Arun Shourie. Two Saints: Speculations Around and About Ramakrishna Paramahamsa and Ramana Maharishi. Harper Collins. 2017.
In the West, the neuroscience of religious experiences is today a budding discipline with its roots well entrenched in the substratum of scientific research. Though one can say this is a new science, the occidental origins of scientific enquiry into the phenomenon of religion can be traced back to the famous Gifford Lectures of Harvard psychologist William James, which are famous today as the book The Varieties of Religious Experience. That was at the beginning of the twentieth century. Since then, many prominent psychologists like Freud, Jung, Maslow, pioneering anthropologists of religion like Mircea Eliade, writers like Joseph Campbell, Alan Watts and Colin Wilson have ventured into the realm of religion, mythology and religious experiences. They have had some deep insights, illuminating comments and mostly speculative concepts.
Now, we are in the twenty-first century, and science has made some amazing advances in the study of the inner realm – not only in the scientific understanding of the dimensions of our inner life but also in the technologies that can peer into the workings of our brain. Naturally, some of the bravest scientists were quick enough to apply these technological advances and understanding of the brain to the realm of religion.
Arun Shourie’s new book Two Saints: Speculations around and about Ramakrishna Paramahamsa and Ramana Maharishi uses this occidental heritage to study the religious experiences of arguably two of the greatest seers of nineteenth and twentieth century India, whose lives are fairly well recorded by their disciples. At the outset, one should congratulate Shourie for undertaking this daring cerebral adventure. One may or may not agree with his conjectures but definitely this book opens up a lot of questions for the serious-minded seekers of both science and religion.
In the West, there is already a cottage industry of academics like Jeffrey Kripal and Wendy Doniger, who almost unprofessionally and somewhat unethically attempt a Freudian deconstruction of Ramakrishna in particular, and yogic-tantric traditions in general. The latest assault has been the book of Kripal which attempts to draw parallels between the psychology and experiences of the UFO abduction phenomenon in the US and tantric religious experiences in India. In such a situation, a book which uses more rigorous empirical science to explore Indic religious experiences and that too by an ‘insider’ is definitely welcome and can start a healthy dialogue – a much needed one between mystic experiences and science.
One can say that in a way the book tries to provide a Darwinian framework to the religious experience. In the first 50 pages of the book, Shourie states that ‘the evolutionary role that the mystics will eventually discharge may be that ‘we come to love life, they vault us over the dread of death…’
The journey wades through the maze of experiences recorded by the devotees of the seers and runs parallel to the case studies as well as research by neuroscientists. The disciples had observed that Ramakrishna having practised pranayama had formed a habit of remaining without breathing for long periods. Shourie writes: ‘That is, of course, a condition that is familiar to doctors. It is known as apnoea or sleep apnoea. It may be caused by obstruction of air passages. It may also be caused by the dysfunction of the brain cells that derive our respiration – this latter condition is known as central sleep apnoea.’ So there, you have explained Sri Ramakrishna not breathing at times. It has nothing to do with his spiritual practice but more to do with pathological obstruction of air passages, or more importantly dysfunction of some brain cells.
During the 12 and three-and-a-half years of sadhana by Sri Ramakrishna and Ramana respectively, both underwent loss of sensory input, starvation and sleep deprivation. To account for this, Shourie provides four possibilities: one is ‘a slight mutation in a gene known as DEC2’, which allows people to survive with reduced sleep hours. The second possibility is what is called ‘sleep state misinterpretation’ or ‘pseudo-insomnia’, where the person while genuinely believing that he had not slept actually sleeps just like rest of us. Third possibility is ‘micro-sleep’ and the fourth one is called ‘unihemispheric slow-wave sleep’. Migratory birds and dolphins experience this type of sleep – here each hemisphere goes to sleep alternatively. The fifth possibility is put to Shourie by eminent neurologist Dr Ashok Panagariya. He points out that there is documentary evidence for ‘entering into states of deep meditation has palpable restorative effects’.
Interestingly, the space he devotes in all the four possibilities shows that Shourie is more inclined towards the ‘pseudo-insomnia’ or ‘unihemispheric slow wave-sleep’. He dismisses the fifth possibility with defensive rhetoric:
if (Ramakrishna) had been restored so well in brief spells, how is that his visage had changed to such exhaustion as he said, how is it that he was restless, as worried at not being able to sleep?
Now, one should get the idea in which direction the book moves.
Rhetorical Yet Subtle Negativity
Shourie shows a propensity towards a subtle, not-so-positive characterisation of the religious experiences. Thus the early samadhi experiences become ‘symptoms’ and the seers are said to be ‘prone’ to certain experiences. All negative terms associated with pathologies figure in his descriptions of the seers though overtly he takes extra care to always address them with traditional respect. So, Shourie approvingly asks is not ‘the resulting state’ of Sri Ramakrishna’s longing for the vision of the Divine Mother ‘what Freud called an ‘auto-hypnotic’ state in his ‘Studies in Hysteria?'
With a rhetorical negativity, which is Shourie’s hallmark, he categorises the experience of Sri Ramakrishna: ‘Meaningless sounds become words. Words become messages. These become messages from the high’. Then, he brings out the ‘evocative and empathetic account of evangelicals in America’ by anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann where she says how the evangelicals ‘learn to hear’ god. And he calls the terms she uses in the context of the evangelicals like ‘skill’, ‘attentional learning’ as ‘terms that describe well at least some of the practices our saints pursued and the beliefs that they ultimately internalised and …description that will do just as well for the devotees.’
Shourie displays a compulsive tendency to choose the most reductionist categorisation for the mystic experiences of the seers. It may delight the audience who wants to see the towering Hindu spiritual experiences get deconstructed neuron by neuron.
For example, Shourie considers temporal lobe seizures to be one of the major reasons for the divine presence Sri Ramakrishna felt. Shourie bases his thesis on the important work of Michael Persinger, Canadian neuroscientist, who is credited with the invention of the so-called ‘God helmet’. While there have been controversies surrounding the replication and lack of proper control in his work, work by Dr V S Ramachandran has also vindicated the role of Temporal Lobe Epilepsy (TLE) in heightened religious sensitivity.
However, studies have shown that induced or natural seizures in temporal lobe need not be the only neural cause for the mystical experience. Eugene d'Aquili and Andrew Newberg studied a group of Tibetan meditators and praying Franciscan nuns using single-photon emission computed tomography (SPECT). As they had peak experiences, for the Eastern meditators, blood flow increased to the areas associated with attention and decreased to parietal lobes, which make us aware of our position in space and time – producing the neural correlates for the loss of the sense of narrow 'I' and experience of the sense of oneness with all. For the nuns also, the blood flow decreased to parietal lobe while the blood flow to areas connected with language increased as they started experiencing divinity through their spiritual discipline. (Eugene G D'Aquili & Andrew Newberg, Why God Won't Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief, Random House, 2008)
So, the experience of what D’Aquili & Newberg term ‘Absolute Unitary Being’ (AUB) can come with sadhana of spiritual practices and need not necessarily be the result of TLE.
There are places in the book, where Shourie shines as a pioneer when he looks at the words of the seers with his neuroscience framework. "Sri Ramana’s conception of the mind might as well be that of a modern day neuroscientist," he says. Or when he discusses the healings said to be effected by the saints, the observations of Shourie are remarkable. He makes a meticulous and relevant study of processes like hypnotism, placebo surgery etc. and then in the context of the cures he concludes:
But mortification of the body was not the only practice that our saints undertook in those years. Even more intense was the conscious direction of the mind: … Given what we have learnt about the effectthat the mind has on the mind – in curing diseases, in alleviating pain – how far-reaching must changes in the mind have been, caused by those prolonged periods of such severe disciplining of the mind, and through that of the brain.
The studies presented on near death experiences (NDE) and out of body experiences (OBE) and the conclusions he draws are important. The tables comparing the NDEs of Westerners and Indians, despite the small sample size of the latter, are illuminating. He leans here clearly towards the thesis of Susan Blackmore on NDE and justifiably so. Shourie could have avoided the pontification he indulges in at the end with the construction of a strawman.
Equally important is the chapter on consciousness (chapter 13). To the current reviewer personally, this is perhaps the most original and bold chapter in the book. He speaks of the Penrose-Hameroff hypothesis of quantum basis of consciousness. He speaks about the single cell slime mould being able to create network models, which become the basis for ‘bio-inspired urban and road planning’. What Shourie says here is interesting. It may sound typically an Indian mystical statement but that is where he also reveals a deep scientific truth – something Darwin also wrote in his 1859 book – that all life is a continuum – and evolution is that tree branching out. Shourie also says that plants, trees, single cells, animals, humans, all form a continuum. And if consciousness is used in its broadest sense then all life is also conscious.
However, at the context in which he discusses the subject – human experience – he is inclined towards Daniel Dennett thinking of consciousness as an emergent property. However, there is another alternative to this view of consciousness as ‘emergent property’. Biologist Humberto Matrurana and neuroscientist late Francisco Varela had proposed a model where they said consciousness is because of ‘autopoesis’. Varela stated that consciousness is ‘embedded’ in the biological and environmental context of the organism and hence it may not be a need for an ‘internal neural correlate’. (Thompson & Varela, Radical embodiment: neural dynamics and consciousness, Trends in Cognitive Science, 2001). Derived as it is from Buddhist meditative insights, the framework Varela and Maturana provides is more appropriate in the domain Shourie is venturing into.
Shourie claims that he is attempting a speculation on the mystical experiences of the two seers based on the discoveries of neuroscience and insights the science has acquired. In that case there are certain glaring lacunae.
Take for example the work of Dr V S Ramachandran. Shourie mentions Ramachandran in only two places in the book. (In the references he again mentions the 1991 work of Ramachandran on vision). Both are fleeting references – one in the context of Persinger’s temporal lobe transients and another about the rubber hand. Really? In his best-seller Phantoms in the Brain, Ramachandran has an entire chapter titled "God and the Limbic System". The chapter starts with the discussion of Persinger’s ‘God-helmet’. Ramachandran also provides a case study of a patient called ‘Paul’ who has TLE and god experiences. For example, Paul speaks of his ‘sudden’ experience of a ‘rapture… an apprehension of the divine – no categories, no boundaries, just a Oneness with the Creator’ and says that he is not interested in ‘the rapture of sex’ anymore. Yet, Ramachandran observed that he ‘flirted shamelessly’ with two female graduate students and tried to get their phone numbers. Here, Ramachandran makes an important observation:
This paradoxical combination of loss of libido and a preoccupation with sexual rituals is not unusual in patients with TLE.
What is even more important to us vis-à-vis Shourie’s book is the way in which Ramachandran avoids the pitfall of reductionism here. Why do people like ‘Paul’ who have TLE, have religious experience? Ramachandran provides four possibilities:
First is the religious one: God does visit these people. But then this can ‘neither be proved nor ruled out on empirical grounds’. The second is that ‘emotional hodgepodge may be misinterpreted as mystical message from another world’. However, Ramachandran finds this unlikely for two reasons. In other neurological and psychiatric disorders, one rarely finds religious preoccupation in the patients.
Second, even in conditions like schizophrenia where patients speak of god it is very fleeting. It does not have ‘the same intense fervor or the obsessive and stereotyped quality’ seen in the case of TLE people.
The third explanation is grounded in the ‘connections between sensory centres and the amygdala – the part of the limbic system which relate to the emotional significance to objects in the external world. Ramachandran asks what happens when spurious signals stemming from the limbic seizure activity start traveling these pathways. And he quotes mystic poet William Blake to answer what happens. Every object and event gets imbued with deep significance making the person see ‘the universe in a grain of sand’ and making him ‘hold infinity in the palm of his hand’.
The fourth hypothesis which he considers even more speculative is if humans have evolved specialised neural circuitry for the sole purpose of mediating religious experiences. After discussing the heightened Galvanic Skin Responses (GSR) of TLE patients to religious icons and certain other possible future experiments, Ramachandran points out that the religious experiences do have neuronal roots and may be pronounced in some epileptics. But even this does not ‘explain away’ religion. They might be ‘hallucination and delusions’ but the neurologist asks, ‘if that’s the case, why do hallucinations occur mainly when the temporal lobes are involved? Even more puzzling, why do they take their particular form?’
One wishes Shourie has made a more extensive use of Ramachandran’s work than just fleeting references. In fact it would have reinforced Shourie’s own position, albeit in a more holistic manner and very much less looking like obsessive reductionism.
The second major lacunae is the way in which he has eschewed the Indic framework. Famous writer Dhananjay Keer once remarked,
Have you come across any history of England that does not speak of Trafalgar and Waterloo? Have you come across any history of India without the mention of Chitor? Behold, it is Nehru’s ‘Discovery of India’.
Now to this we can also add,
Have you ever come across a book on scientific study of the Sadhana of Ramakrishna and Ramana without a single mention of Patanjali? Behold it is Shourie’s ‘Two Saints’’.
The book would have been a path-breaking classic if Shourie had made use of Indic frameworks provided by Patanjali or Thirumoolar and used them and discoveries of neuroscience, for a critical and objective comparative study. Leave alone the Indic framework, he has not even used the more relevant research from the realm of modern science.
Let me illustrate.
Shourie finds as ‘misplaced’ the ‘anxiety’ that Ramakrishna’s disciples had for Brahmo Samaj’s critique of their master’s bhavasamadhi (they termed it ‘a disease (hysteria or epileptic fits) produced by nervous disorder’ and said that Sri Ramakrishna ‘became unconscious at the time like ordinary people suffering from the disease’). Instead, Shourie shows the way by passing a magnanimous and mercifully empathetic judgment on the seers thus: “So what if the symptoms indicate that Sri Ramakrishna used to have ‘absence seizures’ from time to time, or the fits that Sri Ramana said he had were ‘partial seizures’? That they attained such heights of ecstatic states, that they gleaned such deep insights, that they retained such overflowing compassion in spite of a problem state makes them all the greater and their attainments even more worthy of veneration.”
Perhaps this in a way sums up the paradoxical failure of a really brave and insightful attempt Shourie has taken upon himself. Is bhavasamadhi epileptic seizure? Is attaining ‘heights of ecstatic states’ TLE condition or worth of veneration? It seems Shourie is torn between the still lingering remnants of his own ‘insider’ mindset and his almost vengeful attempt to deconstruct the seers.
Here, perhaps the most relevant book would have been James H Austen’s Zen and the Brain (MIT press 1998). See what Austen says about samadhi in the glossary, ‘An extraordinary alternate state of one-pointed absorption’. Austen also cites a peer-reviewed paper. What Austen highlights is indeed relevant to Ramakrishna’s breath-stopping occasionally:
Respiration also ceased for a long 100 seconds in one expert meditator who felt her ‘breathing taken over by the mantra’ as part of a ‘near-Samadhi experience.’ The first change in this particular instance was a substantial decrease in skin resistance. It occurred before the preliminary increase in the heart rate and respiratory rate. The EEG did not change. The authors emphasize that the expert subjects in their study had been practicing a tantric form of active meditation for three hours a day.(J Farrow and J Hebert, Breath suspension during the transcendental meditation technique, Psychiatric Medicine 1982; 44:133–153).
The reader can note how more relevant this is than the ‘apnoea or sleep apnoea’ condition that Shourie uses to explain the stopping of breath of Sri Ramakrishna.
Going through the 703 pages of Zen and the Brain (1998) makes one understand what Shourie has missed in his ‘Two Saints’ (2017). Here is a neuroscientist, who combines harmoniously the Zen framework with modern science and both benefit from each other in the end. Contrast this with Shourie. He avidly avoids any Indic framework in studying the sadhana of the seers.
Interestingly, Andrew Newberg, University of Pennsylvania, one of the founding fathers of the modern day neuroscience of spirituality, brings out vividly the deep connection of Eastern traditions to modern research in the field in his book ‘Principles of Neurotheology’(2010):
The relationship between the mind and human spirituality has been considered for at least several thousand years. For example, this intersection was described in the ancient Hindu scriptures of the Upanishads in which it was realized that something within us, particularly within the head, enables us to explore and experience the universe via our cognitive and sensory processes and also to discover our own sense of spirituality. ... In Eastern traditions there is significant historical development of the psychological analysis of the human being in relationship to both Buddhist as well as Hindu conceptions of the world and of spirituality. ... Buddhist and Hindu writings have made extensive evaluations of the human mind and psychology focusing on human consciousness of the “self,” the emotional attachment human beings have to that “self,” and how human consciousness can be altered through various spiritual practices such as meditation.
In fact Andrew Newberg is not the first to use Indic spirituality in the scientific research of spiritual experience. Earlier Dr. John Lilly, a controversial cult figure in science, and influenced by Patanjali, had created sensory deprivation flotation tanks to study altered states of consciousness.
In the end of the chapter 'A young sanyasin looking like me would emerge and instruct me in all matters...' (chapter 7), Shourie complains that the senior monk at the Ramakrishna Mission told he was 'profaning a divine experience'. As the chapter title itself reveals, it is about persons emerging from Sri Ramakrishna helping and guiding him throughout the Sadhana.
Here, Shourie offers various instances from Western history. Then he proposes that the person being 'reduced to a state of extreme physiological exhaustion' and 'being driven to the edge of psychological precipice' along with 'random cues from the environment' registering in his mind's eyes result from the brain constructing 'a presence' out of stored knowledge and experience. However, he leaves out perhaps most relevant data in the current context of trying to understand Sri Ramakrishna through the psychological traditions of the West. He has left out Carl Gustav Jung.
Not that Shourie does not know about Jung. He mentions both the legendary rivals Freud and Jung in his book. Freud, as seen earlier, was mentioned almost approvingly - linking the longing for and vision of, the Mother in Sri Ramakrishna, with an 'auto-hypnotic' state. Jung is however mentioned only fleetingly, in the context of NDE. This is surely a great omission.
The famous psychiatrist Carl Jung , who proposed the speculative yet highly interesting concept of collective unconscious and archetypes emanating from it, had reported a companion who guided him. This archetypal seer was Philemon. When Jung walked in his gardens, he had lengthy enlightening discussions with this Philemon who came from inside Jung. So here we have a figure, clearly emerging out, and not when Jung was 'reduced to a state of extreme physiological exhaustion'.
Remember that it was not at the end of physical exhaustion but as Shourie himself has quoted 'almost from the commencement of his Sadhana' that Sri Ramakrishna had his inner guides come out. For Carl Jung, the inner guides went on metamorphosing from Biblical Elijah to Philemon, an old man, 'a pagan who brought with him an Egypto-Hellenistic atmosphere with a Gnostic coloration' and for Sri Ramakrishna also we see how the young mnan was taken over through a Puranic slaying scene by another person with the trident. Is Arun Shourie's choice of not using Jung's well recorded phenomenon here just an accidental omission or intentional? In the case of latter, what the senior monk of Sri Ramakrishna mission said, seems to hold good.
Lastly, Shourie tries to understand and present the religious experience from Darwinian point of view. This reviewer is in sympathy with such a view of religion. Here too Shourie should have done something that is (or perhaps 'was'?) dear to his heart - make a critique of the Marxist position that religion is a superstructure built on production relations in the society and surplus.
A good place to start for the readers would be the archeological discoveries in Göbekli Tepe (Turkey) which call into question the 'Neolithic revolution' thesis of archeologist and Marxist Gordon Childe. Clearly religion, and its core, the religious experience, has been more fundamental in animating the evolution of civilization. The role of religion in the evolution of humanity from the very beginnnings is being probed by psychologist Matt Rossano.
Evidence is also mounting that the religious experience may even be found in other 'non-human' primates. Jane Goodall obesrving some ritualistic dance behavior of chimps before waterfalls wondered decades ago if such performances were stimulated by feelings akin to wonder and awe and if it would lead to natural religion. In 2016, conservation biologist Laura Kehor and her colleagues discovered 'the first evidence of chimpanzees creating a kind of shrine that could indicate sacred trees' (see here).
So, if Shourie is attempting to create a Darwinian perspective of religion and religious experience then he should move from neuroreductionism, which is perfectly all right, to creating a systems-view of religion and religious experience, which perhaps he may do in the coming editions or in a new book.
What Is The Moral Of The Story?
So where does all these leave us? Shourie also has a moral story to tell. He contrasts the way in which the seers lived with the present day empire-building gurus. The seers often discouraged their disciples to talk about the supposed miracles. They lived simple and transparent lives. He provides some guidelines to choose the gurus.
Is the guru a truly spiritual person or a hallmark of worldly success?
Is he a performer of so-called miracles? Study their conduct, do their words and deeds match?
Study ourselves in our search for guru. Are we seeking truth or are we going for our own material success or just out of despair?
This reviewer supports these observations by Shourie. There are 10 such cardinal questions, which he has given in the last chapter. It will be good for us if every one of us goes through these questions before we declare a person our guru.
Shourie has had a tough life. So he is fully qualified when he says in the parting page that ‘vicissitudes of life are an adequate guru’. It is a valuable advice and an insight. All his life, Shourie has converted his personal crises into search for universal principles. Sometimes he has taken out his anger and agony at the very gods – as in ‘Hinduism, essence and consequence’. This also may be such a venting of certain frustrations in a creative and wonderful way. And we are all richer because of this book, only if it generates healthy debate and dialogue between science and spirituality. One wishes Shourie comes out soon with an updated edition of the book with an Indic framework added to each chapter.
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