Cultural Foundations of Religion

C. K. Raju
Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Rashtrapati Nivas, Shimla 171005

Summary: This talk will address the following key questions.

      1. Is religion only a matter of faith? (The West taught us so.)

      1. And is religious faith necessarily scriptural? (As the West also taught us.)

      2. Is the text more important than the context? That is, to understand a text is it enough to know the language and not the subject? E.g. can a Sanskrit text on mathematics be translated by someone who knows Sanskrit but no mathematics? Our texts come from our ancestors; what was the source of their knowledge? Why can’t we go back to that primary source today? Else how to know the text (or our understanding of it) is right? Mere authority? Loyalty?

      3. How to discriminate between faith and and blind faith or superstition? (Especially when faiths clash.) Obvious; rely on tests, not texts. A key such traditional test was pratyaksa pramana: Indians did not compartmentalise religious and scientific knowledge. (Those who rely on texts often try to twist the meaning of pratyaksa. If we don’t understand pratyaksa as evidence of the senses, then we have no way to understand the meaning of any word in any language. Not even the meaning of the word “glass”. It becomes like explaining the color white to a man born blind, an infinite regress. So, we have to end the conversation.)

      1. Religion is about life and the cosmos: can we understand it without proper knowledge of life and the cosmos? What if textual knowledge contradicts experience?

        1. Hinduism is about moksha, Buddhism is about nirvana. Both mean deliverance from the cycle of birth-death-rebirth. Hence, for either moksha or nirvana to make sense, rebirth must make sense.

        2. But rebirth is no part of our experience, birth and death are.

        3. So, is belief in rebirth mere blind faith or superstition? (What sense does rebirth make? When does rebirth take place? Immediately after death? If so, can we test it in the manner of Payasi?)

      2. Main thesis. For rebirth to make sense, time must be quasi-cyclic (लगभग चक्रीय काल). Not only are humans reborn, all things in the cosmos repeat. (That is also exactly what the texts say, if correctly understood. Quotes and details here.)

        1. Important to discriminate between quasi cyclic and “cyclic” or supercyclic time or eternal recurrence. There is centuries of confusion between the two in the West, a confusion fostered by the church, since it is the basis of post-Nicene Christian doctrine. (See my book The Eleven Pictures of Time, Sage, 2003, chp. 2, “The curse on ‘cyclic’ time”. ) Even opponents of the church, such as Nietzsche, fell victim to this confusion, as did T. S. Eliot and Mircea Eliade.

        2. Is this kind of time possible according to present-day (not necessarily Western) science? (Next talk on “Science” will address that question.)

(Expository talk at Jaipur Dialogues, Hotel Clarks Amer, Jaipur, 19 Oct 2019, session 3, 4.30 pm to 5.30 pm. Other panelists: David Frawley, Aravindan Neelakandan.)