[An address delivered April 17, 1894, before the Parliament of Religions at San Francisco, CA]
Mr. Chairman, Ladies and Gentlemen: Let me read you a few verses from some of the ancient Scriptures of the world, from the old Indian books held sacred by the Brahmans of Hindostan.
"What room for doubt and what room for sorrow is there in him who knows that all spiritual beings are the same in kind and only differ from each other in degree?"
"The sun does not shine there, nor the moon and the stars, nor these lightnings, and much less this fire. When He shines, everything shines after Him; by His light all this is lighted.
Lead me from the unreal to the real!
Lead me from darkness to light!
Lead me from death to immortality!
Seeking for refuge, I go to that God who is the light of His own thoughts; He who first creates Brahman and delivers the Vedas to him; who is without parts, without actions, tranquil, without fault, the highest bridge to immortality, like a fire that has consumed its fuel." -- Mundaka Upanishad.
Such are some of the verses, out of many thousands, which are enshrined in the ancient Hindu Vedas beloved by those we have called "heathen"; those are the sentiments of the people we have called idolaters only.
As the representative of the Theosophical movement I am glad to be here, and to be assigned to speak on what are the points of agreement in all religions. I am glad because Theosophy is to be found in all religions and all sciences. We, as members of the Theosophical Society, endorse to the fullest extent those remarks of your chairman in opening, when he said, in effect, that a theology which stayed in one spot without advancing was not a true theology, but that we had advanced to where theology should include a study of man. Such a study must embrace his various religions, both dead and living. And pushing that study into those regions we must conclude that man is greatly his own revealer, has revealed religion to himself, and therefore that all religions must include and contain truth; that no one religion is entitled to a patent or exclusive claim upon truth or revelation, or is the only one that God has given to man, or the only road along which man can walk to salvation. If this be not true, then your Religious Parliament is no Parliament, but only a body of men admiring themselves and their religion. But the very existence of this Parliament proclaims the truth of what I have said, and shows the need which the Theosophical Society has for nineteen years been asserting, of a dutiful, careful, and brotherly inquiry into all the religions of the world, for the purpose of discovering what is the central truth upon which each and every religion rests, and what the original fountain from which they have come. This careful and tolerant inquiry is what we are here for today; for that the Theosophical Society stands and has stood; for toleration, for unity, for the final and irrevocable death of all dogmatism.
But if you say that religion must have been revealed, then surely God did not wait for several millions of years before giving it to those poor beings called men. He did not, surely, wait until He found one poor Semitic tribe to whom He might give it late in the life of the race? Hence He must have given it in the very beginning, and therefore all present religions must arise from one fount.
What are the great religions of the world and from whence have they come? They are Christianity, Brahmanism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Judaism, Zoroastrianism, and Mohammedanism. The first named is the youngest, with all its warring sects, with Mormonism as an offshoot and with Roman Catholicism boldly claiming sole precedence and truth.
Brahmanism is the old and hoary religion of India, a grown-up, fully-developed system long before either Buddhism or Christianity was born. It extends back to the night of time, and throws the history of religion far, far beyond any place where modern investigators were once willing to place even the beginning of religious thought. Almost the ancient of ancients, it stands in far-off India, holding its holy Vedas in its hands, calmly waiting until the newer West shall find time out of the pursuit of material wealth to examine the treasures it contains.
Buddhism, the religion of Ceylon, parts of China, of Burma and Japan and Tibet, comes after its parent Brahmanism. It is historically older than Christianity and contains the same ethics as the latter, the same laws and the same examples, similar saints and identical fables and tales relating to Lord Buddha, the Savior of Men. It embraces today, after some twenty-five hundred years of life, more people than any other religion, for two-thirds of the human family profess it.
Zoroastrianism also fades into the darkness of the past. It too teaches ethics such as we know. Much of its ritual and philosophy is not understood, but the law of brotherly love is not absent from it; it teaches justice and truth, charity and faith in God, together with immortality. In these it agrees with all, but it differs from Christianity in not admitting a vicarious salvation, which it says is not possible.
Christianity of today is modern Judaism, but the Christianity of Jesus is something different. He taught forgiveness, Moses taught retaliation, and that is the law today in Christian State and Church. "An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth" is still the recognized rule, but Jesus taught the opposite. He fully agreed with Buddha, who, preaching 500 years before the birth of the Jewish reformer, said we must love one another and forgive our enemies. So modern Christianity is not the religion of Jesus; but Buddhism and the religion of Jesus accord with one another in calling for charity, complete tolerance, perfect non-resistance, absolute self-abnegation.
If we compare Christianity, Buddhism, and Hinduism together on the points of ritual, dogmas, and doctrines, we find not only agreement but a marvellous similarity as well, which looks like an imitation on the part of the younger Christianity. Did the more modern copy the ancient? It would seem probable. And some of the early Christian Fathers were in the habit of saying, as we find in their writings, that Christianity brought nothing new into the world, that it existed from all time.
If we turn to ritual, so fully exemplified in the Roman Catholic Church, we find the same practices and even similar clothing and altar arrangements in Buddhism, while many of the prescribed rules for the altar and approaching or leaving it are mentioned very plainly in far more ancient directions governing the Brahman when acting as priest. This similarity was so wonderful in the truthful account given by the Catholic priest Abbe Huc that the alarmed Church first explained that the devil, knowing that Christianity was coming, went ahead and invented the whole thing for the Buddhists by a species of ante facto copying, so as to confound innocent Catholics therewith; and then they burned poor Abbe Huc's book. As to stations of the cross, now well known to us, or the rosary, confession, convents, and the like; all these are in the older religion. The rosary was long and anciently used in Japan, where they had over one hundred and seventy-two sorts. And an examination of the mummies of old Egypt reveals rosaries placed with them in the grave, many varieties being used. Some of these I have seen. Could we call up the shades of Babylon's priests, we should doubtless find the same rituals there.
Turning to doctrines, that of salvation by faith is well known in Christianity. It was the cause of a stormy controversy in the time of St. James. But very strangely, perhaps, for many Christians, the doctrine is a very old Brahmanical one. They call it "The Bridge Doctrine," as it is the great Bridge. But with them it does not mean a faith in some particular emanation of God, but God is its aim, God is the means and the way, and God the end of the faith; by complete faith in God, without an intermediary, God will save you. They also have a doctrine of salvation by faith in those great sons of God, Krishna, Rama, and others; complete faith in either of those is for them a way to heaven, a bridge for the crossing over all sins. Even those who were killed by Krishna, in the great war detailed in the Ramayana, went straight to heaven because they looked at him, as the thief on the cross looking at Jesus went to Paradise. In Buddhism is the same doctrine of faith. The twelve great sects of Buddhism in Japan have one called the Sect of the Pure Land. This teaches that Amitabha vowed that any one who calls three times on his name would be born into his pure Land of Bliss. He held that some men may be strong enough to prevail against the enemy, but that most men are not, and need some help from another. This help is found in the power of the vow of Amita Buddha, who will help all those who call on his name. The doctrine is a modified form of vicarious atonement, but it does not exclude the salvation by works which the Christian St. James gives out.
Heaven and Hell are also common to Christianity, Buddhism, and Brahmanism. The Brahman calls it Svarga; the Buddhist, Devachan; and we, Heaven. Its opposite is Naraka and Avichi. But names apart, the descriptions are the same. Indeed, the hells of the Buddhists are very terrible, long in duration and awful in effect. The difference is that the heaven and hell of the Christian are eternal, while the others are not. The others come to an end when the forces which cause them are exhausted. In teaching of more than one heaven there is the same likeness, for St. Paul spoke of more than a single heaven to one of which he was rapt away, and the Buddhist tells of many, each being a grade above or below some other. Brahman and Buddhist agree in saying that when heaven or hell is ended for the soul, it descends again to rebirth. And that was taught by the Jews. They held that the soul was originally pure, but sinned and had to wander through rebirth until purified and fit to return to its source.
In priesthood and priestcraft there is a perfect agreement among all religions, save that the Brahman instead of being ordained a priest is so by birth. Buddha's priesthood began with those who were his friends and disciples. After his death they met in council, and subsequently many councils were held, all being attended by priests. Similar questions arose among them as with the Christians, and identical splits occurred, so that now there are Northern and Southern Buddhism and the twelve sects of Japan. During the life of Buddha the old query of admitting women arose and caused much discussion. The power of the Brahman and Buddhist priests is considerable, and they demand as great privileges and rights as the Christian ones.
Hence we are bound to conclude that dogmatically and theologically these religions all agree. Christianity stands out, however, as peculiarly intolerant -- and in using the word "intolerant" I but quote from some priestly utterances regarding the World's Fair Parliament -- for it claims to be the only true religion that God has seen fit to reveal to man.
The great doctrine of a Savior who is the son of God -- God himself -- is not an original one with Christianity. It is the same as the extremely ancient one of the Hindus called the doctrine of the Avatara. An Avatara is one who comes down to earth to save man. He is God incarnate. Such was Krishna, and such even the Hindus admit was Buddha, for he is one of the great ten Avataras. The similarity between Krishna or Cristna and Christ has been very often remarked. He came 5,000 years ago to save and benefit man, and his birth was in India, his teaching being Brahmanical. He, like Jesus, was hated by the ruler, Kansa, who desired to destroy him in advance, and who destroyed many sons of families in order to accomplish his end, but failed. Krishna warred with the powers of darkness in his battles with Ravana, whom he finally killed. The belief about him was that he was the incarnation of God. This is in accord with the ancient doctrine that periodically the Great Being assumes the form of man for the preservation of the just, the establishment of virtue and order, and the punishment of the wicked. Millions of men and women read every day of Krishna in the Ramayana of Tulsi Das. His praises are sung each day and reiterated at their festivals. Certainly it seems rather narrow and bigoted to assume that but one tribe and one people are favored by the appearance among them of an incarnation in greater measure of God.
Jesus taught a secret doctrine to his disciples. He said to them that he taught the common people in stories of a simple sort, but that the disciples could learn of the mysteries. And in the early age of Christianity that secret teaching was known. In Buddhism is the same thing, for Buddha began with one vehicle or doctrine, proceeded after to two, and then to a third. He also taught a secret doctrine that doubtless agreed with the Brahmans who had taught him at his father's court. He gave up the world, and later gave up eternal peace in Nirvana, so that he might save men. In this the story agrees with that of Jesus. And Buddha also resisted Mara, or the Devil, in the wilderness. Jesus teaches that we must be as perfect as the Father, and that the kingdom of heaven is within each. To be perfect as the Father we must be equal with him, and hence here we have the ancient doctrine taught of old by the Brahmans that each man is God and a part of God. This supports the unity of humanity as a spiritual whole, one of the greatest doctrines of the time prior to Christianity, and now also believed in Brahmanism.
That the universe is spiritual in essence, that man is a spirit and immortal, and that man may rise to perfection, are universal doctrines. Even particular doctrines are common to all the religions. Reincarnation is not alone in Hinduism or Buddhism. It was believed by the Jews, and not only believed by Jesus but he also taught it. For he said that John the Baptist was the reincarnation of Elias "who was for to come." Being a Jew he must have had the doctrines of the Jews, and this was one of them. And in Revelation we find the writer says: "Him that overcometh I will make a pillar in the temple of my God, and he shall go no more out." [Rev. 3:12.]
The words "no more" infer a prior time of going out.
The perfectibility of man destroys the doctrine of original sin, and it was taught by Jesus, as I said. Reincarnation is a necessity for the evolution of this perfection, and through it at last are produced those Saviors of the race of whom Jesus was one. He did not deny similar privileges to others, but said to his disciples that they could do even greater works than he did. So we find these great Sages and Saviors in all religions. There are Moses and Abraham and Solomon, all Sages. And we are bound to accept the Jewish idea that Moses and the rest were the reincarnations of former persons. Moses was in their opinion Abel the son of Adam; and their Messiah was to be a reincarnation of Adam himself who had already come the second time in the person of David. We take the Messiah and trace him up to David, but refuse, improperly, to accept the remainder of their theory.
Descending to every-day-life doctrines, we find that of Karma. or that we must account and receive for every act. This is the great explainer of human life. It was taught by Jesus and Matthew and St. Paul. The latter explicitly said:
"Brethren, be not deceived; God is not mocked; for whatsoever a man soweth, that also shall he reap."
This is Karma of the Brahman and Buddhist, which teaches that each life is the outcome of a former life or lives, and that every man in his rebirths will have to account for every thought and receive measure for the measure given by him before.
In ethics all these religions are the same, and no new ethic is given by any. Jesus was the same as his predecessor Buddha, and both taught the law of love and forgiveness. A consideration of the religions of the past and today from a Theosophical standpoint will support and confirm ethics. We therefore cannot introduce a new code, but we strive by looking into all religions to find a firm basis, not due to fear, favor, or injustice, for the ethics common to all. This is what Theosophy is for and what it will do. It is the reformer of religion, the unifier of diverse systems, the restorer of justice to our theory of the universe. It is our past, our present, and our future; it is our life, our death, and our immortality.
(From The Path, July, 1894, 9:105-111.)