As a big city westerner who’s spent most of his life hanging out with punks, metalheads, conceptual artists and various types of moody post-marxist intellectual I think it’s a fairly safe assumption that most of my friends would identify as atheist, or perhaps the less controversial term “agnostic.” It is a community, at least in principle, committed to the unflinching gaze; to the notion that truth does not care about your feelings and that its better to come to terms with the truth then to blissfully ignore it. Often the primacy of the scientific method in determining the truth is assumed to be inviolate and if in it’s scouring of the physical world a cultural value is found to be lacking in credibility then it must be confronted and dispensed with, no matter how provisionally sacred. Many have concluded, not only that God is such a cultural value, but that all conclusions about a reality beyond the ken of our senses or the instruments we use to extend their sensitivity are to be jettisoned.
And so I have imagined this conversation between an unfair caricature of such a person and an overgeneralization of a certain type of Hindu mystic.
“My son, do you believe in God?”
“Oh, so what do you believe in?”
“I don’t know…nothing.”
“Oh, so you do believe in God”
The interlocutor could just as well have been a follower of Vedanta, Tantra, Shaivism or, indeed, of Yoga. My understanding of these concepts is incomplete and piecemeal, and it’s also important to note that the word God is an imperfect translation of numerous Sanskrit words that each have their own subtle distinctions, but I will attempt to illuminate my own understanding of the issues at hand.
Imagine being a newborn baby. Bursting out of the womb into a buzzing, blooming cacophonous smear. There is no context for any part of the smear to be differentiated from any other part of the smear, there is merely an awareness of this field of colour and sensation where once there was no colour and perhaps only a muted sensation. At this foundational stage of human incarnation there are only 2 things to know. The smear and the time when there was no smear. Almost immediately the brain begins forming boundaries around different parts of the smear that seem to interact with other parts of the smear and the physical world is conjured into being. These formal delineations are the beginnings of language. Without this function of our minds our bodies could not survive in the world but it’s important to note that much of what we take for granted as the state of the physical world, a space inhabited by objects interacting with other objects, is quite literally a figment of our imagination. It is a coping mechanism. What we are conditioned to call the material world is a linguistic construction and what the material world actually is is a single field of energy in a constant state of processional flux. If we pursue this line of reasoning to it’s conclusion then there are really only 2 final objects of knowledge: The smear and that which perceives the smear. In Yoga these 2 concepts are referred to as prakriti, the perceived, and Purusha, the perceiver. In some schools of Tantra and Shaivism they are referred to as Shiva and Shakti. We could just as easily translate it as something and nothing.
These 2 states seem inextricably linked, somehow emptiness is creative, at the very least in the sense that the substance-less thing that perceives is required to complete the relativistic gestalt in order for the physical world to be said to exist and matter seems to go about propagating loci of interaction between the void and its other. A die-hard materialist may be able to convincingly assert that the impossible miracle that is the physical world emerged as a result of random chance, but the idea that that world should then open it’s eyes and be seen by a formless identity embedded within it but clearly distinct from it doesn’t seem to equate with our concepts of causal procedure. There is a formless witness somehow sheltered from the currents of causality and the simple fact of the matter is that it is inconceivable for the physical world to exist at all without this formless witness to perceive it. This formless witness is what is staring out of your eyes right now. Emptiness is the creative force from which everything springs. A fairly fitting definition for the concept of God. And so if you are reading this then you are God.
Somehow the physical world has been compelled to organize itself towards self-apprehension. The cascade of cyclic emergence proceeds with perfect elegance towards the construction of conduits between emptiness and form. The physical world appears random when investigated based on a self-contained causality. Yet the totally absurd, impossible luck that any of this should actually occur despite an infinitude of other options seems to suggest a purpose. Since a world that isn’t perceived by it’s reciprocal is inconceivable, the purpose of any conceivable world is to create itself by creating the path to it’s opposite; a perfectly stable, eternal and omnipotently creative force of pure awareness. The process of the physical world apprehending this force of pure awareness is what enlightenment is. If we are conscious beings we are already enlightened. The formal bodily procedures by a physical being that are called enlightenment, samadhi, or God-realization are merely ways for the human body to relax into a relationship of trust and fearlessness in the face of this fact. Certain bodies are more predisposed to this process then others, and so proceeds all the sturm und drang of the human experience.
Hinduism is an easy religion to misunderstand. For one thing it’s not really any one religion, but a patchwork of mythological and philosophical traditions that got lumped together by British bureaucrats in the 1700’s. More importantly the dizzying pantheon of gods and supernatural entities doesn’t seem to fit with the inexpressible simplicity of the above philosophy, which is essentially cribbed from various mystical Hindu traditions. It’s important to state that Hinduism has been profaned by paranoid fundamentalism just as all the other great religions have, but I think there is a subtler, more holistic understanding that explains the traditions persistence in the face of modernism, as well as it’s appeal to inquisitive spiritual minds dissatisfied by the anxious positivism of the west.
There is a problem associated with the belief that a thing’s existence is contingent upon being perceived. That problem is that our mind is the filter through which everything we perceive is passed prior to its perception, and the vast majority of what we perceive is vastly distinct from what the scientific mindset has demarcated as the material world. We’ve already discussed the world of concepts, of narratives, of linguistic objects which inform the way the vast majority of us experience the physical world the vast majority of the time. These are non-physical objects of perception. Then there are dreams and hallucinations, as well as the creative imagination which creates the mythologies, symbols and archetypes that for much of history defined the linguistic paradigms upon which the human psyche built its conception of the physical world. These are all non-physical objects of perception, and if you believe that the only meaningful test of a things existence is that it is perceived then they have just as much a claim to realness as any property of the material world. They are, in fact, themselves properties of the material world in the only sense that is meaningful. We are the builders of our world, and we can either build a world populated by lifeless particulate bumping into each other or we can build a world of gods and goddesses and elemental forces and mythological archetypes. Of Logos and Mythos and Eros. The latter seems more complete to me, but both realities are provisionally true. It is your choice whether or not you adopt an attitude of devotion and love towards your reality, whatever it is. I submit that it’s the only attitude that makes any sense.
Ultimately it doesn’t really matter what you believe, but how you approach life. An atheist is just as likely to be an ethical, introspective person as any spiritualist. Indeed, many atheists adopt their position because of the moral failings and logical contortions of religious fundamentalism. But in my view they’re missing an important part of the picture. Religious fundamentalists are atheists.
By demanding that works of deep, divine inspiration lower themselves to masquerading as mere history; By insisting that archetypal symbols of transcendence are relegated to being imprisoned by the formal boundaries of physicality, simply a more powerful version of the lowest conception of what a conscious being is; By assuming that the highest aspiration of revelation is that it should basically function like a technical manual for a complicated fridge, fundamentalism is revealed to rest on a far more entrenched materialist bias then any atheist could ever have. At least science, in its purest form, is axiomatically committed to change. As the search for the truth behind the physical world becomes murkier and more troubled by absurdity and paradox and as the transparent fraudulence of religious fundamentalism becomes less connected to the actual spiritual experience, the lines between what it means to be spiritual and what it means to be a materialist are blurring. In the most extreme cases they are all but switching roles.
At the end of the day I don’t really know any of this stuff for sure. It’s wise to be suspicious of people who claim certainty in these matters. It’s almost always a mark of dishonesty. I have attempted here to rationally explain something that is best apprehended through transcendence of the rational mind, and that thing has no doubt suffered for it. So be it. I think the best strategy for a life well lived is to simply surrender to the mystery, to understand that there are truths we are not privy to and to appreciate life for the miracle that it is.
It’s more important to be love then to be right, and you don’t need to believe anything in particular to do that.
Hare Krishna Hare Krishna
Krishna Krishna Hare Hare
Hare Rama Hare Rama
Rama Rama Hare Hare