Integral Anthropology and World Religions
By Debashish Banerji
Transcript of a talk given at the conference on Spirituality Beyond Religions, Auroville, January 2010
The term Integral Anthropology is my own coinage. I introduce this term so that we may contemplate the idea of an integral definition of the Human, an all-round locus of the Human which is integral. But in introducing this term I would also like to foreground from the very beginning human helplessness at grasping the dimensions of the integral. An integral anthropology is something very inviting, indeed something that we’ve been invited to in our modern age. From a certain viewpoint, it is, perhaps, the very meaning of the Modern Age. But it is also something paradoxical, something aporetic, that brings us face to face with our helplessness. So, to initiate our contemplation, I’d like to invoke two images . The first one is related to what has been called the Sacrifice of Purusha. The Sacrifice of Purusha is an idea that comes to us from the Veda, from the Indian tradition, but it is not restricted to the Indian tradition. It may be thought of as an anthropological deep structure. We encounter it, for example, in Greek mythology as the dismemberment of Poseidon and the dismemberment of Dionysius. This idea of something whole, something complete, something integral, which subjects itself to limitation, to fragmentation, to its opposite, subjects itself completely so that it becomes that : this is the notion of the Sacrifice of Purusha. I’d like to introduce this through an image which might seem facetious, but I found it to be very profound. It is the old Nursery Rhyme :
“Humpty-Dumpty sat on a wall,
Humpty-Dumpty had a great fall.
All the King’s horses and all the King’s men
Could not put Humpty-Dumpty together again.”
The second image I’d like to invoke also relates to Integral Anthropology. It is taken from the Gita. This is what is known as the Vishwarupa Darshan. The Gita synthesises all that has gone before in Indian spiritual thought, and it weaves these ideas around two conceptual categories through much of its discourse. These are Sankhya and Yoga. These two categories are repeatedly referenced, and the Gita builds its own integration around the ideas of Sankhya and Yoga, showing them both to belong to one spiritual realisation. Yet there is a profound chasm between these two. One, Sankhya, pushes in the direction of Knowledge, in the direction of the Static, of the Akshara Brahman, the Immutable Purusha ; the other, Yoga, pushes towards the Way of Works, towards the knowledge of will, of right and wrong, of the thing to be done – kartavyam karma – and the Purusha that is dynamic in time, that is mutable – Kshara Purusha. The Gita integrates these, ultimately, through something that has not been introduced before in Indian spiritual thought: the idea of the Avatar, the Divine embodied in human form.
In its climactic episode, when Arjuna says to Krishna, “Show me who you are”, he bestows upon him a special faculty of vision which he calls the Divine Sight. This bestowal enables Arjuna to see what no human being can see, and what he sees is paradoxical beyond his power of envisioning. He is bewildered. He sees that which has no beginning and no end, that which encompasses all time – past, present and future – that which is formless, and yet that which has assumed all forms. Every form that has ever been taken in the past, that exists in the present and that may be imagined in the future – stands out in front of Arjuna in the body of this one person. This paradoxical image is something that Arjuna cannot bear. It makes him plead with Krishna and say, “Revert back to your four-handed cosmic form for I cannot behold you like this. It is beyond my capacity.” And the vision is withdrawn from him.
These are the two images that we would do well to contemplate if we are to think Integral Anthropology. Now to return to the other term: World Religions.
Before there was World Religions, there were religions and there were worlds. Each religion had its own world. Religions were formed, due to some divine revelation or divine realisation, experience, something from beyond, received by someone or some few and then propagated in terms of wholeness, completeness, in the name of integrality. Each of these religions provided a cosmos, a cosmos made up of many worlds, not only visible worlds, but invisible worlds, organised hierarchically with some core foundations of what Reality is, with some image of the human and his place in this cosmos, and with a trajectory which that cosmos and / or that human followed as a path towards some end. Now, these religions spoke in the name of the Whole, the Truth, the Absolute. But as a matter of fact they arose out of the fragmentary, they caught a partial glimpse, some a little bigger and some a little smaller, and they tried to capture their reality along what I think of as three axes, or three varieties of the life of religion.
I would like to enumerate these lives of Religion. First comes the life of thought in religion, what is called Theology. The life of thought in religion proceeds to state what Reality is, based on what has been experienced by somebody but often expressed by a variety of people who are not that somebody who had that experience. Therefore to the life of thought in religion, there is a double vacuum at the centre : first a vacuum of partiality, and second, a vacuum of inexperience. This results in what some post-modern thinkers, such as Jacques Derida, have called Supplementarity : the teaching has a hole which calls for supplementation. An incessant flow of words, of commentaries, of apologetics, of various kinds of justifications for the central tenets of the religion issue forth of necessity, so that what was postulated as the core of the religion becomes completely obscured over time, so that one forgets to ask what were the causes, what is the scope, what constitutes the integrality of that religion. It continues to build. Part of this supplementality is beyond thought – it goes into the need for a following. To hide its vacuum it needs to gather more and more people to bolster its image of being the Truth. Of course, one may say, from a certain viewpoint, that all religious teachings may be subject to this effect of supplementarity. Theology, in its statement of a central dogma, at best subjects the infinite to a perspectival distortion, which is the trap of language, coin of the mind. This is why Martin Heidegger, who coined the term onto-theology, which means the philosophy of being, ontology, treated as a theology or religion, cautioned about the problem of “naming” God, and sought a language where Being would be presented “under erasure.” There may be other solutions to this problem of Theology. If Theology could be taken as figure only, as an aid to mystical experience, perhaps the need for supplementation can be avoided. Instead of searching for justification, it then becomes secret doctrine, flexibly available to a community of mystics. But this solution is an esoteric one and suffers from the problem of all secret societies in pre-modern times, the maintenance of secrecy through power, the formation of a cultic order.
The second such life is the life of feelings in religion. Religions make themselves accessible to human beings through mythologies. Mythologies are of various kinds, and I won’t go into a detailed description of how mythologies work, in what various ways they proceed – a little contemplation will show us how mythologies bring religion close to our feelings so that we are willing to live for it and die for it. Mythologies create conscience in the follower, a symbolic system which subsumes the human in a virtual reality. The human then lives this reality as integral truth. We are willing to take up arms for it and kill for it, to withhold life and give life.
The third form of life in religion is the life of power in religions. Religion attracts power. The hunger for power in religion is much greater even than politics, because this is divine politics, the politics of the Infinite. It attracts those who wish to lay claim on the invisible, in the lives of human beings, the “sacred darkness” which surrounds our existence. If mythologies create conscience, Power is needed to keep conscience in place. Human beings become inculcated into a certain belief, and there are official and unofficial priests around us to make sure that we don’t stray from those beliefs or from the flock of believers. The excesses that have resulted from this condition are well known to us in the modern world. In Europe this led to what is called the Dark Ages, a period of obscurantism and terror in the name of Religion.
The story of World Religions begins only after we acknowledge the fact that the Dark Ages caused the Modern Age to spring forth in a way that wanted to exclude or, at least, marginalise the life of religion from the world. Instead of religions with worlds it wanted us to realise that there is one world, the earth, and one people, the human race. And as for its dealings with religion, it had little place for it and created its own dogma, refusing the invisible, that which bounds our little moment on this earth, that which is hidden before our birth and after our death. Hence, we proceeded into this modern secular world and created our academies that gave us knowledge of this world and, at the centre of this world, of the human being that occupies it. This knowledge of the human being comes to us through what are called the Human Sciences. Human sciences, psychology, sociology, history, culture studies, most of all, anthropology, give us the wide scope of the definition of the human. Part of the drive of the Modern Age, based in the European Enlightenment, is to arrive at such a knowledge of what is the human, and we applied the universal method of modernity, Science, to study this question empirically through the manifestations of humanity wherever it is available on our planet.
But, though religion was marginalised in the process, it did not die. It didn’t die because to every religion there was a truth. That truth was the truth of the experience that lay at its centre: the spiritual realisation that somebody had, the intuitions that human beings carry within themselves that it is possible to know something outside of the bounding limits of the world as our senses perceive. And so religions continued, though given a secondary place in our modern world. Today we see modernity reaching its culminant phase in a global world that it has encompassed and made one in its own terms. But along with that we find also the rise of religious fundamentalism in this world, – the religions that have asserted themselves, beyond the power of their previous scope, to exert their universality, their supposed integrality, their partialities turned into hegemonic world-dominating discourses in competition with the global world of modernity.
This is the story of religion in the modern world. But when we speak of world religions it is another possibility of modernity that meets our gaze. Through the history of the modern academy, Religion has made its entry in other ways into the study of the human. The human sciences have done something remarkable and unprecedented for human beings all over the world. It has created the Idea of the Human. This is the sense in which Michel Focault says that discourse is productive. Discourse produces ontologies, forms of being. Today, we have a sense of the human — almost a species sense — which we never had before the academy put forward the idea of the human sciences. Perhaps one always had access to such an idea through inner contact with a universal consciousness. In this sense, “humanity” as a whole was seen as the children of immortality and announced as such by the Vedanta. But in the mass, the idea of the human, the intuition of the human, is available to humanity in a more concrete way today than ever before. Into this field, that which was excluded is seeking its return. One may see that return always present through modernity as an undercurrent, the undercurrent of spirituality even in the modern academy. Perhaps it begins in the post-Kantian phase with German Transcendentalism, followed by English Romanticism, French Symbolism, and American Transcendentalism of the late nineteenth century. But it is only around the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth century that something emerges which we might call a Post-Secular Humanism, the beginning of a new definition of humanism, a spiritual humanism, the beginnings of what may be called an integral anthropology.
We may speak of certain prominent names that have inaugurated this phase. We may speak of Vivekananda, and the address he gave at the Parliament of World Religions in 1893. There are other figures of this kind arising out of India in the early twentieth century that have spoken in the language of the West and have brought the message of an experience of the Spirit, not bounded by the lives of theology or mythology, or authority, but available to all human beings as an unmediated reality. Sri Aurobindo comes most prominently to mind as one of these figures, who has perhaps given us some of the clearest indicators to guide us to an integral anthropology. The same year that Vivekananda was giving his speech in 1893 in Chicago, Sri Aurobindo was returning from England to India. We also have figures like Rabindranath Tagore and Ananda Coomaraswamy who have left their mark in making this subjective life of the spirit available to mankind as a whole. But also, this turn of the century opens up to the modern academy the systematic study of world religion. Two of the major figures I would like to refer to in this regard are both Americans. One is Richard N Bucke, who wrote a book called Cosmic Consciousness in 1901. The book was inspired by an experience, on which he wrote in the third person due to a sense of impersonality that had entered his consciousness. He writes :
All at once, without warning of any kind, he found himself wrapped around, as it were, by a flame-coloured cloud. For an instant he thought of fire, some sudden conflagration in the great city. The next he knew that the light that the light was in himself. Directly afterwards came upon him a sense of exultation, of immense joyousness, accompanied or immediately followed by an intellectual illumination quite impossible to describe. Into his brain streamed one momentary lightning flash of the Brahmic splendour, which has ever since lightened his life. Upon his heart fell one drop of Bhrahmic bliss, leaving thenceforward for always an aftertaste of heaven. Among other things he did not come to believe he saw and knew that the cosmos is not dead matter but a living presence, that the soul of man is immortal, that the universe is so built and ordered that the foundation principle of the world is what we call Love, and that the happiness of everyone in the long run is absolutely certain. He claims that he learned more within the few seconds during which the illumination lasted than in previous months, or even years of study, and that he learned much that no study could ever have taught.
This quote is interesting in that the author uses the term “Brahmic” to mediate his experience, giving evidence to the transmission of Vedantic knowledge to the American mind by this time. It also gives the gist of Bucke’s vision of Cosmic Consciousness as an emergent property for a humanity of the future. He says, “The human race is in the process of developing a new kind of consciousness, far in advance of ordinary human self-consciousness which will eventually lift the race above and beyond all fears and ignorances, the brutalities and bestialities which beset it today.”
1901-1902 is also the year of the publication of a major work, one may say, the foundational text of world religions, of comparative mysticism, and of one might call the subjective science of the future. This is William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience. In this work, James characterizes all mystical experiences by four features. It’s interesting that James first characteristic of mystic experience is stated in terms that may almost be taken out of the description of his experience by Richard Bucke Bucke says of his experience that he had an exaltation “followed by an intellectual illumination quite impossible to describe.” The first of James’ characteristics is ineffability. Ineffability refers to an excess beyond any possibility of description. There is always more to it than can be described. This excess is another aspect of the supplementarity we find with onto-theology, but for an inverse reason. Here we find that supplementarity can result, not merely from a vacuum of experience, but from an overwhelming excess of experience. The experience has so much to it, that one may describe it without ever exhausting it. This distinction leads to an important difference in the quality of supplementarity between onto-theology and the expression proper to the ineffability of mystical experience. The first exists to increasingly hide the hollowness at its center; the latter to increasingly reveal the inexhaustible plenitude at its center. These lead, naturally, to two very different kinds of language practices.
The second factor is enumerated by James is Noeticism. This term has risen to popularity in more recent times through Edgar Mitchell’s founding of the Institute of Noetic Sciences. Noeticism, as James describes it, is the sense of significance, the profound sense of meaning which is self-evident. This is the key part to the idea of Noeticism, that it does not look for evidence to prove it. One who has the experience bears the burden of self-evidence. This is its noetic aspect.
The third characteristic James gave to mystical experience is Transience, that it is not permanent, it occupies a period of time. Now, this characteristic has been contested in later literature by people who have written about transformation of consciousness. This implies the possibility of moving from temporary altered states of consciousness to transformed ontologies, changes of being which are permanent. As a more recent yet seminal contributor to the idea of world religions, Huston Smith has put it, what we seek are not altered states but altered traits. Hence, transiency refers to the sporadic nature of mystical experiences, but this need not encompass the totality of mystical realisation.
The fourth factor that James introduces is Passivity. By this he means that mystical experience comes unexpectedly, though one may prepare for it through a sustained discipline. This is related to an old debate between “gradualism and sudden enlightenment.” The conclusion here is that mystical experiences can be prepared through gradual discipline, disciplinary preparation, but they come unbidden, suddenly, unpredictably, in that way.
To these categories by William James, modern thinkers of what is called the Perennial Philosophy School, have added one more. This is Non-dualism. They say that mystical experience is characterized by a loss of distinction between subject and object. Even if there is some continuity or persistence of that distinction, there is simultaneously an overcoming of that distinction.
This Perennial Philosophy school is itself part of a long historical lineage which can be traced to these developments at the turn of the 19th/20th century in America. These turn-of-the-century intellectual movements could be considered as marking the moment for the introduction of mystic studies into humanism in the modern academy, and leading to what we call religious studies today. Religious studies is not really a study of religions but an appropriation of religions into the field of comparative mysticism as part of a humanistic discipline, leading to an integral anthropology. The figures that I’d like to name in this regard are of course very well known : Aldous Huxley marks a very important punctuation mark in this lineage, and I’d like to present a quotation from Huxley which relates centrally to our contemplation. Huxley’s book Perennial Philosophy was, of course, deeply influenced by Vedantic thought, – perhaps it is the term Sanatan Dharma that he is translating as Perennial Philosophy though the latter term comes to us from Liebniz. Huxley writes,
The last end of man, the ultimate reason for human existence is unitive knowledge of the Divine ground, the knowledge that can come only to those who are prepared to die to self and so make room, as it were, for God.
Other major figures in the lineage leading to world religions as an academic discipline in our time would include names such as Joseph Campbell, Mercia Eliade, Huston Smith – to whom the idea of world religions is most closely associated in its present form – and in contemporary times, Robert Forman and Carol Armstrong. In effect, these figures have helped to bring the investigation of world religions or comparative mysticism into the academic mainstream as a legitimate extension of our ongoing attempt to define the human in its fullness, an endeavour that may be thought of as a goal of the modern Enlightenment and called by the name Integral Anthropology.
Now, a word of caution that relates to the two contemplations I began with. And for this, I would like to introduce two considerations, a quotation from Aldous Huxley and a classification from Robert Forman. In his book Perennial Philosophy, Huxley gives us a quotation from the thirteenth century Flemish mystic Ruysbroeck. He says (Ruysbroeck says):
The image of God is found essentially and personally in all mankind. Each possesses it whole, entire, and undivided, and all together not more than one alone. In this way we are all one, intimately united in our eternal image which is the image of God and the source in us of all our life.
Forman is a contemporary religious study specialist of the Perennial Philosophy School. He says mystical experiences revolve around a direct encounter with some fundamental underlying reality. The differences between mystics’ accounts of their experiences are viewed in the Perennial model to be based on cultural interpretations that take place after the event. They are only flavours of non-separateness, and he introduces three such flavours. One is what he calls Theism, another is Monism, and the third is the Nothingness School. Theism relates, as we may imagine, to all the devotional schools, Christianity, Vaishnavism, etc. Monism relates to Advaita Vedanta, Neo-Platonism, Islam or Judaism. The best example of the Nothingness School is, of course, Buddhism.
The reason one needs to interject a caution here is that the Perennial Philosophy School, though it really gives us a new entry into a non-secular or post-secular spirituality, is also marked in a way by a hierarchism. This hierarchism places a formless Monism at the peak of all mystical realization. It bears the impress of the mental enterprise of system building, which is the very method of the Enlightenment. Another well-known contemporary exponent of such a hierarchism in out times, in a related field, that of Transpersonal Psychology, is Ken Wilber, who could also be considered a Perrenialist. Such a hierarchism is not new. It also belongs strongly to the history of Indian Spiritual Thought.
Perhaps the father of this hierarchism is the 9th c. Indian spiritual philosopher, Shankara. In modern times it has revived, and, been amplified, due to certain aspects of modernity, linked to the nation idea. What is known as Hindutva today, which some people refer to as Neo-Vedanta arises from this very kind of hierarchising of the various spiritual realisations possible under a pyramid that ends with the experience of the Formless. So it is that all the various schools of Vedanta, which, in fact, show the inexhaustibility of the Vedantic experience, — Dwaitadwaita Vedanta (dualistic non-dualism), for example, or Vishishtadwaita Vedanta (qualified non-dualism) – various subtleties of experience, are all given their place but ultimately clubbed as secondary stages in a succession that will end with Shankara’s Monism, Kevaladvaita the realization of Formless Spirit, after which one can drop the ladder and forget about the “preceding stages” because they have no further meaning.
This kind of hierarchism is dangerous. Particularly connected with nationalism it leads to the notion of world hegemony in a new form, a form that portends not very good things for a spiritual future. There is another kind of danger that has not yet arisen but whose stirrings are felt around us, particularly in circles related to Sri Aurobindo. It’s the Religion of Integral Philosophy. This is not a hierarchism in which an inclusivistic structure established itself through stages. It is rather a horizontal inclusivism, an integral theory in which all mystical experiences, the bases of all religions are structured together and the whole, named or unnamed, is held up as the Integral Anthropology. In thinking of an Integral Anthropology, this caution is something we need to take to heart. To understand this, I draw attention once more to the two images with which I started, the image of the Vishvarupa and that of the fallen Humpty Dumpty. First, the Viswarupa: The fulfilment that Sri Aurobindo shows us in the Supermind is one in which the One and the Many co-exist. Integrality means that the Many express the One and are the One. If one creates a theory of stages that tries to encompass this idea, then we end up with a mental construct which loses the essential paradoxicality of integrality demonstrated so powerfully in the Viswarupa. Integrality is paradoxical. For the One and Many to co-exist in experience, a jump in human consciousness is necessary. Integral Anthropology cannot be premised on a static structure of the human, because the integral escapes from the grasp of the human. If an Integral Anthropology is to take any inspiration from the paradigm of integrality envisioned by Sri Aurobindo, is must recognize too the essence of the human as an unfinished entity, a rope thrown between the beast and the superman, as per Nietzsche, “a transitional being” as per Sri Aurobindo. The structures of integrality do not exist in the human being. Or, if some hold to the faith that Sri Aurobindo and the Mother have already laid those unprecedented structures, they are far from human experience and have yet to be established in a generalized form in humanity.
To create an integral theory that makes it appear as if such an eventuality exists at the top of the spiritual pyramid is even more dangerous than Neo-Vedanta. Unfortunately, an integral religion, an integral theory, has its stirrings around us. It is here that it is necessary for us to revisit the image of Humpty Dumpty, and the irreversible pathos of his Fall, which is the human condition. This contemplation should lead us to humility, to helplessness, to aspiration and surrender, for the recognition of the fact that the goal towards an integral anthropology includes a discontinuity, which it is not within human hands to bridge. It is through the Grace of a Higher Power that that bridge can be built. And in the meantime post-secular spirituality must grow in its variety, in its multiplicity, in its comparative nature, through comparative studies, if through a structuralism, then even more through a post-structuralism, and out of that must arise a subjective science.