A word about usage of the term “religion”: I admit that I have used the word ‘religion’ quite loosely in this blog post. To me, what the world terms as Hinduism and Buddhism are not religion, in strict sense of the word, but are a way of life which at best can be termed as a ‘faith system’. To me organized religions are those which dictate a set of rituals to govern most aspects of their followers’ day-to-day lives. Christianity, Judaism, Islam – with practices like Sabbath and circumcision to dietary Dos and Don’ts – are some of those which fall in the category of organized religions. Enough of preludes. Can we get down to the actual stuff, please?
All human beings capable of independent thinking (and not weighed down by extremes of poverty and survival) have – at some point or the other in their lives – have asked themselves certain existential questions like Where have we come from, What is the meaning of our existence, What happens when people die, Is there a higher power directing everything that happens in this world, Are we all playing roles as mere actors in a grand play and such sort.
It is indisputable that evolution of most (I will dare say all) of the religious orders, over last couple of millennia, has happened in an extremely fluid manner, with everything from mainstream religions to peripheral cults (and occults) and everyone from orthodox adherents to outliers (the sheep who left the flock) contributing to the result of what we see today. Every religion has innumerable sects, divisions within themselves, scriptures & holy books with myriad interpretations and a legion of prophets, messiahs and gurus to bring God’s Word to earth.
Before most of the organized religions came into being, the faith system which existed has been termed as paganism by most historians of the Ancient World. It may not be amiss to reckon that paganism and subsequently, most of the organized religions of today arose only to fulfill man’s need to overcome his fear of the unknown, to comprehend the incomprehensible – most prominently life & death. Religion gave reasonably satisfactory answers to questions like Where have we come from? Where are we going? What happens after death? However, there was a dogmatism associated with the answers provided by religion – take it or leave it but don’t argue with it. As soon as you start questioning what religion claims, it defeats the very purpose of the need for a religious system. As the frontiers of science kept on expanding, many of these questions were answered on basis of logic & reason (which could be argued) and many hitherto ‘unknowns’ became natural phenomena which could otherwise be explained with the help of a set of laws which dictated the behavior of the physical world around us.
In spite of all the breakthroughs – from putting man on moon to taming the nature at her wildest form – men of science continue to be fascinated about the possible existence of a higher power, a grand design for the entire universe, an Ultimate Reality, the Absolute Truth. In their quest for an elegant, water tight theory which can explain how the universe came into existence (What was there before ‘Big Bang’) particle physicists have been looking for elusive sub-atomic particles.
Subjects of study like quantum cosmology and theories like Noetic theory have evolved in an attempt to explain different aspects of existence.
It is debatable whether such studies can in turn, lead to us beyond the known world, into that territory where religion and science may find a common ground. Someday, science may be able to arrive at that ‘unquestionable’ starting point of all religions through logic and reason – though such reasoning may be beyond the abilities of most lay people.
A Naturalist’s Arguments
All religions ask from their adherents a certain unquestioning faith about the existence of a superpower, God, the Creator, the Maker. That is the starting point of all religious scriptures, books & commandments. This is an axiom which can’t be derived or deduced from something else with the help of reasoning. The implicit belief, to accept pronouncements, covenants at face value is a pre-requisite for embarking on any spiritual journey. This is fine with people like me who are believers in their own way (whatever that means).
However, there are agnostics – who neither deny nor accept the existence of the Creator because of what they have experienced or not experienced in the realm of their personal consciousness. Agnostics simply believe that existence of God is 'unknowable'. Then, there are the outright atheists and non-believers, the perpetual foes of any religion – the heretics, the apostates. This fine post by Amit Varma is the best writing I have found on the subject till date. Finally, we have the naturalists who believe in Nature but not necessarily in some Supreme Power who created the nature. For them, the existence of Nature – the mountains, the meadows, the forests, the rivers, the oceans – is a given. These are results of play of the forces of ‘nature’ (for the lack of a better word) over millions of years and not as a result of some grand strokes of a divine power. Naturalists believe that everything, every event in the universe is governed by chance and hence life, by its very nature, will always remain unpredictable. So, it is futile to attribute any event – good or bad, happy or sad – to divine intervention or a grander design.
Rebirths, Afterlife & Suffering
I am a firm believer of the theory of karma. It is simple to understand and makes sense. Whatever you do comes back to you – in some form or the other. In my opinion, this, in practice is not very different from following the Golden Rule or the Ethic of Reciprocity – again something which finds echo in all the leading faith systems of the world. But for me, what you sow is what you reap – in this life itself. I am a fence sitter when it comes to the concept of afterlife & rebirths. This is a prominent feature of Hinduism – the faith system I was born into. We go through cycles of birth and death and by the extension of it, suffering, till we attain salvation or Moksha by virtue of our good karma or deeds over the past many lives. I am not entirely convinced about this. Though my stand is not dogmatic, the theory of rebirth often reminds me of one of the scenes from Satyajit Ray’s ‘Nayak’. Uttam Kumar in one of his flashbacks remembers the cremation of his mentor. In spite of being orphaned quite early in life and having developed an insular attitude towards death itself, he was pretty much shaken by the death of a person so dear to him and in a moment of poignancy, asks his friend whether he believes in rebirth. His friend replies, “Even if I do, what difference does it make? In my next birth, how will I come to know that I am I (the same person)?”
The idea of rebirth is used to answer questions like why bad things happen to good people. In our lives, we all know someone who has led an honourable, honest & decent life, a good life but has suffered in unimaginable ways. (This is much more than Life-Is-Unfair-Accept-It rhetoric hurled at us) I understand that taking refuge in arguments of fate and destiny is fatalistic and probably not very different from the seemingly logical answers religion provides – Atonement of sins committed in past lives.
Every religion also preaches that God is Merciful. God loves all His Children (aka all living beings). If God is Merciful, then why is there so much suffering in this world – poverty, violence, destitution, such gross inequities, injustices? Here, I am yet to be satisfied with the answer most religions have to offer and I can understand why atheists are what they are.
Consciousness & The Supreme Being
One of the four maha-vakyas of Advaita occurs in Chandogya Upanishad of Sam Veda – Tat Tvam Asi (Thou art That). While I am too much of a nincompoop to fully appreciate the profoundness of such a statement, the most easily comprehensible meaning of this is that God resides in all of us. I know this is way off the mark but it is difficult to fully appreciate (and more importantly, articulate) this meaning without understanding the concept of duality – between “I” and rest of the world. (Again duality finds resonance in myriad forms in most of the Eastern philosophies from Taoism to Confucianism e.g. Ying and Yang). Lest I digress any further, probably fully realizing the meaning of this maha-vakya will make one understand the omnipresence of God, in relation to dimensions of space and time, physically comprehendible to man. As pointed by many wise men, reference to the vastness of sky for God is just a metaphor, used to make the concept of omnipresence more palatable to lesser mortals like me.
Reality – Absolute or Relative and Power of Mind
There is a school of thought which says that reality in itself doesn’t mean anything. They rely on a dubious, hotchpotch interpretation of Heisenberg's Uncertainity Principle to claim that there is no reality without observation & no existence without consciousness. We, all of us, create our own reality. To me this again ties up with the Power of Thoughts theory promoted by almost all Self-help books. The quality of your life and your immediate surroundings is shaped by your conscious thoughts. If you think positive & good things consciously and repeatedly, those positive & good things actually start happening in your life. Ditto for negative thoughts. This is similar to what Paulo Coelho says in “The Alchemist” – when you really set your heart and mind to achieve your dreams, the whole universe conspires to help you. A possible extension of this is also used to explain certain miracles or supernatural experiences reported in popular press from time to time like a mother lifting a car to save her baby. Many spiritual texts point out that we all have immense reserves of power within us – both physical and mental – and most of us are barely aware of such powers and let alone, harness them. Of course, the skeptics & rationalists term this as pseudo-science and consider this whole business of creating one's own reality as hogwash.
A much-needed moral framework for the early days of human civilization?
All religions promise a state of supreme bliss (sukha) when our self merges with the Supreme Being (God, if you prefer). (By bliss, I don’t mean the one promised to jehadis trained for suicide attacks aka the bliss of mating with 77 virgins in heaven, wherever that is) And many religions (to my knowledge, at least Hinduism, Buddhism & Christianity) preach certain ways of life to attain that state of supreme blissfulness – celibacy, eschewing sensual pleasures and Seven Deadly sins, truth & honesty in our conduct, righteousness, rising above and seeing beyond the maya or illusion (not sure about Christianity but this one definitely resonates in all teachings of Hinduism and Buddhism). Never mind that the celibacy bit has resulted in embodiment of women as sources of lust and the associated misogyny reflected in all societies at some or the other points of history but then that’s a story for another day. Needless to say, such teachings establish a certain moral framework (The Ten Commandments, for example) within which human beings (or rather the believers) are supposed to lead their lives. The promised incentives (resulting from virtues) and disincentives (resulting from sins) ensure that things don’t descend to chaos and a rule of the jungle doesn’t ensue where man is no better than beast.
Again I digress but this aforementioned state of bliss has also been termed as ‘super-consciousnesses. Not sure who coined this term but I had first came across it in writings of Osho who claimed that one attains such a state only in two scenarios – the ultimate state of meditation i.e. Samadhi and, of course, orgasm (well, he was Osho, after all).
Bliss and Happiness
Many of us – in moments of solitude, in pristine natural surroundings – have experienced a state of bliss which is beyond the conventional definition of reality. I have experienced such a state, at least a couple of times in my life. Lying on a tree stump at the edge of the Khajjiar glade in Himachal and gazing at the stars amidst a silence which defies description, sitting atop a sand dune of the unforgiving Thar near Jaisalmer on a full moon night, sitting under the shade of a forest camp at twilight and watching and listening to the sound of rain pouring fiercely on the dense rain forest surrounding the camp somewhere in Western Ghats in Southern Karnataka – are some instances where I have felt a sense of oneness with a higher power. The number of such experiences is probably less than five in my lifetime of 30 plus years and none of them have probably lasted for more than a few seconds. But for those few seconds, I seemed to be on a plane of existence different from my regular one and I became conscious of this experience at a later point and not when I was undergoing the experience.
Experiencing the soul
Most religions and spiritual faith systems acknowledge the existence of an entity called soul. Body, Mind & Soul – form the trinity of human life (and probably afterlife as well). Now, Body has a physical existence. The five senses open up the potential of experiences like pleasure and pain. Similarly, mind – in spite of not having a physical manifestation – is pretty much within the realm of human experience. We think with our minds. So, do the animals. However, it is our consciousness – that cognitive trait that makes oneself aware of one’s physical existence in time and space, the ability to step out from our existence and view it in relation to the rest of our environment – which distinguishes humans from other animals. To me, this much is intuitive.
But what about soul which, according to many religions, is an entity which doesn’t have any physical manifestation, is immortal, transcends all the physical and non-physical boundaries known to man – life-death, happiness-sorrow, victory-defeat, existence-nonexistence, presence-absence, pleasure-pain. The Atman. What is it – energy, thought, vibrations, or waves? Can one ‘experience’ The Soul the way one experiences or visualizes Mind and Body? The answer to this question probably holds the key to the mystery of existence of Universe, its functioning and all that it holds within it. All religions – in myriad ways – profess that soul (Atman) is Self and Self is the Ultimate Reality (God in plain speak). (Again not very different from the aforementioned maha-vakya) Now, this is where we starting venturing beyond the realm of human experience and have to rely on something which cannot be corroborated or supported by facts, evidences & one’s own conscious experiences. And this is where we enter the land of faith - unconditional & unquestionable. The faith which has enabled men and women to endure the unendurable – extremities of physical and mental pain – since time immemorial. As Varlam Shalamov says (point # 8), the only people who maintained some semblance of sanity in gulag camps were the religious ones.
I know I have tried to tackle too many things and weave too many threads at the same time with, what the enlightened ones will call, half-baked knowledge and theories. I just wanted to pen some of the thoughts running in my mind since past sometime and hence, this exercise and resulting incoherence. I hope to write in a much more coherent, thoughtful and articulate manner on this subject sometime in future. But then that will require a much deeper understanding of the subjects related in this post. And that in itself is a journey of a lifetime. As one of my friends recently pointed out, we all are brought up with a reasonable degree of scientific temperament, taught to question everything and at the same time taught to believe in God (I am yet to come across a family whose every member is an atheist) and hold certain religious beliefs dear where any questioning is met only with stony silence. Resolving this dichotomy is not easy. Probably, there’s no dichotomy in the first place.