Sunday, March 6, 2011

Eastern and Western religions

Moojan Moomen defines two types of religion in his book The Phenomenon of Religion. A Thematic Approach (Oneworld Publications, 1999) as follows:

I use the term 'Western religion' to refer to the mainstream orthodoxies of the Judaeo-Christian-Muslim group of religions. 'Eatern religion' refers to Buddhism, Taoism and Hinduism, especially of the Advaita Vedanta school. This division is useful in that these two groups of religions hold very differing and even contaradictory vies on the nature of the Ultimate Reality and of humanity's relationship to it.
Regarding the difference with the Eatern religions, the most important point is that in the Western religions those characteristics mentioned above, such as anger and kindness, all make God appear to have a personality, to act as a person. An impersonal entity would not have such characteristics.

In contrast, the Eastern religions, Buddhism, Taoism and Hinduism of the Advaita school, have no concept of God as a person; rather their concept is of Ultimate Reality as a process, a truth, or a state of being. This is usually stated as a concept of an Absolute Reality. The phrase 'Absolute Reality' implies that there is a single Reality in the cosmos; everything else that may appear real has only a relative or a contingent reality or is illusory or non-existent. The Absolute is therefore both transcendent and immanent. (P. 31 - 33.)

This bit about God (or gods) being a person is important and worth repeating. It makes little sense talking about a god in any other way, although apparently the word has been used in a more poetic ways (by Albert Einstein, for example), to refer to something like the God of pantheism. Such talk is only misleading and confusing, and will end up being used by theists in an attempt to support their claims. It clearly also makes no sense to pray to a god that is impersonal, while it does make sense to try to connect with such an entity somehow -- assuming of course that one already believes in the existence of such a god.

It also makes sense to seek enlightenment if one believes in the illusoriness of the sensible universe. It is no wonder that belief in paranormal powers goes with such a worldview as well. In Eastern religion, these alleged powers would be clearly magical, derived from the thaumaturgist herself, while in Western religion the power would be from God, and miracles not controlled but only asked for by the believer. Clearly, it is easy for belief systems to incorporate some from both views, as seems (IMHO) to have been done by (some) renaissance "mages".

We can call the view held by many Eastern religions that there is only one fundamental reality in the world, 'monism'. And by contrast, we can call the Western view that God and humanity form two distinct and separate realities, 'dualism'. Alternative names for the two systems would be 'absolutism' and 'theism' respectively. (P. 34.)

One type of religion is perhaps monistic, in the sense that there is only one reality, and the illusion we experience as reality is actually not real, and the other accepts the reality of two categories of entities -- one being everything in the material world, and the other usually being made of just one God; although the latter might comprise all sorts of entities made of spiritual substance. Nevertheless, both do seem transcendental in the sense that followers of both religions are oriented toward the (alleged) transcendent reality, whether it is the Absolute Reality, or the One God (or even just a more vague "hereafter"). This is the usual emphasis of relgion, caused no doubt by the fact that everyone can see (and has always been able to see) that this material world we live in is fundamentally evil, full of suffering and pain, and in many ways displeasing especially to us humans. Because we are naturally fair-minded, humans have decided that there must be some other world or level of reality that will balance this evil.

It is then curious that some Eastern religions, much like the philosophical schools of the Hellenistic period, seem to have also allowed for the possibility of reaching the transcendental goal in this life:

In Hinduism, the final goal is liberation (moksha or mukti). This state may be achieved in life, in which case it is called jivanmukti. Such a person is described as having achieved a state of existence-consciousness-bliss (sat-chit-ananda). For Buddhists, the final goal is the state of Nirvana (which means 'blown out'). This state is characterized by the extinction of all craving and desires, a complete detachment from the world. (P. 35.)

In Western religions, only some saints, mystics, and monks have attempted to reach for the final goal within their lives, and even they have (if I am not mistaken) always believed it to be impossible to completely reach it during their lives. They could perhaps experience Union with God briefly (albeit ecstatically), but only after their deaths would they actually get to meet their maker.

The idea of a living holy man who has reached the heights of illumination of course has the unfortunate effect of making people gullible and thus vulnerable to all sorts of hoaxers and charlatans. One would think that the Rationalists of India will be kept busy as a result, for quite a long time to come.

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