I have wondered about the concept of god all my life so far. I would like to describe and reflect on my journey so far.
As a child I was taught to worship Hindu gods in temples and during Poojas (auspicious days/festivals) at home. I was told stories from Krishna’s childhood, Ramayana and Mahabharatha. But when I was seven, I had a dream that I rose above the clouds and found the gods in the sky. It looked like a king’s court with one in the middle and several on either side. As I was taught to do, I knelt before them in the Namaskaram position (similar to Shashankasana). When they saw this, they started laughing at me. Feeling insulted, I got up and decided that gods aren’t worth worshiping. This dream got me thinking about god and what I had been told about ‘him’. I started wondering why so many people believed in god(s) even though no one had ever seen one. I took note of the kinds of violence and atrocities that happened in the name of this invisible concept. I began to gather reasons why the whole concept was bad for the world and totally irrational. Then I started arguing with believers, at the age of eleven, trying to convince them that god can’t exist. I read some Richard Bach books like Running from Safety and Illusions. One of the first people who challenged my arguments and got me back into thinking was my dad. Bach had said that since there is so much bad in the world, either god exists but is very mean, or he simply doesn’t exist. My dad explained that the concept that god is only good is flawed. He told me god is part of everything, is indeed everything; no matter how we define good and bad. Even now I bounce my thoughts and ideas off him and thoroughly enjoy our discussions.
Kabir and the Bhakti poets
At the age of thirteen, I started studying Bhakti poetry as part of Hindi lessons at school. I became interested in Kabir’s ideas of god. He said god could be Nirgun (without any qualities, undefinable) or Sargun (given any form that humans can relate to, infinite definitions and identities). He introduced to me the concepts of Maya-jaal (the illusory web of this world), Athma and Paramathma (soul and the ultimate soul/Unity), Samsara (materialistic world) and Moksha or Mukthi (ultimate freedom from the cycles of birth and death, bliss/Nirvana). He and the other Bhakti movement poets (like Meera-bai) that we studied talked of the yearning of the individual soul to merge with the ultimate soul and how the materialistic life and the illusions of this world distract us from working towards that bliss/enlightenment. He also said that though we may look for god in temples and mosques, we have him right within us because he is part of us all. Now these ideas really got my attention. God isn’t external to us? He/She/It is open to definition, yet indefinable? Everything and nothing?
So I put together my own version of god. Almost an imaginary friend. I was also influenced by the movie Anbe Sivam (Compassion is God) in which the main character (played by Kamal Hassan) calls various people he meets god because of their acts of compassion or mercy. (I translated the title song of this movie. You can see it here.) This idea was also influenced by other Hindi poems (like Sneh Shapat) which talked about the power of love to overcome everything and reach anyone and my early exposure to Ahimsa (non-violence) and Gandhi philosophy by my grandmother which I have written about here. I liked to believe that god and love are closely related if not the very same thing.
I have always found Nature beautiful and fascinating. How did the tiny ants walk one behind each other like that? Why do different leaves smell so different? I had read books like Protector’s Club when I was eight which made me actively want to protect all life, rescue animals, cure the sick ones etc. I was naturally inclined to love nature. Just a little after the Hindi poetry, in History classes, we learnt about the early Vedic times when people worshiped Nature. Agni (fire), Vayu (wind), Varuna (water/rain), Bhooma Devi (earth) and considered rivers sacred etc. This made sense to me. After all, Nature gives us everything. Life would be impossible without the Sun. At home Nature was always talked about with respect. Within Hinduism many practices are reverent of, or at least sensitive to Nature and in my family its healing and nurturing qualities were openly acknowledged, so it didn’t take me long to attach a sacred value to it. Of course, going to a school full of trees, streams and lakes, fresh air and occasional visits from wild animals, where the welfare of the environment was valued also enhanced these feelings. I talk about these influences in some detail in a post I wrote a few years ago about god and love (You can read it here if you like.)
The appeal of Nature grew as I took up Environmental Science in my 11th and 12th grade and studied Deep Ecology, a philosophy that I think humanity would really benefit from. The main aspects of it which stuck with me was the respect and right to exist that all life forms deserved irrespective of their utilitarian value to humans. This philosophy also lays out a basic principle of right and wrong;
” A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise”
– Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac.
I believe this extends to all types of diversity, be it of life forms, the geological integrity of a mountain or cultural diversity including types of food, clothing, languages, philosophies, and knowledge they as a culture have gained over time. It goes further to talk about deep experience, deep questioning and deep commitment. I believe this is part of my spiritual path for, if we cannot respect where we come from and what we are so intrinsically linked with, we cannot make any spiritual progress.
In a Krishnamurthi school, one is taught to question and think for oneself. I had adopted the view that I would find my own spiritual path, and not follow any spiritual teachers, so-called holy men and women, or organised religions. In fact I became so sceptical about organised religion that I believed people who needed it were being spoon-fed and not making the effort to find their own answers or paths. That they liked to be led like mindless sheep. I carried this critical outlook on religion to Bylakuppe, A Tibetan settlement in the foothills of Coorg when I was seventeen. I was suspicious about the Dalai Lama because as far as I understood, Buddhism is a philosophy which encouraged individual mental discipline, compassion and meditation, in which a leader was irrelevant. Buddha never claimed to be god and it was indeed ironic that he was considered one by the Buddhists. I assumed that the Dalai Lama may simply enjoy the power. How wrong I was! In each of his speeches that we watched, he exuded a consistent and sincere humility which astounded me. My respect for him grew exponentially. In the three days I stayed there, I learnt enough about Buddhism and their leader which touched me and made me believe that if at all I were to choose a religion, if there was a wise and really spiritual leader, he would be it. The value they give compassion and critical thinking, their ability to stay peaceful despite the horrendous atrocities the Chinese inflict on them at a physical, emotional and cultural level, and the suffering they endure on their way into India through the mighty and dangerous Himalayan range, evoked my deepest respect. Although I still didn’t believe in organised religion, I took a lot from this brief exposure to theirs.
The other cheek of Christianity
During my undergraduate course, I joined the choir and sang songs praising Jesus. I attended Mass to sing as part of the choir for the first time within the first few months. I would like to mention here that until this point all I knew about Christianity was that Jesus said love thy neighbour and if someone slaps you on one cheek, offer them the other, don’t offer violence in return. This sounded pretty much in line with compassion, which was good enough for me. So imagine my shock, nay, horror, when between the songs we sang, the priest said, “Jesus is the only God. If you worship any other gods, you will surely PERISH”, and nobody laughed. I felt suddenly surrounded by strange people who took such things so seriously. I, who had until that point, not cared two hoots about Hinduism, longed for some pluralism and tolerance which I had taken for granted until then. After the initial shock passed, I got curious about Christianity and how rational people can take things like immaculate conception literally. After all, we had stories in Hinduism too, about impossible things like multiple headed snakes and strong god-boys who can lift a mountain with his little finger and show the whole universe in his mouth. But I always knew that these stories were metaphorical or symbolic, certainly not real!
I was twenty when I found my good friend from Sydney after eight years of no contact. Since she had taken up philosophy and I was interested, I asked her whether she had developed her own. She had chosen Christianity when she was seventeen. This was the beginning of our Dialogues on religion. (I managed to put up three parts in all and may at some point put up more.) Through these exchanges I learnt a lot about Christianity. I found though, that unless one has faith, one can simply not accept the ‘miracles’. She quoted C.S. Lewis to me. In effect he said that Jesus claimed to be the one and only god, the only path to heaven and salvation. If Jesus wasn’t a madman, the only other option is to take him seriously and abandon the belief of all other gods. This sounded very absolute to me. Why couldn’t Jesus be one more of several rivers that lead to the same sea? Why did he insist on being the only one? I also couldn’t wrap my head around the fact that he died for humanity’s sins and that sacrifice was a gift from god which we had to accept in order to go to heaven. I would say to Jesus, thank you so much for offering, it is very big of you, but I would rather take responsibility for my own actions. You don’t owe me anything and needn’t have been so tortured for me. My friend explained to me that my own sacrifice and efforts to be good would never be enough for god because I am a sinner. God can only accept a pure sacrifice. As someone who always tried to see the best in people, I certainly never saw myself as a sinner. In fact, I’m a good person. Sure, I’m not perfect but then if there was an external god who was omniscient and wise, surely he/she would understand that and adjust his/her expectations accordingly? It sounded to me like the Christian god was playing around. Creating a species in his image, making it impossible for them to be perfect with so many rules, making them flawed by birth and nature, sending his son, who was himself, to be tortured and killed as an act of kindness to his flawed species, and making it so that the only way to gain his favour again was to believe in this sacrifice and praise him constantly. If he wanted to be kind to humanity and forgive us for our sins, surely as an omnipotent being he could do it directly? Why put Jesus through such violence? And why does he need so much praise? Indeed it would seem that the Christians define their god to be pettier than an average good human. Many of these thoughts came up during our conversations but I didn’t find a clear voice for them until I was exposed to radical atheism.
Ka, Doniger, Joseph Campbell
Before entering the waters of atheism again, let me mention the other influences I had during and a little after my undergraduate years. I did a term paper on religion for which I read the book Ka by Roberto Calasso. I wrote a piece on that earth shattering book which I have put up on this blog. I also read ‘Dreams, Illusion and other Realities’ by Wendy Doniger which is heavier in content. These two books sent my mind into warp for three months. I was seeing the world differently, dreaming differently and was in such a solipsistic state that I questioned this reality. I later got into Joseph Campbell (‘Myths we Live by’ and some Audio lectures) and comparative mythology, and read Tao of Physics by Fritjof Capra. I felt drawn to Hindu mythology and symbolism like never before. I also understood that most Hindus don’t know of these wonderfully stimulating ideas because it is never taught or they are satisfied with the ritualism of it. In fact, degrees in philosophy even in India focus on Western philosophy. I also found that there are very few Hindus who study their own religion from an outside, academic perspective. In the study of all other religions believers and non-believers study it together so if the non-believers come to conclusions that miss the context, the believers may be able to correct them from their experience or knowledge of it. As someone raised Hindu in most practical ways, this void tempted me to take up studying it formally. Perhaps some day I will.
Schizophrenia: The Inward Journey
The Inward Journey is a chapter from the book by Joseph Campbell called ‘Myths to Live’ by and the one which connected very well with my interest in neuroscience. It talked about the experience of a schizophrenic person in terms of mythical structure. Then it drew a comparison of those who go through this experience voluntarily like Yogis or Shamans and those who encounter it accidentally, or with no preparation like those who take hallucinogenic drugs or get one type of schizophrenia. Campbell compares how these disparate groups deal with the experience to trained swimmers and those who’ve never been in water before and thus end up drowning. The common structure of myths worldwide which Campbell illustrates in his works, as well as a chapter on temporal lobe lesions by V.S. Ramachandran in his book ‘Phantoms in the Brain’ where people experience the divine and create symbols, suggested to me that perhaps belief in god and making similar myths was evolutionarily advantageous and it was an inherent biological feature similar to other mammalian emotions.
I took up Yoga classes in the holidays between my BSc and MSc mainly to address a back problem I had developed by using a tilted chair. I went on every weekday from eleven to twelve thirty with women of the neighbourhood. In two months I noticed my back had stopped aching but there was another effect which I didn’t expect. I was a lot calmer and happier. I didn’t think I had a specific temper problem before I started going, but in retrospect, I had been quite irritable. I continued more eagerly for the next two months and became more interested in meditation, which they introduced to us in the later part of the course. I began to read about the philosophy behind Yoga. Of equilibrium and harmony between the mind and the body. Of the layers of existence beyond the material level and how some advanced exercises lead to more optimal use of the brain and body. I have come across several papers since I started my career in neuroscience where meditation has been used to reduce chronic pain, depression and other ailments. I would also like to learn more about this.
After almost a year of intense email exchanges about god with my friend in Sydney, I went to Edinburgh for my Masters in Neuroscience. (This blog has a series of all the letters I wrote home from there under the name of Letters from Edinburgh (LfE).) Here, due to my interest in the biological origin of belief in god, I met a radical atheist who thought that religion was extremely dangerous to humanity. He introduced me to a heated debate in the western world between the atheists and the Judeo-Christian religions. He showed me videos and books by people like Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins where they talk about the contradictions within this religions and the dangers they pose, or debate with leaders of these religions themselves on the same. The reason I call this ‘Radical’ Atheism is because at times their approach was caustic, sarcastic and hurt the beliefs of the people they talked to or about. I would have better commended a more open, rational and peaceful conversation. This friend had a copy of both the Bible and the Koran. When I expressed my moderate and tolerant views to him and asked why not respect everyone’s faith and let them believe whatever they want, he opened the books one by one and showed me sections in which there is use of extreme violence towards children, unfair treatment of women and the brutality with which they dealt with non-believing communities in the name of god. This violence was justified and considered right in the religion. I was so utterly disappointed in these ‘holy’ books. I was so disillusioned and emotionally affected by these sections that at that time I considered their use of the word god a corruption of the concept. I realised that a philosophy which excludes and condemns all possibilities except its own to ‘hell’ is, in it’s very nature, violent. Further, he told me about how in today’s world people get away with outrageous things like abuse of children because of the respect moderates like me have for their faith. I was swayed by this, especially because it meant that people under the protection of religions didn’t have to answer for the trauma they inflict on little children. The violence of these religions ranged from the obvious acts of suicide bombing for seventy-two virgins in paradise to attacks on the diversity of cultures worldwide through missionaries and conversions. I started to understand how faith can be dangerous too, not just a benevolent source of solace.
Spiritual experiences are hard to describe and harder to acknowledge when one’s primary stance is quick to dismiss them as momentary lapses of reality or an overactive imagination. Nevertheless, if I left them out, I would end up having only talked about concepts at the level that is accessible by language and the mind, and this would render my account incomplete.
The first ever spiritual experience I had was when I was twelve or thirteen; I felt one with the trees in a relatively quiet part of my school. It felt a little like music and comfort with a light breeze. I don’t remember thinking until afterward. A couple of other times around the same age range or a bit older I felt one with existence and overwhelmingly grateful for everything big and small. Though these were fleeting moments, when they were happening, they felt like time didn’t exist. There was another time when I was fourteen and full of anger and when I let it go and forgave, I could see some kind of light. I don’t even know if the light was actually there but it felt good, even benevolent. During meditation during yoga once I felt like I was Shiva, slightly blue, bigger than I actually was, and sitting with his/my eyes closed. That was beautiful and very peaceful. It’s hard to describe these experiences in real terms because they are not really of the conventional five senses we are used to using. Anyway, they are out there now, in words, to be interpreted as the reader wishes.
Views on other beliefs
I retain a relatively moderate view on people who take an external god literally, so long as they never cross the line of violence especially with children, nature or other cultures. I understand the need many feel for organised religion, that most people love to be told how to live and lose themselves in rituals because this is an effective method for many to feel peaceful, forgiven and loved by an almighty power. Campbell emphasises the positive necessity of a rich mythology to delve into at a time of personal crisis. Some organised religions (like parts of Hinduism and Buddhism) also contribute some guidelines which an aware individual could use as exposure to explore new aspects of her spirituality.
However, individualisation of spiritual paths would dissolve the potential for political power play and communal violence caused by attachment to strong religious identities. The more individual thinking and/or experience is involved in the spiritual path, the more original and strong it has the potential to be.
After I started my PhD, I pondered on the concept of god less and less. As I soaked myself in science and critical thinking, and agreed with most of the arguments I heard during my exposure to Atheism, I became less open to things lacking straightforward evidence. I still speak of god as a mythically and metaphorically important concept that has been relevant for human cultures world-wide (Joseph Campbell) but I believe the time has come when, just as children of the Occident grow out of Santa Clause, we as humanity need to grow out of the delusion of an external god.
If god exists, it is in the wonderful universe around us, in everything, no matter how we judge it with human values. It is the forces of nature and in humans, in plants and in gadgets. So much so that if god is everything, there is no need for a god at all, merely the understanding of the interconnected nature of existence itself, and the laws of physics, discovered and undiscovered, that govern it. Just as nature is sacred, so is the human capacity for growth. At this early point in our spiritual evolution we, as a species, may seek more growth at the material level in the form of accumulation of monetary assets and comforts, but I would dare to hope that at some point, more of us would look to less limited realms; towards our highest mental, emotional, physical and spiritual potentials.