Atheism

11/23/2016

Atheism is on the rise in the United States.  Though examining religious beliefs in the general population can pose difficulties, according to the Pew Research Center, more Americans than ever don’t consider religion an important part of their lives, and over half say that it is not necessary to believe in God to be moral.  But more importantly, atheists tend to be younger than the general population, so atheism is likely to continue its ascent in years to come.

The majority of atheists report that they never or seldom discuss their views with religious people.  But there are some pretty vocal atheists who would proudly bluster against the evils of religion.  So a dialogue on religious beliefs seems to have opened.

If we consider atheism to be a “cause,” I believe that religious people in the U.S. have, by and large, fueled it by painting an image of themselves as sometimes distastefully conservative, science-denying, harboring their own definition of history, and constantly striving to implement their views in government institutions.  But that’s not what religion necessarily is, or has to be.  Apart from its social function, religion can just offer a way to contrive more meaning out of life, whether or not you believe in the existence of the divine; like in much of Europe, religion doesn’t have to dictate social conservatism or replace science.

Let me be clear: I have a lot of respect for atheists.  To me, it seems that a reasoned atheist has thought out life more than someone blindly religious has.  But I think a few arguments against the existence of God are worth addressing.

In particular, one argument is the prevalence of injustice.  Injustice manifests everywhere, within our borders and abroad, in more ways than we could ever define.  What does that mean for religion?  As the argument goes, if God exists, the prevalence of injustice can mean one of two things: that a) God is unjust, or that b) God doesn’t have enough power to enforce universal justice.  The unfavorability of both options has nudged some toward the atheist, or at least questioning, side.

But I think there is a resolution to this issue.  For several reasons.  For one, reincarnation (alongside our friend karma) provides a simple explanation for the injustice around us: because we have each led many lives, what we experience now can be the result of our activity in past lives.  More generally, our vantage point can never give us the full picture.  So with reincarnation, it is certainly possible that justice does reign, though we will never be able to see its full context.

But before we even get to reincarnation, I think something more fundamental fails the argument that the prevalence of injustice disproves God.  What is injustice?  What does it mean?  For simplicity, let’s define injustice as good things happening to bad people, and bad things happening to good people.  We know that both happen, so it seems injustice prevails… right?

Not so fast, honey.  “Good” and “bad,” like “inferior” and “superior,” are only constructs of the human mind, so they have little objective significance.  They can mean pleasant and unpleasant, or agreeable and disagreeable, or beneficial and detrimental, or desirable and undesirable.  Moreover, we myopic humans have little capacity to know what will be good or bad for us in the long run.

To demonstrate that “good” and “bad” are relative (and mostly unhelpful) constructs, Swami Mukundananda offers the following allegory:

A man lives on a small farm with his son and earns most his living from a single cow.  Then one day, that cow runs away.  The neighbors express their regret on the man’s bad luck, but he dismisses them.  “Good luck, bad luck, I don’t know,” he says.  But the next day, the cow brings back several more cows.  The neighbors celebrate the man’s good luck, but he again dismisses them.  “Good luck, bad luck, I don’t know,” he says.  But the following day, one of the wild cows attacks the man’s son, breaking his leg.  The neighbors once again lament the man’s bad luck.  “Good luck, bad luck, I don’t know,” he says.  But soon after, the son is conscripted into a war—but his broken leg excuses him from military service.  The neighbors once again congratulated him for his good luck.  “Good luck, bad luck, I don’t know,” says the farmer.

The point of this is, we don’t know what is good or bad for us.  If you still think justice and injustice are strictly definable, immutable ideals, you may not agree with this, but I will extend the allegory’s message to say that it may be difficult for us to judge whether or not God bestows justice upon this world.

However, a few steps back in our logic, another interesting point arises.  We can throw around all the arguments about God we want, but atheism and religion don’t have to be opposing parties.  For example, though Buddhists worship him as God, Buddha never himself claimed to be divine, and for the most part, Buddhism and its spiritual focus have provided many with insight into life that could almost be considered secular.  Though its standing pales in comparison, Hinduism also shares that secular tinge: there are many atheist, agnostic, and humanist Hindus.  The takeaway is that religion doesn’t have to alienate atheists as much as it seems to; faith shouldn’t be a stipulation, but an opportunity to explore the relationship between one’s mind, intellect, and conception of God–or lack thereof.

On the topic of faith, let me raise one last point: according to my understanding, a significant reason someone would subscribe to atheism is that, for the most part, there is no evidence for religion.  Our tools for proof can only quantify the material, and God is not material.  So, by syllogism, God literally cannot be proven.  But by the same token, God cannot be unproven, either.  We almost use faith and religion interchangeably, but does that fairly reflect what “faith” actually means?  Not really.  Where there is no proof, belief in something’s existence requires just as much faith as belief in something’s nonexistence.  So atheists are, in a very real sense, just as faithful as the religious.

Why the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election is Rigged

11/07/2016

I apologize if I am straying from the territory of this blog, but this election is a historical one.  Election Day is tomorrow. It’s been a long and astonishingly ugly campaign season that many are ready to see end, to say the least.

This year, Americans are showing unprecedentedly little faith in American institutions. Donald Trump blusters that the election is “rigged,” and an October poll conducted by Politico revealed that as many as 41% of voters think the election could be “stolen” from him due to widespread voter fraud.

However, the Washington Post reports that there have only been 31 credible cases of fraud out of the last billion ballots cast; in other words, as an adult citizen, you would be more likely to be injured by a toilet than to commit voter fraud this year (a 1 in 10,000 chance, compared to a 1 in 32,000 chance). Besides, the decentralization of the United States election system would make it impractical for any party to use dishonest means to determine the outcome of an election. Yet somehow, as always, the facts seem to have no relevance. As Obama would say, the “truth” needs more “eyeballs.”

But the system is rigged. When it’s not uncommon for voting districts to be drawn to diminish the impact of minority voters, when voter ID laws (struck down by the Supreme Court this year as unconstitutional) were designed to prevent African Americans from voting, when Trump has received an estimated $2 billion in free media, much of which entailed insufficient fact checking, when–while the KKK endorses Donald Trump and while Russia is putting forth efforts to get him elected and while more women come out with allegations of sexual assault against him and while he undermines the foundations of democracy–we continue to talk about Hillary’s latest email scandal (when it’s unclear if she’s even involved), the election is most certainly rigged.

To put Donald’s whining about the biased liberal media into context, the media have served as one of the Trump campaign’s best assets, almost certainly playing a major role in his rise. Only recently seeing their mistake, the media has scrambled to repent, doing everything they can to stop him (all it takes is the truth and coverage of his own eruptions); for example, many prominent conservative news outlets have broken a pattern of decades by refusing to endorse him. It’s pretty simple: if this man–who as president would define a party he is at odds with, much like a dictator–is elected, no one wants to say they could have done more to prevent it.

But Trump still has a viable path to the presidency: false equivalency, the idea that “both candidates are bad,” so Donald isn’t worth stopping. There is this pervasive idea that Clinton is some lying, evil conspirator with no sense of ethics, whose election would bring about an American apocalypse. Sure, she used a private email server in office–as did Chris Christie, Bobby Jindal, Scott Walker, and Marco Rubio, among others–but after what conservative online magazine American Thinker estimated to be $20 million of investigations, the FBI concluded that she did nothing illegal or dangerous to the American public–and she has more than paid for her mistake. (And, interestingly, her use of a private email server might have actually protected classified information, because the Russians managed to hack the official government server.)  As for the idea that Hillary is a serial liar, that is based on an incomplete thought: the nonaffiliated organization Politifact has rated 27% of Hillary’s statements during this campaign as “mostly false” or worse, compared to Trump’s 70% (Bernie Sanders was at 28%).  And, of course, though the Clinton Foundation has created conflicts of interests, according to Fortune Magazine, it has also provided treatment for over 36 million cases of tropical disease and provided maternal and child survival care for 110 million people, alongside other humanitarian work.  Yet, many Americans see Hillary as a criminal, and passionate chants at Trump’s rallies have escalated from “lock her up” to calls to have her executed.

Meanwhile, Donald Trump has retweeted white supremacists, has said he would be open to using nuclear weapons on Europe, has attacked the family of a deceased veteran, has said he would instruct the military to commit war crimes (by torturing the families of terrorists), has stiffed small businesses and is notorious for fraudulent business ventures, owns an organization that is guilty of illegal practices and has donated nothing to charity, has been used by ISIS as propaganda to gain recruits, has inspired the so-named “Trump effect” in which teachers are reporting more bullying in school, has encouraged his supporters into violence against those who disagree with him–and has gone so far as to kick a baby out of his rally.  If Hillary did any single one of these, would we consider her eligible to be president?

Overall, the idea of false equivalency fails from the start; Trump entered the national stage being sued for housing discrimination, while Hillary first attracted attention giving a progressive valedictorian speech she wasn’t supposed to give. She literally started her political career as anti-establishment, while Donald Trump is of a class of billionaires entrenched in their wealth, having no stakes in the working class. There is simply no comparison between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. And if you do choose to support Donald Trump, that choice will be an expensive and dangerous one: even Fox News reported that Trump’s policies would add $11.5 trillion to the U.S. national debt (compared to Hillary’s $200 billion, according to an independent analysis), and research by the Economist Intelligence Unit rates a Trump presidency as the sixth greatest risk to the world, the same level as the effects of jihadi terrorism on the world economy and 50% more risky than an armed conflict in the South China Sea.

Donald Trump has no experience, not a single Republican economist, not a single military general, and, to be frank, hardly a single fact on his side. In contrast, Hillary–a woman who has fought her entire career for the silenced, a woman with more qualifications than almost any incoming president in history, a woman with cowardly men assailing her from all sides, who has never flagged as the “establishment” has striven for decades to end her career–deserves your fair consideration as a woman to vote into the office of the most powerful person in the world. But keep in mind that even if she wins–the most likely scenario–the fact that Donald Trump will have won probably at least twenty states is an indisputable indicator that the system is, in fact, rigged.

Hinduism: A “Polytheistic Religion”

08/21/2016

In most Western textbooks Hinduism is defined as a polytheistic religion.  This is promoted by a narrow perspective on world religion based on Eurocentric standards.  Many ideas in Hinduism–such as circular rather than linear thought, rejection of formalism, pervasive contradictions between unity and multiplicity, multiple seemingly conflicting relative representations of absolute truth, intricate symbolism, and the individualized practice of religion–aren’t too familiar to Western culture.  In the age of British Imperialism in India, colonial interests largely shaped the definition of Hinduism.  But even today, as other religions are beginning to be portrayed more accurately in Western literature, Hindus do a poor job fighting for themselves.  As a result, Hinduism remains mostly dismissed or at least hopelessly misrepresented in discussions of culture and theology.  This is a multifaceted topic that could take volumes to address, but this post will focus on two aspects of Hindu portrayal: Hinduism as a religion, and Hinduism as polytheistic.

First, I will address the notion of Hinduism referred to as a religion.  In our encompassing modern sense of the word, Hinduism may function as a religion, but whether Hinduism could be called a religion is debatable, seeing that it doesn’t have many of the attributes of religion.  Does Hinduism have a single leader or founder?  No.  A system of authority?  No.  A single holy text?  No.  A common, central doctrine?  Not really.  Even a God?  Most would say yes, but there are atheist, agnostic, and humanist Hindus.

Does Hinduism even have a name?  Actually, it doesn’t.  Ancient practitioners didn’t have a name for the vast system of philosophy and spiritual science they subscribed to, and only came to be known as “Hindu,” a term of Persian origin, by association with the Sindhu (Indus) River.  If any label would be appropriate at all, it is not “religion” but dharma, which has an elastic definition but generally means truth, righteousness, or the right way of living, unique to people and scaling from the individual to the cosmos.  This dharma is sanatana, or eternal–so the authentic name for Hinduism would be sanatan dharma, a term that can actually be found in the Vedas, a major source of Hindu literature.

What is this sanatan dharma?  What does it entail?  Hinduism in its basic doctrine applies science to spirituality in a detailed, methodical system. It could be considered a spiritual extension of material science, explaining why the two are so compatible: Hinduism describes the purpose and context of what material science details.  As a practice, Hinduism doesn’t prescribe what to do as much as describe how to do it–that is, with what mindset, intention, and ultimate result.  This includes teachings of peace, philanthropy, devotion, mindfulness, disinterest, and acceptance that can be applied by all humans to all aspects of life–not only Indians in a certain time period, as textbooks would denote.  We all want to call our religion a “way of life,” but Hinduism truly did exist as a way of life long before it had any formalities.

What about Hinduism as polytheistic?  Is Hinduism polytheistic?  You may ask, Hindus worship multiple gods, so what makes Hinduism not polytheistic?  There are two main reasons that one would mistake Hinduism to be polytheistic.  The first is the confusion of divinity with the Devatas, symbolized by a pantheon of gods who preside over various aspects of nature.  These Devatas, even if considered to be live forces and divine powers of God, are not worshipped as or considered to be God.

The other reason that Hinduism might take the semblance of polytheism by Western standards is that even within the realm of divinity, there are many deities for Hindus to worship.  In reality, however, there is only one God in Hindu doctrine.  Since God is infinite, He (not a masculine but a generic “He”) cannot be limited to one name and form or even gender.  God can be both nirguna (formless, nameless, without qualities) as the abstract Brahman and saguna (with form and qualities) as a more relatable, perhaps anthropomorphic deity.  Just as the same wheat can yield bread, cereal, or chapati, the same Brahman can manifest as Rama, Krshna, Shiva, or Durga.  The main three branches of embodied worship are Vaishnavism, Shaivism, and Shaktism, none of which are mutually exclusive; any Hindu can worship any deity.  In fact, some Hindus would go so far as to accept non-Hindu deities, such as Jesus Christ, as equal forms of God suitable for worship.  Gandhi himself said, “Yes I am, I am also a Muslim, a Christian, a Buddhist, and a Jew.”  Ultimately, the ideology is that God assumes forms for the sake of human bhakti (devotion), so with more deities, Hindus have more divine attributes to be inspired by and more opportunity to find deities that best resonate with them.  But to say that Hinduism is polytheistic would be to say that a golden ring, golden bracelet, and golden necklace all have different compositions.

Death

08/21/2016

For the Abrahamic religions in general, death signifies the end of life or the entrance into the afterlife; in this doctrine, it is implied that life is associated with, specific to, the body.  In contrast, in Hindu doctrine, the source of life, the imperishable atman, is considered discrete from the body and mind, which only serve as a vehicle, as mortal instruments, for action and thought. This atman is not only an attribute of humans, but of all life forms, putting all life on an equal spiritual plane–the ultimate egalitarianism.  (Because of this value placed on all life forms, many Hindus choose vegetarianism.)

Then what are the implications of death in Hinduism?  You probably knew that Hindus believe in reincarnation, or the assumption of a new life form at the time of death.  In terms of the atman, reincarnation is the passage of the atman from one body to the next–in Sri Krshna’s words, just as a person casts off old clothes and puts on new ones–in a process also called transmigration.  We are the immortal soul, not mortal bodies, so at the time of bodily death, we live.  This would warrant a much less grim view of death.

Then why is bodily death still taken so seriously?  The Gita advises us not to develop emotional dependence on the body anyways, so why does its death remain so distressing?  Besides, says Sri Krshna, even if we did assume the atman to die, we still shouldn’t be bothered by death because it would come whether or not we liked it.  Why should we allow ourselves to take so much stress over the inevitable?

The doctrine of the atman and reincarnation seems to tell us that we should accept, even be fearless of death.  This fearlessness, however, only comes into play in the performance of our duties.  For example, a soldier might have already taken into account the possibility of death while on duty, but someone else shouldn’t walking straight into dangerous situations only with the justification that death doesn’t matter.  Even if we were to dismiss all worries surrounding death, that is no reason to have any less care for life.  To be fearless is not an excuse to abuse our lives, which would be outright disrespect for the form we’ve been given and negligence to fulfill our obligations of service to the world.  That’s right: since we have been given our human form, we have the obligation to use the resources we have in benefit of others.  In fact, the world runs on such sacrifice–water and oxygen don’t ask metabolic life for anything in return, nor does a mother nursing her baby.

So the takeaway is that we have the obligation to live and that involuntary corporeal death should not be so distressing, since we are, after all, not the body.  Then why do we mourn death?  It depends on whether ‘mourning’ means the ritual or the emotional intensity that follows death.  As for the former, funeral rites and customs are a matter of respect for a person, not acknowledgement of the grim and distressful nature of death.  And seeing that we make deep emotion connections to some people in our lives, the grief we feel on their passing is very real.  In that sense, the sorrow of mourning is more about loss than about death.

Mindful Eating

07/07/2016

Mindfulness is a topic of much modern research, and many in the West seek to reap its many benefits.  What is mindfulness?  In summary, mindfulness is a deep state of awareness of one’s bodily experiences, grounding the self in the present moment.  Since the body can only be here and now, whereas the mind can be anywhere at any time, the practice of mindfulness normally involves intense focus on the experiences of the senses–vision, hearing, touch, taste, and smell.  The objective of this practice is to attain a state of nonjudgmental observance, or complete acknowledgement and acceptance of one’s experiences.  The idea is that by paying close attention to one’s feelings, one can become less inclined to react to them thoughtlessly and more inclined to respond to them in a controlled, reasoned way.

Mindfulness as a tool can have many benefits.  It helps us live more authentic, peaceful lives.  It helps us remove ourselves from stress and handle pressure better.  It helps us come to terms with our emotions, rather than suppressing them and waiting to lash out.  It can increase our productivity by enabling us to focus our minds on only the task at hand.  If you’re playing an instrument, a variation of mindfulness that involves concentration only on sound can enhance your musicality.  Mindfulness has also been proven to prevent overeating and can play a major role in weight loss.

For me, the idea of mindful eating used to be ideologically tricky.  I used to be hesitant about it because it meant immersing yourself in bodily experience, which is unsuitable for detachment from the senses, advocated by the Bhagavad Gita for transcending the body and experiencing unity with others.  It seems that deep awareness of the taste, texture, temperature, and smell of food could only fuel any binding attachments to it, so I almost associated yoga with detached, nonindulgent, even mindless eating.  I thought that just like people try to ignore what they’re hearing when they don’t like the ideas being spoken, the truly detached should ignore sensory input while eating.

Now I’ve come to realize that mindfulness is compatible with detachment; it’s awareness free from judgement, and it doesn’t have to be indulgent.  Paying close attention to one’s experiences has nothing to do with forming opinions on them, and, in fact, doing so can allow us to better be at peace with them.  One can still transcend the target of mindfulness by acting as a witness to, not a subject of, experience.

Grudges

07/07/2016

People aren’t always nice.  Even when they don’t have malicious intent, they can hurt us just by being inconsiderate, like when they’re not there for you when you seek their support, or when they dismiss your opinions and don’t take you seriously.  Sometimes people live in their own bubbles.  Perhaps everyone lives in a bubble, and only the size of the bubble varies from person to person.  Whenever someone is stuck in a bubble, someone else’s feelings are bound to be hurt.  When you’ve known people for a longer time and you begin to get a clearer image of who they are, the nature of that bubble often emerges.

In my view, when feelings do get hurt, there are three types of responses.  One of them involves acting on the hurt feelings, and the other two occur internally.  In my opinion, the first, vengeance, demonstrates the lowest level of maturity and is typical of those who are least in touch with their conscience.  The other two are different mental reactions regarding the one who inflicted the damage: forgiveness and holding grudges.

Keeping negative memories of the past actions of others is normally called holding grudges.  The term “grudge” implies so much negativity, and society generally advises against such sentiment.  But if we put aside the past, won’t we repeat the patterns of thought or action that set us up for pain in the first place?  Don’t we have to remember the past to escape that cycle and move forward?  Doesn’t that require us to actively recall the past damages others have inflicted on us?

In contrast, forgiveness generally has a positive connotation.  But in the process of loosening our emotional dependence on those who have hurt us, of moving forward with your perception of someone, it seems any inclination to forgive would only be only an obstruction of progress.  In this case, does holding grudges help?  Without the grudges, without an attitude of skepticism, wouldn’t we set ourselves up to fall in the trap of emotional dependence once again?

On the other hand, maybe grudges aren’t necessary to have a better understanding of your relationship with someone.  Maybe moving forward involves context and realism, whereas grudges involve personal dislike or ill will.  Having a more realistic image of someone isn’t necessarily being judgmental; it’s just being analytical.  If people break your trust or prove a lack of concern for your wellbeing, you don’t necessarily have to resent or think less of them; you just have to be careful about what you tell them, or overcome your dependence on their support.  Understanding that and acting accordingly in the future definitely involves something, whether or not you call it a grudge.  Maybe moving forward and responding appropriately to the hurt feelings is, in a way, forgiveness.  After all, forgiveness doesn’t have to mean forgetting in the same way holding grudges has to mean remembering.

Humans, Karma, and Dharma

03/17/2016

According to Vedanta, the human life form is one of the most prestigious to attain; because it is empowered with both mana (mind) and buddhi (intellect) and has free will (sankalpa, which means determination or intention), it is considered by the scriptures to be the “stairway to heaven or hell.”  In the Ramcharitmanasa, the human form is likened to a jewel, which should not be wasted for animalistic purposes.  That is, because we have been granted the human form, we should take advantage of the tools that empower us, rather than living like an animal could, depending primarily on sensual pleasures.

How does one ascend to the human form?  To understand this, one must understand that there are many dimensions of reincarnation.  The cycle of reincarnation is often called samsara (which is not an exclusively Buddhist term), represented by a wheel–but the idea of a cycle signifies repetitive nature, not the idea the same life occurs again and again.  With this logic, samsara could be considered not a wheel, but instead a line of lives, a line that extends with each additional life we experience.  But the vast majority of the time, these lives aren’t lined up horizontally straight.  Lives are “higher” or”lower” than others, depending on the capacities of the form.  (Note that this does not mean that life forms are unequal to each other: all life is based on the same atman and ideologically equal.  However, this does not mean that a plant, ant, lion, and human, which all have different sthitis, or conditions, should be treated in the exact same way.)

What determines whether our next life form will be?  We “ascend” to a higher life form or “descend” to a lower life form based on our karma, or our action, in this life.  Karma means action–not only physical action, but also speech and thought.  Most non-Hindus are familiar with the concept of the law of karma: it states that our actions cause proportional bondage according to their quality.  Or in other words, all of our actions come back to us as results.  When we perform “good” action, “good” things happen to us, and when we perform “bad” action, “bad” things happen to us.  In terms of bondage, people who accumulate good karma are “rewarded” by ascent to a higher life form, and people who accumulate bad karma are “punished” by descent to a lower life form.  This raises a lot of questions:  What determines whether action is good or bad?  What is a “good” thing or a “bad” thing?  And perhaps most importantly, why do good things happen to people who do bad things, and why do bad things happen to people who do good things?

We will answer all of questions.  Whether action binds upwards or downwards is dependent on another tenet of Hinduism: dharma.  Dharma is the righteous course of nature, like Tao in Taoism.  Although it is often translated as “duty,” it is not limited to this: it is the dharma of sugar to be sweet, and the dharma of cow to give milk.  These are not “duties,” but instead what naturally occurs when the world is in order.  Humans each have a unique prescribed dharma–this dharma is not rigid throughout life, nor is it determined by one’s family of birth.  What causes humans to contravene this dharma are the gunas (modes of nature) rajas (passion) and tamas (ignorance), associated with the six enemies of the self (Arishadvargas), which are based in ego (ahamkara) and desire (kama).  Without attachment in the way, a human will perform dharmic (“good”) action or punya, and with attachment, a human will perform adharmic (“bad”) action or papa.

What kind of results arise from performing punya or papa?  These results are not necessarily “reward” or “punishment”; they are just inevitable parts of nature.  Just like pushing a wall guarantees the wall will push back on you, similarly, performing punya guarantees positive bondage.  But why do seemingly bad things, or negative results, still happen to people who perform punya?  For one, whatever happens in the current life could be a result of karma performed in previous lives, of which we are unaware.  But also, it is hard to define what is good or bad for us, because we really don’t know the consequences something will have in the long run.  A medical condition that restricts your motion may bring opportunities you never would have imagined, or a gift you receive now may end up causing difficult tensions in your family.  But with the law of karma, we can rest assured that we will always get what we deserve, and that no good deed will go unaddressed.

We know that an individual who performs more punya, or dharmic action, is more likely to ascend to the human form.  Does this mean that the increase in human population is due to an increase in dharma in society?  What we can be sure about is that the growth in human population is a result of advances in sanitation and medicine, which have caused the death rate to decrease and the life expectancy to increase.  But Vedanta says that we are in Kali Yuga, in which adharma is on the rise and dharma is declining.  The reality is that there are probably many spiritual factors in the increase of human population that we do not understand.  For example, we don’t know if other life forms with capabilities comparable to those of humans exist on other planets, or if human adharma is causing negative consequences in other forms, such as the destruction of the planet or the increase in incidence of many diseases like Alzheimer’s and cancer, which come at later ages.  Or even more radically, we don’t know if the Vedic time cycle is perhaps symbolic of the evolution of the self, and dharma is in fact increasing.  There are many ways to look at this question, but we don’t have one, authoritative answer.

Ann Perkins and Reincarnation

03/14/2016

Some associate reincarnation with fear.  Isn’t reincarnation scary, full of uncertainty as to whether we will lose everything we have now?  In the words of Ann Perkins, “I think the danger in believing in reincarnation is that you spend so much time trying to figure out what you’re going to be in the next lifetime that you forget to enjoy the one you’re in now.”  In my opinion, no on many levels.  First of all, the discussion attributed reincarnation to Buddhism, not Hinduism, and though reincarnation is a Buddhist tenet, why can’t we give Hinduism credit for what is originally Hindu?  Buddha was, after all, a Hindu reformer.

Second of all, the context around this quote assumed that Buddhists consider objects like pretzels, inanimate skeletons, and socket wrenches to be possible life forms, and none of these are empowered by the atman.  Third of all, I am a very devout Hindu and have spent probably less than 30 seconds throughout my life so far wondering what my next life form will be.

Fourth of all, there is no danger, no worry, with reincarnation.  Reincarnation entails infinite second chances, and besides, it’s a system of justice.  It should be reassuring, not frightening, to know that the next life form we assume will be one we deserve, because we have control over what we deserve, seeing that we have the power to manipulate our actions and character to a significant degree.  In my opinion, much more frightening than reincarnation is the idea of YOLO, which places a time limit on attaining spiritual perfection with the threat of eternal hell.

Finally, the quote assumes that the goal of life is pure enjoyment, which I find rather limiting, since it doesn’t even factor in how that enjoyment is derived.  Of course, many aspects of jagat, the world, are meant for enjoyment, like love, laughter, social relations, beauty, and diversity.  However, I believe that more often than not, humans don’t know what will be most enjoyable to them in the long run.  Chapter 18, Sloka 37 of the Bhagavad Gita tells us, “The happiness which seems like poison at first but tastes like nectar in the end, generated by the pure intellect situated in self-knowledge, is said to be sattvic (of the mode of goodness).”  This does not mean that every form of pain always resolves to pleasure–that would justify the argument that the path to the most long-term pleasure is the same as the path to the most immediate pain.  No; rather, it means that the path to real life satisfaction may not appear to be so pleasant short run, but it’s the path we should take.  You may lose a few minutes of pleasure if you don’t smoke that cigarette, but if you exercise enough excruciating restraint to overcome the habit of smoking altogether, you will live longer and be happier with your body and relationships.  You might think you will enjoy your life less if you dump your body with processed oils, salt, and sugar less often, but even though it can be hard to sympathize with your future self, you know you would rather not suffer Type 2 or heart disease in your later years for the sake of tiny doses of extra pleasure now.

Ann Perkins was a nurse and probably already understood the idea that restraint could be rewarding, yet she couldn’t articulate the values she probably already had.  But apparently, she thought believing in reincarnation was “dangerous” because of the (unfounded) prospect of losing immediate pleasure–does it not seem ludicrous and make yet-more ludicrous assumptions?  But this is the only place all Eastern culture (that label is itself objectifying) gets in a popular context.  My goal is not to be a myopic, extra-touchy liberal who would rather attack an innocuous line than address real problems.  Nor is my goal to blame comedy writers for the cultural standing of Hinduism, even if they should be more culturally aware.  I know Ann Perkins is a fictional character, and I know this line negatively affected no one.  But I don’t think it would be radical to at least learn from it.

Donald Trump and American Politics

02/29/2016

Forgive me if I’m straying out of my territory.  If you’ve found this blog, you probably weren’t looking for politics.  This post might be pretty limited but, at the same time, will hopefully provide some perspective.

Donald Trump has woken up American politics.  Super Tuesday is tomorrow, and many are starting to accept that he will probably win the Republican nomination.  To most liberals, Donald Trump comes as a shock.  As polarizing as American politics is, much of half the country labels him a sexist, racist, and xenophobe, while the other half embraces him as the only politician who “tells the truth.”

What warrants the rise of Donald Trump?

To understand this, you have to understand that this election season, everyone in America is pissed off.  Minority oppression is rampant and we’re weary that it’s still a problem.  Every state in the US has its own Flint, although people are just now hearing about this system of discrimination.  As of 2010, black men are over half as likely to be imprisoned as they are to be in college–and on average, the cost of incarceration is almost $50,000 per inmate per year.  More reasons Americans are pissed off are severe income inequality, low wages, lifelong student debt, and lack of maternity leave and other rights for women.  In addition, American voices aren’t heard in politics.  A Princeton University study found that “the preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy.”  Whether or not you identify as a Bernie-supporter, you cannot deny that today, his claims that billionaires buy our politicians and our policies are very much founded.  Our political and economic system has been built to protect billionaires–for example, the government currently subsidizes private jets–and anyone who opposes this is deemed a “socialist.”

What does this have to do with Donald Trump?  Like we said, everyone is angry.  It’s all about whom we blame for our problems: Democrats blame the billionaire class and an obstructionist Republican Congress (which fashions an 11% approval rating), and Republicans blame Obama.  But both sides want change.  This warrants the rise of Bernie Sanders on the left, and Donald Trump on the right.  Americans on both sides look to each one as a panacea for all of our problems.  Both candidates are, in essence, calling for a revolution: Donald tells us he will “restore our previous greatness,” and Bernie tells us he will make the American voice heard again.

Let’s talk about Donald Trump “telling the truth.”  In this revolution, because of the passion pouring from both sides, facts no longer have any relevance.  It doesn’t matter that in 2008, before Obama entered office, we were losing almost one million jobs per month, and are now gaining almost a quarter million per month.  Nor does it matter that many economists believe Trump is a lot less successful of a businessman than he could have been had he invested more wisely.  Nope, Republicans still want to go back to the old ways, and they say Trump is the man to take us there.  It also doesn’t matter that Republicans in Congress have persistently blocked Obama’s initiatives to protect veterans, and that Donald Trump kicks poor veterans off his property.  Nope, Trump will magically improve conditions for our veterans.  The problem isn’t lack of education; many educated Republicans support Trump even though most of what he says has no basis.

Democrats aren’t immune to willful ignorance, either.  It doesn’t matter that in his last 25 years in Congress, Bernie Sanders has been the main sponsor of only three bills that became law.  It doesn’t matter that Obama was barely able to make so much social and economic progress in the last seven years because Republicans in Congress blocked him every step of the way, and that Bernie Sanders has a vision of repealing Obama’s improvements without hesitation, thinking he could easily replace them with something yet more radical.  Realism doesn’t matter anymore: Bernie, through his moving dedication alone, can fix all of our problems.  Apparently, activism is enough to translate to policy.  All in all, in this presidential race, the main asset of both Bernie and Trump is that they have articulated the frustrations that plague their followers.

Back to Donald Trump, liberals hurl attacks at him like there’s no tomorrow.  He’s an anti-immigrant, sexist, vacuous Islamophobe with no real policy plans, they proclaim.  At one of his rallies in September, he allowed a man to call Obama a non-American Muslim.  (Contrast this against John McCain, who in the 2008 elections held that Obama was a respectable man who just had differing views from him for the future of the country.)  He hurls insults at journalists and even seemed to mock a disabled one in November.  His speeches have been used by ISIS to antagonize the US and gain recruits.  Studies show that his language patterns mirror those of many demagogues in history.  He dismissed a denunciation from the Pope (although so has pretty much every Republican in Congress).  Most recently, he wavered in denouncing the Ku Klux Klan.

What do I make of this?  First of all, I’m no Trump supporter, but I appreciate that he has made politics extremely fun to follow–my parents watched the final GOP debate before Super Tuesday as if it were an Indian soap.  His main debate strategy seems to be to diss the other candidates off the stage.  Without listening to any campaign advisors, he’s managed to maintain his standing as the Republican front-runner for over three months.

But in my opinion, there’s some context, a bigger picture, to understand with Trump.  For one, he has no wealthy donors telling him what to say, whereas bungling candidate Jeb Bush was only on the stage because of the nearly $100 million spent (I mean, wasted) on his campaign.  Along these lines, I believe a President Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, or Ben Carson would be even more frightening than a President Donald Trump, because they make statements that are similar to those of Donald Trump, even if less blatantly, and are more serious about carrying them out.  Furthermore, because he doesn’t face the threat of losing donors, with him, what you see is what you get, whereas the other candidates, Republican or Democrat, could be much worse in office than they make themselves out to be now.  As bad as Donald Trump may seem, Cruz or Rubio as president would make every effort to reverse social progress and serve the interests of billionaires, pandering to the public to win the office.  Even though Trump has made open efforts to appeal to the Evangelical crowd, some even predict he will even change his stance on the LGBTQ community if he wins the primaries.

Donald Trump is also a businessman who has without doubt had to deal with many women, immigrants, and Muslims, and many people who met him long ago say he is decent and tactful in person and have no idea from where his attacks are coming.  Even if Trump seems like an airhead to anyone who actually listens to what he says, I think any sensible businessman should know that deporting 11 million people for $400-600 billion is not a sustainable plan.  I also highly doubt that he is a racist; I just think he is a brilliant politician.  He has already disavowed David Duke before, so why was he so hesitant to do so just a few days ago?  Maybe because over 20% of his supporters in states like South Carolina don’t even support the Emancipation Proclamation?

The Republican mainstream, as in the many moderate conservatives in this country, are equally flustered as liberals with this candidate whose poll numbers refuse to drop.  But at the same time, they’ve brought it on themselves.  Why would the common Republican be so anti-establishment this year?  Maybe because for years the establishment has employed rhetoric to make them hate our government, telling them that Democrats are taking their country away from them.  For example, they are so convinced that Democrats want to confiscate guns that they refuse to even consider measures to make them safer, and daily unnecessary guns deaths continue.  Even though Obama has fought the issues that anger the majority of Americans, he has been demonized by the Republican establishment.  For another example, Obamacare has been called by Ben Carson the worst thing in American history “since slavery,” but if you refer to it as the Affordable Care Act, all of a sudden the common Republican loves it.  As a result of all this animosity, Republicans who facilitated the rise of Trump have left the mainstream with no moderate options except John Kasich.  Many in this key group, the moderates, say that if Trump wins the nomination, they will not vote this year.  Trump is a monster that Republicans created, and it seems they will pay for it this year.

I don’t know if I did a very good job hiding it, but I identify as a liberal.  If I may be completely honest, I like Donald Trump.  That is, I like what he means for the future of America.  I believe that if he wins the Republican candidacy, we will end up with a Democratic president.  The most stirring part of this election cycle is the big question: is Donald Trump bringing about the destruction of the Republican Party?

I am still 16 and am not eligible to vote this year.  But if I may, I advise you to vote wisely.

Hinduism and Science

02/21/2016

Hinduism and science are in every way compatible.  Both are similarly systematic; the only difference is that science deals with the material, whereas Hinduism deals with the divine.  Whereas the material is perceptible or at least detectible, the divine is neither—in fact, it is not even inferable.  Because Hinduism deals with what cannot be proven by material means, it requires faith.  Hence, ‘religion’ is synonymous with ‘faith.’

In this way, at least with Hinduism, religion can be considered just an extension of science.  Sometimes Westerners assume that human logic can be used to understand everything, but they don’t account for what is beyond logic.  In fact, in my opinion, the idea that humans are capable of understanding everything is speciesism.  Of course, this is no reason to halt scientific endeavors, but we should at least keep our minds open to the idea that there is something beyond us, even if that something (Brahman) is independent of what we study in science.

Actually, that independence is key to the compatibility of science and religion.  When religion promulgates laws of nature, it is likely that these laws, if proven by science to be erroneous, will alienate science from religion.  (*cough, cough* Creationism)  But on the other hand, when religion promulgates laws such as “God empowers the laws of nature,” then any scientific discoveries will just enhance our understanding of what God empowers.  If you will, Hinduism is the why and how behind the what of science.  With this logic, science and religion don’t have to be opposing schools of thought.

What exactly is beyond science?  For one, Vedanta tells us that creation is one part mrityu loka and three parts amrita loka, and that beyond both is the loka of the Supreme.  In perspective, science will always be limited to mrityu loka.  What’s more, of the three parts of mrityu loka—bhu loka, bhuva loka, and swarga loka—the study of science is limited to almost exclusively the grossest one, bhu loka.  Note that this system of lokas does not imply that amrita loka is a physical place, but rather a different realm of experience undefinable by “place” as we understand the word.  The realm of science and the upper lokas are independent, just as electromagnetic waves can overlap space without clashing with it.

Another way to describe the realms beyond is through the layers of the self, which parallel the progression of the lokas.  This can be done through the three bodies: the sthula sarira (gross body), the suksma sarira (the subtle body), and the karana sarira (the causal body).  In this system, science is limited to the sthula sarira.  Or, another way to define the layers of the self is through the five koshas, which parallel the three sariras.  The annamaya kosha (material sheath) is the sthula sarira; the pranamaya kosha (the sheath of prana, the vital life-force), the manomaya kosha (the sheath of the mind), and the vijnanamaya kosha (the sheath of special knowledge and intuitive intellect) all are part of the suksma sarira; and the anandamaya kosha (sheath of bliss) parallels the karana sarira.  In this system, science is limited to the annamaya kosha.  To science’s credit, science does venture a little into mana (mind) and buddhi (intellect) in the subtle body to describe human behavior and feelings, but material science is limited to the brain.  Just as the mana (mind) is a tool to the atman (soul), and just as the senses (indriyas) are tools to the brain, the brain is just a tool to the mind.  Yet science can’t define what is beyond the brain.

There are many other parallels between science and Hinduism.  The Big Bang Theory?  Hinduism describes creation as the manifestation of the gross from the subtle in the first half of Brahmachakra, which mirrors the Big Bang Theory.  Evolution?  Hinduism describes the development of life forms throughout the yugas, from fish to animal to human—in fact, the ten main incarnations of Vishnu demonstrate this progression.  Furthermore, the four yugas (Vedic eras) themselves with their respective predominant gunas (goodness, passion, or ignorance) can just be considered symbolic of the evolution of the qualities of the self.  If anything, science was late quantifying many phenomena of the universe that the Vedas described so long ago.

What about climate change?  Hinduism describes the degeneration of humanity through the four yugas, and we are currently in the last of the four.  Certainly, abuse of Bhu (Earth) can be part of that decline in dharma (righteousness), as dharma calls for the protection of Earth.  We see the law of karma: human greed through the exploitation of Earth is coming back at us, not as a punishment from God, but as an inevitable result of our actions.  What’s more, Hinduism adapts to the times by telling us not what we should do (ex. use more resources) but rather how we should do whatever secular studies tell us is best (ex. with the wellbeing of all life in mind).  Secular studies without doubt indicate that we must take action to inhibit global warming, and verified facts should not be up for debate.

Hinduism also ascribes a syllable to divinity: AUM.  AUM, commonly seen as Om, has three parts–the opening of the mouth (A), the shaping of the lips (U), and the closing of the mouth (M)–that have been used to represent many aspects of the self.  The three parts can mean the three main states of being: awake, in deep sleep, and in dream or the REM stage of sleep, a progression that matches our modern understanding of neuroscience.  (Again, Hinduism reveals a limit of science as it describes a fourth, immeasurable state, called turiya.)  AUM also has many other meanings, a few of which include the three deities of the universe (Brahma the Creator, Vishnu the Protector, and Mahesh the Destroyer), the three-fold knowledge (Rig Veda, Sama Veda, asand Yajur Veda), the three aspects of the world (Bhu loka, Bhuva loka, and Swarga loka), and the three stages of time (past, present, and future).  But most significantly in my opinion is AUM’s place in describing the universe.  AUM represents the cycle of creation, the manifestations of the gross from the subtle and then the return back to the gross in Brahmachakra.  The opening of the mouth is the beginning of manifestation, the shaping of the lips is the concentration of energy (tapas) that drives the progress of creation, and the closing of the mouth is the end.  If you weren’t a fan of using these terms to describe the progression of the universe, you could consider Brahmachakra as symbolic of the spiritual evolution of the self–the vyashti (individual) aspect of what seems to be in samashti (collective) terms.  But you don’t have to.  Once again, science has confirmed what seems to be a mystical and perhaps symbolic concept given by Vedanta.  How?  Magnetic loops and visible vibrations reducating from solar activity (Vedanta associates AUM with the sun and light) have been captured by NASA in 2010 and 2013 and converted to sound waves audible to humans.  The resulting sound?  A deep, continuous AUM.

Hinduism also describes (in Sanskrit) five “elements” (Panchabhuta) of material nature.  For years these have been translated poorly as “water, earth, fire, air, and ether (the sky or heavens),” which seems to oppose the scientific discovery of over one hundred chemical elements in the last many centuries.  But looking closer, with a quick fix to this misinterpretation of the Vedas, Hinduism can be compatible with chemistry, as well.  The five bhutas of material nature are actually prithvi, or solid (not necessarily earth); jal or apas, or liquid (not necessarily water); vayu, or gas (any form of air); agni, or energy (not necessarily fire); and akasha, or space (not necessarily “the heavens”).  Although this system is not quite the periodic table and doesn’t describe the exchanges between these bhutas, if you look around it seems everything manifest in the universe can fall into one of these five categories: solid, liquid, gas, energy, and space.

As we delve further into science, mechanics in particular, we can see more parallels between faith and science.  For one, the law of karma is essentially the same as Newton’s third law: all actions have a reaction.  Our actions come back to us.  The fruits of action that we receive are not necessarily rewards for punya (dharmic action) or punishment for papa (adharmic action, sin).  They’re just ineluctable parts of the process of action, just like a wall pushing back on you is an ineluctable part of you pushing on a wall.

For another example, Hinduism in general, and even parts of this blog, emphasizes the distinction between the divine and the material.  One (of many) ways to define that distinction is through the terms prakriti (unmanifest material nature) and purusha (the soul, sometimes in its samashti or collective aspect).  We are actually parts of purusha, but attribute the action of our bodies, which are part of prakriti, to ourselves, because ahamkara (ego) causes us to associate with material individual forms.  But regardless of our perception, prakriti performs all actions in the universe, while purusha, while remaining untainted by material flaw, empowers and authorizes all of these actions.  In this way, prakriti and purusha are inseparable, like the north and south poles of a magnet.  You can’t have only north, or only south, and no matter how you cut your magnet, it will always have a north and a south.  In terms of physics, work (change in energy) done on a system can only occur with both force and distance, just as all action can only occur with purusha and prakriti.  Purusha is the enabling force, and prakriti is the distance over which the force is applied.  In this way, work is done as the universe progresses.

I will give one last connection between Vedanta and physics by revisiting Newton’s three laws and relating them to causality.  If you’re not familiar with them, Newton’s three laws are that

  1. Objects can only accelerate when acted on by unbalanced forces
  2. Acceleration is directly related with force and inversely related with mass (F = ma), and
  3. All actions are accompanied by an equal and opposite reaction.

In terms of causality:

  1. Whenever an effect is seen, a cause must be inferred; an effect can never be without cause.  In this case, jagat (the world, all of creation) is a manifestation, an effect, of the sankalpa (will) of Brahman (the nirguna, formless and subtle, aspect of God), Who is the Supreme Cause—the parameshti karana sarira.  So jagat cannot exist without God, its Cause.
  2. The effect is nothing more than a cause in a different form (an accelerating object is equal to the force applied on the object).  In this case jagat is just purusha limiting itself to one form—and the reverse process, the transcendence of jagat into purusha, is done by yoga abhyasa.
  3. In order to remove the effect, all that is required is the removal of the cause.  In this case, jagat is dependent entirely on the Ishvara that controls and sustains it, so without that support jagat cannot function or even exist.  In fact, without God, nothing can exist.

In conclusion, science in all of its branches are beautiful and perhaps the apex of human accomplishment.  Getting closer to understanding the truth of the universe, of physical, chemical, cosmological, and biological phenomena, can never hurt us.  It might seem annoying to the scientific community for religious people to dismiss science, but that is not the goal of Hinduism, nor of Hindus.  There is no scorn, no antagonism; only appreciation and thirst for more.  And among many religions, Hinduism never had to be amended to embrace science.