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