FOR AGES THE CHALLENGES to religion around the world remained largely mundane, interrupted occasionally by cataclysmic events such as when one civilization either conquered or destroyed another, one religion tried to dominate or destroy another, or even when a particular religion had to adapt suddenly to drastic changes in social conditions. But then once again the life of religion would settle into a new equilibrium. As the historian Arnold Toynbee has pointed out, until modern times all civilizations throughout the world and throughout history have been built on a religious foundation,1 and so religion—in some form—was by and large ubiquitous, like the air one breathed.
Then came the Enlightenment and the ensuing Modern Age, when the challenges to religion took on a new power: the challenges were no longer to individual aspects or customs of religion, or to fights between competing religions, but the challenges were to the existence of religion itself.
Sri Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda
Both Sri Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda, in very different but complementary ways, met the challenge of the modern world to religion. Swamiji said of Sri Ramakrishna: ‘He knew nothing of England or the English, save that they were queer folk from over the sea.’2 And yet Sri Ramakrishna’s whole life was a response to the three fundamental negations of religion by the modern world: (i) God does not exist; (ii) even if God may exist, he cannot be known, and so is as good as non-existent; and (iii) religion is irrelevant—we can take care of our affairs without reference to God.3 There stands Sri Ramakrishna, a living, luminous proof that God is, God can be realized, and nothing else really matters.
Narendranath, as the future Swami Vivekananda was known, represented the modern mind when he came to Sri Ramakrishna. He was well-educated in modern thought and trained in modern thinking. And yet he came to Sri Ramakrishna because of a deep inner longing for God, a longing that came from his Hindu past. His meeting with Sri Ramakrishna was thus the meeting between the seeking modern mind and the divine response—the meeting between modern human in search of God and God itself. The result was Swami Vivekananda.
Part of what Swamiji did during his active years in the West and in India was to face directly the challenges to religion as they existed in the late nineteenth century. Whereas Sri Ramakrishna knew little of the modern world and its ways of thinking, Swamiji went straight to the seats of modernity—the US and Europe—to face it consciously and boldly. Most of the challenges he faced are still present today, and his answers are as relevant today as they were then. But time does not stand still. Today, in the twenty-first century, we find a somewhat changed landscape of thought, with some new challenges and some new twists to old challenges. And there is one challenge to religion that perhaps is of prime importance in the early years of the twenty-first century.
A Direct Challenge
Most of the challenges to religion today are social and moral challenges, that is, challenges to particular doctrines or practices of religion, or to social and moral attitudes of particular religions. But there is a relatively new challenge to religion itself, to its very existence and relevance—the most basic of challenges. It arose in the second half of the twentieth century, well after the time of Swamiji, a challenge that has only grown stronger in the half century since its inception: the belief that there is no Truth; there are only relative truths.
One might be tempted to say that this belief had its origins in the three interrelated philosophical schools of perspectivalism, deconstruction, and postmodernism. Perspectivalism is often traced to Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900),4 but as a school of thought it developed in the mid-twentieth century. It says that there are many ways of looking at the world—perspectives—but there is no objective ‘truth’ behind the perspectives, no ‘thing-in-itself ’ of which the different perspectives are partial readings. Therefore, there is no ‘truth’, just perspectives with their constructed, and therefore dependent and relative truths.
Deconstruction began in the 1960s as a philosophical school of literary interpretation with the French thinker Jacques Derrida (1930–2004), but it soon spread to sociolog y and the arts and even to such fields as architecture. It denies that a literary work, including philosophical works, can have a single non-contradictory meaning. Even the author of the work does not determine its meaning. Rather the meaning is always a highly complex ambiguity made by the stated and the unstated, the intended and the unintended, what is written and what is left out, where even the reader is not passive but contributes meaning to the work as much as the author. Central to deconstruction, as with perspectivalism, is a radical scepticism toward all claims of truth and moral rightness, and its conviction that there is no objective Truth or Reality to be discovered.
Postmodernism shares with perspectivalism and deconstruction the belief that there is no absolute Reality, no objective Truth to be known, no statements about reality that are objectively true. Reality—what we take as reality—is shaped by the ever-changing historical, social, and cultural contexts within which both individuals and groups operate. Reality and truth are constructs of the discourse that happens within a particular context, and hence they are always subjective. Science outside of its context, for instance, has no more validity than witchcraft or voodoo; to claim otherwise is both elitism and a form of oppression, a form of philosophical totalitarianism leading ultimately to political totalitarianism. Postmodernism thus sees itself as destructive of all hierarchical structures—hierarchies of power, value, truth, and morality. Though most often it is religiously agnostic—it avoids conclusive statements like ‘God is’ or ‘God is not’—there are postmodern theologians who apply the viewpoint to religion in a way that is consciously destructive to religious organization and hierarchy and, hence, authority, thus freeing people, supposedly, to construct their own religious reality free from the judgements and oppression of others.
Of the three, postmodernism is the closest to an umbrella term, indicating a broad modern movement rather than a school.
Again, this belief that there is no Truth, just the relative truths that different people believe in, is widespread among even the moderately educated in modern developed societies. And as I said earlier, it is tempting to think that this popular belief came to the masses through the combined influence of perspectivalism, deconstruction, and postmodernism. But it is more likely that everything—the philosophical schools and the popular belief—arose together as part of the spirit of the times. That is, there is a larger dynamic in society, a wavelike movement, of which these are all manifestations, rising together.
From here forwards I will speak of the popular belief, not the philosophical schools and movements, as it is the popular belief that actually challenges religion, since educated philosophers are few and far between, and those few are rarely interested in the serious pursuit of religious life anyway. That also simplifies our discussion, since to discuss three different philosophical movements would entail constant qualifications and precise definitions of everything we might say.
At first, this doctrine seems to be very friendly to Vedanta: all truths are relative, that is, they are true for the people who believe in them. Some, for instance, believe in Protestant Christianity—they have a whole set of beliefs, expectations, values, ways of looking at the world, which are true for them. Others believe in Shia Islam and have a different set of beliefs, expectations, hopes, fears, and values, which are true for them. This is true with other religions, atheists, scientists, humanists, neo-Nazis, psychopathic tyrants, and so on. One set of beliefs is just as true as another set, because it is the historical and cultural context of the believers that make each system true for them.
But what this means is that there is really no Truth, no standard of Truth. All beliefs are equally true, so they are also equally untrue: there is nothing to judge them by other than the belief itself and the context that births it, and none of them points to a universal Truth, to something beyond the belief. This attitude has deeply influenced the ways of thinking in developed countries. Of course, the philosophers are much more subtle and persuasive, though not therefore more correct;5 but again, I am intentionally speaking now about the common belief.
Postmodernism for the Masses
How does it affect people today in developed countries of the West, where it has spread among the common people? It is widely considered that in matters that are intangible like religion, everyone’s opinion is equally valid. Within technical fields like physics or chemistry this does not hold, because it is quickly obvious to all that I, for instance, do not know much about either. Yet, from outside the sciences, even the ignorant me can dismiss both physics and chemistry as constructed truths that have no authority outside of their own internal discourse. And when we come to fields like religion or politics or the arts, which, in the popular mind at least, are based on mere belief and opinion, then everyone’s opinion is effectively equal. On that basis, there is no religious authority.
A young man who has joined one of our monasteries some time back says he does not want to study the scriptures or Sanskrit. Why not? It is not relevant to him.
‘Well,’ I say, ‘you may not see it now, but in time you will. This is our tradition, and if you are going to be a monk of the Order, you need to be versed in the scriptures.’
‘No, my path is different. My path is to question everything, and I don’t want to fill my head with the thoughts of others.’
‘Well, you can question, that’s good,’ I admit, ‘but you need to know something in order to question, and the purpose of questioning is to arrive at truth by seeing through false assumptions.’
‘No, for me questioning is an end in itself.’ And so the argument continues, with an adamant refusal to attend classes.
‘Well, if you won’t attend classes, you won’t last long here, I’m afraid. I’ll give you time to think it over, but living here entails certain responsibilities, and one of those is to attend classes. You don’t have to like the classes. Just take them as a discipline, and see what happens.’
‘No, that’s your idea of monastic life, not mine. You’re trying to force your concept on me.’
‘Yes, but I’ve been a monk for forty-four years, so my ideas have at least some weight be hind them.’
‘Not necessarily. I might be far advanced over you, even if I’m just beginning. You can’t say that I’m not. You don’t know.’
And soon it is obvious that the argument is going nowhere. This sort of argumentation, though not universal, is quite common. That is a serious problem.
Take another example. Like the last, this is from real life:
‘Our group’, a young man tells me, ‘is promoting a new monasticism. We believe that monasticism is a universal archetype that everyone should be able to share in. Everyone has a monastic side to their personality, and so we believe in the democratization of monasticism.’
‘Okay,’ I reply, ‘what does that mean in practice?’
‘We believe that any spiritual seeker can be a monastic. They don’t need to belong to a monastery; they needn’t be part of a formal religious tradition even. All they need is to be seeking spiritual truth.’
‘Good. But what about a spiritual teacher?’ I ask.
‘They can have one if they want, or they can have multiple teachers from multiple traditions, or they can go straight to the experience itself without a teacher if they want to. The new monasticism isn’t about rules and regulations. It’s about the spirit of the whole thing.’
‘Okay, but what are the guidelines of their lives, what are the parameters, what makes them monks?’ I ask, still trying to understand. ‘After all, a monk or nun is one vowed to celibacy: that’s the defining characteristic of monastic life.’
‘Oh, not for us! Relationships can be just as important as celibacy in spiritual life. If someone wants celibacy, that’s fine, but it isn’t required. If one wants a relationship that becomes a sacred part of their path. Even multiple
committed relationships,’ he says, emphasizing ‘committed’ to show that this has nothing to do with indulgence.
By now, I know the conversation is not going to end in a feel-good moment, nor is it going to end with my convincing anyone of anything. After all, his opinion is his opinion, mine is mine. Thousands of years of monastic history do not matter: that is all old-school. These young men are going to do it a new way, and who am I—who is anyone—to tell them differently? Your reality, my reality. There you have it. I have dwelt on this at length because it is a relatively new problem, faced so far mainly in the West, but chances are it will hit India and other developing countries sooner rather than later.
The Vedantic Response
The Vedantic answer to this attitude is simple. Much of what the perspectivalists and deconstructionists and postmodernists say has some truth to it, we admit. Grant validity wherever merited. But theirs is a partial truth that misses the Truth of truths. Yes, there are as many perspectives as there are perceivers of the world, and those perspectives are constructed of a complex web of influences. True. Good. But there is a Truth behind all of those perspectives. All are looking at something, and that something is Reality, the infinite Spirit, the Atman, beyond time, space, and causation. Therefore, Swami Vivekananda said once with deep pathos: ‘Man the infinite dreamer, dreaming finite dreams!’6 There is the canvas on which we are each painting our worlds, and that canvas is the infinite Self, which can be realized in direct experience, not seen vaguely through a constructed, conceptual, relative truth.
How do we know this? By the experience of countless sages of the past, by living sages of the present, and by the small voice inside ourselves that responds to this Truth.
Thus the first flaw in this philosophy is its denial of a Truth of truths,satyasya satyam, 7 behind the perspectives. The second major flaw is its denial of the historical wisdom gained from thousands of years of collective experience in all fields of human endeavour. To keep the discussion focussed, let us take just the field of religion. There may be, and are, many flaws in the religious traditions of the world, useless trash that has accumulated over the ages that somehow continues to float along in the stream of a living tradition along with the great truths, trash like the negative attitudes towards women and the disparagement of other religions. But there is also the wisdom of many centuries: how the great truths can be realized, what works and what does not work, what leads one closer to God and what hinders, what is a higher value and what a lower. Experience shows that there are certain hierarchies—of value, morality, and wisdom—in life that are ignored only at our own peril.
For those of us who have understood and accepted that there is a Truth of truths, fine, no problem; but how do we communicate it to others who are resistant to religious authority, resistant to the very idea that there is a universal Truth?
There is only one solution, and that is genuine spiritual authority. Not organizational authority, not authority by virtue of position, but the inner authority that comes from spirituality. Those who are not sensitive do not see it, or just avoid seeing it, but those who are sensitive perceive it, and they are key to preserving the traditions. Just as my ignorance of physics and chemistry is quickly obvious, so someone’s poverty of spiritual authority becomes quickly evident when confronting another with genuine inner authority. Even if such inner authority is not obvious to all, it is evident to those who have substance.
And of course, spiritual authority is writ large in every page of Swami Vivekananda’s Complete Works and revealed in every act of his life. He stands as a bulwark against all such superficiality. But we must do our part as well through genuine inner development. A quiet, steady mind with deep convictions based on long reflection, convictions that have been carried into practice: this gives a tangible inner authority even before we have had the grace of a deeply transformative spiritual experience.
What this means is that those in religious leadership and teaching positions must recognize that the old days of easy authority are largely gone, not because such authority is bad in itself, but because the general population no longer accepts it. This is just a pragmatic recognition of facts. In relatively closed systems like a monastic community, authority will still work somewhat because the members choose to join and therefore have to accept a certain amount of authority if they want to remain together. And there is still the authority of the workplace; just the survival instinct forces people to put up with an authoritarian structure that they may not like, simply for fear of losing their jobs—though organized labour is gradually reducing such authoritarianism in the workplace as well. In general, therefore, easy authority can be asserted in ever fewer spheres.
There are other challenges to religion in the twenty-first century that should be mentioned in closing. Taking all of them together, they form an interconnected web of challenges. Let us briefly list some that this author has found important, recognizing them to be generalizations with many exceptions and with varying applicability to different countries of the world.
The various scandals that have plagued religious leaders around the world have added to the mistrust of authority and the dislike for organized religion, even in India.8 However, sincere people still desperately want something they can believe in and somebody they can trust; and if they find something, they will give themselves to it. But woe to the religious hypocrite who takes advantage of such vulnerability: the harm done is immense, and therefore the karma to be paid will be severe.
There is also a crisis of commitment, caused by two factors. First, social relationships have become very fluid, so that marriages are easier to break, responsibility to one’s elders is easier to pass on to an institution, commitment to a job is no longer expected since corporations and governments no longer commit to their workers as before. Second, the sheer number of opportunities open to people today reduces the perceived need for commitment: if one thing does not work out, another will, so why limit oneself by commitment? For these two reasons the idea of committing to one thing is no longer as valued in society as it once was.
Add to this the ravages of consumerism, which dins into the minds of young and old the belief that happiness is directly related to how much one consumes. Even morality becomes tied to consumerism, because if one is not consuming, one is hurting the country’s economy. Thus through consumerism, contentment becomes the enemy. And on top of this, add the modern five-minute attention span, whereby many have lost not just the patience but the ability to hold onto a complex train of thought. Add together these three—a devaluing of commitment, consumerism, and the five-minute attention span—and some of the qualities of character essential to spiritual development are undercut. Here spiritual traditions cannot compromise, but must show the way back to steadiness of mind and character.
There are also, however, the good challenges of changing times, which we must accept: the rise of the democratic urge around the world, people wanting to be empowered, wanting a place for themselves in the sun. Religions will have to accept this awakening of the common masses or risk irrelevance. This includes the rise of women, the rise of minorities, and the rise of the dispossessed. Religious traditions must find their own ways to adapt, each in tune with its own ethos and principles and history, but adapt they must. Otherwise the wave of history will dash them against the rocks of time, leaving only ruins for future historians to pick over. For traditions that will not adapt, the quicker they are gone, the better for humanity.
And finally there are the positive needs of a changing world, and these are the same that existed at the time of Swami Vivekananda, needs that he addressed directly. Therefore, it is only a question of time before the world discovers in him the answers to their needs. To list a few: there is the need for a new philosophy of work, in which work is not just the necessary means for making money but a means for self-actualization, self-expression, and self-realization; the need for a new morality, based on the nature of things rather than on a special revelation, a morality that inspires rather than threatens or frightens. There is the need for a new view of human beings that recognizes their infinite potential and reveals their divine nature; the need for a new view of the world that sees it as the manifestation of God and a revelation of divine wisdom; the need for a new view of God as the ultimate Reality, both personal and impersonal—not different from the soul, the infinite ocean of love itself, not a judge waiting to pounce on our mistakes.
When religion is ready to face these challenges, a new age will dawn.
(Source: Prabuddha Bharatha Special Edition January 2014)
Notes and References
1. See Arnold Toynbee, Civilization on Trial (London: Oxford University, 1948).
2. His Eastern and Western Disciples, The Life of Swami Vivekananda, 2 vols (Kolkata: Advaita Ashrama, 2012), 2.473.
3. The first is the negation made by atheism; the second, by agnosticism; but the third negation is the most pervasive, taking various forms such as secularism, humanism, the belief in the sufficiency of science and technology to explain everything and to remedy all ills, it also includes some dominant forms of modern Christian and Jewish theology.
4. That is, according to one interpretation of Friedrich Nietzsche, there are those who deny that he meant what the perspectivalists say.
5. See, for instance, Noam Chomsky’s devastating critique of deconstruction and of Derrida’s own writings. Edwin Turner, ‘Noam Chomsky, Intellectual Elitism, Po-Mo Gib-berish, more Attacks on Deconstruction, and Bad Writing Revisited’; <http://biblioklept.org/2007/03/14/noam-chomsky-intellectual-elitism-po-mo-gibberish-more-attacks-on-deconstruction-and-bad-writing-revisited/>accessed 13 November 2013.
6. The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, 9 vols (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1–8, 1989; 9, 1997), 8.251.
7. Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, 2.1.20.
8. This is of course true of political, corporate, and educational leaders as well, but that is not our concern here, though taken all together this does make for a crisis in leadership in every sphere.