Human typology and Religious Institutions

Many people criticize and condemn religions and religious institutions because of the evil done in their name. This is often based on a predisposition to anti-religious sentiment. One should recognize that religion is a human institution and subject to the same frailties as all human institutions. Those who are in such institutions should recognize these frailties and take steps to control and counteract them.

According to Patanjali's Yoga-sūtra (4.7), there are four kinds of people. Patanjali does try to estimate what percentage of human society fits into each category, no doubt since modern ways of enumerating populations was not yet devised. In any case, such percentages no doubt change as societies change.

Patanjali divides people according to the kind of work they do in relation to the goal of enlightenment. The first three are (1) kṛṣṇa (black, or dark karmas), which are the actions performed by the evil; (2) śukla-kṛṣṇa or mixed karmas, which evidently are the kinds of activity performed by the greater number of people; and (3) śukla-karmas are the activities of sincere sādhakas engaged in the kriyā-yogas described in YS 2.1, etc. The commentators say that these types correspond to the tamas, rajas, and sattva guṇas respectively.

The fourth category, which is the specific object of sūtra 4.7, is called akṛṣṇāśukla, neither white nor black. This is the activity of the the yogi or the perfected transcendentalist. Such liberated transcendentalists, though engaged in activity in the world, are not bound because they are nirguṇa, beyond the guṇas of Prakriti.

Any religious group will have representatives of all these four kinds of people. Though obviously Patanjali was not thinking in the same ways that modern psychologists such as Robert Altemeyer of the University of Manitoba do, there is some interesting correspondence between them, as well as with the Bhagavata Purana's division of kaniṣṭha, madhyama and uttama bhāgavatas.

Patanjali's first group correspond to what Altemeyer calls "social dominators." They are the most dangerous humans because they are ruled by the "demoniac nature." They can be identified primarily by their thirst for power, their holding on to that power, and what they do once they have it. Such persons can be most expert in playing the role of a saintly person and using religion or other kinds of idealism for social manipulation, especially of those that can be grouped in Altermeyer's "authoritarian followers."

They are the asuras of Bhagavad Gītā 16. Though the Bhāgavata-purāṇa's kaniṣṭha is not an asura, he has tāmasika tendencies as described in Gītā 18.22. If these become dominant in his religious life, he can become very destructive, either as a leader or a follower.

The second group, because they are mixed, are easy fodder for the manipulations of the first group. Paradoxically, this happens especially if they are more pious, with a tendency to superficial religiosity, foolishness and wishful thinking. They are easily led into hypocritical behavior, mainly because they deny the tāmasika half of their nature and like to pretend they are better than they really are. These people can be salvageable in the right circumstances, but the danger is that they may just as easily become Nazi foot-soldiers if the circumstances are changed.

But there are also sincere sādhakas and real yogis also. And for them, the religious symbols reveal their true meaning. So critics should be careful not to mistake the religious system, the practices and symbolic meanings as exploited by tāmasika and rājasika practitioners for the true meaning of these things. By the same token, it is always dangerous in principle to over generalize about people.

Institutions tend to create an environment wherein Patanjali's kṛṣṇa-karma people, the asuras or social dominators, find it easy to rise to the top. They in turn eliminate the śukla and akṛṣṇāśukla people because these are not good institutional types. The śukla people generally are forced out one way or another, while the latter group usually shun institutions by nature.

So, it is not that complaints about religious institutions are unfounded. The kṛṣṇa- people will dissimulate their real motives and in order to maintain power and position, they need at all cost to preserve the appearance of religiosity. Hypocrisy is their trademark; it is their bread and butter in the religious institution for it is the way these power grabbers dupe their weak-minded followers.

Though criticisms of defective institutions that have come under the influence of such leaders, even if relatively benign, are thus well-founded, it is still my opinion that a critic would be well-advised to become a simple saint first before trying to play the role of an Old Testament prophet. Worse yet are those who make blanket criticisms of all religion or one specific religious institution without understanding the mixed nature of all social groups, including religion. We have enough prophets, each proclaiming hell-fire and damnation from their pulpits on the mountain tops of their own idiosyncratic belief systems. Better one should first climb to the top of the mountain of love and teach by example before condemning the fallible.

The truth generally lies between extremes. I do not believe you can become an uttama or advanced sādhaka by skipping the beginning or kaniṣṭha stage. You can get stuck in the lower levels of spiritual progress, but that does not mean you can avoid them. You can't jump to the top of a ladder. That is why we have ladders.

The ekāgratā or single-minded purpose of mind of all yoga systems is also adored in the cultic form of religious institution as well as in totalitarian political ideologies, since that is the way they accomplish their goals. We must learn how to manage ekāgratā in order that we progress to higher stages of spirituality and not get led into tamas.

In other words: sādhanā may give the impression of creating stress, but this is actually good stress. In the beginning it is hard to manage and results in the cult-like symptoms that one sees in some religious institutions. If one is fortunate, one does grow out of it, without losing the ekāgratā, or single-mindedness that is its principal feature. And all the rewards of sādhanā arise from ekāgratā.

The real test is what the goals of such ekāgratā are. If the goal is prema, as we say in Gaudiya Vaisnavism, we have to be on our guard for symptoms of "not-prema," which are the consequences of an institution that is dominated by asura types. If we are told that we are "not ready," etc., for prema, as in dicta like "Work now, samādhi later," then in all likelihood we are getting the wool pulled over our eyes.

On the other hand, it is not enough to just stick it out with an institution (as some say) as though the institution itself is the bestower of prema. Rather you should stick it out with your own original ideals of purpose, and the meaning of the symbol system and fundamental practices that you were given, if they match that ideal purpose.

The great conundrum for religions is how to preserve the essence of a tradition without becoming prey to the anarthas that institutions tend to produce.

Joseph O'Connell introduced me to the concepts of "hard" "soft" and "medium" institutions. Hard institutions have strong lines of authority with strict guidelines of orthodoxy and orthopraxy, and centralized power to censure and excommunicate non-conformists. Soft institutions include the books, literature and sādhanā practices of a tradition, where there is a great deal of individual freedom of interpretation. Medium institutions in the pre-modern era were usually concentrated around festivals and informal sat-saṅgas. The paramparā or disciplic succession was also considered a medium institution because the lines of authority are looser than in a hard one.

The hard institution is that which is most subject to anarthas. But other kinds of institutions will still have to exist, even if it is something as simple as two people meeting for a shared friendship in relation to spiritual progress, such as internet discussion groups.

Human institutions, saṅghas, are an inevitable feature of human life, for we crave like-minded human association. Therefore we need to apply our intelligence to the best, or least damaging, ways of managing this need.


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