Reflections of a Scholar-Practitioner in the Tradition of Sri Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda
Concerns Raised by the Phenomenon of the scholar-practitioner
This personal essay will focus on various issues which arise when one is a scholar-practitioner in a spiritual tradition. My specific focus, because it is the tradition in which I practice, will be the Vedānta tradition of Sri Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda: sometimes referred to in scholarly literature as ‘Neo-Vedānta,’ but more properly as Vijñāna Vedānta.
The overarching concern expressed whenever the topic of the scholar-practitioner arises is whether such a person can maintain scholarly objectivity. This is especially a concern when the scholarship of scholar-practitioners turns to the traditions in which they practice. Can a devoted adherent of a spiritual tradition honestly ask and pursue the kinds of critical questions that a serious scholar must raise? Can a devotee of Ramakrishna, for example, honestly raise questions about the veracity of the primary textual sources on which claims about Ramakrishna’s mystical experiences are based? Or advance alternative explanations to those proffered by the tradition for those experiences?
Lurking behind these questions can be another set of questions: Is religious adherence of any kind compatible with the rational discourse to which a scholar must, by definition, be committed? If, as many do, we define religious belief as an assent, on the basis of faith, to claims that cannot be proven, and which are often contrary to reason, or at least to what is commonly observed in the world – like the claim that God is three and one at the same time, or that a man rose from the dead three days after his brutal execution. Is not such assent contrary to the commitment to truth based on evidence and reason that defines the scholarly enterprise? Are faith and reason not in conflict?
Going beyond questions of scholarly objectivity and commitment to the rational enterprise, another issue that has emerged in more recent years is politics. Particularly in our current, highly charged and polarized era, in which identification with a religious tradition is frequently interpreted as an endorsement of political movements which claim to represent that tradition, does identifying with a specific tradition amount to a political statement? Thus, if one proudly claims to be Hindu, does this amount to a declaration of support for the BJP (the Hindu nationalist party which is currently in power in India)? If one proudly claims to be Christian, does this also mean one is a Republican, and a supporter of Donald Trump? Just as religious commitment is seen by many as incompatible with rational inquiry, it is also frequently identified with conservative political movements, while progressive politics has increasingly come to be identified with a ‘reality-based’ stance, accepting of the claims of science, and skeptical of the claims of religious faith.
Another related question is whether it is appropriate for scholar-practitioners to engage in political advocacy related to the representation of their faith traditions in the educational system and popular media? Where does ‘objective’ scholarship end and advocacy begin? If one honestly does believe, precisely on the basis of one’s scholarly work, that one’s tradition is being misrepresented in the wider educational system, one certainly has an obligation to express that understanding and work for positive change. Because competing interest groups, with differing interpretations of reality, are inevitably involved in such an inherently political process, though, this can raise the question of whether one’s scholarship is truly objective, or whether it has been skewed by one’s religious or political leanings. The boundary between scholarship and advocacy thus becomes blurred.
Finally, one can reverse all of these questions and raise them from the perspective of the tradition to which one is committed. Does the pursuit of scholarship, particularly scholarship that is focused on one’s tradition, undermine one’s commitment to that tradition? What is the point of pursuing scholarship if it requires one to inquire critically about the core claims to which one has assented, from the heart of one’s being? If scholarship does not support, but only undermines, practice, and the faith commitment upon which that practice is based, of what use is it to the serious practitioner?
Addressing these Concerns
The basic thesis of this essay is that, for a scholar-practitioner in the tradition of Sri Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda, in particular, the thread that helps tie together the identity of the scholar and the practitioner is the thread of commitment to truth. It is not that one puts aside the critical and analytical intellectual tools which one employs as a scholar when one is engaged in spiritual practice. Indeed, a critical and logical approach is an essential element in many spiritual traditions, including Vedānta. And it is also not that one sets aside one’s awe and wonder and one’s openness to mystery – emotions vital to the spiritual life, in any tradition – when one is engaged in scholarly activity. Indeed, such awe and wonder provides the ‘fuel,’ the impetus, for truly deep and engaging scholarship. Many profoundly devout figures, inhabiting a wide range of religious traditions, have been committed to the rational interpretation both of their traditions and of reality itself. The very definition of theology, or rational inquiry into religious belief, in the classical Christian tradition, is, in the words of St. Anselm, fides quaerens intellectum, or ‘faith seeking understanding.’
What happens, though, when the claims of one’s spiritual teachers and traditions and the claims of scholarship conflict? It is not that such conflict never occurs. But rather than forcing one to choose between one path or another – between spiritual practice or scholarship – such conflicts can serve as transformative moments. They can give rise to fresh insight which can inform both one’s spiritual practice and one’s scholarly work. The relationship between scholarship and practice can thus be a creative and dynamic one, rather than one doomed to be fraught with tension and self-doubt. It is, in fact, precisely when apparent conflicts arise between reason and faith, between scholarship and spiritual practice, that the theological enterprise – the enterprise of faith seeking understanding – begins. If the relationship between reason and experience, rationality and spirituality, was always smooth and seamless, then the need for intellectual inquiry into a tradition would not arise.
Scholarship, in fact, can itself be a type of spiritual practice. The mental discipline required to do serious, rigorous academic work is the very kind of discipline one also needs to practice meditation and to reflect on the deeper meanings both in religious teachings and in one’s own experiences. It is not the case that scholarship and religious commitment necessarily need to be at odds with one another. Each can sustain the other as vital elements of a life journey that is devoted to the pursuit of truth, while each yet remains distinct and amenable to creative mutual investigation.
Vijñāna Vedānta, the Academy, and my Position within both as a scholar-practitioner
For those who are unfamiliar with Vijñāna Vedānta – the tradition of Sri Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda – a brief summary of its history and teachings can be presented as follows.
Vedānta is, of course, an ancient system of Hindu philosophy, rooted in the teachings of three basic, or foundational, texts–the Prasthānatrayi: the Upaniṣads, Brahma Sūtra, and Bhagavad Gītā. The Upaniṣads, being the last portion of the Veda to be composed, are also known as Vedānta, or ‘end of the Veda.’ This is also because these texts teach, from the perspective of Vedānta philosophy, the ultimate goal and essence of the Veda as a whole. These texts thus lend their name to the entire tradition based upon them. The Upaniṣads were mainly composed in the first millennium BCE.
The Brahma Sūtra summarizes and compiles the teachings of the Upaniṣads in a series of cryptic aphorisms. These aphorisms, in turn, have been elaborated upon and interpreted by the Vedāntic teachers, or ācāryas, whose views have become the foundations of the various Vedāntic schools of thought, such as the Advaita Vedānta of Śaṅkara (c. 788-820), the Viśiṣṭādvaita Vedānta of Rāmānuja (c. 1017-1137), the Dvaita Vedānta of Madhva (1238-1317), the Acintya Bhedābheda Vedānta of Caitanya (1486-1534), and others as well. The main division, conceptually, amongst these schools of thought is that between Advaita, or non-dualism, which emphasizes the realization of Brahman, the ultimate reality beyond all concepts of personhood, and the rest, which emphasize theistic devotion, or bhakti, oriented towards a personal Supreme Being.
The Bhagavad Gītā, like the Brahma Sūtra, is seen as a summary of the teachings of the principal Upaniṣads. Unlike the Brahma Sūtra, the Bhagavad Gītā – or simply ‘the Gītā,’ to many devotees – is a highly accessible text, and is indeed set within a popular Hindu epic tale, the Mahābhārata. One could say that the Upaniṣads are the basic Vedāntic texts, the Brahma Sūtra a summary of these texts for scholars who are inquiring deeply into them, and the Bhagavad Gītā a summary of these texts for the regular practitioner: for ‘the masses.’
Sri Ramakrishna (1836-1886) was not a Vedāntic ācārya in a conventional sense. He did not write commentaries upon the Prasthānatrayi. He was not a scholar at all, in the sense of pursuing any kind of traditional curriculum or course of study. Sri Ramakrishna was a mystic in the purest sense of the term: a spiritual practitioner who sought a direct experience of divine realities by whatever means were available to him. According to the Bengali textual sources about his life – the two main ones being the Śrīśrīrāmakṛṣṇakathāmṛta, written by Mahendranath Gupta (1854-1932), and the Śrīśrīrāmakṛṣṇalīlaprasaṅga, written by Swami Saradananda (1865-1927) – Ramakrishna, whose main occupation was serving as a priest in a temple in Dakshineshwar, near Kolkata, dedicated to Kālī, the Mother Goddess, undertook a wide array of sādhanas, or spiritual practices, in order to experience divinity directly. He began with devotion to Kālī, and then proceeded to Vaiṣṇava and Śaiva forms of practice, Tāntric practice, the practice of Advaita Vedānta, and, interestingly, both Christian and Islamic practices. Each period of spiritual practice led Ramakrishna to an experience of samādhī, or complete absorption in the object of his devotion or meditation. On the basis of his experiences, he taught that the divine reality has multiple forms and aspects through which it can be accessed and that each religious path is a way to the realization of the divine. In this way, he sought to harmonize the various systems of Vedānta and of Hindu practice, and the religions more broadly (given his inclusion of Christianity and Islam amongst the ways to realization he utilized).
This ideal of ‘harmony of religions’ (dharma-samanvaya), according to which all religions, despite their very real differences, are to be respected as effective paths to God-realization, would become a central teaching of the Vedānta tradition that arose on the basis of Sri Ramakrishna’s teaching.
The most renowned disciple of Ramakrishna, who would play a key role in translating his master’s teachings into an institutional reality and sharing them with all humanity, was Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902). Vivekananda famously came to the United States, speaking at the World Parliament of Religions, held in Chicago in 1893. He then established the first Vedanta Society in New York, in 1894. On his return to India, he would also establish the Ramakrishna Mission (in 1897). The Vedanta Societies in the West would serve to promote Ramakrishna’s vision of a pluralistic and universalist Vedānta to non-Indians (and, in more recent times, to Indians living in the West) and the Ramakrishna Mission would serve to promote the ideal and practice of karma yoga, or selfless service to suffering beings, which was another cornerstone of Vivekananda’s teaching.
From what one might call a purely academic perspective, the Ramakrishna-Vivekananda tradition is a modern Hindu reformist movement. Inheriting, as it does, the stances of earlier Bengali Hindu reformers, like Ram Mohan Roy (1772-1833) and Keshub Chunder Sen (1838-1884) – the latter of whom was a contemporary and associate of both Ramakrishna and Vivekananda – the tradition does not promote some of the more conservative practices of Hinduism, such as the social separation of people on the basis of birth caste, but promotes religious harmony, social service, and, at least in India, some measure of pride in Indian culture, and specifically in Hinduism, which it interprets as rational and scientific, rather than as something to be followed on the basis of ‘blind faith.’ It was also the first modern Hindu movement to be promulgated outside of India, to Westerners.
My personal associations, as a scholar-practitioner, with both the Ramakrishna movement and the academy of religion, stem from a common source. Briefly, I was raised Roman Catholic in a small town in Missouri. When I was ten years old, my father was in a terrible accident, which eventually led to his death (at which point I had reached the age of twelve). The traumatic experiences which accompanied my father’s accident and death prompted an intense spiritual search on my part. I already had some interest and inclination toward both religion and philosophy, as well as science. Through a process of reflection and inquiry, I began to develop a worldview which drew upon the tradition in which I was raised, but which departed from it in important ways as well. The biggest departure was a belief in rebirth – or reincarnation, as it is known in the West – which I found to be both a more rational and a more compassionate understanding of the afterlife than the traditional Christian views I had been taught, or the materialistic view that there is no afterlife. When I was fourteen, I began to study the world’s religions, finding answers in a wide array of traditions that made both intuitive and rational sense to me. The tradition which drew me the most, though, was Hinduism – and specifically, Vedānta. The pluralism of Ramakrishna seemed to me to be able to accommodate a wide array of views and to be conducive to the kind of open-minded inquiry to which I was committed. Indeed, it seemed more open-minded than many of the views prominent in the academy, which closed off non-materialistic possibilities and explanatory models of reality.
In terms of a career path, I had always wanted to be a writer. I also knew, though, that making a living as a writer could be difficult. I needed some other way to earn a living that would not detract from, and that would hopefully enable and enhance, my creative interests. My role model in this regard was my favorite author, J.R.R. Tolkien, who, as he did his creative writing, made a living as a professor in a field which served to fuel his creative vision. Another role model was Joseph Campbell, whose series of televised conversations with journalist Bill Moyers, The Power of Myth, I found deeply inspirational. Campbell, I would later learn, was also deeply influenced by Vedānta and actually assisted Swami Nikhilananda in his translation of the Śrīśrīrāmakṛṣṇakathāmṛta as The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna. I decided I wanted to be a professor: to study the world’s religions and philosophies and turn my personal exploration into a career path that would both sustain and encourage my desire to express myself through speaking and writing.
For me, therefore, my spiritual journey and my career path – my identity as both a scholar of religion and as a religious practitioner – have always just been two different aspects of who I am. The desire that unites them both is the desire for truth: faith seeking understanding. While it is certainly true that I have encountered scholarly perspectives and theoretical stances which have challenged my worldview, I have not seen this as something to avoid or fear. In fact, I deliberately chose to pursue my graduate studies at an institution – the University of Chicago – where I knew my point of view would be challenged constantly. (The University of Chicago has a well-earned reputation as an ‘intellectual boot camp.’) I felt that such challenges would either strengthen my faith in the long run, or lead me to change it; for if I found out that my worldview was unsustainable, then I should change it. One of my most foundational beliefs – and, I would like to hope, an uncontroversial one – is that people should believe things that are true. Although the basic core of my worldview remains the same, I continue to modify aspects of it constantly, as I learn new things, and encounter new arguments and ideas, and have new experiences. This is growth. If all of my talk of truth raises worries about absolutism or fundamentalism, the pluralistic, open-ended, experimental approach to truth that the Ramakrishna tradition emphasizes needs to be borne in mind. ‘Truth’ here does not mean ‘my way or the highway.’ It means the ever-emergent understanding of an infinite reality that can be forever approached through infinite paths.
The Question of Objectivity and Critiquing One’s Own Tradition
Turning, then, to the questions that are raised by the phenomenon of the scholar-practitioner, how does this scholar-practitioner in the tradition of Sri Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda respond to the issue of objectivity and the ability to look at one’s own tradition critically?
The core issue in question here is what, precisely, we mean by objectivity and whether objectivity, in an ultimate sense, is really truly possible, at least for typical human beings who do not claim to have attained enlightenment or God-realization.
In terms of the history of ideas, the contemporary scholarly ideal of scientific objectivity has its foundations in the thought of Francis Bacon (1561-1626), who is widely credited with developing the scientific method as we know it today. Bacon, who was a devout Christian, was keenly aware of the imperfection of human cognition. None of us is really objective. As any serious Vedāntin or Buddhist would also agree, our cognition is clouded by our desires and our fears (which are, of course, simply negative desires: a desire for something not to be). To view the world as it truly is, then, requires a methodology that can cancel out the effects of our varied interests, which can have a tendency to bend our perceptions towards what we want to be true, rather than what is. It requires a disinterested search for truth.
Bacon’s methodology transformed world history by leading to the scientific revolution. Collective human knowledge of the nature of the world around us accelerated dramatically, thus leading to a technological as well as an epistemological revolution. In the wake of the Holocaust, though, the Second World War, and the colonization by Europe of most of the planet, with the various traumas that this wrought globally, many thinkers began to awaken to the fact that humanity’s deepened knowledge of the material world was no guarantee of a deepened moral development or wisdom. If the modern period, initiated by the successes of Bacon’s method, could bring about such disaster for humanity as the twentieth century witnessed – if scientific objectivity could be harnessed by the darker forces lurking in the human psyche, with horrific results like the Holocaust and Hiroshima – then clearly there is reason to doubt the earlier faith in human progress that underlay the modern project. Modernity was either, as Jürgen Habermas concluded, an “incomplete project,” or its faith in reason alone was itself deeply flawed, as many other thinkers in the movement broadly labeled postmodern affirmed.
In short, despite our best efforts at objectivity – efforts which should certainly not be abandoned – we are, as Bacon himself affirmed, inescapably interested and invested in the realities we inhabit. I (and others) have thus argued that the ideal to which we, as scholars, should aspire is not so much objectivity as transparency and integrity with regard to the biases that we hold. A claimed stance of objectivity and disinterestedness can actually conceal, as postmodern critiques have shown, a wide array of biases, including biases of which the scholar may not even be conscious. As scholars, then, we must constantly interrogate ourselves and our own biases and beliefs, even as we engage in the investigation of the world around us. And we need to disclose our biases – the position from which are coming–when we engage in scholarship on any topic.
Such a stance opens up a space in the academic discourse for the scholar-practitioner, who simply needs to be open about the perspective from which she is approaching a topic, rather than assuming a pretense of objectivity. The ‘problem of objectivity’ is thus dissolved. The scholar-practitioner’s axiomatic assumptions are on full display, so there needs to be no fear of some hidden agenda that is lurking behind her work: at least no more so than with any other scholar and maybe less so than with some.
It is also important to note in this regard that, lurking behind the ‘objectivity’ of much academic discourse is actually a full-blown worldview, which begs the deeper philosophical question of the ultimate nature of reality by assuming that the only outcome of rational investigation is a view that is materialistic and that takes sensory perception to be the only valid means by which knowledge is acquired. The assumption is that such a perspective is ‘scientific.’ It is no longer held, however, even by many scientists. Physics has long ago left behind a picture of reality as ‘bits of matter.’
As Bruce Wilshire points out in his essay, The Moral Collapse of the University, despite the fact that physics has moved beyond a mechanistic model of the cosmos, the academy is still largely rooted in a basically Newtonian understanding of the world as made up exhaustively of material substances that are acted upon by outside forces alone, with an accompanying epistemology of sensory data as the sole legitimate source of knowledge. To cite Wilshire, “it is a seventeenth century conception of knowledge – and of the knower and the world known – which largely determines the structure of the university” and informs much contemporary academic discourse. “The very notion of objectivity itself, so prized by seventeenth-century physics, is an immense impediment for understanding even physical reality, as the physicist, Werner Heisenberg, pointed out.” The religious scholar-practitioner can fill an important role in challenging the hegemony of materialism as the assumed worldview of ‘all educated persons,’ and help to bring alternate views of reality into serious philosophical conversation within the wider academic discourse.
If one is attentive to the materialistic assumptions that are prevalent in much of the academy, the question of whether religious faith, as such, is inimical to rational discourse comes to be revealed as a product of these very assumptions: the bias that the only possible outcome of a reasoned view of reality is materialism, and a denial of the possibility that the kinds of experiences Ramakrishna, for example, is claimed to have had can have any valid explanation other than a materialistic one.
I have clearly not demonstrated here that materialism is necessarily a false or problematic view of reality. What I hope I have at least suggested, though, is that its truth ought not to be simply taken for granted as a condition for participation in the academic conversation. A robust debate across worldviews, rather – pursued with rigor and seriousness – is much to be desired.
Religion, Politics, and Advocacy
Perhaps even more pressing, though, than the question of objectivity – a question which quite a few scholars would agree arises from problematic assumptions, or at least challengeable, assumptions – is the question of politics. As both the wider society and the academy has become increasingly polarized, religious affiliation – or at least public affirmation thereof – has come to be seen as a kind of political code, indicative of conservative political leanings. There are certainly people who are both religious and progressive – and, indeed, who may be progressive precisely because of religious beliefs about social justice, compassion, and ecological responsibility; but the popular discourse, with its polarization, seems to militate – tragically – against such an allegiance. And the academic discourse is not unaffected by the popular trend. Particularly if one engages in advocacy on behalf of one’s tradition, one’s political leanings can come into question.
Again, the solution would seem to be transparency about one’s assumptions and intentions. This can be more difficult to achieve in the popular political arena than the academy, particularly given the widespread propensity toward ‘knee-jerk’ reactions. A scholar speaking up about a particular issue is easily dismissed in many circles as a ‘liberal academic,’ and a practitioner can be similarly dismissed as a ‘fundamentalist.’ A scholar-practitioner raises the suspicions of both ‘sides.’
What unites the scholar and practitioner ‘sides’ of the scholar-practitioner is a commitment to truth. And the pursuit of truth requires transparency, integrity, and a willingness to engage in dialogue and to be transformed by what one learns as a result. In the Vedānta tradition, one does not simply believe ‘blindly.’ In addition to listening to the teachings of the tradition (śravaṇam), one is also expected to reason about them (mananam), and finally, realize their truth directly by means of the experience of meditation (nidhidhyāsana). This requires many of the same skills and habits as the academic quest for accuracy and rigor. The paths of the scholar and the practitioner need not be in conflict. They can, in fact, be complementary.