Does religion really help?

India } Haridwar } Kumbh Mela } Mar 2010photo © 2010 Edson Walker | more info (via: Wylio)

A look into my formative years

I inherited a lot of associations as part of my heritage… my religion, caste, social status, nationality etc. I was brought up to feel proud of my heritage.

As a child, I accepted whatever my parents said. I saw them doing so many things related to religion – they observed various fasts, did various pujas(prayers), listened to religious discourses. They seemed to be the most pious people in the world. Other relatives and family friends were also doing these things. I even imagined getting eternal bliss by following the laid down path. I became very religious and observant myself. That was a time I didn’t question anything I was told, I just followed what my parents and teachers asked me to do.

As I grew up, I became inquisitive and started questioning certain things. I got answers but was not very satisfied with some of them. A deeper inquiry and questioning of things was frowned upon. Certain questions(like those on sex) were a total no-no. I was also observing that different people had different interpretations of religious teachings. When I would point out differences, it would make people uncomfortable, sometime even infuriated them. The unwillingness to question each and everything became more and more apparent, at least among the people I was growing up in.

Another important thing that I noted was no body seemed genuinely happy. All of them believed that religion will lead them to eternal happiness, salvation. But no one in my sphere had arrived there. In fact, none of them seemed generally happy in their lives. There were a few friends of my father’s and some school teachers who I felt were more happy in general than others I knew. But ironically, they didn’t seem to discuss religion ever. At that point, I was too scared to discuss such things with my teachers and elders, and so never brought up religious topics with them. Slowly and slowly, in my late teens, I started realizing that the people I knew closely, probably didn’t have all the answers. For a long time, I imagined finding the right Guru, who would show me the exact way. But I never found such a person. The realization dawned on me that either I can wait for an unspecified time doing nothing about it, or I can start learning myself, while I wait for this teacher. I decided to do the latter.

As I started inquiring more and more, I realized that I will have to question those things too, that I had come to accept as Universal truths. I would have to question religion itself. The idea, at that time, seemed like a very bold and risky step. What if I angered God! But I did it anyhow. My parents didn’t like it at all. But late teens were the days of disagreeing with all that my parents said :). I started out with shunning all religious activity. I waited in anticipation, for lightening to strike me down or for some fearful disease to take over me :).

But I did not die! I started seeing things in a different light. Right away, I saw how wrong most people had been about religion being essential to survival. In fact, compared to the drastic changes I imagined this move would bring, very little in my life changed. I had more time for myself. I was not sitting with people who believed they were sinners or who were obsessed with being religiously right about everything they, or others did. There were other, more interesting things to do and explore. It was such a relief! I felt free!!

Religion is a means for salvation and moral direction. My parents had always emphasized this. But by the time I was 20, I came to disagree. I started seeing that I did not need to identify with a religion to be moral. If you don’t associate with a religion, it does not stop you from trying to be a better person and from gaining knowledge. I don’t associate with the any religion but read religious literature that I find helpful or interesting. I don’t reject all Saints, Gurus and Prophets as touts, there can be some among them who have some knowledge. And when I find that out, I will be the first one to rush to them.

Also, I totally disagree that following a laid down path, whether that of religion or of a teacher, can give you salvation. True understanding can come only from self inquiry. A teacher or religious texts may help, may point out a certain direction, but they can’t hold your hand all the way. You will have to go out and see for yourself whether that direction is the right one for you. I don’t need religion for salvation, but if I find something interesting in a book on religion, I definitely will read it.

Need to associate/ identify . A vast majority of people associate very strongly with some combination of their religion, country, region, caste, family etc. People will defend these identities with anything, even with their lives. There are some who like to believe they are the best, not because of any individual achievement, but just by virtue of being associated with a particular group. Anything or anyone that does not belong to or conform to the rules of their group is a lesser human.

There are others who think they are unfortunate, again, just by virtue of the groups they are associated to. They would give anything to be allowed to associate with the bigger group. These are the 2 levels of consciousness we witness here – pride and apathy. Neither of them helps you grow and expand, although David Hawkins ranks pride higher than apathy. Read this interesting article on various levels of consciousness as defined by him.

Why do you need something to associate with? Are you not enough and complete by yourself? A lot of people cannot even think of the idea of standing out of the crowd, they need to merge, they need to be part of a herd. These people are, in fact, running away from themselves. They keep themselves surrounded by others because they are scared of facing themselves when they are alone, of looking down at their own, true self, buried under the false image they have created to conform. They avoid it for fear of what they might find within. For if it is different from the rules of their group(which it will be, since no two individuals think the same way, like the same thing), they might find themselves standing outside their group, alone. This is too scary to accept. But one has to realize that this fear also holds us down and away from doing what we actually want.

I think people who need to associate with something or the other, have low self worth. They compensate for it by associating with a larger entity, that their fearful self can feel confident to proclaim as their identity. If all that you identify yourself with is your job title or company or religion, you have less to show for your own value. The belief that your own group is better than others, is plain ignorance.

A person’s value is in what he creates in this world, for himself and for others. Not what others create for him. That is their value, not his.

I will urge you to take this step. If you really want to grow then explore and question things, question everything. Look inside, find the things that appeal to you. As scary as it may seem, leave the comfort of this well, jump out, it seems way more scary than it actually is. You might have to find unconventional ways to get rid of the hands that try to hold you back, like crabs in a bucket. If you really want to do it, you will find a way. You may not see it now but you will. Accept yourself, let the best in you flourish, even if it is against the general notion. Notions are created by cowards who don’t have the courage to stand out of the group themselves. Disassociate with them. Expand and accept.

Need for support and security. What support do you need from these groups? Mostly, the support you will get will be that which keeps you in the state that you are. They can’t support you to make a leap into higher consciousness, they probably haven’t been there themselves. Moreover, a leap in consciousness is a personal journey, others can only point out directions to follow. Such organizations have a tendency to, consciously or unconsciously, give you just the support to keep you in their sphere. A true helper would try to make you free, self-dependent, it will encourage you to inquire on your own, question everything. This is an important distinction between those who are themselves conscious and want to help you grow, and those who either lack the ability to help you or intentionally want to keep you at their level for their own interests. These are questions to ask yourself. Does your religion, or organization or country encourage you towards self inquiry and self growth, or do they try to instill fear in you? Do they try to make you work their way by using fear, guilt and greed as their weapons?

Religion as practiced in the masses

Most of the time, people with real knowledge are humble and hard to find. They don’t go out proclaiming their knowledge. You have to really seek them out and they probably like it this way. The people who claim to know, make the most noise, are the ones who know very little. They are either confused, have a little more knowledge and confidence than the masses, or are just exploiting the fear in the masses to profit. This is true for religion also.

The problem with most followers is, they are afraid themselves and would not dare to question anything or test anything. Consequently, religion as you see being followed among the masses is nothing but fearful followers following confused, noisy souls who are just a tard above the rest in self confidence. Followers will agree they are sinners, they will travel long distances to places that the noisy ones declare as sacred. They will go through a whole lot of trouble, spend money, time and effort, and may even risk their physical well being(stampedes etc.) to get rid of their sin.

It requires conformity. You are supposed to do certain predefined things. Any deviations or personal preferences that differ, are frowned upon. You are supposed to act as robots that give the same response for the same inputs. They do not allow for changes in perception arising out of personal growth.

It curbs free inquiry. There are always certain things that are considered sacrosanct, you will be frowned upon and admonished if you dare question them.

Hate. This is not always true but holds for a lot of people. Since only their ways are right, the ways of others become wrong. Within their own community, they may come up as vigilante groups, hurting people physically or socially, ridiculing them for non-conformity. Those who belong to other religions are considered even worse, sometimes, they are treated as enemies. Whole wars have been fought in the name of religions. Even in this age we have large scale ethnic and religious violence in many parts of the world.

It is such ignorance to classify a whole community or country as bad. A community consists of all sorts of people. There would be kids who have nothing to do with all these differences. There would be a lot of people, trying to just make ends meet, people like you and me who won’t even have time to sit down and hate others. To classify them all as bad shows ignorance, foolishness and paranoid fear. A lot of times, we have two equally fearful groups hating each other, waiting for the other group to stop hating. What a tragic catch-22 situation.

Is everything about religions bad?

It will seem ignorant of me if I don’t mention that religions have also caused people to commit a lot of good deeds. They do a lot of charity and people are also more willing to donate or volunteer when their religion calls for it. But to keep religions just because they make people do good is like chaining yourself to a chair to make yourself work. All this good can be done otherwise, without the complexity that religion brings, why settle for this? This brings us to our next point.

It depends more on the individual rather than the organization. Not all religious people are bad or without knowledge. Even in martial arts, I have seen a lot of debate over which style is the best. Often I found that knowledgeable teachers would say the same thing – ‘It is not the art that is good or bad, it all depends on how well the student learns it and how well the teacher teaches it. Learn all that you can, from whomever you can. Keep your focus on the end result, not on the means you take to get there.’

Your journey in life will be a similar one. It won’t help if you focus on finding the best religion and following it. But it will surely help if you commit to the search and learn from wherever you can, from whomever you can, whether religious or not.

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