What is religion?

What is religion?

Birendra (Barry) Nirmal Tiwary

Religion is a philosophical system that meets a basic need of the human beings. Religion has no competition in the sense that the needs met by religion cannot be met by any other philosophical system. This is why even though some countries have banned religion for a period of time, it has reappeared after the political system that banned it has eclipsed. For example, under the influence of atheistic Marxism, the USSR was the first state in modern times that banned religion. But after the Soviet system collapsed in December 1991, religion reappeared in Russia and other countries that are the successor states of the USSR.

There are many definitions of religion. In fact there are at least as many definitions as there are religions. In this essay, we will attempt to define it in terms that are easy to understand and comprehend. About religion, Swami Vivekananda says, To the Hindu, then, the whole world of religions is only a traveling, a coming up, of different men and women, through various conditions and circumstances, to the same goal. Every religion is only evolving a God out of the material man, and the same God is the inspirer of all of them.” (1)

So, the basic aim of all religions is to evolve a God out of man, i.e. to elevate man so as to possess at least some qualities of God. But some religions do not believe in God, e.g. Jainism and Buddhism. So what is one to do? Swami Vivekananda says, “The Buddhists or the Jains do not depend upon God; but the whole force of their religion is directed to the great central truth in every religion, to evolve a God out of man. They have not seen the Father, but they have seen the Son. And he that hath seen the Son hath seen the Father also. .. “ (2)

So, God is our father and he is supposed to have qualities that man craves. Some of these qualities that man aspires to possess are forgiving the failings and sins of others, strength of body and mind, control over senses, and control over base human instincts like lust, anger, greed, attachment to material word, maya, and so on.


Thoughts of Tolstoy on Religion

Leo Tolstoy understood Religion as our true connection to the Universe.  The idea of the individual being linked to the cosmos is expressed in the Latin root of the word religion, religare (to bind strongly). Leo Tolstoy writes, “The essence of any religion lies solely in the answer to the question: why do I exist, and what is my relationship to the infinite universe that surrounds me?   .. It is impossible for there to be a person with no religion (i.e. without any kind of relationship to the world) as it is for there to be a person without a heart. He may not know that he has a religion, just as a person may not know that he has a heart, but it is no more possible for a person to exist without a religion than without a heart.” (3)

Leo Tolstoy acknowledged the fundamental morality of all world religions is ‘Do unto others as would be done unto thy Self.’

This is what he says about the importance of faith.

“… but faith is a knowledge of the meaning of human life in consequence of which man does not destroy himself but lives. Faith is the strength of life. If a man lives he believes in something. If he did not believe that one must live for something, he would not live. If he does not see and recognize the illusory nature of the finite, he believes in the finite; if he understands the illusory nature of the finite, he must believe in the infinite. Without faith he cannot live.” (4)

About the essence of religion, Tolstoy says, “Thus the essence of religion has been, and still is, understood by people with the highest human faculty, as the establishing by man of a relationship with the infinite Being, or beings, whose power he feels over him. No matter how this relationship has varied, for different peoples and at different times, it has always defined man’s destiny in the world, from which guidance for conduct followed naturally. The Jew has understood his relationship to the infinite as follows: being a member of the nation God chose from among all nations, he must therefore observe in God’s eyes the agreement He has entered into with his people.

The Greek understood his relationship as follows: being dependent on the representatives of eternity- the gods- he ought to please them. The Brahmin has understood his relationship to the infinite Brahma in this way: he is a manifestation of this Brahma and ought, by renouncing life, to strive after unity with the Higher Being. The Buddhist has understood, and understands, his relationship with the infinite thus; in passing from one form of life to another, he inevitably suffers. This suffering originates from passions and desires; therefore he ought to try and nullify them, and make the transition to Nirvana. Every religion is the establishment of a relationship between man and the infinite Being of which he feels he is a part, and from which he derives guidance in his conduct. “ (5)

Tolstoy is very critical of the Christian church, for distorting religion. The following is what he says about this issue and the distorting techniques used by the church have been used by other religions as well.

“And thus, all the three previous methods of religious distortion- priesthood, miracles, and the infallibility of the Scriptures- were adopted wholeheartedly by Christianity. It was admitted as lawful to have intermediaries between God and man, because the Church recognized them as such. The reality of miracles was admitted because they bore witness to the infallibility of the Church, and the sanctity of the Bible was agreed because it was acknowledged by the Church.

Christianity was perverted in the same way as all the other religions with the single difference that precisely because Christianity voiced its fundamental doctrine of equality between all men with such clarity, it was necessary to use special force to distort the teaching and conceal its basic clause. With the help of the concept of a Church this was done to a greater extent than in any other religion. Indeed no other faith has ever preached things as incompatible with reason and contemporary knowledge, or ideas as immoral as those taught by Church Christianity.” (6)

The above criticism of Christianity by Tolstoy should not be misconstrued as an endorsement of other religions. In fact his criticism of Christianity applies to almost all religions today. It was just that Tolstoy focused on Christianity because it was the dominant religion of his country.


The good, the bad and the ugly

The concept of religion is intertwined with the basic, perennial questions of what is good, what is bad, what is evil, what is suffering and how to become free from suffering. The following is what Buddha says about evil and suffering.

The Buddha said: “What, my friends, is evil? Killing is evil; stealing is evil; yielding to sexual passion is evil; lying is evil; slandering is evil; abuse is evil; gossip is evil; envy is evil; hatred is evil; to cling to false doctrine is evil; all these things, my friends, are evil.

“And what, my friends, is the root of evil? Desire is the root of evil; hatred is the root of evil; illusion is the root of evil; these things are the root of evil.

“What, however, is good? Abstaining from killing is good; abstaining from theft is good; abstaining from sensuality is good; abstaining from falsehood is good; abstaining from slander is good; suppression of unkindness is good; abandoning gossip is good; letting go all envy is good; dismissing hatred is good; obedience to the truth is good; all these things are good.

“And what, my friend, is the root of the good? Freedom from desire is the root of the good; freedom from hatred and freedom from illusion; these things, my friends, are the root of the good.

“What, however, O brethren, is suffering? What is the origin of suffering? What is the annihilation of suffering? Birth is suffering; old age is suffering; disease is suffering; death is suffering; sorrow and misery are suffering; affliction and despair are suffering; to be united with loathsome things is suffering; the loss of that which we love and the failure in attaining that which is longed for are suffering; all these things, O brethren, are suffering.

“And what, O brethren, is the origin of suffering? It is lust, passion, and the thirst for existence that yearns for pleasure everywhere, leading to a continual rebirth. It is sensuality, desire, selfishness; all these things, O brethren, are the origin of suffering.

“And what is the annihilation of suffering? The radical and total annihilation of this thirst and the abandonment, the liberation, the deliverance from passion, that, O brethren, is the annihilation of suffering.

“And what, O brethren, is the path that leads to the annihilation of suffering? It is the holy eightfold path that leads to the annihilation of suffering, which consists of right views, right decision, right speech, right action, right living, right struggling, right thoughts, and right meditation.

“In so far, O friends, as a noble youth thus recognizes suffering and the origin of suffering, as he recognizes the annihilation of suffering, and walks on the path that leads to the annihilation of suffering, radically forsaking passion, subduing wrath, annihilating the vain conceit of the “I-am, leaving ignorance, and attaining to enlightenment, he will make an end of all suffering even in this life.”

The Buddha said: “All acts of living creatures become bad by ten things, and by avoiding the ten things they become good. There are three evils of the body, four evils of the tongue, and three evils of the mind.

“The evils of the body are, murder, theft, and adultery; of the tongue, lying, slander, abuse, and idle talk; of the mind, covetousness, hatred, and error.

“I exhort you to avoid the ten evils:

(1) Kill not, but have regard for life.

(2) Steal not, neither do ye rob; but help everybody to be master of the fruits of his labor.

(3)  Abstain from impurity, and lead a life of chastity.

(4)  Lie not, but be truthful. Speak the truth with discretion, fearlessly and in a loving heart.

(5)  Invent not evil reports, neither do ye repeat them. Carp not, but look for the good sides of your fellow-beings, so that ye may with sincerity defend them against their enemies.

(6)  Swear not, but speak decently and with dignity.

(7) Waste not the time with gossip, but speak to the purpose or keep silence.

(8) Covet not, nor envy, but rejoice at the fortunes of other people.

(9) Cleanse your heart of malice and cherish no hatred, not even against your enemies; but embrace all living beings with kindness.

(10) Free your mind of ignorance and be anxious to learn the truth, especially in the one thing that is needful, lest you fall a prey either to skepticism or to errors. Skepticism will make you indifferent and errors will lead you astray, so that you shall not find the noble path that leads to life eternal.” (7)


Buddha’s instructions to ascetics on dealing with members of opposite sex

Relationship between members of opposite sex has vexed the minds of religious thinkers from time immemorial. In modern times, some Hindu teachers who live in the West ignore the great danger of excessive intermingling between the sexes and thus invariably fall into the pit of sinful activities.  The following quotation from Buddha is as valid today as it was during life of Buddha. This is for conduct of ascetics (i.e. sanyasis) who have renounced the world.

“The bhikkhus came to the Blessed One and asked him: “O Tathagata, our Lord and Master, what conduct toward women dost thou prescribe to the samanas who have left the world?”

The Blessed One said: “Guard against looking on a woman. If ye see a woman, let it be as though ye saw her not, and have no conversation with her. If, after all, ye must speak with her, let it be with a pure heart, and think to yourself, ‘I as a samana will live in this sinful world as the spotless leaf of the lotus, unsoiled by the mud in which it grows.’

“If the woman be old, regard her as your mother, if young, as your sister, if very young, as your child. The samana who looks on a woman as a woman, or touches her as a woman, has broken his vow and is no longer a disciple of the Tathagata. The power of lust is great with men, and is to be feared withal; take then the bow of earnest perseverance, and the sharp arrow-points of wisdom. Cover your heads with the helmet of right thought, and fight with fixed resolve against the five desires. Lust beclouds a man’s heart, when it is confused with woman’s beauty, and the mind is dazed.

“Better far with red-hot irons bore out both your eyes, than encourage in yourself sensual thoughts, or look upon a woman’s form with lustful desires. Better fall into the fierce tiger’s mouth, or under the sharp knife of the executioner, than dwell with a woman and excite in yourself lustful thoughts.

“A woman of the world is anxious to exhibit her form and shape, whether walking, standing, sitting, or sleeping. Even when represented as a picture, she desires to captivate with the charms of her beauty, and thus to rob men of their steadfast heart. How then ought ye to guard yourselves? By regarding her tears and her smiles as enemies, her stooping form, her hanging arms, and her disentangled hair as toils designed to entrap man’s heart. Therefore, I say, restrain the heart, give it no unbridled license.” (8)



(1)   http://arjun2k.wordpress.com/2008/09/11/vivenkandandas-explanation-on-idol-worship-and-many-god-theory-of-hinduism/

(2)   http://myads.org/journal/bkn29.shtml

(3)   http://arjun2k.wordpress.com/2008/09/11/vivenkandandas-explanation-on-idol-worship-and-many-god-theory-of-hinduism/

(4)  http://www.spaceandmotion.com/Religions-Leo-Tolstoy-True-Religion.htm

(5) http://myads.org/journal/tolstoy1.shtml

(6) http://www.spaceandmotion.com/Religions-Leo-Tolstoy-True-Religion.htm

(7) http://myads.org/journal/buddha.shtml

(8) http://myads.org/journal/buddha.shtml


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