contemporary man can hope to reach a true, consistent and workable understanding of the Absolute Truth.
A byproduct of such an understanding is tolerance, but not the sort of tolerance which is based on ignorance, the sort of tolerance which amounts to no more than a practical rejection of the supremacy of God. The tolerance which this more enlightened understanding gives us is the tolerance of knowledge, the tolerance of the man who has advanced beyond the elementary stage of devotional consciousness, and can see that all who worship God are devotees—that God is pleased by love and not by rituals.
And, further, the most elevated state of consciousness, in which all things are bathed in the aura of transcendental service, though more difficult, is also entirely achievable through the proper pursuit of the wisdom of the Vedic way.
It is, therefore, by the purification of consciousness through devotional service to God—by strengthening rather than by weakening faith—that true religious tolerance is achieved. And, for the purpose of this purification, the Vedic sources recommend the chanting of the sacred Names of God. The Hare Krishna Mantra—Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare is, of course, the standard mantra, or hymn, for this purpose. But other standard Names of God—Allah, Jehovah, etc.—are also quite acceptable for the same purpose. By chanting in this way, the devotee will arrive at a state of pure bliss in the loving association of God, and will be able to rise up to a clear and positive comprehension of the nature of the Absolute.
This, we must realize, is the way to universal religion. Universal religion, which implies a harmony and love among men that quite dizzies the imagination, does not consist of codifying or standardizing ritual, nor even of getting everyone to accept the same exact Scripture, or the same form of God. It consists, in the final analysis, of a comprehension of the truly infinite, unbounded and all-attractive nature of the Supreme Lord, a comprehension that can only come to man through loving service in purified consciousness.
Such a universal religion would not by any means entail the dissolution of Islam, of the Christian Church, of the Parsi community, of Hinduism or of Judaism. It would, in fact, uphold and strengthen them, and provide them with something more than mere negative exclusiveness as a cohesive force. And it is exactly this kind of universal religion which the world today must have if sanity, not to speak of human fulfillment, is to be attained.