Sunday, January 14, 2018

Jottings – Slice of life – 191 (Arun Shourie and his new book “Two saints: Speculations around and about Ramana maharishi and Ramakrishna Paramahamsa”)

Jottings – Slice of life – 191 (Arun Shourie and his new book “Two saints: Speculations around and about Ramana maharishi and Ramakrishna Paramahamsa”)
Arun Shourie is renowned intellectual in Indian circles. He may not be a very active voice these days, but for those us who became politically conscious in nineties, Arun was everywhere. His pointed face, sharp eyes, thinning hair, measured speech, grammatically correct language and unflinching views dominated print and television. A fantastic spokesman. For more than four decades now, his voice has been heard with respect. In the early seventies, after graduating, he joined World bank, one of the first Indians to do so with distinction; then returned to India, worked as an editor in Indian Express and Times of India, where he honed his writing skills, and developed a keen sense of Hindu Politics. In the Vajpayee Government, he held top government positions and additionally was given free rein to talk openly about the Hindu nationalism and its pervasive roots in India. He is a prolific writer as well. Over 30 books to his name on wide ranging subjects. Not only are they well written, but well-argued too. I haven’t obviously, read all of them, but the few I have read, especially “A secular agenda”, written during Vajpayee days still lingers in my memory. If there ever was a subtly argued book that Hinduism is the panacea for all India’s problems, then this is the one. Anyway, what makes Shourie’s public life so special is because his personal life is deeply tragic, and he kept both these compartments separate. Anita, his wife suffers from Parkinson’s, and his only son Aditi was born with Cerebral palsy. In such a situation, it is natural for a man of Shourie’s intellectual caliber, after active social and public life, to divert his fertile mind to understanding the philosophical causes of pain and suffering. His last two books have been about that. His most recent one, the subject matter of this essay is a curious one. “Two saints: speculations about Ramakrishna and Ramana”. Before I briefly present Arun’s take on both these saints, I present a short summary of the nature of speculation Arun talks about.
Throughout recorded human history, we have been trying somehow or other to validate and rationalize the experiences of our “God men”. In every age, in every civilization, in every religion, there are quite a few who have claimed a unique status for themselves in the name of a higher power. Most people either credulously worshipped these Godmen, or spent time evaluating their claims, or played one against the other. Very few paused to question and understand what this question of enlightenment is all about. This has been the tragic story of religion. But the fact is: We really don’t know what these few holy men have seen or experienced as liberating; all that we have are inadequate verbal descriptions – sometimes in their own words, but mostly by from others. However, it is our firm belief, based on such books, oral heritage, family traditions and an unusual amount of indoctrination, that these God Men have seen and experienced something which is normally unavailable to common human experience, because of which, their lives are full of sanctity, purity and holiness, to which other can only aspire but never reach or “attain”. In the earliest documents of religious history, God was never personal. He was always collective, and represented the unpredictable and potent forces in nature. From a deep sense of fear and wonder (in equal measure), the notion of God was born. It was an act of appeasement. The glorious, sonorous hymns of the Rig Veda, perhaps the oldest testimony to this strange feeling of otherness, is a rapturous and sometimes incoherent outpouring of human incomprehension and appeasement. In the tracts of Old testament, and even older books of Western pantheon, once again, we sense fear and awe. This force encapsulated as God was mediated and understood only by few. We do not why only few were chosen to be vehicles of this understanding, or what they did to achieve such proficiency. Shamans, witches, priests, - whatever name we may want to give them - these select individuals possessed the ability to be at peace with the mystery of nature and cosmos, and more so to penetrate into their secrets. They also possessed certain characteristic traits such as detached relationships, calmness and a positive indifference towards life, that eluded others. Voices and oracles from deeper sources regularly worked through them. They were privileged to come face to face with something beyond normal human sensory experience, and were definitely wiser than the rest. Slowly, such men came to regarded as God- men, or men to whom God - the unknown, spoke in special and privileged tones.
Even to this day, in our age of scientific rationality and prodigious advancement, we really have no clue what kind of experiences a Buddha, or Jesus, or a Mohamad, or Nicolas of Cusa, or St Augustine, or Rumi, or a Ramana, or a Ramakrishna had. How did they achieve enlightenment? And what did they mean by it? Science provide various theories and intelligent verdicts ranging from madness to schizophrenia, to epileptic fits to illiteracy on one hand; and on the other, religion offers theories of enlightenment, super consciousness, nirvana, mystical communion with Oneness of Brahman, and several other philosophical viewpoints based on different traditions. Learned scholars have dissecting and analyzing the scant writings of saints to understand the process of enlightenment and its physical manifestations. But all efforts have proven fruitless. All that we know for certain is that these men, underwent a cataclysmic physical experience during their lifetime, which altered forever their perception of the world and themselves. Ramana consciously experienced Death in all its gory details, and came out of it unscathed and transformed. Ramakrishna threatened to kill himself at the altar of Kali, if she didn’t reveal herself, and in that seminal moment something clicked within. Many Christina mystics declare similar physical events which led to an awakening into God. Now, all these experiences could have been purely biological or psychosomatic, or just psychological - we don’t know; but it is clear that the after effects of the event left them profoundly altered in the way they related to the world outside. It is impossible to validate if such states as experienced by these saints are reproducible, or is there a ‘method” to get to such heightened states of living. In a way, that is unimportant. What is important is to recognize and understand what such mystics taught and passed on to us as their learning and message. After enlightenment, Ramana and Ramakrishna lived a deep life of virtue, compassion, understanding and acceptance of life. They touched people who came to them at profound levels. A glance, a word, a physical touch would render a potential seeker speechless and doubt free. Some instances of such transformation would make this clear.
When Paul Brunton, the rationalist met Ramana Maharishi at Tiruvanamalai, after he had wandered all over India in search of spiritual direction, he writes in breathless prose “There is something in this man which holds my attention as steel filings are held by a magnet. I cannot turn my gaze away from him. My initial bewilderment, my perplexity at being totally ignored, slowly fade away as this strange fascination begins to grip me more firmly.”
Or when Narendranath Dutta, later Vivekananda, met Ramakrishna in Dakshineswar and asked him if he had seen or experienced God (the same question he had asked of all other religious authorities he had meet thus far), Ramakrishna spontaneously, without hesitation looked him straight in the eye and said “Yes, I have seen God. I see Him as I see you here, only more clearly. God can be seen. One can talk to him…” The confidence, authority and directness of Ramakrishna’s reply shook Narendra’s rationalist faith to its foundations, and opened his thinking to a newer dimension
Similarly, St Augustine writes in his great book Confessions, how one afternoon, after deep emotional crisis, he ran into his garden beckoned by a voice to pick up and read the bible. When he did so, the page his eyes rested upon bore the following passage of the letter Paul wrote to Romans “Not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual excess and lust, not in quarreling and jealousy. Rather, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the desires of the flesh.” In a flash, something gave way within St Augustine, and his heart, he says was flooded with light and all his doubts were resolved.
Now coming back to Arun’s book, in all these three cases described above - Ramana, Ramakrishna and Augustine, there is no doubt there was an indescribable quality of peace, conviction and selflessness that followed their spiritual experiences, but the question Arun speculates on in his book is whether such experiences these saints reported were really “spiritual” experiences or were they biological conditions – which medicine today can better understand. Arun draws upon a wide variety of literature and scientific evidence to place ecstatic experiences of mystics within the boundaries of scientific reason. He attempts to do this not because he wants to discredit them, but just to point that enlightenment or attaining Godhead need not be something beyond human reach, and what is important is not to focus on miraculous and mystical experiences themselves as valuable, or proof of anything divine, but only to consider the effects of such transformation in day to day life. Ramana and Ramakrishna radiated peace, joy around them, and never once did they refer to their own mystical experiences as anything special. In fact, they said it is of no consequence at all, and would actively discourage anybody from talking about it. In nearly 500 pages, Arun laboriously (sometimes repeating himself) draws the reader to take a closer look at both these saints with scientific glasses on. The result is ambiguous, as such enquiry would always be.
The nature of enlightenment, its causes, conditions are very subjective. It is impossible to describe it, much less analyze it. All that we can know are its after effects. Sometimes, even that is elusive. That is the zone of understanding Arun Shourie wishes to draw the reader into. I think, to an extent he succeeds in his attempt.
God bless...
Yours in mortality,

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