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Problematizing God’s Interventions in History

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This essay problematizes the way certain cultures have historicized divine intervention and viewed it as the primary mode of knowing about spiritual truth. It compares this mode with ahistorical insight received through esoteric methodologies of transformation of consciousness.

There are two different, and often competing, ways of arriving at spiritual truth: (A) via historical narratives (about “holy” events, for example), and (B) via adhyatma-vidya (inner “science” or esoteric processes) which tends to be direct and ahistorical. While both methods exist within every major tradition, a given tradition tends to emphasize one or the other. The methodology by which truth gets discovered, debated, validated, and accepted, becomes a central part of the core competence of the tradition, and the basis for its continuity. The essay challenges A on scientific and ethical grounds.

On scientific grounds: Can universal truth-claims be considered scientific, if they are contingent upon a particular account of history, especially a historical event that could never be replicated? Specifically, what does a scientist think of claims of God’s unique interventions that are space-time discontinuities, and that either violated or permanently changed the laws of the cosmos? Can science afford to legitimize any Grand Narratives of Human History, including the teleology that God intervened to reveal? It is not this essay’s intention to “blame God” for intervening; but, rather, to problematize the history-centric tendencies in societies.

On the other hand, B is a set of ahistorical methods that includes first-person empiricism. Of special interest is the question: What does science have to say about truth-claims which are based on discoveries brought about by human potential, and not based on God’s interventions in history via prophets? In other words, isadhyatma-vidya (based on inherent human potential) an empirical “science”, and, if so, could it be reconciled with historically unique revelations?

Should the scientific approach to spirituality be to “prove” historical narratives, or should it be an open-ended process that also examines the methods used to arrive at religious canons?[2] Should the thriving new discipline of science and religion apply scientific standards of inquiry to question religious Grand Narratives, and not just serve to legitimize certain religions?[3] Are many scholars invested too heavily in the dominant scientific theoretical models and/or the religious outcomes of their inquiries?

The essay also analyzes the socio-political and ethical contrasts between the two modes.

The academic study of religion, and hence of science and religion, has been rooted in Western categories. These categories define religion based on Grand Narratives of God’s interventions in human history, and have become the lens through which much of this historiography has developed.

At the same time, non-Western truth-claims of adhyatma-vidya are often first (i) harvested for their fruits, by repackaging them into Western categories, and then (ii) become ornaments, either digested into Western science/religion, or worn as exotic museum pieces that are not seriously examined as truth-claims. Because they are no longer nurtured as living traditions, non-Western traditions cease to serve humanity as laboratories of inner science, especially in former colonies where the West is seen as the gold standard to emulate. This has ethical implications, and has sometimes resulted in cultural genocide[4].

In this classification, I interpret Jesus’ original teachings as type B (ahistorical and esoteric), whereas Christianity later became type A (exoteric institutionalized power). The Grand Narratives in Jesus’ name have often not been faithful to his message. The category of “Abrahamic religions,” as used in this essay, denotes the institutions and their history-centric Grand Narratives. Prior to Constantine, Jesus had inspired movements quite similar to Indic traditions.

This paper challenges the trajectory of the field of science and religion, and shows how the use of Abrahamic categories has limited the inquiry. It includes a lively discussion with “liberal Christians” at the end.

Limits to Ordinary Mind

Before comparing different methods that are used to claim transcendental truths, let us first examine the limits to ordinary human knowledge, and the possibility of transcendental knowledge.

Most philosophies, both theistic and non-theistic, Indian and Western, accept some kind of upper limits to human knowledge. For instance:

I. Indian theories of ignorance: A central feature in classical Indian thought is the view that the world as perceived by the ordinary human mind is not the ultimate reality, but that it is constructed by the mind (which includes the senses). This superimposition of the mind’s prior conditioning and context is referred to as nama-rupa (name-form). This nama-rupa context is the result of memory traces (sanskaras), which, in turn, are the by-products of past impressions of willful actions. So the sequence could be depicted as follows:

Intentional choices –> Sanskara traces –> Nama-rupa –> Avidya/Maya.

The maya principle, as the theory of mental distortions and limits, is a common foundation to many Hindu, Buddhist and Jaina traditions, even though the terms used might be different[5].

II. Western secular theories on the limits to mental representation: Modern Western thought has notions of similar limits of mind: (i) Gödel’s theorems demonstrate that all the truths of common mathematical systems cannot be written in any language. Linguistic expression, such as that involved in mathematics, is limited in what it could possibly state[6] .(ii) Wittgenstein’s theory of language as a game is built on problematizing the “meanings” of sentences and the limits of what may be representable. (iii) The quantum uncertainty principle describes the uncertainty built into the state of all physical systems. (iv) Kant considered his transcendental realm and the notion of nuomena to be outside the mind’s capacity. (v) A variety of post-modernist philosophers — from Rorty, to Putnam, to Derrida — each in their own way, refute any mental representation of an objective ultimate reality. I have benefited greatly from the study of Western thought in deepening my understanding of the avidya/maya principles, although Western thinkers have mostly avoided making any reference to Indian systems[7].

III. Abrahamic religions’ approach to bridging the infinite gap between God and man: In contrast with the Indian traditions, the Abrahamic religions — Judaism, Christianity, and Islam — emphasize that the infinite gap of knowledge between man and God can only be bridged when God initiates a dialog with man. This is why God’s interventions in human history are all-important, and become the cornerstone of each Abrahamic religion. Without God’s prophet bringing the ultimate truth to man, it would be impossible for man to transcend his limits[8]. (See the endnote after IV, on why Prophet ¹ Living Guru, and a sub-heading towards the end on why Savior ¹ Avatar.) Hence, Abrahamic religions are largely about history, more specifically, about God’s interventions in history. These miraculous interventions occur very rarely, and therefore, must be documented in canons and doctrines, and studied meticulously, in order to know the ultimate reality. Man has no other recourse available except this. While direct intuitive knowledge of Christ is also available, it is only after the individual has been conditioned by history-centric scriptures[9].

IV. Indian theories of transcendence: In Hindu, Buddhist and Jaina systems, maya, or its equivalents, masks (as avidya) an underlying state of all mundane knowing[10]. In other words, every human has the potential to transcend avidya. What distinguishes these systems from the Abrahamic systems is that they do not depend upon a God-initiated intervention via a prophet or son, in order to transcend the ordinary human limitations. Rather, every human has the potential, no matter how rarely achieved, to experience the state claimed by rishis, advanced yogis, jivanmuktis, buddhas, or the equivalent, wherein the ultimate truth is known directly and without mediation by nama-rupa. This is a most extraordinary claim, and one that is central to the Indian traditions[11]. (The adhyatmika process used is itself in nama-rupa, and must, therefore, be transcended eventually.)

The rest of this paper deals only with III and IV, which are shown in the diagram below as A and B, respectively. In other words, my assumption is that the ordinary human limits are possible to transcend via some (extraordinary) processes. The purpose of the paper is to examine the essential differences between III and IV. The processes by which spiritual truth gets established differ greatly between III and IV, resulting in two major kinds of spiritual traditions: The Indic and the Abrahamic traditions are best understood by the different ways by which they arrive at their understandings of ultimate reality.

The Abrahamic means to bridging the gap emphasizes a top-down, God-initiated intervention in human history. This intervention is via a prophet, who is also God’s son in the case of Christianity. In most interpretations, as shown below, unless such an intervention is taken literally and its message is implemented, man is doomed to remain in darkness, for his mind has no other way to escape from its delusions and limits. On the other hand, the Indic traditions claim an endless stream of enlightened living spiritual masters, each said to have realized the ultimate truth while alive on this earth, and hence, able to teach this truth to others. Unlike in the case of Indic traditions, the great teachers of Abrahamic traditions are not living models of embodied enlightenment for the student[12]. Instead, Abrahamic teachers proclaim the truth based on historical texts. The consequences of these divergent systems are enormous, and are at the heart of Indic-Abrahamic distinctions.

The diagram that follows gives an outline of the main points that are discussed in this paper. “A” and “B” correspond to the paths of history-centrism and ahistorical spiritual enlightenment, respectively. The former’s premise is that human limitations are inherently insurmountable without divine intervention. The latter’s premise is that humans have infinite potential. These, in turn, correspond to (A) the view of man being essentially evil, and hence in need of being salvaged by God’s agency, versus (B) the view of man being essentially sat-chit-ananda, the Supreme Being in limited form, with the built-in capability to achieve self-realization[13].

Click here to download the diagrammatic representation of ‘Historicity Versus Ahistoricity’ as described by Rajiv Malhotra..

Historicity Versus Ahistoricity

While the Abrahamic religions have been predominantly A, this does not imply that there have not been mystics in these religions who practiced and taught the methods of B — Meister Eckhart and numerous Sufi mystics were such exemplars[14]. Nor is it true that all Indic traditions are free from history-dependency: the recent Hindutva focus on Ram’s birthplace is an example of history-centrism[15].

Each culture has had both the adhyatmika (esoteric) and the laukika (worldly or exoteric) movements within it. But there have been differences between Indic and Abrahamic cultures, in the manner in which this competition played out.

Mystics in the Abrahamic faiths were mostly on the margins of mainstream religions[16]. They were often persecuted by the religious institutions, and were rarely accepted within their own faith communities during their lives. Hence, they did not create lineages that could further test, develop, enhance, discover, and teach the “B” processes that they had discovered, often accidentally. Therefore, there were no peer debates amongst mystics who made experiential claims[17]. Consequently, these sporadic mystical experiences did not result in the systematization of sophisticated epistemologies, nor into rigorous procedures for reproducing them — unlike in the case of India. In the West, “mysticism” became a pejorative that meant pre-rational and inferior, and was frequently subject to persecution.

On the other hand, Indians who claimed enlightenment using the “B” methods were glorified and honored as spiritual leaders during their lives, and often developed massive followings[18]. Bhakti saints, Ramakrishna’s integral yoga, and Sri Aurobindo’s “purna Vedanta” are each examples of innovations to prior methodologies, based on embodied experience, and not based on a reinterpretation of old scripture. Such living masters have always been the loci of spirituality in India, in contrast to the institutions in the case of Abrahamic religions. Living masters often override and subvert institutional loyalties. It has also been argued that Tantra, in both Hindu and Buddhist traditions, was a reaction against institutionalization and hierarchy. These innovators discover new spiritual technologies, and also re-contextualize the truth for their given culture, time, place and audience[19]. As living laboratories, they subject the classical methodologies and experiential claims to test, improvement and adaptation — generation after generation.

India seems to have enjoyed a very long-term and continuous free-market of adhyatma-vidya ideas, practices, and lineages, where freelancers competed just as modern high-tech start-ups do. There was no attempt to enforce top-down standards, to root out quackery, or to control and license only the “best” or “true” practices. The consumer had free choice in a vibrant spiritual marketplace. There were always dissidents, many of who launched new spin-offs in a big way, just like today’s entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley. The kshyatriya kings’ non-interference in the spiritual free-market was an important tradition.

By contrast, top-down institutionalized religions became obsessed with history-centrism and canons. They collapsed spirituality into canons, and this could be compared with a Soviet style controlled economy — the mentality of one airline, one kind of toothpaste, one kind of breakfast cereal, and central licensing of movies, music and fashions.

Ironically, just as the Soviets derided the US free-market — as being anarchical and inefficient — so also, some of today’s Indologists and liberal arts scholars look for “canons of Hindu Law” or historical Grand Narratives, and stereotype Hindus as irrational and unethical.

There are, indeed, trade-offs: Religious institutions provide continuity, whereas living spiritual masters disrupt bureaucracy and accumulation of power. Abrahamic traditions have institutional continuity, with historical canons as their center. Indic traditions have a flow of living spiritual masters, often with considerable spiritual creativity. These processes roughly correspond to coherence and power that is diachronic (in the Abrahamic case) versus synchronic (in the Indic case).

It is interesting to note that in Roman Catholicism, saints are always dead persons: As per the church’s rules, only years after death is an exemplar entitled to be considered for sainthood. Why? My understanding is that living saints would threaten the institutions, because their word might overrule the dogma of the hierarchy in control[20]. Carl Jung referred to churches as institutions designed to protect men from the awesome power of the Divine. Also, the vast majority of early Christian saints were glorified as martyrs, who died violently for the cause of Christianity, and not based on esoteric maturation[21]. But martyrdom was never the basis for Indians to consider someone as a saint[22].

History-Centrism in Christianity

While the Christian Grand Narrative of History has its variations, the Apostles’ Creed, first composed in the sixth century, is the official creed in most Protestant churches today, and similar creeds are used in Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches:[23]

“I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ, his only son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried. He descended into Hell. The third day, he rose from the dead, he ascended into heaven and sits on the right hand of God the Father Almighty. From thence he will come to judge the quick and the dead. I believe in the Holy Ghost, the holy catholic church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.”

Yet, some liberal Christians have disagreed with my analysis that Christianity is history-centric. For example, Alex Alexander, a liberal Indian Christian, commenting on Sulekha, explains that there is no single historical Grand Narrative in Christianity:[24]

“There are several Christian communities that are markedly different from the Roman Catholics. First of all, there is little agreement among the eastern churches as to whether the Vatican’s “codex vaticanus” is the only reliable text of the Bible, or whether their own 5th Century Codex Alexandrinus is the more authentic version. What constitutes the contents of the New Testament has always been disputed by many of these sects. The Mormons have their Book of Mormons. The Seventh Day Adventists, the Pentecostals and the Jehovah’s witnesses have different interpretations of the Bible. The Quakers, Amish, Moravians, Chaldaens, Presbyterians, the Methodists, the Episcopalians, the Jacobites and the Marthomites in Kerala etc., etc., have all their doctrinal differences and different religious hierarchies within their conclaves. They all feud and spar with each other! Let us not forget that the first so-called collection of New Testament gospels was put together nearly 200-300 years after Jesus’ death. And, they all relied on Greek and Latin versions of the gospels. We know that Jesus spoke Aramaic and not Greek or Latin. The first King James Version of the English Bible came out only in 1611, followed by its revisions in 1615, 1629, 1638, 1762, 1769, 1881, and 1885. Then the American version followed in 1901, 1946 and 1989. The changes due to revisions and translations are sometimes laughable: for e.g., Luke’s (17:21) The Kingdom of God is within you, is translated as: Kingdom of God is beside you, Kingdom of God is among you, Kingdom of God is in the midst of you… etc, etc… Similarly, the famous saying of Jesus, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” is translated in one version as “Happy are the utterly sincere, for they will see God.” What will be even more hilarious will be to translate the Greek version back into Aramaic (which has no vowels), which has different sentence constructions than Geek or Latin[25]. Yes, the Christians too have their differences and they are free to choose their interpretations. And they do.”

But this inter-denominational conflict described by him does not imply the absence of history-centrism. The above explanation does not refute my point, and in fact supports it: each of the Christian denominations mentioned is based on its own history-centric canons. The fact that they disagree amongst themselves mainly about history only goes to show how much importance is given to these competing historical narratives. The symbols being disputed are also historical. This clash of narratives confirms my thesis that Christianity is contingent upon the validity of some historical narrative or other.

In order to evaluate how widespread history-centrism is amongst American Christians, a good source of data is the book by George Gallup, founder/CEO of the famous Gallup Poll, and a self-identified Christian evangelist. This book is based on decades of systematic polling of Americans about their religious beliefs. Here is a snapshot of Americans’ religious beliefs prior to September 11, which have become even more literalist since this data was collected:[26]

  • 39% classify themselves as ‘born-again’ evangelical Christians, defined as: (a) Bible is the Literal Word of God, (b) have experienced a personal conversion, and (c) seek to lead non-Christians to conversion [p.68]. 54% read the Bible several times a month [p.50]. 84% believe that Jesus is God or His Son [p.123].

  • 79% believe in miracles [p.26]. 56% believe in Hell [p.30]. 30% believe in ghosts [p.40].

  • 79% were taught religion formally as a child [p.61]. 89% want their kids to get formal religious education [p.63]. 75% like Bible Studies in schools. 75% like the Bible to be also taught as part of literature, history and social studies [p.154]. 67% support a Constitutional Amendment to allow spoken prayer in schools. (Clinton already signed a memorandum allowing public school students to pray by themselves, without teacher direction.) [pp.152-3].

  • 36% claim having a “particularly powerful, sudden religious insight or awakening” [p.69]. 82% are “very conscious of the presence of God” [p.72].

  • Americans have higher confidence in the Church as an institution, than in any other institution, including the Military, US Supreme Court, Banks, Public Schools, Newspapers, US Congress, TV news, Organized Labor, Police, Medical System, Business, and American Presidency. [p.137]

  • More teens than adults go to Church today — indicating the future trend [p.147]. Teenagers’ beliefs: Angels — 76%; Astrology — 54%; ESP — 43%; Witchcraft –19%.

The above data should also be studied by neocolonized Indians, who are trying to prove their secularism, rationality, and Westernization, by developing self-hatred for their own adhyatmika traditions[27].

Here is yet another recent example to demonstrate the centrality of historical detail: Twenty eight clergy of the 8.4 million strong United Methodist Church recently filed a charge within the UMC tribunal against a liberal bishop, for doubting “the virgin birth, divinity and bodily resurrection of Jesus.” Indian spiritualists wonder why there is so much fuss about charges that are entirely about historical interpretations. Because the bishop said that Jesus was not the only way to salvation, he was charged with being guilty of “dissemination of doctrines contrary to the established standards of doctrine” of the church — clearly showing the rigidity by which truth-claims are established in mainstream Christianity even today. The charge acknowledged that the accused bishop “is obedient to Christ’s teachings” — showing that Jesus’ teachings are less important than his history. This has generated a major internal fight amongst the Methodists, about the interpretation of Jesus’ history[28].

A recent report on CNN says: [29]“The Kentucky Mountain Bible College has finally dropped the 666 prefix [from the phone numbers] that disturbed Christians who recognized it as the biblical mark of the beast… In the Book of Revelation, 666 is stamped into people’s foreheads or right hands during the last days. Those who receive the mark, according to Scripture, are damned to eternal punishment.” MacGrego, the college vice president, said, “the beast represents Satan.” True Christians, he said, will not accept the mark.

Christian movies, music and books are enjoying very high growth rates. For instance, Hollywood’s Mel Gibson is now a high profile actor, director, financier and spokesman for “Catholic traditionalists,” who reject the Vatican II reform that would give respect to other faiths. His planned movies will center on Catholic literalism. His Oscar-nominated movie Signs, directed by M. Night Shyalam, was about Catholic miracles coming true[30].

America’s Obsession With The “End of Time”

Apocalypse and Americans Today:[31]

In the Abrahamic religions, the future is also frozen by the Grand Narrative of History. TIME magazine recently devoted a cover story on this:

“Notions of a divinely choreographed end to history are almost as old as Western faith. They appear first in the Jewish Bible’s books… Eventually Jewish fascination with a militant restoration of God’s kingdom faded. But it was embraced by Christianity[32].”

A recent TIME/CNN poll showed that a growing number of Americans are taking the Bible’s Book of Revelation literally as the final predictor of events:

“Fully 59% say they believe the events in Revelation are going to come true, and nearly one-quarter think the Bible predicted the Sept. 11 attack[33].”

Among the best-selling fiction books in recent years is a series about the End of Time, written by Tim F. LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkens, based on the Book of Revelation. In 1995, they published “Left Behind: A Novel of the Earth’s Last Days.” The recent TIME magazine cover story explains the mass hysteria related to this kind of literature:

“Only about half of Left Behind readers are Evangelicals, which suggests there is a broader audience of people who are having this conversation. … The books offer readers a vivid, violent and utterly detailed description of just what happens to those who are left behind on earth to fight the Antichrist after Jesus raptures, or lifts, the faithful up to heaven… The series has sold some 32 million copies — 50 million if you count the graphic novels and children’s versions — and sales jumped 60% after Sept. 11. Book 9, published in October, was the best-selling novel of 2001. Evangelical pastors promote the books as devotional reading; mainline pastors read them to find out what their congregations are thinking, as do politicians and scholars and people whose job it is to know what fears and hopes are settling in the back of people’s minds in a time of deep uncertainty. Now the 10th book, “The Remnant,” is arriving in stores, a breathtaking 2.75 million hard-cover copies, and its impact may be felt far beyond the book clubs and Bible classes.”

TIME magazine goes on to explain the significance of this in understanding the American psyche:

“To some evangelical readers, the Left Behind books provide more than a spiritual guide: they are a political agenda. When they read in the papers about the growing threats to Israel, they are not only concerned for a fellow democratic ally in the war against terror, they are also worried about God’s chosen people and the fate of the land where events must unfold in a specific way for Jesus to return. That combination helps explain why some Christian leaders have not only bonded with Jews this winter as rarely before but have also pressed their case in the Bush White House as if their salvation depended on it…”

Wyoming state senator Carroll Miller has retired from politics, and speaks at churches and men’s clubs, helping people come to grips with the prospect of the Second Coming of Christ. “It’s very important that we as a Christian nation know what the Scriptures have said about these days,” he says. Many Americans have prepared Bibles highlighting the relevant passages about what will occur during the Tribulation, so that their left-behind friends and relatives “will know to prepare for the earthquakes and locusts and scorpions…

While liberal Americans acclaim how pluralistic the country is becoming, here is TIME magazine’s analysis of the growing xenophobia and exclusiveness:

“After a while, sightings of the Antichrist come naturally: when U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan tells the World Economic Forum that globalization is the best hope to solve the world’s problems, when the forum floats the idea of a ‘united nations of major religions,’ when privacy is sacrificed to security, the headlines are listed on the prophecy websites as signs that the Antichrist is busy about his business.”

One woman thinks that technology is facilitating the End of Time: “When Christ returns, every eye shall see Him,” she quotes from Revelation. Thanks to CNN and the Internet, she concludes, “we’re getting to a place where every eye could actually behold such an event.”

An employee of Boeing decided not to buy Microsoft’s Windows XP, because it carries a method of tracking e-mail: “If the Antichrist were to come,” she fears, “and you want to contact another Christian, they could see that, trace it.”

However, most true believers do not see the end as a threat, but as a great promise coming true. “If we keep our eyes on Israel, we will know about the return of Christ,” says one man in Ohio. “Everything that is happening — wars, rumors of war — in the Middle East is happening according to Scripture.”

It is interesting to note that Islamic extremism is also driven by history-centrism that is very similar to the Christian history-centrism described above. TIME magazine analyzes:

“At the religious extremes within Islam, that means we see more suicide bombers: if God’s judgment is just around the comer, martyrdom has a special appeal. The more they cast their cause as a fight against the Great Satan, the more they reinforce the belief in some U.S. quarters that the war on terror is not one that can ever end with a treaty or communiqué, only total victory or defeat. Extremists on each side look to contemporary events as validation of their sacred texts; each uses the others to define its view of the divine scheme…”

America’s Historical Identity:

Such thinking is nothing new or atypical in Western civilization. It is deeply rooted in eschatology, the Jewish and Christian doctrine about the end of history, at which time the dead would get resurrected, and there would be The Last Judgment. Encyclopedia Britannica explains: [34]

“In New Testament Christianity, history is viewed throughout in eschatological terms: the future of God has already begun with the appearance of Christ; the end of history is near; the end of time is therefore filled with danger and salvation, faith and unfaith, Christ and Antichrist, will be consummated through the resurrection of the dead, the judgment of the world…”

TIME magazine writes that the United States was always seen by many of its leaders in light of this Grand narrative:

“From as early as the 17th century, many had seen the New World [i.e. USA] as the linchpin of a particularly optimistic End Times scenario. Unlike earlier believers who thought humans were helpless to influence God’s cosmic plan, they thought they could trigger Christ’s Millennium by purifying and perfecting America. Ministers preached America as Revelation’s New Jerusalem. Many colonists saw the Revolution in millennial terms, with George III as the Antichrist. Those most convinced, whom we would now call Evangelicals, helped shape the nation’s culture of civic engagement, founding movements to abolish dueling, drinking, slavery and other sins. By the mid-1800s, some announced confidently that the Millennium might be a mere three years away…”

However, things did not go as planned:[35]

“By 1865, those dreams lay in bloody ruins on Civil War battlefields. Far from a millennial peace, Evangelicals found themselves fighting their brothers in America’s homemade taste of hell. Afterward, they felt helpless to alleviate the misery in fast-growing cities and threatened by the arrival of Catholic immigrants.”

Therefore, a new edition of the End of Time narrative had to be developed. John Nelson Darby, an Anglican priest and traveling evangelist, and Cyrus Scofield, a minister, grabbed this opportunity to come up with a new Grand Narrative on God’s future plans. Their new Grand Narrative was a big hit, and went as follows: [36]

“Far from getting ever better, things on earth would progressively worsen, until the Antichrist, also know as the Beast, arose. A seven-year, hell-like Tribulation would begin, survived by only a small human remnant. Not until then would Christ return, defeat the Antichrist and commence his Millennium. Much of Darby’s scriptural synthesis had been suggested piecemeal by earlier thinkers. His most striking innovation was the timing of a concept called the Rapture, drawn from the Apostle Paul’s prediction that believers would fly up to meet Christ in heaven. Most theologians understood it as part of the Resurrection at time’s very end. Darby repositioned it at the Apocalypse’s very beginning, a small shift with large implications. It spared true believers the Tribulation, leaving the horror to nonbelievers and the doctrinally misled, thus moving Christianity’s us vs. them concept of heaven and hell into a new and exciting theater…”

TIME explains how the same Grand Narrative has also been driving recent political history:

“The election of Ronald Reagan brought “Christian Zionism” deeper into the White House: Lindsey served as a consultant on Middle East affairs to the Pentagon and the Israeli government. Interior Secretary James Watt, a Pentecostalist, in discussing environmental concerns, observed, “I don’t know how many future generations we can count on until the Lord returns.” Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger affirmed, “I have read the Book of Revelation, and, yes, I believe the world is going to end — by an act of God, I hope — but every day I think time is running out.” It was no accident that Reagan made his “evil empire” speech at a meeting of the National Association of Evangelicals…”

Neo-Abrahamic Secular Grand Narratives:

This sub-heading might come as a surprise to many neocolonized Indians, who imagine secularism to be free from the kind of superstition and dogma described above. But Encyclopedia Britannica explains otherwise:

“Western civilization, even in its modern secularized forms, is heir to a long tradition of Christian patterns of thought and sensibility…Both the 18th — and 19th — century Enlightenment and the Romantic versions of the idea of the progress of humanity to an ideal state of peace and harmony betray their descent from messianic-millenarian beliefs…”

Marxism has its roots in the same Abrahamic Grand Narratives as well:[37]

“Marxist Communism, in spite of its explicit atheism and dogmatic materialism, has a markedly messianic structure and message… Some of the analogies between Marxism and traditional Christian eschatology have been described, in a slightly ironical vein, by the English philosopher, Bertrand Russell, who contends that Marx adapted the Jewish messianic pattern of history to socialism in the same way that the philosopher-theologian St. Augustine (AD 354-420) adapted it to Christianity. According to Russell, the materialistic dialectic that governs historical development corresponds — in the Marxist scheme — to the biblical God, the proletariat to the elect, the Communist party to the church, the revolution to the Second Coming, and the Communist Commonwealth to the millennium… The similarities are founded on actual historical contacts… and also on the fact that they are variations of the same social dynamics and of a basic myth…”

Eliade’s deconstruction of modern Marxism as Judeo-Christian myth is also very interesting:

“Marx enriched the venerable myth by a whole Judaeo-Christian messianic ideology: on the one hand, the prophetic role and soteriological function that he attributes to the proletariat; on the other, the final battle between Good and Evil, which is easily comparable to the apocalyptic battle between Christ and Antichrist, followed by the total victory of the former. It is even significant that Marx takes over for his own purpose the Judaeo-Christian eschatological hope of an absolute end to history;…”[38]

Hegel, one of the giants of modern Western thought, propounded the philosophy of the Absolute Spirit. This consists of utmost historicity, since the world is depicted as grand rational thought, God’s thought uncovering itself in time. Hegel’s influence asserted that all non-European cultures were out of history, out of the development of the Spirit. In this context, India belongs to the pre-history of the Spirit. Hegel’s philosophy has become very entrenched, and it was instrumental in justifying colonization, and in proving the superiority of the Western people.

Critics of Westernism:

William Higgins, as one example of many Westerners who are bitterly opposed to Eurocentrism, wrote: [39]

“Religious symbolism and ritual in the West often produces fear of the unconscious by Satanic Spirits as an enforcer of that fear. Abrahamic Religions lead the herd of sheep to the slaughterhouse of the Apocalypse on the stage of the world. This is why the fad of yoga in the sixties soon reduced to diet, hatha yoga, and born-again Christians. They were incapable of handling the occult phenomena, which they necessarily encountered on their road to ‘enlightenment’. This is the result of Abrahamic Religions’ projections into the collective psyche of the religious community. Although there have been many interpretations of Christ, the most influential one is that his mission as a prophet is to aid in the fulfillment of the prophecies of his forefathers. The fulfillment of the prophecies is to bring on the Age of the Apocalypse, which goes hand in hand with world events today. This is clearly written in the Bible. The Inquisition is still quite alive and well, it has simply been disguised. The mind’s eye has been severely blurred by this infliction of collective samskara.”

Two Kinds of Historicity

To justify history-based religious claims, some scholars have pointed out that even science has a history. Of course, science has a fascinating history. But the history of science has not been the basis for resolving scientific disputes, and nor has it been the source of serious conflicts, because it is not a necessary condition for the validity of scientific claims. Science is not contingent upon history.

There is a history of Isaac Newton, for instance. However, Isaac Newton’s history’s relationship to the validity of gravitation laws is entirely different than the centrality of history in the Abrahamic religions. Newton’s life history is neither a necessary condition nor a sufficient condition for the validity of the gravitation laws. It is possible for Newton’s life history to be valid — that he lived at a certain time and place, that an apple fell on his head, and so forth — and yet for his gravitation laws to be found false. Hence, his history is not sufficient for the validity of the laws he propounded. Conversely, it is possible that Newton’s history is false — i.e. he might have been an entirely different kind of person and lived in a different time and place, might have been a woman, and it might have been an orange that fell on his head rather than an apple — and yet the gravitation laws could be found to be true. Therefore, Newton’s history is not a necessary condition for the validity of the laws of gravitation.

While it is true that there is a history of Isaac Newton, it is largely a matter of side interest to scientists, and their belief in gravitation laws is independent of any such history. The history of science, and science itself, are two separate bodies of knowledge. Imagine if there were rival schools of physics fighting over whether it was an apple that fell on Newton’s head or an orange, whether Newton had a brother, whether Newton was a woman, whether s/he existed in one place and time or a different one. Would such a profession be capable of scientific advancement?

Therefore, we must distinguish between two kinds of history. The mundane history of human events is not what I am problematizing. This would include the histories of scientists, rulers, cultures, and so forth. The laws of nature are not contingent upon such histories, and we do not have an obsession to prove any such history in order to live our lives scientifically today. However, the history of God’s interventions has entirely different implications.

The Big Bang and the evolution of life are examples of unique historical events of great scientific importance. But the reason scientists believe in them is because empirical data available today leads to those conclusions, and not because of any historical narratives passed down to us.

Ahistorical Means of Truth

This section discusses several means of attaining spiritual truth, which are not history-centric, but are existentially immediate.

First-Person Empiricism:[40]

Alan Wallace explains the role of mind in any empirical investigation of consciousness: [41] “The primary instrument that all scientists have used to make any type of  observation is the human mind…” However, like any scientific laboratory, one has to first clean, fine-tune, and calibrate the mind:[42]

The untrained mind, which is prone to alternating agitation and dullness, is an unreliable and inadequate instrument for observing anything. To transform it into a suitable instrument for scientific exploration, the stability and vividness of the attention must be developed to a high degree.”

This is the scientific importance of yoga, meditation, kundalini, tantra and other systems of achieving higher states of mind, and more evolved states of body, which may then be used to discover deeper layer of reality:

Over the past three millennia, the Indic traditions have developed rigorous methods for refining the attention, and then applying that attention to exploring the origins, nature, and role of consciousness in the natural world. The empirical and rational investigations and discoveries by such great Indian contemplatives as Gautama the Buddha profoundly challenge many of the assumptions of the modern West, particularly those of scientific materialism.”

In the pursuit of inner discoveries, the scientist is himself/herself the instrument of observation/experience. Anindita Balslev has called this “second-order empiricism,” and feels that this has been a unique achievement of Indic traditions[43].

To refine and develop the inner scientist’s capabilities (i.e. cleaning the antahkarana), an important process is the cultivation of a lifestyle that minimizes mental perturbations and distractions that would reduce the resolution and clarity of experience. Rishis, yogis, and buddhas were such living human laboratories. Lineages evolved that continued the adhyatmika experimentation across many generations. These states led to the development of many sophisticated conceptual models and epistemologies over time. There were philosophical peer debates among inner scientists, based on these longitudinal experiments.

Sunthar Visuvalingam writes:[44]

There is no doubt that there was much greater (and, in certain epochs such as around 600 BC, even absolute) freedom in Indian civilization to inquire into, experiment with, and expound upon the nature of (inner) Reality (including its denial, as by the Cârvaka ‘materialists’…) and its mode of attainment. A veritable technology of consciousness proliferated, armed with an arsenal of new tools such as philosophy, aesthetics, practical psychology, etc., that has [almost] no equivalent elsewhere in the world. In fact, the primary focus of the Abrahamic religions has not been esotericism, self-realization, diversification of approaches, whereas even the most ordinary Indian at least acknowledges the latter claims.” 

Lack of Western Adhyatma-Vidya:

My U-Turn Theory may be used to model the tension between adhyatmika and history-centrism in many Western individuals and movements: First, there is a period of freedom from historicity, during which there is extensive learning from Indic traditions and expansion of consciousness. Then the Grand Narrative of Western History raises its head out of insecurity; it fights, and eventually conquers whatever adhyatma-vidya had been embodied or conceptually learnt by that time.

Consequently, what Indians consider to be spirituality is not primary to the Abrahamic religions’ self-definition. As Visuvalingam explains:

Both Judaism and Islam, for example, are preoccupied with social order and cohesion (hence the primacy of Law), which is the main reason why the spiritual quest has been relatively ‘marginalized’ or at least wrapped away into esoteric currents of Kabala and (Sunni) Sufism or subordinated to theological doctrine, as in the figure of the Shia Imam.”

He goes on to state that the messianic impulse, embodied especially by Christianity, is focused on transforming the (external) world (as much as, if not more than, the inner man), even and especially when it breaks free of the (Jewish) Law. The same socio-political tension also exists between Sufis and the Islamic historical Grand Narratives.

Although the institutions that held power over society could be characterized in this manner, I feel that one must not ignore the morality, imitation of Christ-love, and inner salvation through works that were also taught by these traditions.

In each given Abrahamic religion, God gives collective bargains to man: Jews as the chosen tribes; Christians as all those who subscribe to the Grand Narrative of God’s Son’s sacrifice for them; Muslims as all who unquestionably believe in and comply with the final and complete words of God sent via his last Prophet (PBUH). Therefore, the focus of Abrahamic religions has often been extroverted. Many important canons are not about individual spirituality, but about collective salvation, calling for organizing society and politics to defeat non-believers. Individual salvation is experienced only in an afterlife in Heaven. Too often, success on Earth has been measured by collective socio-political mobilizations — and, hence, via organized religions.

Robert Thurman’s book, Inner Revolution, is about the need for a second renaissance, one that would be adhyatmika. He feels that the first European renaissance was only laukika and extroverted, and that the West has not developed serious esoteric technologies of its own.

Alan Wallace goes deeper in order to explain why the West has no systematic science comparable to adhyatma-vidya:

The first step in developing a science of any kind of phenomena is to develop and refine instruments that allow one to observe and possibly experiment with the phenomena under investigation. The only instrument we have that enables us to observe mental phenomena directly is the mind itself. But since the time of Aristotle, the West has made little, if any, progress in developing means of refining the mind so that it can be used as a reliable instrument for observing mental events. And… there continues to be considerable resistance against developing any such empirical science even today.”

In the Middle Ages, Europeans considered extraordinary mental abilities to come from the Devil. This association of non-ordinary consciousness with the demonic precluded the development of a technology of consciousness. European superstitions literally killed the freedom to pursue any adhyatma-vidya, as witch-hunting became the craze from the late fifteenth century through the mid-seventeenth century. Wallace shows that even Christian mystics imposed serious limitations on human potential, because of:

“the widespread conclusion among Christian mystics that the highest states of contemplation are necessarily fleeting, commonly lasting no longer than about half an hour[45]. This insistence on the fleeting nature of mystical union appears to originate with Augustine, [46]and it is reflected almost a millennium later in the writings of Meister Eckhart, who emphasized that the state of contemplative rapture is invariably transient, with even its residual effects lasting no longer than three days[47].”

Struggles between mystics and dogma-based hierarchy almost always resulted in the defeat of the adhyatmika at the hands of the history-centric. Christianity saw any rishi or buddha type of state as a threat to its historicity. Claims by spiritual adepts were condemned as man-made religions, because the notion of human transcendence during life was inconsistent with the canons. Protestantism, says Wallace, closed the Western mind even further with regard to serious inner investigations:

“With the advent of the Protestant Reformation and the Scientific Revolution, the gradual decline of Christian contemplative inquiry into the nature of consciousness rapidly accelerated. Given the Protestant emphasis on the Augustinian theme of the essential iniquity of the human soul, and man’s utter inability to achieve salvation or know God except by faith, there was no longer any theological incentive for such inquiry. Salvation was emphatically presented as an undeserved gift from the Creator.”

European outer science did not bring about any serious inner sciences into Europe, and the towering influence of Descartes made it worse:

“Descartes, whose ideological influence on the Scientific Revolution is hard to overestimate, was deeply committed to the introspective examination of the mind. But like his Greek and Christian predecessors, he did not devise any means to refine the attention so that the mind could reliably be used to observe mental events… Moreover, in a theological move that effectively removed the human mind from the natural world, Descartes decreed that the soul is divinely infused into the body, where it exerts its influence on the body by way of the pineal gland… This philosophical stance probably accounts in large part for the fact that the Western scientific study of the mind did not even begin for more than two centuries after Descartes.”

Even William James, the pioneer of Western psychology, did not have the required empirical tools:

James was well aware of the importance of developing such sustained, voluntary attention, but he acknowledged that he did not know how to achieve this task[48].”

Wallace sums up the West’s lack of adhyatma-vidya methodology as follows:

“In short, the trajectory of Western science from the time of Copernicus to the modern day seems to have been influenced by medieval Christian cosmology. Just as hell was symbolized as being in the center of the earth, and heaven was in the outermost reaches of space, the inner, the subjective world of man was depicted as being the locus of evil, while the objective world was free of such moral contamination… And it was only in the closing years of the twentieth century that the scientific community began to regard consciousness as a legitimate subject of scientific inquiry. Why did it take psychology — which itself emerged only after many scientists felt that they had already discovered all the principal laws of the universe — a century before it began to address the nature of consciousness?[49]

Embodied Knowing:

The rishi-state achieved by esoteric psycho-physiological adhyatmika practices is one of several kinds of embodied knowing. Bhakti sants use a different set of processes to achieve transcendence of ordinary human limits: These processes are based on intense devotion and surrender of the ego, combined with a simple lifestyle without anxieties. Natya, which includes dance, music, and performing arts in general, has served as another set of sophisticated processes for transcendence and embodied knowing, and is available to every human. Ramana Maharshi taught a Vedantic process of “inquiry” at all times, that leads to present moment transcendence.

Sri Aurobindo explains that the experience of jnana (“supramental knowledge”) gives human beings the possibility of knowing the relative in light of the absolute: one sees, touches, feels, and knows first the infinite, and then every form is known or seen through that infinity. This extraordinary claim is that a state is possible that goes beyond the relativity and limits of ordinary mind. This transcends the distinction between experience and interpretation of experience, i.e. between ontology and epistemology.

The following summarizes the distinctiveness of Indic traditions, on account of their emphasis on embodied knowing:

1. Every human has this inherent potential of embodied knowing of ultimate truths.

2. The state of embodied knowing is achieved during one’s life on Earth, and does not depend upon death (i.e. it is not after entering “heaven”).

3. Such living enlightened gurus are sometimes seen as divine. They re-verify and re-contextualize the embodied (as contrasted with historical) truth to a given community of followers, at a given time and place. This continually refreshes the knowledge, and prevents history-centrism and ossification.

4. Embodied knowing also has major ethical implications, because (i) ethical conduct is a prerequisite for cultivating a clean mental instrument, and hence rishismust be ethical; and also because (ii) as a byproduct of this inner pursuit one’s external conduct becomes spontaneously ethical. Ethics is inseparable from epistemology. This is important in order to understand the ethical foundation of Indic traditions — they are based on embodied knowing.

5. Sophisticated epistemologies were developed based on embodied knowing. However, theoreticians also had to be experimental scientists, i.e. they had to engage in long-term adhyatmika practices and the prerequisite lifestyles, in order to achieve the states discussed by the epistemologies. Today’s academic scholars simply lack this empirical foundation to be able to understand the epistemologies, much less being able to critique them — regardless of how many diplomas and licenses they might have secured from their institutions.

6. Embodied knowing is forever reproducible, even though difficult to achieve. This is very different from history-centric claims that are even theoretically non-reproducible. Therefore, shruti — the ultimate truth that is “heard” in such states — is ahistorical. It was always there, and is always available to be rediscovered in the appropriate state of consciousness. Hence, shruti is not the same as revealed scripture, because the latter is contingent upon history. Shruti is not only ahistorical, but is regarded as supra human (a-paurusheya) and unchangeable to the letter — similar to any physics formula, such as E = MC2. By contrast, smriti is knowledge that has become contextualized in a given socio-historical context.

7. The achievement of embodied knowing by any individual is not a discontinuity in the natural laws of the cosmos — i.e. it has nothing to do with any new covenants.

8. Miracles are not necessary as a means to validate embodied knowledge, although the practitioner may acquire them as a byproduct along the way. Each practitioner must self-validate the embodied knowing, through the practice of the adhyatma-vidya, during his/her life on Earth.

9. Embodied knowing is best transmitted orally in a direct interpersonal manner, though many yogis have systematically documented their experiences. Once it gets collapsed into conceptual categories, it is already disembodied. Hence, while Indic traditions have developed many highly sophisticated logical and conceptual systems of discourse, embodied knowing is considered a higher state than any intellectualism. Embodied knowing transcends all “propositions.” It transcends all the linguistic boundaries of nama-rupa. This is why rishis and yogis have been placed higher than pandits.

10. Historical prophets are not a necessary condition to embodied knowing. Historical Grand Narratives can also become a major obstacle in the achievement of higher states of embodied knowing. To advance in adhyatma-vidya, one must give up history-centrism.

Is Adhyatma-Vidya a “Science”?[50]

The historicity of Buddha is not a prerequisite for the validity of Buddhism, just as the historical Newton is unnecessary for the validity of gravitation theory. Buddha emphasized that he was not a prophet. No God had sent him, and he was neither the first nor the last person to have discovered the nature of reality and how every human may achieve nirvana just as he had. He made it very clear that each person should verify his teachings for himself/herself. (Tibetan Buddhists use various deities just as Hindus use devas/devis, but they are ahistorical forces or archetypes.)

Likewise, the validity of Vedanta, as expounded by Shankara, is not contingent upon Shankara’s life history. The validity of Patanjali’s Yoga-Sutras is not dependent upon the historicity of Patanjali. The sphota theory of Bharthrhari is not based on the personal life events of that genius.

In more recent times, Ramana Maharshi’s and J. Krishnamurti’s teachings are not about with any historical events. The same could be said of the teachings of Sri Aurobindo, Ramakrishna, and so forth. Tantra is entirely about embodied knowing, and there are no historical pre-requisites as necessary beliefs. When one takes a course on The Art of Living, by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar — which is the fastest growing Hindu movement amongst well-educated Indians worldwide — one learns various techniques to achieve higher states of consciousness. The results are experienced here and now. One also learns new ways of experiencing the nature of the self. It is nowhere close to being a lesson in the history of God’s interventions in some remote past.

To spiritual masters from such traditions, a fixation with a historical Grand Narrative is the worst kind of nama-rupa grasping and delusion that there could be. History-centrism is seen as a major obstacle to spiritual progress. (Therefore, to appropriate Indic spiritual methods via the “new age,” into an Abrahamic historical Grand Narrative, is often counter-productive.)

Contemporary Science and Religion[51]

There are largely two types of participants in the science and religion dialogue: (i) those that engage it from the perspective of science, but who are themselves Judeo-Christians; and (ii) those that engage it from the theological side, who are well versed in scientific theory as it applies to theology.

The latter are having a remarkable impact on the re-construction of Judeo-Christianity as a “scientific theology.” They make Judeo-Christianity look very sophisticated indeed, for they deploy philosophical categories, such as Whiteheadian thought, much as the ancient Christian theologians did to undermine Greek philosophy and science. Having lost in its fight against science in Europe a few centuries ago, Judeo-Christian theologians are now busy repackaging their Grand Narratives in science-compliant ways.

However, God’s interventions in history are not easily resolved in scientific ways, even though these interventions are the defining moments of these religions, and the cause of most disputes.

For instance, there has been an ongoing Judeo-Christian discussion about the “mechanics” of God’s activity in the world. While Abrahamic theologians bear the burden to scientifically explain God’s intervention in the world, Indic traditions have no such problem to begin with, because, within Indic theistic traditions, Saguna Brahman acts through his Shakti (the kinetic/intelligent power), which is innate and immanent within the physical universe. No fracture of natural law is necessary for Brahman to act in Indic systems. Hence, there is no need to patch up the contradictions in order to “explain.” This is a radical alternative to the problem of historical intervention.

One of the most important debates in the Judeo-Christian science and religion dialogue has been the issue of proving or disproving “intelligent design.” However, this issue exists because those religions perceive the “Creative Consciousness/Intelligence” to be extra-natural (and indeed, supernatural), while Indic traditions understand it to be pervasive, immanent, and non-local. Thus Prakriti, being penetrated by Chit (Intelligence/Consciousness), can organize itself into life. There are a variety of ways in which Indic traditions deal with the intersection of materiality and consciousness, but nowhere does one find the position that creative consciousness is extra-natural.

Itihas ¹ History

Itihas is not literal history in the Western sense. Itihas is a view of the past that is continually updated, based on the present context. As Shrinivas Tilak explains,[52]

“Hindus see the arrival of Sri Rama as a Grand Narrative (Ramayana) that is made up of symbols woven into dramatized ritual and narrative. But itihas (which traditionally comprises of Ramayana and Mahabharata) is not a question of either myth or history for it includes both. History is a linear mode of experience, relating primarily to the left-brain literal knowledge. Myth, on the other hand, is a creative and aesthetic mode of experience that derives from the right-brain, reflecting a holistic mode of consciousness. Just as the left and the right sides of the brain are bridged to act as one, so in itihas, both myth and history are subsumed.”

Hence, there are many Ramayanas across India, Thailand, Indonesia, and other places, and these have changed several times. Even in Thailand, there are towns named Ayodhya, because the villagers have constructed their itihas to believe that Lord Rama lived in their midst. Bali has a monkey forest, whose monkeys are believed to be descendents of Hanuman’s army. Local inhabitants who are unable to travel to the Ganga treat the Godavri and Narmada rivers as their Ganga for many rituals. Many Hindus in UK treat the river Thames as their local Ganga, without any sense of transgression.

Not being handcuffed to literalist history, itihas is pliable, fluid, and allows many versions, with no compulsion to find “one true canon.” Therefore, Western projects to write “critical editions” of Indian itihas are inherently flawed. Madeleine Biardeau cogently argued this for the Mahâbhârata (against V. Sukthankar)[53]. By a forced mapping onto Western notions of history, such projects would alter Indic traditions, in the same manner as many 19th century colonial interventions re-engineered Indian society, narratives and identities. This is cultural imperialism.

Itihas is more about identity and continuity with one’s ancestors. Itihas is not seen as a necessary condition for spiritual truth-claims, because there have always been many mainstream Indian spiritual movements with no reliance upon itihas. Vaishnavism, as one of many ways of being a Hindu, comes closest to having a Grand Narrative of God’s interventions in human history, i.e. via the avatars of Vishnu. But even Vaishnavism accepts multiple avatars, and the puranas are able to adapt to include Jesus, Buddha, and Mohammed as avatars — because of the pliable nature of itihasitihas is like an ecosystem of narratives, in which new peoples may incorporate their own narratives in a mutually respectful manner.

Finally, Shiva’s dance is completely ahistorical. It is the universe. There is no question of a specific time or place where a “unique” intervention by Shiva occurred, because Shiva’s Shakti is engaged with us at all times and in all places, and is immanent in, and as the universe.

Having said all this, itihas can also include literal historiography in the Western sense, especially in mundane human events[54].

Theology ¹ Adhyatma-Vidya

Theologians of Abrahamic religions study ancient canons, with the same intensity as business attorneys study complex commercial contracts. They examine canonical amendments through various covenants from God, look for annexes to various clauses, try to find escape clauses in specific situations, and so forth. In fact, discussions amongst theologians often remind me of corporate attorneys debating a complex and convoluted contract that allows many divergent interpretations.

To support this kind of theology, historiography is very important. Historiography looks at “evidence” to re-construct the “contracts” between God and man, which theologians can then work with. Hence, legal jurisprudence and historiography have dominated much of the scholarship of Abrahamic religions.

All this seems very strange and irrelevant to most Indian spiritualists, who fail to see what any of this has to do with true spirituality. This points to the core difference between Indic and Abrahamic traditions. Continuity and success, therefore, depend upon two different kinds of core competences.

The Abrahamic religions are built around institutions of jurisprudence and historiography. These institutions maintain the canons, (re) interpret them, protect them from false claims and threats, control their distribution, and leverage them as assets in expansion campaigns.

On the other hand, the core competence that determines the continued success of many Indic traditions has been the ability to produce living spiritual masters across the spectrum of space and time, in order to serve specific communities with customized teachings. This means that the techniques to achieve embodied enlightenment are all important — including various esoteric systems of meditation, tantra, Vedanta, bhakti, etc. These are the tools, and not the history[55].

Using Pierre Bourdieu’s theories of culture as capital, one might say that in Indic traditions, embodied cultural capital is given greater value, whereas in the Abrahamic religions, the disembodied cultural capital of institutions and doctrinal “property” has been valued higher.

History-Centrism and Inter-Faith Relations

What, one wonders, is the reason for so much inter-religious tension and competitiveness, given so many similar conclusions across all religions? After all, there are “liberal” interpretations that show various religions agreeing on physics and cosmology. Furthermore, ethical principles, such as loving all humans, charity, truthfulness, and so forth, are common to religions in general[56].

My answer is that no amount of commonality amongst religions could resolve the conflicts caused by non-negotiable Grand Narratives of History. Even if different religions’ rituals became common, houses of worship became similar or even common, dress codes became the same, and so forth, as long as they have non-negotiable and proprietary Grand Narratives of History, they would continue to clash[57].

Grand Narratives are in competition for market-share. They serve as mechanisms for appropriation from others, including the use of hostile and friendly takeovers. For example, if extrapolating some obscure Christian text legitimizes the claim that “Christian Yoga” was “always a part of Christianity,” then it would enhance the Christian Grand Narrative. Given the popularity of yoga today, it would correspondingly inflate Christianity’s brand value. Likewise, if “dowry murder” can be blamed as a “Hindu problem,” then it devalues Hinduism. These brand wars are the natural consequence of history-centric canons, just as a proprietary computer operating system is the basis for exclusiveness. What Windows is to Microsoft, the proprietary Grand Narrative of History is to an organized religion[58].

Since superiority must be claimed in order to justify aggressive proselytizing, and no intrinsic superiority may be found in the evangelical religions over other faiths, either in scientific aspects or in ethics, the only way to claim superiority is via some unique claim to history. Therefore, the Darwinian expansionism of Grand Narratives overrides any and all other considerations — including commonalities of cosmology and ethics. When interfaith dialogs proclaim commonality of morality and belief in one Supreme Being, etc., they evade the point that history is the real cause of conflicts.

The Historical Grand Narrative of God’s interventions is usually non-negotiable, for it becomes a source of power, and serves as a marketing brand. It leads to exclusiveness: that there is only One True History. Monotheism turns into My-Theism,[59] the belief that only one’s own conception of theism is valid, and that all others must be falsified and demonized. Religious institutions get obsessed to defend, control and enforce their Grand Narrative of History. It becomes one’s religious duty to do this as God’s work. Most religious conflicts have originated with the groups that insist on a historical narrative as central, and many of these aggressions have been visited upon groups for whom such a narrative is secondary or irrelevant. Nowadays, this triggers a chain reaction of responses.

History-centric religions demand bondage to historical dogma and hence deny freedom to discover spirituality for oneself. They also have irreconcilable conflicts with other history-centric religions, such as those between Christianity and Islam. Furthermore, they tend to prey upon non-history based faiths, claiming this to be their civilizing mission.

While history is culture specific, adhyatma-vidya is pluralistic, as has been proven by the many different forms it has taken in Asian cultures that have embraced Buddhism. The great advantage of this, as noted by Rita Sherma, is “that it does not need to destroy whole cultures and undermine entire civilizations to inculcate an acceptance of a history that, by its very nature, is exclusively representative of a specific time and place[60].”

Why This Matters

1. Western categories have dominated the study of world religions. Hence, we find all spiritual traditions classified into monotheism and polytheism, rather than into history-centric and adhyatmika. Furthermore, because Abrahamic religions are self-defined in socio-political terms, Western scholars have used anthropology as a principal means to “study” Indian spirituality, leading to the “caste, cows, and curry” theories of India. But dharma ¹ religion: this calls for a fresh examination, in which Eurocentric categories would be put under the microscope.

2. The West is strong in constructing Grand Narratives for itself, defending and propagating them via institutions, and using them as a source of power, including conquest and expansion. Indians today lack a Grand Narrative in the Western sense, while the traditional itihas style of Indian narrative has been marginalized by “secularism.” Adhyatma-vidya is incomplete by itself, as it leaves Indian society exposed to external forces that assert a God-given socio-political agenda, which is their mission on Earth. On the other hand, India has been very strong in developing a wide range of adhyatma-vidya, whereas the West lacks this dimension. A civilization must have both, but the narratives must not be history-centric or exclusivist. A strong Grand Narrative without adhyatma-vidya can become demonic and a global menace. On the other hand, an adhyatmika society that lacks laukika (worldly) narratives becomes subjugated.

3. Hindutva may be seen as a recent attempt to fill this Grand Narrative void, not as anything to do with adhyatma-vidya, but as an indigenous response to competing foreign Grand Narratives. However, I have many issues with the specific Grand Narrative of Hindutva, given its own kind of exclusivism. I would like to see Indians across all faiths (and non-Indians who choose to adopt Indic traditions) jointly construct a pan-Indic Grand Narrative for themselves. (This is why I have preferred the term “Indic”.) This process should be based on a critical but fair study of Indic traditions, and should not be Eurocentric in the way Nehruvianism, Indian Marxism, and Westernized Indian Feminism have unsuccessfully tried to be. This narrative would strengthen Indian culture, giving it both: (a) individual leveladhyatma-vidya and (b) collective laukika identity.

4. India’s subaltern scholars have ignored the spirituality of the subaltern people, while claiming to champion them. This has to do with Marx’ use of Eurocentric categories in his analysis of “religion.” Unfortunately, he, and subsequently the Indian Marxists, blindly applied the conclusions that were based on Abrahamic religions, as being universal to all faiths worldwide. Consequently, most subaltern scholars neither have the interest nor the training to be able to understand that the true transmitters and preservers of adhyatma-vidya were the rishis, siddhas, natha yogis, tantrikas, sadhus and bhakti sants, many of whom were from non-Brahmin and non-Kshyatriya varnas[61]. The Brahmin priesthood did preserve oral and written textual works of importance, but in terms of adhyatma-vidya, the prize goes to the renunciant/yogic lineages[62]. Unfortunately, since European religions were, indeed, dominated by elitist interests, the same lens was superimposed on the study of Indic traditions, and remains the academic practice even today.

5. The core thesis of this paper is that absolute and literal historical grand narratives are (a) unscientific, and (b) the cause of many conflicts. When these narratives are given up — or reinterpreted as ahistorical, in the manner in which Carl Jung did with Christian myths — they cease to serve fundamentalist evangelism.

6. The West is rapidly appropriating adhyatma-vidya from Indic traditions, because it knows that it lacks this area of knowledge systems. The goal of much Western scholarship is to assimilate Indic adhyatma-vidya into Western Grand Narratives. This is explained in my U-Turn Model[63]. They look for obscure references in their own traditions, that could be stretched and extrapolated, to claim that whatever the scholar studied in Indic traditions for several decades is also found in his/her own Western tradition. This appropriation gets justified in various ways, each of which I have responded to elsewhere. Simultaneously, a parallel team of Western scholars are busy forcing Western categories upon Indic traditions, to depict them as incoherent, pre-rational, deficient in ethics, other-worldly, backward, etc. This two-pronged strategy — appropriate and demonize the source — was previously used to devastate pagan, Native American, and African cultures. Many powerful Indian scholars, journalists, English language award-winning authors, and others, are deeply invested as sepoys in this strategy.

Discussions with Liberal Christians

Since the foregoing treatment of Christianity assumes mainstream Christianity, I sent the draft to several scholars who define themselves as “liberal Christians.” Their criticisms and my responses are summarized below, in a dialog fashion. I have learnt a great deal from this exchange, and feel that we could open “history centrism” as a new category for analysis in religious studies.


Liberal Christians: There is no requirement in Christianity to take God’s historical intervention literally, and, indeed, if you do try to take it literally, the result is a complete contradiction.

My Response: But there are so many mandatory official creeds, which focus mainly on the literal interpretation of history. Also, why do 39% of Americans believe the Bible literally, as per Gallup Poll, and 59% after September 11 believe in the literal interpretation of Revelation? Secondly, if historical literalism were to be abandoned by the powers of the church, and Jesus were interpreted metaphorically as one of many equivalent rishis/avatars/gurus, would it not make conversion moot, and would it not usher in a new era of cooperation amongst religions, rather than competition? Your position is not the ground reality today. [64]

Liberal Christians: Don’t fall into the methodological error of comparing popular Christianity with the very highest and best traditions of India. It would be wrong to assume that historicity is absent from the Indic traditions. You compare exoteric Abrahamic religions with esoteric Indic religions. By far the most widely practiced forms of Hinduism are bhakti, and look to the god in a historical context.

My Response: Western scholars readily acknowledge that most Hindus are not people of the book. Have you ever come across a single Hindu who reads the Manu-smriti (other than an academic scholar)? I have never come across such a person in my entire life. When they do read a Hindu text, it is most often the Gita; but Gita is ahistorical, as it makes no demands to believe in any literal account of history. Furthermore, under the sub-heading, “itihas ¹ History,” I explain that the past as seen by common Indians is not the same as the Western notion of literal history. Vedas, Tantras, and several other scriptures do not belong to any author.Devas/devis are ahistorical intelligences. Time and temporality are mithya, and not seen as literally real. Mainstream Christianity depends upon prophets, and prophetic = history-centrism. You are trying to de-prohpetize Christianity, which will not be easy, and it won’t be the same religion anymore. Prophetic encounters between God and man are fundamentally different than the ahistorical experiences in yoga, tantra, bhakti, and other esoteric methods[65].

Liberal Christians: Christianity has had many internal tensions: Mark is the earliest and in some ways the most challenging. Matthew is the account that most deeply connects the life of Jesus with Judaism. Luke is interested in the human-interest stories and in the founding of a new religious order. John is the most mystical. “Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, Bless the bed that I lie on,” is an old chant.

My Response: True. But Alex Alexander already made this point, earlier in the essay. My response was that, despite there being different Christian narratives, the overall meta-narrative, as accepted by mainstream churches, is history-centric. Competing history-centrisms do not negate history-centrism.

Liberal Christians: An ahistorical way of knowing might not really exist. Even the body, and certainly the conceptual matrix, are arguably historically conditioned, if not historically determined.

My Response: Any conceptual matrix is nama-rupa, and hence, within maya. The state of consciousness claimed by rishis transcends all nama-rupa. History fixation is the worst kind of nama-rupa.

Emphasis Upon Jurisprudence:

Liberal Christians: Christianity criticizes Judaism for too much focus on jurisprudence. Christian theologians see Jesus as coming to rectify this obsessive interest in the law. That is part of his appeal.

My Response: While Christianity is less focused on jurisprudence (as compared to Judaism), it is still very much focused on “God’s Laws”, and various covenants that come from time to time, that need expert lawyers to interpret.

God’s Immanence, and Embodiment:

Liberal Christians: The presence of God is considered always accessible to every Christian, merely a heartbeat away, as in the psalms, and God is always and constantly active in the world. Christians have experienced Christ in the same way as Shiva’s dance.

My Response: But the experiencing of Shiva is not as a historical man, who came in a specific time and place, and directed certain people to act on his behalf. Therein lies the central difference in the nature of the “experience.” An experience of the historical Jesus brings his whole history as context into the mind. This isnama-rupa. Most Abrahamic people are very reluctant, and some outright afraid, to let go of this nama-rupa grasping. The Abrahamic religions posit an external God who drives history, which, in turn, creates ideology, separation, and imperialism. The ahistorical religions posit embodied adhyatmika processes (devatas) that operate the decision-making to create history. The embodied ahistorical creates unions, communities, continuity, moksha, nirvana.

Furthermore, Indic paths deal not just with spirituality that is attainable by everyone — consciousness as awe, saintly virtues of courage, love of all, and righteousness — but also with deep potentials of the body-spirit to the point of revealing the “anatomy” of the “ensouled body,” — it’s subtle body, chakras, energies, and maps. On the other hand, the worship of historical events/persons could also be correlated with the poor record that the Abrahamic religions have regarding the body in spiritual growth. The milieu of India has nurtured sadhus, rishis, yogis, and tantrikas for millennia, at all tiers of society. The milieu of RISA and others like it is based on hermeneutical training and career advancement. These are entirely different[66].


Liberal Christians: Christianity may have turned away from adhyatmika, but Jesus taught “The kingdom of God is within you,” and Judas went wrong because he assumed that Jesus was a this-worldly messiah or political leader.

My Response: Agreed. How I wish Jesus’ followers had understood him in the same manner as he would have been understood if he had been born in India![67]


Liberal Christians: Hindus and Buddhists are not immune from the us/them disease, or from chauvinism.

My Response: Agreed. Indians had many intense disputes also, and there were centuries of debates. But the criteria on which this bifurcation occurred had nothing to do with competing accounts of history. Rather, the disputes concerned the nature of the self, the pramanas to be allowed, whether certain states of consciousness were ultimate or provisional, and so forth.


Liberal Christians: I don’t think there is really much of a difference between monotheism and polytheism. Jack Miles writes in his book, “God: A Biography,” that the Abrahamic traditions replaced many gods with a single God having multiple personalities. To this, the Abrahamic traditions added Satan, who functions as a Zoroastrian “other,” and a whole bunch of angels, saints, Mother Mary, the Virgin of Guadalupe, supernatural icons, etc., not to mention the Trinity. Before you know it, the so-called monotheistic religions seem polytheistic in practice.

My Response: I agree with that account. But monotheism is a fundamental “Western” concept taught today in virtually every school, in college courses on comparative religions, and in Western media portrayals. It defines the teachings of Main Street’s church priests. It cannot be imagined away by a few liberal intellectuals. I am glad to be in dialog with the enlightened liberal minority of Christians, but this essay is about Christianity as being promoted worldwide today. I have no complaints against either monotheism or polytheism, but only (i) against “My-Theism”, and (ii) against imposing these categories upon non-Abrahamic religions.

Savior ¹ Avatar:

Finally, in response to these liberal criticisms, Antonio de Nicolas also sent me his own writings on the subject. He has written one of the finest explanations of the key distinction between Abrahamic and Indic traditions. As an eminent scholar of both East and West, his interpretations of Vedas are valuable for contemporary audiences. He contrasts the Savior of Abrahamic religions with the Avatar of Indic traditions to make his point[68].

First, here is his explanation of the Savior as an essence of Abrahamic myths:[69]

“The Savior image [is] the go between God and the sinful race of humans. We know this image also as the scapegoat, and the Substitute King: someone chosen for the occasion to be the victim of the moment for the salvation of the rest of the community. He gains immortal divinity, saves other humans, brings his Father into the scene, his followers name a Church after him and these same followers establish a narrative, a theology, and ethics based on principles of behavior… The room left for individuals to improve their spiritual knowledge in this scheme of Savior/sinner, is not great, we are after all sinners, born in sin, and our individual salvation is only a gift, provided we follow the rules of ethics, and not the result of any superior knowledge of God or deviation from this scheme. Judaism, Islam and Christianity are the followers and founders of the model. God and the rules of ethics come from the outside and their mission in life is to bring all humans to surrender to this model, either through conversion or force. The individual, in this model, is an individual only in name, for after all, individual perfection consists in total surrender to the model, in letting the model become embodied in the subjects in such a way that the model, rather than the individuals, acts through each complying individual… Wherever there is violence the Savior model is at work.”

By contrast, the Avatar is different:

“The Avatar model, on the other hand, is earlier than the Savior’s. It dates from the times of the oral Rig Veda (5,000 to 2,500 B.C.) It has a larger range of human development than the Savior’s, from the Language of possibilities of the Asat (Chaos) where all geometries of possible human forms are waiting to be born as heroes, gods, humans etc., to the Language of Sacrifice and Images, where all forms are to be sacrificed… The gods are this side of creation and they are interior embodiments of a multiplicity of brains at work. Inner acts, rather than names are at work. These acts are so efficient that they may create new “gods”, new centers of action, to guide humans to make wise decisions. There are no a priori norms of ethics to accommodate to…”

He goes on to explain how the Indic process involves an entirely different mechanism of ethics, one that is not dependent upon outside rules, (which, in turn, would be dependent upon historical revelations.):

“Hopefully, the West will realize that both Plato and Pythagoras are footnotes to the earlier cultures of India, such as the Katha Upanishad, Rig Veda etc. Indic texts had already marked the individual training and ethics of social life. Nothing short of excellence will do. The training for excellence is to practice the embodied technologies of decision-making, the right decisions, the wise decisions, when needed by the present dharma, context, one faces. This is the goal, the ethics of the whole program of the Avatar Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita: to train Arjuna, that fallen and disturbed warrior, to make decisions, the best ones, as needed by his present dharma (his present situation), a battle field. And this is the program of human acting, from the Rig Veda down, that Indic texts propose: an ethics of decision-making as opposed to an ethics of compliance to rules coming from the outside. There is no outside god able to make these pronouncements in Indic texts; here all the gods are this side of creation, as the Rig Veda proclaims.”

Antonio de Nicolas emphasizes that today’s ethical situations are not sufficiently dealt with by simplistic rules or commandments. Rather, one needs to cultivate embodied states (of sattva) that also include the outer contexts in which decisions are expected:

“Decision-making is a must-ethics in a world that is so ambiguous. Our educational system is biased in favor of veridical decisions, decisions geared to agreements between subject and object, logical platitudes, “finding the truth”… But there are no mechanisms in education to teach anyone decision based on multiple ambiguous situations, self-centered decisions, “what is best from among the possible,” in the concrete situation facing the subject. For these kinds of decisions new technologies need to be embodied by a subject and also by the guide, guru, spiritual director that supervises the spiritual development of the subject. This is the lesson of Indic texts. Arjuna in the Gita collapses in the first chapter unable to make the decision to fight in a very ambiguous — to him — situation. Family, friends, are on both sides of the battlefield. Krishna takes him on a journey of communities and acts (yogas) he was familiar with for ten chapters until his whole organism opens and is able to see (chapter eleven) the geometries on which the passage and dissolution of nama-rupa, names and forms, takes place. This is the embodiment of the Avatara in its full manifestation. A man has been able to embody in one life-time the technologies of the present culture to the point of having it constantly present so that when called upon he may make the best decision, from among the possible, for the benefit of all. It is after the realization that the Gita, in chapter twelve, spells out the meaning of the “battle field” as the human body, and of the technologies of decision-making, as the opening of memory, that opens the heart, and opens finally the frontal lobes so that in the end the subject, Arjuna, by habit from the desires of his heart whatever he wants: yatha icchasi tatha kuru (now that you know do as you wish).”

He concludes: [70]

“It comes down to this. The West has trained its people to perform veridical agreements — this is true, this is false — but all these Western people lack the ability to make decisions in complex situations, where they have multiple choices and need the frontal lobes to view those situations. The only people who did this in the West were interlopers from other cultures — Ignatius, John, Teresa, etc. They founded Orders to be able to practice these skills without the Inquisitions ears around the corner, but in public they talked theology. Moreover, these skills are borrowed from Indic texts and practices, and it is time they came together as “ONE” tradition. You are doing a very good job pointing to the problem and the differences. The opposition you encounter is that of experts (so-called) unable to make complex decisions in need or frontal lobes, but are trained in “veridical” decisions for which you need nothing biological except agreement to a priori rules.”

How “Western” is Liberal Christianity?

Many liberal Christians are now propagating a new ”Scientific Christianity” in the West. But this is largely constructed from the many unacknowledged U-Turns from Indic traditions. These appropriations reached a frenzy in the mid 19th century, when virtually every major European university created a large-scale Sanskrit department, often at the expense of Latin/Greek. A few prominent examples of Indic appropriations into Christianity include:

  • Teilhard de Chardin, the prominent 20th century scientific Christian theologian, studied Ramanuja’s Vedanta, and then equated Saguna Brahman with “the body of Christ.” However, he was persecuted by the Church, and lived in Asia in exile, while writing many of his works. While ignoring this background, his ideas have seeped into Judeo-Christianity as part of “scientific theology[71].”
  • Carl Jung studied Indic traditions, taught summer institutes on yoga philosophy and kundalini in Zurich for a few years. Then, he repackaged this into his “original Western science,” and later used it to re-interpret the Bible to make the old myths scientific. Meanwhile, he emphasized that Westerners should not practice yoga, because it would lead to dangerous consequences[72]. I wonder what he would have to say about the fact that today 18 million Americans practice yoga, and that it has not made them world negating, irrational, or unscientific. However, many Westerners are following his advice to construct “Western yoga,” but they are attempting this not by original discovery, but simply by repackaging and branding the Indic traditions as theirs.
  • T.S. Eliot, Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, Huxley, Steiner, Assagioli, Montessori, Huxley, Eliade, Campbell, Beats, Wilber and many other modern thinkers were heavily influenced by Indic traditions. Later, they and/or their followers erased this influence, in an effort to preserve the “purity” and integrity of European thought, and, especially, the integrity of Christianity[73].

Contrary to their self-image, many liberal Christians are unable to go beyond Eurocentric worldviews[74] . For instance, Thomas McEvilley explains the suppression of one major appropriation:[75]

“Still, modern western attitudes towards Plotinus have not been shaped by the widespread acknowledgment of the extraordinary similarity of his teachings to doctrines taught in India in his day; but by the role he unwittingly played after his death as a formative influence on Christian theology. Translations of his work may have a churchy kind of ring. The view of Plotinus as a kind of proto-Christian may express, at least in part, a dread of finding possible Indian origins for the texts whose influence was to contribute to shaping the thought of Thomas Aquinas, Nicholas of Cusa, Meister Eckhardt, and many later western thinkers. So it is not only that “to admit ‘oriental influences’ on [Plotinus] was tantamount to besmirching his good name,” [76]but even more it would also besmirch that whole aspect of the western tradition that flowed from him. If Plotinus had passed massive Asian influence into the western tradition, there would be little point to calling it western anymore.”

Furthermore, the new liberal Christianity is not the variety being exported to third world countries, because history-centrism is required to establish Christian uniqueness for conversion purposes. I am asking liberal Christians to make a choice — between adhyatmika Christianity on the one hand, and evangelism and proselytizing on the other. I hope that this essay triggers the following two healthy tensions within liberal Christians:

1. The liberal Christian ahistorical interpretations at home contradict the conservative export variety of Christianity. This is similar to the way John Stuart Mill, while serving as an officer in the British East India Company for 35 years, was on the one hand responsible for studying dharmashastras to instruct the British on “managing” Indians socio-politically, and simultaneously, was pioneering liberalism at home. It was rationalized that Indians were not ready for liberalism, even though one could explain how Mill’s study of dharmashastras influenced “European liberalism[77].”

2. Eurocentric appropriations are making Indic adhyatma-vidya traditions seem irrelevant, because many scholars reference only the European equivalents to the Indic sources that they have studied, thereby making it unimportant for students to study Indic thought. Consequently, Indic traditions are facing rapid atrophy in Western influenced scholarship. To make matters worse, a large number of highly educated and Westernized Indian intellectuals have recently been appropriated and deployed by liberal Westerners to prosecute Indian traditions, while at the same time, these very traditions are being appropriated into Western society. For example, techniques such as yoga, meditation, mantra, and guided imagery are being demonized in India as superstitious, chauvinistic, communalistic, and even fascist, by Western funded “progressive” Indians, denying a billion people the benefits of their own traditions in terms of reduced stress, violence, and psychological disorders — while the West now enjoys these very traditions. The ethical dimensions of this must not be ignored.

Summary of Major Assertions

1) Adhyatma-vidya is a methodology that many spiritual traditions have used as the basis for arriving at their truth-claims.

2) Historical narratives about God’s interventions have served as a methodology by many traditions to make their truth-claims.

3) Both these methods tend to exist in most major traditions.

4) One or the other method tends to dominate over time, and this has a drastic impact on the nature of the tradition that develops.

5) History-centric traditions tend to be more fixed in their claims, because history cannot be renegotiated easily. Adhyatmika traditions tend to allow new insights because their methodology allows them to do so. Hence, the former tend to gravitate towards “finality” of truth-claims and fixed canons, while the latter end up compiling massive libraries of texts based on large numbers of adhyatmika claims.

6) History-centric movements easily get institutionalized, and this gives continuity. Adhyatmika movements depend on the living masters who claim the “rishi state”, and hence cannot easily become institutionalized.

7) Between these two categories, adhyatmika based traditions tend to have greater flexibility, accommodation of diverse views, and ability to peacefully change over time.

8) Bhakti saints, Vedas, Upanishads, Gita, Buddha’s teachings, Mahavira’s teachings, are some of the many examples where truth-claims are not contingent upon any historical events. In other words, you do not have to accept or prove any history, in order to practice and receive the benefit claimed.

9) Major (but not all) denominations of Christianity and Islam insist on a set of historical events as being necessary to their belief system, making them history centric. Examples include: Sunni, Shiite, Ahmadiyya; Mormon, Baptist; Vatican; Presbyterian; Methodist; etc. (Many Hindutva followers would also fall under this classification, such as those that claim Ram’s birthplace in Ayodhya as a necessary (not just “nice to have”) part of their religion.)

10) Major Christian and Islamic denominations also believe in a fixed set of future events, i.e. the Apocalypse.

11) Surveys by prominent American research firms (Gallup, CNN, TIME) show that history centric religious beliefs are held by a large percentage of Americans, and that this percentage has increased recently. Furthermore, many very important Americans hold these beliefs.

12) For a variety of reasons explained by scholars, such as Alan Wallace, the West has not develop sophisticated systems of adhyatma-vidya, even though they have had “individual” mystics over time.

13) Much of the theological work in the Abrahamic religions has centered on analyzing, arguing, and interpreting historical claims and counter claims.

14) History centric religions find it difficult to consider another conflicting historical grand narrative to also be valid. Therefore, for a given religion to be valid, it must find the others to be false, or at least partially false.

15) Adhyatma-vidya allows that there can be many different kinds of adhyatmika experiences, at many stages, and many levels. Furthermore, there can be many methods to achieve various stages.

16) Since the academic study of religion started in the West, it is based on the use of Western categories, and hence, this privileges the lenses of the Abrahamic religions over others.

17) Many Indian subaltern scholars have ignored or dismissed spirituality as an important part of life, whereas the subaltern people of India have considered spirituality as very important to them. In other words, these scholars do not fully understand the very people they claim to champion.

18) While subaltern scholars have depicted Hinduism as elitist and Brahmin controlled, the sadhus have been subaltern people; the bhakti saints were almost always subaltern people; tantrikas were subalterns and not Brahmins; and the puranas have traditionally been performed by all jatis. Hence, these scholars have thrown the baby out with the bathwater, because they simply assumed Marx’ conclusions about Abrahamic religions as being universally applicable to all cultures – the blind spot from becoming neocolonized.

19) Many Westerners have appropriated Indic adhyatma-vidya into their own Abrahamic religions. Often, the source of the appropriation gets blurred, and eventually erased, in the minds of most Westerners and neocolonized Indians.

20) Monotheism is not a true mark of distinction of the Abrahamic religions, because: (i) many other traditions also believe in one Supreme Being; and (ii) some of the Abrahamic religions have had polytheistic backgrounds and polytheistic present beliefs.


[1] I wish to thank the following scholars for their extensive comments, criticisms, and suggestions: Jack Petranker, Sunthar Visuvalingam, Antonio de Nicolas, Rita Sherma, Cleo Kearns, Billie Grassie, Kundun Singh, Francis X. Clooney, S.J., Srinivas Tilak, T. S. Rukmani, Patricia Reynaud, Matthijs Cornelissen and Stuart Sovatsky.

[2] While most Christian theologians today would go for the latter option, in practice, they treat the historical claims in the Bible as boundary conditions in any such “open” thinking.

[3] Some reviewers suggested including the debate between third-person (“it is said that…”) claims and first-person (“I know…”), but that is a major topic of its own, and already much has been written on it.

[4] Unfortunately, genocide is only defined in terms of physical human deaths. Therefore, eradication of entire cultures, languages, ways of life, religions, etc. is not being included as genocide. Endangered species of animals and plants have more rights and ethical oversight than do human cultures. Could it be that the very “liberal” forces that champion “human rights” are, in many instances, endangering cultural diversity by facilitating Westernization in the name of globalization?

[5] For instance, Kashmir Shaivism does not accept maya as defined by Vedanta, but has its own notion of ignorance in ordinary man.

[6] Such as the proofs of all possible theorems.

[7] Schopenhauer in “The World as Will and Representation” linked Kant’s theory of knowledge and Maya.

[8] This explains, perhaps, why the Hellenic philosophy and the sources that Plato and Aristotle used constituted a major issue with the first Christian theologians, who resorted to the ‘theory of borrowings’ ancient knowledge. The Greeks would have been taught these divine truths by fallen angels (Origen, Clement of Alexandria). The Fathers of the Church could not imagine such knowledge imparted without divine intervention.

[9] Any intuition based on history-centric “beliefs” is still in nama-rupa bondage.

[10] In Buddhist and Jaina systems, there is no atman occupying such a state, but the state is claimed.

[11] There are strands in Indic traditions that say that without the presence of the teacher, enlightenment and the transcendence of human limitations are not possible. But Indian living masters are not historically unique, and there is an endless stream of them, with always some in the present moment. Hence, unlike the dependence on historical Prophets, this is not history-centric.

[12] Christian saints are often deemed to be embodied models, but (i) only after they die is it allowed to declare them as saints, and (ii) the notion of embodiment is itself dependent upon the historicity of Jesus. The master-disciple connection is extremely important in certain orders of Islam. All the Tariqas nowadays are centers around living spiritual masters. In some countries such as Syria, they are deemed more important than exoteric hierarchies. But these connections are non-existent neo-Wahhabism.

[13] Note that while “Original Sin” is a specific space-time (i.e. historical) event, avidya is beginningless, and hence ahistorical.

[14] Islam is a dual tradition: apart from sharia, Islam is also haqiqa defined as the divine reality in the human heart. It has a double hierarchy, one of theologians and doctors of the law inscribed in history, and one hidden, composed of holy men around the qutb or pole. These “mystics” have a structured and systematic teaching, transmitted from master to disciple in the Tariqas. Notwithstanding this, the power and control of Islam has been based on the historical canon.

[15] Unfortunately, Hindu nationalism today sometimes seems to be mimicking the worst things about the West, by becoming obsessively history-centric. But this is different than the past of Hinduism, and is atypical amongst Hindus even today. (See the section titled, Itihas ¹ History.) In the case of Christianity, history-driven exclusivism has dominated ever since Constantine took control over it in the 4th century.

[16] In very early Christianity, and in 8th to 13th centuries, Christian mysticism was widespread, although always overshadowed by canon-based institutions.

[17] Even though religious orders did keep alive their mystics, such as Teresa, John, and Ignatius.

[18] It is a fair criticism by a Christian scholar that this was not always good, because it could also be abused, as it lacks institutional oversight.

[19] In Shiite Islam, Saints reinterpret the eternal truth for each historical period. One of the names of Ibn Arabi is “the one who revitalizes religion,” religion being more than sharia and theological dogmas. This is one of the core reasons for the Arab-Iran conflicts — the Iranian Shiites refuse to succumb to Arab controlled Law of Islam, and have kept it fluid and open. Shiite Islam, therefore, comes much closer to Indic traditions.

[20]The invention of apostolic succession was an attempt in Christianity.

[21] The vast majority of them did not do the violence; they were the objects of persecution and execution.

[22] With the exception of Sikhism.

[23] “Religious Traditions of the World,” Edited by H. Byron Earhart. HarperCollins. 1993. p.540.

[24] C. Alex Alexander’s comment on Sankrant Sanu’s Sulekha column, “Need I belong to only one religion?” at: http://www.sulekha.com/column.asp?cid=294339

[25] John Davidson, “The Gospel of Jesus: In search of his original teachings,” Element, Rockport, MA, p.75

[26] “Surveying the religious landscape,” by George Gallup and Michael Lindsay. Critics have complained that statistics cannot define a religion, but then it must also be pointed out that Western anthropology’s data gathering of India’s “caste, cows, and curry” stereotypes would also have to be invalidated.

[27] See “The Axis of Neocolonialism,” at: http://www.sulekha.com/column.asp?cid=218625

[28] “Dismissal of heresy charge called ‘dysfunction‘,” by Larry Witham. The Washington Times. February 20, 2003. http://www.washtimes.com/national/20030220-6816151.htm

[29] “Bible College hangs up on 666 prefix.” Sunday, March 2, 2003: http://edition.cnn.com/2003/US/South/03/01/offbeat.ky.prefix.ap/index.html

[30] “Mel Gibson’s a Catholic now,” The Economic Times. March 13, 2003. Based on Reuters, March 8, 2003:

[31] All quotes in this sub-heading are from: “Apocalypse Now,” by Nancy Gibbs. Cover Story in Time Magazine, July 1, 2002, pp. 41-48. Includes sidebar, “The End: How It Got That Way,” by David Van Biema. pp. 46-47.

[32] “The End: How It Got That Way,” by David Van Biema. Time Magazine, July 1, 2002. pp.46-47.

[33] “Apocalypse Now,” by Nancy Gibbs. Time Magazine, Cover Story. July 1, 2002, pp.41-48.

[34] “Eschatology,” in “The New Encyclopedia Britannica,” Vol. 17. pp. 401-408.

[35] TIME Magazine.

[36] TIME Magazine.

[37] “Eschatology,” in “The New Encyclopedia Britannica,” Vol. 17. pp. 401-408.

[38] Mercea Eliage, “The Sacred and the Profane,” pp. 296-207.

[39] In an email forwarded by Holly Gwyn Lavender, in March, 2003.

[40] The validity of any specific first-person claims is not crucial to my thesis: What matters is that the basis for making the claims is ahistorical.

[41] While his writings are about Buddhism, similar principles also apply to other Indic traditions.

[42] Alan Wallace: “Why the West Has No Science of Consciousness: A Buddhist View”. Global Renaissance:
Indic Contributions. July 2002. Menla, NY.
See: http://www.infinityfoundation.com/indic_colloq/persons/person_wallace_alan.htm

[43] Private communication.

[44] Private email of 3/3/03.

[45] Butler, Dom Cuthbert. (1967) “Western Mysticism: The Teaching of Augustine.” Gregory and Bernard on Contemplation and the Contemplative Life. 3rd. ed., with “Afterthoughts,” by Prof. David Knowles. London: Constable & Co. p.26).

[46] Burnaby, John. (1938/1991) Amor Dei: “A Study of the Religion of St. Augustine.” Norwich: The Canterbury Press. (1938: 52 & 67)

[47] M. O. C. (trans.) (1979 & 1987) Meister Eckhart: “Sermons & Treatises,” Vols. I-III, Longmead: Element Books Ltd. (1979: 1:7)

[48] James, William. (1890/1950) “The Principles of Psychology.” New York: Dover Publications. I: 416-424.

[49] Wallace: this was due “in large part to the fifty-year domination of academic psychology by behaviorism.”

[50] I do not accept orthodox “science” as the court of last resort in matters of religion. “Science” is used loosely in this essay to represent reproducible and ahistorical methodologies.

[51] I am indebted to Dr. Rita Sherma for suggesting the ideas in this section.

[52] Private email, 3/10/03.

[53] See 2.1.1 and 2.1.7 at: http://tiger.bun.kyoto-u.ac.jp/letter/003/symposium/basenote/witzel-2.html

[54] For an example of Indian “history” from indigenous Indian sources, see: Ronald Inden, Daud Ali, Jonathan Walters (Editors): “Querying the Medieval: Texts and the History of Practice in South Asia,” Oxford University Press. 2000.

[55] It is interesting to note that Prof. Jack Hawley of Barnard College, NY, has launched a campaign across American campuses to charge that Diaspora Hindus are “constructing a new Hinduism.” But he fails to appreciate that the very nature of adhyatma-vidya is to continually renew itself, in contrast to history-centric canonized belief systems that must wait for the next Prophet (who must first prove his status by doing miracles). Furthermore, Liberation Theology was a successful “construction” by Catholic bishops in Latin America, to counter Marxism. They were able to show that Catholicism had its own internal resources to offer better human rights, without having to adopt Marxism. Catholic theologians would not accept that they invented a new religion. Rather, they would point out the long history of Christian reconstructions as reinterpretations, each true to the Bible. Since Hinduism has been colonized, and is now neocolonized, it has not recently enjoyed the same freedom and rights to be able to re-interpret itself for each situation. But in earlier times, Hinduism did reinterpret itself many times, each time from within, i.e. without Western grants to scholars to document “human rights” violations. So this process is to be seen as: (i) natural organic development in any system that is not fossilized; (ii) the tradition within India for a long time to make changes; and (iii) similar in some ways to what Christianity has been doing to itself. Therefore, could one surmise that Hawley’s problem is that the changes would be brought about by insiders, and not imposed by (neo) colonialists from the outside? Note that Veena Oldenburg’s and also Dirks’ latest books point out that a major part of the colonial agenda was to blame native culture for all sorts of problems, and then to use this excuse to “reform” in ways that suited the colonial interests. Indigenous reform or natural evolution was seen as a threat to colonial control — a moving target makes the job more difficult for the hit men. Might there be a similar threat perception on the part of the Western-controlled academic study of India? This comment points the microscope back at the role of asymmetric power in Indology.

[56] There are major academic campaigns to try to show that Indic traditions lack progress, ethics, etc. and that these are unique gifts brought by Christianity. However, these are distortions, which are sustained only through control over the production and distribution of Religious Studies in the academy.

[57] On the other hand, some agreement of a different kind can be found when one looks at the metaphysical principles underlying these narratives. For example, some masters of the Chisti Tariqas translated the Bhagavad-Gita, and found that the core teachings of Krishna were the same as the doctrine of the Unity of existence, the very metaphysical essence in Islam — they recognize Krishna as a very old prophet.

[58] The adhyatmika traditions could be analogized as being similar to Linux.

[59] I am indebted to Ravi Ravindra for first suggesting the term “My-Theism” to me, in an email comment.

[60] Private email.

[61] For example, see: Pinch, William R. “Peasants and Monks in British India.” Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996. http://ark.cdlib.org/ark:/13030/ft22900465/

[62] Texts are also historical or ahistorical, and have the same implications as any other historical or ahistorical methods. I regard Vedas as ahistorical, Puranas as itihas and not literally historical.

[63] A summary is given in “The Axis of Neocolonialism”: http://www.sulekha.com/column.asp?cid=218625

[64] The Mormons are an interesting example of history centrism. Their Grand Narrative is roughly as follows: From 1827 to 1830, a man named Joseph Smith in New York State (near Ithaca), got a series of dreams, in which God guided him to go to a particular forest, and to find a specific location for which the dreams provided landmarks. Upon finding the exact spot, he was to dig the ground and find a set of gold plated tablets. He did all this, found the tablets, brought them home, and transcribed them onto paper. After the tablets were transcribed, he returned them back to the place where he had found them, and covered the hole in the ground with dirt, hiding all evidence. He was not to disclose the location to anyone. The written transcript he produced was God’s message to humanity. This became the Book of Mormon – their Bible. It contains narratives of ancient peoples in America, which gives the Mormons a very “American” Christianity. They believe that Christians had come to America thousands of years ago, as per the Book of Mormon. The set of historical events concerning Joseph Smith’s activities between 1827 and 1830 is the basis for having complete faith in the Book Of Mormon as God’s truth. While they also believe in the conventional Christian narrative of Jesus, the more recent instructions from God via this latest prophet take precedence. Mormons are not some tiny fringe cult. They are the fastest growing Christian denomination in USA. They are immensely wealthy, and their members include many of the top businessmen, and tend to be well educated. They tend to be very articulate, and go out of their way to help those in need. They make good friends, and live under a strict code of ethics.

[65] I have a speculative side theory that does not impact this paper: India’s Varna system was a classification of job descriptions, before it degenerated, and especially before it got re-engineered in the 19th century into the modern caste system. [See Nicholas Dirks’, “Castes of Mind.” 2002.] It was merit based. Kshyatriya and Brahmin were separate jobs, whose duties were defined as ‘Kshyatriya dharma’ and ‘Brahmin dharma,’ respectively, and never held by the same individual. The king was always a Kshyatriya, never a Brahmin, thereby avoiding the possibility of a theocracy. This separation also corresponds roughly to exoteric and esoteric domains, respectively. Hence, neither of these domains was supposed to subvert the other, and each had its own separate champion. Theocracy doesn’t have much meaning in the Indian context, for the Brahmins never entertained the project of making everyone else embrace their mode of living. The term is more suitable for societies held together by a common uniform theology imposed by a religious elite firmly holding the reins of power. Furthermore, the true transmitters and preservers of adhyaatma vidya were the rishis, siddhas, natha yogis, many of whom were from non-Brahmin and non-Kshyatriya varnas. The Brahmin priesthood did preserve oral and written textual works of importance, but in terms of adhyatma vidya, the prize goes to the renunciant/yogic lineages. However, it could be that the very existence of a Brahmin domain, that the rulers could not meddle in, might have protected the entrepreneurial spirituality of all jatis. Because Varna has not been objectively examined today, and has simply been conflated with the abusive caste system, this feature of classical India deserves further inquiry. Might it explain the long-term respect and empowerment for esoteric movements across all social strata in India?

[66] I am reminded of a conversation with Francisco Varela, one of the top Western practitioner-scholars of Indic adhyatma-vidya, who did a U-Turn into Euro-Phenomenology. I asked him where one could find practitioners of Husserl’s phenomenology, and where the Western adhyatmika adepts were being nurtured. He was silent for a while, and then replied, “One of the problems of Western hermeneutics is that we don’t have a yoga. There is no such place.”

[67] I do believe in the veracity of Jesus’ teachings, when interpreted in an Indic framework, such as the analyses done by Ravi Ravindra.

[68] For his complete collection of essays on the Internet, please visit: http://www.infinityfoundation.com/mandala/i_es/i_es_denicolas_frameset.htm

[69] “The Avatara and The Savior: The Philosophical Foundations of Politics,” Antonio de Nicolas. Presented in Madrid to the Ministers of the European Community, and later published in “The World & I,” under the title, “The Philosophical Foundations of Neo-Conservatism,” September 1986.

[70] Private email.

[71]See: (a) Ursula King, “Towards a New Mysticism: Teilhard de Chardin and Eastern Traditions.” London: Collins, 1980; (b) B. Bruteau, “Evolution toward Divinity: Teilhard de Chardin and the Hindu Traditions,” Wheaton: The Theosophical Publishing House, 1974; and (c) Ann Hunt Overzee, “The Body Divine: The Symbol of the Body in the Works of Teilhard de Chardin and Ramanuja,” Cambridge University Press, 1992.

[72]Harold Coward, “Jung and Eastern Traditions,” SUNY Press, 1985. Also, Harold Coward, “Yoga and Psychology,” SUNY Press, 2002.

[73] See: J.J. Clarke, “Oriental Enlightenment,” Routledge, 1997. Carl Olson, “Indian Philosophers and Postmodern Thinkers,” OUP India. 2002. Thomas McEvilley, “The Shape of Ancient Thought,” Allworth Press, 2002. Silvia Federici (Editor), “Enduring Western Civilization: The Construction of the Concept of Western Civilization and is ‘Others,'” Praeger, 1995. Cleo Kearns, “T.S. Eliot and Indic Traditions,” Cambridge University Press. P.S. Pai, “T.S. Eliot, Vedanta and Buddhism,” University of British Columbia Press, 1985. Alan D. Hodder, “Thoreau’s Ecstatic Witness,” Yale University Press, 2001. Sumita Roy, Annie Pothen, K.S. Sunita, (Editors), “Aldus Huxley and Indian Thought,” Sterling Publishers, 2003. Graham Parkes (Editor), “Heidegger and Asian Thought,”University of Hawaii Press, 1987. T.R. Rajasekharaiah, “The Roots of Whitman’s Grass,” Farleigh Dickinson University Press, 1970.

[74] Eurocentrism is a sort of collective superego, sometimes unknown to the person and unconsciously applied. It becomes more extroverted under stress – for instance, after September 11, there is sudden prejudice against brown-skinned Americans, contradicting all sociological trends. The Eurocentric grand narrative, that was always there, got activated under perceived threat.

[75] Thomas McEvilley, “The Shape of Ancient Thought,” Allworth Press. 2002. P.550.

[76] Albert M. Wolters, “A Survey of Modern Scholarly Opinion on Plotinus and Indian Thought,” in “Neoplatonism and Indian Thought,” ed. Baine R. Harris, Norfolk, Virginia: International Center for Neoplatonic Studies, 1982. P.295.

[77] See “Liberalism and Empire: A Study in Nineteenth-Century British Liberal Thought,” by Uday Singh Mehta. The University of Chicago Press. 1999.

Published: 2003

  • Sam Joseph

    This article has great insight, especially this distinction >> “In this classification, I interpret Jesus’ original teachings as type B (ahistorical and esoteric), whereas Christianity later became type A (exoteric institutionalized power). “

  • Sam Joseph

    Another event which many Christians have elevated as a sign of divinity (or perceived superiority of Christianity in the historical context ) is the division of history into A.D (Anna Domini “His Year”) and B.C (Before Christ). I think the concept of God is much more transcendental than to make some sort of calendar for the human kind. This became evident to me after many conversations with Christians of other denominations (I am an Orthodox Christian) where we debated about the proverbial “Orange or Apple that fell on our head” — Nuances of Christian Faith that are so historical but no way of being verified, but are essential and central to the faith — but are irrelevant to spiritual progression.