He did the best he could. In his demise, Indic traditions lost a loyal friend in the West
When Huston Smith died aged 97 on 30 December 2016, Hindus world over lost a good friend in the academia of the Western world. An ordained Methodist minister, Huston Smith was the author of The Religions of Man (1958). Since then, it has been one of the standard textbooks in the West for comparative religion. Huston Smith, who set out to do for religion, what Chomsky did for language – finding the universal grammar, was born to missionary parents in China. As he walked as a boy to the Shanghai American High School in the French Concession, he would pass parks marked “No dogs and Chinamen allowed”. As he grew up, the missionary zest to ‘Christianize the world’ left him. When he chose an academic career studying comparative philosophy and religion, the memories of colonial prejudice made him vow ‘to do everything he could to try to deal fairly with the cultures he crossed over into.’
Though Hinduism was not his ‘primary tradition’ he found his ‘indebtedness to the Hindu tradition inestimable’. In fact it was his contact with the Vedanta of Sri Ramakrishna-Vivekananda tradition which helped him enter into this odyssey with his vow to ‘to overcome the gravitational pull of ethnocentrism’ as much as possible. His knowledge of Hinduism which became part of his spiritual-academic pilgrimage came from his interaction with such impeccable sources like Dr.T.M.P.Mahadevan, one of the best Tamil scholars of traditional Vedanta and Swami Satprakashananda of Sri Ramakrishna Vedanta center. His quest for wisdom through Vedanta also became a loadstone to seek the unity of the spiritual heritage of humanity without much of the usual fallacy of imposing uniformity. Thus he studied Sufism and Buddhist spiritual traditions too.
In writing the book The Religions of Man (later titled ‘The World Religions’) he immersed himself, as much as possible, in first hand subjective experience of the religion about which he was writing. When he was writing his chapter on Hinduism he ‘read and meditated on ten pages of ‘The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna’ every day.’ The book became the definitive guide for the western academia to study world religions in a spirit of true respect and dialogue before ‘South Asian’ social sciences were converted into the personal fiefdom of some.
When the chapter on Hinduism in his book received widespread critical acclaim, Huston Smith credited it to those meditations he made on the Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna.
He was also a part of a study of psychedelic dimensions of religious experiences conducted in Harvard University. At the 1962 Good Friday service, at Boston University, volunteers, including Huston Smith, participated, half of whom had received, double blind, a dose of psilocybin while the other half a placebo. The experiment he later recalled, ‘left a permanent mark on his experiential world view’ (emphasis not in the original). He tried to describe it in terms of his own religious tradition and also in the framework of Indic spiritual psychology:
… until the Good Friday Experiment, I had had no direct personal encounter with Him/Her/It of the sort that bhakti yogis, Pentecostals, and born-again Christians describe. … Jnanic by nature, I had had (as I have noted) a number of powerful transpersonal experiences of God, but I had not strongly experienced his personal side. The Good Friday Experiment changed that. Since that momentous afternoon, I know firsthand what bhaktis are talking about when they speak: of their personal, loving relationship with God. (Thomas B.Roberts & Robert N. Jesse, Recollections of the Good Friday Experiment: An interview with Huston Smith, The Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, 1997, Vol. 29, No.2)
The passage is important because here we have an interesting variant in Rajiv Malhotra’s U-turn theory. Unlike the intentional jettisoning of Hindu identity and contribution to one’s inner development /or academic career, or one’s own cult creation, as convincingly demonstrated by him in the case of Ken Wilbur, here we have a genuine U-turn: from the impersonal Upanishadic tradition to the personal experience of Godhead defined in the tradition in which the person was born. What he had done is to academically open the possibility of studying the Christian phenomena like the born-again experience, talking in tongues etc. from Indic spiritual / yogic psychological framework.
On February 7, 1984, NASA astronauts made their first untethered spacewalk. The same day Huston Smith was writing a preface to the book Vedanta Voice of Freedom, a compilation of the words of Swami Vivekananda made by Swami Chetanananda. Huston Smith made an interesting observation:
I happen to write these lines on the day in the history when human astronauts have achieved their first untethered walk in space. To float as they are floating, like birds with the whole sky to fly in , may seem at first like the ultimate freedom, but we know of course that their floating only tokens the spiritual freedom we truly seek. … Thus it is that Hinduism speaks of the final freedom that marks the end of the mystic path as liberation (moksha), for it is the state of union (yoga) with the Absolute, the Infinite, and the Eternal, and therefore of freedom from all bonds of relativity.
Another interesting dimension of Huston Smith is his approach to the problem of religious terrorism – particularly Islamist terrorism. While he was totally free of Islamophobia of the Christian Right, he never got into the overdoing the negation mode like the virulent left liberals of Chomskian kind. In the aftermath of 9/11, in a 2002 interview he said:
“I am not going to conclude by saying terrorism and the fury that backs it is entirely our fault. It takes two to tango, and Islam has a great deal to answer for in this conflict.”
He said that the fundamentalist Muslims, ‘fueled by the memory of Islam’s past glory, live in the hope of an eventual Islamicized world.’ And it was this that ‘sets off a chain of mistakes.’ One should remember that this was by a man who prayed five times a day in Islamic manner too. He belonged to the school of Frithjof Schuon and Ananda Coomaraswamy.
In fact this is exactly the Hindutva stand which only opposes the expansionist tendencies of Islamist forces without falling prey to the Islamophobia which is only a competitive clash of the expansionist monocultures.
That Huston Smith always remained faithful to the vow he made to himself, can be seen in the foreword he gave to ‘Interpreting Ramakrishna’ (2010) – a scholarly in-depth rebuttal to Jeffery Kripal’s ‘Kali’s Child’. He saw Kripal’s work as the ‘case at hand’ of ‘political orthodoxy’ in the Western academia moving ‘across religious boundaries’. He pointed out to Kripal that ‘religions can learn from one another, but only when critics withhold their criticisms until they have made sure that the targets at which they are aimed are rightly positioned.’ And this right positioning he pointed out starts with ‘accurate translations of the documents the critic cites as well as the cultural sensitivity’. Kripal failed to meet these requirements he said.
It is said that his favorite prayer was a scribbling of a 9-year-old found by the child’s parent which simply said, “Dear God, I’m doing the best I can.” He did. And we are all richer.
Happy eternity Huston Smith, you are always loved.