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International Forum for Neovedantins

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Of Faith and Spirituality

Experience of others is faith for the beginner. A father tells his son - that the mango is sweet - and the child eats it and confirms its sweetness. The child gets the joy with it. Here 'faith' (in father about sweetness of mango) got converted into 'knowledge' relatively quickly. Another example, Copernicus came to the conclusion that earth moves round the sun; not the other way round. A few people believed in him in the beginning. However, the truth of his proposition was confirmed later, and thus became knowledge for everyone. Here faith took longer time to get realized. Faith is the starting point for a novice to attempt to know the truth himself. It is not static laziness, but is a dynamic activity. It stimulates the person to act to reach the goal. In this process faith evolves, appears as changing, but this change is the sign of its vitality. The concepts of physics, for instance, progressively evolved from Newtonian Laws to Quantum Physics through Theory of Relativity.

'The scientific approach is lost,' shout the intellectuals when we mention the word faith! To supplement science with the ingredient of faith is not yet acceptable to most of modern people. They fail to understand that their science and methods of experiments are also based on, and start with, firm belief in the findings and observations of their predecessors. This faith itself, they call and take for granted, as knowledge. Here comes the role of basic teaching of Vedanta: That unless and until an individual experiences the truth of his conviction, it cannot become knowledge. Otherwise, at best, it is a firm belief or faith as we call it. When the truth in that belief is realized in one's own life, it becomes knowledge.

Swami Vivekananda defines faith (shraddha) as 'sincere belief in a concept, and consequent eagerness to reach it.'

Sri Ramakrishna gives one wonderful example about faith:

"Suppose there is a thief in a room, and he gets to know from a person that there is a mass of gold in the next room; what will be the condition of that thief?" The answer is, "He will not be able to sleep at all; his brain will be actively thinking of some means of getting at the gold. He will think of nothing else."

Three things are to be noted here:

1. That the person is a thief,
2. He has not seen the gold; but believes that there is gold because a person has told him so,
3. He is restless to get it. He will be happy and quiet only after he gets it, he needs to make efforts to get the gold.

One may substitute 'lawyer, doctor, engineer, worker, business-person, etc.' for 'thief,' and consequently the 'gold,' as an object of desire, may be substituted with 'name and fame, profit-making, winning or treating a case' so on and so forth. The strong desire to get the result will be there; and the person will be happy when he realizes the same. The emphasis is on the belief and strong desire --faith. However, all such pleasures are temporary. They tickle one's senses and the mind; and the happiness, therefore is short lived. (If we substitute sadhka for thief, and consequently God for gold, the effort will lead us to knowledge of God.)


The idea of privilege is linked with the kind of faith we cultivate. If we have faith in sense enjoyment it becomes our goal in life, we will seek more and more privileges based on the power of money, education, and secular knowledge. Society engaged in sense pleasures, similarly, will demand more privileges based on caste or racial superiority and the monetary progress of the few. The same thing will apply to the rich and technologically advanced nations who will try to dominate less privileged nations.

A stage will come in everybody's life when evolution of faith reaches the highest level where the concepts like 'service of man as worship of God' and 'the receiver is greater than the donor' are realized in one's life. Then the idea of privilege is totally effaced from his mind forever.

In this connection the simple but meaningful parable of a "Wood-cutter", as told by Sri Ramakrishna, comes to mind: "Go Forward."

"A wood-cutter once entered a forest to gather wood. The forest was thin and there was no more wood for him to collect. A sage said to him, 'Go forward.' He obeyed the injunction and went ahead; there he discovered some sandalwood trees. After a few days he reflected, 'The holy man asked me go forward. He didn't tell me to stop here.' So he went "forward" and found a silver mine. After a few days he went still farther and discovered a gold mine, and next, mines of diamond and precious stones. With these he became immensely rich."

This 'going forward' came to the mind of the wood-cutter on reflecting upon the words of the wise person. The wood-cutter had faith in the advice of the sage who he believed had the knowledge of the treasures ahead! A question may arise in our mind (always engrossed as it is in the matter of 'gold'): why did, then, the sage himself not seek the treasures? The answer Vedanta gives is, because the sage had gone farthest and had found the treasure of highest value: the treasure of God. If we stretch the parable further, the wood-cutter would also become a sage after enjoying the fruits of his acquired riches; he would renounce the riches after going still farther!

Faith and Spirituality

According to our definitions of faith and our level of having 'gone forward', we will understand the above parable in our own ways. For a few, all this will appear as a myth or useless talk; for some, the points to ponder over, and for still others, the diamond mine to be acquired by going forward. For the majority, however, at this stage of human evolution, faith is fixed at the pursuit of one's vocation, earning money, name and fame, etc. And as per one's faith his/her actions follow. The corollary also holds true; that one's faith can be easily judged by observing the actions one is engaged in. I may be talking and writing these lofty ideas in this article; but, if my actions are not in conformity with what I say or write, one can easily presume that my faith is merely in writing the article and not beyond. I am still cutting the sandalwood instead of trying to gather the riches from the mines of treasures!

So what? Nothing; except that we are all correct and right at our own station, beliefs, and pursuits in life. It is just that, like the wise man, some have found the knower of real treasure - a Teacher, forcing them to go forward. These persons act like catalysts to spread the message in which they have developed faith. But, as one goes ahead in this field of philosophy of Advaita Vedanta, one sees the sameness of God in every person. The idea of privilege gradually starts leaving the person. He/she starts getting the knowledge that this philosophy is purely subjective. If I am pure; if I change for the better, my vision changes and the world appears different to me. As the subject grows in spirituality - love, purity, goodness, and holiness - so does the his perception about this world change. The person develops 'sameness of vision' as described in the Gita (VI. 9).

For others the world still remains divided in duality of misery and joy, good and bad. Let it be. One should be concerned about going ahead oneself without blaming anybody of lethargy, weakness or ignorance. If one sees others as weak, sinner, ignorant, or selfish, be sure that he himself has not yet discarded these traits from his own mind.

Faith evolves just as matter evolves. With evolution of faith, the knowledge of relative world also changes. Firm faith in something gradually brings knowledge about that thing. As we grow spiritually our faith in separateness is destroyed only to be replaced with a newer and higher faith in universal solidarity and oneness. We grow from selfishness to selflessness. Our love grows from being limited to ourselves and our family to the love towards neighboring people and society as a whole. The restrictive egoism loosens its grip on our mind and we start feeling freer.

Attempt to convert 'faith in God' to 'knowledge of God' (Realization) is the beginning of Religion!
C S Shah
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