Swamiji did not give a set of separate opinions for each separate religion. His Master, Sri Ramakrishna, showed the harmony of all religions through his life and message for the first time in the history of the world. At least, we don’t know about any other instance before him in this regard. Swami Vivekananda was trained up by him, and the complete man that finally appeared in the form of Vivekananda was certainly his creation. So, Swamiji also looked upon all religions as true. He also knew that there are good ideas in each of them, and that the essence of all religions is the same. Sri Ramakrishna not only said so, but also practised so many religions originated in India and foreign lands in his life. He took them up one by one, practically applied their teachings in his life, and thus, like a scientist in the realm of religion, proved in the laboratory of his heart that each of them is true and ultimately leads to the same goal. He took up Islam, Christianity, and various religious paths of the so-called Hinduism for practice.
The word ‘Hinduism’ came in vogue from wrong usage. So, we don’t use this word, though some may dislike our opinion. The word, ‘Hindu’, does not appear in any of shāstras, the ancient sacred books of India. It is neither in the four Vedas, nor in the Upanishads, nor in the Rāmāyana or the Mahābhārata. It is nowhere. In later times, when the Persians came to the Indus valley from the land now called Iran, they marvelled at the art and architecture, philosophy and religion, etc. of the valley. They referred to all these by the name of the major river of the valley, Sindhu (called ‘Indus’ by the Greek). But they could not pronounce Sindhu. Persians pronounced ‘ha’ in place of Sanskrit ‘sa’. So, they pronounced Sindhu as Hindu. And thus the word came into the ordinary parlance of common people. In the beginning it meant ‘Indian’. Later it was used to refer to the traditional religious ideas and practices of India. Thus it is also confusing to use the word. So, we would shun the word altogether. Swamiji explained it in three of his lectures delivered in India. The term, ‘Hindu’, does not clearly mean anything, but people are shouting for or against Hinduism or the Hindus. That is completely ludicrous.
Now, through all those practices Sri Ramakrishna realized that there is one real thing, the Sat-vastu, in all of us, and that That can be realized through any of these religions. Sat means that which really exists. It is never born or created; it never dies or gets destroyed. It never changes. There is no trace of imperfection in It. It is variously called God, Allah, Bhagavān, etc., and That alone really exists. There were some who, through intellectual efforts, found that God, Allah or Bhagavān are similar and not antagonistic or competing ideas. But Sri Ramakrishna alone realized in his heart, by actually practising all those religions, that these are but different names for the same Truth. Swamiji preached the same truth. In a letter he explained the potential harm in using such words as Hinduism, Christianity, etc. at present, as such usage would generate communal hatred. There he said: ‘My master used to say that these names, as Hindu, Christian, etc., stand as great bars to all brotherly feelings between man and man. We must try to break them down first. They have lost all their good powers and now only stand as baneful influences under whose black magic even the best of us behave like demons.’ But we do not listen to them. We talk in terms of Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, and so on and argue for or against them. It is far better to accept one of them and actually apply its teachings in our life, so that we can rise higher and higher in life, so that we can have more and more of real wisdom. Religion, taken in this spirit, unfolds in us the higher possibilities of life, makes us great and good. That is why religion is superior to all other essential things of life and society. That is why religion is primary and all else is secondary.
Most of us have gross misconception about religion. Real religion does not stand for temples, mosques, and churches. It is not in the holy books like the Vedas, the Koran or the Bible. ‘To be good and to do good – that is the whole of religion’, Swamiji said. The word, religion, has several connotations. One is dharma. It is very important for us. It means that which holds us up and saves us from falling down. Thus the Mahābhārata says:
Dhāranāt dharmamityāhurdharmo dhārayate prajāh /
Yad-syād-dhārana-samyuktam sa dharmamiti uchyate.
So, it is not about this or that religion. Well has it been said:
Sarveshām yah suhŗnnityam sarveshām cha hite ratah /
Karmanā manasā vāchā sa dharmam veda jājale.
One who is friendly to all and always doing good to all through his thought, word, and deed knows what dharma really is. So, let us not search religion in external symbols and rituals and books and temples. These may be a little helpful for the beginners in some cases, or these may give us a sense of ethnic identity, but these are not essential parts of religion. And all dissention between religions and all fanaticism and bigotry are the outcomes of confusing these external things with real religion.
Sri Ramakrishna related a beautiful story, which is in the Mahābhārata with a little variation. We generally think that the Mahābhārata is the story of the competing cousins, Kurus and Pāndavas, and the War of Kurukshetra, while the Rāmāyana is just the story of Rāma and Sitā and the War of Lankā. We have very little opportunity to come across the essential ideas presented through these great epics. Anyway, thus the story goes: A man went into a forest for hard spiritual practices. One day, while he was meditating under a tree, a crane sitting on that tree excreted, and the extreta fell on his head. The man got very angry, and as soon as he stared at the bird, it was burnt into ashes! So, this man became very happy and boastful. He thought: See, I have gained so much of miraculous power by meditating in the forest. Now he went out for begging alms and entered a village. He came in front of a house and commanded, ‘Here is a Mahatma in front of your house. Do bring alms.’ A female voice came from inside: ‘Wait a while, please. I am busy discharging an important duty. As soon as I finish, I shall come with alms.’ The conceited hermit would not wait. He got vexed, and he asked, ‘Do you know who I am?’ The lady retorted, ‘I am not a crane!’ Now this man was taken aback: how this ordinary housewife comes to know all that had happened in the forest? He was humbled. So he waited patiently for the lady. She came out after some time and apologized for her delay, explaining that her husband was just in after the day’s hard work and that it was her duty to look after his comfort first. The hermit was amazed and he earnestly requested her to teach him true religion. But she said she was an ordinary woman and if he wanted such instructions, he should better visit a butcher at a nearby market. This man went to the butcher, who too kept him waiting for finishing his daily work, cleaning his body, and then serving his aged parents. Then he retired and taught the hermit. The two beautiful verses I quoted a little back were from these teachings of the butcher. So, that is real religion, and nothing in our life is greater than that.