Theology Reconsidered: An Introduction

What follows is the Introductory chapter from a newly published, two Volume work entitled Theology Reconsidered.  The book can be purchased from Lambert publishing via their website; Volume I here and Volume II here.

 


When looking at the first mythological and philosophical works from antiquity, it is very easy to get lost in the “facts” surrounding these ancient works and lose sight of their true meaning and import to the people and cultures within which these works emerged from and out of.  Much of the modern academic and scholarly literature concerning these ancient “theo-philosophical” works falls into this category.  To a large extent, the purpose of this work is to try and “recover” said meanings of these ancient works as much as possible, and to look at them within a much broader theological, mythological and philosophical narrative that we find throughout Eurasia in the first millennium BCE, the so-called “Axial Age” of modern man.

In order to do this, we take a primarily intellectual journey through the mind of ancient man, as he sees the world and as is reflected in the earliest literary evidence of man, trying to understand these works not only within the broader “Eurasian” context, but also trying to look at them through the eyes of the ancient philosophers, theologians, priests and scholars who wrote these ancient texts, or in many cases were the ones to “compile” or “transcribe” these longstanding theo-philosophical traditions, but also to try and understand them within the theological, intellectual and socio-cultural context within which these works arose.  This broader meaning we call knowledge, which from a modern philosophical perspective is referred to as epistemology.

This knowledge is what Philo Judaeus takes great pain to describe in his exegesis of the Pentateuch, Genesis in particular, what the Neo-Platonists take pains to describe in their literature which arises in defense of their doctrines as Christianity takes root and begins to supplant and snuff out their schools of learning and wisdom, it is what is alluded to in the so-called hidden, or unwritten, teachings of Plato and that which is hidden, kept secret, by the followers of Pythagoras  and also in the Eleusinian mysteries and the alchemical Hermetic doctrines attributed to Hermes Trismegistus, and also what the Upanishads refer to as Brahmavidyā, or knowledge of Brahman, that from deep antiquity is believed to be passed down from teacher to disciple – as Plato refers to in his Seventh Letter as that which is “brought to birth in the Soul, as light that is kindled by a leaping spark, and thereafter nourishes itself.”.[1]

After the author completed his first major work, the Snow Cone Diaries, we considered the writing “experiment” complete, the Work was done.  Following that exercise, and for reasons we cannot completely explain, we found it necessary to flesh out some of the ideas therein, reflecting a continued interest, and ultimately curiosity, concerning the advent, development, and evolution of what we term theo-philosophical developments of mankind which abound in the historical record, following the intellectual journey as it were up until modern times, what we refer to herein as the Information Age, where Information is at our finger tips, where activity is “informed” by its surroundings (Quantum Theory), and yet while we all for the most part (and in particular in Western academia) ignore the wisdom of the ancients.

The Snow Cone Diaries was somewhat manufactured in the sense that it was intentionally modelled after one of the most influential books that the author has read written by a modern self-proclaimed “metaphysician”, or philosophologer (i.e. one who studies philosophy) named Robert Pirsig entitled Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, initially published in 1974 but which the author encountered and read during the summer between his freshman and sophomore years in college, years of great tumult and change for most, the author being no exception.

After college, as is documented in Snow Cone Diaries, the author spent several years pursuing a career in professional tennis which in the end amounted to more so than anything else a time period of intense reading and personal analysis and introspection that led the author, in a manner that can perhaps best be described as “chance”, or if you believe in such things, Fate as it were, to Eastern philosophy and mysticism.  The author had been prepared for this adventure somewhat as he had majored in Ancient History as an undergraduate at Brown University and had written his thesis on the “Origins and Influence of Hermetism”.  In a sense then, the author’s initial, and now very persistent and long lasting, foray into Eastern mysticism was a natural extension of the intellectual pursuits of his undergraduate years.

The impetus and source of the author’s interest in Eastern philosophy, Kuṇḍalinī Yoga specifically in fact, stemmed primarily, at least at the beginning, from an interest in the mental and psychological demands of the game of tennis at the professional level, where many matches were determined by an individual’s performance at key points within a given match.  After spending a 6-9 months on the professional tour, mostly travelling in Europe, It became very clear that an individual’s success (which was of course almost entirely measured in Wins and Losses) while depending of course on physical attributes such as power, strength and fitness, at the same time very much depended upon what is referred to in sports as the mental aspect of the game.

This somewhat revealing and interesting component of the game, which arguably is an aspect of all professional sports but is more accentuated as it were in tennis given that it is mono y mono so to speak, became even more pronounced when two opponents were somewhat evenly matched as it were, and victory hinged upon just a few points – which as it turned out happened more often than you might think.  The author became somewhat intrigued by this phenomena, if we may call it that, and he became fascinated with what in professional sports is referred to as The Zone.

As such, it became very clear that in order to get into The Zone, there was a very well documented and well-studied connection between what peak performance and what we might call “clarity of mind.  In turn, this clarity was connected to, and in many respects seemed to be dependent upon, what are even in the sports psychological literature referred to as the development and cultivation of various rituals and practices, both on and off the court, before, during and after matches, in order to facilitate and/or “bring about” these states of mind where peak performance could be “attained”, or in Eastern philosophical parlance, realized.[2]

With this background then, the author while he was playing and studying, began writing – primarily about the so called “mystical experience” which was such an integral part of the Eastern philosophical tradition and its fundamental relationship to The Zone as it was understood in Sports Psychology.  The effort was centered around (and to a large extent this is also true for the Snow Cone Diaries as well as the current work) an attempt to establish a rational grounding, or intellectual footing as it were, within which these states of mind could be better understood and as such better integrated, or at least somewhat integrated, into what the author now calls the objective realist intellectual framework that underpins not just Western academia, but also is clearly the very rational ground of the Western mind, or psyche.

For despite all the author’s education and training, mental and physical gymnastics galore as it were, no one had ever even broached the topic or discussed with him this idea of peak performance and its relationship to the cultivation of clarity of mind, and the related states of consciousness that were associated to these “states” as it were, despite the fact that it appeared to be an almost empirically proven correlation between the two – at least in Sports Psychology circles.  It also became clear over time that this goal of peak performance as it were was not just dependent at some level upon these so-called states of mind, but in fact that that there seemed to be a very direct, causal relationship between the two.  Furthermore, these very same states of mind that were described in the Psychological literature around peak performance were not only clearly an exteremly significant, and somewhat undervalued and under practiced, component of competing as a professional athlete at the very highest levels, but that they were also an integral part of the mystical experience as well as it was described in almost all of the Eastern philosophical literature.  And of course, after some reflection, these states of mind seemed to be an integral component to success in life, however one might choose to define such a thing.

Following the model of Robert Pirsig then, and because the author felt strongly that the ideas that he was exploring, presenting and analyzing were best understood only within the psychological and mental context within which the author himself initially encountered and confronted such ideas, the author felt compelled to take his initial more “academic” works and wrap them around a loosely fictional character which he named Charlie, as well create additional (also loosely fictional) characters to which Charlie was “responding” and “reacting” to in order to try and establish the empirical reality and power of the nature of mind, and along with it the fundamental truth and power of the ancient art of meditation and mysticism to which it is integrally tied.  For perhaps the hallmark of the Eastern philosophical tradition is the emphasis and description of the art of meditation and its relationship to the attainment of these states of mind, what the author calls the Science of the Mind as it were, an altogether Eastern discipline.

Using Charlie as his mouthpiece then, we essentially argue in the Snow Cone Diaries, as Pirsig had done before him, that not only are our current (Western) intellectual models lacking in some very basic and fundamental ways – given the lack of emphasis and focus on the mind and experience itself as basis of reality as we understand it – but that these limitations had, again as Pirsig had argued before him as well, significant implications on how society in the West functioned and how individuals within that society behaved toward each other as well as the nature of the relationship between individuals and (Western) society as whole to the world around them in general.[3]

Given the level of effort and personal sacrifices that were made to publish Snow Cone Diaries, and given that the author is by no means a full time writer and first and foremost has a demanding professional career and responsibilities as a parent that were and are first priority, we never thought that he would embark upon a subsequent work.  We thought we were done.  However, our interest in ancient philosophy and the art of meditation did not dwindle, and the author’s meditation practice continued to flourish and grow and (as it is wont to do as any persistent and schooled meditation practitioner will tell you) the practice itself continued to have a profound impact on us in the following ways as it pertains to this work specifically:

  1. Our own personal conceptions of the nature of reality and the disconnect between it and commonly held and systematically taught “belief systems” which we are taught from early childhood and are presented as “empirically true” in the West,
  2. a continued and increased dissatisfaction of the current prevailing “Western” worldviews and belief systems,
  3. a deeper appreciation for the eternal truths that the very first philosophers from classical antiquity, as reflected in the term the Axial Age, were trying to convey and seemed to be missed or passed over in much of the scholarly work surrounding these ancient texts and authors,
  4. that in fact there were many more parallels and commonalities between these various belief systems that were compiled in classical antiquity throughout “Eurasia”, much more so than was reflected in most if not all of the scholarly and academic work surrounding these traditions, and
  5. the disciplines surrounding the study of the philosophers of deep antiquity were “siloed”, in the sense that the Sinologists (Chinese) weren’t collaborating with the Vedic or ancient Sanskrit scholars and the “Classicists” who studied the ancient Greek philosophers didn’t seem to be collaborating with either of these two disciplines either

Given these facts, and after studying the various traditions from antiquity, again as reflected in the so-called Axial Age, even from a layperson’s perspective it seemed that there were underlying similarities and patterns that were being missed primarily because these disciplines in and of themselves independently requires such a rigorous and deep level of knowledge about the specific domain.  Those that could understand and read ancient Chinese script were not necessarily the same people that knew and could read Vedic Sanskrit, and these people of course were not necessarily the same people that knew ancient Greek or Latin, and in turn these people were not necessarily the same people that could read cuneiform of the ancient Sumer-Babylonians or the hieroglyphs of the ancient Egyptians for that matter.

However, given that we now live in the Information Age, and that the translations of many of these texts, as well as the underlying meaning and etymologies of the various terms and words of the ancient languages themselves as reflected in the ancient writing systems that developed in the 3rd and 2nd millennium BCE throughout Eurasia, are now readily available, the time seemed to be ripe for a generalist of sorts to pull together the knowledge from all these somewhat disparate domains and bring them together in some sort of cohesive whole, in a more comprehensive and somewhat more scholarly fashion than had been done in Snow Cone Diaries, which was more of a personal journey tan it was an intellectual or academic one.

So given that the disciplines and domains of study and research described herein continued to impress themselves upon the author, and given our continued interest in ancient philosophy, and writing even after the publishing of Snow Cone Diaries, we ended up publishing two interim works thereafter that summed up and further explored some of the more esoteric and less well known aspects of Hellenic philosophy and their subsequent influence on the development and foundations of early Christianity, as well as an exposition of the philosophy of the Far East, the latter being and area of research that was relatively new to the author and that was not considered in the Snow Cone Diaries.[4]

The Far Eastern ancient philosophical tradition, what is referred to as ancient Chinese philosophy, which is covered in detail in the current work, is intriguing for many reasons but for the sake of brevity in this Introduction, suffice it to say that the Yijing, what is more commonly known as the I Ching, is arguably the most fascinating and intriguing theo-philosophical work from antiquity, hands down.  And the more the author studied it and was exposed to its origins and influence throughout Chinese history, the more impressed he was with its place as one of the greatest and most intellectual achievements in the history of mankind, one that reached far back into Chinese antiquity (3rd millennium BCE at least) and one that undoubtedly rivaled the Vedas and Avesta as representative of some of the oldest theo-philosophical treatises of ancient man.[5]

Furthermore, as the author began to understand more and more of the nature, content, structure and origins of the Yijing, the most prolific and influential of all of the ancient Chinese “philosophical” works, if we may call it that, it became apparent that its basic architecture, particularly from a numerological and metaphysical perspective, shared many common characteristics of ancient Pythagorean philosophy, in particular as reflected in the symbol that perhaps more so than anything else has come to represent said philosophy, namely the Tetractys.  Following this intellectual thread as it were, the author published what was supposed to be a small academic piece on the similarities from a numerological and arithmological perspective between “Pythagorean” philosophy, or what we know of it, and classical Chinese philosophy as reflected in the I Ching, what is referred to in this work as its more modern Romanized form, i.e. the Yijing.[6]

 

This work in its current form is to a large degree an outgrowth and evolution of the intellectual journey that is documented and mapped in the Snow Cone Diaries, and in particular an outgrowth of research done after Snow Cone Diaries was written exploring the nature and origins of early Hellenic philosophy and its relationship to early Chinese philosophy as well as ancient Vedic or Indo-Aryan philosophy as reflected primarily in the Upanishads, the latter of which was rigorously and systematically studied at the Rāmakrishna-Vivekananda Center of New York under the guidance of Swami Adiswarananda to whom this work is dedicated to.

So while this work can at some level be considered to be extensive revision and expansion of the academic and intellectual pursuits that are reflected in the Snow Cone Diaries, it is distinctive from the author’s first major work in many respects and represents a much deeper dive into the material covered therein, as well as covers topics and areas of inquiry that are not covered.  Having said that, this work is much more “academic” in the sense that it represents – at least from the author’s perspective – a much higher level of scholarship than is reflected in the Snow Cone Diaries, and of course the personal narrative, Charlie himself, has been put to rest (God rest his Soul).[7]

Given the extent of the material covered in this work, the author in no way intends to represent it as an exhaustive study of any of the specific topics that is covered herein.  In fact, each chapter or section of the work could be covered, and is covered, in much greater length in a variety of works that are cited as references and for further study and research.  The author has however taken great pains to try and refer to, and directly cite, the most influential and comprehensive works that cover the various topics in question and of course the interested reader can follow these lines of inquiry and these references to learn more about any given topic.

The specific source material that is used is not only cited directly throughout as footnotes, but is also covered from a much broader perspective in the Sources and Bibliography section at the end of the work.  Perhaps more so than other works from before the 21st century, an era the author refers to as the “Information Age”, this work stands directly on the shoulders of many academics and scholars that have toiled and taken great pains to open up the world of antiquity to the modern Western reader and scholar through countless translations and historical books and records, many of which are now electronically available and upon which easy access the author has greatly relied.

There are no doubt particular sections or chapters which the author has glossed over in a manner that may be considered to be “superficial”, particularly by academics and scholars who have spent the better part of their professional careers studying and writing about the specific topics in question.[8]  However, each of the lines of thought represented in each Chapter of each Part of this work represent a coherent and cohesive whole and in their entirety, and of course for the sake of brevity (as ironic a term that may be given the length and scope of this work), is intended to show as complete a picture as possible in one text.

The approach from a reference and bibliography standpoint is to have significant footnotes and references directly within the material itself rather than, as is the case with most academic works, at the end of a chapter or even at the end of the work.  The footnotes, the explanations and small intellectual excursions which are reflected in the extensive footnotes that are included directly in the text not only serve to give credit to the reference material and the work and analysis put in by other academics and scholars on whose research and work mine ultimately depends and builds upon, but also as sidebar notes that may be of interest to the reader that provide direct links and references to works that the reader can refer to if they are interested in a certain topic that is not covered in detail in this work.[9]

The footnote style that is used is essentially adopted from the writings of Swami Nikhilananda (1895 – 1973), one of the foremost Sanskrit and Vedic scholars in the West in the 20th century.[10]  Nikhilananda’s works have in no small measure influenced the author, as he studied at the Rāmakrishna-Vivekananda Center which he founded in the middle of the twentieth century which was led by the author’s teacher, Swami Adiswarananda from 1973 until his passing in 2007.[11]

In this context, Vedānta, and more broadly what we refer to as “Indo-European philosophy”  in this work, is a central and constant theme throughout this work, in particular with respect to the modern conception of ancient Indian philosophy as it is presented in the teachings and works of Swami Vivekananda (1863 – 1902), one of the foremost proponents and most influential of the modern “Indian philosophers”.[12]  From the author’s perspective, Vedānta, as reflective of one of, if not the, oldest and richest of the Indo-European theo-philosophical traditions, can (and should) be leveraged as an intellectual and theo-philosophical benchmark of sorts for the recasting of the definitions of knowledge and reality in the West, one of the main thrusts of this work.

 

The work is divided into 4 major sections, Books or Parts, following more or less the intellectual development of mankind since the dawn of “history”, history in this sense being marked by the invention and widespread use of writing after which we have a “direct” or “first hand” exposure to the mind of man, or at least into the minds of the authors of the works that are covered herein.

  1. On Creation and On Metaphysics, Parts I and II: how the ancients looked at the world and defined reality and knowledge (),
  2. On Theology and Physics, Part III: how we came to our current, modern conceptions of reality and knowledge in the West (Part III), and
  3. On Ontology Part IV: a deeper and more comprehensive look at the nature of reality, Being in the sense that it was looked at by Aristotle and Plato as understood through a modern Western intellectual lens, and in particular in light of the knowledge of the East.

The chapters and sections in each of the respective Parts, or Books, are designed and written as much as possible to be modular as much as possible.  By “modular” we mean to say that they are written with the intention, again as much as possible, of being stand-alone essays or dissertations of their respective topics such that the reader can read a particular chapter without necessarily reading preceding chapters.  That is to say, the design of the work itself is such that it need not be approached or “read” in a sequential fashion from start to finish.  And of course as such, some material and content is repeated in the various sections and Parts of this work so that said “modular” design is achieved.  Given the breadth of the topics covered herein, this type of modular design is not only intentional but is almost required in order for the work to have value.  For if it is not read, it of course cannot have the intended impact or influence on modes of thinking which to a large extent the intended purpose of the work.

One of the main underlying themes of the work, especially in Parts I and II, is an exploration and analysis of the potentially shared origins of not just the mythology of the first “civilized” peoples in Eurasia, which the “Laurasian” Mythos hypothesis of Witzel, but also an expanded version of said hypothesis which analyzes and discusses the potential shared the origins of “philosophy” – what is referred to again as theo-philosophy throughout following the terminology of Snow Cone Diaries which brings attention to the fact that the earliest systems of “philosophy” from antiquity are not just analytical or rational systems of thought, but are also fundamentally theological in nature.

Parts I and II of this work are primarily focused on this area in history, the 3rd to 1st millennium BCE when we have introduced into the historical record evidence and documents that outline the Mythos of these early Eurasian peoples, specifically the creation narratives (what we refer to as cosmological or theogonical narratives), which is followed by a detailed analysis of the subsequent theo-philosophical tradition which emerges from, and is fundamentally and intrinsically related to, the underlying comsogonical narrative, i.e. again the respective Mythos.

Part III focuses on intellectual developments that take place in the West post classical antiquity from the intellectual developments that characterize Hellenic philosophy, through the advent of more orthodox religious or theological developments, straight through the Enlightenment Era and Scientific Revolution periods of Western intellectual history where effectively the worldview is overturned and Science, as we define it in more modern terms, begins to eclipse the dogmatic religious and theological worldviews that had dominated the intellectual landscape in the West for some thousand years prior, the so-called “Dark Ages” .

Part III then goes on to look at scientific developments in the 20th century, Relativity Theory and Quantum Mechanics in particular, which call into question our modern (and pervasive) notions of deterministic, objective based frameworks of reality, what we refer to collectively as objective realism, which represent from the author’s perspective a somewhat unintended byproduct of the Scientific Revolution and which, given their limitations with respect to understanding reality from a comprehensive or holistic perspective (i.e. ontology, or the study of the nature of being or reality), require – in the same intellectual spirit and intent pursued by Kant, Pirsig and other more modern Western philosophers – a wholesale revision in order for not only the two theoretical pillars of modern Science (Classical Mechanics and Quantum Mechanics) to be understood in any meaningful way, but also such that the knowledge and wisdom of the East is integrated into our conception and understanding of reality as well.

Part IV covers in detail much of the material that was first introduced in Snow Cone Diaries with respect to the fundamental incompatibilities of Quantum and Classical Mechanics, going into (theoretical) detail not just with Relativity but also Quantum Theory, as well as some of the philosophical, and ultimately metaphysical, implications of Quantum Theory, covering two interpretative models in particular that the author thinks are relevant to the ontological questions that are the topic of Part IV – namely the Relative-State formulation of Quantum Mechanics by Hugh Everett as well as the pilot-wave theory that is attributed to Louis de Broglie and David Bohm.  The Metaphysics of Quality as presented by Robert Pirsig is also offered up as an alternate model for ontological inquiry given its adoption and incorporation of the direct perception of “intuitive” reality directly into its metaphysics as it were.

Part IV then offers up various alternative interpretations of reality that attempt to present and synthesize what we understand about the nature of reality both from a scientific perspective, as well as from what we might term a mystical or spiritual perspective, models which directly incorporate experiential reality into account when defining reality or the extent of knowledge itself, i.e. what is referred to as epistemology in modern philosophical nomenclature.  The models and analysis in Part IV directly take into account the role of active consciousness, cognition and perception, what in Quantum Theory has come to be known as the act of observation which from a Scientific perspective, at least again from the author’s standpoint, must be taken into account in any formulation of reality and in any definition of knowledge.

The alternative approaches to defining reality and knowledge that are presented and described in Part IV basically synthesize typically “Eastern” and “Western” worldviews, and from the author’s standpoint, are far better suited than existing philosophical or religious intellectual frameworks to prepare us not just as individuals to survive and thrive in the modern, Information Age, but also are much better suited to serve the society as a whole, from a national as well as global perspective, given the level of interdependence and interconnectedness of not just the human race, but also the natural world within which we live and depend upon for our survival moving forward into the future.

The last several chapters of Part IV, much more so than the author originally intended in fact, are dedicated to a fairly lengthy discussion of a relatively modern debate surrounding different ways or approaches to interpret, how best to understand, the life and teachings of the 19th century Bengali (Indian/Hindu) sage Rāmakrishna Paramhamsa, a tradition of course to which this author is closely linked from a theo-philosophical perspective.  Rāmakrishna in this sense, and how he is perceived and approached in these final chapters of this work, is the full manifestation of, and in turn the perfect example of, the limitations of Western “thinking” and the implicit epistemological restrictions and assumptions that while true, are fundamentally limited in their capacity to deal with anything that falls outside of the realm of Science proper and as such is dealt with as a case study of sorts for the need to integrate the Science of the Mind as it were into any ontological framework that we are to choose that would include the knowledge of the East along with the knowledge of the West.

This so-called mystical, or supraconscious experience, which is the intended result of the practice of the ancient art of meditation as it has been passed down to us through various classically Eastern theo-philosophical traditions – in the Upanishads in particular but also implicit in the writings and teachings of Plato and Greek Eleusinian mystery and Orphic traditions and of course in the teachings of Buddha as well – are presented as a necessary and integral component of any “redefinition” of reality and knowledge which, following any sort of rational interpretation of Quantum Theory must take into account the role of the observer and the act of cognition i.e. perception, into account in any coherent and complete model of reality.

Along these lines, various intellectual frameworks and models which include direct experiential reality are explored and discussed at length in Part IV, as well as in the Epilogue, with specific chapters dedicated to the re-interpretation of Upanishadic philosophy as presented by Vivekananda in the early 20th century as well as an objective analysis of the experiences and interpretation of the life of Paramhamsa Rāmakrishna in particular who according to tradition of course was the primary influence and inspiration for Vivekananda’s teachings and life in general.

Rāmakrishna as a mystic then, and mysticism  in general – specifically defined by the practices and experiences associated with the direct perception of the ground of reality and existence itself which is the hallmark of Eastern philosophy – is not only one of the main, recurrent (and under emphasized) themes of ancient theo-philosophy in all its forms throughout Eurasian antiquity as reflected in the material in Parts I and II of this work, but also from an ontological standpoint represents one of the other main thrusts of this work which is covered in Part IV as well as summed up in the Epilogue which follows Part IV.

This “Western” view of Rāmakrishna, which is primarily represented in the book Kālī’s Child (a work which is critiqued at length in Part IV and the first section of the Epilogue as well) is from the author’s perspective a perfect illustration of the fundamental limitations of Scientific inquiry as we understand it in the modern Ear in the West.  An intellectual domain that rests squarely on the implicit, and very often left out, assumptions of not just empiricism and rationalism, philosophical modes of thought which characterized the Enlightenment Era for the most part, but also causal determinism and again objective realism, which provide the very basis for epistemology (i.e. our scope and understanding of knowledge itself) in the West, be they recognized as such or not.

Therefore when it comes to understanding, or again interpreting from a Western intellectual perspective, fundamentally Eastern theo-philosophical constructs such as Satcitānanda, Brahman, Purusha, Dao, or Nirvana, all words and terms that fall outside of Science proper in the West given their lack of empirical, objective reality and yet at the same time reflect concepts and ontological principles that are fundamentally required to come to any sort of understanding of any great sage, saint or prophet in the history of man – Paramhamsa Rāmakrishna included.  The choices we are left with given the modern Western intellectual landscape are the need to either study these domains specifically where these words and their associated meanings originate from, or alternatively expand our intellectual domain in the West to include some sort of corollary to these ideas, what they inherently mean and signify – the latter of which is the approach that Pirsig takes by formulating a new metaphysics which he calls the Metaphysics of Quality but what he unfortunately falls short of doing, a topic covered at length in the Epilogue as well.

This analysis of course lends itself to one of the core and final arguments of this work, namely that the intellectual and metaphysical model that is applied to reality in the West, i.e. our ontological framework, while being extraordinarily powerful from a natural philosophical perspective, i.e. Science, is in fact an inadequate conceptual framework for the comprehension of the full scope of reality and therefore  is in need of wholesale revision and/or significant expansion and extension metaphysically and theo-philosophically speaking in order to support a more broad definition of reality through which a more complete and fuller understanding of existence itself can be at least approached.  Hence the title of Part IV of the work, On Ontology.

 


[1] See Plato, Letters.  Letter 7, aka Seventh Letter 341c – 341d.  From Plato. Plato in Twelve Volumes, Vol. 7 translated by R.G. Bury. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1966.  See http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0164%3Aletter%3D7%3Asection%3D341c.  While the actual authenticity of the letter by Plato is debated by scholars it does for the most part reflect the writing style and philosophy as presented by Plato from the author’s perspective and so while perhaps not written by Plato’s hand, still nonetheless seems to accurately represent something akin to what Plato would write, specifically with respect to the specific part of the work cited herein.

[2] The Psychology of peak performance was spear headed in the Nick Bollettieri Academy in the 70s and 80s by the now well renowned and prolific Dr. Jim Loehr, now founder and Chairman of the Human Performance Institute.  See https://www.jjhpi.com/why-hpi/our-people/dr-jim-loehr.

[3] An overview of Pirsig’s work and his invention of a new mode of thinking to address some of the inherent limitations of the modern, Western worldview which he refers to as the Metaphysics of Quality are covered in some detail in the final section of this work.

[4] These works are Philosophy in Antiquity: The Greeks and Philosophy in Antiquity: The Far East respectively.  Both published by Lambert Academic Publishing in 2015.

[5] Tradition has it that Confucius is believed to have said that if he had fifty years to spare, he would spend it to contemplating and studying the Yijing.

[6] The original paper by the author regarding the similarities between Pythagorean philosophy and the Yijing is entitled “Numerology and Arithmology in Pythagorean Philosophy and the Yijing”, published in 2016 and can be found at https://www.academia.edu/27439070/Numerology_and_Arithmology_in_Pythagorean_Philosophy_and_the_Yijing.

[7] Two interim works were published by the author covering Hellenic philosophy and Chinese philosophy specifically that were leveraged as source material for some of the content herein, specifically some of the content in Parts I and II of this work.  See Philosophy in Antiquity: The Greeks (2015) and Philosophy in Antiquity: The Far East (2016), both published by Lambert Academic Publishing in 2016.

[8] In particular the author cites the sections on Enlightenment Era philosophy as well as Arabic/Muslim philosophy as examples of Chapters which could be expanded upon greatly and to a large extent do not do justice to the actors and individuals, and the belief systems which they put forward in their writings, described therein.

[9] The footnotes also incidentally serve as reminders and reference points to the author himself so as sections of material are revisited and/or reworked and/or revised, the pertinent sources are readily available.

[10] Swami Nikhilananda is a direct disciple of Sarada Devi (1853 – 1920), the consort and wife of the 19th century Bengali sage Paramhamsa Rāmakrishna (1836 – 1886).  He is also the founder of and subsequent leader of the Rāmakrishna-Vivekananda Center of New York from 1933 to 1973 and is one of the foremost interpreters (and translators) of Vedic philosophy into English in the 20th century.  He has authored definitive translations with extensive commentaries on the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gītā, and he is also known for providing the definitive English translation of the Srī Srī Rāmakrishna Kathāmrita, commonly referred to in the West as the Gospel of Srī Rāmakrishna, a monumental work covering detailed teachings and events of the last few years of Rāmakrishna’s life as seen through the eyes of one of his foremost (householder) disciples, Mahendranath Gupta (1854 – 1932), or simply ‘M’.

[11] See https://www.ramakrishna.org/ for information regarding the Rāmakrishna-Vivekananda Center of New York.

[12] Swami Vivekananda was the first to introduce Yoga and Vedānta to the West at the end of the 19th century.  He was the foremost student and spiritual successor of Paramhamsa Rāmakrishna, a figure who is dealt with at length in Part IV of this work.  Vivekananda’s modern conception of Vedānta and Indian philosophy more broadly, is also covered at length in Part IV of this work.

Kali’s Child: A Case Study in the Limits of Freudian Psychoanalysis

As reluctant as I am to offer off an opinion on a debate that has been bantered about by scholars much more learned and experienced than I in comparative religion and scholars familiar with the source texts in Bengali, most notably the Kathamrita by Ramakrishna’s (householder) disciple known simply as M., I find that there are a few notable points, one in particular, that seems to be missing from the heart of the debate that I would like to offer up as a potential source of not only the heart of the debate but as a potential bridge for gap between the two seemingly diametrically opposed, and for now at least vehemently argumentative, sides of the debate.

For those of you not familiar with the book Kali’s Child or the subsequent controversy surrounding the publishing of the book, I would point you to the Wikipedia entry on the subject here which describes among other things how the book, authored by Jeffrey Kripal, a Professor of Comparative Religion at Rice University whose web site can be found here, which won the American Academy of Religion’s History of Religions Prize for the Best First Book of 1995 and then was subject to a broad ranging set of criticisms by “insiders”, i.e. those part of or schooled in the tradition of Ramakrishna, Vivekananda and their students and disciples as reflected in the teachings of the Ramakrishna Order and its sister organization the Ramakrishna Mission, as well as “outsiders”, i.e. those who have not been immersed in the teachings of the life and times of Ramakrishna and his disciples by those who carry the torch of the tradition in the Ramakrishna Order, with of course its many supporters who laud the work for its originality, mostly from the Western academic community. [Note that this distinction between “insiders” and “outsiders” is drawn and taken from, and in my view is an accurate delineation of the two sides of the debate, the book by Swami Tyagananda (an esteemed monk of the Ramakrishna Order who presides over the Ramakrishna Vedanta Society in Boston and is a Hindu chaplain to MIT and Harvard) and Pravrajika Vrajaprana published in 2010 entitled Interpreting Ramakrishna, Kali’s Child Revisited, a work that covers the history of the source texts on Ramakrishna in the last 100 years and change along with a through criticism and attack not only on Kripal’s thesis in Kali’s Child, but also on the quality of his scholarship in general].

Kripal’s argument is basically that it is the repressed homoerotic desires of Ramakrishna, as well as the sexual abuses that he supposedly had as a child and as a young adult (of which his evidence is circumstantial at best), that drove and were the source of what can be best be described from Kripal’s point of view as his catatonic and pathological states of mind, which although he refers to (correctly) as samadhi clearly approaches the validity of these states of mind with what can be best described as a healthy degree of skepticism, hence his thesis . I am paraphrasing here but that’s basically what he sets out to prove, that it is not only Ramakrishna’s (repressed and/or sexually traumatically induced) homoerotic desires/experiences which were the source of his “ecstasy”. The interesting thing about this thesis, based on shaky ground or not, is what remains truly hidden, entirely implied and yet never stated explicitly, is that effectively the reason why Kripal’s thesis is rendered merit at any level, again leaving aside whether or not he provides any sufficient evidence to support this thesis aside, is that he assumes that the only way that these experiences can be explained are through Freud’s model of sexual repression and/or unexpressed or unmanifest sexual desire. What Kripal either fails to realize, or realizes and completely ignores, is that this premise in and of itself denies the reality of the entire religious and theological tradition from which Ramakrishna lived and experienced his life within, namely Hinduism and in its philosophical and theological terms Vedanta, which lives on even today in various forms and flavors – Tantra being one of them.

The other side of the argument however, the one promoted by and backed by insiders – and again this assumption is not made totally clear in the response to Kali’s Child by Swami Tyagananda and Pravrajika Vrajaprana in their work Interpreting Ramakrishna, Kali’s Child Revisited, assumes that these higher states of consciousness can and do in fact exist, do not require any sort of trauma or sexual (or other types) of repression in order to be induced, and in fact are more “real” than the day to day experiential and materialistic existence of Western man.   Interpreting Ramakrishna describes 19th century Bengal, Hindu sadhana practices (spiritual practices), citing various perspectives of those who encountered Ramakrishna directly (via men and women disciple and 1st hand accounts, the latter of which are completely absent in Kripal’s analysis which is a glaring failure in the work), expounding on the nature of Tantra and its relationship to Vedanta, and in general do their best to try and explain the nature of Ramakrishna’s nearly constant experience of divine bliss through the lens of a 19th century Bengali socio-cultural yogic context, which is the only way to understand who he was, what he represented or in any way shape or form try and understand his behavior.

As a counter example, leaving aside whether or not it would even be possible for a Ramakrishna like figure to exist in modern times in the West (and I would argue it would not be for the very reason that Kripal cites that was one of the factors that led to his being perceived as an “avatar”, or an incarnation of God by 19th century Bengalis, i.e. that it was not just Ramakrishna’s belief in the divinity of what he referred to as “this”, i.e. himself, but also the belief of his followers and disciples which were a product of the very same culture that he was brought up in, with a Western bent for the most part given the Westernization of Bengal that was occurring in the 19th century when Ramakrishna lived, where British culture was being super-imposed onto Hindu and Indian culture in a fairly oppressive and arrogant way as has been the case throughout the last four centuries of Western civilization development – WWII and the Jews, the complete destruction of Native American culture by the Americans (and French and Spanish of course), the destruction of the Aboriginal culture by the Australians, the destruction and subjugation of Native African cultures by the colonizing forces in Africa which still goes son today, and in general a wholesale arrogance in Western culture’s belief that their views are better, more accurate and more complete than anyone else’s viewpoint on the nature of reality or the meaning and purpose of life, much less a culture’s religious beliefs which were for the most part – in all the references just cited – were looked down upon as backwards, ancient and outdated, and fundamentally flawed and archaic.

Unfortunately, Kripal’s work in Kali’s Child fits right squarely into this category of work. By taking Freudian psychology as a more accurate and telling vantage point of Ramakrishna’s life and teachings, he is placing this very same Western paradigm of arrogance and self-importance to Western modes of thought as pre-eminent and more trustworthy than specifically in his case the Eastern philosophical tradition from which Ramakrishna himself emerged, which is entirely based upon Hinduism and Vedanta – of which Tantra is a descendant and complementary system, not a wholesale different and unique system. This latter point is not only critical in understanding Ramakrishna’s sadhana, but also in pointing out that Kripal’s laser like focus on Ramakrishna’s Tantric sadhana over his “Vedic” teachings or practices, represents his ignorance of the theological and religious tradition that he is studying. As a Comparative Religious scholar from a respected Western University this is not only shameful and derogatory, this is quite simply poor scholarship. Here he is trying to interpret Ramakrishna’s life, who is the penultimate expression of Hindu and Vedic faith in the last two hundred and fifty years, and he has drawn a hard and fast line between Vedanta, which literally means the end of the Vedas and which Kripal focuses on the “non-dual” interpretation of Vedanta to which Tota Puri, Ramakrishna’s Vedic and monastic teacher represents harkening back to the non-dualistic Vedantic teachings of the 8th century from which Tota Puri’s heritage is linked from what I understand, and Tantra, whose philosophical underpinnings are as interwoven into the Vedic tradition from which it emerged from as are the non-dual teachings of Vedanta that stem from the same, slightly different and nuanced, interpretations of the same texts – the Vedas, the Gita, the Puranas, and the Brahma Sutras making up their core.

Not only do you ignore Vivekananda’s teachings about Ramakrishna’s life, you also ignore Swami Saradananda’s, who wrote the most thorough and comprehensive autobiography of Ramakrishna that exists down to us, but you also ignored Sarada’s (aka Holy Mother, Ramakrishna’s spouse) who was his wife and his partner in his work. What’s worse, is that not only do you ignore their interpretation of Ramakrishna’s life and work, you attack the verity of their work itself as a “cover up” of Ramakrishna’s story and life, that there was some “secret” that they covered up – which again was essentially a homosexual who had no sexual outlet given the culture he lived in, was fascinated and obsessed with “little boys” and it was this repression that was the source of his “ecstatic” experiences which you effectively explain away as a pathological reaction to his sexual abuses as a child and as an adult, abuses which you provide zero evidence for essentially and there is no evidence for in the historical record at all despite the dozens of first-hand accounts that survive down to us about Ramakrishna, the bulk of which you completely ignore in your analysis and study.

A word on Vedanta, of which Tantra is clearly a close cousin if not a direct descendant, both embroiled in a pot of mythology and metaphysics/philosophy that goes back some three thousand years, arguably the oldest practicing religious system in the world if you want to look at the tradition from which Ramakrishna emerges from a purely theological context. Ramakrishna is an embodiment, a full realization of the mythological and metaphysical system of Vedanta, and Hinduism, with an integral Christian and Islamic symbology to go right along with it, as he is said to have realized the truths of these faiths as well. And he took a wife, who was a significant part of his work which you somehow found a way to leave out despite claiming to offer a full psychological read of his visions and the source of his samadhi, or experience of divine bliss. Sarada, aka Holy Mother, is a big part of the story, particularly if you want to look at him through an “erotic” lens you cannot ignore the deep heterosexual aspects of his behavior, a whole complementary set of symbology that you completely leave out because you only want to look at his male-male relationships.

But the philosophical system under which Tantra rests is based upon Purusha and Prakriti, Siva and Sakti. Kripal looks at Kali’s symbology, and Siva’s too independently, but leaves out the heterosexual and erotic coupling of Siva and Sakti themselves, most notably characterized by the image which Kripal spends so much time dissecting namely Kali atop of Siva which is one of the most impressing and profound images of the male/female aspects of creation out of Hindu symbology, pointing to the symbiotic nature of Siva and Sakti and their divine union from which the universe draws its source – this male/female union from which the universe itself emerges, evolves and subsequently devolves, is one of the essential aspects of Hindu mythology to which Tantra, and Vedanta, ultimately rest. This union is the source of existence and represents the penultimate, dualistic properties or universal essentials, the ultimate Forms of the Platonic tradition which merge into Plotinus’s Intellect as it were, just as the yin and yang do in Taoism. You can’t focus on the dualistic philosophical elements alone, particular only one dimension of them (i.e. Ramakrishna’s homoerotic/male-male relationships) and expect to come away with a complete picture of his personality. His personality is deep and wide ranging and has been studied and contemplated by hundreds if not thousands of people since he lived, and his personality emerged from a deep and long social and cultural heritage of the Hindu/Vedic way of life, with its myth and theology as laid out in the Upanishads, the Gita, the Puranas, etc.

Just because the rituals and symbolism of Tantra is more focused on the chakras, kundalini, and the relationship between the core male and female principles of the universe – namely Purusha and Prakriti – doesn’t mean the core teachings, the core philosophy is not more aligned with Vedic proper than it is not. The method, particularly as espoused by Tota Puri and Bhairavi Brahmani his Vedic and Tantric gurus respectively, was no doubt drastically juxtaposed – one teaching the denial of the physical universe and its constituents as the path to ultimate realization, i.e. what Ramakrishna called neti neti or “not this”, “not this” as opposed to the Tantric teachings which are focused on embracing the reality of the world of opposites, the shameful and shameless, the male and the female, to ultimately experience the reality of the experience of consciousness that exists beyond this world of opposites – but that does not mean that the two teachings do not fundamentally agree with each other and complement each other. In fact, this is what Ramakrishna’s spiritual practices ultimately tells us, that the two paths ultimately lead to the same place. How in the world could you spend ten plus years studying the life of Ramakrishna and miss this?   This is the underlying message of Vivekananda really, a Westernization and synthesis of the teachings of Vedanta, Tantra included, for the West as he understood it not only through his own experiences but through his own direct (and extremely intimate of course) understanding of Ramakrishna the person, Ramakrishna the Paramhamsa, Ramakrishna the embodiment of the Vedas (Tantra included) in this age.

One of Kripal’s insights which I think is poignant, and relevant and hard for “insiders” to see sometimes or at least sometimes gloss over, is that Ramakrishna and what he became, the avatar of the modern era, an incarnation of God, great sage, whatever you’d like to refer to him as was a product not only of his personality, but also the culture and society within which he grew up and lived in, namely 19th century Bengal. Ramakrishna was an illiterate temple priest who interacted with some of the most well educated and highest (and lowest) class society of Calcutta, in a time and place where West met East in a radical and somewhat oppressive merging of cultures, the so called “Orientalism” in action where the indigenous Hindu and Indian culture was subsumed by the leading Western and British aristocracy. And with Ramakrishna’s pure and raw language, speaking in the same tongue that Jesus spoke essentially – in song and in analogy and metaphor, using parables and stories that the common folk could understand and remember quite easily – his message clearly resonated with a lot of people, many of whom who traveled long and far to come and spend time with him, to touch his feet as the custom of the Hindus as a sign of respect to holy people.

And yet even with the prevalence of Western modes of thought and scientific reason which was the benchmark of truth even in 19th century Calcutta, his personality had to be understood and had to be reckoned with, and understood and comprehended within the context of the Western cynical mindset. The Hindu, Western trained elite of 19th century Bengali culture could not ignore the strength and purity and power of Ramakrishna’s personality, this much is evident, and is most certainly reflected by his long-lasting and world affecting message that lives on and continues to gain strength in the East and West to this day – through the workings of the institutions which bear his name, the Ramakrishna Order and Ramakrishna Mission who among other things have taken great pains to protect and nurture the direct and subsequent interpretations of his life, works which Kripal directly attacks and denigrates in Kali’s Child. Let’s not forget that Ramakrishna picked Naren (Vivekananda) as his messenger and as the “official” interpreter of Ramakrishna’s life and, along with Sarada his wife and partner, was handpicked to carry on his “work”. The three in fact – Ramakrishna, Sarada and Vivekananda – are worshipped as a triad in the Vedanta centers in the East and West, it is not just Ramakrishna, but his relationship to those two individuals and their expression of his message which are all needed to fully understand who he was and what he truly embodied. This much Kripal would know if he had taken the time to really delve into the very culture that Ramakrishna started and Vivekananda carried forward.

 

A bit of background about myself here is probably necessary so that folks now where I sit relative to the insider vs outsider lines that have been drawn in the debate – the insiders again being those of the Ramakrishna Order who are arguably the closest, most well informed, and most learned in the tradition of the life and teachings of Ramakrishna and his disciples given that they have devoted their lives not only to the study of such material but also to the embodiment of what they feel is their teachings as reflected in the institutions that were set up by Vivekananda of which they are a part, and the outsiders being those (primarily) in Western academia that are either not exposed to the traditions or practices and teachings of the Ramakrishna Order or choose to take their teachings and interpretations of the life of Ramakrishna with a grain of salt so to speak, namely in this case Professor Kripal the author of Kali’s Child.

I am a simply a curious scholar with a BA in Ancient Studies from a well accredited undergraduate institution with a Masters in Computer Science whose career has been spent helping build technology companies or the technology infrastructure of consulting companies. Although not a monastic or religious person by any stretch of the imagination, I did spend many years studying with some of the monks of the Ramakrishna Order in NYC, and have been a student of Eastern Philosophy, and a practitioner of meditation, for some 20 years now. Eventually even the dullest of students picks up a thing or two after 20 years of study and I’d like to think that there are at least a few people in this world that are duller than I.

My interests in Eastern Philosophy, the development of theology and monotheism, and comparative religion in general is evident in some of the other pieces I have authored that are present on this blog. I also have a deep interest in science, particularly the advancements of the twentieth century with respect to Relativity and Quantum Theory, and their impact on our overall worldview in the West, in particular with respect to the implications of the role of the “observer” in science itself which now is part of the picture like it or not – i.e. the role of mind in our perspective on the nature of reality and worldview in general cannot really be ignored if Quantum Theory is to be accepted, hence a need from my perspective to relook at some of the Eastern philosophical traditions which uphold the mind as the direct conduit to the divine, Vedanta and Buddhism probably being the best examples of this. I have a book coming out in a few weeks which encapsulates and expands upon some of the work in this blog as well which explores these ideas, and others, in detail but for now you can refer to my blog here for more detail on my thoughts and ideas on these subjects.

So a word on how I encountered the materials at the heart of this debate and how I came to conclude that I, as a humble layperson relative to the other scholars and academics who have weighed in already on this long standing controversy (Kali’s Child was published as an extension to Kripal’s PHD thesis in comparative religious studies in 1995, with a follow on second edition in 1998 and Interpreting Ramakrishna, Kali’s Child Revisited by Swami Tyagananda and Pravrajika Vrajaprana the bulk of which is an attack on Kripal’s theses as well his knowledge of the Vedas and Bengali which is the source language of the Kathamrita was published in 2010), might have something to say that is unique and might shed light on what may be the path that bridges the two sides, or at least identify the essential two seemingly unbridgeable sides of the debate, looks like.

I ran across Kripal’s article Visions of the Impossible a few weeks ago and was struck by the insight Professor Kripal had on the views of some of the ancient philosophies/philosophers that I have been studying and their relevance in theological and comparative religious studies in general even today, very much in line with my views on the topic and rare in the sense that not many in today’s academic circles given these ancient schools of philosophy – particularly Plato and Aristotle of course – their due in forming the basis from which our fields of knowledge, theological or scientific or otherwise, have evolved or been framed even to present day. Again, this is the topic of some of my blog posts and of great interest to me so I immediately felt a connection with Kripal’s perspective on theology and philosophy and wanted to learn more about him and his work.

I subsequently looked him up, saw that he had wrote a book on Ramakrishna with whom I have been fascinated with for many years, as well as Ramakrishna’s Tantric practices in particular of which I am also fascinated by – particularly in Tantra’s focus on the recognition of the reality of the world and its field of opposites, in particular the male and female energies that drive creation (Purusha and Prakriti), and the leverage of the recognition of their reality to lead one to realization of the divine, cosmic consciousness, or whatever one would like to call it. Many of the Vedanta traditions, particularly the variant taught by Vivekananda, emphasize some of the more non-dual aspects of Vedanta and although extremely interesting and extraordinarily rich and profound (and to be fair Vivekananda emphasizes Bhakti or Love & Devotion as a path to the divine as well although it does this in a very non-Tantric way so to speak), can sometimes be difficult for an individual aspirant to grasp and/or realize and practice in the materialistic and capitalistic culture of New York of which I have the great pleasure of residing square in the middle of (an element of sarcasm here, this town is for the insane of which I am clearly a part nowadays, sort of like the ship mates of the famed Flying Dutchman in the Pirates of the Caribbean movie where eventually they simply become merged into parts of the ship).

So I read Kali’s Child, and subsequently read Professor Kripal’s response to the critics of his work (can be found here, and then picked up and read the complete rebuttal of Kripal’s thesis by Swami Tyagananda and Pravrajika Vrajaprana (Interpreting Ramakrishna, Kali’s Child Revisited. Both fascinating and compelling works in their own right and both worthwhile reads for anyone looking to understand the life of Ramakrishna, the 19th century Bengali saint whose life and its meaning are at the center of both works. Although I would certainly recommend Swami Saradananda’s work, the Great Master (in English), as an introduction first before embarking on the adventure of Kripal’s study which in my view at least – siding with many of the academics and scholars who have weighed in on the debate, from inside and outside the Ramakrishna Order – is fundamentally flawed despite what I think are the best of intentions (I’m giving Professor Kripal the benefit of the doubt here, many scholars and academics have not).

So in essence although you could call me a devotee of Ramakrishna, in the sense that I see him as the greatest embodiment of the divine in the last few hundred years of recorded history, unique not only in his purity and the extent of his renunciation but also in the wealth of first hand materials regarding his life and his behavior, but in essence I am Western trained academic who is a householder – i.e. I’ve got kids and their expensive, enshrouded in Ramakrishna’s “maya” – and who is not part of academia per se but a the the same time is very well schooled in Comparative Religion, Eastern Philosophy, and the teachings and lives of Ramakrishna and Vivekananda, and the teachings of the Ramakrishna Order which are the lasting gift of Ramakrishna in my view. Certainly I was moved enough to read and write an awful lot about the topic at least, and moved enough to write this post to clarify not only my own position but also try and talk some sense into Professor Kripal, in as respectful a manner as possible. Perhaps it is hubris of me to think that I could have any influence on the debate on this topic but from my standpoint my position is unique – I am not an insider or an outsider really – and perhaps can shed some light here on something that I think has been missed by everyone who has voiced so far on the topic – and that is quite simply do we believe that the state of samadhi (or nirvikalpa samadhi in Ramakrishna’s case), the direct experience of God, or the Satchitananda of the Vedas, is indeed possible.

 

This is what strikes me as the essence of the divide between the two sides of this debate – one represented by Kripal who would have us believe that Ramakrishna’s divine states were the result of unquenched or repressed homoerotic desires (I’m paraphrasing her but that’s the gist of his argument) and the other side of the debate which basically holds that not only is Kripal’s translation/transliteration of some of the source texts off, Kripal is fundamentally missing the socio-cultural context within which Ramakrishna lived and taught and therefore is coming to not only some very erroneous conclusions, but some very disturbing conclusions for anyone who is a devotee of Ramakrishna – is a belief in whether or not the state of what Vedanta (and Ramakrishna) calls samadhi, what Swami Tyagananda attempts to water down and put in some sort of Western psychoanalytical context by referring to it as a “superconsciousness” state (I believe that is the term he uses) actually exists and is possible to experience or realize as an individual human being.

What samadhi is from a Hindu/Vedanta philosophical standpoint covered in some of my other blog posts so I don’t want to recover that ground here but suffice it to say that it is the direct experience of the ultimate grounding of reality where any level of distinction or division that rests at the heart of our perception of physical reality completely and utterly disappears and one merges into “an ocean of consciousness”. I use samadhi here in the Patanjali sense, which in my view is the Yoga 101 manual that should be used as a reference guide. Not the Yogas as put forth by Vivekananda or even the teachings of Ramakrishna and his disciples because as true and enlightening as I believe them to be, by their very nature and source they are discounted by Kripal and his supporters as one sided and self serving views on Vedanta philosophy – a fact I don’t agree with but lets put them aside for now and just deal with Patanjali’s eight limbs. Again, this is Yoga 101.

Kripal’s argument is basically that it is the repressed homoerotic desires of Ramakrishna, as well as the sexual abuses that he supposedly had as a child and as a young adult (of which his evidence is circumstantial at best), that drove and were the source of what can be best be described from Kripal’s point of view as his catatonic and pathological states of mind. Again I am paraphrasing here but that’s basically what he sets out to prove. The other side of the argument however, assumes that these states of “higher” consciousness can and do exist and do not require any sort of trauma or repression in order to be induced. This is done in an altogether roundabout way by describing 19th century Bengal, describing Hindu sadhana practices (spiritual practices), citing various perspectives of those who encountered Ramakrishna directly , etc – and do this very effectively and thoroughly mind you, leaving no doubt in my mind at least that Kripal’s theses in Kali’s Child are way off base and have close to zero grounding in any sort of factual evidence. His only evidence really is Freudian, and I’ll get to him in a moment.

Like it or not, this is the East West divide essentially right now which arguably characterizes not only this debate in my view, but also our current state of civilization – at least from a spiritual perspective. We fall right squarely into the Western atheist, empiricist and deterministic view of reality of the West (of which academia represents to a large degree) versus the holistic and energy based view – we’re all connected – view of the East. The latter view of which is represented certainly by those representatives who sit on the other (insider) side of the debate, i.e. that Ramakrishna’s states of consciousness were in fact real and had no grounding in “sexual repression” or “sexually abusive” behavior towards Ramakrishna by those close to him. The Ramakrishna Order and Mission arguably rests on this very principle, that we are all connected and the relief of the suffering of man, the love of the divine, the practice of meditation and the study of philosophy and metaphysics (Vedanta) all lead to this realization, to this state of mind – i.e. samadhi or what we would call in the Western theological terms, “salvation”.

Kripal never states this specifically, that he doubts that these states are achievable without some sort of trauma that sits behind them, but this seems altogether very evident to me after reading his text, that it is in fact his disbelief in the reality of these higher states of consciousness (again samadhi as outlined by Patanjali, samadhi being the eighth limb and pinnacle of his system of Yoga) that force him into a different intellectual paradigm in order to explain Ramakrishna’s behavior. Enter our friend Sigmund Freud here. But here’s the problem, and Swami Tyagananda in his Interpreting Ramakrishna: Kali’s Child Revisited covers this at some length, Freud does not recognize anything other than the conscious or the unconscious mind. He doesn’t recognize, nor provide any intellectual framework for describing anything that resembles the states of mind that the East consider extraordinarily relevant and “real”. And yet this is the entire world that Ramakrishna lived in from a child from the “insider’s” view of Interpreting Ramakrishna.

To make a case in point here, and I am very surprised that Kripal doesn’t touch on this at all, is that as I understand it this very denial of existence of anything beyond one’s individual conscious or unconscious mind is one of the core differences in opinion which drove the break between Freud and Jung. Jung, extending Freud’s psychoanalytic model, referred to this phenomenon (which Freud rejected) as the collective unconscious, alluding to this shared symbology across individuals. He even used it specifically in his practice to heal his patients (a process which he called individuation where lo and behold he used symbology, personal mandalas for example, which are prevalent in Tantric practices among other Eastern traditions, as tools to guide this healing process).

But if you deny the existence of this collective unconscious – lets stick with some form of psychoanalytic framework here – of which samadhi is no other than a complete merging into, you must lean on some of other psychoanalytic model to explain Ramakrishna’s states of mind and behavior. And here again Kripal brings in Freud who as far as I can gather was as sexually obsessed as any other intellectual in the last two hundred and fifty years. My preference would not be to return to the womb thank you very much, and as far as I can gather I am not driven by some Oedipal complex to eat my mother and my guess is that the majority of society is not either. However, if you want to look through that lens I am sure you can categorize a whole plethora of people’s behavior, Ramakrishna’s included, and the therapeutic models that Freud created I am sure have been and continue to be very helpful to many many people in the West. That however doesn’t make it the right model to try and understand the behavior of a saint who spent virtually his entire adult life merged in states of consciousness which sat completely outside of an independent of Freud’s consciousness or unconsciousness. Ramakrishna refused to recognize the very existence of his physical form, he called it “this body” constantly. He had no identification with his body and it doesn’t take more than a cursory reading of any of the direct source materials about Ramakrishna to come to this conclusion. And yet you want to base your psychoanalytic conclusions about his “secret” on a psychoanalytical system which is fundamental and intrinsically based upon not only the reality of, but the basic supremacy of, the physical form and the understanding of its primary animal instincts and behaviors as the sole driving force of mankind. This is like trying to understanding Quantum Mechanics by using a ruler, a compass, and protractor. You’ve got the wrong tools. Good luck.

My guess is – and this is a guess mind you and I could be wrong – is that Professor Kripal has never practiced meditation (again Patanjali here, Yoga 101), nor has any of his wealth of academic training and studying provided him with any sort of intellectual ground to frame the existence of a man who lives constantly in a state of what David Bohm would call, “undivided wholeness” and what Swami Saradananda described as bhavamukha. I could be wrong here but that’s my guess, and without the ability to directly correspond with him (his email address is nowhere available and considering that he has gotten some death threats after publishing Kali’s Child I can understand that) I would have no way to tell.

I have nothing to add to Swami Tyagananda and Pravrajika Vrajaprana’s rebuttal of Kripal’s work, they like many other academics and scholars have done a very thorough job of explaining not only the flaws in Kripal’s argument, but also the flaws in his basic scholarship and understanding of Bengali and Vedanta which as it turns out can be pointed to as the ultimate source of his confusion and incorrect theses and interpretation of Ramakrishna – and this is not a black or white issue here, his these are quite simply wrong, on many levels and how it was published as PHD thesis without the proper level of scrutiny by Hindu/Vedanta scholars is beyond my level of comprehension and speaks to the failure of the academic institutions through which the work originated and came to fruition ultimately as the book Kali’s Child, but the crux of the matter remains in my point of view, and this I believe is why the debate has sparked so much controversy on both sides, is whether or not these states of mind that Ramakrishna supposedly achieved, realized, lived in, experienced or whatever other word you want to choose, actually exist, and are real independent of any sort of psychological defect or pathology as Freud would have us believe (which again Jung staunchly disagreed with him on).

Ramakrishna, as well as his disciples and his disciples’ disciples, as well as thousands of sages throughout the years across a myriad of religious traditions would have us believe that this state, this undivided state of merging in cosmic consciousness (a term unfortunately that Deepak Chopra has coined and made cliché at this point or even a mockery by some atheists – see Jerry Coyne’s work, the evolutionary biologist who is a starch atheist and critic of the term) is actually our more natural state, our true state of being. And that this individual embodiment, this thing we call “I” is an illusion. The West however, and I know this is a broad generalization but Kripal seems to fit squarely in this category, would have us believe that these states of mind can only be explained phenomena though standard psychotherapeutic models, models which (at least the Freudian one that he chose) doesn’t even believe that anything outside the individual mind and its own psychosis has any existence at all.

It’s this core belief, and it is a question of faith after all – no one is going to prove samadhi exists no matter how many yogis or sages experience it over the years – that separates the two sides of this debate as far as I can gather. And as far as I can gather, this very core tenet and thesis of each side, and the broad implications of which side you sit on, has not been brought up by anyone that I have seen voice their opinion on the debate.

If you don’t believe in Jung’s collective unconscious, and you don’t believe that as Ramakrishna taught his disciples that “God can be seen with these very eyes”, or Jesus for that matter that “the kingdom of God is within you”, that is your prerogative. But if you want to study the life of a man whose entire existence lay in this boundary beyond the conscious or the unconscious mind, then you need a paradigm to explain Ramakrishna’s behavior where he could believe such things, teach such things, and make extraordinary, outrageous efforts to achieve such states of realization, enter Freud’s model for Kripal which is again wholly inadequate for trying to interpret or understands Ramakrishna – metaphysically, intellectually and culturally. If you do believe these higher states of consciousness exists and that we can tap into them ourselves, which was the core teaching of not only Ramakrishna by the way but also his disciple Vivekananda, Jesus and Buddha as well, then Freud’s model of the psyche becomes wholly inadequate as an explanatory tool. It doesn’t even have a word to explain the whole paradigm within which these experiences happen or occur, if they can be said to happen or occur at all. At least Jung gave it a word – the collective unconscious – providing a metaphysical framework from within which these experiences could be viewed.

Its like quite frankly trying to build a model of the universe where the Earth is the center – it kind of makes sense but it doesn’t really map to reality, where the earth revolves around the sun and the sun exists in a great galaxy of stars. Freud would have us believe that the world revolves around us, our small minds and egos, our individual selves and our cravings and desires, and this is the explanation of all of our behavior and it is through this lens that Kripal views Ramakrishna and it is through this lens in fact that he views Tantra, or at least Ramakrishna’s practice of Tantra, and it is for this reason that not only are his conclusions are wrong, but the tools that he has chosen from within which to view Ramakrishna are not even valid. And yes, I am stating unequivocally that the belief that every mind on the planet is governed by Freudian like psychology and behavior is also false and I am sure many many people would disagree with me on this but irrespective of whether or not you believe in Freudian psychology no one has put forth an argument that would indicate that this is a lens that is appropriate at any level for viewing the behavior of Ramakrishna, or any Indian/Eastern sage or saint for that matter. What conclusions would you come to if you tried to view the Dalai Lama though a Freudian lens?   What pathology would you point to for explaining his behavior of dedicating his life to reliving the sufferings of all mankind and promoting harmony throughout the world? Or Buddha for that matter?

But the other side here, a divide which can only be crossed by personal experience yourself. And if you want a scientific approach for this again, I suggest Yoga 101, our old friend Patanjali. It’s been around a while and lots of people have tried it and the effects are pretty well documented at this point, physiological, mental and otherwise. And from this practice you can decide for yourself whether or not to believe that there is a level of interconnectedness of the all beings, sentient and non-sentient, which can be experienced directly, which most devotees of Ramakrishna not only believe he experienced but that he actually lived in constantly.

To quote a relevant passage from virtually the end of Interpreting Ramakrishna, Kali’s Child Revisited, a very apt quotation which defines at least some basic criteria required in order to come to at least some sort of understanding of who Ramakrishna was and what he represents outside of being a complete madman which to any untrained eye he would most certainly appear as such (emphasis is authors):

 

First and most importantly, a respectful acceptance of the possibility, crucial to understanding Hindu religious figures, that the reality behind the universe and the reality behind an individual – known respectively as Brahman and Atman – may be interrelated, even identical, and are essentially divine in nature. Secondly, Ramakrishna studies should include the possibility that the external reality as we experience it may not be the only, or even the most important, reality. Thirdly, this expanded paradigm would consider the limitations of human reason and the possibility of a different kind of knowledge that transcends (but does not contradict) reason. Fourthly, the expanded paradigm would include the possibility that human beings could fully realize and manifest their innate divinity by overcoming the identification with the body and mind to which gender and sexuality are tied.[1]

 

So for Professor Kripal specifically then, I would ask a simple question as a Comparative Religious scholar and Professor of some repute, would you not require your advanced students to be properly schooled in the philosophy and teachings of the religious traditions which they are studying? Would you have them write PHD thesis on Islam or Christianity by simply reading the Qur’an or the Bible? Or would you ask them to go in the field, worship as the objects of their studies worship to greater understand their faith – not just the words that sit on a page, and from there try to come up with an original thesis about their religion and how it sits relative to other world religions which have and continue to have a profound effect on the people in today’s world and the people in the history of mankind. Essentially as a Professor I would think you would prod your students to do their homework first, just as you prod your critics to do many of whom you state haven’t read your book and just as I have been prodded by some of my Professors and teachers over the years.

Well I read it, every last word, and where I land for whatever my humble opinion is worth If you want to judge or interpret the life of a yogi, practice yoga for a good while or at least sit at the feet of someone who has for a good while. Just as if I wanted to judge the mind or thought process of a world renowned professional tennis player, architect, or artisan of any kind, or to have really anything at all intelligent to say on the matter, one needs to have spent an awful lot of time studying, practicing and literally “getting into the mind of” the object of study first before making any assumptions on what they might have thought, or how they might have thought, or what could have propelled them to greatness. And if that individual were no longer with us, one would think that in order to understand them and best as possible one would read ALL of the first-hand accounts about that person, and then try and get a better understanding of who they were or what drove their creative spirit which so profoundly left its mark on the world. For Ramakrishna if nothing else was a yogi, and to try and look him, or Tantra even, through the lens of psychoanalysis which is a field entirely designed to treat medically ill people (and I have plenty of experience with psychoanalysis both directly and indirectly here so please for all you detractors do not hinge on the “power” of Freudian psychology), you are not only barking up the wrong tree, you’re invariably going to come to all sorts of erroneous conclusions.

Given Kripal’s work in the paranormal now, as evidenced from the initial article I read, my guess is eventually you will come to some of these conclusions yourself if you have not already. But until then, until you can sit quietly for an hour on a regular basis and focus your attention on something, anything at all – a mandala, a mantra, a picture, anything – and do it for a few years, I would advise you to keep your opinions about the life of a sage who spent six months in direct contemplation of the divine completely uninterrupted, or those who have dedicated their lives to the practice of meditation and serving others as the monks of the Ramakrishna Order have, whose teachings and scholarship you have directly attached and called into question, to yourself.

Furthermore, I would ask you if one of your students published Kali’s Child and whose scholarship was subsequently taken apart as forcefully, completely and thoroughly as yours has done by later scholars (speaking specifically about Swami Tyagananda’s and Pravrajika Vrajaprana’s work criticizing the thesis and underlying scholarship of Kali’s Child) I would ask you what you would advise your student to do? Continue to defend a thesis which is altogether entirely indefensible (which if you haven’t come to this conclusion yourself by now I truly feel sorry for your students of Comparative Religion) or perhaps get a third edition of the book to press, correct the myriad of linguistic and philosophical inconsistencies and misunderstandings that plague the work itself, as well as issue a letter of apology to the Ramakrishna Order for calling into question their scholarship from top to bottom, while at the same time hiding behind some sort of perverse (excuse the pun) reverse racism or accusations of homophobia rather than simply defending your argument.

We all make mistakes, one’s character is defined by how we manage through them and what corrections and modifications we make to not only ourselves, but also the work which we produce as well as the people that we hurt along the way. None of us are exceptions to this basic human philosophy – be we a Ramakrishna “insider”, a Western academic “outsider”, an Easterner holistic philosopher or practice of yoga, or a Western rational deterministic empirical realist.

 

 

[1] Interpreting Ramakrishna: Kali’s Child Revisited by Swami Tyagananda and Pravrajika Vrajaprana, 2010. Pg 397.

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