I will begin with an anecdote from my waning days as a Hare Krishna devotee. The year was 1979 and at the time I was living in Los Angeles near the temple at Watseka Avenue. Our guru, A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami, had died in 1977, and we were still adjusting to life without our “Spiritual Master.” Many of us felt like we were in a whirlpool clinging to the sides of our boat. Years of unquestioning obedience to our guru and his hand-picked inner circle could not be sustained in his absence and so, like cave dwellers suddenly exposed to sunlight after years of semi-darkness, we were left rubbing our eyes in disbelief. Because access to our guru (whom we called ”Prabhupada”) was severely limited in his final days, information concerning his plans for ISKCON (the “International Society for Krishna Consciousness”) after his death was shrouded in mystery. However, as a senior devotee, I had access to numerous sources of information that I considered and still consider to have been highly reliable. Prabhupada was apprehensive about the future of ISKCON after his demise and, in retrospect, justifiably so. I suppose he thought that the devotee he imparted the following information would keep his mouth shut, but that was not to be. Evidently Prabhupada believed that large numbers of his disciples would “bloop” (that is, leave the movement) when they found out that he believed the Vedic tenet that the Earth is in the shape of an upside-down saucer that is supported in space by four elephants. He then said that he believed that it would eventually become necessary to kidnap children in order to keep up the number of devotees. Crazy, you say? Oh, please, this is nothing to what we passively ingested and spewed out for years. How on earth did we get this way?
It was a kind of seduction into the irrational by way of false humility. A prized technique to entrap interested parties (usually people who came to our Sunday “love feasts”) would be to declare the greatness of our guru, who came to this country virtually penniless and yet succeeded in widely disseminating Bhakti (i.e., devotional) Yoga in just a few years. As we sat cross-legged opposite our guests, we would further appeal to their emotions by describing the method he used as extremely simple and natural: just chant the Hare Krishna mantra, dance ecstatically, and eat delicious vegetarian food. Prabhupada also stressed how chanting would rid one of bad karma accumulated over lifetimes. In our gullible eyes, this was the equivalent of winning a spiritual Lottery. Instant liberation! What we couldn’t see in the fog of incense was the fogging of our reasoning faculties: none of these claims made any sense. Before I begin demolishing these arguments one by one, let me begin with Aristotle’s definition of man as a reasoning animal. If this is the principal quality that distinguishes mankind from the rest of the animal creation, it follows that those who have been persuaded to let their emotions overwhelm their reasoning powers will gradually lose this distinction. Extravagant displays of humility accelerate this process:one of the favorites was the ascetic Haridas Thakura and his claim that “I am lower than a worm in stool.” This claim, is of course, patently absurd, but it is also typical of the philosophical reductionism that taints religious fanatics of all creeds. Admiration or emulation of a humble person also breeds a high tolerance for personal indignities. Initially we visited these on ourselves by allowing the edicts of ISKCON to control every aspect of our personal lives and then, as the recent lawsuit of the Hare Krishna children brought to light, we inflicted them on the offspring of our micro-managed couplings. To indulge in worshipping deities of wood and stone and circumambulating holy plants was bad enough, but teaching our children to do the same was positively diabolic. Why on earth did we believe anything the swami told us concerning the “Absolute Truth” of the Vedic scriptures and the “pure devotees” who formed an allegedly unbroken chain of “disciplic succession” from antiquity to the present? Furthermore, it surely does not take a student of comparative mythology recognize that Hindu cosmology is accretion of pseudo-scientific curiosities and folklore. The answer lies in the fact that we were victims of an unusually persuasive series of argumentative fallacies that were reinforced by living and studying arrangements designed to stifle our reasoning faculties. Here is a short list of these arguments:
- Appeal to Authority: This is the basis of the claim that the four ancient Vedas are a perfect compendium of all knowledge of the universe. In this case, Hare Krishna devotees raised as Jews or Christians would be expected to reject the Bible based on its “inferiority.” When I was a member of ISKCON, our ignorance of the vast commentaries on the Bible by the Church Fathers and others made us sitting ducks for the rubbish we were fed about the “superiority” of Hindu scriptures. We were told, for example, that the antiquity and immense volume of the Vedas and the Upanishads made them vastly superior to the Bible, which was held to be vastly inferior because of its relatively puny size and its apparent philosophical inferiority.This argument is invalid because (a) the Hindu scriptures have no scientific validity, (b) are polytheistic in nature, and (c) therefore cannot serve as an infallible source of universal knowledge. I have no quarrel with Hindus who revere their scriptures, but it is absurd to claim that devotional literature filled with an anthropomorphism so patently based on the fauna and flora of the Indian Subcontinent is superior to the monotheistic scripture and commentary of the Judeo-Christian tradition. The same goes for the idea that an unbroken chain of pure devotees is the only genuine sources of spiritual guidance. It is not for nothing that the Vedic literature is peppered with stories about cave-dwelling sadhus being seduced by apsaras (enchantresses sent by demigods) to get them to “fall” from their exalted positions. Judging devotional perfection based on a religious absolutism with “all or nothing” standards is irrational because inhuman.
- Hasty Generalization or Unrepresentative Sample: This is the fallacy behind the claim that chanting the Hare Krishna mantra produced unique effects that surpassed those of other religious prayers. A hasty generalization occurs when evidence necessary to the argument is suppressed or absent. For example, how could Prabhupada know that chanting or praying in other faiths could not produce the near mania the chanting and cymbal playing produced in his adherents? Even if other participants in other religious practices did not behave in a similarly “ecstatic” manner, what relation does their behavior have to do with their enlightenment? There is no way to know, of course. I know of what I speak because my wild enthusiasm and that of my elder sister in during the first months of my initiation into the Hare Krishna religion were pretty impressive performances from any standpoint. The enduring success of the Transcendental Meditation system developed by Maharishi Yogi (whose opportunism and degeneracy is the stuff of legend) shows that repetition of a mantra or prayer can have a dramatic effect on the subconscious. Nevertheless, the effect is less transcendental or “spiritual” than a highly predictable method of altering brain chemistry. It is interesting to note in this regard that chanting the Hare Krishna mantra to ourselves on our prayer beads was done so fast that the words usually sounded like a hiss or a inarticulate garble.
An excellent contrast to the Eastern form of mysticism and its abuse of rationality is found in John Milton’s description of Adam and Eve in Paradise Lost. It is also significant that they are being observed by Satan, who, though evil and full of envy, could appreciate how they stood in comparison to the other creatures in Eden:
Two of far nobler shape erect and tall,
Godlike erect, with native Honor clad
In naked Majesty seem’d Lords of all,
And worthy seem’d, for in thir Looks Divine
The image of thir glorious Maker shone,
Truth, Wisdom, Sanctitude severe and pure,
Severe, but in true filial freedom plac’t. (4.288-294)
Milton’s Adam and Eve, with their “erect” stature and command over the creatures in Eden gives us a picture of the occidental or Judeo-Christian idea of man as a rational creature with his feet on the ground and with a mind fit to explore the earth and the heavens. The antithesis of this state is the situation of the sadhu sitting in a lotus position chanting his life away, locked in a state of perpetual adolescence and self-incapacitation.
Next: The apprehension of the sublime in the vast and complex natural world.