Jordan Peterson's all-beef diet and ideologically possessed devotees
My friend, Paramadwaiti Maharaj’s young sannyasi disciple from Argentina, Padmanabha Swami, recently wrote me a note thanking me for introducing him to Jordan Peterson after I posted a few links on my Facebook page. He then wrote an article, extracting a few points from Peterson’s latest book, Twelve Rules for Life An Antidote to Chaos, that he felt were compatible with Vaishnava teachings. At any rate, Peterson’s full-throated defense of religious belief and his debates with neo-atheists like Sam Harris have attracted the attention of Christian pastors like Paul VanderKlay who use his insights in their own understanding and explanations of religion.
I have not written directly about Peterson very much on this blog, as my own journey is taking me away from the kind of academic explanations of religion that were a concern earlier on in this blog, after I had gone through religious studies at McGill University. Nevertheless, that is what first attracted me to Peterson was his explanation of myth and his deep study of Freud, Jung, Neumann, Campbell, Eliade and other writers who were favorites of mine at that time and who offered me a roadway into explaining and understanding Radha and Krishna in a way that made sense then and still makes sense to me now.
Peterson, being a clinical psychologist and being up-to-date with most of the developments in all branches of the field, made him especially interesting to me – as he is to others. He is often able to state with certitude what the latest scientific literature and accumulated empirical evidence says about a wide variety of controversial issues that challenge many comfortable or politically correct notions about race and gender, social disparities, etc., whether on the left or the right. This, of course, makes him a bit of a bête-noir to people especially on the left, while he has been lionized by people on the right, often by those on the rather extreme side of the spectrum.
Nevertheless, I personally don’t find Peterson to be an ideologue of any sort. He is an accredited scientist, highly regarded in his field, and goes where facts lead him, to the best of his ability, whether they take him to a place that he is comfortable with or not. One of the principles of scientific thinking is that the truth is true independent of the character of the person who speaks it because it is objectively verifiable. The nature of truth is that it is true no matter who speaks it.
This is a universal principle, also stated by Chanakya,
nīcād apy uttamāṁ vidyāṁ strī-ratnaṁ duṣkulād api ||
One should take out nectar from poison, gold from the gutter, the best knowledge from a lowly person, and a good wife from a bad family. (Nīti-darpaṇa 1.16)And as we have repeatedly been saying, we call this the sāra-grāhī principle, following the example of Bhaktivinoda Thakur,
Recently it came to light that Jordan Peterson and his daughter have taken to an all-beef diet that has “cured their depression.” Needless to say, devotees who may have otherwise been favorable to the Canadian psychologist’s teachings and insights about meaning, myth, religion and spirituality have turned up their noses in disgust. I admittedly also find a diet of “beef, salt and water. That’s it.” about as off-putting as could possibly be. And frankly I don’t know how long anyone would be able to maintain such a diet without becoming depressed.
The business of meat-eating has been “in the news” on my blog for the past few weeks or years in relation to Bhaktivinoda Thakur, and one of the things I felt that came out of the whole investigation of the subject is the limitation that we can place on a person for their character when being a meat-eater. When Bhaktivinoda was in Puri (as I wrote recently here and here) he was speaking on the Bhagavatam and some of the Vaishnavas in the community objected that he was not a Vaishnava -- no doubt in part for this reason. The Gaudiya Math takes the position that the Thakur was nitya-siddha and therefore, as the Thakur recounts, the accuser himself was struck with illness and told in a dream that he had committed an offense. I asked Harigopal Dasji, whether he would have followed the accusing Vaishnava's prhibition, and he said he would have to, following the well-known verse,
avaiṣṇava-mukhodgīrṇaṁ pūtaṁ hari-kathāmṛtam
śravaṇaṁ naiva kartavyaṁ sarpocchiṣṭaṁ yathā payaḥ
śravaṇaṁ naiva kartavyaṁ sarpocchiṣṭaṁ yathā payaḥ
"One should not listen to even pure ambrosial discussions of Krishna from the mouth of a non-Vaishnava, for it is like drinking milk that has been touched by a snake."
It is not easy to recognize a nitya-siddha and one has to depend on such signs. Whether a Vaishnava should listen to Jordan Peterson is not exactly the same thing. What Peterson does is open doors to a modern discourse on religion, like Jung and his other followers, and this can also be very useful to devotees and preachers of Krishna bhakti.
Moreover, this discourse provides useful tools for our own investigation and understanding of the philosophical and psychological dimensions of our fundamental myths and doctrines, since the insights of Rupa Goswami lead us in this direction.
Peterson's valuation of cultural products and their importance for creating collective meaning, etc., are very much aligned with theories of rasa, and in particular those of Rupa Goswami. I have quoted Bharata Muni many times, na rasād ṛte kaścid arthaḥ pravartate, "Without the experience of rasa, there is no communication of meaning." Peterson's work and that of others to whom he refers like Camille Paglia, help shed light on this sutra of Bharata Muni."
Peterson recognizes the importance of finding meaning in life. Padmanabha Maharaj quotes his definition from Twelve Rules, which clearly shows this connection to rasa:
“Meaning is when everything there is comes together in an ecstatic dance of single purpose –the glorification of a reality so that no matter how good it has suddenly become, it can get better and better and better more and more deeply forever into the future. Meaning happens when that dance has become so intense that all the horrors of the past, all the terrible struggle engaged by all of life and all of humanity to that moment becomes a necessary and worthwhile part of the increasingly successful attempt to build something truly Mighty and Good.”
Another close friend of mine, a woman, has been viscerally opposed to Peterson ever since I first let it be known that I found him interesting. I was never quite able to understand what it was about him that she disliked so much. When I saw this video , I was more or less reminded of her. “He’s a douche.” But now that the news of his all-beef diet came out my friend triumphantly chortled that she had been proven right about Peterson’s douchebaggery and that I should renounce him “for the sake of the cows,” since my religious beliefs are supposedly defending the bovine species above all other considerations. And so on. Her brief dance of glee included calling me and Peterson both "idiots."
My original advice to her, when it came to Peterson, had been that I was not so much concerned with his personality, but with his thought. And that since she had expressed to me before an interest in studying psychology at the university level, I advised her to watch the videos of Peterson’s on-line courses, such as that on personality, the Bible or Maps of Meaning, listening with an open mind and examining the ideas rather than simply forming a gut reaction on the basis of a sound-bite delivered by someone who wants to excite your ideological prejudices. That is definitely NOT what you want to do with a thinker as brilliant as Jordan Peterson, who is inquiring into levels of understanding that go well beyond the merely literal. [Which my readers will know is a frequently visited issue on this blog.]
This is of course Peterson's Rule #9: "Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don't." And that is also the proper Vaishnava etiquette -- not just to Vaishnavas, but to all living entities. After all, God as Guru is in their hearts too, and He might just be speaking to you through them.
I should add that I have been advising this woman for years, since she is fairly widely read and has great untapped intellectual potential, to write in order to develop and clarify her ideas. Peterson gives the same advice to a grad student, where he says it is not enough to simply read, but one must write, because writing means thinking. It is one’s response to what one has read that reveals the limits of one’s understanding and thereby shows the direction for further inquiry. It is this that is the source of the wisdom vidyā dadāti vinayam.
It is here, however, that I really wanted to get at Peterson’s concept of ideological possession. I don't think -- at least I hope -- that my friend is not as shrill as the woman in the clip that Peterson shows there, but the point about "ideological possession" is relevant. It is about having “ill-informed opinions” and an “an over-simplified radical view of the world.” It is in fact the same as the tāmasika knowledge that Krishna speaks of in the Gita:
yat tu kṛtsnavad ekasmin kārye saktam ahaitukam
atattvārthavad alpaṁ ca tat tāmasam udāhritam
atattvārthavad alpaṁ ca tat tāmasam udāhritam
"And that knowledge by which one sees the all-in-all in a single manifestation, to which one is causelessly attached, which is meager and bereft of clear understanding, is called tāmasika." (Gita 18.22)
This is another theme I have touched on in this blog several times, since this kind of view is often visible in the undeveloped devotee, the mūḍhatama. It is like the "single-issue" voter, who is easily misled by propaganda into acting against his or her own interests. The Western intellectual, and I would include Peterson in this, is fundamentally rājasika, comparing and evaluating different truths. The sāttvika person is one who finds the underlying value and truth in all. There is an evolution here, one that involves humility. Remmeber Peterson's Rule #9.
Obviously, this kind of attitude is helpful to bhajan. But how far can Jordan Peterson takes us on the path of faith? For one who is still struggling with faith in the context of the modern world, or who is struggling with the problems of literal belief, he can help develop a more sophisticated understanding that will help him communicate with the intellectual non-believer. It will help one to avoid the battles of the tāmasika "true believers" are competitions between literalisms and subjectivities, battles that no one can win.
For those who have found rasa and meaning, such intellectual understanding is only a door to faith, the vicāra-mārga that can be left behind when one has come to the stage of ruci. In such a case, Peterson, as a non-devotee of Krishna, becomes largely irrelevant. Until then, his meat-eating is largely irrelevant.