When atheists decry religion as a crutch, most believers bristle. Perhaps we should agree instead.

While riding in the elevator at my workplace the other day, I noticed that one of my fellow passengers was supporting himself with a pair of crutches. I asked him why, and he responded that he had broken his leg while skiing. After the interaction, I found myself reflecting on the view that many people have of religion as a crutch. They mean it, of course, as a slight, implying that religion is for the weak, whereas the strong have no need for such artificial support. But I hadn’t viewed the man in the elevator with any disgust or reprobation, despite his use of crutches; rather, I thought it a most wise and appropriate measure. This realization prompted me to reconsider my standard response to the accusation about religion: instead of denying the charge, perhaps I could accept it, and just go on to explain how, under the right circumstances, a crutch might be just what the doctor ordered.

So who needs crutches? By and large it’s those who have injured themselves in such a way that they can no longer function properly on their own. Thus they need some temporary help while they regain their natural, normal state. In the case of physical crutches, the injury is some fall or impact that damages a leg, and the crutches help one move about until the leg is healed. But what about the metaphorical crutch of religion? What is the injury that necessitates it? What does it help us do? And what is the healthy state that we hope to return to? Let’s address these questions in turn.

First, the injury. Just because we look whole and healthy on the outside doesn’t mean we’re that way on the inside too. And the Vedic scriptures teach that something is indeed not right with us residents of this mortal realm – namely, our consciousness. We once lived happily in the kingdom of God as His sublimely satisfied but subordinate associates. When this dependent status became distasteful to us – for whatever reason – we then entered the material universe, free to pursue the goal of becoming mini-gods. Here, by virtue of our identification with matter, however, we are corrupted by all manner of vices – lust, anger, greed, pride, envy, illusion – and subject to all manner of limitations – old age, disease, death – that we never knew back home. Thus stunted by self-centered jealousy and all that it engenders, we mortals truly are disabled, at least as measured against our original glorious position. We’ve broken our ability to love God and, by extension, all of His creatures.

Walking with Help

So what does religion offer? The rules and regulations of scripture keep us from hurting ourselves more and help us gradually resume our normal activity of serving the Supreme Personality of Godhead. Following them may at times feel forced, artificial, or uncomfortable, but what else can an injured person expect? The very symptom of injury is that routine tasks become challenging. Think, for example, of people trying to walk for the first time after an accident: What was otherwise an effortless and fluid activity suddenly becomes stilted and awkward. But at least the crutches get them walking again. In like manner, religious practices get us loving again. As Srila Rupa Goswami teaches, the positive activities – such as praying, reading about the dealings of God with His servants and devotees, and discussing topics of divine philosophy – all help restore us to our original state of constant absorption in Him. And the negative activities – such as giving up overindulgence, be it in food, sex, or sleep – are meant to protect us from disruptions to such absorption.

Srila Prabhupada once offered a different but equally apt analogy to illustrate this point:

Sometimes the car becomes blocked. But some fellow pushes it. We have got this experience. What is that called? Chocked up? Then you get down and push the car and – brut-brut-brut-brut-brut – it goes. Similarly the bhakti-rasa [feeling of devotion] is there in everyone’s heart. Nitya-siddha krishna-bhakti. Because we are part and parcel of Krishna. . . . So the fact is that we have got devotion for Krishna. That is a fact. But some way or other we are separated and we have forgotten. So as soon as, by this regulative principle, by the order of the spiritual master, by the injunction of the shastras, we begin devotional service… Just like our students do here. They are offering aratrika. They’re offering dress, offering garland. These are the items of arcana [deity worship] – hearing about Him, chanting about Him. This devotional service is the pushing process. And as soon as the energy comes, then automatically – brut-brut-brut. No more pushing. Automatically. This pushing process is required. (Lecture on The Nectar of Devotion, December 28, 1972, Bombay)

In the spiritual world, our love flows toward God incessantly and automatically, like rivers flowing toward the sea. But here we’ve lost that natural inclination and need the various prescriptions and prohibitions of religion to jump-start our stalled hearts.

What about when we’re fully recovered? Crutches, after all, are temporary and can – indeed should – ultimately be discarded. Can the same be said of religion? The answer (perhaps surprisingly) is yes. Just as physical crutches become superfluous once an injured leg has healed, so too can the metaphorical crutch of religious formalities be left behind when our hearts have healed. This progression is captured in Vaishnava theology in the distinction between vaidhi-bhakti, devotional service according to regulation, and prema-bhakti, devotional service in pure love of God. In the latter healthy and fully restored state, we serve God in spontaneous love during this lifetime and return to Him in the next. We no longer require any external aids or impetus.

In fact, both types of crutches get in the way of normal functioning. The same regimens and restrictions that purify our consciousness and enable us to once again love God eventually become impediments to the purest and fullest expression of that love. Lord Krishna pondered this paradox shortly before He descended as Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, noting that practicing vaidhi-bhakti cannot fill one’s heart with the superlative mood of His associates in Vrindavana. Rather, He longs for fervid devotion untempered by formality. (Chaitanya-charitamritaAdi 3.15–16)

Acknowledging Our Need

That said, however, the actions of one in the highest stages of devotion still tend to be in external conformity with religious rules. (After all, even people freshly off crutches spend most of their time walking in straight lines, neither running marathons nor doing cartwheels.) For one thing, “the learned Krishna conscious person” voluntarily serves as an example and role model for those in less developed stages of spiritual life. (Gita 3.26, Purport) For another, expressing rarefied emotions does not, by and large, require deviating from scriptural norms. But advanced bhakti-yogis no longer have to struggle to redirect their hearts and minds away from matter and toward the divine; as a result, they no longer have to be conscious of the rules and can focus instead – exclusively and directly – on God Himself, trusting that whatever happens as a result is sure to be wholesome, auspicious, and in no way untoward. In short, the neophyte deliberately practices proper behavior to evoke the right mood, whereas the expert behaves properly as a matter of course because of having already attained the right mood.

Religion then can be seen as analogous to crutches in terms of what necessitates its use, what purpose it serves, and when it can be left behind. Both help participants in some damaging misfortune to overcome their consequent disability and become healthy and independent once again. If in spite of this obvious utility, one disregards the rules and regulations of scripture, what can be said? If I were to see the man in the elevator prematurely cast aside his crutches and start dragging his leg, what would I think? He might claim that he was being strong and self-reliant, but I would think only that he was stubborn and shortsighted. After all, his rash act would merely aggravate his injury and delay his recovery. Similarly, what can we gain by denying the nature of our present fallen condition and rejecting the only real remedy? Only prolonged suffering and frustration. Instead of ignoring the guidance of scripture out of pride and immaturity, better that we humbly acknowledge our need for assistance and gratefully follow Krishna’s instructions until we are once again walking – and even dancing – with Him in pure love.