Agnosticism – A way to Self-Realization?

The closest translation of the word “Guru” in English is “mentor.” In the traditional Indian system, a guru helps a student achieve his or her full potential by imparting knowledge. First the Guru teaches the basic principles and frameworks. When the student has grasped the basics, the guru encourages the student to question what he or she has learned.

The question and answer format fosters an open learning environment. In such an environment the student is also participating in the learning process, rather than just being a mute “receiver” of knowledge. It therefore not surprising that books like the Katha Upanishad, Bhagavad Gita and Uddhav Gita follow a Q&A; format to impart their wisdom. Incessant questioning is the basis of learning in these books, and such questioning and skepticism are hallmarks of the modern scientific thought-process.

Such books are good guides for anyone who seeks wisdom. Before starting any expedition to the world of knowledge, presence of such a guru is essential. I feel such books are ideal “gurus” for anyone interested in a scientific exploration of the universe.

Guru bina gati nahi hoti! (Without a Guru, there is no speeding up to Self-realization!)

In this essay I discuss why I think Vedic ruminations promote not just seeking knowledge but also provide a clear framework for understanding the universe. In the end I discuss how all this is comparable to the agnostic’s way of looking at things. The word “agnostic” has a lot of negative connotations. Agnostics are looked down upon as people who are fence-sitters or unable to make up their mind. But I look at agnostics as people who are exploring the universe with no preconceived notions.

Lost in Personifications

Earth, Sky, Heavens and all that (‘Tat’) is worthy of reverence, and from which all was created.
We meditate upon the divine radiance of knowledge.
So guide our intellect towards illumination.
– Broad translation of the Gayatri Mantra

The Gayatri Matra mentions an entity referred to by the pronoun ‘Tat’, which broadly translates into “That.” According to this mantra, “That” is an entity, which deserves our attention and meditative thought.

Hindu traditions have personified all that exists in nature and all that is believed to exist beyond it. Hence, Hindus have innumerable gods – each a personification of an aspect of nature or an element in nature.

In the same spirit, the entity “Tat” has been personified as “Prajapati.” It is this personification “Prajapati” and not the pronoun “Tat” that maps to the English term “God.” Though this is a subtle difference it has a very expansive consequence.

So how is this related to Agnosticism, one may ask? And how can Agnosticism be a way to “Bhrama-Gyan” (knowledge that leads to self-realization)?

There is an interesting anecdote about philosopher Bertrand Russell. Once, Russell was arrested. In jail, while filling a form, an officer asked him what his religion was. “Agnostic,” Russell replied. The officer was puzzled and said something like, “I guess in the end we all believe in the same God.” Bertrand Russell later said that the remark kept him amused for days to come.

All Indians are taught the same thing since childhood. “In the end, it is the same God we all believe in.” While the religious follow their own interpretation God, the focus has shifted from seeking “Tat” to a personified God as defined in various beliefs and religions.

Staying agnostic is the only way to keep one’s mind and thought clear of interpretations and to stay focused on understanding “Tat.” Staying agnostic allows us to seek knowledge through incessant questioning and skepticism. Religiosity or atheism start with a preconceived notion, and thus have in-built blinders that restrict the view of their adherents.

In the end if we focus on seeking or understanding “Tat” and ignore the various interpretations, the cacophony of religion and atheism will subside and the focus will shift back to “seeking to know.”

Lost without Skepticism

Then was not non-existent nor existent;
there was no air, no sky beyond it.
The gods themselves are later than creation,
so who knows truly whence it has arisen.
Whether That fashioned it or whether That did not,
That who surveys it all from highest heaven,
That knows — or maybe not.
– Rig Veda

Questioning, seeking knowledge and skepticism are the tools of an agnostic. There is a sense of wonder for all that is and sense of exploring why things are the way they are.

There is a hint of knowing all possible reasons and there is realization of existence of reasons we do not know of yet. There is the belief that one day we will know and there is the doubt that maybe we will never know.

There is a chance that “That” exists. There is an equal chance that it may not exist. From the above quote, it seems that the Rig Veda is echoing an agnostic viewpoint.

Religion and spirituality have been powerful forces in the history of humans. However, what do religion and spirituality mean?

Spirituality is when we seek something in our own ways. One may take a wrong path, turn back and try another way. Always, the guiding light is inside. One is always a seeker.

Religion is when we follow the path of others. When our quest is guided and often controlled by what we are told by books, beliefs or people. One is always a follower and not a seeker. And therein lays the distinction.

The road map for graduating into a standard human being will have to include… religions graduating into spirituality.
– A. P. J. Kalam, President of India

Spirituality can be been considered a purer form of religion, just as philosophy is considered a purer form of science. Agnosticism, I believe, is a purer form of spirituality.

Spirituality, as I had expressed above, is when we seek a path that is self-guided and self-driven.

Taking it further would mean the same passion to find out the truth, without pre-conceived notions of what lays at the end of this journey. “That” may not be radiant with light of knowledge. “That” may have form(s) we do not understand. Or “That” may not even exist.

With that openness of mind, a seeker may realize not just what “That” is, but what lies beyond “That” if there is such a thing. Or maybe the seeker won’t. That is the state of agnosticism.

Lost in Moralities

A confused mind sees a world of multiplicities,
A world of good or bad.
This creates a compulsion to act
Or to refrain from acting,
Depending on what will bring gain
And what will cause loss.
– Uddhav Gita

How ready is one to challenge one’s morals? Anyone who claims to be a good human being will have a set of rules to help differentiate between what is right and what is wrong. The same person will also point to plenty of people who are not good because they follow a different set of rules. Just as anyone who claims to be a broad minded human being will have more than a few examples of people he considers as narrow minded. These standards may be in the form religion, society or personal experiences.

The relativism of such absolute stands is the bane of religion.

How come there are as many morals as groups that people can form? Why are some morals believed to be right and others wrong? How does an agnostic choose between such morals? Are there right “moral” to be sought and wrong “morals” to be dropped? Can a moral be, in fact, immoral? Is there something that is universally moral or immoral?

An agnostic never takes sides. An agnostic stands in middle, though not with any devious or diplomatic intent. But to stand at a distance and take human nature as it is – full of multiplicities. Stand at a distance and see things in their entirety.

Morality has never stood the test of time. What was immoral once becomes “gray area” between immoral and moral. In time what was once immoral may be accepted as a moral behavior or vice verse! An unattached viewer of history and knower of self will never fall for traps of seeing relative and temporal aspects of world in groups of good and evil.

Lost in Translation

If we have got lost in interpretations of “That” as “God,” are there other things that can cause one to stray from the agnostic ways? Especially if we use books such as the Vedas and the Bhagavad Gita as our guides?

As a skeptic, I find it hard to believe that the translations, even the ones I quoted in this article from Vedas and other ancient text are correct. After all, a translation is a translator’s interpretation. Countless people have fallen victim to this error and end up with an incorrect understanding of these texts.

If such books have to be made guru, we have to understand the language and cultural context in which the language exists.

Lost without Purpose

There is a story about a Sufi who called upon Allah all day. He went on like this for a very long time. Then one day, he said, “How long I have been calling and you do not answer!” The he heard a voice reply, “Who do you think has been making you call me?”

Should one believe that if one is looking for something that in itself is a proof that it exists? Maybe, it does not exist in the form one is looking for. Or maybe it does.

If we already knew everything, why do we discover so much every day? Religion may have us believe that we are doing it in the wrong way and should do things their way. However, doing it their way has not yielded better results.

The resilience of science is not that it is a fine collection of knowledge but that science is a method that led to finding of those facts. And this method similar to “agnostic seeking” and self-correction has yielded amazing understanding of nature in form of biology, physics, chemistry and various forms of science.

What if we seek the knowledge of self with the same spirit? Answers to the most basic question all of us ask, “why life?” may also lie in the agnostic ways.

Self will not be realized unless we know the answers. An answer does not exist unless a question has been asked. An agnostic is not agnostic till he or she learns to question.

A human being cannot be religious unless he or she has a desire to seek beyond what he or she comprehends. A religious person does not become spiritual unless he or she questions things they are told to believe. A spiritualist does not become an agnostic unless he or she seeks answers with an open mind. And that is the first step towards self-realization.

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