What is the essential nature of a human being?
What is the nature and purpose of this creation?
What is the purpose of life?
Humanity: Our Place in the Universe
The Central Beliefs of the World’s Religions
by Colin Drake
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[References are not included in these excerpts. The book cites over 200 references.]
From the Chapter, Judaism:
In Judaism consideration is given to the orthodox scriptural view and that of Kabbalah, literally ‘received’ wisdom, which is a mystical path based on a number of Aramaic texts from the late 13th century, which together constitute the Zohar. These were probably composed by the Spanish mystic Moses de Leon, who maintained that they were based on the writings of a famous rabbi from the second century C.E., Simeon bar Yohai.
Kabbalists maintain that this process of purification and achieving perfection is necessary for the soul to finally break out of the cycle of transmigration and eventually return to God. However, there is no hint of this in the Torah which states that man is composed of and returns to dust. As for heaven, where this word occurs in the Torah it can be equated to ‘the heavens’ or the sky/firmament; and ‘the underworld’ (in the Basic English Bible) is translated as ‘grave’ (in the St James Bible) or ‘pit’ (in the New English Bible). There are also passages in the Torah which warn of the dire consequences of disobeying God’s laws, but these are always couched in worldly terms such as plagues, fevers, defeats, famines, desolation and exile. Nowhere are these couched in terms of any after-worldly fate awaiting such ‘sinners’. It is true that later books of the Tanakh have passages that can be read to imply belief in the afterlife, but these could well be due to the influence of Hellenistic ideas in which the afterlife figured prominently. As Rabbi Michael Levin says,
In the Torah there are no explicit references to a “world to come” nor are there any statements referring to an individual judging of souls… Intriguingly by the time you get to the Talmud, approximately 1800 years ago, you find that most of the words used to describe the afterlife come from the Greek … Most Jews in the US – almost 85 per cent – belong to branches of Judaism which do not accept any sort of afterlife.
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From the Chapter, Christianity:
In Christianity consideration is mainly given to fundamentalist Christians who believe in the literal truth of the Bible and to Catholicism which is the most widely adhered to of the various denominations. Christadelphianism is used as an example of a fundamentalist viewpoint, although other fundamentalists may interpret the literal truth of the Bible differently.
The Christadelphian view is of man as a physical being who is animated by ‘the breath of God’ and who dies when this is withdrawn. However, that there is the possibility of resurrection indicates that humans have a personal-essence which survives death, albeit unconsciously, and can be reborn. Quite how or where this ‘essence’ survives is not clear, certainly not in the original body which decomposes after death; maybe in the ‘mind of God’ from which everything is created. This essence is rather like the software (in a computer) which cannot function without its compatible hardware. So this essence, having been ‘stored’ on the death of the original body, can only function in a compatible body which must be reborn on the Day of Judgement. The Catholic view, by comparison, is pure Descartian dualism in which the essence is an immortal soul placed in a physical body which survives and lives independently after the death of that body.
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From the Chapter, Islam:
This chapter will consider orthodox Muslim views based on the Qur’an and those of the Sufis, the mystical arm of Islam. The Sufis comprise many different sects, each with its own practices, all of which have the same aim: that of achieving union with God whilst alive, and this is to be realized by attaining ‘the death of the conventional self’ (fana).
According to the Sufi Jili, man is created in the image of God and the universe is created in the image of man; not only that, but man represents the world-spirit so that when mankind exits from the universe it will perish in the same way that an animal dies when the spirit leaves. Man is made in the image of God so he is unique in creation and has the potential to be the vessel through which the Hidden Treasure might be known, in fact can know itself. This can only occur when man stops identifying himself as a separate individual and realizes his one-ness with the Absolute. In other words, this represents the mystical interpretation of the Godhead and its relationship to humanity. In Sufism, man is considered to be a complete microcosm, a miniature universe, containing all the elements and potential qualities of creation. For him the universe was created, and he was created, to serve God.
Muslims believe that man, as made by God, is pure, free from any ‘original sin’ and is naturally inclined to be righteous and serve God. However, when caught in the snare of superstition, customs, selfish desires and false teachings, he can easily revert to the animal level of greed, lust and selfishness. As to whether man has an immortal soul separate from the body, the Muslim position is not clear. There are many references in the Qur’an to ‘killing souls’, and it is stated quite clearly that ‘every soul shall taste death’ (Q 21 v.35 and 29 v.57). Muslims believe that when one dies, the body is destroyed, but the essence of a person goes into a kind of limbo state of semi-consciousness (barzakh) awaiting the day of resurrection. This is not the same as the Descartian view of the soul as a separate entity, for this ‘essence’ still requires a body which will be provided on the day of resurrection. However, those who are judged the foremost of the foremost transcend this need for a body and achieve ‘union with God Himself in a realm that is beyond comprehension and description.’
This does indicate some kind of spiritual essence which can exist permanently separate from a body, but only when it achieves such purity that it can be reabsorbed back into the Godhead. To indicate this essence Sufis use the word nafs which means breath, life-force, soul, spirit, self, individual substance and pure essence. There are different levels of nafs through which one must pass on the journey to union with the divine such as mineral, vegetable, animal and various levels of human development. This is beautifully illustrated by Rumi, the great Sufi poet, who wrote:
I died as a mineral and became a plant,
I died as a plant and became an animal,
I died as an animal and became a man,
What is there to fear? When have I ever become less by dying?
And as a man I shall die once more to soar
With the blessed Angels, but even from angelhood
I must pass on; Everything perishes save His Face
And when I have given up my angel soul
I shall become that which no mind has ever grasped.
So let me not exist!
For non-existence proclaims in organ tones:
‘From Him we come and to Him we shall return.’
This journey takes place by the purification of the self so that one returns to that original purity of man created in the image of God. The contemporary Turkish Sufi Said Nursi, who is well known for his 5,000 page Epistle of Light collection of commentaries on the Qur’an, has an interesting opinion on the nature of this self as ‘an abstract entity whose sole function is to act as a kind of yardstick against which God’s names (i.e. his attributes) can be measured.’ Through one’s own limited attributes one can extrapolate from them God’s attributes as being similar but on a much vaster cosmic scale. The ‘I’ is a mirror-like device through which one can affirm the existence of and glimpse, the Absolute. It is when one takes the ‘I’ to be a real separate entity, which claims individual ownership of its attributes, that one falls and is cut off from God.
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From the Chapter, Hinduism:
Advaita Vedantists teach that Brahman is the creation, everything in manifestation, as well as being its origin, cause and final dissolution:
The Lord of Love (Brahman ) willed: “Let there be many!”
He who has no form assumed many forms;
He who is infinite appeared finite;
He who is everywhere assumed a place;
He who is all wisdom caused ignorance;
He who is real caused unreality.
It is He who gives reality to all.
Before the universe was created,
Brahman existed as unmanifest.
(Taittiriya Upanishad Part II 6.1-7.1)
This creation occurs in cycles, emanating from the One, expanding until it reaches a certain point, when it contracts back to a point. Then once again creation occurs, expands, and finally contracts back to the One, and so on ad infinitum. This occurs ‘over an incalculable period of time’, and can be likened to a never ending series of ‘big bangs’, expansions, contractions and ‘big crunches’. The reason for this creation is that Brahman wills it: ‘because He likes to; because He is free’, and its purpose is for His enjoyment and play. Also, the unmanifest Brahman wished to behold Himself and by manifesting into ‘the many’ He could achieve this.
Gaudiya Vaishnavas also believe in cyclical creation, with each cycle being a ‘breath of Vishnu’ lasting four billion three hundred million years, and that Krishna created the material world by creating three different energies which assume the form of three different Vishnus. These are the Karanodakasayi Vishnu, mahat-tattwa, the total material energy; Garbodakasayi Vishnu, the energy which creates the many diverse forms; and Kshirodakasayi Vishnu, the Paramatman, which is the all-pervading supersoul ‘who is present even within the atoms’. These three Vishnus are incarnations of Krishna who direct the activities of the material world. The first is the ’cause of all causes and lies in the cosmic causal ocean beyond the highest spiritual world’, who becomes the cause of the universe by glancing towards Maya, Krishna’s inferior energy. The second manifests as Brahma, Vishnu and Siva, which are known as the guna descents of Garbodakasayi Vishnu. Of these, Brahma creates, Vishnu preserves and Siva destroys the material universe. The third (Kshirodakasayi Vishnu) is the supersoul of all beings.
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From the Chapter, Buddhism:
With regard to self-identity, Buddhists maintain that there is no eternal self, soul, or atman: a theory they call anatta, which literally means ‘no atman’. They regard persons as being a combination of physical material form and mental states of feeling, perception, disposition (intentions/volitions) and consciousness. These five are known as the bundle of aggregates (kandhas), each of which combine with the others in a dynamic bundle. This bundle exists moment to moment, with each bundle-moment causing the following bundle-moment. Thus the impression of the continuity of a person is given by a series of instantaneous causally linked person stages (bundle-moments) flowing into each other. At death it is claimed that the bundle of aggregates, except the material form, reconfigures in accordance with karmic causation, unless the person has attained nirvana, in which case no re-birth occurs. The new bundle is then reborn into a material form and circumstances commensurate with the karmic residue of the previous bundle. Thus the Buddhists deny that there is any sort of persisting entity (self) that continues over time. A person appears to exist and continue as a separate entity; but this is an illusion. Just as a river is not in fact a single entity but a continuous flow of water, so a person is a flow of causally linked person stages (bundle-moments).
Mahayana and Tibetan Buddhism have expanded the concept of anatta to that of emptiness, Shunyata:
“Early Buddhism, with its teaching on not-self, or Anatta, taught that there is no such thing as an enduring self or soul… As Buddhism developed the Anatta doctrine was subsumed into something more extensive in which all phenomena were seen to be ’empty’ of self or essence.”
This means that literally everything is empty, like a magical illusion. Or, to put another way, everything is a ‘conceptual construct and has no own-existence, empty of individual primary irreducible existence’. This corresponds with the string theory which says everything is composed of strings of energy vibrating at different frequencies, thus nothing has any intrinsic irreducible existence. The present Dalai Lama states that ‘all phenomena are empty and selfless’ and maintains that this understanding is much more powerful than the mere recognition of anatta, no-self.
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From the Chapter, Ramakrishna – A Living Example:
This chapter is about the Indian saint and mystic Sri Ramakrishna, who was chosen to highlight the themes explored in this book because of his broad range of experience in following many different spiritual paths. Such was his spiritual aptitude that it enabled him to reach the zenith, the culmination, in an amazingly short time, of any practice to which he turned his mind and being. Whereas most mystics struggle along a single path for a whole (some would say more than one) lifetime, often without reaching the ultimate experience obtainable, Sri Ramakrishna was able to complete every path that he tried in less than six months. This makes him particularly useful to study as he followed four of the ten paths previously considered; whereas most anyone else that could have been chosen would have only followed one.
Ramakrishna verified, for him by his own experiences, many diverse Hindu paths, Islam and Christianity. He found that they all lead to at least one of the three aspects of God: the personal in form, the personal without form (the formless with attributes) and the formless without attributes. Indeed many of them led to all three, commencing with a vision of God in form, graduating to communion with the formless God with attributes and culminating in complete union with the formless Absolute. Although he did not practice Buddhism, he held the Buddha in high regard, denying that he was an atheist by remarking:
“He was not an atheist. He simply could not express his inner experience in words. Do you know what Buddha means? It is to become one with Bodha, Pure Intelligence, by meditating on That which is of the nature of pure intelligence; it is to become Pure Intelligence Itself.”
Whilst he did not completely agree with the world-view of any particular path, that of Advaita Vedanta and Sufism being nearest to his own views, he had no doubt that all religious paths, if practiced with sincerity and devotion, lead to God-realization. He admitted that all religions contain superstitions and errors, but maintained that this did not matter if the devotee had a deep yearning for God and said that all of the different names that people use for God denote the same Absolute Reality. He decried sectarianism and religious elitism in any form, for as far as he was concerned ‘each religion is only a path leading to God, as rivers come from different directions and ultimately become one in the ocean.’
Although followers of particular religions may disagree with this and promote the primacy of their own views, they have not had the breadth of spiritual experience of Ramakrishna. It is indeed fortunate that he was born a Hindu, for Hinduism has not, in general, denied the validity of other religions; although followers of particular Hindu paths have tended to promote their own path as the best, or easiest, way to God-realization. Within this Hindu framework Ramakrishna, who had such love of and yearning for God, plus possessing a deep interest in all spiritual paths, was able to thrive. His view was that God provides different paths to suit the many different temperaments, tendencies and states of spiritual development, of humanity, and that no path has pre-eminence over any other. About this he said:
“God Himself has provided different forms of worship. He who is the Lord of the Universe has arranged all these forms to suit different men in different stages of knowledge. The mother cooks different dishes to suit the stomachs of her different children. Suppose she has five children. If there is a fish to cook, she prepares various dishes from it – pilau, pickled fish, fried fish and so on – to suit their different tastes and powers of digestion.”
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From the Chapter, Comparison and Conclusion:
It is interesting to note that Sufism, Kabbalah and Advaita Vedanta all fit into the same categories – coming from God, having an essence which can achieve union with the Godhead and finally merging back into this Godhead. As previously noted it could be posited that this also applies to Buddhism. There are also Christian mystics who have had similar ideas, most notably Dionysius the Areopagite and Meister Eckhart. For Dionysius God was The ‘Hidden Dark’ and ‘The Cause beyond all causes’, who ‘overflows into all of creation’ ; with whom one could achieve union, becoming ‘united, in his better part, to the altogether Unknown’. Meister Eckhart posits an Absolute Godhead with which we can achieve union and about which he said,
“When I enter the ground, the bottom, the stream and the source of the Godhead, no one asks me where I came from or where I have been. No one missed me there, for there even God [the creator] disappears.”
Thus it could be argued that there are mystical streams of all five religions which share the concept of humans as beings that come from, contain an essence of and return to God or The Absolute.
One other topic which has not been systematically studied, but which also affects our world-view and concept of self-identity, is the function of a human being. This has become apparent in many of the paths that have been considered and, whilst linked to the purpose of life, it is not the same thing. For instance, in Advaita Vedanta the function of a human being is as an instrument of Brahman through which He can sense, interact with, experience and enjoy the world, whereas the purpose of life is to realize one’s unity with Brahman.
[References to quotations and ideas are given in the complete volume. They have not been included as part of these excerpts.]
Humanity: Our Place in the Universe, by Colin Drake
E-book is $8 by PayPal. Click her to order and download now.