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The anatomy of faith

It is a sense of separation that fundamentally underwrites all forms of ignorance, cruelty, prejudice and suffering. And it is here that history, economics, politics, literature and sociology can assist our comprehension. These disciplines help to address such questions as the social organisation of greed, the cultural legitimation of hate or the acceptability of inequality, between genders, castes or communities, writes LATA MANI.

HOW is a person of faith to relate to the tradition in which their practice is situated? Religion is a social institution. As such, it is not outside of history, but formed within its crucible. It is thus that religious institutions have legitimised, and even been directly responsible for enforcing, social inequalities like caste and gender. Likewise, religious philosophy is shaped by the context in which it emerges, and cannot claim immunity from socio-historical determination.

The problem of social conditioning is often explicitly woven into accounts of tradition itself. For example, there is a well-known story about Adi Shankara, the Eighth Century exponent of the advaita philosophy of non-duality. Shankara is said to have shooed away a chandala woman, only to be reprimanded by Lord Shiva, who had taken her form in order to teach him a lesson. Quoting Shankara's teachings back to him, Shiva is said to have challenged the philosopher for not practising what he preached.

For every such example, however, there are countless others in which social and cultural biases simply coexist with genuine wisdom. Some have sought to respond to this situation by highlighting, or offering, more progressive interpretations of tradition, including its representation of events and characters. One difficulty with this strategy is that it keeps the practitioner bound within the ambit of tradition as it has been (variously) defined. It leaves one without a means to address issues not raised within it.

One way to avoid this pitfall is to recognise the fact that religious tradition is no more than a container or vehicle. This permits one to eschew allegiance to form per se. Instead, it focusses one's attention on how one may learn to discern the core principles of spiritual wisdom. The poems and songs of Rumi, Hafiz, Kabir and Ramprasad, for instance, abundantly illustrate this process. This approach also has the benefit of being consonant with the dynamics of the spiritual journey, a point to which I will return below.

The inescapably interpretive dimension of a religious or spiritual vocation makes it similar, in certain respects, to other social or political philosophies. Just as Marxists or Gandhians sift through their respective traditions in seeking to apply its concepts, so too must the spiritual practitioner contemplate all aspects of the teachings, with a view to distinguishing true insight from that which is simply social convention, or prejudice, dressed up as truth.

It is only by means of such a contemplative process that one can be freed from the prison-house of misperception, whether about self or society or, indeed, about the tradition in which one practices. Otherwise, one will find oneself reproducing its conditioned aspects in thought and deed. Truth may be universal but human perception and expression of it are irremediably situated. And, like it or not, even the radical stream of mystic wisdom is to be found within the major religions, although when practised properly it unsettles many of these religions' most cherished misconceptions, which is why many mystics have been considered heretical by the priests and mullahs of their day.

The process of spiritual knowing is, however, distinguished from secular knowledge acquisition in one important way, namely the place of revelation in its unfolding. We assess the strengths and weaknesses of social or political philosophy by means of a primarily cognitive process — examining its claims in light of its ability to account for social or political phenomena. By contrast, key premises of spiritual philosophy cannot be confirmed in this manner. Take for example the omnipresence of Divine love, or the essential oneness of all beings. While we may find these ideas compelling in principle, they will likely remain abstract concepts until we have some direct experience that dissolves the perceptual frame within which they remain mere concepts. It is such direct experiences that disturb and remake what have been, until then, foundational assumptions about self, world or life.

In rare cases, a single experience can be potent enough to inaugurate a complete shift of perception. For most people, however, the process is a gradual one. It is the accumulation, over time, of "miracles", "visions", or "spiritual experiences" that revises, and then altogether transforms, the epistemology (way of knowing) on the basis of which life has hitherto been lived.

Such experiences simultaneously open the heart and soften the mind. And in the best of cases, they give rise to a union of mind and heart such that they move as one.

It is to honour the nature of this process that the word "unfolding" is used to describe it. For it is a journey in which mind is used to revolutionise mind as it has been understood, and in which one's agency is manifest in the willingness to allow oneself to be transformed by the force field of Divine love. This energy is beyond being contained by any religion or tradition, although humans turn to the philosophical systems known to them in apprehending it. The converse is equally true: the Divine draws on the frameworks familiar to each individual in calling him or her toward itself. Religious tradition is thus merely a medium. God no more belongs to any tradition than the sun belongs to the sky in which it shines to the naked eye.

How then might one describe the relation between spiritual and secular forms of knowing? Spiritual knowledge does not entirely displace secular modes of knowing. Rather, it refigures their relationship in the practitioner's mind-heart. For although spiritual philosophy identifies the elements at the root of suffering in the universe — among them, greed, selfishness, rage, hate, pride, the sense of entitlement, the feeling of insufficiency — secular modes of analysis are critical in understanding the socio-cultural expression of these. Spiritual teaching primarily addresses the individual seeker. But the ethics of practice call upon the practitioner to learn how to take her or his place in the phenomenal world in full cognisance of the truths of love, oneness, non-harming and interdependency.

Learning to live the practice on these terms means committing to a life-long process of introspection and inquiry, in which we contemplate not merely the personal but also the social basis of all that separates us from the world around us. It is this sense of separation that fundamentally underwrites all forms of ignorance, cruelty, prejudice and suffering. And it is here that history, economics, politics, literature and sociology can assist our comprehension. These disciplines help to address such questions as the social organisation of greed, the cultural legitimation of hate or the acceptability of inequality, between genders, castes or communities. This work requires us (and in turn enables us) to cultivate the subtle art of transcoding between sacred and secular knowing, such that the former illumines the latter, and the latter brings the former alive in context of everyday life.

One can see from all this that a spiritual commitment requires our wholehearted willingness to embark on a radically open-ended process of learning, relearning and unlearning. We undertake this not in homage to convention or tradition, but in service to the principles of a unitive and harmonious existence. Any attempt to foreclose this process violates the very nature and purpose of the spiritual quest. Our vigilance in this regard begins with ourselves and then extends outward. We work with our inner resistance to liberatory transformation. This innermost concentric circle is usually where some of the most challenging work is to be found. We also set aside, as necessary, the misplaced respect for convention that pervades the sphere of religion and spirituality. Finally, we refuse attempts to police the process by fundamentalists like the Rashtriya Swamsevak Sangh (RSS) and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) who seek to impose authoritarian forms of religion which favour indoctrination over introspection, hate over love and exclusion over inclusion.

The divinisation of humanness is dependent on our being freed from the webs of social conditioning. This requires courage and humility on our part. Divine mercy is intent on our liberation and consequently does not indulge the ego investments and attachments of truly yearning souls.

And should we resist this path of a fearless and loving inquiry we might ask ourselves whether we wish to be devotees of God or of samsaric convention. For in choosing to worship the latter, we turn away from truth. Worse, we become complicit in extending suffering — not just our own, but that of others also.

The writer is a historian and cultural critic and is the author of Interleaves: Ruminations on Illness and Spiritual Life.

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