December 2006 Newsletter
The following articles are reproduced from the December 2006 Newsletter to members. Non-members may or may not be able to relate to the contents.
The Essential Conversion
By Radha Burnier
Reprinted from On the Watch-Tower in the November 2006 edition of The Theosophist
With time, all religions degenerate. The original profound teaching given by an envoy of the great Brotherhood of Sages and Holy Ones who guide human destiny is turned into a conventional religion and used to promote superstitious customs and creeds and maintain the authority of clergymen. In this process, the essential meaning of such concepts as conversion has been suppressed and made into a tool of politics and religious fanaticism.
Brutal conflicts between religions arise owing to misinterpretation of the significance of conversion. People are forced to transfer their allegiance from one religion to another by conquest, coercion, bribes and other inducements. Relatively rarely do religious conversions take place voluntarily due to conviction or liking for a particular presentation of religious doctrines and guidelines for spiritual living. The fanatics not only try to convert others but oppose the possibility of voluntary conversion, thus denying personal freedom to individuals either to stay in a religion or choose another.
In India, centuries ago, large numbers of people were converted by Muslim invaders either by compelling them to pay special taxes or by instilling fear. Later, missionaries converted poor people of low caste to Christianity by promising financial rewards and escape from the indignities of an oppressive caste system. In these cases, there was no real change of heart or understanding of the teachings of the newly acquired faith.
Much light on what is conversion is thrown by a publication brought out early in the twentieth century by the Theosophical Publishing House, Adyar, and recently reprinted. It is an English translation of extracts from letters written in Persian by a Sufi teacher who lived in the latter part of the fourteenth century in North-East India. Annie Besant recommended these letters by Shaikh Sharfuddin Maneri, saying: ‘They are penetrated through and through with the theosophic spirit — the same in every age — and all who read their practical directions, their pregnant hints, their wise sayings, will feel that they are in the presence of a Teacher who has himself learned the Supreme Wisdom.’
In a short section of this publication, Shaikh Sharfuddin points out that conversion, or taubūh in Persian, literally means ‘turning back’. This seems to correspond very much to the Hindu concept of nivrtti, or the Path of Return, signifying a turning back from worldliness and materialism (pravrtti), towards the Eternal and Imperishable Source of all existence. Similar also is the content of the Christian parable of the Prodigal Son, who after many wanderings returns to his Father’s home.
Turning back towards the Divine takes different forms and occurs at different levels, according to the conditions of the pilgrims who undertake to tread the hard ‘uphill’ way. Here we are reminded of the Hindu concept of levels of worthiness (adhikāri-bheda). Some start the journey out of fear of the afterlife consequences of their own misdeeds or sins, committed wilfully or in a state of avidyā or foolishness. They perform formal religious acts, but the spiritual life does not begin by simply muttering prayers, attending church, mosque or temple; or when fear of what may happen in the afterlife induces a person to adopt external symbols such as a religious robe or shaven head.
The real pilgrim turns away internally from all worldly objects and the satisfactions of this and other worlds, realizing their insignificance and transient nature. Such turning away from the innumerable illusions in the worlds of māyā may take many incarnations. Steadfastness is difficult to achieve in the early stages, and the words of an Islamic saint are quoted in our text: ‘I turned back seventy times and failed each time; but my seventy-first turning proved steady and I failed no more.’ We are reminded here of the advice given by a Mahatma to Col. Olcott: ‘Try, try —try!’.
An illuminating statement in this text on authentic conversion points out that ordinary people turn away from sins, but the Elect turn away from heedlessness. The pursuit of pleasure and satisfactions of a material, emotional, or intellectual kind is a state of forgetfulness of the direction that the human being needs to take for the unfoldment of spiritual knowledge and virtue. All sinful acts are the result of the veiling of perceptive powers by contact with matter, which makes objects and events glitter and appear attractive for a time. Heedfulness is the kind of attention that shatters the illusion and shows that appearance is not reality. The Dhammapada has a whole chapter on the subject of heedlessness and mindfulness. The acquisition of right memory is of crucial importance, as it guides the pilgrim to choose the right direction, right memory being recollection, however dim, of the Source, the Father’s home.
Two views are mentioned in regard to taubāh, the only conversion of significance: one speaks of remembrance of past transgressions and repentance; the other advocates expunging from the heart every impress of the past until it is absolutely pure, as if no transgression ever took place. The consciousness of such a pilgrim spiritually refreshes itself all the time and nothing of the past touches it any longer.
After long slavery to the illusory attractions in the material worlds, a person must be resolute in order to make a right-about turn. In the article of Mr Ricardo Lindemann printed in the present issue, he argues that no one’s destiny is completely predetermined. Effects are, of course, the products of causes — which is the gist of karmic law. But before the causes turn into effects, other forces flowing in could alter the course of a person’s life. In the case of twins growing up in similar circumstances, if one of them exercises the will to act in a particular manner, the external circumstances no longer remain parallel. Initiative is always the individual’s prerogative, and though the spiritual path is uphill, the pilgrim with strong resolve steadily overcomes the obstacles that beset his path.
Human life is turbulent because only at this evolutionary stage can the ‘animal-man’ be destroyed by the divine man. Conversion is hence an abdication of our irrational, sinful, and disorderly tendencies, permitting growth as selfless, altruistic, holy persons. The Sufi text says: ‘When the disciple turns from his nature he becomes another, that is, he does not become another man, but his qualities change.’ Then peace, faith, and clear moral direction (imān) unfold, which ‘sweeps away many-ness and leads to unity’. The question is asked: ‘So long as thou dost not become a Muslim from within, how canst thou be a Muslim merely from without?’ The same applies to Christian or Jew, Hindu or Buddhist. True conversion is a transformation that takes place in consciousness; it is not just baptism or any other external act. Conventional faith and lip-service are compared to the lame ass.
The path of return demands of the pilgrim that he should journey on it with no motive, no asking, no desire for reward. As Light on the Path says:
Learn now that there is no cure for desire, no cure for the love of reward, no cure for the misery of longing, save in the fixing of the sight and hearing upon that which is invisible and soundless.... Live in the Eternal.
Diplomas of Fellowship
During our Foundation Day celebration, Diplomas of Fellowship were presented to members who joined the Theosophical Society in the year. Unfortunately, many were not present to receive their diplomas personally. We shall hold the unpresented diplomas in the lodge for two months. During this time, please collect your diploma from the Hon. Secretary when you come to the lodge. We look forward to seeing you at the lodge soon.