“World Perspectives on Philosophy and Religion”
By Deepak Shimkhada, Ph.D.: We live in an interesting time. It is intersected by science and religion. Scientific revolution within the last 50 years has dramatically changed our actions and behaviors. I had never thought of getting hit by a car driven by a young man while he was texting. This was unthinkable five years ago.
I have seen a car with a fully equipped office—computer, telephone, fax machine, scanner, and printer. Camera, television, DVD player and GPS are optional. With the help of blue-tooth the driver can get to his secretary and his wife both at the same time. Although a mobile office that travels with you is a modern phenomenon, it is definitely not a modern concept. Back in the Medieval Period—whether in Europe or Asia—kings and emperors carried the administration of their kingdom while they traveled. So we cannot take full credit for our achievements. It seems that ancient people enjoyed more luxuries than we do today.
Dr. Deepak Shimkhada was invited to deliver a keynote speech at the annual conference of the Society for Philosophy and Religion at Claremont on Saturday, April 5. Here’s the text of his presentation. (Editor)
However, we can take credit for the speed and panache in which we do things. Instant messaging and instant photo, video and document loading are things of our time. If you were living during the medieval period and you told them that you could do all of those things, you would be burned to the stake as an agent of devil. In the eyes of a medieval man we all would be considered the agents of Devil.
According to major world religions, the world is coming to an end. Judeo- Christian religions and Hinduism speak of the great floods that will wipe out world civilization, throwing it back to the beginning of time if anyone survives. All you have to do is watch the new box office Hollywood movie called Noah: how the patriarch played by Russell Crowe musters two of every species on a flimsy boat and saves all the living creatures from destruction. Surprisingly however, some of the same people who believe in the Bible do not believe in climate change. Then from where do you think the flood of a massive scale is going to come? From sky?
Death and decay are necessary parts of life. That’s the only way to make room for new life. It is as scientific as it can be. There is no denying to it. Any religious person who believes in death also believes in science by default. There is no conflict of interest here. So then why are religious people opposed to science? It can be as complimentary as reading a sermon through a microphone. If we do not find any conflict of interest there, why should we find a problem with global warming or evolution?
If Jesus and Buddha were alive today, they would use the information super highway to stay in touch. Jesus would say, “There is too much going on on Planet Xanex. I have to go there to pacify the mutants.” “Instead of counseling them that you plan to do, I will teach them how to control their desires. They have been having too much fun already,” Buddha would be heard saying. Nonetheless, Jesus and Buddha would be good friends and they would be constantly communicating with each other via their smart phones.
We all have to move with the times. If Jesus and Buddha do not mind using modern technology to do good for the humanity why should some people find it evil? Those religions that use technology have prospered financially and have won in a popularity contest. Broadcasting images of Jesus and Buddha on large TV screens does help advertising the faith to an extent. And so does broadcasting the Quran through loudspeakers from the heights of minarets 12 hours a day. It aims to bring the public to the submission of Allah. We do not find incongruity in these techniques, but we bring in religion when we speak of evolution. Are we not hypocrites?
We have no shortage of self-help gurus in America. From medicine to mind there is a wide variety to choose from. What Dr. Oz, Dr. Phil and Dr. Deepak Chopra provide you solutions for your health and happiness, Thich Nhat Hanh, the Dalai Lama and Eckhart Tolle will provide you solace for your soul. They are the spiritual gurus of modern time who pack auditoriums with eager audience who come to buy instant happiness at a high price. The happiness they are selling comes in books and DVDs. It’s too bad they don’t come in pills. These people would be billionaires if only they could come up with mindfulness, dhyana and samadhi in a pill form. As the scientists are tinkering with our brains, the time is not far before they can stumble on such a magic pill. The 4D movie theaters soon will be introduced to America where audiences will experience all the aspects of weather conditions portrayed in the movie and feeling the sensations of earthquakes. This is intended to take the audience to a new height of movie watching. Brace yourself for an emotional rollercoaster ride in a theater near you.
Today such buzz words as “interbeing” and “mindfulness” are being used everywhere—in the school classrooms and in the prison cells. We see a yoga studio on every block of a major U.S. city next to a Starbucks. I see much irony in it. These young urbanites who are intent on keeping their hips and buttocks firm through the practice of yoga are also the ones who frequent Starbucks. After a cup of latte their minds becomes jittery and they hit the yoga studio to calm their mind. So they are caught in a vicious cycle. In the end, the coffee and yoga empires win, making them bankrupt of their money as well as their mind.
Yoga, a philosophy of liberation from the phenomenal world, has been co-opted by the West as a science for keeping one’s body young. No wonder a movement has begun in India recently that has attempted to reclaim yoga. Some Indians feel that the West has hijacked the yoga and has taken it to a land where it has been held hostage. Bikram Choudhury, an Indian yoga guru in Beverly Hills, for instance, has sought to franchise his brand of yoga under his name. In doing so, he has built a multi-million dollar yoga empire. Is this right? This is for the business people, politicians, ethicists, religious experts and anyone paying a high fee to learn yoga to sort out.
To me it seems that we have turned religious belief, religious practice, religious event or religious object into a commodity. Like any commodity it can be acquired with money. We have reduced them to mere objects that can be transacted, collected and sold. I have seen statues of Buddha or Hindu gods and goddesses in pricy department and discount stores on sale. They were once worshiped and venerated in temples; today they are sold as trinkets in stores. Is this bad? Not necessarily.
It is a matter of perspectives. Times have changed. Instead of going to a temple to look at these deities, today you can bring them to your living room for a small price. In the same manner, you can perform online puja or online darsan. What’s wrong with that? If the technology is available, why not take advantage of it to stream the video of the event that is going on at a distant location when you can’t physically be there. These inventions were not available some twenty years ago. They are now being used to serve religion. Here I see a happy marriage between technology and religion.
All we have to do is keep our eyes open. Those who close their eyes are closing themselves to the world. They simply do not appreciate the beauty the world has to offer. I am reminded of a story:
A small boy, taking advantage of a large political convention held in his hometown, took a corner space to sell four young puppies. A man approached the boy and asked jokingly, “Are these political pups, sonny?”
“Well then, I will take these two.”
A week later at the same place there was a religious gathering and the same boy showed up to sell the remaining two puppy dogs. A man walked up to him and asked, “My little lad, what kind of puppies you have there?”
“These are religious pups, sir.”
The first man who purchased the other two pups happened to overhear this.
“Say,” he said, “didn’t you tell me that those pups that I bought from you last week were political pups?”
“Yes, sir. But these puppies ain’t”
“Because these have got their eyes open, sir.”
So you see, they are the same puppies, yet they are so different. To be religious we must open our eyes. That means we must be aware of our surroundings, of our neighbors, of other cultures, of other religions, of other foods, of other music and dance. Taking interest in another culture with an open mind can break the barriers that prevent us from understanding another human being.
Whether we believe in science or religion, we have to understand that we all came from the same parents. We all are cousins, albeit removed by many degrees. Yes, our habits, likes and dislikes, and even our looks are different, but we are made of the same cells and molecules that bind us together with every living being in the universe. Although we may be a speck of dust in the cosmic scale, we are part of the cosmic symphony.
In the Web of Life published in 1996, astro-physicist Fritjof Capra predicted that “we are faced with a series of global problems that are harming the biosphere and human life in alarming ways that may soon become irreversible.” Although he predicted this about two decades ago, it resonates with truth because today we are heading rapidly in that direction. Before our eyes the effects of global warming brought on by humans are clearly evident as the ice in the Artic has begun to melt in an alarming way.
We don’t realize how all living beings, including organisms, are related to each other in an infinite web of relationships. We humans are not alone on this planet. We share this earth and its resources with every other living being. And we have to be more accepting and generous and appreciate what we have. This is the message every religion teaches. Unfortunately, we don’t practice what we preach.
The world we live in is not without problems. But there is a solution to every problem. First, we must recognize the problem and understand it. In my study of Buddhism I have been introduced to the principle of Pratītyasamutpāda. In English it is translated as dependent origination or interdependent co-arising. In other words, everything in the world depends on something else, for everything arises in dependence on multiple causes and conditions; nothing exists as a singular, independent entity. An often cited example to explain this principle is three sticks standing upright and leaning against each other and supporting each other. If one stick is removed, the other two will fall to the ground. So each one is dependent on the other. Similarly all living creatures including humans, animals and organisms live in a web of interdependence. This interdependence is crucial for their survival.
This interdependence binds us all in a web. Unfortunately some of us fail to see this intricate web and we destroy what we don’t need and take away more than we need depleting the earth with its resources required for others to survive. Over exploitation, over consumption and over destruction of natural resources have led to the destruction of some species. Frtijof Capra again in the Web of Life quotes Lester Brown of the Worldwatch Institute: “A sustainable society is one that satisfies its needs without diminishing the prospects of future generations.”
Many changes we have made today in the name of progress and development are not necessarily good for future generations. The children of our great grandchildren will blame us for our actions and our inventions. Our inventions solve one problem but create another. They may satisfy one desire but create another. So it goes on creating more problems and more desires infinitely. Because everything is interrelated, we cannot get out of the web. We are caught in the vicious cycle called the wheel of life in Tibetan Buddhism.
Recently there has been a paradigm shift in understanding the world. We now hold a holistic view of the world. But we need not stop there. We should look at the world through an ecological lens. In ecology every living organism plays a role. The vital role of ecology seems to have been understood well by the Hindus as reflected in Vedic texts, including in the Rig Veda.
Verses in them clearly show a symbiotic relationship between man and nature. And this is further supported by many of the rituals performed even today by a Hindu priest. Clearly there are such verses that promote ecology in sacred texts of Hinduism. But what is in the texts is not always followed or understood. Wisdom is contained in the texts of many world religions. The trouble is we either take them literally or don’t understand their import.
Daniel Odier in Desire: The Tantric Path to Awakening encourages us “through a refined yet playful discipline, not to cut off anything that makes us human, so that we may find a profound way to live our desires and passions by taking them to their ultimate point of incandescence.”
Nothing in the world is absolute—everything is conditional, relative and interdependent. This is the Buddhist theory of relativity. For example, when this is, that is. When this is arising, that arises. When this is not, that is not. When this is ceasing, that ceases. Clearly then this is a principle of interdependence, pratityasamutpada, because there is nothing that exists independently no matter how we would like to think that we are independent. Our actions, thoughts and speeches are governed by many factors—each one related to other in an infinite way. In such a web of life what is our function then?
Because each of us is related, we all are cousins and hence we ought to consider all living beings as our family. I am reminded of a Hindu phrase, Vasudaiva kutumbakam. Its loose translation is the whole world is one single family. Each of us has his or her own worldview, and it is different from person to person. Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam means respecting this difference. Contrary to single worldview, Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam says animals, birds, plants, trees and other organisms in the ecosystem have atma (soul), and they are part of our family. The statement is not just about peace and harmony among the societies in the world, but it is also about the truth that somehow the whole world has to live together like a family.
This may certainly sound like a Garden of Eden where everyone lived in harmony. This may not be practical in real life, but it is an idea of living in harmony with minimizing violence. Even the Jains, who believe in utter non-violence, accept that there is violence in the world. Every creature must eat smaller creatures to survive. But the animals eat only what they need and eat only when they are hungry. Animals do not necessarily kill for pleasure. But we humans are the only social animals who eat more than we need and kill for pleasure. If we were to create an environment of trust, cooperation and happiness, we must go back to the wisdom of ancient texts of the world—whether it be the Bible or the Bhagavad Gita. If we only open our eyes—like the religious pups with their eyes open—we will be able to see the deeper meaning contained therein—not take everything literally.