Tarka #9 | On Power

The pursuit of power is often at the heart of spiritual practice. This could be power over others, power over the spiritual realm, or power over one’s self. At first blush, this suggestion may seem at odds with the concept of spirituality – especially considering other traditions of renunciation and asceticism. The Bhagavad-Gītā, among other texts, mentions how difficult it is to control and harness one’s own runaway mind. Yet, the giving up of material wealth or the sacrifices and hardships of austerity/asceticism are motivated by a concept of power that exceeds the mundane. In the Dharmic traditions of Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism, asceticism, or tapas, can lead directly to siddhis, or mystical powers. Sometimes, these spiritual powers are overtly non-righteous: in the Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam, one of the central texts of Bhakti-yoga, a demon, Hiraṇyakaśipu, performs intense acts of tapas, not to improve himself, but to gain nearly godlike powers, and the ability to dominate others.

In Christianity (as well as many of the world’s other religious traditions) the promise of salvation, or heaven, is reserved for those who give up possessions and status. As stated in the gospel of Luke 12:33, “Sell your possessions, and give to the needy. Provide yourselves with moneybags that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys.” Thus, there is a kind of promise of power and security still at the heart of sacrifice and service.

The influence of Michel Foucault’s work on contemporary considerations of power cannot be overestimated. The French philosopher famously pointed out the pervasiveness of power in forms of knowledge, discourse, and institutions. Not interested in offering an account of power itself, he rather focused on the ways in which the effects of power can be traced in cultural systems, and thus in turn how those effects give rise to experiences of domination and exploitation. His philosophy then, in alignment with contemplative practices of empowerment, can offer fruitful insights around issues of imbalance and abuse.

If spiritual and religious practice can lead to a unique, other-worldly power, the leaders and adepts of these practices hold a charged position and responsibility to their constituents. Political and social systems reflect power imbalances in a myriad of complex ways that place a unique imperative upon socially-conscious, individual practices, like yoga and meditation. The traditions of Bhakti-yoga, as well as Western Judeo-Christian teachings, both hold that the individual person is imbued, in some way, with a spark of divine spirit that confers dignity and a measure of equality upon everyone. Seen in this way, it is ironic that both of these traditions have been the site of some notable abuses of power. Of course, many world-changing figures have also leveraged their charismatic authority to effect positive transformations in society.

 Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.” How can we negotiate self-love and personal practice with love  for others and the need to address systemic injustice?  
In this issue of Tarka, On Power, we will examine how power intersects with religious, spiritual, and contemplative practice, in terms of traditional narrative, sacred texts, personal accomplishments, ultimate goals, and contemporary social contexts.

Articles that meet the following criteria are especially welcome:

– Longer articles (3,000-4,000 words)

– Short articles that address key topics/terms by responding to the question, “What is…..?” (900-1500 words)

– Articles that detail a practice or a key element of practice  (500-2,000 words +/-)

– Book reviews

– Submissions of artwork and/or poetry are also welcome 

Abstract or intention to write due by March 6. Papers due May 22, 2023. Please respond by writing to stephanie@embodiedphilosophy.com.