When we get the basics wrong, more advanced points are sure to elude us.
I am utterly fascinated by how frequently major mainstream media cover God, religion, and spirituality. I am even more amazed at how consistently they get it wrong. Not wrong in the sense that only atheistic views are presented. Rather, wrong in the sense that they fail to get to the real essence of these topics.
A case in point: On March 27, 2010 the Wall Street Journal, a newspaper whose stock and trade is business reporting, ran an Opinion article by Lionel Tiger entitled, “Is the Supernatural Only Natural? Religion tastes sweet to the brain – especially the remarkable idea of an afterlife.” While I appreciate the distinction Tiger makes between atheistic writers and the “relatively friendly challenges to religious supernaturality from research on the links between the brain and religious experience,” Tiger discusses only secondary considerations of religious experience, neglecting the spirit soul.
He frames his argument about religious identity by posing this question, “What if it is discovered that the source and essence of this identity results not from theological commitment and texts but from operations of the brain?” But looking at religion as a social phenomenon or measuring the psychological and physiological effects of religious practices misses the point. The essence of religious identity is not the body or mind, but the spirit soul.
The spirit soul is described in the Bhagavad-gita as completely transcendental to both the gross body composed of earth, water, fire, air, and ether, and the subtle body composed of mind, intelligence and false ego. Essential considerations of God, religion, and spiritually must start from this transcendental position of the spirit soul, not peripheral considerations of “the moist meat in our skull,” as Tiger describes the brain.
Srila Prabhupada said it best with his repetition, “You are not the body.” He also gave a simple, yet surprisingly profound way that anyone can understand the essential nature of the spirit soul. In the very early days of the Hare Krishna movement, the devotees in San Francisco arranged a speaking engagement for Srila Prabhupada at a local YMCA. The audience turned out to be entirely made up of children between nine and fourteen years old:
"Is there a student here who is intelligent?" Prabhupada began. No one responded. After a moment a twelve-year-old boy, urged by his teachers and fellow students, raised his hand. Prabhupada motioned for him to come forward. The boy wore thick glasses, short pants, and a blazer, and his hair was combed back very neatly. Pointing to the boy's head, Prabhupada asked, "What is that?"
The boy almost scoffed at the simpleness of the question: "My head!"
Prabhupada then pointed to the boy's arm and said quietly, "What is that?"
"My arm!" the boy said.
Prabhupada then pointed to the boy's foot: "What is that?"
"My foot," the boy answered, still looking incredulous.
"Yes," Srila Prabhupada said. "You say this is my head, my arm, my foot-my body. But where are you?" The boy stood perplexed, unable to answer Prabhupada 's simple question.
"We say my hand," Srila Prabhupada continued, "but who is the owner of my hand? We say my hand, so that means someone owns my hand. But where does the owner live? I do not say "I hand,' I say "my hand.' So my hand and I are different. I am within my body, and you are within your body. But I am not my body, and you are not your body. We are different from the body. Real intelligence means to know who I am."
(From Srila Prabhupada-lilamrta by Satsvarupa das Goswami)
The lesson of this simple story applies to all people, all places, and all of the “4200 religious organizations” throughout the world that Tiger refers to in his article. People get spirituality wrong because they miss this simple point which Srila Prabhupada taught with such genius.
In mathematics if you make a primary error in adding 2 + 2 the most complex subsequent calculations cannot help you answer a problem correctly. Similarly, once you get it wrong about the spirit soul as the essence of religious identity, no matter how you frame the question your answer will be wrong. When Tiger poses and then attempts to answer the question, “What if it is discovered that the source and essence of this identity results not from theological commitment and texts but from operations of the brain?” he makes such a fundamental error.
Tiger actually encourages those who would attempt to disprove the reality of God, by his focus on secondary considerations. On the level of spirit soul there is commonality amongst all being. When this commonality is neglected the secondary considerations of bodily and doctrinal differences become more prominent. These differences in Tiger’s words can result in “terrorist attacks, internecine wars, and even genocide.” Tiger has no response, and the human history of religious strife tends to disprove the efficacy of God. But, there is a response to this quandary.
Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura gives a response from the perspective of the spirit soul in his 19th century work, Sri Caitanya-siksamrta.
“People in various countries on various continents have a wide variety of natures. Although their principal nature is only one, their secondary characteristics are many – you will not find any two people in the world who have identical secondary qualities. Different countries have different water, air, mountains, forests, and different eatables and clothing. Because of this, the people of these places have naturally developed different physiques, complexions, customs, clothing and food. Similarly, people’s mentalities differ. Thus various people’s idea of God, though being basically similar, will differ in secondary details. This gives rise to differences in the mode of worship of God. Considered objectively, there is no harm in secondary differences. If there is agreement concerning the essential nature of God and his worship, there should be no obstacle in attaining the same result.”
If our focus remains only on the secondary considerations, in ignorance of the primary spirit soul, then yes, our commonality will be overlooked and our differences will bring out the worst in man.
Tiger’s misplaced focus also leaves believers bereft of genuine inspiration. He refers us to scientists who study the link between the brain and religious experience and postulate that there is “a strange but durable connection between surviving in this world and contemplating another. There may or may not be such a world, but our sapient brain finds the idea easy to learn and entertain. Religion tastes sweet to the brain-especially the remarkable idea of an afterlife that holds people accountable for their sweaty and ambiguous earthly lives and rewards or deprives them elsewhere.” Such a focus on the secondary considerations, albeit with a favorable intent toward religious experiences, reduces these topics to the realm of imagination, or at best cause and effect chemical reactions. I find it hard to be truly inspired by these explanations.
Thankfully, a response from the perspective of the spirit soul is given in the ancient Sanskrit treatise Sri Brahma-samhita. "I worship Govinda, the primeval Lord, who is adept on playing on His flute, with blooming eyes like lotus petals, with head bedecked with peacock feather, with the figure of beauty tinged with the hue of blue clouds, and His unique loveliness charming millions of gopis." (Sri Brahma-samhita, Chapter 5, Text 2)
Srila Prabhupada explains two important lessons from this passage on primary and secondary considerations of God. First he says, “The form of Krishna is not a fanciful creation of imagination formed after visualizing the beautiful things of the world like the poet or the artist. When Brahma saw in his ecstasy trance of pure devotion, He is being described.” Knowledge of God is primeval, archetypal, and this world is a secondary reflection.
Second, he points out that God is the original seer and our ability to see is secondary or depends upon God’s vision, “Krishna is engaged in playing upon His flute, that attracts the hearts of all living beings. Just as a lotus petal produces a pleasant sight, so the two beautiful eyes of Krishna, who causes the manifestation of our spiritual vision, display the unlimited splendor and beauty of His moon-like face.” The conclusion that God has his own transcendental existence beyond the cause and effect of the brain is much more inspirational for me.
It’s more than just inspirational, it’s gets to the essence of God, religion, and spirituality. It’s getting it right! Everyone knows it’s wrong to put the cart before the horse, but when speaking about God, religion, and spirituality people put social phenomenon and the psychological and physiological effects of religious practices ahead of the spirit soul all the time. It's time to get our priorities straight.