One of the unique teachings of Sri Ramakrishna, Sri Sarada Devi, and Swami Vivekananda is their emphasis on the practice of religion. They stressed on experiencing religion. Religion was not to be seen as a mere web of theories, doctrines, and philosophies, but religion had to be made palpable, living, and dynamic in every aspect of human life. This, according to these spiritual luminaries, is true religion. Religion has to become meaningful by giving meaning to every human activity and also every human inactivity. Religion was not to be compartmentalised into certain times of one’s life but it had to be interspersed with one’s entire life. Seen from this angle, one could ask an important question: ‘Is it possible to live without religion?’
The Hindu Puranas talk about the story of Jaya and Vijaya, the gatekeepers of Lord Vishnu who were cursed by the four Kumaras—Sanaka, Sanandana, Sanatana, and Sanatkumara, mind-born sons of God Brahma, to take birth in the mortal world. They were given the choice of being born as devotees of the Lord for seven lifetimes or being born as haters or enemies of the Lord for three lifetimes. They opted for being born as haters of the Lord as they could not even think of spending seven lifetimes separate from their beloved Lord. As a result, they were born first as Hiranyakashipu and Hiranyaksha. Hiranyaksha was killed by the incarnation of Lord Vishnu as Varaha, a boar. Hiranyakashipu was killed by another incarnation of Lord Vishnu, as Narasimha, a man-lion. In the second birth, Jaya and Vijaya were born as Ravana and Kumbhakarna and were killed by the incarnation of Lord Vishnu as Ramachandra. In their third and last birth, they were born as Shishupala and Dantavakra and were killed by the incarnation of Lord Vishnu as Krishna. Finally, they returned to the abode of Lord Vishnu as the gatekeepers.
It is notable that as the haters of Lord Vishnu in three births, Jaya-Vijaya remembered and took the name of the Lord, probably more than most devotees of their time. They hated the Lord in their cursed lifetimes and were thus obsessed with the Lord. By saying emphatically and repeatedly that they would not take the name of the Lord, they were doing exactly what they said they would not, in a negative and a more intense manner. The moral of this story is that an atheist has to and ends up thinking of God more than a devotee could ever imagine! How does this happen?
Belief in God is taken for granted in human societies across the world. If a person says that she or he believes in God, that is not news really. One could believe in God in a manner that is not traditional or conventional. One could have a path-breaking path leading to God. That would be breaking news. However, the novelty would wear away soon. Hence, a believer of God, no matter how different the path of belief be, is not or does not have to constantly think of God because society naturally and automatically accepts a believer of God. An agnostic or atheist, on the other hand, has to constantly defend or justify one’s position as a non-believer and has to constantly think of why God does not exist. In the end, the atheists and agnostics end up doing exactly what Jaya-Vijaya did. This means that the human condition or human existence cannot do without thinking about the Divine and one’s connection with the Divine.
In matters concerning God, we could make three broad classes among the human beings: those who are always thinking of God as believers, those who passively believe in God, and those who are always thinking of God as non-believers. As Swami Vivekananda pointed out, those who passively believe in God are hypocrites. And this section comprises most of the human population. The active believers and active non-believers are essentially those who engage with God, and that is what really matters, engagement with God.
In spite of the great leaps of intellectual excellence that humans have achieved, we have not been able to explain even some ordinary dimensions of human experience. The gap between artificial intelligence and human intelligence has not yet been filled. The proper question that we need to ask is whether this gap can ever be filled and also whether this gap is only of intelligence. The human being is intricately connected to the Divine. The farthest stretches of human intelligence cannot grasp even the closest observations of human experience. We, humans, do experience many things that defy explanation and go beyond the limits of intellect.
Returning to the emphasis of Sri Ramakrishna, Sri Sarada Devi, and Swami Vivekananda on the experience of religion. As the fact of death can be best understood only by witnessing death, likewise, religion can be understood only by experiencing it. We could extend this idea and say that religion is based on experience because we are all, in one way or the other, already experiencing religion. We only need to give our attention to this experience and identify it as an experience of Divinity. Denying God would be illogical because it would deny the innumerable instances of religious experience, many of which are inexplicable by the intellect or by the sciences created by the human intellect. When one experiences a state of being free from the body and the mind, it is impossible for that person to deny religion, spirituality, or God. With such an experience one questions the very nature of the human condition. One questions whether the human condition is centred around the body and the mind.
This means that all paths of believing God and also all paths of not believing God actually engage with God. When a person says that she or he is a spiritual-but-not-religious person, that person is just stating her or his affiliation to a different religious path. Similarly, when a person says that she or he is an agnostic or atheist, that person is only saying that she or he likes to engage with God as an agnostic or atheist. In fact, many agnostics and atheists spend their entire lives almost making a living by denying God, by getting paid for giving talks and writing books on the non-existence of God. They effectively take the Jaya-Vijaya route to moksha. Both the here and the hereafter of these agnostics and atheists are taken care of by their engagement with God. One could see God having the last laugh here.