India is viewed as a land rich in spirituality and religion. However, very few people in modern India can claim to have an idea of the true spiritual precepts and practices. Most people in India today seek shelter in worshipping idols of gods and goddesses whose miraculous stories they have been fed with their mothers milk in childhood. Faith in gods and goddesses is so strong that formal worship is considered to be essential, and "In temples consecrated according to scriptural rites, the images are considered to be alive." 1 Thus people visit temples in large numbers with offerings to propitiate the various gods and goddesses there as fulfilment of their religious duties.
Furthermore, if there is a problem in an individuals life or a special event at home, a priest is consulted with or without a horoscope. His pronouncements for the present and future are listened to in rapt attention. Any remedies suggested to ward off an evil glance or attract beneficial benedictions are undertaken carefully and performed in all sincerity. These remedies mostly involve making material offerings to specific gods at certain times on auspicious days, or with the performance of rituals that are often senseless and irrelevant.
Most striking is the fascination of the masses for miracles. The miracles sought generally relate to the attainment of greater worldly riches, trade or professional promotion, obtaining the desired progeny and the like. People flock in large numbers to the abodes of sidh purusas, sadhus, tantriks, and yogis who claim to read the past and glimpse into the future or offer remedies either to solve their problems or to fulfil their worldly ambitions. Mostly they are befooled into losing even what they have in the form of material goods, but fascination for such people who can perform magical deeds never ceases. These persons, who are called godmen, are often the only recourse for most people attempting to obtain spiritual enlightenment in India. Rarely is any spiritual knowledge or value gained.
Many saints and sages of India have made attempts to educate the masses in keeping with the true spirit of religion. No divinely revealed Scriptures sanction idolatry. Mahatma Gandhi was against consulting priests or making offerings to the idols of various gods and goddesses. He did not believe in performing yajnas2 to ward off evil propensities, to fight against fatal diseases, or guard against unforeseen calamities. However, he believed in chanting the name of God and considered it to be the healer of all ills.
His only advice to a friend who was suffering from a disease was to pray to God for the gift of healing. Mahatma Gandhi explains, "How would it have helped him if I had advised him to have a yajna performed? He would not have got a genuine priest to conduct the yajna. There would be many other difficulties. Nor would I advise him to go to Jagannath Puri [a well-known centre of pilgrimage in Orissa] and make such and such an offering to such and such a deity. What if following my advice, he became an atheist?" 3
Mahatma Gandhi, who had studied the Gita and the other religious Scriptures deeply, asks "Who are god Indra and other gods?" He replies that Saraswati is "not a goddess living somewhere far away in the clouds, so are Indra and others not living in the heavens; they symbolize the forces of nature." 4
He is not happy with worshipping animals or ghosts. "The Nagapanchami day," he writes "is observed to save ourselves from harm by snakes. It is not right to observe any such day to appease snakes. And so also about ghosts and spirits. What are ghosts? They are merely creatures of our imagination. Our aim should be, instead, to worship the sustaining energy of God, to worship it in all its aspects." 5
The Bhagavad Gita is emphatic on this point. Lord Krishna enlightens Arjuna, "Great is that yogi6 who seeks to be with Brahman7. Greater than those who mortify the body. Greater than the learned, Greater than the doers of good works; Therefore, Arjuna, become a yogi. He gives me all his heart, He worships me in faith and love, That yogi, above every other I call my very own." 8
Lord Krishna further clarifies, "Men whose discrimination has been blunted by worldly desires, establish this or that ritual or cult and resort to various deities, according to the impulse of their inborn natures. But it does not matter what deity a devotee chooses to worship. If he has faith, I (the Manifestation of God) make his faith unwavering. Endowed with the faith I give him, he worships that deity, and gets from it everything he prays for. In reality, I alone am the giver. But these men of small understanding only pray for what is transient and perishable. The worshippers of the devas will go to the devas. So, also, my devotees will come to me."9
He concludes, "The form of worship which consists in contemplating Brahman is superior to ritualistic worship with material offerings. The reward of all action is to be found in enlightenment." 10
NOTES AND REFERENCES
1. Swami Harshananda, Hinduism: Through Questions and Answers, Sri Ramakrishna Math, Madras, p. 19.
2. Gandhi defines yajna variously. In the laymans concept, yajna is a ceremony accompanied by a fire ritual at home and conducted by a priest. Here by yajna, Gandhi means sacrifice. "Among the Hindus, too, the practice of human sacrifice was prevalent at one time. Then followed animal sacrifice. Even today, thousands of goats are sacrificed to Mother Kali. Yajnas are also performed for securing the fulfilment of many worldly desires. The root word in the English term "sacrifice" had a good meaning; it meant "to sanctify". In Sanskrit yaj means "to worship". In the Old Testament, the word for yajna means "to renounce". But the underlying idea, that all actions performed for the good or service of others are forms of yajna, will be accepted by everyone." M. K. Gandhi, The Bhagvadgita, Orient Paperbacks, New Delhi, 1993, p. 75.
3. ibid., pp. 39-40.
4. ibid., p. 77.
6. "Yoga is that which unites (yujto yoke) the Jivatman (the individual soul) with the Paramatman (the Supreme self or God). Any path of spiritual discipline which helps achieve this union is Yoga". [Swami Harshananda, Hinduism: Through Questions and Answers, p. 38.] So, a yogi is one who practises the science of union with God.
7. "Brahman is that which is immutable, and independent of any cause but itself The creative energy of Brahman is that which causes all existences to come into being." Swami Prabhavananda and Christopher Isherwood (Translators), Bhagavad-Gita (The Song of God), Sri Ramakrishna Math, Madras, p. 157.
8 ibid., p. 147.
9 ibid., pp. 153-4.
10 ibid., pp. 119-120.