Monday, 8 August 2016

Upanishads and Vedanta

The texts known as Upanishads are traditionally described in terms of jnana-marga, the path of knowledge. Jnana is strongly associated with the ongoing tradition of Vedanta, one of the celebrated six schools of Indian philosophy. The classical Upanishads became known as Vedanta, meaning the end of the Veda. The word Vedanta "was understood to mean not just the end but also the summit and crown of the Veda" (Olivelle 1992:3). These books received later commentaries from medieval exponents like Shankara

The classical Upanishads are much earlier than the monastic organisations created by medieval Vedanta. Those texts are difficult to date, and assessments of chronology have varied markedly. The oldest Upanishads were pre-Buddhist, but many were later in time. Radhakrishnan favoured a date of 900-600 BC for the earliest of these texts, with Western scholarship tending to reduce the time scale. 

Jnana-marga is often distinguished from karma-marga, meaning the path of ritual action, represented by earlier texts of the Vedic corpus. All these texts were composed in North India, and preserved by the brahmanical caste. However, different influences and temperaments are represented. The early Upanishads feature monism, and also refer to transmigration. 

The Brihadaranyaka and Chandogya are prose Upanishads, and are thought to be the earliest in the series. These texts were edited, and some components employed may be considerably older. As with later Upanishads, they are not books presenting any philosophical system. A flexibility in approach to the materials is necessary. 

While some Western scholars discerned in the Upanishads a spirit of revolt against priestly ritualism, other Indologists (notably Renou) muted this factor in a context of priestly supplements to the earlier Brahmana literature. Different angles can be followed here. According to Louis Renou, “Vedism became debased to the level of crude witchcraft owing to magical ideas which left their mark on the Brahmanas, to the extent that one of these texts is given up to magic, as with part of the Atharva Veda” (Shepherd 1995:552). 

The diverse categories of Vedic text can easily cause confusion. The early Samhitas are collections of verses, including the famous Rig Veda corpus of over a thousand hymns (Gonda 1963). The authors of these hymns are often known as rishis, a word denoting seers. “The Rig Veda is a prime case of an anthology. Some of the hymns in this anthology were accessory to the priestly liturgy, but some are entirely secular in tone” (Shepherd 1995:494). The Rig Veda is not a ritual text, despite some strong associations with brahmanical ceremony. The contrasting Brahmanas are prose texts featuring explanations of the liturgy.

The Brahmanas include “esoteric material explaining the hidden meanings of ritual actions and words; some of these esoteric sections... came to be called Aranyakas (texts that were to be recited in the wilderness outside the village), while others came to be called Upanishads” (Olivelle 1996:xxxii). 

“Cosmological and metaphysical topics generally occupy a more central position in the Upanishads, however, than in the Aranyakas, and the Upanishads are, by and large, later than the Aranyakas” (ibid). The Upanishads were not written down “for perhaps a thousand years” (ibid). Meanwhile, many cultural and social transitions occurred, including an increased rigidity of the caste system (Jha 1975). The competition with Buddhism became pronounced. 

According to the Sanskrit scholar Jan Gonda, the Rig Veda, the Brahmanas, the Aranyakas, and the earliest Upanishads must have existed (at least for the greater part) in their present form prior to the rise of Buddhism (Gonda 1975:20). The dating for the formation of Rig components has varied considerably. 

The aphoristic nature of Upanishadic composition has caused Western analysts to complain of the lack of any systematic philosophy.... The classical Upanishads... are fond of riddles and enigmatic expressions, and the doctrines of various sages are apt to be condensed into a single sentence. Brahmavidya (knowledge of Brahman) or jnana is depicted as being vastly superior to sacrificial etiquette, and realisation of that knowledge is duly stressed. This objective is inseparable from the aid of a teacher, and is related to tapasya or ascetic discipline. A strict discipline was clearly envisaged, and in some texts it is stated that only brahmans are eligible. The prerequisite for discipleship was evidently a high moral standard, one necessary to maintain a rigorous self-discipline. Meditation is emphasised, but there are many different formats referred to.... The end product of the discipline was the jivanmukta (a standard term in the later Upanishads), i.e., the soul gaining spiritual liberation while still living in the body. (Shepherd 1995:547-548) 

A group of early verse Upanishads include the Katha, dating to the late first millennium BC. These works are noted for featuring strong theistic tendencies, and thus anticipating the Bhagavad Gita, claimed by the Vedanta as a basic scripture. The Katha includes a dialogue between the young brahman Nachiketas and Yama, the god of death. The former asks to be told the secret of death, in a spirit of renouncing the distractions of mortal life. 

Yama then gives advice concerning knowledge of the atman and Brahman. One verse has been translated as: “The truth of the Self cannot be fully understood when taught by an ignorant man, for opinions regarding it, not founded in knowledge, vary one from another. Subtler than the subtlest is this Self [atman], and beyond all logic. Taught by a teacher who knows the Self and Brahman as one, a man leaves vain theory behind and attains to truth” (Prabhavananda 1957:17).

The same text emphasises the difficulty of the achievement involved. “Like the sharp edge of a razor, the sages say, is the path” (ibid:20). Numerous commercial attempts to simplify these matters have occurred during recent decades, and may count as further distractions. 

The Maha-Narayana Upanishad is thought to have been composed during the third or fourth centuries BC. This is a manual for ascetics employing many quotations from older works (Varenne 1960). The text can be interpreted as an attempt to harmonise the ascetic and ritual lifestyles, and thereby facilitating the tendency in brahmanical society to assimilate the numerous ascetics and hermits (Gonda 1970:29). 

A number of the texts in this corpus are known as Sannyasa Upanishads, indicative of their background context in renunciation. Some of these were apparently composed before the third century CE, but others are many centuries later. The term paramahamsa is employed to describe an advanced grade of renouncer. The various classifications indicate an original diversity of ascetic lifestyles that were subsequently conflated into the institution of sannyasa by brahmanical theology (Olivelle 1992:98,100).

The Sannyasa Upanishads convey a graphic picture of ascetic tendencies from an early period. A life in the wilderness contrasted strongly with the ritual lifestyle of the householder maintained in the villages. Ascetics spent their nights in deserted houses, in temples, on haystacks, near anthills, under trees, in the humble sheds of potters, in mountain caves, in open fields, and yet other places. Mendicancy was a basic facet of lifestyle, and nudity was highly regarded by some as a sign of renunciation. However, other ascetics preferred to wear a loincloth or an ochre garment (ibid:103,106). The outlook in this sector included a desire to be despised rather than praised; the purpose was to overcome pride (ibid:108). Some texts advocate disguise, so that the ascetic would not be recognised as a holy man (ibid:107). 
In a basically copyist idiom, many texts appeared in later centuries with the title of Upanishad. Sectarian commitments are frequently in evidence, meaning primarily the division between followers of Vishnu and Shiva. “Such Upanishads continued to be produced possibly as late as the sixteenth century CE and number in the hundreds” (Olivelle 1996:xxxiii). 
During the medieval period, a trend developed of forming into collections both the earlier and later Upanishads. This meant that the early Upanishads were detached from the Brahmana literature. European analysts subsequently complained that scholarly distinctions were lost in this tendency to conflation. A favoured number in North India was 52, reflected in the corpus translated into Persian at the instruction of the Mughal prince Dara Shikoh during the seventeenth century (Hasrat 1982). That collection underwent exegetical changes in the interpretation of Schopenhauer (d.1860).


Gambhirananda, Swami, trans., Eight Upanishads, with the commentary of Sankaracharya (2 vols, 1957; second edn, Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1989). 
Gonda, Jan, The Vision of the Vedic Poets (The Hague: Mouton, 1963). 
--------Visnuism and Sivaism (London: Athlone Press, 1970). 
--------Vedic Literature (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 1975).  
Hasrat, Bikrama Jit, Dara Shikuh: Life and Works (second edn, New Delhi: Manoharlal, 1982).
Jha, V., “Stages in the History of Untouchables,” Indian Historical Review (1975) 2:14-31. 
Olivelle, Patrick, Samnyasa Upanishads: Hindu Scriptures on Asceticism and Renunciation (Oxford University Press, 1992).
--------trans., Upanishads (Oxford University Press, 1996). 
Prabhavananda, Swami, and Manchester, Frederick, trans., The Upanishads: Breath of the Eternal (Vedanta Society of Southern California, 1957).
Radhakrishnan, Sarvepalli, The Principal Upanishads (London: Allen and Unwin, 1953). 
Renou, Louis, Religions of Ancient India (London: Athlone Press, 1953). 
-------Vedic India, trans. P. Spratt (Calcutta: Susil Gupta, 1957). 
Shepherd, Kevin R. D., Minds and Sociocultures Vol. One: Zoroastrianism and the Indian Religions (Cambridge: Philosophical Press, 1995). 
Varenne, Jean, trans., La Maha Narayana Upanishad (2 vols, Paris: Editions De Boccard, 1960). 

 Kevin R. D. Shepherd 

 ENTRY no. 69 

 Copyright © 2016 Kevin R. D. Shepherd. All Rights Reserved.

Sunday, 10 April 2016

The Sai Baba Movement

Shirdi Sai Baba, Upasani Maharaj, Meher Baba, Sathya Sai Baba

A phrase that has become fairly well known is not in general duly analysed. This phrase, namely the “Sai Baba movement,” has caused much confusion and misconception. Ignorance of the matter is so pronounced that a Wikipedia editor attributed the origin of this phrase to myself. In reality, I merely wrote a book whose title included the phrase under discussion, and over thirty years after the phrase first appeared.

The phrase “Sai Baba movement” was innovated in the early 1970s by Charles White, an American academic who wrote an article on this subject that can be strongly faulted. White associated two Indian celebrities who had the same name, and the resulting confusion became accepted by some academics as a legitimate argument for viewing various events in terms of a “Sai Baba movement.”

Twenty years later, the misconception had developed to the stage where a leading American university press published a book with a rather explicit statement on the paperback cover. The State University of New York Press declared that “a vast and diversified religious movement originating from Sai Baba of Shirdi, is often referred to as ‘the Sai Baba movement.’ ” This statement supported the contents of a book by Dr. Antonio Rigopoulos about Sai Baba of Shirdi (d.1918).

Rigopoulos was clearly in support of the “Sai Baba movement” formulation devised by White. Both White and Rigopoulos were partisans of Sathya Sai Baba (d.2011), and evidently wished to support that guru’s lavish claim to be the reincarnation of Shirdi Sai.

Sathya Sai Baba, of Puttaparthi, created an elaborate avataric hagiology that included Shirdi Sai Baba. Sathya Sai categorically claimed to be the reincarnation of Shirdi Sai, and was believed to be an avatar by his followers. However, the claim was elsewhere strongly resisted by followers of Shirdi Sai, and regarded by them as an opportunist fiction.

One of the more well known instances of disagreement occurred when, in 2006, devotees of Shirdi Sai filed an objection in the court at Rahata (near Shirdi), requesting a permanent injunction on claims made by devotees of Sathya Sai that the latter is a reincarnation. Also at issue here was Sathya Sai lore about the birth of Shirdi Sai, including the purported identity of his mother (Mumbai Mirror, 11/01/2006). 

The present writer provided biographical and other materials in the book Investigating the Sai Baba Movement (2005). This volume is annotated and indexed. I covered the three major figures in Maharashtra who were incorporated by Rigopoulos into the “Sai Baba movement” scenario. I am referring to Shirdi Sai Baba, Upasani (Upasni) Maharaj (d.1941), and Meher Baba (d.1969).

On the basis of the actual data available, these three entities do not emerge as part of a conglomerate movement. Rather, each of these mystics created a distinct movement or following in their own name. However, this trio were strongly interconnected, in that they met each other. Moreover, Upasani was the disciple of Shirdi Sai, and Meher Baba was the disciple of Upasani. In contrast, Sathya Sai did not meet any of these three saints, and lived in a different region of India.

Sathya Sai Baba of Andhra is viewed by some partisans as the culmination of events in Maharashtra. Critics affirm that this theme encounters a difficulty in sustaining credence. The partisan idea is supported by belief in the reincarnation claim of Sathya Sai, not by any facts of continuum. What we are actually confronted with is the spectacle of four separate movements, the one based in Andhra having no effective or close resemblance to the movements originating in Maharashtra.

When the biographical details are investigated, there may be strong reason to doubt the legitimacy of a reincarnation claim. The ascetic lifestyle of Shirdi Sai features pronounced differences to that of his namesake. Sathya Sai adopted the name of the Shirdi saint in the early 1940s, gaining much popularity as a consequence.

My book included three appendices reporting the disillusionment of Western ex-devotees of Sathya Sai Baba. I also made reference to the leading Indian critic of Sathya Sai, namely Basava Premanand (d.2009), of Indian Rationalist fame (and who composed a lengthy book on the notorious bedroom murders at Puttaparthi ashram in 1993).

A scholar who wrote an account of Shirdi Sai, in a Sufi context, was a follower of Sathya Sai until 2000. Afterwards, Dr. Marianne Warren (d.2004) became an ex-devotee in relation to the Andhra guru, being greatly disillusioned by increasing reports of dubious behaviour at Puttaparthi ashram. 

In 2006, Investigating the Sai Baba Movement was favourably cited in a Wikipedia article about an academic ex-devotee of Sathya Sai. This was Robert Priddy, whose report I had included in my book. The online citation was strongly resisted by a Wikipedia editor, who transpired to be an American apologist for the Sathya Sai movement. SSS108 (alias Gerald Joe Moreno) pressed for deletion of the Priddy article, and also produced a Wikipedia User page dismissing the validity of all my books. It became obvious that he had not read these books, but was reacting from a sectarian stance, involving a strong antipathy towards ex-devotees and anyone who favourably mentioned them. The Moreno internet campaign of defamation lasted until 2010. 

Research into the "movement," or rather movements (in the plural), is not so easily to be eliminated by ideological conveniences preferred by "crowdsourcing" (to borrow a description of Wikipedia process favoured by academic affiliates of the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy).

In another camp, some Western devotees of Meher Baba, acting as editors on Wikipedia, refused to acknowledge the relevance of Investigating the Sai Baba Movement. They had evidently not read the book; they only knew of the title. One of them mistakenly insinuated that I had coined the phrase “Sai Baba movement.” Until such denominational antipathies and errors of judgment are improved, Wikipedia and other internet media are likely to remain afflicted by misinformation. The suppression of relevant reports, on whatsoever pretext, is no effective substitute for due evaluation. 

Some partisans of Sathya Sai Baba refer to the “Sathya Sai movement.” This is quite a different idiom, and equivalent to "Meher Baba movement" or "Shirdi Sai movement." Identification of these trends in terms of separate movements is surely preferable to the umbrella phrase "Sai Baba movement," which has logical difficulties of exegesis. See further Sai Baba Movement at Issue.

Misconceptions are evident, even in some academic books, about the actions of Shirdi Sai. For instance:  
“Many were suspicious of his claims... but he [Sathya Sai] reportedly substantiated his claims with miraculous acts. For example, Sathya Sai Baba, as he had come to be known, regularly materialised healing vibhuti, sacred ash which devotees imbibe and/or apply to their foreheads. These materialisations established Sathya Sai Baba’s connection to Shirdi Sai Baba, who had also materialised vibhuti for his followers” (Srinivas 2010:9, and citing Srinivas 2008). 

Such statements attest a pronounced confusion about the supposed similarity between Shirdi Sai and Sathya Sai. In reality, the Shirdi saint did not materialise sacred ash, and nor did he claim to do so. Instead, Shirdi Sai merely took ash from his dhuni fire, located inside the mosque where he lived (Shepherd 2015:398-399 note 730). In contrast, Sathya Sai claimed to miraculously materialise ash from thin air. Indian critics like Basava Premanand have described the action of Sathya Sai in terms of sleight of hand, a perspective which differs radically from the devotee version. 

One interpretation has emphasised the term avatar in terms of an advantage for the Sathya Sai movement. This is not agreed upon by all parties. An academic review states:

"Whereas Shirdi Sai Baba mixed elements of a Sufi faqir, Hindu guru, and devotional sant, Sathya Sai Baba consistently adopts the term avatar, a divine being who descends from above at a time when truth and righteousness are threatened. [Smriti] Srinivas proceeds to argue that his identification as an avatar increases Sathya Sai Baba's scope of travel and creates a greater capacity to reach devotees, in contrast with an identification as a faqir, guru, or sant" (Loar 2009:1). 

Some discrepancies are discernible. The conception of Shirdi Sai as a devotional sant is misleading.  The Shirdi saint has been depicted as both a Sufi faqir and a Hindu guru, but a substantial number of portrayals limit the attention to detail that is possible in this instance. 

The claim of Sathya Sai to avataric status does not establish any priority in communication over Shirdi Sai in relation to devotee followings. The guru of Puttaparthi contributed a lavish puranic mythology of Shirdi Sai, this development assisting a general tendency to marginalise Sufi dimensions of the latter. The overall consequence of this preference was to obscure contextual data relating to the Shirdi saint, who furthered an eclectic approach to Sufism and Hinduism.


Loar, Jonathan, review of Smriti Srinivas, In the Presence of Sai Baba, in Practical Matters: A Journal of Religious Practices and Practical Theology (2009, Issue 2, 1-3).
Premanand, Basava, Murders in Sai Baba’s Bedroom (Podanur, Tamil Nadu: B. Premanand, n.d., but 2001). 
Rigopoulos, Antonio, The Life and Teachings of Sai Baba of Shirdi (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993). 
Shepherd, Kevin R. D., Investigating the Sai Baba Movement (Dorchester: Citizen Initiative, 2005). 
Shepherd, Kevin R. D., Sai Baba of Shirdi: A Biographical Investigation (New Delhi: Sterling Publishers Pvt. Ltd., 2015). 
Srinivas, Smriti, In the Presence of Sai Baba: Body, City, and Memory in a Global Religious Movement  (Leiden: Brill, 2008). 
Srinivas, Tulasi, Winged Faith: Rethinking Globalization and Religious Pluralism Through the Sathya Sai Movement (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010). 
Steel, Brian, A Controversial Academic View of Sathya Sai Baba by Smriti Srinivas (2009). 
Warren, Marianne, Unravelling the Enigma: Shirdi Sai Baba in the Light of Sufism (New Delhi: Sterling Publishers Pvt. Ltd., 1999; new edn, 2004). 
White, Charles S. J., “The Sai Baba Movement: Approaches to the Study of Indian Saints,” Journal of Asian Studies (1972) 31:863-878. 
Kevin R. D. Shepherd 
ENTRY no. 68

Copyright © 2016 Kevin R. D. Shepherd. All Rights Reserved.

Sunday, 3 January 2016

Shirdi Sai Baba

Shirdi Sai Baba

The faqir known as Sai Baba (d.1918) lived in an obscure mosque at Shirdi, a village in Maharashtra. His precise date of birth is not known. His early life is difficult to reconstruct, although his last years were reported in far more detail. 
The sources contain much data about numerous devotees, involving a majority of Hindus, some Muslims, and a number of Zoroastrians. One of the Hindus was Govind R. Dabholkar, who composed the Marathi work Shri Sai Satcharita, a verse epic commemorating Shirdi Sai Baba (to be distinguished from Sathya Sai Baba of Puttaparthi). Dabholkar’s commentary is both devotional and philosophical. Hagiographical elements here attend a coverage of episodes reflecting a factual content. One drawback is the lack of chronology.

The earliest years of Shirdi Sai are associated with the Aurangabad region, part of the territory ruled by the Nizam of Hyderabad. A popular version of his birth emphasises the village of Pathri. A less well known legend concerning Jerusalem also developed. His arrival in Shirdi has been awarded different dates by major commentators, varying from the 1850s to the period 1868-1872. Dabholkar is associated with the earlier dating. 
Shirdi Sai emerged as a rigorous ascetic committed to a daily begging round. He was initially aloof from the villagers, and became widely regarded as a Muslim faqir. This identity was attested by his attire, and also his habit of speaking in Deccani Urdu. He is reported to have frequently uttered Islamic phrases such as Allah Malik (God is the Owner/Ruler). His Sufi background has been the subject of different interpretations. In contrast, he is often presented as a Hindu, or as a person with no distinct religious background. Complexities of reporting are often ignored. The theme of Hinduisation was emphasised by Dr. Marianne Warren, who complained at the obscurity befalling Sufi components in popular accounts. 
An early Muslim devotee, Abdul Baba, composed in Urdu a Notebook preserving statements and reflections of Shirdi Sai. A due English translation of this document did not appear until 1999 (Warren 1999), over eighty years after the death of Sai Baba. The Notebook reveals a pronounced familiarity with Islamic and Sufi traditions. There is also a significant eclectic disposition represented, one that sought to reconcile the Hindu and Muslim religious temperaments.
An important event, plausibly dated to 1894, involved the confrontation of Sai Baba with a party of local Muslim militants who sought support from the Qazi of Sangamner. Tambuli and others were annoyed by the appearance at the mosque of Hindu worship, as cultivated by the devotee Mhalsapati, who made Sai Baba the object of his improvised puja. The sources relate that the Shirdi faqir supported Mhalsapati against the vengeful opponents.
A prominent source is B. V. Narasimhaswami. This ascetic did not himself meet Sai Baba, but appeared at Shirdi in the 1930s. He contributed much valuable data, and also his own interpretations. Certain discrepancies have caused confusion (especially his criticism of Upasani Maharaj). The major work of Narasimhaswami is entitled Life of Sai Baba. Much depends upon the accuracy of his observations, and also the discernment of opinion as distinct from fact (cf. Shepherd 2015:328-337). This is a different kind of coverage to that of Dabholkar, and was written in English. Narasimhaswami also produced related works, including Charters and Sayings, an edited contribution which both merits and requires close analysis (e.g., Shepherd 2015:300-303).
During his last years, Sai Baba became noted for allusive speech. This characteristic has tended to give him a repute for enigma and symbolism. Yet a number of his statements were markedly forthright, and of an ethical complexion. Some witnesses remarked upon the relative absence of metaphysical themes in his delivery, especially those associated with Vedanta.

From about 1910, a large influx of urban devotees arrived at Shirdi. These were predominantly Hindus from Bombay (Mumbai) and other areas. A few became resident devotees, while many others became regular visitors. The general situation changed as a consequence.

The faqir now introduced his distinctive habit of requesting dakshina, meaning donations, from the affluent. He would not ask all the visitors for a gift, and could stipulate varying amounts. Whatever cash he received was daily redistributed amongst ascetics, poor people, and diverse retainers and villagers. By nightfall he had no money left in his possession. This situation meant that he had no money or assets when he died. To the last, he retained his simple lifestyle of a begging faqir
Some outsiders and critics could not understand his ways. By caste standards, Shirdi Sai was eccentric, not adhering to conventional taboos, and instead welcoming untouchables and even lepers. One of his well known devotees at Shirdi, namely Bhagoji Shinde, was a leper. 
His tactics included reconciliation between Hindus and Muslims. His reported statements are free of religious bias. His universalism extended to Zoroastrians, Christians, and Sikhs.
A feature of his last years at Shirdi was the procession known as chavadi utsav. Sai Baba consented to this development at the imploring request of devotees, but he refused to sit in the palanquin they gifted him with. The utsav is sometimes compared with Vaishnava celebrations at Pandharpur, but Sai himself had nothing to do with that major pilgrimage site in Maharashtra. He did not advocate any particular form of worship, and remained neutral in this respect. 
Shirdi Sai gained attention from eminent individuals like Balasaheb Bhate. Originally a materialist sceptic, Bhate became a devotee of the distinctive faqir. Like a number of other followers, Bhate was a revenue official, a role which he renounced in 1909 after meeting Sai Baba.
More well known celebrities were Ganesh Khaparde (1854-1938) and Bal Gangadhar Tilak (1856-1920). These politicians both visited Shirdi, although Khaparde had a more intimate link with the faqir. The Shirdi Diary of Khaparde records his numerous encounters with Sai during a sojourn in 1911-12. The saint exhibited various moods reported by the diarist.
Another entity who visited Shirdi was Merwan S. Irani, a Zoroastrian later to become known as Meher Baba (1894-1969). His initial encounter with Sai Baba, in 1915, is evocative (Shepherd 2015:270-271). In later years, Meher Baba expressed a high estimation of Shirdi Sai.
A distinctive disciple of Sai Baba was Upasani Maharaj  (1870-1941), who arrived at Shirdi in 1911, and who later established his own ashram at nearby Sakori.
The wealthy devotee Gopalrao Buti constructed at Shirdi a spacious private home known as Butiwada. This imposing building became the tomb of Sai Baba, now known as samadhi mandir. Through the efforts of Narasimhaswami and others, a nationwide following of Sai devotees resulted. Shirdi is a famous pilgrimage site, with large numbers of annual visitors reported.
Anand, Swami Sai Sharan, Shri Sai Baba, trans. V. B. Kher (New Delhi: Sterling Publishers Pvt. Ltd, 1997).
Dabholkar, Govind R., Shri Sai Satcharita: The Life and Teachings of Shirdi Sai Baba, trans. Indira Kher (New Delhi: Sterling Publishers Pvt. Ltd., 1999).
Kamath, M. V., and Kher, V. B., Sai Baba of Shirdi: A Unique Saint (Bombay: Jaico Publishing House, 1991). 
Khaparde, Ganesh S., Shirdi Diary of the Hon’ble Mr. G. S. Khaparde (n.d.; repr. Shirdi: Shri Sai Baba Sansthan, 1994).
Narasimhaswami, B. V., ed., Sri Sai Baba’s Charters and Sayings (Madras: All India Sai Samaj, 1942). 
Narasimhaswami, B. V., Life of Sai Baba (4 vols, Mylapore, Chennai: All India Sai Samaj, 1955-6; first edn composite volume, 2002). 
Rigopoulos, Antonio, The Life and Teachings of Sai Baba of Shirdi (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993).
Shepherd, Kevin R. D., Gurus Rediscovered: Biographies of Sai Baba of Shirdi and Upasni Maharaj of Sakori (Cambridge: Anthropographia, 1986).
Shepherd, Kevin R. D., Sai Baba of Shirdi: A Biographical Investigation (New Delhi: Sterling Publishers Pvt. Ltd., 2015). 
Vijayakumar, G. R., Shri Narasimha Swami: Apostle of Shirdi Sai Baba (New Delhi: Sterling Publishers Pvt. Ltd., 2009).
Warren, Marianne, Unravelling the Enigma: Shirdi Sai Baba in the Light of Sufism (New Delhi: Sterling Publishers Pvt. Ltd., 1999; new edn, 2004).
Kevin R. D. Shepherd
ENTRY no. 67 
Copyright © 2016 Kevin R. D. Shepherd. All Rights Reserved.

Saturday, 5 December 2015

Meher Baba Update

Meher Baba 1957

Errors of assessment are a common occurrence in the contemporary field of “new religious movements.” Such matters necessitate due information rather than hearsay and assumption. The historical angle is necessary with the subject of Meher Baba (1894-1969), as with other figureheads of well known religious movements. The alternative is lore.
A Meher Baba devotee inserted on Wikipedia a misleading version of events dating back to the 1960s. The errors were traced to the American branch of the Meher Baba movement, and more especially, to the Myrtle Beach Centre. The pronounced distortion has been refuted. The erroneous storyline is an example of what can happen when supporters of a movement have no adequate knowledge of events they purport to describe.
The Wikipedia lore interpreted a Hindu disciple of Meher Baba as being a rival “spiritual teacher” to the Irani mystic. No contextual information was supplied, only a variant of anecdotal calumny sustained for decades. The Hindu disciple and scientist was never a rival of Meher Baba, and was instead a regular donor to the latter’s Meherazad ashram, located in Maharashtra.
The Hindu disciple lived for ten years in England at the instruction of Meher Baba. Possessing a degree in physics, this man worked as a salaried professional, and was able to send to India regular donations, amounting in total to thousands of pounds sterling. His level of commitment was very high, and far more so than most other adherents of Meher Baba.
The experiences and viewpoint of this Hindu disciple are not without an interest of their own. However, obscuring biases of the Myrtle Beach Centre worked against any accurate knowledge of the subject. Instead of registering complaints and explanations provided in a lengthy document, the prestige Centre ignored the document and opted to impose an unofficial ban on a book about Meher Baba that was published in 1988. As a consequence of this censorship, the stories about a rival spiritual teacher continued. Nor was there any rectification of other serious errors involved in the misrepresentation.
The literature on cults is now prodigious. Two of the basic problems typical of “cults” are misrepresentation and suppression of relevant details. The American branch of the Meher Baba movement achieved both of these undesirable drawbacks. An extension of this muddle infiltrated Wikipedia, a web venue notorious for troll activity and other complications. The rather basic sectarian issue is obvious to a number of observers.
Pseudonymous Wikipedia supporters of Meher Baba were keen to elevate a lengthy work entitled Lord Meher, presenting this as reliable fact eclipsing any other version, and more especially, my own book Meher Baba, an Iranian Liberal. In the troll presentation, an outsider book could only amount to deficient opinion as compared with the surpassing authenticity of a canonical work. Indeed, Meher Baba trolls were known to appear at different Wikipedia articles with the intention of removing non-canonical content. This action occurred even in an instance relating to transcription of antique Zoroastrian history (the Kaivan school), of which they knew nothing whatever. These people even disdained reference to a valid source in the canonical Meher Baba literature, preferring instead an inaccurate passage in Lord Meher.
My book included an unprecedented critique of the two major detractors of Meher Baba, primarily Paul Brunton. The latter's book, A Search in Secret India, is still influential after eighty years of circulation. However, my critique (based on factual sources) was early ignored by the Myrtle Beach Centre, and many years later, was merely opinion according to troll assessment. The hostile party on Wikipedia was unintentionally validating the travesty of Brunton’s deviation. Trolls do not read books, but merely debunk them in convenient online graffiti of two or three lines, in this instance supporting ideology of the Meher Baba Centres about canonical works.

The storytelling of Paul Brunton was here effectively justified by the ideological reflex. I had proved that Brunton's hostile report of Meher Baba was unreliable, a factor which serious readers recognised (including some Brunton partisans). However, my substantial critique of Brunton, in troll assessment,  amounted to the mere opinion of an outsider to the canon extolled by the Meher Baba movement. This episode cannot be disregarded, because the troll action was closely linked, via editorship, with the Meher Baba article on Wikipedia. 
The multi-volume Lord Meher has seldom been duly analysed. An extensive editorial process was involved. A relatively minor consideration is that Bhau Kalchuri was not the sole author of this work, despite the contrary impression conveyed for over thirty years by devotee media. The Reiter edition of twenty volumes, on all the title pages, presented Kalchuri as the sole author. Feram Workingboxwala was very unpopular, while the American editor and compiler David Fenster was in low profile for many years.
Lord Meher does not contain due information about the misrepresented Hindu disciple and donor who lived in England until 1964. This work is not comprehensive, despite the length. A number of passages in Lord Meher identify the followers of Meher Baba as “lovers.”
During the mid-1960s, I attended meetings of the London group of Meher Baba supporters. At that time, the subscribers did not refer to themselves as “lovers” of Meher Baba. This identity tag did not become prevalent until 1967, being favoured by the new generation of devotees associated with Pete Townshend and the American influx. The rather more conservative and vintage British devotees called themselves the “friends of Meher Baba.” Although Meher Baba himself used the mystical word “lover,” he did not stipulate that his followers should describe themselves in this manner.

A representative of the older trend was author Charles Purdom  (d.1965), a figure in reaction to some devotee tendencies. Purdom achieved a degree of objectivity that is comparatively rare in religious movements. It would not be fair to place him in the same category as the trolls and storytellers of the Meher Baba movement.
Purdom’s preface to his book The God-Man (1964) does not mention the word avatar. The author here says that he has done his best “to maintain the necessary degree of detachment of mind.” Compared with other partisan recommendations, the appraisal of Meher Baba by Charles Purdom is restrained:
“I do not think one can find any parallel in modern times with the life of this simple, subtle, innocent, unpredictable, alarming and engrossing man” (Preface, unpaginated). 
Over the years, I have found that devotionalism is a distorting factor in relation to the record of Meher Baba. For instance, the attendant dogmatic approach obliterated details of the abovementioned Hindu donor and certain other entities, including myself. I decline to be eliminated by the dogmatists, and will resist misinformation. Democracy is a farce at places like the Myrtle Beach Centre, where a process of suppression has been operative for many years.
My interest in Meher Baba applies to ascertaining historical dimensions of his biography, as distinct from the lore and confusion that is too frequently found. I have no interest in promoting exclusivist avatar themes, which evidently encourage some devotees to adopt a status profile as followers of Avatar Meher Baba. I have no interest in promoting “lover” clichés, these also being objectionable in acts of misrepresentation and suppression. The vaunted love can easily become hate campaign.
The phase of ascendancy achieved by Pete Townshend, during the 1970s, is perhaps instructive. That rock star became the focus of adulation for numerous new “Baba lovers” in different countries. He has since admitted the limitation of his self-appointed role as a leader and organiser within the Meher Baba movement. Townshend has been honest in a number of ways,  a refreshing contrast with troll activities that presume an unassailable spokesmanship for Meher Baba. Townshend’s own reflection, found at his website,  is relevant here:
“What was clear to me in early 1980 was that I could no longer stand as any kind of public representative for Meher Baba with such recent alcohol and drug-abuse problems. Meher Baba Oceanic, the pilgrim centre I had run, had in any case slowed down to a crawl while I descended into self-obsession. Several of my employees there had gone through problems of their own, and some time in 1982 I impolitely sacked everyone.” 
These references indicate serious problems. Townshend nearly killed himself on alcohol and drugs. Yet he had been exalted by many devotees even before he created, in 1976, the ill-fated centre known as Meher Baba Oceanic. Townshend was initially influenced by Purdom’s book The God-Man (1964), and describes the author as “an eminent British journalist of the Thirties” (Who I Am, p. 110). That is a contraction of identity, because Purdom was also a garden city pioneer and author, and still leading the London group of “friends” in 1965, only two years before the new wave appeared. Townshend and other “lovers” reversed the sober approach of Purdom into cliché, guitar music, and devotee poetry.
The new wave of “lovers” were frequently afflicted by proximity to the drug infraculture, so pervasive in Western countries since the 1960s. In America, many of them were content with such slogans as “Don’t worry be happy.” This theme comprised an acute reductionism, not reflecting Meher Baba’s rather distinctive metaphysical teaching. The happy lovers were averse to complexity.
An eccentric rune of the Townshend era was “Baba’s love game.” The rock star and his colleagues were viewed by their own camp as avant-garde representatives of the unique Avatar. Townshend acknowledged the American inspiration of Murshida Ivy Duce, leader of Sufism Reoriented. He was perhaps influenced more by Adi K. Irani (d.1980), the former secretary of Meher Baba, who had gained a limelight role as exegete of the Avataric cause. The love game ended with Townshend’s addiction to large quantities of brandy, accompanied by an afflicting ingestion of cocaine and heroin. His version of “Baba’s Umbrella” was not waterproof.
A major influence, upon the new wave of Baba lovers, were newsletters dating to the 1960s. These were composed by Mani, the sister of Meher Baba who lived at Meherazad ashram. Mani S. Irani (d.1996) favoured an influential vocabulary of “lovers” and the “Beloved.” The newsletters were regarded as canonical texts at Meher Baba Centres. However, a literary critic said that these writings were gushing and sentimental, not profound. Even some of the happy lovers were worrying that insufficient information about Meher Baba was being conveyed by Mani. They were puzzled to find frequent descriptions of secondary matters. Apologists excused Mani by saying that she was not allowed to describe more about Baba, who was in seclusion. Mani did relay messages from, and some details about, the figurehead, but there are distinct gaps in coverage.
Insofar as some basic events were concerned, the Mani “family letters” amounted to a detour. For instance, a more recent and lengthy account of 1960s events provided descriptions very different to those of Mani, including details of how Meher Baba strongly rebuked argumentative mandali, including Mani herself (Kalchuri Fenster 2009). The disparity is too revealing to ignore. Essential traits and methods of Meher Baba (silent since 1925) remained obscure, overlaid by preferences of the far more vocal lovers.
Brunton, Paul, A Search in Secret India (London: Rider, 1934).
Irani, Mani S., 82 Family Letters (Myrtle Beach, SC: Sheriar Press, 1976).
B. Kalchuri, F. Workingboxwala, D. Fenster et al, Lord Meher (Reiter edn, 20 vols, 1986-2001).
Kalchuri Fenster, Sheela, Growing up with God (Ahmednagar: Meher Nazar, 2009).
Parks, Ward, ed., Meher Baba’s Early Messages to the West (North Myrtle Beach, SC: Sheriar Foundation, 2009).
Purdom, Charles B., Life Over Again (London: Dent, 1951).
--------The God-Man (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1964).
Shepherd, K. R. D., Meher Baba, an Iranian Liberal (Cambridge: Anthropographia, 1988).
---------Investigating the Sai Baba Movement (Dorchester: Citizen Initiative, 2005).
Townshend, Pete, Who I Am (London: HarperCollins, 2012).
Kevin R. D. Shepherd
ENTRY no. 66
Copyright © 2015 Kevin R. D. Shepherd. All Rights Reserved.

Sunday, 25 October 2015

Kabbalah and Transmigration

In relation to Spinoza (d.1677), his contemporary Leibniz (d.1716) reported the former's belief in “a sort of Pythagorical transmigration” (Klever 1996:47). This report has tended to be ignored, and sometimes dismissed as an exaggeration. Some reflection is perhaps necessary.

The Leibniz reference can invite associations of Neoplatonism, and also Kabbalist gilgul. However, a substantial problem with the latter subject is the wide variation of Kabbalist belief. Gilgul or transmigration was a common Kabbalist theme, emerging in many writings of the fourteenth century and later.

The Sefer Ha-Bahir is associated with Kabbalist thought. The complexities are pronounced. “The literary production and kabbalistic recension are the products of unidentified circles of medieval, European esotericists” (Sefer Ha-Bahir). The anthology was formerly believed to have appeared in Provence, but is now described in terms of Ashkenaz. Many writers contributed to this text in an ongoing process of editing. The Bahir gained a canonical status amongst Kabbalists in Spain from the thirteenth century.

Ashkenaz is “a geographical and cultural category,” identified with the Rhineland in south Germany, where Jewish pietists were active from the late twelfth century. The Ashkenaz activity was distinct from Provencal Kabbalah and the Catalan or Castilian version (Idel 2011:4).

The Bahir refers to transmigration only in relation to the bodies of men, not to animals. Other early texts refer to transmigration as occurring in all forms of existence, while another theme is that human souls reincarnate into animals. These concepts are also found in other religious and philosophical traditions. The Bahir corpus indicates that transmigration may continue for 1,000 generations (see Scholem, Gilgul). Yet some Kabbalists believed that a soul may reincarnate only three times after the first body.

According to Kabbalah expert Gershom Scholem (d.1982), the Hebrew word gilgul is a translation of tanasukh, the Arabic term for transmigration, and having "the same significance of moving from place to place" (Scholem 1987:188 note 216). The word gilgul is not found in the Bahir, and came into usage "two or three generations" afterwards (ibid:188). No justification for the transmigration theme is given in the Bahir, despite the fact that official Jewish theology completely rejected this doctrine (ibid:191). In the ninth and tenth centuries, Oriental Jews are known to have been subscribers to transmigration, a doctrine also favoured in some Muslim circles prior to orthodox prohibitions (ibid:192).

After several generations, the gilgul doctrine gained influence “with startling rapidity after 1550” (Scholem 1961:283). An elaborate version appeared in the Galli Razaya (Revealed Mysteries), composed in 1552 by an anonymous author. The doctrine then quickly “became an integral part of Jewish popular belief and Jewish folklore” (ibid).

The Kabbalists of Safed cultivated the theme of transmigration in their literature. Safed is a high altitude town in the mountains of Upper Galilee. Safed flourished in the sixteenth century, when many Jewish scholars and mystics migrated there after the expulsion from Spain. Kabbalah now reached a peak in terms of influence.

Rabbi Hayim Vital (d.1620) composed the Sefer Ha-Gilgulim (Book of Transmigrations), his exegesis occurring within the school of Isaac Luria (d.1572). This school became influential in Judaism from about 1630, favouring millenarian themes and reincarnation.

“Transmigration leaves no room at all for the conception of hell” (Scholem 1961:282). Biblical passages were enthusiastically interpreted by Kabbalists in terms of gilgul. Their texts exhibit pronounced contradictions. Some of the concepts reflect religious orthodoxy. Conservative Kabbalists resisted the idea of transmigration into the bodies of women and gentiles, an unorthodox theme favoured by a bold minority.

The prevalence of gilgul doctrine in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries caused new disputes between adherents and critics of Kabbalah.

Meanwhile, Elijah Delmedigo (d.1493) was expressing a theme of philosophical relevance. This Averroist of Crete lived for some years in Italy, and was familiar with events relating to the school of Marsilio Ficino (d.1499). Delmedigo regarded himself as an Aristotelian follower of Maimonides, although he is generally classified as an Averroist. He ended his first work (Treatises on Intellect and Conjunction) by expressing an opinion that the ancient teaching of transmigration harmonised with an Averroist theme ("unicity of the intellect"), in contrast to the traditional religious doctrine of immortality, in which the deceased human was believed to inhabit a permanent heaven or hell.

Delmedigo was referring, via unicity of the intellect, to a teaching of Ibn Rushd, alias Averroes (d.1198), who maintained that only the intellectual part of the soul is immortal. In this perspective, at the death of the physical body, the "intellect" rejoins the Active Intellect, losing the personality attaching to the body. That doctrine, possessing Aristotelian associations, was resented by orthodox Christianity. This Averroist theme was condemned at Paris in the late thirteenth century. That event involved the prohibition of many philosophical texts deemed heretical by the Roman Catholic clergy.

Delmedigo was apparently more sympathetic to Kabbalist transmigration than to Neoplatonism. However, his strongly rationalist approach was critical of persons whom he considered to be "pseudo-savants" of his time, meaning “the sham Kabbalists of the new school, not the genuine ones of the older and more authentic school” (Ross 2011).

Delmedigo’s subsequent letter to Pico della Mirandola (d.1494), dating to 1486, expresses an aversion to Pico’s confidence in the “Platonically corrupted Kabbalah” (ibid).

Delmedigo’s Behinat Hadat (Examination of Religion) features a strong critique of the Ficino school of Florence, to which Pico della Mirandola was affiliated. Ficino and others were enthusiastic about alchemy and magic. Delmedigo did not agree with their Kabbalist theurgy, which he evidently regarded as an aberration.
The Behinat comprised “a refutation of the Neoplatonic philosophy of Ficino and his circle, and of Christian doctrine in general, for which reason it was heavily censored when first printed in 1629” (Solomon 2015:127).

Censorship removed all the anti-Christian passages from the Behinat, creating confusion about the subject of criticism. Three and a half centuries later, due scholarship established that the main target of criticism was the Ficino school, and not Jewish Kabbalah. The Ficino Academy was basically Neoplatonist, with an extension in Christian Kabbalah and magic.
Spinoza (1632-77) is now believed to have read the Behinat, which he acquired for his personal library (Fraenkel 2012:207ff). Whether he knew anything more about Delmedigo is uncertain. A possibility is that his own critical reference to Kabbalist triflers may follow on from Delmedigo. 

A contemporary of Delmedigo was Yitzhaq Abravanel (1437-1508), who is noted for a philosophical justification of gilgul. Abravanel was a prominent figure of the Spanish Jewish community before and after the expulsion from Spain in 1492. Exiled in Italy, he was receptive to the contemporary Renaissance Neoplatonism. Abravanel also promoted gilgul, although his sources were more in the Renaissance idiom than the Kabbalist original. He is thought to have been a student of Ficino’s output.

Fraenkel, Carlos, Philosophical Religions from Plato to Spinoza: Reason, Religion, and Autonomy (Cambridge University Press, 2012).
Guetta, Alessandro,  “The Immortality of the Soul and Opening Up to the Christian World” (80-115) in I. Zinguer, A. Melamed, and Z. Shalev, eds., Hebraic Aspects of the Renaissance: Sources and Encounters (Leiden: Brill, 2011).
Idel, Moshe, Kabbalah in Italy, 1280-1510: A Survey (Yale University Press, 2011).
Klever, W. N. A., "Spinoza's life and works" (13-60) in D. Garrett, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Spinoza (Cambridge University Press, 1996).
Ross, Jacob J., Sefer Behinat Hadat of Elijah Del-Medigo (Tel Aviv: Rosenberg School of Jewish Studies, 1984).
Samuel, Gabriella, The Kabbalah Handbook: A Concise Encyclopaedia of Terms and Concepts in Jewish Mysticism (New York: Tarcher/Penguin, 2007).
Scholem, Gershom, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism (1946; New York: Schocken, 1961).
Scholem, Gershom, Origins of the Kabbalah (Princeton University Press, 1987).
Solomon, Norman, Historical Dictionary of Judaism (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield, 2015).

Kevin R. D. Shepherd

ENTRY no. 65

Copyright  ©  2015 Kevin R. D. Shepherd. All Rights Reserved. 

Wednesday, 8 July 2015

Philosophy of Spinoza

Baruch (Benedict) Spinoza (1632-77) was born at Amsterdam into a Portuguese Jewish merchant family. While still a young man, he was banished from the Sephardic community in Amsterdam, apparently because of his heretical views. He lived in the Christian world as an artisan, grinding optical lenses. His Ethics eventually became a classic of Western philosophy. 
A sceptical idea is associated with Spinoza’s early years at Amsterdam (Nadler 2002), i.e., the soul is mortal and dies with the body. In contrast, Maimonides and Gersonides (both Aristotelians) believed that the soul can live on after death, while retaining only intellectual faculties. Avoidance of “personal immortality” and damnation bears a close resemblance to the “acquired intellect” theory expressed many centuries earlier by Alexander of Aphrodisias. (1) 
The Ethics is proof that Spinoza was not a sceptical materialist. He was scorned and hailed as an atheist for generations, even though he clearly stated that nothing exists in the universe but God. His “naturalist metaphysics” is not the easiest subject to comprehend. Varying contemporary interpretations are in evidence. (2) The diversity in this respect is notorious. “There seem to be as many Spinozas as there are audiences seeking to appropriate him for their philosophical, political, or religious ends” (Nadler 2014:2). Caution is evidently required. 
“In philosophy Spinoza is said to be a Cartesian, a Hobbesian, a Platonist, an Aristotelian, a Stoic, and a Machiavellian, among other persuasions. He is also a socialist, a Zionist, an anarchist, a Jeffersonian republican, the source of the Radical Enlightenment, and so on.” (Nadler 2014:2) 
Spinoza was early identified with Kabbalism, as found in two books by Johann G. Wachter dating to 1699 and 1706. (3) More recent commentators prefer Maimonides as a point of orientation, while some affinities have been charted with other medieval Jewish authors like Hasdai Crescas (Manekin 2014). Both Crescas (4) and Spinoza were determinists. Spinoza did not accept freewill, and rejected beliefs in divine reward and punishment.
The Ethics is not a Kabbalistic text, and exhibits the framework of a mathematical treatise, conveying a strong rationalist complexion to the argument. Nevertheless, there are very substantial differences from Descartes, with whom the Neo-Cartesian  author is so often associated. 
Spinoza radically altered the Cartesian perspective by rejecting the three-substance view. (5) There is only one substance in the Spinozan universe, and everything is God. His well known phrase “God, or Nature” (Deus, sive Natura) is easily subject to misreadings.
Spinoza was averse to anthropomorphism, avoiding what he considered to be superstitions. (6) Spinoza did not believe in miracles, (7) and was in reaction to the Calvinist preachers who routinely invoked “the will of God” and related clauses as a judgment against heretics. His exposition avoided creationism. Human beings are caught in a system of cause and effect that is independent of any divine providence.
“The Ethics is an ambitious and multifaceted work.... Despite a dearth of explicit references to past thinkers, the book exhibits enormous erudition. Spinoza’s knowledge of classical, medieval, Renaissance, and modern authors – pagan, Christian, and Jewish – is evident throughout. Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, Maimonides, Bacon, Descartes, and Hobbes (among others) all belong to the intellectual background of this work. At the same time, it is one of the most radically original treatises in the history of philosophy. It is also one of the most difficult.” (8) 
Tracking the influences upon Spinoza is relevant. His account of the world “is possibly the strongest statement of pantheism of the time with no sign of mystical overtones” (Popkin:81). His pantheism emerges as an x factor. Pantheism is an eighteenth century word, and refers to a doctrine in which God is identified with nature. Spinoza is known to have read mystical versions of pantheism available in his time. According to the late Richard H. Popkin, this means three possible sources of pantheism, one of these being a confirmed influence upon Spinoza.
Firstly, the sixteenth century poet Leone Ebreo (d.1523), a Spanish Jew whose Dialoghi di Amore has been described as Neoplatonist. Ebreo (Abrabanel) gave expression to “two of Spinoza’s great goals in intellectual life: that of seeing the world in the aspect of eternity and that of achieving the intellectual love of God.” (9)
Secondly, the tragic figure of Giordano Bruno (d.1600), who was burned at the stake by the Inquisition. Bruno is strongly associated with Hermetic lore, a factor in Renaissance thought which was opposed by Marin Mersenne, a Catholic churchman and the major correspondent of Descartes. Spinoza was not a Hermetic enthusiast, but he may well have been sympathetic to the fate of a heretic.
Thirdly, Spinoza “may have been attracted to the philosophical kabbalism of Herrera or at least was willing to use something of it without taking anything from what he regarded as the lunatic fringe of kabbalism.” (10) This possibility is associated with the strong transition in the Ethics to what Spinoza called the third kind of knowledge, meaning intuitive apprehension (scientia intuitiva). In contrast, the first and second kinds of knowledge are sensory experience (or imagination) and reason.
Some writers affirm that Spinozan “intuitive” knowledge is something deductive or reductive. This is not conclusive evidence. Spinoza says: “From this kind of [intuitive] knowledge there arises the greatest satisfaction of mind there can be, that is, joy” (Curley 1996:175). He also supplies the consideration of: “how much more powerful it [intuitive knowledge] is than the universal knowledge I have called knowledge of the second kind” (ibid:177). What perishes with the body is the first kind of knowledge, which “is of no moment in relation to what remains” (ibid:178). This is why cultivation of the second and third kinds of knowledge is so important, transcending the sensory world and resisting disintegration. 
Spinoza means that the sensory imagination does not remain after death, whereas the refined mind does endure. This is related to his theme that the affects (i.e., affections of the body) and emotions can be controlled by the mind, or “power of the intellect.”
On the basis of the first two kinds of knowledge, Spinoza might appear to be an exceptional Cartesian, and alternatively, a logical panpsychist. Yet he was evidently aiming at something that is not found in the Cartesian repertory. He also did not agree with the Kabbala occultists. “Spinoza really objected to the people who were finding all sorts of divine clues in the numerology, typography, and diacritical signs in the biblical text” (Popkin 2004:82). These fantasies were distractions from the third kind of knowledge, which has been interpreted as “the culmination of the human quest for understanding that is only reached at the end of one’s philosophical journey, the intellectual love of God” (ibid:96).
The pedigree of amor Dei intellectualis is complex. The phrase is elevated in Ethics Part Five, and has been shown to derive from the treatment by Maimonides in his Guide for the Perplexed. The terminology involved is traced to the sequence of Al-Farabi, Ibn Sina, Maimonides, Gersonides, and thus to Spinoza, who is credited with making the strongest effort to endow this concept with philosophical clarity (Harvey 2014). The theme of an intellectual passion goes back even earlier, and is associated with Aristotle.
Platonist influences have been invoked via scientia intuitiva. This means Plotinus, Renaissance Platonists like Ficino and Ebreo, and the eclectic Herrera. Spinoza owned a Spanish version of Ebreo’s Dialoghi, and he attended Talmud school in the same synagogue frequented by Herrera. The accusation is made that diverse interpretations of Spinoza’s “naturalised” philosophy have failed to understand Platonist elements, which were so pervasively influential in his day (Zovko PDF:1-2). 
Although Spinoza was pitched against orthodox religious dogma, he was nothing of a sceptic. His outlook was “possibly the furthest removed from scepticism of any of the new philosophies of the seventeenth century.” (11) 
Spinoza did not finish the Ethics until 1675. In the early 1660s, he was visited at Rijnsburg by Henry Oldenburg, who was to become the prestigious Secretary of the Royal Society. Their correspondence continued until the end of Spinoza’s life, although Oldenburg became resentful that the Jewish thinker rejected Christian beliefs involving supernatural events. Spinoza did respect Jesus, but did not view him in the conventional religious manner. (12)
The wealthy patron of Oldenburg was Sir Robert Boyle (d.1691), a chemist, and considered to be one of the greatest scientists in Britain. Oldenburg was eager to put Spinoza in epistolary contact with Boyle. This arrangement did not work as he had imagined. Five letters between Boyle and Spinoza, with Oldenburg as intermediary, give indication of strong differences. Oldenburg sent Spinoza a copy of Boyle’s Physiological Essays (1661). Spinoza responded by strongly criticising Boyle’s interpretation of his experiments on fluidity and firmness, and on nitre. This has been considered impertinent by empiricists and critics. However, “we ought to look afresh at Spinoza’s insistence on the epistemological insufficiencies of the experimental way.” (13) 
Spinoza was not an empiricist in the manner of Descartes. He did not trust the increasing vogue for experiments, even though he did take an interest in what was occurring in different countries. He had some scientific ballast in his familiarity with lenses and microscopes, components of which he made and assembled as a type of artisan. Spinoza had grasped that experiments did not always prove what the experimenters claimed, and his attitude tended to be very dismissive. He made a pointed criticism (in his correspondence with Oldenburg) of Francis Bacon, whose inductionism was here considered to be lacking in rational depth.
Unlike Descartes, Spinoza was not a vivisectionist. Boyle was an advocate of vivisection, a practice favoured within the Royal Society. Nevertheless, Spinoza’s view about animals is not satisfactory. An argument is available in Sharp 2011. Many other commentators provide only brief remarks. “Spinoza, contrary to Descartes, sees the modal complex that constitutes a being as both physical and mental” (Popkin 2004:96).” A significant factor needs attention: “Spinoza is, of course, a panpsychist – for him each thing is animate to some degree” (Della Rocca 1996:194).
Spinoza reflected that sentience is not unique to humans. “After we know the origin of the mind, we cannot in any way doubt that the lower animals feel things” (Ethics 3p57s). However, he has been criticised for stating: “The law against killing animals is based more on empty superstition and unmanly compassion than sound reason” (Ethics 4p37s1). The related tenet of using animals “at our pleasure” is not the most ethical. One analysis of this drawback concludes that the argument is valid, but relying heavily on premises that most would be likely to reject (Grey 2013:380). A flaw in Spinozan reasoning is evident.

Overall, there are some discrepancies, ambiguities, and obscurities evident in the Ethics. A well known criticism is that Spinoza, in contrast to Maimonides, elevated self-esteem as the consequence of employing reason, relegating the humility emphasised by the predecessor (Ethics 4p52 and p53). The context relates to his observation that “the mob is terrifying,” and therefore the prophets recommended humility and other religious traits for non-philosophers (4p54s).
A different kind of work is the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus (1670), defending freedom of speech and belief. (14) This treatise infuriated the Dutch Reformed Church, meaning the Calvinists. Opponents regarded the Tractatus as “a book forged in hell.” Contemporary analysis reveals this text as being the first to argue that intrinsic religion is independent of theology and liturgical rites, and that religious leaders should not be governors of a modern state (Nadler 2011).
The campaign launched against Spinoza was never systematic enough to achieve total suppression, but was nevertheless “sufficiently effective to compel Spinoza to adopt the furtive methods of a more or less clandestine author” (Israel 1996:4-5). The Ethics was completed in this oppressive situation, but not published. 
In November 1676, Leibniz visited The Hague and there discussed philosophy with Spinoza on several occasions. Leibniz was shown the unpublished manuscript of Ethics (or parts of this). “Although there is no written record of their conversation, it seems likely that these discussions were among the most rewarding in the whole history of philosophy.” (15) However, Spinoza was apparently at first suspicious of motivation in this case. “The worldly Leibniz was the court intellectual par excellence” (Nadler 1999:341). By comparison, Spinoza was a retiring and independent philosopher with no inclination to a celebrity vocation.
A note by Leibniz relays what he was told about Spinoza by the German mathematician Tschirnhaus, a personal contact of the Jewish philosopher. This note includes the information: 
“He [Spinoza] thinks that we will forget most things when we die and retain only those things that we know with the kind of knowledge he calls intuitive, of which only a few are conscious.... He believes [in] a sort of Pythagorical transmigration, namely that minds go from body to body. He says that Christ is the very best philosopher.” (16) 
This reference indicates that Spinoza believed in a form of reincarnation. We have no further details of his very obscure outlook in that respect. Transmigration was a Neoplatonist doctrine, and also a theme of Kabbalists in the vocabulary of gilgul. Yet there were different versions of gilgul, and also many popular superstitions attaching. Spinoza is more generally associated with a “parallelism” of the mind and body. In Ethics Part 2, the mind appears to be inseparable from the body, but Part 5 conveys a different perspective. Spinoza affirms: “The human mind cannot be absolutely destroyed with the body, but something of it remains which is eternal” (Ethics 5p23). Recent commentators have remarked: 
“The extent to which the mind is eternal seems to depend on what the human mind does during its embodied existence. The more one knows intuitively, the greater is the eternal part of one’s mind.” (Koistinen and Viljanen 2009:22)
As to the significance of the meetings between Leibniz and Spinoza, there is no known sequel. Western philosophy was thereafter increasingly restricted to the academic circuit, and the outlook was generally rather more confined than that of either the polymathic Leibniz or the pansychist Spinoza. 

(1)  Adler 2014. Alexander was a Peripatetic whose “views challenged the monotheistic tradition of belief in personal immortality” (ibid:15). Spinoza is thought to have been influenced by the Aristotelian theme, as mediated within the Jewish community of Amsterdam. The challenge is associated with the perspective of “God exists but only philosophically,” attributed to Spinoza and Juan de Prado in Christian sources. Cf. Popkin 2004: 23-4, 42-3, who queries the Nadler version and says that Spinoza was “moving in a more metaphysical direction” in his later years. Papers of the Spanish Inquisition depict Spinoza and Prado voicing, in 1659, the abovementioned affirmation of a philosophical God. See also Nadler 1999:135-8; Nadler 2011:7-12. Nadler 2002 argues that a crucial feature of Spinoza’s thought was his denial of personal immortality, here inferred as the reason for excommunication. Cf. the review by Martin Lin, who adds that other commentators, such as Alan Donagan and H. A. Wolfson, believed Spinoza to have a “robust notion” of personal immortality. 
(2) The suggestion has been made that Spinoza was an arrogant misogynist, and also a homosexual (Gullan-Whur 1998:142-3). The author of this theory composed a critical biography of Spinoza, advertised by a publisher in terms of: “This new approach demolishes the myth that Spinoza was a lofty ascetic.” A counter can be found in Shepherd 2005, chapter 35. An “ascetic” issue is involved here via Spinoza’s contention at the end of Ethics: “It is clear how much the wise man is capable of, and how much more powerful he is than one who is ignorant and is driven only by lust” (Curley 1996:180). Spinoza has been criticised by some writers for the controversial reference to women in his unfinished Political Treatise. Cf. the lenient tone in Gatens 2009, a feminist work of considerable sophistication.

(3) Wachter was a Protestant theologian familiar with Kabbalah. In his first book he attacked Spinoza and the Kabbalah, but revised his hostile opinion in the Elucidarius Cabalisticus (1706). Wachter urged that Kabbalah influenced Spinoza (Brown 2006:244-5). Wachter’s second book is “a philosophically unconvincing interpretation of Spinozism,” based on firsthand knowledge of sources, but compromised by an intention to reconcile Spinozism with Christian doctrine (Vassanyi 2011:224-233). Leibniz soon after read Wachter’s second book and refuted Spinoza (ibid:233-240).

(4) See Harvey 1998. Hasdai Crescas (1340-1410/11) was a Spanish anti-Aristotelian whose philosophical work Or Hashem (The Light of the Lord) opposed formulations of Maimonides.

(5) Numerous commentators state that Spinoza was influenced by Descartes. Some terminology does converge, but in terms of ideation, there are pronounced differences. Spinoza early composed a reworking of the Principles of Philosophy by Descartes, an incomplete version which “does not reflect the format of the original” (Gabbey 1996:155). This discrepancy has been viewed as indicating Spinoza’s dissatisfaction with the Cartesian format. In the subsequent Ethics, Spinoza goes far beyond Cartesian maxims. In that work, Spinoza refers to “the celebrated Descartes,” and says they both “believed that the mind has absolute power over its own actions” (Curley 1996:69). Nevertheless, the same passage disagrees with Descartes about the human affects. In this respect, Descartes “showed nothing but the cleverness of his understanding” (ibid). Spinoza also strongly criticises the theory of Descartes about the pineal gland (ibid:161-2).

(6) Spinoza complains that people often compare the power of God with the power of kings. He urges that “no one will be able to perceive rightly the things I maintain unless he takes great care not to confuse God’s power with the human power or right of kings” (Curley 1996:34).
(7)  A well known passage occurs in the Appendix to Part 1 of Ethics, where Spinoza is more direct about superstition and popular religion. “One who seeks the true causes of [ostensible] miracles, and is eager, like an educated man, to understand natural things, not to wonder at them, like a fool, is generally considered an impious heretic and denounced as such by those whom the people honour as interpreters” (Curley 1996:29).
(8) Nadler 1999:226, referring to the “Euclidean architecture of definitions, axioms, postulates, propositions, scholia, and corollaries” for which the Ethics is famous. The geometrical method is daunting for those unacquainted with the format, but has been argued in terms of an advantage, bearing “an intimate relationship to the content of Spinoza’s metaphysics and epistemology” (ibid).

(9)  Popkin 2004:18. Spinoza made much of “the intellectual love of God,” especially evocative in one of his scholia found in Ethics: “From this we clearly understand wherein our salvation, or blessedness, or freedom, consists, namely, in a constant and eternal love of God, or in God’s love for men” (Curley 1996:176). Some writers continue to portray Spinoza as an atheist.
(10)  Popkin 2004:81, and referring to the pantheism arising from the Luria school, which became known in Amsterdam through the medium of Abraham Cohen Herrera (d.1635). In the Ethics, Spinoza is seen to have employed some terminology from Herrera’s Kabbalistic work Puerta del Cielo (ibid:19,81). Popkin also suggests that a further possible influence was Jacob Boehme, whose mystical doctrine attracted much interest from seventeenth century intellectuals. However, there has been a stronger tendency to associate Spinoza with Kabbalistic influences. For a relevant investigation, see Harvey 2007, which focuses upon the work of Moshe Idel, a leading scholar of Kabbalism. “Idel’s Spinoza is not a Kabbalist, but a Jewish philosopher influenced by the medieval Hebrew speculative tradition” (ibid:92). According to Harvey, the arguments of Idel “deserve to be considered seriously” (ibid). See also Idel 1988:20,67, in relation to amor Dei intellectualis.

(11)  Popkin 2004:95, affirming that Spinoza “started his system at the point that others were trying to attain after they overcame the skeptical menace.”
(12)  See Fraenkel 2012:213ff, referring to Spinoza’s philosophical reinterpretation of Christianity, and viewing his well known critique of religion and scripture as a secondary project.
(13)  Gabbey 1996:180. Spinoza evidently believed that sensory knowledge is unreliable, belonging to the imagination (meaning his first kind of knowledge). Whereas the knowledge of causes is the domain of intellect (ibid:177). One pro-Boyle reflection is expressed in terms of: “Few of Spinoza’s specific scientific conclusions, either deductively or experimentally derived, are thought to be of scientific interest” (Gullan-Whur 1998:117).

(14)  See Melamed and Rosenthal 2010. The editorial introduction warns that the Tractatus is a difficult book for the modern reader, especially the philosopher. Spinoza here discusses at length historical and Biblical matters. He was writing for savants, not the general public.
(15)  Jolley 2005:18. Cf. Nadler 1999:340-342, who says: “Their long discussions covered a variety of important philosophical, political, and scientific topics, including the problems inherent in Descartes’s laws of motion and recent events in the Dutch Republic.” Cf. Antognazza 2009:168-9, 177-178, observing that by January 1675, Tschirnhaus had met Spinoza at least once, their contact continuing through correspondence. Leibniz had previously read and disapproved of some parts of the Tractatus. Leibniz “would continue to respect him [Spinoza] as a person even as he disagreed with him as a philosopher” (ibid:168). A year after their meetings, Leibniz wrote in a letter that the metaphysics of Spinoza was “strange and full of paradoxes” (ibid:178).
(16)  Klever 1996:46-47. Baron Ehrenfried Walther von Tschirnhaus was a Cartesian, described by Klever as one of the best friends of Spinoza. “Tschirnhaus credits Spinoza – and this is completely new in comparison with other sources – with a kind of Pythagoreanism, implying that souls in a certain sense transmigrate from one form of matter to another” (ibid:47). Professor Klever adds: “It is likely that the comparison with Pythagoras’s transmigration theory originates from Spinoza himself” (ibid).


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Kevin R. D. Shepherd

ENTRY no. 64

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