|Universal Religion (1870)
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Delivered July 20th, 1870.:
Speech delivered at Freemasons’ Hall, Great Queen Street, London, in a meeting held to constitute a Theistic Association in London.
(Source: The speech was published with the title Theistic Association in The Brahmo Samaj: Keshub Chunder Sen in England by Brahmo Tract Society, 78 Upper Circular Road, Kolkata in 1915.)
Sir, - I have always felt strongly the importance and necessity of establishing spiritual fellowship and union among all classes and races of men. That there should be political and social difference among mankind is not at all surprising; but that men and women should fight with each other in the name of religion and God is really painful and surprising. The true object of religion is to bind mankind together, and to bind them all to God. If we see that in the name of religion, men, instead of promoting peace on earth and good-will among men, are trying to show their antagonism and animosity towards each other, then certainly we must stand forward with our voice of protest, and say that religion is defeating its own legitimate object.
I have always been distressed to find in my own country how many of the Hindu sects in India fight with each other, and how they combine to war with Mahometans and Christians, whom they look upon and hate as their enemies. It is far more painful to see how that spirit of bitterness and sectarian antipathy has been persistently manifested towards Hindus by many professing Christians. None preached so eloquently and so ably the doctrine of true love of God and the love of man as Jesus Christ. It is, therefore, extremely unpleasant to us to see those who profess to be his disciples hate the Hindu as a heathen who has no hope of salvation, and who has not one single spark of truth in his own mind. Narrowness of mind has oftentimes its origin in narrowness of creed. Men hate each other, men contaminate their hearts with sectarian bitterness, because they believe that there is no truth beyond the pales of their own denominations and churches. This is a fatal mistake, and to this may be attributed all those feelings of bitterness and mutual recrimination which has converted the religious world into a painful scene of war and even bloodshed.
Religion is essentially universal. If God is our common Father, His truth is our common property. But the religious world may be likened to a vast market, where every religious sect sells only a portion of truth. Religion is many-sided; but each individual, each nation, oftentimes adopts and represents only one side of religion. In different times and in different countries, therefore, we see not the entire religious life of humanity, but only partial religious life. The Hindu represents religion in his own peculiar way; the Christian in his. The men of the first century represented religion in their own way, according to the circumstances in which they lived; and so the men who are obsessed with modern civilisation represent religious life in their own way.
If we desire to adopt religious life in its entirety and fullness, we must not, we cannot, reject or ignore any particular nation or any branch of God’s vast family. If we embrace all nations and races; if we can take in all religious scriptures, all so-called sacred writings; if we are prepared to do honour to all prophets and the great men of all nations and races; then certainly, but not till then, can we do justice to universal and absolute religion as it exists in God.
To prove true to Him, to prove true to humanity, we must do justice to all the departments of man’s religious life as they are manifested in different ages and different parts of the world. The English Christian has no right to hate the Hindu ‘heathen’; nor has the Hindu heathen any right to hate treat the English Christian with sectarian antagonism and hatred. They must embrace each other in the fullness of truth and in the fullness of brotherly love.
I rejoice heartily to see such a thing foreshadowed in the constitution of the Society about to be organised. I feel that modern nations and races are getting their eyes opened to the catholicity of true religion, after centuries of spiritual despotism and sectarian warfare. Men are beginning to feel that in order to be true to nature and true to God, they must cast away sectarianism, and protest against spiritual tyranny, and kiss freedom and peace.
The object of this resolution is to bring together religious men in India, America, Germany, France, and in other parts of the world, into one monotheistic brotherhood, so that they may all recognise, love, and worship God as their common Father. The time has come when such a movement ought to be practically organised, when all nations and races should be brought together into one fold. English Christians ought to extend their right hand of fellowship to my countrymen, and my countrymen should extend their right hand of fellowship to all those who stand beyond the pales of Hindu orthodoxy; so that, while they differ from each other on certain dogmatic questions of theology, they may still recognise each other as brethren, and show their preparedness to vindicate the unity of the human race in the face of the existing conflict of theological opinions and dogmas.
It is impossible to establish unanimity of opinion among mankind, and those who have tried to bring about such unanimity have always failed. I hope, therefore, the friends and promoters of this movement will not commit that great mistake. Let individual liberty be recognised: let individual rights be fully vindicated and respected; but still at the same time , while we recognise differences of opinion, let us feel, and let us declare, that it is possible to have a common platform of action, where we can exchange our sympathies with each other as brethren.
There is another mistake which I hope this society will not commit, and that is, to assume an arrogant and hostile attitude towards existing sects. We should always assume a humble position. We must stand at the feet of all those who have gone before us, who have left for our enjoyment precious legacies of religious life and religious thought. All honour to such men. Hindus, Christians, Chinese, Buddhists, Greeks and Romans – men of all nations and races – men of all ages – who have in any way laboured successfully to promote the religious and moral and social amelioration of mankind are entitled to the undying gratitude of all succeeding ages. In organising a Society like that whose formation we contemplate at present, we feel morally constrained to honour those spiritual and moral benefactors to whom we owe “a debt of immense and endless gratitude.” At their feet we sit today, and to them we desire to offer our hearts’ thanksgivings, and we desire to recognise them individually and unitedly, as our friends and brothers, who have directly on indirectly brought us into that position, in which we feel enabled to organise a Society like this. It is on account of the light which we received from them through succeeding generations that we are prepared to come forward to-night and stand before the world as a Theistic brotherhood. We cannot dishonour them; though they belong to different nationalities, though they may be of different times and races, we cannot for one moment dishonour them.
We cannot with pride and arrogance say we do not owe anything to the Christian Scriptures, we owe nothing to the Hindu Scriptures, we owe nothing to Confucius. We owe much to all these sources of religious revelation and inspiration. Our attitude, therefore, must be an attitude of humility towards those who have gone before, an attitude of thankful recognition: and towards existing churches also we must assume the same attitude.
If there are friends around us who think it is their duty to criticize severely our proceedings, to hold us up to public derision and contempt, they are quite welcome to do so; but let us not, as members of this Society, for one moment cherish in our hearts unbrotherly feelings against them. Our mission is a mission of love, and good-will and peace. We do not stand forward to fan the flame of religious animosity, but our desire is to extinguish the flame of sectarian antipathy, so far as it is possible for us to do so. We go forth as ministers of peace; we shall love all sects. Christians and Hindus we shall look upon as brothers, as children of the same Father. Their books we shall read with profound reverence; their priests we shall honour with thanksgivings; and to all those around us who desire to treat us as men who have no hope of salvation, even to them we must show charity and brotherly love. I hope, therefore, not a single member of this Society will ever think it right or honourable to manifest a bitter spirit of sectarianism towards any religious denomination.
There are in England at present, I understand, three hundred religious sects into which the Christian church has been divided. That such a thing should exist in the midst of Christendom is indeed painful, I may say frightful. Let us do all in our power to bring together these various religious denominations. I do not see why we should not exercise our influence on Christian ministers to exchange pulpits with each other. Why should not the people of one congregation visit the church of another congregation? Why should not the various preaches of Christian Churches try to harmonize with each other?
Christian people sometimes go the length of thinking that the whole of religious life is monopolized by themselves. During my short stay in this country I have been struck with the fact that English Christian life, however grand and glorious it may be – and it certainly is so in many of its aspects and features – is sadly deficient in devotional fervour and enthusiasm; deficient in feelings such as those which a deep and trustful reliance upon a personal and loving God alone can inspire, support, and sustain. Something like that is to be found in India. I do honestly believe that in India there is such a thing as spirituality. If England and India were to unite and receive from each other the good things that they ought to receive from each other, we should be able to form a true Church, where the spiritual fervour and the activity of material civilization would harmonize, and form the unity of religious life. Whether, therefore, we come to England, America, Germany or France, or any other country where similar religious movements are going on, we ask them to cooperate with us; we ask the whole world to treat us a fellow-disciples, to give unto us all the good things they possess and enjoy for our benefit, that we may thus collect materials from all existing churches and religious denominations, in order in the fullness of time, to construct and uprear the future Church of the world.
I have always been an advocate of the glorious principle of religion which is summed up in these two great doctrines, the Fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man: and so long as I am enabled to work, whether in my own country or elsewhere, it shall be my duty to speak, and feel, and labour in such a way that not only my own countrymen may, under the guidance of God’s spirit and with God’s help, be brought into one fold, but all nations and races, so far as is possible with my humble resources and powers, may be influenced to feel the necessity of forming themselves into one vast family. Oh! May that blessed day come soon when on earth, untrod by sect or creed, or clan, shall own the two great principles – the universal Fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man!
I beg to propose this resolution to the meeting:- “That in the opinion of this meeting it is desirable that the Society should correspond without any delay with similar societies in India, America, Germany, France, and elsewhere, assuring them of our sympathy and friendship.”
This work published before January 1, 1923 is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.