Monday, January 11, 2010

The power of focusing on God

It is often claimed that people are happier and more ethical if they believe in God, or some such Supreme Being. He makes you happy, healthy, holy! Is this true? And to the extent that it may prove true, how come?

Prayer works. Or so we are assured by people who (or whose dear ones) have been saved from some disease or disaster after having prayed. Wait, correction: people who escaped some disaster, and describe it as if some external agent saved them. And wait again: we won't go into trying to explain who or just what it is that causally worked the good outcome, at least not yet, and merely focus on the correlation between praying and a good outcome.

Those who survived the Titanic, later gave witness of how fervently they had prayed. Yes, God had heeded their imploration and saved them. But what about those Titanic passengers and crew who drowned? Chances are they were praying even more fervently as their forces were slipping away in the icy water, with their last breath carrying the most fervent prayer of all upwards. Neither did God deign to save them nor did their faith move mountains and empower their muscles to keep swimming.

Too many prayers go unanswered. A friend of my mother's remained a spinster all her long life, but as a girl, she had been deeply smitten with a particular young man, who alas didn't reciprocate her feelings. She went on a pilgrimage to Our Lady of Scherpenheuvel, prayed with all the fervour of a love-stricken woman, yet the Holy Virgin did not open his heart to her.

Even worse, prayer and the reliance on divine intervention has sometimes left people worse off than the predicament from which prayer was expected to extricate them. Thus, a man was saved from a seemingly terminal disease after the whole family had prayed to the Virgin Mary. Then on the way to Scherpenheuvel to thank her, he was overrun by a car and killed.

Indians will know of the case of politician Bal Thackeray's wife, who forgot to take her standard life-saving medicine with her when going to attend a festival for Lord Ganesha. In mid-celebration she suffered a crisis and died. He removed all idols of Ganesha from their house, taking it as empirically proven that the god was either impotent or uninterested in the welfare of his devotees. Todd Rundgren used to sing: "Someone is watching over you. Someone knows how you fee-eel." Really?

So, let us not exaggerate the power of prayer and of reliance on the intervention of Somebody Up There. But we may indulge the less ambitious claim that faith in a connection with the Heavenly Powers straightens our backs in at least the ethical challenges and psychological crises of life.

Ballerinas and Taijiquan practitioners are told to imagine that their heads are hanging from a thread in the sky. In order to straighten their backs into a dignified yet relaxed posture, they are to use their minds rather than their muscles. The results are time-tested: those who do imagine their heads being pulled up by a thread, do get a visibly better posture. So, the effect is real. And yet, the thread is not. Likewise, if people imagine that something higher is observing or controlling their lives, they may develop a better "posture", a better attitude and conduct. However, this doesn't prove that there really is a Something Higher up there.

In Patañjali's Yoga Sûtra, one of the ten rules to be observed as a support to yoga practice is Îshvara-pranidhâna, "dedication to Îshvara". For now we forego discussion of the arguable position that in this context, the word îshvara, more or less "the lord", refers to the yoga teacher (gurû), and settle for the more usual reading that it is an epitheton of Shiva, more or less "God". Theistic Hindus jump on this isolated phrase as proof that yoga requires belief in God. It does not. Patañjali merely acknowledges the psychological benefit of dedication and refrains from speaking out on the value or reality of the entity to whom this dedication is directed. Otherwise, God or Whoever has no place at all in his system. Contrary to a common belief, he does not conceive of yoga as "union with God". On the contrary, yoga is supreme self-reliance, not reliance on God.


VAMANAN said...

Dear Sir..Great to see you contemplating the subject of prayer and faith in God. It is clear that faith or the lack of it are both in the mind..and Hinduism envisages ways of transcending the mind. There is a well-known prayer in Tamil (in the work Kandar Anubhoothi, the 'Experiencing Kanda or Muruga'), which says God is both being and non-being. Rather than make a fuss about the mental construct of God's existence, one should make efforts to cross over to the mindless state...This is my understanding of spirituality sir. I do hope to reach that state some day. But in the meanwhile, I would at least like to keep myself from passing judgement on people's faith or the lack of it..

Ghost Writer said...

Dr. Elst,
I wonder what you make of the recent child-sex cover up scandal that the Catholic curch has had to face. More specifically - what does this say for
1- The fetish that a lot of religions make of celibacy. Isn't celibacy itself a sort of violence on the self ?
2- Comparison of how the last Pope and the current one handled the crisis. NS Rajaram wrote a book in which he called Ratzinger 'our man of gloom and doom'. Really is looking very gloomy so far
3- The use of sex for spiritual develoment (the so called left handed path, ,tantriks etc.)

the english, 'secular' press in India is really all but silent on this issue - giving the chritian church a free pass. However, does this imply another nail in the coffin of christianity in Europe? and if christianity dies - will not Islam take over?