Posts Tagged 'Hinduism'

Secular Revolutions and Religious Counterrevolutions – On Michael Walzer’s New Book

The Paradox of Liberation: Secular Revolutions and Religious Counterrevolutions, by Michael Walzer, Yale University Press, 192 pages, $26

“[They] saw that the cherished ideals of their race – their thrones and their families and the very Gods that they worshipped – were trampled underfoot, the holy land of their love devastated and sacked by hordes of barbarians, so inferior to them in language, religion, philosophy…” Thus wrote the Indian nationalist and fighter for independence V.D. Savarkar in 1923, but if he had written “God” instead of “Gods,” his anti-colonialist thoughts could easily be attributed to the Zionist Revisionist leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky, or to ideologue Israel Eldad. Like them, Savarkar was secular, and like them he too enlisted symbols and conceptual structures from religion in his struggle against the foreigners who ruled his country.

Something else the three had in common is that, although they were in the political minority during the struggle for national liberation in their countries, their ideas still resonated decades after independence was attained. Now, however, their ideas were invoked by religious leaders, who viewed their words not only as metaphorical banners that could spur unity, but as dogmatic and comprehensive frameworks for life. It is this process – the rise of the shunned and silenced religious element in nation-states that were founded as secular – that Michael Walzer addresses in his new book.

An expert in ethics and political science, and one of the leading public intellectuals of our time, Walzer examines three cases: Israel, India and Algeria. All three gained independence after fighting a colonial ruler – Britain, in the cases of Israel and India; France, in that of Algeria. All three countries made an attempt, with varying degrees of success, to introduce democracy, and all three have experienced a significant awakening of religion that is undermining that democracy. Walzer wants to understand why.

Europien Elites

His starting point is the differences in worldviews. Walzer notes that even though the three liberation movements struggled against European forces, those who waged the struggle were also European, if not in origin then in outlook. In other words, they were secular nationalists who set out to forge democratic regimes. As such they were very different from large parts, if not the overwhelming majority, of the oppressed population on behalf of whose independence they fought.

Like Moses in the house of Pharaoh, the leaders of the liberation movements grew up differently from most of those they were fighting for, and they were also educated differently. In fact, they were educated in the culture of those who subjugated their nations.

For instance, Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, spent no less than eight years studying in Western institutions. India’s first minister of justice, B.R. Ambedkar, who was also instrumental in formulating his country’s constitution, held doctoral degrees from both Columbia University and the London School of Economics. For their part, Theodor Herzl and Chaim Weizmann were European in origin and education. Frantz Fanon studied psychiatry in France, and Ahmed Ben Bella, Algeria’s first president, served for many years in the French army and was even awarded its highest honor.

In contrast, the society being liberated was non-European and traditional (even to an extent in Israel). Thus, the leaders of the national-liberation movements were very different from those they were bent on liberating. Decades later, that same population – this time, as citizens of democratic nation-states – would vote for religious or traditionalist forces that would undercut the ideological descendants of the state’s founders.

The Paradox of Liberation

However, it was not only separation but also overbearing arrogance that characterized the relations between liberators and liberated. The former demanded that the latter shed their traditional ways. They believed that only a total transformation in the character of those who had been oppressed would allow them to escape their downtrodden condition.

Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, talked about “the worker in the Land of Israel” as a new offshoot unconnected to the ancient tree of Diaspora Jewry. Fanon wrote about a “new Algerian” who underwent a “mutation” that made possible the struggle for national liberation. In India, the complaint about the submissive, kowtowing character of the masses was a regular refrain in the battle of the aspirants to independence, at least from the start of the 20th century.

Thus, not only were the leaders of the national independence movements a different breed – they also demanded that the masses who were to be liberated transform themselves. They perceived them as inferior and lorded it over them as a superior elite, intellectually as well as in terms of character and willpower. Zionism’s “negation of the exile,” Walzer reminds us, was more than an admonition to put an end to the Diaspora: It constituted an aggressive denial of everything the Diaspora stood for, of the whole Jewish manner of being that it cultivated and supported. The creation of the new Jew (and the new Indian, and the new Algerian) entailed putting an end to the existence of the old.

However, the old Jew, like his Indian and Algerian counterparts, was dear to the hearts of multitudes. They delighted in the fruits of liberation, but were disinclined to part with their past, their culture, their way of life. The liberators’ condescending demand that they do just that, and their pride and their silencing of the voices of the masses – these brought about disparities between the groups, but also tension and antagonism. That, Walzer writes, is the “paradox of liberation” (hence also the book’s title). The subsequent religious revival sprang from that very disparity and antagonism.

Historic irony

And here’s another paradox or, rather a historic irony: The return of tradition and religion is taking place in an untraditional way. In fact, it’s draping itself like a robe over the national body, and coming back in the form of national-religious fundamentalism. In Israel there was Gush Emunim (Bloc of the Faithful) and now its paler offspring, Habayit Hayehudi. In India there’s the RSS, a Hindu nationalist movement that wants to reconstitute the kingdom of Rama, a mythological entity in which Hinduism enjoys its zenith under the earthly dominion of the god Rama. Similarly, the nationalist Islam of the Islamic Salvation Front, which as a political party almost took power in Algeria in 1992, but was blocked by a military coup, triggering a civil war in which about 100,000 Algerians died in the 1990s.

Religion, unsilenced, has reentered our lives in recent decades, through the democratic political system, drawing a large following in its wake as it made its appeal in the name of nationhood no less than in the name of God. In the next phase, it assails other religions as well as the old elites: “‘Westernizing’ leftists, secularists, heretics, and infidels – traitors, it is said, in our midst,” Walzer writes, summing up a familiar process.

The old, diasporic Jew is replaced by the young Zionist worker. Art by Ephraim Moses Lilien, 1901

Marxists ans Post-Colonialists

Walzer devotes part of his book to refuting those viewpoints that see no paradox in religious revival springing from secular nationalism. Thus, according to the Marxist or the post-colonial approach, there is no real struggle or contradiction here, but a direct continuation of two forces that deep down feed off each other. Marxists will argue that religious beliefs and identities are the products of a false consciousness that is utilized by the hegemony of big capital to rule the masses. The national liberators don’t understand this and substitute nationalism for religion as a new smokescreen for the exploitative mechanism of the market forces.

Post-colonialists will long for a pre-colonialist past, when religious tradition was supposedly moderate and nurturing, indeterminate and dialogic. In their view, the modern expressions of religion are no more than the monstrous offspring of colonialism itself. Thus, the fighters for independence were merely continuing colonialism under a different cover and are thereby encouraging the growth of fundamentalism. In both cases, a religious resurgence is not a paradox but a logical outcome.

Walzer reminds Marxists that nowhere in the world, ever, has pluralistic universalism succeeded in supplanting national identity, and that foreign rule has been experienced in every case as national – not class – oppression. In addition, he notes, all the national liberators sought to create democracies, however flawed and imperfect, but their ambition was definitely to be accepted as legitimate members of the family of nations.

Contrary to them, the agents of religious revival challenge democracy, if they don’t actually reject it. They are not interested in universal values of human rights but in particular religious laws, whether of sharia or halakha or dharma, and they always rely on a fundamentalist interpretation of those laws. They have no wish to be part of the family of nations, but rather they counterpose themselves to it, like a charming teen with special needs. It is illogical, Walzer claims, to think that religious fanaticism springs naturally from democratic nationalism, as the two are utterly different. “Labor Zionism doesn’t produce religious zealotry; we might better say that its most authentic product is the Palestinian national liberation movement,” he writes.

The writer reminds post-colonialists that religion before modernity was not so moderate and accepting, but quite oppressive – toward adherents of other religions, for example, and toward women. On the contrary, the rise of religious fundamentalism is actually a reaction to liberalism, and above all to women’s liberation. What generated fundamentalism is not national suppression but the freedom spawned by democracy.

A Need for Dialectics

In the end, Walzer argues, the secular-liberal frameworks are too weak. They are unable to create a stable identity, sources of inspiration and, by the same token, continuity. They surrender in the face of religious revival. Walzer blames the liberators for not acting to bolster ties with the religious elements. If religion were accorded a larger place from the outset, the emergence of a religious contrarian character could be avoided. “Traditionalist worldviews can’t be negated, abolished, or banned; they have to be engaged,” he writes. What’s needed is a dialectical process in which the two poles are brought into contact and interact with each other to the point of creating a third entity. That did not happen, Walzer maintains, and we can see the results.

This, then, is his answer to the paradox of liberation: A total rejection of religion and a condescending attitude toward the religious public are the seeds that engender a fundamentalist religious revival. It is impossible to escape the past, and a tree cannot be made to grow without roots. Engaging tradition in a deep dialogue, Walzer writes with a measure of hope for Israel, “might still improve the odds – for the eventual success of Jewish national liberation.”

On Christianity and Other Religions

Although I agree completely with Walzer that an ignored past will return and make its presence felt sharply, and that it is of surpassing importance, even now, for secular society in Israel to enter into an intensive dialogue with Jewish tradition – I want to propose a different direction for thinking about religious revival, using his examples. This direction seeks to apprehend that revival in the three countries under consideration as a reaction not to detachment or to condescension, but to a foreign political and social superstructure. That is, simply, we should note that in each of the countries – Israel, India and Algeria – the religion that returns to center stage is not Christianity.

This is a significant point, because secular, democratic nationalism – of which an essential element is the separation of religion from state and the rendering of religion as a private matter for each citizen – is a phenomenon that derives from Protestantism and that is shaped by its religious model. In the cases under discussion, then, the reaction is not only one of a tradition that was forgotten, whether in a natural process or by force, and is now rising to the surface again: The reaction is that of a collectivist religion that harbors extreme ambitions for the public space, and that rises to the surface in contradistinction to a secularized, privatized political body that is structurally based along the lines of a foreign religious model.

Judaism, Islam and, to a lesser degree Hinduism, are incapable of fully digesting the process of Western secularization, which sprang from Protestantism. (Even Catholicism had a hard time accepting secularization, not recognizing it in essence until the 1960s in Vatican II.) It should be clear that any attempt to secularize the religions according to that model will generate a challenging response. Indeed, no fundamentalist resurgence occurred in Christian countries that were liberated from colonialism.

In a postscript to his book, Walzer surveys the liberation movement that transformed 13 British colonies into the United States of America, and admits, as in passing, “The idea of a secular state did not challenge the deepest convictions or feelings of (most of) the future citizens of the American republic.”

This is the core of the matter. As Walzer notes, the separation of religion from the state even gained the support of evangelical Protestants, because one’s relationship with God was perceived from the outset as a private and individual matter – not as communal, social or national. In short, the evangelicals view the state as a threat to religion; religious Zionism views it as the earthly foundation of the seat of God.

Consider, for example, Ireland, which gained its independence from Britain after a struggle. It’s always been a Catholic country, but the recent referendum approving same-sex marriage by a large majority indicates that the state is definitely not moving toward a revival of religious fundamentalism.

Similarly, the East European countries that attained freedom after years of Soviet domination are not spawning radical religiosity – whereas the movement for the liberation of Palestine is coping with a Muslim religious resurgence even before achieving its goal.

Prof. Walzer’s new book analyzes one of the fateful questions of our generation: why young democracies constitute fertile ground for the rise of extreme religion. He cites a great deal of evidence and presents the considerable resemblances in the three examples he writes about. Undoubtedly, the alienation between the liberating elite and the liberated masses played an important role in the return of tradition after its suppression. This is a spectacle we are witnessing today. However, it is not the whole story. The causes of religious revival need to be sought in religion.

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Published in Haaretz

Post-Humanism, Post-Theism – Religion and Ethics in the Trans-Human Project

I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live. Yet not I, but Christ liveth in me, and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2:20)

It is the beginning of the sixties, the first sixties ever, and St. Paul is disclosing his own personal transcendence, which he understands as redemption from Original Sin. He is no longer himself, but another lives in him – or is it through him? His very self is transformed and altered – it is no longer “he” who lives. Something very dramatic has happened to his spirit or his soul. As for his bodily life, the life he lives “in the flesh,” it is also changed: It is now lived “by the faith of the Son of God,” sustained, perhaps even animated, by a higher power.

2014-06-07_192818There is nothing new, then, in humanity’s attempts to transcend itself. Quite the contrary: Religion and post-humanism have been intertwined, sometimes even synonymous, since what has been called “the Axial Age” – in other words, the era, around the middle of the first millennium B.C.E., when religion and philosophy became self-reflective, universally inclusive and emphasized self-cultivation through ethical rites and processes. Indeed, the Moksha of Upanishadic Hinduism and Jainism, the Nirvana of Buddhism, the Ataraxia of the ancient Greek philosophical schools, and the redemptive “putting on” of Christ for early Christians – these are nothing if not post-humanist and trans-humanist visions thorough which the individual transcends and transmutes his or her self.

The Ecstacy of St. Paul, Nicolas Poussin, Oil on Canvas 1643

Truth be told, for almost 2,000 years, the West has turned its back on post-humanist projects, and busied itself with the proper construction of man. Partly due to its Judaic heritage, partly inspired by the Hellenistic traditions (especially the Aristotelian and Platonic), the Christianized Roman Empire sought to establish its association with Truth not through rejection of man, but by placing him (and sometimes her) in a proper dialogical relationship with God, or The One.

Being the ultimate Other, the transcendent divine of Jewish, Christian and Muslim monotheism held within itself the Truth , and required any who wished to partake of it to look to “Him” for answers. This yearning “upward,” toward the transcendent, ceased in the first centuries of the Common Era to be actualized through mystical ascent and apotheosis for all but a very select elite, and for most believers meant instituting an inter-subjective and dialogical connection with the great Other, often through sacred texts and rituals.

Through a process that Hegel would later refer to as the master-slave dialectic, this double-ended relationship intensifies and empowers not only the master – in our case, the transcendent God – but also the slave – in our case, the religious human. The Western perception of the human being was configured as an autonomous individual in large part through its understanding of itself as a dialogical partner engaged in an intentional relationship with the divine Other.

Humanism thus owes many of its roots to the religious traditions of transcendent monotheism. It is against and toward the transcendent divine that Renaissance man, and later the Protestant reformers, laid down the first tracks of the humanist project, a project that even at its highest ideological point, arguably at the end of the 18th century with the American and French revolutions, relied on God for the origination and continual securing of (what was beginning to be called by then) human rights.

It is not hard to understand, then, why the decline and final fall of the transcendent, monotheistic God has presented the humanist vision with a fundamental challenge. The destruction of the transcendent idea, brought about by the consolidated processes of the rise of the naturalistic perception of the universe, the de-mystification of life caused by the scientific revolution and the augmentation of inner-worldly and subjective sources of morality and authority (such as rational-analytic thinking, or inner – “spontaneous” and “natural” – feelings and passions) made the idea of a transcendent God either unnecessary or unthinkable, and brought about wide-ranging unbelief, on the one hand, and a different kind of religion, on the other.

It is to that last kind of religion that I will turn now, as I would like to propose that it is the basis for both the modern spiritual search, as displayed in the contemporary spirituality milieu (sometimes referred to as “the New Age”), and to the different groups engaged in a trans-human soteriological quest, based on technological achievements and scientific, or quasi-scientific, assumptions.

Singularity and monotheism 

Now, when referring to the religious characteristics of the technological quest for the improvement and transcendence of man, I am not just addressing the obvious points of resemblance between ideas such as Ray Kurzweil’s “singularity” and monotheistic Messianism. As can be understood by the title of Kurzweil’s 2005 book “The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology,” there is not even an attempt to camouflage the clearly Messianic patterns of discourse.

I am also not speaking about groups such as the Raëlists, the Immortalists, the technopagans or the Luciferians, all of which have distinct religious themes and characteristics, and display clear and even conscious use of religious symbols and ideals.

I am referring rather to the structure of this religious quest, its form more than its content. For it is the form of religion that has fundamentally changed over the last few centuries in the West, leading to a process of secularization that is much more post-theism than a-theism. By post-theism, I mean a religion that is not centered around the grand old monotheistic transcendent king, but one that is concerned with what Foucault would call “the care of the self.” It is a religion that manifests itself less as a communal faith, based on collective rituals and rules of social conduct, and more as a personal spiritual quest, or in a word: an ethic.

It is not, then, only a matter of free choice and the private fashioning of the faith. The turn from traditional organized religion toward an individual voluntary one is also the turn from traditional ritual and law toward the individual’s concern with his or her own spiritual perfectibility. It is this change that we must note well, for it is this which ties the contemporary spiritual scene to the post- and trans-human projects at this time.

Now, to understand this religious metamorphosis, we must appreciate the dramatic consequences of the loss of the transcendental monotheistic god. Note that the assumption of a transcendental source of authority and truth is closely associated with a binary view of reality that presents clear dichotomies between presumed opposites such as this world and the next, nature and man, matter and spirit, body and soul, and man and woman. Moreover, in order to appropriately obey our God, we must fully embrace only one part of each binary couple, and seek divine truth by rejecting the latter and yearning, as it were, up and away from our earthly existence.

The elimination of the transcendent God has made this-worldly reality the focus of our religious life. It is in our present condition that we seek truth and redemption, through the phenomenal world as we see it, be it nature, our body, our mind or our feelings. A system of ethics, which regularly includes moral tenets and meditation practices, is supposed to bring us, by adherence to it, to full realization of religious redemption (whether spiritual liberation, emotional balance, or unification with nature).

In a way, this is a return to the transformative type of religiosity displayed by St. Paul, as mentioned above, and by Hellenistic Epicureanism and Stoicism, Upanishadic Hinduism and some strands of Buddhism. It is also the type of spiritual life we can sometimes find in the mystical traditions of the West, such as Sufism, Kabbalah, neo-Platonism and Hermeticism. What makes the current state of affairs in the West revolutionary in this respect is the magnitude and prevalence of this religious logic. From being the esoteric approach of a distinct elite, it has become the obvious and evident religiosity of the masses. Indeed, it is the dialogical “covenant” made with a transcendent God that has become a rarity in contemporary Western culture (though more in Europe than in the U.S. and Israel, of course).

I see trans-humanism, being the view that humans can and should (be permitted to) use technology to transform the human organism, as a specific creed within this major religious current. As with many New Age spiritual paths, it aimes to improve the individual condition in order to achieve superhuman goals, such as extended memory, bionic strength, full immunity to disease and even immortality. It thus offers a way towards private redemption, the difference from most of contemporary spirituality being that instead of a practical rule of ethics, it uses advanced technology for that purpose.

But the effort to improve and transcend the human condition is mutual. As Patrick Hopkins writes in an article entitled “Transcending the Animal: How Transhumanism and Religion Are and Are Not Alike”:

I see transhumanism as a reaction to the perceived oppressive and disappointing limitations of given human nature. Like religion – but unlike accepting or coping secular humanism – transhumanists want strongly to transcend the animal and actively work toward doing so. Unlike merely hoping that transcendence can occur, transhumanists aggressively pursue the physical practices, the technologies, that could make transcendence a reality.

What I would add to Hopkins’ account is that this specific type of religion, in which active effort is made to transcend the human “animal” in this very life, was, as stated earlier, quite rare in the West during the last two millennia, and has only since the second half of the 20th century become a wide-ranging, mass phenomenon. I wish to note that trans-humanism is located as a specific stream within this mass phenomenon.

The strategic flaw in the trans-human endeavor

And yet, there is a fundamental difference between the varied trans-humanist projects and the various spiritual paths, and it is this difference that eventually directs these enterprises toward quite opposite routes. We must remember that for almost all the religious mystical paths, transcending the human body was closely tied with transcending the human self. As St. Paul proclaims in the opening quote: “Yet not I, but Christ liveth in me.”

For Epicureanism, Ataraxia was achieved by understanding that the self is no more than a conflation of material particles, and not an ethereal soul. For strands of Hinduism, Moksha was realized when the individual understood that the Atman was in fact not the personal self, but identical with the one universal Brahman. For Buddhism, the goal was to realize that there is no separate self at all, and for different Hasidic courts, the self was the Godhead itself. Indeed, one could define the mystical quest (and I heard this brilliant definition from Moshe Halbertal) as the very process of gradual or abrupt de-selfization and de-individuation. These patterns of purpose and intention are still maintained within contemporary spirituality circles today.

In contrast to this, the trans-humanist project seeks to maintain the very same human self that exists at the outset of its path. That self may be improved upon, made stronger or smarter, may even be immortalized, but it will not be essentially changed, and definitely not annulled. I see this as a principal distinction between these two projects of “care of the self,” and as a strategic flaw in the trans-human endeavor.

The reason I see this as a fundamental mistake on the part of the trans-humanists (judging from their point of view, at least so long as they want to forward human freedom), is because the self that is imagined to be improved upon and immortalized is no more than a particular human cultural construct, specifically being the rational analytical self of the Enlightenment, itself a secularized version of the Judeo-Christian soul. This view of the human self was presented explicitly first by Rene Descartes, and fully developed in the works of Emanuel Kant. Taking this self to be the true or real human self is erroneous, and disastrous for any work built on that assumption.

To give a quick example of this assumption I would like to take two recent movies: “Her,” directed by Spike Jonze, and Wally Pfister’s “Transcendence.” In both these films, a human or human-like intelligence is “uploaded” or created to or in a computer. This intelligence acts as a sentient being, or in simple words – a self. On the other hand, this trans-human self has no physical body, and “moves” through cyberspace at will.

I propose this view of matters, shared by many post- and trans-humanists, is totally false, and is built, as said, on the Enlightenment’s secularized Judeo-Christian soul. As with the Judeo-Christian soul, it does not take into account the unbreakable bond between our mind and our body. I am not arguing that only brain tissue – and not silicon chips – can produce consciousness. I’m not a substance chauvinist and certainly believe that, as the saying goes, “it ain’t the meat, it’s the motion.”

What I am saying is that our consciousness is dependent on our body to understand itself as well as to function. I cannot go into this in proper length, and will just stress that we are embodied creatures and only through the body can we make sense of ourselves and our world. That is why we use our hands while talking, even on the phone. That is why we think better while walking. That is why our languages are filled with metaphors of space and time in order to comprehend mind and spirit. Indeed, even words like “superhuman” and “trans-human” are spatial metaphors, and “post-human” a temporal one.

In the film “Her,” the protagonist, played by Joaquin Phoenix, makes love to his artificial intelligent partner, and she actually has an orgasm – without a body. I think the very fundamental ways in which our body affects our feelings, emotions and consciousness and in which these are dependent on it are mistakenly ignored in this post-human fantasy.

To understand how much we are indebted to the Judeo-Christian soul when we imagine an out-of-body consciousness, I would like to suggest we try to imagine a cow’s consciousness being uploaded to a supercomputer. At first glance, it must be considered easier to upload a cow’s consciousness to a computer than that of a human, a cow’s consciousness being that much simpler. But we are unsuccessful in imagining a cow’s “self” living a virtual life within cyberspace. I believe we are unsuccessful in this because we grant special status to the human mind, and that because our view of it is, as said, the Enlightenment’s secularized Judeo-Christian soul.

When the female protagonist in “Transcendence” (played by Rebecca Hall) talks about her partner (Johnny Depp) and claims that “his mind is a pattern of electrical signals … we can upload his consciousness,” she is simply using pseudo-scientific mumbo-jumbo to secularize the idea of a separate soul, able to disconnect from the body. When her partner accomplishes said uploading and claims “my mind has been set free,” he is plainly delivering the trans-human secularized version of the “hallelujah” shouted by the religious individual reborn in Christ.

The view of the self in much of trans-humanism, is, then, no other than a secularized version of the Judeo-Christian soul, thrust through the prism of the Enlightenment and “technologized,” as it were, to update it for the 21st century. It is a particular view of the human self, time and culturally bound, and quite oblivious – as its archetype, the soul, was – to the fundamental and unbreakable tie between the mind and the body.

Following this philosophical blunder – another. This view of the human self is static within the trans-human project, meaning it is not to be changed or transformed, even while the human body is changed or transformed “around” it. This is fundamentally different, as stated earlier, from the dynamic view of the self in different spiritual traditions, a self going through metamorphosis.

Here we come to another principal difference within these two currents of the contemporary endeavor for the transcendence of man. As C.S. Lewis put it as early as 1944 in his The Abolition of Man:

For the wise men of old, the cardinal problem had been how to conform the soul to reality, and the solution had been knowledge, self-discipline and virtue. For magic and applied science alike, the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men: the solution is a technique.

Or, we would say today, technology. And it is those wishes of man, subduing reality, that also disclose the ethical bankruptcy of trans-humanism, for when those wishes are fulfilled they will set human life in one determinate direction. Thus, changing reality instead of ourselves, we will perpetuate the dictatorship of our self as it is today, reducing choices and options for alternative lifestyles and setting the standard for any human existence to come.

As C.S. Lewis says, these future men will be “weaker, not stronger: for though we may have put wonderful machines in their hands, we have pre-ordained how they are to use them.” Without changing our selves, “Each new power won by man is a power over man as well.”

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The article was presented as a lecture last month in a conference titled Oh Man Oh Machine: The Politics & Aesthetics of Posthumanism, Tel Aviv University. It was published yesterday in Haaretz.

Spirituality, Athletics, Yoga, Pizza

At the end of February this year a woman named Ronnie Abramson went to a yoga class. Amidst the positions and stretching exercises she was dismayed to realize that the instructor was telling her about the month of Adar, the Book of Esther, the feast of Purim and the Almighty. Abramson, who sought only a standard yoga class, felt that she was not getting what she paid for, and was in fact suffering a minor assault of religious coercion. She wrote a short account of the experience for ‘Haaretz’ in which she asks that secular folks be allowed to practice yoga without being forced to listen to religious sermons.

In a certain sense she is absolutely right – what does yoga have to do with Purim? Why must she serve as a captive audience for the creative homilies of the yoga teacher? In another sense, the history of yoga allows us to appreciate the deep irony of this situation. Yoga, which originated as a spiritual, even religious discipline, has undergone a radical process of secularization and has turned in the West into a series of exercise techniques. The gulf between what yoga once was and what it is today is as deep as it takes for Westerners wishing to purchase a yoga class as just another product in their shopping cart to be totally devoid of any awareness whatsoever as to its roots, and so are shocked when someone tries to add God into the mix.

The Living Point of Conception

So how did we get from this...Swami Vivekananda is widely considered to be the father of modern, non-traditional yoga. Vivekananda grew up in Bengal, in Northeastern India in the late 19th century, in a family belonging to the region’s rising middle-class. The Bengalis were the most Westernized of all Indians under British occupation, and were deeply influenced by Western culture. Accordingly, Vivekananda planned to become a lawyer. But in 1881, upon meeting Ramakrishna, one of the greatest Indian saints of all time, his life changed forever and he assumed the habit of a monk. As a Hindu monk Vivekananda sought to revive religion in his homeland, but his karma had a different fate in store for him. He was among those chosen to represent Hinduism in the “Parliament of the World’s Religions” held in Chicago in 1893.

The Parliament of the World’s Religions was one of the first attempts at ecumenical symposium, and attracted many representatives of religions. Vivekananda was not the sole representative of Hinduism, yet he quickly became its most famous. But then again, how can Hinduism even be represented? After all, more than a religion, it is a colorful amalgam of beliefs, schools, customs, laws, competing philosophical approaches and several thousand gods and idols. Vivekananda’s solution to this problem was simple: He presumed to present the American audience with “the very centre, the very vital conception” of Hinduism, as he put it. And what is this center, this point of conception? This is nothing less than the living experience in which the individual soul comes face to face with the divine. This, said Vivekananda, is Hinduism itself. For those seeking to reach this living point, he added, Hinduism had developed yoga.

A Universal Technique

Vivekananda claimed that yoga is a universal technique beneficial to all – men and women, Occidentals and Indians – and that there is even no need to convert to Hinduism in order to reap its benefits. He stated, in so many words, that it is the heart and essence of all religions, and that Christians (or Muslims, or Jews) can become better Christians (or Muslims, or Jews) by practicing it. He explained that yoga is the gift of spiritual India to the materialistic West.

And he reaped thunderous applause. Americans couldn’t get enough of him. Vivekananda promptly embarked on a series of lectures throughout the US, which in turn led to the writing of books that became international best-sellers, and these led to the establishment of instructional and spiritual centers. Due to his popularity in America Vivekananda became a national hero in his native India. The Indians, who were accustomed to being the target of scorn from Westerners due to their supposedly primitive and idolatrous Hindu religion, could thanks to him proudly raise their heads and feel that they, of all people, have the deepest religion and philosophy. Here, even the Americans admit that yoga is the universal spiritual path!

Modern yoga centers, inspired by Vivekananda, were opened both in the US and in India. Yoga became the flagship of Indian spirituality seeking renewed legitimacy, and Vivekananda was the captain at the helm. The problem was that in order to enter the fast lane the skipper was forced to jettison most of the cargo. Therefore, it is perhaps worthwhile to return for a moment to the roots of yoga in order to understand how Vivekananda’s version of the practice and of Indian philosophy differs from traditional yoga.

Who’s in for Kaivalya?

The canonical text of yoga is called ‘Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras’. This short text was composed sometime around the 3rd century CE, and it presents yoga as an intricate spiritual path which starts with the assumption that our pure true self, our ‘Purusha’, must disengage from the world and all that is in it, which are known as the ‘Prakriti’. This Purusha, mind, is different from everything we usually define as a ‘self’. It has no thoughts, memories, aspirations or any characteristics whatsoever. In short, it is not a ‘self’ in any accepted sense. Everything we are accustomed to seeing as a ‘self’ is considered a Prakriti which we must leave behind on our spiritual journey.

The over-arching goal, the supreme ideal of yoga according to Patanjali, is therefore not seeing the divine or even communing with it, but what is called Kaivalya, which means “alone-ness”. The yogi is supposed to reach a state in which their Purusha is completely detached from the Prakriti, and “they” exist in shining eternal solitude as pure, content-free awareness. It is hard to find anyone who is much tempted by such an existential state nowadays, and perhaps that is why Vivekananda did not mention it much to his American admirers.

It should be said that since the 3rd century yoga has undergone many changes and broad alterations, and a goal such as meeting or communing with the divine has become accepted within its circles. On the other hand, until the 19th century it has never been conceived as a neutral and universal technique applicable to believers of all religions. It most certainly was never conceived as a series of exercise drills meant to bring helath and proper posture to its secular practitioners.

The Pizza Effect

...to thisHinduism scholar Agehananda Bharati coined the phrase “The pizza effect” back in 1970 to describe what has happened here. Pizza, in its Italian origin simply a sort of bread, arrived in the US along with Italian immigrants. In the land of opportunities the pizza became a doughy tray of cheese, vegetables and meat, and became immensely popular. When Rome saw how much people love the American version of their traditional dish, they also began to bake pizza as we know it today, and Italian pizza integrated the American innovations. Today, not only are we blind to the process undergone by this popular treat, but we also know for certain that pizza as pizza should be – original pizza – can only be had in Italy.

The pizza effect, therefore, describes a process of acculturation – that is, change, integration and cultural customization – in which a traditional item undergoes Americanization, and then returns to its homeland and wins popular acclaim in its new form. This form then becomes the authentic form of the item not only for Americans (or Westerners in general) but also for the local culture, due to a naivete eager to buy anything the global market offers for sale. Agehananda Bharati shows that many Indians practice modern yoga, which is not traditional at all, a yoga that returned to them following “adjustments” in America (and at this point we may note that Bharati himself was an Austrian Catholic named Leopold Fischer who became a Hindu monk).

In the case before us the pizza effect works both ways. Vivekananda brought yoga to America, where it met with phenomenal success and has become an export item that fills the hearts of Indians with pride (‘Look at us, teaching the decadent West what true spirituality is all about!’). On the other hand, Vivekananda’s yoga wasn’t the ancient yoga, but a modern, white-bread version of Indian tradition, which gives up the traditional context of its beliefs and customs, and adds to the original dough base various goodies such as humanism, feminism, materialism and empiricism. Vivekananda learned all of these from the British colonialists. The Americans who fell in love with Vivekananda’s gospel fell in love with a westernized version of yoga, even before changing it further themselves, each according to their own lights. They bought Indian goods which even on Indian soil had taken on more than a bit of the West’s image and likeness.

Jewish yoga, Yogi Judaism

The yoga we find before us today, therefore, is a modern product presuming to distill a universal technique from the Indian tradition. Sometimes it still preserves spiritual pretensions, and its practitioners treat it as part of their spiritual journey. At other times it has turned into nothing more than a light athletic endeavor, in which case it is seen as the ancient Indian method of keeping tight skin, a firm butt, and finding a mate with similar attributes. All this is not necessarily a bad thing. It’s good that different people find use in a foreign cultural heritage, and that they have the freedom to choose and adjust themselves to whatever advances them by their own lights. We call it democracy.

On the other hand, the wonder at God being mentioned in a yoga class is misplaced. Yoga was a religious matter from the start, and there is no reason that it shouldn’t continue to be so. True, it was never associated with Purim, but that is only one of the changes yoga is undergoing these days. And at this point we meet one of the changes Judaism is undergoing these days. Here we have a new-age Judaism seeking to utilize a foreign spiritual technique in order to enrich its world. Jewish yoga produces yogi Judaism. Like yoga in the modern age, Judaism is changing, and often turns from a covenant between a certain god and a certain people, or from a tribal nationalism, into a ‘spiritual path’ for the seeking individual. And that is also not a bad thing at all.

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Published in Maariv newspaper, 19.4.13. Translated by Rechavia Berman.


Tomer Persico

“The blog of one of the conference participants, Tomer Persico, has made him one of the most consistently interesting observers of Israeli religious life.”

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