Friday, 24 December 2010

Ramana Maharshi

A version of Advaita Vedanta was taught by Ramana Maharshi (1879-1950), who achieved fame in the West via British commentators. He was subsequently assimilated to some controversial American versions of Nondualism, today a rather casual word which is too seldom convincing. The Western “neo-Advaita” has aroused scepticism.

Ramana was the son of a brahman (a member of the Hindu priestly caste) who worked as a lawyer at Tiruchuzi, a village in the Tamil sector of South India. His real name was Venkataraman Iyer. While still a teenager, in 1896 he underwent an “awakening” experience. The current Wikipedia article on the subject describes this event in terms of “liberation” (meaning moksha).

“Later followers subsequently rationalised this event as a sadhana [spiritual discipline] which lasted half an hour and was completed on the spot. They wanted to believe that he had gained the ultimate realisation known as sahaja samadhi in this brief period of awakening, though he himself did not say that” (Shepherd, Some Philosophical Critiques and Appraisals, 2004, p. 153).

Ramana retrospectively referred to his “absorption in the Self [atman].” There is the complexity that he also described his “awakening” in terms of possession, apparently his early reaction to the experience, and relayed to his first biographer B. V. Narasimhaswami (David Godman, Life and Teaching).

The “awakening” occurred at Madurai, where Ramana was in the habit of visiting the Meenakshi temple, associated with Shiva-bhakti and the sixty-three Shaiva Tamil saints of the nayanmar tradition. He had read a book (the Periya Puranam) on those saints which inspired him. In his later life, he acknowledged the significance of bhakti (love, aspiration), which is something quite different to the Advaita doctrines. Indeed, his own report states of his continuing visits to the Meenakshi temple (after his awakening) that he would sometimes pray for the descent of divine grace “so that my devotion [bhakti] might increase and become perpetual like that of the sixty-three saints” (Arthur Osborne, Ramana Maharshi and the Path of Self-Knowledge, London: Rider, 1954, p. 23).

In 1896 he left home and school, journeying to the town of Tiruvannamalai, there staying in temple precincts and subject to an indrawn state. He eventually settled at nearby Arunachala Hill, strongly associated with the deity Shiva. His “pre-ashram” sojourn in caves on that hill was lengthy, dating from 1898 to 1922.

The basic feature of that early period is one of acute introspection. He was no longer a brahman, having jettisoned the sacred thread that signified caste status. He was now an ascetic sadhu and wore a loin-cloth, not the ochre robe of Vedantic renunciates. Ramana was not an official Vedantin or sannyasin. Devoted attendants saw to his simple needs and protected him from intrusions, diverting unwanted sightseers who thronged the pilgrim locale of Arunachala. At first, his introspection was so acute that food had to be pressed into his mouth in order to keep him alive. Afterwards, he is reported to have accepted only a single cup of food daily, and he was accordingly emaciated.

Ramana required an attendant for survival purposes, and for years (until circa 1906) would not speak to visitors. He is reported to have lost his ability to speak normally until that juncture. A different kind of problem was jealous sadhus, local holy men who resented his increasing fame.

A visiting group of sadhus expressed the extremist belief that their own distant sacred hill was home to a rishi who had been practising austerities for thousands of years, and who had told them to abduct Ramana for initiation, after dramatically preparing him for the attainment of occult powers or siddhis. “Whether hemp addicts or alcoholics (or both), they evidently entertained some of the more fantastic and predatory ideas associated with Tantric Yoga” (Shepherd, op. cit., p. 155). Ramana is reported to have made no response to these visitors; he never expressed esteem for siddhis, which are an unhealthy preoccupation.

Ramana was reputed to be in samadhi, a word signifying spiritual absorption, and comprising a diffuse blanket term in popular usage. The basic event discernible is that he emerged from this absorption over a lengthy period, gradually normalising in his response to the outside world (though retaining his spiritual awareness according to his own account). “At some obscure date he began to walk about the hill instead of sitting motionless” (ibid., p. 154). He would refer to himself as a jnani (knower, gnostic), not as a yogi, and warned about the pursuit of siddhis. He was averse to yogic exercises, which he evidently viewed as a complication.

In 1922 he moved down to the foot of Arunachala Hill, taking up residence at the site which became known as Ramanashram. By 1926 the increasing crowd of visitors and devotees was sufficiently large to hinder his customary daily walk around the hill, which thereafter ceased, apparently because nobody wanted to stay behind at the ashram without him.

The concession to public spotlight was accompanied by some unusual characteristics. Ramana retained a very simple lifestyle. He did not refuse visitors, though he could seem indifferent in company, and his statements tended to brevity; he seems to have modified his jnani emphases if he considered that the audience was uncomprehending. He did not fit the customary ideas and expectations about holy men. He was notably averse to giving initiations, which were an accepted part of the popular Hindu spirituality.

Furthermore, Ramana was often requested by admirers for permission to adopt the life of renunciation. Yet he generally opposed this desire, a persistent trait which caused puzzlement. According to him, the effort needed was internal, and nothing to do with the formal vow of sannyas (renunciation). He evidently regarded many of the renunciates as rather distracting sources of misinformation, a point not always emphasised by commentators.

“He stressed the discipline of vichara (self-inquiry), which he advocated to many visitors in the spirit of Advaita [Nondualism]. He disliked the stale expositions of Vedanta associated with pundits, and he is interesting because he was completely independent of organisations like the Shankara Order” (ibid., p. 157).

Vichara has been described as an innovative feature of his communications, and relating to the “realisation of the Self,” a Vedantic theme open to abuse and facile interpretation. The protractedly introverted and normalising “realisation” of Ramana affords a contrast to the glib assumptions of achieving “Nondualism” and “Self-realisation” that are frequently encountered in both India and the West, and which can give this subject a low rating in the eyes of critics.

The rather lop-sided view of Ramana as an abstracted contemplative has been corrected by partisan writer David Godman. Ramana industriously prepared food at his ashram for about 15 years, and also closely supervised building work during the 1930s. He was evidently not too keen about having to sit in the audience (darshan) hall where he received all visitors; he often referred to that hall as his prison.

Although an unusual teacher (and one who did not describe himself as a guru), Ramana was not venturesome in the area of social reform. According to a well known partisan commentator, he “did not disapprove of orthodoxy in general” (Osborne, op. cit., p. 77). Ramana certainly did not condemn caste norms, which were reflected to some extent in the emerging ashram management run on conservative lines, and headed by his brother, a renunciate who wore the ochre robe. The increasing number of visitors during the 1940s imposed changes, including the building of a new and more imposing audience hall to which the sage was averse.

“A brahman code prevailed in the kitchens, where only brahmans could prepare the food” (Shepherd, op. cit., p. 156). However, free food was dispensed to sadhus and the poor on a daily basis. The formalism of management officials is reported to have been resented by visiting devotees, and there was even a request that the management be removed (Osborne, op. cit., p. 120).

The ashram dining hall was partitioned, the orthodox brahmans sitting to one side, while on the other side sat the lower castes, non-Hindus, and liberal brahmans. “Sri Bhagavan [Ramana] says nothing to induce Brahmins either to retain or discard their orthodoxy” (ibid., p. 133), though “he often turned a blind eye when devotees violated caste rules”(Godman, Bhagavan the Atiasrami). Nevertheless, his apolitical worldview basically means that “he had no opinions on these scripted events [occurring in the world], and no desire to change their course” (Godman, Bhagavan and Politics).

In some of his statements, Ramana appeared to endorse the political career of his contrasting contemporary Mahatma Gandhi (ibid.), though these two never met. Untouchables (harijans) were not allowed into Hindu temples at that period, including the strongly resistant Shiva temple at Tiruvannamalai.

After his death, the belief developed amongst devotees that Ramana Maharshi “guides whoever approaches him” (Osborne, op.cit., p. 194). Such beliefs in posthumous guidance are also found in relation to other deceased Indian saints like Sai Baba of Shirdi .

See also A. Osborne, ed., The Teachings of Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi in his Own Words (1962); Osborne, ed., Collected Works of Ramana Maharshi (1972); David Godman, ed., Be As You Are: The Teachings of Sri Ramana Maharshi (1985); Talks with Ramana Maharshi (2000); Gabriele Ebert, Ramana Maharshi: His Life, trans. V. Ward (2006).

Kevin R. D. Shepherd
December 24th 2010

ENTRY no. 35

Copyright © 2010 Kevin R. D. Shepherd. All Rights Reserved.

Saturday, 30 October 2010

American Guru


A recent disillusioned book concerning the American guru figure Andrew Cohen (left) is difficult to ignore in any assessment of the subject. American author William Yenner (right) states: “No one knowingly joins a cult. I spent more than thirteen years following the American guru Andrew Cohen” (Yenner, American Guru, New York: Epigraph, 2009, p. 1). This vocation ended in a sense of “forced enlistment in the service of an individual bent on total control” (ibid.).

Yenner is not the only witness here. The sub-title of his revealing book includes the phrase “former students of Andrew Cohen speak out.” The diverse contributors are clearly dissidents from former beliefs. Cohen’s website states that he founded EnlightenNext in 1988, “a nonprofit educational and spiritual organisation dedicated to pushing the edge of progressive culture” (ibid., p. 6). To critics, the word “progressive” is one of the most suspicious words in the American (and English) language. That word has been in extensive usage since the early 1970s, but still fails to convince.

The dissident book relates that Cohen consulted a lawyer to impose a five year gag order on Yenner, when the latter demanded repayment of a large donation (ibid., p. 7). So why the desperate measure of a gag? Yenner divulges that the curtailed information was “my own firsthand experience of operating, managing and leading his [Cohen’s] organisation” (ibid.).

The dissidents from EnlightenNext are reported to be the invariable target of Cohen’s verdict that “they’re losers, turning their backs on the holy life” (ibid., p. 8). What was the holy life? In Yenner’s case, he found that, for example, “unbelievable as it is to me now, I put all my energy into fabricating a harshly worded demand letter... from a fictitious creditor – including a complete series of false documents on bank letterhead and stationery and a toll-free phone number for inquiries” (ibid., p. 9). However, this is described as a “relatively minor” incident in the record of Cohen excesses. In particular, Yenner draws attention to “Cohen’s pervasive demonization and abuse of those students who dare to disobey, contradict or leave him” (ibid., p. 10).

Andrew Cohen’s employment of the “guilt-inducing tactic” is implied as an intimidation for dissidents who chose to remain silent. Yet the cordon could not prevent the appearance of well known dissident books, including one by Cohen’s own mother Luna Tarlo and entitled The Mother of God (1997). See also Andre van der Braak, Enlightenment Blues (2003). Further, in 2004 dissident blog posts commenced at whatenlightenment.net, describing instances of serious abuse that were being suppressed by EnlightenNext.

Meanwhile, Cohen had inaugurated a surprisingly influential magazine called What is Enlightenment? Ken Wilber, the exponent of integral spirituality, became a standard feature in the controversial “guru and pundit” dialogues. Cohen was here the guru, and Wilber the pundit. Partisans extolled the dialogues as great wisdom, though critics were strongly resistant. See Wilber and Cohen.


Yenner eventually found that, in 2008, Cohen instigated “a comprehensive denial of well-known events in his community that dozens of his students had witnessed or actually participated in – including the fact that he’d had me sign the abovementioned contractual gag order” (American Guru, p. 14). This measure was undertaken in order to prevent an article by a journalist (ibid., pp. 124ff.).

Twenty years earlier, Yenner had first learned of Cohen; in 1988, he heard a glowing story of how Cohen had gained enlightenment in 1986 at the hands of the rather obscure guru H.W.L. Poonja, who claimed to have been enlightened by the deceased Ramana Maharshi (d. 1950). Cohen’s mother expressed surprise that her son was considered transformed after only two and a half weeks of instruction (Tarlo, The Mother of God, p. 80). Andrew Cohen had thereafter spent two years teaching in England and Israel, returning to America having gained over a hundred students (Yenner, p. 18).

Yenner quickly became a devoted follower, attracted by the Advaita Vedanta teachings that Cohen used in his discourses. Those teachings are open to fluent duplication and distortion. There transpired to be no comparison with the example of Ramana Maharshi. Cohen’s community then numbered “approximately 130 people” (ibid., p. 20), and an increasing authoritarian policy emerged, with a proliferating code of punishments for supposed transgressions. Cohen became notorious for verbal lacerations of his students. Yenner now writes that, “of 130 of Andrew Cohen’s original students, 123 have left him, and Cohen has vilified almost all of them for having done so” (ibid., p. 63).

Yenner became business manager and one of the Board of Directors at the Foxhollow estate in Massachusetts, the h/q of EnlightenNext. He was the only student to gain the privilege of living in Cohen’s house (apart from the latter’s wife). Entrance fees and donations became a hallmark feature of the proceedings, along with the confrontational severity. “Andrew referred to his updated version of ‘crazy wisdom’ - a teaching modality with centuries-old roots in some Eastern spiritual traditions – as ‘Acts of Outrageous Integrity’ ” (ibid., pp. 29-30). Other analysts consider American crazy wisdom to be an improvised attribute of extremists like Chogyam Trungpa and Adi Da Samraj, connoting a fashion in aborted mysticism.

Face-slapping and name-calling became routine at Foxhollow, and with bizarre punlishments for those who disobeyed the purportedly enlightened American guru. One female victim had four buckets of paint poured over her head by ministrants of the guru’s displeasure. “She left the property traumatised and fell ill” (ibid., p. 33), being further harassed by accusing phone calls at the guru’s instigation.

In the mid 1990s, Cohen encouraged donations to atone for mistakes. “Andrew now began attaching price tags to his forgiveness for perceived wrongs” (ibid., p. 43). The ambitions of EnlightenNext required constant funding. The extraction of donations has been described in terms of “financial exploitation” (ibid.).The coerced donations could vary from small amounts to 80,000 dollars. Yenner was a donor at this extortionate rate, which he later regretted. After leaving the Foxhollow community in 2001, he commenced legal proceedings, and did manage to retrieve his donation, which he describes as an unprecedented event (ibid., p. 48). However, the attached gag order meant that he could not openly discuss Cohen community problems for five years, a period ending in 2008. These events came in the wake of his partisan efforts in which Yenner, for example, “began each day at 3 a.m. with a three-hour practice of one thousand prostrations before a photograph of Andrew” (ibid., p. 53).

The book by Yenner includes chapters about female students. Cohen is here revealed as being very harsh towards that contingent, one of whom wrote after leaving Foxhollow in 1998 that: “I was in a state of deep traumatic stress for months afterwards; I would wake up every night in terror, with panic attacks and thoughts of suicide” (ibid., p. 76). The same victim states: “we attempted to pay for our ‘sins’ by contributing money to buy expensive clothes and floral bouquets for Andrew, which had for years been the standard way to buy forgiveness” (ibid., p. 75). An even more discrepant episode is recounted of an elderly woman, who after being bullied on the telephone in 1999 by a shouting male student, “died with a broken heart and in a state of absolute inner terror and anguish” (ibid., p. 84).

Another ex-student, Andre van der Braak, suggested that Cohen was projecting his anger towards his mother in situations adverse to the female students (Enlightenment Blues, p. 162ff.). Certainly, the rift between Cohen and his mother Luna Tarlo has been considered significant. In 2008, a representative of EnlightenNext claimed on Cohen’s behalf that Tarlo had admitted to having “fictionalized aspects of her book for dramatic effect” (Yenner, pp. 109, 133). The following year, Yenner interviewed Tarlo, who denied the claim of the Cohen camp, and said that she was prepared to go to court with her notebooks to defend the accuracy of her book (ibid., p. 110). Tarlo also said here that her son was “responsible for destroying people” and for “damaging people” (ibid., p. 117); she implicated the Indian guru Poonja in the train of errors.

William Yenner concludes that Andrew Cohen’s version of perennial wisdom “rests on a foundation of dishonesty, corruption and pernicious abuse of power” (p. 149). Yenner also queries the position of celebrities who have endorsed Cohen, including Ken Wilber, Rupert Sheldrake, and Deepak Chopra. The sector of “alternative thought” is clearly a deceptive prospect.

Kevin R. D. Shepherd
October 30th 2010

ENTRY no. 34

Copyright © 2010 Kevin R. D. Shepherd. All Rights Reserved.

Sunday, 24 October 2010

The Cult Problem

In an earlier blog item Pseudomysticism and Cults (entry no. 14), I reflected on some recent events that are now causing widespread concern. The subject of “cults” has invited  considerable attention from sociologists. An associated subject, meaning that of  proclaimed “spiritual teachers,” is  pressing. In my view, philosophy should also attend to these matters, and indeed to an extent that would emphasise a gap in the existing academic curricula.

Of course, the phenomenon of cults has been attended by different arguments, for example, some Christian fundamentalists in America have railed against virtually any deviation from their own doctrine, implying the competitors to be “cults.” So we have to be careful in applying the evocative term of “cult” to any grouping or organisation unless there is strong reason to do so. The stigmatised “cult” might merely be an inoffensive or eccentric religious sect or movement with no record of bad behaviour, and no strong allegations to that effect being in evidence.

Suspect organisations are an intermediate category. These groupings may not be in any bracket of religious affiliation or sectarian identity. Yet they may operate in ways that arouse suspicion as to their validity, and as to the nature of their professed abilities. One example of this is the Findhorn Foundation, linked to the UN and advertising their claims of a spiritual education alongside an ecovillage facility and CIFAL status. Unfortunately, their long-term treatment of dissidents does not encourage unqualified acceptance of the promotionalism. Even known membership details of a major stigmatised victim have very recently been denied by the management tactics. See Denial of Membership (2010) and entry no. 32.

Certain Indian gurus, some of them deceased, have become the focus of allegations and controversies. Swami Muktananda, Sathya Sai Baba, and Sri Chinmoy are by no means an exhaustive listing in that respect.

Yet some Western gurus or “spiritual teachers” have been another subject of grievance with disaffected followers who emphasise discrepancies and abuse. Some say that this phenomenon is of more immediate relevance in Western countries. In particular, the names of two Americans are becoming well known: Adi Da Samraj (1939-2008) and Andrew Cohen. The exotic name of Adi Da is just one of the titles assumed by Franklin Jones, alias Da Free John. He claimed a unique spiritual status, though his role has been strongly repudiated by disillusioned followers. See further Adi Da Archives, which is a critical presentation of relevant data. Such information is there given as:

“Adi Da was considered a controversial figure due to persistent accusations that he was having sex with large numbers of devotees, drinking obsessively, abusing drugs, engaging in incidents of violence against women, and financially exploiting his followers. He rationalised all this as his way of teaching people, claiming his behaviour was selfless service designed to quicken the spiritual development of devotees by reflecting their own tendencies back to them....

“The inner circle was perhaps the most critical piece of infrastructure Adi Da developed to enable his decades-long pursuit of every kind of fulfilment for himself at the expense of others....The inner circle’s mission, amongst other things, was to hide what they could of Adi Da’s indulgent personal life, abusive treatment of others, and psychological issues. What they couldn’t hide, they explained away as his method of spiritual teaching, tantric practice, or ‘crazy wisdom.’ ”

The problem of “crazy wisdom” and other extremist attitudes is sufficient to merit close investigation. Incredulous critics often ask how the victims could ever become involved with predatory figures who cause such disillusionment. The fact is that such involvement has been occurring extensively since the 1970s. Obviously, the mechanism of deception requires attention, a drawback being that this can be kaleidoscopic in the range of manifestations achieved.

Kevin R. D. Shepherd
October 24th 2010

ENTRY no. 33


Copyright © 2010 Kevin R. D. Shepherd. All Rights Reserved.

Monday, 20 September 2010

Findhorn Foundation

The major centre for “alternative thought” in Britain is the Findhorn Foundation, located in Moray, north Scotland. Commencing on a caravan site in 1962, the Foundation is now an NGO, with an extension in CIFAL auspices, this addition denoting a role in the UN ecology programme. See CIFAL Findhorn and Critique of CIFAL Findhorn.

The Foundation has made several basic claims over the years, including that of dispensing a spiritual education. One of the numerous phrases in use after 2000 has been “a centre of spiritual service in co-creation with nature.” Critics have objected to the rather extravagant wordings. The phrase “personal and spiritual transformation” has also been in favour, a theme that is common in the alternative sector. Amongst the commercial promotions is “The Game of Transformation,” a novelty commencing in 1978, and for which the participant charges have been high. An additional detail is that a million decks of “Angel Cards” were sold by 2003.

By the year 2000, the Ecovillage project was underway, with much deference paid to the concept of sustainability (which was also sold in “workshops”).The factor of ecology (in the non-commercial sense) is not in dispute with critics, at least in my own case. See
Ecology: Club of Rome theme (2008) and Autobiographical (2010). [See also Climate Change Complexities, 2010.] Rather, it is the general ideological context of the Foundation, onto which the ecology interest was grafted, that remains the focus of disagreement. See Myth and Reality (2007). The influential “Experience Week,” carrying noticeable price tags, has for long comprised the introduction for beginners, encouraging interest in commercial workshops also provided by the annual programme. The affluent international clientele has numbered many Americans and Germans, though other nationalities are also represented.

Over many years, the Foundation promotional literature and online extension has evidenced a strong commercial component in what are known as “workshops.” See the ongoing Foundation programme at www.findhorn.org, and compare my
Findhorn Foundation Commercial Mysticism (2008). These workshop activities attested the strong influence of the Esalen model from the 1970s onwards. The concepts involved were largely in the field of alternative therapy, generally imported from America. The major manifestation of that trend occurred with the instance of Holotropic Breathwork (HB), a creation of Stanislav Grof during his Esalen phase (1973-1987). See Grof therapy and MAPS (2007).

HB workshops were conducted at the Foundation during the years 1989-1993, and under the auspices of Grof Transpersonal Training Inc. Despite the glorifying promotionalism, some paying clients experienced mishaps and problems that were suppressed. HB therapy was administered in the belief that spiritual benefits were occurring. HB workshops featured prolonged hyperventilation, to the accompaniment of “bodywork” and music. A common response of participants was screaming; there were also various other extreme manifestations of behaviour, such as vomiting and trauma.

Grof lore was not questioned by the Foundation personnel who sponsored the commercial workshops. Complaints of victims and local critics were viewed as a threat to the proclaimed Foundation mandate of being a “planetary village” and a leader in “raising consciousness.”

The Foundation management were obliged to suspend the HB workshops after five years of this activity. The Scottish Charities Office made a recommendation to that effect, after commissioning a professional report from the Pathology Department of Edinburgh University. The report gave warning in medical terms about the hazardous nature of the controversial HB activity.

No error was acknowledged by the Foundation staff. Instead, they censored and stigmatised a local British dissident who had legitimately complained at the discrepancies in clear evidence. That dissident was my mother, and so I am well acquainted with the relevant details. See my web articles
Criticism of New Age (2008) and Kate Thomas and the Findhorn Foundation (2010). See also Letter of Kate Thomas to UNESCO (2007).

In 1996, a book was published locally (in Forres) that documented the fate of several dissidents. The Foundation responded by suppressing the book to a notable degree. Staff members ignored the contents, and in 2002 the prohibited work was declared on the web as being not worthy of a review. The Foundation management instigated this questionable development, and in the face of favourable reviews appearing in more responsible quarters (including ICSA). The book was entitled Hypocrisy and Dissent within the Findhorn Foundation, and the British author was ex-member Stephen J. Castro. Amongst other matters, Castro documented the problematic phase of Holotropic Breathwork, which was conveniently forgotten by the management. See further
Findhorn Foundation: Problems (2009).

The alternative philosophy of the Findhorn Foundation was superficial in the estimation of critics, despite the elaborate partisan attempts to portray all criticism as being a purely subjective matter, a projection of the critic’s own mind. Alternative therapy ignored criticism and dissidents, and instead gave lip service to the meaningless theme of “conflict resolution.”

Observers noticed that for many years the American “channelled” book known as A Course in Miracles was conspicuous in the activities of Cluny Hill College, the Foundation therapy centre in Forres. A major sentiment was forgiveness, which never applied to dissidents. Unconditional love was another of the unconvincing themes in circulation.

The more literate subscribers to this curriculum were known to read books by Ken Wilber, Stanislav Grof, and Fritjof Capra. The general partisan consumption was fed with numerous fads and doubtful menus varying from Aleister Crowley magic to the discourses of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh. The Foundation bookshop was criticised by a female dissident who was not permitted to gain any democratic hearing.

The Findhorn Foundation College arose from the decline of Cluny Hill College, which suffered diverse vicissitudes at the time of severe economic debts incurred by the Foundation in the late 1990s. The experiment known as FCIE (Findhorn College of International Education) was disastrous, quickly terminating after enrolled American students rebelled at the curriculum in 1996.

In recent years, the
Findhorn Foundation College has shown a tendency to modify some of the “holistic” emphases in terms of an advertised “academic” ballast. An operative phrase is now “integrating academic and experiential learning.” Critical analysts have concluded that the presumed “spiritual education” still encounters difficulties in professedly holistic demonstrations.

The major female dissident eventually commenced a solicitor confrontation with the Foundation in 2008. This episode has been documented online. The responses of the Foundation management have been widely considered to be deficient, and to an extreme degree. See my
Letter to Robert Walter MP (2008). The management even attempted to deny the membership record of the dissident (Jean Shepherd, alias Kate Thomas), a ruse which was unsuccessful. See Denial of Membership (2010). Alternative “spiritual” education remains a suspect factor.

Kevin R. D. Shepherd
September 20th 2010



ENTRY no. 32

Copyright © 2010 Kevin R. D. Shepherd. All Rights Reserved.

Thursday, 9 September 2010

Integral Studies

The subject of integral studies is associated with the Indian mystic Aurobindo Ghose (entry no. 30), though substantially developed and elaborated by American enthusiasts. The conception of integralism originated in Aurobindo’s theme of “Integral Yoga,” which was favoured at Esalen. The concept was subsequently adopted, though with various innovations, by exponents of transpersonal psychology.

Haridas Chaudhuri (1913-1975) was a Bengali disciple of Aurobindo who became active and influential in America. He helped to establish the American Academy of Asian Studies, an alternative enterprise whose students included the two subsequent co-founders of the Esalen Institute (namely Michael Murphy and Richard Price).

In later years, Chaudhuri created the California Institute of Asian Studies, still strongly linked to Aurobindo teaching. After his death, in 1980 the name of that organisation was changed to the California Institute of Integral Studies (CIIS), an alteration stated to signify the emerging globalism of outlook and a more extensive East-West synthesis. CIIS is based in San Francisco, and is a private institution, including what is known as the School of Consciousness and Transformation.

CIIS advertises academic programmes and dispenses degrees that include the PhD and MA. There are also public programmes which feature a wide array of “workshops,” the activities including yoga and “self-discovery and healing.” In addition, an activity in therapy here encompasses what is called Integral Counselling.

Despite the promotionalism, criticisms have been lodged. Sceptics say that the “new age” orientation of CIIS is demonstrated by emphases on transformation, therapy, workshop activity, and other dimensions of the project. Further, an online Open Letter makes the accusation: “It appears that at CIIS, faculty simply put on academic rank and titles similar to kindergartners donning academic regalia, with no need for actual promotion processes or scholarly achievement.”

Probably the two most famous names to date on the CIIS faculty are Stanislav Grof and Richard Tarnas. Dr. Grof (image above) is known for his controversial holotropic theories and “cartography of the human psyche,” based upon his activities in LSD psychotherapy. See Grof, Psychology of the Future (2000). Cf. Grof Therapy and MAPS (2007). Professor Tarnas is known for his book The Passion of the Western Mind (1991), and his more recent emphasis on astrology in Cosmos and Psyche (2006). Cf. my web article Psychology, Richard Tarnas, and Holistic Confusion.

The content of an East-West synthesis is in question. In some respects at least, CIIS has adapted the popular Esalen model of “transformation” in an academic format. That model misses out too much of the Western heritage, and has also bypassed Eastern philosophy to a substantial extent.

I have been asked what my own position is with regard to integral studies, in view of my citizen project of private research at Cambridge University Library (CUL) commencing in 1981. I will accordingly make some observations here.

My concept of intercultural and interdisciplinary study does not extend to “workshops” and therapy, which have been known to create serious confusion in the public mind, and even amongst academics. My citizen version of (interdisciplinary) anthropography, in the preliminary presentation Meaning in Anthropos (1991), adhered to annotation procedures of research and commentary, and did not feature the distractions.

In some respects, I am allergic to words like transformation. Such words were incessant catchphrases at the Findhorn Foundation during the 1990s. As a neighbouring outsider to that organisation (living in Forres), I had the long-term opportunity to observe how the Foundation therapists and “focalisers” maintained the stigma and suppression of my mother. See Kate Thomas and the Findhorn Foundation. They entertained presumptions to numerous abilities, such as holistic expertise, counselling, conflict resolution, love in action, unconditional love, the alchemy of peace, feminism and rights for contemporary women, attunement, empowerment, forgiveness, and the game of transformation. All this merely comprised the facade for commercial roles and delusions of grandeur.

Aurobindo can be absolved of any responsibility for the transmission of American counselling and transformation pretensions to Britain. Even during the 1980s, there was very little of his teaching visible in the entrepreneurial industry catering for a new age clientele. Integral Yoga was of limited usage for any commercial operation, though Aurobindo themes for long remained a preferred jargon in some transpersonal circles. A complication is that “he made an unfortunate prediction in The Life Divine about ‘a race of gnostic spiritual beings.’ ” See Aurobindo and Esalen (2008). The prediction confused Esalen “new spirituality.” See also Shepherd, Some Philosophical Critiques and Appraisals, 2004, pp. 159-60.

One of the Esalen founders (Richard Price) discovered that the permissive ashram of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh was far more ominous than he had been led to believe. This was in the late 1970s, when Esalen had become the breeding ground for so many fads and crazes. NeoReichian therapies could cause physical injuries, even while the deceptive presiding message was one of liberation and transformation. “Price himself is said to have suffered a broken arm while being locked up for an hour in a room with eight people armed with wooden weapons; even Esalen could become rational under severe stress” (ibid., p. 60).

Yet the shocks and drawbacks could not prevent the integralist (and transpersonalist) Ken Wilber from eulogising the American gurus Adi Da Samraj and Andrew Cohen, entities who were viewed by critics as predatory. See Perennial Philosophy (2008). Wilber’s version of integral studies has come under fire from various discontented former enthusiasts. See http://www.integralworld.net/. I have reviewed some relevant arguments at Ken Wilber and Integralism (2009). Wilber has commenced his own Integral Institute, often viewed as a rival to CIIS. See Wilber, Integral Spirituality (2007).

My own format in Pointed Observations (2005) was substantially critical of the alternative trends represented by Jung, Grof, Wilber, Bache, the Findhorn Foundation, and others. Some readers noticed that I preferred David Hume, Spinoza, and the vintage Club of Rome phase to the contested trends. For many years I had been resistant to the sceptical philosophy of Hume (and still am in many basic respects), though he was rational by comparison with problems of pseudo-transformation.

Having studied at CUL, I have been sensitive to some of the concerns expressed by academics about bogus credentials, which have unfortunately existed in the new age. Because of such factors, I downgraded my career profile in the last chapter of Pointed Observations, which was entitled Citizen Initiative. “People often do look at the author data to be convinced of a scintillating career with due status honours. Do not buy this book, therefore, as you will be disappointed on that account” (page 351).

Some academics approved this gesture. The relevant passage was subsequently abused by an American sectarian blogger (allegedly paid by a Californian cult leader) as presumed proof that I am incapable of study, having left school at the age of fifteen. See Hate Campaign Blogs (2010). Perhaps only in America are there such extremes of cultist hate campaign. See also my Autobiographical Reflections (2010).

In the face of controversial integral studies, new age “transformation,” cultweb, and other problems, I will here quote from the same chapter abovecited:

“The incentive on the part of citizens to dispute or query official and public matters, and to extend educational horizons, might be described as a democratic prerogative. That incentive may involve supplying information frequently neglected” (Shepherd, Pointed Observations, p. 343 lines 3-6).

Kevin R. D. Shepherd
September 9th 2010

ENTRY no. 31

Copyright © 2010 Kevin R. D. Shepherd. All Rights Reserved.

Saturday, 21 August 2010

Aurobindo Ghose

An influential guru figure was Aurobindo Ghose (1872-1950). Born at Calcutta, his father was a surgeon. The pater desired his children to have a British education. The young Aurobindo was accordingly sent to Manchester with two brothers, and there he was tutored by an Anglican clergyman. In addition to Englsh literature, he also learned Greek and Latin. He entered King’s College, Cambridge, following paternal wishes for a career in the Indian Civil Service.

Aurobindo lost enthusiasm to serve the British, and instead entertained revolutionary ideas. When he returned to India in 1893, he joined the bureaucracy of the Gaekwad of Baroda. He penned speeches for that maharaja, and became a professor at Baroda College. He made a private study of Bengali literature, Sanskrit, and other subjects. More to the point, he became part of the emerging nationalist campaign against British rule.

In 1901, Aurobindo married the daughter of an Indian government official. In 1906 he moved to Calcutta, and was in close contact with resistance groups in Bengal. He criticised Congress for a moderate policy on national education. Aurobindo became a major contributor to the nationalist newspaper Bande Mataram. In 1907 the British government moved to prosecute that newspaper, which was regarded as a goad to violence and lawlessness. That year Aurobindo was arrested by the police on a charge of sedition, though subsequently acquitted because of failure to establish his editorship of the insurgent newspaper.

The American historian Peter Heehs has revealed how the Indian freedom struggle of this early phase had both violent and non-violent aspects. Passive resistance was only part of the story. There was a tendency to terrorism in the 1900-10 decade of the Bengali resistance. In more general terms, Heehs has also penetrated the hagiography attaching to Aurobindo.

During 1907-8 Aurobindo travelled to Poona (Pune), Bombay, and Baroda as an emissary of the nationalist cause. In May 1908 he was again arrested, this time as a suspect in the Manicktola Conspiracy, also known as Alipore Bomb Case. His younger brother Barindra Kumar Ghose was leader of a group of young Bengali revolutionaries at Calcutta who resorted to a bomb in April 1908. Their plan was to bomb the horse carriage of a British magistrate. This punitive action made a mistake in bombing the wrong carriage, killing two innocent British women. About thirty men were arrested, including Aurobindo. The Manicktola property of the extremists was raided by police, who discovered “inflammatory literature, loads of explosives, arms and ammunition, along with detailed written instructions on the techniques of manufacturing higher explosives.” Quotation from Alipore Bomb Case (2009).

Barindra admitted to responsibility in the lengthy trial that followed. The verdict of the court initially entailed death sentences, though deportation to the Andaman Islands was finally decided for a number of the accused. Aurobindo and over fifteen others were acquitted in 1909.

Meanwhile, Aurobindo was detained in solitary confinement for one year in Alipore jail; there he studied the Bhagavad-Gita. He subsequently reported a number of spiritual experiences during his incarceration. After being freed, he commenced two new weekly journals, and promoted his radical ideas on national education. His anti-British tendency caused the Viceroy (Lord Minto) to regard him as the most dangerous man amongst the revolutionaries.

In 1910 Aurobindo retired from the political arena. He took refuge in the French colony of Pondicherry (in Tamil Nadu), after receiving news that the Indian police were looking for him again. Now he opened a new chapter in his career, devoting himself to Yoga (one of his former subsidiary interests). Some critics have viewed this phase as an escape route from political problems, though Aurobindo was evidently quite sincere in the subsequent and extensive cycle of mystical writings which appeared in his new monthly journal Arya from 1914 onwards. In that mode, his major works first emerged in a serialised format, notably including The Life Divine and The Synthesis of Yoga.

The former political agitator was now the exponent of an avant garde Hinduism, “developing a philosophical system inspired by Vedanta, but integrating elements from Yoga, Tantra and the theory of evolution” (Gavin Flood, An Introduction to Hinduism, Cambridge University Press, 1996, p. 270).

Afterwards, in 1926 was founded the Aurobindo Ashram, with a core of 24 disciples. That same year, Aurobindo withdrew into seclusion, appointing a woman as the ashram leader. This was Mirra Richard, also called Mirra Alfassa (1878-1973), who became known as “the Mother.” She was a Parisian of Turkish and Egyptian parentage. She had settled at Pondicherry in 1920, and Aurobindo acknowledged her as his major disciple.

During the 1930s, his correspondence with disciples formed his main literary output, eventually becoming the Letters on Yoga (3 vols). He also worked on a lengthy poem entitled Savitri. Aurobindo did not revert to political agitation, and during the Second World War, he supported the Allied cause against Hitler, whom he described as an oppressor.

His major work is The Life Divine, first published in 1914-19 in serial form, and later revised and enlarged for publication in book format (2 vols, 1939-40). The lengthy contents expound his version of spiritual evolution. An accompanying work, The Synthesis of Yoga, formulates what is known as Integral Yoga, which Aurobindo regarded as a unique innovation. The declared objective is transformation of the individual, including physical, psychic, and mental dimensions. The acquisition of an “inner Yogic consciousness” has the objective of “supramentalisation.” This version of Yoga is often described as uniting the dispositions of bhakti, jnana, and karma yoga as mentioned in the Bhagavad-Gita, a popular Vedantic text in Hinduism.

Aurobindo opposed aspects of Advaita Vedanta, including mayavada, the doctrine that the world is an illusion. He also diverged from the Vedantic belief that an ascetic life of withdrawal was the means to liberation. He improvised the concept of Supermind, which he also described as gnosis. He has been credited with introducing the concept of evolution into Vedantic thought, though his version of evolution was not that of Darwinism, which Aurobindo regarded as a materialist limitation.

A disputed feature of his doctrine is that of a new supramental or gnostic human species envisaged for the future. This theme became influential in the subsequent American “new age” variation associated with the Esalen Institute of California. See Aurobindo and Esalen (2008). Some think that Aurobindo was more realistic in referring to the “intermediate zone,” meaning a danger area of deceptive spirituality located between mundane consciousness and the genuine spiritual achievement. One surely sees far more of this drawback than anything “gnostic” in the pretentious new age.

Specialist scholarship in Vedic texts has disagreed with Aurobindo’s theme of an esoteric meaning in the ancient RigVeda. Via such works as The Secret of the Veda and Hymns to the Mystic Fire, Aurobindo asserted that the Rig was composed in a symbolic language, the outer meaning relating to religious rituals, and the inner meaning relating to a spiritual knowledge. In contrast, Professor Jan Gonda viewed this as an erroneous interpretation, one in which the Vedic sacrifices are all symbolic, and which treats the Rig ritualism as an “infallible authority for spiritual knowledge”; however, the Indologist did not deny an intuitive dimension to the poetry of the Rig rishis (Gonda, Vedic Literature, Wiesbaden 1975, pp. 53-4).

After Aurobindo’s death, the town of Auroville was founded near Pondicherry in 1968. The ideal was an international habitat transcending creed and politics. Auroville is recently reported to have over 2000 inhabitants, mainly Indians, French, and Germans. See Wikipedia Aurobindo (accessed 09/08/2010) and Wikipedia Auroville (accessed 09/08/2010) See also Aurobindo.

See further the Collected Works of Sri Aurobindo (30 vols, Sri Aurobindo Ashram, 1972); Aurobindo, The Life Divine (first edn 1939-40; seventh edn, Pondicherry, 2006); Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga (Pondicherry, 1996)); Aurobindo, Secret of the Veda (Pondicherry, 1995); A.B. Purani, The Life of Sri Aurobindo (Pondicherry, 1978); P. Heehs, The Bomb in Bengal: The Rise of Revolutionary Terrorism in India, 1900-1910 (Oxford University Press, 1993; second edn, 2004); P. Heehs, The Lives of Sri Aurobindo (Columbia University Press, 2008).

Kevin R.D. Shepherd
August 21st 2010

ENTRY no. 30

Copyright © 2010 Kevin R. D. Shepherd. All Rights Reserved.

Thursday, 12 August 2010

Meher Baba

A prominent aspect of the “alternative” vogue in Western countries has been that of enthusiasm for Eastern gurus and other mentors. A number of these entities transpired to exhibit complicating traits, causing disillusionment amongst their followers. Meher Baba was not one of these, his activities dating to an earlier period.

The career of Meher Baba (1894-1969) evidences a clean moral record. He visited the West in the 1930s and again in the 1950s, thereafter remaining mostly in seclusion until his death. The major criticism levelled at him is that of the avataric claims he made in his later years. The word avatar signifies divine incarnation, and is derived from Hinduism.

Meher Baba (Merwan Sheriar Irani) fits a rather unusual category of “guru” in that he was not a Hindu but an Irani Zoroastrian. Both his parents were émigrés from Central Iran. Though born in India (at Pune), he was not a Parsi, as is sometimes mistakenly assumed. This ethnic complexity has made his career more interesting to me, though my attitude is critical and quite independent of the devotional movement forming in his name.

Pune was formerly known as Poona, then a centre of the British Raj. There, while attending the Deccan College in 1913, young Merwan Irani encountered Hazrat Babajan (d. 1931), an aged female saint of Muslim birth who has Sufi associations (see Shepherd, A Sufi Matriarch, 1986). The interaction changed his life completely.

In general, Meher Baba has not been favoured by the “new age,” the adherents of which have been far more enthusiastic about Hindu gurus like Shri Aurobindo, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, Sathya Sai Baba, and Swami Muktananda. Indeed, the Esalen Institute of California endorsed Aurobindo during the early years of that enterprise, promoting his doctrines to such an extent that these are well known by comparison with teachings of other figures. The Findhorn Foundation favoured Rajneesh and Sathya Sai Baba during the 1980s and 1990s.

The Meher Baba movement has not displayed the belligerence towards outsiders that characterised the Rajneesh sect in the 1980s, a drawback more recently mirrored in the American branch of the Sathya Sai Baba sect. See further Internet Terrorist (2009). Certain developments on Wikipedia have been viewed with suspicion, implying collusion between a pseudonymous Meher Baba supporter and a militant defender of Sathya Sai Baba. See Wikipedia Anomalies: Arguments (2010). However, in general the Meher Baba movement does not appear to favour web aggression and libel. It may therefore still be possible for outsiders to comment on the figurehead without fear of hate campaign.

A partisan of Meher Baba has considerately sent me notification that reference to myself appears in a recent devotee work. As such matters are now of interest to some investigators, I will accordingly cite the reference here: “Though no devotee of Meher Baba and a sharp critic of Meher Baba’s followers, Kevin Shepherd turns a critical eye on [Paul] Brunton’s account, in Meher Baba, an Iranian Liberal, pp. 146-76.” Quotation from Meher Baba’s Early Messages to the West: The 1932-1935 Western Tours, ed. W. Parks (Myrtle Beach, S.C.: Sheriar Foundation, 2009), p. 223 note 31. The editor evidently approved of my scepticism concerning Brunton, though he should perhaps have grasped that I did not criticise all the followers, as specific statements in Iranian Liberal do confirm. (Another reference to the same book of mine, and in relation to Rom Landau, occurs in Early Messages to the West, p. 224 note 32).

With regard to Paul Brunton (1898-1981), there are strong doubts about the reliability of his report on Meher Baba in A Search in Secret India (1934). An obvious discrepancy has struck many readers. Brunton referred to the low and receding forehead of the Irani, which could mean that the British reporter suffered from an optical deficiency. In reality, the cranium of Meher Baba was well proportioned, and also of substantial size in relation to his body. See further my web entry Meher Baba (2009).

The Irani mystic was notably averse to the caste system. He refused to sanction that problem, and instead championed the cause of the untouchables. This was a feature of his activity during the 1920s, when he established his first ashram at Meherabad (Arangaon), near Ahmednagar, a city in Maharashtra. The fact is that, after an initial resistance, he eliminated caste at his ashram, not permitting the ranking or dining protocol generally found in other Indian ashrams.

Another feature that tends to distinguish the outlook of Meher Baba from that of other gurus is his attitude to miracles. Although in some early statements, he seems to have acknowledged the existence of “miracles,” in later years he frequently gave that subject a low rating, disowning the performance of miracles in his own case. “Many miracles have been attributed to me, but I do not perform miracles. I do not attach importance to miracles.” (Quoted in Shepherd, Investigating the Sai Baba Movement, 2005, p. 110).

Meher Baba was also strongly critical of tendencies in other followings to create an instinct for “miracle” phenomena. In relation to both Shirdi Sai Baba (d. 1918) and Upasni (Upasani) Maharaj (d. 1941), both of whom he had personally encountered, he was disapproving of the hagiographical preference of devotees for miraculous events. He had been the disciple of Upasni for several years, commencing in 1915.

In 1925, Meher Baba commenced silence, a discipline which he maintained until his death. He continued to communicate by means of an English alphabet board, and later a distinctive gesture language. In this manner he dictated numerous messages and discourses, and also two books on spiritual evolution, only one of which was published during his lifetime (in 1955). That contribution is unusual for an eclectic vocabulary employing Sanskrit/Marathi and Persian terms drawn from the Vedantic and Sufi traditions (though the Hindu component was not exclusively Vedantic).

Meher Baba was fluent in Persian and Marathi (also Gujarathi and English). He gained Muslim followers in addition to Zoroastrian and Hindu devotees. He was quite familiar with Sufism, though he did not identify with that tradition, and remained non-denominational. This intercultural complexion of his teaching is another factor of difference with the Hindu gurus.

Meher Baba’s evolutionism remains distinctive. His exposition incorporates reincarnation, though in a rather comprehensive form which rigorously exposits a sequence of progression through the diverse species-forms until the human stage is reached. This rationale is not in any explicit opposition to Darwinian formulae, though the metaphysical dimensions are pronounced.

This evolutionism explains the growth in consciousness attendant upon evolution, a factor of exegesis not always found in mystical accounts. Further, there is the advantage of description in terms of impressions (sanskaras), again quite methodically elaborated. Consciousness is composed of impressions, and in this light, the reincarnation process is made more explicable. The exposition of Meher Baba differs from more well known versions of transmigration that do not clarify such complexities, and which exhibit discrepancies in terms of, e.g., retrograde incarnation from human to animal.

The presentation under discussion differs from traditional Vedanta in the evolutionist criteria supplied. There is also a divergence from canonical Sufism, which does not teach reincarnation. Some Muslims of earlier centuries inclined to versions of transmigration (tanasukh) associated with the Pythagorean heritage.

See further Meher Baba, God Speaks: The Theme of Creation and its Purpose (New York, 1955; second edn, 1973); Meher Baba, Infinite Intelligence (Myrtle Beach, S. C., 2005); Meher Baba, Discourses (7th edn, Myrtle Beach, S.C., 1987); C. B. Purdom, The God-Man: The Life, Journeys and Work of Meher Baba (London, 1964); B. Kalchuri, Meher Prabhu: Lord Meher (20 vols, Ashville, North Carolina, 1986-2001); Shepherd, Meher Baba, an Iranian Liberal (Cambridge, 1988), with bibliography; idem, Investigating the Sai Baba Movement, Part Three, “Meher Baba of Ahmednagar” (Dorchester, 2005).

Kevin R. D. Shepherd
August 12th 2010


ENTRY no. 29

Copyright © 2010 Kevin R. D. Shepherd. All Rights Reserved.

Friday, 6 August 2010

Swami Vivekananda

Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902) was anti-caste in many of his recorded emphases. He was an unusual mystic of the more daring and radical kind in terms of social extension. Yet he identified with the traditional philosophy of Advaita Vedanta, strongly associated with Shankara (c. 800 CE), a legendary exponent whose extant and attributed treatises are a subject of complex scholarly appraisal.

Vivekananda, alias Narendra Nath Datta, was born in Calcutta, where he attended college. He studied European history and philosophy, and gained a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1884. He became influenced by the Brahmo Samaj, a reforming movement which advocated belief in a formless God, and who were in opposition to popular Hinduism. Narendra came from a low class background, being a kayastha by birth. That sub-caste gained an increased status in Bengali society under British rule, often working as clerks and secretaries. His father was a prosperous attorney at the Calcutta high court.

In 1881 Narendra encountered Ramakishna of Dakshineswar (1836-1886), a brahman saint who lived in a Kali temple near Calcutta. The latter was not at all typical of the priestly caste; he would not touch money and spoke in very simple language, as distinct from the formal didactic of the pundits. The tendency of Ramakrishna was eclectic with regard to Hinduism, and included reference to Advaita Vedanta.

Narendra at first rejected Advaita, deeming this an extremist philosophy. Ramakrishna’s esteem for the goddess Kali was also repugnant to reformist tastes. Yet prior to 1886, the year of Ramakrishna’s death, Narendra had changed orientation completely, becoming a full-fledged disciple of the mystic.

The young disciples of Ramakrishna opted for a monastic existence at his death, living in a dilapidated house at Baranagore. A number of them took formal vows, and Narendra assumed the name of Swami Vivekananda. In 1888, he left Baranagore to live as a wandering monk (sannyasin), and for several years he travelled throughout India, frequently travelling on foot, though also resorting to the railway when given tickets by wellwishers. He encountered priestly pundits and maharajas, but also saw at firsthand the widespread poverty and suffering of the masses, which evidently weighed upon him deeply.

At the end of 1892, he arrived at Cape Comorin (the southern tip of India). There he gained the much reported insight that the situation of so many wandering renunciates teaching religion was seriously discrepant. Instead the objective should be one of raising the masses from ignorance and hunger.

In 1893, Vivekananda visited America as an outspoken teacher of Vedanta and Yoga. He first lectured at the Chicago Parliament of Religions, gaining both admirers and critics, the latter including missionaries to India. For over three years he stayed in the West, lecturing in America and England, though suffering poor health as a consequence of the strain. He declined two offers of an academic chair in Eastern philosophy at Harvard and Columbia Universities, explaining that he could not accept such career vocation as a wandering monk.

In early 1897, Vivekananda arrived back in India, being welcomed as a national hero on account of his recent fame. He travelled from Colombo to Calcutta and Almora, frequently giving lectures that included exhortations to an upliftment of the masses and the elimination of caste stigmas. He also favoured the study of Western science in addition to Vedanta. The implications of a national reorientation were taken seriously in some directions, and later political figures like Mahatma Gandhi and Radhakrishnan (entry no. 27) acknowledged Swami Vivekananda as an inspiration. Independence from British rule was one repercussion, though Vivekananda did not mount that sort of campaign. Instead, his immediate opponent was the conservative priestly caste.

He detested what he called the “kitchen religion” of that caste, which entailed a taboo on food being defiled by the shadow of any untouchable. “Kick out the priests who are always against progress,” said Vivekananda. “The modern student of sociology may well be surprised at the depth and objectivity of his observations.” Quotes from F. R. Allchin, “The Social Thought of Swami Vivekananda,” in S. Ghanananda and G. Parrinder, eds., Swami Vivekananda in East and West (London: Ramakrishna Vivekananda Centre, 1968), pp. 89ff., 102. See also my web memo.

At Calcutta in 1897, Vivekananda founded at Belur the Ramakrishna Math (monastery). This was accompanied by the Ramakrishna Mission, an extension in social service. Some Christian critics have implied that the Mission was inspired by Christian models. The new monastic organisation later gained a centre in Madras.

During 1899-1900, he again visited America and Europe, creating Vedanta centres in San Francisco and New York, and also attending the Paris Congress of Religions (1900). His failing health meant that he was unable to meet an invitation to the subsequent Congress of Religions in Japan. Vivekananda died peacefully at the Belur monastery, while lying down after meditating.

An Indian historian observes that Vivekananda “was often strongly anti-Brahmin, if not also anti-Brahmanical, and held saints and sadhus no less responsible for the continuing oppression of the masses. Reformers, in his view, never really touched the pulse of India.... Vivekananda’s panacea for India’s several ills was mass education: training in useful sciences and crafts, manual skills, and manufacture.” Quote from Amiya P. Sen, ed., The Indispensable Vivekananda: An Anthology for our Times (Delhi: Permanent Black, 2006), pp. 33-4.

A generally obscured matter is that Vivekananda drew from both the Sankhya and Vedanta systems of philosophy. He emphasised features of Sankhya psychology, and admitted the indebtedness of Vedanta to Sankhya; serious doctrinal differences existed between those two traditions (ibid., p. 40).

A Western scholar has commented: “Although the Ramakrishna movement is not considered an orthodox sampradaya [religious tradition] by the more conservative Hindus, it has nevertheless captured the imagination of a great many modern and progressive Hindus and is held to be a non-sectarian and universal expression of a new, reformed Hinduism.” Quote from K. K. Klostermaier, A Survey of Hinduism (State University of New York Press, 1989), p. 45.

The Ramakrishna Order now claims over 170 branch centres worldwide. There is an online partisan biography of Vivekananda by Swami Nikhilananda. See also the Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda (nine vols, Mayavati, 2001), and web version. Relevant is S.N. Dhar, A Comprehensive Biography of Swami Vivekananda (2 vols, Madras, 1975-6); A. P. Sen, Swami Vivekananda (New Delhi, 2000); idem, Social and Religious Reform: The Hindus of British India (New Delhi, 2003). See also Amiya Prosad Sen.

Kevin R. D. Shepherd
August 6th, 2010


ENTRY no. 28

Copyright © 2010 Kevin R. D. Shepherd. All Rights Reserved.

Thursday, 29 July 2010

Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan

A major exponent of Hinduism was Sir Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan (1888-1975), whose Indian Philosophy (2 vols, 1923-27) became a textbook on the subject. Born in South India, he early encountered the writings of Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902), who influenced him strongly in the new mood of Vedantic universalism struggling against rival emphases of Christianity. This was the era of British Raj imperialism, in which Hinduism was the runner-up.

Originating at the town of Tirutani in Andhra Pradesh, Radhakrishnan was born into the brahman caste and reared to Vedantic teaching. In 1904 he entered the Madras Christian College, where he studied Western philosophy, and observed the Christian criticism of Vedanta as having no ethical content. He was subsequently to repudiate the aspersions, and became a professor at Mysore and Calcutta Universities.

His early writings railed at the critics of Hinduism. In 1921, Radhakrishnan gained the prestigious George V chair in philosophy at Calcutta University, where he composed his Indian Philosophy, a mature work not relying on polemic. In 1926 he was invited to Oxford to give the Upton Lectures, and a sequel occurred in the Hibbert Lectures of 1929. These lectures achieved publication as The Hindu View of Life (1927) and An Idealist View of Life (1929). The lastmentioned is regarded as his more developed work.

In 1931 Radhakrishnan was knighted by the British government, whose policies he had not always agreed with. He subsequently became a professor of religion at Oxford University in 1936, the association with Oxford continuing for many years.

Radhakrishnan was closely associated with the philosophy of Advaita Vedanta, and favoured a modernised version of this outlook, which elevates the atman-Brahman themes of nondualist identity. He defended and elaborated the factor of intuitive experience which is inherent in that teaching.


A frequent criticism has been that Radhakrishnan tended to claim Advaita as a yardstick of assessment for all religions and philosophies. He also tended to ennoble the caste system in some arguments, though recognising the problems in Hindu society.

“In a sense, Radhakrishnan ‘Hinduizes’ all religions,” and in the context of Vedantic interpretation. The same commentary deduces the view of this Indian philosopher as meaning: “Religious claims.... ought not to be taken as authoritative in and of themselves, for only integral intuitions validated by the light of reason are the final authority on religious matters.” Quotations from M. Hawley, “Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan” (2006), Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy.

“Radhakrishnan clearly preferred to be called a philosopher rather than a theologian” (Shepherd, Minds and Sociocultures Vol. One: Zoroastrianism and the Indian Religions, 1995, p. 580). To this remark, I felt obliged to add that “almost in the manner of a theologian, he wrote that the scheme of social classes and ashramas is helpful but not indispensable” (ibid.). The priestly adjuncts of Indian religion are now closely debated by diverse Indian scholars and Indian rationalists.

“Never in the history of philosophy has there been quite such a world-figure.” This assessment of Radhakrishnan comes from Life and Writings, citing the philosopher George P. Conger. Radhakrishnan undeniably achieved a widespread influence. While famous at Oxford, his administrative appointments extended to Benares and Delhi Universities; he was the Indian ambassador to Russia, and in 1952 he became the first Vice-President of India. He was subsequently the President of India during the 1960s.

His informed books caused a wide readership in the West to give some serious consideration to the formerly marginalised Indian philosophy. See also indohistory.


See further Radhakrishnan, Eastern Religions and Western Thought (Oxford, 1939); idem, The Bhagavadgita (London, 1948); id., The Principal Upanishads (1953); id., The Brahmasutra (London, 1961). See also P. A. Schilpp, ed., The Philosophy of Sarvapelli Radhakrishnan (New York, 1952); R.N. Minor, Radhakrishnan: A Religious Biography (Albany, 1987).

Kevin R. D. Shepherd
July 29th 2010

ENTRY no. 27
Copyright © 2010 Kevin R. D. Shepherd. All Rights Reserved.

Thursday, 22 July 2010

Indian Philosophy

Indian philosophy is a variegated phenomenon. Clarifications are needed in this field. One is faced with several types of Indian philosophy in the historical record. For instance, there is the early Upanishadic phase, and the subsequent growth of Hinduism associated with the “six systems of philosophy.” Those systems are a specialist study in their own right. Moreover, we have the Buddhist and Jainist rivals to the Hindu formats. Again, these are specialist studies in their own field of research.

With regard to religion, there are complex extensions in the medieval period that are not mainline Hinduism at all, but something quite different. I am referring here to the Sant phenomenon and the creation of Sikhism, trends which were strongly opposed to caste practices and concepts.

In addition to these factors, there are latter day manifestations of diverse Hindu and neo-Hindu sects and exegeses. In contrast, there is now the radical development of contemporary Indian Rationalism, to some extent allied with Western concepts in science, and railing against traditional religion and attendant superstitions.

To get a bearing in these diverse channels is not straightforward. Much of this panorama can be brought under the classification of “Indian philosophy,” but the differences in emphasis are substantial. The copious textual studies, plus the sociological documentation, is beyond the reach of most citizen investigators.

My independent research into Indian philosophy eventually gained expression in the book Minds and Sociocultures Vol. One: Zoroastrianism and the Indian Religions (1995), pp. 389-825. I might at least claim some familiarity with the works mentioned in the annotations, though I do not profess to be an expert.

Three diverse figures active in the introduction of Indian philosophy to the West were the university scholars Friedrich Max Muller and Sir Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan (1888-1975), and the Vedanta interpreter Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902), who established a monastic order.

Professor Max Muller (1823-1900) effectively became the founder of comparative religion, in the sense of a scholarly discipline. His major achievement is sometimes considered to have been his editorship of Sacred Books of the East, a fifty volume series encompassing diverse religions and published during the period 1876-1904. That milestone series was published by Oxford University Press, in the country which became the headquarters for studies in Indian religion and philosophy. Those studies became known as Indology.

Max Muller early studied in his native Germany with the philosopher Friedrich Schelling, at whose request he translated passages from the Upanishads. Max Muller became a pioneer in RigVeda studies, and was a linguistic professor at Oxford University from 1851. One of his best known works is The Six Systems of Indian Philosophy (1899). See the online biography.

Some critics have complained that classical Indian philosophy generally converges with Indian religion. The historical context becomes important, wherever this can be reconstructed. The approach of the investigator can be relevant in this respect. Indology avoids sectarian affiliations, which have posed a drawback in the popular Western enthusiasm for Hinduism that commenced in the 1960s. Failure to grasp the necessity for critical evaluation has caused many disillusionments.

Indology became a discipline of repute at several major European universities. Hindu scholars came to study Sanskrit in European universities, assimilating the scholarly exegesis developing in the West, and which was quite different to the pundit method of assessment. In America meanwhile, Sanskrit was introduced at Yale University in 1841, and the American Oriental Society became a signpost to Indological researches. There were initially some Christian biases discernible in Sanskritist studies (from which Max Muller was not exempt).

Professors Surendra Nath Dasgupta (1887-1952) and Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan are perhaps the two best known Hindu commentators. The former studied and lectured at Cambridge and composed his five-volume History of Indian Philosophy (Cambridge, 1922-55). Radhakrishnan composed his two-volume Indian Philosophy (London, 1923-27), a well known work that became widely cited, and the author becoming celebrated at Oxford.

Kevin R. D. Shepherd
July 22nd 2010

ENTRY no. 26

Copyright © 2010 Kevin R. D. Shepherd. All Rights Reserved.

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

International Angles

International assessments of Western philosophy differ enormously. That is surely an understatement. Diligent readers know that my own perspective is intercultural, and that I have paid deference to philosophy (linking to anthropography in my case) in a broader context than is often found. For instance, on my websites I have incorporated some detailed reference to Zoroastrianism, Islamic Sufism, and Islamic philosophy. Those subjects are not popular with some Western readers. However, when the focus turns to modern Western philosophy, there are some international reactions to the European dimensions of that subject.

My own endeavour to escape the confines of any Eurocentric landscape was formulated in my early work Meaning in Anthropos (1991), composed in 1984. This presentation of citizen anthropography attempted a more global axis than is customarily found in academic philosophy.

I have noticed, with some fascination, that both the Asiatic and the Western responses to philosophy contain marked variations. I should perhaps state my own instance. During my early years of study, I veered strongly away from British entities in philosophy. For many years I resisted coming to terms with David Hume, whom I associated with a “British Empire” mode of thought and a quasi-nihilistic temperament that anticipated Nietzsche. I much preferred Plato, Plotinus, Farabi, Suhrawardi, Spinoza, and the Eastern affinities (though erratic and circumscribed) of Schopenhauer.

The literati in India, China, and Japan have frequently been generous with regard to Western philosophy, acknowledging empiricism, and also the relevance of rationalism and the implicit affinity with scientific objectives. Islamic countries have sometimes resisted Western influences, perhaps not surprisingly, though the literati in those countries are quite capable of recognising the value of intercultural approaches.

The subject of “Western philosophy” basically extends to ancient Greek, Roman, Christian, Jewish, and Islamic dimensions, a phenomenon of cultural linkages and ramifications occurring in distant centuries. However, when one talks of modern philosophy, the orbit is very often European, with Germany and Britain gaining a fairly substantial tally of famous names. Everyone has heard of philosophers like Kant, Hegel, Locke, and Hume, though not everyone has studied those entities in any detail.

The study of philosophy has notably spread to America, Canada, and Australia. Both the academic and popular reception of that subject require some due appraisal. American academics have investigated the subject intensively, though the public climate of American opinion is generally indifferent, and in some quarters tending to categorical dismissal in favour of “new age” alternatives.

At this juncture, it seems appropriate for me, before proceeding any further to describe European figures in the history of modern philosophy, to alight upon some contemporary topics in a spirit of citizen investigation. In view of factors indicated above, I have decided to include on this blog some entries concerning subjects not appearing in conventional philosophy contents.


Kevin R.D. Shepherd
July 14th 2010

ENTRY no. 25

Copyright © 2010 Kevin R. D. Shepherd. All Rights Reserved.

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Meaning of Key Words

The significance of those key terms philosophy and philosopher has been much discussed, with a variety of interpretations. Today, the key word philosopher very often denotes an analytical stance, and nothing more. Philosophy is now largely viewed in the academic realm as a discipline of analysis, relevant to the auspice of “analytical philosophy” which has become paramount in several countries, including Britain and America.

One of the most vocal exponents of analytical philosophy was Bertrand Russell. In his most oft-cited work, dating to the 1940s, he defined philosophy in such terms as:

“Philosophy, as I shall understand the word, is something intermediate between theology and science.... All definite knowledge – so I should contend – belongs to science; all dogma as to what surpasses definite knowledge belongs to theology. But between theology and science there is a No Man’s Land, exposed to attack from both sides; this No Man’s Land is philosophy.... Is there such a thing as wisdom, or is what seems such merely the ultimate refinement of folly? To such questions no answer can be found in the laboratory. Theologies have professed to give answers, all too definite.... The studying of these questions, if not the answering of them, is the business of philosophy.” (Bertrand Russell, History of Western Philosophy, Routledge edn 2000, pp. 13-14).

However, Russell’s approach has not satisfied everyone. Philosophers must negotiate the Scylla and Charybdis of attacks from empiricism and dogmatism. Russell did recognise that wisdom could not be charted in the laboratory, though the primacy of definite knowledge was nevertheless awarded to that sector. Definite knowledge is here envisaged in terms of something readily quantifiable to mathematicians and physicists, to chemists and biologists. Meanwhile, the No Man’s Land studies questions that might be answered.

Moving back three centuries to Descartes, we find a rather different definition of philosophy. In his well known epistle to the translator of his Principles of Philosophy, Descartes made the following statement:

“The word philosophy means the study of wisdom, and that by wisdom is meant not only prudence in the conduct of affairs, but a perfect knowledge of all that man can know, no less for the conduct of his life than for the preservation of his health and the discovery of all the arts” (F. E. Sutcliffe, trans., Discourse on Method and the Meditations, London: Penguin, 1968, p. 173).

Here we converge with many older perspectives on the subject. The version of Descartes reflects, however approximately, much more ancient concepts of philosophy as a gauge for conduct, health, learning, and creativity.

By the twentieth century, the antique ideal was relegated by academic philosophy to the No Man’s Land, avidly studied and historicised, but very often seen as something rather remote and even nebulous.

Kevin R. D. Shepherd
July 7th 2010


ENTRY no. 24

Copyright © 2010 Kevin R. D. Shepherd. All Rights Reserved.

Thursday, 1 July 2010

Al-Farabi to Spinoza

The preceding treatments of six philosophers encompass acutely different cultural backgrounds (entries 17-22). The first three were Muslim falasifa who related to the Aristotelian tradition in different formats. I am referring to Al-Farabi, Ibn Sina, and Ibn Rushd (Averroes). The last three quite decisively separated from the Aristotelian conceptual heritage, represented in their time by the Christian Scholastic tradition. I am here referring to Francis Bacon, Descartes, and Spinoza.

There are complexities and significances in these varied transitions that are not always dwelt upon. The Islamic Aristotelian tradition was not the same as the Christian version, which became rooted in the exegesis of Thomas Aquinas (d. 1274). This prominent theologian is associated with a perception that the Neoplatonist versions of Aristotle were not authentic, being later interpretations. Yet Ibn Rushd had earlier grasped this complexity to a considerable extent, and his relevant explanations are not cancelled out by the sequel.

A well known Cambridge analytical philosopher has asserted: “The De Anima leads much more naturally to the view of Averroes than to that of Aquinas” (Bertrand Russell, History of Western Philosophy, Routledge edn 2000, p. 445).

The Christian Schoolmen imparted their own format to Aristotle, and the question of authenticity tends to evaporate in the face of exegetical innovations imposed by religious beliefs. By the time of Bacon and Descartes, the Late Scholastic tradition existing in the European universities was a barrier to scientific discoveries of the type associated with Copernicus and Galileo.

Francis Bacon took a starkly empiricist attitude to the situation, one which anticipated scientific research institutes of a later time. Rene Descartes demonstrated an output that moved between the empirical and deductive modes, engendering a rationalism which was multi-faceted. Spinoza continued that rationalism in a different way, his “artisan and private scholar” vocation being notable for a “substance monism” that has been variously interpreted, and a political (and scriptural) exegesis that was startling for his time.

The diverse influences on Spinoza, varying from Descartes to Hispanic-Jewish Neoplatonism and Kabbalism, have defied constricting attempts at linear interpretation. Spinoza’s “pantheism” is not at all straightforward for any detailed analysis. For instance, “commentators have debated over the question of whether the immortality intended by Spinoza is personal or not” (O. Koistinen and V. Viljanen, Introduction to Olli Koistinen, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Spinoza’s Ethics, Cambridge University Press, 2009, p. 22). Spinoza certainly did state in the Ethics that “the human mind cannot be absolutely destroyed with the body, but something of it remains which is eternal” (Book V, proposition 23, E. Curley trans.).

Ironically perhaps, the Neoplatonist vein in Spinoza is not so far removed from Farabi as some appearances might suggest. Consider the following remarks by a leading specialist in Spinozan studies:

“On the one hand, he [Spinoza] is making the most radical, daring move that had occurred in many a century and, on the other, he is obviously building on great ideas set forth most recently by Descartes and Hobbes and, to some extent, by ancient and medieval thinkers, especially of the Neoplatonic variety.... He had come to grips with Cartesianism and had moved beyond it. He had found Descartes’s dualistic metaphysics incompatible with the monism of a Neoplatonic view of the universe.” (R. H. Popkin, Spinoza, Oxford: Oneworld, 2004, p. 127.)

The Aristotelian sciences had not been lost. They had achieved a further development. Spinoza escaped the academic syllabus, grinding and polishing lenses for use in scientific instruments. Microscopes and telescopes were insignia of the Scientific Revolution. Spinoza was investigated by Christiaan Huygens, the wealthy astronomer and mathematician who achieved fame with the telescope.

In their own day, Spinoza was eclipsed in stature by the empirical Huygens. The latter gained recognition and fame as a scientist, though Spinoza was treated to stigma and misrepresentation by so much of the polite society influenced by standard religious thinking. Since that time however, the underdog has achieved a rather more pervasive status in the academic repertories. In some directions, Huygens is secondary to the deductivist rationalism. Further, there are now more books on Spinoza than his empiricist contemporary. However, the history of science gives a higher rating to Huygens as one of the major figures in the Scientific Revolution. Also, it has been concluded that the role of Huygens was obscured by the fame of Isaac Newton. We should therefore be grateful that both Spinoza and Huygens survived the interim period of relative oblivion.


Kevin R.D. Shepherd
July 1st 2010


ENTRY no. 23

Copyright © 2010 Kevin R. D. Shepherd. All Rights Reserved.

Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Baruch Spinoza

Born in Amsterdam, Baruch Spinoza (1632-77) was a first generation Dutch Jew. His family were Portuguese Jews, his father Michael Espinosa being a refugee merchant, one of those who contributed to the growing prosperity of Amsterdam. There were numerous Portuguese and Spanish Jews in that city at the time of Spinoza’s birth. More specifically, Spinoza’s parents were marranos or crypto-Jews who had fled from Portugal. They were amongst those who adhered to elements of Judaism after forced conversion to Christianity. That problem had occurred in Portugal and Spain, where the Inquisition harassed converts.

Spinoza was educated in the traditional Jewish manner. He studied at a Talmud Torah school, but did not undertake the higher grades which led to Rabbi status. At the age of 17, “whether by desire or by necessity, Spinoza left the school in order to work in his father’s business, which he eventually took over with his half-brother” (B.D. Dutton, “Benedict De Spinoza,” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy). The family business was one of importing and vending foodstuffs. At the age of 24, Spinoza was excommunicated by the synagogue authorities of Amsterdam, being accused of heresies. The context is obscure.

His enthusiasm for the study of Descartes (entry no. 21) has often been considered a possible reason for the stigma, though other explanations have been proffered. His critical views of the Bible, and his acquaintance with radical Christian groups such as the Collegiants and Quakers, are just some of the alternatives. An economic problem is another possibility, his father having died two years before and leaving numerous debts, as a consequence of which Spinoza hired a lawyer.

At this time he changed his first name Baruch (which is Hebrew) to the Latin equivalent of Benedict. The heretic became a Latin-speaking neo-Cartesian, moving freely amongst non-Jews. Spinoza could also speak Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, and Hebrew.

Like Descartes, Spinoza was a citizen philosopher. Academics later assimilated these two figures into the canon of primary rationalist philosophers. Even more than Descartes, Spinoza remained on the fringe of status activities, and had to struggle with ideological biases of a severe kind. [See further my Baruch Spinoza, long entry].

Spinoza left Amsterdam in 1661, reputedly being in danger from extremists, and moved to Rijnsburg. He had adopted the craft of a lens-grinder, working in his own rented living accomodation. He produced lenses for microscopes and telescopes. This activity converged with his strong interest in optics. Some commentators describe this grinding and polishing skill in terms of a “gentlemanly amateur” vocation, which apparently bypassed an apprenticeship. Yet the wealthy Dutch scientist Christiaan Huygens (1629-93) respected the knowledge of optics possessed by Spinoza. That science was associated with the Optics of Descartes.

Huygens was a very capable lens-grinder, innovating advanced telescopic lenses. “Huygens had far more money than Spinoza, who was a ‘marrano’ amateur in a Christian world of professionals” (Shepherd, Pointed Observations, 2005, p. 278). It is apparent that Spinoza at first knew more about microscopes than Huygens, who became celebrated for telescopic discoveries in relation to Saturn. These two grinders had scientific discussions, with Huygens evidently regarding Spinoza as a rival.

In some commentaries, Spinoza has been defined as a rationalist version of pantheist. He did not accept the dualism of Descartes, and argued that there could only be one substance, not three (i.e., God, mind, and matter). Thus God can be equated with Nature. This theme became incorporated into his Ethics (1677), which strongly asserts the existence of God in a rationalist context. The attendant irony is that Spinoza was described and derided as an atheist by various reductionists for many years after his death. There is contemporary disagreement about his orientation. Spinozan pantheism has even been interpreted (in one version) as panentheism, though some commentators argue that the subject was an atheist.
Spinoza himself said that the charge of atheism was a perverse misinterpretation of his meaning.

An earlier work was Spinoza’s Short Treatise on God, Man, and His Wellbeing, apparently composed during his retiring phase at Rijnsberg, though not achieving publication until long after his death. This metaphysical book is partly associated with the influence of Leone Ebreo, alias Judah Abravanel, a sixteenth century Jewish philosopher of Portugal who has been described in terms of Neoplatonism.


Abravanel authored the Dialoghi d'amore, published in Italian in 1535; those dialogues refer in philosophical terms to an “intellectual” love above any human love. This work (which Spinoza read in Spanish)) has been recently described as “a Neoplatonic presentation” which “contains 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” (R. H. Popkin, Spinoza, Oxford: Oneworld, 2004, p. 18).

Perhaps acting upon the advice of his academic friend Lodewijk Meyer, Spinoza changed format from the Short Treatise to the geometrical method of Euclid, exhibited in his Ethics. This device was evidently believed to be suitable for conveying reason to a Christian audience. Hispanic-Jewish mysticism would not have appealed to some of his acquaintances. Spinoza himself is far more complex. The philosophical Kabbalist Abraham Cohen Herrera was another of the influences at work in our subject (Popkin, op. cit., p. 19).

The Ethics of Spinoza states that “this love toward God must engage the mind most” (E. Curley trans., Ethics, London: Penguin 1996, p. 169). Moreover, “blessedness consists in love of God, a love which arises from the third kind of knowledge” (ibid., p. 180), here referring to intuitive knowledge. Such factors were attended by the conclusion that “if salvation were at hand, and could be found without great effort, how could nearly everyone neglect it? But all things excellent are as difficult as they are rare.” (Ibid., p. 181).

The Treatise on the Emendation of the Intellect commences with Spinoza’s advice to renounce wealth, status, and sensual indulgence in the pursuit of the highest good. An unpopular theme today, this was probably not in favour with some of the author’s associates, who were radicals of a different kind. Spinoza did not own property, and lived in simple rented rooms. He avoided a university career, despite his undoubted learning abilities.

In 1670 appeared his anonymous Tractatus Theologico-Politicus or Theological-Political Treatise (TPT). This proved a bombshell of controversy, and to such an extent that Spinoza’s Ethics could not be published during his lifetime. The content of the TPT was polemical, pleading the cause of philosophical reason against theological dogmatism. Spinoza was clearly pitting himself against religious sectarianism. He advocated a democratic and pluralist society free of superstitions.

The TPT dismissed miracles, and emphasised textual criticism of the Bible to a notable extent. The author was benign towards Jesus Christ, though rejecting the Resurrection. “Spinoza naturalises (and, consequently, demystifies) some of the fundamental elements of Judaism and other religions and undermines the foundations of their external, superstitious rites.” Quotation from S. Nadler, “Baruch Spinoza” (2008) Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy.

The prestigious Amsterdam Synod declared the TPT to be blasphemous, and other influential Calvinist Synods were in support. In 1674, the Court of Holland prohibited the printing and selling of the TPT. Freedom of speech did not yet exist. The long-term stigmatisation of Spinoza as an atheist was one of the consequences.

In 1676, the German philosopher Gottfried W. Leibniz (1646-1716) visited Spinoza in the latter’s modest living situation at The Hague. The “atheist” gains a rather mystical complexion in a memo written by Leibniz, which includes such statements as:

“According to him [Spinoza] the mind itself is in a certain sense a part of God....He 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 a sort of Pythagorical transmigration, namely that minds go from body to body. He says that Christ is the very best philosopher...” (W. N. A. Klever, “Spinoza’s life and works” in D. Garrett, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Spinoza, Cambridge University Press, 1996, pp. 46-7).

See further Y. Yovel, Spinoza and Other Heretics (Princeton, 1989); E. Curley, trans, A Spinoza Reader: The Ethics and Other Works (Princeton, 1994); S. Nadler, Spinoza: A Life (Cambridge, 1999); M. Morgan and S. Shirley, ed. and trans., Spinoza: The Complete Works (Indianapolis, 2002); S. Nadler, Spinoza’s Heresy (Oxford, 2002); S. Nadler, Spinoza’s Ethics: An Introduction (Cambridge, 2006); O. Koistinen, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Spinoza’s Ethics (Cambridge, 2009).

Kevin R. D. Shepherd
June 23rd 2010


ENTRY no. 22

© 2010 Kevin R. D. Shepherd. All Rights Reserved.