Monday, January 14, 2008

Symbolism and the Ontological Argument, Part II

Literalist concepts of God were made to be mocked; they are for children. And even understood symbolically, many concepts of God are fraught with problems. In the present day world, crude literalist forms of Islam and fundamentalist Christianity are leading the charge to cause doubts in the minds of reasonable people about all forms of the religious life. And for good reason.

The purpose of the "God idea" or "God symbol" is to elevate humanity both as individuals and as social beings. If it appears to do the opposite, then what can this mean? Some defenders of religion say that it has done more good than bad, but since there is no way to measure such things it is quite easy to point out that plenty of pretty horrible evils have been wrought in the name of God and religion. Even if such a jaundiced view were to be true, on its own, it hardly functions as a decisive proof that religion does not have a positive function or that God does not exist.

Thinking of God Himself, first of all as a symbol, whose existence is in the psyche, is not a new idea, even though it has been refined by Carl Jung and his followers. The Vedantic idea of cit indicates that God, whether subjective or objective reality, is only experienced subjectively.

In modern thinking, this idea sprang into prominence in the 19th century with Ludwig Feuerbach coined the term “projection,” which was later used and popularized by Sigmund Freud and others. The implication is, like the response to the ontological argument, that the psychological need for a God may be felt, but it is illusory and the particular response to it, i.e., religious belief and practice, is false. The need is based in a host of purely natural causes, primarily the desire for love (or the sexual instinct), which has either not come to maturity (through the acceptance of reality) or been distorted or deformed by some traumatic experience.

On another level, individual life objectively lacks order, meaning or love, and yet human beings desire order, meaning, and love. Since the world can never fully provide satisfaction to all three desires when it comes to something as complex as human life, individuals and collectivities project a God to assure them that there is indeed order, meaning and love at the very basis of creation. Freud and his followers fearlessly identified this as an illusion, and boldly claimed that the need for such an illusion would eventually fall away with the maturation of humanity, in the same way that Marx believed the state would fall away in a communist society.

So far, history has not established which of these many illusions is the strongest.

Are order, meaning and love realities or illusions? To the extent that scientists have faith in order, we believe that there is one. So perhaps we project order onto our own lives, in spite of disasters like the airplane accidents or the senseless premature loss of loved ones. But if we see those elements of chaos as part of the overall order, then they are assimilated into that order and the venom is taken out of their fangs. So all religions have some defense of God to disculpate Him of evil, which is called theodicy.

Janma, mrityu, jara, vyadhi. Dukkam. They are there to remind us of the hierarchy of human needs and a host of other values. If the goal of existence was merely the fulfillment of our sensual appetites, then perhaps chaos would prevail over order. But religion and the God-ideal have taught humanity in every society that there are higher values than this. In my version of the ontological argument, the push to higher values, even if in a state of human maturity no longer requiring the overt symbolism of a God to be justified or heeded, still points to the existence of a higher truth, which for practical purpose we will designate by the word "God."

Sometimes societies or individuals have gotten overexcited by some ideals and imposed their own subjectively, historically conditioned vision of a higher value coercively, most often without giving any consideration to the possibility of relativism. It seems to me that warnings against such excesses have been there in most religions from the very beginning, but alas, not heeding warnings is part of human freedom.

Religion is a human phenomenon that is subject to the effects of the qualities of material nature: it can be godly or demoniac according to the character of the people who practice it. If we see the Ideal as a universal "God principle" and religion as the universal response to such an Ideal (whether acted upon or not), then God and religion are indeed universals.

So, let us begin with the God-symbol and ask ourselves, what is it essentially? Is it there only as a compensation for the inadequacy of our own existence? Is Marx’s famous dictum about religion being the "opium of the people" and the "cry of the forlorn" the only explanation for its existence?

Most of the traditional functions of God and religion have been usurped in the great forward march of civilization. As science becomes more and more capable of explaining phenomena, God is left only to fill in the gaps that the true believers in science feel it will inevitably explain one day. Religion as entertainment is replaced by television; religion performing a socializing function is replaced by football games and raves; religion as social work is replaced by the state and secular organizations.

Evolution in the idea of God

First of all, we have to accept the idea of evolution in the concept of God. Even if we accept that the insights of the founders of all religious schools were profound, universal and often unshakable in their power, we must recognize that whatever the purity and truth of such realizations, the ability of mankind to comprehend them has been spotty.

Nevertheless, the power of these religions to survive is not so much due to the mad molecule named “meme” as to the force of the symbols related to the ultimate ideals and meanings of mankind, namely their ability to vehicle and to express, whether in verbal or symbolic form, an ideal, or the ultimate goal of life for the human being.

And even if we do not accept that the founders of religious schools necessarily had a deeper insight into Truth—they may even have been catering to regressive forces in their societies—the symbols they introduced, either through their teachings or through the myths that they themselves embodied, [even in cases where such myths have no historical individual we can point to,] have taken on a life of their own and showed sufficient depth to allow richer, deeper meanings to be assimilated to it.

God does not change; God is infinite and infinite possibilities exist in God, but humankind’s understanding evolves as its basis for understanding grows and its power to reflect more widely grows with it.

So, there is evolution or the possibility of evolution in the understanding of what God is, and this is true for each sectarian exploration of God and the relationship that the individual has to God. From a purely material perspective this is a human adjustment on an ad hoc basis for the purpose of preserving a dubious concept. From the God’s eye view, this is humanity struggling to comprehend the revelations that God is constantly sending to it, primarily through the medium of the symbols in which God is present.

So there are two perspectives that appear to work counter to one another, but in fact these two approaches are complementary, for just as in any other field of knowledge, the science of God is also dialectical and progressive in nature.

On the one hand is the Upanishadic neti neti, the rationalists’ via negativa or deconstruction of the most vital and essential concept known to humanity, that of God. It tries to strip God of all idolatrous interpretation, all vestiges of projection and falseness.

On the other hand is the intuitive approach that recognizes God in the human, knows that the deepest symbol of Deity is to be found in what is best in humanity, in empathy, in love, in charity, in service, as well as in beauty, truth and other qualities that find their apex in their ideal human forms.

Now if someone were to say, “But the traditional sources of knowledge are most authoritative. These explain any symbols or myths in a decisive fashion. So what is all this talk about God ‘speaking to us’ through the symbols?”, to this my answer is: Yes, the discourses surrounding symbolic representations of God are indeed authoritative and to be respected because of the force they give to such symbols. But we should look at such things historically and remember that they can usually be placed in a context. For instance, Jiva’s Six Sandarbhas, at least the first four, are meant to bring us to one point—

sarvato'pi sāndrānanda-camatkāra-kāra-śrī-kṛṣṇa-prakāśe
śrī-vṛndāvane'pi paramādbhuta-prakāśaḥ
śrī-rādhayā yugalitas tu śrī-kṛṣṇa iti.
In the manifestation as Sri Krishna, which is more filled with intense wonder and joy than any other, and especially that Krishna who is most wonderfully manifest in Sri Vrindavan in the company of Srimati Radharani [is the supreme worshipable object].
And Jiva concludes the Kṛṣṇa-sandarbha with the following verse:

gaura-śyāma-rucojjvalābhir amalair akṣṇor vilāsotsavair
nṛtyantībhir aśeṣa-mādana-kalā-vaidagdhya-digdhātmabhiḥ
anyonya-priyatā-sudhā-parimala-stomonmadābhiḥ sadā
rādhā-mādhava-mādhurībhir abhitaś cittaṁ mamākrāmyatām
May my mind be overcome by the sweetness of Sri Sri Radha Madhava,
effulgent with the glow of gold and black,
dancing with the pure festive play of their eyes,
at its soul, the maddening mastery of the love arts,
always intoxicated with the intense nectarean fragrance
of their mutual love.
But what is going on here is a change in the symbolic language. Through the mercy of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, who himself incarnated the Divine Couple within himself, the sixteenth century in Hindu India saw a sort of “changing of the gods,” and Radha-Krishna became predominant. Sri Rupa and his followers were at the vanguard of this change, and even though there may be some debate about “who was first,” the Goswamis established the connecting link to the prior traditions that gave scriptural legitimacy to this bhajan. To the Nitya-vihārī sampradāyas like the Radha-vallabhis and Haridasis, this is so much wasted effort since it takes time away from the essence, but they are obliged to look for Sri Rupa’s when they try to establish their own theological legitimacy through argument and scriptural proofs.

But I digress: whatever the state of theological developments in the 16th century, we must recognize that all these discourses are secondary to the power of the symbol itself. God, in these symbolic representations, speaks to us directly. By hearing the voices of the past, God’s voice is made clearer, but the ultimate goal is to hear God’s voice directly. Bhagavat-sākṣātkāra begins with the sākṣātkāra of the symbol. Indeed there really is no difference. This will need to be explained.

Part III.
Part I

1 comment:

wayfarer said...

Oh I see I should have read from the bottom of the page rather than the top!