Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Individualism and the Flaw in Mayavada

What I find fascinating in all this study of Krishna lila is watching the evolution of a vision of God.

At some point in my spiritual life, I realized that to be an individual meant to have an individualized experience of God. The purest individual is the one who has the purest, most individual experience of God. But this assures that everyone's God is somehow different. This makes sense, because God is experienced subjectively.

What God is objectively can only be understood, like any other human experience, through comparative analysis and argument.

Someone recently wrote on Facebook--and I can't find it because he seems to have cut off our "friendship" because of my response, and therefore I paraphrase--that if you believe in God, then you have to adopt the concept of a particular religion, which means that you are going to have to compromise on various points of doctrine, etc. So, if you intellectually come to the conclusion that God is necessary ("necessary being"), it is better to simply become a Deist (what a Vaishnava would call a watered-down theistic concept of God, to the point of being quasi-irrelevant) and simply live your life ethically, "hoping for the best."

I said that I did not find this conclusion particularly astute, nor do I think anyone with true spiritually inclinations would find it in the least satisfying. God is that in relation to which I find my true identity. Knowing God deeply is to know myself deeply, and vice versa.

If you can find people who share your common interest in a hobby or politics, then as a sincere seeker of the Truth, you will surely find people who share your approach and will help you to deepen it. It all depends on how serious you are about your spirituality. As with everything, you will always have dabblers and dilettantes, hangers-on and hangers-about, and then you have seriously committed people who give primary importance to their spiritual concerns.

Religion, you could say, is about the shared concepts and ideals, the evolution of an objective idea of God, and then socializing those concepts and ideals through ritual practices. In bhakti, those practices are defined in terms of hearing, chanting, and so on. But as those practices are internalized, one naturally finds a purifying effect on the intelligence, which enhances the purely individual perspective and experience of God.

It is entirely wrong to think that one's spiritual realization will be exactly the same as anyone else's, and by that I include even the realization of one's gurus. You cannot BE anyone but yourself; no matter how rigid your orthodoxy and obedience to the past, no matter how powerful the charisma, intellectual brilliance or powerful the mythos of previous acharyas, there are too many factors related to your personal environment and experience for there to ever be absolute homogeneity. Eventually, the individual will run against a wall of some sort in the group and this results in alienation, the sense of "not belonging."

The great achievement of modern society is to find more and more ways to allow for purely individual evolution. Its great weakness has been its fragmenting, isolating and alienating tendency. This is especially caused by the promotion of immature and false expressions of individualism, usually manifesting as avatars of rajas and tamas. But as we well know, in societies where individual freedom is excessively compromised, alienation becomes an unendurable disease that can be fatal.

Alienation thus comes at the two extremes of the spectrum--one where there is excessive individualism and thus a relation with others on the profound levels of one's most cherished ideals and values is difficult to find; the other in a society where individualism is so suppressed that it cannot be expressed in any form. The challenge of any group is to establish limits and provide sufficient opportunities for individual development without losing the core of one's reason for being.

These things are mapped in Weberian sociology by the use of terms like cult, sect, denomination and church, in which the intensity of a narrow system of beliefs and practices gradually dilutes into a normative, more widely acceptable and much less demanding one. The first tend to find themselves marginalized from the larger society, the latter almost indistinguishable from it. Paradoxically, the former groups tends to demand higher levels of commitment and conformity, the latter much less.

The trick here is to be able to create functioning groups with highly defined symbol systems and rituals and high degrees of commitment, and profound degrees of individual realization, while at the same time being relatively free of coercive practices.

Harvey Cox discussed these problems in his famous The Secular City many years ago (1957), in the face of traditionalists' lachrimose response to modernity and individualism. He saw the ability to diversify, i.e., belong to numerous groups simultaneously, was enriching both intellectually and spiritually, and therefore desirable.

Samuel Huntingdon also, in writing about the political evolution of states (Political Order in Changing Societies, 1968), stated that in a mature civil society requires that people recognize that they have multiple interests, some coinciding with and some diverging from those of others in their particular subgroups. The sign of a less evolved political environment is one where people become "one-issue voters." If abortion is their issue, they will ignore other issues, even though they may individually and globally, be benefited from them. The most common single issues are those based on ethnicity or race: voting for a politician, regardless of his views, simply because he belongs to the same ethnicity, race or religion.

Pluralism furthermore means tolerance. The cult debates in the 60's and 70's showed various sides of the situation. Narrowly-based sects were pitted against what were seen as the most fundamental values of the broader society, liberal values that were tested to their limits.

The recognition that as individuals we are complex phenomena with multiple parts makes any attempt to find true social harmony, what to speak of true friendship or intimacy, a tough road.

Recently, I was reading a book on Yoga by Vishwatma Baura (गीता प्रतिपादित योग मार्ग) that I picked up in Waterloo and came across a passage where he states that individualism itself, ahankara, by which he means individual existence itself, is the root of all social ills. This is the extreme conservative Hindu position and to me shows the inherent flaw in Mayavada.There is no such thing as the elimination of the individual, and even the strongest Western yogis, Buddhists or Advaita-vadins would never submit to such an idea. In my experience, New Agers all believe, pretty much like atheists, that one rids oneself of concepts of God and religion, which are finite and restricting, in order to realize a kind of pure individualism, not to lose it.

We may look at the Varnashram system as one that demands everyone surrender totally to their prescribed role in society. This is something that most modern Westerners would also rebel against, especially women. No one wants to be defined so precipitously. But even the least educated, least sophisticated, least evolved human being at some point rebels against being pigeon-holed so easily. And most understandably so.

So when we Vaishnavas say that one has to go beyond Varnashram, it means that whatever purifying effects for the ego arise out of such surrender, we have to find the voice that is uniquely and most profoundly our own.

This does not really change the essential idea of Varnashram, which is this: Until you hear that voice, you have to frame yourself in some kind of discipline, if not for the sake of spiritual edification, to be able to live any kind of sane and equilibrated life. To greater or lesser extent, all sadhanas have this same character. They are simply deeper than the various levels of karma-yoga in Varnashram.

The guru's order is, in fact, a more sophisticated version of Varnashram, or let us just call it dharma pure and simple. All dharma is sadhana, and all sadhanas are conceived in terms of the material body, even though their goal is to awaken the dharma of the soul, which is purely and directly related to the Supreme Absolute Truth, beyond the conditioned state.

All transcendentalists will tell you that when you reach this state, you will be supremely satisfied; for some it will mean adhering to the external dharmas, for others it will mean rejecting them, but the entry into the Supreme is the goal of all sadhanas. Therefore, what need does he or she have of human association? Such a person is free from all compromise with society, free from all need of human love, appreciation, adoration, service, help, etc.

Not quite. At least not if that is the picture of a hermit on a mountain. Clearly, the human ideal expressed in Bhagavad-gita is that of someone who acts for the sake of others, loka-sangraha. In other words, he is in a position to give. Krishna in the Gita says that such a person encourages others in their performance of dharmas.


advaitadas said...

Jagat, you know that I usually find your thought and conduct objectionable to say the least, but sometimes you are definitely brilliant and this blog is one of your finest, especially the paragraph starting with

"It is entirely wrong to think that one's spiritual realization will be exactly the same as anyone else's...." etc.

Jagat said...

I am honored that you still read my blog on occasion and I appreciate your favorable comment.

advaitadas said...

The whole blog was excellent but I was particularly struck by:

"It is entirely wrong to think that one's spiritual realization will be exactly the same as anyone else's, and by that I include even the realization of one's gurus. You cannot BE anyone but yourself; no matter how rigid your orthodoxy and obedience to the past, no matter how powerful the charisma, intellectual brilliance or powerful the mythos of previous acharyas, there are too many factors related to your personal environment and experience for there to ever be absolute homogeneity."

Each individual is unique and can therefore never be a copy of one's beloved Master/Teacher/Role-model. Being different from them does not mean one does not love them or is not surrendered to them. I experience this myself all the time. I wonder if shastra has something to say to confirm this.

Jagat said...

Well, to be honest, I am rather glad that this particular idea appeals to you. My way of dealing with tradition has always been a little different from yours.

Because of the arguments you cite, I have come think that our relation to tradition is one of "continuation" rather than "emulation."

The key element of tradition, though, is gratitude. This is why I consider myself a stauch defender of the tradition, even though others think otherwise. I am grateful to my gurus, all of them, because whatever the case may be, something very central and transformative came into my life as a result of contact with them.

It is like Raghunath Das's verse that starts "nAma-zreSTham" and lists all the things that he is grateful to his gurus for. It ends with "aho rAdhikA-mAdhavAzAM." The word "aho" really touches me in that verse, almost bringing tears to my eyes every time. The progression builds to this pinnacle. But I have to use all my faculties to cultivate these gifts.

It is a bit complicated, rather like translation, but where the language is one of spiritual experience.

I have to recognize who I am, circumstantially, as a being living in a particular time and place, with a particular linguistic, educational and psychological profile, and how all these things create biases and blockages as well as giving me valid tools for interpretation of my experience.

Then I also have to try to understand, as objectively as possible (phenomenologically, if you will) what the Gaudiya Vaishnava tradition represents historically, i.e., how it was experienced by those who created and lived it.

Then I have to find where the real meaningful connections are. I cannot deny myself, my conditioned subjectivity in all this. Even as I follow the essentials of the tradition as practice--sravanam, kirtanam, smaranam--parallel to that, I also have to honor my own circumstance as God-given; honor that circumstance and my reason as a service to the tradition, because without it, I cannot make the tradition real to anyone else.

And ultimately, if we cannot make it real to anyone else, it becomes weak even for ourselves.

Jai Radhe.

Socrates said...

Advaita's last remark is indeed a shining example of why Gaudiya Vedanta is in absolute crisis, stuck in mud and in profound irrelevance today. He says,

- - -
I experience this myself all the time. I wonder if shastra has something to say to confirm this.
- - -

Did Gallileo have to say anything about subatomic physics relevant today? Did Archimedes had to say something about 21st century mathematics to confirm it?

Nirguna said...

Maximus ( of Constantinople)speaks of "a universal presence...unrecognizably binding all things together, yet dwelling in each being in a different way; this presence holds the individual parts of the whole together, in itself and in each other, unconfused and inseparable, and allows them, through this very relationship of creative unity, to live more for each other than for themselves."