Thursday, March 11, 2010

Interfaith Blog Event #8: Pantheism

Welcome to the 8th Interfaith Blog Event! In this event, we'll be discussing Pantheistic religions. Jon, from Jesusfollowers Journal, will be joining me in this event. He will be writing from a Protestant Christian perspective.

My essay will be posted in 3 parts, as I have to develop a lot of background information before I can begin discussing Hinduism. This post is Part 1. The other posts are linked below:

[Part 1] [Part 2] [Part 3]

(Links will be provided as they become available)
[Jon's Essay]

First, I would like to note that while I am very well versed in Buddhism, I am very newly introduced to Hindu spirituality. Therefore, for the purposes of this essay, I am relying on Essence of the Upanishads by Eknath Easwaran. Any mis-statements about Hinduism I make in this essay are solely my fault, and I welcome corrections from those with greater experience in the topic.

Second, in my research for this essay, I have learned that Hindu spirituality encompasses a vast array of different beliefs and practices (for example, while some Hindus are pantheistic in their understanding of the universe, others are monotheistic and still others are polytheistic). Therefore, my treatment in this essay may embrace slightly different viewpoints throughout, and is not meant to be a complete--or even adequate--treatment of the religious spectrum of Hinduism.


Hindu spirituality is incredibly old and is less a monolithic religion than a system of varied beliefs and practices based around similar world views and understandings of the universe in which we live (something one could call “Indian Spirituality,” which is, incidentally, part of the subtitle of Easwaran’s work). This Indian Spirituality also forms the basis for Buddhism, a religion that both shares much with, and yet differs in very fundamental ways from, Hinduism. In this essay, I hope to present the reader with a comparison of the many similarities between these two great Indian religions, as well as clearly identify where they diverge.

The Chariot Analogy

In his work, Easwaran presents a beautiful and enlightening analogy that clearly describes the basis of Indian Spirituality. Traveling the roads of life are numerous horse-drawn chariots. Just like in a satellite view of a major metropolis like San Francisco, roads snake in all different directions, full of chariots. These chariots represent the vehicle we’re all given, the body, which helps transport us through life. Every chariot needs a driver, which represents the Discriminating Intellect or Judgment. The Discriminating Intellect holds the reins—the Mind, Emotions, and Desires—which are attached to the horses: the Five Senses. Our chariot is transporting a very specific passenger along these roads of life: the Self, the very nature of each of us.

Let’s dissect this analogy to gain a better understanding of the Hindu view of our purpose in life. The first observation to glean from this analogy, as well as probably the most important, is that we are not our bodies, we are not our minds, we are not our discriminating intellects, nor are we our five senses. All of these things are just the means by which Self moves through life. That being said, let’s describe how the vehicle functions for 98% of us.

It’s a little past noon, and you haven’t eaten since 7:30 this morning. Your Self indicates, “I’m hungry.” Immediately your horses (senses) start rearing, itching to pull you to the nearest diner where you can get bacon, eggs, and buttered toast. Your driver (discriminating intellect), through years of disuse, doesn’t even examine the health implications of the meal the senses want. The horses bolt, carrying the vehicle toward the diner for the breakfast that will satisfy them. For some of us, the discriminating intellect may kick in briefly, noting the health implications of the meal the senses suggested, and may even decide that that’s not a good option. But again through years of disuse, the discriminating intellect has no control over the reins (mind, emotions, desires), and so is unable to override the sense’s decision, and you end up eating the unhealthy meal anyway.

Try applying this same analytical tool to your own life and your own particular circumstances. Maybe you know that you should exercise more, that you’d feel better and be more effective at everything you do. But exercise is unpleasant in the short-term, and your senses don’t like unpleasant things—this is their nature. The problem here is that while your discriminating intellect may understand all the long-term benefits of exercise, if it doesn’t have control of the reins (mind, emotions, desires), you won’t be able to control where your horses take you, and that place will not be the gym. Maybe you really want to go to the gym, but your mind keeps coming up with excuses, other things you “just have to do.” Maybe your mind unconsciously sabotages your plan of going to the gym by causing “accidents” such as spilling something on your shirt (hence you just have to wash this now before it stains). Maybe you can logically bring yourself to the decision to go work out, but you just can’t muster the energy to get yourself off the couch; the inertia is just too great.

Here’s one more example, just to show how this lack of control penetrates everything we do. You’re cleaning your house, vacuuming and dusting. You don’t enjoy cleaning, but you’ve put it off long enough and so you know you have to do it, despite its unpleasantness. But while you’re working, your mind is off thinking of the next things you’re going to do, daydreaming of the things you could be doing. Because you’re not paying close attention to your current task, you accidentally knock a collectible you own to the ground, breaking it. In this example, your senses are going to try to do what is in their nature, chase after pleasurable experiences and avoid unpleasant experiences. If you haven’t trained them to obey the discriminating intellect, then you won’t have the ability to stop them when they start to follow their nature. The same goes for your emotions and desires. Because of this lack of training, you can’t hold your attention on your current task and you break the object.

Even while reading this essay, your mind has probably wandered to something else; or maybe you shifted in your chair. Think about it: what is a shifting of your position? It’s your body’s response to an unpleasant sensation; you are getting uncomfortable and your body shifts. This process happens so frequently that while you may remember shifting position now, you probably did it unconsciously at the time. And you’ll do so again before the end of this essay.

The next obvious question becomes: So what? The answer is that without training your discriminating intellect to use the tools of the mind, emotions, and desires to control the senses, you’re basically living a lie. Everything you think, everything you do, everything you believe, will be based on chasing immediate pleasantness and avoiding short-term unpleasantness. The problem is that your Self is a very quiet individual. He or she is completely drowned out by the overpowering nature of the senses. So if you lack control over the senses and your mind and emotions, then you are completely unable to hear your Self with any regularity. The only way to discover your True Self is to gain that perfect control over your mind, emotions, desires, and senses, using your discriminating intellect. Please note the converse implications of this: as long as you lack this control, any understanding you have of your True Self is false in some way.

How does this control allow you to recognize your true Self? At every single moment in life, we have a choice of actions, thoughts, emotions, and desires. All of these choices will follow one of two paths, called Preya and Shreya. Preya describes a choice that pleases our senses; it is pleasant immediately and usually tickles the ego. The problem is that it is often not beneficial in the long term. Shreya has no reference to pleasing/displeasing. It is simply what benefits us in the long term. Sometimes Shreya choices are very pleasing right away, but most of the time Shreya choices cannot compete in the short term with Preya choices. But beyond the immediate present, the benefit and pleasantness of Shreya will catapult it past Preya every time.

I hope the connection of these two paths to the chariot analogy is clear. For people who have no control over their senses, their vehicle will choose Preya every time, even though their Self will want them to choose Shreya every time. These paths don’t exist only in monumental moments, they occur during every individual millisecond of your life. You go to the movies and you want popcorn, but you’re not actually hungry. What do you choose, Preya or Shreya? Let’s say you choose to order the popcorn. Do you drench it in butter and salt (Preya), or do you forego both (Shreya)? Maybe you opt to use just a little butter and salt. Do you eat the entire bag, or do you stop when you start to feel full? Try applying Preya/Shreya to you own life; you’ll see their truth is self-evident.


Ryan said...

I'm eager to see how this event plays out, being fairly ignorant of Hinduism myself. Hop to it with Part 2 and 3, this is good stuff! You too, Jon!

Anonymous said...

Greetings from the Blue Mountain Center of Meditation, founded by Eknath Easwaran in the 1960's. For more information about Easwaran's books, retreats and method of meditation, visit our website at