Does Religion Cause War? (Article)
Many people feel that the world would be better off without religion. We can understand their sentiments when we consider that modern times have seen large-scale violence in the name of religion. But is religion the only cause of violence? If it were, then parts of the world dominated by atheistic views should have been absolutely peaceful. But history shows that violence has touched all parts of the world more or less equally, independent of the theological beliefs of the people. In fact, most of the wars throughout history, including World Wars I and II, were fought for purely secular political, economic, or ideological reasons; religion was not an issue at all.
Not only that, more human beings were persecuted, murdered, tortured and dehumanized as a direct result of atheistic Marxism in the twentieth century alone than have been harmed in all of the world’s religious wars combined since the very beginning of human history. Whenever wars were fought in the name of religion, the real issue was the same: the increase of wealth and power. Religion was just a convenient scapegoat for the powers that be to mask their grossly materialistic motives. And even such “religious” violence has been only a tiny fraction of the secular violence witnessed by the world in recent times.
Is Religion Dispensable?
The protest that religion leads to violence implies that religion is bad and should be rejected. But can the human being do without religion? The universally accepted goal of life is the quest for
happiness. When man neglects or rejects religion, consciously or unconsciously his conception of his own self becomes “a lump of chemicals that has by chance come alive.” The quest for happiness then degenerates into a savage struggle for carnal enjoyment. Wealth, wine, and women become the only goals of life. Such a conception of life is individually frustrating and globally disastrous. The fundamental need of the individual is love; everyone wants to love and be loved. But in the material conception of life there can be no such thing as real love. People put up a façade of love for another person as long as they get sensual pleasure in return. When that stops, they dispose of their object of “love” just as fast as they would dump a broken TV. In their heart of hearts, people know that no one loves them, no one cares for them. Naturally they feel lonely, rejected, insecure, and frustrated. These feelings are the root of stress, depression, addictions, delinquency, hypertension, criminality, and even suicide. Studies in psychology have confirmed that there is no better insurance against self-destructive behavior (including drinking, substance abuse, and suicide) than strong religious faith. At a global level the rejection of religion leads to a setting wherein love, ethics, morality, and selflessness become meaningless. Although the anti-religionist may feebly urge the masses to “be good,” such an appeal has no substance. “If the goal of life is to enjoy and I’m here for who knows how long and there is no life after death, then why wait? I should just enjoy. Beg, borrow, steal, or even kill, but enjoy.” By making religion dispensable, we court global disaster.
The Vedic Definition of Religion
What is this mysterious phenomenon known as religion–a phenomenon that causes millions of people to congregate annually at Jagannatha Puri, Tirupati, Badrinath, Mecca, and the Vatican, braving the weather, the crowds, and all the other troubles of a pilgrimage? The Vedic texts of ancient India give an understanding of religion quite different from the common understanding. (To avoid the negative connotations the word religion inevitably brings, I’ll use the word spirituality to designate the Vedic understanding of what is commonly called religion. I’ll discuss the difference between the two terms later.)
According to the Vedic texts, spirituality imparts the vision to see the cosmos in the proper perspective and to live in harmony with it. The basic teaching of the Vedic texts is that the cosmos is not just matter; it has a spiritual dimension. The Bhagavad-gita (13.27) states,
“Know that whatever you see in existence, both the moving and the nonmoving, is only a combination of the field of activities [matter] and the knower of the field [spirit].” Modern scientific research in fields such as past-life memories, near-death experiences (NDEs), and consciousness studies also strongly suggests a spiritual part of our being that continues to exist even after bodily death. The Vedic texts explain that our real self is not material; a spiritual particle called the atma, the soul, animates our material body. The supreme spiritual being who animates the entire cosmos is called the Paramatma, or the Supersoul. And the relationship between the two –the soul and the Supersoul–is loving service, like the relationship between a parent and a child. This loving relationship exists eternally in the highest realm, called the spiritual world. The soul’s refusal to harmonize with the will of the Supreme temporarily obscures the relationship. The soul is then placed in the realm of matter, where we all now reside.
The Vedic texts further explain that genuine spirituality is meant to awaken us to our original spiritual identity through a harmony of philosophy and religion, the two rails on which spirituality runs. The philosophical aspect of spirituality involves the study and understanding of matter, spirit, and the controller of both–the Supreme Lord. And the religious aspect involves following rules and regulations that bring about realization and experience of the spiritual realm (This definition of spirituality and the approach of modern science are strikingly similar, as explained in the article The Respirtualization of Science).
The genuine spiritualist, by dint of systematic practice of both philosophy and religion, understands the nature of the cosmos and learns to live in harmony with it. Having realized his own identity as an eternal spiritual being and his loving relationship with the Supreme Being, a mature spiritual scientist sees all living beings as his brothers. His vision of universal brotherhood leads him to spontaneous, selfless, and holistic service to all living beings. About such a spiritual welfare activist, the ˆsopanisad (Mantra 2) states, “One may aspire to live for hundreds of years if he
continuously goes on working in that way, for that work will not bind him to the law of karma. There is no alternative to this way for man.” Thus genuine spirituality, far from being the cause of violence, is the source of harmony–within and without. A true spiritualist is self-satisfied and helps others become self-satisfied. There is no question of violence in a society of self-satisfied persons.
The Real Cause of Violence
What then, from the Vedic perspective, is the cause of violence?
Imbalance occurs in the cosmic order when humankind lives in disharmony with either of the energies of the cosmos. When the material concept of life prevails over the spiritual, dharmasya glanih, the decline of spirituality, results. Spirituality may decline when one neglects its religious aspect, its philosophical aspect, or both. Srila Prabhupada remarks, “Religion without philosophy is sentiment, or sometimes fanaticism, while philosophy without religion is mental speculation.” And the absence of both religion and philosophy marks the degeneration of the human species to the animal platform.
When humanity degenerates to the animal platform, the law of the jungle–survival of the fittest–prevails. And just as peace is impossible in a jungle, peace remains a utopian dream in the concrete jungles of today, despite all sorts of “landmark summit meetings.” Therefore violence is caused not by spirituality but by the perversion of spirituality, which has divested the human being of his humanity. So the way to restore peace is not by rejecting spirituality but by reforming it. This will pave the way for humanity to once again develop human qualities such as love, contentment, continence, selflessness, and humility, which alone can engender lasting peace. We can compare the defects that have crept into spirituality to a cataract in the eye. To cure the eye, we must remove the cataract, not pluck out the eye. Similarly, we have to arrest the decline in spirituality, not reject spirituality itself. Just as plucking out the eye causes blindness, rejecting spirituality will rob humanity of the precious eyes of divine wisdom, resulting in disharmony and disaster. The spiraling rates of crime and violence all over the globe give us a glimpse of the anarchy in store if humanity continues to neglect spirituality.
Correcting the Iron-Age Chaos
When cosmic disorder occurs, the Supreme Being descends to the material realm to reestablish spirituality, by which humankind can once again learn to live in harmony with the cosmos.
In the present age, dharmasya glanih prevails, since all the aspirations and achievements of most of humankind are within the realm of matter. Most people have no interest in philosophy. And those with some interest pursue it mainly as a means to an academic career or for intellectual growth and not as a zealous search for the Truth. Unable to understand the truths of the cosmos, they mislead others. Similarly, most people are not religiously inclined. The somewhat religious are mostly ritualistic and mechanical in their religious practices; they have little scientific understanding of what they are doing or why. People often claim to be fighting to protect their religion, but if questioned they don’t even know its fundamental tenets. And even if they know them, they’re not interested in following them. Such pseudo religionists are interested only in their own profit and use religion as a tool to promote it. Thus the present age of iron is characterized by an almost total decline in spirituality or a perversion of it. To correct the enormous disorder prevalent in the modern times, the Supreme Being descends in a form that transcends all restrictions of time and space. He descends in His holy names, which always stay with us, irrespective of time, place, and circumstance. That is why we see that the major religions of the world enjoin their followers to chant the holy names of God. Chanting is the universal religion for the current age. And among the innumerable names of God, the Vedic scriptures assert that the most potent is the maha-mantra, “the great chant for deliverance”: Hare Krsna, Hare Krsna, Krsna Krsna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare.
The Supreme Being has also given a concise yet complete manual for the present age in the form of the Bhagavad-gita, the essence of Vedic wisdom. It is the ideal textbook for the aspiring spiritual scientist. About the Bhagavad-gita, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “I owed a magnificent day to the Bhagavad-gita. It was the first of books; it was as if an empire spoke to us, nothing small or unworthy, but large, serene, consistent, the voice of an old intelligence which in another age and climate had pondered and thus disposed of the same questions which exercise us.”
A Call to the Youth of India
Eminent thinkers throughout the world, including leading scientists such as Nobel Laureate Richard R. Ernst, peace workers such as Nobel Laureates Oscar Arias Sanchez and Betty Williams, and spiritualists such as Nobel Laureate the Dalai Lama, firmly believe that only a synthesis of science and spirituality can lead the world out of the present troubled times.
The youth of India have a unique position in the world. By virtue of birth in the holy land of India, they inherit the priceless wealth of spiritual knowledge expounded in the Vedic texts. And by virtue of their education and training, they have developed the scientific spirit of rational inquiry. Thus they are best suited to bring about the much-needed synthesis of science and spirituality that thinkers all over the world are searching for. The late Professor Arthur Ellison, a mechanical and electrical engineer, stated, “Surely the great and unique contribution that India has made and must continue to make to the world’s progress is in the field of religion–of truth and reality…. India can most certainly help the West to find the spiritual way back towards reality, which is essential for all real progress.” Unfortunately, most young Indians today are enamored by the razzle-dazzle of Western culture–blue jeans, supermarkets, Big Macs, Disney “fun,” rock music, Hollywood movies, and the like. But before embracing Western culture, wouldn’t it be worthwhile to study the condition of those who have lived with it their whole lives? Statistics show that in the U.S.A. a thousand teenagers attempt suicide every day. Seventy percent of all high-school seniors have attempted or seriously thought about suicide. Thirty-three percent of American adults have serious mental health problems. Psychiatry and psychology are the most lucrative professions in America, and among all professionals, the highest suicide rate is found among psychiatrists and psychologists. Yet for most Indians, America is the land of their dreams. Srila Prabhupada would lament that modern Indians are sitting on jewels and begging for broken glass. Let the intelligent youth of India become selfless spiritual scientists dedicated to saving the world from its suicidal course. Let them, in the true spirit of science, study the theory of spirituality with all seriousness and at the same time perform the experiment of mantra meditation. Those who take up this challenge will become living spiritual scientists and will help usher in an era of peace, harmony, and understanding.