True religion must give us a basis for thinking, and consequently, a basis for acting; it must give us an understanding of nature, of ourselves and of other beings. Religion is a bond uniting men together—not a particular set of dogmas or beliefs—binding not only all Men, but also all Beings and all things in the entire Universe, into one grand whole.
"Religion is the best armour that a man can have, but it is the worst cloak," wrote John Bunyan. Translating the thought, we might say that religion is the best unfolder of humility, piety, unselfishness, but it is the worst and most prolific developer of hypocrisy, humbug, cant, credulity and fanaticism. Every religion can lead its votary to the light through inquiry and honest search for truth; but every creed without exception has acted as an intellectual extinguisher because its adherents do not use their minds, and do not inquire like rational beings into the meaning and purpose of this, that or the other belief they hold as sacred.
The much discussed subject of prayer affords an example. People pray in the hope of securing pardon for their sins; some say, in words they understand: "O God, forgive me this transgression"; others repeat words in a language they do not know; others confess in privacy to a priest. Having gone through this of that form, they commit the same crime again; they repeat their sin, and they go through the ritual once more. The logical deduction as to their belief to be drawn from their behaviour is this: "Why a confessor if we are not to be free to blunder over and over again?" This is hypocrisy and all who indulge in such a useless and immoral performance are using religion as a cloak.
What kind of prayer, then, would show us religion as an armour? When a person who has blundered repents before his own conscience and in his own consciousness, and resolves not to repeat such a mistake; when as a protection he seeks knowledge as to how he blundered, as to what caused him to slip into his mistake, and so forth, he is using prayer as a true power. Such a sinner, in spite of his blunder, is a religious person who uses his religion as an armour.
Turn now to the fundamental misunderstanding which causes this confusion. People fancy that a person's religion is a matter of the birth of his body, of the family and of the community to which he belongs; more, the general opinion is that religion is a matter of beliefs, of the heart, about which there need be no inquiry, no questioning and no seeking of explanations. This is wrong. Man is a thinking being and it is his duty to understand the meaning of life, of religious beliefs, of communal customs, of family habits and so on. Generally people identify religion with truth, and in their dogmatism claim their own sect or creed to be the only true one. A little reflection would clear away the fogs of superstition. It is intrinsically true that Truth agrees with Truth and does not agree with falsehood. Two plus two makes four—that is the one truth; all other answers to the sum of two plus two are false and should be unacceptable.
People must learn to apply this test to religious truths. Our serious thoughts, our rational ideas about religious matters are conspicuous by their non-existence. It never occurs to religious people to test their opinions and beliefs in the light of reason and of knowledge. To the very fact of the existence of sectarianism we should apply the test of knowledge; if any one particular religion is the only true one, then, naturally and necessarily, all men and women belonging to that creed must be virtuous and wise, healthy and happy. If, for example, the Jews are really the "Chosen People" of God, then there ought not to be among them the ignorant, the wicked, the diseased. Similarly, if Christ is the only begotten Son of God (an absurd claim which Jesus never made) and if, let us say, the Roman Church is the only true church, then all Roman Catholics and all Christians ought to be full of faith, hope and charity, of which the Apostle Paul wrote, and they ought to be loving their neighbours as Jesus taught. Christendom is, however, not a loving family; much less is it full of love for the poor heathen; nay more—periodically Christendom becomes a mighty slaughter-house where the strong butcher the weak. Similarly, neither Hinduism, nor Islam, nor Jainism, nor Zoroastrianism, is a perfect, God-given, true religion. In the ranks of them all are liars, profligates and drunkards, as well as sober, virtuous and God-loving men and women.
We need, therefore, to turn to some other factor to ascertain the truth about religion or, to be more exact, the Truth which is Religion. In the words of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, we come upon a line of thought appropriate to our subject: "Faith without principles is but a flattering phrase for wilful positiveness or fanatical bodily sensations." We must beware of "wilful positiveness" in the matter of our own religion. Also, we must guard against "fanatical bodily sensation" where our religious views and beliefs are concerned. Leaving emotionalism aside, we must look for the principles of religion. This is not only a matter of secular education; otherwise logical-minded men and women become fanatical in religious affairs. Ordinary university education is no passport to religious honesty or to reasoning liberalism.
Courage of mind and of heart is needed to be honest in religious habits and beliefs—courage to search for truth, courage to insist on learning the meaning of the phenomena of life which surround us. Our common humanity is a good starting point. Each one of us is beset with weaknesses, is endowed with virtues; feels joy and pain by turns; is affected by beauty of form, by moral strength, by the light of wisdom and by deeds of mercy; and each, in turn, expresses beauty in life, virtue in deed, wisdom in words. Though the same traits are common to all, yet each is different from all others. No two people are alike—not even twins. What moral law governs this diversity in unity? A wise God would not create ignorant people, nor a loving God, deformed children. Heredity does not answer the problem either. Reincarnation does clear away the confusion. The truth of Reincanation becomes a religious principle by its logical reasonableness, by the wonderful light it sheds on the problems that agitate our hearts and puzzle our minds, problems that surround us on every side.
Religion to be true must be One, Universal and Eternal. To take again the example we have considered earlier: not only does two plus two make four on every continent today, but it has made four in every era for millions of years. So also with any other truth; it must be universally true, true everywhere; it must be eternally true, true in every age. This is the position of Theosophy which is so grossly misunderstood. Theosophy is not a religion; Theosophy is Religion itself. Why does Theosophy proclaim as its first object "Universal Brotherhood"? Because, in the words of H. P. Blavatsky:
A Religion in the true and only correct sense, is a bond uniting men together—not a particular set of dogmas and beliefs. Now Religion, per se, in its widest meaning is that which binds not only all MEN, but also all BEINGS and all things in the entire Universe into one grand whole. This is our Theosophical definition of religion.
From this definition of Religion emerges its function. However different each one of us may be from all other human beings, we are united in one grand Brotherhood. To aid others, to be altruistic, is the very first lesson we learn as we reflect upon the basic principle of the One True Religion. In this function, we encounter within us, as in the world outside, the forces of good and of evil, and if we are observant we find these forces existing in our own beliefs. Theosophy gives us knowledge as to how to discard the cloak of religion and likewise teaches us to use its armour. Thus, the student of Theosophy retains and sustains his understanding of Universality. But what about the orthodox? They have to begin to use their own religious beliefs, asking every time—"Is my religion a cloak to hide my ignorance or my weakness or my fanaticism or my sectarian unbrotherliness, or is it an armour against the foes of ignorance, of vice, and above all of the spirit of intolerance and of exclusiveness?"
Is the sacred thread of the orthodox Hindu a cloak or an armour? Is the sacred shirt of the orthodox Zoroastrian a cloak or an armour? Is the Sunday church-going by the orthodox Christian a cloak or an armour? Are the periodic prayers of the orthodox Muslim a cloak or an armour?
In every case, if these are expressions of the cloak, hiding something, the man is irreligious in spite of his thread or his shirt, his church-going or his kneeling for Namaz. If these are expressions of his armour, then soon will he pass out of his narrowness into the liberal light of Wisdom, which is universal and which knows no heathen, no kafir, no durvand, no mlechchha. All sectarian creeds become corpses for the man in whose heart the One Religion is born.