Monday, May 1, 2017

Speculations about the mental condition of some Hindu Saints

On 1 May 2017, I received an invitation for the release by the Dalai Lama (IIC Delhi, 25 May) of Arun Shourie's new book: TWO SAINTS: Speculation around and about Ramakrishna Paramahamsa and Ramana Maharshi (publisher Harper Collins). From the announcement:

"The life of Ramakrishna Paramahamsa ‘enables us to see God face to face’, Gandhiji wrote. Similarly, when someone in his circle was distraught, the Mahatma sent him to spend time at the Ashram of Ramana Maharshi. Such was their stature and influence.

"The Paramahamsa and the Maharshi have been among the greatest spiritual figures of our country. They have transformed the lives of and have been a solace to millions. Moreover, in our tradition, words of such mystics are regarded as conclusive. They have evidentiary status: if they say there is a soul, there is; if they say there is life after death or reincarnation, there is. Their peak, mystic experience is what we yearn to have, even just once.

"But what if several of the experiences they had—the feeling that someone higher is present next to them, the feeling that they are floating above their body, looking down at it; the ‘near-death experience’; the ecstasy; the visions "Did the experiences occur from some ailment? As was alleged in the case of Sri Ramakrishna? From some ‘madness’, which he for long feared had taken hold of him. From the fits that Sri Ramana said he used to have?

"What of the experiences of devotees? Seeing the Master where he wasn’t? Seeing the Master, feeling his presence, after he had passed away? Are these hallucinations? Or do they testify to the Master’s divinity? How would conclusions about their experiences affect their teaching? That the world and everything in it is ‘unreal’?

"In the light of their pristine example, how should we view and what should we do about the godmen and gurus who control vast financial and real estate empires today, to whom lakhs flock? Are they the saints they set themselves up to be or just marketers?

"With the diligence and painstaking research that mark all his work, Arun Shourie probes these questions in the light of the recent breath-taking advances in neuroscience, as well as psychology and sociology. The result is a book of remarkable rigour: an examination—and ultimately reconciliation— of science and faith as also of seemingly antagonistic, irreconcilable worldviews."

As a first reaction to this book, that I haven't seen yet, I must say I am curious to see what Arun Shourie has to reveal about this subject. It is of crucial importance, for numerous Hindus venerate persons. Special persons of great merit, but nonetheless persons with their contingent qualities and experiences. Not quite apaurusheya ("impersonal", said of the Vedas).

In the past I have argued that Mohammed was a textbook case of paranoia, with a central delusion of chosenness nurtured by sensorial hallucinations. The auditive part of those hallucinations became the Quran. This argument built on earlier similar observations: by psychologists, ex-Muslims, Mohammed's own neighbours, and even Mohammed himself. Indeed, upon receiving (or rather, undergoing) his first hallucination, he feared he was becoming mad, or as they called it: possessed by an evil spirit. He even tried to commit suicide to avert the fate of becoming Mecca's village idiot, but his wife Khadija managed to soothe him and accustom him to these recurring hallucinations. She fatefully practised "folie a deux", i.e. supporting an afflicted dear one by entering into his delusion, and thus set the example for all those millions of Muslims who have interiorized and actually believe Mohammed's cardinal delusion: "Mohammed is the Prophet of Allah."

This viewpoint has cost me a lot of bad press: in New-Age and Gandhian-Hindu circles because of their affirmation that "all religions are equally true" and that therefore, "all founders of religion were equally good (c.q. spiritual, enlightened)", and in RSS-BJP circles where they hope to solve the Islam problem on the cheap, viz. by avoiding the tough questions and repeating the lie that "the founder was right and enlightened, it is only some of his followers who has misunderstood or distorted his message". By contrast, it was welcomed by others, including some of the Indic Academy. Yet even among these sympathizers, there sometimes was a sneaking doubt.

"Yes, definitely there was something wrong with Mohammed", they say, "but, errr, could you not argue something similar about some Hindu saints?" Well, unlike Islam, Dharma doesn't stand or fall with the mental condition of one individual. But I do not exclude the possibility that on the margins, some individual had enough of a spiritual aura to attract followers, yet also thrived on a self-delusion.

A friend of mine was the personal disciple of a Lingayat Guru (now deceased), living with him for seven years somewhere outside Dharwad. No snide word about that Guru. However, in that same village, there was a vagrant fellow who, from all episodes my friend described, and from the photograph I saw, appeared to be crazy. Yet, sometimes he was garlanded by the villagers and treated like a saint. Common people do not apply much power of discrimination when they see odd behavior. What is crazy to one is saintly to another. That indeed is why in his beginnings as a cult founder, Mohammed met both skepticism and credulous acceptance.

Among famous Hindu sages, it definitely is Ramakrishna who has most readily been suspected of suffering from a neurological ailment. Not having studied his life and works (save for his attitude to Christianity and Islam), I will not offer an opinion there. About Ramana Maharshi, such suspicions are not usually voiced. Let us see what Shourie makes of these two. In his book about suffering, Does He Understand a Mother's Heart?, he has proven himself skeptical of the Karma doctrine dear to most Hindus. His falling-out with Narendra Modi and the present BJP may have made him even more ready to "hurt Hindu sentiments". Let us see.

Enlightenment is not about "experiences", but about a zero state of consciousness beyond experiencing (which implies that any vision excitedly ascribed to Ramakrishna by his followers was not Enlightenment). Whereas Descartes said that "I think, therefore I am", with "thinking" covering all states of consciousness, and with all these states standing on the side of consciousness in its dualistic opposition to matter; the ancient Indian Sankhya philosophy opposes only pure consciousness, conscious of itself but not "experiencing" anything outside itself, to all matter including all states of applied consciousness (sensory perception, memory, imaginaton...) lined up on the other side. As you know, the intake of substances can trigger altered states of consciousness. For Descartes, this poses a problem, for how can something material affect the separate world of "thinking" (pure plus applied consciousness) ? For Sankhya, the problem doesn't pose itself, for the altered states of consciousness triggered by substances (starting with chocolate taken to soothe depression)  all belong to Nature/Prakrti, as distinct from Purusha, the unit of consciousness. Compare it to a computer: it can reason, it can deduce a conclusion from the data it is fed, yet this process is not conscious.

So, it is a perfectly natural state of affairs from the Sankhya viewpoint if electrodes applied to specific parts of the brain trigger altered states of consciousness. If neurological research, and now perhaps Arun Shourie, confirm this, they may ruffle some feathers among Bhakti (devotional, "religious") Hindus, but they remain within the confines of Hindu philosophy. Many mental phenomena may well fall within the ambit of neurology, many strange experiences may well be triggered by mechanical and material causes; and Hindus may well be called upon to define their spiritual practices anew.

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