Thoughts on Religion in the Future

By Bas Rijken van Olst
[Lecture given at the National Meeting of the British Section of The Theosophical Society, Manchester, June 11, 2005.]

Satyan nasti paro dharmah: "There is no Religion higher than Truth." This is the motto of The Theosophical Society, which appears on the title page of H. P. Blavatsky's Secret Doctrine. Let's analyze it a little further, because terms like truth and religion have different connotations for different people. "Truth," satya, comes from the root as, "to be," and means "that which is," "reality," or "nature"; nasti is a contraction of na, "not," and asti, "there is"; paro dharmah means "higher than dharma." Dharma is from the verbal root dhri, "to hold, to bear, to keep, to maintain, to practice," therefore "to behave in a certain way." In established traditions dharma came to mean "prescribed conduct, customary observance," and therefore "religion." A paraphrase of the motto therefore could be: To act in accordance with nature is the best way to behave.

Following Cicero's etymological derivation from the Latin religio, G. de Purucker says that the word religion

means a careful selection of fundamental beliefs and motives by the higher or spiritual intellect, the faculty of judgement and understanding, and a consequent joyful abiding by that selection, the whole resulting in a course of life and conduct in all respects following the convictions that had been reached. This is the religious spirit. -- The Esoteric Tradition 1:22

Both in the motto of the Theosophical Society and in Purucker's definition, the word religion is used in a timeless and universal way. In this conception it forms an integral part of our human activities. "Behaving in accordance with nature" or "selecting the best possible beliefs and motives" is a dynamic process. As our understanding grows, religion will grow with us and encompass not only all humans, but all other beings as well, on earth, in the solar system, in the entire universe. Here religion expands with us as our understanding of the universe we live in continues to grow. However, in different countries and periods such views frequently become fixed sets of beliefs and dogmas. Religion per se then becomes a religion; it becomes static, emphasizing only certain ways of approaching truth. Sometimes free research of ideas and facts become restricted or forbidden and people have to follow prescribed ways and ceremonies to express their religious feelings. But an Indian saying, "The different religions are nothing but gates to the same city," points to the fact that the search for truth allows no lasting barriers.

What then would be the best way to behave in life, now and in the future? The 21st century has just started, and in this age more information is freely available to mankind than for thousands of years, both in books and on the internet. The future looks bright for religion in its broad and universal meaning. The different religions of the world can now be studied, compared, and analyzed. With so many religious and philosophical systems competing for our attention, let's try to get to the core of each of them. There can be only one truth -- the facts of the universe -- although the expression and interpretations may differ. Let's attempt, then, to reconcile these various religious systems. Some two thousand years ago Ammonius Saccas in Alexandria had the same idea when he started his Eclectic School, reconciling ideas from India, the Greeks, Judaism, and the Hermetic and other traditions. H. P. Blavatsky says in this respect:

The "Wisdom-religion" was one in antiquity; and the sameness of primitive religious philosophy is proven to us by the identical doctrine taught to the Initiates during the MYSTERIES, an institution once universally diffused. "All the old worships indicate the existence of a single Theosophy anterior to them. The key that is to open one must open all; otherwise it cannot be the right key." (Eclect. Philo. [by Alexander Wilder]) -- The Key to Theosophy, p. 4

The Epistle to the Hebrews, when speaking of faith, refers to the ancients, the great sages of old: "Faith is the reality of things hoped for [intuitively discerned], the evidence of things invisible. This is what the ancients were commended for" (11:1-2). The Greek word translated as "faith," pistis, does not refer to blind faith, but to a deep instinctive knowledge. Faith and religion were never intended to be blindly accepted or copied. Fixed expressions of truth tend to become fossils, thereby losing the living spirit. What the major religions of the world have in common will probably endure; the rituals and ceremonies in which they differ will in time pass away.

What is the difference between the religion of the future and the religions of the past? Today people are very individualistic, which has both positive and negative aspects. The positive aspect is that they will not so easily become a member of organizations where people lean on priests or religious leaders; they will not blindly believe this or that system of thought, but will take from the heritage of mankind those thoughts and ideas with which they feel at home and comfortable. Ideally this means that they will become more dependent on their own inner resources. They will learn to follow their own inner light, become independent in their search for truth.

The negative aspect is that individualism may lead to too much materialism. In the past people were consumers of religion in churches and while attending rituals. Now they are becoming consumers of religious ideas in books and on the internet. But there is another factor needed. We have to become whole again by becoming producers instead of consumers. The reservoir of wisdom from which people drink must be kept full by good acts, by putting into practice the things they have learnt. G. de Purucker summarizes what is needed:

The simple doctrines of brotherhood and kindliness, of universal love, of duty, of compassion, of self-sacrifice, which train the will in the way of these noble and beautiful things which the individual must practice -- these are a beautiful and sublime religion in themselves because they are natural, spiritually natural. Any exoteric religion, any religion of forms and ceremonies with a priesthood to carry on these things . . . distracts the attention away from the real things of the spirit living in the heart and soul of man. -- Dialogues of G. de Purucker 2:59

If we live according to the ethical guidelines indicated above, we will automatically create a society in which the social needs of the sick and the elderly are taken care of. If people act in this way, it will bring them together on inner lines. The Golden Rule, perhaps the best known rule of conduct, can be found in almost every religion: "Do not do to others what you would not wish to suffer yourself." If this one rule were kept by the majority of humanity, the world would already be a better place. It implies respect for other individuals, respect for other views, and would reduce violence in the world. When a major disaster strikes in one part of the world, as for instance the tsunami in the Indian Ocean on December 26, 2004, people from all corners of the earth feel the urge to help, financially or practically, because there is an immediate empathy for those who suffer. In such a case it doesn't matter to which religion one belongs. An unseen but unifying bond is immediately felt. This is an expression of how Religion, not a religion, protects society. It is not just an ideal, it is very practical.

The Golden Rule is the cornerstone of justice; it strengthens our higher instincts. If this rule is ever present in the minds and hearts of people, it will influence the whole community. Ideas rule the world, they say. People who increasingly feel responsible for the world should strengthen its thought atmosphere, and begin by doing so at home, in the office, etc.

In December 1887 H. P. Blavatsky published an open letter, "Lucifer to the Archbishop of Canterbury, Greetings!" In it she says:

Theosophy is not a religion, but a philosophy at once religious and scientific; and . . . the chief work, so far, of the Theosophical Society has been to revive in each religion its own animating spirit, by encouraging and helping enquiry into the true significance of its doctrines and observances.
. . . A religion is true in proportion as it supplies the spiritual, moral and intellectual needs of the time, and helps the development of mankind in these respects. It is false in proportion as it hinders that development, and offends the spiritual, moral and intellectual portion of man's nature. -- Collected Writings 8:268-9

The religion of the future will be based on the same animating spirit that has been behind all the world's religions. Its outer form will reflect this inner spirit. It will not come about by bringing together and merging various religious churches or institutions. It is no use putting new wine in old bottles. The new religion will take shape in spontaneous actions like those following the tsunami disaster when many people instantly feel the urge to act. The future will see more possibilities for like-minded people to communicate, to strengthen their bonds of friendship, and to cooperate no matter where they are on this planet.

Today the world's religions have formulated various precepts. Will the same precepts continue to be of value in the religion of the future? The above quote by Blavatsky answered this question by saying that a religion should respond to the spiritual, moral, and intellectual needs of the time. Take the Dhammapada (The Path of Religion), a book with precepts and sayings of the Buddha, where we find the following verses:

As the monsoon rain does not enter a well-thatched house, so lust does not enter a well-disciplined mind. -- 14
Let a man conquer anger by love, let him subdue evil by good; let him overcome the greedy by liberality and the liar by truth. -- 223
Be ever vigilant; keep close watch over your thoughts; extricate yourself from the mire of evil, as does an elephant sunk in the mud. -- 327

Although these verses are clear enough and relevant for this age, two refer to the monsoon rain and an elephant; both are common enough in India, but not for instance in Europe. Precepts will always show something of the flavor of the country and time of their origin; their phrasing will probably change in the future.

Many of the precepts in the various ethical systems of the world have to do with the concept of karma, the idea that every act has its appropriate effect. The future will be the result of seeds sown in the past. Good deeds therefore hold a promise for the future. This is illustrated by the following fragment entitled "The Hidden Treasure" taken from the Buddhist Pali canon:

A man buries a treasure in a deep pit, reasoning thus within himself, "When occasion arises this treasure will be of use to me, if I am accused by the king, or plundered by robbers, or for release from debt, or in famine or in misfortune." Such are the reasons for which men conceal what in this world is called treasure. Meanwhile all this treasure, lying day after day concealed in a deep pit, profits him nothing. Either the treasure vanishes from its resting place, or its owner's sense becomes distracted with care, or Nagas remove it, or malignant spirits convey it away, or his enemies or his kinsmen dig it up in his absence. The treasure is gone when the merit that produced it is exhausted.
There is a treasure that man or woman may possess, a treasure laid up in the heart, a treasure of charity, piety, temperance, soberness. It is found in the sacred shrine, in the priestly assembly, in the individual man, in the stranger and sojourner, in the father, the mother, the elder brother. A treasure secure, impregnable, that cannot pass away. When a man leaves the fleeting riches of this world, this he takes with him after death. A treasure unshared with others, a treasure that no thief can steal. Let the wise man practice virtue: this is a treasure that follows him after death. A treasure that gives every delight to gods and men . . . Thus this possession of merit is of great and magical effect, therefore are good works praised by the wise and learned. -- Khuddakapatha 8:1-10, 14, 16, trans. R. C. Childers, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, 1870, pp. 321-3; see\_3

What can we do to help people to accumulate such a treasure of the spirit; what can we do to spiritually enlighten our fellow men? A master of wisdom wrote in Lucifer:

The problem of true Theosophy and its great mission are, first, the working out of clear unequivocal conceptions of ethic ideas and duties, such as shall best and most fully satisfy the right and altruistic feelings in men; and second, the modelling of these conceptions for their adaptation into such forms of daily life, as shall offer a field where they may be applied with most equitableness. -- Jan. 1888, p. 346

The religion of the future lies very much in our own hands. The better able we are to form a clear picture in our minds of our "ethic ideas and duties," and set an example by applying them in our lives, the sooner there will be a world in which people will naturally help each other wherever and whenever they can. If we regularly think about the best way to behave in life, and then try more and more to act accordingly, we will tread a path where karma will become our friend.

As we progress along this path we have the opportunity of becoming vortices of heart-force. H. P. Blavatsky quotes this description of a period in the future of mankind:

"the world will have a race of Buddhas and Christs, for the world will have discovered that individuals have it in their own powers to procreate Buddha-like children -- or demons." "When that knowledge comes, all dogmatic religions, and with these the demons, will die out." -- The Secret Doctrine 2:415

If we are really eager to find truth, our search will lead us ever further inwards to our spiritual roots; eventually we can become a race of buddhas and christs, and our religion will be truth.

(From Sunrise magazine, August/September 2005; copyright © 2005 Theosophical University Press)

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