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Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Chapter 5: Matter of Faith

Dear Asha, Ajay, Ravi and Ariana…..

Until now I have written about reason and logical thinking. I want to finish this series with some thoughts on Faith which is also an important tool for the mind.

In matters relevant to life on this planet, I believe in the scientific method. Science gives us the tools to get as close to truth as possible. Answers based on scientific evidence lead to more reliable solutions. The conclusions can be verified. Science is humble to the extent it admits that given the current data, this is as close to truth as we can get.

However, there are dimensions where science and scientific methods of direct observation and verification do not work. These include the philosophical and metaphysical realms. We have to go by faith. In religion too, faith plays a major part.

The problem is not with faith as such. It is when faith demands exclusivity and cannot tolerate reason. As pointed out in the earlier essay, “Faith is not belief without proof, but trust without reservation.” Even faith depends on some reasoning, to the extent you have to decide why you have faith in this system as opposed to some other system.

Among the oriental traditions, the Vedic philosophy requires faith as a basic tool. However, it asks one to think for oneself. In Bhagavat Gita, Lord Krishna gives an eloquent discourse on the relationship between the Ultimate and the historic dimensions and at the end asks Arjuna to reflect on his own and come to a conclusion. In Yoga Vasishta, Vasishta asks Rama to reflect on his teachings and make up his mind. Sankara categorically says that if what you read in the Vedas does not match actual experience, those passages may be ignored. Faith is demanded only on metaphysical issues and on the spiritual plane.

Buddha clearly wanted his disciples to go past dogmas and precepts. He suggested that his teachings can be compared to a raft. He wanted his disciples not to carry the raft on their heads after they have reached the “other shore”.

My knowledge of western traditions is very limited. But it appears that faith gets greater emphasis in these traditions.

In reality, faith, knowledge and reason have always been linked. Therefore, when we have to depend on faith, we have to ask several questions:
Faith in what? (on the concept of God, on life after death, the presence of individual will, on the existence of Soul etc) (Immediately, the problem of meaning of words becomes evident)
Faith in the message? in the method? Or in both?
Faith with reason or without reason?
Faith to live by or to profess ?
Faith for my guidance or to convince others?
Faith with an open mind or blind faith?
Transmitted, acquired faith or Discovered faith?

All of us acquire our beliefs and faiths from our family and the society we live in. This is the transmitted or acquired faith. This is the beginning. But it is necessary for every one of us to reflect on fundamental universal questions and find our own Discovered Faith. The roots will always be the ones we were born into. But, did we grow? This will depend on how well our parents raised us and how open the system we were born into is. Did my parents and my tradition want me to follow blindly or did they teach me to have an open mind? Did they give me the freedom to discover my own faith?

Let me explain with an example of my own acquired faith and my current station in discovered faith.

I was born in a family of Brahmins in southern India. My family spoke Tamil at home. My folks were deeply religious in the practice of rituals but were not deep into the basic teachings. They followed the forms and symbols such as daily worship at home (called puja), but could not explain to me the substance behind them. No one ate meat. Raised in this background, I learnt Tamil. I was taught all the rituals of the puja. I did not know anything about the Vedas except that they existed. I became a vegetarian. That was my acquired, transmitted, inherited faith.

I am very proud of my family and the traditions I was born into.

During my travels around the world, I learnt about other cultures, their life-styles, their traditions and their belief-systems. I explored the sacred texts from several traditions including mine. After reflecting on the fundamental and universal questions, and how each tradition dealt with these questions, I feel differently about customs and rituals in all traditions.

My own training was in science and scientific method. But I have delved deeply into literature and philosophy. I believe that faith and reason are like two different lenses of a camera. I use close-up lens for clinical photographs and wide-angle lens for taking pictures of panoramic scenes such as the Niagra or the Iguazu falls. So it is with faith and reason. They are both needed, but to look at different aspects of this universe.

I use reason and logic to understand physical aspects of this universe. At the spiritual level, I wish to imagine myself to be a wave and experience that the “water” in me is the same as the “water” in the ocean and merge with it, just as many mystics have done. I wish to experience the oneness of my ultimate and historical dimensions. For this, I need faith.

I believe that the substance is more important than rituals and symbols, although we need them to teach the children. I like the personal journey more than being told by an intermediary between me and my God. I am more comfortable with prayer in solitude than in a group. My religion and faith are for my spiritual growth and not for display. I believe that being a good human being is more important than going to the temples or reciting sacred texts.

I have eaten meat. My justification was that in reality life eats life. That is nature. Even Upanishads say so. Besides, plants have life too. I also wanted to experience the cultures I visited and food is an important part of cultures. What if I had been born in an Eskimo family and lived in a place where vegetable was just not available. Yes, they were my justifications to do what I wanted to do at that time.

But, on reflection, I am now convinced that I do not want animals to lose their life, to fill my stomach. Their life is as special and sacred as any other life. However, I do not think it is a sin. That still leaves an unanswered question: “What do I do with the knowledge that plants have life too?”
This is my discovered faith.

How will I know that the discovered faith is an honest one? First, I have to make sure by deep thinking that justification of preconceived notions and prior activities does not masquerade as reason. Second, if I have discovered my own faith, I will feel a sense of freedom when I act on that faith. In contrast, when I depend on acquired faith, I will feel guilty when I do not follow the “script” as given to me. Even when I follow, I may keep hearing the admonitions of my parents and enforcers of the faith. Third, actions that follow the discovered faith should not harm anyone or any life-form.

For example, after many years of reading and thinking, my relationship to the Divine Source of our Being and my concept of the so-called deities has changed. Therefore I do not follow many of the rituals and practices. But I do not feel guilty. Indeed I feel free, because I act on my own discovered faith.

I request you, I beg you to please discover your own faith. When you teach your children, teach them your tradition and your own discovered faith. Teach in such a way that your children will seek and discover their own faith and will not feel guilty if they break away from the faith that was taught to them.

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