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Thursday, January 24, 2019

Origins of Early Forms of Religions - Part 2


Rites are meant to separate the sacred from the profane. There are positive rites to elevate the profane to the sacred and negative rites to clean the profane and prepare it for the sacred. The rites are also allotted in space (pilgrimage, sacred sites) and time (feasts and seasonal festivals). When the devotee places food or other offerings at the altar (sacred spot) , it is not just the food he is offering. “It is his thoughts” which is offered. Durkeim points out the well-known fact that in the practice of negative rites “the system of interdicts (the prohibitions) swells and exaggerates itself to the point of usurping the entire existence”. How true this is in all religions!


“A sacred principle in any system is nothing more nor less than society transfigured and personified”, says Durkheim. “A sacred principle exists only in the minds of those who believe in it”. In fact, “there is nothing in the constitution of things which corresponds to sacredness”.


God is the collective representation of the society/clan/tribe in the individual mind and the rituals are where connections are made with that supreme and with other members of the tribe/clan/society.

Gods are symbolic expression of the society in which they originate, a collective conceptualized expression of individual images. These gods cannot do without the individuals any more than individuals can do without society. Idols are conceptualized, reified images of gods in that society and their function is that of a part to the whole. “It is an agent of transmission”. (These thoughts are echoed in Sri Aurobindo’s interpretations of the Rg Veda)


Rituals are to “revivify the most essential elements of the collective consciousness”. They re-enact the cosmology, history of the clan and ancestors and its moral system. They tie the individual to the society and transmits the societal values and views to the individual. The intended effects are on the mind of the individual to shape the moral aspects of relationship with other members of the society, with nature and with the supramental divinity.


Sacredness is an ambiguous concept according to Robertson-Smith and Durkheim, because religious forces are of two kinds: beneficent and diabolic. The beneficent forces are the providers of safety, health, food and wealth. We respect them, thank them. We worship them. They are the holy ones. The evil forces deliver sickness, disasters, and death. We fear them; try to appease them. We avoid them or try to purify after them so that the sacred forces are not contaminated. That is how the idea of religious purity comes in. Pure and impure are not two separate classes. Both are sacred, but of two different kinds. One is propitious, and the other is Unpropitious.


Religion according to Durkheim is a product of the society – any society. It is the collective consciousness of the society and therefore gives us moral values, esthetics, music and art and even the foundations of science.  Science asks the same fundamental questions as religion such as “How did this universe come about? What are the laws of nature?”. But Science takes an impersonal objective attitude to studying nature’s laws. In the process, it learns more about the parts but not able to connect to the whole. It also gets blind to human needs, values and emotions.


In differentiating religion from science, Durkheim also points out that science explains laws of nature but does not speculate. That speculative function of religion seems to be important to humanity. Every early religion fulfills this need of humans in society. Society gave these gifts to the individuals and individuals reinforced their collective sentiments through interactions and acting out in their rituals. In the process they also surrendered some of their individuality.


If we find that religions are full of evil, injustice and lies, it is because they reflect the realities of life and of the society in general. Durkheim asks: “Is there any society free of evil, injustice and lies?” Yet we strive for goodness, justice and truth. It is this battle for goodness, justice and truth in this imperfect world that is represented in all religions.


In religious thinking, concepts are different from sensory impressions. Sensory impressions are felt in individuals and are transient. In contrast, concepts are impersonal representations expressed in symbols, based on societal norms. They are relatively stable over time and can be shared with others.

Durkheim suggests that concepts are collective representations of reality. Individuals make concepts in their minds, of course. But they are formed based on how society abstracts and classifies concrete objects of the universe. “Concepts express the manner in which society represents things”. If the individuals were to be reduced to only personal thoughts based on individual perceptions only, he will be “indistinguishable from the beasts” says Durkheim.


Concepts represent categories and classes rather than particular objects. Conceptual thinking is not just grouping and classifying things. “It is relating the variable to the permanent, the individual to the social”. Useful concepts should be capable of helping individuals relate to the minds of others to bring harmony and also to understand the nature of things in this universe. Alan Wallace calls them “inter-subjective truths”. They have to be stable and impersonal if they are to represent truth.


Please read my blogs on related topics on February 8, 2011 and June 12, 2016.

Saturday, January 19, 2019

Origins of Early forms of Religions (Part 1)




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.