Lightmind Extract 057


Kela 8.27.07
I was thinking about Kela’s argument about pandits vs. experience, and how his main practical point seems to be that claims of experience are used to justify authority and power.

This much is OK, but it is not so much my original point.

This is true to some degree, and among some people. But is it really the danger in spiritual circles, in religion altogether? Yes, we have some fraudulent gurus claiming greater experience than they have, and debaters claiming a superior viewpoint because of their “experience” or their record of “happiness”. Such things are obnoxious, to be sure, and can be the basis for some exploitation, as in the case of guys like Da. But is this really where the dangers of authoritarianism creep in? I think not.

As I say below in the thread, I value such experience. Personally, it is for myself deeply meaningful. The problem with “experience,” where “experience” refers specifically to personal religious experiences, is that it is subjective. Even if it were some kind of grounds for “authority” — and I doubt that it is anyway — there is no way for anyone to know if someone has had these “experiences” of enlightenment, realization, satori, or whatever. This makes “experience” a dubious reason for accepting the authority of any individual.

Further, and perhaps more importantly, if we accept the authority of a teacher or guru on the grounds of his “experience,” we are not in fact accepting his authority on the grounds of his experience; we are accepting it on the ground of his verbal testimony. And this is an entirely different grounds of authority, called “shabda-pramana” in India. Ironically, shabda pramana usually means accepting the authority of the written word, which is precisely what is being challenged here by the guru-philes! The irony is that one form of verbal testimony is being substituted with another. This is, and has been, my point here for some time: that what people are doing, when they say we should take the word of Ramana, is substituting one form of dogmatism for another. My point is NOT that the pundits are better than the siddhas; my point is that, at least as far as their authority is concerned, the siddhas are no better, since their grounds of authority will be no less than that of the pundits: the word (whether it is written or spoken).

Borkin Yorgi wants me to supply something positive to the discussion, and so I will put in my own two-bits. If we are to accept the authority of a teacher, I think we should probably do so by other means — observing his teaching style, talking to other students of his, including disaffected former ones, researching whether or not he has abused his power, asking oneself whether his teachings “ring true” with one’s own experience, whether they will prove spiritually useful. etc. Whether he has had a satori experience seems to me to be pretty peripheral. And, even if it weren’t, taking his word that he has had an “enlightenment experience” seems to me to be a shitty grounds for believing, absolutely, that he has.

Look at the history of Indian religion, of the Vedas, the Vedanta, the Upanishads, etc. Where does one find the stink of authoritarianism? Is it really among the siddhas, the yogis, the “men of experience”? Not exactly. It comes from…drum roll please…the pandits! Where does the pandit tradition come from? Well, India did indeed produce a tradition of panditry, starting with the Vedas. It created an entire priestly class, the Brahmans, who managed to translate their stranglehold on all interpretation of scripture into an authoritarian political hegemony lasting thousands of years, and bringing us that wonderful class system call caste, which oppressed millions in the name of spiritual authority. One can’t overestimate the evils of this system, or the ruthlessness with which the pandit class, the Brahmans, exploited their “knowledge” of the scriptures to crush the spirits and control the populace on a mass scale for milennia.

Well, there is absoutely no doubt that the brahmans have done what they did for the reasons BY describes. I doubt if anyone would challenge that, though the dramatic rhetorical flourish here — “evils,” “ruthlessness” — is overstated, and typical of the Neo-Vedanta/Neo-Advaita apologists since the time of Vivekananda.

There is no comparison to siddhas or yogis or jnanis in this area. The pandits won hands down at the authoritarian sweepstakes. The reality of this debate is that there has always been a battle within Indian religion between the pandit authoritarians and the men of experience.

A quaint Romantic construct. One of my initial points was that the classical Buddhists typically did not inflect the term “pandita” with the kind of rhetorical invective that we find among the modern Neo-Vedantins and Neo-Advaitins. This idea of a “age old battle” is a kind of retrospective reading of history.

What Kela is trying to pretend is that somehow its the men of experience who are the authoritarian evil we need to wipe out and its the pandits who we need to invest with real spiritual authority. He is of course right that there’s a real tradition for this, but he’s wrong that it’s a benign tradition.

Where the hell did I say this?! Here my words are being twisted around to suit BY’s agenda, and so he can to burn me in effigy!

The way it works is that much of the original material, such as the Upanishads, were written by men of experience, but the latter interpretation of these scriptures were taken over by pandits, who claimed that only they could rightly interpret them.

We have no way at of knowing whether the writers of the Vedas/Upanishads were “men of experience.” And it is not their intent to say this either. Certainly the works themselves do not say this. The Vedas are considered “authorless” in Hinduism. For the more heterodox traditions like Shaivism, typically, we read that some revealed scripture (agama) is the work of some god. The Buddhist scriptures are, of course, different. However, in that case, it is not personal subjective experience that the Buddha invokes; rather, it is the idea that he has “seen” certain universal, objective truths, such as “all life is suffering.” It is also worth noting that the Buddhist shastras, such as Nagajuna’s works, did not claim authority on the basis of the “experience” of their authors. We have no mention of Nagarjuna’s “enlightenment” in those works. Rather, Madhyamika claims authority on the basis of Nagarjuna’s resonance with not only Mahayana sutras, but the early suttas as well. For the most part, the idea that Indian spiritual writers and philosophers were “men of experience” is a nineteenth century construct dreamt up by the Indian “mystical empiricists” who were having their faith challenged by Western philosophers and missionaries, and who needed a new basis for authority, one that jibed with the empiricism of the day.

This was accomplished to a large degree by putting them into Sanskrit, which was not, contrary to Brahman propaganda, the most ancient language of India, or even the original language of spiritual instruction, but was an invented, priestly language deliberately created for the purpose of keeping all spiritual information the secret possession of the Brahman priestly class, and thus requiring others to bow to their authority.

Not exactly. The Indian vernaculars follow Sanskrit in time.

Sanskrit was deliberately made to be almost impossible to understand without a high degree of training, and had no vernacular.

Later classical Sanskrit was indeed made difficult so as to protect the priest craft (all professions do this — think of legalese) and I curse that fact every time I attempt to read it.

The last phrase in the above contradicts what was just said previously. If there was no vernacular at the time of the Vedas, then people were speaking in Sanskrit!

It was not a spoken language, nor does it makes any sense as a language at all, but only as a code of secrecy and magic.

Not a spoken language!? BS! Makes no sense? Ha! Like the demon from the Exorcist, BY mixes lies with the truth! The ancient Vedic language makes little sense to us, and to Indians from the classical to the modern age, because there was a discontinuity in its transmission. As a result we have no idea what the strange ritual descriptions of the early Vedas refer to. But classical Sanskrit is certainly intelligible. The idea that it was not a spoken language has no basis in fact. BY is projecting late modern Sankrit onto the earliest strata. This is like saying Latin was never a spoken language! Certainly that is the case today, but it was not so in the past.

Contrasted with the Brahmanical priestly class of pandits, scribes, and the bureaucracy of religion was a whole other tradition of siddhas, yogis, shamans, and non-mainstream religious traditions.

This is a nice little Romantic construct. It’s history is easily traceable. It ends with the Mohenjodara seal in which a man is sitting cross-legged like a “yogi.” Initially used by scholars to describe Yoga and Samkhya as quasi-heterodoxical, the contrast is later picked up by Hindu apologists such as Feuerstein sa as to invoke authority in another way: the “timelessness” of the yoga tradition, etc.

Kela decries Vivekananda for helping to destroy the supremacy of the Brahman class of pandits.

Helping destroy!? BAh! If that was his aim, Vivek didn’t get very far! It is only Western Neo-Vedantins who believe this little myth, since they accept the propoganda written about him. All I said was that Vivekananda was the primary rhetorician of the anti-pundit propogandists. Interestingly, we find nowhere near the invective of Vivekananda in the words of Ramakrishna and Ramana.

We need to look carefully at Vivek’s Indian writings and speeches, some of which have been translated into English, to get the complete picture. The Indian writings have an entirely different tone. In them, Vivek is careful not to offend the brahmans and pandits in his audience. Thus, he was primarly an opportunist who spoke to his audience in a manner that he saw as most suitable and effective. The anti-pundit diatribes belong to his English language writings.

Maybe Vivekananda had a personal bone to pick with the pundits. Maybe one of them beat him as a kid. More likely, he knew that Westerners would never accept the classical Indian tradition as such since it is dogmatic and xenophobic to the extreme, and because the West was dealing with the hegemony of its own priest-craft at the time and was acquiring a distaste for dogma. He then constructed another image and sold it to unsuspecting Westerners.

Does he wish they retained their power and authority? Apparently so.

This is where Heru nails BY. I have absolutely no interest in supporting the hegemony of the pundits, or any other hegemony, including that of Nisargadatta and Ramana and the new-age Neo-Advaitins.

So yes, Vivekananda battled with the pandit tradition, and tried to resurrect the power of the siddha-yogi tradition, and point out that this is the truly legitimate tradition of Indian spirituality, not the religion of the priestly pandits who tried to control all interpretation of scripture, and all of society, by their exclusive claim to authority.

Resurrect? That’s a stretch. There seems to be two competing visions in BY’s construct here — one, based loosely on history, in which the yogis are always an oppressed subordinate class, and another based on the myth of some sort of “golden age” when yogis ruled the earth alongside Tyranosaurus Rex. Best to find a consistent picture and not to cherry pick.

Kela doesn’t like this, and longs to roll back the clock to restore authority to the pandits, the scholars of scripture, rather than those who actually live and breath the practices and truth they speak of.

Oh, the straw effigy of kela is in full flame now! Chorus: “Recant, kela-effigy, while there is still time and we will douse you with water!” 

Okay, maybe Kela doesn’t really want to restore the caste system and the authoritarianism of the pandits.

Backpeddle, backpeddle!

But he should be aware of what he is actually arguing for in the real world. As we look around the world today, do we really see siddhas and yogis and gurus doing the greatest damage, and taking on the authoritarian mantle? Of course not. In virtually every single religion active today, the authoritarian danger comes from the pandit class, those who claim authority on the basis of scripture, on their interpretation of scripture, and their fealty to the “word” of God. These people have no concern for spiritual experience, and view it with the same kind of disdain and irrelevance that Kela does. They have no need for it, they eliminate it from the discussion, and what kind of religious world does this produce? The most depraved forms of totalitarian fundamentalism, bar none. This is the result of Kela’s arguments: a class of pandits whose authority cannot be challenged in any respect by arguments of experience, common sense, real world results, or any spiritual “feelings”. All that nonsense is thrown out, and the authority of the scriptures is held supreme, and of course, the authority to the priestly interpreters of scripture is made absolute.

Chorus: “Too late, kela-effigy! You are now reduced to ashes!” 

This is the kind of terror that the world faces now, and has lived through for milennia – the terror of the priestly classes of pandits who dismiss the value and intelligence that comes from actual experience in life, in spirit, in feeling, of those with real intelligence rather than mere book knowledge. This terror and this authoritarianism has been real and has kept much of the world under its thumb since we first began to organize the religious insights of the religious experience into a social system. It’s the pandits who have always grabbed for the power, and turned these religious experiences and insights and poetry into a system of social enslavement under an authoritarian system.

This is not confined to Hinduism, but has its counterpart in Buddhism as well, and of course in Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and virtually every other religion as well. There seems to be no limit to the thirst for power of the priestly, pandit class, and no religious impulse that they cannot pervert to serve that thirst. This is not to say that there can’t be good and decent pandits doing an authentic job of preserving a religious tradition in sacred texts. But the temptation to pervert that service in the pursuit of power and authoritarian control is unrivaled by any other class or type of religious individual. To condemn the authoritarian temptations of the men of experience while praising the priestly pandits as being above such things is utterly dishonest and exactly the kind of argument the pandits have always raised to justify their ongoing authoritarian stranglehold on religion.

blah, blah blah. Now we’re scattering the ashes of the kela-effigy into the wind.

The real threat here, if there even is one, is not the pundits. It’s the BJP and the fusion of Hindu fundamentalism with politics.

So this is where Kela and others here actually stand.

I see. I’m now an agent for al-Qaeda. Gee, I usually get lumped in with the liberal “Left.” 

They want to be the authorities with the power to rightly interpret the texts, and thus gain all power for themselves. They want to strip anyone with “experience” of any right to argue against their texts, and their interpretation of the texts. They want to discount entirely the testimony of realizers and yogis and other men of experience if they deviate from their own scriptural interpretations.

This is not the kind of religion I have any respect for. There is indeed a place for pandits in the scheme of things, but these arguments are not coming from the right place. They are a justification for the ongoing power grab that tries to defenestrate the real sources of religion, which are religious experience itself, in whatever religion we are considering.

I’m sorry if I have offended Kela…

The only offence taken here is that BY thinks me dumb enough to take these arguments seriously! But let us continue with Lightmind’s own soapbox orator…

…but this simply needs to be said, and the context of this argument expanded to the real world. I know that goes against the grain of the pandits, who don’t want to allow real world arguments of experience to enter into the picture, but this is simply another aspect of their dogmatic assertion of power in the face of common sense.

BY’s flair for overstatement and the dramatic is rather amusing. Gaddy must be is stitches. And of course, the chorus has been nodding their heads in unison all along.

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