Distinguishing Between Shallow and Deep Religion

In March 2007, I attended a talk by Dr. Steve Weinberg, the 1979 Nobel Laureate in physics for his work on electromagnetic and weak forces, on the topic "On Religion and Science" at Cornell University. Dr. Weinberg did not mince any words when he vehemently spoke about the hypocrisy and shallowness of religion, citing several evident episodes of scandals and violence in recent religious history.

At the end of his talk, he categorically stated that because of the problems that religion has created, one of the primary aspirations of science should be to cease the existence of religion. He made a strong appeal to the audience to take this seriously.

As a practitioner of Bhakti yoga, an ancient devotional school in the Hindu tradition, I was stung by Dr. Weinberg's strong comments. It felt like an assault on a paradigm that defined my outlook and the people whom I deeply loved and respected. At the same time, my rational faculties knew that Dr. Weinberg's citations were completely based on facts and thoroughly justified. Was I simply being a sentimental religionist turning a blind eye to the problems that religion has created? Or was there a deeper root to my adherence that Dr. Weinberg may not have had a chance to experience?

The key to resolving this conflict lay in one verse from the Bhagavata Purana, one of the primary texts in the Hindu tradition. The verse classifies religious faith or dharma into two categories: peripheral (kaithava) and essential (sanatana).

Gordon W. Allport, a Harvard psychologist, developed a similar scheme and categorized religious practice into extrinsic and intrinsic. The peripheral or extrinsic practice of religion refers to those expressions of faith that are motivated by self-directed desires: personal comfort, riches, power and status. The essential or intrinsic practice of religion is governed by the deep inquiry to uncover our true essence that results in profound personal transformation.

Growing up, my first experience of Hindu religion was extrinsic. I was exposed to Hindu rituals that enabled an individual's economic development and sensory pleasure, respectively known as artha and kama in Sanskrit. My parents taught me to pray twice everyday. The prayers usually were a means to please the gods to give me the best grades, good health and success in all endeavors.

I clearly recollect visiting temples of the elephant god, Ganesha, on the eve of exams, to put in "special requests" because he is an expert at taking away impediments on the path of success. On occasions, when the stakes were high, I paid good money to the head priest for special services. I got more than the expected results every time, expect for one big test where I failed miserably. That failure exposed the conditional nature of my faith.

In course of time, I turned away from the Hindu faith, much to the concern of my parents. I was old enough not to be swayed by them or other religious individuals. Episodes of communal violence fueled by Hindu fundamentalism in the early '90s further strengthened my stance.

It was six years later that a conversation with a good friend unexpectedly reopened the "religious" chapter. Manish was regarded as one of India's young scientific geniuses, but possessed a humble demeanor. In a casual conversation on a Monday evening, he convinced me to accompany him to a talk on the Bhagavad Gita. It was during that talk that I heard for the first time a clear explanation of the primary purpose of religion: deep inquiry and knowledge about our identity and the true purpose of our existence.

The talk systematically and logically pieced together the need for such inquiry and provided a deep philosophical look into the nature of consciousness and our quest for immortality. Sprinkled throughout the presentation were various scientific citations from the Hindu scriptures -- verses explaining a method of plastic surgery from the Rig Veda, the heliocentric model of the solar system from the Bhagavata Purana, and a description of time dilation and relativistic mechanics from the Upanishads.

The speaker was pleasant and humble, yet authoritative and confident. There was no trace of criticism, sentimentalism or fanaticism in his talk. I met with him personally after the presentation and I spent two hours critically questioning his paradigm.

He introduced himself as Radheshyam and his answers were deep and succinct. Although I did not fully accept his paradigm then, I deeply respected his approach and logical explanations. It was refreshing to see such a religious man. I was curious to know more.

In the next four years, I frequently visited Radheshyam's Bhakti Yoga monastery in downtown Mumbai and spent considerable time studying Hindu scriptures with him and his fellow monks. I was a personal witness to the rigor and scrutiny they applied to their scriptural study. The scriptures dealt exclusively with understanding consciousness, its source and its purpose.

Most of the monks had advanced graduate degrees from prestigious universities. Their simplicity and spirit of brotherhood were evident in their lifestyle. Their possessions -- four sets of clothes, some books and some rosary beads -- were neatly stacked away in 3x3 closets. They slept on straw mats on the ground. They lived by one principle adopted from a beautiful verse in the Hindu texts: "Be humbler than a blade of grass, more tolerant than a tree. Be ready to offer all respects to others and expect nothing in return."

In a conversation when I thanked the director of the monastery for his time to answer my questions, he looked at me with sincere gratitude and said, "I am so grateful that you have accepted me as your servant." The glimmer in his eyes clearly reflected the sense that he would not exchange his lifestyle even for $100 million.

The lives of these monks demonstrated to me a sincere search for truth and reality. Their practice completely contrasted any experience of religion that I previously had. To me, it seemed to be a compelling alternative to science in the pursuit of truth. Their axiomatic basis may be different, but their methods, rigor, logic and dedication were comparable to any true scientist. They strove to live an ego-free life, which gave them clarity and objectivity in their quest. Above all, they were truly beautiful human beings.

Dr. Weinberg's citations were correct and his frustrations justified. But his conclusion that science should destroy religion completely was probably based on his very limited exposure to the intrinsic practice of religion. They probably sprung from his experiences of narrow-minded and ritualistic religious practices that lack philosophical rigor, progression of logic and a transformative lifestyle.

Instead of rejecting religion completely, it would be wise to discriminate between substance and shadow -- and encourage the substance. The pockets where intrinsic religion is practiced may be few, but they hold deep significance especially at a time when religious fundamentalism needs to be addressed with strong action. They may also offer the unique opportunity for science and religion to have meaningful dialogues and finally understand each other.