There was a posting in a mailing list about visits to holy places and holy men. A Christian person replied to it saying that the word “holy” should be used only to Christ because he was immaculately concieved, etc, etc. This narrow, sectarian perspective set me thinking of how one can define holiness. Is there an univeral standard of holiness by which the holy book, people and places of a religion can be looked upon as holy be people not belonging to that religion also. Here is the article that came out as the result. Of course, people like the bigoted one mentioned above may not accept this. This article is for sane people, who have managed to retain some capacity to think rationally.
What is Holiness ?
We associate holiness with so many people, places, things and actions
everyday. What is holiness? What makes someone or something holy? Is
there a rational, non-dogmatic, non-sectraian, universal standard by
which we can judge holiness?
Invariably holiness is associated with religion. All religions have
a concept of holiness. Whether the religion follows some tribal customs
and rituals, or is institutionalized internationally, or it is based on
simple nature and ancestor worship, or takes to the highest flights of
formless worship, all religions have this concept of holiness.
What is common in all religions? Every religion wants its followers
to disidentify themselves from the body and mind, and identify with
an entity beyond these. No religion is an exception. This is the
unique characteristic that separates out religion from other sciences
Man constitutes a physical body, a subtle mind and a sense of ego.
These give man a self-identity distinct from other men and the world.
Breaking down of this limited identity and the clinging to its artifacts
is the path and goal of all religions. The clinging to the physical
body results in seeking and indulging in the pleasures of the senses.
The clinging to the subtle body results in seeking and holding possessions.
The clinging to the ego results in seeking and upholding name and fame.
The monastic vows of all religions, where monasticism is practised, is
an open rebellion against this clinging. The vows of chastity, poverty
and humilty is the essence of all traditions of monasticism. In fact,
this is the essence of spiritual life for householders too in all
religions. This renunciation is the essence of religion.
The measure of holiness can be only the measure of disidentification
with the body, mind and ego. Holiness is only a synonym for renunciation.
And only man has the key to renunciation. Only man can be holy. Any
other place or thing that is associated with holiness can be so only
because it is inspired by the holiness of some men related to the place
or thing. A wall or an image or a tree or a cow or a river has no
intrinsic holiness. It can be holy only because of the thoughts and
ideals of renunciation that it inspires in men. Any person who possesses
a certain degree of renunciation is holy. More the renunciation a person
has, the holier is the person. When a man reaches the summit of
renunciation, he is revered as the highest manifestation of God Himself.
This ideal of renunciation and holiness is what is worshipped as God.
But not everyone can shake off this clinging to the body and mind that
easily. To cater to the different levels of the aspirant, the concept
of God is also brought down to those levels. For a person, who is very
much restricted to the attitude that he is the body, physical ritual
worship is prescribed. He sees a physical manifestation of God in the
image or emblem. It may be in the form of Krishna or Shiva linga or
Cross or Kabba or Christ or Mary. These are all physical symbols that
remind the aspirant of God and take him out of his identification with
the physical body. For a person, who has disidentified from the body
to an extent, but identifies with the mind, the formless aspect of God
with attributes like compassion, goodness, virtue, etc is prescribed.
Gradually, the aspirant goes above this limitation also, and so does
his mode of worship. In the final stage, the highest worship is of the
Spirit by the spirit. Thus the aspirant slowly develops more and more
renunciation and thus becomes more and more holy.
At any point of time, our attitude towards ourselves reflects as our
attitude towards the world. To a person who identifies himself as a
physical being, the world also has a physical existence. To a person,
who identifies himself as a mental being, the world is also made of
thoughts only. For a person who identifies himself with the Absolute,
the world is also a manifestation of the Absolute.
However, it is not practical for the aspirant who has reached the highest
to live his day-to-day life, being in the highest state of renunciation.
He maintains a working relationship with his own being, with the world
and with God at various levels. In the words of Hanuman, “Lord, when I
identify myself with the body, I am your servant and You are my Master.
When I identify myself with the mind, I am a part and You are the Whole.
When I am free from these identifications, I am one with You.” Thus the
holy man lives in the world without compromising his renunciation. It is
these holy men and the things and places associated with them that lead
us the way to our own holiness. This is the path. This is the goal.