There are books aplenty in the world dealing with a vast variety of subjects. The adherents of each religion single out one book for special veneration, believing that it shows them the way to salvation. The followers of some faiths even build temples in honour of their holy scriptures. The Sikhs, for instance, do so; they venerate their sacred book, calling it the "Granth Sahib" [and enshrine it in temples].
Thus the followers of each religion have come to have a work showing them the way to their spiritual uplift. Such books are believed to enshrine the utterances and commandments of God conveyed through the founders of the respective faiths. For this reason they are called the revealed texts. We call the same "apauruseya" (not the work of a human author). What men do of their own accord is "pauruseya" and what the paramatman reveals, using man as a mere instrument, is "apauruseya".
What is the authoritative work of our Vedic religion? People of other faiths are clear about what their sacred books are. Buddhists have the Tripitaka, Parsis(Zoroastrians) the Zend-Avesta, Christians the Bible, and Muslims the Qur'an. What work is basic to our religion, common to Saivas, Vaishnavas, Dvaidins(dualists) and Advaitins(non-dualists) and the followers of various other (Hindu) traditions? Most of us find the answer difficult. Why?
There is an important reason. People born in other religions are taught their sacred texts in schools. Or they receive instructions [at home] in their respective faiths for two or three years, and then have what is called "secular" education. So even at a youthful age they are fairly conversant with the religion into which they are born. We Hindus receive no religious instruction at all. How has this affected us? Whenever adherents of other faiths go seeking converts, we become a convenient target for them. How is it that people belonging to other religions do not leave their faith to embrace another in any considerable numbers? The reason is that they learn about the tenets of their religion in childhood itself and remain firmly attached to it. In contrast, we are not taught even the elements of our religion in our early years. Worse, we speak ill of our scriptures and have no qualms about even destroying them.
Our education follows the Western pattern. We want to speak like the white man, dress like him and ape him in the matter of manners and customs. We remain so even after our having won independence. In fact, though we keep speaking all the time about our culture, about swadeshi and so on, we are today more Westernised than before. Remaining a paradesi (alien) at heart we keep talking of swadeshi. Religion has been the backbone of our nation's life from time immemorial. If we wish to remain swadeshi, both inwardly and outwardly, we must receive religious instructions from childhood itself. The secular state is of no help in this matter because, in the secular set-up, education continues to be imparted to our children on the Western pattern, and the children are taught that our sastras are all superstition. The result is that most of us do not know what the sacred text is, that is common to all Hindus.
Our Atma-vidya (science of the Self) is extolled by people all over the world. (In our country learning even subjects that are apparently mundane like political economy, economics, dance, etc, has a transcendent purpose). Foreigners come to India in search of our sastras and translate them into their own languages. If we want to be respected by the world we must gain more and more knowledge in such sastras as have won the admiration of the world. We cannot earn more esteem than others for achievements in fields like science and technology. We feel proud if one or two Indians win Nobel prize but the rest of the world hardly takes any notice of it. Its attitude may be expressed thus: "The strides we have taken in science and technology do not give us satisfaction. So we go to the Hindus seeking things that are beyond. But they themselves seem to forsake the philosophical and metaphysical quest for our science and technology". We must be proud of the fact that our country has produced more men who have found inner bliss than all counties put together have. It is a matter of shame that we are ignorant of the sastras that they have bequeathed to us, the sastras that taught them how to scale the heights of bliss.
Many Hindus are ignorant of the scripture that is the very source of their religion - they do not know even its name. "What does it matter if we don't know? " they ask. "What do we gain by knowing it? "
Though we are heirs to a great civilization, a civilization that is universally admired, we are ignorant of its springs. "Who cares about our culture? Money is all that we need, " such is the attitude of our people and they keep flying from continent to continent in search of a fortune. Some of them come to me and tell me: "People abroad ask us about our religion, about the Vedas, about the Upanishads. They want to know all about the Gita and yoga, about our tenples and Puranas and about so many other things. We find it difficult to answer their questions. In fact we seem to know less than what they already know about these matters. We are indeed ashamed of ourselves. So would you please briefly put together the concepts of our religion and philosophy? "
What does this mean? We are proud of living as foreigners in our own land, but the foreigners themselves think poorly of us for being so. We are inheritors of the world's oldest religion and culture; yet we have no concern for them ourselves. How would you then expect foreigners to have any respect for us?
Perhaps it would have mattered much if we were an unlettered people. Others would have thought us to be ignorant, not anything worse. But what is the reality today? We read and write and talk a great deal. Science and technology, politics, cinema, fiction -- these are our interests. Yet foreigners think poorly of us because we ignore what is unique to our land, the sastras relating to the Self.
There are so many books on our religion but we seem to have no need for any of them. All our reading consists of foreign literature. We know all the works of Milton and Wordsworth, but know precious little of the poetry of Bhavabhuti and Ottakkuttar. We are acquainted with the history of the Louis dynasty and of the Tsars, but we know nothing of the solar and lunar dynasties of our own country. Why, we do not know even the names of the seers of the various gotras. We are thoroughly acquainted with things that are of no relevance to us, but of the subjects that have aroused the wonder of the world we are ignorant, ignorant even of the names of the sastras on which they are founded. Even if men learned in the scriptures come forward to speak about them we refuse to listen to them. It causes me great pain that our country and countrymen have descended to such abysmal depths of ignorance.
The reason for this sorry state of affairs is that we are not as anxious to know about our culture, as we are to find out how much it would fetch us in terms of money. Indeed the true purpose of earning money and other activities of ours must be to know this culture fully, live in consonance with its spirit and experience a sense of fulfilment. Why should we care to know about our religion? A question like this absurd. Religion itself is the purpose of all our actions --it is its own purpose. The need be no purpose for religion although the performance of religious rites brings us great benefits such as tranquillity of mind, affection for all and, finally, liberation. Unmindful of all this, we want to know whether it would fetch us money. If we were truly interested in religion and truly attached to it, we would never be worried about the purpose served by it.
"Brahmanena niskarano dharmah sadango Vedadhyeyo jneyasca, " so say the sastras. It means that a Brahmin must learn the Vedas and sastras not because there is any reason for it, not because there is any purpose served by the same. It is only in our childhood that we learn the subject without asking question about how useful it is. A schoolgoing chiild does not ask :"Why should I learn history or geography? "
Our religious texts must be taught early in life. When a child grows up and goes to college, he believes his studies will prove useful to him. If he reads for a B.L. or L.L.B. degree, it is to become a lawyer. Similarly, if he reads for an L. T (or B. Ed. ) degree or on M. B. B. S. , it is to become a teacher or a doctor. If you ask a teenager to study our religious texts, he would retort: "Why should I learn them? How will it help in my career? " So religious texts should be taught in childhood itself, that is before the youngster is old enough to question you about their utility [or harbour doubts about the same]. Only then will we develop an interest in our religion and sastras. Do we pay our children for their being interested in sports, music or cinema? Similarly, they must be made to take an interest in religion also and such interest must be created in the same way as in sports and entertainment. If children take to sports and entertainment which afford only temporary pleasure, they are bound to take religion which will confer on them everlasting happiness. The present sorry state of affairs is due to our basic education being flawed.
Today we have come to such a pass that people ask whether knowledge of religion is of help in their upkeep. This is a matter of shame. The sastras admonish: "Do not ask whether Vedic education will provide you food. We eat and live but to learn the Vedas. " Your approach must be based on this principle. A child born in a faith which has such high ideals is cut off from all opportunities of religious instruction at his very birth. Our concern is imparting him worldly knowledge from very start. Our children must be brought up properly and faith in God inculcated in them early in life.
We spend so much on our youngsters- but what do we spend on their religious instruction? A father spends thousands on his son's upanayana. But if he were to spend one tenth of the sum towards achieving what constitutes the very purpose of the upanayana ceremony - making the child a good brahmacarin - faith in our religion would be kept alive. To repeat, far better would it be to spend money on achieving the goal of upanayana than on the upanayana ceremony itself. The child must be given religious instruction by a private tutor and taught the duties of the brahmacarin. Why should teachers conversant with such matters be denied an income? If religion is taught in childhood itself, people will be free from doubts as they grow up and the teacher too will be benefited. Today the situation is so lamentable that most of us do not know even the name of the text that forms the foundation and authority of our religion.
The fact that our people are not taught religion at an early age is one reason why there are so many differences among them. One man is a theist and another an atheist. One performs religious rites without devotion while another is devoted but does not perform any rites. The differences and disputes are many. As for the doubts harboured by people about our religion there is no end. If our religion were taught in childhood itself there would be unanimity of views and freedom from doubts. We know it for a fact that there are not so many doubting people among followers of other religions as there are among ours: the reason is that, unlike us, they are better informed about the concepts of their respective religions.
What is the book of our religion? A definite answer even to this question seems to be a difficult task for people these days. However, if we follow the truths of that book which is the basic work of our religion there will be universal uplift.
Followers of most religions point to a single book as their sacred text even if the matters mentioned in it are dealt with in other works of theirs also. A man may write one book today, tomorrow a second man will come up to write another. There may be good as well as bad points about them and it would be difficult to determine the value of each. So is it not to our advantage if a single book is accepted for all time as our basic religious text? That is why every religion treats such a single book as its prime scripture.
What are the works that tell us all about our religion? The libraries are chock-full of books on Hinduism; indeed there are hundreds of thousands of them. The subjects that come under our religion are also numerous. It all seems to cause confusion. But we must remember that there are a few texts that constitute a common basis for all the other numerous works.
By practising the tenets of our religion many have had the beatific experience and remained in tranquil samadhi, without knowing death and oblivious of the outside world. We see such men even today. There are books from which we learn about Sadasiva Brahmendra, Pattinattar, and similar realised souls. Other religious systems have not produced as many realised souls as has our own faith. Is it possible that a religion that has been a source of inspiration for such a large number of great men should have no authoritative texts?
For a general background, please see here