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Arun Shourie is actually a sceptic about most religions

If his time as a minister in the last BJP government led you to believe that Arun Shourie was a fully paid-up member of the Hindutva project, think again.

This thoughtful and well-researched book suggests that far from being a Hindutva-type, Shourie is actually a sceptic about most religions. And the one that comes closest to satisfying him is Buddhism, not Hinduism.

 

Two Saints has personal origins. Shourie's last book Does He Know A Mother’s Heart: How Suffering Refutes Religions, came from his experiences with his son Aditya, who was born challenged and his wife Anita who has suffered from Parkinson's for over two decades. Shourie saw their suffering and wondered why God allowed so much pain and anguish in the world.

 

   All the explanations he found within religion left him dissatisfied. He was not convinced by the Christian notion of original sin. And heaven and hell seemed like all too convenient constructs.

 

   As for the Hindu concept of Karma, it was justified only through cyclical arguments. His son’s suffering, he was told, must be payback for sins in an earlier life. But how did we know that he committed sins in his last life? Or even that he had a last life at all? Well, they said, look at the challenges he was born with in this life. Surely, they are proof of sins in a last life?

 

   Even Gandhiji, he says, was never able to fully explain the essential tension between the idea of a just and benevolent God and the suffering that human beings went through. Asked about the Holocaust Gandhiji hummed and hawed before offering generalised explanations that came close to saying that all suffering was the fault of the victims.

 

   For Shourie, Buddhism provides the best answer. The Buddha did not know the causes of suffering. He merely offered a way of coping with it. Shourie finds this a more satisfying and honest response than the complex rationalisations of Hindu philosophers.

 

   None of this stops him from admiring Hindu religious figures, however. And so, the subjects of this book are Ramkrishna Paramhans and Ramana Maharshi, the two saints of the title. Because Shourie leads with detailed descriptions of their lives, the credulous reader might be misled into believing that the book will stop at being a respectful biography. And indeed, the mystical experiences of both men are treated with respect and even, admiration.

 

   But Shourie's purpose is subtler. As the book goes on, he examines these mystical experiences and tries to find non-supernatural explanations for them. In nearly every case, he succeeds.

 

   Did a saint sometimes go into a trancelike state? Well, there are scientific experiments that explain what kind of state this is --- there is nothing supernatural about it. Did a saint sometimes feel that another person climbed out of his body? Ok, that’s not so unusual. In certain situations (and especially at certain heights and a certain weather conditions), this is a common phenomenon. Sir Ernest Shackleton felt a presence guiding him on his expeditions. Many mountaineers, including the great Reinhold Messner report another person materialising out of nowhere to lead them to the top of the peak in times of difficulty. There is a perfectly reasonable medical explanation for this.

 

   What about out of body experiences? Those too can be explained. Shourie writes of studies where stimulation of the brain can lead people to feel they are flying or doing things that we would normally consider impossible.

 

   Some mystics suddenly freeze: they stop in the middle of an action and then resume several minutes later as though time had stood still during the intervening period. Some report states of ecstasy. Some have fits during which it seems as though their body has been taken over.

 

 "Shourie is also sceptical of the idea of an immortal soul, central to so many religions including Hinduism, and says he does not believe in re-incarnation and therefore in the idea of Karmic accounting."

   Many of these symptoms, Shourie argues can be accounted for by such conditions as epilepsy which were not properly understood in India a few decades ago and were rarely treated.

 

   It is not his case that the two saints of his book sought to delude people. In fact, they rarely claimed mystical or divine powers. But too much attention was, and still is, paid to their mystical states --- which can fully be explained by science – and not enough to their teachings.

 

   So does Shourie believe in miracles? No, he doesn’t. His view is that when we see something out of the ordinary we must find a rational or scientific explanation. In nearly every case there will be entirely non-supernatural explanations for what are regarded as divine acts or miracles.

 

   Among the strongest sections of the book are those that deal with what we now call New Age Literature. New Agers claim to operate at the intersection of faith and science. One example is the so-called near death experience. This relies on accounts from people who have been believed to be clinically dead and are then revived. Many report going through a tunnel of light and seeing a God-like figure (or their dead relatives) at the end of this tunnel. There is no uniformity to such experiences, Shourie points out, and many illogical inconsistencies. In fact, they can be easily explained by the process of the unspooling of the brain as death nears.

 

   Shourie is also sceptical of the idea of an immortal soul, central to so many religions including Hinduism, and says he does not believe in re-incarnation and therefore in the idea of Karmic accounting.

 

   So what does he believe in?

 

   Science?

 

   Well, yes. But, as he cautions, science is always progressing. We now have more information about our brains than we ever imagined even fifty years ago. Physicists keep learning more and more about the nature of the universe and about matter itself.

 

   Science is not a finished book; it is a work in progress. But, as a method of seeking explanations about ourselves and the world, it is a far more reliable guide than a belief in the supernatural. Look closely and science will give you rational explanations for every so- called miracle.

 

   Why then does Shourie admire Maharishi Ramanna and Ramakrishna Paramahamsa so much? Because, he writes, the true miracle was their goodness. The lessons for us are in their teachings not in their mystic states.

 

   It follows from this that he is leery of contemporary God men who become media stars or cult-leaders. His hero is the Dalai Lama, who invites scientists to study Tibetan medicine and meditation to understand how it all works.

 

   This is not always an easy book to read. It is detailed and complex with hundreds of references to scientific papers. But it is an important and thoughtful contribution to Indian public discourse.

 

   It will make you think. And it may make you reassess your perception of Arun Shourie.

 

 

Posted On: 25 May 2017 07:59 PM
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