Lancer Triumphant

With the lance of He
Who upon the peacock rides
I pierce the hollow heart
of that only sin, sin
which thinks itself apart.

With that one strike,
I have run anger through,
speared the spleen of greed,
split wide passion’s ribs —
the blood runs fast indeed!

Plant that spear,
O Murugan, O knight!
Set it well and ride!
The asuras flee before you,
where sun, moon, & flame abide.

Emotional Challenges in Spiritual Life

My depression — “melancholia”, when I’m feeling poetic — is worst when I deny the place it holds in my life. This is not peculiar to me, nor to the experience of depression. What we today call, illogically, “positive” emotions are at their best when we know that they are passing, and their “negative” counterparts are at their worst when we try to grasp at “peace” or “happiness”.

This is not yet another lecture on that old chestnut that life is only sweet because of death’s bitterness, however true this may be. It is not so much to say that darkness lets us recognize light, but that darkness is an ontologically necessary attenuation of light. When we try to separate life’s experiences according to “positive” and “negative”, we are slicing away the nuance which makes those experiences, relative as they are, in any way meaningful. Though it may not be especially fun at the time, I have come to value those spans of depression as the invigorating chill breeze of late winter, or the fallow period which encourages growth by its very (seeming) emptiness.

Religion is seen, today, as so much unnecessarily rigid discipline, while “spirituality” is thought to be freedom and bliss. But, in reality, the belief in such a shallow freedom to do, say, think, or feel anything is only a delusion; more, it is a delusion which leads inevitably either to violent inner repression of “negativity”, or to disappointment and a deep sense of failure as the house of cards falls from the slightest shift of circumstance. Such a spirituality lacks the tension necessary to achieve anything lasting or meaningful. It is devoid of the sort of relational framework which demands humility and challenges our all-too-natural narcissism.

The challenges and inner conflicts of religious life will stir up a mess of hidden fantasies, unresolved emotions, combative impulses, and muddy thoughts; a reflecting pool is not clean if all the dirt has merely settled to the bottom, and is not thus peaceful because it is stagnant. I have heard it pithily put that, “If meditation and Yoga only relax you, you’re doing something wrong.”

This is not to say that all mental and emotional states are “right”, but that they all have meaning and context. It is thus better to be honestly and sincerely aggressive than to “fake peace” and be passive-aggressive. It is only by being honest about anger, frustration, sadness, grief, hopelessness, and so on, that we can ever sublimate them in the stream of kundalinī-śakti or “spiritual energy.” Denial, like wallowing, passion, and pride, is just a form of grasping.

This is part of why the Bible, Mahābhārata, and other scriptures, contain such challenging passages of war, betrayal, human frailty, dismay, loss, and murder. If a spiritual approach does not confront us with our own shadow and force us to look deeply, examine, analyze, synthesize, and find meaning, we can never come to the stage of making peace. Any claim of peace before that process has exhausted itself is just another lie we tell ourselves.

Paradoxically, we have to abandon the notion that we can do it all by our own power in order to find ourselves infused with the power necessary in reaching the goal. Then, it is a matter of giving up the notion of the goal! “Self-power” and “other-power” are not different, except we make them so by misperception; and, to know the End, we must stand at the Beginning.

Joining the Hindu Community: My Saiva Name

You all may have noticed a name change on my profile: Purnacandra Sivarupa. This is my chosen Saiva name. I’m not going to force everybody to switch to using it all at once (at least not the folks I know in person!), but I’d appreciate it if my friends at least started to accustom themselves to it. I’ll be happy to let anybody know exact pronunciation when convenient. And, yes, I will be making this legal. I’m going to give it a bit of a “feeling-out”, to make sure that it seems to fit where I’m at. If, as with English names, “Purnacandra” is a bit long for common address, and you feel the need to shorten it, “Candra” is my preferred “nickname”, as that is the deity name at the heart of it. (“C” in Sanskrit is pronounced like “ch” in English.)

“Purnachandra” means “Full Moon”; “Sivarupa” means “form of Siva”. The name took a lot of time for me to decide upon, after much research, prayer, and meditation, and is very meaningful to me in this current place along my spiritual journey. Thanks, everybody, for being patient with the process. Aum Santih Santih Santih

No Religion, No Spirituality

The past two years, or so, have seen a lot of articles online and even in mainstream publications about the so-called dichotomy of “spirituality” and “religion”. The question has existed for a lot longer than that, of course, and has been part of public discourse in the United States and other Western nations for several decades, at least as far as being a socially significant idea. Everybody from beatniks to hippies, from New Age/New Thought to occultism, the claim is made that there is no need to belong to an organized religion, no need to set oneself at the feet of a Master, and certainly no need to hold to any definite ideas or disciplines in pursuit of spiritual goals.

Part of the problem is in a misunderstanding of what constitutes a “spiritual goal”. The common perception among these approaches is that anything which makes one feel “empowered” or “positive” is inherently spiritual; their watchwords include “Follow your bliss!” and “Find yourself!” We mustn’t journey far from home to see how much damage “following your bliss” can do. The pleasant is not identical to the good. Ask any child with a bellyache on Easter afternoon! If each person were to simply do what felt good at the time, certainly moral responsibility would break down entirely within a very short period. This saccharine vision of the “state of nature” is simply one more delusion which needs to be rooted out during the spiritual quest. To paraphrase Jesus, if you break the Law and know not what you are doing, you commit a grave error; only one who knows perfectly what he is doing may transgress the Law for only he knows fully what the Law actually is. His transgression is only apparent. It is pride alone which claims to know this deeply through sentimentalism and personal pleasure alone.

Therein do we find what a goal must look like in order to be genuinely spiritual. If that goal leads us from pride to humility, from combative to surrendered, from passionate to peaceful, from sentimental to empathetic, we may safely proceed. Of course, much of this is not immediately clear, and we often require a great deal of wandering around, backsliding, bumping our heads, before we find our way forward. This underlines the necessity of an established lineage and a living Master thereof in the spiritual process.

The argument is often made that belonging to a religion or sect with even one level of hierarchy beyond that of “lay practitioner” is inherently wrong because limiting. This also misses the point. We first of all must learn humility and, to do so, we must surrender ourselves to somebody whom we can see and touch. Most of us are simply not capable of sincerely surrendering completely to the Self God directly because we are not yet capable of directly perceiving the Self God. (Here, then, is the esoteric purpose of the sacrament of confession and absolution in Catholicism.) Any such effort to surrender before the right time is liable to be more imaginary than real and, quite likely, to lead us off into the dark with no guide. Even aside from this, the Preceptor or Guru has been through the process before us, knows the lay of the land and each dark cavern and corridor we may have to pass through along the way. His job is not to tell us point-for-point where to go, but to provide us with the tools and techniques we will need, as we need them and not a moment sooner. He cannot do so until and unless we have placed our faith in him. This means a dramatic shift in awareness from the purely personal-egoic center of the mind to increasingly subtle centers.

It is true that studying within a sect, and under the guidance of a Preceptor, is limiting. Limits, however, create pressure, pressure gives rise to force, and force can be put to work. Imagine a system of plumbing. In order to get water into our sinks and toilets and water heaters, there needs to be not just water (inert all on its own), but also gravity to produce water pressure, and increasingly thinning pipes and tubes to draw that water upward with enough pressure to where we can put it to use. The water is our mind-psyche, a substance which is basically inert and takes the shape of any container it encounters, just as our mind takes the shape of the objects of our attention, generally following the path of least resistance. The gravity which pulls the water down, causing it to press upon itself, is surrender to the spiritual imperative. The pipes themselves are the sect and lineage to which we have committed ourselves; while numerous lines of plumbing will lead into the house, any given quantity of water must follow a specific line in order to reach any given spigot. Likewise, if we do not follow a given set of teachings within a more or less complete context to its conclusion, we never attain our goal.

The founders of great initiatory religious traditions did not generally abandon the traditions of their birth, but only reinterpreted and reapplied them according to certain contingencies, partly metaphysical and partly historical. They certainly never invented “new religions” out of whole cloth, but only followed the guidance of Self to re-present existing methods with differing emphases.

Jesus was a Jew; He never claimed otherwise, and certainly never encouraged His immediate disciples to turn away from Judaism. This is not to say that all Christians must also be Jews (as a small, but vocal, movement does claim, as was also the case in the very earliest days of Christianity), but to say that Jesus was not the model of the New Age. He may have interpreted the Law a bit differently than most (not all!) Jews of His time and place, but He certainly followed it.

The Buddha never made a dramatic break with orthodox Vedic Hinduism. Contrary to much later claims, He never rejected the Vedas; like Jesus did a few centuries later, the Buddha only rejected a particularly rigid interpretation and certain specific extremes of practice. Again, a Buddhist need not be a Hindu, and I know of no Hindus who would make that claim. Instead, we must understand that, just as Jesus fit within Judaism, albeit differently from most, so did the Buddha fit within Vedic tradition and, specifically, within the long-held “orthodox-but-outsider” tradition of the mendicant sadhu.

There is no such thing as spirituality without context, and context necessarily takes the form of doctrine. Holding to dogma (literally “teaching”) does not make one “dogmatic”; one becomes dogmatic by holding specific interpretations of teachings more closely than one holds the values and disciplines which those teachings transmit. Spirituality cannot be cobbled together out of spare parts any more than a street-safe car can be built from the contents of the boxes in my storage closet. The myth that my (or anybody’s) personal feelings have ultimate value is a corrosive one, as it undermines the discipline required for genuine spiritual experience and reinforces the egocentrism which is the very obstacle spiritual doctrine exists to undermine. Personal experience is a necessity in spiritual pursuit, but those experiences must be contextualized to have any lasting value. It sounds paradoxical, at first — but is no less true for it — that Reality cannot be grasped so long as it is conceptually reified within purely human categories, and yet we require intellectual processes in order to be able to begin at all. Some scholars of esoteric religion, such as Arthur Versluis (cf his book The Philosophy of Magic), go so far as to refer to this deconstructed morass of New Age relativism-bordering-nihilism as in some way being an “anti-tradition” which leads people deeper and deeper into a crystallization of their own personalities, a worse hell than which I cannot imagine.

A Brief Defense of Religion: The Double-Standard Argument [Repost from The Magical Messiah]

Any important or powerful idea is potentially dangerous to the very degree to which it is important or powerful. It is as foolish, therefore, to blame mechanized industry for Hitler and Stalin — or to blame advanced physics for Hiroshima and Nagasaki — as it is to blame the message of Jesus Christ and the sacraments established for our spiritualization for the Crusades and the Inquisition. Why, then, is this such a common foundational argument for atheists and materialists?

The faulty assumption of materialist reductionism notwithstanding, religion is treated as a separate entity, a thing apart from “the rest of life.” There is contradiction, here, on the part of materialists, but also on the part of “religionists.”

Materialists, for their part, want to have their cake and eat it. On one hand, we have atheists like Sam Harris who propose to study religion as any other “natural” phenomenon. That is, Harris wants religion to be a strictly sociological, anthropological, and neurological event, codifiable and quantifiable, but without the qualia of real experience. The religious person would balk at such an approach, not entirely without reason. To study the physical attributes of red light, or the biochemistry of a raspberry, is yet quite distant from the experience of redness or the feel and taste of a fresh raspberry. In answer to the faithful, however, there is surely something to be learned from, say, studies of the neural correlates of religious experience. The materialist will be forever barred by the nature of things from his true goal: religious experience cannot be explained away by mere brain states. Though not the place to go fully into the topic, it is relevant at least to point out the relationship between drugs like mescaline and DMT and religious experience. Drugs like these may provide a “sneak peek” into the world of mysticism, but do not produce — outside of traditional, sacramental contexts, at any rate — the lasting constructive shift in perspective and behavior which arise quite naturally from meditation and deep prayer. Even the so-called “God helmet”, touted by unsophisticated atheists as proof that God is all in the brain, seems to produce nothing but a hazy sense of “presence” with literally none of the hallmarks of authentic contemplative experience, and certainly no lasting change in the participant. If anything is proven thereby, it is only that there are indeed brain-states correlative with religious experience, but that tells us precious little about the nature of that experience. Seeing how the brain responds to the color blue would give a colorblind scientist no notion of the feeling of “blueness”.

Even with this desire to study religion from the outside, as it were, and to treat it as a fully “natural” event (leaving aside the purely Western need to distinguish with absolute sharpness between nature and supernature), the materialist still wishes to hold religion at arm’s length from human culture-at-large. This distinction is artificial and quite unnecessary, but the secularist will call it justice.

It is from this violent analysis of human nature that arises the attack of atheists like Richard Dawkins that the religious person is mentally deranged and that religion is a psychological anomaly requiring eradication or cure. (For mercy’s sake, we will not here delve into the proposition of Sam Harris and others that Muslims ought to be conquered or killed for the crime of being Muslims; this would take us far afield. It is enough to mention it as a possible extravagance of atheism, and that it is not representative of the majority atheist belief). It is obvious, and not enough as arguments go, to say that this is quite the reverse of the historical pattern, so far as “mental health” is defined by social functionality and statistical normalcy.

The back-alley stabbing attempted here against reality is quite easy to thwart. Study after study by “dispassionate” science shows the very real usefulness of religious faith — or even mere belief — in maintaining healthy attitudes during convalescence, old age, and life’s many trials are too clear to ignore: religion appears to aid, rather than hinder, psychological health. Taken to extremes, religion is as liable as anything to produce imbalance and extravagance, but when properly incorporated, it seems to be factually beneficial. This is, as a materialist will be quick to point out, little or no help in proving the truth-claims of religion, but it does kick a leg from under the claim of the inherent destructiveness of religion to the human mind.

Medically beneficial or not, there is something inherent to the place of religion in the human psyche; rare indeed is the person with no religious impulse at all, and even atheists tend to see something pitiable in a void of any sense of mystery and awe when staring into a starry sky, walking along the ocean’s edge and gazing at its vastness, or listening to the majestic peals of thunder approaching with black clouds in train. Like it or not, this very sense of grandeur and beauty is as “religious” as anything. Those students of religion-as-phenomenon often say that religion is an attempt on the part of the “primitive” mind to understand and participate in this majesty. The religionist might well respond: by the very suchness of things, we will participate in this suchness in any case at all, but only religion permits us to do so consciously, deliberately, and fully. This is the difference between the non-action of the Sage, on one hand, and the blind action of the passion-filled and the inaction of the lazy, on the other.

The mistake of the religionist referred to previously is also based in the false separation of religion from “the rest of life.” This separation is absurd. Religion is for humanity, for life, and not the reverse. If it could only meaningfully apply to quiet evenings alone, religion would be no different than watching television (except, perhaps, for the fact that we are socially encouraged to publicly discuss television, but not religion). A saying has it that faith is personal, but not private. Forgiving the inadequacy of a merely personal faith, the saying is useful in that it points to the need to fully live one’s religion without needing to violate the freedom of conscience of those around. In order to fully live one’s faith, one must first have faith to begin with. Faith is an investment of trust in a process, not mere ascent to a set of precepts and abstractions. Insofar as doctrines are necessary, they serve as foundational pointers to the process in which one might place faith, but they do not themselves make up that process. The religious process may begin in one specific arena — say, politics (Confucianism), collective worship (Judaism), or private contemplation (Buddhism) — but it must inevitably bear fruits which spread further seeds upon the soil of every other arena of life. In essence, all religions lead to the unicity of individual life, of collective society, and, eventually, of all existence. “He to whom all things are One, and who draweth all things to One, and seeth all things in One, can be steadfast in heart, and remain peaceable in God.” (The Imitation of Christ, I.3) The error of separation, of division, of dualism is one shared by many among the religious and secular alike, but it is still an error.

To draw the circle closed, the power inherent in any authentically religious perspective is, then, also its danger. But nuclear technology can provide cheap electricity as easily as it can vaporize millions of lives; it is entirely a matter of motivation. We may draw the analogy out a bit further: the amount of raw power made available by nuclear technology comes with the corresponding risk of that power going out of bounds and causing destruction purely accidentally. So, then, with ideas. Religion has been a powerhouse for enslavement of individuals and nations, but also a dynamo of freedom in the hearts and hands of the wise and charitable. It is the nature of Revelation to point the way to Liberation for those with eyes to see and ears to hear (and, despite New Age and other post-modern claims to the contrary, there is little enough evidence that real, lasting, organic, and responsible freedom is possible without dogma). This very capacity to break chains, though, may be redirected by the unwise, shortsighted, egotistical, or downright malicious among us to the cracking of bones. The same key will lock and unlock. When you lift an axe, shall you split logs, or skulls?

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