Please visit Thinking Skills for the Digital Generation by Athreya and Mouza at Springer.com

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.