Category Archives: Religion

The Beyond Within (Hinduism)

Reference: Hinduism
Reference: The World’s Religions by Huston Smith

[NOTE: In color are Vinaire’s comments.]

Hidden areas in the mind waiting to be explored are the unassimilated impressions.

“The aim of life,” Justice Holmes used to say, “is to get as far as possible from imperfection.” Hinduism says its purpose is to pass beyond imperfection altogether. 

In other words, the aim of life is to resolve all anomalies.

If we were to set out to compile a catalogue of the specific imperfections that hedge our lives, it would have no end. We lack strength and imagination to effect our dreams; we grow tired, fall ill, and are foolish. We fail and become discouraged; we grow old and die. Lists of this sort could be extended indefinitely, but there is no need, for all specific limitations reduce to three basic variants. We are limited in joy, knowledge, and being, the three things people really want. 

All anomalies reduce to the want of joy, knowledge, and being.

Is it possible to pass beyond the strictures that separate us from these things? Is it feasible to seek to rise to a quality of life that, because less circumscribed, would be life indeed? 

To begin with the strictures on our joy, these fall into three subgroups: physical pain, frustration that arises from the thwarting of desire, and boredom with life in general. 

The anomalies of want of joy fall into the subgroups of physical pain, frustration, and boredom with life.

Physical pain is the least troublesome of the three. As pain’s intensity is partly due to the fear that accompanies it, the conquest of fear can reduce pain concomitantly. Pain can also be accepted when it has a purpose, as a patient welcomes the return of life and feeling, even painful feeling, to a frozen arm. Again, pain can be overridden by an urgent purpose, as in a football game. In extreme cases of useless pain, it may be possible to anesthetize it through drugs or control of the senses. Ramakrishna, the greatest Hindu saint of the nineteenth century, died of cancer of the throat. A doctor who was examining him in the last stages of the disease probed his degenerating tissue and Ramakrishna flinched in pain. “Wait a minute,” he said; then, “Go ahead,” after which the doctor could probe without resistance. The patient had focused his attention to the point where nerve impulses could barely gain access. One way or another it seems possible to rise to a point where physical pain ceases to be a major problem. 

One way or another it seems possible to rise to a point where physical pain ceases to be a major problem. 

More serious is the psychological pain that arises from the thwarting of specific desires. We want to win a tournament, but we lose. We want to profit, but the deal falls through. A promotion goes to our competitor. We would like to have been invited, but are snubbed. Life is so filled with disappointments that we are likely to assume that they are built into the human condition. On examination, however, there proves to be something disappointments share in common. Each thwarts an expectation of the individual ego. If the ego were to have no expectations, there would be nothing to disappoint. 

If the ego were to have no expectations, there would be nothing to disappoint. 

If this sounds like ending an ailment by killing the patient, the same point can be stated positively. What if the interests of the self were expanded to the point of approximating a God’s-eye view of humanity? Seeing all things under the aspect of eternity would make one objective toward oneself, accepting failure as on a par with success in the stupendous human drama of yes and no, positive and negative, push and pull. Personal failure would be as small a cause for concern as playing the role of loser in a summer theater performance. How could one feel disappointed at one’s own defeat if one experienced the victor’s joy as also one’s own; how could being passed over for a promotion touch one if one’s competitor’s success were enjoyed vicariously? Instead of crying “impossible,” we should perhaps content ourselves with noting how different this would feel from life as it is usually lived, for reports of the greatest spiritual geniuses suggest that they rose to something like this perspective. “Inasmuch as you have done it unto the least of these, you have done it unto me”—are we to suppose that Jesus was posturing when he uttered those words? We are told that Sri Ramakrishna once

howled with pain when he saw two boatmen quarrelling angrily. He came to identify himself with the sorrows of the whole world, however impure and murderous they might be, until his heart was scored with scars. But he knew that he must love God in all sorts and conditions of men, however antagonistic and hostile, and in all forms of thought controlling their existence and often setting them at variance to one another.

Seeing all things from the aspect of eternity would make one objective toward oneself, accepting failure as on a par with success.

Detachment from the finite self or attachment to the whole of things—we can state the phenomenon either positively or negatively. When it occurs, life is lifted above the possibility of frustration and above ennui—the third threat to joy—as well, for the cosmic drama is too spectacular to permit boredom in the face of such vivid identification. 

The anomaly of the want of joy resolves with the attaining of The Static Viewpoint

The second great limitation of human life is ignorance. The Hindus claim that this, too, is removable. The Upanishads speak of a “knowing of That the knowledge of which brings knowledge of everything.” It is not likely that “everything” here implies literal omniscience. More probably, it refers to an insight that lays bare the point of everything. Given that summarizing insight, to ask for details would be as irrelevant as asking the number of atoms in a great painting. When the point is grasped, who cares about details? 

From the static viewpoint any anomaly can be resolved swiftly and completely.

But is transcendent knowledge even in this more restricted sense possible? Clearly, mystics think that it is. Academic psychology has not followed them all the way, but it is convinced that there is far more to the mind than appears on its surface. Psychologists liken the mind to an iceberg, most of which is invisible. What does the mind’s vast, submerged ballast contain? Some think it contains every memory and experience that has come its way, nothing being forgotten by the deep mind that never sleeps. Others, like Carl Jung, think it includes racial memories that summarize the experience of the entire human species. Psychoanalysis aims a few pinpoints of light at this mental darkness. Who is to say how far the darkness can be dispelled? 

The anomaly of the want of knowledge resolves with the attaining of a fully assimilated mental matrix.

As for life’s third limitation, its restricted being, to profitably consider this we have first to ask how the boundary of the self is to be defined. Not, certainly, by the amount of physical space our bodies occupy, the amount of water we displace in the bathtub. It makes more sense to gauge our being by the size of our spirits, the range of reality with which they identify. A man who identifies with his family, finding his joys in theirs, would have that much reality; a woman who could identify with humankind would be that much greater. By this criterion people who could identify with being as a whole would be unlimited. Yet this seems hardly right, for they would still die. The object of their concerns would continue, but they themselves would be gone.

When we identify ourself with something bigger, such as, the family or the community, the range of our reality also becomes bigger.

We need, therefore, to approach this question of being not only spatially, so to speak, but also in terms of time. Our everyday experience provides a wedge for doing so. Strictly speaking, every moment of our lives is a dying; the I of that moment dies, never to be reborn. Yet despite the fact that in this sense my life consists of nothing but funerals, I do not conceive of myself as dying each moment, for I do not equate myself with my individual moments. I endure through them—experiencing them, without being identical with any of them in its singularity. Hinduism carries this notion a step further. It posits an extensive self that lives successive lives in the way a single life lives successive moments. 

The anomaly of the want of being resolves when we identify ourselves with an extensive self that lives successive lives in the way a single life lives successive moments.

A child’s heart is broken by misfortunes we consider trivial. It identifies completely with each incident, being unable to see it against the backdrop of a whole, variable lifetime. A lot of living is required before the child can withdraw its self-identification from the individual moment and approach, thereby, adulthood. Compared with children we are mature, but compared with saints we are children. No more capable of seeing our total selves in perspective than a three-year-old who has dropped its ice cream cone, our attention is fixated on our present life span. If we could mature completely we would see that lifespan in a larger setting, one that is, actually, unending. 

If we could mature completely we would see that lifespan in a larger setting, one that is, actually, unending. 

This is the basic point in the Hindu estimate of the human condition. We have seen that psychology has accustomed us to the fact that there is more to ourselves than we suspect. Like the eighteenth century European view of the earth, our minds have their own darkest Africas, their unmapped Borneos, their Amazonian basins. Their bulk continues to await exploration. Hinduism sees the mind’s hidden continents as stretching to infinity. Infinite in being, infinite in awareness, there is nothing beyond them that remains unknown. Infinite in joy, too, for there is nothing alien to them to mar their beatitude. 

Hidden areas in the mind waiting to be explored are the unassimilated impressions. Hinduism sees them as stretching to infinity. Once they all are assimilated nothing remains unknown.

Hindu literature is studded with metaphors and parables that are designed to awaken us to the realms of gold that are hidden in the depths of our being. We are like kings who, falling victim to amnesia, wander our kingdoms in tatters not knowing who we really are. Or like a lion cub who, having become separated from its mother, is raised by sheep and takes to grazing and bleating on the assumption that it is a sheep as well. We are like a lover who, in his dream, searches the wide world in despair for his beloved, oblivious of the fact that she is lying at his side throughout.

The solution is right there within us. We just have to wake up to this realization.

What the realization of our total being is like can no more be described than can a sunset to one born blind; it must be experienced. The biographies of those who have made the discovery provide us with clues, however. These people are wiser; they have more strength and joy. They seem freer, not in the sense that they go around breaking the laws of nature (though the power to do exceptional things is often ascribed to them) but in the sense that they seem not to find the natural order confining. They seem serene, even radiant. Natural peacemakers, their love flows outward, alike to all. Contact with them strengthens and purifies. 

It is easy to recognize such realized beings living among us.

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Meaning in Creation (Judaism)

Reference: Judaism
Reference: The World’s Religions by Huston Smith

[NOTE: In color are Vinaire’s comments.]

Body and Mind must also evolve along with the spirit—in complete continuity, consistency and harmony.

In The Brothers Karamazov Dostoevsky has Ivan blurt out: “I don’t accept this world of God’s, and although I know it exists, I don’t accept it at all. It’s not that I don’t accept God, you must understand, it’s the world created by Him I don’t and cannot accept.” 

Ivan is not alone in finding God, perhaps, good, but the world not. Entire philosophies have done the same—Cynicism in Greece, Jainism in India. Judaism, by contrast, affirms the world’s goodness, arriving at that conclusion through its assumption that God created it. “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1) and pronounced it to be good. 

Most people find God, perhaps, good, but the world not. Judaism, by contrast, affirms the world’s goodness, arriving at that conclusion through its assumption that God created it. According to Hinduism, the world is simply there. It is neither good nor bad.

What does it mean to say that the universe, the entire realm of natural existence as we know it, is God-created? Philosophers might look to such a statement as explanation for the means by which the world came into being, but that is a purely cosmogonic question that has no bearing on how we live. Did the world have a first cause or not? Our answer to that question seems unrelated to the way life feels to us. 

There is another side to the affirmation that the universe is God-created, however. Approached from this second angle, the assertion speaks not to the way the earth originated but to the character of its agent. Unlike the first issue, this one affects us profoundly. Everyone at times finds himself or herself asking whether life is worthwhile, which amounts to asking whether, when the going gets rough, it makes sense to continue to live. Those who conclude that it does not make sense give up, if not once and for all by suicide, then piecemeal, by surrendering daily to the encroaching desolation of the years. Whatever else the word God may mean, it means a being in whom power and value converge, a being whose will cannot be thwarted and whose will is good. In this sense, to affirm that existence is God-created is to affirm its unimpeachable worth.

To affirm that existence is God-created is to affirm its unimpeachable worth.

There is a passage in T. S. Eliot’s The Cocktail Party that speaks to this point. Celia, who has been not just disappointed but disillusioned in love, goes to a psychiatrist for help and begins her first session with this surprising statement:

I must tell you
That I should really like to think there’s something wrong with me—
Because, if there isn’t, then there’s something wrong
With the world itself—and that’s much more frightening!
That would be terrible. So I’d rather believe
There is something wrong with me, that could be put right.

These lines speak to the most basic decision life demands. Things repeatedly go wrong in life. When they do, what are we to conclude? Ultimately, the options come down to two. One possibility is that the fault lies in the stars, dear Brutus. Many have so concluded. They range all the way from quipsters who propose that the best educational toy we could give to children is jigsaw puzzles in which no two pieces fit together, to Thomas Hardy, who inferred that the power that spawned a universe so inherently tragic must be some sort of dumb vegetable. In Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage the principal character, Philip, was given a Persian rug by a Bohemian roué who assured him that by studying the carpet he would be able to comprehend life’s meaning. The donor died, and Philip was still in the dark. How could the involved pattern of a Persian rug solve the problem of life’s meaning? When the answer finally dawned on him, it seemed obvious: Life has no meaning. “For nothing was there a why and a wherefore.”

When things repeatedly go wrong in life, one option is to blame the world.

This is one possibility. The other possibility is that when things go wrong the fault lies not in the stars but in ourselves. Neither answer can be objectively validated, but there is no doubt as to which elicits the more creative response. In the one case human beings are helpless, for their troubles stem from the botched character of existence itself, which is beyond their power to remedy. The other possibility challenges people to look closer to home—to search for causes of their problems in places where they can effect changes. Seen in this light, the Jewish affirmation that the world is God-created equipped them with a constructive premise. However desperate their lot, however deep the valley of the shadow of death they found themselves in, they never despaired of life itself. Meaning was always waiting to be won; the opportunity to respond creatively was never absent. For the world had been fashioned by the God who not only meted out the heavens with a span, but whose goodness endured forever.

The other option is never to despair of life itself but to search for causes of problems in places where changes can be effected. 

Thus far we have been speaking of the Jewish estimate of creation as a whole, but one element in the biblical account deserves special attention: its regard for nature—the physical, material component of existence. 

Much of Greek thought takes a dim view of matter. Likewise Indian philosophy, which considers matter a barbarian, spoiling everything it touches. Salvation in such contexts involves freeing the soul from its material container. 

In Judaism, we see regard for nature—the physical, material component of existence. Whereas, Hinduism takes a dim view of matter—something barbarian that spoils everything it touches. Hinduism can improve in this regard.

How different the first chapter of Genesis, which (as we have seen) opens with the words “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,” emphasis now added, and climaxes with God reviewing “everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good.” We ought to let our minds dwell on that adjective “very,” for it gives a lilt to the entire Jewish, and subsequently Western, view of nature. Pressing for meaning in every direction, the Jews refused to abandon the physical aspects of existence as illusory, defective, or unimportant. Fresh as the morning of Creation, nature was to be relished. The abundance of food made the Promised Land “a good land, a land with flowing streams, with springs and underground waters welling up in valleys and hills, a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey, a land where you may eat bread without scarcity” (Deuteronomy 8:7–8). Sex, too, was good. An occasional minority movement like the Essenes might have concluded the opposite, but Jews as a whole hold marriage in high regard. The entire assumption behind the prophets’ denunciation of the inequalities of wealth that confronted them was the reverse of the opinion that possessions are bad. They are so good that more people should have more of them. 

The Jews refused to abandon the physical aspects of existence as illusory, defective, or unimportant. Fresh as the morning of Creation, nature was to be relished. Sex, too, was good, and Jews as a whole hold marriage in high regard.

Such an affirmative and buoyant attitude toward nature does seem to set Judaism off from India’s basic outlook. It does not, however, distinguish it from East Asia, where the appreciation of nature is profound. What divides the Hebraic from the Chinese view of nature does not come out until we note a third verse in this crucial first chapter of Genesis. In verse 26 God says of the people he intends to create: “Let them have dominion…over all the earth.” How much this differs from the Chinese attitude toward nature can be seen by recalling its opposite sentiment in the Tao Te Ching:

Those who would take over the earth
And shape it to their will
Never, I notice, succeed.

Material nature is part of the whole system. It should evolve just as the spirit is evolving—in complete continuity, consistency and harmony.

If we propositionalize the three key assertions about nature in the opening chapter of Genesis—

God created the earth;
let [human beings] have dominion over the earth;
behold, it was very good…

—we find an appreciation of nature, blended with confidence in human powers to work with it for the good, that in its time was exceptional. It was, as we well know, an attitude that was destined to bear fruit, for it is no accident that modern science first emerged in the Western world. Archbishop William Temple used to say that Judaism and its offspring, Christianity, are the most materialistic religions in the world. When Islam is added to the list, the Semitically originated religions emerge as exceptional in insisting that human beings are ineradicably body as well as spirit and that this coupling is not a liability. From this basic premise three corollaries follow: (1) that the material aspects of life are important (hence the strong emphasis in the West on humanitarianism and social service); (2) that matter can participate in the condition of salvation itself (affirmed by the doctrine of the Resurrection of the Body); and (3) that nature can host the Divine (the Kingdom of God is to come “on Earth,” to which Christianity adds its doctrine of the Incarnation).

Humans are extension of nature. Human powers should work for the evolution of spirit, mind and body, and not just of the spirit as emphasized in Hinduism. Spirit does not exist alone. The existence of spirit is intimately tied with the existence of mind and body.

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What People Really Want (Hinduism)

Reference: Hinduism
Reference: The World’s Religions by Huston Smith

[NOTE: In color are Vinaire’s comments.]

Judaism thinks that the Eternal is external. But Hinduism says that the Eternal is internal.

“There comes a time,” Aldous Huxley wrote, “when one asks even of Shakespeare, even of Beethoven, is this all?”

It is difficult to think of a sentence that identifies Hinduism’s attitude toward the world more precisely. The world’s offerings are not bad. By and large they are good. Some of them are good enough to command our enthusiasm for many lifetimes. Eventually, however, every human being comes to realize with Simone Weil that “there is no true good here below, that everything that appears to be good in this world is finite, limited, wears out, and once worn out, leaves necessity exposed in all its nakedness.” When this point is reached, one finds oneself asking even of the best this world can offer, “Is this all?”

Eventually, every human being comes to realize that everything that appears to be good in this world is finite, limited, and wears out.

This is the moment Hinduism has been waiting for. As long as people are content with the prospect of pleasure, success, or service, the Hindu sage will not be likely to disturb them beyond offering some suggestions as to how to proceed more effectively. The critical point in life comes when these things lose their original charm and one finds oneself wishing that life had something more to offer. Whether life does or does not hold more is probably the question that divides people more sharply than any other.

Hinduism enters the picture only after the prospect of pleasure, success, or service lose their original charm and one finds oneself wishing that life had something more to offer. 

The Hindu answer to the question is unequivocal. Life holds other possibilities. To see what these are we must return to the question of what people want. Thus far, Hinduism would say, we have been answering this question too superficially. Pleasure, success, and duty are never humanity’s ultimate goals. At best they are means that we assume will take us in the direction of what we really want. What we really want are things that lie at a deeper level.

Hinduism maintains that pleasure, success, and duty are never humanity’s ultimate goals. What we really want are things that lie at a deeper level.

First, we want being. Everyone wants to be rather than not be; normally, no one wants to die. A World War II correspondent once described the atmosphere of a room containing thirty-five men who had been assigned to a bombing mission from which, on average, only one-fourth returned. What he felt in those men, the correspondent noted, was not so much fear as “a profound reluctance to give up the future.” Their sentiment holds for us all, the Hindus would say. None of us take happily to the thought of a future in which we shall have no part.

Everyone wants to be rather than not be. None of us take happily to the thought of a future in which we shall have no part.

Second, we want to know. Whether it be scientists probing the secrets of nature, a typical family watching the nightly news, or neighbors catching up on local gossip, we are insatiably curious. Experiments have shown that even monkeys will work longer and harder to discover what is on the other side of a trapdoor than they will for either food or sex.

Everyone wants to know. We are insatiably curious.

The third thing people seek is joy, a feeling tone that is the opposite of frustration, futility, and boredom. 

Everyone seeks joy.

These are what people really want. To which we should add, if we are to complete the Hindu answer, that they want these things infinitely. A distinctive feature of human nature is its capacity to think of something that has no limits: the infinite. This capacity affects all human life, as de Chirico’s painting “Nostalgia of the Infinite” poignantly suggests. Mention any good, and we can imagine more of it—and, so imagining, want that more. Medical science has doubled life expectancy, but has living twice as long made people readier to die? To state the full truth, then, we must say that what people would really like to have is infinite being, infinite knowledge, and infinite bliss. They might have to settle for less, but this is what they really want. To gather the wants into a single word, what people really want is liberation (moksha)—release from the finitude that restricts us from the limitless being, consciousness, and bliss our hearts desire. 

Everyone want these things infinitely—infinite being, infinite knowledge, and infinite bliss.

Pleasure, success, responsible discharge of duty, and liberation—we have completed the circuit of what people think they want and what they want in actuality. This takes us back to the staggering conclusion with which our survey of Hinduism began. What people most want, that they can have. Infinite being, infinite awareness, and infinite bliss are within their reach. Even so, the most startling statement yet awaits. Not only are these goods within peoples’ reach, says Hinduism. People already possess them. 

Hinduism asserts that people already possess these things.

For what is a human being? A body? Certainly, but anything else? A personality that includes mind, memories, and propensities that have derived from a unique trajectory of life-experiences? This, too, but anything more? Some say no, but Hinduism disagrees. Underlying the human self and animating it is a reservoir of being that never dies, is never exhausted, and is unrestricted in consciousness and bliss. This infinite center of every life, this hidden self or Atman, is no less than Brahman, the Godhead. Body, personality, and Atman-Brahman—a human self is not completely accounted for until all three are noted. 

According to Hinduism, underlying the human self and animating it is a reservoir of being that never dies, is never exhausted, and is unrestricted in consciousness and bliss.

But if this is true and we really are infinite in our being, why is this not apparent? Why do we not act accordingly? “I don’t feel particularly unlimited today,” one may be prompted to observe. “And my neighbor—I haven’t noticed his behavior to be exactly Godlike.” How can the Hindu hypothesis withstand the evidence of the morning newspaper?

The answer, say the Hindus, lies in the depth at which the Eternal is buried under the almost impenetrable mass of distractions, false assumptions, and self-regarding instincts that comprise our surface selves. A lamp can be covered with dust and dirt to the point of obscuring its light completely. The problem life poses for the human self is to cleanse the dross of its being to the point where its infinite center can shine forth in full display. 

The problem is that the Eternal is buried under the almost impenetrable mass of distractions, false assumptions, and self-regarding instincts that comprise our surface selves.

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Meaning in God (Judaism)

Reference: Judaism
Reference: The World’s Religions by Huston Smith

[NOTE: In color are Vinaire’s comments.]

Judaism provides a conception of God that was unique and much needed for the times, but it contains assumptions that close the door to many possibilities and future discoveries.

“In the beginning God….” From beginning to end, the Jewish quest for meaning was rooted in their understanding of God. 

Unlike Hinduism, the Jewish quest for meaning is rooted in their understanding of God.

Whatever a peoples’ philosophy, it must take account of the “other.” There are two reasons for this. First, no one seriously claims to be self-created; and as they are not, other people (being likewise human) did not bring themselves into being either. From this it follows that humankind has issued from something other than itself. Second, everyone at some point finds his or her power limited. It may be a rock too large to lift, or a tidal wave that sweeps one’s village away. Add therefore to the Other from which one has issued, a generalized Other that underscores one’s limitations.

Judaism starts out with the assumption that nothing in this world is self-created or unlimited, and concludes that there is an “other” beyond this world that is self-created and unlimited. This makes the later discovery of evolution controversial in Judaism. In comparison, Hinduism makes no such assumption and it does not look at the concept of evolution as controversial.

Merging these two ineluctable “others,” people wonder if it is meaningful. Four characteristics could keep it from being so; if it were prosaic, chaotic, amoral, or hostile. The triumph of Jewish thought lies in its refusal to surrender meaning to any of these alternatives. 

The Jews resisted the prosaic by personifying the “Other.” In this they were at one with their ancient contemporaries. The concept of the inanimate—brute dead matter governed by blind, impersonal laws—is a late projection. For early peoples the sun that could bless or scorch, the earth that gave of its fertility, the gentle rains and the terrible storms, the mystery of birth and the reality of death were not to be explained as clots of matter regulated by mechanical laws. They were parts of a world that was pervaded by feeling and purpose throughout.

Judaism assumes human-like characteristics for the “Other”. This is a completely arbitrary assumption. Judaism also projects matter to be completely inanimate and dead. This goes against the discoveries of chemical, electrical and quantum nature of matter.

It is easy to smile at the anthropomorphism of the early Hebrews, who could imagine ultimate reality as a person walking in the garden of Eden in the cool of the morning. But when we make our way through the poetic concreteness of the perspective to its underlying claim—that in the final analysis ultimate reality is more like a person than like a thing, more like a mind than like a machine—we must ask ourselves two questions. First, what is the evidence against this hypothesis? It seems to be so completely lacking that as knowledgeable a philosopher-scientist as Alfred North Whitehead could embrace the hypothesis without reserve. Second, is the concept intrinsically less exalted than its alternative? The Jews were reaching out for the most exalted concept of the Other that they could conceive, an Other that embodied such inexhaustible worth that human beings would never begin to fathom its fullness. The Jews found greater depth and mystery in people than in any of the other wonders at hand. How could they be true to this conviction of the Other’s worth except by extending and deepening the category of the personal to include it?

The Jews were reaching out for the most exalted concept of the Other that they could conceive. So they extended and deepened the category of the personal to include it. But how can an “other” that is beyond this world, have a worldly form? Evidence against this assumption are the obvious anomalies that it creates.

Where the Jews differed from their neighbors was not in envisioning the Other as personal but in focusing its personalism in a single, supreme, nature-transcending will. For the Egyptians, Babylonians, Syrians, and lesser Mediterranean peoples of the day, each major power of nature was a distinct deity. The storm was the storm-god, the sun the sun-god, the rain the rain-god. When we turn to the Hebrew Bible we find ourselves in a completely different atmosphere. Nature here is an expression of a single Lord of all being. As an authority on polytheism in the ancient Middle East has written:

When we read in Psalm 19 that “The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament showeth his handiwork,” we hear a voice which mocks the beliefs of Egyptians and Babylonians. The heavens, which were to the psalmist a witness of God’s greatness, were to the Mesopotamians the very majesty of godhead, the highest ruler, Anu. To the Egyptians the heavens signified the mystery of the divine mother through whom man was reborn. In Egypt and Mesopotamia the divine was comprehended as immanent: the gods were in nature. The Egyptians saw in the sun all that a man may know of the creator; the Mesopotamians viewed the sun as the god Shamash, the guarantor of justice. But to the psalmist the sun was God’s devoted servant who is as a bridegroom coming out of his chamber, and “rejoiceth as a strong man to run a race.” The God of the psalmists and the prophets was not in nature. He transcended nature…. It would seem that the Hebrews, no less than the Greeks, broke with the mode of speculation which had prevailed up to their time.

Judaism, however, was unique, in the civilization surrounding it, in introducing a single, supreme, nature-transcending will. The God of the psalmists and the prophets was not in nature. He transcended nature. It simplified all the speculation which had prevailed up to their time. 

This is very similar to the single and unique “impulse to evolve” (Brahma) in Hinduism that imbibes all nature. This impulse is distinct, yet it identifies the fundamental nature of all existence. But Hinduism patiently embraces a long drawn evolution; while Judaism rushes with a simple formula to explain everything.

Though the Hebrew Bible contains references to gods other than Yahweh (misread Jehovah in many translations), this does not upset the claim that the basic contribution of Judaism to the religious thought of the Middle East was monotheism. For a close reading of the text shows that these other gods differed from Yahweh in two respects. First, they owed their origin to Yahweh—“You are gods, children of the Most High, all of you” (Psalm 82:6). Second, unlike Yahweh, they were mortal—“You shall die like mortals, and fall like any prince” (Psalm 82:7). These differences are clearly of sufficient importance to place the God of Israel in a category that differs from that of the other gods, not merely in degree but in kind. They are not Yahweh’s rivals; they are God’s subordinates. From a very early date, possibly from the very beginning of the biblical record, the Jews were monotheists. 

The Jews were monotheists. But Hindus were neither monotheists nor polytheists because they were never theists in the first place.

The significance of this achievement in religious thought lies ultimately in the focus it introduces into life. If God is that to which one gives oneself unreservedly, to have more than one God is to live a life of divided loyalties. If life is to be whole; if one is not to spend one’s days darting from one cosmic bureaucrat to another to discover who’s in charge that day; if, in short, there is a consistent way in which life is to be lived if it is to move toward fulfillment, a way that can be searched out and approximated, there must be a singleness to the Other that supports this way. That there is, has been the foundation of Jewish belief. “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One” (Deuteronomy 6:4).

A person needs some certainty in a confusion to stabilize himself. The monotheism of Judaism provided that certainty. It was a way out of the confusion of life for many people. Monotheism has been the foundation of Judaism.

There remains the question of whether the Other, now seen as personal and ultimately one, was either amoral or hostile. If it were either, this too could frustrate meaning. Interpersonal life obviously flows more smoothly when people behave morally; but if ultimate reality does not support such behavior, if the world is such that morality does not pay, people face an impasse as to how to live. As to the Other’s disposition toward people, its power so obviously outweighs human power that if its intents run counter to human well-being, human life, far from being fully meaningful, can be nothing but a game of cat-and-mouse. This insight caused Lucretius, a short distance around the Mediterranean in Rome, to preach atheism on grounds that were actually religious. If the gods are as the Roman believed them to be—immoral, vindictive, and capricious—meaningful existence requires that they be opposed or rejected.

The God of Jews was not immoral, vindictive, and capricious as the Roman gods were.

The God of the Jews possessed none of these traits, which in greater or lesser degree characterized the gods of their neighbors. It is here that we come to the supreme achievement of Jewish thought—not in its monotheism as such, but in the character it ascribed to the God it intuited as One. The Greeks, the Romans, the Syrians, and most of the other Mediterranean peoples would have said two things about their gods’ characters. First, they tend to be amoral; second, toward humankind they are preponderantly indifferent. The Jews reversed the thinking of their contemporaries on both these counts. Whereas the gods of Olympus tirelessly pursued beautiful women, the God of Sinai watched over widows and orphans. While Mesopotamia’s Anu and Canaan’s El were pursuing their aloof ways, Yahweh speaks the name of Abraham, lifting his people out of slavery, and (in Ezekiel’s vision) seeks out the lonely, heartsick Jewish exiles in Babylon. God is a God of righteousness, whose loving-kindness is from everlasting to everlasting and whose tender mercies are in all his works.

Yahweh of the Jews was a God of righteousness, whose loving-kindness is from everlasting to everlasting and whose tender mercies are in all his works.

Such, then, was the Hebrews’ conception of the Other that confronts human beings. It is not prosaic, for at its center sits enthroned a Being of awesome majesty. It is not chaotic, for it coheres in a divine unity. The reverse of amoral or indifferent, it centers in a God of righteousness and love. Are we surprised, then, to find the Jew exclaiming with the exultation of frontier discovery: “Who is like you among the gods, O Yahweh?” “What great nation has a God like the Lord?”

It was a conception of God that was unique in that it promised an actual presence; it gave hope; and it brought stability and order into people’s life. 

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What People Want (Hinduism)

Reference: Hinduism
Reference: The World’s Religions by Huston Smith

[NOTE: In color are Vinaire’s comments.]

Hinduism is examining, right from the outset, what is limited and what could be unlimited.

If we were to take Hinduism as a whole—its vast literature, its complicated rituals, its sprawling folkways, its opulent art—and compress it into a single affirmation, we would find it saying: You can have what you want. 

This sounds promising, but it throws the problem back in our laps. For what do we want? It is easy to give a simple answer—not easy to give a good one. India has lived with this question for ages and has her answer waiting. People, she says, want four things.

There is no simple answer to what people want.

They begin by wanting pleasure. This is natural. We are all born with built-in pleasure-pain reactors. If we ignored these, leaving our hands on hot stoves or stepping out of second-story windows, we would soon die. What could be more obvious, then, than to follow the promptings of pleasure and entrust our lives to it?

Pleasure and pain definitely guide many of our actions.

Having heard—for it is commonly alleged—that India is ascetic, otherworldly, and life-denying, we might expect her attitude toward hedonists to be scolding, but it is not. To be sure, India has not made pleasure her highest good, but this is different from condemning enjoyment. To the person who wants pleasure, India says in effect: Go after it—there is nothing wrong with it; it is one of the four legitimate ends of life. The world is awash with beauty and heavy with sensual delights. Moreover, there are worlds above this one where pleasures increase by powers of a million at each rung, and these worlds, too, we shall experience in due course. Like everything else, hedonism requires good sense. Not every impulse can be followed with impunity. Small immediate goals must be sacrificed for long-range gains, and impulses that would injure others must be curbed to avoid antagonisms and remorse. Only the stupid will lie, steal, or cheat for immediate profit, or succumb to addictions. But as long as the basic rules of morality are obeyed, you are free to seek all the pleasure you want. Far from condemning pleasure, Hindu texts house pointers on how to enlarge its scope. To simple people who seek pleasure almost exclusively, Hinduism presents itself as little more than a regimen for ensuring health and prosperity; while at the other end of the spectrum, for sophisticates, it elaborates a sensual aesthetic that shocks in its explicitness. If pleasure is what you want, do not suppress the desire. Seek it intelligently.

As long as the basic rules of morality are obeyed, you are free to seek all the pleasure you want. If pleasure is what you want, do not suppress the desire. Seek it intelligently.

This India says, and waits. It waits for the time—it will come to everyone, though not to everyone in one’s present life—when one realizes that pleasure is not all that one wants. The reason everyone eventually comes to this discovery is not because pleasure is wicked, but because it is too trivial to satisfy one’s total nature. Pleasure is essentially private, and the self is too small an object for perpetual enthusiasm. Søren Kierkegaard tried for a while what he called the aesthetic life, which made enjoyment its guiding principle, only to experience its radical failure, which he described in Sickness Unto Death. “In the bottomless ocean of pleasure,” he wrote in his Journal, “I have sounded in vain for a spot to cast anchor. I have felt the almost irresistible power with which one pleasure drags another after it, the kind of adulterated enthusiasm which it is capable of producing, the boredom, the torment which follow.” Even playboys—a type seldom credited with profundity—have been known to conclude, as one did recently, that “The glamour of yesterday I have come to see as tinsel.” Sooner or later everyone wants to experience more than a kaleidoscope of momentary pleasures, however delectable.

Pleasure alone is too trivial to satisfy one’s total nature. Sooner or later everyone wants to experience more than a kaleidoscope of momentary pleasures, however delectable.

When this time comes the individual’s interests usually shift to the second major goal of life, which is worldly success with its three prongs of wealth, fame, and power. This too is a worthy goal, to be neither scorned nor condemned. Moreover, its satisfactions last longer, for (unlike pleasure) success is a social achievement, and as such it involves the lives of others. For this reason it commands a scope and importance that pleasure cannot boast.

This point does not have to be argued for a contemporary Western audience. The Anglo-American temperament is not voluptuous. Visitors from abroad do not find English-speaking peoples enjoying life a great deal, or much bent on doing so—they are too busy. Being enamored not of sensualism but of success, what takes arguing in the West is not that achievement’s rewards exceed those of the senses but that success too has its limitations—that “What is he worth?” does not come down to “How much has he got?”

Beyond pleasure, seeking worldly success (wealth, fame, and power) is a worthy goal, but this too has its limitations.

India acknowledges that drives for power, position, and possessions run deep. Nor should they be disparaged per se. A modicum of worldly success is indispensable for supporting a household and discharging civic duties responsibly. Beyond this minimum, worldly achievements confer dignity and self-respect. In the end, however, these rewards too have their term. For they all harbor limitations that we can detail:

1. Wealth, fame, and power are exclusive, hence competitive, hence precarious. Unlike mental and spiritual values, they do not multiply when shared; they cannot be distributed without diminishing one’s own portion. If I own a dollar, that dollar is not yours; while I am sitting on a chair, you cannot occupy it. Similarly with fame and power. The idea of a nation in which everyone is famous is a contradiction in terms; and if power were distributed equally, no one would be powerful in the sense in which we customarily use the word. From the competitiveness of these goods to their precariousness is a short step. As other people want them too, who knows when success will change hands?

Wealth, fame, and power are exclusive and competitive. Hence they are precarious.

2. The drive for success is insatiable. A qualification is needed here, for people do get enough money, fame, and power. It is when they make these things their chief ambition that their lusts cannot be satisfied. For these are not the things people really want, and people can never get enough of what they do not really want. In Hindu idiom, “To try to extinguish the drive for riches with money is like trying to quench a fire by pouring butter over it.”

The West, too, knows this point. “Poverty consists, not in the decrease of one’s possessions, but in the increase of one’s greed,” wrote Plato, and Gregory Nazianzen, a theologian, concurs: “Could you from all the world all wealth procure, more would remain, whose lack would leave you poor.” “Success is a goal without a satiation point,” a psychologist has recently written, and sociologists who studied a midwestern town found “both business men and working men running for dear life in the business of making the money they earn keep pace with the even more rapid growth of their subjective wants.” It was from India that the West appropriated the parable of the donkey driver who kept his beast moving by dangling before it a carrot attached to a stick that was fixed to its own harness.

When worldly success becomes the chief ambition, then the lusts cannot be satisfied.

3. The third problem with worldly success is identical with that of hedonism. It too centers meaning in the self, which proves to be too small for perpetual enthusiasm. Neither fortune nor station can obscure the realization that one lacks so much else. In the end everyone wants more from life than a country home, a sports car, and posh vacations. 

Neither fortune nor station can obscure the realization that one lacks so much else.

4. The final reason why worldly success cannot satisfy us completely is that its achievements are ephemeral. Wealth, fame, and power do not survive bodily death—“You can’t take it with you,” as we routinely say. And since we cannot, this keeps these things from satisfying us wholly, for we are creatures who can envision eternity and must instinctively rue by contrast the brief purchase on time that worldly success commands.

The achievements of worldly success are ephemeral. “You can’t take it with you.”

Before proceeding to the other two things that Hinduism sees people wanting, it will be well to summarize the ones considered thus far. Hindus locate pleasure and success on the Path of Desire. They use this phrase because the personal desires of the individual have thus far been foremost in charting life’s course. Other goals lie ahead, but this does not mean that we should berate these preliminaries. Nothing is gained by repressing desires wholesale or pretending that we do not have them. As long as pleasure and success is what we think we want, we should seek them, remembering only the provisos of prudence and fair play.

As long as pleasure and success is what we think we want, we should seek them, remembering only the provisos of prudence and fair play. 

The guiding principle is not to turn from desire until desire turns from you, for Hinduism regards the objects of the Path of Desire as if they were toys. If we ask ourselves whether there is anything wrong with toys, our answer must be: On the contrary, the thought of children without them is sad. Even sadder, however, is the prospect of adults who fail to develop interests more significant than dolls and trains. By the same token, individuals whose development is not arrested will move through delighting in success and the senses to the point where their attractions have been largely outgrown.

Hinduism regards the objects of the Path of Desire as if they were toys. Children must have them, but they also must outgrow them.

But what greater attractions does life afford? Two, say the Hindus. In contrast with the Path of Desire, they constitute the Path of Renunciation. 

The word renunciation has a negative ring, and India’s frequent use of it has been one of the factors in earning for it the reputation of being a life-denying spoilsport. But renunciation has two faces. It can stem from disillusionment and despair, the feeling that it’s not worthwhile to extend oneself; but equally it can signal the suspicion that life holds more than one is now experiencing. Here we find the back-to-nature people—who renounce affluence to gain freedom from social rounds and the glut of things—but this is only the beginning. If renunciation always entails the sacrifice of a trivial now for a more promising yet-to-be, religious renunciation is like that of athletes who resist indulgences that could deflect them from their all-consuming goal. Exact opposite of disillusionment, renunciation in this second mode is evidence that the life force is strongly at work.

Beyond the Path of Desire lies the Path of Renunciation. Renunciation is not some life-denying spoilsport. It actually restores life.

We must never forget that Hinduism’s Path of Renunciation comes after the Path of Desire. If people could be satisfied by following their impulses, the thought of renunciation would never arise. Nor does it occur only to those who have failed on the former path—the disappointed lover who enters a monastery or nunnery to compensate. We can agree with the disparagers that for such people renunciation is a salvaging act—the attempt to make the best of personal defeat. What forces us to listen attentively to Hinduism’s hypothesis is the testimony of those who stride the Path of Desire famously and still find themselves wishing for more than it offers. These people—not the ones who renounce but the ones who see nothing to renounce for—are the world’s real pessimists. For to live, people must believe in that for the sake of which they live. As long as they sense no futility in pleasure and success, they can believe that those are worth living for. But if, as Tolstoy points out in his Confessions, they can no longer believe in the finite, they will believe in the infinite or they will die.

When one starts to sense futility in pleasure and success, the novelty has worn off, and one has stopped evolving.

Let us be clear. Hinduism does not say that everyone in his or her present life will find the Path of Desire wanting. For against a vast time scale, Hinduism draws a distinction the West too is familiar with—that between chronological and psychological age. Two people, both forty-six, are the same age chronologically, but psychologically one may be still a child and the other an adult. The Hindus extend this distinction to cover multiple life spans, a point we shall take up explicitly when we come to the idea of reincarnation. As a consequence we shall find men and women who play the game of desire with all the zest of nine-year-old cops and robbers; though they know little else, they will die with the sense of having lived to the full and enter their verdict that life is good. But equally, there will be others who play this game as ably, yet find its laurels paltry. Why the difference? The enthusiasts, say the Hindus, are caught in the flush of novelty, whereas the others, having played the game over and over again, seek other worlds to conquer.

The Path of Renunciation is to renounce that which is fixating one’s attention. The most basic impulse is to evolve. One stops evolving when one has become fixated. Renunciation frees up the stuck attention.

We can describe the typical experience of this second type. The world’s visible rewards still attract them strongly. They throw themselves into enjoyment, enlarging their holdings and advancing their status. But neither the pursuit nor the attainment brings true happiness. Some of the things they want they fail to get, and this makes them miserable. Some they get and hold onto for a while, only to have them suddenly snatched away, and again they are miserable. Some they both get and keep, only to find that (like the Christmases of many adolescents) they do not bring the joy that was expected. Many experiences that thrilled on first encounter pall on the hundredth. Throughout, each attainment seems to fan the flames of new desire; none satisfies fully; and all, it becomes evident, perish with time. Eventually, there comes over them the suspicion that they are caught on a treadmill, having to run faster and faster for rewards that mean less and less.

A person is fixated when he is caught on a treadmill, having to run faster and faster for rewards that mean less and less.

When that suspicion dawns and they find themselves crying, “Vanity, vanity, all is vanity!” it may occur to them that the problem stems from the smallness of the self they have been scrambling to serve.

The problem stems from the smallness of the self he has been scrambling to serve.

What if the focus of their concern were shifted? Might not becoming a part of a larger, more significant whole relieve life of its triviality? 

The solution is to become part of a larger, more significant whole.

That question announces the birth of religion. For though in some watered-down sense there may be a religion of self-worship, true religion begins with the quest for meaning and value beyond self-centeredness. It renounces the ego’s claims to finality.

True religion begins with the quest for meaning and value beyond self-centeredness.

But what is this renunciation for? The question brings us to the two signposts on the Path of Renunciation. The first of these reads “the community,” as the obvious candidate for something greater than ourselves. In supporting at once our own life and the lives of others, the community has an importance no single life can command. Let us, then, transfer our allegiance to it, giving its claims priority over our own. 

The obvious candidate for something greater than ourselves is the community.

This transfer marks the first great step in religion. It produces the religion of duty, after pleasure and success the third great aim of life in the Hindu outlook. Its power over the mature is tremendous. Myriads have transformed the will-to-get into the will-to-give, the will-to-win into the will-to-serve. Not to triumph but to do their best—to acquit themselves responsibly, whatever the task at hand—has become their prime objective.

After pleasure and success the third great aim of life in the Hindu outlook is the religion of duty.

Hinduism abounds in directives to people who would put their shoulders to the social wheel. It details duties appropriate to age, temperament, and social status. These will be examined in subsequent sections. Here we need only repeat what was said in connection with pleasure and success: Duty, too, yields notable rewards, only to leave the human spirit unfilled. Its rewards require maturity to be appreciated, but given maturity, they are substantial. Faithful performance of duty brings respect and gratitude from one’s peers. More important, however, is the self-respect that comes from doing one’s part. But in the end even these rewards prove insufficient. For even when time turns community into history, history, standing alone, is finite and hence ultimately tragic. It is tragic not only because it must end—eventually history, too, will die—but in its refusal to be perfected. Hope and history are always light-years apart. The final human good must lie elsewhere. 

However, the religion of duty also has its limitations. The final human good must lie elsewhere. 

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