Last time I attended Bhagavad-Gita study group at my temple one of the men there made a casual reference to an opinion column in “The Hindu”. I later asked him to direct me to the piece because I wanted to, you know, hear the man out. It was “Let’s Aim For A Post-Theistic Society” by Professor Vasant Natarajan, and can be accessed here.
Upon first hearing about the piece, all I knew was that the writer had made the basic claim that people who believe in a “god” were somehow weak. I just had a suspicion that he’d be making a case based on a very dualistic god, even though the piece appeared in a publication called “The Hindu”. In many ways I feel that he did just that, as he cited many terrors that have directly resulted from Christian and Muslim thought down through the centuries such as the Crusades and 9/11. I am fine with that, and I agree with him. But here is another passage which clearly identifies the definition of “God” under which Natarajan is operating:
Apologists for religion will argue that the pain and suffering we see around us is really God’s test of the strength of faith of the loved ones. Yeah, right! Tell that to the parents of an innocent child suffering from cancer. If you had such supernatural powers to do this to the child, and actually did it, I would consider you the cruellest (sic) person.
When I became a Hindu, I began working under the understanding that it is not God that causes our suffering, but our actions and their “karmic reflux”. It is a basic understanding of Hinduism, actually. That is what has me so baffled by this passage. It seems to me that this passage strengthens a possible argument Professor Natarajan could make against Abrahamic religions, sure. As a Hindu it is not my impression that God “tests” us, especially not by inflicting horrible illness and injury upon us. In this segment Professor Natarajan is using a typical argument used to refute Christianity. Either there is no God, there is but He is Powerless, or He is All-Powerful but refuses to act to help people, etc. Again not applicable within the constructs of Karma. Not all Hindus are non-dualists, but a good many are.
To be fair he also cites primordial religions centering on gods of natural forces, wind gods, water gods, etc., as Hindus too, have (Agni, Surya, Soma, etc.)
I’ll quote Natarajan at length here, as I feel this is a key point:
But modern science has been able to explain almost all natural phenomena so that the purview of the unknown has shrunk considerably and the fear of nature is largely irrelevant. We do not need a sun-god, a wind-god or any of the multitude of such nature-gods that the ancient Hindus (and also the Greeks, among others) invented. In fact, a moment’s reflection shows that invoking God is not an explanation of anything but a primitive response of shrugging your shoulders and saying that something is beyond your comprehension — not relevant to today’s scientific knowledge.
In this piece, Professor Natarajan is not advocating atheism, per se (though I do think that the non-existence of God is his stance) and not “anti-theism,” but post-theism – a state wherein religion is not an issue. I have no problem with the idea. Even the Hindu scriptures point to a time when all aspirants will be beyond “religion” as they become more and more as one with Brahman. But it is a fine line between that and atheism so it is hard to see the distinction. And I will not risk muddying the waters. I will simply point out that I understand the professor’s intent.
But I also think that taking the above quoted paragraph into account, alongside Bhagavad-Gita chapter 7, verses 7-10, one sees not a God that intervenes in the natural forces and/or the fortunes of men in relation to these forces, nor do we see a “multitude of nature-gods.” What we have is one unified Omnipotent, Omnipresent force that is not in them but IS them. Brahman:
O Arjuna! There is nothing higher than Me, or beyond Me. All things (creatures and objects) are bound to Me like a row of gems on a thread.
O Son of Kunti (Arjuna), I am the fluidity in waters; I am the radiation in the moon and the sun; I am the Aum (pranava) in all of the Vedas; the sound in the ether; and the manliness in men.
I am the wholesome fragrance exuding from the earth; the luminescence in the fire am I; the life in all creatures, and the self-discipline in anchorites.
Know me to be the eternal seed of all creatures, O Son of Pritha (Arjuna)! I am the understanding of the keen, the radiance of vital beings.
Science is certainly valid and any spiritual philosophy that does not take its findings is bound to only doubly delude itself in my opinion. But the ultimate delusion is the conclusion that the scientific explanation for natural phenomenon is the last word on the subject. Such an attitude is not “getting in on the ground floor” so to speak.
Every multiplicity of color in this universe is caused by the interplay of light and the physical world, it is true. But as little of the natural universe as we are able to examine even in modern astronomy, how do we claim that we know the base of all of that is?
All phenomenon takes its root in cosmic vibration of the primordial sound, ‘Aum.’ Fragrance, luminescence, prana and spirituality are all a result – bi-product, even, of the same One, Aum. In these verses, Krishna repeatedly reminds us of Brahman as the ground of all being.
It is my contention that one cannot say definitively that these things are not God, which is not in itself an argument that there is a god, and therefore is not a direct argument against Professor Natarajan’s opinion piece. In fact mine is an argument which, in effect, cancels itself out taking Natarajan’s argument with it. And I am okay with that. All points-of-view are equally as valid, even two points-of-view as seemingly in opposition as atheism/non-experience or non-comprehension of the Divine, and belief/experience or comprehension of the Divine. Non-experience and non-comprehension does not take away from the object’s being. And my experience of something I consider Divine does not infringe upon your right (some would say responsibility) to live life through the eyes with which you’ve been given to see the world.
Professor Natarajan also says “there is no supernatural MIRACLE that has withstood the scrutiny of science” and I agree. But I agree because there can be no such thing as “miracles” or “divine intervention” when ALL forces at ALL times are the limbs of Brahman carrying out Divine Lila.
He says we get our sense of morality not from religion but from an innate sense of humanity. I can also agree with this. Religion is only a moral compass inasmuch as we accept its teachings and put them into practice. The ability/willingness to do so is greatly guided by what is already inside of us, which is that very humanity that Natarajan-ji referred to.
Natarajan quotes Steven Weinberg thusly: “religion is an insult to human dignity. Without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.” I am not sure what prerequisites he is using to define some as good and some as bad, but I’ll go along with it to make a point. Since we are on the subject of religion and moral compass, I would add to this that along with that innate sense of humanity, I think that religion has been the cause of many “bad” people doing good things.
Being the beginning of Maha Navaratri by the time I finish and post this, I dedicate it to Maa Prithvi Devi, Mother Earth, Who, as I said, is but a manifestation of the One, Brahman.
Jai Mata Di