Two Saints: Speculations Around and About Ramakrishna Paramhansa and Ramana Maharishi
Harper Collins Publishers India
Arun Shourie may not be a saint. But he is a genuine seeker. He wields a sharp, long blade on undergrowth that he thinks obstructs our passage to clear thinking. Whether you think the result opens a path to illumination or even slashes genuine thought in the process is open to debate. In Hinduism: Essence and Consequence, he did a doctrinal reductio ad absurdum on Hinduism. In his book on fatwas he did a political deconstruction of Islam.
In his most powerful and searing book, Does He Know a Mother’s Heart? he mounted a serious ethical critique of all religious thinking on suffering. And now in Two Saints, he launches a relentless neurological reduction of consciousness, in particular, “religious experience” or “mystical” experiences to tricks of the brain. As always the breadth of his reading and the numerous footnotes to scientific literature are truly daunting and impressive. The book will launch an important debate; whether its central thesis can be sustained is more arguable.
Ostensibly the book is about two saints: Ramakrishna Paramahamsa and Ramana Maharishi. He begins with an acknowledgment of their power and piety; and towards the end of the book their simplicity and self-effacement briefly serves as a nice foil against the self-aggrandising gurus of the age of social media. But the intent of the book is ambitiously subversive.
The discussion of these saints is merely a prop of a larger thesis that while “religious” experiences are genuine experiences, they are, in the end, nothing but the tricks our mind plays on us. They can all be explained naturalistically. The bulk of the book trawls through, in admirable and copious detail, the literature in psychology, neurobiology, neuro-theology and philosophy, to sustain the thesis that in the end these saints, and all religious experiences of a similar sort, can easily be explained, just as we “explain” normal mental phenomena.
His approach to this thesis is interesting. He does not directly address the question of a mystical consciousness. But through a reading of their lives, the testimonies of disciples and their own words, he argues that most of their states, their visions, their behaviour, their trances, can be easily explained through conventional techniques. The fact that the visions they see are largely in terms of the figures and deities of their tradition is testimony to the power of upbringing and milieu.
The experience of followers is nothing but the well-documented psychic phenomenon of self-hypnosis or the power of mass suggestion. The phenomenology of the trance-like experience they describe is in other literatures compared to the oceanic oneness of erotic experience; here the flashes of illumination are more likely to be caused by epileptic fits. Almost all the experiences associated with their lives, including out of body experiences, can be recreated, using ordinary techniques, or explained away through the particularities of neurological pathways.
The fun of the book is less in what it tells us about the saints or the mystery of consciousness. It consists more in its survey of the variousness of the mind, its capacity for everything from auto-suggestion and placebo on the one hand to memory, delusion and the capacity to sense ghosts, have near death experiences, on the other, and stimulate a reality even in its absence. The book is full of these phenomena of the mind; but Shourie has no doubt that most of these can be recreated through biogenic stimulation of the temporal lobes.
A short review cannot do justice to the intricate philosophical issues involved in Shourie’s reductionism. I don’t think there can be a quarrel with his two basic thoughts. First, that it is worth putting together data from the inner examination of human experience with the empirical cognitive sciences, neurology and psychology. Second, I don’t think it is much a revelation to say that these strange and fascinating “experiences” must involve modifications of the brain itself.
Some of these could also be created by manipulating the brain. But whether believing in these two things is sufficient to establish the further thought that “mystic” experiences can be explained in exactly the same way as you explain what goes on in your brain, say, during a seizure, is a more open question. This might turn on whether you believe there can be a difference between involuntary production of various mental phenomena, and the conscious ability to bring your mind under a regimen or method that allows it to access forms of knowledge.
Shourie’s attack on Raman Maharishi’s idea of the Self suggests that he does not; we are largely prisoners of our neurological wiring. It might also turn on the phenomenology of consciousness that you work with. For Shourie, the “oceanic feeling” or the “light” is pretty much the same, whether produced by sex, seizures, or the Absolute. They must also have the same explanation and refer to the same reality. But getting precision in the description of these states of consciousness is notoriously hard, and it is not clear whether you can get that without practicing a method.
Is Dostoyevsky’s description of a character having an epileptic seizure, which Shourie uses, really tell you much about the states of consciousness a Plotinus, a Mulla Sadra, or Abhinavagupta might be describing? The debate about the relation between brain and consciousness will continue. But, I suspect, as with so much of Shourie’s writing, the real import of this book is not, as advertised, largely scientific.
It is more ethical. The sense you get from Shourie’s deflation of consciousness, is that he wants to restore a sense of creaturliness to us. We are not special beings that can access or ascend to higher forms of consciousness. We are creatures of our materiality, all ordinary, therefore, all extraordinary. In this sense, the true saints are, like his son Adit (whom he once called “the only true Saint I know”), those who live in consonance with that reality; while most of us spend time running away from reality.
The book is subversive, but perhaps also an act of tough love. But I suspect, even Shourie will agree, no mere neurological perturbation will be able to quite explain that love. Nor can it explain his relentless quest for Truth, even if he does not quite get there.