Some scholars believe that religious ideas began with ancestor worship
. We are not prepared to accept that our dead relatives are gone and so we evolve some mechanism by which to keep their memory and their presence with us. And that mechanism takes the form of worship. Some scholars feel that religion arose from such behaviour.
Other scholars feel that religion originated not from the worship of ancestors, but of nature. Swami Vivekananda writes,
‘The human mind seems to struggle to get a peep behind the scenes
. The dawn, the evening, the hurricane, the stupendous and gigantic forces of nature, its beauties, these have exercised the human mind, and it aspires to go beyond, to understand something about them. In the struggle, they endow these phenomena with personal attributes, giving them souls and bodies, sometimes beautiful, sometimes transcendent. Every attempt ends by these phenomena becoming abstractions whether personalized or not.’
Thus in Vedic writings, we find Usha, the goddess of the evening, Aruna, the goddess of the morning, Surya, the god of the sun, Varuna, the god of rain, Vayu, the god of wind, and so on. We find similar concepts with the ancient Greeks and many other cultures.
Religion is about solving the problems of life. It does not need to begin with belief or dogma or doctrines or rituals.
From Swami Vivekananda’s point of view, both of these anthropological theories can be reconciled into what he considers to be the real germ of religion, namely the struggle for freedom. We are familiar with the concept of individual freedom and social freedom. Many constitutions of the world guarantee the freedom and liberty of individuals and of society. But they cannot guarantee freedom from death or from the limitations of the senses. But the desire for freedom is so deep within us, that we start to search for some means to overcome these limitations.
The idea that when our ancestors die, they continue to live in another sense is a way of discovering freedom from death. Similarly, nature is able to mobilize forces on a scale that goes far beyond what we are able to do. The worship of nature is an attempt to transcend the limitation of the senses, possibly by harnessing those very forces in our service and thus expressing our freedom from them.
Now let us return to religion as that which unites. We said that unity is to be sought and discovered at three levels. One is that of unity within the individual and the second is unity in inter-personal relationships. The third is unity with Ultimate Reality. We said that the first two are answers to existential problems. Taking Swami Vivekananda’s interpretation of the origin of religion as the seeking of freedom from the limitations of the senses, we see that the third is also an answer to an existential problem. Thus religion is about solving the problems of life. It does not need to begin with belief or dogma or doctrines or rituals. It addresses fundamental needs of the human being.
To Be Continued
About the author
The author is a Professor of Mathematics and Chair of the Department of Mathematical and Computational Sciences at the University of Toronto. He gives regular lessons to young students’ group attached to the Vedanta Society of Toronto.