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RELIGION/ADAPTATION: God and the Survival of the Human Species

Creation of the Sun and Moon by Michelangelo, ...

Creation of the Sun and Moon by Michelangelo, face detail of God. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

By Robert DePaolo

A Deistic Conflict

Answering the question of whether God actually exists has always been fraught with complications. Part of the problem lies in the fact that ostensible interactions of God – regardless of the particular faith – have been few and far between. Indeed it is hard to argue with the fact that most of the body of religious doctrine has been purveyed by man. On Sinai only The Ten Commandments were issued in person while the various laws in Deuteronomy seem to have been written by various authors, including  Moses, Joshua and a mysterious set of writers often referred to by biblical scholars as The Yahwist, The Elohist, the Deuteronomist and the Priestly Source.  Thus while a large part of religion is based on conversations of one sort or another between a god and a chosen human being it is the latter’s account that is ultimately used as final purveyor of doctrine.

None of this is necessarily denied by even ardent believers. All Christian scholars know that many of the main tenets of the old and New Testaments  considered divinely conveyed in modern times were in fact decided by various councils during the Middle Ages – including the decision to consider Jesus a God rather than a higher-order profit in the mold of Moses, Isiah or Elijah. The premise behind such decisions was at least derived in part from the teachings of Christ so one could infer the councils were simply relying on an original source. After all he said ‘I am the Way’ in John 14:6. On the other hand, in Luke 18:19 he also said, ‘Why do you call me good when that word applies only to God?’ In that instance Jesus was clearly separating himself from the one true God of the Jews, who after all, viewed themselves as monotheists.

Atheists feed off such inconsistencies, arguing, as Draper (1998) did that since much of religious doctrine is man-made, the idea of a God has little to do with the actual existence of a deity. Some, such as Christopher Hitchens (2007) have argued that the world would be a better place if not for a belief in God, this opinion apparently based on a history of religiously-influenced wars and political tyrannies.

In this opinion that is a rather vacuous argument, not only because it ignores the vast number of altruistic acts that have been conducted in the name of religion but also because most moral concepts regarding peace, adhere to law, fairness, and humaneness adopted by the western world have been heavily influenced by religious mores, particularly those inherent in Judao-Christianity.  Echos of old and new testament laws run throughout the English and American Constitutions…for example the reference in Leviticus 24:19 to an eye for an eye runs parallel to the 8th Amendment in the American Constitution on cruel and unusual punishment. Obviously the same parallels exist between modern law and biblical tenets regarding prohibitions against theft, murder and slander.

But an even stronger argument against atheistic thought can be presented by simply considering the history of religion and its historically adaptive value to our species.

In the Beginning

The first modern humans were nomads (Marlowe 2005). Until roughly 8,000 years ago climatic conditions, lack of knowledge, the lack of availability of certain grains (which had to evolve into more resilient form themselves before being arable) ruled out the possibility of agricultural settlements. During that time man wandered the earth, settling into temporary make-shift homes, periodically following herds. Permanence, and all the cognitive and emotional by-products and potentials of that were yet impossible. The nomadic human tribes had limited capacity to carry objects in their travels, thus left most of their tools behind. In effect they were forced to re-make them, which led to a great deal of behavioral redundancy. That left little time to contemplate possibilities, anxieties, and meaning in general despite their having enough cortical brain mass to do so.  As Bronowski (1973) has pointed out, nomadic life allowed little in the way of existential concerns.

Since value is based on necessity, material possessions were not cherished in the nomadic world. Since travel was essential to survival those who, for one reason or other could not press on were left to die – and likely did so without protest. Life for these groups was moment to moment and confined to the immediacy of their circumstances and needs.

Still, the early humans worshipped gods (Narr 2008). The reasons why were probably myriad. First and foremost was probably the size and construction of their brains – which had reached 1500 centimeters. A brain like that, with delineated speech centers, and a capacity to categorize, memorize and communicate socially, would have attributed events to causes and sources (King, 2007), (Gould, 2007) Since large brains tend to correlate with intense social concerns, these attributors would have caste the causes and sources in at least quasi-personal forms – thus the personification of God.

At the root of what might be called a cognitive-God function are the needs to control, reduce uncertainty and press onward.  While many social scientists have discussed the advantage of evolutionary human brain expansion with respect to increased language capacities, cognitive abilities, tool making, art and creativity in general they miss one very salient disadvantage of having a large brain. While a brain with billions of inter-neuronal connections provides a capacity to think and communicate it also creates a greater potential for ‘noise,’ existential uncertainty and consequently a greater need for ongoing resolution. The large brains bestowed on mankind by nature (and God, if you will) thus set in motion the very need for a God-concept. This process likely began with climatic change during the tail end of the Pleistocene (glaciation) era when resources dried up, travel became both more possible but also more treacherous during migrations across frozen tundra.

A small-brained creature would not contemplate such duress, merely experience it in the moment. Its fate would be either to adapt or die. There would be neither any possibility nor any point in hoping, fretting, worrying about ‘what if.’ Conversely, an animal with a brain of 1500 or so centimeters would. Since uncertainty-fostered duress can lead to avoidance behaviors, some sort of endurance-enhancing cognitive capacity would have had to kick in to rein in all that angst. In that time period the adaptive value of God might have been to sustain human motivation through supra-environmental (i.e. spiritual) cognitions and emotions, so that persistence would increase the likelihood of finding food, water and climatic support. In the aftermath of such discovery, the need of a large brain for closure might lead the nomads to thank/appease an overseer to reinforce his investment in the tribe and express gratitude for his or her concern for their well-being.

The combination of attributional and personifying tendencies probably forced a belief in God for the first humans. In that instance religion was not a symbolic, spiritual mindset but a necessary, adaptive form of cognition facilitating persistence and thus aiding in survival. It was conceivably both necessary and inevitable.

Genesis II.

A second God-adaptation possibly arose with the advent of agricultural societies. When people are able to renew a supply of plant foods without necessarily understanding the biology behind the process, they will perhaps view their good fortune as a function of some sort of outside control. That in turn will lead to gratitude and a need to pay homage to the purveyor of this good fortune. Thus the transition from a nomadic to agricultural/urban life style did not require a cognitive/religious transformation. The settlers hoped for crops to grow, had to wait for seasonal and climatically favorable circumstances and when things turned out well they acknowledged the agent responsible and continued to express their gratitude in the hope that the bounty would continue. (Wilkins 2000). Both nomadic and early agricultural religious practices were adaptive because they facilitated persistence and provided uncertainty reduction.

The continued development and expansion of agriculture societies obviously led to profound social changes, including a more sedentary life style and greater social permanence.  Family members could live together for longer periods of time and all inhabitants had more down time to ponder existential questions. A brain previously driven by movement, faced with moment to moment concerns about geography. resources and destinations was now able to look beyond immediate experience. A distinction between concrete experience and ‘meaning’ was drawn. Ideas on the value and importance of life and the trauma of death became more common and more vivid (Erlich 2000), (Gould, McGarr et. al 2007). A greater capacity for suffering was a consequence of that as the inherent tough-mindedness of the nomad morphed into the more tender and sensitive mindset of the permanent settlers.  To cope with internally-driven angst, to persist despite the specter of death, failure, and the potential loss of new-found prosperity required a continued reliance on the cognition/religion paradigm.

So, once again, God came to the rescue, insulating humans against the existential suffering and enabling mankind to adapt to still newer social and environmental circumstances.

Genesis III

Religious evolution did not end there, for another profound change occurred in human society. While agriculture provided stability and control, not all habitable places on earth were equally arable. Some places lacked water resources, others were too cold or mountainous, still others had agricultural potential but residents lacked knowledge of farming techniques. Yet tribal outsiders traveled about – after all, many were still entrenched in the nomadic life style. They were aware of the existence of milk and honey settlements and wanted in on that. As a result another ironic byproduct of societal advancement occurred in the form of tribal invasion. War became all the rage.

The genes of a primate are very parochial. Somehow, in some way these microscopic bio-conglomerates influence behavior in such a way as to serve the local gene pool. Family ties tend to promote loyalty while the presence of strangers tends to invoke hostility. Up the point of tribal invasions, family ties were not only strong but historically crucial. As evidenced in the Old Testament people in the Middle East/North African settlements were well aware of and arguably obsessed with lineage. One reason for this concern with lineage was to prevent contamination of the local gene pool by outsiders. Religious thought favored that mindset, as seen in the long reference list of progenitors and offspring in Genesis. That cognitive-religious mindset was adaptive because it reinforced altruism within the ranks and consequently the survival of all members of the tribal family. That model persisted down through the epochs depicted in the Bible. Indeed without that, Jesus of Nazareth (being ostensibly from the line of David and born by mandate in David’s town of Bethlehem) could not have risen in the ranks.

Yet even extended families are small in number and insufficient to ward off hordes of invaders. A conflict arose. Consanguine groups had to decide between keeping the family intact at the risk of being overrun by vast armies or increasing their numbers and territorial defensive capabilities by assimilating para-familial members into their community. The solution was discovered at some cost. It was that strangers somehow had to be incorporated and welcomed into an extra-familial socio-political structure

In order to achieve these first forays into social integration required nothing less than a socio-political miracle. For this to occur, the behavioral impetus arising from the most basic elements of life  – the genes – had to be overridden. In effect, nurture had to over-take nature. It was not an easy task, which is why a new religious adaptation was needed and why it did occur.

The newest cognitive/religious adaptation was found in the idea of integration and it was exemplified by Judao-Christian, Buddhist and other religious models.  The God of Abraham accepted Ishmael as future leader of a great nation, despite his biological mother (Hagar) being an Egyptian maid. Moses began as an Egyptian prince before ultimately leading the Hebrews. David united the conflicted twelve tribes to form the state of Israel. The story of the Good Samaritan rose above parochial protest. Jesus reached out to the Roman centurion to heal his servant, and included tax collectors and other outsiders into a more compassionate world view, while Buddha traveled about, espousing not just tribal integration but unity among all life forms. All these integrative ideas heralded at different times, in different places the advent of a new model. It was a credo that met with considerable resistance – and still does, but, just as the industrial growth of the western nations (most notably the U.S.A.) occurred through assimilation of immigrant foreigners, so were the urban settlements in the Middle East ultimately sustained in ancient times. In fact the human race was able to adapt as a result of a religiously-driven idea of overriding both genetic and tribal differences.

Protection from invasion was not the only reason for integrative thought but it conceivably originated in the need to survive against enemy attack and it worked.  In that context, God evolved from a parochial figure to one more concerned with the family of man. He taught us, through the prism of human cognition how to get along when it was absolutely necessary to do so.

Throughout history the cognitive and behavioral byproducts of belief in God have enabled us to adapt, persist and deal with changing pressures, threats and trends. In one sense that would seem to render God flexible, adaptable and perhaps even anthropocentrically utilitarian. And of course a belief in God has led to violent, destructive behavior in the course of time. Still, the overall effect of religion has kept Homo sapiens alive and well through thick and thin, in times when the genes, habits and instincts of mankind would not have been nearly enough – and indeed could have led to our downfall. As to the question of God’s existence: it is hard to resolve such a question in our post-Cartesian, empirically-tinged world. Perhaps a better question has to do with God’s legitimacy. In that context, even if religious belief is not genetically hardwired into the human brain as Hamer (2005) suggested, one could argue that since religion has been an inevitable byproduct of human neurology and human need and since it has enabled our species to persist, adapt and survive, it is virtually built into human experience and perhaps into mind as well. Like our penchant for analyzing nature through the medium of mathematics it seems very much within us – just as the prophets insisted.

REFERENCES

Cauvin, C. Watkins T. The Birth of the Gods and the Origin of Agriculture. Cambridge University Press

Draper, P. (1998) Evolution and the Problem of Evil. In Philosophy of Religion. Ed. Louis Pojman. Wadsworth Publishing. P. 200

Erlich, P. (2000) Human Nature,Genes, Culture and the Human Prospect. Washington, DC Island Press

Gould, S.J. McGarr, P. Steven, P, Russell, R (2007) Challenges to Neo-Darwinism and its Meaning for a Revised View of Human Consciousness. W.W.Norton & Co.

Hamer, D. (2005) The God Gene: How Faith is Hardwired into our Genes. Anchor Books

Hitchens, C. (2007) God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. Twelve/Hachette Book Group, USA Warner Books

Jesus reference re; I am the Way. In John 14:6

Jesus reference re:  Why do you call me good? In Luke 18:19

King, B (2007) Evolving God; A Provocative View on the Origin of Religion. Doubleday Publishing

Lieberman, P. (1984) The Biology and Evolution of Language. Cambridge, Harvard University Press.

Marlowe, F.W. (2005) Hunter-Gatherers and Human Evolution. Evolutionary Anthropology: Issues, News and Reviews. 14 (2) 54-67

Narr, K.J. (2008) Prehistoric Religion. Britannica On-Line Encyclopedia

Wilkins, j. (Aug 2000) Agriculture and the Rise of Religion. Evolving Thought. Science Blog.

Article Source: http://www.articlesbase.com/religion-articles/religionadaptation-god-and-the-survival-of-the-human-species-7193824.html

About the Author

Robert DePaolo, MS Clinical Psychology, former Professor of Psychology NH University System, author of five books and many articles on science, religion, politics, psychology and music.

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The Greenman, The Empress, Little John and Indy Jones: Untying a Celtic Knotwork

Originally posted on Shamagaia:

celtic-animal-ornament

illum_recently I experienced some very vivid psychic impressions during a lucid dreaming experience. One in particular had me receiving images of the Celtic symbolSerpiente_alquimica of the Greenman, and leading a Druidic prayer ritual in a stunning forest grove. I suspect that it might have been a peek through the eyes of ancestral memory, or perhaps a hint of things to come. Cyclically speaking, it might even be one and the same event: a past and future imposed upon one another, linked acausally by reoccurring astrological conditions of the sort expressed Alchemically by the Ouroboros snake eating it’s own tail. One things for sure, I will be doing a lot more research into Celtic lore!
The timing of this experience was telling. It was the night before my dear, departed Grandad’s RWS_Tarot_03_Empressbirthday and the week previously, I had recieved a very clear psychic image of a Tarot card with a…

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Transcendent warfare: Human consciousness the key?

Water War by Mark Rain via Flickr

By Steve Hammons (originally posted at Joint Recon Study Group 9/11/2008)

The term “transcendent warfare” was used by a U.S. Navy SEAL officer several years ago to describe the use of leading-edge knowledge and methods that could be helpful in achieving many important objectives.

The SEAL officer, L.R. Bremseth, indicated in a graduate-level research paper for the Marine Corps War College that transcendent warfare includes not only the deployment of certain methods, but also the understanding of underlying concepts.

He noted a significant range of opportunities for the utilization of leading-edge transcendent activities in U.S. national defense efforts.

People sometimes ask, “Is transcendent warfare a way to conduct war more successfully, or is it a way to transcend actual warfare and accomplish objectives in other ways?”

Transcendent warfare may be both … and more.

Transcendent concepts may help average people around the world understand ways to improve their lives and develop constructive solutions to the challenges they may face. In other words, transcendent understanding may enhance human development and change human consciousness.

NATIONAL SECURITY ACTIVITIES

In his paper, Bremseth summarized activities related to facilitating robust psychological and perceptual functioning of U.S. military and intelligence personnel.

He noted that research into human behavior and thinking processes is ever-expanding and that these developments can provide very useful insight and significant assets.

One aspect of transcendent warfare is establishing a perspective from which transcendent concepts can be understood. This is the formation of a certain perspective, viewpoint and understanding.

Another element is translating this understanding into activities can be deployed to accomplish worthwhile missions and tasks.

These may include “hard power” methods as well as “soft power” efforts. They may be applied to special operations missions and humanitarian activities. They may assist “public diplomacy” and constructive psychological operations. They may involve open source intelligence (OSINT) platforms and educational/sociological outreach.

Transcendent concepts and activities can provide additional resources and tools for many kinds of situations … situations that are of importance to us now.

HUMAN DEVELOPMENT

When we hear a term like transcendent warfare, the ideas of improving the state of the human race and solving the myriad of problems facing humanity might not immediately come to mind.

However, a study of the theories and activities on which the idea of transcendent warfare is based clearly indicates a potential for far-reaching positive changes for the human race and our planet.

Why? At the heart of transcendent concepts is human psychology and human consciousness. Most problems facing the human race are based on these fundamental elements. Many solutions lie in those same basic platforms too.

Enhancing human perception and understanding are keys to the transcendent perspective. Some of the research and activities conducted regarding discoveries in the area of human consciousness clearly indicate great potential for short-term and long-term human development.

How will these discoveries in consciousness and transcendent perspectives help us? It may not be completely clear. Important progress has already been made in integrating some of these leading-edge discoveries into the mass media and our everyday lives.

Social, educational, cultural, spiritual, medical, public safety, governmental, defense and other components of human societies can make greater use of transcendent viewpoints.

As they do, we may see a new paradigm, tipping point or breakthrough in the ways the human race solves problems and makes progress.

About the Author

Steve Hammons is the author of two novels about a U.S. Government and military joint-service research team investigating unusual phenomena. MISSION INTO LIGHT and the sequel LIGHT’S HAND introduce readers to the ten women and men of the “Joint Reconnaissance Study Group” and their exciting adventures exploring the unknown.

 


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Afterlife with Archie: Issue #4 (Oedipal Archie)

Originally posted on Stuff Jeff Reads:

AfterlifeArchie_04

This comic is graphic, scary, and now I can add intellectually engaging. I have nothing but praise for this.

This issue begins with a flashback to when Archie is young and his parents took him to adopt a puppy. Archie’s mom, Mary, is struck with sadness as she remembers having a dog as a child, and when the dog died, having to face the realization that death is an inevitable part of life, something her own young son must one day learn.

Mary: …I’m just remembering the dog I had, when I was a girl. Spotty. How overjoyed I was when I got him, and how utterly devastated I was when… when…

Fred: Spotty was a good dog.

Mary: He was, and it was the most awful feeling, Fred, and I can’t bear the thought of Archie going through it.

Fred: Yes, but that’s years from now, Mary. And sad…

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Mysticism and Sainthood – Part 1 – One or Many?

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By Michael Clark

The word “mysticism” speaks to a variety of phenomena reported within most world religions.

In his 1963 classic, Mysticism in World Religion, Rev. Sidney Spencer looks at the idea of “interior perception” as one aspect of mysticism. Spencer says that virtually all mystics claim to be in contact with a transcendent realm “which typically assumes the form of knowledge, often described in terms of vision, and of union.”¹

Spencer also believes that mysticism is essential to not only religion but to humanity’s future. But Spencer warns against generalizing the claims of mystics without sufficient facts. To do so, he says, could be misleading.

The religion scholar Ninian Smart talks about religious experience within a global-historical context and, in a similar vein as Spencer, highlights their differences through the analogy of sports: To say that all sports are essentially the same is ridiculous. And Smart believes it is equally wrong to say that all religions are essentially the same religion or, for that matter, that all different types of mysticism can be reduced to a single mysticism.

It is, I think, useful to distinguish between religion and religions, or to put it another way between religion and a religion. This is similar to the distinction between sport and sports. A religion is a given tradition of a religious kind, and so religious experience is often picked out by considering crucial experiences in the lives of those who belong to such traditions.²

Critics of Smart say his analogy is unjustified because mysticism deals with God, and there is only one God. And some New Age and politically correct thinkers denounce anyone trying to analytically assess and soberly compare different religious truth claims, insinuating that to do so is religious fascism, bigotry or hate.

It’s almost as if it has become a great sin to simply think about religious differences instead of mindlessly accepting the idea that all religious experiences are exactly the same.

Contrary to this prevalent bias, Geoffrey Parrinder argues

The important distinctions in mysticism are not so much between the layman and the expert as between the assumptions and the objects of the mystical quest. It is popularly said that all religions are the same though their differences should be evident to unprejudiced eyes and part of their fascination is their diversity.³

Parrinder highlights Martin Buber’s distinction between mystics who say they

  • are God (I-It)
  • relate to God (I-Thou).

To say there is no difference, Parrinder says, “is like telling a lover that his experience of embracing his beloved is the same as embracing the hedge at the bottom of the garden.”4

Indeed, it is entirely reasonable to question whether one person’s experience (and interpretation of) their alleged encounter with God differs from another person’s. And to say otherwise is just silly.

To draw another analogy, imagine an ancient or medieval astronomer who sees the Andromeda galaxy as we see it today. He or she doesn’t see Andromeda as a magical being or as mysterious cloud. Instead, he or she views Andromeda as a distant group of stars. If this challenges the local dignitaries’ beliefs, the astronomer might be punished, perhaps even killed.

A similar situation arose with Galileo, whose heliocentric theory hit a brick wall with Catholic power brokers who insisted on a Biblical geocentric model of the solar system. These apparently loving and religiously inspired clergy put Galileo under house arrest for the rest of his days, a scene which wasn’t easy for Galileo to deal with.

But I digress. The point I’m trying to make is that authoritarian stupidity is alive and well today. Like many short-sighted folk of former times, some people today see themselves as open minded but instantly shut down or react if their pet paradigm is challenged.

Perhaps these narrow-minded individuals find it too scary to envision a broader canvas. Well that’s fine. But problems arise when they hold positions of social power and use their power to trivialize, exploit or oppress those who simply wish to rationally investigate the intriguing idea of mysticism and its sometime companion, sainthood.


1 Sidney Spencer, Mysticism in World Religion (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1963: 9). A footnote to my article Krishna, Buddha and Christ mentions the idea of interior perception as described by Catholic saints.

2 Ninian Smart, “Understanding Religious Experience” in Steven Katz, ed., Mysticism and Philosophical Analysis (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978: 11). On the same page Smart adds that many religious experiences happen “out of the blue” to people of no particular tradition. He also says that conversion experiences often occur “at the frontier between non-belonging and belonging to a given tradition.” Thus “we should start with traditions in pinning down religious experience [but] we should not confine religious experience to this area.” Interestingly, the Catholic understanding of conversion is that a Christian exists in “seed form” before becoming fully aware of this ontological fact.

³ Geoffrey Parrinder, Mysticism in the World’s Religions (Oxford: One World, 1995: 192). Parrinder also critiques R. C. Zaehner’s sometimes unreasonable statements about mysticism as found in Mysticism: Sacred and Profane (Oxford, 1957).

4 Ibid.

Part 2 – Mysticism, Science and Politics

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Perfectionism and Spiritual Addiction

Originally posted on Shamagaia:

file000868040064Image source: morgueFile.com


There are any number of well-worn epithets to comfort us when we blow-off that fad diet, when we screw up at work, or hurt our loved ones; yet for some reason, many of us often get right back on that treadmill and keep on keeping on, with the illusion that if we can just achieve that perfect state of something or other, then all will be milk and honey.

Striving for perfection in life, whilst admirable from a certain perspective, can be deeply problematic. It’s often accompanied by a persistent sense that you are never good enough, or that you are only as successful as your last fleeting triumph. Having to constantly defend a sense of perfected completeness is an exercise in ego-manipulation which demands that your successful achievements, whether they be physical, intellectual, creative or spiritual, be considered inviolable.

The problem with such an idea is…

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Perspectives on The Bhagavad Gita

As it Is by Jeremy

As it Is by Jeremy via Flickr

By Michael Clark

To kill or not to kill

Many say The Bhagavad Gita is the Hindu Bible. Among diverse Hindu scriptures, the Gita stands out as a unique gem, synthesizing several core aspects of Hinduism. At least, this is how enthusiasts talk about the Gita. Critics tend to see it as a misguided justification for violence.

The Gita belongs within the Mahabharata, an epic about two warring families. Because of its literary and philosophical sophistication, most scholars believe the Gita was added to the already existing Mahabharata around 450 BCE, approximately 500 years after the original epic was written (circa 1000 BCE).

When it comes to ancient texts, insertions like this are not unusual. Almost all contemporary biblical scholars say that diverse oral traditions and authors run though many Old Testament books formerly believed to be written by just one person.

The story of the Gita is pretty straighforward. The hero, Arjuna, of the virtuous Pandava family, is cheated out of his palace by the wicked Karauva family. As a result, the deity Krishna, seated at the back of Arjuna’s chariot, urges him to fight in a massive battle against the evil Karauvas. Because the Pandavas and Karauvas are kith and kin, the noble Arjuna hesitates when Krishna exhorts him to kill members of the Karauva side of the family.

In response to Arjuna’s hesitation, Krishna launches forth on a metaphysical discourse about sacred duty (dharma) and the immortality of the soul (atman). Krishna says Arjuna is justified in killing because it’s his sacred obligation as a member of the warrior caste (Kshatriya). As a Kshatriya he’s duty-bound to restore a moral balance perilously skewed by the Karauva’s evil ways.

On a metaphysical level, Krishna says that Arjuna would not really be killing because, at the deepest level, the soul is immortal. Arjuna’s spiritual ignorance makes him believe he’d be doing wrong by slaying the Karauvas. In fact, Krishna says physicality is an illusion spun by the web of maya (deception arising from ignorance). Krishna adds that Arjuna’s ignorance must be dispelled before he can attain the clear vision required to do the right thing–that is, to kill the Karauvas.

A psychological interpretation

Lord Krishna Speaks to Arjuna by His Holiness Bhaktiratna Sadhu Swami Gaurangapada

Lord Krishna Speaks to Arjuna by His Holiness Bhaktiratna Sadhu Swami Gaurangapada via Flickr

Don’t let this brief summary fool you. The Gita is not a mere outburst nor artistic representation of anger. Krishna forwards a detailed philosophical and religious argument advocating the physical killing of human beings. Taken literally, the Gita says killing human beings who disrupt the moral order is not just okay, it’s holy.

Some may agree with this stance, citing rough parallels like the Jewish Holy War, the Christian Just War and the Muslim jihad. Others find it deplorable.

Like any text, literary or not, the Gita must be interpreted. So forgetting the bellicose readings of the Gita, it seems more constructive to interpret the Gita on a psycho-spiritual level. This isn’t a novel approach. Several Indian thinkers have written about the psychological aspects of the Gita. In fact, the great champion of non-violence, Mohandas Gandhi, said the Gita was his favorite book, one that could untie any spiritual knot.

Gandhi’s notion of spiritual knots reminds us that the psyche can be complicated. Some psychologists say that the complexities of the psyche are genetically determined. Behaviorists, on the other hand, say the mind is conditioned by the environment. Most, however, take the middle way by highlighting nature and nurture.

But the analysis shouldn’t stop there. Many theologians from different religions believe that spiritual powers act on our personalities, a perspective often ignored within psychology.

Sri Ramakrishna and C. G. Jung

Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa - Sri Ramakrishna Ashrama, Mysore by Chetan Hegde M

Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa – Sri Ramakrishna Ashrama, Mysore by Chetan Hegde M via Flickr

The Indian holy man Sri Ramakrishna says that spiritual enlightenment entails a process of purification. This process is not always easy to endure. For Ramakrishna, the inferior aspects of the personality are purged through the mechanism of suffering.

Ramakrishna gives an analogy of rotten tomatoes. Old tomatoes rot faster, he says, when bashed up and thrown out the window. This might sound enigmatic but Ramakrishna’s analogy might be better understood if we compare it to Carl Jung’s work on psychological suffering within the context of alchemy.

Jung studied ancient and medieval alchemical practices and came to see alchemy as a process of inner transformation. He believed the alchemist’s desire to transform base metals into gold mirrored their psychological transformation. As metals are heated and transformed, the alchemist evolves psychologically.

Some alchemists, no doubt, were hucksters trying to scam zealous aristocrats searching for gold, but others were sincere. The true alchemist sought to create a mystical tonic to cure illness and ensure immortality. But this elixir came through prolonged boilings, just as psycho-spiritual purification entails suffering.

Jung’s view of alchemy parallels Ramakrishna’s take on the Gita because both point to a stormy and painful stage of personal growth.

As we journey through life, people and events tempt or irritate us. During moments of temptation or agitation our lesser qualities can arise. Some accept these personality aspects, leaving them unchanged. For these people it’s not degrading to express their animal – or perhaps evil – nature. It’s just natural, healthy and whole. By way of contrast, potential saints are consumed with the idea of eradicating lower personality traits. Some may even self-flagellate in an attempt to conquer sinful tendencies.

Most of us fall somewhere between those two extremes. Confronted with bad habits or irritating people, we can view that as an opportunity for reflection, knowledge and self-control.

Apostle Paul. Byzantine mosaic at the...

Apostle Paul. Byzantine mosaic at the cathedral of Monreale. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A psychological interpretation of the Gita views much of life as a battlefield. We are often confronted with antagonistic influences, personalities and opinions. But life isn’t quite that simple. And a psychological interpretation of the Gita, while superior to a literal one, dwells on the abrasive side of human relationships.

However, disharmony is only half the story. Perhaps not even half. Conflicts will always arise. But other people can give us a lift and not just bring us down. And instead of hitting back when people hurt us, shouldn’t we try to overcome our pain and anger through understanding and compassion?

As Saint Paul says:

If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love, I have become a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.

If I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.

1 Corinthians 13:1-2

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