Saturday, August 24, 2013

Sadhana and the Empirical World View

Several people commented on my recent note on Rupa Goswami and History, that they could not see any reason for a conflict between the empirical approach and the devotional or spiritual life.

On the surface, it seems reasonable to think that there should be no conflict, but those who are on the inside know that historical and other kinds of research do in fact conflict with what the shastras and traditional gurus with a literal belief in them say or have said. And this leads to doubt and schism. And if the doubter perishes (saṁśayātmā vinaśyati), then this is certainly going to create problems.

In questions related to the past, there is no better illustration of this than the conflicting versions of paramparā history.

The first problem is that if one is bound out of loyalty to a tradition to ignore empirical data or evidence, then certainly one's commitment to Truth, written large, is compromised. This devalues one's God-given intelligence and one develops a habit of ignoring obvious falsehoods, not only of a philosophical nature but in the behaviors of leaders and colleagues in order to maintain to maintain social relations and the so-called integrity of the community.

And at the next level of hypocrisy one starts to repeat the same falsehoods in order to maintain social position or status in that sangha. And though this little two-step may be confusing at first for those flatfooted ones who still believe in ethics -- after all, isn't spiritual life supposed to be the path of Truth? -- one can ease the difficulty by relativizing or devaluing direct sense perception and logical reasoning.

A second thing is that when you believe something is true, and if that truth has momentous import, then of course it will have implications; the realization of a "truth" will always be followed by imperatives of different sorts. It is the fear of this that keeps people away from facing even little empirical truths, because they do not know how to deal with the challenge they present to their global philosophy. Remove a brick or two and the whole edifice will collapse, this is what they fear.

Of course, the more intensely you hold to that kind of absolutist picture, an enclosed self-supporting system, the more of a self-fulfilling prophecy it becomes. Sooner or later the contradictions will fall in on themselves. To avoid this one adopts the technique of compartmentalization, the capacity to hold two contradictory ideas in mind simultaneously.

I remember Prabhupad saying something to the effect -- though I have not been able to find the quote in the archives -- that, "If there is one flaw in a philosophy, then the whole thing must be rejected." When I discovered the hazy truths underlying the so-called "unbroken disciplic succession" (which of course now has countless justifications in the wake of all the confusion – and adding to it), I said, OK, I have to start from scratch.

This is the fear. And unless there is flexibility and room for debate and disagreement, sectarianism is inevitable. The greater the fear of the truth, the more likely that there will be virulent opposition among subgroups, etc.

How can a religion survive, then? At the very foundation of religion, generally speaking, are going to be some irrational or unverifiable tenets, such as belief in the existence of God, the efficacy of ritual, the possibility of liberation, etc. Of course, we say, as religions always have, that this is a subjective matter and not accessible empirically, pace the attempts of science to find the mystical experience centers in the brain.

It may well be argued that one must accept a religion as a sadhana, as a closed system with a certain specific function, namely to realize God. Realizing God is a purely subjective matter, though we do hope that it will be accompanied by certain objectively verifiable symptoms. Nevertheless, the scriptures warn us that those who have reached enlightenment are not governed by the same ethical or behavioral constraints as the unenlightened.
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A religious system, or the symbolic universe upon which the religious system is based, is closed in the sense that it is considered complete and will therefore ignore contradictions arising from a clash with other systems, such as that of empirical science, etc. It is like a machine, all of whose parts are necessary for it to function properly. If you mix an empirical world view with the closed system religious view, neither will function correctly. This is because the sadhana system is not for discovering empirical truth, but for accessing an inner reality. Or, it may be said, for creating an inner spiritual reality that has externally transformative possibilities.
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There are many religious systems these days, that attempt to strip mythical elements to the maximum extent possible and adopt a kind of scientific guise. These systems are barely religious and fall into the realm of self-help and psychology more than religion. They may use some yoga or meditation techniques, but these are barely religious in nature and are often sold as purely stress relief, etc. But clearly there is a difficulty in this empirical and scientific age with myth, even when its symbolic meanings are valued. Too often, however, the symbol is reduced to its meaning and then discarded, and the consequent loss of dimension is barely recognized.
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Now the Krishna consciousness as taught by Srila Prabhupada is extremely heavily balanced towards the closed system and against empiricism. The Vedic planetarium concept based on a geocentric cosmology is a sign of this. But even the most committed Western convert Krishna devotees find the doctrine of "total literal acceptance" of the closed universe of the Bhagavatam, etc., hard to swallow.
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Indeed, juggling two realities, one the empirical world of daily life, the other subjective and fantastical, sounds like a recipe for schizophrenia, especially when both are in competition for one's committed attention. But, if you think about it, that is already happening to everyone to a greater or lesser degree. We are all faced with the same constant struggle to balance our subjective reality with the reality we experience externally.
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We all carry within us a subjective universe, a rich universe of myth and archetype, unconscious biases and prejudices, of which we are barely aware, primarily because we tend to believe that we can be consistently committed to empirical or objective truth. And this is of course an illusion, because external reality is outside and we, i.e,. consciousness is inside and though undoubtedly connected to the observable universe, is separate from it as the observer.
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Though the empirical system (i.e., the scientific method) was invented to combat the delusions of myth, in subtle form they remain. Interestingly enough, the empirical point of view produces its own mythologies and commitments that are held with religious intensity, even with the caveat that everything is open-ended. Our empirical knowledge today may be adjusted or even reversed tomorrow with new understandings, but in the mean time, we need a closed system of meaning to function in the here and now. So even though much of the modern man's mind may be informed by scientific thought or the universal laws that empiricism has revealed, the inevitable gaps will be filled by subjective attempts to create consistency. And even for such a one, compartmentalization and various other unconscious strategies are adopted to take care of any cognitive dissonance.
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Now it must be said that the rishis who came up with the various puranic mythic universes were well aware of this conflict and deliberately took the side of a consistent closed universe. Their ultimate conclusion was that at some point, you had to renounce the external empirical reality altogether and accept only the existence of the inner world, whether that was Brahman or Goloka. But even so, in areas such as cosmology, etc., they made use of empirical knowledge as it existed in their time. In fact, there is no such thing as an entirely closed system.
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So the main reason that religious thinking has recoiled in the face of empiricism is in great part because of its failures to deliver. When empiricism and the closed subjective system clash, reality always wins. If it doesn't, a kind of schizophrenia inevitably follows. Thus, when science and technology have brought so much improvement in human life, it seems that whatever its limitations, it has a better track record than "pie-in-the-sky hope for heaven when-you-die" religion, which ultimately counsels one to suck it up and accept suffering in this world on the faith that God will reward your goodness when you die.
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Wherever there is a clash of cultures, it is impossible for a cultural fact not to undergo modification. Whether it is done willingly or not. Even the most rabid follower of Srila Prabhupada and "Vedic culture", if honest, will admit that he or she is really play-acting, i.e., superimposing one identity on another, and often that superimposed identity is pretty shallow. How few Western devotees know India? How well? How closely can they identify with it? And yet, following Prabhupada, they adopt an idealized "golden-age" India that has barely any relation to what exists or perhaps ever existed. Moreover, they use this idealized subjective system as a model that they would like to impose on their empirical reality.
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And yet Western devotees often think they "know" India better than Indians. They have adopted the mythical India-world of the Puranas, the Once-that-never-was except as a distilled ideal essence of the world in which they were written. And the fact that devotees are having some success in peddling this Golden Age myth to a transforming and rapidly technologizing India itself shows that it still has some resonance here. But its limitation is obviously that of its inner inconsistency with what is now commonly accepted fact, for example, a heliocentric solar system. But we could probably create a list of a thousand scientific discoveries that are inconsistent with the Puranic world view. And if put to the test about what we really believed, we would check the scientific consensus most of the time. Does the earth go around the sun? Is the moon closer to the earth or is the sun?
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Idealistic Philosophy

The Vedanti would say, "The ones who accept empirical reality are the illusioned ones. They are accepting a flawed model. Sense perception and deductive reasoning may give increased understand of external data, but the real world is that of the consciousness, and this closed system we have here is a scientific process for attaining a perfected state of subjective being free from the empirical reality, which is the realm of suffering."

Now the Vaishnava philosophy accepts the primacy of consciousness, like all Vedantis. The main which has justification even in the Vaishnava shastras, is based on the reality of the world. Devotees have heard this a thousand times, but generally speaking in gross terms: a fruit, a flower, some water—concrete tangibles that can be offered in service... Or cars, mobile phones and computers. And even the intelligence when it comes to marketing or design. Or even the intelligence to pondering and wrangling like scholastics over the meanings of words like "henceforward." But as to understanding core beliefs in the light of modern empiricism cuts a little too close to the bone.
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The point really is this: By approaching a philosophy like that of Rupa Goswami with the rational capacities of a human being of the 21st century, we need to apply all the tools of the empirical and historical study of religion through psychology, sociology and anthropology, in order to discover its essence. Not to debunk it, but -- as a practitioner -- to find "the working ingredients" so to speak.

Because I think you do have to harmonize the two, but you have to streamline the enclosed system so that the conflict is less great, because ultimately the enclosed system is not without a relation to the empirical. What you think has some relation to reality. And perception is reality, in the sense that if you "see" God everywhere, that should change your way of interacting with reality.

Yoga is also a closed system. It is very difficult to go from one to another, if you have gone deeply into one. You cannot have two closed systems and be sane.

The empirical system is open, but people are always trying to close it. So you have to be an atheist, for instance. The sadhana system is closed because it is the emotional and affective digested form of reality that makes reality ordered or meaningful.

And that is where the most profound and effective communication takes place. This is of course prema sadhana. If you make love only through empirical realities without communicating on the most profound spiritual level, which is mediated by our symbolic universes, then it is superficial and not love at all. Yoga is not entirely incompatible with bhakti if you have them correctly prioritized. Mainly because yoga is already a part of the backdrop of Indianness anyway.

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