Sunday, August 17, 2014

Examining life - A brief study of two lives

More than two thousand years ago, in the “Apologies”, so majestically conceived by Plato, Socrates utters these powerful words: “An unexamined life is not worth living...” This has been the credo of the thinking West since then. All science, Metaphysics, logic, philosophy stemmed from this singular need to observe life in its own terms, and not live in the fantasy world of imagination, superstition and indoctrinated beliefs that had held Mankind in its sway since the dawn of recorded civilization. However even a casual study of history will vindicate that this has never been an easy task. For nearly fifteen centuries, since the crucifixion of Christ, both Science and religion were brutally submerged in cults, institutions, fabricated realities, deceptive truths and a labored body of dogma – that it was quite impossible to live the Socratic creed of introspection that had originally set the tone. The tides of history did throw up, every now and then, men and women who managed to break through shackles of psychological bondage imposed, and glimpse at a horizon of truth that lay beyond the pale of decrepit notions. Those were the harbingers of modern mind - the mind that freed itself during the age of renaissance , questioning not only the cosmology of observed world outside, but also turning the introspective flash light inwards to face the stark reality of Man’s inner state, and realizing the limits of his understanding and the paucity of moral and religious foundations. This is not to say, that only after the fifteenth century, the light of inquiring wisdom was lit. Multitudes of thinkers and mystics, have in the past, questioned this structure of society, and voiced them as well; but such is cosmic will that, only once in a while, it chooses to consummate its full force of realization in the bosom of a few chosen individuals, setting them completely free from the twisted chains of heritage, culture and accepted beliefs; making them stand alone in their contemplation of life and Man’s place in it.. These blessed few leave the intellectual horizon expanded forever, inaugurating an era of tremendous change in quality of thinking in the rich ocean of Human consciousness.

In this essay, I focus on two individuals from different continents and age, whose rejection of their times and thought was so very radical; that it seems almost like a fairy tale, sometimes. One was born into an orthodox Sephardic Jewish family in the seventeenth century, the other was born as a Brahmin boy in southern part of India during the twentieth century. One was raised with all the theological immunization that is so integral to a Jewish upbringing, the other was adopted into a worldwide movement as its heralded world Messiah. One was excommunicated for life for upholding heretical views, the other voluntary gave up his stewardship of a global congregation on seeing the futility of it. One was a “God intoxicated atheist”, the other was an “iconoclastic existentialist”. One was a recluse, the other austerely charismatic… Two so very different lives, yet both explored an unchartered territory in the journey of truth, and followed their deep convictions and search with an audacity and integrity that was nothing short of stunning and original. The key to both of them was their utter solitude in the midst of buzzing criticism and entrenched ideologies. They questioned the premise of every belief that they were taught to believe; and in the intense fire of their scrutiny, every idea metamorphosed into a newer understanding. I am referring to Benedict De Spinoza and Jiddu Krishnamurti. Let’s first talk about Spinoza in this essay:

Of all the mainstream religions in the world, Judaism has a unique history, place and character. Its practitioners have, and to this date believe that God has entered into a special covenant with them; vouchsafed to Abraham by Yahweh. They live as though they are the only chosen ones. This seminal belief in their destiny has been both a blessing and an ominous curse to them. Guided by sixty three tractates of the Talmud, the Jewish community have suffered terrible travails in their four thousand odd years of tumultuous history; driven from one country after another; mercilessly hounded by Christian inquisition in middle ages; living under direst of circumstances under the patronage of unlikely but obliging hosts; victims of the most abominable genocide in the last century – in the midst of all this upheaval, the Jews have striven to maintain their faith in the purest strain possible despite every reason they had to discard it. In the annals of Human history, the saga of the Jews is a story of astounding devotion and belief in the literal word of God. However, Seventeenth century Amsterdam was a relative haven for the Sephardic Jews (immigrant Jews). It was a much longed sanctuary after the persistent prosecution of the last three hundred years. Our hero Spinoza was born in such a time and place. An astute boy, a brilliant student of rabbinical studies; his parents and tutors were predicting a bright future for him in the synagogue. But destiny decreed otherwise. Very soon, Spinoza developed a deep strain of criticism, doubt and self-examination. His study of Christian texts and commentaries, and his own incisive thinking on the origins of their holy book and the message of Godhead contained in it began taking a radical turn. To his transparent, razor sharp intellect the Creator in Holy books seemed more a fictional character created by a bunch of scholars, than a product of reasoned study of essential principles of existence. He was beginning to speak more openly about the inadequacy and his reservations on such a scriptural God. Naturally, the Rabbis were upset. They did not want, or could afford, any divergence from established faith. To them, even the slightest of doctrinal deviation was reason enough for excommunication for a certain period of time followed by public recompense; which, they exercised at every possible occasion with stern disciplinary action and mandatory obedience. The purity of their race, they believed, lay in adhering to the tenets of their covenant. The Jewish records spill over with admonitions and commands of punishment for an even an iota of transgression. Spinoza was reprimanded twice by the fraternity, urging him to mend his ways. But it was too late, as Spinoza’s insights had already broken through the fault lines of accepted dogmatic reasoning. It was then that the Rabbis took the unprecedented step of excommunicating Spinoza for life. It is not very clear as to what prompted such an extreme act of denunciation by the clergy. Nonetheless, in one of the most damning documents in world history, Spinoza was not only cast away from the fold, but was made an outcaste within the Jewish society that nurtured him forever. His letter of excommunication cannot be read, even at this distance of four hundred years, without a chill passing through our spine. The vehemence, the vituperation and extreme vindictiveness numbs the reader. Read then a part of this proclamation of condemnation. It is worth quoting in some length:

"By decree of the angels and by the command of the holy men, we excommunicate, expel, curse and damn Baruch de Espinoza, with the consent of God, Blessed be He, and with the consent of the entire holy congregation, and in front of these holy scrolls with the 613 precepts which are written therein; cursing him with the excommunication with which Joshua banned Jericho and with the curse which Elisha cursed the boys and with all the castigations which are written in the Book of the Law. Cursed be he by day and cursed be he by night; cursed be he when he lies down and cursed be he when he rises up. Cursed be he when he goes out and cursed be he when he comes in. The Lord will not spare him, but then the anger of the Lord and his jealousy shall smoke against that man, and all the curses that are written in this book shall lie upon him, and the Lord shall blot out his name from under heaven. And the Lord shall separate him unto evil out of all the tribes of Israel, according to all the curses of the covenant that are written in this book of the law. But you that cleave unto the Lord your God are alive every one of you this day….”

This demonical curse on Spinoza ends with this scathing command:

"….That no one should communicate with him neither in writing nor accord him any favor nor stay with him under the same roof nor within four cubits in his vicinity; nor shall he read any treatise composed or written by him."

When Spinoza was informed of his excommunication for life, our philosopher replied with an equanimity that is staggering in its simplicity and acceptance. He said: "Very well; this does not force me to do anything that I would not have done of my own accord, had I not been afraid of a scandal….” - Words from a Man who has transcended the ethos of his age.

Nothing can be more terrible than being an outcaste in one’s own society. It is worst possible incarceration that can be inflicted. But not so for Spinoza, his complete detachment from all theological encrustations of his faith, and now his forced seclusion, allowed him to examine the substance of existence with the only tool available to him - that was reason. He knew and acknowledged the irreproachable logic of mathematics and geometry, and under the intense focus of his intellect, the laws of being, morality, God, nature, emotions - all of them begin to gather into a coherent system of axioms, theorem , postulates and proofs. Just as three angles of any “Triangle” is equal to two right angles, Spinoza’s intellectual God is derived from a compendium of logic and proofs, that are irrefutable in its domain…

He lived the rest of his life in a rented boarding house in a quiet corner of Amsterdam, working assiduously on his Magnum opus “The Ethics”. During the day, he worked as Lens grinder (which incidentally he was known to be very good at…). Hardly any friends to speak of, he spent most of time in quiet contemplation, allowing his reason to wander in the byways of Universal laws. Though he was offered academic posts in Universities outside, he declined them stating that a life of academecia does not augur well for a philosopher like him. He died at the age of forty two, of a lung disease caused by the fine glass powder that he ground with so much care and love. None of his writings were ever published during his lifetime. In fact, for many years after his death, His name was banned from public discussions, and none were allowed to quote or refer to his works. Such is the price one pays for living an “examined life”.

Yet, the thoughts and insights of Spinoza could not be held underground for long. Copies of “The Ethics” began to be surreptitiously printed and circulated, and the world began to realize the impact of this lonely heretical philosopher. Scholars, metaphysicists, scientists, theologians understood the deep significance of his cosmic view that spawned a system of morality untouched by empirical facts. The rigor of his exposition was logical enough to prove the non-existence of an independent Creator. In fact, Albert Einstein was an avowed Spinozoan. He considered Spinoza’s orderly universe that need not have any first causes or God, as his intrinsic scientific belief as well. During the later years of his life, Einstein made a pilgrimage to Spinoza’s little home in Amsterdam, and signed the guest list. Soon after he composed a poem on his love for Spinoza - Very odd indeed for the greatest scientific brain to resonate with a great metaphysicist.

Well then, “The Ethics” itself is perhaps one of the most difficult books to read, less to understand. It is a condensation of a masterly brain at work. Like Euclid’s theorems, Spinoza attempts to define, postulate and prove the laws of this Universe in which God and nature are products of intellectual ecstasy, and individual ethics lies in aligning one’s life to reasoned laws. None can claim to understand the drift of his thoughts in a casual read. It needs a complete involvement, almost a dissolution into the pathways of logic to appreciate the beauty of his system. Will Durant advises “…Read the book not all at once, but in small portions at many many sittings. And having finished it, consider that you have but began to understand it…. When you have finished it a second time you will remain forever a lover of philosophy..,”

In the next installment, we shall look at the extraordinary life of J Krishnamurti.

God bless…

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