I am well accustomed to being the only religious person in the room. My social circle is fairly diverse, but the friends that I have known the longest and with whom I have been the closest have largely been atheists (some more militant about it than others). Even with the more extreme among them, I am still used to a certain basic level of respect, as they largely know that I am not a stupid person and try to make informed decisions whenever possible. So it always catches me a bit by surprise when someone who should know better outright accuses me of being irrational, sometimes even sub-rational, for simply “being religious” — and not for any specific idea or position held. Lately, the conversation has almost always taken a turn indicating that many of my American friends consider Hinduism to be especially irrational, somehow more so than other religions (which they also hold in contempt, albeit a lesser contempt).
Discussing Hinduism with most Americans — even quite literate Americans — immediately reveals a deep ignorance. This is somewhat understandable, given that most Americans do not interact with Hindus regularly or with any great depth. More, as I can attest from experience, what public school students are taught about Hinduism — and, really, just about all non-Protestant religions — in history and cultural geography classes is not merely simplistic, but mostly completely wrong. It is thus, for instance, that I was under the impression for many years that it is not even possible to “become” a Hindu, but that one must be born into the religion; I am now living proof of the falseness of that idea.
Most of these false ideas about Hinduism and, by extension, my friends’ acute problem with my Hinduism in particular, stem from a number of problematic assumptions, the deepest of which I intend to cover here. Namely, these are: strong cultural vestiges of colonialism, both within and without academia and the so-called intelligentsia; the modernist and post-modernist notion that it is somehow possible to get on without “beliefs”; the materialist or, a bit more neutrally, “naturalist” assumption that only “objective” phenomena can be approached empirically; and the pervasive dualistic Western belief that “learning” is a process of putting facts into a pile. I shall address these points in turn, providing dharmic answers to each.
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“Talk of global culture and universalism often creates the sunny impression that the fusion of dharmic and Western cultures is always good. This assumption ignores the many distortions and unacknowledged appropriations on the Western side, as well as the highly destructive influences of fundamentalist Christianity, Marxism, capitalist expansionism, and myopic secularism.” (Rajiv Malhotra, Being Different: An Indian Challenge to Western Universalism, HarperCollins, pg 12)
Though I cannot do the fact justice in a single article, it is worth opening by pointing out how culturally myopic we Westerners really are. Through a combination of factors — not least of which are religious exclusivism, and several centuries of military and economic might interpreted as exceptionalism — Westerners have come to the unquestioned conviction that ours is the most truly universal of all human cultures.
The great problem with this point of view, of course, is that it has no factual basis. How are we defining “universal”? Most active advocates of the view of Western academia or intellectualism as “universal” seem to be making the claim that Western academic rationalism is uniquely positioned to properly interpret the meaning of every other culture’s history, behavior, morality, religion, art, and any other intellectual artifact one cared to name. The social “sciences” of anthropology, history, and psychology are especially predicated on this conceit, and archaeologists’ routine includes using “science” to justify everything from art theft to grave desecration, as if a university basement is a more suitable place for sacred objects than the hands and homes of the people who use them.
None of this is to say that these “soft sciences” should not exist, but rather that their current forms and internal thought and behavioral patterns are still founded, rather subversively, on ways of thinking developed in, through, and for the process of colonialism. Whether the claim begins with, “Ours is the one true religion,” or with, “Ours is the most reasonable worldview,” it inevitably ends with: “and so ours is the right and responsibility to…” well, to do whatever we were going to do anyway, but now with the imprimatur of science and the heroic appearance of enlightening the poor savages, or at least making proper use of their natural resources.
At an academic level, it is common to insist that dharmic thought is so different that it is incoherent or, at best, not worth the effort of understanding. When, however, Western scholars do try to grapple with dharmic ideas, they are only willing to go so far as to shoehorn them into ill-suited academic categories; it is apparently unreasonable to ask the scholars to try to see beyond their own context, as their context is of course much superior!
On a cultural level, outside of academia, things are only slightly better. Rather than outright rejection, we see what can only be called misappropriation. Anti-yoga church groups aside, most Americans see Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist, and other non-Western religions and philosophical schools not as ideas and lifelong practices worth deep study and dedication in their own right, but more often as adjuncts and addendums to otherwise ordinary — and largely unquestioned — lives of comfortable consumerism. Rudraksha beads and japa malas are worn as exotic jewelry, yoga mats are carried as status symbols, and statues of Ganesa and the Buddha bring a flare of the Orient to suburban foyers.
Though it may seem entirely benign, the attitude which underlies this sort of shallow application of religion and philosophy as fashion, décor, or slang is the same which underlies the offhand dismissal or false categorization of the scholar: a sense of inherent cultural entitlement bolstered by military and economic power.
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“Every spoken word or action is a prayer, with most oblivious to what they truly worship. Our current culture would make every mouth a fire extinguisher, spewing bland de-escalations, meek rationalizations, or even just trite banalities, protecting the property of the rich from any possible village fires. You are the only resource that must consent to its own harvest, and all other resources are monopolized in order to make that consent seem inevitable. It is not.
“See the gods we’ve enthroned around and above us and then choose your words and actions wisely, because a god to whom no one prays will eventually fade into mythology.” (Martin Kessler, public statement, September 10, 2013)
No person is without a belief system. To most, this sounds obvious, but to a number of Western-trained intellectuals — and especially those who wish they were intellectuals — the goal of training in both logic and science is to attain to “pure reason” or “pure empiricism”. Some are thus able to convince themselves that they have reached that exalted state of being able to observe and think entirely free of assumptions of any kind.
But what is a belief? Most simply, a belief is any notion which a person holds and images to correspond to reality. It is quite true that there are good and not so good beliefs; good beliefs are generally those which do a reasonable job of modeling some part of reality, while bad beliefs range from being too imprecise to be useful, to outright opposing reality. Briefly, we can define “knowledge” as: a belief which a) corresponds, more or less, to reality, and which b) we are justified, by experience, observation, inference, etc., in believing.
We all hold beliefs which do not quite qualify as knowledge. Most of our opinions in matters of taste fall into this category, but so do our ideas on politics. It does not take a deep self-appraisal to begin to uncover some of our unconfirmed beliefs. And nothing is wrong with holding these as long as we are willing to change them with new information. In fact, having such beliefs is inevitable for minds limited by circumstance; it is in no way shameful to believe, but only to be closed to the equally inevitable testing of our beliefs.
In addition to having uncountable beliefs, each of us also has a number of assumptions which underlay our whole complex of beliefs and provide context to our knowledge. To be clear: an assumption is something which a person takes for granted in their worldview. We might say, then, that it is an especially fundamental belief. “Stealing is wrong” and “one should not hit another person without strong cause” are fairly common moral assumptions which, generally, do not require powerful reinforcement.
But that brings us to an important point of epistemology: assumptions can and do change according to factors including our own flexibility, reinforcement coming from actual experience — as well as contrary experiences — but, unlike most other beliefs, a changed assumption has a ripple effect throughout the entirety of one’s belief system (rather than just its immediate conceptual neighbors). When a fundamental belief or idea changes, all beliefs and ideas which rely upon it, even indirectly, must be rechecked, sooner or later, to see if they are consistent with their modified context.
All of this leads to a rather basic, yet oft overlooked or even denied, act: every individual mind is, in a sense, structured according to a belief system (which, though, is inherently malleable, if we allow it to be), and every belief system is founded upon certain assumptions. This is just the causal structure by which higher order thought occurs (with many layers and details left out of this brief discussion).
There can be no “pure” reason, nor “pure” observation, insofar as there can be no embodied human cognition devoid of these epistemic structures. This is not an especially controversial statement, and its truth and import are easily discoverable through rudimentary self-observation.
As it pertains to religion, we may take the message of Chris Hedges’ 2008 book I Don’t Believe In Atheists (Continuum International) as our own: beyond even “believing in” something, it isn’t too far to say that everybody worships some ideal. What differs, side from the object/subject of worship, are the degree of fervor, the source of the belief, and the deliberation with which it was chosen out.
This “inherent religiosity”, then, takes its precise character from the complex of working assumptions and experiences which confirm or disconfirm them. This forms a feedback loop — more or less dynamic, depending on the degree of rigidity of one’s belief system — in which assumptions are reinforced or weakened by experience, and in turn color the interpretation of those experiences. What is often missed, at least as much by “secularists” as anybody, is that very different life experiences — outer as well as inner, to the eternal chagrin of reductionists — are liable to produce very different landscapes of assumption. I do not here claim, therefore, that all, or even most, of these possible “assumptionscapes” are true or equally useful; rather, I assert that those assumptions based in a far different realm of experience cannot be fully sounded by thoughts coming from a totally different mode of awareness.
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“One of the unique strengths of Hinduism is the emphasis given to one’s own experience in pursuing the spiritual path. Hinduism cannot be traced to any one person or prophet. Our sages recommend that we should not blindly follow teachings of others. We must learn the truth from sages or scriptures, subject the truth to rational analysis, contemplate and reflect upon it and confirm that it is indeed true from our own experience. Only then, we should accept it as truth. This process ensures a strong foundation for our faith.” (S.K. Reddy, PhD, Sanatana-dharma, Hinduism: Way to worldwide harmony, peace and prosperity, chapbook distributed by Sri Venkateswara Temple, Pittsburgh, PA)
The sciences are — in principle, if not always in practice — empirical in nature. It is something of a prejudice, however, that the Western material sciences are the only truly empirical pursuits, and so many of today’s academic philosophers are quite ready to support the claim that material science is the only clearinghouse for authentic knowledge. This, of course, is an assumption, and one without firm foundation. The success of the physical sciences, which is totally undeniable, does not automatically mean that all other avenues of knowledge are failures, but only that they are asking different questions and using different information gathering tools. It has become a clear case of looking for one’s dropped keys under the streetlamp, not because that is where one dropped them but because that is where the light is.
The outer sciences make use of what we might term the methods of objective empiricism. And it is right that they should, for they study the facts of the world of objects. Yoga, Alchemy, and their ilk, on the other hand, are sciences of subjective empiricism.
To minds conditioned to the assumption that it is only really possible to know things by weighing and measuring them, the phrase “subjective empiricism” might seem paradoxical. But it is purely an arbitrary decision to limit the concept of science to “everything but the fact of subjectivity,” or, quite commonly, to reduce that fact away entirely so as not to be troubled by its messiness. In the West, this point has often been left up to philosophers to resolve, one way or another. In the dharmic tradition, however, it is put to the Yogin to conduct the experiments — to do the science — and then report the results; here, it is philosophy’s job not to figure out the answer by reason, but to use reason to systematize the metaphysic which emerges from the Yogin’s experiments in order to make it easier to pass along to others.
Rajiv Malhotra, in his brilliant Being Different, puts it thus:
“The inner sciences were developed through observation, experimentation, critical inquiry and debate, and they should not be confused with religious beliefs of the Judeo-Christian genre. Thus, both outer and inner sciences can be scientific. While the inner sciences have a long history in countries such as India, Tibet and China, they have never rejected the outer sciences, and there has never been a conflict between dharma and science as there has been between Western religion and science.” (pg 71)
For the practitioner of these inner sciences, the mind becomes the laboratory, and the intellect the principle tool of investigation. The philosophical and doctrinal points taught to the student constitute the established theory of generation upon generation of prior experimentation, and not an unquestionable creed. They are, in fact, to be tested out for oneself. The Buddha — who has been turned into an atheist parody by barely informed materialists looking to invent a religion without religion, but was himself a Hindu Yogi — taught this quite directly: “You, yourselves, must walk the path. Buddhas only show the way.” (Dhammapada 20:4, trans. by Ananda Maitreya, Parallax Press) This is not the blind belief of superstition, but neither is it the simplistic monism of materialism.
Purnacandra Sivarupa is a Western-born Saiva Tantrika and freelance arcanist. He can be found at inpeaceprofound.com where he shares more writing on esoteric and occult topics.