Mysticism and Spirituality in World Religions with special reference to Hinduism
(1) Spirituality, as contradistinguished from spiritualism, is the science of non-matter. We would rather put it this way, than say that it is the science of the Spirit, for such a description would involve defining the ‘Spirit’ itself in the first place. Matter is something that we claim to understand, albeit science in its higher reaches honestly confesses to not having fully understood what is matter either, and anything that is of the nature of not being matter is non-matter. Feelings, emotions, values, mental states, psychic phenomena, all these would come under the category of matter. Simplistically, matter could be defined as something measurable and perceivable by the senses and therefore anything that is not measurable and not amenable to sense-perception could be classified as non-matter.
(2) The quest for Reality is the motivation for both the sciences—the science of matter and the science of non-matter. And the roads to Reality in these two cases appear to be the opposite of each other—the first one leading outward to the objects ‘out there’ while the second one leading inward to the Subject ‘in here’. Vedanta, the special branch of Hinduism dealing with the science of the Inner Subject, called Atman or the Self (Spirit), would classify not only the objects out there to be part of the objective world, but the ‘objects’ in here, in the mind, in the intellect, in the psyche, namely, thoughts, feelings, emotions, etc as also belonging to the ‘objective’ world—the only difference being that the objects out there are gross objects, while the objects in here are subtle objects. Nonetheless they are objects, to be sure, the only Subject being the Atman or the Spirit.
(3) Spirituality (called Atma-vidya) is the science of the Inner Self (Atman) or Spirit, while its technology counterpart is called Yoga. Atman, the inner Self is identical with or part of the Universal Consciousness (called Brahman) or the Supreme Self (called Paramatman) which interpenetrates and pervades the whole universe of animate and inanimate beings. Any religious scripture (shaastra) of Hinduism has to be both vidya (science) of Atman/Brahman (hence called Brahma-vidya) as well as yoga (technology) for the realization of this Spirit (hence called Yoga-shaastra).
(4) Here is a wonderful quote from one great monk of the Ramakrishna Order coming in the Ramakrishna-Vivekananda spiritual tradition on what exactly the experience of spirituality is like:
“This spirituality is not a temporary feeling which the poet and the artist sometimes have, or the lover and the philanthropist sometimes enjoy, or in a calm moment in the midst of tremendous activities the activist finds himself face to face with. It is an abiding settlement, a permanent possession, a filling to overflow when the personality’s emptying is complete. To the theist it comes after an existentialist’s moment, after a crisis, when life almost ceases to be. To the rationalist it is a serene revelation at the end of a ultimate analysis, the penultimate stage being equally critical, when things and beings, all objects, appear as reflections in the mirror of the Lady of Shalott, cracking from side to side and falling and breaking to pieces, when a soundless void engulfs the experience, who, later, rises transfigured as the Universal. Whether a theist or a rationalist, the shifting of the centre of gravity from the individual to the Universal is not an easy affair or a joyous process all through; it is a hard uphill task, a perilous adventure, requiring the highest courage and aspiration, the most unflagging and unyielding zeal and determination, the most skilful workmanship. Its process is awfully slow, it cannot be mass-produced. One has to work through for years, apparently with no results or with results quite unequal to the energy spent or risks staked. But the end, when reached, justifies the means; all the troubles and anxieties so far undergone are justified in the abiding joy that follows, in the awaking to our real Self, the Force Universal, which never suffered.”
(5) Spirituality, thus, is the core of religion—this intuiting of the Ultimate Reality in whatever form or description. Rituals, mythology, philosophy and practices which form the various other parts of religion can never be universal, being unique to each of the religious traditions. The quest for a common basis of all religions that is at the centre of interfaith dialogue or interreligious exercise has to lead per se to spirituality as the common basis. The language in which this spirituality is described and the form in which it is couched may differ from religion to religion. These descriptions are like different languages to describe the same idea or object. But once the sameness of the essential content of spirituality is recognized and felt, the convergence of all religions towards the one common goal of spirituality, as radii converging at the centre of a circle or the spokes of a wheel converging at the hub of the wheel becomes a fact of realization in the interreligious quest.
(1) Mysticism is the intense experience of spirituality by the prophets and saints, seers and sages, aspirants and practitioners, of various religious traditions. Mysticism again needs to be contradistinguished from mystery-mongering, esotericism, secret experiences, hush-hush practices and hidden allegories. As noted in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, the term ‘mysticism’ comes from the Greek root meaning “to conceal” and in early Christianity the term came to refer to “hidden” allegorical interpretations of the Scriptures and to hidden presences such as that of Jesus at the Eucharist. Later on, the term ‘mysticism’ began to mean “mystical theology” that included direct experience of the divine. Typically, mystics, theistic or not, see their mystical experience as part of a larger understanding aimed at human transformation, (as for example, Teresa of Avila) and not as the terminus of their efforts. Stanford Encyclopedia states: “Thus, in general, ‘mysticism’ would best be thought of as a constellation of distinctive practices, discourses, texts, institutions, traditions, and experiences aimed at human transformation, various defined in different traditions.”
(2) In Hinduism, intimacy with God and having one’s being in God as a palpable and living Presence is the very essence of religion. Doctrines and dogmas, rituals and mythology, philosophy and theology, are only the periphery of religion and they only knock at the door of the sanctum sanctorum of God’s divine Abode. As Dr S. Radhakrishnan, the famous philosopher-statesman of India, wrote: “Religion is not doctrinal conformity nor ceremonial piety. It is participation in the mystery of Being, it is wisdom or insight into Reality.” Swami Vivekananda wrote: “Each soul is potential divine. The goal is to manifest this divinity within by controlling nature, external and internal. … and be free. This is whole of religion. Doctrines or dogmas or rituals or temples or forms are but secondary detail.” Mystical tradition in Hinduism has been one of the richest. In fact, religion has been defined, as did Swami Vivekananda, one of the latest of the Prophets in the Hindu tradition, as follows: “Religion is Realization. Religion is being and becoming. Religion is the manifestation of the divinity already in man”. Religion with all its philosophy, rituals, mythology and practices has not meaning or content unless it leads to direct, immediate (in Sanskrit, saakshat, aparokshaat) perception of the Supreme Truth or Reality. Theists would call this God-realization, ‘seeing God’ (as Christ himself called it), vision of the Godhead and so on. Those with more impersonal bent of mind would call it realization of the Supreme Self, Atma-jnana, Brahma-jnana (as in Vedanta in Hinduism), Kaivalya-praapti (attainment of Absolute Aloneness—as in Yoga tradition in Hinduism), Uninterrupted enjoyment of the pure bliss of the God’s Love and Sweetness (premaanubhava, rasaanubhava, para-bhakti, as in the Bhakti or devotional traditions of Hinduism), realization of oneself as immanent in all beings, universal and all-pervading, sarvabhutaatma, sarvabhuta-vyaaptaatma, as experienced by the selfless workers devoted to self-abnegating service of all beings, in the Karmayoga tradition with one-pointed devotion to the Supreme Lord), Nirvana, Sunyata-experience (as in Buddhism).
(3) In the mystical tradition of Hinduism, devoted to both the personal and impersonal aspects of the Supreme Reality, there is such an amazing variety, rich and complex, with a plethora of examples of saints and sages, prophets and practitioners, Jnanis and Bhaktas, a la Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, St. Francis of Assissi of the Christian mystical tradition. The latest in the series in Hindu mystical tradition is Sri Ramakrishna whose reached the zenith of mystical experiences not only through the innumerable varieties of the Hindu paths, but also explored the mystical traditions of other religions like Christianity and Islam, practising them not as a mere sympathizer of even an empathizer, but as an insider of those traditions—what is now known in the religious studies as ‘phenomenological study of religions’. When he was exploring the Christian tradition, he became a Christian—lived like a Christian, ate like a Christian, dressed like a Christian, worshipped like a Christian, got his entire being, thoughts and emotions, feelings and sentiments, practices and beliefs, transformed into those of a Christian—and at the end of his superhuman practices, realized the ultimate Truth of Christianity, had a tangible vision of Jesus the Christ who got merged into his own personality. He practised Islam is much the same way. Sri Ramakrishna’s life is, in the modern age, a living demonstration of the truth of the sameness and commonness of the core of all the religious traditions, which, though differing in the methods and practices, theologies and philosophies, mythologies and rituals, are fundamentally not different as far the content of spirituality and mystical realization are concerned. The same God is reached through different paths and the realization of the same spiritual content and mystical insights are described in different languages and different forms in the various religions. Sri Ramakrishna therefore spoke of his realization in one pithy sentence as yato math, tato path, that is, ‘as many faiths, so many paths’—like radii converging towards the centre of a circle or the spokes of a wheel converging towards the hub or the axle of the wheel.
(4) In the Hindu mystical tradition, it is asserted, emphatically and powerfully, that experiences beyond those available from mere sensory inputs and constructed therefrom by the mind and intellect, are a definite reality—such supersensory experiences and perceptions are attainable by a human being in this very body, but by means beyond the senses. In this sense, these experiences are transcendent as they transcend the sense perceptions. The Sanskrit word for senses is indriya and therefore experiences which are born of the sense data and sense inputs are called indriyaja pratyaksha—direct perception born of sense inputs. The Hindu mystic claims that there is another type of ‘direct perception’ that is not born of sense inputs. This he calls the perception born of the subtle intuition through the mystical process called yoga—in Sanskrit yogaja pratyaksha. The first class of perceptions through the senses, classified, analyzed and explored, is called ‘science’ (more precisely, ‘science of matter’), whereas the second class of perceptions through the mystical power of yoga, similarly classified, analyzed and explored, is called ‘spirituality’ (or more precisely, ‘science of the spirit’). Both have their definitive laws governing them. In fact, the Hindu mystic says that there is nothing mystical or mysterious about the truths discovered through the transcendent power of yoga in the spiritual realm, it is not supernatural, although supersensory. These truths are as natural as the truths of the scientific realm of matter and it is our ignorance of the laws pertaining to the spiritual realm that makes us feel that they are supernatural. Just like a person ignorant of the scientific laws of matter would give some mysterious explanation of the lunar and solar eclipses or the ebb-tide and flood-tide as being the works of some supernatural beings, one ignorant of the laws of spirituality, the science of the spirit, would give some queer, weird and supernatural explanation for the so-called mystical experiences. Mysticism is thus quite natural, rational and simple as much as emotions like love, joy, sense of beauty and wonder; but the rationality and logic of the present mind trained to transact and analyze the sensory inputs only are not adequate to understand the mystical states of experience. An altogether different training of the mind, purification and refinement of the intellect are sine qua non for such an understanding. Thus, these mystic experiences do not contradict reason, but they do transcend the reason as we ordinarily understand it.
(5) The Stanford Encylopedia of Philosophy gives the following definition of a mystical experience:
“A (purportedly) super sense-perceptual or sub sense-perceptual experience granting acquaintance of realities or states of affairs that are of a kind not accessible by way of sense perception, somatosensory modalities, or standard introspection.” This, the Encyclopedia states is the wider sense of ‘mystical experience’, and a narrow sense of ‘mystical experience’ will have the qualifying adjective ‘unitive’ before the word ‘experience’. By this definition, the Encylopedia asserts that: “Para-sensual experiences such as religious visions and auditions fail to make an experience mystical. The definition also excludes anomalous experiences such as out of body experiences, telepathy, precognition and clairvoyance.” Speaking about the ‘unitive’ experience, the Encyclopedia adds: “A unitive experience involves a phenomenological de-emphasis, blurring, or eradication of multiplicity, where the cognitive significance of the experience is deemed to lie precisely in that phenomenological feature. Examples of experiences of the oneness of all of nature, ‘union’ with God, as in the Christian mysticism, the Hindu experience that Atman is Brahman (that is self/soul is identical with the eternal, absolute being), the Buddhist unconstructed experience, and ‘monistic’ experiences, devoid of all multiplicity.” The wider sense of mystical experience will include the non-unitive experiences like “a dualistic experience of God, where subject and God remain strictly distinct, a Jewish kabbalistic experience of a single supernal sefirah, and shamanistic experiences of spirits.” The Encyclopedia also warns us: “Care should be taken not to confuse mystical experience with ‘religious experience’. The latter refers to any experience having content or significance appropriate to a religious context or that has a ‘religious’ flavour. This would include much of mystical experience, but also various religious feelings, such as religious awe and sublimity. Also included is what Friedrich Schleiermacher identified as the fundamental religious experience: the feeling of ‘absolute dependence’.”
C. Comparative Spirituality and Comparative Mysticism in Interreligous Context:
(1) Spirituality may be termed the ‘hunger of the soul’ that does not allow the hungry soul to remain without rushing to God to satisfy its hunger. The God-hungry or God-thirsty soul then finds in God (or the Supreme Reality if one feels comfortable with an impersonal substitute) appeasement, contentment, satisfaction, joy and peace. When this hunger or thirst develops in the soul, God, as the ‘hound of heaven’ pounces upon the soul as it were and drags it to His own abode of peace and blessedness. Christ’s exhortations like “Come unto me, ye that are weary and heavy-laden and I shall give thee rest”, “peace that passeth understanding” etc point out to this hungry or thirsty soul being overwhelmed and gobbled up by God. The state of spiritual hunger or spiritual thirst is the commonest feeling or emotion among the practitioners of all religions. The nature of God, the nature of the experience of being overwhelmed, etc may differ from one religion to another, but the content is the same, though expressed in different languages and paradigms in different religions. The sense of wonder and awe that the spiritual seeker experiences in the overwhelming majesty and splendour of God’s presence is identical across religious boundaries. It goes beyond the sphere of religion even and shares its ground with the higher reaches of the so-called materialistic science. Albert Einstein’s wonderful statement about his own religions is worth quoting in this context: “My religion consists of a humble adoration of an illimitable Intelligence that our dull faculties can comprehend only in the most primitive forms.” Einstein further wrote: “The most profound and the most sublime emotion one can feel is the sensation of the mystical. It is truly the sower of all science. He who is a stranger to this emotion, who can no longer stand and wonder is rapt awe, is as good as dead. To know that what is Impenetrable really exists, manifesting Itself as the highest Wisdom and the most radiant Beauty which our dull faculties of the senses can comprehend only in the most primitive form, this feeling is the centre of true religiousness. This cosmic mystic Consciousness is the main spring of all scientific research.” The state of being overwhelmed and thrown overboard with one’s own little self, one’s own stupid ego smashed and pulverised like pieces of porcelain, has been called by Hindu spiritual aspirants as samadhi, by Buddhist seekers as ego-annihilation or extinction called nirvana and so on. A study of the experiences of spiritual seekers of all religions, their struggles, their aspirations, their strivings, their ‘blood, toil, tears and sweat’ is a richly rewarding study that would focus on the central theme of seeking God and ultimately seeing Him, perceiving Him in all beings and serving Him with love and devotion through His manifestations in innumerable forms and names in nature and all beings. It would be like reading world literature in every known language and resonating with the heart-throbs of the poet and the writer behind each of these pieces of literature.
(2) Mysticism may be described, on a different note, as not so much the craving for God of a God-hungry soul, but the insatiable passion, the irresistible pull that a glutton feels for the taste of food! A glutton craves for food not so much because he is hungry, but because he has an insatiable urge to enjoy the taste of different kinds of food. It is not so much the craving for food—which is hallmark of a ‘spiritual’ seeker—but the craving for the ‘taste’ of different varieties of food that marks out a ‘mystic’. Having been blessed with spiritual food of one particular variety and having satisfied his soul-hunger, the glutton moves on madly and passionately pursuing the tastes of different varieties of food and that makes him a ‘mystic’ more than a spirituality fulfilled seeker. Having come in touch with God’s compassion and glory, the spiritual seeker gets direct knowledge of God’s majesty, God’s Infinitude and Inexhaustibility. Having bathed in the river of God’s cooling grace, the spiritual seeker now longs to jump headlong into the infinite ocean of God’s Love and Sweetness. Or in the impersonal language of a jnani (Knowledge seeker), the aspirant longs to melt away into and become one with the Supreme Truth or Reality. As Sri Ramakrishna states: “A salt doll went to measure the depth of the ocean. Who would remain to tell of the ocean?” The spiritual seeker, as the salt doll, was happy to bathe in the cool waters of the ocean, but soon realized that he was to lose himself in the ocean, gladly and willingly, in order to realize the Infinitude of the Supreme Reality, in ‘spirit and in truth’. Sri Ramakrishna, having realized and seen his dearest Godhead whom he called the Divine Mother Kali, intuited Her nearer then his own breath, longed to realize this Divine is ever so many forms, in ever so many varieties. He longed to know how the Christians prayed to and realized God, how the Muslims worshipped and realized God and so on. He also longed to realize God in the Impersonal aspect as formless and nameless, unbroken mass of Consciousness, as Light Supreme beyond all lights. He tasted and tasted God in a variety of ways, through various religious paths and also through innumerable paths of the religion, Hinduism, into which he was born. This is the hallmark of a mystic, who is like a glutton. Sri Ramakrishna described himself as a glutton in the spiritual realm, never satisfied with realizing or tasting him in one particular way only. This attitude and approach of a mystic are the common characteristics of all the mystics of all religious paths. To dive deep into the ocean of God’s presence, beauty, infinity and glory, to taste his divine love and grace and compassion in ever so many varieties, this urge, this passion cuts across all religious bearings and moorings, not only uniting, but also enriching and elevating all religions and faiths. All the mystics ultimately speak of a similar kind experience although in different languages. As Sri Ramakrishna said: “All jackals ultimately howl alike!” To enjoy the company of the mystics of all religions is itself a grand and elevating spiritual experience and to taste, like a glutton, the sweetness of God’s love and grace in innumerable ways and through innumerable paths make interreligious understanding more than mere understanding, making it a joyous march in a divine world populated by mystics and saints, prophets and sages, where sincere spiritual seekers may, self-forgetful of the individual identities, ‘rejoice and be exceedingly glad’.