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Problematizing God's Interventions In History - / Braja

braja - Wed, 31 Mar 2004 20:26:04 +0530
Problematizing God's Interventions In History

Rajiv Malhotra has an interesting essay at entitled "Problematizing God's Interventions in History." It is very long so I won't post it here in its entirety. This is his own summary:

Summary of Major Assertions
1) Adhyatma-vidya is a methodology that many spiritual traditions have used as the basis for arriving at their truth-claims.

2) Historical narratives about God's interventions have served as a methodology by many traditions to make their truth-claims.

3) Both these methods tend to exist in most major traditions.

4) One or the other method tends to dominate over time, and this has a drastic impact on the nature of the tradition that develops.

5) History-centric traditions tend to be more fixed in their claims, because history cannot be renegotiated easily. Adhyatmika traditions tend to allow new insights because their methodology allows them to do so. Hence, the former tend to gravitate towards “finality” of truth-claims and fixed canons, while the latter end up compiling massive libraries of texts based on large numbers of adhyatmika claims.

6) History-centric movements easily get institutionalized, and this gives continuity. Adhyatmika movements depend on the living masters who claim the “rishi state”, and hence cannot easily become institutionalized.

7) Between these two categories, adhyatmika based traditions tend to have greater flexibility, accommodation of diverse views, and ability to peacefully change over time.

8) Bhakti saints, Vedas, Upanishads, Gita, Buddha's teachings, Mahavira's teachings, are some of the many examples where truth-claims are not contingent upon any historical events. In other words, you do not have to accept or prove any history, in order to practice and receive the benefit claimed.

9) Major (but not all) denominations of Christianity and Islam insist on a set of historical events as being necessary to their belief system, making them history centric. Examples include: Sunni, Shiite, Ahmadiyya; Mormon, Baptist; Vatican; Presbyterian; Methodist; etc. (Many Hindutva followers would also fall under this classification, such as those that claim Ram's birthplace in Ayodhya as a necessary (not just “nice to have”) part of their religion.)

10) Major Christian and Islamic denominations also believe in a fixed set of future events, i.e. the Apocalypse.

11) Surveys by prominent American research firms (Gallup, CNN, TIME) show that history centric religious beliefs are held by a large percentage of Americans, and that this percentage has increased recently. Furthermore, many very important Americans hold these beliefs.

12) For a variety of reasons explained by scholars, such as Alan Wallace, the West has not develop sophisticated systems of adhyatma-vidya, even though they have had “individual” mystics over time.

13) Much of the theological work in the Abrahamic religions has centered on analyzing, arguing, and interpreting historical claims and counter claims.

14) History centric religions find it difficult to consider another conflicting historical grand narrative to also be valid. Therefore, for a given religion to be valid, it must find the others to be false, or at least partially false.

15) Adhyatma-vidya allows that there can be many different kinds of adhyatmika experiences, at many stages, and many levels. Furthermore, there can be many methods to achieve various stages.

16) Since the academic study of religion started in the West, it is based on the use of Western categories, and hence, this privileges the lenses of the Abrahamic religions over others.

17) Many Indian subaltern scholars have ignored or dismissed spirituality as an important part of life, whereas the subaltern people of India have considered spirituality as very important to them. In other words, these scholars do not fully understand the very people they claim to champion.

18) While subaltern scholars have depicted Hinduism as elitist and Brahmin controlled, the sadhus have been subaltern people; the bhakti saints were almost always subaltern people; tantrikas were subalterns and not Brahmins; and the puranas have traditionally been performed by all jatis. Hence, these scholars have thrown the baby out with the bathwater, because they simply assumed Marx' conclusions about Abrahamic religions as being universally applicable to all cultures – the blind spot from becoming neocolonized.

19) Many Westerners have appropriated Indic adhyatma-vidya into their own Abrahamic religions. Often, the source of the appropriation gets blurred, and eventually erased, in the minds of most Westerners and neocolonized Indians.

20) Monotheism is not a true mark of distinction of the Abrahamic religions, because: (i) many other traditions also believe in one Supreme Being; and (ii) some of the Abrahamic religions have had polytheistic backgrounds and polytheistic present beliefs.

This summary does not really do justice to the content of the essay, IMO. It is much more juicy! And besides the main thrust of Malhotra's arguments, there are a number of salient and sometimes provocative points spread throughout that hold merit on their own. A few morsels:

"The methodology by which truth gets discovered, debated, validated, and accepted, becomes a central part of the core competence of the tradition, and the basis for its continuity."

"I interpret Jesus' original teachings as type B (ahistorical and esoteric), whereas Christianity later became type A (exoteric institutionalized power)."

"In contrast with the Indian traditions, the Abrahamic religions -- Judaism, Christianity, and Islam -- emphasize that the infinite gap of knowledge between man and God can only be bridged when God initiates a dialog with man. This is why God's interventions in human history are all-important, and become the cornerstone of each Abrahamic religion. Without God's prophet bringing the ultimate truth to man, it would be impossible for man to transcend his limits[8].... Hence, Abrahamic religions are largely about history, more specifically, about God's interventions in history. These miraculous interventions occur very rarely, and therefore, must be documented in canons and doctrines, and studied meticulously, in order to know the ultimate reality. Man has no other recourse available except this. While direct intuitive knowledge of Christ is also available, it is only after the individual has been conditioned by history-centric scriptures."

"Each culture has had both the adhyatmika (esoteric) and the laukika (worldly or exoteric) movements within it. But there have been differences between Indic and Abrahamic cultures, in the manner in which this competition played out. Mystics in the Abrahamic faiths were mostly on the margins of mainstream religions[16]. They were often persecuted by the religious institutions, and were rarely accepted within their own faith communities during their lives. Hence, they did not create lineages that could further test, develop, enhance, discover, and teach the “B” processes that they had discovered, often accidentally. Therefore, there were no peer debates amongst mystics who made experiential claims[17]. Consequently, these sporadic mystical experiences did not result in the systematization of sophisticated epistemologies, nor into rigorous procedures for reproducing them -- unlike in the case of India....On the other hand, Indians who claimed enlightenment using the “B” methods were glorified and honored as spiritual leaders during their lives, and often developed massive followings[18]. Bhakti saints, Ramakrishna's integral yoga, and Sri Aurobindo's “purna Vedanta” are each examples of innovations to prior methodologies, based on embodied experience, and not based on a reinterpretation of old scripture. Such living masters have always been the loci of spirituality in India, in contrast to the institutions in the case of Abrahamic religions. Living masters often override and subvert institutional loyalties. It has also been argued that Tantra, in both Hindu and Buddhist traditions, was a reaction against institutionalization and hierarchy. These innovators discover new spiritual technologies, and also re-contextualize the truth for their given culture, time, place and audience[19]. As living laboratories, they subject the classical methodologies and experiential claims to test, improvement and adaptation -- generation after generation."

"By contrast, top-down institutionalized religions became obsessed with history-centrism and canons. They collapsed spirituality into canons, and this could be compared with a Soviet style controlled economy -- the mentality of one airline, one kind of toothpaste, one kind of breakfast cereal, and central licensing of movies, music and fashions."

"There are, indeed, trade-offs: Religious institutions provide continuity, whereas living spiritual masters disrupt bureaucracy and accumulation of power. Abrahamic traditions have institutional continuity, with historical canons as their center. Indic traditions have a flow of living spiritual masters, often with considerable spiritual creativity. These processes roughly correspond to coherence and power that is diachronic (in the Abrahamic case) versus synchronic (in the Indic case)."

"Here is a snapshot of Americans' religious beliefs prior to September 11, which have become even more literalist since this data was collected:[26] "Americans have higher confidence in the Church as an institution, than in any other institution, including the Military, US Supreme Court, Banks, Public Schools, Newspapers, US Congress, TV news, Organized Labor, Police, Medical System, Business, and American Presidency. [p.137]"

"More teens than adults go to Church today -- indicating the future trend [p.147]. Teenagers' beliefs: Angels -- 76%; Astrology -- 54%; ESP -- 43%; Witchcraft --19%."

"Twenty eight clergy of the 8.4 million strong United Methodist Church recently filed a charge within the UMC tribunal against a liberal bishop, for doubting “the virgin birth, divinity and bodily resurrection of Jesus.” Indian spiritualists wonder why there is so much fuss about charges that are entirely about historical interpretations."

"A recent TIME/CNN poll showed that a growing number of Americans are taking the Bible's Book of Revelation literally as the final predictor of events: Fully 59% say they believe the events in Revelation are going to come true, and nearly one-quarter think the Bible predicted the Sept. 11 attack"

"Sunthar Visuvalingam writes:[44]

There is no doubt that there was much greater (and, in certain epochs such as around 600 BC, even absolute) freedom in Indian civilization to inquire into, experiment with, and expound upon the nature of (inner) Reality (including its denial, as by the Cârvaka 'materialists'...) and its mode of attainment. A veritable technology of consciousness proliferated, armed with an arsenal of new tools such as philosophy, aesthetics, practical psychology, etc., that has [almost] no equivalent elsewhere in the world. In fact, the primary focus of the Abrahamic religions has not been esotericism, self-realization, diversification of approaches, whereas even the most ordinary Indian at least acknowledges the latter claims.”

"Consequently, what Indians consider to be spirituality is not primary to the Abrahamic religions' self-definition. As Visuvalingam explains:
“Both Judaism and Islam, for example, are preoccupied with social order and cohesion (hence the primacy of Law), which is the main reason why the spiritual quest has been relatively 'marginalized' or at least wrapped away into esoteric currents of Kabala and (Sunni) Sufism or subordinated to theological doctrine, as in the figure of the Shia Imam.”

"Wallace shows that even Christian mystics imposed serious limitations on human potential, because of:
the widespread conclusion among Christian mystics that the highest states of contemplation are necessarily fleeting, commonly lasting no longer than about half an hour[45]. This insistence on the fleeting nature of mystical union appears to originate with Augustine, [46]and it is reflected almost a millennium later in the writings of Meister Eckhart, who emphasized that the state of contemplative rapture is invariably transient, with even its residual effects lasting no longer than three days[47].”

"Protestantism, says Wallace, closed the Western mind even further with regard to serious inner investigations:
“With the advent of the Protestant Reformation and the Scientific Revolution, the gradual decline of Christian contemplative inquiry into the nature of consciousness rapidly accelerated. Given the Protestant emphasis on the Augustinian theme of the essential iniquity of the human soul, and man's utter inability to achieve salvation or know God except by faith, there was no longer any theological incentive for such inquiry. Salvation was emphatically presented as an undeserved gift from the Creator.”

"Itihas is not literal history in the Western sense. Itihas is a view of the past that is continually updated, based on the present context. As Shrinivas Tilak explains, [52]
"Hindus see the arrival of Sri Rama as a Grand Narrative (Ramayana) that is made up of symbols woven into dramatized ritual and narrative. But itihas (which traditionally comprises of Ramayana and Mahabharata) is not a question of either myth or history for it includes both. History is a linear mode of experience, relating primarily to the left-brain literal knowledge. Myth, on the other hand, is a creative and aesthetic mode of experience that derives from the right-brain, reflecting a holistic mode of consciousness. Just as the left and the right sides of the brain are bridged to act as one, so in itihas, both myth and history are subsumed."

"...No amount of commonality amongst religions could resolve the conflicts caused by non-negotiable Grand Narratives of History. Even if different religions' rituals became common, houses of worship became similar or even common, dress codes became the same, and so forth, as long as they have non-negotiable and proprietary Grand Narratives of History, they would continue to clash[57]."

"Since superiority must be claimed in order to justify aggressive proselytizing, and no intrinsic superiority may be found in the evangelical religions over other faiths, either in scientific aspects or in ethics, the only way to claim superiority is via some unique claim to history."

I'll leave it there but the article is worth reading, even if saved for a rainy day. The faults I see in it are that it is overly simplistic in its analysis of the dichotomies, it is biased towards Hinduism, or rather neo-Hinduism, and it fails to recognize that the high mystical states described are not practiced nor attainable by the vast mass of people who accept those states as true spirituality (supposedly rejecting/surpassing the history-centric view). Thus the adhyatmika spiritualist is simply worshipping a somewhat distant ideal and thus, in my view, would be open to the same challenges as those levelled against the history-centric religionist.