Blog Archives

Picking and Choosing: Religious Affiliation

I am continuing with my use of older essays, written in a different context, as new blog posts.  Longtime readers know I’m Catholic, but that I became so only after an extended period of studying the various world religions.  This was originally written to a friend to give a brief explanation of my thinking on why, for me, at any rate, Catholicism was the right choice.  I might not phrase everything quite the same way if I wrote this today; and the format is of an explanation to another person; but I am editing it but lightly, leaving it substantially as originally written.  I should also point out that this is strictly personal–others of other faiths will have their own reasons for why they joined the traditions to which they adhere.  This post is intended to be descriptive of myself, not evangelistic of others.

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Heaven, Hell, and the Religions

We’ve looked at universalism in the Abrahamic and Dharmic religions, and in a summary way in the other major (and minor) religions of the world.  In this post I’d like to see what, if any, broad patterns we can find, and what their relevance is in general and in particular, specifically in regard to universalism as a concept.

In the case of traditional and folk religions, the very concept of an afterlife often seems murky–the dead inhabit a shady, insubstantial realm such as the Greek Hades or the Hebrew She’ol.  Alternately, they may inhabit the realm of the deified or semi-deified ancestors.  These two possibilities are not exclusive, it should be noted.  Some such religions, such as that of the ancient Celts and some strands of the ancient Greek religion, had some sort of belief in reincarnation (or “metempsychosis”, as the Greeks referred to it).  By and large, there is no consistent idea of reward and punishment–Heaven and Hell–in most of these faiths.  To the extent that there is, it is either ambiguous or applicable only to a few (such as the Greek Elysian Fields and Tartarus) or it seems to have been imported from other religions (any notions of heavens and hells in Chinese and Japanese religion, for example, come from Buddhism).

In general, I think it fair to say that there is no clear evidence for reward and punishment in the afterlife in any of the religions that precede the Axial Age, with the probable exception of the religion of Ancient Egypt and the possible exception of Zoroastrianism (so many Zoroastrian writings have been lost and there are so many issues with dating the ones we have, that there is some ambiguity as to how old certain doctrines actually are).  I think it is also safe to say that there is also no clear evidence of reward and punishment in the afterlife in the traditional and folk religions that have survived to modern times, except insofar as they’ve been influenced by so-called great or world religions.

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Universalism in Various Religions: The Dharmic Faiths

Last time, we looked at universalism in the Abrahamic faiths.  In this post, I want to look at universalism in the Dharmic religions.  The Dharmic faiths are the great religions which originated in the Indian subcontinent, stemming ultimately from the ancient beliefs of the Indo-Aryan peoples.  The oldest of these is the religion we refer to  as Hinduism, traditionally known to its adherents as Sanātana Dharma, “the eternal religion”.  From Hinduism gradually developed the Śramaṇa movement, which developed eventually into Buddhism and Jainism.  The most recent of the Dharmic faiths, Sikhism, came into being in the 15th Century, evolving from the branch of Hinduism known as the Sant Mat movement.

All of the Dharmic religions share certain basic concepts.  Chief among them are

  1. The idea of an eternal universe that goes through infinite cycles of creation, evolution, decline, and dissolution
  2. Many levels of existence beyond the earthly
  3. A belief in reincarnation or rebirth, in which beings take on numerous lives in numerous realms
  4. A belief in karma, the principle by which one’s actions are requited, for good or for ill, in the present life and/or future lives
  5. Finally, a belief that beings can ultimately end the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth (samsara) through proper spiritual practice

Having laid our the similarities, let’s look at the religions individually.

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The Dharmic Faiths

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Having looked at the Abrahamic faiths, let us turn our attention to the Dharmic religions.

The Dharmic Religions–Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism, as well as a few other minor ones, originated in India, as the Abrahamic faiths originated in the Middle East.  Dharma, the central concept in these faiths, is a Sanskrit term notoriously difficult to translate.  Most English speakers can’t even pronounce it right.  The Sanskrit letter अ, typically tranliterated “a” is pronounced like the “u” in the English word “but”.  The letter आ, transliterated “ā”, is pronounced like the “a” in “father” (or better, like the “a” in the Spanish “padre”).  The diacritical marks of scholarly Sanskrit transcriptions are not often used in popular works; but in any case, “dharma” is the correct spelling and transcription.  Each “a” represents अ, the short form of the vowel.  Thus, “dharma” is correctly pronounced with the first syllable rhyming with “fur”, thus:  DUHR-muh (there is also a puff of air after the “d”, which is why it is spelled “dh”; but few English speakers can get that correctly, and I can’t always do it right myself).  English speakers almost universally rhyme the first syllable with “car”:  DAHR-muh.  This, quite simply, is wrong.  Actually, the best known Sanskrit word borrowed into English, “karma”, should rhyme with “dharma”–the first syllable should sound like “cur”, not like “car”, thus:  KUHR-muh.  However, I learned the standard English pronunciation (KAHR-muh) before I learned Sanskrit phonology; and the word has become thoroughly naturalized in English with the “wrong” pronunciation.  Therefore, I follow the masses in saying KAHR-muh.  I do insist on holding the line on DUHR-muh, however, notwithstanding popular pronunciation or sitcoms!

If we can’t even pronounce the word, small wonder we have trouble translating it!  Depending on context, “dharma” could mean any of the following:  natural characteristic, moral law, path, doctrine, religion, property, sign, obligation, or duty, among others.  Etymologically, it comes from a Sanskrit (and ultimately Indo-European) root meaning “firm” or “solid”.  At its root, “dharma” means “natural law” or the natural principle that is characteristic of a particular thing.  A rock’s dharma is to be hard; water’s is to flow; an animal’s is to follow the lifestyle of its species.  Only for humans is it more complicated.  A person’s dharma is the whole set of morals, ethics, obligations, and responsibilities for humans in general and for that individual in particular, according to his age, class, occupation, and state in life.  For example, truthfulness, honesty, cleanliness, etc. are the dharma–appropriate behavior and way of living–for all people.  A child’s dharma is to obey his or her parents, and a parent’s dharma is to provide for his or her children and raise them well.  The dharma of a married person is to be a good spouse, and of a sannyasi (renunciate) to be celibate.  The dharmas of a teacher, an engineer, a laborer, and a priest would all be different, according to the occupation of  each.

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I Do Not Think That Word Means What You Think It Means

In this essay, the word in question is not “inconceivable”, but “God”.

My jumping-off point here is part of the interview with philosopher John Gray, excerpted back here (emphasis is in the original):

(Interviewer) You also say that ‘atheism does not mean rejecting belief in God, but up a belief in language as anything other than practical convenience.’ What are you getting at here?

(Gray) [Fritz Mauthner] was an atheist who thought that theism was an obsessive attachment to the constructions of language: that the idea of God was a kind of linguistic ideal. So that atheism meant not worshipping that ideal. But he took that as just an example of a more general truth: that there is a danger in worshiping the constructions of language. Of course religions like Christianity are partially to blame for this.  But for most of their history, these so called creedal faiths didn’t define themselves by doctrine. Instead they had strong traditions of what’s called Apophatic theology: where you cannot use language to describe God.

The “idea of God” is what I want to talk about here.

In the broadest sense, “theism” is the belief in one or more gods.  In this context, Gray is obviously speaking of monotheism.  One of the most persistent problems with theism, in my view,  is the problem of anthropomorphizing God, that is, conceptualizing Him as if He were human.  In a polytheistic religion, giving the various gods and goddesses human traits is more or less a feature, not a bug.  Even in a monotheistic religion, some degree of anthropomorphizing is unavoidable, since we have to use some categories in which to speak of God, and the categories of “human” and the various human attributes are the most accessible to us.  However, the danger of making God into a big man with a long white beard sitting in the sky is that it tends to end in attributing petty and nasty human characteristics (vengefulness, spite, hatred, favoritism, and so on) to Him, with bad results for believers.  After all, if God is OK with smiting the infidels, the believer might end up thinking it’s a good idea for him–and his armies–to do so, too.  Gray, however, seems to be taking it beyond mere anthropomorphism and locating the problem in language itself.

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The Bhagavad Gītā

I grew up in a small town in the Bible Belt.  There were only a few more residents in my hometown–800–than students in the high school I went to–about 700 (my high school was in the county seat, with a population of 5000, which is still equivalent only to about two big-city high schools).  Until I was in my teens, I thought the only two religions that existed were “Baptist” and “Methodist”; and I was none too sure as to what the differences between them were, aside from their names.  As with most small-town, Bible Belt kids of the 70’s, I put in my time in Sunday school and vacation Bible school, though I avoided actual church services on Sunday like the plague (I went–was dragged, actually–to church maybe two three times before I was eighteen, and went about two or three times more, all of which were funerals, between eighteen and twenty-six).

I did have an old children’s literature book that my mother had had in college, which had a few of the Jātaka Tales, as well as a Hindu myth or two, in it.  Thus I did have some exposure to other religions and cultures in my youth, though in a spotty and inchoate way.  I was very much into Greek and Norse mythology, of which I read reams, but those were not living traditions (well, not then, anyway, as far as I knew), so for the purposes of discussion here, I leave them out.

When I was eighteen, I moved off to a college of 25,000 in a city of (at that time) 100,000 that was 130 miles from my home, in a part of my home state that was very much different from my hometown, both geographically and culturally.  By this time, in the process of researching a term paper on Islam in my senior year of high school (the Iranian Hostage Crisis was still in the news then), I had read Huston Smith’s classic The Religions of Man (since renamed to the more gender-inclusive The World’s Religions).  I had resolved to learn as much as I could about all the major religions.  Between the ages of seventeen and twenty, I read the King James Bible and the New English Bible, as I have discussed elsewhere.  Meanwhile, as has been mandatory for overly intellectual middle-class white kids since the 60’s, I read books of Asian wisdom in my freshman year at college (between the ages of eighteen and nineteen).  Specifically, I read (in what order, I don’t recall) the Koran, the Dhammapada, the Dao De Jing, and the Bhagavad Gītā (henceforth I dispense with the macrons, since the book has become sufficiently well-known for its title to have become partly Anglicized).  Read the rest of this entry

The Mahabharata: Episode 1

The Mahabharata is the great epic poem of India.  It has both cultural, mythological, and religious significance, sort of like a combination of the Iliad, the Odyssey, and the Bible. This is an Indian series (English subtitles) based on the epic.  The epic is long, and so is the series, running to 94 episodes.  As I found when I originally ran this on The Caravanserai, for some reason the episodes posted at YouTube can’t be put up separately after Episode 74.  Thus, after importing the Caravanserai posts, I’ve deleted all but Episode 1.  Those who find it to their liking may then view the rest at YouTube.  Enjoy!

Open and Closed Systems, 1: Open Systems

In this post I want to give a rationale for my “Towards a Gnostic Orthodoxy” series.  After all, one might say, “If you’re orthodox, then why isn’t that enough for you?  Or, if you have that many problems with orthodoxy, why not be honest and leave outright?”  There are less polite ways in which these questions could be posed, obviously; but they are legitimate.  Thus, I want to look at what I’m trying to do here and give at least some motivations for it.

All religions, philosophies, and world views acknowledge, at least in principle, the finitude of the human mind and the human condition.  Our minds and understanding are limited; enormously limited, in fact, with respect to all there is to know in the universe in all its complexity.  We know very little, and with respect to all that there is to be known, we may always know very little.  What seem like great strides to us may be minute baby steps, little children chipping pebbles from the side of Mount Everest, in the big scheme of things.  So much as this everyone, in principle at least, would agree. Read the rest of this entry

Reincarnation: Index

I’m planning a post soon that deals with reincarnation, but which is not part of any of my ongoing series.  It occurred to me as I thought of it that I’d done quite a few posts on that topic.  Looking back through the archives, I realized that I’d done even more than I’d remembered, especially if you count postings of poetry and music with reincarnation as a theme.  I decided, therefore, that the topic deserved its own index.

The first two posts deal with pre-existence.  That’s a separate topic, but some of the philosophical issues are related to those involved in reincarnation, so I’ve put them in, too.  They are part of the “Legends of the Fall” series, and there are two because I’d forgotten that I’d written the first, and wrote another post with the same theme.  I decided not to take the second post down; each makes its point in slightly different ways, so they’re both here.

This series won’t be ongoing in the way that some of my others are, but I will add posts related to reincarnation to this index as I put them up.  Enjoy!

Interlude:  Pre-existence, or Déjà Vu All Over Again

Excursus:  Pre-existence

Reincarnation:  The Ultimate Recycling

Reincarnation:  Haven’t We Been Here Before?

A Reincarnation-Oriented Video

A Poem by Emerson for the Weekend

Another Reincarnation-Oriented Poem for the Weekend

Some Head-Banging for the Weekend

An Original Poem

Reincarnation:  The Disadvantages

Another Perspective on Reincarnation

A Poem by Emerson for the Weekend

Brahma

BY RALPH WALDO EMERSON

If the red slayer think he slays,

Or if the slain think he is slain,

They know not well the subtle ways

I keep, and pass, and turn again.

 

Far or forgot to me is near;

Shadow and sunlight are the same;

The vanished gods to me appear;

And one to me are shame and fame.

 

They reckon ill who leave me out;

When me they fly, I am the wings;

I am the doubter and the doubt,

I am the hymn the Brahmin sings.

 

The strong gods pine for my abode,

And pine in vain the sacred Seven;

But thou, meek lover of the good!

Find me, and turn thy back on heaven.

Part of the series Reincarnation