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What is Hinduism really?

Once in a while I get to trying to explain how a guy who read and understood Karl Popper and Thomas Kuhn as a teenager wound up as clergy in one of the world’s weirder cults, the Nath Sampradaya.

I’ll try and explain. Grounded in the scientific method, raised very slightly Christian-agnostic (remember I’m half-Indian, half-Scottish) what happened to me was that I got bushwhacked by Science(tm). I started to meditate for reasons still obscure to me, and after six years the narration or conversation with myself inside my head stopped. Permanently. This wordless state dramatically changes one’s experience of living and I discovered a cognitive framework which really helped: the belief system of my father, Hinduism.

What Hindus really believe is so different from the folk understanding of Hinduism in the west that it’s hard to be both a hardcore rationalist and a Hindu in public. This post is an attempt to remedy that.

The foundation of Hinduism is rationalist observation of the universe. Nothing is believed to exist without evidence gathered by repeatable observation. Where this parts ways with science is that all objects of experience – including thoughts and feelings as well as sights and sounds – are equally objects of observation.

This is the critical fork in the road: subjective and objective are classed as two kinds of experience, and maps are built of the entire system. Of course this means that you sacrifice objectivity for completeness, but hello Godel.

From this theoretical base come four truths based on long observation.

* consciousness itself has three properties, sat-chit-ananda (knowingness, beingness, bliss)
* the universe is only real to us as our experience of it – beyond our experience there is nothing we can say
* everything that is alive experiences itself as “people” or “person”
* everything seems to be one

Note that these are observed. Any substantial Hindu practitioner is expected to do enough investigation of the mind to verify this stuff for themselves. You have to go out there and get the data or you’re just propagating superstition.

On top of this philosophical cognitive framework come The Gods. There are an arbitrarily large number of these. From a western perspective we can lump the “gurus” in with the gods also. All of these beings have no special philosophical status – although they are called “gods” and credited with doing things like creating the universe, they are philosophically in the same category as your taxi driver. They experience themselves as People, they live a long time (if they exist at all), but they are not above us. They do not punish, they judge much as individuals would judge, and there is no hell. Gods-as-big-People is continuous with th Greek or Roman way of seeing things, but they are embedded in a context of radical philosophical equality between all beings as having the same underlying consciousness. If they exist, they may know more stuff and be on a different plane of existence, but they may or may not be in a better position than we are. The Free Market could fairly easily be divinized in a Hindu setting, for example. Nobody would blink an eyelid.

As Ganesh Baba once said “oh god, if there is a god, please help us, if you can help us.”

Reincarnation is the other big attribute of the tradition. In theory enough meditation lets one see time differently, including future and past lives. More meditation reveals that a single consciousness experiences the entire universe, not just your future and past lives, but the lives of everybody around you and everything that ever existed: the whole universe is experienced by consciousness, and all consciousness is without attribute other than sat-chit-ananda, leading to the equality of all consciousness. The awareness of reincarnation is training wheels for seeing the big picture, basically. It’s not seen as finally and literally true at any absolute level in any branch of the tradition that I am aware of.

So what we’re saying here is that consciousness is fungible: everything that has awareness has awareness of the same fundamental quality, and so it’s the same wine in a billion billion different bottles. The closest thing we have to “god” is the Wine Lake – the reserve of consciousness without form – but guess what? Sat-chit-ananda: it exists and feels good, but has no thoughts or opinions on your sex life. And you’re supposed to experimentally verify its existence for yourself before telling people it’s real.

Everything on top of this is folk culture. Caste, purity laws, local deities and superstitions, all of that is understood to be local “games” (lilas) built on top of the fundamental operating system of the universe. Beings “amuse themselves” by doing whatever they feel like with their lives, sometimes in complex interlocking arrangements. The status of these arrangements – the state of the pieces on a chess board, say – is karma. Karma can be completed by finishing the game and putting the pieces away, or by quitting the game and doing something else. It’s just game state, there’s no metaphysical reality to it.

Suffering originates from being an idiot. Avidya – not knowing or false knowledge – causes people to do the wrong thing and suffer unnecessarily as a result. For years I searched for a good metaphor for this which really captured its essential qualities, and I found one, the wasabi theory of suffering. You have a sushi platter. Muggins picks up the green lump of avocado paste and pops it in his mouth and chews to discover that it is wasabi. Ignorance has led to suffering. If there was a god that made the sushi, the wasabi is part of the meal, but you are not supposed to eat it that way. Most religious law in Hinduism is based on trying not to eat the wasabi whole.

Note there’s no paternal god who runs the whole show. There’s no maternal god who made it all. Metaphors like Brahman exist explaining how the universe arose from the non-universe before it, and suggest it’s cyclical, but that’s all understood to be mythology by the practitioners. No split exists between our Aristotle, Kant and Descartes and our saint-worshiping peasant villagers – it’s all called Sanatana Dharma (“eternal truth”) so they all share a brand and common symbols, but with substantially different activities, although there’s a surprising congruence of the folk and intellectual ends of the tradition. Even the peasants generally know that it’s all a big game built on top of the equivalence of the consciousnesses which exist in everything which has self-awareness.

The categories of science, religion and philosophy never came to exist within Hinduism. The unification of material and religious authority never privileged orthodoxy and unitary truth. As a result the tradition meanders, contradicts itself, mutates without restraint, has little or no concept of heresy or bad-truth, is polyvalent at every level and acknowledges no single author. Even the Vedas are the opinions of very clever people, and even if they were “Gods”, so what?

The solvent of the tradition is the equivalence of all consciousness. Enlightenment consists only of really knowing what makes you feel like you, and realizing that other people feel much the same way about themselves.

Finally, we get to miracle stories. They’re myths. Maybe there are Secret Lineage Gurus who can fly or teleport or live for 20,000 years. Maybe there aren’t. It’s quite possible that the entire Nath tradition is a game of let’s pretend based around the social agreement that the mythological heads of the tradition exist and I think we’d all be fine with that.

All we know for sure is what we have experienced. That’s the first thing that meditation teaches you. Everything that hasn’t happened lives in the same land of “maybe.” All the myths ground in “this guy said.”

And that’s the final piece. The ability to make good stories is the ability to make “lilas” – games in creation. Science fiction and fantasy carry that load in western culture – cyberspace jumps from William Gibson’s novels into our lives through the power of inspired technologists. This function is also incorporated into the framework of the religion as a creative activity. Santoshi Ma starts in a feature film and thirty years later has become a mainstream canonical goddess.

That’s why we say nothing is real unless you have experienced it yourself.

As far as I can tell, this is what Hindus really believe. This is the philosophical engine of the tradition at the bones-deep level, the deep esoterica at the same sort of level as the nuts-and-bolts of apostolic succession. I’m fairly sure that it barely meets the criteria of “religion”, it’s too broad for “philosophy” and it’s definitely too vague and tolerant for “science.”

But you’re stuck with it. There’s a billion of us, there’s no fundamental agreement on most of the things you’d expect there to be, and there’s nobody in charge. And don’t let anyone tell you different.