Reproduced below is an email exchange with one of the Chief Founder/Patrons of Chinmaya Mission Bakersfield, CA on certain topics of spirituality. What started it off, or provoked it, if it may be so called, was the challenge by chief speaker of the Gita study group, Shri Anil Mehta, who is also the Bakersfield mission founder, for me to provide my conception or definition of ‘Ultimate Reality’ which figures prominently in Gita and Vedanta.
Though I term this a dialogue, most of the communication is from my side, since it is not the easiest of tasks to engage a die-hard religious believer or spiritualist into an examination of his or her positions or opinions. This exchange consists of 3 parts:
- The first part is my satirical response to Shri Mehta’s initial challenge that throws spotlight on the practice of fancy notions and high-sounding terms passing for serious thought and intellectualism.
- The second part is the indirect and evasive response of Shri Mehta, that leaves a lot of things unsaid and unexplored.
- The third part is my rejoinder to Shri Mehta’s email that examines the many aspects of the sorry state of thought and intellectualism that pervades today’s spiritual study groups and religious cults.
From: (Ranganath R., email withheld)
Subject: Reponse to the question of conception of reality and spiritual concerns
Date: Tuesday, February 8, 2011, 6:12 PM
This is to further arguments and debate we had in your last week’s lecture on Bhagavad Gita Chapter IX. I missed the opportunity of responding fully to the question on reality as conceived in Hindu scriptures.
To your question “What is the nature of ‘Ultimate Reality’ according to you?”, here is my reply below in quotes:
“Ultimate Reality is that which arises from or comes after ‘Penultimate Reality’, after passing through ‘Absolute Reality’, which lies between these two realities. If it is asked what is ‘Penultimate Reality’, it is clear that it is that reality which follows intermediate reality which again flows from immediate reality, which is a super-imposition of initial reality upon indeterminate reality, which also proceeds from secondary reality and is derived from primary reality which with we are familiar in our day-to-day life. Also we arrive at this knowledge of Ultimate Reality when we keep beating around the bushes of self-realization and spiritual evolution. When we focus the light of inner knowledge on the true self and erase the distinction between the self and the non-self, Ultimate Reality becomes a projection of true knowledge reflecting its light on the canvass of inner-most ideas and thoughts of sublime existence. Thus in this grand flight of spiritual journey, we pass from primary reality to Ultimate reality on the wings of nonsense and empty rhetoric”
Would you agree that this explanation makes the understanding of Ultimate Reality very clear?! Come on! There is very little that can beat this explanation for its sheer clarity and simplicity.
After I marvel a wee bit at my own creativity and sick humor, it is time to pose some serious questions.
Do you really think that composing words like ‘Bhuta-Bhrinnah’, ‘Vikshepa’, ‘Avarana’, ‘Brahm-Gyan’, Bramhanand’ or other such words in Sanskrit (which is a notoriously vague and equivocating language) can make or turn nonsense into great knowledge or profound philosophy? As far as I can see, it is easy to pass off bullshit in Sanskrit (Hindu revivalists and nationalists have obviously learned no lessons from the near extinction of this language) because of its tendency to have more sound and pomp than real substance. If verses in Chapter IX of BG sound like complicated nonsense, that’s what they probably are, however well you may adorn them in ornate Sanskrit or confound its English translations with the noise, smoke and bluster of jargon and circular reasoning.
I did not realize that the knowledge (if at all it can be called that) in religious scriptures needs to have the secrecy and mystery of the formulas and workings of nuclear weaponry or space technology, because if precious concepts like Brahman and Atman are revealed easily and in simple terms there would be catastrophe, nuclear holocausts and worse in this world. So such sublime concepts like consciousness, self-realization, highest truth, ultimate reality etc. need to be saved from falling into wrong hands by wrapping them in several layers of abstract prose and symbolism, to unravel which we must fall and cringe at the feet of orange or white robed geniuses, who go by many names of maharishis, gurus, swamis, pastors, popes, cardinals, maulas, acharyas etc.
It is not as if skeptics and freethinkers cannot talk the lingo of spiritual jargon and fancy words that mean very little, or see through all this charade of intellectual deception. We can condemn and criticize up-to a point, but the sheer scale of bigotry and nonsense in religion and spirituality is so staggering that one can only pity the shallowness and conceit of religious and spiritual delusion.
Part 2 (Response form Shri Anil Mehta of Chinmaya mission)
|Date:||Tue, Mar 15, 2011 4:37 pm|
Hari Om. Thank you for your comments. However, I would like to remind you that our Sunday Study Group is based on the Bhagvad Geeta as expounded by Swami Chinmayananda. The Chinmaya Mission philosophy is based on Advaita philosophy as explained by Bhagwan Sankaracharya and Swami Chinmayananda. If you attend the study class, please confine your comments to these philosophers and concepts. We do not have time to discuss all other ideas and concepts of philosophy.
Part 3 (Response to Anil Mehta’s email)
Thanks for the courtesy of a reply. But the contents of the email were a disappointment, since it was conspicuously lacking in a response to the core issues raised in my email.
Your statements reminded me of the incident in the history of British Parliament where the great essayist Joseph Addison was unfairly taunted thus.
“Thrice did he conceive, yet produced nothing!”
While Addison can justifiably be pardoned for his tentativeness in the face of an illustrious assembly with perhaps the greatest of orators arrayed on its ranks and flanks, one can only wonder at the motivations that could inspire the reticence of your 3 terse and parsimonious lines on a medium such as email, which lets one lay one’s heart and soul bare, in open communication, unhindered by the mortifications of personal contact and the inconvenient conventions of polite conversation.
Such apparent frugality of words and meaning obliges me into an email treatise of decipherment where, rejoinders apart, I will try to speculate on the intent of such indirect and evasive language.
Should expositions of BG by spiritual celebrities be taken at their face value?
To state that Chinmaya Mission is based on the Bhagavad Gita expounded by Swami Chinmayananda is a stale fact to someone who has participated in these sessions over a period of close to 2 years.
It also well-known that apart from Chinmayananda, Prabhupada, Sivananda and many other known and unknown religious cult-figures have made their expositions of this scripture. There are not many differences of note in their interpretations. They all start with some form of scriptural literalism, then proceed to sanitize their theories from anything that may be perceived as unfavorable to the scripture by employing the most exaggerated symbolism (‘rope and ‘snake’, ‘ocean and waves’, wind, storms, ‘fire and the sky’ etc.) and then proceed to committing the ultimate fallacy of confusing metaphor for reality and continuing on that train of thought forever.
None of these pontiffs have cared to look at what History seeks to convey about the origins of Brahman, that is supposedly the ultimate object of the Gita’s teachings. When Gita and its revered expounders invoke the authority of Vedas to expound and establish the supremacy of Brahman, do they know or care that there are hardly any clear references to the Brahman in either Rig Veda or Yajur Veda? Atharva Veda makes a reference to Brahman, but interestingly Rig Veda does not even consider Atharvaveda as its companion, as its references are only to Yajurveda and Samaveda.
Proper study of history will again point to the Brahman as the mischief created by the Upanishads that were responding to the pressures on Vedic religion and ritualism posed by the challenge of heterodox movements like Buddhism, Jainism, Lokayatika, Ajivakas etc.
Just like Brahman, it may be interesting to note that Moksha also figures nowhere in the primary Vedas, and its inclusion in the Upanishadic texts is an almost straight lift from the Buddhist and Jain concepts. There is also a plausible allegation of Brahminical mischief in inserting selected Upanishads as footnotes to the two major Veda texts (Rig Veda & Yajurveda) and appropriating Vedic authority for not only Upanishads, but the Brahmanas, Dharma Sutras and the Brahma Sutra. Any sincere student who does a comparative study of the Vedas and Upanishads, referring to normal rules of semantics and interpretation will find them to be like chalk and cheese. These two seem totally distinct texts living in their own disparate philosophical worlds, with the only link being the vague allegorical references in Upanishads to Vedic entities like Indra, Yama and Prajapati, which are most likely the handiwork of later Upanishadic authors and editors.
Many of the modern commentators of the Gita and the Advaita have largely paid no regard to the historical and cultural perspectives on these holy texts of antiquity. But we don’t necessarily have to adopt such a head-in-the-sand attitude
Given this, the question I seek an answer to is, whatever may be the exposition of Chinmayananda, what is the true aim of a study group or session?. Is it to interpret a scripture with a mind and attitude that is open and receptive to the findings of varied disciplines and knowledge streams or is it cling on to dogmatic interpretations of spiritual celebrities under the pretext of reverence and authority?.
Also is the expectation from the study group then to be merely rubber-stamping the conclusions already reached by their adopted hero Chinmayananda by swaying to the rhythms of the more than 60 minute monologues of its chief officiating speaker?
Is Chinmaya Mission really based on the Advaita philosophy of Adi Sankara?
Let us look at your statement that Chinmaya Mission’s philosophy is based on the Advaita philosophy of ‘Bhagawan’ Sankaracharya.
My comments were not in any way related to the philosophy of the Mission. Besides I fail to see the real connection between the objective of a study group that is focused on a specific scripture and the broad philosophy of its institutional sponsor, to this debate. Propounding the mission’s philosophy would be better served by seminars and fund-raising events that are anyway a larger staple of your Mission, than any diligence to adhere to Advaitic confines and concerns. But I will let that pass.
Let’s examine the merits of this statement of yours. Is your Mission really based on or adhering to the Advaita philosophy? One would have thought that, as true heirs to the legacy of Advaita, you would all be long in the process of shedding your silken robes and ethnic fashion wear and preparing for the bequest of the palatial ‘Chinmaya Gokul’ to heretics like us.
On a serious note, how is your Mission following in the footsteps of the Advaita philosophy?
- By plastering the walls of your Mission with the portraits and pictures of Adi Sankara, in the limited space that is ceded by the giant and larger-than-life size portraits of Chinmayananda and Tejomayananda?
- By selling books on Adi Sankara’s teachings, where one book is barely distinguishable from another?
- By displaying in bold type-faces, some selected quotations of Adi Sankara?
- By organizing and sponsoring seminars and study sessions on Advaita and Tattva Bodha?
- By group-singing and chanting of ‘Bhaja Govindam’?
How about following the teachings of Advaita on the futility of rituals and pujas and their irrelevance to spiritual goals, or even self-improvement in a religious sense?. Going by the gusto with which meaningless rituals and pujas are organized on Ganesh Chaturthi, Mahashivaratri, Laxmi Puja, Rama Navmi, and innumerable other Hindu cultural events organized by the Mission, one fails to see any inclination to meaningfully or consistently follow the Advaita philosophy.
Most of the popular rituals and pujas of present day Hinduism have no origins or basis in the primary Vedic texts and are the creations/inventions of what is called the Puranic age, where the greatest possible distortions of many texts and scriptures are inferred to have taken place with history, culture, fact and fable mixed into the narratives in the most bizarre manner.
The Arya Samaj and Brahmo Samaj have a far better track record of acting on the spirit of the philosophy and teachings of Advaita, though they don’t formally declare any allegiance to Advaita or Adi Sankara, than all the empty declarations made by Chinmaya Mission.
If really following the Advaita philosophy means building ‘castles in the air’ around the definition of the Brahman as the one and only unchanging ultimate reality beneath which lies the illusion of constantly changing appearances and motions of the physical and transient world, where the ‘rope and the snake’ play the game of ‘snakes and ladders’ with our deluded senses, where Rishis, Gurus and Swamis play the great ‘Indian rope trick’ or tighten the hangman’s noose of ‘Self-Realization’ on bewildered devotees and followers, who are made to walk the ‘tight rope’ of avoiding ‘sense-objects’ and senseless objects in crossing the ‘transmigratory ocean of existence’, then selling such spiritual snake oil concoctions through speeches, books, seminars, study sessions and what not and misguiding and cheerleading innocent, gullible and earnest seekers of religion alike into a ‘wild-goose chase’ of the Brahman, certainly Chinmaya Mission is in the forefront of that Advaita revolution.
Relevant objections and comments being dismissed as irrelevant.
In addition you have made your third statement in such a way that it is hard to say whether it is a factual claim or an insinuation about the nature of my comments.
You say that if I do attend the Gita study session, I must confine my comments to the philosophers ( Chinmayananda & Sankaracharya) and concepts (Bhagavad Gita & Advaita) mentioned by you.
Since you have introduced the word ‘If’, are you referring to my future visits and future comments? If so does that not make your statement hypothetical and thereby irrelevant?
If not, am I to infer that this comment of yours was based on your opinion that my comments on the study session of 2/5/2011 were not confined to the topics of your choice?
If that be case, your opinion cannot be considered to be based on facts, since my comments and responses were indeed confined to one of the above topics, though they may be treated as critical in nature and strident in tone and tenor. The comments were related to questioning the Advaitic thoery, and conception of the nature of reality and knowledge according to the so-called tenets of that theory. The specific points in my comments and questions on this related issue were:
- Questioning the suitability of the ‘rope and snake’ metaphor and its irrelevance to the question of interpreting reality.
- Pointing out the fallacies of the nature of Advaitic conception of knowledge which seems to fail even most basic tests of reason and empirical inquiry.
- Trying to reason that Consciousness has no real bearing on a comparison of illusion and reality.
There were 2 other interjections of note from me:
- Commenting on the progression of the content of Mahabharata from 8000 verses to its current approx 100K verses, it was a response to your attempt to foist pseudo-history and myth in form of spontaneous narration of 100K verses by Veda Vyasa. How is this, a transgression of the scope of the Study session unless it be the explicit aim of the study to consider truth and history to be unnecessary hindrances to the grand scheme of spiritual reverie and fantasy.
- Commenting on the need for rejecting the theory of divine revelation of BG and perceive its messages in light of reference to historical, social and cultural setting of the scripture. This is also germane or related to the topic of study and is only an appeal to use an alternative and rational method of analyzing verses from the scripture, not to submit to the brute force and appeal of authority and reputation (even if it is of such supposedly towering figures like Chinmayananda and Adi Sankara). Am I to be faulted if people generally have no interest in History and social sciences and even lack a historical sense in looking at things and events?
It will be instructive to me if you can explain how this can in any way be considered digressive and irrelevant.
Verse expositions in Chinmaya study group dragged on by distracted and recursive commentary
I concur with your concern that “We have no time for other ideas and concepts”, but for a different reason. If out of an allotted 75 minutes for a study, almost 60 minutes or more are taken up by your speeches, how will there be any time for anybody’s ideas and questions other than yours, forget about my other ideas and concepts!?
If the ritual of hashing and rehashing the banalities of advaitic and chinmayaspeak folklore such as…
- Vasanaas, their origins and uses and abuses
- The BMI (Body-Mind-Intellect) dichotomy, trichotomy and related myths
- The hierarchy of the soul and its many and varied encasings
- The legendary omnipresence and prevalence of Consciousness and its endless wonders, manifestations, infestations and incarnations
- Invocations, obituaries, homages, tributes to Chinmayananda along with recounting of his biography, travelogues, his superhuman feats of religious and cultural renaissance and his glorious ascent to the heights of sainthood and beyond
….is almost invariably sought to be squeezed into a verse exposition regardless of its context, applicability and relevance to the verse, it is no surprise that the strike-rate of verse exposition has gone down progressively. Where a year or two ago, 2 verses could be covered in an hour, now even 75 minutes do not suffice for one.
Who then is more digressive, recursive, repetitive and tangential in explaining the verses of Gita? You, the master of ceremonies, or your largely pliant and nodding audience on whom you heap the suffering of circumlocutory narration? I think it fit to be best left to your conscience and good sense to answer.
I apologize for taking so much of your time and attention. I conclude with the hope that some inclination to engage in a discussion and debate will eventually emerge from your side after taking into consideration the many points raised by me.