Gratitude as basic Religion

I wanted to continue my look at religion, albeit from a conformist point of view, especially with regard to ecological spirituality and gratitude.

It has been argued that religion came first and then economic, political and agricultural activities, but religion is an expression of gratitude and is associated with perceived benefits. In Psalm 141:2, the singer sings, “Let my prayer be as incense before you,” which is a form of thanksgiving. In the three book religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, there are many accounts of praise and thanksgiving, and believers learn that gratitude is received by God in the way the psalm singer expressed themself, namely as a sweet smell, like that of incense or frankincense. According to the Vedanta tradition, “An acute awareness of the infinite blessings showered everywhere followed by gratitude would constitute the fundamentals of devotion.” We set aside a specific time of the day – prior to a meal, directly before morning study, etc – and spend a few minutes ‘counting our blessings.’

The fact that early humans, like some animal species, had rituals around dying and burial is considered the earliest sign of religious ideas is understandable, but this is linked to the idea of loss, just as birth can be understood as gain, which are certainly very basic sensations. The same is true for finding a source of food or water or shelter. It is quite fundamental for us to see the fulfilment of physiological needs as essential and, as Maslow hierarchy of needs shows, the safety aspect is equally important. It is therefore not surprising that gratitude should be an important aspect of religion, especially considering the awe-inspiring majesty of the night sky.

So, the question arises: for what were they grateful? Essentially, I would say they were grateful for the fact that the seasons are ordered and that if they take advantage of what they observe in nature, they can bring in a rich harvest. It isn’t hard to imagine people adding 1 and 1 together and asking why this is so. The traditional assumption that the idea of gods arose through experiences like lightening and thunder seems so primitive to me in comparison to the progress of understanding that nature has laws that help human beings to provide themselves with what they needed. Today the intelligent design theory is ridiculed, however a real empirical experience is that we are so much a part of our environment, that all our needs are satisfied by it – and perhaps more than we currently know.

It seems to be a sign of our civilization that mockery is considered a sign of superiority, while all the great traditions of the world have praised the child’s wonder at everything he discovers. Buddhism, for example, praises the beginner’s mind and advises us to be inspired by children. For a child, almost everything is new, and he approaches these situations with wonder. It is not surprising, then, that the term “primitive” is used pejoratively today, but the fact is that primitive peoples had to discover or master much of what we take for granted by inventing tools that have long been part of our heritage. The fact that religious scriptures use antiquated descriptions and explanations for what they discovered is really a sign of intelligence, and an indication of how imaginative they could be. What they had, and what we lack, is a sense of gratitude.

In the growing climate crisis, which will not go away and isn’t less of a crisis if people believe that humankind didn’t contribute to it, we will see how developed we are, and how our civilisation is equipped to cope with failing harvests and widespread famine. There has been a concern for some time that our supply structures are stretched, and our ability to react to local disasters that involve our food chain isn’t certain. Just-in-time policies mean that we are already struggling due to the conflict in the Ukraine, and the world is reliant upon a few suppliers who dominate the market. The rice-market was destroyed by globalisation, so that those fields that could have supplied rice in an emergency are no longer used, and the generations who had the expertise are dying off.

It is a sign that the ancient message of some religious traditions that it is our destiny “to eat our food by the sweat of our brow until we return to the earth” may contain an uncomfortable truth. Industrialization and the “rural exodus,” i.e., the migration of many people from the countryside to the cities in search of work, have taken us out of the natural order, which we assumed was a sign of our resourcefulness. But it has had several effects, including a lack of identification with nature and a loss of understanding of how much we depend on the health of the soil beneath our feet and the water in our rivers. Our environments are often so covered by tar, stone, and cement, that we have no idea what is under our feet. We inadvertently burn our woods and grasslands with disposable grills in summer – especially when we have a heat wave like at present – and are oblivious to the death of wildlife, insects and organisms that we need to live, let alone the damage to the environment.

 I believe that religion has, in the first place, to do with environment awareness and gratitude. The “grace” prayer before meals is an exercise in becoming aware of what we have, and that we are somehow dependent, which is looked down upon by people who aspire to be independent. That is a prime motivation for rejecting religion, although there are good reasons for criticism of religious institutions and dogmatism. If we could return to this “primitive” aspect of religion, which is virtually saying, “I don’t know who I have to thank for my life, or what I eat, drink, for my clothes, for the house I live in, but I want to express my thanks,” we might come to appreciate the planet we live on, and how important it is to work to keep it healthy.

It could lead us to an awareness of how everything holds together as a unity of life in the midst of this vast universe and help us overcome the difficulties we face. One aspect of these difficulties is the extreme narcissistic greed that comes out when our role on the planet as seen by traditional religions is proposed. Religion has always pointed to the special role we have as stewards and caretakers, even if less has been made of it and the resulting religious dogma seems to be more about elitism and exclusivism than integration. Looking at the large cool buildings from centuries past that have served as churches, there is a sense that they have been misused as sites of bigotry and chauvinism rather than as places where people can find healing and refuge. I attribute this to alienation from the environment and estrangement from the natural order of things.

That is why I believe that religion must be deeply concerned with the environment, and not as a separate entity, but as an extension of who we are. Alan Watts famously said that we don’t come into, but “out of the world.” We are a kind of fruit of the world, which was picked up in the New Testament, when Jesus was described as the first fruits of the harvest. Of course, we are talking about metaphors, objects, activities, or ideas that are used as symbols of something else, which in our case is non-graspable. That is the language of religion, and there have been people of science trying to allude to that underlying reality, to break through the metaphor, and present us with new metaphors – because we can’t do without.

They point to consciousness, not merely personal but universal, as a ground of being out of which everything transpires. “Inspired by Indian philosophy, [quantum physicist Erwin] Schrödinger had a mind-first, not matter-first, view of the universe. But he was a non-materialist of a rather special kind. He believed that there is only one mind in the universe; our individual minds are like the scattered light from prisms.”[i]

Abhinavagupta, one of the greatest Indian philosophers, mystics and aesthetes is reported to have said, “Absolute consciousness is manifest here in every circumstance of daily life because it is everywhere full and perfect. Consciousness is said to be the cause of all things because it is everywhere emergent as each manifest entity.”

Alan Watts was the opinion that we don’t appreciate these ancient insights because, “We are living in a culture entirely hypnotized by the illusion of time, in which the so-called present moment is felt as nothing but an infinitesimal hairline between a causative past and an absorbingly important future. We have no present. Our consciousness is almost completely preoccupied with memory and expectation. We do not realize that there never was, is, nor will be any other experience than present experience. We are therefore out of touch with reality.”

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin a French Jesuit, paleontologist, anthropologist and philosopher, said “There is almost a sensual longing for communion with others who have a large vision. The immense fulfilment of the friendship between those engaged in furthering the evolution of consciousness has a quality impossible to describe.”

Finally, there are grand similarities in religions that are often overlooked.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…. And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.

“The Logos, the “only begotten of the Father,” was “made flesh” in Jesus Christ. In the Vedas (most ancient of the world’s scriptures) we find passages which are almost identical with the opening sentence of the Gospel according to St. John, “In the beginning was the Lord of Creatures; second to him was the Word.” “The Word was verily Brahman.” According to the Hindus, Brahman conditioned by maya, his creative power (which is the basis of mind and matter), is first manifested as the eternal undifferentiated Word, out of which the concrete sensible world then evolves. To the Hindus, therefore, the Word is incarnated in all beings, each of whom may directly realize God through the divine power of the Word. But like St. John, Hindus believe that in a special sense the Logos is made flesh in the avatar-the avatar being the descent of God, whereas the ordinary man ascends towards God.

There is this important difference between the Hindu and Christian concepts of divine incarnation: Christians believe in a unique historical event, that God was made flesh once and for all time in Jesus of Nazareth. Hindus, on the other hand, believe that God descends as man many times, in different ages and forms.”

Swami Prabhavananda. Sermon on the Mount According to Vedanta


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