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Saturday, January 19, 2019

Origins of Early forms of Religions




Emile Durkeim is a French Sociologist and one of the founding fathers of modern social sciences. He utilized empirical research methodology to study sociological phenomena and published extensively on the sociology of morality, suicide, law and religion. 


Durkheim's works emphasize the importance of religion in human lives, although I prefer spirituality to religion. It appears that the speculative functions offered by religion are uniquely important to humanity. This is a function not offered by sciences. We humans have a need to know about the future. But future is not knowable with certainty. Therefore, we speculate. We imagine. We speculate about the fate of our body and life after death. We speculate about the nature of soul. These can be frightening. We like to know about our origins. But we can never know that for certainty. We can only speculate.  Religions provide an avenue for these speculations.


My reflections following reading of Emile Durkheim’s book on The Elementary forms of Religious Life made me realize many new facts and reinforce many of my own observations. This book is based on the author’s study of primitive religions in parts of Australia, South America and Africa. The author’s concluding remarks are worth reading. Here are some other points gleaned from this book.


Man is the only animal who will kill oneself (suicide) or kill another for no good reason and demonstrate that he does not consider his own life of much value. All other animals will do their best to save themselves and will not kill except for food.


What is given often as evidence in explaining myths, rituals and religious texts is retrospective explanation and not reason.


Soul as a concept is connected to a single body, is within the body and leaves when the person dies. It may also float free for a limited time. But comes back to a body. Spirit is outside the body or the object and can influence the body or the object from outside to move and act (as if possessed).


Durkheim defines religion as “a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things – that is to say, things set apart and forbidden, beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community called a church all those who adhere to them”.


Essential elements of all religions, even the earliest known forms of religion, include some fundamental and universal ideas and ritualistic attitudes. They include division of things into sacred and profane; the concepts of spirit and soul; mythical personalities and early ancestors; national or universal divinity;  “negative cult” of ascetic practices and self-injury; rites of communion and oblation (sacrifice) and commemorative and expiatory rites.


Durkheim says that primitive religion was born as soon as sacred was distinguished from the profane. Totemism was the earliest stage in this separation. Durkheim studied many of these totemic religions.

Religion is more than gods and spirits. It is a system of beliefs and rites. Beliefs are opinions about sacred objects and nature of things. This is the mental aspect. Rites constitute a system of actions which connect to a system of beliefs, ideas, and concepts about the universe. They reinforce and re-energize each other.


 Rites are actions based on basic beliefs. Actions towards others in the society and nature are morals. Actions in relation to the sacred become rites and rituals. 


Rites express aspects of reality which are mysterious, universal and intuitive and which evade ordinary reasoning, by means of special actions and symbols. They are speculative. One may disagree with the modes of expression and claims of exclusivity to specific actions and symbols but cannot deny the existence of collective need for belief among all societies, in something beyond what is available to our senses.


It is interesting to note that Adi Sankara, one of the most brilliant of philosophers of India, who taught asceticism and renunciation and an intellectual path to spiritual freedom changed his mind when he found that most common people were spiritually ecstatic during puja (worship service to specific deities) and bhajans (chanting). He realized that there has to be something in faith to move the masses and started writing poems for the faith tradition (bhakti).  

Friday, January 11, 2019

A Brief Summary of Six major Darśanās in the Vedic tradition (Hinduism)


Here is my understanding of the six systems of Vedic or so-called Hindu philosophy. This is to introduce young readers to the rich philosophical tradition of India, hoping they will delve deeply if they have the interest and the time. Please send me corrections if my understanding is wrong. Thank you. 
Samkhya: There are two primordial entities: puruṣa and prakriti. There is no provision for a god in this system. Since puruṣa is unattached to everything and stands apart (state of kevala), you just have to get rid of the wrong identification of the body and the limited concept of the self and reach the state of kaivalya, realizing that the true self as puruṣa was always there. This is Jñana mārga. There is no place for bhakti (faith) or karma (action).

Mīmāmsa: This accepts Vedic gods (not the puranic gods)  but says that gods do not give us the fruits of our actions. It says that we just have to perform the rituals (karma) as ordained by the Vedās and the results will follow automatically. God is de-emphasized and therefore, Bhakti is not part of this system. Karma or action is emphasized in a limited sense of performing Vedic rituals (yagnas).

Nyāya system follows the Samkhya, except it says that logically we have to accept an Īswara who started it all. Therefore, this allows the bhakti mārga. (Vaiseṣika system is also included here) Īswara is prakriti with a form.  (Later, prakriti is equated with nirguna Brahman and Iswara with saguna Brahman)

Yoga system of Patanjali also accepts Īswara and goes on to show how to reach Him through control of the mind and meditation. This is Rāja mārga. Bhakti is also possible.

Vedanta accepts parts of each one of them.  Advaita is the first of several points of view within Vedanta. Visishtadvaita and Dvaita are the other major points of view. Adi Sankara reconciled the approaches, particularly Mimamsa, by saying Karma marga and Bhakti marga are needed (can be used) to prepare one’s mind for this journey through Jñana mārga. It also emphasizes that there is only one Atman (Brahman) occupying everything in this Universe. It emphasizes Jñana mārga by which the individual Atman merges with the Brahman.

Moksha of Advaita is called Kaivalya in Samkhya, Swarga (Kailasam or Vaikuntam) in Bhakti mārga and Apavarga in Nyāya -Vaiseṣika system.


Friday, January 4, 2019

Conversation with people who hold rigid views


 It is difficult to engage in a conversation or civic discussion with a person who holds rigid views or extreme prejudice. How can we engage such a person and encourage him/her to reflect, even if this does not lead to a change in the long-held view?

One method may be to request the person to explicitly express the value about which he/she feels strongly. Then, invite the person to examine this value in the specific context in which it is under discussion. What if the context is different or changed?

What was the origin of this view historically? What was the context in which it came into use? Is that context still valid in the current age and place? Is that context applicable to the specific incident to which it is applied?

Ask the person about the consequences of applying his/her view in the current context (place, people and time) on the affected individuals? What will be his/her position if he/she were at the receiving end of the same view held by someone else? Can he/she consider conditions under which he/she will be open to alternate views? 

 What if the person with the rigid view is myself? The first step is recognition and acknowledgment that I may be wrong. That requires humility, open mind and reflection.

Saturday, December 29, 2018

Everything in a Continuum


 In the process of being awake and aware, and aware of nothing in particular – it was an empty screen, no forms or feelings – I realize that without life, there is nothing to reflect on, not even awareness. But what is life? Is it an opposite of life? If so, how can life arise out of and made of inert things? Life and “non-life” are parts of a continuum. One comes out of another and merges into another. They are interdependent.
That is true of space and time as shown by Einstein and others. That is in the realm of the physical universe. 
Consciousness and emptiness seem to be such a pair too, in the realm of thought. 
At the micro/quantum level, wave and particle seem to be such a pair as fundamental units of the universe.
One cannot think of one in each pair without the other. They are part of a continuum. They are relative to each other.
It appears that there is no absolute, independent entity called space or time or life or non-life, conscious or comatose, particle or wave. They are relative to the other of that pair in a continuum. Our mind, which thinks with concepts made of sensory impressions and images, classifies everything and names each one. In the process of classification, the mind forgets that these separations are its own creations.
Come to think of it, color is a continuum. So are soundwaves. Our mind makes everything dichotomous for practical reasons – to live in this world. “Either or”, “yes-No” thinking is the mind’s survival mode. However, to understand the true nature of things, the mind needs analog thinking. That is why we humans have the pre-frontal cortex. It is our duty to use mind in both its “survival” mode and in the “understanding” mode.

But what is mind? How did it come about? What if there is no mind, like it was millennia ago, before humans came on the scene. Everything – particles and waves, space and time – was there. But there was no life. Therefore, no need for a category called life. Since there was no life, there was no mind to start classifying either.

Does any of this make sense?

Friday, December 21, 2018

Contemplative Science/Contemplative Prayer


Alan Wallace uses the term Contemplative Science to refer to meditation, since it is a scientific study of our minds although subjective in nature. Thomas Merton calls meditation practiced by Christians as Contemplative Prayer. Whatever name we give, the process of meditation includes reflecting on our own mental experiences as they appear in our consciousness. 
Consciousness has become a major subject of scientific scrutiny. There are several books on this subject. However, there is no definition of consciousness, agreed by all disciplines interested in this topic. That is because it is subjective and there are no objective means, as yet, of detecting and measuring consciousness. Two other topics defying definition are life and health.
The best we can do is to list its characteristics as experienced by each one of us and compare the list with those of others based on universal and uniform features. This is consciousness from the neurophysiological point of view. Not from a metaphysical point of view.
Buddha lists two features as characteristic of “pure” consciousness: luminosity and cognizant. The Vedas of India say the same thing. They are vague terms. However, both Buddha and the Vedas say that this is basic awareness (meta awareness) which illuminates everything – physical, mental, phenomenal, thoughts, emotions etc. It is aware of the objects of the mind and  of the mind itself.  In the Upanishad it says: tameva bhaantam anubhaati sarvam; tasya bhaasa sarvamidam vibhati. It shines on its own and illuminates everything.
This sounds interesting and intriguing. This also suggests that there is something else outside of our mind which gives the power of awareness to the mind. I have problem with that. Without a living body and a functioning brain, there is no mind. Without mind, there is no awareness. Granted that life is a mystery and consciousness is a mystery. Even if science figures out the “how” of life and of consciousness, I doubt we will ever find out “why”. 
This does not rule out the fact that everything we see and experience must have come out of “Something with Its Inherent Knowledge and Energy”, the Brahman, Father in Heaven, Allah or whatever name we have given.  
The best answer is ‘I do not know”.
The awareness of awareness is indeed special. My guess is that even some animals have this capacity. This is the faculty which leads to the ego (the I and the mine) and human arrogance. Therefore, it is worth reflecting on it to understand the realities of this universe and develop humility and compassion.
On a related note, I read in Aurobindo’s writing that the three worlds listed in the Vedas (Bhu, Bhuva and Swa) represent the body, mind and the connecting breath. Kaushitaki Upanishad says this too. Breath is another mystery without which there can be no life. Without life there can be no awareness.
It makes sense to focus on the breath, as the connection between the body and the mind and then focus on consciousness and the contents of the mind. The next step is awareness of consciousness of life and of our own awareness of that consciousness. The next step is to empty the contents and stay with pure awareness only.
That is what the original writings of the Upanishads and Buddha recommend. We get carried away by our arrogance. We refuse to consider the possibility that there are/ may be dimensions we are not aware of because of the limitations of our own brain and the mind. We get side-tracked and buried in so many side-paths and diversions.

Friday, December 14, 2018

Meditation can be at several levels



                Thinking deeply about something – concentration (may merge, immerse) (?dharana)

                Thinking about thinking – metacognition

                Being a witness to thinking – mindfulness (Dhyana?)

                Total silence, aware of the silence - Samadhi

                A state beyond thinking and silence, not for ordinary mortals.

“Meditation is the first-person science of the mind” says Alan Wallace, in that we are observing the subjective reality of the mind itself. During meditation, objective sensory inputs and our perception of those inputs, become objects of inquiry. They form the substrate of deep-looking. At the same time, the thoughts and emotions that are generated by those perceptions become subjective experiences. The substrate for this subject-object nexus is the substrate consciousness (Thich Naht Hanh calls it Store Consciousness). Becoming aware of this substrate consciousness is meta-awareness.

Information is that which informs. What informs us is the input by sensory systems. We then interpret and modify these perceptions, codify and name them, using our thinking, memory, imaginations, bias etc. Whatever it is, Information about things is the content of the mind. When we reflect on it, it should be clear at the outset that Information about a thing is not the same as the thing. We can look deeper at what the connection is and what reality is. In deeper meditation, we learn to focus on the mental space without information. No one has seen space, atom, energy and mass. Nor has anyone seen information.

Both Buddha and Ramana ask us to reflect on the “I”. What stage am “I” at in this quest?

Who am I? On reflection, I decided to split this question into two parts.

1. Who am I? “I” am Balu, an impermanent, inter-being (as Thich Naht Hanh would define). In this sense I am a practical entity existing and interacting with the world around “me”. “I” am part of a whole. “I” interact with and depend on the whole and its contents and occupants. The whole resides in “me”, is part of me and in everything else. In this sense, "I" was there always and will be there in the future. In a more tangible form, "my" thoughts, words and actions will be the residues of this brief existence. But, who is asking that question?

2. What am “I”? “It” is a conceptual entity created by “my” mind as part of its function in dealing with the physical realities. It develops as I live and experience every moment, by owning up to each experience (saying that it is “mine”) and storing them for future reference. It also owns up to the actions of the physical body (“I did it”) in which it is generated. By repetition, it gives an impression of powers such as ownership and will which it does not have. There can be no more of “It” (Balu in “my” case) once the body and the brain (with the associated mind) are gone. 

That is where I am now.


Monday, December 10, 2018

Sermon on the Mount – Three Points of View: Part 2


Lord’s Prayer

 A famous passage called The Lord’s Prayer starts with the words: “Our Father which art in Heaven”. This prayer is used by Christians in their personal prayers and church services daily. It has a simple message of piety and thankfulness for all the good things we have. It has also deep spiritual meaning – not just requesting personal favors and material goods but seeking Spiritual realization.

 “Our Father which art in Heaven” is addressed to the Divine as if we are requesting our worldly father. Heaven is not somewhere else because the Kingdom of God is within us. Brother Lawrence said: “We must make our heart a spiritual temple wherein to adore Him incessantly.  He is within us; seek Him not elsewhere.”

Swami Prabhavananda interprets the words “Thy Kingdom come and Thy will be done……..” to mean that the Kingdom of God is here and now and the disciple asks for His guidance to carry out His will. It is  for realizing our own limitations and approaching the Divine with humility. Besides, unless one is spiritually illumined and has become one with Him, how can one know what His will is?

“Give us this day our daily bread” refers to the bread of Divine Grace and not in the simple meaning of bread to eat. “And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors” is a pleading for His forgiveness for all our physical and mental actions. Hinduism and Buddhism will interpret the “debts” to mean our Karma, the accumulated consequences of our actions in this and prior births. Even without this concept of karma, we are responsible for the consequences of our actions. If we take that responsibility and do not blame others it will be easy for us to forgive others for their actions and the consequences. Only when we have this forgiveness in our hearts can we appreciate forgiveness from God.

“And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil…………” is the next passage. In the Upanishad it says: “asato ma sat gamaya; tamaso ma jyotir gamaya; mrtyo ma amritam gamaya” meaning “O Lord, lead us from untruth to truth; from darkness to light; from death to immortality”.  It is an approach with humility to ask for help to resist temptations towards impermanent pleasures of the world. It is to ask help to go towards Light and away from darkness. It is to turn inwards towards the Kingdom of God and away from outward gaze of the senses.

The passages on forgiveness (Matthew 6:14,15) are well-known and make the essence of the teachings of Christ. He said to forgive “until seventy times seven”. He asks us to forgive those who hurt us physically and verbally. Not to react to violence with violence; but react with forgiveness, compassion and love. He asked his disciples to love even one’s enemy. These are the same teachings as those of Buddha and Hindu texts. Gandhi, Mandela and King showed us how.

This is followed by advice on practicing religion and spirituality sincerely, not just for others to see. When Jesus says “Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal” he is asking his disciples to develop discrimination and seek abiding bliss in the midst of fleeting worldly pleasures. He says: “But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven……”. This advice has been repeated by the wise in all traditions, all through history.

The remark that “The light of the body is the eye: if therefore thine eye be single…..” seems to suggest the need for one-pointed concentration and devotion. In other words, the advice is to let go of attachment to and pursuit of worldly pleasures of the senses and seek the Divine with single-minded focus, because “No man can serve two masters…………Ye cannot serve God and mammon” says Jesus.

In the next passage, Jesus advices his disciples not to worry about where the next food will come from, because He who made us will provide for us. Similar words can be heard in other tongues too as in Tamizh language “The one who planted the tree will water it too”. It is not practical. And it is also true that we have to make our efforts for His Grace to yield results. But, when one lives truly in a state of union with the Divine, live in the Kingdom of God within, questions such as “what will I eat? Where will I sleep?” seem to lose their weight and urgency. The advice is about maintaining poise in the midst of life’s uncertainties.

Besides, Jesus is not suggesting that we go starving, but says “ for your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things. But seek ye first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you”.  In a similar passage in Gita, Krishna says: “…if a man will worship me, and meditate upon me with an undistracted mind, devoting every moment to me, I shall supply all his needs and protect his possessions from loss”. 

“Take therefore no thought for the morrow; for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof”. This is a teaching on living in the present moment deeply involved in prayer and reflection, not worrying about the past and anxious about the future. This is same as the Buddhist tradition of being mindful of and in the present moment.

A famous poem in Sanskrit says:

“Yesterday is but a dream,
Tomorrow is only a vision.
But today well lived makes every yesterday a dream of happiness,and every tomorrow a vision of hope.”

In his advice “judge not, that ye be judged”, Jesus asks us to work on our own weaknesses and improve our virtues and not to judge others.  “And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considereth not the beam that is in thine own eyes”.

The next advice on not to “give that which is holy unto the dogs and cast your pearls before swine” is also common in the teachings of other traditions. In the Vedic tradition, there is a passage in Gita in which Krishna says to Arjuna: “Do not tell this truth to anyone who has no devotion and self-control, who despises his teacher and does not believe in me”.  Mundaka Upanishad says that the knowledge of Brahman is to be given only to those who obey Dharma and who are pure in heart.

The famous passage in the Sermon which says “…….all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them…” is echoed in Maha Bharatha with almost the same words. This teaching is common in all traditions and religions.

After saying that the gate is wide and the way is broad for the path to destruction, Jesus continues with “….straight is the gate and narrow is the way which leadeth into life, and few there be that find it”. In an identical passage in the Katha Upanishad: “Like the sharp edge of a razor, the sages say, is the path. Narrow it is, and difficult to tread”. This became the title of a book on the Razor’s Edge by Somerset Maugham.

Jesus closes his sermon by warning against following false prophets, which does not mean other religions. It means recognizing a realized soul as one who has studied the scriptures and who acts out of unbounded love for everything on earth and following what he preaches.

Finally, I like a simple summary of the Sermon on the Mount by Tolstoy (My Religion, page 87):

“Not to be angry and not to consider oneself better than others.

To avoid libertarianism, choose one woman, and remain faithful to her.

Do not bind yourselves with oaths and promises to the service of those who may constrain us to  commit acts of folly and wickedness.

Do not return evil for evil lest the evil rebound upon ourselves with redoubled force.

Do not consider men as foreigners because they dwell in another country and speak a different language”.