Today, religion is “something useful for weddings and funerals but otherwise dispensable.”
– Cultural critic Christopher Lasch
Nowadays, the question of ultimate meaning doesn’t occupy the minds of most people. And when religion is divorced from such questions, it degenerates into a set of rituals that are followed out of deference to culture or tradition. Consequently, it gets relegated to occasions when some significant rites of passage are to be marked. Apart from this cosmetic utility, religion ceases to have any essential purpose in the lives of people who are governed only by concerns about the here-and-now.
The problem with reducing religion to rituals is that the rituals themselves soon become dispensable when the cosmetic purpose can be served by something else, some other set of rituals that may be nonreligious or secular in character. Over time, the mainstream culture descends from religious materialism to godless materialism in a seamless slide that radically changes society’s whole shape and structure.
If this slide is to be reversed, merely lamenting about the loss of culture, morality, tradition will not be of much help. We need to stress the spiritual purpose of religion. People need to appreciate religious practices as intended for channeling their consciousness from this world with its many mundane concerns to a higher world wherein peace and pleasure abound.
Of course, in today’s intellectual ethos most people would dismiss the idea of such a higher world as a prescientific fantasy. And yet these very people savor the creation of such a world of control and pleasure through technology. Indeed, materialistic people marvel at the prospect of a technological paradise and see every new gadget as a precursor to the actualization of that high-tech paradise.
If people are to see through the intellectual smog that envelops their consciousness, they need penetrating philosophical education as an indispensable complement to religious practice. By such education, the logical tenability of a higher level of reality becomes intelligible. Only thereafter will people become more open to see religious practices as essential, indispensable pathways to a higher reality.
Gita wisdom gives us a coherent spiritual vision of reality, wherein we are understood to be eternal parts of an all-attractive whole. Our life at this quotidian level is meant to be a preparation for finding fulfillment at that higher level of reality through a connection of love that is enduring and ecstatic – and eternally so. When philosophy and religion are united in the rubric of Gita wisdom, we gain access to a profoundly transformational process that enables us to find an inner, deeper, richer level of stability and serenity. Attaining that reality, the Gita explains, is life’s ultimate objective.
Undoubtedly, it is good that at least religion is valued on occasions such as marriages and funerals. But that value needs to be explained and extended to all other phases of life, indeed to every moment of life, thus imbuing our whole existence with sublime, sacred purpose.
With a proper philosophical perspective, when religion is practiced as a means to spiritualize our consciousness, it can serve a purpose that is not cosmetic, but is cosmic – that is, it can help fulfill the purpose of the cosmos.
Aug 06, 2022
Brahmatirtha das Director, Bhaktivedanta Institute for Higher Studies