Monday, May 1, 2017

Speculations about the mental condition of some Hindu Saints

On 1 May 2017, I received an invitation for the release by the Dalai Lama (IIC Delhi, 25 May) of Arun Shourie's new book: TWO SAINTS: Speculation around and about Ramakrishna Paramahamsa and Ramana Maharshi (publisher Harper Collins). From the announcement:

"The life of Ramakrishna Paramahamsa ‘enables us to see God face to face’, Gandhiji wrote. Similarly, when someone in his circle was distraught, the Mahatma sent him to spend time at the Ashram of Ramana Maharshi. Such was their stature and influence.

"The Paramahamsa and the Maharshi have been among the greatest spiritual figures of our country. They have transformed the lives of and have been a solace to millions. Moreover, in our tradition, words of such mystics are regarded as conclusive. They have evidentiary status: if they say there is a soul, there is; if they say there is life after death or reincarnation, there is. Their peak, mystic experience is what we yearn to have, even just once.

"But what if several of the experiences they had—the feeling that someone higher is present next to them, the feeling that they are floating above their body, looking down at it; the ‘near-death experience’; the ecstasy; the visions "Did the experiences occur from some ailment? As was alleged in the case of Sri Ramakrishna? From some ‘madness’, which he for long feared had taken hold of him. From the fits that Sri Ramana said he used to have?

"What of the experiences of devotees? Seeing the Master where he wasn’t? Seeing the Master, feeling his presence, after he had passed away? Are these hallucinations? Or do they testify to the Master’s divinity? How would conclusions about their experiences affect their teaching? That the world and everything in it is ‘unreal’?

"In the light of their pristine example, how should we view and what should we do about the godmen and gurus who control vast financial and real estate empires today, to whom lakhs flock? Are they the saints they set themselves up to be or just marketers?

"With the diligence and painstaking research that mark all his work, Arun Shourie probes these questions in the light of the recent breath-taking advances in neuroscience, as well as psychology and sociology. The result is a book of remarkable rigour: an examination—and ultimately reconciliation— of science and faith as also of seemingly antagonistic, irreconcilable worldviews."

As a first reaction to this book, that I haven't seen yet, I must say I am curious to see what Arun Shourie has to reveal about this subject. It is of crucial importance, for numerous Hindus venerate persons. Special persons of great merit, but nonetheless persons with their contingent qualities and experiences. Not quite apaurusheya ("impersonal", said of the Vedas).

In the past I have argued that Mohammed was a textbook case of paranoia, with a central delusion of chosenness nurtured by sensorial hallucinations. The auditive part of those hallucinations became the Quran. This argument built on earlier similar observations: by psychologists, ex-Muslims, Mohammed's own neighbours, and even Mohammed himself. Indeed, upon receiving (or rather, undergoing) his first hallucination, he feared he was becoming mad, or as they called it: possessed by an evil spirit. He even tried to commit suicide to avert the fate of becoming Mecca's village idiot, but his wife Khadija managed to soothe him and accustom him to these recurring hallucinations. She fatefully practised "folie a deux", i.e. supporting an afflicted dear one by entering into his delusion, and thus set the example for all those millions of Muslims who have interiorized and actually believe Mohammed's cardinal delusion: "Mohammed is the Prophet of Allah."

This viewpoint has cost me a lot of bad press: in New-Age and Gandhian-Hindu circles because of their affirmation that "all religions are equally true" and that therefore, "all founders of religion were equally good (c.q. spiritual, enlightened)", and in RSS-BJP circles where they hope to solve the Islam problem on the cheap, viz. by avoiding the tough questions and repeating the lie that "the founder was right and enlightened, it is only some of his followers who has misunderstood or distorted his message". By contrast, it was welcomed by others, including some of the Indic Academy. Yet even among these sympathizers, there sometimes was a sneaking doubt.

"Yes, definitely there was something wrong with Mohammed", they say, "but, errr, could you not argue something similar about some Hindu saints?" Well, unlike Islam, Dharma doesn't stand or fall with the mental condition of one individual. But I do not exclude the possibility that on the margins, some individual had enough of a spiritual aura to attract followers, yet also thrived on a self-delusion.

A friend of mine was the personal disciple of a Lingayat Guru (now deceased), living with him for seven years somewhere outside Dharwad. No snide word about that Guru. However, in that same village, there was a vagrant fellow who, from all episodes my friend described, and from the photograph I saw, appeared to be crazy. Yet, sometimes he was garlanded by the villagers and treated like a saint. Common people do not apply much power of discrimination when they see odd behavior. What is crazy to one is saintly to another. That indeed is why in his beginnings as a cult founder, Mohammed met both skepticism and credulous acceptance.

Among famous Hindu sages, it definitely is Ramakrishna who has most readily been suspected of suffering from a neurological ailment. Not having studied his life and works (save for his attitude to Christianity and Islam), I will not offer an opinion there. About Ramana Maharshi, such suspicions are not usually voiced. Let us see what Shourie makes of these two. In his book about suffering, Does He Understand a Mother's Heart?, he has proven himself skeptical of the Karma doctrine dear to most Hindus. His falling-out with Narendra Modi and the present BJP may have made him even more ready to "hurt Hindu sentiments". Let us see.

Enlightenment is not about "experiences", but about a zero state of consciousness beyond experiencing (which implies that any vision excitedly ascribed to Ramakrishna by his followers was not Enlightenment). Whereas Descartes said that "I think, therefore I am", with "thinking" covering all states of consciousness, and with all these states standing on the side of consciousness in its dualistic opposition to matter; the ancient Indian Sankhya philosophy opposes only pure consciousness, conscious of itself but not "experiencing" anything outside itself, to all matter including all states of applied consciousness (sensory perception, memory, imaginaton...) lined up on the other side. As you know, the intake of substances can trigger altered states of consciousness. For Descartes, this poses a problem, for how can something material affect the separate world of "thinking" (pure plus applied consciousness) ? For Sankhya, the problem doesn't pose itself, for the altered states of consciousness triggered by substances (starting with chocolate taken to soothe depression)  all belong to Nature/Prakrti, as distinct from Purusha, the unit of consciousness. Compare it to a computer: it can reason, it can deduce a conclusion from the data it is fed, yet this process is not conscious.

So, it is a perfectly natural state of affairs from the Sankhya viewpoint if electrodes applied to specific parts of the brain trigger altered states of consciousness. If neurological research, and now perhaps Arun Shourie, confirm this, they may ruffle some feathers among Bhakti (devotional, "religious") Hindus, but they remain within the confines of Hindu philosophy. Many mental phenomena may well fall within the ambit of neurology, many strange experiences may well be triggered by mechanical and material causes; and Hindus may well be called upon to define their spiritual practices anew.


16 comments:

aronite said...

" Let us see what Shourie makes of these two. In his book about suffering, Does He Understand a Mother's Heart?, he has proven himself skeptical of the Karma doctrine dear to most Hindus."

The doctrine of karma is a theory that attempts to explain Inequity- apparent injustice, suffering and not dear only to Hindus. It is not a matter of faith but a Theory about human experience of Reality that is obviously Inhuman. Without it, we get no better solace- its still a harsh Reality of blind Nature and Random chance- no less cruel or no less heartless-
so shall we retort- does Shoruie understand a Mother's heart?
Skeptical or scientific solace? How is it helpful to the mom?

Rabinder Koul said...

In recent times consciousness issues have appeared in three different directions. One is the study of human consciousness. (1) The pioneering work has been carried out by University of Virginia school of psychology. I will include the link at the end based on the conference on Cosmology and consciousness conference. (2) In interpretation of Quantum physics, first introduced by John Von Neumann and then Bells theorem. (3) It is based on the Godel's incompleteness theorem, that pushed the intuitionism school of mathematics. And destroyed all attempts to base mathematics fully on the logical foundation. That destroyed the Russel-whitehead attempts on such formulations of mathematics as well as the Hilbert-von-Neuman attempt for foundation of mathematics. In particular its result of non-provable but true propositions. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sPGZSC8odIU&spfreload=1

Rabinder Koul said...

The doctrine of Karma is not an attempt to rationalize the inequity. And in fact there are many other mechanisms with Dharma to explain such issues. It is partly based on physical events as observed by people and also some of the insights in a state of consciousness sage experience. However most recently Univ of virginia has done lot of work on it. And has collected lot of evidence to put its foundation of observational data, as in case histories.

Jatinder K Bajaj said...

Koenrad Elst is at it again. Advising Hindus to "define their spiritual practices anew" in the light of the new wisdom flowing from the new age seers. If Hindus had thus changed their received wisdom with every passing wind, there would be no recognizable Hinduism left today. About the psycho-neurological explanations of the spiritual phenomena that Arun Shourie is offering and Koenard Elst is endorsing, we shall try a longer response.

Arun said...


Arun Shourie has a son with cerebral palsy, and has no doubt encountered a fairly common Hindu type who will state or imply with smug certainty that the son so suffers because of his past karma. I can understand why Arun Shourie is unsympathetic to such karma theory.

Further, and this for Dr. Elst: for example, the mathematician Ramanujan felt that Namagiri Devi whispered mathematical theorems into his ear. But we don't accept his mathematical results because of inspiration by Namagiri Devi, but because they make sense. Similarly with Ramakrishna Paramahamsa. I cannot be in the Paramahamsa's presence; all I have is the words recorded about what he said. I invite Sri Dr. Elst to read the material here to get to know Ramakrishna Paramahamsa better. http://ramakrishnavivekananda.info/

Third Eye said...

Dr Elst I am a young boy who wishes to increase his knowledge by reading more and more from authentic sources based on genuine research and free from bias and prejudices.
I already have a lot of books written by you, by Sita Ram Goal and By Swami Ram Swarup
, Will Durant...........etc etc. Please can you tell me more about Blogs similar to yours written by honest historians and scholars (YES THEY ARE RARE) .............it will help me a great deal..........

Thanks a lot..........

Hari Smith said...


KE QUOTE: "I am curious to see what Arun Shourie has to reveal about this subject. It is of crucial importance, for numerous Hindus venerate persons. "

Is Arun Shourie also a saint or guru? No? Then his current insight obviously cannot reach higher levels required for a more accurate assessment regarding the topic.


KE QUOTE: "In the past I have argued that Mohammed was a textbook case of paranoia, with a central delusion of chosenness nurtured by sensorial hallucinations."

Why not call it 'visions'? This way you could avoid the negativity that comes with the term 'hallucinations'.

As for 'chosenness', every human as well as non-human being is 'the chosen one'. That which is 'not chosen' does not manifest itself.


KE QUOTE: "(who) actually believe Mohammed's cardinal delusion: "Mohammed is the Prophet of Allah." "

There are at least two trustworthy ways of attempting to find out whether Mohammed is the Prophet of Allah:

1. One would need to be able to communicate with Allah directly and get a definitive answer.
2. One would need to be able to find serious errors in Mohammed's prophecies (those that have a holy status, those written in Quran itself).

For any of those one would need to be a saint or guru, otherwise it remains mere speculation.
Were it not for the accumulated negative bias, perhaps KE would have chosen his words more carefully.


KE QUOTE: " their affirmation that "all religions are equally true" "

Even the words of a madman are (subjectively) true because they are a result of his state of madness. If we were somehow able to understand his madness, his words would make perfect sense.


KE QUOTE: "Enlightenment is not about "experiences", but about a zero state of consciousness beyond experiencing "

It could be argued that: Enlightenment is about having the highest form of experience, a wholesome state of consciousness beyond ordinary experiencing.


KE QUOTE: "Whereas Descartes said that "I think, therefore I am" "

Descartes only thought that he was, he did not know. He was not a seer. He did not go beyond the mind. At least not while he was composing that phrase.


KE QUOTE: " with "thinking" covering all states of consciousness, and with all these states standing on the side of consciousness in its dualistic opposition to matter"

Consciousness is not standing in opposition to matter, matter is a very limited state of consciousness.


KE QUOTE: "Hindus may well be called upon to define their spiritual practices anew. "

The proper way for any redefinition of spiritual practices is through (the teachings of) a trustworthy guru, not through mere scientific findings/laws/theories which are inadequate to define even parts of the materialistic domain itself, let alone anything spiritual.
However, since we live in the age of ignorance (Kali Yuga), it wouldn't be strange to see such attempts surface and even flourish, at least for a while until they inevitably fall apart again.



NK said...

The problem is that neurophilosophy hasn't settled the basic question and it still stuck in semantic debates. As many physicists will admit, our fundamental theories haven't truly defined what "matter" is. Scientific fields outside of physics still accept a de facto Newtonian worldview and assume that we have a good grasp of what "matter" is. It's certainly interesting (and, for the most part, unsurprising) that mental functions are correlated with certain areas of the brain, but, there is apparently a joker in the deck and David Hume and quantum mechanics are getting the last laugh (I.e. The notion of "mechanical and material causes" is metaphysical quagmire):

https://aeon.co/essays/materialism-alone-cannot-explain-the-riddle-of-consciousness

Ravi said...

Professor Elst

I have finished reading Mr. A.J. Kamra's book "Prolonged Partition".

I was hoping to find an authentic summary with sources of how many Hindus were killed in the 1950 East Pakistan riots. Can you kindly direct me to on such?



With thanks,

Ravi Rikhye

Bhuvan said...

In spiritual matters, it boils down to the level of consciousness from which an assessment is made. For example, when you see what kind of understanding Somerset Maugham and VS Naipaul had of Ramana Maharshi, it is very clear that they were attempting something they were unqualified for, like a class 5 student trying to explain differential calculus. It is likely that Arun Shourie's attempt will be similar. A well-endowed intellectual capacity is still only an attainment of the mind and a small fraction of the scale of consciousness. I would therefore give more credence to an assessment made by someone like Sri Aurobindo (who called Ramana Maharshi a spiritual superman).

Also, alterations in the consciousness (or the rise of Kundalini as the Tantras have it) could manifest as 'fits' or other 'ailments' but it would be erroneous to label all such experiences as mental ailments. It is documented how Vashishtha Ganapati Muni suffered terribly for days as his kundalini rose and Ramana Maharshi remarked how he went through a similar experience himself but unlike Ganapati Muni, he had to endure alone as he did not have a Guru to guide and assuage him.

Ravi said...

Look, folks, by the standards of "normal" society anyone seriously creative is 'mental'. America is the worst this way because great emphasis is put on conformity.

I take Bhuvan's point: one thing I learned very early on is do not try and obtain occult or spiritual knowledge without a skilled teacher to guide to you. You're heading for a train wreck.

Unknown said...

those who do not know what is correct nutrition cannot possibly know what is prem ras pyar ('love') - we Aryavartan Aryaputra (Bharitya) Dharmics instinctively, intuitionally and through lived life experience know what exactly is 'food' and 'love' - too bad no gov't in existence is aware of prem ras pyar... "dharma manifesto" is very interesting kitab. Personally I prefer Granth over mere book.

Unknown said...

above comment is not by 'unknown' - posted by Prabhnoor Rangi.

Unknown said...

The silent empty mind is an incredible experience. One sure way to shut mind is through certain folk music. It is so incredible to hear music of one's fellow caste-members and co-religionists. Pleasure (ram) begins when mind shuts down - loud music allows for music to seep into pores (word for pore in Panjabi is "rome") - when music seeps into pores (referring to pores of physical body composed of grains - anmayakosh) one enters into state of actually being awake during waking consciousness (what a long word is that bloody angreji word "consciousness"-
'sur(a)t' is word for consciousness we utilize in good ole' Panjab)
Scalar waves (discussed by Vadakayil are very real.) Dharmic Art - including dance, without which music is worthless, is life. It is good to comment based upon one's intuition, instinct and lived life experience as not everything can be found in books. Good teacher is important. (Satguru sahib ji is only good teacher.)
Parmatma, present in every creature, is ultimate Teacher. Reality is without political and economic freedom it is difficult to be genuinely Dharmic. A society that does not value institution of monogamous marriage is really not worth preserving. So we do whatever we can to experience 'higher' states of consciousness. There is something even beyond "Turiya" consciousness according to some Dharmic Mahapurakhs. Best music is anahad shabad: unstruck melody. Tough to focus on spirituality when jihadists are crawling around everywhere. In a world of ridiculous 'isms' ex. feminism/racism/chauvinism etc. just breathing becomes difficult. Then it is time to turn on loud music... Loyalty to mother, father, Preceptor and Homeland is essential. Daily sadhana is good but more important is being able to defend one's bodily integrity. Osho says Aryans from Mangolia - Chinmoy says Aryans indignenous to 'india' - for me I would like to know in first Satjug, did Aryans cover their head with religious garb - yes or no? Apologies for any typos or mistakes.

Unknown said...

above comment by me Prabhnoor Rangi - many thanks for this site, Dr. Elst.
100 000 happinesses and more to you and yours Dr. Elst.

Unknown said...

another comment (slightly off-topic) by me, Prabhnoor Rangi: trustworthy source
(Aryavartansthan Aryaputra) informs me AIT is fraud. Aryan indigenous to India, full-stop. Semitic Mlech day in sun is not eternal. Kalki will restore all that has been lost due to Kaljewg. Chaste vegetaryan ethic (caste) native to Beloved Bharat.