We have the rare privilege of being born as human beings and we desire to live happily in this world. Pain and sorrow, trials and tribulations, these provide the incentive to think about the course of our lives, about the causes of our grief, and the way to overcome them. Our present troubles are the effect of some cause, near or remote. This ultimate cause of our suffering must be spotted out and destroyed. All other remedies will be only temporary and palliative. If the root cause of the suffering is not tackled, the suffering is bound to recur, if not in the same form, in some other form.
Great religious leaders directed their attention to the discovery of the root cause of suffering, and each of them offered a solution, which he felt, was the best to eradicate the root cause. The Buddha was oppressed by the sufferings he found all around him. He wanted to find a solution and help mankind to overcome those sufferings. He realized that he could help others only if he found enlightenment in himself. He went in quest of this enlightenment. He sought out various teachers; but none of the methods suggested by them appealed to him. Finally he sat in meditation under the Bodhi tree and enlightenment dawned on him. He formulated his theory of illusion (soonya vaadam). He felt that the only way to remain unaffected by any trouble is to realize that everything in the world is an illusion, and, in that realization, to remain unaffected by pain as well as pleasure.
Christianity did not correlate sin and sufferings as cause and effect. According to it, men are sinners, and can expiate their sins only by believing in Christ. It also averred that the present life is the only life vouchsafed to us, and salvation is a case of now or never. There is no future or past life according to that religion. It is the same with Islam also. Belief in Christ or Prophet Mohammed, as the case may be, is the only way to go to heaven. According to both these religions, the unbelievers went to hell. As these two religions did not believe in another birth after the present one, the entire emphasis in their teachings was on going to heaven after death.
Hinduism, on the other hand, postulates a series of births, and proclaims that the sorrows and sufferings of each life, like its joys, are the result of our karmas (deeds) in our past lives. Consequently the Hindus do not speak of eternal damnation, as the Christians and Muslims do. The Buddha too believed in karmas and cycle of births because he was the product of the Vedic tradition.
The logical consequence of the assertion that only those who believed in Christ or in Prophet Mohammed, as the case may be, will go to heaven, is that those who were born in the world before the advent of Christ or Prophet did not attain salvation. This position cannot be acceptable. Moreover, these two religions did not give a rational explanation for present sufferings or provide a remedy for them. The Hindu theory of karma and cycle of births and deaths alone offered a satisfactory explanation. Each person has "earned" the sorrows of his present life, as he has "earned" its joys, by his karmas in a previous life, and can "earn" happiness in his present and future lives, by the performance of good karmas.
The special feature of Hindu religion is that there is no sanction in the Sastras for proselytisation. But other religions believe in conversion. Some people are genuinely worried over the gradual depletion of the Hindu fold by conversion to other religions and ask whether we should not also do propaganda for our religion and adopt the method of congregational worship prevailing in other religions. This view led to the founding of the Brahmo Samaj, the Arya Samaj, and the Hindu MahaSabha. But their hold on the public has weakened after the passing away of the founders of these movements.
If there is no suffering in this world, there can obviously be no scope for religious propaganda or for conversion. A passenger getting down from a train is besieged by drivers of a variety of conveyances, each claiming merit for his conveyance and trying to get the "fare" for himself. The object of all of them is to take the traveler to his destination. Similarly missionaries of each religion try to get at the suffering man and tell him that by embracing that particular religion, he will go to heaven. Christianity has spread in the world through the enthusiasm of the evangelist missionary, who sincerely feels that his is the last and truest word in religion. To save the heathen soul, he uses the unlimited monetary resources behind him, feeling that there is nothing wrong in offering inducements like jobs, medical relief and education, in order to get converts, whose souls, he sincerely believes, will thereby be saved. According to historians, Islam forged ahead with the help of the sword. The Muslim religious leaders obviously felt honestly that even threat can be employed to rescue the unbeliever.
Buddhism preached ahimsa and universal love. The love (anbu-அன்பு) that overflowed the heart of the Buddha and his sincere disciples, attracted people to that religion. The spring of life or 'uyirnilai' (உயிர்நிலை) of Buddhism is this outflow of love. The uyirnilai of Hinduism is the generation of love in others by the precept and practice of highly developed individual souls. The scrupulous adherence to karmaanushtana (observance of religious discipline and practices) and the moral excellence (aatma guna) of great men account for the survival of Hindu religion in such large measure, in spite of vicissitudes. The spiritual eminence of these few men and their all-embracing love, sustained the faith of the multitude, who felt drawn towards them, like bees to flowers and bats to fruits. Buddhism laid emphasis on the practice of love to all; in Hinduism, the cardinal principle is to develop that love in oneself as the fragrance of the soul. The great men of the Hindu religion did not profess to uplift or save others by their teachings; they made themselves pure and their precept and practice made for the spiritual education of those who came in contact with them. One, who is not himself pure, cannot teach others to be so.
There is evidence to show that the Vedic religion is the most ancient religion and was once current in most parts of the world. Now it has shrunk within the confines of this country, as new religions gained their hold in other lands. Why and how did these new religions appear and how did they grow? The reason is to be sought in our faltering allegiance to the Vedic religion and our fitful observance of its practices. The "weakness" of our religion, about which people are worried, is not due to our not doing propaganda for it, but to our own lack of faith in it and our own failure to conform to its tenets. In fact, propaganda is not sanctioned, for, it is enjoined that one should not be told unasked and one who has no devotion, should not be told the truth (Naaprishtah kasyachit brooyat, naabhaktaaya kadachana (नाऽपृष्ट: कस्यचित् बूयात् नाऽभक्ताय कदाचित्).
The strength of a religion does not lie in the numbers of those who practice it; but in the conduct of those who practice it. The best "propagandist" for the Hindu religion is the Hindu who lives up to its tenets. It is on account of such great men that our religion survives even to-day.
Another significant feature of our religion is that it has no name, because at one time no other religion existed. As it taught the practice of eternal dharma, it was referred to only as Sanaatana Dharma. When other religions came into existence, they were called by the names of their founders, to distinguish them from the prevailing Vedic religion. To preserve our religion, it is wrong to resort to the methods employed by the competing religions. On the other hand, we should fall back on the uyirnilai (life breath) of our own religion, i.e., on karmaanushtaana as taught in it. There is no need even to combine in congregational patterns. Ours is purely a religion of the individual. When an individual perfects himself, his example will be emulated by others. The true prayer is not for getting relief from suffering, but for keeping out evil thoughts from the mind and for making good thoughts always dwell there. When misfortunes one after another overtook the Pandavas, Kunti prayed that they should be vouchsafed strength to remember God constantly. According to Hinduism, the only way to get rid of sin is to perform the prescribed karmas by which the accrued sins will be expiated and fresh sins will be warded off. The discipline of karmaanushtaana will make for health and for purity of body and mind. The way of religion is not to grieve over suffering, but to pray that evil thought may not get a foot-hold in the mind in moments of distress. Then the power of endurance will develop and suffering itself will lose its sting. Such a perspective is the outcome of jnana and jnana has to be acquired by each individual by his own efforts. That is why our religion is individualistic and not congregational in nature. Even when untouchability is observed, there is no hatred behind it, like the racial hatred of Africa. Universal love always prevails and that is the reason why in spite of strong temptations, a large section of the Hindu community refuses to change the faith. This should make us bestir ourselves and to see that this climate of love is felt by all. This can be done by our getting over our spiritual bankruptcy and producing living examples of austerity and devotion (karmaanushtaana bhakti). The vitality and endurance of our religion depend on our individual purity. If it declines due to lack of propaganda or due to conversion, there is no need for alarm. But nothing will hasten the decay of Hinduism so much as the moral weakness and spiritual bankruptcy of each one of us.
A religion that depends for its propagation on the power of wealth or force must decline when another religion which has the backing of greater wealth or mightier force comes into existence. But a religion like ours, whose strength is derived from the purity of the individual adherent, has no such fears. We require enthusiasm not to save others, but to save (purify) ourselves. If we purify ourselves through prayer, meditation, and other forms of discipline, enjoined by our religion, Love, that is God, will dwell in our hearts and direct our deeds. That will give us the enlightenment to realize the oneness off the Seer and the Seen. Living examples of such realized souls will help our religion to withstand all vicissitudes and promote universal welfare.