Friday, October 30, 2009

I'm a lousy ideologue

I know I'm probably going to alienate a lot of freethinkers here. If you're interested, hear me out. If not, well, don't, I guess!

To be clear, I haven't affiliated myself with a religion, but it's fair to say I'm investigating it.

Here are some quotes (I'll give sources at the end of this post):

Nothing is extraordinary or supernatural in life. There are no miracles. [...]When we classify something as a miracle, we might as well say that, "I do not know how it happened."

If the scriptures say something about [...] the world around us - which contradicts what perception and inference [...] tells us, then, the scriptural statements have to be symbolically interpreted.

The second statement was actually written over a thousand years ago! The tradition they come from is Hinduism, particularly the Advaita Vedanta school of Hinduism. Philosophically, it's actually very similar to Buddhism. In fact, one of the criticisms directed at Advaita Vedanta is that it's Buddhism in a Hindu framework. Both groups tend to take a skeptical approach to things.

Long before George Harrison chanted the Hare Krishna mantra, some Americans were familiar with Hindu teachings courtesy of Swami Vivekananda. Swami Vivekananda introduced Hinduism to many Americans when he participated in the Parliament of Religions, held in Chicago in 1893. Since that time, Vedanta Societies based on his teachings and those of his teacher, Sri Ramakrishna, have slowly sprung up throughout the United States.

As you may have guessed, there's a group in my area. I've checked out a few services, and have had some very nice chats with the nun who serves as Resident Minister. She told me that the group is basically apolitical and stays out of the bedroom. She also told me that if I have a hard time believing in a particular thing, I shouldn't believe in it until I can verify it for myself.

So what distinguishes them from, say, Unitarians? Philosophically, probably not much. Both groups tend to consider ethics a mostly personal matter and focus what ethical talk they do have on being a good person to those around you. Both groups tend to see mythology as useful metaphor.

The differences come down to practice. In Vedanta, while each member may interpret things differently, everyone's still using the same set of metaphors and symbols. In Unitarian congregations, that tends not to be the case. I can't think of much offhand that actually unifies Unitarians. Also, my experience with Unitarian congregations is that they tend to be more political than they let on. I think I may have mentioned before on this blog that I like my separation of church and state to apply in both directions.

See, if I'm going to give a group (religious or otherwise) significant amounts of my time, there needs to be some benefit. I don't necessarily mean, "What can the group do for me?" as much as, "Does this group have a worthwhile purpose, and can I make a positive contribution to it?" So far, I seem to be able to answer "yes" to both parts of that question with Vedanta. To refer back to the title of this post, I'd rather do some good with people I may disagree with on some things than do nothing with people I do agree with.

For the time being, I'm trying to take it slowly. I haven't outfitted my apartment with statues of Hindu deities or anything. I'm aware enough of my own history to know that this might not work out. But for the time being, I'm enjoying participating in a really nice community to the extent that I'm able.

Quote sources: The first quote is from the podcast "Vedanta and Yoga," put out by Swami Tyagananda of the Ramakrishna Vedanta Society of Boston. The episode containing the quote is called "Practice of Raja Yoga" and is dated 11/16/08. I get the podcast through iTunes; I don't know if it's available through other means. The second quote comes from Adi Shankara, the person who consolidated the Advaita Vedanta philosophy. More information about that here.


  1. Idk, some Shiva statues make any room 42^x (with x being the amount of statues) cooler.

  2. As you may have guessed, my tastes lean more toward Ganesha. But yeah, Shiva is pretty cool, too. I've seen t-shirts for sale that say “Shiva Is My Om Boy” and the same for Ganesha. =)

  3. Elephant statues would work too.
    Wow, that's awesome.