Thursday, January 17, 2013

The Quixotic Study of Religion

As someone who instructs students in a course on the study of world religions, I have to ask myself the question whether this sort of thing is even possible. If I speak to students about Buddhism, Hinduism, or Islam, for example, I labour under the obvious difficulty of not being an adherent or devotee--or more precisely, of not being an insider, being an outsider looking in. I understand the import of this objection, though it is not the end of my troubling story of apparent self-deception. The contemporary academy prizes specialized knowledge, and the more specialized, the better. I haven't spent the requisite 10,000 hours needed to become an expert on anything on every religious tradition examined in the course, which, all told, would amount to at the very least 70,000 hours. It would seem, consequently, that I shouldn't bother try teaching a course that covers at least seven major religious traditions.

But we are 'Down in La Mancha', where anything is possible, if only you believe hard enough. Here windmills are giants, and are easily dispatched with a bold cavalry charge. In the spirit of 'tilting at windmills', I want to suggest the subject matter of a course on world religions, in point of fact, encourages the development of a peculiar sort of expertise in everything. And it won't take 10,000 hours to master the basics.

The following is taken from the Isa Upanishad, which stands to the rest of the Upanishads like Genesis 1 stands to the Bible and the Al-Fatiha to the Qur'an.
Whoever sees
All beings in the self (atman)
And the self in all beings
Does not shrink away from it.

For the one who knows,
In whom all beings have become self,
How can their be delusion or grief
When he sees oneness?
The only real barrier standing in the way to comprehension of what these verses entail is language. As the text has been translated, English reader already possesses all they need to know to understand the meaning of the text.  The way forward is not to get lost in the foreign-ness of the text, but to consider where one might situate oneself in the text.

The meaning of all beings is obvious: all things, anything you can think of, everything you can think of, etc. The comprehensiveness of the statement is important. Detractors who doubt whether a course on world religions will ever be able to do justice to individual traditions, on account of the impossibility of mastering all the particulars, are served a notice of eviction from the conversation. Get lost in the particulars, and you mistake what is distincitively religious for something else: culture, tradition, politics, etc.

The references to perception ('Whoever sees', he sees'), mental states ('who knows', 'delusion') and emotional responses ('shrink away', 'grief') are also fairly straight forward. The sort of seeing implied is not the perception of visual objects. In English we very easily exchange the verb 'to see' for 'to understand'. The same applies in this circumstance.

The final element, the self, is the most difficult, because it is not immediately clear who this refers to. Myself? Ourselves? God? This is the wrong way to go about thinking of the self. The better way in is to ask how it is possible that I could see 'All beings in the self' or how 'all beings have become self' in myself.

In other words, how is it that I can put an entire world/universe of things into myself? Think about this carefully. It is not actually as counter-intuitive as it seems. It is rather quite intuitive. Everything you think about is, in a certain sense, inside of you. For example, I am thinking about Ayers Rock in the Australian outback. I am appropriating it to myself. The same goes for any other thing I might think about.

Now, the obvious objection is that these things don't actually become myself. They still have existence outside of myself. Well, yes. That's the typical natural scientific response. On the other hand. the world's major religious and philosophical traditions are more interested with the peculiar, and seemingly endless, capacity of the human mind to learn about things. As long as we have the bodies that we do, there will always exist an impediment, the Isa Upanishad suggests, to the complete realization of the self in all beings, and all beings in the self. Our bodies prevent us from absorbing the entire world into ourselves. Our bodies place limitations on what we can know. I can only read so much, see so much, study so much, before I grow tired, or before I die. A sage or swami can have an insight into the truth of existence in this life; but the ultimate goal is for the mind to shed the limitations of the body to embrace in itself all things.

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