Starting Point of Universal Spirituality

Hindu seers and sages could tap the sources of universal spirituality because they did not start with an a priori assumption of an Almighty God whom man had to fear and obey in awe and objection. Nor did they fortify this a priori assumption with a framework of deductive inferences drawn from an observed order in the workings of the outer world. They never asserted that an Almighty God had to be accepted as a matter of faith as the creator and controller of the cosmos. Nor did they dogmatise that faith in an Almighty God could not and should not be subjected to the test of human experience and reflective reason.

The starting point of Hindu sages and seers was not God but man. Their testing ground for what they divined was not fanatical faith but direct perception (pratyakSa pramãNa). Whether it is the Mahabharata of a very distant date, or the songs of Chandidas who came quite late, the refrain has always been, sabãr ûpar mãnuSa satya, that is, the highest truth is man, the ultimate mystery (paramam guhyam) above all other mysteries.

Man is neither an a priori assumption nor an abstract concept like God. On the contrary, man is a concrete reality accessible to direct (pratyakSa) perception which is the only valid evidence (pramãNa) recognised by Hindu spirituality. The first question which a Hindu seeker puts to himself, therefore, is: “Who am I (ko’ham)?” This is the question asked again and again in the Upanishads. This is the question which Raman Maharshi asked himself in the twentieth century, only to reaffirm the ancient answer: “I am That (aham brahmo’smi).”

Lest this starting point of Hindu spirituality be mistaken for modern humanism, it may be made clear that the former does not stop short at the first few faculties of knowledge possessed by man. It searches for and finds some other and more powerful human faculties of higher and wider knowledge. Modern humanism views man mostly as a rational, or a social, or a tool-making (homo fabricus) animal, or, at best, as a scientist, or an artist, or a seeker of ethical and aesthetic values. Hindu spirituality does not deny or discount these definitions of man. Man can indeed be placed in all these categories. What Hindu spirituality has discovered specifically is that man is very much more than his body, his mind, and his intellect. His reach is far beyond his inventive, his imaginative, and his intuitive genius. Hindu spirituality proclaims that man in his innermost being is God-Shivo’ham, as the Adi Shankaracharya sang.

The concept of an Almighty God can yield an experience of the Divine if it is employed as a subject of meditation in order to purify and raise a person’s concentrated (ekãgra) consciousness, as Patañjali has prescribed (îšvara-praNidhãnãt vã), or as an object of selfless devotion described in the Gita and other compendiums on Bhakti. But in the mind of the unmeditative, the self-centred, and the self-righteous, it can become a source of serious mischief. A passionate (rãjasika) preoccupation with God can lead to delusions of sonship and prophethood. The best that can be said about such self-appointed sons and prophets is that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. In the case of the prophet of Islam, even the intentions are highly doubtful. The cunning, the covetousness, the carnal craving, and the calculated cruelty come through quite clearly even though covered with a liberal coat of Allah and his ninety-nine names. The Almighty Allah of Islam is no more than a tape-recorder which relays back obediently what has been fed into it.


As one reads the scriptures of Christianity and Islam with a morally alert mind, one starts getting sick of the very sound of word ‘god’ which word is littered all over this literature like dead leaves in autumn. The deeds which are ascribed to or approved of by this God are quite often so cruel and obnoxious as to leave one wondering that if these are the doings of the Divine, what else is there which is left for the Devil to do.

On the other hand, the literature of Hindu spirituality employs a vocabulary which breathes an altogether different atmosphere. It deals with the soaring up of a purified human consciousness, and comes up with words and phrases and figures of speech which embody intimations from the infinite (ananta) and the immortal (amrita). It speaks of ãtman, brahma, rita, sat, cit, and ãnanda; of rûpa, vedanã, saMjñã, saMskãra, and vijñãna; of šîla, samãdhi, prajñã, and nirvãNa; of yama, niyama, ãsana, prãNãyãma, pratyãhãra, dhyãna, dhãrNã, and mokSa; of cittabhûmi, manas, buddhi, bodhi, sattvašuddhi, kSetra and kSetrajna. The list can be extended and many more terms of a similar import can be cited.

These psychological and psychic terms inspire no self-righteousness which Hindu spirituality stigmatizes as the fundamental frailty of unregenerate human nature. There is no malice in these words, nor spite, nor proclivity to put the other person in the wrong. They only invite one to improve oneself, and to start on a journey towards a fuller and larger life - from the unreal to the Real (asato mã sadgamaya), from darkness to Light (tamaso mã jyotirgamaya), from death to Immortality (mrityormã amritam gamaya).

It is an altogether different matter that Hindu seeking for the deepest and the vastest and the highest and the holiest in man has led to visions of Gods and Goddesses, and that the Ãtman has ascended into the Paramãtman and the PuruSa has been perceived as PuruSottama. The significant point is that at no stage of its search, Hindu spirituality has got separated from its starting point, namely, that man and not God is the only proper subject of exploration.

There are strains of Hindu spirituality which have no use for God. Jainism and Buddhism have plenty of Gods but no God as the creator and controller of the cosmos. Buddhism discards even the concept of a Soul or Self (ãtman). In fact, the entire range of technical terms used by the Buddha are of psychological and psychic intent; none of them suggests philosophical speculations. The several schools of the Shaktas have a Goddess instead of a God to denote the supreme power they worship. The six systems of Hindu philosophy - Nyãya, VaišeSika, SãMkhya, Yoga, and the two schools of MîmãMsã - also have no notion of God. It is only in Shaivism, Vaishnavism, and the other sects of Bhakti that we come across God besides Gods. But this God again is nothing like the God of Christianity or the Allah of Islam. Shiva and VishNu grow directly out of the Vedic and the Upanishadic pantheon; they are Gods invested with the attributes of all other Gods; they represent and are represented by all other Gods.

This is a very significant feature of Hindu spirituality. A spirituality which does not have its base in humanism can soon become a sham and a self-deception. It can emerge as a closed creed leading to a closed culture, a closed society, and a closed polity. Similarly, no true universalism can be built or sustained except on the basis of humanism - the validity of human experience and the objectivity of human reason raised to its highest power.

It is not an accident that the modern West made a worthwhile progress in science, technology, and a culture of general human welfare only when it rejected the dogmas of Christianity derived from an a priori concept of God, and returned to the humanism of ancient Greece and Rome. It is not an accident that the Western humanists alone appreciated the Hindu heritage at a time when it was under an unprecedented attack from the crusading Christian missionaries and the bearers of the white man’s burden. And it is not an accident that Communism ended by becoming a closed ideology, a closed culture, a closed society, and a closed polity when the Bolsheviks led by Lenin abandoned the humanism of Marx and Engels, adopted the Almighty God of the Bible as Almighty History, and came up with the doctrine of a permanent war between two sections of mankind a la Christianity and Islam. The brutalities committed in the name of Almighty History are now known. On the other hand, the Western democracies retained the humanism of Max and Engels, and revised only such of their formulations as had gone off the rails of rationalism or were proved to be defective by subsequent social developments. How they created welfare societies, how they came to have a bad conscience about their empires, and how they retired from the colonies, is recorded history.


Humanism by its very definition must be rooted in some concept of man. What is man? - that must remain the quintessential quest for humanism. Different cultures have given different definitions of man. Here we are concerned with the definition evolved by Hindu spirituality from an endless exploration of the human personality, uncontrolled by any preconceived ideology and led only by an unbounded curiosity to get to the bottom of it all. The results of this exploration are the core of Hindu culture, and the spiritual centre of Hindu society.

The earliest definition of man that we come across in Hindu tradition is to be found in the Upanishads. The rishis who started their search with the eminently empirical formula of ‘know thyself’ (ãtmãnam viddhi), and employed yogic methods to reach the farthest frontiers of the inner in man, arrived at the conclusion that man was constituted of five faculties or sheaths (košas), one within the other. These they enumerated as follows: (1) human body or the physical sheath (annamaya koša), (2) human desires and drives, or the vital sheath (prãNamaya koša), (3) human sense perceptions or the mental sheath (manomaya koša), (4) human intellection and intuition at their highest and most universal or the spiritual sheath (vijñãnamaya koša), and, (5) human self-delight or the blissful sheath (ãnandamaya koša).

The spiritual science of SãMkhya spelled out the same structure of human personality in a different language. So did the various Yogas and Tantras. But the purpose of all these statements always remained practical - the human personality was to be explored, purified, uplifted, and made to reach and rest on its highest perch. Many mystic methods were devised, experimented with, and perfected in order to achieve this ultimate aim. But the central theme always revolved round human consciousness and what can be done with it as it rose from one level to another. The metaphysicians engaged themselves in their round of abstract discussions. But the yogin and the bhakta and the mystic pursued their path towards perfection without bothering about mere metaphysics and without anchoring their boat at this scholastic shore or that.

That explains why it is the seer and not the scholar who has all along dominated the scene in Sanãtana Dharma. That explains why it is the saint and not the pandit who has always sat at the centre of Hindu society. That explains why it is the mystic and not the man of letters who has ruled the roost in Hindu culture. The most honoured names in Hindu history, above even those of the heroes, are the names of seers, sages, saints, and mystics - Vyasa, Valmiki, Yajnavalkya, the Buddha, Bhagvan Mahavira, Shankara, Ramanuja, Gorakhnath, Kabir, Nanak, Tulsidas, Mira, Ramakrishna, Raman - to mention only the most notable in a galaxy of great names. It is said that there is not a village in India which has not known an authentic saint within a radius of three miles around it. The vãNî and the vacanãmrita of these great souls has sustained Hindu masses in their allegiance to Sanãtana Dharma even when subjected to the most harrowing hooliganism as during the medieval Muslim rule, or under the Portuguese pirates in Malabar, Tamil Nadu, and Kerala.


Mysticism is not a monopoly of Hindus who have never claimed to be the Chosen People, or organized themselves into the Church or the Ummah. It is the universal religion of the human race whenever and wherever it has not been forced or harangued into shutting itself against the higher message by pontifical prophets and ridiculous revelations. The record has not survived but the sculptures and hymns of ancient Egypt leave no doubt that this was a land of lofty mysticism to which the Greeks acknowledged a great debt. The mysticism in the ancient cultures of Mesopotamia can be gleaned from the points of odium attached to their religions in the Old Testament. The pre-Islamic Iranians had their full quota of mystics, the same as in the medieval period under Islam before the sufis were made subservient to the Shariat. So also the pagan Arabs. The Jews have had giant mystics. The Greeks had their Thales, Heraclitus, Pythagoras, Socrates, Plato, and Plotinus. The annals of Rome reveal the same mystic spirit. China scaled the same spiritual heights in Lao-tse and Confucius.

It is only when we come to countries and ages dominated by Christianity and Islam that we find systematic theological tirades against mysticism. The ancient traditions of mysticism derived from Egypt, Iran, India, and Greece had survived for some time in many Christian and Muslim countries. They were particularly prominent in Iran and Iraq which gave us such great sufis as Rabia, al-Hallaj, Junaid, Abu Yazid, Attar, and Rumi. Europe under Christianity also gave us great mystics such as Eckhart, St. Teresa, and St. John of the Cross. But the theologians of Christianity and Islam were vigilant. So were the tyrants propped up by the Church and the Ummah. They could not tolerate for long such erosions of their exclusiveness by what they denounced as an unsanctioned universalism.


The theocratic hand that came down on the Christian mystics and Muslim sufis was quite heavy to start with. The mystic and the sufi spirit was irrepressible like all other sterling expressions of the human spirit. But theology and theocracy were equally uncompromising. After a lot of terror inspired by theologians and theocrats, a compromise was made between the two. The Christian mystics could continue their ‘mumblings’ provided they swore by the primacy of the Catholic Church, and paid homage to the Pope. The sufis could sing and dance and indulge in other ‘frivolities’ provided they swore by the Muhammad, conformed to the Sunnah in their outer conduct, and served the sultans in the extension of Islamic imperialism.

This victory of theology over theosophy is very much manifest in the functioning of sufis and their silsilãs in India. One never meets a sufi in the large number of this tribe in India who even whispered a word of protest against what the mullahs were saying about Hindu religion and culture, and what the sultans were doing to Hindu temples, places of pilgrimage, and holy men. But one meets many sufis who were furious with the sultans for stopping short of converting or killing all Hindu kãfirs, and destroying all Hindu places of worship. Some of them never got reconciled to the recognition of Hindus as zimmîs and the imposition of jizyah on them because in their theology it was tantamount to bartering away the mission of Islam for mammon. The only choice which Hindus had, according to them, was between Islam and death.

A typical example of such sufism was Shykh Nuruddin Mubarak Ghaznavi (died 1234-35 AD), a disciple of Shykh Shihabuddin Suhrawardi (1144-1234 AD), and one of the founders of the Suhrawardia sufi silsilã in India. He propounded the doctrine of Dîn Panãhî, and presented it to Sultan Iltutmish (1210-36 AD). This doctrine declared its very first principle as follows: “The kings should protect the religion of Islam with sincere faith. And kings will not be able to perform the duty of protecting the Faith unless for the sake of Allah and the Prophet’s creed, they overthrow and uproot kufr and kafirî, shirk and the worship of idols. But if the total uprooting of idolatry is not possible owing to the firm roots of kufr and the large number of kãfirs and mushriks, the kings should at least strive to insult, disgrace, dishonour and defame the mushrik and idol-worshipping Hindus, who are the worst enemies of Allah and the Prophet. The symptom of the kings being the protectors of religion is this: When they see a Hindu, their eyes grow red and they wish to bury him alive; they also desire to completely uproot the Brahmans, who are the leaders of kufr and shirk and owing to whom kufr and shirk are spread and the commandments of kufr are enforced. Owing to the fear and terror of the kings of Islam, not a single enemy of Allah and the Prophet can drink water that is sweet or stretch his legs on his bed and go to sleep in peace.” Such statements from sufis can be multiplied. Amir Khusru, the dearest disciple of Nizamuddin Awliya (Chishtiyya luminary of Delhi), mourned loudly that if the Hanafi law (which accommodated Hindus as zimmîs) had not come in the way, the very name Hindu would not have survived.

Similar examples can be cited from the annals of Christian mysticism as well. In the process, Christian mystics and Muslim sufis not only drifted away from their spiritual search, but also prolonged the life of such falsehoods as Christianity and Islam by making the dogmas of these creeds sound deeper than they were intended to do. Their personal tragedy turned, in due course, into a tragedy for universal spirituality which had initially inspired them to deepen and widen the dogmas propounded by the Founding Fathers of the Church and prophet Muhammad. This double tragedy was inevitable because Christian mystics and Muslim sufis failed from the beginning to see that what they were being made to serve was not religion but a politics of power and imperialist aggression.


Hindu society has never had an organised hierarchy like the Christian Church. Nor has Hindu society ever been a fanatical fraternity like the Muslim Ummah. Hindu spirituality, therefore, never became an instrument of predatory imperialism. Hindu princes in pre-Islamic India fought many wars. But none of them was a religious war. The scene changed to a certain extent when Hindu society was attacked by an imperialist ideology named Islam which pretended to be a superior religion, and which swore that Allah and his last prophet had mandated the whole earth to the Muslim Ummah. Hindu sword had to be drawn in defence of Hindu society and culture, and some Hindu saints blessed the enterprise. Even so, Hindu saints of the stature of Kabir and Nanak kept on pleading with the mullahs and the sufis to give up their exclusiveness, and accept the Hindu spiritual insight that all paths lead to the same goal. Hinduism thus retained its spiritual character and universality all along.

Kabir and Nanak and numerous other nirguNa saints failed to carry any conviction with the mullahs and the sufis and the sultans. The latter were either too self-righteous or too enamoured of the power and pelf which the exclusiveness of Islam had earned for them. Kabir had to suffer persecution from Sikandar Lodi for questioning this exclusiveness. Guru Arjun Deva and Guru Tegh Bahadur had to lay down their lives in defence of Sanãtana Dharma.

In the final round, however, the nirguNa saints succeeded only in confusing Hindu society into believing that Islam was just another religion and not an ideology of imperialism. Fortunately, the impact of nirguNa saints on Hindu society was marginal. The saguNa saints and the ãchãryas did not even so much as mention Islam even in the heyday of its power and sway. They found it beneath contempt.

The nirguNa saints have been revived in more recent times, and presented as social reformers who stood for a casteless and classless society and as the precursors of what passes for Secularism in present-day India. This monstrous misrepresentation has been mostly the work of Hindi scholars working for doctoral degrees. They have succeeded to a large extent in misleading the Hindu intelligentsia. Now it is the turn of the Buddha and Bhagvan Mahavira who are also being dressed up in the same secular plumes.

The confusion has by now become very widespread, and is symbolized by the sanctimonious slogan of sarva-dharma-samabhãva. This slogan was coined by Mahatma Gandhi and included in his MaNgala Prabhãta as one of the sixteen mahãvratas. The result was an unprecedented appeasement of Islam starting with the Mahatma’s support of the Khilafat movement. The Mahatma had believed sincerely that he could touch the heart of Islam and win over the Muslims to nationalism by paying handsome tributes to the Quran and the Prophet. But he also ended as a colossal failure like Kabir and Nanak. In the final upshot, he had to pay the price with his own life, and the nation had to suffer partition of the motherland.

For, Islam has no heart which can be touched. The heart has been drained of all human feelings and hardened into a calculating machine which manufactures only imperialist ambitions. Hindu society will never be able to soften that heart, or make that machine produce anything except contrived grievances and repeated rounds of violence . Let Hindu society make no mistake. The same is true of Christianity, though it has been forced to soften it face and language due to its collapse in the modern West. The heart of Christianity, too, has been hardened into a calculating machine.


The only hope lies in the mystical elements which still survive in Christian as well as Muslim communities in India due to the Hindu converts carrying with them a lot of Hindu culture and also due to the intrinsic urges of universal human nature. These urges have nothing to do with theological Christianity or prophetic Islam. It is not an accident that Aldous Huxley could not find a single mystical passage in Christian theology or the Quran which he could cite in his Perennial Philosophy. He quotes only from Christian and Muslim mystics.

One of the enterprises which a reawakened Hindu society will have to undertake is to rescue Christian mysticism from the clutches of Christian theology, and salvage sufism from the stranglehold of prophetic Islam. This can be the only basis on which Hindu society can come to terms with Christian and Muslim communities in India. One can be sure that there are many Christians for whom the message of Christian mysticism is more important than Christian theology, as there are many Muslims in whom Attar and Rumi touch a deeper chord than is touched by the pronouncements of prophetic Islam and its stultified sufi accomplices.

Hindu society has to make it clear, once and for all, that there can be no compromise with a Christian theology which preaches that Jesus Christ is the only saviour and that it is the mission of Christianity to save all mankind. At the same time, Hindu society has to tell the Muslims, in an unmistakable voice, that it will not permit the permeation of prophetic Islam according to which Muhammad is the last prophet and the Ummah has inherited the lands of the kãfirs as a mandate from Allah.

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