by John Schlenck
In modern times spiritual aspirants are confronted by the dominance of the scientific worldview, based on reason and on data gathered through the senses. Empirical verification is the test of truth. Traditional religious philosophies have been profoundly challenged. The existence of God and the immortality of the soul have not been scientifically demonstrated, and may not be demonstrable. Many thinking people have given up on traditional religion.
On the other hand, religion is still very much a part of human life. Its need is keenly felt by most of the human race. With or without religious belief, people hunger for meaning and direction in life, for a purpose beyond reason and sense experience. How can a person who is committed to reason and verifiable truth pursue the spiritual life without a leap of faith? Can an agnostic have a sustainable spiritual life?
In the rich tapestry of Indian thought there are significant threads of agnosticism. The earliest example is found in the Nasadiya Sukta of the Rig Veda (10.129), known as the Hymn of Creation. This remarkable hymn concludes:
Who really knows? Who shall declare it here?
Whence was it born? Whence issued this creation?
Even the Gods came after its emergence.
Then who can tell from whence it came to be?
None knows when creation has arisen;
Whether He made it or did not make it,
He who surveys it in the highest heaven,
Only He knows, or maybe even He knows not.
Samkhya, one of the six “orthodox” schools of Hindu philosophy—that is, those accepting the authority of the Vedas—posits Nature (Prakriti) and individual souls (Purusha) but not a creator God. The yoga philosophy of Patanjali admits the existence of God (Ishwara) as a “’special kind of Being. . . untouched by ignorance. . . not subject to karmas or samskaras,’ having “neither birth nor death. . . unborn, undying, and unchangeable. . . But Ishwara, as the yogis look upon him, is not the creator of the universe. . . For those . . . who cannot believe in a personal deity, other methods are provided that will bring them the same enlightenment.”
There are two things to note here. First: out of six “orthodox” schools of thought, two do not posit a Creator God. Second: by practicing spiritual discipline, one may attain enlightenment without belief in a personal deity.
Another area of agnosticism in the Vedantic tradition was highlighted by Swami Vivekananda in his Paper on Hinduism delivered at the Chicago Parliament of Religions in 1893:
Why should the free, perfect, and pure being be thus under the thralldom of matter. . .? How can the perfect soul be deluded into the belief that it is imperfect? We have been told that the Hindus shirk the question and say that no such question can be there. Some thinkers want to answer it by positing one or more quasi-perfect beings, and use big scientific names to fill up the gap. But naming is not explaining. The question remains the same. How can the perfect become the quasi-perfect; how can the pure, the absolute, change even a microscopic particle of its nature? But the Hindu is sincere. He does not want to take shelter under sophistry. He is brave enough to face the question in a manly fashion; and his answer is: “I do not know. I do not know how the perfect being, the soul, came to think of itself as imperfect, as joined to and conditioned by matter.” But the fact is a fact for all that. It is a fact in everybody’s consciousness that one thinks of oneself as the body. The Hindu does not attempt to explain why one thinks one is the body. The answer that it is the will of God is no explanation. This is nothing more than what the Hindu says, “I do not know.“
My teacher, Swami Pavitrananda, recounted an incident that he himself witnessed. A young man came to Swami Shivananda in great distress and asked, “Why is there so much misery in the world?” The swami, one of the foremost disciples of Sri Ramakrishna and an illumined soul, answered with great affection, “I cannot tell you why there is so much misery in the world. But I can tell you how to get out of it.”
Some spiritual seekers feel uncomfortable, even paralyzed, unless they have satisfying answers to all their major questions. They embrace a particular set of beliefs that seems to offer them the promise of certainty in a perplexing world. They want a tight conceptual structure to undergird their spiritual endeavors.
Instead of offering only one acceptable thought framework, Ramakrishna Vedanta offers a wide range of conceptual structures to choose from. For those who want a systematic philosophy, there are the classical formulations of nondualism, qualified nondualism and dualism. For those who want to get right into spiritual practice, there are the four yogas, which offer different approaches according to temperament; each of these has its own thought framework. Another paradigm, expressed through the lives and teachings of Ramakrishna, Sarada Devi and Vivekananda, affirms that seeing the presence of divinity in all things is a higher state than denying the reality of the world and realizing oneness with the Absolute, the traditional goal of nondualistic Vedanta.
In addition to these various preset structures, there is also the freedom to work out one’s own conceptual framework according to one’s personal needs and to let it develop as one’s spiritual life evolves. Whatever helps us to grow spiritually is valid. This applies both to spiritual practice and to conceptual structure.
This is not to imply that the preset structures are arbitrary. They are based on certain premises. For example, the premise for belief in a creator God is the need for a first cause. Some feel this need; some do not. For the Buddha, the existential human condition of universal suffering was a sufficient starting point for the spiritual quest. Later Buddhists evolved elaborate thought structures. Some people, perhaps most, feel the need of assurance that we survive death in order to make spiritual effort seem worthwhile. Some feel the need for an invariable law of cause and effect and can’t bear the thought that what happens may be the result of chance.
A wide choice of conceptual structures implies that no one way of thinking is absolutely true. Spiritual truth cannot be contained within any framework of ideas and beliefs. As Sri Ramakrishna said, Brahman has never been defiled by being uttered: “No one has ever been able to say what Brahman is.” (Gospel, 102c) He further said, “Everyone thinks his watch is right; but as a matter of fact no watch is absolutely right. But that doesn’t hamper one’s work.” Not having all the t’s crossed and i’s dotted doesn’t prevent us from getting on with our spiritual life. (Gospel, 673:e)
There are spiritual aspirants who are content to leave some questions—even major ones—unanswered, with the understanding that answers will come as one progresses and one’s mind becomes purified. But is there a certain minimal structure, minimal faith needed?
Supposing we take the scientific worldview as our starting point. Is there any way spiritual truth can be verified empirically? Are there any observable data?
In fact, there are some:
1. Great spiritual lives have been lived. Men and women of extraordinary unselfishness, compassion, truthfulness and strength of character have actually existed in this world. By their lives they have demonstrated that human beings can rise to these heights.
2. Spiritual qualities can be deliberately cultivated. Through spiritual practice the mind can be purified and character transformed. Systems of spiritual discipline have been developed in all the great religious traditions. They have been shown to be effective.
3. Many of these practices can be undertaken without belief in a particular theology or worldview. This is exactly what is happening today. The Buddhist and Yogic practices that are undertaken by large numbers of Westerners do not require the adoption of a Hindu or Buddhist worldview. In fact, a major reason why these practices are popular is that they don’t require belief in a particular worldview. You don’t have to believe in God or reincarnation or a cyclical view of time and history to practice and get benefit from these techniques.
But, it may be argued, most people who undertake these practices do so for secular reasons such as gaining tranquility of mind, physical health, or efficiency in work. Without a belief system, how far can one grow spiritually?
In reply it can be said that many people with religious belief systems are not seriously interested in the spiritual transformation of their lives. They go to church or temple or mosque, perform rituals, and believe in God but don’t regard the attainment of compassion or complete truthfulness or strength of character or enlightenment as their primary goal. Instead, they pray to God for the fulfillment of their selfish desires and thank God if those desires are fulfilled.
Still, through these practices and beliefs, even if inspired by worldly aims, people may gain some spiritual benefit. By their beliefs they acknowledge that there is a reality beyond matter and measurement, and their thoughts may in time turn toward spiritual transformation. The same may be said of meditation techniques used for secular purposes. In time, practitioners may be inspired to seek higher goals. Yoga teachers find that some of their students want to progress beyond postures and breathing exercises and into serious meditation.
But what is it that prompts us to take spiritual life seriously? What attracts our minds to want to undertake the struggle to transform our lives and consciousness, to overcome our imperfections? Thirst for freedom? For unalloyed joy? For transcendent knowledge? For peace that passeth understanding? Yes, these goals do attract us. And they attract us whether or not we have a religious belief system.
But until we have attained them, they remain abstractions. Can abstractions exert sufficient pull to inspire us to exert sustained effort, to keep us moving forward? Most of us need to see these abstractions actually embodied in human lives. And we can see this embodiment in the lives of great saints.
The real question is whether we want to change our lives. Are we dissatisfied with life as it is ordinarily lived? Do we respond to the supreme beauty of lives that have been spiritually transformed? If we do, their surpassing beauty functions as a magnet, drawing us away from pettiness, hatred, greed, jealousy, sensuality, and egotism. Pataanjali’s aphorisms mention meditation on a saint as a means of gaining illumination.
But even if we feel the magnetic attraction of these great lives, we have to deal with the fickleness, the moodiness of our minds. Even with our best efforts and after some progress, there are times when we feel a need for a helping hand. How can we get through these difficult times without a secure belief system? Spiritual community and the guidance of a teacher can be of great help, but the real problem is within our own minds. Suppose we don’t believe in God. To whom can we pray? It is a fact that people do get help through prayer. Do we need to know exactly how that happens? Or is it sufficient to know that prayer is effective?
The power that responds to our prayers need not be the creator of the universe. The Upanishads speak of the grace of the Atman, our higher Self. In response to a devotee’s statement, “The devotee really prays to his own Self,” Ramakrishna replied, “What you say is a very lofty thought. The aim of spiritual discipline, of chanting God’s name and glories, is to realize just that. A man attains everything when he discovers his own true Self within himself.”
Among Mahayana Buddhists, grace is sought from Buddhas and bodhisattvas. Following a devotional path, we might think of our Ishtam as a powerful savior even if he/she is not the creator God.
Agnosticism, leaving questions unanswered, need not be a bar to cultivating spiritual life. But are we Vedantists, or simply generic spiritual seekers, if we do not believe that there is something eternal, conscious, and absolute within us? Can a materialist have a spiritual life? If we feel special attraction to the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita, the lives and teachings of Ramakrishna, Sarada Devi, Vivekananda, and other great teachers, and especially if we sincerely strive to put those teachings into practice, it seems fair to call ourselves Vedantists regardless of our belief systems.
JOHN SCHLENCK, resident member and Secretary of the Vedanta Society of New York, is a composer of music. He is also Secretary-Treasurer of Vedanta West Communications and Coordinating Editor of American Vedantist. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org