A Critical Look At Neo-Hindu Religious And Spiritual Fads
While many critics of Hinduism may not have been explicit in their condemnation of Hindu religious hypocrisy, one can fully share their anguish and frustration at the modern practice of Hinduism and how the popular expressions of this religion in India have evolved or rather degenerated.
Nothing typifies this better than the currents spiritual fads in the Hindu community. One of the few reasonable interpretations of spirituality could be to consider it as an endeavor of moral rectitude with a vigorous and uncompromising pursuit of ethics. But unfortunately that is not what masses and the elite understand it to be or are indoctrinated by religious propagandists.
What spirituality stands for today
Spirituality is now a contemporary fashionable term for all kinds of pseudo-intellectual verbiage that supposedly explains concepts like mind-body separation, eternity of the soul, consciousness, self and host of other supra-sensory entities and experiences along with the grand promise of achieving ‘self-realization’ through esoteric meditative/yogic practices and rituals.
Of course the few discerning can see through all this self-realization as a case of delirious self-proclamations of whatever states of ecstasy, frenzy or tranquility that the delusion and feverish imagination of the spiritual brigade of swami’s, gurus, and babas can come up with by flogging the ever-suffering lingo of spiritual terms to sprout new words and phrases of greater meaninglessness.
Let’s look at terms like ‘Supreme knowledge’, ‘Ultimate Reality’, ‘Higher Truths’, ‘Knowledge of the Self’, ‘Unconditioned Consciousness’, ‘Highest Truth’, ‘Freedom from Illusion’, ‘Universal Consciousness’, ‘Universal Soul’, ‘Awareness of the Self’, ‘Self-realization’, ‘Pure Consciousness’, ‘Field of Pure Potentiality’
While these words and terms may be music and symphony to the novices and doyens of the spiritual variety, but any search for the meaning and significance of these in the lexicons and thesauruses of old and new is hardly likely to return any meaningful result.
It will be observed that the term ‘Consciousness’ is the darling of most ‘spiritual connoisseurs’. What does it mean?
Let’s look at the most favorite definition of it all.
“Consciousness is that from which everything arises, and everything lives and passes through and into which everything ultimately dissolves into”
This may sound very poetic, expressive, metaphorical, pithy and more. But it practically means very little despite all the weight of books, speeches and writings that the spiritualists keep throwing at it.
This belief in the all-pervading reach, permeation and influence of Consciousness on both the life and lifeless alike may seem of a piece with some kind of revolutionary leap of understanding that the hordes of religious believers keep making from time to time. But this leap is not that of understanding or knowledge, but rather the leaps and bounds of faith hurtling down the bottomless pit of a new spiritual fetish.
It is neither possible nor the intention of this article to recount all the rhapsodies of delusive delight and frenzy that the term Consciousness inspires in the spiritual cognoscenti, but this one famous quote about Consciousness should make the sane and skeptical smell the stench of baloney and nonsense from this much spiritually hallowed term.
“Consciousness exists not just in you and me, but breathes in the soul of mountains, seas, woods and trees and is the same even in a stone. Nay it permeates the entirety of existence.”
Quotes like this expose the classic muddling of ideology, allegory and mundane facts of life that is so typical of the these kinds of desperate flourishes of poetastry from the spiritual brigade.
The true nature of today’s spirituality
But leaving aside the distractions of rhetoric, this belief is no different from belief in gods, ghosts, goblins, genies, jinn’s, tooth fairies, angels, pixies, elves, leprechauns, souls, sphinx (which probably inspired our Vishnu’s Narasimha avatar adventure), phoenixes, griffins and Pegasus, which makes asses of the intelligence of most.
The most honorable and respectable term that describes beliefs like these is irrationality. Less flattering allusions to such beliefs are:
- Blind belief
- Wishful thinking
- Magical thinking
- Religious obsession
- Religious and spiritual fantasy
Unfortunately our commitment to civility and the need to maintain the dignity of rebuttal restrains us from heaping pejoratives and expletives to deride such absurd beliefs.
Consciousness as a subject rightly belongs to the domain of neural sciences and cognitive research, and is not something to be debased and trivialized by the pipe-dream theories and fantasies of the hordes of religious prophets, god-men and their foolishly cheer-leading devotees.
A closer look at the genealogy of ‘Brahman’
Let’s take what could probably be for now a last skeptical swipe at the rising tide of popularity of ‘Consciousness’ that is finding itself in bed with its alter ego from the Hindu revivalist creed, the Brahman. In that process we may trace genealogical path of Hindu spiritual discourse in its descent from inquiry into absurdity.
Brahman, that formidable beast which sprang to life from the strange unity of Hindu theology and myth now has multitudes of mostly Hindu persuasion bowing to its supposed spiritual invincibility.
It is quite plausible to speculate that the “Brahman” that is the toast of most of the present times’ spiritual hallucination, was most probably coined from Brahmanaspati, an obscure god of the original vedic pantheon. Brahmanaspati has 2 hymns dedicated to him in Book1 of Rig Veda and 4 hymns dedicated to him in Book 2 of Rig Veda. There are a few oblique and direct references to him in the remaining Books of the Rig Veda, but he lost the favor of dedicatory privilege that was always available to deities like Indra, Agni, Vayu, Varuna-Mitra. Besides Brahmanaspati had to contend with Brihaspati, Prajapati, Vaschaspati and Vanaspati (kidding here) from being crowded out in the rat race of rig vedic hymnal competition.
But Brahmanaspati apparently benefited from the proximity of sounds with other important entities of Vedic nomenclature like Brahma (the creator), Brahmana (the pious) and Brahm (universe, illusion, entirety etc, depending upon context).
All this confusingly hoary pedigree of Brahmanaspati was probably good enough for the post-vedic seers to thrust him from the obscurity of the Vedas into the full radiance of upanishadic glory, where scarce any upanishadic text of note could resist waxing eloquent about his or its mystical prowess. As the creators and directors of ‘Brahman’ went around casting a spell of duplicity of upanishadic proportions, sages and seers of the late BCE and early CE age, of varying shades and stripes, who had nothing but their sanity to lose, set sail on their ship of meditative dreams and trances, in an almost sedative submission to the pied piper verses of the Upanishads.
The only problem with their grand quest for the Upanishadic holy grail of the Brahman, that one can perceive with the benefit of hindsight and history, is that while these grand sires were steadfast in contemplative grace and poise under the shade of the banyan, peepul, neem, mango, bodhi or fig tree of their choice, the goal-post of self-realization of the Brahman kept shifting from one Upanishadic puzzle to the next. From Aitreya to the Taittiriya Upanishad and from Brihadaranyaka to the Swetashwara Upanishad, with the elongation of names, inscrutable clues to the persona of Brahman kept on piling, one upon the other. Somehow in the midst of puzzles and tussles of Upanishadic interpretation, our ambitious seers missed the woods of the core Upanishadic emphasis on self-introspection for the trees of meditative, yogic and propitiatory distractions and red herrings. For whatever lofty purpose the Brahman began an earnest post-Vedic journey, he has ultimately ended up as a fig leaf of Hindu spiritual delirium.
Apart from other things, Brahman owes his resuscitation in the post-upanishadic period in large part to the evangelical efforts of Adi Sankara, the pioneer and father of Hindu spiritual gobbledygook. He wrote many commentaries or ‘Bhashyaas’ on Vendanta Sutras and Bhagavad Gita. To those valorous enough to hazard a migraine of chronic proportions or in search of insomnia cures, the link to Sankara’s mind-numbing bhashyaas are here.
How misinterpretation and vagueness come to the rescue of spiritualism
The point here is not decide the merits of Adi Sankara’s philosophy, but to wonder at the mindset of a society and nation that worships its religious prophets without caring to know whether their works make any sense or not. It is that mindset and attitude which surely believes that any high-sounding Hindu tenet that passes most people’s understanding must be presumed to be imbued with deep cosmic, ethereal and other worldly significance that is beyond the meanness of mortal perception and intelligence and whose sole privilege of interpretation must lie with spiritual aristocrats of the Adi Sankara and Madhavacharya ilk.
It is by the devices of misinterpretation and obfuscation that these nebulous and vaporous entities of metaphysical speculation, such as ‘Nirguna Brahman’, ‘Saguna Brahman, ‘Jeevatma’ and ‘Paratma’ are allowed to invade the realm of mainstream thinking. There is little doubt that Adi Sankara ably led this charade of exhibiting the ‘Emperor’s clothes’ of Vedic or Vedantic spirituality. No wonder that the Hindu multitudes are still busy in the ‘wild goose chase’ of the Brahman and Atman.
Thus it is not hard to see how spiritual literature and discourse provides the ultimate refuge and cover for various forms of religious quackery and intellectual fraud.
Fast forward to spiritualism of today
The sad part is that it is flourishing and increasing in influence due to the legitimacy, endorsement and patronage it is receiving from many mainstream groups and institutions not only in India, but even in countries like USA and UK.
In fact Hindu spirituality is infiltrating US mainstream opinion in a significant way because of the popularity of celebrities like Deepak Chopra and the activities of affluent NRI’s. Hardly any eminent Indian intellectual or celebrity worth his salt has come forward to challenge and repudiate the nonsense that Deepak Chopra is spreading. It is left to western intellectuals like Micheal Shermer and Robert Caroll to carry the burden of skeptical assaults on the Chopra-brand of quackery.
It is distressing to note that even professed atheists of renown like Amartya Sen in their chase for political acceptability and concern to be seen on the right side of diplomacy are voicing ambiguous opinions about religion-inspired terrorism and violence as well as spiritual quackery arising out of post-modern interpretations of ancient Hindu scriptures. Nobody has articulated this concern better than Meera Nanda.
One should not be surprised to find that religiosity among NRI could be much more than those of Indians back home. The marginal decline of religious organizations like Hare Krishna movement and the ISSO has been more than made up by the rise of groups like Chinmaya Mission (CM) and Art of Living (AOL) which are receiving overt and covert support from Hindu fundamentalist organizations like Hindu Janjagriti Samiti (HJS) and Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP). CM and AOL act as the masks and front-end of the known Hindutva fundamentalists and receive a lot of informational and logistical support to grease and lubricate their propaganda.
Some observations on the workings of Hindu cults like Chinmaya Mission
Since I was associated with CM in California for sometime till in the recent past, I would like to share some insights about their workings.
CM mainly attracts patronage on the basis of their Bal-Vihar childrens’ classes, which can be called glorified moral science classes based on Hindu mythology. Using the patronage and donations from Bal Vihar, they have widened their scope of propaganda of indoctrination to snare adults and youth using the tools of discourses on Bhagavad Gita and other Hindu scriptures.
Some CM centers in USA have caught on to the current fads of meditation and yoga and are providing these services which is drawing the interest of local Americans in addition to the NRI’s.
Of course NRI’s are apparently falling for the appeal of these centers as glorified socio-cultural clubs that pander to the social and cultural insecurities of parenting in their land of adoption. While many NRI’s may be cynically using CM for their ulterior motives, they are unwitting participants in the religious brain-washing that happens in its various events and forums.
How can any cult be without its colorful Swamis and Gurudevs, especially the bright Orange?. CM is no exception to this. But it would be amiss not to dwell upon to the psychological factors at work in their appeal and popularity.
This happens to a lesser extent in the smaller centers of CM in US, but in large centers in Houston, discourses and satsangs are events where audience is willing cannon-fodder for spiritual pontification. It is amazing how apparently intelligent and educated people suspend their logic, reasoning and understanding and sit in these gatherings with a blank mind and a childish pre-disposition to hypnosis and mesmerism by the sing-song monologues of the ‘Swamiji’s’ and ‘Gurudev’s', speakers whom Skeptics know to be just capable and artful exponents of oratory and crowd psychology manipulation.
Since the communication in these settings is invariably uni-directional with hardly any interactivity of discussion or debate, there is a lot of subliminal messaging that can slip through the psyche of an already brain-dead audience. Also the devotional, cultural and religious hype that precedes and surrounds these events replete with hero-worshiping praise of the Swamis/Gurus, music, prayers, soft chanting of OM’s and mantras is a formidable challenge to rational and logical faculties and defenses of most people.
Of course skeptical sociologists can come down very hard on religion for manipulation of crowd psychology because it is quite manifest here, but other spheres like network marketing, motivational workshops, selling of financial and intangible products also employ these psychological tricks in similar, varying or greater degrees to prey on the weaknesses of human mind. Why! Even many workplaces are not secure from tactics that are effectively questionable tools of influencing/manipulating group behavior.
The challenges from Spiritualism and lessons for Skeptics
The point of all this apart from other things is to underscore the formidable challenges that skeptics and rationalists are up against in their crusade for sanity in the world, which are:
Spiritual doctrines and ritualism are a worse scourge than religious ritualism and more difficult to dispel because of their deception and ability to pass off as a serious intellectual pursuit, and its frequently observed ability to pull wool over the eyes of even robust empirical disciplines like medicine and healthcare.
- The messianic zeal of most religionists of the world, like Christian creationists or Hindu revivalists who can stop at nothing and will adopt all means, fair and foul in the pathological pursuit of their goals.
- The dangers of spiritualism are not confined to its foundational theories and doctrines, but are further magnified and spread far and wide by its hydra-headed pseudo-scientific surrogate fads like astrology, numerology, vaastu-shastra, herbalism etc. These share the same motivation for intellectual deception and the sophistry to serve what are essentially hobbies or pursuits of a desultory nature at best or unproductive and non-value adding activities at the worst, with the gloss and veneer of important or meaningful disciplines which are supposedly for human advancement and welfare.
- Secularists are still in need of trustworthy political allies. But experience has shown that even professedly secular political parties are fickle and susceptible to the compulsions of social mood swings and caste/electoral arithmetic. The track record of even Communist and Dravidian parties in promoting scientific and rational thinking is pretty dismal. The pulls and pressures of governance and competitive populism are too strong for them to stay on the trajectory of their original ideological motivation. Objectively seen, Communist and Dravidian parties of India have only their rejection of God and religion to recommend themselves. The poverty of ideology, vigor and progressiveness in their social, political and economic ideas is too stark to be not noticed.
- There are only so many Meera Nanda’s, Narendra Nayaks, Micheal Shermers, Richard Dawkins, Prabhakar Kamath’s in the world. May their tribe increase manifold.
- Hindu Revisionism: Was Shankaracharya Deceptive Or Just Ignorant? by Prabhakar Kamath.
- The Upanishads Attempt To Reform Brahmanism, by Prabhakar Kamath.
- Postmodernism, Hindu Nationalism and ‘Vedic Science’, by Meera Nanda.
Ranganath R. writes about subjects concerning religion and culture on his blog, “Critical sagacity“.