Solipsism & Its Remedy

Those with only an outsider’s interpretation of Hinduism often assert — or, depending on one’s own worldview, accuse — Hindu metaphysics of being purely solipsistic in the Western sense. Both academic theologians and New Age followers make this case, though for different purposes.

Solipsism, to be clear, is the idea that nothing exists (or, at least, nothing can be proven to exist) other than or outside of the self. The barrier to interpretation is on that last term: the self. In our common parlance, as well as in most American and European philosophical, religious, and psychological schools, “self” refers exclusively to the ego — that ersatz entity which claims independent existence and ownership in the face of all evidence. Hindu philosophy, however, has separate words for these things allowing for greater precision in discussion. What we translate as “self” (slightly more adequately as “Self”, or by Paul Brunton’s “Overself”) is the Sanskrit term ātman. (For those who are curious, the term for ego is ahaṁkāra, or “I-am act”.) Ātman is not the personal self, nor even the impersonal intellect, but is the transpersonal Consciousness at the root of all phenomena, at once the individual Spiritual Monad and the unitary Oversoul. It is not at all proper, therefore, to compare ātman and ego, let alone to equate them.

And, yet, because of this basic misapprehension, most Western philosophy students and seminarians are given the impression that Hinduism claims the godhood (or even godhead) of the individual person. (See, for instance, the idiocy concerning Buddhism and Hinduism perpetuated in Lee Strobel’s book, The Case for Christ, a trivial little text which insults Christianity no less than any other religion.)  Worse than this are those spiritual seekers who misunderstand these teachings (usually by way of equally misinformed popular writers and teachers) and conclude potentially dangerous and often immoral interpretations of them.

An example of the problem involved is the extremely common belief among relatively comfortable Americans that we each create our own individual reality by our thoughts and beliefs, an implication of the idea that the universe is a construct of individual minds. This is used to justify everything from conspicuous consumption to failure to give to those in need, citing a misapplied “karmic” reason for the fortune or misfortune of others. I have even heard it said that Rhonda Byrne, author of The Secret, remarked that if copies of her book were given to starving African villagers (presuming, I suppose, that they could read it), all of their worldly problems could be solved! I do not know the source of this story, and it may be inaccurate, but it is hardly outside the realm of this mode of thinking. One individual involved with an obviously fraudulent world-wide pseudo-Hindu New Age cult (with a membership roster boasting none other than feel-good motivational hukster Tony Robbins), once told me personally that Hitler did the world a good turn by intentionally taking on the whole planet’s bad karma by way of his actions. In other words, his killing of millions of people in cold blood — let alone the millions more who died because of him in war — was a sacrificial act of himself to help the rest of us, including the people he murdered! So much for divine grace, I suppose, when we’re all spiritually dependent on Hitler! Distance from atrocity in either time or space makes these interpretations of events extremely convenient in denying that any of us is — or could be — responsible for the well being of anybody else.

Just as awful as the moral implications of this sort of egotistical solipsism are the intellectual ramifications. If the outside world may as well not exist at all, if all things are the result of one’s own beliefs and fancies, or if (more charitably) reality is so malleable to the human mind as to have no meaningful attributes at all, there is really nothing to be learned from or about anyone or anything outside one’s own sentimental inner ramblings and errant whims. Not only do science and engineering go out the window — despite the luxury they provide to the spiritual hedonists under discussion — but so goes all philosophical and spiritual speculation; after all, what need is there for metaphysics if physics is denied its place already?

The remedy to this dangerous nonsense is twofold. First, we have the common philosophical gambit of pointing out that any belief not given expression in behavior is no belief at all, but empty rhetorical fumbling. If these hedonic solipsists were fully convinced of their ideas, they would be required by gravity to belief that Hitler’s and Stalin’s pogroms were unimportant, just dramatic but trivial phantasmagoria.

Second is the true perspective of Tradition: Nondual Realism. Far from the meaningless illusion of Western monist-idealism, the Hindu Ṛishis — in solidarity with the Buddha, Jewish kabbalists, Lao-tze, and others — recognize the reality of the material world, and of our place within it. What distinguishes them from monist-materialists is their understanding that, from an earthly perspective, there are degrees of reality (or, more precisely, degrees of our awareness of Reality), and, consequently, the material universe is real only in relativity to what we may tentatively call Divine Attention. In this connection, it is interesting that some kabbalists teach that if God were to look away for even an instant, the universe would dissolve into nonexistence. And, yet, so long as God’s gaze remains, this whole vast cosmic system is quite real enough. To be blunt, no matter how hard we think that solid matter is illusory, we still cross the street with caution!

Yoga is sometimes called dualistic because it seeks to transcend physical existence. This is a misunderstanding. If there were not a pre-existing and eternal unity of the individual soul with the Oversoul of Paraśiva, no artificial unity would be possible regardless of our efforts. In reverse, there could be no being or consciousness in the individual soul if it were not rooted in the Being and Consciousness of the Absolute. The same holds true for the material world: it exists insofar as God imparts it with His attribute (to use unfortunately necessary imprecise language) of Being. From a certain angle, we could then see the world as a grand illusion or play, but with the same interpretation and a different angle, we can see the same world as solid and important; both are true. Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi “said that [the world] is unreal if viewed as apart from the Self and real if viewed as the Self.” (Talks with Sri Ramana Maharshi, Talk 516) In Saivite terms, “‘Recognition’ says that Śakti (power) is coeval with Śiva. The one does not exist without the other. Śiva is unmanifest, whereas Śakti is manifest on account of Her independent will, swatantra. Her manifestation is the display of the cosmos on pure consciousness, like images in a mirror.” (Talks, 288) In short, the world is real if viewed as one with the Whole, but utterly unreal is taken as independent. Such is Hindu Nondual Realism.

Karma is a reality, but it is neither unbreakable destiny — as the philosophers and theologians see it — nor is it an excuse to smugly enjoy success while ignoring the suffering of others. Similarly, for as much as our beliefs and attitudes can and do influence our individual experience of life, this is not the effortless influence of some all-powerful personal magnetism. Reality is what it is, and the universe has a great deal to teach us. We can only learn the greatest lessons, though, if we first acknowledge that there are lessons to learn in the first place, and that it is only our unselfish engaged interdependence which makes wisdom accessible. Worship the ego and live in the darkness of self-sustaining ignorance. Worship the Reality and watch as the Universe opens up to you like a morning glory at first light.

Aum Namaḥ Śivaya

 

Israel, Palestine, and Violence

In my former blog, I kept politics largely to myself, the only exceptions rarely involving declarations of my own positions on particularly controversial issues (homosexuality notwithstanding). I have changed my policy for Peace Profound. I have concluded that society and politics cannot be separated from religion and spirituality, at least within the individual. That is to say, most political and social issues are, in fact, moral issues and require the same profound level of thought and attention which we owe to our spiritual lives. So, I will be occasionally presenting my own remarks on somewhat controversial issues here on Peace Profound. I welcome civil comments and responses, though be warned that shaming, name-calling, and the like, will absolutely not be tolerated in the comments of this blog.

I see many people trying to defend Israel’s assault in Gaza, shaming anybody who dares to criticize Israeli brutality as “hypocrisy” for not having spoken out against Palestinian violence against Israel. Let it be known that most of us who criticize Israel do so not because we want Palestinians to have carte blanche for terrorism. No, many of us are as upset by violence stemming from one “side” as from another.

I do not apologize for failing to recognize the value of brutal torture. I do not apologize for becoming angry each time I see a photo of a civilian “casualty”. And I do not apologize for the heartbreak I feel each time a parent loses a child needlessly. These are the fruits of war, and it ought not to require a person to be “pro-Israel” or “pro-Palestine” to see the situation for what it is.

If some of us say more about Israel’s violence than about that of Palestinians, it is not because we approve of violence coming from one direction and not the other, but because we recognize bullying when we see it. It feels almost cheap to call it bullying, as “bullying” is too trivial a term, but insofar as a bully is a person in power who uses that power to assert damaging superiority over another, that is what it is. So do not think that I feel any shame for turning Israel’s actions about in my head and finding them wanting.

My words will surely have no effect at all upon this sadly ongoing conflict, but let us take what lessons we can. Do not doubt for a moment that peace is possible, but it cannot begin with governments. It must begin with each person who wishes to see the Kingdom of Heaven spread out over the Earth. Find the Peace Profound which is your nature; bring it into your homes; let it radiate into your community, your congregation, your school, your workplace; let it dictate all of your actions in the world. This world will never be “perfect”; that is not its purpose. Its purpose is to impel us to perfection. We are sentient agents; we are capable of choosing peace, or choosing violence. Our socio-political responsibilities no more end with voting than our spiritual lives do with passively attending a weekly service. And if either our politics or our religions lead us to supporting violence — physical or psychological — we are morally responsible for the outcome.

Aum Shantiḥ Shantiḥ Shantiḥ

Joining the Hindu Community: Some Early Observations

It has been nearly two months, now, since I began trying to discover and interact with the local Hindu community. I live in the area of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, so the Hindu community is fairly large and diverse. The Sri Venkaeswara Temple, the Hindu Jain Temple, and Chinmaya Mission Pittsburgh, among others, mostly in the suburban Monroeville and Penn Hills area, serve the community as religious and cultural centers in many capacities. For example, I recently took a seven-week workshop in spoken Sanskrit generously hosted by Chinmaya Mission Pittsburgh.My immediate impression is not that of an insular community trying hard to keep the tide of filthy Western influence out, as I had been taught in high school cultural geography class, but rather of an extended family who recognize earnest efforts to learn their ways when they see them and welcome, with open hearts and warm smiles, anybody who truly loves God and Gods regardless of ethnic, cultural, or religious background. Hinduism is neither closed to dedicated seekers, nor even to those just innocently curious. I’m not positive where the myth of Hinduism being “closed” came from, but I have read it in even the most scholarly of books on the topic from authors whom I respect deeply for their otherwise broad and deep religious knowledge. Great authorities within Hinduism itself, however, make clear that Hinduism is not only just now open to newcomers, but always has been throughout its history; otherwise, how could people as diverse as Sri Lankans, Nepalese, and Alexander’s Greeks have made their way into Sanātana Dharma long before me?

I don’t mean to make this sound like a dispassionate study in anthropology. My interest is direct and specific: to gain entry to the mysteries of Dharma. And, to do so, I must also learn to integrate this same multifarious dharma into all the many areas and aspects of life. And I have some truly wonderful individual human beings to thank for what little progress I have made in this process. I have been recognized, without any prompting on my part, as a Śiva-bhakta by  temple priests and teachers of Vedanta, welcomed to kirtans, and brought in to participate in the Diwali Lakshmi puja and stotara. No, this isn’t because I am special and they can see it; it is because they are special. In a world so often characterized by walls and “No Trespassing” signs, Hindus have been those to open doors, smile, and pass me a plate of hot food.

Aum Shantiḥ Shantiḥ Shantiḥ

Honesty in Blogging

Whether or not you have arrived here by way of my now-defunct blog, The Magical Messiah, it is best for me to quickly explain the purpose of this blog.

I have never been one to blog seeking an audience. Don’t get me wrong; my goal is not to not have an audience, either. However, I write mostly to help in organizing my own thoughts; if I can put something down in such a way that other people can see what I’m getting at, then my thoughts are at least somewhat clear. Thus, anything I write is not intended to be a statement of conclusion or finality, but rather a strong expression of “where I am at, right now” in my approach to any given particular. This brings me around to why I’ve started this blog and abandoned my other one: The Magical Messiah is no longer “where I’m at”, and I would have to delete the whole thing and start from scratch to reflect that shift. Still, there’s some stuff on there that I think is still good, or might still be useful to somebody, and very little I would like to disown. Instead, I’m just creating a clear point of separation. Let the past be what it is, but I’m no longer in it.

This blog, then, reflects the measure of peace I have gained in finally admitting to myself and others that I have embraced Sanātana Dharma (what is popularly, though not entirely accurately, known as “Hinduism”) by way of intense study of important Western writers in Perennial Philosophy. I don’t see this as a repudiation of my former Christianity, but as a blossoming of it. I have not abandoned Jesus but have taken a broader and, I think, deeper view of who and what He is. This has led me inexorably to conclude that I am now where I have felt drawn for years: nondual Saivism. Hermetism and Gnosticism were stepping stones from virtual nihilism through a sort of “New Age” pantheism to mitigated dualism, and into pure nondualism.

Let me emphasize that I do not hold myself above the authentic religious and initiatory traditions through which I have come to reach this point. I can only speak honestly about the road I have taken. I know many men and women personally who are ardent practitioners of Gnostic Christianity, contemplative Christianity, esoteric Hermetism, Kabbalah, Buddhism, and many other traditions besides, and I have nothing but respect for them and their path; there are many paths, but one Way.

All of that said, this is a blog about Perennial Wisdom in Her many forms, but more specifically about my own journey in Dharma. Really, they amount to the same thing (but I’ll get into that more as time goes by).

Thanks for stopping by, and I hope that something of my journey can be of help in yours.

Aum Shanti Shanti Shanti