Sunday, July 27, 2008

Language, framing, and its relation to religion and politics

Language, as commonly understood, is a primarily communicative device, despite views to the contrary in mainstream linguistics, where language is said to be an abstract manifestation of symbolic notation. This fact, coupled with its ubiquity, makes its study indispensable when attempting to understand almost any aspect of human nature.

It is through language that we are able to express intent, share what we feel, communicate facts and create art in various forms; this of course does not imply that language is the only means of doing so, but I give it precedence here because it is indeed the most widely used in the aforementioned arenas. Without language, our ability to conceptualise and categorise is severely compromised.

When we wish to convince someone of our viewpoint, we use language to do so. In so doing, we may choose to manipulate, lie, use words with specific connotations, designed to evoke a particular mind-set in the listener, etc. Win trying to win someone over to your side, so to speak (whether it’s a child trying to get his parents to buy toy for him, or a political party trying to convince you to vote for them), you may share certain selected facts with them, appeal to their emotions in various ways, and so on. These are some of the techniques used in spin and propaganda.

On this point, people like Steven Pinker try to minimize the influence language has on us because he is of the opinion that language is almost an epiphenomenon resulting from universal substratum, which is genetically based. In addition to this, he follows Jerry Fodor in postulating a “language of thought”, saying that language and thought are two separate things; an upshot of this position, as I said – and Pinker certainly agrees – is that language cannot influence thought in any substantial sense. He agrees that language can influence the way we think about certain things, but does not think that language can determine our thought patterns to the point that it frames an entire paradigm. I will not elaborate on his views here, but I would like to make it clear that I disagree with Pinker’s ideas almost in their entirety. His theory of language is seriously flawed, as is his conception of the human mind, and human nature.

The traditional approach to language use is based on ideas made popular during the Enlightenment period, otherwise known as The Age of Reason. This is a time which marks a dramatic shift in the Western philosophical tradition from fideism and mythology to the triumph of reason. The movement’s exponents, past and present, opine that logical thought should be the basis of all inquiry, ranging from academia to politics and everything in between. If something could not be justified rationally, then it is assumed that there is no rational or logical basis for it, and therefore no one is compelled to give it any serious thought. This modus operandi rests on the following assumptions:

- That all people think on a literally, such that there is a one-to-one correspondence between what we think and the thing we are thinking about,
- That thinking is a conscious process,
- That common sense is a particular way of thinking which is common (hence the name) to all members of the species, and following from this…
- That if the relevant facts are presented to a given number of people, they would all come to the same conclusions, because they are all assumed to be rational beings.

Whilst this may seem prima facie plausible, a closer look at each of these will show them to be problematic.

Firstly, the claim that we think ‘literally’ is actually meaningless, since most people cannot even tell us what is actually means to think literally; what I mean by this is simply that if we talk about this matter to a group of intelligent people, chances are that there would be variable understandings of what exactly ‘literal’ entails. The word is commonly used to imply the opposite of ‘symbolic’ or ‘figurative’, and this works fine when referring to sensory perception, as in I saw the car or I heard the music. But when we extend this notion to more abstract modes of thought, it gets tricky. For example, anything we say that has a spatial or temporal characteristic takes on a metaphorical raiment. In their book, Metaphors We Live by, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson go into detail on this matter, providing various examples of how we use metaphor in everyday speech to conceptualise the world. For example, when we say Time is running out, we somehow conceive of ‘time’ as an expendable entity, even though that is meaningless if we really think about it. We liken ‘warmth’ to ‘care’, when we speak of someone being a warm person, and the opposite when we say that someone is cold. We liken morality to direction, such that a low person is understood to be immoral. The examples are endless as we use hundreds upon hundreds of such metaphors on a daily basis.

Before I go on, I would just like to add here that even the idea that direct sensory perception, without any language intervening, is not ‘literal’, if by that word we mean a one-to-one correspondence between the subject and object. Ancient scriptures from the East, like the Vedas and the Upanishads tell us that the world is not really what it appears to be; the objects of perception are as unreal the ephemeral objects of the dream-state, if you assume the WYSIWYG principle. A snake sees the world as ultra-violet rays; a shark sees the world as a series of electrical impulses; a honey-bee sees the world as vertical and horizontal lines, which decussate. Humans see the world as such as a contingent upshot of their perceptual mechanisms. Modern quantum mechanics has us believe that the fundamental building blocks of nature are mass-less, sub-atomic particles, leaving a puzzle as to how the world as a solid body even exists. Physicists even contend that by merely looking at a particle we change its behaviour and possibly its structure. There are volumes of work on this topic, so I will not go into detail here.

Immanuel Kant, in his Critique of Pure Reason, argues that we perceive and subsequently understand things in a way that is unique to humans by superimposing a spatio-temporal quality to it, and then conceptualizing the said percept according to the twelve categories, which he claims to have deduced in what he refers to as the “transcendental deduction of the categories”. The fact that we perceive everything in a unified manner is surprising, given the complexity of the task of perceiving, and is given the rather euphuistic label of “the transcendental unity of apperception”. Kant therefore concluded that the world consists of things-as-we-perceive-them and things-in-themselves, the latter being what the world really is. [Kant used the words phenomena and noumena (respectively) to describe these.] Schopenhauer pointed out that it is incorrect to refer to things-in-themselves as plural, since the underlying reality of the world needs necessarily to be a single, unified whole. This is in keeping with the Vedantic world-view alluded to earlier, which Schopenhauer was an avid advocate of, despite being both a pessimist and an atheist.

My point in referring to these philosophers is to emphasise the fact that even something as fundamental as basic perception is not to be taken for granted. When we give these matters serious thought, we notice that they are not only complex processes, but also largely unconscious.

This gets us back to the topic at hand. As mentioned, our predilection for metaphorical thought is something that is not only natural, but unconscious as well. A very young child who has only just acquired his language is said to have hundreds of metaphors available as part of his knowledge base. He does this by mapping source and target domains in various ways. For example, when a child’s mother holds him to her, he feels the sensation of warmth, and associates the feelings of love/protection/care with the sensation of warmth. Metaphors formed in this fashion are expected to be reflected universally in language. However, it would be equally plausible that some metaphors are unique in some way, perhaps to a particular culture, a given society, or may even be the idiosyncrasy of a family. Being clean may be deemed a good thing, and being dirty may be deemed a bad thing. Hence, by association of having a dirty mind would refer to the metaphor DIRTY IS BAD, and as such would refer to thinking something that is morally wrong. However, this is something that would have to be instilled in children by the parents; if not, the concomitant associations would be different. Even though metaphors of the latter kind are a result of conditioning, the conceptual metaphor itself is acquired unconsciously. We know this because children use and understand various metaphors without any problem, yet would not be able to explain it meta-linguistically.

So far we have seen that perception and conceptual metaphor are not conscious processes. Once we appreciate the ubiquity of metaphor, it follows that the majority of our thinking is unconscious. The idea that unconscious wills and desires affect us was made popular by Sigmund Freud, but he was certainly not the first one to speak of the unconscious. Schopenhauer wrote about that very topic long before Freud, which the latter actually acknowledges; and once again various Eastern traditions have spoken about such things as well before anyone else.

Now, conceptual metaphors form the basis of the way in which we think. Once we understand this, many things which would otherwise not make sense now do. The metaphors that we acquire slot in to various cognitive schemas, which are continually evolving, though we may assume that there is a saturation point. We have what we can call deeply ingrained schemas, and superficial schemas. The latter evokes the former. George Lakoff uses the terms deep-framing and surface-framing to describe this. For example, when someone says You are such a pig, one would have to have some knowledge of the negative connotations associated with pig: they are unhygienic, seen as potential disease-carriers, pork is forbidden in many cultures for various reasons, including its association with lack magic and evil, etc. The frame that this word evokes would depend on your understanding of it, but generally such a statement would be meant as an insult. This statement is a surface frame, but depends on a deep frame, which requires you to understand that DIRT IS BAD/IMMORAL, and that things associated with the dirt must also be bad in some way; pigs like to roll in dirt, and would eat anything, even rubbish, and therefore they are dirty...

Now imagine someone who grew up on a farm in Bloemfontein. Imagine that the farmer was a maize farmer, who kept sheep and pigs as well. The sheep are shorn twice a year, and the wool is used for various things. The pigs are kept more as pets, and not slaughtered for meat. The child grows up watching his father care of the sheep and pigs very lovingly, and watches him playing with the little piglets like you would little puppies. Imagine also that this child attends a local school which caters for the children of farmers from the surrounding farms. If this child goes to Johannesburg on holiday for the first time at the age of six, decides to eat the food at the restaurant with his hands, making a bit of a mess, and he overhears the child at the next table saying Look, he’s such a pig. Because pig would evoke a different frame (cute little animals whom he probably has names for), he would not understand what the statement means, insofar as its intention is concerned. Our farm child may not even have the deep frame DIRT IS BAD on which to hang the surface frame, because working in the mud and dirtying himself by helping his father may be associated with a virtue. This child would understand that being dirty is not always bad, whereas a suburban child would, who was continually chided for playing in the mud, would associate it as such.

Note that this is just an example, and possibly not a very good one. The point is simply that we all have frames, which are represented in our minds. We have deep frames which surface frames draw upon. Due to the way we go about acquiring conceptual metaphors, the resultant frames are generally the same within a particular speech community, but there are important differences and these differences (or more importantly, the consequences of these differences) are what I would like the reader to take cognizance of.

John Gray’s bestseller, Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, spoke of the different ways men and women speak, and the miscommunication that ensues when they speak to each other. He refers to a myth at the outset of the book, where men once inhabited Mars, and women inhabited Venus, and upon learning of each other’s existence, agreed to tryst upon earth. However, they had difficulty communicating with each other, and despite improvements over the years, there is still much to be desired. The book aims to bridge this gap. He points out various instances whereby both parties need to understand what is actually meant when something is said, instead of just taking what is said at face value. For example, when the wife says We never go anywhere anymore, she is usually confronted with the retort But we went out last week for dinner! Then the wife gets angry, and the husband gets confused.

Why does this happen? This seems to happen because women in general have the frame LANGUAGE AS EMOTIONAL EXPRESSION, whereas men have the frame LANGUAGE AS CONVEYING ESSENTIAL INFORMATION. In the former frame, expressing your emotions to the people you love is seen as a good thing, and in the context of a relationship, is the primary aim of communication; in the latter frame, emotional expression is seen as effeminate, a sign of weakness. In this context, what is expressed should not be counter-factual, and should be preceded by a kind of brain-storming session where you think about what you’re going to say before saying it. Once this is understood, many things make sense that otherwise just seem unintelligible. Instead of conceding that there’s something at play that we don’t understand, we villainize the other party, and attribute our lack of understanding to stupidity, callousness, etc.

We understand religion in metaphorical terms as well. If you ever hear a strict Hindu having a debate with a strict Christian, what would strike you is not so much the differences in particular beliefs, but the fundamental ideological disparity. The particular beliefs pertain to surface frames, but what really distinguishes these two religions is the deep frame, which links religion to family. We superimpose the metaphor of family to any other institution which resembles it, being our first experience of governance, with our parents the ultimate authority from whom to get authorization, and whose approval meant everything.

George Lakoff speaks of two kinds of families: the strict father family and the nurturant parent family. With the former, what the father says goes without any question, just because he says so, leaving no room for negotiation. If you violate these rules, you will be punished. The circumstances which preclude you from following these rules are generally deemed irrelevant, and often ignorance of the rules do not suffice as an excuse to evade punishment. This is tough love, so that you will soon grow to be a responsible, independent person. If they do not learn within the required time-frame, they are forced to go out and learn on their own. With the latter, rules are not rigid and may not even apply in some cases; punishment is tailored to suit the wrong-doing, and children are allowed to develop at their own pace. If children do not learn or develop as expected, they are given guidance and assistance as long as they need, without any pressure, but with the knowledge that the parents will not always be there. In reality, most families are a combination of the two family types, meaning that when it comes to one kind of issue, parents would be nurturant, and in another they would be strict and impose a different set of policies. The degree to which they vary is more accurately viewed as a continuum.
On a literal level, this explains the differences between Eastern and Western family life, together with it implications for child-rearing. The details would be interesting to go in to, but not relevant to the discussion at hand.

Christianity adopts the GOD AS STRICT FATHER metaphor. This explains its intolerance of other religions, with its rigid rules and regulations. Circumstances precluding the ‘children’ from following the rules are not taken into consideration: ALL Hindus (including saintly souls like Mahatma Gandhi), Jews, Muslims, Buddhists and other non-believers are going to hell to suffer for eternity. Some would say that this includes people who were born before Jesus started teaching, the people who were around when Jesus was around but had not heard of him, as well as people in remote parts of the world. They may all be good people, but the Bible says that we can only reach the Father through Jesus, by explicitly accepting him as your sole saviour, and that’s that. It is also not a coincidence that God within this frame is perceived as a male figure, who makes all the decisions and has all the authority.

The GOD AS NURTURANT PARENT metaphor is adopted by Hindus. This explains its acceptance of all people, regardless of the faith they practice. Rules and regulations are perceived more as guidelines which ought to be adjusted according to circumstances. This is why there are even various scriptures to suite these various circumstances. The belief in karma ties in with the idea that the punishment should suit the crime, and that God has the power to forgive at His discretion. (With the above frame you are forgiven once and then expected to obey, or else…) The belief in reincarnation shows that you are given opportunities to better yourself, instead of going straight to hell after one lifetime. If you have managed to become a virtuous person, through whatever means available to you, you are welcomed into heaven with open arms. Hindus also believe that God has a female aspect, analogous to the Yin-Yang concept in Chinese philosophy. Just as God is seen as a single, male figure in the above frame, here God is seen as a complex, multi-faceted being, and his creation is governed by multiple laws which can only be understood systemically and hierarchically, not in a linear if … then fashion.

In light of this, when a Hindu is befuddled by the Christian who sees God being omnipresent with room for hell, and His absence from hell as logically CONSISTENT, the Christian sees no problem with this because what Father says goes no matter what. The fact that God can send you to hell to suffer for eternity whilst still being all-merciful is also not questioned for the same reason. Hindus are perplexed by the fact that God should be feared, and that religion should be based on blind obedience with dire consequences, without concern for anything else. These people would be consistently talking past each other all the time, without understanding either side unless they are willing to step out of their frame and at least understand the side’s frame, and vice versa. This is slightly more complicated than seeing things from another person’s point of view, or stepping into someone else’s shoes, though it’s pretty much the same thing in principle.

It is through repetition and propaganda (and fear of damnation) that many are converted, and this is nothing more than getting the potential proselyte to accept your frame. In my experience, conversion to fideism is based on fear (with solace taken in the belief that He cares for you and that it’s for your own good), and is deemed necessary for various reasons by current practitioners, whereas ‘conversion’ to deism is seen as unnecessary, since God loves all of his creation, and a personal choice which not really necessary.

In general, the Eastern religions (deistic) embrace the GOD AS NUTURANT PARENT frame, whereas the Western religions (fideistic) embrace the GOD AS STRICT FATHER frame.

In American politics, there are two main political parties, the Republican Party and the Democratic Party. The republicans are labeled as conservatives, whereas the democrats are labeled progressives. The labels are self-explanatory, and we can understand their policies by seeing this too in terms of conceptual metaphor. Here we have a NATION AS FAMILY METAPHOR, with the republicans adopting the STRICT FATHER model, and the democrats adopting the NUTURANT PARENT model. (This spills over into their religious beliefs, with the democrats being more tolerant of other religions and cultures, and the republicans not.)

Let us consider the ‘war’ in Iraq:
The republicans believe they should use violence, and attack all opposition with a take no prisoners kind of attitude. Furthermore, they believe they know what is best for Iraq, and that they must obey or else… Notice, it is only within this frame that terms like ‘war’ and ‘surrender’ have any meaning. Here it must be known that the ‘father’ is tough, and if you mess with his ‘family’, he’s going to browbeat you. Democrats see this as an illegal occupation of sovereign territory, and that leaving is precisely that: leaving – withdrawing from a land they invaded under false pretences. When a republican accuses the democrat of being weak and wanting to surrender, the very phrase has no meaning within the nuturant parent frame. If a nuturant parent’s child gets beaten up, he would first ask the child what he did to instigate the fight. After ascertaining for sure whose fault it is, he would then talk to the parents of the other child. Likewise, a diplomatic understanding of the underlying causes which instigated 9/11 would help in finding a holistic solution, and a punishment which fits the crime, something like dealing with it as a criminal act. What the Bush administration did was tantamount to going and beating up the child accused of beating up your own child [Afghanistan] (no questions asked – you messed with a member of my family, now I will show you who’s boss), then beating up your child’s friend, since he has something your family could use and beating him up for this reason will give you an excuse to take what he has [Iraq and its oil resources]. For those who do not know, America is currently setting up a number oil companies in various parts of Iraq. A strict father would also, after all this, punish his child just to get the point across that he should steer clear of fights; America is punishing its own citizens with moves to allow random phone tapping and email hacking to try and catch the Judas. With the war powers Bush has given himself during this occupation, he has the right to detain without charge anyone accused of terrorism. Many have been detained, without even a doctored charge, and tortured in various ways in the notorious prison in Guantanamo Bay, deliberately set up there so it would be outside the world’s eye. Sami Al-Haj, a camera-man for Al-Jazeera is an example of this: he was held without charge for six years, and underwent extreme abuse and torture for no reason. Republicans would say that these are terrorists, and they do not deserve to be treated normally, or with dignity. Torture is necessary to gain ‘intelligence’ and to get them to admit what plans they are hatching, etc. Even if this were true, they would have to explain why they would torture someone who is arrested with NO charge, even after six years. If were told he’s accused of x, and that admitting x would stop the torture, he may have admitted it just to have some solace, but as I said in many cases there were NO charges! Indeed, many did ‘admit’ to crimes under torture, which the republican politicians are delighted with. This kind of policy seems inhumane and barbaric, and it makes us educated, civilised people wonder how things can happen under the auspices of such a developed nation. When you see the frame as a kick-ass ‘father’, like Rocky, going to some kid and saying Are you the one who’s messing around with my kid? He says no at first, until he pushed around a few times, followed by a slaps, etc.; then he comes around to see the light, apologise, and ‘admit’ guilt; this is their idea of victory.

In being steadfast, the republicans want to be perceived as being tough. However, they are not as resolute in their policies as they would like to be. For example, they do not speak to or work with terrorist organizations, and of course what counts as a terrorist organization is left to their discretion, and by the official definition, the USA falls under a terrorist state as well, in addition to actively supporting alleged dictators like Saddam Hussein. South Africa’s ANC was listed as a terrorist organization all along, until July 2008 (this was George Bush’s ‘gift’ to Mandela on his 90th birthday! ), yet the USA has always had good relations with South Africa ever since sanctions were lifted in the early 90’s.

There was a successful rescue mission conducted in the middle of 2008 by the Columbian army on the Farc rebels, who held many high profile hostages, including two US army officials and a former Columbian presidential candidate (she was campaigning when she was taken hostage) for many years. This was only made possible because they entered into negotiations with the rebels, and executed the rescue on that premise. Without this intervention, the hostages would still be captivity, including the US officials – this is further proof that conservative policy does not make much sense.

However, republicans are so successful because they own all the major media houses in the States, and they invest millions in setting up think-thanks, which churn out publications in non-peer-reviewed journals. Hence, they create their own frames, which are instilled in the minds of the people all over the world, and things that they hear outside this frame is either incorporated into this frame or not recognized as making any sense – you call them bigoted, or biased, or closed-minded, but really they are just trapped in a conservative frame. So when we talk of the ‘war’ in Iraq, we are already presupposing a republican frame: we immediately think of attack and defence, good guys and bad guys, state of emergency, and fear of espionage. When we talk of ‘occupation’, we frame the American troops as criminals! This is why the conservatives repeat over and over again WAR ON TERROR, so that this frame gets inculcated in your minds, not the liberals’ (more accurate) frame. If we talk of war, we are entering into a debate on republican turf. Liberals need to frame the debate in their terms, and like the republicans, repeat it and use surface frames that hinge on the deeper frame.

It makes no sense to say that Bush is an idiot, the Americans are evil, etc. because they know very well what they are doing, and they are good at it – which means they’re not so stupid after all.

When Obama suggested talking unconditionally to Iranian leaders, he was merely referring to a willingness to understand things from their point of view, to understand their frame of reference before assuming anything, then making their frame clear to Iran, and then finding a way forward. This is at least better than unilaterally declaring that America will attack unless all alleged nuclear plants are blown up in public. The republicans will not speak to them as they are the enemy. Instead they will issue an ultimatum: do what we tell you or we will attack you. From Iran’s point of view, this is bullying. Just as Iraq had no “weapons of mass destruction”, they say they have none either, and that they have the right to develop nuclear technology, which they say is for peaceful purposes. America is seen as a fickle yet dangerous threat, who once supported Al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein when it suited them, and now turned against them as show of strength and virility to show the American people that their ‘father’ is tough. Hence, the difference in policy regarding Iran.

There is a younger generation of neo-conservatives who understand the problems with the status quo, and are trying to make their policies more reasonable. Their critics say they are just taking some liberal policies and calling themselves neo-conservatives, but it remains to be seen what comes of this.

In American politics, the frames are fairly clear, and we can more often than not predict which policies will appeal to which party.

In applying this theory to the South African context, it gets a bit more complicated. In using the NATION AS FAMILY metaphor, we need to bear in mind that there are other family types, including:
“Single mother” families
“Abusive parent” families
“All are equal”, families
Surely there are other family structures, but these seem to be the most prominent. I’ll call these type 1, type 2 and type 3 for ease of reference. I would imagine a type 1 family to have a strong, sturdy, resolute yet caring mother – who strives not to show her love too blatantly; perhaps Margaret Thatcher’s government would have fallen into this category.

A type 2 parent would not care for his children, and intimidate them to make himself feel more important. He would tell them things to make them believe that he is a great man, even if he knows this to be counter-factual. He would like to control who children hang out with, and what information they receiving, for if they become too educated and street-wise, they may rebel. You can see this as strict father gone wrong. One obvious example of this kind of government is the ZANU-PF currently ruling Zimbabwe.

Imagine a type 2 parent who abuses one child, and favours the other. One could draw an analogy with this government and that of apartheid South Africa, where White people were the favoured ‘children’, and the others were treated badly for being different. Now when the abused child takes over, they decide that we must all now be equal, but decides to surreptitiously get those who benefited in the old days back [affirmative action] and so on. The parallels we can draw are endless, but now we have a type 3 parent, who decides that he needs to make things right by apologizing to the abused children, and declares that all are equal, and all should work together as a collective to make the nation a better one and serve the government who now sees them as all equal. This type 3 parent feels that if one child gets a sweet, the others must get a sweet as well. Hence, the communist ideology of equal distribution of wealth, as so often bandied about in the ANC.

Now, the National Party, the archetypal symbol of apartheid and the concomitant abuse that went with it, was the opposition party during the elections in 1994, when we had our first truly democratic elections. Though the leader at the time was a “courageous and honourable man, in Nelson Mandela’s own words and a Nobel Peace Prize winner, few forgot what they stood for during the apartheid days, and the horror and pain they inflicted on their ‘children’. The NP was soon to be deposed, but still had the stigma of being a type 2 abusive parent, and now they were to be relegated to the MAIN OPPOSITION PARTY, and therefore still a threat. The NP recognized this, and eventually changed their name to the NNP, the NEW National Party, one that has realized its mistakes, and was prepared to make amends for the ills of the past by becoming a nurturant parent under its new leadership. But this did not work, because the type 2 frame was too deeply embedded in the minds of the denizens, and it is nothing other than their failure to eradicate that type 2 frame that led to the downfall and dissolution of the party.

When the Democratic Alliance (or the then Democratic Party) won the second most seats in parliament, deposing the NP, they slotted right into that type 2 frame without even asking for it. To make matters worse, they also accepted the label OFFICIAL OPPOSITION PARTY, as if it were a good thing. Now, in addition to unknowingly fitting into a type 2 frame (remember that this is something unconscious yet indelibly burnt into people’s minds), they hang on that frame the surface frame of “opposition party”. Now, the ANC, being a type 3 family, is known to promote equality, justice, freedom and a better life for all. They are also the ones who fought the oppressors with the iconic Nelson Mandela at its helm. If you are the party opposing the ANC, followers of the ANC are seeing you as opposing freedom, justice, etc. This is a direct upshot of slotting into a type 2 frame, and then accepting the label ‘opposition party’. This is precisely why the current ANC youth league believes that the DA is the enemy and needs to be wiped out – what’s wrong with eradicating someone who stands in the way of all those things all South Africans hold so dear? This is just taking the vengeance condoned by his ‘parent’ one step further. With this also comes the stigma of being perceived as the party who would oppose everything the ANC says and does on principle. When Tony Leon (the then leader of the DA) visited my university just under 10 years back, some students were shouting at him, telling him that he’s the “devil incarnate”. Having listened to his talk, and listened to him answering (some very antagonistic) questions on policy very eloquently, and very reasonably, and having shook his hand afterwards, and observing him meet with students and chat with in a very friendly manner, I did not understand why the animosity was so rife. My brother cites Tony Leon’s father as being an apartheid judge as his reason for hating Tony Leon and the DA; this being said without any knowledge of the kind of judge he was, or the kind of person he was. But things like this make sense if we understand that his party fell into a trap, so to speak.

At the time of writing, the ANC has reason to be rather concerned, as their leader faces corruption charges. The DA’s criticisms are brushed off and seen as inciting hate, and feelings of retaliation are justified as they were the ones who condoned the oppression of black people during apartheid – this is not true, but it fits in with the frame that the DA has unknowingly embraced. In reality, the DA adopts a nurturant parent frame, and bases its philosophy on the principles of an open society, in the Popperian sense. This is reflected in their policies, they way they reason things through, and the things they say when given the opportunity. This is only evident when you listen to what is said with an open mind, without shackling yourself into a frame. However, this is not easy as we unconsciously create frames based on various conceptual metaphors, so the “facts” only make sense within a frame. If a fact does not suit a frame, it is seen negatively, as treason, reversion to oppression and so on. A type 3 family owes allegiance to the father, who is fighting for their equality; in return, they are prepared to wipe out, kill and die for that leader. This is part of the type 3 frame, and if it is not understood as such, this can be as confusing as it is distressing.

Helen Zille, the current leader of the DA, has criticized the government’s Black Economic Empowerment policy (BEE), which is a way of giving preferential treatment to those who belong to previously disadvantaged communities. (It has more recently being upgraded to Broad Based Black Economic Empowerment, to include those who are not Black, but still belong a group that was once marginalized). Contrary to what we would expect, she does NOT criticize the fact that this policy is a kind of reverse discrimination, where a White person would not be considered for a job over a Black person, who actually might be less qualified. In fact, she points out that the policy is meant to assist the masses, who – before 1994 – have never had equal access to education and other resources. However, the in practice the policy is only being used to assist the middle-upper class Black population, and she thereby feels the term Black Elitist Enrichment would be a more appropriate label, which is a clever spin on the now hackneyed abbreviation, BEE. Her point here is that the poor Black people, who this policy is meant to help, and who it was designed for in the first place, are none the better as a result of this policy. Instead, already affluent Black businessmen are getting deals and tenders they would otherwise have to compete for in the free market.

Surely this point is not a criticism against the ANC per se, but a point made on behalf of the majority of the South African population. It is criticism which any member of the ANC should accept in principle, as it points to the failure of government implementation, and merely reminds them that their supporters are suffering as result of this.

However, common sense plays no role here, and the actual facts do not matter in the grander scheme of things. The fact is that Helen Zille represents the DA, who fits into a frame that on principle opposes everything that the ANC stands for, and therefore must oppose a better life for all. This fact cannot be over-emphasised, as the influence of cognitive frames are deeply embedded in our minds and unconscious. It takes thereby takes conscious effort to understand these frames, and then change them appropriately in a responsible manner.

This explains why people are not able to just look at the facts objectively, and use their common sense. Common sense does not exist, in that it is not common. We only have frames, and many of these are common, but many are not. If you talk about an issue that is embedded in a frame to another person who espouses another frame, your conversation will get nowhere; a DA supporter talking to an ANC supporter about Jacob Zuma’s trial will not get anywhere, just as the Hindu who argues with a Christian about the nature of God wouldn’t.

What the DA should have done, and should be doing still is not picking on particular issues. They should do what Barack Obama is doing in the States and work on changing the frames that are so indelibly burnt into the minds of the nation. It is only then that the people who count will listen, and of course I don’t just mean swaying voters in your favour. The stigma of being the NP’s replacement should be wiped out, and the DA should stop labeling itself the opposition party, because they do not oppose what the ANC stands for in THEORY. They stand up for what is right, and they stand up for the people whose tax money is being squandered unlawfully by the GOVERNMENT, of which the DA is a part. They should frame themselves as part of a whole, who are there to help care for the nation. If a member of the Independent Democrats does something wrong, it would be brought to the fore; if a member of their own party goes astray, it would be brought to the fore, and they would be dealt with.

This would be the first step in changing the negative frame that is in the minds of so many South Africans, people would listen more attentively, and they would earn the respect of their rivals. Without action based on an intelligent understanding of the situation, there is no communication, one party sees the other as being idiotic or rebellious, or whatever, when really what they are doing is quite consistent within their frame of reference.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Religious Doctrines and Dogmas


People often draw the distinction between being religious and spiritual, the trend being that people feel that there is a certain stigma attached to the label ‘religious’. Given that religion is more often than not founded on profound and lofty principles, why would there be such a need to do this?

In fact, many well-meaning intellectuals choose not only to distance themselves from religion altogether, but to actively speak out ‘against’ it. As an aside, I dare say these persons have not encountered the persons I have been so fortunate to both study and meet in person; no sceptic can remain one after having the experiences I have had, but I will not discuss these here.

Academics like the biologist Richard Dawkins, the psychologist Steven Pinker and the philosopher Daniel Dennet fall into this category. Dawkins sees himself as the modern day Charles Darwin, and a lot of his work has received critical acclaim for reviving the dying doctrine of evolution by natural selection. I call this a doctrine simply because classical Darwinism is certainly dead. The notorious missing link has never been found, and if it is it will be very difficult to preclude the researcher from superimposing his own bias on what was actually found, which can vary according to one’s theoretical assumptions at the outset – reconstructing bits of bone that is millions of years old requires a fallible person to do so, carbon dating is nothing close to accurate, etc.

Nevertheless, Dawkins has become a raving sceptic not only because he sees evolution as a complete explanation for life and all the mysteries that go along with it, but also because of the very sad and unfortunate history that just about every major religion in the world bears; some more than others, but all religions, mine included, have a cross to bear. Any honest adherent would have to face these facts and accept it graciously. We are all aware of the vicious and bloody Arab conquests done in the name of religion. Recently Islamic fundamentalists have shown what their interpretation of scriptural injunctions entail. There are passages in the Koran, for example, that quite explicitly advocate the brutal murder of “non-believers”, which is reiterated throughout the book. For example, the following verse from Surah Taubah is very often quoted by critics of Islam, to show that Islam promotes violence, bloodshed and brutality:

"Kill the mushriqeen (pagans, polytheists, kuffar) where ever you find them."
[Al-Qur’an 9:5]

A former student of mine (and needless to say, a devout Muslim) tells me that
critics of Islam actually quote this verse out of context. In order to understand the context, we need to read from verse 1 of this surah. It says that there was a peace treaty between the Muslims and the Mushriqs (pagans) of Mecca. This treaty was violated by the Mushriqs of Mecca. A period of four months was given to the Mushriqs of Mecca to make amends. Otherwise war would be declared against them. He thereby pointed me to the following verse to prove this point; verse 5 of Surah Taubah says:

"But when the forbidden months are past, then fight and slay the Pagans wherever ye find them,
and seize them, beleaguer them, and lie in wait for them in every stratagem (of war); but if they repent, and establish regular prayers and practise regular charity, then open the way for them: for Allah is oft-forgiving, Most merciful."
[Al-Qur’an 9:5]

The idea of warfare and ultimatums seems somewhat out of place in a religious context. As an open-minded Hindu, this seems rather disturbing, to say the least. Describing God as a being that is “most merciful” and full of love, yet gets angry very easily, to the point where if you disobey you should not only be brutally killed here on earth, but will suffer in hell in the most hideous manner: you will be given a body to encapsulate your soul so that you are sentient, and you will have boiling oil poured over you by the “angel of death”, who will see to it that your body is replaced when it gets worn/burnt out. Such fear pervades the Islamic holy book, and in a place like Saudi Arabia people live in constant fear of being ‘caught’ for various things, like not praying during the mandatory prayer time, which happens five times a day. If you are found not praying, they check whether you are Muslim or not; if not, they take you to your place of residence, with a stern warning not to be seen during prayer time; if you are Muslim, you are given fourteen lashes and dismissed with a warning. If you look at woman, more specifically if you look into her eyes, you can be charged.

There are dozens of examples like this, but I will not go into detail here as I think the general point has been made. The standard objections regarding these points include:

-The version of Islam practised in Saudi Arabia and other such countries is
not the ‘correct’ one.
-These are based on mistranslations from the original Arabic.

Going back to the objection raised by my former student: he claims that it was okay to slaughter the kuffar back then because they violated the ultimatum, which was either to convert to Islam or be killed. Now, leaving aside the fact that this is precisely why fundamentalists think it is okay to blow themselves up in public places (they get a two-fold benefit: they’re dying in a jihad, and they they’re killing non-believers – who, by the way, for many include apostates, not just non-Muslims), this objection is problematic for someone trying to justify it because the tenets of the Koran are meant to be eternal, rigid, and with a set meaning; there are even caveats which state that if you try and alter anything in the Koran in any way (that includes disobedience and misinterpretation, wilful or otherwise), you are no longer a Muslim. So by grounding it in history, saying that this instruction was only applicable then, you relegate the scripture to the status of a historical text, open to heuristic and therefore variable interpretation. Aside from this, someone with this objection would also be logically committed to admitting that all the Muslims in Saudi Arabia are not really Muslim.

The other option is just to be honest and admit that there are some inconsistencies inherent in the book, and that the some parts need to be looked at with a critical eye. This is actually what Muslims in more open societies do, but then there is always the issue of those who do not. An interesting, yet equally disturbing and shocking revelation, was brought to the fore in a recent production in the UK called Undercover Mosque, where they went into various mosques in the UK with a hidden camera and recorded the things that were said and advocated by their religious leaders. Given what you have read thus far, I’m sure you can imagine what the documentary revealed. By the way, the Islamic community there took the production company to court, saying that they misrepresent what was actually said in the mosques. After it went to court, and after the recordings were scrutinised by a judge in a court of law, it was concluded that the documentary was indeed accurate, which precluded the plaintiff from stopping the distribution of the documentary.

Regarding polygamy in Islam, I was referred to the following quotes:

"The righteous woman, if they enter Jannah, will accompany her husband,"

"...marry such women as seem good to you, two and three and four; but if you fear that you will not do justice (between them), then (marry) only one or what your right hands possess; this is more proper, that you may not deviate from the right course."
[Qur'an 4:3]

"Ye are never able to be fair and just as between women, even if it is your ardent desire: But turn not away (from a woman) altogether, so as to leave her (as it were) hanging (in the air). If ye come to a friendly understanding, and practise self-restraint, God is Oft-forgiving, Most Merciful."
[Qur'an 4:129]

Many Muslims actually see this practice as wrong, and countries which accept religious freedom do not condone polygamy. Once again, this is seen as a historical anachronism by some, claiming that during the war, there were many widows, and the prophet instructed his followers to marry them so they won’t be alone. Putting the fact that these widows were widows because their husbands were killed by Muslim warlords aside, this poses the same problem regarding historical heuristic interpretation mentioned above.

Despite attempts to keep the religion homogenous, categorical and straight-forward, there is still a lot of infighting. Sufis, for example, are condemned as being non-Muslim, as they apparently violate God’s instructions.

Judaism and Christianity are obviously not without problems of this kind. They advocate division and hatred by proclaiming themselves in various ways to be the only ones going to heaven, since Jews are the ‘chosen ones’, and Christians quote various maxims from the Bible, like Jesus saying “I am the only begotten son of my father”, meaning that there was no other prophet; “You cannot reach my father in heaven but through me”, meaning that if you do not accept Jesus as your saviour, you’re going to hell, etc. This gives Christians a sense of superiority, and gives them a license to look down upon other religions. Whilst the New Testament is a bit more benign, the Old Testament advocates meting out the death sentence for things like homosexuality, adultery, blasphemy, idolatry, talking back to your parents, and picking up sticks on the Sabbath! This is partly why Noam Chomsky says that the Bible must be the most genocidal book in our entire canon.

Dawkins rightly describes the God of the Old Testament as blood-thirsty, possessive and misogynistic. Few need to be reminded of the history of the Catholic church, their notorious witch-hunt and concomitant (and ingenious) torture methods. The list is well nigh endless, and Dawkins spares no detail in his notorious book, The God Delusion. After pointing these out, Dawkins asks us to consider what is left to respect about religion? Why do people align themselves with a tradition that has wreaked so much of havoc on the world? How can this alleged God, who is apparently so full of love, allow things of this nature to happen?

His answer, as you may well imagine is that since we cannot properly prove the existence of God, we should be either agnostic or atheistic. He points out that all religions in their own way encourage you to be a good person, but virtue and morality could just as well be independent of any religion. Besides, if your morality is religiously based, which religion should you adhere to, given that there are not only different religions with different doctrines, but also countless sects within those? And strangely enough, there are actually branches of Hinduism and Buddhism which are quite literally atheistic!

In light of all this Dawkins thinks it makes more sense to simply accept life as a product of natural selection, and apply the scientific principles of reasoning and logic when it comes to making everyday decisions, including those that pertain to ethics.

Dawkins also misses the simple point that the jurisdiction of science has most certainly not been agreed on, and there is no consensus as to what even counts as ‘science’, or a ‘scientific endeavour’. For example, given that Darwinian evolution is not testable, is it science? There have been many articles published on the effects of meditation on the mind and body; is that science? Can religion actually be studied scientifically? Does a philosophical problem preclude, pre-date, presuppose or transcend a scientific view of the said problem? If science means the use of maths/equations, as some of my colleagues insist, does that mean something like microbiology is somehow not a science? Since some linguists use equations to describe phrase structure rules (like Noam Chomsky and Zellig Harris), does that mean the study of language is a scientific endeavour?

The role of intuition as intellectual revelation is also not appreciated by people who see science (whatever that means) as the be-all-and-end-all of intellectual practice. Dawkins merely dismisses Einstein when he attributed his most important insights to reverie, and even said that Einstein probably didn’t mean it when he said that he has great admiration for God – rather presumptuous claim! Philosophers like Sarvapali Radhakrishnan have written extensively on the role of intuition, and even tried to reconcile it with the rather parochial approach of Western philosophy.

Scientists cannot merely ignore phenomena that do not appeal to them. True science is about explaining facts. The ubiquity of religion, for example, is not something that can be ignored, or summarily dismissed as delusional. This aspect of the topic will be explored in more detail in other chapters.

As an aside, Dinesh de Souza passed a comment about Dawkins’ book, The God Delusion, which I think is quite apt and deceptively insightful:
“This is what you get when you let biologist out of the lab.”

That being said, does this show that eastern religions are better? Well it is clear that religions like Jainism, Buddhism and Hinduism do not condone violence in any form whatsoever, to the point where a true practitioner would not harm ANY living creature intentionally, and be a strict vegetarian. They do not seek to convert, and actually often advise against it, in the belief that anybody can be a good Christian/Jew/Muslim, etc., and that you are born into a particular set of circumstances for a reason; therefore converting is a form of escapism which defies your karmic path. I disagree with this, like most other practitioners, and believe that people should be free to choose.

Many great Western thinkers admire Hinduism and eastern traditions for various reasons; these include none other than Albert Einstein, Arthur Schopenhauer, Alan Watts and William Blake. I will dispense with the details here, for the interested reader can follow it up if he so wishes. I wish merely to point out that despite the far reaching influence of Hinduism, most do not even understand its basic tenets – and by most I mean Hindus themselves. This serves to perpetuate all the misunderstandings and gross misrepresentations so rife amongst non-Hindus.

have yet to meet a Hindu who truly appreciates the various contradictions inherent in his religion. Aside from being open to proselytism, Hindus seem to embrace mutually exclusive doctrines. Unlike most Christians, Jews and Muslims, Hindus can never state with rational conviction what their stand point is on many issues. Adding to this problem is the fact that Hindus are brought up to tolerate and accept other religions, not in the mere democratic sense of allowing other people to believe what they want whilst disagreeing, but in a more fundamental sense as in, for example, proclaiming that prophets like Jesus and Mohammed were indeed authentic prophets as their followers claim them to be. Once admitting this, the Hindu is faced with either accepting or explaining statements like:

- I am the only begotten Son of my Father
- You cannot reach Heaven but through Me
- Those who do not accept Jesus Christ as the only Saviour is doomed to eternal

The dilemma comes in either not taking these statements too ‘literally’ (often a euphemism for I choose to reject that so I’ll pretend I can explain it away some other way; hence the inverted commas), or accepting what is apparently logical and converting. They do this in the hope that they will now be ‘saved’ and therefore go to Heaven, wherever or whatever that is; they are often frightened into the logically untenable option of rejecting to convert and going to hell, which is defined (in Christianity) as an eternal punishment for not accepting Jesus.

They face the very same dilemma when they meet Muslims. Hindus accept Mohammed and as the prophet of Islam, and accept that He must have been sent by God. However, the Muslim will then point out various facts, including:

- That Mohammed came here to ‘correct’ the corrupt practices that have become the
norm with the religious zealots, including the Jews and the Christians
- Mohammed is hailed as the LAST and DEFINITIVE prophet, while acknowledging and
endorsing the Jewish and Christian prophets, He certainly supersedes them;
hence, his word and teachings are to be given precedence
- The obvious upshot of this is also that there can be no other prophet succeeding
Mohammed, and the Koran is to be the final word on all matters religious
- Those who do not accept this decree will be, you’ve guessed it, condemned to hell – again defined as a logically untenable ETERNAL punishment, etc.

As before, the Hindu now has a choice to make...

Hindus are unable to ‘defend’ themselves when faced with situations like this simply because Christians, Jews and Muslims CAN say, more often than not, quite categorically what their religion is about, what their beliefs are, and what the goal of life is for a ‘true’ follower (ie. score enough brownie points to get in to heaven).

One problem is the fact that Hindus do not know when their religion originated. Without a founding prophet, there is no person to look to for answers regarding even basic questions.

In fact, Hindus see nothing wring in advocating Hinduism not as a religion at all, but as a “way of life”. Hence, there is no contradiction in being a Christian and a Hindu (a Christian would never agree that things could be so the other way around), for example. Hindus see this as a plus, implying open-mindedness, universalism, etc.; others see this as Hindus having no philosophy or authoritative beliefs of their own.

Another is the multiplicity of scriptures that Hindus have. Swami Vivekananda boldly said in one of his talks that there could not have been a man in history who has read all the Hindu scriptures – being a very learned scholar himself, he did not seem to exclude himself from this category. I had the great honour and privilege of knowing and learning from a great Hindu monk, who went by the name of Swami Shankarananda. He dedicated most of his life to the study and practice of yoga within the Hindu framework. Prior to being initiated, he spent twelve continuous years studying various aspects of Hinduism. This included six hours a day dedicated to scriptural study. One would think that this would be enough time to have mastered at least a basic overview of Hindu scriptures in its entirety. Yet, during one of my
Q & A sessions with him, I asked him the following question: What does the Sankhya say about the creation of the universe? His response: I don’t know; I’ll have to look through some information I’ve got and get back to you on that.

This was a very surprising answer, given his training and his background. I do not mean to denigrate his legacy; indeed, as you will see later, I revere this man as my guru and mentor. My point is simply that if there are things about Hinduism that HE did not know, what to talk of the rest who have NOT had that training?

It is no mean feat to undertake a serious study of Hinduism. Dabblers will certainly either get confused, or be misled into believing something that is not representative of the Hindu religion. The Hindu scriptures include the Vedas (there are four of them) and Upanishads (there are a hundred and eight of them left, with twelve being the “principle” Upanishads), the latter actually being the end portion of the Vedas, actually. It is said that they adequately summarise the Vedas such that a study of the Upanishads would make a study of the Vedas redundant. In addition to this, the book that speaks of Lord Krishna’s experiences on the battlefield, the Bhagavad Gita, is said to summarise the crux of all the Upanishads, making it unnecessary to study the latter. However, the Bhagavad Gita is largely allegorical and symbolic, and like all great works of literature (if it may be so-called without relegating its status as a scripture), it is open to multiple interpretations.

There are various other epic scriptures (in the form of story) in the Hindu religion. Second to the Gita is the Ramayana, which tells of the exploits of lord Rama, after his fourteen-year banishment into the forest. This too is richly allegorical, and open to interpretation.

Aside from the mainstream scriptures, there are the more controversial aspects of Hinduism. One of which would no doubt be offensive symbolism. For example, in the Mahabharata there is an episode famously known as the Rasa Lila. This is an episode where Lord Krishna dances rather seductively with the Gopis, charming them, flirting with them, and stroking them in a risqué manner. Their husbands were very worried about them, as the Rasa Lila took place over a few days, and these cow-herd girls did not care worry about their husbands, or the housework that they were busy with, etc. because they so captivated by the Lord.

In his book Lord Krishna: his lilas and teachings, Swami Sivananda, before his rather succinct commentary on it, spends a good few pages explaining why the Rasa Lila should not be given a sexual interpretation, and that those who do are simply of a base nature. As I said, when married women state that they are willing to leave their husbands for the all-attractive Krishna, that Lord Krishna teased them and played with them by stroking their thighs, etc., it is difficult not to, which is why this particular part of scripture is not given much attention. Of course the commentary points out that the Lord’s mind was pure, and that despite his indulgence, it was only to make the Gopis feel important for the time being, and to show them that their lechery will necessarily be ephemeral, and that they should look to transcend such feelings, etc. Other orthodox commentaries concur broadly on this point.

However, there is a branch of Hinduism called Tantra, which is actually documented as amongst the oldest of Hindu scriptures. One of these scriptures has been bastardised by the movie of the same title: Kama Sutra, which means something like “love precepts”. A word on this matter before going on. In Hinduism, we believe that there are four stages of ‘life’:

- Brahmacharya
- Grihasta
- Varnaprasta
- Sannyas

The first pertains to student life, the second to married life, the third to retired life, and the last to a life of renunciation. It is believed that every person is meant to go through these stages. Each stage of life has certain recommendations in order to be successful at it. For example, chastity and obedience to your teacher are important to being a good student. Sublimation of your veerya (expained only recently as sublimation in modern psychology) is important as your semen contains very concentrated and pure energy, which will be wasted if used sexually, and will be transformed into a profound creative force if not. Aside from ethical considerations, the eating of meat is also forbidden because it dulls the mind, and induces laziness. There are various scriptures meant to be specifically for students, with concomitant rules and regulations. Just as school students find appeal in the universal charm of story-telling, some scriptures are in the form of stories, which is why we have so many epics, and the richness in symbolism is there simply because students appreciate the symbolism in a more sophisticated manner the more advanced they get.

Likewise, in the stage of married life, which is the second one mentioned above, there are various scriptures which tell of how to conduct yourself as a householder. This includes the rites and rituals that ought to be performed during the wedding ceremony, what being a good mother entails (summarised quite nicely in Swami Sivananda’s book, Sthree Dharma), what being a good father entails, etc. Of course, there is guidance on being a good husband and a good wife as well, together with the duties and prayers each has to do to maintain a spiritual atmosphere in the home. Key to a healthy marriage is a healthy sex life, which is what a part of what the Kama Sutra is meant to address.

Scriptures like the Vedas and the Upanishads are meant for the final two stages of life, when you have gathered life experience, with more than just a bookish knowledge of your profession, have passed the stage of material acquisition to the point where you see its futility, have conquered sexual desire, etc. It is only in this context that a reading of the said scriptures, together with their moral implications, makes any sense. This is why Vedanta entails having a rather sophisticated view of the world, and requires standards of discipline not otherwise expedient.

Now getting back to my point on tantra. The tantric scriptures advocate using the pleasures of the world to heighten your awareness and therefore your consciousness. This is not very different to the Shamans who use peynote during various rituals to get more in touch with nature. In addition to other worldly pleasures, tantra advocates using sex as a means to heighten your energy levels. It claims that by concentrating on a particular whilst engaged in sex, you exchange and heighten your energy levels to such an extent that you experience exactly what you would experience during conventional meditation, but at a much faster rate. The trick is, however, to not only delay orgasm, but to not take the experience to orgasm at all. I’m obviously summarising and therefore compromising the subtleties and complexities of the technique and philosophy behind the practice, but my point is simply that it is there! It exists, and is actually more widely practised than one would assume. In his book, which he by the way regards as one of his masterpieces, Essays in Life and Eternity, he dedicates a very terse chapter to tantra, entitled Tantra Sadhana. He says in the said work, for example, that greatest obstacles to spiritual perfection are wealth, power and sex, and it is these that the Tantra intends to harness. He is careful not to go into detail though, pointing out only that this practice is secret, and based on the belief that everything has a dual nature, often represented by Siva and Shakti (or the Yin and Yang in Chinese philosophy), mind and matter, good and evil, etc. The idea here being that one can be used as a ladder to reach the other, instead of pretending that it does not exist, or that it ought to be completely shunned. The Upanishads, for example, states that the world does not exist, and that God is only thing that is real. People never question this when a swami says it during his speech in an ashram, but when they’re on the road and a car is speeding towards them, they would very quickly jump out the way, instead of questioning the reality of the incident. Hence, we have to accept at least the relative reality of the world, together with its dual qualities.

Swami Sivananda agrees on these points in his book Tantra, Nada and Kriya Yoga, but also pays it only lip service. Towards the end of the book he also concedes that Hindu icons were meant to embody this fact in its symbolism. The most oft-writ about example of this is the “Shivalinga”, meaning symbol of Shiva.

The Nationmaster Encyclopaedia has to following to say about the Linga; please note that I am QUOTING:

Lingam is usually found with Yoni, the pedestal. As such, Lingam represented the male entity of the universe, while Yoni represented the female; it was natural togetherness of the male (Shiva) and female (Shakti) (Lingam and Yoni) as the point of energy, point of creation, and point of enlightenment. Such revelation was later enriched by many philosophies and theologies as man's knowledge of God widened with civilization. The word is first attested in the Brahmanas, both with general meanings of "sign, mark, characteristic" and of "gender mark, genital".

Various interpretations on the origin and symbolism of the Shiva lingam obtain. While the Tantras and Puranas deem the Shiva lingam a phallic symbol representing the regenerative aspect of the material universe, the Agamas and Shastras do not elaborate on this interpretation, and the Vedas fail altogether to mention the Lingam.

Some Tantras consider the lingam to be a phallic symbol and to be the representation of Shiva's phallus, in its spiritual form. Accordingly, the lingam contains the soul-seed containing within it the essence of the entire cosmos. The lingam arises out of the base (Yoni) which represents Parvati according to some or Vishnu, Brahma in female and neuter form according to others. Tantra (Sanskrit: weave), tantric yoga or tantrism is any of several esoteric traditions rooted in the religions of India. Shiva is a form of Ishvara or God in the later Vedic scriptures of Hinduism. The word yoni is the Sanskrit word for the female reproductive organ.

The puranas, especially the Vamana purana, Shiva purana, Linga purana, Skanda Purana, Matsya Purana, along with the Visva Sara Prakasha, have narratives of the origin and symbolism of the Shiva lingam. Many puranas attribute the origin to the curse of sages leading to the separation of and installation of the phallus of Lord Shiva on earth; many also refer to the endlessness of the lingam, linked to the egos of Lord Vishnu and Lord Bramha. The Puranas are part of Hindu Smriti; these religious scriptures discuss devotion and mythology.

In simple terms, it is the phallus / penis being worshipped while it is in deep trouble inside the yonic/ vagina and we are proud to worship this eternal symbol of glory under the moon.

Say what you will, but there it is. Granted, there is what you would call orthodox Hinduism, and unorthodox Hinduism (astika and nastika in Sanskrit), the former accepting the authority of the Vedas as taking precedence over all other scriptures. But there are problems even with this. Most Hindus consider the Hare Krishna movement to be unorthodox, yet they subscribe to the Vedas and take it as having precedence over all other scriptures; they see the Gita merely as a summary of and commentary on the Vedas. Also, since most Hindus claim to follow orthodox Hinduism, why is it that the Lingam is almost universally used, despite having not been mentioned in the Vedas. As I said, scriptures that do mention it do so in the said context. Why do they not just use a murti of Shiva, as is common practice with the other deities?

It also known that some Hindus so appalling things like practice black magic and slaughter animals (and the two are actually not mutually exclusive). There are so-called scriptures like the Indarjal dedicated entirely to this end! How many Hindus are aware of this? Once again, we can easily say that this is not really a scripture, or that this forms part of the UNORTHODOX wing of Hinduism. But then how would you explain the fact that the Atharva-Veda also has black magic spells? Granted, there are other benign and even beneficial spells in it, but this does not account for the darker part. In addition to this, there are instructions on how to perform ritual slaughter! It speaks of how to use the animal’s energy to clear your own path for success, etc. This explains why the practice of ritual slaughter is so rife. As the point is now made, I will not elaborate with further details.

Suffice to say that as a result of this, there are various sects, factions and schools of thought, and it is no exaggeration to believe anything and virtually do anything, and still be correct in calling yourself a Hindu. It is in this sense that we can say that Hinduism is a way of life, not really a religion. My point here is not to berate my religion, but to point out that we have an extremely rich and profound tradition. However, it is not good enough to merely proclaim this, as it sounds quite clichéd and therefore vacuous. When confronted with the facts regarding animal slaughter, sex rituals, the eating of meat, the charge of polytheism and idol worship, etc. it simply makes us sound ignorant and ineffectual to say:

- Well, TRUE Hindus do not slaughter
- Well, TRUE Hindus know there’s only like one God
- Well, ja pigs are like worse then other animals so IF we eat meat we
mustn’t eat pigs, oh ja and cows too
- We don’t believe in black magic
… etc.

As Hindus, we need to be ambassadors of our religion, and not live in ignorance of the religion we practise. In pretending that our scriptures do NOT say what they actually DO, we sound as foolish as those Muslims who fail to understand that taking certain tenets of Islam at face value lead some people to do terrible things, and denying it, or declaring all Saudis as heretics simply commits you to a logical position which you would not be comfortable with.

Let us accept that there are aspects of our religion, inherent in our scriptures, which we choose not to accept because we are open-minded, free thinking rational beings. The latter quality is something which Hinduism encourages, unlike other religions. But in order to do this with any conviction, we need to be clear of what actually is out there, and why we choose not to adhere to that particular aspect of Hinduism. Otherwise, we sound like fumbling fools when confronted with the facts.

A talk I gave entitled "Science and Vedanta", with a response from Professor Stefan Ploch

Science and Vedanta

I must say at the outset that I am neither a scientist nor a Vedantin. I wish merely to share something which I have always found fascinating; I, for example, am very much enamoured by the intellectual heritage which our great forefathers have left for our assimilation and edification.

So I hope it is something you all can relate to, and that it is not just something which is of interest to me…

In acknowledgement of my intellectual short-comings, I must beg your forgiveness for any possible sophistry and non sequiturs.

The glory of our Hindu culture never ceases to amaze me. Even Western scholars, in their quest for the Truth, come closer and closer to the Vedantic view of Truth, as will be discussed shortly.

It says somewhere in the Upanishads: “In the beginning there was the One. The One willed to become the many, and from the One the many was born.” Even that mantra we chant every Sunday at satsang:

Aum poornamadah poornamidam poornaat poornamudachyate
Poornasya poornamaadaaya poornamevaavashishyate

Translated into English, this mantra reads: “That is the Whole, this is the whole. Of the Whole the whole manifests. When the whole is negated what remains is still the Whole”.(In less euphuistic parlance, this means that from God this world manifests. When this world is no more, what will be left is God.)

Of course, this is a reference to the creation of the cosmos. If one looks at the nature of the cosmos from an empirical (and logical) point of view, i.e. taking only hard scientific facts into account, one will see the profound truth in these purports.

Sometime in the 1960’s (or thereabouts) a scientist named Edwin Hubble discovered a phenomenon called gravitational red-shift. Red-shift is something that occurs when the universe expands, which means that the galaxies in our cosmos are moving away from each other. (As opposed to blue-shift, which would entail a contraction of the universe). There are many other reasons for believing that the universe must be expanding, but I don’t have time to go into all the details today. For example, the Steady State Theory (which claims that the universe is static, of which Fred Hoyle is the chief exponent) contradicts the second law of thermodynamics, which states that the entropy (i.e. disorder) in a system will increase: a broken egg can only become more broken, to take a frivolous example.

In the 1970’s this idea was taken up by Stephen Hawking, who currently holds the Lucasian Chair of Mathematics and Theoretical Physics at Cambridge University - the very same chair held by Sir Isaac Newton when he was there. He reasoned that since the universe is expanding forward in time, it must have been contracting “backwards” in time, so to speak. With this as his working hypothesis, he proved, along with Roger Penrose (a brilliant Mathematician at Oxford University), that there must have been a time when all the galaxies in the entire cosmos were at a point (what they call a “singularity”) of near-infinite density. This vast amount of density, being so great, caused a gargantuan explosion (popularly called the Big Bang). And that is the point at which creation is said to have been initiated.

Now, Newton’s law of universal gravitation says that every object attracts, and is attracted by, every other object in the universe. The various galaxies have not reached escape velocity (that means they are not going to just “fly away” from each other) because gravity is restricting its movement. Eventually it will succumb to this gravitational pull, and the universe will start contracting, culminating in The Big Crunch: whereby all the galaxies in the cosmos just collapse into each other.

It is indeed very interesting how we have the three aspects of Brahmin at play here: we have Brahma the Creator initiating the Big Bang; Vishnu the Preserver sustaining the universe; and Shiva the Destroyer instigating the Big Crunch.

So what happened before the Big Bang? Some scientists say that that question is inapplicable because “before” is a temporal term, and that time only came into existence at the inception of the Big Bang. Others, like Roger Penrose, say that before the Big Bang there were vast fields of gravitational energy which somehow coalesced and burst forth into the cosmos. It even says in the Rig-Veda:

In the beginning there was neither existence nor non-existence.
All this world was unmanifest energy.
The One breathed, without breath, by His Own Power.
Nothing else was there…

(Which is somewhat similar to what Roger Penrose claims.)

So in the end, what is going to be left is what was there in the very beginning! Hence, all this waffling is tantamount to: “That is the Whole this is the whole. Of the Whole the whole manifests. When the whole is negated what remains is still the Whole.” Isn’t that just so marvelous…?

Scientists are still speculating about how long the period from the Big Bang to the Big Crunch will take. One estimate is 5 000 million years. But if the scientists bothered reading our scriptures, they would find their answer. According to our Wisdom, there are four Yugas (Ages): Krita-Yuga, Treta-Yuga, Dvapara-Yuga and Kali-Yuga, each occurring in descending order of virtue and spirituality. The Kali-Yuga began in 3101BC, the year Krishna left the earth. The duration of this Yuga is 432 000 years. Dvapara-Yuga was twice as long; Treta-Yuga, three times; and Krita-Yuga, four times. This cycle would take 4 320 000 years to conclude. When this happens, the cycle starts again. When this cycle takes place a thousand times, one day in the eyes of Brahma elapses. His night is just as long. Brahma lives for a hundred years with days and nights of this length. At the close of this hundred years the universe is absorbed into the Supreme Being.

So, using some simple mathematics, the exact number of years can be calculated. What a pity it is that the great scientists of the world don’t know this!

It is thus evident that empirical research is only confirming what was said aeons ago in the Vedantic school of thought.

Vedanta also proclaims that the world does not exist; there’s an underlying Force which manifests the facade of an external world. Although that’s a very daunting claim, the dictates of contemporary quantum mechanics seem to be heading in exactly that direction, believe it or not.

At the quantum level, very strange things happen, things which often contradict common sense. But as Stephen Hawking says, in response to the critiques of quantum mechanics’ counter-intuitive purports: “Common sense also tells us that the sun goes around the earth, and that the earth is flat. Science tells us otherwise. So why should we always believe our so-called common sense?” For example, electrons jump from point A to point B without traversing the space in between; a single photon is found to be in two places at the same time; a cat can be both dead and alive at the same time…etc. Even more radical, protons are composed of vibrating energy packets that have no solidity at all. It has neither mass nor size. Experiments, using technology like particle accelerators, seem to indicate that these sub-atomic energy packets are literally flashing in and out of existence, millions of times per second. And since they are the constituents of all matter in the universe, this universe must be one huge quantum mirage. Our senses are just too slow to pick it up. Just as an analogy, a snail can’t perceive stimuli faster than three seconds. So if a snail is looking at an apple, and you quickly snatch it and replace it before three seconds are up, the snail would perceive no change. So like that, our senses are too slow to perceive this quantum mirage. So when our beloved Gurudev says: “Brahmin is the only real entity/ Mr So and So is a false and non-entity”, heed it well because it is the truth.

And there are so many other things in the West which are based on Vedanta. Hypnosis, for example, is nothing but a rudimentary version of raja-yoga. Modern psychologists will tell you that there are four levels of consciousness: alpha (the waking state), beta (the state of relaxation), delta (light sleep) and theta (deep sleep). When you are in the beta-state, you become four times more receptive to stimuli. So in hypnosis they evoke the beta-state, and give you an instruction, which you subconsciously remember and carry out in your alpha-state. Likewise in meditation: by sitting down quietly you put yourself into the beta-state, and thereby make yourself receptive. Then you auto-suggest to yourself: “I am the immortal Atman”, or something along these lines. Then you remember it. Eventually you live it. Of course here the goal is more lofty and sublime: it is to realise you oneness with the Cosmic Consciousness.

Even the philosophy of karate is one and the same as Vedanta. Karate, by the way, came from India via a monk named Bodi Dharma. He travelled to China, at the request of the emperor, to train his soldiers. There he formulated a rudimentary form of karate (though it was not called karate), after which it spread to Japan. And there it was perfected. In his “Commentaries on the Martial Way”, Bruce Lee says something along the lines of: Somewhere between the dreaming state and waking consciousness, there is a void. It is in this void that eternal beatitude is to be found. Seek it, find it, attain it. That is what martial arts is: a means to this end…
Sounds to me like he is talking about moksha!

Plato’s theory of Forms is nothing but a poetic exposition of fundamental Hindu doctrines. Plato says that there is a realm which is perfect (the realm of the Forms). In this realm, for example, beauty exists in its pure, unadulterated form. So does virtue, peace…etc. The world we live in is an imperfect copy of the Forms. He also says that we all dwelt in the realm of the Forms, and that we were one with it and all its perfections. We used to ride in beautiful chariots all day long and enjoy the serenity…etc. Sometimes the chariots bump into each other, causing the passengers to fall off! And where do they land? On earth. But having fallen on earth, we imbibe its imperfections. So to return to our True Home, the Forms, we need to once again make ourselves perfect to be fit to dwell in the realm of perfection. Until we do so, we will continue reincarnating. And anything “new” which we learn on earth is nothing but a reminiscence of what we knew (but forgot) when we were one with the Forms.

The parallels are so obvious, they need no explanation. Many other Western scholars say things which sound eerily Vedantic. William Blake’s famous verse:

To see a world in a grain of sand
And heaven in a wild flower
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand
And eternity in an hour

T.S. Eliot said: If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear as it is - infinite. He also said: We shall not cease from exploration/ And at the end of all our exploring/ Will be to arrive where we started/ And know that place for the first time. Einstein said: All religions, arts and sciences are branches of the same tree. John Locke, in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding, posed the following question: If a tree falls in the forest and no-one is around to hear it, does it still make a sound? And he convincingly argues that it doesn’t. Our perception is what makes it real. Lord Rama says a similar thing in The Yoga Vasistha. When asked why he was so despondent, he said - inter alia - that this world is nothing but a projection of this mind-stuff, yet we think it is real. The implication being that if our perception were to cease, the world would cease to exist. Perhaps empirical support for that claim is yet to be found, but I’m sure it will be scientifically proven someday in the near future…

In conclusion I would just like to say that it is blatantly obvious that the Occidental school of thought, in terms of intellectual edification, has contributed very little over and above that which was already expounded millennia ago both in our scriptures, and by our saints and sages.

Very proud of this talk, I sent the transcript to my then supervisor, and I got this rather facetious (and very funny!) pro-Popperian response:

What we know in form of objective knowledge still has to do with testability.Whether some religious piece of writing puts such knowledge into terms like Shiva, the Whole, the vastness, etc., makes no difference. In the end, on the basis of religion (and the Rakapaka, theone-which-is-the-one-that-it-is, was sustained in the heavens by the Tralalupa of the seven Litibongi of our Highest, created by Shenga, the rose-coloured three-eyed one, and which is in constant Rolokpolok, the great Upheaval, the art of Hastavasa the great Destroyer, the Shmasatkaratkaralala...), we can never know (in any non-subjective)sense whether we are being had or whether there is something to the Krunapakararinasharulena.

It even makes no difference how old thereligious, i.e., subjective knowledge in question is (or objective as information, which is not necessarily in relation to objective knowledgeabout truth). Whether we are told silly fairy tales or anything that is worth its salt (objectively speaking), cannot be decided on Krunapakrarinasharulena, which is why all religion is about pretence, appearing to be more knowledgeable than one actually is. The whole holy self-important (or even terribly humble) Tikahastuvashurela-nising of the religious is all part of this. When the author of the squib you sent me says: "In conclusion I would just like to say that it is blatantly obvious that the Occidental school of thought, in terms of intellectual edification, has contributed very little over and above that which was already expounded millennia ago both in our scriptures, and by our saints and sages." This is a silly thing to say. It is science because of which we are not sitting in our caves any longer (so what kind of knowledge is the author talking about? That you are YOU of the great Oneness, that spewsforth?), and even more to the point of intellectual edification, it isscience because of which we can know objectively whether certain bits inthe Veda have actually some truth to it.

On the basis of the Veda, we can know absolutely nothing ('know' in the objective sense).This is why all religious pieces of writing are totally useless as regards the establishment of objective knowledge. Of course, anything can give me ideas, from the Veda to being drunk, but if I want to knowwhether there is something to such ideas, or whether they are just the ideas of a possessed person or a drunk, has to be decided by an objective criterion on the basis of which a relation to objective truthcan be established. The only thing I know is Popper's testability(oversimplifying the matter somewhat).Finally, note: anyone can have cute ideas (well, one would think). People have ideas about all sorts of things all the time. From Dr Patterson who thinks that we are all naked apes inside, to the authors of the Veda (no, I do not mean Divinity), people who think that Italian is a deteriorated form of Latin, etc.: these are all ideas and, not looking at the question more closely, there could be something to all ofthem (if we formulate them precisely enough). That we can know (again, in the objective sense) whether we are dealing with foolishness has to do with testability, not with simply having ideas. Ideas are not enough. Tests are necessary, and often it takes years to find a test for a problem. Of course, if you're religious you can just 'know'(subjectively) anyway, damn the test, and feel safe and 'in the know' anyway; and it cannot be denied: 'in the know' you actually are in such a case. In the subjective know. It is the method of trial and error because of which we know whether what we know is more than an idea, an account, or a generalisation. So the Veda is full ideas. So what? With Popper, they can be turned into objective knowledge, with the Veda they remain ideas about which the best you can say is something that anyone can say to almost anything: "Maybe".

And for that all the big Shurimakaroni? About IDEAS? How ridiculous, and how incompetent. And howcomfortable. There is no risk in that. Ideas cannot be wrong withouttests. No boldness (because one cannot be wrong), thus nothing special. Religion is lowest denominator. It is what the weak cannot do without. Only bold people can do without it, without the safety, and without thecomfort. And - bold people can be wrong. And not only that: they actually have to be wrong all time in order to create objective knowledge. In spite of religious and Hollywood propaganda: it is not bold to have ideas.

It is bold to show that one's own ideas are wrong,wrong and wrong again.Parakalasamasanavagarnaparna!You are YOU.In the name of the One-that-talks-sahatmakas.I (who is Me Myself, who is not YOU, but ME, nay, it is not HIM, it is ONLY ME, for I am ME).