A New Look at Some Hindu Concepts,
by V. Krishnan
…Ultimate reality. Mystical experience. Monism. Is this world immoral? Afterlife. Reincarnation. Karma. Salvation. Prayer…
This brief work grew out of conversations which a number of people had had with me over several years at various places. One of them who had kept notes sent them to me recently with a request that I put them together with a view to publishing them in book form. Strictly speaking then, this is not the work, of a single individual, but of several people.
There are two reasons for adopting the dialogue form. One is that it helped to make the work short. The other is that some of those who had read an earlier version of it said that, despite their unfamiliarity with the subject, the dialogue mode helped to hold their interest.
I am indebted to MC. Ranianarayanan PhD on two counts. Although he does not agree with many of my views expressed in the book he translated it into Malayalam at my request. Further, he helped to correct a factual error I had made concerning Swami Vivekananda.
X: I've been going to lectures on what are usually called spiritual matters, well, for about ten years now, ever since I retired from my job. Frankly, I'm still not sure what the speakers were talking about, You hear statements like this world - the whole universe — is only an appearance, there is a reality behind it — the ultimate reality —to understand what it is is the goal of life, that is, moksha, or ananda, a permanent state in which you are untouched by happiness or the opposite of it, and that, you come to realize, is true happiness. And so on. I don’t see any connection between the ultimate reality, if there is any such thing, and happiness. It seems to me that the ultimate reality is something you are likely to find out in the laboratory, or by reasoning. What has it got to do with your happiness? I did seek clarification, and I was told that it was not something to be discussed; you had to experience it; there were ways to do it - meditation and soon. I’m not at al convinced.
Y: Why did you go to those lectures at all?
X: I was curious about the presumed reality behind appearance, an idea which figures in the lectures of Swami Vivekananda and many other lecturers on Hindu philosophy. What has it got to do with your daily life? I try to live without consciously hurting anyone, to the extent possible, that is, and try to cooperate with others so that our lives will be peaceful. Isn’t that enough?
Y: You seem to know what you want to do. So what is the problem? Many people don’t know what they are looking for.
X: There are two problems, actually. One, many people widely acknowledged to be “holy,” seem to suggest that there is more to life than what I said. Two, it isn’t easy to practice what I said I would like to do.
Y: That word “holy” doesn’t mean anything to me. They may be experts in their fields, let’s say philosophy, hut they are no holier than experts in other fields such as physics, economics, or artificial intelligence. No more holy than you who is an expert in constitutional law. So you needn’t feel inferior to them. And neither you nor they are infallible.
X: I get your point about holiness. But, not being an expert in matters philosophical, I’m unable to judge if they are correct or not.
Y: That’s an admirably cautious attitude. As for your other question, you surely must have heard of the middle way or the way of nonattachment, haven’t you?
X: Yes, giving up desires, comforts, good food, in short breaking the bondage to worldly things.
Y: I’m afraid you’ve got it all wrong. Or, you may have been misled. You don’t have to give up everything and take to extreme asceticism. There is no merit in asceticism. Enjoying a good meal is like enjoying the beauty of a glorious sunset. Nonattachment should be understood as an attitude of taking things in your stride, without being depressed by adversities or overjoyed by good luck, doing things without self-interest. Said another way, you don’t insist that you must have this or that, but will still do things to the best of your ability and enjoy doing them. It is a positive attitude, not indifference. If you cultivate such an outlook, you’ll feel a wonderful of freedom, a marvelous feeling of peace. That is my view of moksha or salvation, the way out of dukha or sorrow. You can develop this attitude by using your head - reason. There is no other sure, safe way.
X: Three questions. One, are you nonattached in this sense? Two, suppose you suffer a personal calamity, like, say the death of someone dear to you, how would you face it? Three, isn’t your view of moksha different from that held by many others - that samadhi, or experiencing your identity with the ultimate reality, is salvation?
Y: The answer to the first question is “yes,” to some extent. I feel kind of free, relaxed, like when you feel that a long-standing problem has been solved. It doesn’t make me indifferent to anyone, anything, a sort of automaton. The second question: it is unnatural not to feel normal human emotions. I did experience a great sense of loss when my only child died a few years ago. He was only sixteen. But, then, I reasoned with myself: I’m likely to face various types of pluses and minuses during the rest of my life and I’ve to take them in my stride. I shouldn’t let misfortunes shatter me, I shouldn’t be carried away by good fortune. So far I’ve succeeded. As for the third question, procedures like meditation, breath control, austerities, pooja, reading purana, japa, etc., which are employed to induce samadhi, or mystical experience, have nothing to do with moksha in the sense I understand it.
X: Why do you think that your view of moksha is correct?
Y: A good question. The purpose of all our endeavors is, basically, to achieve psychophysical well-being. Peace, calm, contentment are some of the other words used to convey the same idea. It is commonsense, of course, and incidentally, you will find it mentioned in the first verse of Iswarakrishna’s Samkhyakarika (1) which, as you may know, is the classic textbook on the Samkhya system of philosophy. The question is - what is the most practical way to achieve it? If you think deeply about it, you will find that the best way is nonattachment - the middle way. It requires only the use of reason, and it doesn’t harm the body or the mind. Now, if you carefully examine the techniques used to induce the mystical experience, you will find that they interfere with the normal functioning of the brain. Such interference may not be good in the long run just as trying to slow down or increase the rate of heartbeat at will is not.
X: But, raja yoga is widely acknowledged as a method of attaining Samadhi. Even Vivekananda, who placed great emphasis on reason, approved of it.
Y: Have you undergone samadhi?
Y: Have you read accounts of the experience?
X: Yes, of course. In some books - William James(2) Agehananda Bharati (3), and a few others. The most common elements, as I remember, are these. Most often the experience starts with a feeling that something very significant is going to happen to you. You feel that your body boundary is fading and you are merging with the rest of the constituents of the universe. An intense sense of wellbeing, often described as ananda, or bliss, or euphoria, is felt. That may last for several hours, even after you have regained normal consciousness. Many experiencers have said that they perceived a very brilliant light, not visually though. At some point you feel that you are aware of nothing except the fact that you are fully conscious. This experience is expressed in terms like - I felt that I was nothing but consciousness; I was just “being.” This experience - “just being” - “pure consciousness” - is said to represent the ultimate nature of every constituent of the universe.
Y: That’s a very good summary. Now, it’s my turn to ask you a few questions First of all, how do you confirm that ‘ being” is the ultimate reality?
X: Normally, we acquire knowledge about an object through our senses. For example, you see a ripe tomato colored red. Some people, however, see it as a sort of grey; they are said to be blind to the color red. Now, what actually is its color? All that you can say is that most people see it as red, but some people don’t. There is no absolute certainty about its color, about who is correct and who is not. It is therefore held that sensory knowledge is incomplete. Now, it is believed that if you can perceive without the use of your senses, you will be able to see things as they actually are, that is, in their “pure state.” This pure state is “being- bliss.” Such knowledge is called “direct knowledge,” knowledge unmediated by the senses. This is samdhi or mystical experience. Raja yoga employs certain techniques like pratyahara “withdrawal of senses” - for the purpose of obtaining direct knowledge.
Y: But how do you ascertain that it is indeed direct knowledge that you obtain, and not a kind of hallucination caused by pratyahara? In other words, it is not one of the ways in which the brain responds to the sensory deprivation resulting from pratyhara and other measures?
X: A number of experiencers have said that they are convinced that they have had direct knowledge.
Y: Conviction is not proof, you know. Further, have you tried to find out whether those experiencers have considered other interpretations? Is it because they found all of them wanting that they accepted the ultimate reality explanation?
X: No, I haven’t tried to find out. I have actually met three people who have claimed to have had the mystical experience, one of them two or three times, but it did not occur to me to ask such probing questions.
Y: If you haven’t examined alternative explanations, how can you judge that the ultimate reality explanation is the correct one? You cannot say that jilebee is the best sweet dish in the world if you haven’t eaten other kinds of sweets, can you?
X: No, I see your point.
Y: Assuming that the mystical experience represents the ultimate reality, how does it help you face life’s problem with equanimity?
X: Well, as far as I could understand, the answer is this. When you have found out your real nature, which is “being-bliss,” you will feel convinced that what is happening to you, whether pleasant or unpleasant, can only be an appearance and cannot affect the “real” you. You are untouched by anything happening to you or around you.
Y: It sounds like imagining that things are happening to somebody else, not to you. Can you do it if you are suffering from, say, a very painful disease?
X: I understand your point. Now, earlier, you said that the methods employed to induce samadhi would interfere with the normal functioning of the brain. Why did you say so?
Y: I was only cautioning you against blindly accepting a view, which has not been critically examined. What instructors in raja yoga tell you is to stop all mental activity by shutting off or at least ignoring, information that is, stimuli, from outside and inside yourself The latter are visions or hallucinations, or such phenomena, produced by the brain. Is it advisable? You see, for the brain to function normally - “normal” means statistically the most common manner - it requires a steady inflow of information of varied nature. If the input changes from the norm, which may vary from person to person, the brain functions abnormally. Deviation from the norm may take place indifferent ways, for example, the input of stimuli may be monotonous, very feeble, too much, like very loud, rapid drumming. There is considerable evidence for abnormal working of the brain from the laboratory and everyday life in conditions of sensory deprivation and sensory overload (4). The brain’s abnormal reaction may take different forms: the subject may hallucinate, fall asleep, become unconscious, or may feel that his essential aspect, or soul, separates from the body and perceives it and the immediate surroundings from a position above the plane of the body. Acute sensory deprivation may even unhinge the mind. One researcher, Jack Vernon (5), has suggested that total stoppage of sensory stimuli, if it can be achieved, may lead to death. Hallucinations and the feeling of seeing the body from outside it out of body experience - could be regarded as the brain’s attempt to correct the deviation in information input from the norm (6). So could be the various elements of the mystical experience - the feeling of seeing a brilliant light, the feeling of Yourself merging with the rest of the universe, the feeling that you are aware of nothing except the fact that you are fully conscious, etc. You may ask why the feeling of ananda occurs during samadhi, if what I am saying is correct If you study the accounts of mystical experience that occurred spontaneously, that is, without employing any technique such as raja yoga, you will find that in many cases it happened during intense positive or negative stress. The stress may be mental or physical. To cite just one example, Swami Vivekananda had one of his mystical experiences when he was in the grip of great negative stress (7). Stress, from the brain’s point of view, is any phenomenon that poses a threat to its normal functioning. One of the ways in which the brain responds is by producing the affect ananda or euphoria. This, as you know, is a biochemical process. One of the reasons why it is caused is found to be that it helps to conserve the energy reserves of the stress victim and this assists in his recovery (8). It makes sense. I do not find any other satisfactory reason for mountain climbers who fall from great heights to experience ananda, pleasant visions and the like just before hitting the ground (9). There are also other arguments against regarding the mystical experience as the ultimate reality. For example, a thought or any other mental event is the way we experience a certain pattern of brainwaves and accompanying biochemical events (10). Now, nothing in the body, or elsewhere, stands still. So mental activity is a normal ceaseless phenomenon; to try to stop it, or reduce it to an unnatural extent, is to interfere with a natural function of the brain. Can such an unnatural procedure employed to induce the mystical experience be beneficial?
X: Do you mean to say that the propensity of the mind, that is, thoughts, to wander should not he controlled?
Y: To try to stop all mental activity cannot be beneficial. The mind’s “wandering” is to be understood as one of the mechanisms that help prevent sensory deprivation.
X: It appears from what you say that we cannot draw any certain conclusions about the ultimate nature of things - the universe - from the mystical experience. O.K. But isn’t there anything like an ultimate stuff from which everything we see around us came? Scientists are said to be looking for it.
Y: Not all scientists think that there is something like an ultimate reality. You’ll find that mentioned in any good hook on what is called “new physics,” books like Capra’s The Tao of Physics (Let me add that everything the authors of such works say about the philosophical implications of new physics should not be accepted uncritically. Some of them like Eddington (12) get carried away and make misleading statements which some Indian writers on Indian philosophy uncritically quote. You can yourself find out the answer to your question by simple reasoning. I shall tell you one method. Can you wipe anything out of existence?
X: No, it’s impossible. Things will only change in one way or another whatever may be the process you subject them to.
Y: It means that there cannot have been a time without something (one or more entities) in existence. If that is the case, how can you determine what the first entity was from which the rest arose? How can you find out the ultimate nature of anything that keeps changing ceaselessly?
X: But there is some stuff with which things are constituted, isn’t there? What is it? There are various kinds of mud pots, but the substance common to all of them is clay. So clay can be said to be the source material.
Y: No. At one level of analysis you find what you call clay, at another level molecules of the constituents of clay, at still another level of analysis atoms, and so on. And all these things are undergoing change without stop. The very process of analysis involves interaction with them, which obviously alters them. Furthermore, methods of analysis may become more and more extensive and precise in the future, and you get new answers. I don’t see the end of the road.
X: There are two questions I’d like to ask you. Why do things keep changing? You can notice change only if there is a permanent unchanging background. That background is the ultimate reality.
Y: We saw the universe, meaning all that is, was not created out of nothing, that things existing at any point of time could have arisen only from pre-existing things. It means, in a nutshell, that entities that constitute the universe have something in common. In other words, all of them are interrelated. It follows that any alteration in any one of them cannot but affect another in some way or other, sooner or later. This process goes on nonstop. Thus change is inevitable. It’s rather like a swinging pendulum; there is never a moment of absolute standstill. I find this a marvelous phenomenon. As for the second question, there is no need for a changeless permanent background: two different rates of change will enable you to appreciate change.
X: Do you think that life also had no beginning?
Y: Since nothing can arise from total emptiness we have to assume that the potential for the emergence of a living organism must have been inherent in the environment in which it appeared. What we call life is a property that became observable when certain entities came together in a particular way. This is one of the reasons why some of our ancient inquirers, or philosophers, said that everything was instinct with chaitanyam. The word here means, “that which causes movement.” Of course chaitanyam does not exist apart from an entity, in a free state. That is a matter which is often forgotten or not understood. Hence, unintelligible views like consciousness, which is another meaning of chaitanyam, or life force or prana, etc. is the ultimate reality.
X: A few days back we touched on the question whether there is a purpose in the universe, and you said you did not see any except what we attributed to the various phenomena. Judging from the evolutionary process it seems to me that the trend is towards more and more complexity - higher and higher the levels of organization- unicellular organisms, multicellular ones, organisms with what looks like only rudimentary awareness, those with consciousness like us humans. How can we account for this trend if there is no purpose in the process of evolution?
Y: How do you decide whether something is complex in its organization or not? Is an atom less complex than a human being? Is it easier to explain an atom or an ant than a human being?
X: Don’t you think that humans are at the top of the evolutionary ladder? Some of the Hindu scriptures say so. Many scientists also think so.
Y: According to certain criteria, yes. But there is nothing unalterable about them; they may be changed from time to time. Suppose you judge by the standard of ability to live in harmony with the environment. Where do we stand? I should think way at the bottom. If we choose another criterion, say, ability to write poetry, well, we are without doubt at the top. There are no absolute standards in these matters.
X: We find order wherever we look. Planets, for example, keep to their orbits; mango trees produce only mangoes. Disorder, gradually, sometimes suddenly too, gives place to order. Don’t you think that these facts suggest the existence of some sort of guiding intelligence in the universe? Of course, this, is only another word for God or some such superhuman entity.
Y: Ask a physicist about planetary orbits and he will exploit them in terms of facts known in physics without resorting to any God. To try to explain them by invoking a superhuman agency is like attributing the cause of epilepsy to an evil spirit.
X: It is held in the samkhya system of Indian philosophy that there are two different mutually exclusive orders of reality - prakriti and purusha. All phenomena are said to be the result of their interaction. Don’t you think that in such a scheme of the universe, one of them can be regarded as cosmic intelligence?
Y: It is also held in the samkhya that purusha and prakriti are inseparable. If they are inseparable, if they can interact, they cannot be regarded as two different orders of reality. So I’d say that we have to reinterpret the samkhya view as follows. There is only one order of reality, or stuff, and the terms purusha and prakriti denote its different sets of properties. These labels don’t really matter. You see, the differences we notice between objects are in respect of properties. For example, water, frost, ice and snow look different from one another and their properties are not the same, but they all belong to the same order of stuff we presently call the physical order. Since there is only one order of stuff, no matter what you call it, all phenomena should be explicable in terms of it. What you call universal intelligence, or God, whatever cannot be an exception.
X: If there is only one order of stuff, what is the meaning of the view that this world of objects is an illusion or delusion?
Y: As we saw earlier, there is no constituent of the universe, which does not undergo change continuously. So, strictly speaking, you are not perceiving exactly the same entity every time you look at it, however brief the interval. You may not notice any change, but it does occur. It is this fact that is sought to be conveyed by ill chosen words like illusion, delusion, etc.
X: If there is nothing that does not undergo change, you don’t survive after death and live eternally as suggested in many religious texts. Even reincarnation, which is one of the basic tenets of Hinduism has to be ruled out. If you are right, what is the explanation of cases of children recalling a previous life?
Y: It can happen. Dr. Ian Stevenson of the University of Virginia in USA and his associates have systematically investigated such reports from many parts of the world, and one of their conclusions is that there is considerable substance in many of them (13). What it implies is that when a person dies a factor that carries his vasanas - memories, experiences, thoughts, aptitudes, etc - may survive and become united with an entity in another person that eventually grows into a child- But there is no reason to think that the surviving factor is a changeless or conscious element. In the Hindu tradition it is held that the lingasareera, the surviving factor, is a physical entity. Naturally, it follows that it is bound to decay, sooner or later. There are indications in several of Stevenson’s findings about the characteristics of reincarnation - type cases that the surviving factor will disintegrate over time. All this has been pointed out in certain research articles that try to reinterpret the idea of postmortem survival. The substance of those articles is that the surviving element is a record of what goes on in the mind of a person at the time of his death, that it is not a sentient entity, and when it becomes associated with another person the latter may remember the events etc recorded on it. He is then said to be the reincarnation of the deceased person. They also indicate that reinterpretation of reincarnation cases as well as some of the survival-related phenomena like apparitions along these lines is scientifically plausible (14). Of course, this is not Stevenson’s view. Those articles suggest that if the surviving factor is not sentient, then there can be no afterlife on the lines envisaged in much of the survivalist literature.
X: What about the karma theory - what you are in this birth determined by your actions in a past life or lives?
Y: Since there is no rebirth as the word is popularly understood, the karma theory can only mean that every action has an effect in this life. Good actions are likely to lead to good effects, evil actions to effects.
X: According to you, then, the idea of salvation as a release from the cycle of birth and rebirth is meaningless.
Y: Yes. There is no rebirth in the traditional sense of the word. So no question of a cycle of birth and rebirth and release from it.
X: Since there is only one order of stuff and we are all it, bhakti, worship, prayer, and soon are pointless in your view, I suppose.
Y: I don’t pray or worship. But others may have a psychological need for bhakti. They should satisfy it. I suppose you know that the word bhakti is used in different senses. In Vivekachoodaamani, for example, is described as concentrated effort to find out one’s true nature (15). Then it is employed in the sense of overwhelming devotion to a personal deity. Bhakti is also what young gopis felt for the boy Sri Krishna - a sort of intense yearning, verging on the erotic. The Geeta, however, seems to discountenance such excessive emotionalism (16). That is in agreement with the overall Hindu and Buddhist view - it is best to follow the middle way in all spheres of life.
X: Why do people have a psychological need for bhakti?
Y: There are a number of reasons. One that I wish to emphasize is the fact that you cannot control all your circumstances in your favor. That can be a source of nagging anxiety, acute stress. So whom can you approach for a solution? Other people, friends, for example. But they also have limitations like you. Realization of this fact is one of the main reasons for man inventing an entity without limitations. You appeal to him, worship him, trust him to find a solution to your problem. Most likely you’ll feel relieved. It is better to worship a God you have invented than to try to seek relief from your anxiety in alcohol or narcotics which will only ruin you. So then bhakti and all that goes with it - going to places of worship, making offerings to Gods, and so on - do serve a useful purpose. Bhakti is only one of the human responses to the problem of controlling one’s circumstances in one’s favor. There are, for example, people who prefer to find solutions to their problems using their heads. Bhaktas should not expect others to he bhaktas too. What is meat to you, may be poison to another. Another thing to keep in mind is that anything in excess can have negative effects. People who become obsessed with bhakti, rituals, religious observances, chanting of God’s names and so on often seem to think they have established a “hot line” with God and therefore nothing else matters. They become too much self-centered because they are all the time thinking of themselves, their so-called salvation; they become dehumanized. It is mindless bhakti. An example of it as the use of loudspeakers at full volume to broadcast bhajans, religious discourses, recorded kirtans and the like at places of worship. Those who engage in such activities are denying others their right to calm and quiet. Whatever you do, whether to satisfy your need for bhakti or anything else should not disturb others. If it does, it is an antisocial activity.
X: Nowadays most spiritual instructors seem to recommend, even insist upon, bhaktimarga rather than the use of reason.
Y: I suspect many of them don’t know better. There could be another reason also. They would like people to treat them as surrogate Gods, and they are afraid that people will not do so if they begin to use their heads. In other spheres of activity also, politics, for example, you will find that the men at the top subtly discourage rational and independent thinking in their followers for fear that they will lose their hold on them.
X: There could be more to worship and prayer than getting relief from anxiety. There are several accounts of people finding solutions to their problems as a hunch, a dream and the like as a result of prayer.
Y: It is true. It’s like a scientist working on a scientific problem getting an answer in a dream a vision, There is, for example, the case of the German chemist Friedrich Kekule who had been trying for many years to find out the molecular structure of benzene dreaming of the solution as he dozed in front of a crackling fire one cold night. The German-born physiologist Otto Loewi dreamed of an experiment that helped him determine that nervous impulses in the body were transmitted chemically. There are a number of books on the subject of creative process, you know (17). The point to note is that the answers to your problems come from yourself. This only increases the marvel that a human being is. Vivekananda is one of the few monks, perhaps the only monk, who clearly stated this fact. He said, “Christs and Buddhas are simply occasions upon which to objectify our own inner powers. We really answer our own prayers.” (18)
X: I understand from what you have said at our discussions that the chanting of mantra, syllables like am, and such procedures are unnecessary for following the middle way.
Y: You’re right. You have to use reason to follow the way of nonattachment, to cultivate equanimity. The techniques you mentioned- there are more - are employed to induce an altered state of consciousness - the mystical experience - which, as we saw earlier, has nothing to do with the middle way. I think a word of caution is necessary against harmless-seeming procedures like the chanting of om. It is true that certain frequencies of sound can have beneficial effects by way of starting certain biochemical processes, but a frequency that suits your instructor may not be good for you, and you will not know this for a long time until adverse effects begin to show up. A few years ago, I was introduced to a person who went into what seemed to be an epileptic fit if he listened to the monotonously rhythmic recitation of the “Venkateswara Suprabhatam” for a couple of minutes, or even less, no matter who recited it. Certain chants are meant to disrupt the normal working of the brain and put you in an altered state of consciousness, like the out of body experience which is misinterpreted as the separation of the soul from the body. Systematic research in the area of effects of sound on humans has only begun. You should not assume, without proper investigation, that the chanting of this or that set of words or listening to it is beneficial to you.
X: I’ve read in books and also heard at lectures that a “realized” person feels that there is no difference in any respect between himself and anything else in the rest of the world. Is it possible to feel such identity? I have my doubts, because we are born as separate entities and we live as separate persons. I haven’t been able to ask anyone reputed to be a “realized” person simply because I couldn’t get near them. I tried a few times without success. They all seemed to be always surrounded by bigwigs or functionaries of their establishments whose chief function appeared to he to keep small fry like me out of their immediate vicinity.
Y: The phrase “realized person” means nothing to me. Speaking for myself, I don’t feel that I am you or the rest of the universe, and I suppose that’s the case with others too This is to be expected because, as you said, differentiation is an evolutionary fact. The me-not-me difference exists even at micro levels, otherwise organ transplants, for instance, would succeed without exception. It doesn’t happen. But the feeling of being separate individuals should not prevent us from using our heads and trying to make our interpersonal relationships smooth. Feelings like you have merged with the rest of the universe or your body boundary has dissolved, which you may experience in an altered state of consciousness, have no ontological significance. They are similar to sensations like you are floating or flying in the air that sometimes occur in situations of depleted supply of blood oxygen to the brain such as respiratory problems or prolonged retention of breath during pranayama.
X: I suppose you don’t think there are miracles, you know, phenomena which can be explained only by postulating a nonphysical agency.
Y: No. What do you mean by “nonphysical?” Do you know all the properties of the physical order of reality or stuff?
X: No. We know some, not all.
Y: Then, how can you he certain that there is another order of stuff?
X: I see your point.
Y: The universe is monistic. So, as I said before, it should be possible to explain all phenomena in terms of a single order of stuff. I’d say there are only two broad categories of phenomena: those we don’t understand at present and those we do.
X: What about miraculous cures? You pray on a patient’s behalf, or the patient himself prays, and the disease considered incurable suddenly, or gradually, clears up.
Y: I’ve already answered your question. Instead of remaining content thinking that God or some God-man cured the disease we should get down to the business of trying to find out the process underlying the cure. Serious research is being done in this field in some western countries (19).
X: What about claims of ability to materialize objects out of the air, things like rings, watches, lockets, and so on?
Y: If the performer refuses to reveal how he does it or to undergo tests to find out the underlying process he is engaging in sleight of hand, he is trying to exploit your gullibility.
X: There is mention of siddhis in the patanjali Sutras, you know. So there must be something to them.
Y: Just because something is mentioned in an ancient work it doesn’t necessarily mean that it is the last word on it. Anything a human being is able to do is a human phenomenon. There is no superhuman agency at work. All those siddhis mentioned in the Patanjali Sutras are not to be taken literally- Some of them are private realities, that is, what the practitioner of Patanjali yoga feels he has done, such as becoming very small. They are not publicly verifiable. If you think that I am wrong you can arrange a demonstration. I shall then revise my opinion. Theory and experiment should go hand in hand.
X: Why is there so much emphasis on celibacy in the Bible tradition? Some thinkers even go to the extent of saying that total continence is a condition of achieving samadhi or “self realization.” It doesn’t make sense to me.
Y: It doesn’t make sense to me either. What are your objections?
X: Well, for one thing, sex is a natural function. Then we find many of the wise men or rishis mentioned in the upanishads were married. Some of them even had more than one wife. I suppose the prohibition derives from the misguided asceticism of so called God-seekers.
Y: I agree with you. Speaking from my own experience, married life, properly conducted, can be a source of great happiness for both partners. If you are not married and don’t have children you miss a great deal. No sanyasin knows how a parent feels about his or her child. Those who are against sex forget the fact that man and woman complement each other. Of course, anything in excess is bad. Sex, too, should not become an obsessive need.
X: I noticed that, unlike many others, you don’t cite the scriptures or ancient philosophers to support your views.
Y: You see, I’m simply stating my views arrived at by simple reasoning. I’m not trying to explain any scriptural opinion, or to refute them. I regard the Hindu scriptures - the upanishads and so on - as records of discussions held by curious, intelligent persons at different times. Some of what I have said derives from these discussions; I have modified some of what the ancients said and tried not to use the traditional jargon which can be confusing today. If you find anything illogical in what I have said you can correct me. My views are open to revision. So are the scriptural views, and some thinkers like Sankaracharya and Vivekananda have pointed out that fact. But many people ignore it or intentionally suppress it.
X: The scriptures are said to be shruti, some of them, I mean - what is revealed by a “higher power”-and are therefore more authoritative than what reason can tell you. At least that’s what I’m told by the pundits.
Y: We saw earlier that there is no “higher power” as the phrase is commonly understood. Actually, what is meant is intuition. Intuition and reason are not antithetical. In simple terms, intuition is finding a solution to a problem subconsciously, on the basis of the data you have collected and reasoned about. You could call the solution shruti. As said before, all creative people - scientists, poets, and so on - are familiar with the process. The ancients thought deeply about matters like the origin of the universe and answers to some of them occurred to them. There is nothing divine - superhuman - about them. The validity of the answers depends largely on the data. If the data are altered, by addition or deletion, your conclusions may have to be modified.
X: Did you have a preceptor - a guru? It is held in our tradition that one should have a guru, especially in matters philosophical.
Y: Suppose you want to study a new subject, say, physics. Would you like to have someone to guide you, someone with whom you can discuss matters concerning your subject? It is up to you to make a decision. I did not have a guru in the traditional sense, but I had plenty of opportunities to read books, friends like you to discuss matters with, and reflect on them.
X: I’ve heard so many novel interpretations from you, so I’d like to know how you would define a true Hindu.
Y: As I made clear earlier, I haven’t said anything very original. I’ve only tried to simplify some of the traditional ideas omitting the old jargon. Next we should not think in terms of religious groups, like Hindus, Christians, and so on. That will only erect bathers among people. Instead, we should think in terms of human beings, cultivate tolerance, keep an open mind, and try to live in harmony with one another and the natural environment. I think we can do that only if we use our heads - reason.
I. Iswarakrishna, Samkhyakarika.
2. William James, Varieties of Religious Experience. New York, Collier Macmillan, 1961.
3. Agehananda Bharati, The Light at the Centre, New Delhi, Vikas Publishing House, 1977.
4. P. Solomon and Associates (Eds), Sensory Deprivation,Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1961.
5. Jack Vernon, Inside the Black Room, London, Pelican, 1968.
6. V.Krishnan. Near-death experiences: Evidence for survival? Anabiosis: Journal of Near-Death Studies, Spring 1985, pp. 21-38.
7. Christopher Isherwood, Sree Ramakrishna and His Disciples, Calcutta, Advaita Ashrama, 1986.
8. See 6 above.
9. Russel Noyes Jr., Dying and mystical consciousness, Journal of Thanatology, January-February, 1971, pp.25-
10. I.H.Ornstein, The Mind and the Brain, The Hague, Martinus Nijhoff, 1972; Michael Hutchison, Megabrain (revised edn), New York, Ballantine, 1991.
11. Fritjof Capra, The Tao of Physics, Berkeley, Shambhala, 1975,
12. See, for example, Arthur Eddington, The Nature of the Physical World, 1928,
13. Ian Stevenson, Children Who Remember Previous Lives, Charlottesville, University Press of Virginia, 1987
14. V. Krishnan, A theory of death, Journal of Near-Death Studies, Winter 1990, pp. 133-134; NDEs in rebirth memories, Vital Signs, 18(2), 1999, pp.8-9.
15. Sankaracharya, Vivekachoodamani, verses 31 and 32.
16. Nataraja Guru, The Rhagavad Gita, Varkala, Nataraja Guru Publishing House, 1989, particularly Chapter 12, “Unitive devotion and contemplation.”
17. Bernard Ghiselin (Ed.), The Creative Process, University of California Press, 1952; Stanley Rosner and Lawrence Abt (Eds), The Creative Experience, Grossman, 1970.
18. Swami Vivekananda, ‘Inspired Talks,” Complete Works, Vol. 7, Calcutta, Advaita Ashrama, 1964, p.
19. Cyril W. Smith and S Best, Electromagnetic Man, London, Dent, 1989; V. Krishnan, On the mind/body problem, Journal of Near-Death Studies, Winter 1994, pp.