Friday, November 6, 2020

3442. Letter to "Y": A Commentary on Indian Gurus' Spirituality

By Kamran Nayeri, November 6, 2020


Dear "Y":


Thank you for sharing the two pamphlets “Ruhani Satsang: Science of Spirituality” by Kirpal Singh (1973) and “Sant Bani: The Voices of the Saints” (1978). I read them with an interest to better understand you and your worldview. 


If I understood it correctly, you joined this particular Indian (Sikh) religious group when you were a 20-years old student at Boston University by sheer coincidence.  After you bought a flute from a street vendor you asked for a teacher. The vendor told you he could be your teacher. When you went to see him, he invited you to the local group that followed this particular religious group.  You joined it and have been part of it for 40 years.


In my way of thinking, you must have joined this particular group because you were prepared to accept it by your earlier life experiences, including being raised in a Roman Catholic household.  


My discussion below assumes that you view these pamphlets as sources for knowledge about the world and as a guide for your active life.  To put it more formally, I will first consider these as a form of epistemology. Epistemologists study the nature of knowledge, epistemic justification, the rationality of belief, and various related issues. Epistemology is considered one of the four main branches of philosophy, along with ethicslogic, and metaphysics. 


My examination of the texts has convinced me that they are written to advocate a particular faith and that they demand of the reader a “leap of faith.” That is, they ask the reader to accept or believe the claims made by the author without reason.  I will demonstrate this below.  For brevity sake, I will refer to the first pamphlet only.  


A leap of faith

The title of the first pamphlet claims a “Science of Spirituality.” 


That should give the reader pause. Without opening the pamphlet, the reader is already invited to accept “spirits,” hence “spirituality.” Nowhere in these pamphlets or anywhere else I know, there is scientific proof of the existence of spirits.  That is, the reader is asked for a leap of faith. By spirit, we understand incorporeality: the state or quality of being incorporeal or bodiless. 


The modern source of such beliefs resides in organized religions that define humans as souls and their physical bodies as temporary housing for such a soul. They also claim that upon death the soul leaves for an unseen and unknown world (except as defined by prophets and holy scriptures often believed to be the word of God).  None of these, God, soul, afterlife, a world of spirits is backed by scientific studies or even by reasoning (as I will discuss below when philosophical debates are considered). 


Thus, the author of the pamphlet invites the reader to accept all these religious ideas without any evidence and by a leap of faith while at the same time speaks of a “science of spirituality.”


A marketing scheme

The author who is revered as a Saint Kirpal Singh is quite clear about why  he chooses to call his faith “Science of Spirituality.”


“In this age of science, Spirituality too has to be treated as a regular science to make it acceptable to the people.”  (p. 5, my emphasis) 


I hope I am not offending anyone by calling this a marketing strategy, not a serious claim that spirituality is a science. Encyclopedia Brittanica defines science as 


any system of knowledge that is concerned with the physical world and its phenomena and that entails unbiased observations and systematic experimentation. In general, science involves a pursuit of knowledge covering general truths or the operations of fundamental laws.  (my emphasis)


Thus, by its very definition, there can be no “Science of the Soul” as Saint Kirpal Singh claims. 


Undeterred, Saint Kirpal Singh continues with his marketing pitch:


“…[B]ut unlike other sciences, it [Science of the Soul] is very definite and very exact in its premise, theory and practice, and yields verifiable results with mathematical precision.”   


Thus, not only Saint Kirpal Singh degrades actual sciences, but he also claims exactness for the “premise, theory and practice” of his Science of the Soul which he also claims “yields verifiable results with mathematical precision.” 


There is nothing in either of these two pamphlets that support these claims.  Instead, the Saint quickly turns to his asking for a leap of faith in the existence of God: 


We have of course to start with the premise that there is a certain central controlling power behind all these phenomena…” (p. 6)


He calls it Unseen Power and claims the existence of an Eternal Truth: “God is great and He has His ways to fulfill yearnings of His devotees.”  (p. 6)


( Let us notice that Saint Kirpal Singh stays within the male-dominated religious culture to ascribe to God masculinity)


In the rest of the pamphlet, Saint Kirpal Singh addresses the reader in a way appealing to the Judo-Christian tradition by quoting from the Bible, another marketing strategy as the English language pamphlet is directed to the Westerners, not those in India or anywhere in the non-European world where other languages are spoken and other religious traditions are followed. 


Saint Kirpal Singh’s faith appeals to the selfishness of his reader because this religion like all others is to save the believer’s soul!  It has no immediate concern with the problems of the world.


“Ruhani Satsang [the school of faith Kirpal Singh preaches] then deals with the most abstruse problems connected with the soul and primarily imparts instructions in the Science of the Soul. All other considerations, physical, social, moral, are secondary and enter discussion only insofar as they aid in the uplifting of the soul.” (p. 7, my emphasis)


Which came first matter or the mind?

As we have seen, Kirpal Singh like all religious leaders gives primacy to the soul.  The physical world to his way of thinking is a deception.  Given that there is no evidence for the existence of “souls” and that what most people confuse as “soul” is consciousness, it is helpful to ask which came first, matter or the mind. 


Until this July, astrophysicists believed based on available data that the universe was approximately 13.8 billion years.  In July we learned from a new study of the oldest light detected in the universe that it may be hundreds of million years younger.  Three things to take away: (1)  the physical universe is billions of years old, (2) science is driven by empirical testing subject to revision, (3) unlike religion, there are no “eternal truths.” 


So far, we know of no evidence of life anywhere else in the universe, although the search continues and there are increasingly more planets being discovered that could provide for life.  Still, so far we only know life exists here on our blue planet, Earth. 


Scientific research has shown that the Earth is approximately 4.54 billion years old, with an error range of 50 million years.  We know that life began at least 3.5 billion years ago because that is the age of the oldest rocks with fossil evidence of life on earth.  We also know that life emerged from inorganic matter.  Thus, as far as scientific knowledge goes inorganic matter preceded life.  In evolutionary terms, if self-awareness can be taken as evidence for consciousness (thus, a mind which the religious folks may call “the soul”) then consciousness, as it occurs in the primate with their more fully developed cortex, may have evolved approximately 5 million years ago, at around the time when great apes split off from the lesser apes.


This should settle any question about which is primary: matter or the mind.  The matter is the source of the emergence of consciousness, hence the mind.  Thus, Saint Kirpal Singh claims that the soul is primary and the physical world is a mere distraction has no basis in science. 


Who are we? Where we come from? Where are we going?

Saint Kirpal Singh dates back the religious striving to “the unknown past when man began to reflect within on the meaning of life.” (p. 5) The pamphlet goes on to appeal to religious texts and religious leaders to provide a religious answer to this question.  


But if the matter is primary and the mind the result of the evolution of life on Earth, then would it not be reasonable to seek the answer to the “meaning of life” from such sources of knowledge than the pronouncement of saints and texts claimed by prophets to come to us from God whose existence has never been proven? 


How about the Science of Life (biology) to tell us where humans come from? There is little doubt about the origins of life on Earth and how early simple forms of life evolved to make more complex species, including Homo Sapiens (modern humans) who emerged at least 300,000 years ago? If you are interested in the history of the universe, you can rely on physics, chemistry, and astronomy.  The recent field of Big History begins from the Big Bang about 13.8 billion years ago and recounts the formation of the universe, the Milky Way, our solar system, the Earth, and then the emergence of life on Earth and the rise of Homo sapiens and our history up to the present time.  Why should we want to create a mystery out of already accumulated knowledge and try to find an answer to the question of “meaning of life” from saints and prophets and their “holy” texts?   (You can take a free online course from David Christian, the Big History founder,  on Coursera: “Big History: Connecting Knowledge.”)  


The scientific approach uses the exact opposite methodology from that of religion, including what Saint  Kirpal Singh preaches. The religious approach focuses on the “inner self” as if there is an isolated “self” that has an inner part!  In act, we as a species and as an “individual” are part of the web of life on Earth.  In the past couple of decades, biologists have discovered that there are ten times more bacteria in the human body than “human cells” and that our health and life depend on them.  In the past couple of years, we have learned that in adults the microbiome in our gut contributes to the makeup of our personality. What is the “self” then and what is its “inner” part? (see, Reese, et.al., 2019) 


Is there a God?

The basic claim of God-centered theologies is that the knowledge about existence resides in Him (to follow theological language), an “absolute” and “error-free” knowledge. Thus, the entire edifice of such theologies depends on the question of the existence of God which is merely asserted as is the case with Saint Kirpal Singh and his brand of faith to which you subscribe. 


As I already have argued, science is a much surer way to the knowledge about existence. The question of God falls outside of the realm of science because by its very construction science considers the natural world as its domain. The “supernatural world” to which God belongs falls outside the realm of science. That is why some scientists are religious at the same time. 


To rationally consider the question of the existence of God, we must turn to philosophical debates.  A good summary is provided by Roger Scruton (1996, pp. 121-139).  The philosophical description of God is drawn from the scholastic church divines, Jewish, Christian, and Islamic theologians, as well as rationalist philosophers such as Descartes and Leibniz, and modern Thomists. God is conceived by all of them as timeless, immutable, omniscient, omnipotent, supremely good. 


To understand these abstract qualities is the subject matter of natural theology. But Scruton gives a brief critical discussion of the contradictions in such an abstract conception.


“We can easily see that there might be problems about the concept of God, as the philosophers propose it. If God is timeless, then can he really know those truths about the world which depend upon its temporality—-for example, the truth that I am writing this page now? If so, when did he know it? And if he always knew it, does it follow that I was predestined to write this page now? If so, I am predestined in all that I say and do. Then God is the real author of my evil deeds—since he both foresaw them and also created the man who would inevitably perform them? Perhaps I have free will, however; but if that is so, is God powerless to prevent my actions? In any case, what sense can we make of an omnipotent being: is the concept not inherently paradoxical? Consider the following argument: suppose God is omnipotent, it follows that he can make any possible object. What about this possible object: a creature that God cannot control? If he can make it, then he is not omnipotent, since he cannot control it; if he cannot make it, he is not omnipotent. He loses either way…” (Scruton, 1994, p. 128-29, emphasis in original)

  

I leave it up to you to read on philosophical arguments for the existence of God and their critique in Scruton or elsewhere.  The main point is that there is no consensus in philosophy for the existence of God.


An evolutionary approach to religion

In my opinion, the best way to understand the rise and development of religion is to place it as part of the evolution of Homo sapiens.  Brandon Ambrosino (2019) writing for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) provides such an outline.  He begins with the primatologist Frans de Waal’s definition of religion as the shared reverence for the supernatural, sacred, or spiritual as well as the symbols, rituals, and worship that are associated with it”. De Waal is probably influenced by sociologist Émile Durkheim, who also emphasized the importance of shared experiences that unite into one single moral community.”


There are two problems with this way of looking at the rise of religion.  First, it largely sidelines what cultural anthropologists have known for some time: that our hunter-gatherers' ancestors did not have any religion whatsoever. Their worldview was largely animistic or totemic. 


They saw themselves deeply embedded in the natural world. We know that from anthropological studies of the contemporary forager populations. Most modern-day foragers are characterized by animistic or less commonly totemic belief systems. In the former, non-human animals are not just like humans, they are persons.  Their environment is a treasure house of personage, each with language, reason, intellect, moral conscience, and knowledge, regardless of whether the outer shape is human, animal, reptile, or plant. Thus, the Jivaro people of eastern Ecuador and Peru consider humans, animals, and plants as persons (aents), linked by blood ties and common ancestry. Animistic belief systems commonly do not have words for distinguishing between people, animals, and plants as separate categories, using instead classification systems based on terms of equality rather than the hierarchies of our own Linnaean taxonomies.  The totemic systems of Australian Aborigines are ceremonies and rituals that stress an abstract linear continuity between the human and non-human communities.  Animals are the most common totems, signifying a persons or groups identity or distinctiveness, but though they may be good to eat or food for thought, they are not considered social partners as in the animistic belief systems. 


The forager world is animated with moral, mystical, and mythical significance.  It is constructed and reconstructed through the telling of myths, which commonly include all kinds of animals as humans, changing shape between one and the other.  In addition to the present world inhabited by humans and non-human-beings, there is a supernatural world. In many forager societies, shamans mediate between the lived and supernatural worlds, entering and conceptualizing the latter, commonly through ecstatic experiences. (Barker, 2006, p. 59)


Catherine Fowler and Nancy Turner who discuss Traditional Ecological Knowledge of hunter-gatherers stress that they are “notable for the intensity of their spirituality and connection to the land, a connection further intensified by the experience of dispossession. They show how among modern-day hunter-gatherers “systems in the natural world are incorporated into spiritual worlds. (Lee and Daly, 1999, p. 24).  That is, even the "supernatural" is an extension of the natural world. 


The rise of civilization 

About 10,000  years ago, some groups of hunter-gatherers began a systematic practice of domestication of plants and animals and a sedentary lifestyle to become the first farmers.  Evidence shows that for a few thousand years, they were worse off compared to their hunter-gatherer cousins. But eventually, a systematic economic surplus was reached and on its basis farming communities grew.  The transition from a hunter-gatherer way of life to a farming way of life entailed alienation of nature because farming required domestication and the farm was the first artificial (human-made) ecosystem that had to be constantly protected against wildness.  Thus, anthropocentrism (human-centeredness, speciesism) gradually replaced ecocentrism, the worldview of hunter-gatherers, among the early farming communities. Meanwhile, the rise of an economic surplus created the basis for social differentiation. Private property, patriarchy, and the State arose.  I have shown the manifestation of trends in the oldest long literary piece from 2,100  years ago (Nayeri, 2018). 


The transition from hunter-gathers’ nature-centered spirituality to class societies’ monotheism (abstract God religions), including the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) accepted by Saint Kirpal Singh and the version of theology he promotes went through various stages of development. Greek and Roman theologies represented gods that we just like humans except with a particular domain of power.  For a list of religions please see, Encyclopedia Brittanica entry for “religion.”   


Scholars have debated the evolutionary reasons for the rise of religion.  


“There are two major perspectives on why this might be. One is called functionalism or adaptationism: the idea that religion brings positive evolutionary benefits, which are most often framed in terms of its contribution to group living. As de Waal puts it: 'If all societies have [religion], it must have a social purpose.'  

“Others take the view that religion is a spandrel or by-product of evolutionary processes. The word spandrel refers to an architectural shape that emerges as a by-product between arches and ceiling. Religion, on this interpretation, is akin to a vestigial organ. Perhaps it was adaptive in the environments it originally evolved in, but in this environment its maladaptive. Or perhaps religious beliefs are the result of psychological mechanisms that evolved to solve ecological problems unrelated to religion. Either way, evolution didnt 'aim' at religion; religion just emerged as evolution ‘aimed’ at other things.” (Ambrosino, 2019, emphasis in original)

Robert Sapolsky (Sapolsky, 2017, pp. 621-2) discusses the neurobiology of religion.  He notes that small band societies such as hunter-gatherers rarely invented moralizing deities. He also notes that research has shown no benefits for pro-sociality in such religions and that there is no evidence that religious people are nicer than non-religious people. 

What is of interest to our discussion is how religion in all its forms represent some degree of human alienation.  The Abrahamic religions practically take all human power over our active life and give it to an abstract God or his prophets and saints whose unquestionable worship may provide a path to salvation in the afterlife.  This beautiful world is forsaken as illusory for the desire for an “eternal life” for the soul!  This is really what Saint Kirpal Singh preaches.


On Yoga and meditation

I know you have told me that you follow Ruhani Satsang, the faith Saint Kirpal Singh promotes, as a yoga (and meditation) practice.  I too have been (trying) to follow a yoga and meditation practice for some time. But I have done so as an atheist and for their scientifically proven benefits not as a way to “save my soul” which in my opinion works against the well being of an individual by deepening our alienation from nature, society, obscure who we really are.  I have suggested two books by Mayo Clinic to you about the benefits of yoga and meditation (see, Sood, 2015; Sood, 2014).  While Dr. Amit Sood writes about the benefits of prayer, yoga, and meditation, he strips off the religious forms they are usually given. None of the practices promoted in these books require acceptance of any religion or any god and they are equally as effective as those thought by Indian gurus and their disciples in the West. 


To sum up

As I have shown above, the teachings you adopted 40 years ago constitute a theology because they are centered around the idea of a God. Saint Kirpal Singh tells us inside the front cover page: “Man’s only duty is to be grateful to God for his innumerable gifts and blessings.”  


I do not know why you so readily adopted this particular faith group. But your Catholic upbringing must have played a part.  Deep alienation in the affluent Western civilization which provides a desire for “spirituality” and the material means of attaining it by following this or that guru also plays a part.  In the period you found Ruhani Satsang, two of my friends who you also know were attracted to similar Indian sects; one considered joining Hare Krishna movement and another briefly followed Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the founder of the Transcendental Meditation movement. As you know, The Beatles also were tutored by the same guru and George Harrison lived the rest of his life as a disciple. 


The gurus in India know this well. That is why they market their particular brand of mysticism in the West.  If souls need saving why do not they save the souls of 1.353 billion Indians five percent of whom live in extreme poverty. Every year, 3 million Indian children die of starvation. 



All such Indian sects follow reactionary ideas such as Karma and reincarnation.  Two examples from my own life experience.  Once visiting a Mexican-American friend and an inspiring yoga teacher in Ensenada, Mexico, 80 miles south of the border from San Diego, we had to wait for three hours for U.S. border officers to inspect a long line of cars that were entering the United States.  During this time, we were pestered by dozens of poverty-stricken Mexicans peddling and begging.  When I asked her about these poverty-stricken Mexicans, she responded that these are souls that committed sins in the previous life and now are being punished for their sins! Sadly, this woman was raised in poverty in the U.S. as her mother cleaned houses and she took care of her younger siblings.  She was one of them who got a bit lucky (at the time, she was still a low-income woman living a modest life).  


My yoga teacher at the health club in Sebastopol whose classes I really liked went on a pilgrim to India. She created a travel blog in which she posted photos and commentary about her visit.  In one post, she reported about “many wild dogs” and many poverty-stricken beggars.   When I commented about the dogs being feral and not being taken care of (there are feral dogs in many countries of the world living miserable lives) and the state of poverty in India, she responded that the dogs were very happy and that the beggars were paying for their sins in their previous lives!  


Such is the reactionary nature of Karma and reincarnation woven into Indian mysticism: to justify thousands of years of the caste system and class society. Nothing is emancipating in these religions. Quite the contrary is the case.


I wish to make sure you understand that I am not denying the need for a philosophy of life and ethics of living. Science is important to help us understand who we are, where we come from. But to decide where we should be going we cannot simply rely on science. We need a philosophy of life. 


As a preschool child, I decided, based on my childhood attempts to comprehend the world around me and my place in it, that I would be an atheist (Nayeri, 2019).  I am 70 years old now and I do not think being an atheist deterred me from being a good person. By age 21, after reading Erich Fromm’s Marx’s Concept of Man (1961), I decided to give my life to a social cause by becoming a socialist.  A socialist is someone who wants to get rid of social problems humanity faces in the modern-day capitalist society where money is god. The reason Marx appealed to me was that he centered his critique of the capitalist mode of production on alienation it generated in society, both social alienation and alienation from nature.  I have since developed my theory of alienation rooted in the world-historic transition from the hunter-gatherer way of life to farming and civilization as suggested above.  I subscribe to a form of philosophical materialism that gives agency to all beings, not just humans. Materialism is a branch of ontology that is consistent with a scientific view of the world. It stands in contrast to idealism which is the basis of all religions.


Fromm has authored many other books about alienation and how to try to get rid of it.  Among them, there is The Art of Loving, The Art of Being,  and Escape from Freedom.  You might consider reading one of them.   In these, Fromm integrates insights from Eastern philosophies such as Buddhism with what he has learned from Marx and psychoanalytical theory in ways compatible with a materialist view of the world. 


For the Earth,



Kamran



References:

Ambrosino, Brandon. “How and Why Did Religion Evolve?”BBC, April 18, 2019. 

Barker, Graeme.  The Agricultural Revolution in Prehistory.  2006.

Kirpal Singh. Ruhani Satsang: Science of Spirituality. 1973. 

Lee, Richard B., and Richard Daly. The Cambridge Encylopedia of Hunter-Gatherers. 1999. 

Nayeri, Kamran. Culture and Nature in The Epic of Gilgamesh.” Our Place in the World: A Journal of Ecosocialism. 2018. 

-------------------. "How I Became an Atheist." Our Place in the World: A Journal of Ecosocialism. October 19, 2019.

Rees, Tobias, Thomas Bisch, and Angela E. Douglas. How the Microbiome Challenges Our Concept of Self,” PLOS Biology, January 9, 2019.

Sapolsky, Robert M. Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst. 2017.

Scruton, Roger. Modern Philosophy: An Introduction and Survey. 1996. 

Sant Bani Ashram Inc. The Voice of the Saints. September 1978.

Sood, Amit.  The Mayo Clinic Guide to Stress-Free Living, 2014

—————- . The Mayo Clinic Handbook for Happiness, 2015.

2 comments:

Unknown said...

I thoroughly enjoyed this piece, Kamran! I wonder whether "Y" will digest it though as it requires a strong rational-intellectual grounding. Good for you for writing it. There is one very minor detail (that takes nothing away from the overall piece) that you may want to reconsider which is the reference to the Big Bang "theory." Some materialists consider this to be a capitalist-creationist myth (i.e. matter exploding out of nothing at some magical time). Our friend Glenn Borchardt writes extensively on the subject: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/36695600-infinite-universe-theory

Unknown said...

Another link for Glenn's articles: https://sciencewoke.org/scientist/dr-glenn-borchardt/