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Rishis – Holy persons or good singers with too much time on their hands?

A Hermit (Rishi), India, 11th century AD, pink_sandstone - Chazen Museum of Art

A Hermit (Rishi), India, 11th century AD, pink sandstone – Chazen Museum of Art

In Hinduism rishis are primal seers or sages mentioned in the Vedas.

The rishis belonged to an elite class of male and female holy persons said to have received the Vedas through revelation. They “heard” and then passed on the sacred Vedas in the form of hymns.

Through song and oral repetition the Vedas were transmitted to disciples for centuries until the verses were eventually written down.

For this reason pinpointing the age of the Vedas is problematic because (most likely) no one really knows when the Vedic revelations were received and orally composed.

Also, from a contemporary skeptics eye, no one really knows if the rishis just had good imaginations, were repeating cultural biases, or whether their songs came from God (or partly from God).

This may seem politically incorrect or indelicate to say, but it’s so common for people to level this kind of critique against Jewish and Christian scripture, it only seems fair and right that all sacred scripture should be met with the same kind of critical scrutiny.


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Jane Roberts and Seth – A look into the future?

Image via YouTube

Image via YouTube

Jane Roberts (1929 – 1984) was a trance channeler who wrote the Seth Books well before the idea of channelling became commonplace in New Age circles. Roberts also wrote several works of fantasy and science fiction.

Roberts allegedly went into a trance and channeled a spirit entity called Seth while her husband Robert Butts transcribed the sessions. Unlike some channelers, Roberts sometimes wondered if she was simply letting her unconscious express itself. But she usually writes as if Seth were a real being.

Whatever the case may be, the Seth character advances an interesting world view. Seth’s cosmology (map of all that is) includes parallel universes connecting backwards and forwards through time.

According to Roberts/Seth, the past and future of all parallel universes – to include parallel selves – interact with the present, perceived as now.

Not unlike other mystical traditions, Roberts/Seth says part of the self is flesh-bound while other aspects exist beyond the physical.

Image via YouTube

Jane Roberts – The Interview – Image via YouTube

The Roberts/Seth view differs from the belief in reincarnation in that:

  • Reincarnation highlights the effects of past on present lives, overlooking a possible retro-influence of future lives
  • Roberts/Seth advances the idea of many selves, existing in parallel universes, subtly interacting among themselves
  • Like Shakti Gawain and others, Roberts/Seth underscores the importance of life here and now, while reincarnation tends to focus on liberation from Samsara (the wheel of rebirth)

Science fiction TV shows Sliders, Charlie Jade and Supergirl dramatize some of Roberts/Seth’s ideas about parallel universes, and many Star Trek episodes speak to a possible temporal continuum. Recent productions like Quantum Leap, 12 Monkeys and Travelers also focus on past/present/future interactions and multiple timelines. And then, of course, we have the British classic, Dr. Who.

Depth psychologists like C. G. Jung view time, if not parallel universes, within a holistic framework. And the idea of parallel universes has gained wider recognition through figures like Stephen Hawking and Michio Kaku.

The belief in an interactive past, present and future is not necessarily identical to the theological idea that God knows the past, present and future. Some theologians are uncomfortable with the idea, for instance, that the future could enter into or inform the present. They prefer to believe that the future just doesn’t exist and only God knows how it will unfold.

Image via Wikimedia

Image via Wikimedia

This traditional view has been challenged by the quantum world view of space-time as relative, multiple and interactive. Perhaps some are comforted by adhering to cherished religious and philosophical ideas. But clinging to the past rarely paves the way for future development.

As for Roberts, some might say that her well-documented difficult childhood and teen years¹ contributed to her creating a kind of escapist fantasy world. But if that argument were universally valid and true, people like Moses (sent down the Nile as a baby) and Jesus Christ (born in a manger to escape the murderous Herod) had nothing of value to say.

= ridiculous

The way I see it, difficult beginnings can compel some to grow into seeing new vistas that otherwise might have been dismissed. Of course, the insane can also emerge from difficult beginnings. But any truth claims should be judged on, to borrow from MLK, the quality of their content, not the ‘color’ of a person’s past.

¹ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jane_Roberts

Related » Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, John Locke, Soul


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Revelation and revealed knowledge – Can we separate the wheat from the chaff?

Divine Revelation (album)

Divine Revelation (album) via Wikipedia

That was a revelation!

When we hear someone say this in daily life, we usually take it to mean that they are inspired, see an issue in a new light or learn something that deepens their understanding.

Revelation has become a secular term but the idea of ‘revealed knowledge’ is found in most spiritual traditions. In the religious sense, revelation has several different meanings.

One meaning points to knowledge disclosed or uncovered about God’s plan of Salvation or the Divine essence. This knowledge could influence the interpretation of observed events. And general revelation is differentiated from special revelation.

  • General revelation means that God’s existence and attributes can be partly understood through observation of God’s creation
  • Specific revelation points to the belief that individuals receive divine communications

In Catholicism revelation is a truth communicated to a person by God. Revealed knowledge initially bypasses but does not contradict the intellect and differs from inspiration. But after a revelation, a person may think about and be inspired by their otherworldly experience.

From a comparative study of mysticism it seems that revealed knowledge is usually misunderstood by mystics, themselves—at least, at the outset. Over time the true meaning may become more clear.

Mystics make mistakes because they tend to interpret revelation according to their limited, human perspectives. Again, revelations from God should eventually make more sense. But those not from God would eventually prove to be a sham, provided the persons assessing a revelation are mentally healthy.

This idea is linked to the notion of true and false prophets, as found in the New Testament:

Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thorn bushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them

That’s a lovely story and great for laying guilt trips on people if we don’t like what they’re doing or simply because we don’t like them in the first place! But in reality, it’s a bit problematic for us mere mortals.

Why?

Photo - Tim Evanson via Flickr

Photo – Tim Evanson via Flickr

Well, because some genuine prophets could appear ‘false’ if not enough time had passed to test a true revelation.² By the same token, some false prophets could be seen as ‘true’ by fanatics claiming that more time is needed to verify a false revelation.

One thing seems clear: This is not an easy area and many mistakes could be made by overly zealous, wish fulfilling individuals and groups. For those preferring to think for themselves, it’s sometimes hard to determine who’s misguided and who’s in tune with God.

¹ Matthew 15-20, New International Version, emphasis added.

² An example Christians often give here is http://biblehub.com/john/2-19.htm.


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The Belief in Reincarnation – Man-Made Theory or Sacred Truth?

Representation of a soul undergoing punarjanma...

Representation of a soul undergoing punarjanma. Illustration from Hinduism Today, 2004 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Also called metempsychosis and transmigration, reincarnation is a man-made theory usually presented as fact or sacred law by believers.

Elements of the theory can be found in diverse religions and philosophies, including ancient Greek, Egyptian, Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist, Jain, African and New Age systems.

Reincarnation usually involves ideas of karma and grace. After bodily death, the soul (or in some schools, temporary personality attributes) returns for another birth.

In most traditions the self is said to be on an evolutionary path from unconsciousness to consciousness—that is, from lower to higher or gross to subtle forms of being.

Some branches of contemplative Hinduism maintain that the soul begins in the mineral world and moves upward to the vegetable and animal kingdoms. Eventually it takes birth as a human being. After learning about and making good ethical choices from many human incarnations, the soul reincarnates in astral and heavenly realms before achieving ultimate liberation, awareness and bliss. At this point it never reincarnates into a body, gross or subtle.

Bad ethical choices reverse the process. If a person abuses their freedom, they may reincarnate backwards into the animal kingdom or possibly further down into a temporary hell, of which there are many.

Popular wisdom says God gives perfect punishments and rewards for our deeds. And generally speaking, this is found in reincarnation theory. Good ethical choices gain merit and one reincarnates into a better life next time around.

Bad ethical choices, however, lead to a less auspicious life. This idea is expressed in a Taoist tale, paraphrased as follows:

A man had led a dissolute life and reincarnates as a horse. After a few years the horse grows weary of being whipped by his masters, refuses to eat and dies. He then returns as a dog. Despising this incarnation the dog bites his master’s leg who has him destroyed. He returns in the form of a snake. By now he’s finally learned his lesson. One must play out the hand one is dealt, patiently seeing it through to learn how to be virtuous. As a reformed soul, the snake avoids doing harm to other animals by eating berries and tries to keep itself out of danger. But one day the snake mistakenly dies under the wheel of a cart. Pleading his case before the King of Purgatory, he finds himself reborn a man—a reward for his good intentions. ¹

The Reincarnation of Peter Proud

The Reincarnation of Peter Proud (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

According to this view, suicide is like skipping school (in the cosmic sense) and leads to a regression or less desirable rebirth.

But not all believers in reincarnation take this attitude toward suicide. Some say a similar life situation arises again, and the suicide is forced to repeat the cosmic classroom they didn’t graduate from the first time around.

In most Asian religions God’s grace can mitigate or even erase the effects of bad karma, a fact often overlooked in superficial critiques of reincarnation.

As mentioned, the alleged purpose of reincarnation is to instruct and prepare the soul for a blissful existence in eternity. However, the exact nature of this eternal perfection is outlined differently among schools of Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Taoism.

African pre-colonial tribal beliefs about reincarnation differ from their Asian counterparts. African ancestors apparently reincarnate into one or several descendants to give their family more power. The African Ibo believe that one chooses between two bundles before birth – one bundle holds good fortune, the other bad. While the spirit tries its best to choose a favorable incarnation, a formerly evil person enters into a difficult incarnation as a human or animal.

More variants of reincarnation are found within ancestor cults.

In Shakespeare‘s The Merchant of Venice Gratiano suggests that Shylock is a reincarnated wolf. Shakespeare was widely read and often incorporated religion, myth, philosophy and physic into his plays.

In contrast to the belief in reincarnation, the Old Testament says that evil actions are repaid with evil, but not through reincarnation. Evil begets evil through one’s offspring:

The Lord…a God merciful and gracious…forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, yet by no means clearing the guilty, but visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children’s children, to the third and fourth generation (Exodus 34:7).

In Catholicism, St. Thomas Aquinas refutes reincarnation on the basis of Romans 9: 11-12:

For when they were not yet born, nor had done any good or evil…not of works, but of Him that calleth, it was said to her: The elder shall serve the younger.²

The Reincarnation of Benjamin Breeg

The Reincarnation of Benjamin Breeg (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Some argue that the Catholic notion of purgatory was created as a Christian counterpart to the punishment and purification found in non-Christian beliefs in reincarnation.

In more recent times, some New Age thinkers say that every life is consciously chosen before birth.

Like most metaphysical speculation, we can’t know for sure one way or the other. It may be tempting to believe in reincarnation. As we go deeper in the spiritual life unconventional experiences may arise that seem to point to its reality. But I think we’d do well to stop, look and listen, as the American country western star Patsy Cline put it.³

  • Stop and don’t jump to conclusions
  • Look at what’s happening inside our heads and ask if there’s any other way to account for it
  • Listen to our hearts – Are we really happy with the belief system we’ve invested ourselves in? Or is something leading or, perhaps, calling us to a greater vista than that offered by a mere, man-made theory?

¹Raymond Van Over, ed. Taoist Tales, New York: Meridian Classic, 1973, pp. 52-53.

² The New Testament view of the body and its relation to the afterlife is expressed in I Corinthians 15; 51-52; 2 Corinthians 5:1; I Thessalonians 4:14; John 3: 4-7.

³ I don’t know why that analogy came to me while revising this. But I do know that the Canadian singer K. D. Laing apparently thought she was the reincarnation of Patsy Cline, for a while anyhow. See http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/kd-lang-emc/ I don’t know how that would have worked considering Laing was born (November 2, 1961) while Cline was still alive (died March 5, 1963). Delayed entry?

Related » Anatman, Anthroposophy, Avatar, Cayce (Edgar), Sri Chinmoy, Deva, Fenris, Da Free-John, Shakti Gawain, Hell, Hermes Trismegistus, Karma, Meno, Origen, Ram Dass, Parvati, PlatoSwami Ramacharaka, Republic, Jane Roberts, Samsara, SkandhasTheosophy, Transmigration, Werewolf, Pythagoras


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James Randi – Skeptic, debunker of the paranormal

James Randi in 2008 by Napolean 70 via Flickr

James Randi in 2008 by Napolean 70 via Flickr

James Randi (1928-) is a Toronto born American citizen known for his skepticism and enthusiastic debunking of paranormal truth claims.

In the past, Randi has demanded scientific evidence of paranormal abilities using science as he defines it. This was evident in his “$1,000,000 Paranormal Challenge,” terminated in 2015, with the following exception:

…any established psychic may contact JREF via email to be tested directly (preferably with an independent, third party TV crew.) ¹

During his lenghty career Randi has exposed alleged psychics who couldn’t perform under his agreed upon conditions.

However, Randi tends to emphasize the naturalistic and public aspects of life, making the replication of an alleged effect within these realms the criteria for scientific proof. This is a prominent view in the 21st century. But life, thank God, is rarely that cut and dried. There are other ways of understanding science, its meaning and appropriate method.

James Randi in Sydney as a speaker at the TAMo...

James Randi in Sydney as a speaker at the TAMoZ conference (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For instance, some social thinkers and philosophers of science liken science to an agreed upon social construction, paradigm, myth or fiction. Some even say that science is like another religion. For these thinkers, the conceptual distinctions among science, myth and religion are not mutually exclusive. In fact, some theologians have called theology the “Queen of Sciences.”

Randi was a guest on the popular Johnny Carson show several times, which is not surprising. Randi’s approach arguably gained a measure of popularity not only because he was successful is debunking but also because his weltanschauung resonated with many skeptical and non-religious persons.

In his own words:

“I’ve said it before: there are two sorts of atheists. One sort claims that there is no deity, the other claims that there is no evidence that proves the existence of a deity; I belong to the latter group, because if I were to claim that no god exists, I would have to produce evidence to establish that claim, and I cannot. Religious persons have by far the easier position; they say they believe in a deity because that’s their preference, and they’ve read it in a book. That’s their right.”²

The meaning of the phrase “and they’ve read it in a book” is unclear in this sentence. If Randi is suggesting that reading about God in a book always conforms to or reinforces a belief in God, then I would disagree. Some people have ongoing spiritual experiences which lead them to believe in God in ways not necessarily outlined in a holy book. For these people, living spirituality is not just about choosing to believe and reading something in a book.

Moreover, for those concerned about getting it right in a true scientific sense, reason is applied to any unusual or unconventional experience which they may have. This is somewhat similar to the old medieval theological view that “reason follows revelation” but it differs in that reason is not used to forcibly make revelation conform to Biblical passages or orthodox teachings.³

James Randi Foundation offices, Fort Lauderdal...

James Randi Foundation offices, Fort Lauderdale, Florida, USA (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the above quotation Randi also says he would have to “produce evidence” to say that no God exists. Essentially, he is applying the same criteria for atheism as he does for religious and paranormal belief.

However, for many a deep, possibly mystical relationship with God is a personal matter that may extend outward to others in subtle ways. It does not have to be publicly verifiable to be real.

By way of analogy, if person “X” has a secret relationship with another person “Y,” others not in that particular relationship, whom we’ll call group “Z,” may be unaware of the connection between “X” and “Y.” But that does not mean that the relationship between “X” and “Y” does not exist. Those who are in that relationship know very well that it exists. Furthermore, that secret relationship may have effects on “Z” without “Z” even knowing it.

¹ http://web.randi.org/

² https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Randi

³ In today’s world the idea of revelation does not necessarily fit with ancient scriptures or official religious teachings. Many have revelations that challenge traditional scripture and teachings. Also, revelation may be subtle and ongoing in the forms of grace, insight and intuition. But it seems that if one does not use reason to analyze any kind of revelation, great or small, they run the risk of making mistakes or, at the extreme, become insane persons. Evelyn Underhill recognized this as far back as 1911.

Related » Psychokinesis, Seer


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Swami (or Yogi) Ramacharaka – Privileged mystic or just another person mistaking knowledge for belief?

William_Walker_Atkinson1

William Walker Atkinson (1862–1932) – derived from Wikipedia

Swami or Yogi Ramacharaka (true identity unknown) was a Hindu-influenced mystic philosopher.¹ He or she wrote extensively on astral planes where the self allegedly resides between different incarnations.

In his or her book Mystic Christianity Ramacharaka offers an imaginative, if not scholarly, interpretation of the Bible and the life of Christ. Most likely Ramacharaka had inner visions or experienced imaginal scenes about different Biblical figures. If so, the truthfulness of these interior perceptions seems impossible to prove or disprove.

Putting aside the remote possibility that this unorthodox thinker espoused absolute truth, I think it’s fair to say that, like so many religious thinkers, orthodox or not, Ramacharaka adapts scripture to fit with his or her personal and cultural biases.

The human tendency to select and interpret data runs throughout most of life. Not only are religious people prone to overgeneralizing their personal beliefs. We also see this in the sciences. But because science has impressed and stunned so many, we rarely hear sociological or philosophical critiques of science as we do of religion. Both science and religion, however, have efficacy and drawbacks.

Concerning questions about truth and knowledge, debates as to who’s ‘right’ are common. But it seems almost any truth claim – religious, philosophical or scientific – ultimately comes down to belief. Not everyone appreciates this view. For those hard-headed folk who can’t see past their own customs and habits, I refer you to the philosopher Hume’s critique of causality. I think any serious thinker should consider this at some point in their journey. Just because it’s old thinking doesn’t mean it’s bad or facile. We don’t say that about music and art, do we?

English: Ticket for

Ticket for “Chicago Day” at 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893. Photocopy by Jacobsteinafm. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

¹ Wikipedia says:

No record exists in India of a Yogi Ramacharaka, nor is there evidence in America of the immigration of a Baba Bharata. Furthermore, although Atkinson may have travelled to Chicago to visit the 1892 – 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, where the authentic Indian yogi Swami Vivekananda attracted enthusiastic audiences, he is only known to have taken up residence in Chicago around 1900 and to have passed the Illinois Bar Examination in 1903.

See also http://users.telenet.be/ananda/ramach.htm


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What is a Saint?

The word saint (Latin sanctus = sacred or having been made sacred)  has several meanings. In everyday usage, saints are unusually kind, ethical people who perform good works on a local or grand scale which almost everyone can understand and appreciate. Examples would be, “That lady at the charity drive is a real saint” or “Bob’s wife is a real saint to put up with such a grouchy old man!”

The term also denotes the faithful Jews of the Bible and the body of Christian believers. A priest at a parish I attend says in homily that the main point of being a Christian is to become saints in heaven. So going to Mass isn’t only about the social aspects. That’s a part of it, for sure, but the main point is to become a saint worthy of heaven.

For some, saints are Buddhist arhats (monks having achieved Nirvana) and bodhisattvas (monks forgoing entry into Nirvana in order to help others reach that threshold). However, it seems dubious that the realms these saints achieve are the same, qualitatively speaking, as realms created by God. Recall that, no matter which way you slice it, Buddhists don’t believe in God, which is a huge theological difference from religions that do believe in God. And no political correctness will change that difference, not even well-intentioned political correctness.

English: Image of Saint Adalgott. Source Cropp...

Image of Saint Adalgott. Cropped from an image at http://www.unikk.ch/barock/pages/carlen2_1_text.htm (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The term saints also refers to Taoist, Confucian and Hindu sages and gurus (Skt. guru = teacher), African and Amerindian elders, as well as the Shamans of Central and Southeast Asia, Oceania, North America and the Arctic.

In Islam the righteous departed are said to mediate between heaven and Earth.

Robert Ellsberg regards great figures like Galileo Galilei, Leo Tolstoy, Stephen Biko and Dante Alighieri as saints in his book, All Saints.

Some believe that all public figures called “saints” are equally holy but this view is probably more about human preconceptions than God’s assessment of individual holiness.

In Catholicism, the canonized saint leads an exceedingly humble and holy life serving God, is often persecuted, may be martyred and performs by the power of God at least two verified miracles. Some critics of the Catholic process of canonization say that the alleged miracles are, for the most part, cooked up by the Vatican when they want to make someone a saint, mostly for political reasons.

Catholic sainthood often involves the idea of intercession. Intercession is the belief that God’s divine power and grace is mediated by souls in heaven to souls on Earth, purgatory and hell.

Catholics also believe in the communion of saints, the idea that all souls, except for the damned, are united in a “mystical body” with Christ as the head. So the idea of interconnected souls is not necessarily something of the occult (unless one views Catholicism as a Satanic cult, as some do).

Another aspect of the Catholic faith is the belief that individuals cooperate with God’s plan of salvation through vocal and mental prayer (interior contemplation). Prayerful saints cooperate with the divine plan but do not effect salvation through their own power.

Catholics may pray for one another but again, they request God’s help. They don’t play the role of spiritual “big shot” or “guru” like some in other religious paths do. At least, they shouldn’t. This unsavory element arguably creeps in with hot shot charismatic preachers who make the rounds in Catholic circles, charging considerable fees for inspirational speaking or guided retreats (some retreats seeming more like middle class getaways, social events or fundraisers than serious spiritual sanctuaries).

Some Protestants object to the idea of the Catholic saint, saying that the saints are nothing but manmade gods or goddesses—that is, pagan. Catholics reply to this misguided charge that saints are friends and servants of God, not a god nor God. Many Protestants pray for others but object to the Catholic idea of interceding saints. To this the Catholic replies: If someone on Earth can pray for another person on Earth, why cannot a soul in heaven pray for someone on Earth?

According to Catholic teaching there are innumerable unrecognized saints. These unsung heroes of the spirit are said to achieve a great degree of spiritual purity without ever having set foot in a monastery or abbey.

This is good to remember. Otherwise we might misunderstand or judge harshly some individuals in contemporary society not primarily concerned with sex, wealth, status or raising a family. In fact, there seems to be a recent trend to call people “mentally ill” if they don’t conform to prevailing norms which, perhaps, are not always in line with trying to follow God’s will.

In a nutshell, the true individual is often misunderstood and sometimes persecuted by the crowd. Considering the tremendous diversity of individuals and spiritual paths throughout our ever changing world, to insist on rigid criteria for sainthood seems both arbitrary and unwise.