Thursday, August 26, 2010

Why Religion is Divisive

Religion is all too often a source of conflict, division, and judgment between the adherents of different faiths. It doesn't help that religion is inextricably linked with cultural and national identifies with their numerous biases, prejudices, language, dress, and traditions.

It is experienced spirituality that unites hearts. And not the superficial spirituality born of intellectual speculation or passing sentimentality but the realized spirituality that fosters action, forgiveness, and self-sacrifice.

I remember as a boy, growing up Catholic, being taught that the word "catholic" meant universal. I was thrilled at that thought. Later as I grew and became more aware of other faiths and the rigidity of my own faith did I experience the deep disappointment that was inevitable.

I was not alone, and indeed I joined the ranks of millions including such notables as Emerson and Thoreau in experiencing the thrill of discovery of the scriptures and philosophy of India. It was in my college years at Santa Clara University, halfway between Berkeley and Haight Asbury in 1969 when it seemed the staid and jaded adult world around us was breaking apart in favor of a new and hopeful reality. In the vision of the rishis, all time and space were united in the underlying consciousness of Spirit. At last a spiritual view that matched the goals and unfolding vision of modern science which sought the truth underlying all phenomena.

It is not really religion that divides us: it is matter, or outward appearances that command our attention and hypnotize us in seeing the difference rather than the underlying similarity. Our bodies, skin color, gender, language, dress, occupations, attitudes and customs divide us.

Paramhansa Yogananda, whose life story, "Autobiography of a Yogi," has been read by millions came to the West from India to bring a new expression of the ancient revelation of the Oneness of life. But the battle of form vs spirit is also universal. Whereas he would claim that the work he began did not constitute yet another sect, one of his closest disciples simply scoffed, "Of course, we are sect." What she meant is obvious: that to others what else could his work and teachings be but another sect? Yet what he meant is that he was offering an experience of reality that could help individuals transcend that narrower view of reality!

And so the division and multiplication continues. Spirituality represents the realization of Oneness and religion represents the effort to share and spread that revelation for the upliftment of others. Thus we find that even in the teachings of Paramhansa Yogananda, and indeed adding to that those of his guru-preceptors from India (Babaji, Lahiri Mahasaya and Swami Sri Yukteswar) there have been spawned different branches, teachers, books, and organizations.

That among some of them would arise disagreements, different points of view, attitudes, and controversy should hardly surprise us. Our souls have long been held captive to the body and the hypnosis of outward appearances. The soul's native omnipresence and oneness with God and all life is but a child trying to crawl, to stand, and to walk however haltingly.

Since Yogananda's message and his life's persona was so loving and accepting it seems especially a betrayal when the other human tendencies assert themselves and appear uppermost. For this reason has Swami Kriyananda recently returned "home" to Los Angeles where Yogananda took up residency so long ago and where he, Swami Kriyananda, lived for many years to share the purity of Yogananda's message and the love of Yogananda's heart.

Swami Kriyananda's efforts are a dynamic and courageous example for all of us to live by. He has affirmed Yogananda's unitive teachings and love in the face of scorn, indifference, and derision from some of his fellow disciples. Those of us who, as Yogananda's disciples, seek to represent him should especially take to heart his example. But for all souls, to seek truth, God, and love beneath the surface of all else that divides us is the noblest aspiration and our highest duty.