Saturday, November 14, 2009

The moment anyone gets into the 'reaching the masses' syndrome, the problem of over-simplifying arises

Shared Experiences: Rahul Dev Holistic Living - Faith: Opium or Nectar?
by Life Positive
For Indian media personality Rahul Dev, the truth of spirituality lies deep within the superficial trappings of religious orthodoxy

Spirituality is neither a hobby nor a pastime. Either you are spiritual or you are not. I have been spiritual from a pretty young age and have been meditating off and on. But I am no exception. In fact, I'm certain that anyone who senses that there is a deeper way of living has to be interested in spirituality and religion.

Religion has often been castigated as 'opium of the masses'. The fact that this label was primarily given by the creators of communism makes it all the more unfortunate, for there is no denying the innate humanism of the basic communist philosophy. If only Marx had had a spiritual experience, the world would have been a much better place to live in. Instead, the communists failed to seek the essentially spiritual core of religion and were taken in by its superficial trappings of ritual and superstition.

At the same time, I do not claim that the trappings are illusory. On one hand, there is a pristine core of faith. On the other, there is a whole body of organized religion that has, with time, lost touch with this core. This is true for all philosophies. Any mass movement, be it spiritual, social or political, always runs the risk of becoming trivial, commercial and sometimes even vulgar. Further, the moment anyone gets into the 'reaching the masses' syndrome, the problem of over-simplifying arises. The teaching has to be then made 'palatable' to all. In the process, somewhere down the line, the medium becomes more important than the message.

But then, how can you stop faith from making itself known to all? After all, anyone who has tasted the nectar of Truth will, more often than not, feel compelled to help others taste the nectar too. Only when this compulsion, born out of innate human compassion, gets mixed up with conceit and a desire for recognition does religion become, at least superficially, 'opium for the masses'.

At all times, there have been departures from the so-called 'organized religion' framework. The scope of human ingenuity and creativity is as much there in spirituality as in any other temporal field. In fact, when you really look into it, organized religion is nothing but a creation of history, which assimilates diverse streams to create a new mainstream. So, what were once revolts against spiritual hegemony come out centuries later as 'organized' faith.

Take the case of Buddhism, one of the strongest movements to have sprung up in reaction to orthodox Hinduism. Or Protestantism, a movement that was born in the lap of the Catholic faith, which it later sought to reform. In the same manner, today's New Age gurus will, say, about 50 years down the line, appear as belonging to an equally organized and codified movement.

Does this mean that there is no evolution? Sri Aurobindo and the Mother did present the concept of the Supermind. They went to the extent of saying that human evolution cannot possibly stop at the present level. The physical body itself will become more spiritualized and etheric. Unlike many New Agers that you come across nowadays, I really can't say with much conviction that such an evolution has already begun. But there is definitely a great deal of interest among people regarding spirituality and such subjects.

Clearly, the spiritual hunger in people for a deeper and more meaningful anchor has not abated. To satiate this hunger, all you need is to accept life in complete humility and be grateful for it. No single faith or science or theory can make the world a perfect place. The world was not made to be perfect. It was made to help us gain an understanding of our own Self. Holistic Living Life Positive November 1999

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Sri Aurobindo’s universal and cosmic vision has much to offer to a troubled world

Sunday, September 06, 2009 The dilemma of a liberal Hindu
With the rise in religious fundamentalism around the world, it is increasingly difficult to talk about one’s deepest beliefs, says Gurcharan Das

I was born a Hindu, in a normal middle-class home. I went to an English-medium school where I got a modern education. Both my grandfathers belonged to the Arya Samaj, a reformist sect of Hinduism. My father, however, took a different path. While studying to be an engineer, he was drawn to a kindly guru who inspired him with the possibility of direct union with God through meditation. The guru was a Radhasoami saint, who quoted vigorously from Kabir, Nanak, Mirabai, Bulleh Shah and others from the bhakti and sufi traditions.Growing up Hindu was a chaotically tolerant experience. My grandmother visited the Sikh gurudwara on Mondays and Wednesdays and a Hindu temple on Tuesdays and Thursdays; she saved Saturdays and Sundays for discourses by holy men, including Muslim pirs, who were forever visiting our town. In between, she made time for Arya Samaj ceremonies when someone died or was born. Her dressing room was laden with the images of her gods, especially Ram and Krishna and she used to say in the same breath that there are millions of gods but only one God. My grandfather would laugh at her ways, but my pragmatic uncle thought that she had smartly taken out plenty of insurance so that someone up there would eventually listen.

I grew up in this atmosphere with a liberal attitude - that is a mixture of scepticism and sympathy for my tradition. Why then do I feel uneasy about being a liberal Hindu? I feel besieged from both ends — from the Hindu nationalists and the secularists. Something seems to have gone wrong. Hindu nationalists have appropriated my past and made it into a political statement of Hindutva. Secularists have contempt for all forms of belief and they find it odd that I should cling to my Hindu past. Young, successful Indians, at the helm of our private and public enterprises, have no time or use for the classics of our ancient tradition.A few years ago, I told my wife that I wanted to read the Mahabharata in its entirety. I explained that I had read the Western epics but not the Indian ones. She gave me a sceptical look, and said, “It’s a little late in the day to be having a mid-life crisis, isn’t it?” To my chagrin, I became the subject of animated discussion at a dinner party soon after.“So, what is this I hear about wanting to go away to read old books”, asked my hostess, “aren’t there any new ones?” She gave my wife a sympathetic look.“Tell us, what you plan to read?” asked a retired civil servant who had once been a favourite of Indira Gandhi. He spoke casually as though he was referring to the features of a new Nokia phone. I admitted that I had been thinking of the Mahabharata.“Good lord, man!” he exclaimed. “You haven’t turned saffron, have you?”

I think his remark was made in jest, but it upset me. I found it disturbing that I had to fear the intolerance of my “secular” friends, who seemed to think that reading an epic was a political act. I was reminded of a casual remark by a Westernized woman in Chennai who said that she had always visited a Shiva temple near her home, but lately she had begun to hide this from her fiercely secular friends, who she feared might paint her in saffron.With the rise in religious fundamentalism around the world, it is increasingly difficult to talk about one’s deepest beliefs. Liberal Hindus are reluctant to admit to being Hindu for fear they will be linked to the RSS. Liberal Christians and liberal Muslims abroad have had the same experience. Part of the reason that the sensible idea of secularism is having so much difficulty finding a home in India is that the most vocal and intellectual advocates of secularism were once Marxists. Not only do they not believe in God, they actually hate God. As rationalists they can only see the dark side of religion -- intolerance, murderous wars and nationalism and cannot empathize with the everyday life of the common Indian for whom religion gives meaning to every moment. Secularists speak a language alien to the vast majority, so they are only able to condemn communal violence but not to stop it, as Mahatma Gandhi could, in East Bengal in 1947.

Part of the problem stems from ignorance. Our children do not grow up reading our ancient classics, certainly not with a critical mind as youth in the West read their works of literature and philosophy in school and college. In India, some get to know about epics from their grandmothers; others read the stories in Amar Chitra Katha comics or watch them in television serials.If Italian children can read Dante’s Divine Comedy in school, English children can read Milton and Greek children can read the Illiad, why should “secularist” Indians be ambivalent about the Mahabharata? It is true that the Mahabharata has lots of gods and in particular that elusive divinity, Krishna, who is up to all kinds of devious activities. But so are Dante, Milton and Homer filled with God or gods?I suspect Mahatma Gandhi would have understood my dilemma about teaching the Mahabharata in our schools. He instinctively grasped the place of the epic in an Indian life and he would have approved of what V S Sukthankar wrote: “The Mahabharata is the content of our collective unconscious .... We must therefore grasp this great book with both hands and face it squarely. Then we shall recognize that it is our past which has prolonged itself into the present. We are it." The epic has given me great enjoyment in the past six years and I have become a Mahabharata addict. I feel sad that so many boys and girls in India are growing up rootless, and they will never have access to these forbidden fruits of pleasure.As we think about sowing the seeds of secularism in India, we cannot just divide Indians between communalists and secularists. That would be too easy. The average Indian is decent and is caught in the middle. To achieve a secular society, believers must tolerate each other’s beliefs as well as the atheism of non-believers. Hindu nationalists must resist hijacking our religious past and turning it into votes. Secularists must learn to respect the needs of ordinary Indians for a transcendental life beyond reason. Only then will secularism find a comfortable home in India. posted by gurcharan at 1:05 PM 13 comments

OPED Thursday, October 1, 2009 Email Print A nation in amnesia Hiranmay Karlekar Why pundits ignore Sri Aurobindo’s vision

Prof Sachidananda Mohanty says in his well-written and painstakingly-researched work, Sri Aurobindo: A Contemporary Reader (Routledge), “I have often wondered why university intellectuals are reluctant to engage with Sri Aurobindo.” To this writer, the answer lies in the fact that most contemporary university intellectuals are unfamiliar with — and/or have no interest in — the Vedas, Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita and the Brahma Sutras which constitute the spiritual architecture of the monotheistic philosophy and monist spirituality of the Vedantic view of life. Nor are they acquainted with the Purans, the great epics, Ramayan and Mahabharat, which illustrate the application of the cardinal principals underlying this view to a spiritual and moral universe that includes gods, human beings, and non-human living beings.

There is no point in blaming Thomas Babington Macaulay and the system of Western education through English medium instruction that he introduced. Sri Aurobindo was himself a product of that system, though his exposure to it was in England from his early boyhood. Contact with the ideas generated by the post-Renaissance and post-Enlightenment Western intellectual tradition through the medium of the English language contributed to the emergence of Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay, Iswarchandra Vidyasagar, Michael Madhusudan Dutt, Maharshi Devendranath and his son Rabindranath Tagore, Swami Vivekanand, Jagadish Chandra Bose, Romesh Chandra Dutt, Gopal Krishna Gokhale, Bal Gangadhar Tilak and a host of other stalwarts. Familiar with the discourse at the heart of Western culture, they used the critical methods and analytical tools that evolved in its matrix, to interrogate and revive their own civilisational heritage in which they were firmly rooted. Two major consequences followed the 19th Century Bengal Renaissance and similar intellectual ferments, albeit on much smaller scales, elsewhere in India, and the reform movements of which the two main — but totally contrary in character — ones were spearheaded by the Brahmo Samaj and Arya Samaj respectively.

There were, doubtless, others who were dazzled by the military and economic power of imperial Britain, which they attributed to the superiority of Western culture. In a parallel process, they denigrated India’s traditional civilisation which they held responsible for the country’s social, intellectual and moral degradation that led to colonial rule. They, however, constituted a marginal presence thanks to continuing surge of the national sentiment during the struggle. Unfortunately, independence blunted the edge of Indian nationalism which had been sharpened by the humiliating and exploitative character of British rule. From an active presence, nationalism was relegated to the backwaters of one’s consciousness and surged to the fore only in times of national crises like wars with China in 1962 and Pakistan in 1947-49, 1965, 1971 and 1999. The result was a decline of interest in the cultural wellsprings that to a large extent defined the national identity of a vast majority of Indians. The second reason was the influence of Marxism over a growing body of Indian intellectuals. Marx was not the virulent denigrator of religion that he is made out to be. Apart from the intellectual attraction of his philosophy, his attitude toward religion, however, influenced his Indian adherents. He wrote in A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, “Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.”

However carefully nuanced Marx’s critique, his rejection of religion was total; so was that by Marxist intellectuals, whose influence grew in a great measure because of the support of the entire global and Indian Communist movements behind them. On the other hand, the Vedantic tradition no longer had a charismatic leader like Swami Vivekanand and Sri Aurobindo or a stalwart literary and mystical figure like Rabindranath Tagore. Finally, given the growing complexity of modern societies and the increasing importance social, political, administrative and economic activity, subjects related to these commanded precedence in the universities. Growing specialisation in the academic world left one with little time for anything-including one’s own spiritual heritage and its exponents — outside one’s own discipline. This is an absolute shame. Sri Aurobindo’s universal and cosmic vision has much to offer to a troubled world.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Confusing Ken Wilber's Integral Movement with Integral Yoga of Sri Aurobindo

M. Alan Kazlev is a self-taught esotericist and metaphysician, science fiction writer and fan, amateur biologist and palaeontologist, and student of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother's teachings and yoga. His website is at and he can be contacted at alankazlev (at) ihug (dot) com (dot) au (sorry – problems with spam!). For Integral World he has written two series of essays on integral philosophy: Towards a Larger View of Integral (4 Parts) and Integral Esotericism (8 Parts). In the following essay he gives on overview of the integral landscape.

Redefining Integral M. Alan Kazlev

Authors note: this essay builds upon and incorporates an earlier blog post on Integral Praxis . In the process of writing it, I revised and refined my original position considerably, so that in places it is almost unrecognisable. I would like to thank everyone who commented on these posts and added their own feedback and critiques; I have tried to incorporate this into the current thesis. To help with the flow of text, I have avoided the use of footnotes in this essay. There is also a pragmatic reason for this: in order to cite everything the essay would need many pages of footnotes! Instead, important books have been referenced in the text itself. I have also included various on-line urls, but again, not a comprehensive selection. This essay updates and complements my earlier essays on Integral World

1. Synopsis
In this essay, I re-define "Integral" in a way that includes all current definitions. This involves five definitions: Religious, Theoretical, Practical, Enlightened, and Divinised. Each of these definitions is defined. Of these, the first is considered pseudo-integral, the others authentically integral. This gives us a broader framework that can accommodate, but also go beyond, the various more limited definitions. A lot of difficulty also arises from confusing the Integral Movement as defined by Ken Wilber and Don Beck with Integral Yoga as defined by Sri Aurobindo. I show that these are very different; they are radically different teachings based on totally different states of consciousness..

A sequence of stages of the evolution of consciousness and society is also presented, which includes stages beyond the current Post-Materialism and Integral stages consciousness, is suggested, and the first of these, called Post-Integral, is briefly described.

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Integral Theory
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Poststructuralism and Postmodernism
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The Wilber-Combs Lattice Revisited
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Postmodern Spirituality, Part I
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Tuesday, July 07, 2009

The first and the last thing in Sri Aurobindo is to exceed one’s own self

Let our mind be free from all conventional separative thoughts including religion and nationality
Posted by
Debabrata Ghosh on October 9, 2008 at 11:28am

For a long time I have severed all connections from my official religion-Hinduism. I do not participate in any religious ceremony. Not because that I hate them but because it all seem to me sheer childishness. I am more than convinced that the days of religion have gone. I do not know how one goes to a temple or a church to worship. [...] Aspiration

BABUL'S WORLD -10 October 2008 Birth of New Spiritualism After Three Thousand Years

Some personal stray thoughts: From my very childhood I have been inclined to spiritual matters. This is not to say that I felt god-ward emotion as we find in sadhus and yogis. Neither was I a spiritual seeker in my life. What interested me was to know how God exits and in what way he is related to our lives. This is also not to say that I had philosophical bend in my mind.

I was born in a very spiritual and religious family. But as the family was deeply rooted in Sri Ramakrishna –we were not conventionally religious. Sri Ramakrishna and Vivekananda rid many Hindus –especially Bengali Hindus, of the debris of conservative Hinduism. The disciples and the followers of Sri Ramakrishna and Vivekananda were enlightened neo-Hindus then. My grandfather and grandmother were initiated by Sri Sarada Devi-whom we knew as Ma in our family. All the sons and daughters of my grandfather were initiated by this and that of the twelve sanyasin disciples of Sri Ramakrishna.

We lived in Ranchi then permanently. My grandfather was one of the founders of Sri Ramakrishna Mission at Ranchi. So our house was frequently visited by the different sadhus and sanyasins and they stayed in our house whenever they felt necessary. So it was natural for me to grow as a strong believer in God. There was a strong presence of Sri Ramakrishna in our home. Sri Ramakrishna was our God. He was with us in every moment –in all the events good and bad. I loved him-sincerely loved him. I still love him.

But I had questions –which grew in numbers and in strength as I kept growing in age. One day when I was ten years-I suddenly got out of my otherwise normal calm mind and asked my aunt-a very devoted woman “If India is so rich and great with her Vedas, Upanishads, Gita-and with the numerous sadhus, monks, yogis and devotees sacrificing so much for the sake of God-why is this country suffering from poverty, diseases and illiteracy? Why are we lagging behind the West? [...]

There can not be a religion with Sri Aurobindo
Posted by
Debabrata Ghosh on October 17, 2008 at 8:00pm

View Debabrata Ghosh's blog

By what I may consider myself a person –free from all religions? Broadly speaking, the atheists also follow some systems of thoughts and belief that help them exist comfortably. It’s like unconsciously holding to the root of a sense of certainty of their existence. There must be an axiom which helps to prove other truths. For man this axiom is hidden and unknown to him. But he feels the urge to cling to it for existential justification. When it is said that man can not live by bread alone –the need for bread is more emphasised than other psychological requirements. But a deep insight into the needs of man reveals that the most essential requirement in him is his sense of existence. The bread is essential for physical survival –but the basic root of this survival is a sense of assertion of survival. For man this sense of survival is not merely sensory. It’s a sense that gives him an identity as distinguished from amorphous mass of life. He wants to see or assert himself as an individual that is justifiably co-related to that which is greater than him-his personal self. To be specific we may say that man wants to belong to a system-that sustains his existence. If he fails to understand that ‘required system’-he would find out one according to his nature and understanding. The scientist does not believe that he is guided by someone we call God. So he tries to discover in his own way the truths and powers that govern his life and the world. It’s the essential satisfaction of existential nature. There can be no sense of uncertainty in our feeling of living in life. If we are unable to find any –we go on creating or imagining one to adhere to. So –the most interesting thing is that an atheist also believes that he is driven by a system –and in his case –it’s not God.

This innate existential seeking has necessarily a tendency to form an external system in order to get it complied with the inner urge. Externally this is the cause of religions to meet this demand of existence of human life. Man gets relief in the fold of religion; his all is gathered into a certainty. He is given a world he is able to believe in and gets the ways and means to walk on it with his convincingly secure feeling. In religion he is justified of his physical, vital and mental instincts and perhaps is better satisfied. It’s because the sense of control over the baser impulses helps man to enjoy more under sanction of the authority of his religion. So in religion only man gets a justified ground of existence and the rightful approval of meeting his natural instincts with control. And it is this religion that sets before man a higher truth, a higher way of life. So in religion man also gets an opportunity to pursue his higher urge. So basically in this higher ideal held by all major religions as districts from the impulses of lower nature –man finds a higher and vaster sky for his possibilities. There is no doubt that in religion man finds himself more than what he is ordinarily. Here in this aspect, the gate of original inner urge of existential nature is more opened and man gets more space to satisfy the dignity of his existence.

Those who criticise religions forget that religion is an essential natural phenomenon of man’s search and fulfilment –and the consequent exteriorisation of the hidden urge of life. There is no denying the fact that it is the same religion that shackles, fetters and tortures man and prevent him to go beyond the established and fixed periphery to be otherwise for the same reason that is behind the growth of religion. Religion helps man to gather around a set of principles for grasping the reason of his existence but it never allows him to go outside this frame. The principles of life on which a religion is based –gradually turn into the rules of a structure. The tree now wants to explain the seed. The root of this contradiction lies in the overriding prominence of collective system against the urge of individual for further progress. The truth always comes through individual and through the individual it holds the collective group.

So it is individual who whenever rises against a past dogma in favour of a living truth –the collective opposition (in the form of religion) stands against it. So we have witnessed in the process of history the battles between newness and progressive thoughts- and between religions also. As I have told above that we can not afford to be outside religions-of any kind for fear of losing truths that sustain us-identify us.

This is the apparent and external truth for religions growing strength in collective human groups. But there is a force and power behind the foundation of religion which is not physical. In all the major religions and paths there are spiritual powers that form them as new ways and influences for the world in given times through Avatars, Bibhutis and other higher mental or vital incarnations for the general progressions of human consciousness. These incarnations from higher spiritual regions are essential in the progression of consciousness in evolutionary process behind manifestation of higher principles of existence. But in the process of time all the new principles go on creating norms, rules, creeds etc because of mind’s ways to grasp the newness. Ultimately –it is the principle of mind and also of vital consciousness that are responsible for the creeds of religions or the religiosity. The truth has been asked heaven’s sanction for earth’s service. This degeneration of spiritual truth in the life and mind of human beings is best described by Sri Aurobindo in the following lines of his Life Divine.

"...The religious idea has been turned into an excuse for the worship and service of the human ego. Religion, leaving constantly its little shining core of spiritual experience, has lost itself in the obscure mass of its ever extending ambiguous compromises with life: in attempting to satisfy the thinking mind, it more often succeeded in oppressing or fettering it with a mass of theological dogmas; while seeking to net the human heart, it fell itself into pits of pietistic emotionalism and sensationalism; in the act of annexing the vital nature of man to dominate it, it grew itself vitiated and fell a prey to all the fanaticism, homicidal fury, savage or harsh turn for oppression, pullulating falsehood, obstinate attachment to ignorance to which that vital nature is prone; its desire to draw the physical in man towards God betrayed it into chaining itself to ecclesiastic mechanism, hollow ceremony and lifeless ritual.”

Now let us consider this aspect of religion for the devotees of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother. But before giving any opinion we must compare some aspects of existing religious communities with that of the followers of Sri Aurobindo. Basically a person to follow and believe in the path of Sri Aurobindo for a meaning and justification of life –does not require coming into any fold of a collective group or community. Actually –there is no external path at all in Sri Aurobindo. There is no creed and we may better say that there can not be any creed and ritual for a person (or a sadhak) who are in the way towards Supramental consciousness. The follower of Sri Aurobindo –if he/she so chooses may live a life without attaching himself/herself to any group or attending any ceremony –even if these are in the name of Sri Aurobindo. A follower of Sri Aurobindo must shun all beliefs, notions, impressions and preferences that he/she has learnt from the society, religion, community, nationality. He or she must make efforts to be bare of all ideas –in order to help the Divine hands to mould him/her in Its own way-contrary to the ways as conceived by human mind. For the first and the last thing in Sri Aurobindo –is to exceed one’s own self –exceeding the very manhood for the attainment of Supermanhood. There is no specific ways to attain it. One must find one’s soul for a true direction and follow it in every movement of life-as ‘All life is yoga’. One need not de-convert one’s religious identity in order to follow Sri Aurobindo.

One may argue that it’s true for all the true destination of all religions-i.e. to stand naked with God. But there is a difference here. One must accept everything that comes to him in the process of life externally and internally in order to transform them. It’s because this a follower Sri Aurobindo does not and can not have any defined form and status of his/her God. Because one must rise beyond the world of Gods and for that matter the world of mind. Sri Aurobindo –time and again warned and advised his disciples and followers –not to make any effort to understand the Supramental consciousness. One must surrender all of one’s life to the Divine. So does it not sound ridiculous that one’s surrendering everything to the Divine –is also a kind of a religion?

Secondly –it may also be argued that a follower of Sri Aurobindo or a believer of his vision of future of humanity is not necessarily a sadhak of Supramental Yoga. There are innumerable persons who are believers of his philosophy but are not active sadhakas. These people are being grouped here and there in the various parts of the world. And as they stand distinctively separate from other religious identities –they are obviously be branded as belonging also to a faith –however great that may be. Whether we like it or not, they, by virtue of believing in a separate way-are helping to form another religion with Sri Aurobindo. But seeing it in that way is missing an important truth relating to psychology of religion. Actually the people belonging to this category are elites in psychology. The very elitism with the truth of Sri Aurobindo is a deterrent to religious movements. Unlike other religious groups they will help creating a psychology in favour of union of different faiths and ways while remaining unbiased above every divisive tendency. These groups of people having a mental inclination for Sri Aurobindo are essential for the hidden Supramental urge –for gradual building of a stimulating base for its actions on the sadhakas and also the humanity in general. But the people belonging to other religions may brand them as belonging to a religion other than the religions they belong to. But at the same time they will not consider them a community harmful to any religious beliefs.

These people will walk and move in the light of a higher consciousness and will never act with any religious impulse. Sri Aurobindo appeared to lift humanity into an integral truth consciousness from this divisive world of mind. If we believe that by accepting the teachings of Sri Aurobindo –we become a part of a separate religion then there lies a serious misunderstanding in our reading of Sri Aurobindo. If any religious-minded person does not feel comfortable amongst a group of followers of Sri Aurobindo then by the person’s religiosity can in no way establish a fact that by refusing to believe in the religious ways of the person the group has its own religion also other than the religion of the person. The Christianity was once enraged by the opinion of Galileo Galilee. This fact can not be explained by a kind of strife between two belief-systems. Galileo was not a follower of any faith in his discovery. He was mere aware of the truth. Aspiration

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Overcoming death, pain, and loss is the emotional driver of traditional religious spirituality

Spirituality Without Faith
These remarks are based on a talk given for the Humanist Association of Massachusetts in June of 2001 and were published in the Humanist, January, 2002.

Characteristics of Spirituality
Authentic spirituality involves an emotional response, what I will call the spiritual response, which can include feelings of significance, unity, awe, joy, acceptance, and consolation. Such feelings are intrinsically rewarding and so are sought out in their own right, but they also help us in dealing with difficult situations involving death, loss, and disappointment. The spiritual response thus helps meet our affective needs for both celebration and reconciliation. As Richard Dawkins puts it in his book Unweaving the Rainbow, we have an "appetite for wonder," an appetite for evoking the positive emotional states that are linked to our deepest existential questions.

But what might evoke these states? Spirituality often involves a cognitive context, a set of beliefs about oneself and the world which can both inspire the spiritual response and provide an interpretation of it. Our ideas about what ultimately exists, who we fundamentally are, and our place in the greater scheme of things form the cognitive context for spirituality. By contemplating such beliefs we are temporarily drawn out of the mundane into the realization of life’s deeper significance, and this realization generates emotional effects. But equally, the spiritual response thus generated is itself interpreted in the light of our basic beliefs; namely, it is taken to reflect the ultimate truth of our situation as we conceive it. The cognitive context of spirituality and the spiritual response are therefore linked tightly in reciprocal evocation and validation.

A third essential component of spirituality is what is ordinarily called spiritual practice. Since the intellectual appreciation of fundamental beliefs alone may not suffice to evoke a particularly deep experience, various non-cognitive techniques can help to access the spiritual response. Activities such as dance, singing, chant, meditation, and participation in various rituals and ceremonies all can play a role in moving us from the head to the heart. And it is in the heart, or gut, after all, where we find the most powerful intrinsic rewards of spirituality, as profound as its cognitive context might be.

Although the emotional content of the spiritual response - feelings of connection, significance, serenity, acceptance – is common to all spirituality, the background beliefs and specific practices vary tremendously. Almost all of us have the biological capacity to feel spiritually transported, but the cognitive context of those moments and the techniques to induce them are a matter of our culture. A fascinating variety of spiritual traditions have arisen, ranging from the rigorous, ascetic regimes of Zen meditation to the ecstatic communal celebration of a Sunday morning gospel service, and each tradition has its own conception of the world and the individual’s place in it. Stemming from these beliefs there are a multiplicity of spiritual objects of veneration, of deeper realities to be encountered: God, Earth, Nature, Emptiness, angels, devils, ancestors, previous incarnations, the Force, you name it (for a current, pop-cultural sampling of these, visit Beliefnet). For each tradition, spiritual experience is taken to be the direct appreciation of the ultimate truth about the world, a way to transcend one’s limited everyday perspective in the quest for meaning, unity, and serenity.

Traditional Spirituality
Many, if not most of these traditions, as well as some "New Age" beliefs, involve the idea of a distinct spiritual realm, something set apart or above the everyday physical world (some types of Buddhism being notable exceptions, of which more below). The varieties of spirituality are thus to a great extent varieties of dualism, at least in their cognitive contexts (belief systems). But why should this be the case? What drives the intuition that we and the world we inhabit are of two natures, one physical and one immaterial?

Part of the answer lies in our instinctive fear of death, which many religions allay by positing an immortal soul or spiritual essence which survives bodily dissolution. We gain ultimate security by virtue of being, in our true selves, something other than the physical, something that joins with a larger, non-physical and changeless realm after death. Overcoming death, pain, and loss is thus the emotional driver of traditional religious spirituality. We want cosmic reassurance, to be exemptions from mere material, changeable nature, and our spiritual nature functions to connect us with that which is changeless and immortal. Thus the fear of death and its standard religious solution produce the dualism of body and spirit, of the natural and supernatural. Such dualism, of course, is central to religious traditions such as Christianity, Islam, and Judaism which have held sway for millennia in much of the world. (It should be noted, however, that some contemporary theologians have questioned this dualism, reaching nearly naturalistic conclusions about human nature, if not God’s. See, for instance, Whatever Happened to the Soul?, edited by Warren S. Brown, Nancey Murphy, and H. Newton Malony, Fortress Press, 1998.)

Not just religion, but the Western philosophical tradition too has shaped the more or less commonsense view that we exist as bodies inhabited by souls, spirits, or mental agents. Cartesian mind-body dualism, although widely rejected in the current academic philosophical and scientific communities, is still the norm in lay culture. Such secular dualism comports well with the comforting tenets of religion, even if it no longer has a scientific basis. Moreover, it has to be conceded that it certainly feels, at first blush, as if we are more than strictly material creatures. Who is it, after all, that is looking out at the world, having feelings, thinking thoughts, and making choices? Surely it can’t just be my physical brain that does all that. Given these historical and psychological factors, it’s perhaps not surprising that varieties of dualism still dominate in both the secular and spiritual arenas. [...]

Difficulties with Traditional Spirituality
As much as the characteristics of traditional spirituality provide answers to the questions of death and meaning, two major drawbacks are evident. The problem of death is solved by splitting ourselves into two substances - one material and perishable, the other spiritual and immortal - but as a result the material becomes inherently inferior in its changeability. The physical becomes the merely physical - it assumes a second class metaphysical status. This in turn leads to alienation from our physical selves and indeed from the material world as a whole. Gross matter is denigrated in comparison to subtle spirit, and the material only has value to the extent that it is animated and directed by spirit. It can’t accomplish anything of significance on its own. But of course we are embodied, and our world is material, so from this alienated perspective most of our lives is an unfortunate entanglement with crass physicality while awaiting the better, immaterial world to come.

Added to the dualism of substance is the dualism of having two types of knowledge, ordinary empirical knowledge derived from the senses and confirmed intersubjectively (e.g., as in science) and the knowledge gained from the personal revelations of spiritual experience. Despite the arguments of some, such as Stephen J. Gould in his book Rocks of Ages, that these constitute "non-overlapping magisteria" which can’t conflict since they have fundamentally different concerns, the fact remains that both sorts of knowledge make claims about what ultimately exists and they reach different conclusions. Science gives us no reason to believe in the supernatural (there is no scientifically admissible evidence for such a realm), while the firm intuition of spiritual experience, as interpreted within its traditional, non-naturalistic cognitive context, is precisely that a separate immaterial reality indeed exists. If I make use of both methods of knowing, then eventually it is likely I will confront some basic cognitive dilemmas: which method, and therefore which conclusion, is correct? In deciding the momentous question of what fundamentally exists, on what grounds do I choose science over spirituality, or visa versa? When do I stick with my spiritual intuitions, and when do I stick with science?

The upshot is that these two dualisms, one metaphysical, one epistemological, put adherents of traditional spirituality in a poor position to achieve, in this world, the apprehension of fundamental unity, even if they are promised salvation in the next. And unity, of course, is the essence of spirituality. Being of two natures and two minds, the traditional spiritualist is torn between the physical and immaterial world and unified with neither. Naturalists, I believe, suffer no such handicaps in their approach to ultimate concerns.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Economics must be handed back to the humanities

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Alok Sheel: Of economists and historians
Economics must be handed back to the humanities
Business Standard - New Delhi June 13, 2009, 0:53 IST
As an erstwhile keen graduate student of history who stumbled into finance and economics as a professional hazard, I was not a little bemused by the recent spat between Paul Krugman and Niall Ferguson, first in public debate, and subsequently spilling over onto the pages of Financial Times.

Unsurprisingly, the Nobel Laureate and Princeton economist faulted the Harvard historian for his shallow understanding of economics, in this case the theories of John Maynard Keynes. How could fiscal deficits and quantitative easing by central banks exert upward pressure on interest rates and prices, argued Krugman, when these are merely substituting for private demand in a depression?

As it turns out, Ferguson does know his Keynes, but has also read Karl Marx the historian who was acutely aware that moments in history are never repeated no matter how similar they might appear. All historical events occur as it were twice, he argued, the first time as a tragedy, the second time as a farce, while comparing Napoleon III with THE Napoleon. Since this is not the Great Depression, economists have struggled to come up with the right mix of policy tools to address the current global crisis. While helpful, the lessons derived from the Great Depression seem hardly adequate.

Krugman’s judgment may well be nearer the mark than Ferguson’s, but that is not the point. It is the presumption that the science of economics is somehow subject to some universal, natural laws which is the issue. Graduate students of history in my time were all too frequently at the receiving end of such below-the-belt punches. Economists, after all, were the awesome rocket scientists of the social sciences, complete with calculus, regressions, complex equations and econometric models. The Nobel Prize Committee amplified their rocket science status. Historians were empiricists par excellence, whose explanations were intangible, long-winding and subsumed in lengthy narratives. They had no methodological tools of their own, for which they fell back on other disciplines such as sociology, anthropology, political science, philosophy, psychology, archaeology, demography, even physics at times, and, inter alia, economics. Even the narrative was borrowed from literature. Who would even consider a historian for a obel Prize?

Historians are perennially afflicted by self-doubt, much like Woody Allen in his trademark movies: Was why things turned out the way they did any different from how they turned out? Were all historical explanations merely a particular point of view, and could there be different equally valid ways of explaining the same past? Perhaps each generation had to rewrite history since they asked different questions of their past? Can you really know the past as it really was? Are historical facts really facts or preselected events refracted through ideology? What is a historical fact anyway? Your reading this newspaper is unlikely to be classified as a historical fact, right? But what if you were the first human with whom intelligent extraterrestrials established contact, and this occurred at the precise moment you were reading this paper? Caesar’s crossing the Rubicon is a fact of history because it was a turning point in history. Otherwise the crossing would have gone unrecorded, like several crossings before and after.

Fascinating though such questions are, since they are given to philosophical self-doubts, historians generally keep to themselves and their obscure treatises. They are not given to striking back at economists who are generally precise and sure about all that they do, even though economists advising policymakers are known to spawn more than two hands. Uncharacteristically, Niall Ferguson the historian hit back. The cat was perhaps emboldened to look the lion in the eye on account of the collateral damage to economics’ status as a rocket science by the current global crisis, and its consequential relegation as a humble social science, buffeted by the unpredictable winds of human choice, cultural differences and change over time. Like history has always been. The rational, profit-maximising and predictable homo economicus that has made economics the dismal science, is simply not homo sapiens sapiens.

What is the difference between rocket science and social science? While tomes can be, and have been, written on the subject, there is a simple ‘apple’ test derived from the great philosopher, Karl Popper. Newton is famously known to have stumbled upon his theory of gravity through an epiphany observing apples falling to the ground. Because the theory of gravity lays claim to universal validity, you can on its basis predict that every apple will eventually fall to the ground, when certain conditions relating to maturity, wind strength, inertia, etc, are satisfied. The flipside of the prediction is that it needs just one apple to head skywards instead of falling to the ground to disprove the theory of gravity. You can also, on the basis of such predictions, send a space probe to Jupiter. The predictions of economists, on the other hand — just look at successive growth revisions to IMF’s World Economic Outlook — go awry most of the time. Yet the underlying theories seem to survive amongst their adherents, and continue to be used for predicting the future as if they were natural laws. There are two disciplines one can think of that continue making predictions that are repeatedly disproved in the real world, and yet continue to claim a wide following. One is astrology, and the other is theology.

This is not a plea for debunking economics for, like history, it has very powerful tools to understand the world and also give insights into our future. If history is amongst the oldest of human disciplines, trade, exchange and surplus distribution — the stuff economics is made of — are known to exist in most primitive human societies, and several ancient texts such as Kautilya’s Artha Shastra and Ibn Khaldun’s Muqaddimah deliberated these matters over the ages, long before the classical economists of the seventeenth century. If only the socialist regimes of the twentieth century had heeded the sage advice of the 14th-century Arab part-time economist that ‘the trading of the ruler may cause the destruction of civilisation and hence the destruction of the dynasty’!

I have learnt as much from economics as I have from history not only to understand the real world but also for formulating policy as a civil servant. Rather, this is a plea for rescuing the discipline of economics from the jaws of rocket scientists and mathematicians and handing it back to macro-economists, economic historians and political-economists. Social scientists need to reclaim the dismal science and spruce it up. There are after all other social sciences, such as psychology, that economics can turn to, to make it both more colourful and this-worldly, as George Akerlof, Robert Shiller and Richard Thaler have shown recently. The writer is a civil servant. Views are personal.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Vibhuti is something between a man and an avatar

Extras, Walk-Ons, and Bit Players in the Cosmo-Drama from One Cosmos by Gagdad Bob
Theo-drama cannot be understood in the absence of mission. You might say that mission is to action -- or to the horizontal -- what intellection is to thought or to the vertical. Mission is a further extension of meaning. In any drama, the action is dictated by a meaning-fueled mission of some kind. For example, the other evening I watched Bergman's The Seventh Seal. It is about a disillusioned knight who has returned from the Crusades to his plague-devastated homeland, and is in doubt about the existence of God. He then encounters the figure of Death, who informs him that his days are over. However, he strikes a deal with Death, challenging him to a game of chess. So long as he can keep the game going, Death will give him more time -- the time he needs to try to find God.Thus, the film would mean nothing if the knight's mission weren't our mission...

In Vedanta, there is the concept of the vibhuti, which is something between a man and an avatar, the latter being an incarnation of God. The vibhuti is here with a divine mission, but it needn't be a strictly religious one. It can be political, aesthetic, scientific, anything that advances the Cause.

Often we may detect a vibhuti by their own strong sense of divine mission, combined with an ability to surpass themselves in mysterious ways; when they align themselves with their mission, they partake of powers that are not their own. Thus, they may appear powerful, but in reality must humbly submit to their mission. Their courage is in their submission. One thinks of Abraham Lincoln, or Winston Churchill, or Saint Paul, or the founding fathers, by no means "perfect men," but protagonists of "perfect missions," so to speak. The sense of "ultimate mission" allowed each of these men to risk their lives in their diverse actions.

Here is how Aurobindo described the vibhuti in a letter to a disciple: "A Vibhuti is supposed to embody some power of the Divine and is enabled by it to act with great force in the world, but that is all that is necessary to make him a Vibhuti: the power may be very great, but the consciousness is not that of an inborn or indwelling Divinity.... "

He adds that "the Vibhuti need not even know that he is a power of the Divine. Some Vibhutis, like Julius Caesar for instance, have been atheists. Buddha himself did not believe in a personal God, only in some impersonal and indescribable Permanent."

I'm not necessarily suggesting that Aurobindo is correct, I'm just "throwing it out there." Of course, for the Christian, there has been only one avatar, but that needn't imply that there hasn't been an abundance of lesser vibhutis. Indeed, I would suggest that the theo-drama is incomprehensible in the absence of the vibhuti principle, i.e., those vital supporting roles such as Abraham, Moses, David, John the Baptist, et al. These were hardly bit players in the theo-drama.

Saturday, June 06, 2009

Sri Aurobindo committed himself mainly to the liberation of human consciousness

Renaissance man of India
By Jagmohan
May 30: Every nation has its own special attributes: Germany has its organisational abilities, the United States has enterprise, Japan has adaptability and the United Kingdom has balance. The hallmark of India, in its hey-days, was the power and profundity of her mind and the purity and punctiliousness of her soul. It was this power and purity which made Indian civilisation one of the most creative and constructive civilizations in the world. In his own inimitable style, Sri Aurobindo had noted:

"For 3,000 years she has been creating abundantly and incessantly, lavishly… republics and kingdoms and empires, philosophies and cosmogonies and sciences and creeds and arts and poems and all kinds of monuments and public works, communities and societies and religious orders, laws and codes and rituals, physical sciences, psychic sciences, systems of yoga, politics and administration, arts spiritual, arts worldly, trades, industries, fine crafts — the list is endless and in each item there is almost a plethora of activity".

The saints and sages of ancient India injected power and potency in the Indian mind. In turn, this power and potency added to the capacity of the sages and saints to think deeply on the phenomena around. One of the fundamental truths discovered by them was that the universe is an organic web in which every life is inextricably enmeshed with the other and that this web is permeated with cosmic force of which man and nature were constituents as well as contributors.

A philosophic structure, in the form of Vedanta, was raised and a way of attaining elevation of mind and moving towards truth, while carrying on with day to day work, was indicated through a comprehensive system of yoga.

Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons, the power of the Indian mind, which had produced profound systems and structures, began to wane after the 7th century. Soon there was a near total desertification of the Indian mind, with small meadows of green appearing here and there occasionally. The "mighty evil" that had invaded the Indian mind and soul was, to a large extent, beaten back by a galaxy of profound thinkers and reformers who brought about a new awakening that led to the great renaissance of the later 19th century and early 20th century.

Out of the stalwarts of renaissance, Sri Aurobindo emerged as the strongest champion of the Indian spirit and expressed the highest confidence in its underlying strength. In no uncertain terms, he declared:

"India cannot perish, our race cannot become extinct, because among all the divisions of mankind it is to India that is reserved the highest and most splendid destiny, the most essential to the future of the human race. It is she who must send forth from herself the future religion of the entire world, the eternal religion which is to harmonise all religion, science and philosophies and make mankind one soul".

In Sri Aurobindo’s thought, the Sanatan Dharm and India always appear as two sides of the same coin. But in his famous Uttarapar speech, delivered on May 30, 1909, he placed the former at a higher pedestal:

"When, therefore, it is said that India shall rise, it is the Sanatan Dharm that shall rise. When it is said that India shall be great, it is the Sanatan Dharm that shall be great. When it is said that India shall expand and extend herself, it is the Sanatan Dharm that shall expand and extend itself over the world".

Sri Aurobindo makes it clear that Sanatan Dharm is designed to uplift the entire human race and not merely the Hindus:

"What is this religion which we call Sanatan, eternal. It is the Hindu religion only because the Hindu nation has kept it... But it is not circumscribed by the confines of a single country. That which we call the Hindu religion is really the eternal religion because it is the universal religion which embraces all others".

It needs to be underlined that in the post-Uttarpara-speech period, Sri Aurobindo committed himself mainly to the liberation of human consciousness. He made it clear: "Spirituality is India’s only politics, the fulfillment of Sanatan Dharm its only swaraj". A regenerated India alone, he said, could free the world from its "enslavement to materialism" and for pointing it to the "way towards a dynamic integration of spirit and matter and to make life perfect with divine perfection". He believed that a greater evolution was the real goal of humanity.

After Sri Aurobindo’s thought had undergone a subtle shift at Uttarpara on May 30, 1909, his vision was to liberate India’s consciousness and bring back Sanatan Dharm as India’s "national religion" — a religion which is all embracing, non-sectarian and eternal. His vision was to build a nation of karmayogis who would have a higher consciousness, be rid of egos, desires and attachments, have no joy over their successes and no grief over their failures, achieve inner rather than outer renunciation, perform passionless and impersonal actions and take themselves to such a height where no distinction is kept between their will and the will of the divine.

But what is position today? Has not a deep and dark shadow fallen between Sri Aurobindo’s vision and the reality in India today? Do we find karmayogis around or see signs of liberation of India’s spirit? Has there been any advance towards spirituality or higher level of human consciousness? Clearly, the answer to all such questions is in the negative.

On the centenary day — May 30, 2009 — of Uttarpara speech, let all students and teachers of Sri Aurobindo’s school of thought resolve that they would not lose heart on account of current dismal scenario and would work with a renewed sense of mission to ensure that the vision of the great prophet of the 20th century is fulfilled. Undoubtedly, the task is Herculean, the goal is distant and would take a long time to traverse. But let us not forget that even the longest journey begins with the first step. Jagmohan is a former governor of J&K and a former Union minister The Asian Age - Enjoy the difference

Sri Aurobindo’s Opposition Why the Indian establishment resisted him, MANGESH V. NADKARNI The Indian Express Thursday, March 21, 2002 12:17 PM

E Pluribus Unum by Lori Tompkins The Vedic realization of the One that is equal to the Many has been recalled by Indian sage Sri Aurobindo (1872 – 1950):. ‘We see that the Absolute, the Self, the Divine, the Spirit, the Being is One; the Transcendental is one, ... Tuesday, June 2, 2009 A Blog is Born Considering disharmony is a byproduct of forgetting what one truly has in common with others, this blog is meant as a place to remind myself and my fellow earth-mates that we are not only 'one in the spirit' as the song goes, but we are also one in body and one in time. If we leave out the last two in our quest for knowledge or spiritual growth, I think harmony among human beings will remain an ideal and not a realization. Posted by Lori Tompkins at 5:47 PM 1 comments

Friday, May 15, 2009

A yawning universe under the water, teeming with life and history

A view from the water - Sagarika Ghose
Thursday, January 06, 2005 indian express

The ocean at night is still but somehow tumultuous. Waves lap against the Mila. There is a sense of a yawning universe under the water, teeming with life and history. On the night of the tsunami Allie felt a strange current. The tide, which normally takes six hours to flood, came flooding in minutes after it had ebbed. A few months ago, a huge wave knocked his boat over and he and his son spent almost the whole day swimming. A staring crowd gathered on the shore as the two swam from morning until late afternoon, when a helicopter clattered to the rescue.

Allie says he’s the smallest man in Goa, yet the scale of existence becomes gigantic on the Mila. The lights on the beach motels look ridiculously small from so far away at sea. Tiny human irrelevancies perched on the edge of acres of inky black water. The sea is a giant reclining god. If the god merely lifted his toes, avalanches of water would go skating to the shore and flood out all those little pleasure spots.

What little human virtues and vices can ever compare with this amoral magnificence? The waves are not compassionate, the sea is not sympathetic; instead the ocean is gargantuan, elemental, without any rational meaning whatsoever. Alone, Allie and his son sit framed against this beautiful malevolence. Their net is filling slowly with mackerels and sardines, the waves rock the Mila this way and that and a sudden gush of wind blows back Allie’s hair. He is elderly, tough, descended from generations of fisherfolk.

Some 30 per cent of Goa’s fishermen are Phadtes and Taris, 70 per cent are Rodrigues and D’Souza, mostly classified under the Kharvi or OBC category. As a result of Goan laws several fishermen own land but this is an exception to other parts of India.

Dawn begins to break. Soon tourists will wend their way to the shacks for fresh fried fish. Allie and Antony are happy. Their nets are heavy. Tonight they have emerged victorious against the ocean. But the ocean is only biding its time.

Saturday, May 09, 2009

Rebellion against religion bears responsibility for the 20th century's penchant for mass murder

Reclaiming Religion
Two new books respond to the anti-religion screeds of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. But are attempts to reclaim Christianity for humanism mere wishful thinking?
Nathan Schneider April 30, 2009 web only Current Issue Special Report Debates Chat Recent Articles Columnists Archive

Only Nixon could go to China, so perhaps it is only Terry Eagleton, the irreligious British literary critic, who can stand up for theology. It has been three years now since evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins set off the New Atheist controversies with his bestselling The God Delusion. Following him has been an eager crop of fellow nonbelieving snoots, on the one hand, and no end of pious refutations, on the other, all as polemically audacious as they are cosmically unsatisfying.

With Eagleton, though, there's a glimmer of hope. His October 2006 essay on Dawkins in the London Review of Books forged an intriguing middle ground in this usually polarized debate. Doubling the fun, Eagleton's new book, Reason, Faith, and Revolution, adds Christopher Hitchens to the dock, who apparently contributes so little to the discussion that the name "Ditchkins" suffices to encompass them both. The book's scope may be somewhat wider, but Eagleton's claim hasn't changed: "Such critics buy their rejection of religion on the cheap." When you actually bother to grasp what religious ideas mean and have meant throughout history, you'll find guillotining them to be neither so easy nor so desirable, Eagleton argues. You might even come to like them.

For reasons he assumes are obvious, Eagleton doesn't actually believe in all this stuff. And he isn't trying to get us, his intended audience of "radicals and humanists," to believe in it either. Fortunately, he received enough of a Catholic education from people who did believe to know that religion can offer "some valuable insights into human emancipation, in an era where the political left stands in dire need of good ideas." Shy of full-on belief, and therefore somewhat parasitically, he wants to keep theology around as a resource for politics.

The kind of theology he's talking about isn't what you'll get from the Falwells and Robertsons. It is Christian, but rooted in medieval metaphysicians, like Thomas Aquinas, and in the Latin American liberation theology of the last century -- sources the present pope, by the way, would insist are in flagrant contradiction. Eagleton's God is not some nosy pedant in the sky, but a disembodied artist made of infinite love and forgiveness. In Jesus Christ he sees a radical's radical, a troublemaker who commands his followers to question authority and give everything they have to the poor: "The only authentic image of this violently loving God is a tortured and executed political criminal." Eagleton's theology -- or at least the one he mimes -- stands for total commitment and fervent hope.

Yes, he writes, "religion has wrought untold misery in human affairs." But he also confesses, as Ditchkins refuses to do, that the rebellion against religion also bears responsibility for the 20th century's penchant for mass murder. Reason is capable of justifying horrors as much as it is of uncovering marvelous truths. The difference between the two lies in the kind of faith that lurks behind reason, guiding it. "Even Richard Dawkins," Eagleton quips, "lives more by faith than by reason." Theology is a conversation about the faiths and hopes that we all reason by, whether consciously or not. Better, then, to cultivate them mindfully before falling prey to dangerous fundamentalism, whether of the religious or secular variety.

Karl Marx taught that ideologies are the scaffolding that support unjust political arrangements; to unsettle an ideology, you have to disturb its political infrastructure. Eagleton carries this instinct over to the New Atheists. He calls Hitchens out for joining with the neocons to cheerlead the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and Dawkins for "oozing moral complacency." The implication is that their triumphant atheism legitimates a regime of Western hegemony. If Muslim extremists are victims of virus-like religious delusions, for instance, there is no need to restrain our violence against them or hear out their genuine political grievances. Logical arguments about the existence of God are only part of the issue, he insists; unreflective atheism today is a close cousin of unreflective militarism.

Indeed, Eagleton points out that the religion New Atheists keep attacking is one held by nobody but the most naive fundamentalists. It is literalistic, ahistorical, and without a shred of humanism. The account of Christianity that Eagleton offers is more palatable, though at the cost of passing over the miraculous magic tricks, like virgin births and multiplying fish, that are the bread and butter of popular religiosity everywhere. The Christianity on offer from Eagleton is so thin it's no wonder he feels no particular urgency to actually believe it. The tone of what he has called the "theological turn" in his writing amounts to a string of clever one-liners: "Like a hamster," Eagleton writes of God in Holy Terrors, "he is incapable of being untrue to his own nature." Or, from the new book: "Left-wing Christians are in dire need of dating agencies." As in recent beach-reads like A.J. Jacobs' Year of Living Biblically and David Plotz's Good Book, holy writ is reduced to a punch line, even if occasionally it's a profound one. All well and good, of course, but this might get in the way of getting skeptics to take theology seriously.

However much Eagleton's theological literacy may outreach Ditchkins', in the end, being able to drop a few lines from Aquinas still doesn't cut it. And he admits at the outset that what little he knows about Christian theology is still much more than he knows about any other tradition. He cites Marx and Freud almost as much as Jesus, and certainly more than Karl Barth. In this regard, Eagleton might defer to another reply to the New Atheists, released by Yale University Press on the same day and also with "revolution" in its title -- David Bentley Hart's Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies.

Hart, an Eastern Orthodox theologian, is one of those academics plagued by being too smart for his own good. His superhuman knowledge of the history of Christian thought, combined with a knack for body-slamming polemic, has rubbed some the wrong way. But his 2003 The Beauty of the Infinite, a profession of Christian teaching against its profoundest philosophical critics, may have already earned Hart a place of his own in the tradition he knows so well.

When Eagleton speaks of revolution, he calls to mind a pseudo-Marxist dream, admittedly betrayed by 20th-century history but still offering some hope of justice rolling down our earthly streams. Hart, though, means something rather more precise: a long, fraught process over the course of which Christianity transformed the West's idea of what it means to be human.

He tells of the great hospitals for the poor founded by early Christians, unprecedented in the pagan Roman empire; Gregory of Nyssa's sermon in 379 condemning the institution of slavery; and scriptures that audaciously claimed that a band of provincial outcasts could be apostles of God. Through the early disputes about the divine and human natures of Christ, Christian thinkers developed a "moral vision of the human person," one in which all people, regardless of social status, race, or sex, share equally in God's image and promise. Hart is not the first to contend that modern notions of universal human rights are descendants of this Christian insight. His erudition allows him to truly make the case Eagleton can only gesture at, that Christian thought is rich in resources and unique in its contributions to some of the West's most honorable ambitions for itself.

Unfortunately, Hart practices a triumphalism that distracts from the argument's force. His rosy concept of the true faith mirrors Ditchkins' concept of true reason -- one that is the cause of everything good and innocent of everything bad. After a few hundred pages of this, one starts to miss Eagleton's refreshing openness to both reasonable agnosticism and reasonable religious faith, combined with his eagerness to criticize their excesses.

Hart is at his most effecting, though, in an account of Julian the Apostate, the short-lived, fourth-century Roman emperor who tried to halt the Christianizing of the empire. Julian mounted a passionate assault on Christian theology and institutions. But the ideals he tried to assert, ultimately, had already absorbed Christianity to their core. He commanded his pagan priests to serve the poor and preach neighborly love, though their traditions provided little to draw on for such things. Hart writes that "everything Julian wanted from his chosen faith -- personal liberation and purification, a united spiritual culture, a revived civilization, moral regeneration for himself and his people -- was possible only through the agency in time of the religion he so frantically despised."

The New Atheists should remember Julian before thinking our religious heritage can be done away with so easily. Often the very standards by which they judge religion -- consistency, tolerance, and universal truth, for instance -- have roots in that heritage. (Richard Dawkins has the sense to call himself a post-Christian atheist.) Eagleton, too, might think twice about the prospects of domesticating theology as stock material for his political agenda. Just when you think you've got religion under control, you may find that it has got you. Nathan Schneider is co-editor of Killing the Buddha, an online religion magazine. He blogs at The Row Boat. © 2009 by The American Prospect, Inc.