1.H.1 Mysticism and Spirituality, by Anantanand Rambachan

  1. I wish to begin with a brief consideration of the terminology that is central to our project. Although the words spirituality and mysticism are widely used in contemporary discourse and in interreligious dialogue, their meanings are by no means obvious or widely shared across traditions.
  2. In the case of “spirituality,” for example, we must recognize that it is commonly used in opposition to “religion.” It is not unusual to hear persons identifying themselves as “spiritual and not religious.” A parent of a student at my college recently described her daughter to me in these words, and did so in a manner suggesting that her meaning was not ambiguous. When “spirituality” is used in opposition to “religion,” religion is usually associated negatively with that which is external, institutional, doctrinal, superficial and exclusive in contrast with the spiritual that is internal, individual, experiential and plural. The preference for the spiritual over the religious expresses disaffection with certain forms of traditional religion. This came to prominence in the cultural revolution of the 1960’s. There are many advocating for the spiritual who represent religion in stereotypical ways and become proponents of a new spiritual exclusivism. We cannot employ terms without some sense of their origin and cultural context.
  3. For a tradition like Hinduism, however, “religion” may be as problematic as “spiritual.” If we appropriate the contemporary divide between spirituality and religion, with its proclivity for the latter, we must critically interrogate, from the perspective of our specific traditions, the divide itself, as well as the ways in which these two terms may be employed meaningfully to describe phenomena within our traditions.
  4. In the case of the Hindu tradition, one possible, though not unproblematic appropriation of the terminology of religion and spirituality, from the perspective of the Vedanta (lit. end of the Vedas or Upanishad based traditions) is the application of these terms to distinguish between those religious teachings and practices (ritual and otherwise) that cater to the human need for finite gain and prosperity in this world or other similar worlds, and those teachings and associated practices that point the way to the infinite (brahman) that is the only true and lasting fulfillment of human aspirations. In the Vedanta traditions, these twin foci are referred to respectively as the karmakanda (ritual section) and the jnanakanda(wisdom section) of the Vedas. In distinguishing between different religious goals and practitioners within the tradition, the tradition does not represent those who aspire for finite ends as unrighteous. These ends ought to be sought in approved ethical ways, but their limits to satisfy the deepest human needs are also argued. When these limits are understood, the tradition offers its most profound instruction about the way to the infinite. If we identify religion with the karmakanda and spirituality with the jnanakanda, we must do so acknowledging the specific (Vedanta), location from which the distinction is made. It is based on the internal Hindu critique and recognition that not all religious teachings and practices are directly oriented towards that which is ultimate in our traditions. It is based also on an appreciation for the diversity of religious interests and inclinations.
  5. When we turn from spirituality to mysticism, the critical and interesting questions for us are no less significant. Definitions of mysticism are as elusive and problematic as those of spirituality. Let us settle, for the moment, for what is offered as a working description of mysticism as “direct experience of ultimate reality.” [1] Although “ultimate reality” is employed charitably to include both personal and so-called impersonal descriptions, the immense implications of the variety of understandings subsumed in “ultimate reality” are overlooked. Just as important are the multiple meanings conveyed by “direct experience.” We hazard misleading and distorting generalizations if the possible distinctive meanings of these words among and within traditions are not explored.
  6. One cannot emphasize enough that the language of mysticism, if we must employ it, gains meaning only in relation to a tradition’s diagnosis of the human predicament, its etiology of this predicament, its prognosis and its therapy. We must not assume that that the meaning spirituality or mysticism is universally accessible in a way that religion is not. We must begin by assuming that these meanings are religion specific.
  7. Let me illustrate this matter by reference to the Hindu tradition of Advaita Vedanta. The human predicament in Advaita is described to be one of ignorance (avidya). It is a fundamental ignorance of the fact that the human self (atman) in its relationship with the infinite (brahman) is not-two (advaita). It is of the nature of the infinite in fullness and completeness. Not knowing this, we are subject to a irrepressible sense of anxiety, and doubts about self-worth and meaning that we seek in futility to assuage through greed for the finite and by forms of self-assertion such as pride of gender, caste, nation, race, learning etc., that devalue and demean others.
  8. At the same time, the Advaita tradition instructs clearly that the infinite brahman with which the self is identical is not unknown. The existence of brahman does not require proof. As the classical theologian, Shankara, explains it, “The existence of brahman is well known from the fact of Its being the Self of all; for everyone feels that his Self exists, and he never feels ‘I do not exist.’ Had there been no general recognition of the existence of the Self, everyone would have felt, ‘I do not exist.’ And the Self is brahman.” Brahman is the self-revealing content of the I-sense and word, as a result of which one has the immediate sense of existing and is unable to deny one’s existence. The problem then is not the non-availability of brahman but non-recognition or misunderstanding about its nature. Ultimate reality as brahman is self-revealing and ever-available.
  9. Expressing this claim in the familiar mystical language of experience, we must say that brahman is never outside of human experience. It enables all experiences, physical, mental and emotional, to occur. It is present in every thought and in every cognition. We may formulate this differently by saying that the problem is not the absence of the infinite in human experience, since it is present and self-revealed in every state of experience (waking, dream, sleep) and in every mental and emotional condition. The problem is the non-recognition of the infinite and, most important for liberation, the misunderstanding that causes one to think of oneself as different from or apart from the infinite. Experience, direct or otherwise, is not identical with valid knowledge and needs often to be correctly interpreted by a valid and appropriate source of knowledge. In the case of the Advaita tradition, valid instruction about the nature of the infinite and its presence at the heart of human experience comes from the revealed Upanishads. Valid knowledge, in the Advaita perspective, is always derived from a valid source of knowledge (pramana) and the tradition identifies the Upanishad to be such a source for the knowledge of brahman. Experience, by itself is not always identical with valid knowledge and often needs to be corrected by a valid source of knowledge.
  10. Although experience may or may not coincide with valid knowledge, valid knowledge does have an experiential dimension. The knowledge of brahman that is derived from the Upanishads and through which we correctly understand the meaning of our experiences is clearly transformative. The knower of brahman is repeatedly described in the Upanishads as being free from sorrow, hate, grief, greed, and fear. Positively the knowledge of brahman coincides with the gain of peace and happiness. While this transformation is clearly experiential in nature, it the fruit of understanding derived from the Upanishads. Experience and knowledge now coincide.
  11. The significance of his Advaita perspective for our discussion is that it suggests a more complex relationship between mystical experience, scripture and interpretation. Discussion of mysticism often proposes a sharp distinction between religious teaching derived from scripture and religious/mystical experience. Mystical experience is represented as validating or confirming scripture and as self-interpretative. In the case of Advaita, experience is certainly not self-interpretative and the problem, as noted already, is not the absence of so-called “direct experience” but ignorance (avidya). A valid source is necessary for pointing to that which is already available in experience. The terminology of experience is also problematic for Advaita since it suggests a subject- object dualism (experiencer, experience, object of experience) that reduces the infinite to a object of experience.
  12. This brief consideration of spirituality and mysticism from an Advaita Vedanta location is not an argument against the possibility of sharing. It is certainly a caution against assumed meanings that violate the integrity of distinctive understanding among and within traditions. It is also meant to suggest the kinds that questions that may be usefully pursued as part of our study. Mysticism and spirituality, however we construe the meaning of these terms within our traditions, cannot be meaningfully considered apart from the distinctive understanding within each tradition of the human predicament, its etiology, prognosis and therapy. These distinctive understandings make sharing more challenging but potentially even more enriching.