Agnosticism – A Way to Self-Realisation?

Introduction or Lost without a Guru

“Guru bina gati nahi hoti!”
Without a Guru, there is no speeding up (to Self-realization)!

The closest translation of word ‘Guru’ in English language is ‘Mentor’, especially in the context of this essay. Ideally, a guru lets a student be what one is and impart an impartial and complete knowledge. When the time is right and the student is ready, the guru will prompt the student to question until the doubt’s content.

Given an open learning environment, the iconoclastic intent of such questioning and the richness of their answers that follow, can only be realized by knowing the fact that books like the Katha Upanishads, Bhagwat Gita, Uddhav Gita follow such a format of questions and answers to impart their wisdom.

Incessant questioning is the basis on learning in these books. Incessant questioning and skepticism, which only the agnostics and the scientists are known for.

Such books are good guide for anyone who seeks wisdom. For anyone who seeks wisdom, and not justifications! Before starting any expedition to the world of knowledge, presence of such a guru is essential. I feel such books are ideal for the role of a guru for an agnostic.

In this essay I discuss what I understand is agnosticism. I discuss why I think Vedic rumination promote not just seeking knowledge but also clear understanding of matters. In the end I discuss how all this is comparable to the agnostic ways.

Given, a guru not just gives the push but the direction to the student’s intellect; a better translation of the quote in the start of this eassy, “Guru bina gati nahi hoti,” would be, without a Guru, there is no velocity!

The reason why I revisited this translation will be discussed later in this essay.

Lost in the Personifications

“(Addressing) Earth, Sky, Heavens, ‘Tat’ (that), which is worth varan (to worship, praise, taught and talk about) and from which all was created.
We mediate upon the divine radiance of knowledge.

So guide out intellect towards illumination.”

– Broad translation of the Gayatri Mantra
This Gayatri Matra mentions an entity referred to by the pronoun ‘Tat’, which broadly translates into ‘That’. ‘That’, according to this mantra, is an entity, which deserves our attention and meditative thought.

Hindu traditions have been pretty intense in personification of all that exists in nature and all that is believed to exist beyond it. Hence, the Hindus have innumerable gods. Each one is a personification of an aspect of nature or an element in nature.

In the same spirit, the entity ‘Tat’ has been personified as ‘Prajapati’. It is this personification ‘Prajapati’ and not the pronoun ‘Tat’ that maps to the English term ‘God’. Though this is a subtle difference, but it has a very expansive consequences.

So how does this connect to Agnosticism, one may ask? And how can Agnosticism be a way to ‘Bhrama-Gyan’ (the knowledge possessing which is goal of self-realization)?

Once Bertrand Russell was arrested. In the jail, while filling a form, an officer asked him what his religion was. “Agnostic,” Bertrand Russell replied. The officer was puzzled and is said to have remarked something like, “I guess in the end we all believe in the same God.” Bertrand Russell later said that the remark kept him amused for days to come.

All Indians are taught the same thing since childhood. “In the end, it is the same God we all believe in.” While the religious follow their own interpretation God, the focus has shifted from seeking ‘That’ to seeking various interpretations of ‘That’ as God. As God defined in various beliefs and religions.

Staying agnostic is the only way to keep one’s mind and thought clear of interpretations and to stay focused on understanding ‘That’. Staying agnostic bring us to incessant questioning, seeking and skepticism, which the religiosity or atheism does not.

In the end if we focus on seeking or understanding ‘That’ and ignore the various interpretations, the cacophony of religion and atheism will subside and the focus will shift back to ‘seeking to know’. For is the end ‘That’ is the same. Or maybe not.

Lost without Skepticism

Then was not non-existent nor existent;
there was no air, no sky beyond it.
The gods themselves are later than creation,
so who knows truly whence it has arisen.
Whether That fashioned it or whether That did not,
That who surveys it all from highest heaven,
That knows–or maybe not.

– Rig Ved
Questioning, seeking knowledge and skepticism are the tools and method of an agnostic. There is a sense of wonder for all that is and sense of enquiry for why all that is, is the way it is.

There is a hint of knowing all possible reasons and there is realization of existence of reasons we do not know of yet. There is the belief that one day we will know and there is the doubt that maybe we will not know.

There is a chance that ‘That’ exists. There is an equal chance, that it may not be so. The way the above quote from the Vedas goes, it seems so similar to the ways of an agnostic.

Religion and spirituality have been the most powerful terms in history of humans. Each moment in history, tragic or exuberant, was controlled by human belief and understanding of the above two terms. However, what does religion and spirituality mean?

Spirituality is, when we seek something in our own ways. One may fall, turn back and take another way. Always, the guiding light is inside. One is always a seeker.

Religion is when we dwell the path of other’s telling. When our quest is guided and often controlled by what we are told by books, beliefs or people. One is always a follower and not a seeker. And there, lies the distinction.

The road map for graduating into a standard human being will have to include.

b) religions graduating into spirituality.

– APJ Kalam

Spirituality can be been considered a purer form of religion, just as philosophy is considered a purer form of science. Taking spirituality in even purer form would be being agnostic.

Spirituality, as I had expressed above, is when we seek for something, say ‘That’ and when we dwell on the path as a self-guided and self-driven journey.

Taking it further would mean same passion to find out the truth, without letting the pre-conceived perception of what destination of this journey maybe, cloud your mind. ‘That’ may not be radiant with light of knowledge. ‘That’ may have form we do not understand. Or even, ‘That’ may not be.

With that openness of mind, a seeker may realize not just what or what not ‘That’ is, but, maybe what lies beyond ‘That’ if there does anything. Or maybe the seeker won’t. That is the state of agnosticism.

Lost in Moralities

A confused mind sees a world of multiplicities,
A world of good or bad.
This creates a compulsion to act
Or to refrain from acting,
Depending on what will bring gain
And what will cause loss.
– Uddhav Gita
How much is one ready to challenge one’s sense of decency? One’s Morals? Any one we meet, who claims to be a good human being will have a set of rules to help differentiate between what is right and what is wrong. Any one we meet, who claims to be a broad minded human being will have more than a few examples of people he considers as narrow minded. These standards may be in the form religion, society or personal experiences.

The relativism of such absolute stands is the bane of religion.

How come there are as many Morals as many groups that people can form? Why are some Morals believed to be right and other wrong?

How does an agnostic choose between such morals? Are there Morals ‘Morals’ to be sought and Immoral ‘Morals’ to be dropped? Can a Moral be, in fact, Immoral? Is there something that is universally Moral or Immoral?

An agnostic never takes sides. An agnostic stands in middle, though not with any devious or diplomatic intent. But to stand at a distance and take human nature as it is – full of multiplicities. Stand at a distance and see things as entire one.

Morality has never stood the test of time. What was Immoral once becomes ‘grey area’ between Immoral and Moral and even be accepted as a Moral behavior! An unattached viewer of history and knower of self will never fall for traps of seeing relative and temporal aspects of world in groups of good and evil.

Lost in the Translation

If we have got lost in interpretations of ‘That’ as ‘God’, are there other things that can cause one to stray from the agnostic ways? Especially, if we use books as Vedas and Gita as our gurus?

As a skeptic, I find it hard to believe that the translations (even my own ones) I have quoted from Veds and other ancient text are correct. After all, a translation is a translator’s interpretation. Countless people have fallen victim to this err and end up understanding “wrong” text.

If such books have to be made guru, we have to understand the language and cultural context in which the language exists.

Lost without Purpose

There is a story about a Sufi who called upon Allah all day. He went on like this for a very long time. Then one day, he said, “How long I have been calling and you do not answer!” The he heard a voice reply, “Who do you think has been making you call me?”

Should one believe that if one is looking for something that in itself is a proof that that thing exists? Maybe, it does not exist in the form one is looking for. Or maybe it does.

If we already knew everything, why do we discover so much every day? Religion may have us believe that we are doing it in the wrong way and should do things its way.

However, doing it their way has not yielded the same results yet.

The resilience of science is not that is a fine collection of knowledge but is that science is a method that led to finding of those facts. And this method similar to ‘agnostic seeking’ and self-correction has yielded amazing discovery of nature in form of biology, physics, chemistry and various forms of science.

What if we seek the knowledge of self with the same spirit? Answers to the most basic question all of us one day ask, “why life?” may also lie in the agnostic ways.

Self will not be realized unless we know the answers. An answer does not exist unless a question has been asked. An agnostic is not agnostics till she or he learns to question.

A human cannot be religious unless one has a desire to seek beyond what one comprehends.

A religious person does not become spiritual until she or he question how and why when told things are they way they are given to believe.

A spiritualist does not become an agnostic until she or he wonders why and what is that seek.

And that is the first step towards self-realisation.