Questions by various friends, and Answers by Swami Nirmalananda, abbot of Atma Jyoti Ashram
How would you distinguish or contrast Hindu (Sanatana) Dharma from other religions?
Dharma and religion are not the same, though religions may have dharmic characteristics and dharma may be expressed religiously. There is one dharma: Sanatana Dharma. It is not Hindu religion, though Hindu religion "rests" upon it–and often obscures or eclipses it to the detriment of Hindus. Other religions, as I say, have random traits in consonance with Sanatana Dharma, but only accidentally, in a kind of hit-or-miss way. Therefore I would characterize them–and popular contemporary Hinduism–in two words: partial and confused.
Yet, Hindu religion is a degeneration of Sanatana Dharma, so it has a "familial" connection with it which other religions do not. Thus, even in its degeneracy it possesses a legitimacy unknown to the others.
Just what part does doctrine–or dogma–play in spiritual life?
It is important to realize that all valid religion is a process of evolution, that only when religions degenerate do they become dogmatic structures. Later, if they survive to total bankruptcy they become social associations for mutual support and assurance on the most superficial levels–without a vestige of aspiration for higher consciousness. They become "communities" of self-congratulation, whose highest aspiration is to make each other feel secure in "belonging." That which the wise have sometimes called "the flight of the alone to the Alone" is alien to them.
All the foregoing poesy is to say that real religion is therapeutic and that its purpose is transformation of consciousness. How the intellect thinks about or interprets it along the way is considered to be of little importance. Being thinking creatures, we definitely need a personal view, maybe even a cosmology, but it is utterly personal, and to attempt to get another person to accept our view is like trying to get them to wear our clothes while we are still in them. It does not work. You only end up with hypocrisy and religious wars.
Spiritual life is THE PATH in a very real sense. That is, it is a system of spiritual practice which produces results. Either you do them or you do not. How you philosophize or theologize is a matter of complete indifference. It is also just fine if you do not philosophize at all, but just keep on practicing. As they say in India: "Working, working, working: Done!" Walk the Path and the Goal will be reached.
One person may think that five miles up the road there is a mountain. Another may think that five miles up the road there is a plain. Fools fight over such differences and excommunicate each other with smug satisfaction as being the only "saved." The wise shut up and walk on down the road and get there. Then they will know whether there is a mountain or a plain there or not. Chances are there will be a lake or a valley! And they will also realize that since they have many more miles to go beyond that point, it just does not matter after all. As a Pogo character once said: "Cut the philosophy and run!" One ancient writer likened true religion to the call of "Fire!" in a burning house. The response must be practical, not theoretical.
Isn't it necessary for us to distinguish between the exoteric and the esoteric elements of religion?
Absolutely not! For in an authentic religion all the elements are thoroughly esoteric, even though extending into exoteric manifestation. Therefore it is a grave error to attempt dividing the elements of a religion into the two classifications with the object of passing over or rejecting the exoteric and fixing attention on the esoteric remainder–or vice versa.
Please notice, however, that I qualified religion with the word authentic. There are indeed religious systems in the world whose worthlessness is demonstrated by the very fact that they have no esoteric character to any degree. On the other hand, there are systems–religious, philosophical, and occult/esoteric–whose utter worthlessness is equally demonstrated by the fact that they have no exoteric manifestations of their esoteric principles. That is, they have no practical side for demonstration or realization of those principles.
Just as all living beings in this relative creation are combined of both visible and invisible elements, so a living religion–or, more correctly, a religion that leads to higher life (i.e., consciousness)–is constituted of both interior insights and exterior practices. Yet, as has been said, their character is essentially esoteric.
Dion Fortune, the greatest public occultist of the last century, pointed out that esoteric science intuits the occult principle and then demonstrates it through methodology that either manifests it overtly in the physical plane or imparts direct intuitional knowledge of the principle to the practitioners on the inner levels of their consciousness.
Thus, many supposedly external rules and observances are mistakenly interpreted and perhaps even rejected. But when the intuition illumined by meditation and esoteric development is brought to play in their consideration they are seen to be thoroughly esoteric and even "inward." This is forcibly brought out in The Gnosis of the Ten Commandments and the Beatitudes in which they are shown to be guidelines for those who are developing their innate spiritual powers.
In any viable religion, the inculcation and development of the esoteric viewpoint is the primary requirement. Although the esoteric understanding will develop through the years as the aspirant, through meditation, garners his own insight through practical experience of the invisible realities and their visible indications, yet the "set of the sails" must be founded on esoteric principles from the beginning. Otherwise religion degenerates into a system of rules calculated to please or displease a testy deity who dispenses reward and punishment along the purely subjective lines of egoic whimsy. Such a religion must inevitably be rejected by intelligent investigators and its stultifying effect must be shaken off.
It is to be hoped, however, that those who so free themselves from ignorant religion will not come to the conclusion that all religion is ignorant and dispensable. It is a limited intellect indeed which decides that simply because one object proves to be defective all similar objects are likewise faulty or inadequate. Yet many who pride themselves on their intelligence make such an absurd conclusion continually. To conclude that our experience or knowledge of one or two sects within a vaster religion–itself only one of many religions in the world–renders us knowledgous of religion in general or capable of accepting or rejecting religion out of hand is to display a narrowness of intellect that is ill suited to the search for truth.