Update: In your book The Tantric Tradition, you have said that there are two elements that are common or indigenous to all Indian religion; one is the concept of transmigration (or reincarnation or metempsychosis,) and the other is the idea of some Absolute which undergirds or underlies creation. I’d like to talk about these two things in order. First of all, reincarnation:
How old is this idea and where does it come from?
Bharati: In its present form, the way people talk about it today, it is of course quite old, but it’s not as old as people hope it would be. You have only a vestigal or marginal mention of something like transmigration in the older sections of the Veda. There is the first complete mention, although very brief, in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, which is quite old, but the real assumptions having to do with transmigration comes in the Puranic age, at the time the Puranas were composed, and then of course through Buddhism. So you might say that it reached a state of common acceptance, I would think, around 300 BC, but not earlier. Karma was never stressed as a unique, unicausal explanation for human events. There was always an intense competition between this view and others like curses and luck, and when Islam came, this became reinforced by the notion of kismet (fate.) But in pre-Islamic texts you find the word bhagya, which means something like fate - it means good or bad luck. And that of course is pre-Islamic. On the grass-roots level, on the folk level, the notions of karma are rather weak. They are systematized in some texts; of course, they are much stronger in Buddhism and Jainism. So it is old, but in its highly articulated form it is not so old. The way that it’s talked about now, that’s recent, that’s the Theosophical Society.
U: What about early Greek thought and Plato - do you find it there?
B: Earlier than that. Pythagoras - but again, it’s not elaborated. You find traces of a metempsychotic statement in Pythagoras, which is older than Socrates. But it was never taken too seriously, and also it was not commonly accepted and did not become part and parcel of the Greek religious system at any time.
U: I have seen a real discrepancy between the Hindu and Buddhist views of reincarnation. Would you agree?
B: Of course. The Buddhist doctrine is based far more on this assumption. It figures more importantly in the sermons of the Buddha; since Buddhism is atheistic, it has very few competitors. You explain human suffering on the basis of desire and the chain of dependent origination, the twelve-fold chain, which extends over many lives. In other words, the basic statement of Buddhism is in the pratitya-samutpada, the statement of dependent origination, the chain of twelve links, which starts with desire and goes over various life forms, back to desire again in a reel. So that of course does not extend over one lifetime, but goes over many lifetimes - in other words, the Buddha took transmigration for granted, and it was well established at that time in Indian thought. That was one thing which no indigenous Indian religion ever disputed. The question is one of stress. It is more highly emphasized in Buddhism and less emphasized in classical Hinduism, although it is more emphasized in later Hinduism, especially the Bhakti cult starting in the 14th century.
U: My understanding, and correct me if I’m wrong, is that the Buddhist conception of reincarnation is more like one candle flame lighting another, whereas the Hindu theory is the idea of the transfer of skandhas or personal identity traits.
B: No, there are no skandhas in Hinduism; skandhas are Buddhist, but the similes which are used are unimportant. In fact, I think that if you took a contemporary Buddhist or a contemporary of the Buddhist teachers in the subsequent centuries they would have agreed that this is a very different way of talking about it, but it is essentially the same thing. But it is not the same thing metaphysically, because what transmigrates for the Hindu is the jiva, which is an actual ontological existence, whereas for the Buddhist it’s just a wave that takes a different shape, and there is no existence behind it. So there’s a very basic metaphysical difference, but in the mind or the perception of the people, I don’t think there is a difference. For the Buddhist followers there is a radical difference, but I don’t think it is important; it’s not important to the ordinary people.
U: But it certainly is not the personality of Albrecht, Aagaard, or Bharati which is transferred?
B: Well, how could it? There is no personality in Buddhism. In other words, it’s like a billow in the ocean which just sort of moves on. It’s not really a different thing, it’s just a different name. The Buddha says "nama-rupa," what changes is the name and the form, there’s no essence, it’s without any essence. But people confuse nama-rupa with essence as though it existed. And wisdom originates once you get rid of the notion that nama-rupa has any essence to it. It is asara, it has no essence. It is very much opposed to the Hindu idea that it (the soul) exists or is permanent. It might migrate, of course, when you get closer to salvation; then it is realized as being something rather different. It exists; it has existential status, whereas in Buddhism there is no ontology.
U: For the record, would you define ontology?
B: Ontology is a philosophy which asserts the actual objective existence of the objects it talks about.
U: The proponents of reincarnation often say that it is the only real system of justice in the universe. Do you agree?
B: Well, I would put it this way: That’s an ad hominem argument, but I would think that if you compare it with the Judaeo-Christian or Islamic or Mediterranean stuff, it seems to me ethically less implausible, In other words, if you have to postulate an outside agent, then it seems to me that it sort of removes the responsibility from the individual. Not only that, but unless you decide on an act of faith, it’s a highly harassing notion that I shouldn’t be in control, that I shouldn’t be responsible for the things that happen to me. So in that sense, in my reading and in the reading of many of my monastic colleagues, the real value of the transmigration system is an ethical explanation. In other words, it’s a sort of an ethical theodicy. Also, the other points made by opponents to Christianity, starting with Vivedananda, is the question: "How can you be held responsible for finite acts in an infinite sense?" To which of course, the missionaries of that time would say, "Well, you know, since God is infinite, therefore the result is infinite." That doesn’t make sense to the Hindu, it’s a logical soap.
U: It seems to me that the problems with reincarnation are that since the personalities are extinguished in Buddhism and to a pretty large extent in Hinduism also,(B: But not until they reach moksha) they can’t remember their former lives. Let me give you an example, OK? Let’s use that perennial example of evil, Adolf Hitler. The classical explanation in terms of reincarnation is that Hitler will have to be reincarnated six million times as a person or a demon or whatever. The problem with this is that let’s say Hitler comes back and is re-born in 1947, and he’s born as a deformed baby. So the mother and the father suffer from this and the child of course suffers, so the waves of Karma that spread out from this reincarnation of Adolf Hitler are exponential - they continue to increase. Not only that, but Adolf Hitler doesn’t really pay for his own sins, because he as a personality is extinct. So fundamentally, in reincarnationist philosophy, he gets away with everything he did.
B: No, no. He’s not extinct at all, he just doesn’t remember, that doesn’t mean that he’s extinct. After all, nobody denies that he was in the womb of his mother and yet he doesn’t remember it. That doesn’t mean that he’s extinct. If everything is extinct which you don’t remember, then we never exist. You don’t remember what you did at the age of one. That is just not an argument.
U: You don’t think so?
B: I know it.
U: You think it isn’t.
B: You don’t know what you did in your mother’s womb, but obviously you were there. If memory is the criterion for previous existence, then there’s no criterion at all. Memories are short - they usually go back to the age of 4 or 5 or so. The point is that in most legal systems, you are accountable for things that you didn’t know were wrong. But you are also accountable if you don’t remember, except for that kind of phoney idea of calling in the psychiatrist to state that the man is incapable of telling right from wrong. There’s no such thing, everybody is accountable.
U: Well, let’s use another example. Suppose you punish children for something that is wrong, and then they understand, they get whacked on the bottom because they’ve done something wrong. They associate the punishment with the previous act, whatever it was. In reincarnation, we don’t remember our previous lives. Almost all reincarnationists will acknowledge that you don’t remember your previous lives, at least in any kind of detail, so you don’t know what you’re being punished for.
B: Yea, but you know, it’s supposed to be prophylactic. If something bad happened to you, you know something went wrong in your last life. So in the future you’ll avoid any such possibilities by improving your lifestyle.
U: You think so?
B: Well, if you believe in reincarnation, then you think, well, I’ve got cancer, so there must have been something very wrong with me, so I’ll have to be more careful in the future.
U: Well, OK, but let’s take it a step further. What about the moral outworkings of this? India, I think we’d all agree, is a prime example of this. The idea that the beggar or the leper is working out his or her karma, so let them lay. Is this right? Does this help the world?
B: Well, it doesn’t help the world, but if you are charitably disposed, then it is your karma to be charitable, and the leper’s karma to be helped out by a charitable person. So it works every way, it’s so wide and open that everything fits in. Suppose there is a leper colony and there are no nice people around. The lepers work it out, it’s their karma. Now, there’s a leper colony that’s surrounded by the disciples of Mother Theresa, and they’re all helped, so everybody works out his karma. Some lepers have a better karma because Mother Theresa is around, others have a worse karma because she’s not around.
U: But it seems that everybody’s concerned with working off bad karma. Does anybody generate good karma? And why then does not bad karma engulf the world?
B: Because it’s balanced by good karma.
U: But there’s so little good karma
B: Oh, there’s lots of good karma.
U: Then how would you define good karma?
B: Any action that is proper within the context of the definition of what’s good in every different society. In Hindu society there are laws formulated by Manu, what proper action is for the proper social situation. People usually conform and conformity is morality, that’s what morality means, some kind of conformity. So therefore, what we see of things - there are maybe 500 murders a day in New York City, but there are 11 million non-murders. So obviously the good karma people don’t talk about, because it’s not so interesting.
U: Just because you don’t kill someone - that’s good karma?
B: Relative to killing it’s better karma. The abstention from violence is better than violence by any count.
U: That’s a new concept to me, because in the reading I’ve done on this, good karma is only that which is a purely and truly selfless act.
B: No, no, not at all. That’s a wrong reading. I don’t think you find it in any of the traditional texts of Hinduism. That’s all Chinmayananda wisdom, etc.
U: No, I get it from the Hitopadesa.
B: Well, the Hitopadesa is OK if it’s a good translation. It’s a late text, it’s tales of people, which is a highly ornate kind of literature.
U: Are you familiar with Ian Stevenson and the other research that has to do with past-life recall?
B: No, not with Stevenson. These things may be historically verified, but it’s all accident; the fact that a person remembers something doesn’t mean that it really exists. That’s quite basic.
U: A final thing on reincarnation. My understanding of it is that it is totally deterministic and free will doesn’t enter in.
B: Yes, I think that’s right. Free will is a Christian invention. So therefore it doesn’t exist (in Hinduism and Buddhism.) It’s not even Greek. It’s a totally foreign idea packet. And examined linguistically, it would be very difficult to a Sanskrit pundit who does not know English or other European languages.
U: You have said before that you lean toward reincarnation.
B: As an ethical explanation, a kind of theodicy, sure.
U: Do you expect to be reincarnated?
B: Of course not! Sannyasins are not reincarnated. It’s our last life. Once you’re a monk, it’s all gone, but I don’t think it’s all very important, you know?
U: I know.
B: But I think that for me it’s an ethical postulate - I don’t think it’s really true. I don’t think there is any such thing, I think it’s all nonsense.
U: So you don’t think you have lived before in a previous incarnation?
B: Of course not. Ridiculous! But it’s a very good idea. If I ask myself how come I’m luckier than other people in many ways and that I’m rather near-sighted - my locomotion is rather clumsy, and in that way I’m worse off than you - then of course I say well, maybe in my last life I chased a girl too fast or something like this, that’s OK, it’s a good ethical explanation, but that doesn’t mean that I think it’s true.
U: I’d like to go on to the second point that you mention in The Tantric Tradition, the idea of the Absolute that undergirds all creation, a sort of metaphysical foundation. Obviously we can’t call it God...
B: That’s right, you can’t because it’s not a Creator.
U: What term would you prefer for this Absolute - Godhead?
B: Don’t use an English word, use the Sanskrit, say "brahman," it’s as easy as that. Or atman-brahman or whatever you call it. There are many other words, but they are all synonyms of brahman.
U: What does it mean?
B: Probably from the word brhat which means "big, expanded, or large," or maybe from bru, which means "to speak."
U: Now, this Absolute, this brahman, is totally impersonal.
B: Yes, that is correct. It’s impersonal; it’s defined in later days as satyam-sivam-sundaram, that which is true, existent - sivam, which is benevolent, and sundaram, which is "beautiful - that’s adjectival. The nominal classification is called sat chit ananda. It exists ontologically, it’s "chit," it exists mainly as consciousness, and it’s "ananda," it’s bliss. i.e., "being-awareness-bliss." But these are late, they’re post-upanishadic, the first mention of sat chit ananda you find is lit a commentary on the Bhagavad Gita in the 13th century, so it’s pretty late.
U: If the Absolute is totally impersonal, then how does personality or personalities arise from it?
B: That Absolute manifests itself to itself in a playful act. It says in the Veda, "This Absolute was alone." Then it says, "May I be many, may I come forth." Once this decision has been made, in a playful act, like with a magician, things are let go and then they’re on their own.
U: Just like the (Hellenistic) Gnostic cosmogonies.
B: Of course, very similar. There may even have been some connection. but I wouldn’t say for sure, we really don’t know. Also there’s another possibility, that the human mind automatically works in that way, conceptually. So it’s possible that is indeed a replication of something abstract becoming concrete, and therefore you see the similar modes and ideas in various parts of the world, totally unconnected. People get similar ideas if they sit down and have enough food to digest and think, which they do; that’s what specialists do.
U: Another area I would like to zero in on is the problem of evil and suffering, and would like to trace it back to cosmogony. Where did the first wave of karma come from?
B: There is no first wave. It’s a repetition of the four yugas, the four world ages. It’s a cyclic development in various stages. There’s a predominance of the positive forces in the Sattva yuga, and then these decline and the negative forces take over. In the end of the Kali yuga, there are only negative forces; toward the end of the Kali yuga, in which we are now, there is a total abundance of bad karma, that’s why it collapses. Then, of course, the whole thing rushes up and starts afresh. This is what is called the "days and nights of brahman."
U: So, in the beginning, there was just a sucking void, the universe without anything, and then creation gushed forth.
B: You can actually read the texts like this. The initial purusha has no form, but once it decides it wants to become many, then it takes the form, approximately, of a human being.
U: What makes it decide?
B: Lila. It’s own playfulness. It’s bored - well, that’s my reading. It’s part of the presentation that it manifests at all times, but it also becomes manifest at certain times, cyclically.
U: So it takes a few billion years?
B: Yes, in fact, they give you a number, enormous, with many, many zeroes.
U: So then everything will get re-absorbed back into the original state and eventually manifest itself again?
B: That’s right.
U: And this isn’t different from the light and dark ages of the four yugas?
B: No, these are parallel statements; the one is mythological, the other cosmological. But they can basically be reinterpreted, like writing variations of the same theme.
U: There wasn’t a time before, when everything was in a premordial state of equilibrium?
B: Yes, which was the end result of all these things that happened before. It’s eternal.
U: Is brahman synonymous with creation?
B: There’s no creation. There’s no word for that at all. The word "creation" means that you have to have a personal agent. At the basis of it you must have a Creator in order to have a creation.
U: These questions have all been for the purpose of laying a foundation for discussing the questions of evil and suffering. As I understand it, evil and suffering as we perceive it here are just a "parentheses" around the phenomenal universe, or an integral part of this universe.
B: You have to be very careful. In Buddhism, evil and suffering is the only existence.
U: The only existence?
B: It’s the base - sabbam dukkham - everything that exists is suffering. And that’s the big difference. Among the four sublime truths of the Buddha, two are that everything is suffering and everything is impermanent. There is a possibility to get out of it and there’s a way to learn it, by meditation. If there’s any ontological hint at all in Buddhism, the only ontology is dukkham, which is "suffering." It’s far more radical than Hinduism.
U: Since this cycle goes on and on, over and over again, and everybody despises suffering and can’t tolerate it -
B: So everybody has to become a Buddha, and the Buddhas are as numerable as the grains of sand along the ocean, as the later texts say.
U: But, seeing as this whole thing gets laundered over and over again, isn’t this eternal despair?
B: No, because the individual can pull out.
U: Can he, though?
B: Only through meditation.
U: Who says? The problem is that the foundation of the universe
B: No, no, there’s no foundation. You realize that this thing doesn’t really exist. So long as you think it exists, you suffer; so long as you attach yourself to these elements, which might even look pleasant at times, that is dukkham, that is suffering. Now, the Buddha was far more radical, he took it to its last possible conclusion; but the Hindus, they didn’t think it was so bad after all - there’s an underlying principle (in Hinduism) with which you can variously identify. You can step out from suffering by dis-identifying yourself with the agents that give suffering, namely the mind, the body, the senses, etc., by withdrawing it to the big universal being, which has no suffering, because it has no thought. Where there is form and name, there is suffering.
U: Well, it seems to me - this is my western approach to the whole problem - I’m a Christian, so I tend to think in theological terms, but it seems that this whole idea of a brahman, Absolute, or undergirding structure, if it can’t ever control itself, it’s just an eternal problem of unbelievable dimensions.
B: Look, since it is the agent, and the, only agent, there’s no question of control.
U: So everything is out of control!
B: It’s not out of control! It is control itself, but what is there to control? Nothing else exists.
U: Well, there are alternatives.
B: But not if you talk within that system.
U: Right. So then let’s talk within that system. Don’t you think that such an idea of ultimate reality 1) Can’t "control" itself, and 2) Is whimsical and capricious?
B: No, it is neither. No adjective applies, because it has no qualities. Since it is nirguna, that means it has no qualities; you cannot ascribe qualities. What you use is "quality" language, when you talk about control and whimsical, that applies only to a modified or qualified existence.
U: The whole problem is - well, the Apostle Paul put it thus in the book of Romans: "The whole creation groans in travail." To him it was a temporary condition, but here I see it as a permanent condition.
B: Permanent, in a cosmic sense. Once you see that the lila of Absolute defines itself as various or millions of beings. it had the possibility of reverting to itself at any time. You just have to snap out.
U: But then it can’t "control" itself, so it will burst out again.
B: That is just its own play. It is not subject to any outside lawgiver, it is the law and it is the lawgiver. It spews out - the very clever example which the Upanishads give is that the relationship of the brahman to the universe is that of a spider to its web, its own substance. It is something else, but it’s of its own matter.
U: To get back to a subject that you brought up before - the only way to get out of this system is through reversal - get a guru and meditate.
B: Yes, nivritti. Pravritti is spreading out and nivritti is going back to the first cause.
U: But, since it’s all lila, a big cosmic game, how do you know you’re not being tricked? How do you know you’re not going to be reincarnated as a slug?
B: You may well be. But the answer is to sit down and meditate, then you break through the slugness, and the humanness and the divineness until you go back to your own real essence, which has no such problems.
U: OK, that’s what the texts say, that’s what the tradition says. Suppose you spend 60 years in Rishikesh, sitting among the boulders of the Ganges meditating, and you think for sure that you’re going to make it this time, then you finally die and you get "up there" and there’s some big guy looking at you with a bad expression on his face...
B: There’s no such thing! You die and you start again next time and you start exactly where you left off; you’ll be re-born again in Rishikesh and you’ll do better.
U: My point is that even a guru who presumes that he’s achieved moksha, maybe has had a big trick played on him, because brahman is a trickster - he’s full of lila.
B: That’s all right. But then the guru himself, since the guru is God, he is on the way to realizing that he himself is that lila-player, the problem doesn’t arise to the extent that he identifies himself with the string-holder of the puppets, that he is that himself. That doesn’t rile him at all, and he may even enjoy it.
U: But there’s no real guarantee, then, that any yogi is going to achieve liberation.
B: Of course there’s no objective guarantee. Of course not. How could it be? Because the people who achieve liberation, samadhi, tell us they are there? How do we know?
U: So it’s really spiritual calisthenics.
B: Well, whatever it is. But I’ve known some people who I suppose might have reached whatever there was to be reached. I myself have had some glimpses of it, although it didn’t last very long. But I suppose what I experienced and what many other people have experienced that lasted for about two or three minutes might also last for a very long time, or maybe forever - who knows?
U: And it might not.
B: So what? That’s the risk you have to take. That’s the risk you have to take with any religion.
U: OK...and a final point along this line. It seems to me that the Hindu and more particularly the Buddhist concept of liberation is somehow synonymous with the western atheist's concept of death.
B: No, certainly not. Because in the western atheistic concept you have the idea of total extinction. Because the western situation does not postulate a situation in which there is eternal consciousness. Whereas the idea in Buddhism, especially, is that total cessation of desire, total cessation of any attachment means non-existence. But death in the West is not non-existence, death comes after existence. All the ideas of existence and nonexistence lapse in the person who has achieved nirvana; nirvana means fading away, quite literally, or being blown out, like a candle.
U: Is that any real answer to the questions of life and death, just to say that your personality is blown out?
B: Life and death are not important to the practicing Buddhist
U: It must be important or they wouldn’t perform all these austerities and practices...
B: They don’t want to be born, they don’t want to die, they don’t want to get sick in between, so they step out of it and say "We think we are sick because we think there’s ‘we.’ We think there’s an ego; what you have to destroy is the ego." That you can’t do by good deeds, because then you’ll get a better and bigger ego...a funeral director’s ego, or a Maharaja’s ego, or whatever. So the trick is to destroy the ego notion, the ahamkãra the ego-maker.
U: But the personality does totally cease to exist?
B: The personality destroys itself only through the proper ways of meditating on the knowledge that everything is momentary, that nothing lasts. Once you postulate anything that lasts, like a soul or a dot, or a brahman, you’re in trouble. That’s the Buddhist answer - that’s why they skate away.
U: In your mind, is that soteriological end a fulfillment of life?
B: It’s a matter of taste. At one time, everybody became a Buddhist in India, including kings and princes. It’s lasted outside India, very strongly so, so it has seemed attractive to many, many people. Certainly to more people than in Europe.
U: Since we’re Christians, I’d like to present a counterpoint to this and get your thoughts on it. Do you find the idea of a personal God and forgiveness of sins offensive?
B: I wouldn’t say offensive; I’d say that I don’t find it relevant to my own way of handling my own situation, and I would think that people who think and act similarly to me would feel the same way. But don’t forget that in the Bhakti cults in India, you have all that, it’s all there. Samarpana, dedicated to Vishnu or Shiva, says, "forgive us our trespasses" - quite literally, it’s all there. That’s why we’ve got so many possibilities in India. These teachings are there, but they’re not very highly respected, they don’t have much prestige. But they’ve been there for a very long time.
U: For how long?
B: Well, I’ll tell you, there are certainly roots of Bhakti in the Bhagavad Gita that are pretty old, about 4-500 BC. That’s very old indeed.
U: Is it possible that it would have been influenced by Jewish thought?
B: No. What Jewish thought? Where do the Jews talk about forgiveness?
U: All through the Old Testament - for example, the Psalms of David, ca. 1,000 BC.
B: All right, but no - these people didn’t travel. The Jews and the Indians were the only people who didn’t travel. Everybody else traveled, but they didn’t. No way. Look - independent origination - people get similar ideas. Nothing could be more different than the ancient Judaic mentality and the ancient Indian mentality.
U: Then the idea of a personal God and forgiveness is generally pretty alien to Indian religion?
B: No, not at all. Not to the south Indian Bhakti cults, the Vaishnavas. But it is to the elitist undercurrent of Indian thinking, which I would identify with, but there are any number of people who are very powerful, like Prabhupada, who believe in a personal attachment to a personally conceived God who actually can cancel your karma. It’s all there, we have it in the Tamil scriptures, not in Sanskrit, but in Tamil.
U: How far back does that go?
B: That’s not really old, about 14th century AD.
U: Could that possibly have been influenced by Christianity?
B: Not necessarily, because it traces right back to its own scriptures. All these people are very careful to trace everything back to the Indian scriptures.
U: Let me put forth my personal understanding of God and evil and the whole problem, in a Christian counterpoint to what we were discussing before. God has allowed evil to exist because of some sort of free will; this is how I approach the problem. God created people to live in a love relationship with him, and love is not really possible without free will, which carries with it the possible abuse of free will...
B: Have you heard the saying, "Don’t multiply entities beyond logical necessity?" That was William of Ockham, who was a Catholic saint and a great scholar. I think that applies to Christianity itself, because why do you have to postulate all these things in order to mace things applicable to your own personal life? It means you have to postulate a God, you have to postulate free will, and forgiveness. All this you can undercut completely if it’s simply an Absolute where you can manipulate yourself in and out of it. It makes matters much easier. Of course, if you feel ethically inclined, you have all these ethical things, like the legal texts and the moral texts in India.
U: Well, as a postulate, I suppose you can postulate it, or you can assume that it is based on reality and revelation.
B: All right, but then that takes me back to my ontological fallacy. Reality in revelation is reality in relation to those who confuse the strength of their experience with ontological reality, and there’s no bridge to that at all. The fact that Moses saw God in the burning bush doesn’t mean that God exists, it means that Moses had a very strong, powerful imagination. And a great following - he was a charismatic, so people followed him. You listen to what a great man says, that’s universal.
U: So obviously, no one can prove or disprove that their religion is right and someone else’s is wrong.
B: Yes, it’s not scientific, because it can’t be verified.
U: Do you think Hindu or Buddhist philosophy can in any way be syncretized with Judaeo-Christian thought?
B: No. Well, it can, but at great compromise to any of the four, by selectively ignoring basic teachings. The swamis do it all the time; it’s very profitable.
U: About Jesus and his "lost years," between the ages of 12 and 30 - do you know of any evidence that Jesus did travel in the East, as proponents of various mystery schools contend?
B: No, certainly not, because there’s absolutely nothing in Jesus’ teachings - and that has been studied by people who know that stuff better than I - which does not follow entirely from the Judaeo-Hellenic tradition, available within 400 miles.
U: What about this idea that reincarnation was formally taught, or at least accepted in the early church, and then was thrown out at the Council of Nicea or Constantinople? From my study of church history I find nothing like this.
B: Nothing. You know what Swami Vivekananda says? "Jesus was an advaita because he said ‘I and the Father are one.’" It’s very nice, but it’s ridiculous. It’s a totally different input. As for the notion that reincarnation was thrown out of the early church, I’ve never heard of it.
U: Do you have a good word or phrase that would sum up Hindu and Buddhist philosophy? A variety of labels have been used, such as occultism, pantheism, monism, dualism, neo-gnosticism, eastern mysticism, etc.
B: My own term is the best one. I think Hindu and Buddhist philosophy have a stratified reality. There are different levels of reality, which is unthinkable in Greek or any other western tradition. In other words, there’s a total truth and there’s a sort of ephemeral truth. And the two don’t even have to interact, they sort of stand side by side and you can cut them one way or the other. There’s the unimpeachable total truth and there’s also the relative truth, in which everything else happens. You have the first expression of this in the Samkhya system. The purusha and the prakriti: the purusha is a total witness, that’s the only way it works. He witnesses everything that happens in prakriti, which is nature. The relation is catalytic; the purusha is a catalyst, but he doesn’t do anything. It’s a dualistic system, but it was reinterpreted very early in a monistic sense, in the sense that you divide reality into secondary truth.
U: Do you see a real difference between dualism and monism?
B: It’s not unbridgeable, as we’ve seen in the history of Indian thought. And the tendency has always been to do away with dualism and move into monism, with the permissibility of developing monotheistic or polytheistic systems, which was done. All the Bhakti cults are monotheistic, and highly so.
U: In describing Indian religiosity, we’re looking for a term which somehow should communicate what is the general trend in Indian thinking, and you responded positively to the parallels with the gnostic understanding of life.
B: That’s right, but the gnostic form as I know it is not really an active force in the West now, except for the specialists.
U: Well, that’s the point. I think that we are coming into a situation now after the Constantinian era, where the old gnostic doctrines are coming back. The same things the church fathers were struggling with.
B: You mean the old fathers like Basilides, Origen, Tertullian, Athanasius and Irenaeus?
U: Yes. They were tackling problems that forced them to some formulations that you may debate, but the questions they dealt with are coming back. First of all this double reality, split level religion, you may call it. Would you call this reality gnosticism?
B: Why not? I know very little about it, but there’s a colleague of mine at Columbia, Elaine Pagels, who wrote a book about it. (The Gnostic Gospels) So that’s possible, but I don’t quite see how you want to make this operational. Would you see it as a kind of addendum to the Judaeo-Christian world view, or an alternative?
U: Reading the old fathers always presupposes that you somehow have the same questions, to which they wrote the answers. Therefore, I think that a reading of the fathers on these points up till now has not really been relevant. I think we can read the fathers in a much more relevant way if we read them in this present context.
B: Possible, but much wider - it would then straddle the East and the West.
U: Yes, it would really be a dialogue that was cut off when the state church came in.
B: Well, it was cut off by the concept of anathema, which doesn’t exist in Indian religion.
U: What about "eastern mysticism" - do you find that offensive?
B: Quite offensive. I call that "drifting into eastern wisdom chatter." When people stop thinking in grammatical terms, you get into this eastern mysticism drivel. I find that very difficult to stomach. I don’t think eastern mysticism is very attractive. But I think it’s of psycho-experimental importance, it’s one of those things that you can do to skim confidently over your problems, which I find very helpful.
U: Your term "psycho-experimental" that’s also a very western term.
B: Yes, it’s an etic (scholar’s) term. It’s a difference between the statement of the texts and my critique of them.
U: You are an initiate of an advaitic school, but you don’t really care for advaitic philosophy, as you have said. Why?
B: I think, first of all, it doesn’t really generate a sense of humor. It’s also very dry, and the trouble is, the great pieces of Indian art and music were composed in spite of monism, not because of it. But monism is a good, solid guideline for the kind of meditation I enjoy. But I think it’s drudgery, I think it’s very bad philosophy.
U: In what way?
B: For me, philosophy is to solve problems. In monism, there are no problems. The problems are of a linguistic sort.
U: Could you give us a one-sentence or one paragraph summary of your own summum bonum?
B: My own personal philosophy? I think that the modern mind has to work on several levels. At one time I called it syncretistic parallelism. By that I mean that you live the religious life by whatever form of meditation, which is purely private and not communicable, and you lead whatever social and active life you choose. The two don’t meet, even schedule-wise, because you do them at different times of the day. I enjoy the meditation, but I think if you try to make a bridge between the meditation and the philosophy, you’re in great trouble, because it bars you from doing good philosophy. I follow Nagarjuna, the Brahmin who converted to Buddhism in the 2nd century, who said, "I do my meditation, which is Buddhist, but for the rest of it, I enjoy dismantling people’s arguments." This is what I call "parson skinning." Part if his philosophy was that he hated the ministers, therefore he developed a very strong dialectical way of doing away with these arguments. I find this enjoyable too. This means also Hindu and Buddhist parsons, incidentally. But it’s easier to do away with Christian and Muslim parsons, because there are so many postulates there; the Hindus and Buddhists don’t make so many ontological claims - How can you fight something which you don’t even claim is there?
U: If you would have found some form of Christian meditation, i.e. the medieval system of Bernard of Clairveaux, etc., that might have met your needs at an earlier time, might you have embraced that?
B: I may have, but it’s not very likely because of my feelings about fatherhood, which is very essential in Christianity. If you could cut that out, perhaps.
U: Why do you have such an aversion to fatherhood?
B: I don’t know. The point is that the Jews got terribly nervous and excited over the fact that sexual intercourse creates all these responsibilities. I don’t find that very important. I don’t think fatherhood is very important at all. I think woman is far more important, the mother is sore important. Men are a dime a dozen; one shot of sperm has millions of spermatozoa in it. Yet to this, a historical and social accident, you attach an immense weight of responsibility and sternness. I find that very unattractive and it also leads to machoism, which is very strong in all these religions.
U: I can understand that a lot of people have a problem with their fathers, or their mothers for that matter. Many people just plain hate their parents.
B: There’s lots of people that hate everybody!
U: As I see it, Christianity is the redemption of this whole syndrome, of fallen humanity and fallen fatherhood. Here we have God as Father in a sense that is totally at odds with all the things that are wrong with human fatherhood. We have a God who loves us unconditionally - the Greek agape concept - and he’s gone to the extreme of giving himself totally for us.
B: But then why preserve the word - why insist on the word fatherhood?
U: I really don’t know, but that’s the word that Jesus used. Because God is personal, I suppose.
B: Well, that’s bothersome. If a meaning becomes obsolete, you can change it. That’s what has happened in the history of human languages thousands of times. If it becomes redundant, why use it?
U: In the eastern tradition, you have this idea of "guru as God." Do you find that this is equally offensive?
B: Of course. To me it is offensive, but the point is that you don’t have to have a guru, except that most people need one. I don’t regard myself as most people. Ramana Maharishi, who most people regard as the quintessence of advaitic philosophy, never had a guru.
U: Do you regard your guru as a father?
B: No, we’re buddies. I see the guru as a transmitter. He transmits the mantra, because there has to be some link to the tradition. Of course, you can sort of superimpose father or anything else you want on it.
U: When I was in India, it dawned on me that this idea of "guru as God" is a bit of dissembling in itself. What is really meant is "guru is greater than God." God is the trickster, God is the trap, lila. Guru saves you from God.
B: That’s a western way of putting it. You can try to say it in Hindi, but you can’t, it doesn’t make any sense.
U: The Radha Soamis said it.
B: That’s the pizza effect.
U: You said that you saw tantra as having "ecumenical" possibilities for the future of the human race. Could you elaborate on that?
B: Yes. Because it’s the one form that quite cogently and articulately says that ethics are not its concern. Whereas in all the other exotic forms of Hinduism and Buddhism, ethics and religion are completely mixed. So the tantric says that you do your thing, you achieve moksha (liberation) but as far as your social or ethical life goes, there are other rules that you conform to or follow. But they are not part of the religious packet. Therefore, such yoga is closest to my conception of religion.
U: So you think it embodies some hope of ecumenical acceptance?
B: Ecumenical hope of the acceptance of intellectual and moral choice, going parallel with a very, intensive, high-risk kind of meditation, which is interesting, as people are becoming more and more high-risk oriented.
U: What about moral choice? Do you believe in moral choice?
B: Well sure, but moral choice is based on some moral system. In my estimation, you have to make your own decision - that’s what I mean by moral choice.
U: You said before that we are heading toward the end of the Kali yuga.
B: No, no, there’s about 75 million years yet!
U: But we’re on the downhill slide?
B: Kali yuga means downhill slide. The Kali yuga is far more interesting. When I was a boy, they told me that you go to heaven, play a harp and eat honey. Good lord, I’d at least like to eat a salami.
U: Do you think the world is getting any better?
B: Sure it is. But it takes a while. It goes in spurts.
U: Do you have any sympathy with the "new age" consensus that we’re about to enter the Age of Aquarius, etc.?
B: It’s very attractive, it’s OK; I don’t think we’re entering anything, but people have to make their decisions.
U: Are you optimistic about the world?
B: I’m optimistic about the possibility of individuals being able to - as the British said - muddle through.
U: Well, more than to muddle through...what about attaining moksha?
B: That’s a private affair. I’m talking about socially muddling through and sort of making the best of it without stepping on too many people’s toes.
U: It seems that most people don’t muddle through very well.
B: That’s possible.
U: In India they don’t always muddle through too well.B: Only two nations have survived, the Indians and the Chinese. They’re the only nations that have muddled well. They have survived after a very, long time. Where are the Romans, the Gauls, the Teutons? The Chinese and the Indians are still there, uninterrupted, muddling.