Ontological argument, symbolism

Jan Brzezinski (Jagadananda das)


The ontological proof for the existence of God, which I refered to in a recent response to Gaurasundara, takes many forms. For some philosophers it is strong, for others it is almost laughably weak. “Because the idea exists, the reality must exist” certainly does not seem tenable; it can be reduced to the form, “God exists because I wish Him to exist.” If we imagine the moon is made of green cheese or that pigs have wings, does that make it so? Just because I can imagine something does not make it real.

Of course, there is something more persuasive about the argument. For instance, if we hold that the search for God and meaning is inherent or instinctual, then the implication that this search must end somewhere seems more tenable. We feel hunger, for instance, and this implies food. We feel sexual desire and this implies some kind of necessary purpose, namely procreation. So since many of us need to find meaning in life, the implication is that there is a meaning. Many atheists insist that they feel absolutely no need for God, but it is harder for anyone to say that they can live without giving life some kind of meaning.

The existentialists argue that there is no inherent meaning to anyone’s existence and that we are therefore obliged to impose one. I hold that this is a circular argument that has no particular conclusion. My ability to impose meaning may indeed be a facility that is a part of the entire construct of meaning and the search for it.

There are some who say that there is no order in the universe; that it is fundamentally chaotic. Man imposes order and meaning in order to survive and to further his agenda. Indeed the appearance of meaning is a result of this imposition and is artificial. This is traceable to developments from Newtonian to Quantum physics, etc. Newton’s ideas were based, as many scientists’ were, way back when, on a faith in the ultimate rationality of the universe, due to its being the product of God’s divine reason. Now that the need for a God has been jettisoned in explanations of the world, it seems that in some circles it has become fashionable to question the ultimate coherence of natural laws. But, again, even if it were possible to argue for the fundamental ultimate incoherence of nature, which I think is purely fatuous, we still have to answer whence comes the human brain’s capacity to impose order.

In fact, even those who do not believe in God still seem to accept instinctively that the universe operates according to laws that can be divined by the use of reason. That the universe operates consistently is axiomatic. The apple that fell from the tree and hit Newton on the head did not fly in the opposite direction on the full moon. But even if it had, there would have been a reason for that too, and that reason (if he had found it) would not have existed purely in Newton’s brain.

Science is based on the faith that a reasonable explanation can be found for even the most unusual exceptions. So if Newtonian physics cannot explain phenomena on certain levels of experience, then another paradigm must be sought. Even chaos theory is an attempt to explain apparent randomness.

The idea that universal laws somehow point to the existence of a divine intelligence is, again, one of the traditionally more persuasive arguments put forth by Catholic theologians for the existence of God, even though philosophers have here too found rational holes.

All the rationalists’ objections to Aquinas’ and other Catholic theologians’ “proofs” for the existence of God come down to the objection, “Why should it?” If all causes have a cause, why should there be a Prime Cause called God. Why not just accept that there may be an infinite causal series with no beginning at all?

Indeed, as a believer I am predisposed to accept all the arguments for the existence of God, from the cosmological to the teleological and including the ontological. But there are religions like Buddhism and Vedanta that say the universe and the conditioned state of the jivas is anadi, beginningless. So the concept of a relation between Creator and Creation in Vedanta is not exactly the same as in the Semitic religions. In a way it attempts to strike a middle ground between the timelessness of God and cosmos while attributing the organizing principle of the cosmos to its existence in God rather than to a specifically conscious creative act within time.

In the next section, I will turn to symbols and the idea that God communicates himself to us in this way, since he cannot be grasped in any other way, and the limitation of literalist understandings of God.


Ontological argument, symbolism, etc., Part II


In the letter to Gaurasundar, I said that literalist concepts of God are made to be mocked; they are for children. And even understood symbolically, many concepts of God are fraught with problems. Currently, we are experiencing another of mankind’s many crises of faith, where Islam and fundamentalist Christianity are leading the charge to cause doubts in the minds of reasonable people all around the world.

The God idea or God symbol is meant to elevate humanity both as individuals and as social beings. If it appears to do the opposite, then what can this mean? Some say that religion has done some good, but when looked at globally, more evil has been wrought by religion than good. This jaundiced view can surely be countered, but even if it were true, this would not be a proof that religion itself is not a good thing or that God does not exist.

Thinking of God Himself first of all as a symbol, whose existence is in the psyche, is not a new idea, even though it has been refined by Jung and his followers. The Vedantic idea of chit indicates that God, whether subjective or objective reality, is only experienced subjectively. This is a vast area of discussion.

In modern thinking, it sprang into prominence with Feuerbach who coined the term “projection,” which was later used and popularized by Freud. The implication is, like the response to the ontological argument, that the need is real, but that the psychological response is false. The need is based in the desire for love, which has often been distorted or deformed by experience.

Since the desire for order includes the desire for meaning, and the desire for meaning includes the desire for love, the desire for God includes all three. Since the world can never fully provide satisfaction to all three desires when it comes to something as complex as human life, individuals and collectivities project a “God of the gaps” to assure us that there is indeed order, meaning and love at the very basis of creation. Freud and his followers feel that this is an illusion and would eventually fall away with the maturation of humanity, just like Marx thought the state would fall away in a communist society. Who has the stronger illusion, we may ask?

Are order, meaning and love realities or illusions? To the extent that scientists have faith in order, we believe that there is one. So perhaps we project order onto our own lives, in spite of the airplane accidents, the senseless premature loss of loved ones, etc., etc. But if we see those elements of chaos as part of the overall order, then they are assimilated into that order and the venom is taken out of their fangs.

Janma, mrityu, jara, vyadhi. Dukkam. They are there to remind us of the hierarchy of human needs and a host of other values. If the goal of existence was merely the fulfilment of our sensual appetites, then perhaps chaos would prevail over order. But religion and the God-ideal have taught humanity in every society that there are higher values than this.

Sometimes society’s have gotten overexcited by the idea and imposed these higher values repressively, often without due consideration of the possibility of relativism. It seems to me that warnings against such excesses were there from the very beginning, but alas, not heeding warnings is part of human freedom.

So, let us begin with the God-symbol and ask ourselves, what is it essentially? Is it there only as a compensation for the inadequacy of our own existence? Is Marx’s famous dictum about the opium of the people, the cry of the forlorn, etc., the only explanation for its existence? Certainly the idea of a “God of the gaps,” providing services to explain the unknown, has a rational function that continuously marginalizes God as humanity and progress usurps these roles. Religion as entertainment is replaced by television; Religion as socialization is replaced by football games and raves; Religion as social work is replaced by the state and secular organizations.

First of all, we have to accept the idea of evolution in the concept of God. Even if we accept that the insights of the founders of all religious schools were profound, universal and often unshakable in their power, we must recognize that whatever the purity and truth of such realizations, the ability of mankind to comprehend them has been spotty.

Nevertheless, the power of these religions to survive is not so much due to the mad molecule named “meme,” as to the force of the symbols related to the ultimate ideals and meanings of mankind, namely their ability to vehicle and to express, whether in verbal or symbolic form, the ultimate goal of life for the human being.

And even if we do not accept that the founders of religious schools necessarily had a deeper insight into truth—they may have been catering to regressive forces in their societies—the symbols they introduced, either through their teachings or through the myths that they themselves embodied, [even in cases where such myths have no individual we can point to,] took on a life of their own and showed sufficient depth to allow richer, deeper meanings to be assimilated to it.

God does not change; God is infinite and infinite possibilities exist in God, but humankind’s understanding evolves as its basis for understanding grows and its power to reflect more widely grows with it.

So, there is evolution or the possibility of evolution in the understanding of what God is, and this is true for each sectarian exploration of God and the relationship that the individual has to God. From a purely material perspective this is a human adjustment on an ad hoc basis for the purpose of preserving a dubious concept. From the God’s eye view, this is humanity struggling to comprehend the revelations that God is constantly sending to it, primarily through the medium of the symbols in which God is present.

So there are two perspectives that appear to work counter to one another, but in fact these two approaches are complementary, for just as in any other field of knowledge, the science of God is also dialectical and progressive in nature. On the one hand is the Upanishadic neti neti, the rationalists’ via negativa or deconstruction of the most vital and essential concept known to humanity, that of God. It tries to strip God of all idolatrous interpretation, all vestiges of projection and falseness. On the other hand is the intuitive approach that recognizes God in the human, knows that the deepest symbol of Deity is to be found in what is best in humanity, in empathy, in love, in charity, in service, as well as in beauty, truth and other qualities that find their apex in their ideal human forms.

Now if someone were to say, “But the traditional sources of knowledge are most authoritative. These explain any symbols or myths in a decisive fashion. So what is all this talk about God ‘speaking to us’ through the symbols,” to this my answer is, Yes, the discourses surrounding symbolic representations of God are indeed authoritative and to be respected because of the force they give to such symbols. But we should look at such things historically and remember that they can usually be placed in a context. For instance, Jiva’s Six Sandarbhas, at least the first four, are meant to bring us to one point—

सर्वतोऽपि सान्द्रानन्दचमत्कारकारश्रीकृष्णप्रकाशे श्रीवृन्दावनेऽपि
परमाद्भुतप्रकाशः श्रीराधया युगलितस्तु श्रीकृष्ण इति

In the manifestation as Sri Krishna, which is more filled with intense wonder and joy than any other, and especially that Krishna who is most wonderfully manifest in Sri Vrindavan in the company of Srimati Radharani [is the supreme worshipable object.
And Jiva concludes the Krishna-sandarbha with the following verse:

सदाराधामाधवमाधुरीभिरभितश्चित्तं ममाक्राम्यताम्॥

gaura-zyAma-rucojjvalAbhir amalair akSNor vilAsotsavair
nrityantIbhir azesha-mAdana-kalA-vaidagdhya-digdhAtmabhiH
anyonya-priyatA-sudhA-parimala-stomonmadAbhiù sadA
rAdhA-mAdhava-mAdhurIbhir abhitaz cittaà mamAkrAmyatAm

May my mind be overcome by the sweetness of Sri Sri Radha Madhava,
effulgent with the glow of gold and black,
dancing with the pure festive play of their eyes,
at its soul, the maddening mastery of the love arts,
always intoxicated with the intense nectarean fragrance
of their mutual love.

But what is going on here is a change in the symbolic language. Through the mercy of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, who himself incarnated the Divine Couple within himself, the sixteenth century in Hindu India saw a sort of “changing of the gods,” and Radha-Krishna became predominant. Sri Rupa and his followers were at the vanguard of this change, and even though there may be some debate about “who was first,” the Goswamis established the connecting link to the prior traditions that gave scriptural legitimacy to this bhajan. To the Nitya-vihari sampradayas like the Radha-vallabhis and Haridasis, this is so much wasted effort since it takes time away from the essence, but they are obliged to look for Sri Rupa’s when they try to establish their own theological legitimacy.

But I digress: whatever the state of theological developments in the 16th century, we must recognize that all these discourses are secondary to the power of the symbol itself. God, in these symbolic representations, speaks to us directly. By hearing the voices of the past, God’s voice is made clearer, but the ultimate goal is to hear God’s voice directly. Bhagavat-sakshatkara begins with the sakshatkara of the symbol. Indeed there really is no difference. This will need to be explained.


Ontological argument, symbolism, etc., Part III

What I have been trying to get at in the previous two posts is that the way we look at the relation of symbol to God can be compared to the way that any phenomenon is looked at in relation to God. In other words, where cause and effect relationships are debated, they are usually reduced to a kind of chicken-egg argument that can only ultimately be decided in favor of God.

Though this analysis of cause and effect will always be challenged (and often with good cause) by doubters, what we are trying to get at is the essence of the symbol, which will reveal something about the Godhead itself. This understanding of the essence of the symbol, intuited by believers, must nevertheless be purified by the Upanishadic process of sravanam, mananam and nididhyasanam. That is the way to darshanam.

If one asks, does the symbol not show, as the psychologists argue, something about material phenomena, especially the individual or collective psyche? The answer is that the multifarious meanings of a symbol simultaneously shed light on both, like the lamp on a doorledge illuminates both within and without (known as dehali-dipa-nyaya in Sanskrit).

Why should what it reveals about life not reveal something about absolute reality also? Does our conception of life not influence our ideas about reality and vice versa? And why should God Itself not contain the essence of all that is best about humanity? Isn’t that really what the God symbol is about? Isn’t this what the personalism of the Vaishnavas is supposed to lead us to?

To accept that the God symbol actually has something real to say about God, or that God communicates through symbols, or finally that God is not really distinct from these symbols, i.e., he is present in his symbols the way that Vaishnavas say God is present in his name or in his deity form, would be a significant admission from the agnostic. On the other hand, for a Vaishnava to admit that the transcendent symbols of God also have something to say about us and the world is also significant, for it ties worldly phenomena to the divine in a way that appears to weaken any arguments about transcendence.

If, as it is sometimes held, Radha and Krishna’s loves are merely pointing to repressed sexual desires, or are a protest against the dominant sexual mores or in some other way reflect things about the Hindu sexuality of a particular historical period, or indeed about a particular sexual complex in the individual psyche, in other words, if it can be reduced to (i.e., it is nothing but) that, then what is left for the believer? This is the objection.

Religious people naturally guard against such reductionism, but the inability to accept the validity of a symbolic interpretation of the gods, most especially the gods to which we are tied by faith and religious commitment, is a handicap to spiritual understanding rather than a sign of great nishtha.

Even Vaishnava literalists always give a symbolic meaning to their Deities. What else is it when we say Krishna is Rasaraja or the transcendental Madana personified, or that “Radha is the personification of love” or “Mahabhava-svarupini.” Even saying that Krishna is God, or Mahaprabhu is God, are symbolic statements, since God Himself is a symbol of what is often a vague constellation of values, which may be quite culturally conditioned despite obligatory attempts to universalize them. Such efforts at universalization often end up banalizing the God-symbol, with cliches like “God is love,” etc.Nevertheless, without such an attempt to identify universal values, there could be no claim for any such God-ness of a God symbol; projecting culturally conditioned values would be a result of unconscious assumptions about their universality.

Take for example the multiple meanings ascribed to Radha. I posted comments a while back on the paper one of my students at McGill gave about Radha, in which she spoke of the evolution in ways of looking at Radha, from ordinary human to Supreme Goddess. In the book I have been reading intermittently by Sharan Behari Goswami, this author also gives a resume of the different symbolic interpretations or vyakhyas of Radha, including both those given by secular and religious commentators. I will give the list here without much comment.

(1) Radha as ordinary woman, i.e., as a literary object of love.
(2) Radha as exemplary devotee of God. (See BhP 10.21.31)
(3) Radha as a metaphor for a particular celestial body (where Krishna is the moon, etc.)
(4) Radha as a metaphor for the kundalini shakti (which is on abhisara through the spinal chakras to reach Krishna in the thousand-petalled lotus).
(5) Radha as an avatar of Shiva. (This is in an upapurana called the Mahabhagavata Purana).
(6) Radha as a symbol of the Prakriti of Sankhya philosophy.
(7) Radha as a manifestation of the goddess of the Shaktas, i.e., Shakti or Durga. (The reference is to Sammohan-tantra, quoted in Jiva’s commentary to Brahma-samhita.)
(8) Radha as supreme goddess, creator of this universe, i.e. Maya Shakti.
(9) Radha as Krishna (God)’s pleasure potency (hladini shakti).
(10) Radha as personification of the love principle (Prema-tattva)

Some of these interpretations are trivial, some interesting, some come directly to the point. In my response to this student’s paper, I expressed the opinion that the more aishwarya is ascribed to the deity, the further we really are away from its true meaning. It is in fact a means to cover its symbolic reality. It is as though the numinosity of the symbol is so brilliant that we cover our eyes. This is what Jung meant when he said that religions are actually often a means to avoid spiritual experience. When we put something on a pedestal and outside the purview of any rational critique, then we are effectively putting the spiritual value of a symbol into limbo.

When we remove the necessity of symbolic interpretation because of fear of reducing its divinity, we are in fact removing the very source of its power. We are trying to insulate the symbol from analysis, when it is precisely the complete rational investigation of the symbol that uncovers the profound powers that lie within it.

This is what Jung meant when he said that “religion” insulates us from religious experience. In the first place, it depersonalizes it and communalizes it, making the group the arbiter of meaning and not the individual, leading to a kind of common denominator of meaning that exalts institutional values over the personal.

And this is why kanistha religion is tamasic; it neither allows for other, natural symbolic interpretations to enter the rigid ones that are institutionally permitted, nor does it allow one to discover global perspectives by which we can find a place for all human phenomena in the process of self and God-realization.

Symbolic interpretations are condemned in Vaishnava circles by the label “adhyatmika interpretation”, but what we are really objecting to is reductionist interpretation. Even the Vaishnava commentators and present-day literalists do not hesitate to call Radha “hladini shakti”, “prema-svarupa,” “maha-bhava-svarupini” as intimated above, even though these words all carry within them the force of interpretive meaning rather than pure mythological literalism. Radha’s meaning is that she incarnates love, and that bhakti is pleasing to God, etc.

But again, if we only look in one direction, we miss part of the point. The candle is lighting both inside and out. A metaphor is only as good as one of its parts. If there were no value in the human experience of love, there would be no point in apotheosizing a personification of the ideal manifestation of that experience. So the symbol of God most definitely has something to say about the human experience as well. Anyone who denies this is governed by the statement pashyann api na pashyati, “sees but does not see.” Trying to exclude the sexual meaning of Radha-Krishna symbolism is like trying to stop water from flowing downhill.

If we only approach that symbolism from one limited point, or if we exclude other interpretations because they take us to places we are uncomfortable going, then we are better off with another God-symbol. But it is precisely the most sexual aspects of Radha Krishna lila that provide us with the thickest layers of force.

So just to summarize: There is a complementarity between creation and divine reality, not an absolute distinction. God communicates to us through symbols that are intelligible because they are grounded in our experience. These symbols are multidimensional and inherently dialectic in nature, thus making them potentially infinitely rich sources of meaning. The process of understanding God is thus both cumulative and unending, and comes through direct experience of these symbols. This is both an intuitive and a rational process.

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