Deconstructing Arun Shourie’s “Two Saints”
Two Saints: Speculations Around and About Ramakrishna Paramahamsa and Ramana Maharishi by Arun Shourie has been published by Harper Collins and is available on Amazon.
Arun Shourie’s new book, “Two Saints” explores an interesting, but not unknown, area of spirituality wherein mystical experiences, their mechanism and effects are investigated in the light of modern neurology and psychology. There are two ways in which people normally deal with spirituality – either the egoistic unquestionable absorption of all that comes in the name of tradition, or the complete rejection of everything that pertains to spirituality under the guise of “rationality”. While there have been recent studies in the field of consciousness, there have also been many attempts to explain various altered states that we find evidences of, in the lives of mystics, as a byproduct of certain neurological conditions or offering psychological reductionism to these things.
Shourie is careful to mention his deep respect and reverence for the persona of Sri Ramakrshna and Ramana Maharishi, he even adds – an afterthought (?) – a section on how non-commercial these saints were compared to the huge business empires that Gurus and Babas of this age have amassed. But that is not this book is about. It is to, quite simply, exploring how far modern scientific knowledge can explain so called mystical states, which, of course leads to defanging the halloo that organically permeates all things associated with saints and spirituality. There is nothing wrong in such an approach, after all, nothing can ever shut down knowledge. It is a new angle of investigation that has awakened the curiosity of one man, it certainly will in time affect others and eventually become commonplace.
Moreover, whatever spiritual experiences a saint may have had, it is finally through the mechanism of the human mind-body that they were experienced, so it is fair to assume that by turning the microscope onto the processes and biology of the organism, we can decode spirituality and mysticism. Shourie mentions the spontaneous alarm that escaped a senior monk of the Ramakrishna Order who called this endeavor to be “profaning the Divine”. Whether this field of study leads to profaning of the divine or opening new avenues of thought cannot be presumed at the moment, moreover a lot depends on the intention behind a study rather than the field in itself.
At the onset it has to be mentioned that this book is extremely well researched, it gathers from a wide range of material dealing with the subject and also quotes extensively from the official biographies of the two saints. His logic is sharp, he builds a good case, but one that somehow falls short of convincing the reader that all kinds of mystical-spiritual experience, and particularly those that happened to Ramakrishna and Ramana fits into similar occurrences that have happened to people in other diverse and less spiritual circumstances. For example, let us consider the case where Ramakrishna says he had not slept for 12 years during his sadhana. And the conversation where Ramakrshna asks his disciples to remind him to breathe as he at times forgets to do so. Justifiably a case of sleep apnea then? But wait. Unlike a normal apnea patient Ramakrishna never remained groggy and dull throughout the day, he was, to quote Shourie “his sprightly self at all times.” The problem is not that Shourie does not mention this, he does, at the end of explaining how apnea works, when the reader has been carefully lead into a barrage of erudite and educative explanation and arguments about apnea, and then leaves this crucial sentence as it is without exploring further. A more honest and objective investigation into this phenomenon would have entailed asking a better question, how does someone with sleep apnea not remain tired all day long?
Consider also Shourie’s explanation of the visions that Ramakrshna used to have as examples of hallucinations, or the ability of the brain to conjure unreal things, sometimes guiding/comforting presences, with extensive references from medical writings and records of explorers who have felt such presences around them while climbing in severe life-threatening climates. While that may sound broadly similar yet it fails to explain a crucial bit of details that we find in the case of saints, particularly Ramakrishna. That his visions would also often be prophetic in nature, or his ability to see things physically located at a far off distance. Do normal hallucinations, either in extreme conditions like those of explorers, or in case of people suffering from debilitating medical conditions, also involve the ability to see the future? Or see things at a distance? If not, how are these two the same?
Of course, for his defense, Shourie may easily claim that he mentions these abilities as recorded by Ramakrishna’s disciples, but the problem remains that he leaves them without sufficient exploration while the arrangement of the material of each section of the book being such that they appear more like an addendum or afterthought, of less weight-age, so that the details regarding the plethora of scientific investigation of broadly similar cases would most likely overwhelm a casual undiscerning reader into ignoring or missing the true import of such factoids for the domain of study in which the book purportedly delves into.
One of the things that is vital to natural sciences, more specifically physical sciences, is that a theory or law is as good as its first violation, where the scientific community tries best to explain why a certain evidences appear to contradict the law, and then if needed, modify the law or come up with a more accurate explanation. This rigor lies at the heart of the march of the physical sciences. So by that logic, what does it tell us about Shourie’s use of broadly similar medical conditions of apnea and hallucinations to match the visions and sadhanas of the 19th century saints, while leaving the proverbial sore thumb of contrary evidence neither explained (maybe there is no explanation yet?) nor explored, not even its implication clarified that this then is most likely a different thing altogether?
The truth lies in the details, as does the devil. From a bird’s eye-view everything may look similar, but it is only when you enter each house and each room that you find they are all different. Studies of psychiatry or psychology and neurology can be charitably described as novices, they have found some evidences, forwarded certain theory, but by no means is there a wide consensus that the debate or analysis is settled and over. Reminds me of the time when Freud was the hotcake and everything from toothbrushes to saints could be scanned in the Freudian methods, and then came out other theories, but then those who had trained themselves in Freudian techniques still kept applying them – in short, psychology or psychiatry is not physics, and what Sri Aurobindo had poignantly and presciently remarked still holds true today:
“I find it difficult to take these psycho-analysis at all seriously when they try to scrutinize spiritual experience by the flicker of their torch-lights, – yet perhaps one ought to for half-knowledge is a powerful thing and can be a great obstacle for coming in front of the Truth. This new psychology looks to me very much like children learning some summary and not quite adequate alphabet… imagining that their first book of obscure beginnings is the very heart of knowledge. They look from down up and explain the higher lights by the lower obscurities; but the foundation of these things is above not below… the significance of the lotus is not to be found by analysing the secrets of the mud from which it grows..”
But lest this view be discarded without examination as a spiritualists opinion, let us remember that in the version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorder (DSM) published by the American Psychiatric Association, updated in 1994, the category of hysteria was dropped, which served as the bedrock of Freud’s view of possession and altered states and suggested a new category for further research called “dissociative trance disorder.” Some of its features are described below:
1. Possession trance, a single or episodic alternation in the state of consciousness characterized by the replacement of customary sense of personal identity by a new identity. This is attributed to the influence of a spirit, power, deity, or other person, as evidenced by one (or more) of the following:
(a) stereotyped and culturally determined behaviors or movements that are experienced as being controlled by the possessing agent
(b) full or partial amnesia of the event
2. The trance of possession trance state is not accepted as a normal part of collective cultural or religious experience
3. The trance or possession trance state does not occur exclusively during the course of a Psychotic Disorder or Dissociative Identity Disorder and is not due to the direct physiological effects of a substance or a general medical condition.
While it does not attribute a religious or spiritual significance of such cases, it does however categorically acknowledge that there is a section of possession like states which cannot be reduced to hysteria or explained away as being a normal part of collective cultural or religious experience. This is where Shourie’s brave attempt falters, for it comes across as the writer was in a haste where he had already decided which side of the divide he stands in, and then fished for evidence that fit his curve, while ignore or downplaying those which did not. All polemicists do that, sincere and objective explorers of a new field do not. (My two-part exposition on the issue of possession can be read here: Part 1 & Part 2)
Shourie reminds us that Swami Vivekananda in a letter to Alasinga Perumal warned against miracle mongering. True he did that at various times. But then the same Vivekananda was showering profuse praise on Mahendranath Gupta’s hagiographic account of Ramakrishna’s life just a few years later, which incidentally does not discard any of the so-called miracles in an attempt to sanitize the narrative associated with Ramakrishna and truthfully recorded things as they were, as an honest hagiographer should ideally do. And therein lies our second problem with the book. The author seems to have assumed, as a sine qua non that all things supernatural have no existence of their own and are but a figment of collective hallucination or hyperbolic attributions to some saintly characters. But if that were so what would be the explanation for Ramakrishna’s abilities to see the future in his visions, as attested on different occasions in his biographies? Or somehow be able to present himself at a geographically far off area without any physical movement and then present an accurate account of events occurring at the other location? Is any of this normal? Do ordinary human experience explain these, or in the case of a mental diseases do people acquire such abilities?
In the history of spiritual literature such supernatural feats abound everywhere. While saints may have warned people against getting attached to them, not all say such are to be shunned, or more importantly that these are impossible. Even the ancient Patanjali mentions such superhuman abilities in his record of Yoga. Any true investigation into the psychological and neurological correspondence between the human brain and mysticism must necessarily take into account such supernatural feats and without being loose, with the precision of a physical scientist, and most importantly leaving aside all personal prejudice, attempt to investigate such phenomenon.
Shourie is not the only one who seems dismissive of such miracles. A large section of mentally developed men find it hard to appreciate or accept that there could well be things beyond ones worldview comprehension or those that do not fit in a format of western rationalism. Which brings us to the next fundamental problem with this approach of judging spirituality. It takes by default the idea that only a western psychological format is apt for describing the world and human nature. The nature of models is that they are meant to describe accurately observations and facts as noted. Is the western psychological model robust, or even complete to be able to explain everything, and specially spirituality? The author is right in warning that just because something is written in Sanskrit that does not make it more true, nor do terms like “consciousness”. But he fails to warn us that psychology et al are infantile studies still, continuously evolving and far from settled, neither is there a consensus among all who are in this field on many of the topics. Moreover, why is the western explanatory model inherently presented as more acceptable while the Indian Yogic model is skipped in this discussion? Why is Freud’s hysteria still quoted widely, while Jung’s Kundalini must be bypassed? Why is a field of study so rife with speculative jumps and gaps presented with air and authority of a physical science? Shourie fails to enlighten us on these matters. Maybe because he started this book with a bias, which reflects through his curated presentation of evidence. He is not recording an honest exploration of reality, but presenting a case of why he thinks mysticism is bunkum.
Shourie wonders why Ramakrishna or Ramana got visitation or visions of those deities and figures revered in their world view. The Yogic explanation is quite simple. If you dial your A’s phone and assuming there is no cross-connection, would the line land up in B’s telephone? Same was the case here. If Ramakrishna calls on Shiva, it is quite natural that he has a vision of Shiva, same way when he practiced Sufi disciple, he had an Islamic visitation. Add to it the inexplicable supernatural stuff that were observed by others around them, and it is no more a simple fit into psychological reductionism. But leaving aside these two saints there are also recorded evidences of people having experiences of figures not revered by them in their culture and society. Sri Aurobindo, himself a thorough Westerner, states that his first spiritual experience occurred at the moment that he step foot in India. How does this theory of suggestibility explain that? There are also more drastic cases where suggestibility would be an insufficient explanation of such phenomenon. But Shourie does not investigate deeper, he confines his book only to Ramakrishna and Ramana.
Finally and most importantly, no psychologist or neuroscientist can, say, solve the chicken and egg problem that connects neuroscience and subjective experience. As this article in Psychology Today by Dr. Steve Taylor, a senior lecturer in psychology at Leeds Metropolitan University, (https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/out-the-darkness/201309/can-neuroscience-explain-human-experience) says:
“ Neuroscience is the latest explanatory fad. It’s no longer genes which are responsible for everything, but “neuronal circuits…[but] correlation does not mean cause. Just because certain parts of the brain are more active when I read a poem or stare at a beautiful sunset, it doesn’t mean that the brain activity is responsible for the sense of beauty or wonder I experience. You could just as easily say that the feeling of wonder comes first, and ‘causes’ changes in brain activity.”
Forget mysticism for the moment. We are not yet at the stage where we can explain why, say, certain neurotransmitter activity fires up when we are flushed with a feeling of love for “a” particular individual, and not others? Why this subjectivity at all? We are still far, far away from resolving such fundamental questions about human life, what to speak of assuming that we have all conclusively decoded spirituality and other peripheral experiences to our collective satisfaction.
In the section on the Ramana’s descriptions of the Self and its analysis from a modern neurological or philosophical perspective, there is much that the reader can learn and contemplate on. This is probably the best part of the book. But probably an investigation into whether anything survives post death, a gathering of facts and data, specially areas which seem to contradict our natural sense of causation, maybe a closer look at the phenomenon of remembering past lives when some such cases have been recorded, would have been more in order. Also, if the Self without attributes? What then is Satchitananda – if not a triple qualifier? A question that Shourie – and many others – miss when discussing “peak experiences”, is whether the peak is in the heart, as Ramana used to say, or in the upperpart of the Skull in what is called the Sahasrar as Tantric and Yogic manuals seem to attest. And why this difference? But this book does not go that deep, and at times seems to build a case on semantic contradictions that naturally appear larger than its true nature for a mind without plasticity.
Given the reputation of Arun Shourie and his recent political statements since 2014, anything that comes out from his pen is bound to cause extreme reactions, as this book already seems to have generated. A group takes this to mean that Shourie has “demolished” Hindu mysticism, another group reads a deliberate lashing out towards Hinduism given that the government in power, at least on paper, has Hindu leanings. Then there is third group, which is so devoted to Shourie the intellectual that they deliver pious sermons that anything that comes from him must be taken seriously. Maybe there is a bit of truth in all these assertions, but none that captures the whole story.
Whatever be his motivation behind this book, it should not be read as an indictment of the Hindu saints, nor as a one-stop answer to neurological explanations of all things spiritual. In fact, closely read, there are many speculations and gaps in the narrative, which would not leave a conscientious reader convinced that the domain of Hindu mysticism has been explained away already by science. There are broad similarities, but also staggering god-shaped holes in the story and we are nowhere closer to a resolution. His research is terrific, analysis is brilliant, but even the sharpest mind is not necessarily free from prejudice and bias. It is possible that this book is an extension of his last book in some sense (I have not read that book). For some people suffering makes them detached and uplifts their mind; for others, it can turn a believer into an agnost or an atheist.
This is a fine topic of deliberation, but certainly it would need more evidence gathering of spiritual phenomenon, and then a free, objective exploration of the similarities and dissimilarities between what science explains currently and what we have evidenced in these matters. He concludes the book saying the “peripherals” have been set aside, we can now focus on the peak experience. But have the peripherals really been set aside and explained away? The reader is not left with such a feeling after putting down this otherwise well researched book.