Today students of philosophy and seekers all over the world accept Advaita or non-dualism as the supreme system of thought. Since you call me a teacher of Advaita you will naturally expect me to say that it is because of the excellence of this Vedantic system that it has so many followers.
But, on reflection, the question arises as to whether all people do indeed subscribe to non-dualism. The world over people follow so many different religions, subscribe to so many different philosophical systems. People belonging to the same country go from one faith to another. During the time of the Buddha many adherents of the Vedic religion embraced his system. In later centuries many Hindus became converts to Christianity or Islam. Jainas have become Vaisnavas with the name of "Pustimargins". During the time of Sri Ramanuja a number of people went over to the Visistadvaita (qualified non-dualism) fold. Similarly, Sri Madhva's school of Dvaita or dualism also gained many adherents. When Adi Sankara held sway, non-Vedic religions like Buddhism and Jainism suffered a decline. Those following the path of karma then- the karma marga is a part of the Vedic religion- returned to Advaita, which indeed is a wholly Vedic system.
Why did religions that had flourished at one time go under later? Do people really follow a religion or subscribe to a philosophical system after making a proper inquiry into the same? Perhaps only thinking people embrace a religion after an assessment of its doctrines. The same cannot be said about the generality of people who any faith. If it is claimed that the common people accept a religion for its concepts, they must be able to speak about them and tell us how these doctrines are superior to those of other religions. The fact is that the vast majority of the followers of any faith know precious little about the beliefs or doctrines on which it is founded.
I believe that the growth or expansion of a religion is in no way related to its doctrines. The common people do not worry about questions of philosophy. A great man of exemplary character and qualities appears on the scene- a great man of compassion who creates serenity all round- and people are drawn to him. They become converts to his religion in the firm belief that the doctrines preached by him, whatever they be, must be good. On the other hand, a religion will decline and decay if its spokesmen, however eloquent they are in expounding its concepts, are found to be guilty of lapses in character and conduct. It is difficult to give an answer to the question why people flock to religions that have contradictory beliefs. But if we examine the history of some religions- how at one time people gloried in them and how these faiths later perished- we shall be able to know the reason. At the same time, it would be possible for us to find out how at the first place they attracted such a large following. If you find out how a religion declined you will be able to know how it had first grown and prospered.
The decay of a religion in any country could be attributed to the lack of character of its leaders and of the people constituting the establishment responsible for its growth.
When we listen to the story of the Buddha, when we see again and again his images that seem to exude the milk of human kindness, compassion and tranquility spring in our own hearts and we feel respectful towards him. People must have been attracted to him thus during his time. How, in later times, there was a moral decline in the Buddhist monastic establishments will be seen from MattaVilasam written by Mahendra Pallava. This work shows how Buddhism came to be on the decline and demonstrates that the rise or fall of a religion is dependent on the quality and character of its spokesmen.
After the Buddha came AdiSankara to whom people were drawn for his incomparable goodness and greatness. Later appeared Ramanuja and Madhva who, in their personal lives, stood out as men of lofty character. They too were able to gather round them a large following and extend the sway of their respective systems. Recently came Gandhiji as a man of peace and sacrifice. Millions of people accepted his teachings, which indeed came to constitute religion, "Gandhism". If a system owes its growth to the excellence of the philosophical principles on which it is based, Gandhism ought to be at the peak of its glory today. But what do we see in reality? The Gandhian way of life as practiced now is all too obvious to need any comment.
The question here is not about the religions that try to draw people to themselves either through force or the lure of money. It is but natural for ignorant people to become converts to a new religion through rites like baptism after receiving various inducements and "social rewards". It was in this manner, they say, that Christianity extended its influence during times of famine. It is also said that Islam was propagated with the sword, that masses of people were forced to join it by force of arms. Here again there is proof of the fact that that the common people do not adopt a religion for the sake of any principle or out of any interest in its philosophical system. There is one matter to consider. The padres [Christian missionaries] converted mainly people living in the ceris [that is people on the outskirts of a village or town]. Their usual procedure was to tell these poor folk that they were kept suppressed in the religion of their birth and offer them inducements in the form of free education and medical treatment and the promise of a better status.
Not all, however, fell to such lures. However much they seemed to be suppressed in the religion of their birth, many of them refused to be converted, ignoring the advantages held out. Why? One reason was their good nature and the second was respect for the great men who have appeared in our religion from time to time. They told themselves: "Let us continue to remain in the religion of our forefathers, the religion that has produced so many great men."
We must not censure those who convert people to their faith. They believe that their religion represents the highest truth. That is why they practice conversion by compulsion or by placing various temptations before people belonging to other faiths. Let us take it that they try to bring others into their fold because they believe that that is the only means of a man's salvation. Let us also presume that they believe that there is nothing wrong in carrying out conversion either by force or through the offer of inducements because they think that they are doing it for the well-being of the people they seek to convert.
If religions that resort neither to force nor to money power have grown, it is solely because of the noble qualities of their teachers. Outwards guise alone is not what constitutes the qualities of the representative or the spokesman of a religion. Whatever the persuasion to which he belongs he must be utterly selfless, bear ill-will towards none, in addition to being morally blameless. He must live an austere life, and must be calm and compassionate by nature. Such a man will be able to help those who come to him by removing their shortcomings and dispelling the evil in them.
Producing men of such noble qualities from amongst us is the way to make our religion flourish. It is not necessary to carry on propaganda against other religions. The need is for representatives, for preceptors, capable of providing an example through their very life of the teachings of our religion. It is through such men that, age after age, sanatana dharma has been sustained as a living force. Hereafter too it will be through them that it will continue to remain a living force.
If a militant proselytizer appears on the scene, I shall not be able to gather a force to combat him. Nor can I spend crores and crores like those religious propagandists who build schools and hospitals to entice people into their faith. Even if I were able to do so, conversions carried out in such a manner would be neither true nor enduring. Suppose a group comes up that has more muscle and money power; it will undo my work with its superior force and greater monetary strength. We should not, therefore, depend on such outward forces to promote our religion but instead rely on our Atmic strength to raise ourselves. In this manner our religion will flourish without any need for aggressive propaganda or the offer of inducements.
At present many intellectuals abroad talk in glowing terms of Advaita, may be because of its lofty character as a philosophical system. They come to the school of Vedanta after examining it and after being inwardly convinced of its truth. But the common people need the example of a great soul, a great life [not abstract principles].
A man of peace and compassion, a man of wisdom and self-sacrifice, must arise from our midst.
For a general background, please see here