Category Archives: The Divine

Fatherhood, Spirituality and America

In May I am about to become a father for the first time. As I prepare for that, many thoughts pass through my mind. But one line of thought in particular is close to my heart. This new phase of my life is also the end of an old phase.

That old phase began when I was 16, when the idea of being a monk, in spirit if not in actual practice, gained a powerful foothold in me. I was convinced the middle class life of the American dream – presumably the reason my family moved here – was not for me. Instead I was captivated by the image of a Shankara or a Vivekananda dedicating themselves to a spiritual life. I assumed that was my life – or ought to be. I uneasily accepted the scenic privileges of Cornell and the prestige of Harvard, feeling uncertain whether I really belonged there. At college wide faculty meetings at Bryn Mawr, while faculty debated how much of a pay increase we should get, I argued we should take a salary cut to highlight the spiritual vocation of academia which I feared was being lost. My colleagues looked at me with bemused annoyance, rightly thinking I didn’t have a mortgage and kids to worry about.

Why was I so drawn to this idea of a monk? It’s an interesting question. I never actually even visited a monastery, or do a retreat at one. It was the concept that held me enthralled, and the actual practice left me unmoved.

If asked at the time to explain the importance of the monk idea for me, I would have said: “I want to dedicate my life to God. I want to help raise society to a higher level of consciousness. If I am married and have kids, I will be too focused on my local concerns to think about the bigger picture. Marriage and kids are good. But at least some people ought to make humanity their family. That is what I want.”

This view marked a deep disagreement between myself and my father. He was my first philosophical interlocutor, my first philosophy teacher. In his youth he too had pondered taking the path of a monk, but – as was his style – once he decided to pursue marriage and the middle class life, he committed to it fully. Without feeling that in any way he had to sacrifice his spiritual life. By the time of our conversations, he had become convinced that in fact being married was the best way of being spiritual, since he felt it challenged one’s emotions in a way that a Buddha or a Vivekananda didn’t have to experience.

There is of course no such thing as the path of spirituality, as if being married or not determines how far one gets. I see now that my father also didn’t think it mattered too much. His vehemence about the importance of marriage and kids to spirituality was probably more a reflection of his love as a father for me. He must have wondered, “Why is my son so resistant to the middle class life? What is the pain behind that?”

I have wondered that too. I got married ten years ago. A couple of years ago I bought a house in the suburbs. Now I am about to be a father. The middle class life I resisted from ages 16 to 31, now I have fully embraced at 41. I feel my father’s experience is now my own. This progression into American suburbia doesn’t make me feel less spiritual. To the contrary, it makes me feel more spiritual, closer to God, confident that this is the path God has for me.

So, psychologically and sociologically, why did I resist the American middle class life so much? That too when my father didn’t?

When we immigrated to America in 1988, my father was 47 years old. His formative experiences were in India, and he came here fully formed. He was proud to be an American, and he identified fully with his new country. But culturally, he was very much Indian – in his food, his family habits, his cultural references, and ultimately, the spiritual texts he loved the most (The Bhagavad Gita and The Upanishads).

I was 11 when I came here. I was a boisterious fun loving kid. I got along with all of my extended family. But equally importantly, I had a thriving social life in India. Some of my most vivid memories are playing cricket with friends in the neighborhood park from end of the school day in the afternoon till sunset. I still can remember that feeling of being with friends who looked and talked like me, whose parents knew and talked to each other, whose lives were linked through the Telugu culture of Hyderabad, and of Indian culture more generally. Age 11 was the last time I experienced as a kid a seamless connection between my family life and the broader society life.

Once in America, in middle school and high school, there was a split between my family life and the school life; between how I spent my weekends with my extended family and how my friends spent their weekends, going out to dinners, movies and baseball games. Even as I remembered my cricket playing days and how central they were to my life and identity in India, I could feel it was all part of a hazy past as I stepped on to the baseball field and felt just a little out of step with the ease with which my friends played the game.

When I looked to the broader American society, and the history I learnt of America in school, my teenage mind saw a country that was mainly white and black, and Latino, and perhaps East Asian. In each of these cases, there was the assumption of the privileges of the immigrants from Europe contrasted with the bigotry faced by African-Americans, Mexican-Americans, Japanese-Americans, etc. I didn’t know then of the bigotry faced by Jews, the Irish, and others in America.

But one thing seemed clear: I wasn’t like any of these people. I wasn’t white but I was also not black. My parents were not rich, but not poor either. We lived in Westchester County, one of the richest counties in America, and without really yearning for it, I ended up at Ivy League schools and then at a tenure-track job on the Philadelphia Main Line, one of the centers of old, East Coast wealth.

As a sixteen year old I looked to the broader society of my country and asked myself, “Where is my identity here, not just in terms of a job and what kind of car I want to drive, but culturally and ethically? Who am I as an American? Who can I be? Where do I belong in a land of whites and blacks, Native Americans and Latinos, of the Chinese who helped build the railroads and the Japanese who were interned during WWII?” In response I was faced mainly with silence. Blankness. Uncertainty.

What I wanted was a cohesive blend of my inner Indian life and outer American life. Where was the connecting line between the spiritual, meaningful life I was awakening to at 16 while reading the Gita and the outer American life where I was taking the SATs and watching Mets games?

Somewhere in my unconscious the link was made to how Americans thought with admiration of India since the 60s: as a land of spirituality. As I discovered that sprituality was the center of my parents’ lives, I also discovered that Indian spirituality was a dominant theme in American life since the 1960s. It was a connecting point – a thread which bound together the disparate parts of my life. 

My growth into a public identity in America became merged with having a public, spiritual identity. The way my friends or family members wanted to be baseball players or rock stars or politicians or computer scientists or doctors, I wanted to be a monk – a synthesis of India and America in which I could be whole. What I wanted first and foremost was a career or simply a way to make money, but rather a way to find myself as the American that I am.

A good part of my 20s, when I was grad school, I actually yearned for the cultural, institutional and spiritual turmoil of the 60s. I felt that in that turmoil was the root of my American identity, and that the humdrum American life of the 80s and 90s had somehow covered over the soil within which the seed of my growth was planted.

Identifying with the 60s in this way meant being basically counter-culture and counter-establishment. To look upon suburban life as comatose conformism, and even career seeking undergraduates or academics as not caring about the bigger issues of life. Ironically, the way I sought to find a home in America through the framework of the 60s actually kept me alienated from America. 

This is coming to a close now. I no longer feel the need to understand myself as an American through the categories of the 60s, with its sharp dichotomy of hippy spiritualists versus the ticky-tack house suburbanites. I am free now to find my own mode of being an American, just as I am, in my own time and in my own life. 

I had assumed that wanting to be a monk was a reflection of my spiritual yearning. But I see now that it was more a reflection of my sociological yearning. It was understandable, but now the phase of seeking that kind of a sociological grounding for my life is over. There is no more a question of what will my life as an American be. That life is here. I am living it now. I am an American of this kind – the kind that I am, and that I am being.

Freed of the link to this sociological need, now my spiritual life guides me as I am, without worry about how I ought to be spiritual. Just as I am an American as I am, so too I am spiritual where I am and how I am, with the job and the home and the wife and the kid to be that I have.

Embracing myself wholly as I am, and embracing this moment and each moment as it is, that is the sociological and also the spiritual foundation of my life. It doesn’t depend on which decade I am living through, or which country I am in, or where my home is, whether I have kids, or if I embrace a middle-class life.

There is a freedom and a life full of meaning in each moment, waiting to be found in each moment. With that sense of openness and freedom, I am looking forward to being a father.

Longing for Home

If you are a fan of A. R. Rahman, or of fusion music, check out this video:

It made me cry.

The song is from the movie “Swades” and it captures an Indian living in America yearning for his home land (video of the song in the movie with subtitles is here).

I have had this feeling most of my life.

But unlike in the movie, my yearning hasn’t been for India. I left there when I was 11, just long enough to have the feeling for India in my bones and somehow not long enough (at least for me) to create an unshakable bond.

Since I moved to America, I have felt like a mutant. Half my body made with the soil of India, and the other half with the soil of America. That I am in my essence a trans-national and trans-racial being. That my being cannot be contained within national boundaries. That I am a being in search of that fusion soil which is my home.

Where the hero in the movie looks from America to India, I look from the present to the future.

To a time when my kind of fusion being feels grounded in a social fabric which self-consciously and openly nurtures it.

Is that future coming in a decade or a century? Or is that future what is called heaven or nirvana – which flowers not in physical or cultural terms primarily, but in terms of consciousness and spirituality?

Surely it is more the latter.

But still, the physical and the cultural are not nothing either. They can be powerful to lifting up consciousness.

That’s what I felt seeing the video of A. R. Rahman Meets Berklee College of Music.

Is everyone on that stage yearning for India? Maybe some. But not all. Many are Indian-Americans, who might be as in between worlds as I feel. Some aren’t even of Indian background. But they all share a common yearning, for a new mode of being, speaking to a hunger for going home.

Home – wherever that is for you. In whatever dimension or mode of consciousness.

It speaks to a growing global awareness – a new mode of cultural being. Where we can see that being fusion selves is not a new phenomenon, but has been the reality for thousands of years. Since the dawn of the first large societies, which were complex enough to have people of diverse backgrounds sharing a common life.

Does this mean I am against nations? Or that I am not committed to America? Not at all.

I am a resident of Maryland and also a citizen of America. My commitment to my city and to my state doesn’t take away from my commitment to my nation. Likewise, I am related to my family and friends in ways I am not to my neighbors.

That I have deep bonds with people outside America doesn’t take away from my bonds with fellow Americans.

Perhaps there is a guy born in America who moved to India when he was 11, and is now an Indian citizen, and who has the yearning for a global soil where the multiple sides of him can live together. I share something deep with that person.

But if I am trying to work on my country, I work with my fellow Americans. That only we can do together. I can do many things with my counterpart fusion guy in India . But I can’t vote for public officials with him, nor work as fellow citizens. Just as no matter how close I am to my neighbor, I need to first build my home with my spouse and my family.

Me and my fusion counterpart in India can share notes. Share life trajectories. Share ideals, hopes, dreams, frustrations. Share new cultures and modes of life. Share the dawning of a global spiritual awakening.

Even as we also wish each other luck in our engagements with our countries. I can be a fusion person and an American. Be a fusion person and be more –  politically and institutionally – American and Indian. In fact, that is how I am. There is a lot of India in me. But also a lot of India that is not in me, that I lost or that never developed after I moved here.

There are many different dimensions to human life. To any individual life. Cultural. Familial. National. Intellectual. Spiritual. And many others.

The longing for home can sometimes feel as if all these dimensions have to line up into one uber longing – the longing which underlies and unifies everything. As if really the cultural, national and spiritual longings are all the same. As if being Western, Christian and American overlap into one longing. Or Eastern, Hindu and Indian. And so on.

I can feel the pull of this temptation. It has a certain centrifugal force which can take root from deep within one’s soul.

But it tramples over the intrinsic diversity within one’s own life. There are – and can be – many different kinds of pains, longings and joys. There is no need for them all to line up. When I listen to A. R. Rahman’s music, or read Tolstoy, or watch the Super Bowl, or hang out with my family, or am engaged at work – there is no one longing which all these have to meet. There are many forms of longing, joy, curiosity, puzzlement, sadness and reflection.

Being with that diversity within oneself and in the world is itself a way of finding one’s way home.

 

Meaning of “God”

What is the meaning of “God”?

The main question about God isn’t whether He exists. A better, and prior question is: what do we mean by “God”?

I think of God this way: the energy of the world which guides me to live with the cosmic awareness of how small I and all humans are in the world.

Call this a pragmatic definition of God, because it defines God in terms of His practical influence on the world, and in particular on me.

Some points about this.

First, this definition of God is entirely compatible with scientific naturalism. There is nothing unnatural about it. Cosmic awareness is a mental state. I struggle with holding on to that mental state. God is the energy that helps me hold on to that state. Nothing here that conflicts with physics, biology or psychology.

Second, this definition is entirely compatible with atheism, understood as the view of a person who doesn’t believe in God. An atheist is someone who either doesn’t care to cultivate cosmic awareness (I doubt this), or someone who doesn’t seek or need any help involving the concept of God for him to cultivate cosmic awarness (which is entirely possible).

Third, this definition is entirely compatible with any religion. It doesn’t say what God’s name has to be, which building he resides in or doesn’t, how one has to pray to be in touch with Him, etc.

Fourth, the above three points are made possible by the essentially self-referential nature of the characterization of God. “Self-referential” as in, with essential reference to the believer who is speaking of God.

Here are some non self-referential statements in this sense:

  • 2 + 2 = 4
  • WWI began in 1914.
  • I am 5’9″.

These statements do not depend for their truth on the speaker’s belief or awareness. They can be true no matter what the speaker believes or doesn’t believe about them. And their truth doesn’t relate to the speaker’s mental situation.

Some self-referential statements in the sense I mean here:

  • My wife is the most beautiful woman in the world
  • I like the Beatles
  • 49ers are the greatest football team of all time.

In these statements, the meaning and so truth of the claim is mainly tracking the speaker’s mental states. If in response to the first statement, someone responded, “No, my wife is the most beautiful,” something has gone wrong. This kind of thing does go wrong often, and leads to mindless fighting.

This is also what debates between theists and atheists, and between people of different religions are like. The self-referential nature of God statements are forgotten, or not noticed, and people argue about God the way they might over what is the best color or the best tasting cereal or the best sports team.

Actually, the reason they debate with such passion isn’t because they forget the nature of the statements. It is because of a historical fact which covers over the nature of such statements.

In early human life, say 5,000 years ago, self-referential statements were first and foremost communal statements. They were self-referential not to an individual I, but to a communal We.

Priests following Vedic rituals 3,000 years ago said things like: “May we, the pious, win much food by prayer, may Agni with fair light pervade each act.”(Rig Veda, from which I randomly chose this sentence.)

A statement like this is self-referential in that it essentially concerns Agni the Fire God orienting the life of community. That is, Agni is the energy which aids the mental states of all the members of the community, which in turn will aid their physical and material needs. Ancient religion was in effect a way for people to align their mind appropriately: align towards their shared well being rather than towards individual, selfish well being.

Transcendence is the experience of cosmic awareness. And before the axial age, transcendence was first and foremost a communal experience. In earliest times it was experienced in group activities such as dancing, chanting and in general getting lost in the euphoria of group consciousness. These activities were not simply fun activities. They were essential for the people to get beyond their own natural selfish instincts and rise up in consciousness to a communal perspective. These communities experienced God or the Divine mainly and essentially as a communal achievement.

This changed with the axial age.

Compared to the hunter gatherer tribes or the rituals of the Vedas, what is striking about Moses, Christ or Arjuna in the Gita is that they don’t need ritual to have transcendent experience of the Divine. They relate to God individually, within themselves.

Why and how did this change occur?

Simple: because socio-economically people of diverse communal religious backgrounds and rituals started to live together. So not all of one’s neighbors were people with whom one could dance or chant together. You couldn’t ignore them nor experience transcendence communally with them.

This left only two options.

The path of war: kill the other groups or atleast subjugate them, so that one’s own rituals are supreme in the civilization.

Or the path of peace: kill not other groups but kill the habits of communal based ritual as essential for experience of transcendence. Kill the hate in one’s own heart, and that is the path to cosmic awareness.

The path of war is essentially contradictory. You cannot fight with people you are socially and economically entwined with so that you can gain transcendence just through your group ritual. The rituals which used to be for transcendence when communities were small became modes of group selfishness when communities started getting into the hundreds of thousands.

Like the move from reading out loud to reading internally, the axial age marked the move from experiencing transcendence as a group phenomenon to it being an individual phenomenon. With this move, being with God involved not mainly outward dance, song or action but, more essentially, inward cleansing of one’s own psyche, and seeking and trusting God’s help during that process.

This essentially inner dimension of the religious life is why now statements about God are self-referential.

We tend to forget it when seek an experience of transcendence through the communal act of having shared beliefs. When we imagine that prior to experiencing transcendence we need to first do the communal ritual of shared, group avowal of same beliefs. Which are either of this or that religion, or religion or atheism.

But the axial age revolution was meant precisely to move beyond such group avowal as a mode of transcendence. In this, Christ and Socrates are alike, as are Arjuna and the Buddha.

For all these figures, metaphysical debates about God’s existence are not as prerequisite to attaining cosmic awareness. Those debates have their place, just as group chanting, dancing and rituals have theirs. But they are not the foundation for experiencing transcendence. Rather, transcendence requires seeing the limits of such debates and doing the inner work of freeing oneself of deep seated and natural communalistic impulses. To do that while one is a creature of this world, with the particular, local bonds one outwardly inevitably has.

Surrendering to the Divine

What does it mean to surrender one’s life to the Divine?

It is to place the Divine between one’s perceptions/emotions/thoughts and one’s actions.

Perceptions/emotions/thoughts normally call out for action. An instinctual response.

For example, I might be getting invisalign to straighten my teeth. Thinking about this makes me feel anxious and self-conscious. There is no seperation between the thought and feeling self-conscious, or feeling bad and defensive and maybe a bit sad.

To surrender this issue to God is to insert God between the thought and the reaction of feeling self-conscious, such that God will guide my reaction to the thought.

To feel self-conscious in reaction to the thought means that I experience the thought as a problem, as something which diminishes me. The thought that I might get invisalign is in itself just a thought – in itself neither good nor bad. But normally I don’t experience the thought that way, so neutrally. I experience it fused with am emotional tremor, as something bad or unpleasant. Ultimately, it is not the thought as such but the emotional tremor which feels indistinguishable from it which has painful, negative consequences, draining me of peace of mind.

Surrendering the thought to God is to ask God to guide my reaction to the troublesome thought. To give over the reaction entirely to God, so that it is no longer my concern what my response to that thought should be. This doesn’t take away necessarily the emotional tremor associated with the thought. Not right away. But it gives it distance from the emotional tremor so that I can start to see that the thought might be conceptually seperable from the emotional tremor which has instinctively been associated with it.

To surrender to the divine is to live beyond brute instinct. To live more reflectively, infusing one’s deepest instincts with a sense of the overall awareness and perspective of life.

Surrendering to God is not passive. It is the opposite of that. It is to embrace living beyond socially cultivated, unreflective instinct.

Trusting God

As I look back on my 40 years of life so far, I see that a lot of the pain I have experienced is due to my wanting and trying to do good and help others.

This is not other people’s fault. Nor my fault.

But it is due to a deep misunderstanding I had about myself and about spirituality.

When I was 16, I had some, what I would now call, spiritual experiences. I experienced a deep sense of oneness, a connection to all living beings and an awareness of what felt like a deeper, truer reality.

But my mind interpreted the fact of these experiences in a very particular way. It reasoned:

– I have a deeper insight into the world.

– If people who are fighting have a sense for this insight, they will stop fighting and live harmony.

– As someone who has a sense for this insight, I should try to help people stop fighting (be it in family or society more generally).

As a result of this line of thinking, I thrust myself into people’s arguments, trying to thereby evoke peace. I did this in my family, in my wife’s family, in academia, with friends and in thinking about politics.

In every instance, the result was the same. I never managed to stop the fighting, in any of the cases. I would get beat up emotionally. And when I would feel hurt and unloved that people don’t care about me enough to listen to me, people would react with puzzlement about why I got so involved in the first place and why I was taking other’s problems (that is, their problems) onto my shoulders.

They were right.

A person who runs into the middle of two people fighting can’t get upset that he is getting punched. Nor that the people might not care enough about him to stop fighting.

People define themselves by their fights. I was asking them to be different than who they were. Even while I wasn’t changing my own instincts and habits.

I now see that spirituality is not about changing the world, or healing it. It might lead some people in that direction. But there is no guarantee that is the case for every person. Spirituality puts one in touch with how the world is, without judgment or narrartive. It is to see the world from a cosmic perspective and to see humans as small parts of that. No more. No less.

It was my own very particular human personality and needs which interpreted the spiritual experiences in terms of helping the world. When the vast world resisted my puny attempts to move it, it led my suffering and incomprehension.

Instead of trying to heal the world, better to bring the spiritual perspective to my own personality and assumptions, and to see how small indeed are my own attempts and power.

God reached out to me when I was 16 and gave me the gift of seeing him. I then tried to take that gift and use it as I deemed fit, assuming that is why God reached out to me. I tried to control divine power and was confused when I couldn’t control it.

I couldn’t control it because it is not controllable by anyone other than God. He presented himself to me just because He wanted to. And as an invitation to surrender myself to Him. Instead, I assumed to control his power, to be one of His generals on Earth. I see now He never told me that when I saw him. I assumed it and was eager to interpret it that way. That was my ego’s way of seeing Him and as such I couldn’t bring healing to any of the fights around me in my family, academia or society.

Better to be aware of this than to, as I was, mindlessly taking on a role God never gave me. Better to focus on simply being with God and not presume to do His work on Earth.

He know all. He controls all. He takes care of all. Trusting Him is the greatest work I can do.

The Sacred and the Profane

The profane forgets the sacred. That is what makes it the profane.

The sacred embraces all, including the profane. That is what makes it the sacred.

The sacred and the profane are not two actualities. Not like table and chair, or pen and paper. Nor like two different places like New York and Paris.

They are like the true and the false. Reality and illusion. There is not a true world – one filled with truths – and a seperate false world – one filled with falsehoods. There is only one world, that which is real. Illusions are illusory mental states which are part of reality. They are not truthful mental states of a world consisting of illusions.

Truth seeks out all, including illusion, and embraces all with a common consciousness. Illusion resists aspects of reality, creating boundaries where there are none, and lives within those boundaries as if it were simply accepting how reality is.

The profane says: “The world is just like this, of divided, limited beings struggling for survival. Not an issue of whether I like it or not. Not about my preferences. It is just a matter of reality, just how things are. We have to make do and live as best as we can in this world of egos clashing. I am an ego, and egos look out for themselves. It is just what we do. This is just reality.”

The sacred says: “The world is just like this: whole, all embracing, without an other.”

The profane affirms itself by justifying limits. The sacred affirms itself by simply being.

The profane views the sacred with apprehension, with distrust. Or even sometimes, with longing and with desire. The profane views the sacred as the other, an illusory or a real other. Through this othering of the sacred, the profane affirms itself.

The sacred views the profane as itself, as not other than itself.

For the profane, there is a distinction between the sacred and the profane. For the sacred, there is no distinction between the sacred and the profane.

The profane is fear. The sacred is fearless.

The profane is profane. The sacred is sacred.