Archive for ‘Suddha Sanmargam’

June 13, 2014

Soul-Unity (ஆன்மநேய ஒருமை): A Great Ideal of Suddha Sanmargam (4)

French troops slaughtering Spanish civilians in Goya's painting "The Third of May 1808".

French troops slaughtering Spanish civilians in Goya’s painting “The Third of May 1808″.

Why are some beings indifferent to the sufferings of other beings if there is soul-kinship among all beings?

Ramalingam raises this important question in his great unfinished essay on ஜீவகாருண்ய ஒழுக்கம் or “The Ethic of Compassion for Sentient Beings“.

He answers by pointing out that although soul-kinship is a reality, the central faculty of discernment (Tamil: ஆன்ம அறிவு) of this truth of soul-kinship is obscured or eclipsed by ignorance in some beings. This cardinal ignorance also renders the soul’s associated cognitive instruments of mind, intellect, etc., opaque and unable to reflect the light of the truth of soul-kinship.

Hence, these beings do not recognize soul-kinship, and, consequently, lack compassion for other sentient beings who undergo suffering. From this it follows that those who have compassion possess the faculty of discernment of soul-kinship.

As Ramalingam writes in Tamil in the first part of his essay on compassion for sentient beings:

சீவர்கள் துக்கப் படுகின்றதைக் கண்டபோதும், சிலர் சீவகாருணியமில்லாமல் கடினசித்தர்களாயிருக்கின்றார்கள்;

“Some persons lack compassion and remain unmoved even at the sight of the suffering of other sentient beings.”

இவர்களுக்குச் சகோதர உரிமை இல்லாமற்போவது ஏனெனில்:-

“Why do these persons lack a sense of brotherhood or kinship (with those sentient beings)?”

துக்கப்படுகின்றவரைத் தமது சகோதரரென்றும் துக்கப்படுகின்றாரென்றும் துக்கப்படுவாரென்றும் அறியத்தக்க ஆன்ம அறிவு என்கிற கண்ணானது அஞ்ஞானகாசத்தால் மிகவும் ஒளி மழுங்கினபடியாலும், அவைகளுக்கு உபகாரமாகக் கொண்ட மனம் முதலான உபநயனங்களாகிய கண்ணாடிகளும் பிரகாச பிரதிபலிதமில்லாமல் தடிப்புள்ளவைகளாக இருந்த படியாலும் கண்டறியக் கூடாமையாயிற்று.

“It is because their faculty of soul-knowing (ஆன்ம அறிவு ), the soul’s eye, which can see that another sentient being which is suffering is a brother, or kin, and that it is suffering, or is capable of suffering, is afflicted by the cataract of ignorance, and, consequently, even the spectacles or instruments which facilitate the vision of the soul, e.g., mind, intellect, etc., are rendered opaque and bereft of the capacity to reflect the light of knowledge (of soul-kinship).”

அதனால், சகோதர உரிமையிருந்தும் சீவகாருணியம் உண்டாகாம லிருந்ததென் றறிய வேண்டும்.

“Hence, they lack compassion despite the fact of their brotherhood or kinship with those sentient beings.”

இதனால் சீவகாருணியமுள்ளவர் ஆன்ம திருஷ்டி விளக்கமுள்ளவரென்றறியப்படும்.” (ஜீவகாருண்ய ஒழுக்கம், முதற் பிரிவு)

“From this, it should be known that those who have compassion possess the clarity of vision of the soul’s eye of discernment, or soul-knowing.”

Thus, in Ramalingam’s analysis, there is fundamentally an epistemic or cognitive deficiency, the eclipse of the soul’s central faculty of discernment (ஆன்ம அறிவு), which is responsible for the absence of compassion in the face of suffering experienced by other sentient beings.

In a Socratic vein, Ramalingam holds that the cardinal vice of absence of compassion is due to lack of knowledge of the truth of soul-kinship.

But if each soul has this faculty of discernment which enables it to recognize soul-kinship with another sentient being, why does this faculty get obscured, eclipsed, or atrophied, due to ignorance, in some souls or beings? In other words, why  are some beings afflicted by this ignorance of their soul-kinship with other sentient beings?

To answer this question, we must turn to the concept of āṇavam (Tamil: ஆணவம்), or egoism in the Tamil Saiva Siddhanta tradition.

Although he had a deep knowledge of it, Ramalingam was not an adherent or practitioner of the Tamil Saiva Siddhanta philosophical tradition. But he does affirm some of its metaphysical claims.

A central metaphysical claim of this tradition is that all unenlightened souls or pašu (Tamil: பசு) are fettered by the three cords of bondage or pācam (Tamil: பாசம்): ஆணவம் or āṇavam (egoism), கன்மம் or kaṉmam (karma, causality), and மாயை or māyai (matter, the “stuff” of our bodies and cosmos).

Ramalingam affirms this claim in his definition of the unenlightened soul or pašu (பசு) in his “Ethic of Compassion for Sentient Beings”.

Aṇavam is the primordial impurity (Tamil:ஆணவமலம்) which taints every individual soul in the form of a potentiality. It is manifested in terms of a tendency toward a separate, selfish, and exclusive existence. It leads to an eclipse of a soul’s ability to recognize soul-kinship.

As a consequence, there is an exacerbation of the division between self and the other. This division further paves the way to opposition, conflict, enmity, domination, and oppression in its relations with other beings and the inevitable chain reactions of Karma which assail the soul.

Thus, we can only explain the absence of compassion in some beings in terms of their ignorance of soul-kinship. Their ignorance of soul-kinship, in its turn, is explained by their longstanding choice of cultivation of the separative and exclusive tendencies of āṇavam or egoism and their subjection to the inevitable karma or consequences of these egoistic tendencies.

Hence, to recover and develop this knowledge of soul-unity or soul-kinship we must reverse the process of ignorance in question by weakening the tendencies of āṇavam or egoism and cultivating empathy and compassion.

It is interesting to note that Wang Yang-Ming also holds the view that the innate sense of unity with all things, the innate knowledge that the myriad things form “one body”, can be 0bscured by selfish desires, a manifestation of āṇavam, and that this obscuration can lead to cruelty against others:

“This means that even the mind of the small man necessarily has the humanity that forms one body with all. Such a mind is rooted in his Heaven-endowed nature, and is naturally intelligent, clear, and not beclouded. For this reason it is called the “clear character.”

Although the mind of the small man is divided and narrow, yet his humanity that forms one body can remain free from darkness to this degree. This is due to the fact that his mind has not yet been aroused by desires and obscured by selfishness.

When it is aroused by desires and obscured by selfishness, compelled by greed for gain and fear of harm, and stirred by anger, he will destroy things, kill members of his own species, and will do everything.

In extreme cases he will even slaughter his own brothers, and the humanity that forms one body will disappear completely.

Hence, if it is not obscured by selfish desires, even the mind of the small man has the humanity that forms one body with all as does the mind of the great man. As soon as it is obscured by selfish desires, even the mind of the great man will be divided and narrow like that of the small man.

The learning of the great man consists entirely in getting rid of the obscuration of selfish desires in order by his own efforts to make manifest his clear character, so as to restore the condition of forming one body with Heaven, Earth, and the myriad things, a condition that is originally so, that is all.” ( “An Inquiry on the Great Learning,” in A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy, translated and compiled by Wing-Tsit Chan [Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1963], pp. 659-660.)

There is an interesting objection to Ramalingam’s argument that discernment of soul-kinship is the basis of compassion and that, therefore, lack of compassion is due to the lack of discernment of soul-kinship.

This objection points to those who do not subscribe to the notion that there is a soul, not to mention soul-kinship, but who are, nevertheless, compassionate.

Does the existence of these sorts of compassionate persons refute Ramalingam’s argument linking compassion and discernment of soul-kinship?

The answer to this objection must first clarify what Ramalingam means by “discernment of soul-kinship”. This discernment is a function of a cognitive faculty (Tamil: ஆன்ம அறிவு) possessed by a soul. The Tamil term used by Ramalingam to refer to this faculty means “soul-knowing” or “soul-discernment”.

What sort of knowledge is discernment of soul-kinship?

It is the knowledge that other sentient beings, regardless of their physical forms or bodies, are, nevertheless, beings similar to me in that they can suffer and be subjected to various types of harm, or flourish, in the way I can. It is the knowledge that other sentient beings are selves, or subjects of experiences, and agents with varying capacities for action, in the way I am.

It is also the knowledge that by virtue of these similarities, a bond, or relation, or kinship, exists among us and that, as a consequence, I have an obligation to provide assistance or relief to these sentient beings if I know that they are undergoing suffering or harm and possess the capacity to alleviate their suffering or harm.

(I would add, in this context, that all scientific knowledge of the similarities and common origin of sentient beings can facilitate the discernment of their soul-kinship.)

Now, it cannot be denied that compassion is constituted by an empathetic understanding of the nature and predicament of another sentient being, an understanding which has all the elements of Ramalingam’s concept of discernment of soul-kinship.

Therefore, those who are compassionate possess this type of empathetic understanding of other sentient beings, or discernment of soul-kinship, and it does not matter whether they actually use the concept of soul-kinship and its discernment in describing their understanding. Regardless of the vocabulary employed by these compassionate persons to describe the elements of their empathetic understanding, it is tantamount to a discernment of soul-kinship.



June 12, 2014

Soul-Unity (ஆன்மநேய ஒருமை): A Great Ideal of Suddha Sanmargam (3)

Chidambaram Ramalingam
May All Beings Attain Bliss and Flourish!

Another figure in the history of ethics whose evocative reflections on compassion and its metaphysical basis merit comparison with Ramalingam’s views on the subject is Wang Yang-Ming 王阳明 (1472 – 1529 C.E.) a great Chinese thinker and sage.

Wang Yangming 王阳明 (1472 - 1529 C.E.)

Wang Yang-Ming 王阳明 (1472 – 1529 C.E.)

Wang Yang-Ming’s central claim is that a sense of unity with all things, based on the understanding that all things constitute “one body” or a unified whole, is innate in our consciousness.

The “great man”, or a wise person who has curbed selfish desires, spontaneously regards “Heaven and Earth and the myriad things as one body“, but even the mind of the “small man”, or a person lacking in wisdom due to indulgence in selfish desires, is no different in this respect because it retains the same innate sense of the unity of all things, or the understanding that all things form “one body”.

Wang Yang-Ming finds evidence of this innate sense of unity with all things, springing from the understanding that the myriad things form “one body” or a unified whole, in the spontaneous manifestations of compassion even in the minds of “small men”.

Thus, even the mind of the “small man” is spontaneously overcome by concern and compassion when he sees a child about to fall into a well.

Is this compassion simply due to the fact that he realizes that the child is also a human being like him?

Wang Yang-Ming denies that this spontaneous compassion has anything to do with the fact that both of them belong to the same human species. He points out that even the mind of the “small man” is spontaneously overcome by concern and compassion when he observes the “pitiful cries and frightened appearance of birds and animals about to be slaughtered”, despite the fact that these belong to a different species.

In this context, I should point out a striking difference between Wang Yang-Ming and Ramalingam.

Wang Yang-Ming, despite his acknowledgement of the suffering of animals in the slaughterhouse and his emphasis on kindness toward them, thought that it was still morally permissible to kill them for food and for sacrificial purposes. As he put it, in the context of a discussion of priority of actions:

Animals and men alike should be loved, yet it is proper under certain circumstances to kill animals, especially for parents, guests, and as sacrificial offerings.”

Ramalingam, in contrast, holds uncompromisingly that it is morally wrong to kill animals for food and strongly condemns the sacrifice of animals for religious and ritualistic purposes.

Is this compassion simply due to the fact that he realizes that these birds and animals are also sentient beings similar in some ways to him?

Wang Yang-Ming denies that this spontaneous compassion has anything to do with the fact that the birds and animals are also sentient beings similar in some ways to the “small man”. He points out that even the mind of the “small man” is spontaneously overcome by concern and compassion when he sees “plants broken and destroyed”, despite the fact that these are not sentient beings similar to him.

Is this compassion simply due to the fact that plants also have life in just the way he does?

Wang Yang-Ming now takes the radical step of denying that this spontaneous compassion has anything to do with the fact that the “small man” shares the property of life with the plants. He points out that even the mind of the “small man” is spontaneously overcome by regret when he sees “tiles and stones shattered and crushed”, despite the fact that these are inanimate things.

What, then, is the origin of the spontaneous concern and compassion which arise even in the mind of the “small man” at the sight of a child about to fall into a well, the pitiful cries and frightened appearance of birds and animals about to be slaughtered, plants broken and destroyed, and tiles and stones shattered and crushed?

Wang Yang-Ming answers that the origin of the spontaneous concern and compassion even in the mind of a “small man” lies in the fact that his humanity forms “one body” with the child, birds and animals, plants, and tiles and stones. Indeed, it lies in the fact that his humanity forms “one body” with all things.

Here is the relevant and stirring passage from the Inquiry On The Great Learning:

“Master Wang said: The great man regards Heaven and Earth and the myriad things as one body. He regards the world as one family and the country as one person. As to those who make a cleavage between objects and distinguish between the self and others, they are small men.

That the great man can regard Heaven, Earth, and the myriad things as one body is not because he deliberately wants to do so, but because it is natural to the humane nature of his mind that he do so.

Forming one body with Heaven, Earth, and the myriad things is not only true of the great man. Even the mind of the small man is no different. Only he himself makes it small.

Therefore when he sees a child about to fall into a well, he cannot help a feeling of alarm and commiseration. This shows that his humanity forms one body with the child. It may be objected that the child belongs to the same species. Again, when he observes the pitiful cries and frightened appearance of birds and animals about to be slaughtered, he cannot help feeling an “inability to bear” their suffering. This shows that his humanity forms one body with birds and animals. It may be objected that birds and animals are sentient beings as he is. But when he sees plants broken and destroyed, he cannot help a feeling of pity. This shows that his humanity forms one body with plants. It may be said that plants are living things as he is. Yet even when he sees tiles and stones shattered and crushed, he cannot help a feeling of regret.

This means that even the mind of the small man necessarily has the humanity that forms one body with all.” (A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy, trans. Wing-Tsit Chan, Princeton University Press, 1963, pp. 659-660)

The key concept here is that of a person’s “humanity” forming “one body” with all things. What could this possibly mean? What could it mean in the context of the quoted passage?

Is it a precursor of  Schopenhauer’s reference to “that respect in which we are all one and the same entity“? It seems to be, particularly given Wang Yang-Ming’s disparagement of those who “make a cleavage between objects and distinguish between self and others” in the passage quoted earlier.

This would mean that Wang Yang-Ming is essentially affirming metaphysical monism in making his claim that the myriad things constitute “one body”. But there is also a suggestion that the “great man” recognizes the kinship underlying diversity in that he “regards the world as one family“.

If we substitute Ramalingam’s concept of soul-kinship for Wang Yang-Ming’s obscure concept of a person’s “humanity” forming “one body with all things”, we can make sense of the fact that even a “small man” spontaneously feels concern and compassion for a child about to fall into a well, birds and animals about to be slaughtered, broken plants, etc.

Even the “small man”, one who is immersed in selfish desires, has an innate sense of soul-kinship with other sentient beings and this sense spontaneously expresses itself in terms of concern and compassion at the sight of another sentient being undergoing, or about to undergo, suffering, harm, or destruction.

But soul-kinship presupposes the existence of souls, the bearers of sentience and consciousness, and implies a relation among them.

How, then, can we make sense of Wang Yang-Ming’s  inclusion of inanimate objects in the range of a person’s “humanity” or scope of concern and compassion? What sort of kinship can there be between a sentient and conscious being and an inanimate object?

Wang Yang-Ming actually mentions “regret” and not “compassion” in writing about the response of the “small man” at the sight of shattered and crushed tiles and stones. But, contrary to Wang Yang-Ming, it is not clear that such regret pertains to the fate of the tiles and stones per se.

We may regret the destruction of a rock because we think this has adverse consequences for the environment or for the creatures who use the rock, or the protected surface beneath it, as a habitation. We may also regret the destruction of a rock for aesthetic reasons. It may diminish the aesthetic quality of the landscape.

Rocks in Ryōan-ji (late 15th century) in Kyoto, Japan, a famous example of a zen garden

Rocks in Ryōan-ji (late 15th century) in Kyoto, Japan, a famous example of a Zen garden

But do we, or can we, really regret the destruction of a rock simply for the sake of the rock? I don’t think so.

Rocks do not have any interests. Therefore, they cannot be harmed. They are not sentient. Hence, they cannot suffer. Therefore, there is no question of feeling any compassion for a rock.

But, certainly, as acknowledged earlier, we can be concerned about the impact of the destruction of a rock on sentient beings in a given environment.

Israeli Demolition of 2 apartment home of the Palestinian 8-member Idris family, their relative, her husband and their two children (Beit Hanina, 2014)

Israeli Demolition of 2 apartment home of the Palestinian 8-member Idris family, their relative, her husband and their two children (Beit Hanina, 2014)

When we see houses or other structures made of tiles and stones, or other materials, destroyed in a war, or in an Israeli-style criminal campaign of demolitions (of Palestinian homes), we can feel regret for various sensible reasons: reasons pertaining to the waste of valuable labor expended in constructing the houses, reasons pertaining to the risk of death or grievous bodily injury faced by people who were living in those houses at the time of their destruction, reasons pertaining to the homelessness of the former inhabitants of the houses, reasons pertaining to the historical, sociocultural, and/or aesthetic value of those houses or structures, and so forth. But this list does not include any intrinsic concern for those houses or structures, or concern purely for the sake of the houses or structures.

Hence, I think that the limits of sentience constitute the limits of compassion and its basis of soul-kinship. There is no question of the inclusion of inanimate objects in the range of soul-kinship or compassion.

Therefore, contrary to Wang Yang-Ming’s approach, Ramalingam does not include insentient objects in the scope of soul-kinship and compassion.

In his ethic of compassion, the proper use of insentient objects such as rocks is largely a function of their role in preventing or alleviating the suffering of sentient beings.

Thus, destruction of insentient objects is permissible as a means to prevent or alleviate the suffering of sentient beings, e.g., it is permissible and praiseworthy to destroy a rock to prevent it from crushing a tree, or another sentient being.





June 10, 2014

Soul-Unity (ஆன்மநேய ஒருமை): A Great Ideal of Suddha Sanmargam (2)

Chidambaram Ramalingam
May All Beings Attain Bliss and Flourish!

In the previous post, I pointed out the crucial distinction between the claim of soul-unity based on soul-kinship and the claim of soul-identity or oneness of souls. I argued that, unlike Ramalingam’s claim of soul-unity based on soul-kinship, the claim of identity or oneness of a plurality of souls or individuals is incoherent since it implies both a denial of plurality of souls and an acknowledgment that a plurality of souls perceive the appearance of plurality and/or discern the underlying reality of oneness.

In his great unfinished essay on “The Ethic of Compassion for Sentient Beings“, written in eloquent and moving Tamil prose in the mid-1860’s and first published in 1879, five years after his disappearance, Ramalingam argues that soul-kinship is the basis of compassion. The intuitive discernment of the fact that another sentient being subject to suffering is one’s soul-kin and soul-kind underlies all compassion.

Soul-kinship makes it possible for an agent not only to empathize with a being who is suffering, but also to make the alleviation of the suffering of that being the main motive of the agent’s action. Otherwise, it remains a mystery why anyone would be moved by a total stranger’s suffering, or the suffering of distant peoples, or even an animal’s suffering, and make it their main motive or purpose to alleviate that suffering.

Ramalingam, therefore, holds that any manifestation of compassion is not only evidence that an underlying soul-kinship exists, but also that the person who feels compassion possesses moral and spiritual discernment of the underlying reality of soul-kinship.

In just the way knowledge of bodily or biological kinship is the basis of  concern for and empathy with the suffering of a brother or sister, a soul’s intuitive knowledge of soul-kinship with another sentient being, regardless of whether this being is a stranger, or even a member of another species, is the basis of compassion for that being.

In the Western tradition of philosophy, the great German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (1788 – 1860) whose seminal work in ethics, titled “On The Basis of Morality”, first published in 1840 when Ramalingam was only seventeen years old, offered important and radical reflections on compassion.

Indeed, Schopenhauer tried to show that compassion is the basis of morality.  Ramalingam, living in the city of Madras (now Chennai) in India in 1840, could not have known about Schopenhauer’s work, but he would later affirm the same truth that ethical conduct has its foundation in compassion in his essay on the ethic of compassion.

Arthur Schopenhauer (1788 - 1860) Portrait by Jules Lunteschütz

Arthur Schopenhauer (1788 – 1860) Portrait by Jules Lunteschütz

Schopenhauer points out that compassion is a puzzling psychological fact. Compassion has for its sole object the alleviation of the suffering of another. It involves empathy or the ability to feel the bite or weight of another being’s suffering. Schopenhauer is puzzled by this and asks:

But now how is it possible for a suffering which is not mine and does not touch me to become just as directly a motive as only my own normally does, and to move me to action?” (On The Basis of Morality, trans. E. F. J. Payne, Berghahn Books, p. 165)

Schopenhauer goes on to observe that in a state of compassion for another who is suffering,

…I share the suffering in him, in spite of the fact that his skin does not enclose my nerves. Only in this way can his woe, his distress, become a motive for me…I repeat that this occurrence is mysterious, for it is something our faculty of reason can give no direct account of, and its grounds cannot be discovered on the path of experience.” (On The Basis of Morality, trans. E. F. J. Payne, Berghahn Books, p. 165)

If Schopenhauer is correct in his claim that the “grounds” or basis of compassion “cannot be discovered on the path of experience”, or, in other words, cannot be explained in terms of empirical factors, then this implies that the moral and psychological phenomenon of compassion poses a serious problem for Darwinian or evolutionary approaches to ethics and human psychology.

Schopenhauer argues that compassion presupposes an identification with the person who is suffering and that this implies a temporary abolition or suspension of the “barrier between the ego and non-ego”. (ibid., p. 165)

In holding this view, he seems to be affirming that compassion presupposes a metaphysical identity or oneness of the agent who feels compassion and the person or being the agent feels compassion for.

Indeed, in the section “On The Metaphysical Explanation“, he explicitly upholds that

“…plurality and diversity of individuals are mere phenomenon, that is, exist only in my representation.  My true inner being exists in every living thing…we are all one and the same entity.” (ibid., pp. 210-211)

The problem here is not only the incoherence of the concept of metaphysical identity or oneness of the observer who feels compassion and the victim who is suffering, but also the issue of how we can distinguish between compassion and self-pity on the basis of this alleged foundation of metaphysical oneness or identity of observer and victim.

If I am actually one with the other, then his or her suffering is actually my own suffering. This also implies that in feeling compassion for the other, I am actually feeling compassion for myself. This turns compassion into an exercise in self-pity.

Schopenhauer praises compassion as the very paradigm of the ethical particularly for the reason that it is directed toward the recognition of another being’s woe and the alleviation of that woe, but his affirmation of metaphysical identity or oneness undermines this moral status of compassion and reduces it to an egoistic exercise in  self-pity on a grand metaphysical scale!

Far from explaining compassion, his monistic metaphysical theory explains it away by reducing it to self-pity.

Further, Schopenhauer’s correct view of compassion, i.e., that it is solely directed toward the recognition and alleviation of another being’s woe, obviously implies that his metaphysical theory of identity or oneness of all individuals must be false! Compassion requires not only the recognition of the reality of the other, and, by implication, the reality of the distinction between the self and the other, but also the reality of the suffering experienced by the other.

Schopenhauer’s confusion is evident from the fact that in another passage in the same work he disavows this metaphysical identity or oneness and argues that the observer who feels compassion is still conscious of the difference between the self and the other who is suffering.

The Italian moral philosopher Ubaldo Cassina (1736 – 1824) had argued in his Saggio analitico sulla compassione (Analytical Essay on Compassion) published in 1788 that compassion is a function of a deception or delusion of the imagination in that the observer feels that he is actually undergoing in his own person the suffering of the victim. Since this cannot be real, compassion is based on a delusive state of empathetic identification with the victim.

Schopenhauer rejects Cassina’s analysis of compassion on the grounds that compassion does not abrogate the distinction between the observer’s awareness of his own condition and the victim’s state of suffering. He points out that contrary to Cassina’s claim,

…at every moment we remain clearly conscious that he is the sufferer, not we; and it is precisely in his person, not in ours, that we feel the suffering, to our grief and sorrow. We suffer with him and hence in him; we feel his pain as his, and do not imagine that it is ours.” (On The Basis Of Morality, trans. E.F. J. Payne, Berghahn Books, p. 147)

I think that the metaphysical linchpin of compassion Schopenhauer is searching for is provided by Ramalingam’s concept of soul-kinship.

As I pointed earlier, Ramalingam’s concept of soul-kinship avoids the incoherence of metaphysical identity or oneness of individuals and provides a basis for empathy and compassion.

Kinship presupposes a distinction between the self and the other, but it also implies a close bond or relation between the self and other which explains empathy, compassion, and a sense of unity with someone who is kin.

Hence, Ramalingam’s concept of soul-kinship is the key to the resolution of Schopenhauer’s confusion on the metaphysical basis of compassion.




June 2, 2014

Soul-Unity (ஆன்மநேய ஒருமை): A Great Ideal of Suddha Sanmargam (1)

17th-century depiction of the Tree of Life in the Palace of Shaki Khans, Azerbaijan

17th-century depiction of the Tree of Life in the Palace of Shaki Khans, Azerbaijan

Ramalingam has said that the realization and practice of soul-unity (ஆன்மநேய  ஒருமை) or the kinship and unity of all sentient beings based on our essential and fundamental status as embodied souls and living beings, regardless of the form of embodiment or form of body, is the central and foundational value and ideal of Suddha Sanmargam.

Each individual sentient being is a soul. Evidently, soul-unity and kinship presuppose the existence of a plurality of souls.

What, then, is a soul?

According to Ramalingam, souls are subjects, i.e., bearers of experiences and qualities, and agents, i.e., intentional doers, essentially characterized by consciousness and its attributes, e.g., self-consciousness, volition, intelligence, cognition, affect, and action.

A soul is the locus and bearer of all the attributes of consciousness and of the “personality” of an individual. It is also the “renter” of the body in which it dwells, a body formed by Arutperumjothi to enable that soul to lead a sentient life and manifest and develop its potentialities.

Souls are innumerable. They become embodied, and, consequently, identify and interact with various types of bodies made of material constituents, but they are always distinct and different from those material bodies.

In Ramalingam’s view, material bodies are created and perishable, but souls are uncreated, and, hence, eternal.  It follows that the destruction of the body does not involve the destruction of the indwelling soul.

Material bodies inherently lack consciousness, intelligence, volition, affect, and intentional action, but souls essentially possess these properties.

Material bodies are complex and divisible. Souls are simple and indivisible.

Ramalingam holds that all souls are potentially the finite loci of the manifestation or expression of the boundless compassion of Arutperumjothi, the ultimate being.

All compassion expressed by individuals is a finite and partial manifestation, instantiation, or reflection of the boundless compassion of Arutperumjothi. Hence, the manifestation or expression of the latter is in proportion to the development of compassion in the individual soul.

As an individual soul grows in its capacity for compassion and knowledge of soul-kinship, it also grows to participate in the boundless compassion of Arutperumjothi.

As Ramalingam sings in his magnum opus Arutperumjothi Agaval:

எங்கே கருணை யியற்கையி னுள்ளன
அங்கே விளங்கிய வருட்பெருஞ் சிவமே!

(Agaval 961-962)

Where there is compassion in nature,

there is the lustre

of the boundless light

of pure intelligence and goodness!” (Trans. Thill Raghu)

However, due to the influence of Anavam (Tamil: ஆணவம்) or egoism, a potentiality of individual consciousness which constitutes the disposition to self-assertion and a separate and exclusive existence, souls become immersed in a dark and endless abyss of ignorance of the existence of Arutperumjothi and of their own original nature.

As a consequence, they are also subject to an occlusion, obscuration, or veiling of their essential properties of consciousness, intelligence, volition, cognition, affect, and action.

These shared essential attributes, or shared original nature, and the shared predicament of all souls constitute their kinship in just the way shared genes, features, predicament, and common origin constitute the kinship of all sentient bodies.

The kinship of all living bodies at the fundamental biological level is but a reflection of the kinship of souls which are embodied in them.

Arutperumjothi’s boundless compassion makes possible the gradual and law-governed emancipation of souls from this abyss of ignorance by means of successive forms of embodiment, i.e., a process of rebirth or reincarnation, which enable the development and expression of the latent properties and capacities of souls, e.g., intelligence, cognition, affect, volition, action, etc.

This process of emancipation is law-governed in the sense that it is shaped by causality, the essential nature of things, and the actions (karma) of the souls. It inevitably involves subjection to the law-governed processes of birth, death, and rebirth and their attendant sufferings.

But it is ultimately and irrevocably directed toward and culminates in the emergence of conditions, e.g., embodiment in human form, which make possible a unitive experience and knowledge of Arutperumjothi and the attainment of Siddhi or Adepthood, a form of individual existence free from ignorance, death, suffering, and other limitations.

Therefore, enlightenment or liberation from ignorance by means of attainment of unitive experience and knowledge of Arutperumjothi is the ultimate purpose of sentient and conscious existence, in whatever form, and the “meaning” of the cosmos from whose womb it is born.

This does not imply that any sentient body affords an equal opportunity for the indwelling soul to attain enlightenment.

Ramalingam affirms a gradation of sentient bodies and accords a special status to the human body because this type of body with its advanced capabilities of  manifesting and developing a soul’s potentialites affords a rare opportunity to attain enlightenment.

All the same, embodiment in each type of sentient body makes its own contribution to the development and expression of the potentialities of consciousness, cognition, volition, affect, and action in the indwelling soul.

Soul-unity based on kinship of souls must be carefully distinguished from incoherent monistic metaphysical claims of identity or oneness. Ramalingam accepts the reality of plurality and diversity of souls, a diversity based on their different patterns of karma.

The monistic metaphysical claim of identity or oneness of souls is incoherent because it violates the law of identity which implies that each individual being or soul is what it is and not identical to another.

The claim that “All souls are one” is incoherent in just the way “All individuals are one” is incoherent. These claims identify or pick out a plurality of individuals and at the same time deny that plurality.

Should we rather construe these claims as asserting that plurality is an appearance and oneness or identity is the reality underlying that appearance?

If so, two questions arise: “To whom is it apparent that there is a plurality of individuals?” and “Who discerns the reality of oneness underlying the appearance of plurality?”.

Inevitably, the answers to these questions must refer to, or imply, a plurality of individuals who perceive the appearance of plurality and are subject to the ignorance of the underlying oneness, or a plurality of  individuals who discern the underlying reality of oneness, and, consequently, render the denial of plurality and assertion of oneness or identity incoherent.

I will continue to explore Ramalingam’s views on soul-unity and its realization and practice in my next post.



March 3, 2014

A Rare Reminiscence On Ramalingam (2)

An old photograph of Sathiya Gnana Sabhai (Hall of Truth-Knowledge) in its original appearance

Note: TVM’s reminiscences are in block quotes. My comments and corrections are in italics.

In the year 1867, he founded a Society, under the name of “Sumarasa Veda Sanmarga Sungham,” which means a society based on the principle of Universal Brotherhood, and for the propagation of the true Vedic doctrine. I need hardly remark that these principles are identically those of the Theosophical Society.”

TVM’s claim that the principles of Suddha Sanmargam  are “identically those of the Theosophical Society” is a dubious one.

For instance, association with those who embody or practice the spiritual virtues of dedication to the pursuit of realizing ultimate reality, sincerity in speech, compassion, etc., is indispensable on the path of Suddha Sanmargam, but, in contrast to Theosophy,  Suddha Sanmargam has no pantheon and cult of the “Masters”, or dependence on the “Masters” to bring about one’s enlightenment.

Ramalingam was not part of any “lineage” of Gurus and did not start one. He did not anoint anyone as his disciple to continue a lineage. He rejected the role of the “Guru” or “Master” which many of his associates eagerly sought to impose on him.  He dissuaded his associates from focusing on him and encouraged them to concentrate on the practice of Suddha Sanmargam and the realization of ARUTPERUMJOTHI.

Ramalingam recommended rigorous spiritual inquiry and practice, either individually and/or in a group or community, but he never advocated that a seeker must find a “Guru” or “Master”, an intermediary, human or divine, in order to attain  unitive experience and realization of the ultimate reality ARUTPERUMJOTHI. Rather, on the path of Suddha Sanmargam, the ultimate and supreme being, Arutperumjothi, is itself the Guru or teacher nonpareil.

Ramalingam had no “Guru” other than ARUTPERUMJOTHI. It is noteworthy that there are sixteen exquisite verses in his magum opus Agaval which celebrate ARUTPERUMJOTHI’s role as his supreme Guru or teacher. I will discuss these verses in a future post.

“In the year 1867, he founded a Society, under the name of “Sumarasa Veda Sanmarga Sungham,” which means a society based on the principle of Universal Brotherhood, and for the propagation of the true Vedic doctrine”.

It is important to note that TVM fails to mention that Ramalingam changed the name of the spiritual path and Order he founded in 1867 to better reflect its principles and goals.

Initially, it had the name “Samarasa Veda Sanmarga Sangam” (Tamil: சமரச வேத சன்மார்க சங்கம்) and included the word “Veda” signifying, in this context, knowledge or realization of  two central facets of  Samarasam (Tamil:சமரசம்), unity and harmony.

Ramalingam later adopted the name “Samarasa Suddha Sanmarga Sangam” (சமரச சுத்த சன்மார்க சங்கம்).  As we shall see later, this change of name and the removal of “Veda” from it  is deeply significant.

The ideal of Samarasam (சமரசம்) held a central place in the visionary philosophy of the great  17th century (some unreliable accounts place him in the 18th century) Tamil mystic and poet Thayumanavar (தாயுமானவர், 1602 – 1662).

A Poem Of Thayumanavar (17th century Tamil mystic and poet)
Eternal, pure, groundless, death-and-birth free, pervasive, ever immaculate, distant, near, enveloping effulgence of void, the support of all, the fullness of bliss, the consciousness-form beyond thought and speech, That which thus stood, the expanse vast that generates bliss, let us contemplate.”

Thayumanavar’s ideal of Samarasam, the realization of unity and harmony underlying apparent diversity and conflict of doctrines on the nature of ultimate reality, was his solution to the philosophical conflict between the Vedanta, i.e., primarily the non-dualist (advaita) approach, and the theistic Tamil Saiva Siddhanta schools of thought, and, generally, religious conflict based on doctrinal differences on the nature of ultimate reality.

Thayumanavar implemented his solution in terms of a remarkable integration of  the approaches of Vedanta and the Tamil Saiva Siddhanta (Vedanta Siddhanta Samarasam) to the nature of  ultimate reality and its relation to the self.

Thayumanavar’s project of integration was not merely an intellectual and obscurantist “dialectical” exercise a la Hegel, but the expression of  a deep and comprehensive experience and realization of the truth that the facets of ultimate reality exclusively emphasized by (Advaita) Vedanta and Saiva Siddhanta are complementary facets of one reality.

In contrast, Ramalingam’s ideal of Samarasam is a state of unity and harmony based on the transcendence of the conflicting doctrines, ideals, and values rather than any form of synthesis and integration of those doctrines, ideals, and values. In its moral dimension, it also includes a sense of unity and kinship with all sentient beings regardless of their differences and diverse mutual relations.

In other words, the conflict engendered by the relevant doctrinal or theological propositions “A” and “Not A”, in this context, is not resolved by synthesis, but dissolved by transcending and relinquishing adherence to them.

The transcendence of partial, exclusive, and conflicting  standpoints which constitutes the ideal of Samarasam in Suddha Sanmargam is the attainment of a level of consciousness in which there is no partial, fragmentary, and incomplete understanding of ultimate reality and its relation to the world. Therefore, there is no attempt to “synthesize” the diverse and conflicting partial and fragmented forms of understanding and expression of the nature of ultimate reality.

Since the division and conflict of doctrines, ideals, and values is a function of partial, fragmentary, and incomplete understanding of ultimate reality and its relation to the world,  detachment or the withdrawal of any form of adherence to such doctrines, ideals, and values, e.g., the prevalent religions and their theologies, is a sine qua non of attaining the ideal of Samarasam in Suddha Sanmargam.

Hence, on the path of Suddha Sanmargam, no importance is accorded to the synthesis and integration of the conflicting partial, fragmentary, and incomplete doctrines, values, and ideals.

I think that Ramalingam removed the word “Veda” from the earlier name of his society because of its inveterate association with the Vedic tradition of India, a tradition rooted in the four Vedas or “sacred scriptures”, Rig, Yajur, Sama, and Atharva Veda.

Ramalingam never had any allegiance to this Vedic tradition. He had rejected it even in the early stages of his spiritual quest. His total rejection of the caste system implies a complete rejection of Vedic justifications of the caste system.

There are many verses in his Agaval which declare that Arutperumjothi is beyond the range of the conjectures of the Vedas and Agamas. In his later writings and discourses, Ramalingam firmly advised against following the false dogmas, rituals, and divisive social codes of the Vedas and Agamas.

Ramalingam’s central reason for his rejection of the Vedas and Agamas pertains to the fact that their extant corpus is vitiated by an admixture of truths and falsehoods and obscurantism. He acknowledged that there were glimpses, in the vast corpus of the Vedas and Agamas, of the true way to the realization of ultimate reality, but that these rare glimpses are marred by partial understanding, distortions, perversions, and obscurity of language.

The term “Sanmargam” (சன்மார்க்கம்,  caṉ-mārkkam) also requires clarification. It is the path of wisdom culminating in enlightenment, liberation, and adepthood. The prefix “Suddham” (Tamil:சுத்தம்) means “pure” and also “complete or whole”.

Hence, Suddha Sanmargam is the pure and complete path of wisdom leading to enlightenment, liberation, and adepthood.

The great Tamil classic of yoga, the Thirumandiram (800 CE), gives us a description of the path of Sanmargam in eleven verses (1477 – 1487)  in its fifth book or “tantra”.

However, we must bear in mind that the path of Sanmargam described in this work is not necessarily identical to the path of Suddha Sanmargam (pure Sanmargam) envisaged by Ramalingam.

The Thirumandiram contains nine “tantras” or “books”. According to the fifth book or “tantra”:

1. Sanmargam leads to the transcendence of the ego and the conquest of death.

2. Sanmargam is the path of wisdom concerning the Light of ultimate reality which constitutes the goal  of all scriptures in the Vedic and Agamic traditions.

3. Sanmargam is a universal path to enlightenment, liberation, and adepthood.

4.  The dedicated and worshipful contemplation of the Guru is an essential element of the path of Sanmargam. (According to Ramalingam, it is Arutperumjothi who is the ultimate Guru on the path of Suddha Sanmargam.)

5. Sanmargam gives us the clarity of vision and enlightenment necessary for liberation.

6. Sanmargam leads to the attainment of the “Supreme Grace-Bliss”.

7. Sanmargam leads to the removal of impurities of consciousness and attainment of silence (of mind), bliss, and oneness with the ultimate being.

8. Sanmargam leads to insight into the nature of the self, its structure of bondage, its fetters of karma and the consequent variety of its states and conditions,  the nature of primordial matter, the consciousness which permeates the core of matter, and the innumerable mutations or transformations in the universe.

I will continue with my commentary on TVM’s reminiscences in my next post.

October 16, 2013

A Rare Reminiscence On Ramalingam (1)

Chidambaram Ramalingam
May All Beings Attain Bliss and Flourish!

Although Ramalingam (1823 – 1874) was a contemporary of Ramakrishna (1836 – 1886) the famous Bengali mystic, he is hardly known outside the state of Tamilnadu, India, and educated circles among the Tamil-speaking peoples of the world.

Ramakrishna in spiritual ecstasy (photographed in 1879)

Ramakrishna had some articulate disciples, e.g., Vivekananda, who brought him and his teachings to the attention of the world at large. He also had disciples such as “M”, or Mahendranath Gupta, whose record of the conversations of Ramakrishna, the “Gospel of Ramakrishna“, is a classic in the genre of records of conversations with great figures.

In contrast, Ramalingam, despite his greater intellectual, moral, and spiritual stature, did not have anyone of the caliber of “M”, or Mahendranath Gupta, to persistently and faithfully record his observations, discourses, and conversations.

The radical originality of Ramalingam’s mature spiritual insights and moral values were beyond the ken of understanding of most of his contemporaries and even many of his close associates.

Indeed, some of his radical proposals, e.g., his proposal that we ought to train more animals, in just the way in which we train some domestic dogs, to refrain from hurting and killing other animals, his uncompromising stance on our moral obligation to practice vegetarianism, his view that plant life also deserves moral consideration, are beyond the range of moral sensibility and imagination of many of our own contemporary “ethical thinkers”!

It seems to me that most of his associates, including the long-standing ones, barely had an inkling of his greatness and originality as a radical Siddha or adept who rejected not only irrational social divisions and practices based on caste and religious sectarianism, but also the narrow structures of prevalent religious and philosophical thought.

Fortunately, we can yet have a glimpse of his stature on the basis of the great works he penned in Tamil:  மனு முறைகண்ட வாசகம் (Manu’s Norm of Justice) a great work of morals composed in ornate Tamil prose dealing with the ancient Chola King Manu’s dispensation of justice regardless of species membership, ஜீவகாருண்ய ஒழுக்கம் (The Ethic of Compassion for Sentient Beings) an unfinished masterpiece on the ethics and spirituality of Suddha Sanmargam, அருட்பெருஞ் ஜோதி அகவல் (Verses On The Immense Light of Compassion) one of the greatest classics of revelatory mystical poetry, and the tetralogy of சுத்த சன்மார்க்க விண்ணப்பம் (Petitions of Suddha Sanmargam), incomparably inspired short classics of spirituality in Tamil prose, and many volumes of poems and songs.

Perhaps, Ramalingam himself was responsible for this paucity of reliable first-hand accounts of his life, discourses, and conversations. He shunned publicity. He was uncompromising in discouraging the formation of a “cult of personality” around him. He prohibited many attempts to turn him into a popular or famous religious figure, e.g., he did not give permission to prefix the title of “Swami” to his name in the two volumes of his early devotional poetry published during his lifetime by some of his friends.

Therefore, it is remarkable that there is an authentic and published piece of reminiscence, albeit brief and inadequate, on Ramalingam, by one of his earliest students, தொழுவூர் வேலாயுத முதலியார் (Thozhuvoor Velayuda Mudaliar, 1832 – 1889). His reminiscence on Ramalingam was published in The Theosophist, Vol. III, No. 10, July, 1882.

T. Velayuda Mudaliar (TVM) was Second Tamil Pandit at the prestigious Presidency College in Chennai (formerly Madras), Tamilnadu, India. He was also a member of the Theosophical Society. Unfortunately, in his eagerness to place Ramalingam in the pantheon of the “Masters” of theosophical thought, he engages in some omissions and distortions of his teacher’s original and radical views.

TVM became a student of Ramalingam in 1849 when he was merely seventeen. Ramalingam himself was only twenty-six at that time, but he had already acquired a reputation as a lecturer and savant of Tamil letters. We should not forget that Ramalingam was a prodigy who had started composing poems and songs at the age of nine and had also delivered some eloquent discourses on Tamil Saiva literature in his teens.

TVM was associated with Ramalingam for twenty-five years,  from 1849 to 1874. Apparently, he was present when, according to his account of what transpired, Ramalingam entered a room in Siddhi Valagam, a cottage in the village of Mettukuppam near Vadalur, Tamilnadu, India, on January 30th, 1874, laid himself on a carpet on the floor, and asked those present to lock the door from the outside and wall up the only window, a small one, in the room. He was never to see Ramalingam again during his lifetime. 

TVM passed away in 1889, fifteen years after the disappearance of his teacher.

There is a funny story about their first meeting in 1849.

A friend of TVM’s father urged him to become a student of Ramalingam and learn the art of poetry. TVM, a teenager at that time, wanted to test Ramalingam’s proficiency in Tamil poetry. So, he composed a medley of verses closely resembling Sangam or classical Tamil poetry and asked Ramalingam for his judgment on the verses he claimed were composed by the Sangam or classical Tamil poets.

Ramalingam took one glance at the poems, laughed, and said that they were not the compositions of the Sangam or classical Tamil poets, but those of an upstart! TVM fell at Ramalingam’s feet and apologized. Ramalingam graciously brushed the whole thing aside and accepted TVM as his student.

Let us now take a look at TVM’s reminiscence on Ramalingam. His reminiscences are in block quotes. My comments and corrections are in italics.

From The Theosophist, Vol. III, No. 10, July, 1882, pp. 243-244:


To the Author of Hints on Esoteric Theosophy:

“Sir,—I beg to inform you that I was a Chela of the late “Arulprakasa Vallalare,” otherwise known as Chidambaram Ramalinga Pillai Avergal, the celebrated Yogi of Southern India. Having come to know that the English community, as well as some Hindus, entertained doubts as to the existence of the Mahatmas (adepts), and, as to the fact of the Theosophical Society having been formed under their special orders; and having heard, moreover, of your recent work, in which much pains are taken to present the evidence about these Mahatmas pro and con—I wish to make public certain facts in connection with my late revered Guru. My belief is, that they ought effectually to remove all such doubts, and prove that Theosophy is no empty delusion, nor the Society in question founded on an insecure basis.”

It is not clear why TVM is intent on offering his account of Ramalingam and his teachings as a form of supporting evidence for the doctrines of theosophy. Instead, he ought to have offered his account as an introduction to Suddha Sanmargam, the new revolutionary path and teaching of Ramalingam.

1.Let me premise with a brief description of the personality of and the doctrines taught by the above-mentioned ascetic, Ramalingam Pillai. He was born at Maruthur, Chidambaram Taluq, South Arcot, Madras Presidency. He came to live at Madras at an early period of his career, and dwelt there for a long time. At the age of nine, without any reading, Ramalingam is certified by eyewitnesses to have been able to recite the contents of the works of Agastia and other Munis equally respected by Dravidians and Aryans. In 1849, I became his disciple, and, though no one ever knew where he had been initiated, some years after, he gathered a number of disciples around him.”

TVM fails to mention the year in which Ramalingam was born. It was 1823.

Ramalingam lived in Chennai (formerly Madras) from 1825 to 1855, from the age of two to the age of thirty-two when he left Chennai for good.

TVM’s reference to Ramalingam’s caste, his use of “Pillai” as a caste suffix to the name “Ramalingam”, tells us that he did not really imbibe Ramalingam’s insistent prescription to transcend caste identity and division.  The available originals of Ramalingam’s letters, the earliest of them written in 1858, show that Ramalingam signed these letters with the name “Chidambaram Ramalingam” eschewing the conventional avowal of his “Pillai” caste.

It is rather odd that in this very reminiscence TVM himself also says of Ramalingam that “As he preached against caste, he was not very popular. But still people of all castes gathered in large numbers around him.”

It is also misleading to refer to Ramalingam as an “ascetic”. He was certainly very simple and abstemious in his habits, but he was not one of those typical Indian ascetics who lived in caves and engaged in self-mortification and torture of the body. 

It is noteworthy that he wrote a short work consisting of prescriptions to regulate daily life and conduct. This work clearly advocates moderation and the avoidance of extremes in matters of food, sleep, work, sex, etc., with a view to preserving the health of the body and extending its longevity.

“At the age of nine, without any reading, Ramalingam is certified by eyewitnesses to have been able to recite the contents of the works of Agastia and other Munis equally respected by Dravidians and Aryans.”

Ramalingam was certainly a child prodigy and self-taught to a remarkable extent. Given his aversion to formal education and rote learning even in his childhood, his command of Tamil and his precocious knowledge of Tamil literature remains something of a mystery.

Equally mysterious is his early command of Sanskrit expressions and their apposite use in some of his Tamil poems, songs, and prose works. This also shows that he was not a Tamil purist, contrary to the attempts of  later Tamil purists to claim him as a forerunner of their ill-conceived movement.

Perhaps, even as a boy, Ramalingam had the opportunity to listen to, understand, and absorb the content of conversations his elder brother Sabhapathi and his teacher Kanchipuram Sabhapathi Mudaliar had with other Tamil scholars and Sanskrit pundits. 

Agastya (Tamil:  அகத்தியர், 700 BCE),  the foremost of the Tamil Siddhas, is considered the “father” of the Tamil literary tradition and the author of the earliest work on Tamil grammar, the Agathiyam. Numerous ancient Tamil works on medicine, alchemy, and astrology are attributed to him.


Although in his boyhood and youth, Ramalingam looked up to Sambandar, a seventh century (CE) Saiva saint and poet as his model and teacher, he did not have any formal initiation from any living teacher of his time and did not belong to any religious tradition or lineage by way of an initiation from a Guru. He is, therefore, unique in the annals of Indian mysticism.

It is, however, noteworthy that in his magnum opus Arutperumjothi Agaval, Ramalingam praises Arutperumjothi as the supreme Guru or teacher who taught him all he needed to know despite a lack of formal education, study and recitation of “sacred scriptures”, etc.

2.He was a great Alchemist.” 

Ramalingam’s interest in alchemical experiments is evident in a letter (dated May 3, 1868) he wrote, at age 45, to his boyhood friend Irukkam Rathina Mudaliar who was living in Chennai. In this letter, the only one of its kind, Ramalingam asks his friend to send him implements for polishing gold and silver pieces and scales for weighing them.

Since Ramalingam was averse to carrying or keeping money or other valuables with him, this unusual request was probably made in the interest of his alchemical experiments. It must, however, be noted here that other than declaring that the path of Suddha Sanmargam leads to the acquisition of powers to bring about different forms of alchemical transformation, Ramalingam did not reveal any further information about his alchemical experiments and their outcomes in any of his writings.

3. “He had a strange faculty about him, witnessed very often, of changing a carnivorous person into a vegetarian; a mere glance from him seemed enough to destroy the desire for animal food.”

TVM’s claim that Ramalingam had a “strange faculty” or power to bring about in others an aversion to eating animal flesh and a preference to partake vegetarian food is not surprising in light of Ramalingam’s uncompromising commitment to vegetarianism.

In fact, Ramalingam acknowledged in some of his verses that it was Arutperumjothi who revealed to him that those who consume animal flesh and thereby encourage the slaughter of animals do not belong to the Sangha or Order of Suddha Sanmargam. It is a central principle of Suddha Sanmargam that we must consume only food produced or obtained without intentionally causing any avoidable destruction of plant and animal life.

In his great essay on “The Ethic of Compassion for Sentient Beings”, Ramalingam advocates a vegetarian diet which does not involve the destruction of plant life. He also points out that the harvesting of many fruits and vegetables does not involve the destruction of the plant or tree yielding those vegetables or fruits. Milk and products based on it are also permissible to the practitioners of Suddha Sanmargam on the condition that the cows or goats yielding the milk are treated compassionately.

It is also noteworthy that at the top of the entrance to the Sathiya Gnana Sabhai or the “Hall of Truth-Knowledge” he designed and helped to build in 1871, Ramalingam had  posted an edict prohibiting those indulging in the killing of sentient beings and the consumption of meat from entering the inner premises of the Hall. However, they were still permitted to remain in the outer area of the Hall and contemplate Arutperumjothi if they wished to do so.

Only Those Who Have Refrained from Meat and Murder Should Enter!” (Ramalingam’s edict in the entrance to the Sathiya Gnana Sabhai or “Hall of Truth-Knowledge”, Est. 1871)

4. “He had also the wonderful faculty of reading other men’s minds.”

In his Arutperumjothi Agaval, Ramalingam does make a claim to the possession of numerous “occult powers” or “Siddhis” bestowed on him by Arutperumjothi. Thought-reading is certainly among the minor “occult powers” or “Siddhis”. So, it is not surprising to have TVM’s testimony that Ramalingam had “the wonderful faculty of reading other men’s minds.”

5.In the year 1855, he left Madras for Chidambaram, and thence to Vadulur and Karingooli (sic), where he remained a number of years. Many a time, during his stay there, he used to leave his followers, disappearing to go no one knew whither, and remaining absent for more or less prolonged periods of time.”

Chidambaram is a famous Saiva temple city near the east coast of Tamilnadu, India.

Sacred Tank and Pagoda at “Chillambaran” (sic), India, 1870

Vadalur, a small town in Cuddalore district, state of Tamilnadu, India, is the location of Ramalingam’s masterpiece, Sathiya Gnana Sabhai, or “Hall of Truth-Knowledge”:

Sathiya Gnana Sabhai or “Hall of Truth-Knowledge”, Est. 1871

Vadalur is also the location of the “House of True Charity”, a “soup kitchen” built at Ramalingam’s behest and designed to feed the hungry poor with vegetarian meals. It has been doing so since its inception in 1867.

“Karingooli” (sic) or Karungkuzhi (the Tamil name “Karungkuzhi” literally means “Black Hole” and the symbolic contrast it provides to Ramalingam’s Illuminationism is striking!) is a small town about three miles from Vadalur in the coastal district of Cuddalore, Tamilnadu, India.

Ramalingam lived in Karungkuzhi for nine years (1858 – 1867) in a room in the house of a merchant devotee, Venkata Reddy. Reddy had met Ramalingam in Chidambaram and was deeply impressed by his character. He had then invited Ramalingam to stay in his house in Karungkuzhi.

On perceiving Reddy’s sincerity and depth of feeling, Ramalingam accepted his invitation. However, he still continued to periodically leave Karungkuzhi and visit Chidambaram and other celebrated temple towns in the region.

He left Karunguzhi for good in 1867 and moved to Vadalur to reside in the “Sathiya Dharma Salai” or “Abode of True Charity”, the “soup kitchen” he had helped to build with financial contributions from his friends and members of the local community.

The surviving letters of Ramalingam show that on many occasions he responded to entreaties by his associates to visit them, or to visit him, by stating that he was away on some important task and would become available to them after a specified time.

Even as a boy growing up in Chennai, Ramalingam would often wander off to visit the great temples in the city and its suburbs. He probably did the same thing in his later years in the Vadalur area to avoid the crowds of people who came to see him with a desire to witness a display of his “siddhis”.

This is consistent with his love of solitude, the vast and varied expanses of nature, and the many illustrious Saiva temples in the region in which he lived. There are verses in the Arutperumjothi Agaval celebrating oceans, lakes, mountains, groves, etc., and the grandeur of Arutperumjothi’s power in bringing about their existence. The coastal areas of the Bay of Bengal in eastern Tamilnadu were not far from his residence in the Vadalur area and were probably among his favorite haunts.

6. “His habits were excessively abstemious. He was known to hardly ever take any rest. A strict vegetarian, he ate but once in two or three days, and was then satisfied with a few mouthfuls of rice. But when fasting for a period of two or three months at a time, he literally ate nothing, living merely on warm water with a little sugar dissolved in it.”

This is extraordinary! Our medical doctors and scientists should take note! Here is a man who was “known to hardly ever take rest”, but was extremely abstemious in his habits of eating, and sometimes subsisted merely on “warm water with a little sugar dissolved in it”!

Note that TVM again draws our attention to Ramalingam’s uncompromising vegetarianism. What a contrast Ramalingam provides to our numerous “religious leaders” and “moral thinkers” whose entrails have become veritable processing plants of animal body parts!

It is important to note again in this context that Ramalingam did not advocate fasting or asceticism. In almost all of his letters to his friends, associates, and former students, he solicitously insisted that they take proper care of their bodies by means of regulation of food, sleep, work, and sex.

He advocated moderation because, for a vast majority of people, both excess and abstinence undermined the health, vitality, and longevity of the body, a precious instrument for attaining enlightenment and liberation. I have already pointed out that he also composed a short work of prescriptions for the regulation of daily life based on the principle of moderation in food, sleep, work, and sex.

Ramalingam’s own condition was unique, and, by his own testimony, the result of transformations wrought in his body, mind, and soul by the compassionate and omnipotent action of Arutperumjothi. Hence, it would be foolish to merely imitate him in matters of food, sleep, etc., without benefit of those transformations.

On the path of Suddha Sanmargam, practitioners must consistently follow his principle of avoidance of excess of indulgence and abstinence or deprivation in relation to the basic bodily needs. 

TVM mentions Ramalingam’s use of “warm water with a little sugar dissolved in it.” Ramalingam prescribed the use of hot or warm water at all times for purposes of drinking, preparation of food and medicine, and bathing. He held the view that water was maximally beneficial in its well-boiled state or condition. Needless to say, his prescription accords well with our scientific knowledge of the reality of water-borne germs and parasites and many of the fatal diseases caused by them.

7. “In personal appearance, Ramalingam was a moderately tall, spare man—so spare, indeed, as to virtually appear a skeleton—yet withal a strong man, erect in stature, and walking very rapidly; with a face of a clear brown complexion, a straight, thin nose, very large fiery eyes, and with a look of constant sorrow on his face.”

An artist’s rendering of Ramalingam’s appearance. However, it must be noted, in accordance with TVM’s reminiscence, that Ramalingam wore footwear and emphasized the importance of doing so.

Again, it is extraordinary that there was a fount of energy and strength in Ramalingam belied by his spare or thin body, “so spare, indeed, as to virtually appear a skeleton”. Perhaps, the source of this fount of energy and strength was not his physical body, but his radiant subtle body. Indeed, this idea receives an affirmation in one of the verses at the beginning of his great work Arutperumjothi Agaval:

ஊக்கமு முணர்ச்சியு மொளிதரு

மாக்கையும ஆக்கமு மருளிய

வருட்பெருஞ் ஜோதி.

Vitality, intensity of perception and feeling,

a radiant body,

the inner wealth of powers of accomplishment,

bestowed on me,


Arutperumjothi!”  (Agaval 13-14, Trans.Thill Raghu)

TVM’s reference to Ramalingam’s “very large fiery eyes” is interesting. Certainly, those large eyes must have communicated the fire of spiritual and moral intensity in Ramalingam. His eyes may have looked into the very depths of the suffering of sentient beings and the heights of transcendence.

TVM has already mentioned Ramalingam’s strange power of suppressing, by a mere look, a person’s desire to consume animal flesh. It is worth recalling here a relevant verse in the Arutperumjothi Agaval:

கதிர்நல மென்னிரு கண்களிற் கொடுத்தே
அதிசய மியற்றெனு மருட்பெருஞ் ஜோதி.

A luminescence,

beautiful and benign,

enabling the extraordinary,

imparted to my eyes,


Arutperumjothi!”  (AGAVAL 273 – 274, Trans. Thill Raghu)

What about TVM’s reference to “a look of constant sorrow” on Ramalingam’s face? What sense can we make of this feature of Ramalingam’s visage?

If we consider the pre-illumination or pre-enlightenment phase of Ramalingam’s life, then this feature of “a look of constant sorrow” probably and primarily expressed his intense longing for union with the ultimate being and his sorrow at not having attained this union. There is a great deal of evidence for this interpretation in the poems of his early and middle period.

However, we should also consider the autobiographical poems in which Ramalingam speaks of his suffering at the sight of withering plants, animals taken to the slaughterhouse, and the hungry poor. Certainly, his “look of constant sorrow” also stems from his all-embracing empathy and compassion for sentient beings undergoing harm and suffering.

Why would this “look of constant sorrow” remain in his visage after his enlightenment and liberation?

This is not personal sorrow, but a sorrow stemming from compassion for those still enmeshed in ignorance and the ensuing sufferings they are bound to undergo in endless cycles of birth and death expended in pursuit of the fulfillment of egocentric desires.

I will continue with TVM’s reminiscence on Ramalingam in the next post.

August 19, 2013

ARUTPERUMJOTHI: The Destroyer Of Skepticism And Phlegm!

The Doubting Thomas by Caravaggio

ஐயமுந் திரிபு மறுத்தென துடம்பினுள்
ஐயமு நீக்கிய வருட்பெருஞ் ஜோதி.


Doubt, distortion, and perversion of thought were extirpated,

And, in my body,

Phlegm was eliminated by

Arutperumjothi!” (Trans. Thill Raghu)

By “skepticism”, I mean philosophical skepticism, the philosophical view that knowledge is impossible, and that, therefore, we cannot be certain about any claim.

Philosophical skepticism, consequently, celebrates and glorifies doubt, intellectual vacillation, uncertainty, and the display of virtuosity in attacking and rejecting any truth-claim.

It is also very peculiar that philosophical skeptics uncritically assume that doubting is an intrinsically valuable practice. Hence, the endless and wearisome disquisitions, short or long, issuing forth from the philosophical skeptics, on the glory and rapture of being stuck forever in the swamps of doubt and uncertainty!

But, given the fact that philosophical skepticism is an exercise in intellectual and moral perversion,  we should seriously consider whether philosophical skepticism is a form of mental, moral, and spiritual disease which wreaks havoc in the mind in ways analogous to the havoc wrought by phlegm in the body.

Philosophical skepticism is a form of intellectual perversion because it deliberately denies the necessary conditions of its own formulation and assertion.

It denies that we can know anything and yet the very assertion of this skeptical position presupposes a knowledge of the meaning of the words and the corresponding concepts used in formulating the skeptical view or position. Otherwise, the skeptic must confess that he does not know what he is asserting or doubting!

Doubt implies an object of doubt, something which is subject to doubt. If the skeptic acknowledges that he knows what the object of his doubt is, e.g., a general or specific claim or thesis, then he is hoisted on the petard of inconsistency since he is saying both that he cannot know anything and that he also knows what he is doubting.

In Ludwig Wittgenstein’s parlance (His late work On Certainty sounds the death knell of philosophical skepticism!), we could say: Whereof you can doubt meaningfully, thereof you must know something.

Every act of doubting presupposes items of knowledge exempted from doubt. Doubting is meaningful only in the context, and against the backdrop, of knowledge. And this knowledge is often expressed in actions, in doing.

Let us consider one of the many peculiar assumptions of the philosophical skeptic, and of those who laud a skeptical stance toward anything and everything, the assumption that a doubt is intrinsically valuable. This false value (judgment) is at the root of the disease of skepticism.

The assumption is clearly absurd. It is analogous to the claim that an assertion is intrinsically valuable, or that a belief is intrinsically valuable, or that a denial is intrinsically valuable, and so on.

These are all absurd claims because, obviously,  the value of any assertion, belief, or denial is dependent on the content or object of the given assertion, belief, or denial, and the grounds or reasons for doing so. There is nothing intrinsically valuable about the denial that we need to breathe in order to live, or in the assertion that we can live merely on air, or in a belief in unicorns.

In just the same way, it is absurd to hold that a doubt is intrinsically valuable. Whether or not a doubt is valuable depends on the context, the content or object  of doubt, and the grounds for the doubt. There is nothing of value in someone expressing correctly,  in English, a doubt concerning his or her ability to say anything at all in English.

It is also equally absurd to express doubts on the “reliability of perception per se” or “reliability of inference per se” and so forth.

Although it is meaningful in certain  contexts to raise doubts about whether what we are seeing actually exists, whether our perception is veridical, and so forth, it makes no sense to doubt the “reliability of perception” for the simple and obvious reason that if perception were not, on the whole, reliable, the “doubting Thomas” would not even exist to vaunt his prowess in doubting everything! The very existence or survival of the doubter is testimony to the reliability of perception!

Further, there is a gross non sequitur and incoherence in the skeptical denial of the reliability of perception.

The skeptical denial of the reliability of perception invokes cases in which we turn out to be mistaken in thinking that our perceptions are veridical or correspond to reality, e.g., seeing that a stick is bent in water, seeing a mirage of an oasis in the middle of a desert, etc. But it is a gross non sequitur to infer from such cases that perception itself is unreliable as a means of knowledge.

This is because our judgments on the unreliability of our perceptions in these cases invoke and depend on the reliability of our perceptions in other cases!

We say that it is only an appearance that the stick is bent in water because we see that it is not bent when we take it out of water and we have no good grounds to doubt that such perceptions are veridical. We also reason inductively based on past perceptions that a stick cannot be bent merely by immersing it in a stagnant pool of water and that, therefore, it is an optical illusion that the stick looks bent when it is immersed in water.

Above all, we presuppose that our perception of the existence of the stick is veridical! If we do not presuppose that our perception of the existence of the stick is veridical, we cannot meaningfully raise any questions about the status of our perceptions of the appearance of the stick when it is immersed in water!

We judge the sight of an oasis in the middle of a desert to be an optical illusion only because we depend on the reliability of our perception when we get close to the location of the apparent oasis and see nothing there. Again, we also reason inductively based on past perceptions,  our own perceptions and/or that of other individuals, of the absence of oases on approach to their apparent location, that such phenomena are optical illusions.

“Illusion” is  a contrast concept and phenomenon and makes sense only in contrast to reality. If everything were an illusion, we would not even have a concept of illusion. Therefore, the judgment that a given perception is an optical illusion presupposes that we know that some perceptions are veridical or correspond to reality.

Thus, it is a non sequitur to conclude from any case of optical illusion that perception is unreliable as a means of knowledge.

Given that claims of optical illusion presuppose that there are veridical perceptions, or perceptions which correspond to reality, it is an instance of gross incoherence to argue that cases of optical illusions show that perception is unreliable.

And, God forbid, should the “doubting Thomas” go to a philosophy conference to celebrate the virtue of doubting the reliability of perception per se, the very act is testimony not only to the “reliability of perception”, but his reliance on perception!

If the skeptic is not stupid, then he already knows all these obvious truths. In that case, the pretense and insincerity involved in striking his absurd pose of ignorance or uncertainty concerning the necessary conditions of asserting coherently the very position of philosophical skepticism is certainly a form of moral perversion.

In short, philosophical skepticism is a form of intellectual and moral perversion. If perversion is a form of pathology, a disease, then it follows that philosophical skepticism is a form of intellectual and moral pathology.

Ramalingam discerned and expressed all this truth with crystalline clarity  in his magnum opus Arutperumjothi Agaval.

The Agaval verse quoted at the start of this post uses the Tamil word “ஐயம்” twice. In its first occurrence, it refers to doubt, uncertainty, and skepticism. It is conjoined with the word “திரிபு” which means “perversion and distortion”, e.g., divergence from truth, distortion, or misrepresentation, or modification of truth.

ஐயமுந் திரிபு மறுத்தென துடம்பினுள்

Doubt, distortion, and perversion of thought were extirpated,

In its second occurrence at the start of the second line, the same word “ஐயம்”  now refers to Phlegm, a deadly disease of the body:

ஐயமு நீக்கிய வருட்பெருஞ் ஜோதி.

And, in my body, phlegm was eliminated by


His reference to doubt, distortion, perversion of thought, and phlegm in a single verse shows that he viewed doubt, distortion, and perversion of thought as intellectual or mental diseases analogous to the diseases of phlegm in the body,  the former clogging the “respiratory” channels of the mind, as it were, in just the way the latter clogs the vital respiratory channels in the body.

Phlegm makes it difficult for us to breathe well, to take in the vital nourishment of air. Skepticism or persistent doubt makes it difficult for us to fully experience and understand reality, truth, and value. Phlegm destroys physical health. Skepticism or persistent doubt destroys intellectual, moral, and spiritual health and undermines one’s chances of attaining enlightenment and liberation.

The wondrous compassionate action of Arutperumjothi destroyed not only the diseases of skepticism and perversion of thought, including doubts and distortions pertaining to the reality of Arutperumjothi and its compassionate action, in Ramalingam’s mind, but also the diseases of phlegm in his body. No wonder that Ramalingam praises Arutperumjothi as the medicine which cures all ills.

Let us, therefore, seek to render ourselves receptive (no mean task since it involves the obliteration of all falsehood and cruelty in the self or soul) to this wondrous compassionate action of Arutperumjothi so that we too may be free from the diseases of skepticism, doubt, distortion and perversion of thought, and phlegm endemic to our embodied existence!

Refraining from vain indulgence in philosophical skepticism is the first step in this journey toward achieving a state of crystalline clarity of perception and enjoyment of the boundless reality and bliss of Arutperumjothi!


June 24, 2013

The Cosmogony of Suddha Sanmargam: Development By Intelligent Design (2)

“Siphonophorae” in Ernst Haeckel’s “Kunstformen der Natur”

The cosmogony of Suddha Sanmargam excludes both randomness and ex nihilo creation (instantaneous creation out of nothing) in its explanation of the complex forms and structures of the universe, including, of course, those of terrestrial life.

Rather, it offers an explanation in terms of a vast process of fine-tuning and development by intelligent design from an initial state of primordial, undifferentiated, and impure matter.

In fact, one of the key concepts in some of the central verses on the compassionate cosmic action of Arutperumjothi in Ramalingam’s magnum opus Arutperumjothi Agaval is “தெருட்டல்” (teruṭtal: fine-tuning, development).

The Agaval also affirms that Arutperumjothi brings about, in its turn and by means of the power of its grace or compassion, the fine-tuning and development of millions of Godheads or supernatural “leaders” (Tamil: தலைவர்கள்) entrusted with the functions of fine-tuning and development of the cosmos:

தெருட்டுந் தலைவர்கள் சேர்பல கோடியை

Godheads of fine-tuning and development (of the cosmos) by the millions

அருட்டிறந் தெருட்டு மருட்பெருஞ் ஜோதி.

themselves fine-tuned and developed by the grace of Arutperumjothi!

(Arutperumjothi Agaval, 861, Trans. Thill Raghu)

What this clearly implies is that complex forms and structures in the cosmos are the results of processes of development by intelligent design, a function of processes of development designed and governed by supernatural intelligent agents who are themselves, of course, governed and guided by Arutperumjothi.

The concept of fine-tuning and development by intelligent design clearly excludes both randomness and ex nihilo creation in accounting for the existence and nature of the cosmos, including terrestrial life.

Since randomness is excluded, the cosmogony of Suddha Sanmargam is inconsistent with the Darwinian explanation of the diversity of life and “Darwinian cosmology” or the attempt to extend the Darwinian model of evolution to the entire cosmos.

In a process of development designed, initiated, and governed by intelligent agents, randomness cannot possibly play a central role in accounting for the forms and structures generated by this process of development. Both the concepts of development and  intelligent design also imply teleology or purpose-driven development which is excluded by the Darwinian model.

Development is a fact of nature. So, no scientific theory, including Darwinism, can deny it.

The central issue, however, is whether the processes which have led to the emergence of diverse  complex forms and structures in the cosmos, including the diversity of organic forms, are developmental processes, or, instead,  evolutionary processes in the Darwinian sense, i.e., processes in which randomness rules and teleology and intelligent design have no place whatsoever.

Suddha Sanmargam holds that these processes which have led to the emergence of diverse complex forms and structures in the cosmos, including the diversity of  organic forms, are actually developmental processes governed by intelligent design.

It would follow, for instance,  that the genetic mutations which play a central role in the Darwinian account of the diversity of life are not random mutations, but a function of intelligent or intentional design.

The case for the cosmogony of Suddha Sanmargam rests on two types of evidence: a) evidence showing that developmental processes have brought the diverse complex forms and structures of the cosmos, including those of terrestrial life, into existence, and b) evidence showing that these developmental processes are a function of intelligent design.

I will build this case in subsequent posts in this series.

June 24, 2013

The Cosmogony of Suddha Sanmargam: Development By Intelligent Design (1)

Haeckel: Kunstformen der Natur: An Exuberance of Development By Intelligent Design?

A peculiar feature of debates on evolution in the West, particularly in America, is the glaring fallacy of false dilemma shared by protagonists and antagonists alike: evolution OR creation ex nihilo (creation out of nothing).

In other words, both the protagonists and antagonists on evolutionism share the wrong assumption that the solution to the problem of explaining the diversity and complexity of  forms of life is simply a matter of choice between two mutually exhaustive alternatives: Darwinian theory of evolution OR the Biblical theory of creation out of nothing.

This assumption embodies the fallacy of false dilemma because there is, at least, one other alternative to consider: development by intelligent design. I will call this Developmental Intelligent Design Theory (DIDT). This is the cosmogony of  Suddha Sanmargam.

This cosmogony of Suddha Sanmargam differs from the Biblical creationist intelligent design theory in that it holds that the diversity of the material,  physical, or  organic forms in the cosmos, and indeed the origin of the cosmos itself, is the result of an ongoing process of development by intelligent design, or development governed by intelligent agency,  rather than creation ex nihilo or instantaneous creation out of nothing.

The notion that the cosmos is the result of a vast process of development is an entrenched one in Indian cosmogony, e.g., the cosmogony of the Sāṃkhya metaphysical system, or the cosmogony of Śaivasiddhānta (Tamil: சைவ சித்தாந்தம்).  Unfortunately, both the protagonists and antagonists in the evolution debates in the West display a deplorable ignorance of Indian cosmogony, and, hence, remain ensconced in their false dilemma of evolution or ex nihilo creation.

How does this developmental intelligent design theory differ from Darwinian evolutionism?

The key difference is that whereas Darwinism accords a central place to randomness in shaping the diversity of the forms of life, developmental intelligent design theory affirms that the diversity of complex forms and structures, not only of life, but of the cosmos itself, is the result of processes of development designed and executed by intelligent agency.

Two questions may arise here: one pertaining to the nature of this intelligent agency governing the processes of development which have produced the diverse complex structures and forms in the cosmos, including those of terrestrial life, and the other pertaining to the modus operandi employed by the intelligent agency and/or intelligent agencies in question.

But these questions or issues are logically independent of the issue of whether recourse to the concept of development by  intelligent agency provides the best explanation of the diversity of complex forms and structures of the cosmos, including those of living beings on earth.

Explanation by recourse to the concept of  development by intelligent agency or development by  intelligent design is not undermined by lack of information on the nature of the intelligent agency or designer(s) at work in this context. Such explanation is also not undermined by any lack of information on the modus operandi of the intelligent agent or intelligent agents in question.

For instance,  an explanation of the existence of a supercomputer in terms of intelligent agency or designer(s) is not undermined by lack of information on the personal characteristics of the agents or designers in question. Nor is it undermined by lack of information on their modus operandi.

Hence, the demand that the proponent of developmental intelligent design theory must also specify the nature of the intelligent agency, or agencies, at work in bringing about and governing processes of development which have produced the diversity of complex forms and structures of the cosmos, including life, and their modus operandi, is irrelevant to the task of examining whether recourse to the concept of a process of development governed by intelligent agency provides the best explanation of the complex structures and forms of the cosmos, including those of terrestrial life.

Of course, there are alternative conceptions of intelligent agency, e.g., the notion of a single intelligent agent, the notion of a plurality of intelligent agents, the notion of a plurality of intelligent agents governed and guided by a single intelligent agent, differing conceptions of the moral character of the intelligent agent or agencies, etc.,  but the issue of adjudication among these different conceptions of intelligent agency is logically independent of the issue of whether the developmental intelligent design theory offers the best explanation of the diverse complex forms and structures of the cosmos.

May 24, 2013

Ayer’s NDE In Light Of Agaval’s “Supernaturalism” (1)

Ramalingam’s magnum opus Arutperumjothi Agaval affirms that there is a vast and diverse plurality of “supernatural” beings, with superhuman, but limited powers and functions, at work and play in a variety of universes, including our own. All are subject, ultimately and naturally, to the omnipotent will of the supreme being Arutperumjothi, the Immense Light of Unique Compassion.

Here are some relevant verses (relevant to this post) in Tamil from the Agaval with my translation:

“வெளியினிற் சத்திகள் வியப்புற சத்தர்கள்
அளியுற வகுத்த வருட்பெருஞ் ஜோதி.”

“In space,

powers and amazing beings,

organized with grace


Arutperumjothi!” (Agaval 503 – 504, Trans. Thill Raghu)

Hubble Image: Galaxies in a swarm of star clusters

“காவல்செய் தலைவரைக் காவலண்டங்களை
ஆவகை யமைத்த வருட்பெருஞ் ஜோதி”

Guardian and protector godheads,

and their worlds,

organized immaculately,


Arutperumjothi!” (Agaval 585 – 586, Trans. Thill Raghu)

In this series of posts, I want to show that some types of NDE (“Near-Death Experience”) are best explained in terms of veridical extra-sensory perception of “supernatural” beings. These types of NDE uniformly involve visions of angelic beings, or various “lights” which are perceived to be conscious beings, and so forth.

There is a widespread tendency, given the  reality of NDE’s and the ignorance about the reality and diversity of supernatural beings, to immediately begin babbling about “seeing God”, or about whether such near-death experiences constitute evidence for God’s existence,  and so on, but these NDE’s have no necessary connection with God or ultimate reality.

One of the remarkable NDE reports in recent times is the notable British philosopher A. J. Ayer’s (1910 – 1989) account of his near-death experience in a London hospital one day in June 1988,  which he published in a piece entitled “What I Saw When I was Dead” in the London Daily Telegraph three months after the experience.

A. J. Ayer (in 1952)

Here are the relevant paragraphs from this piece (my italics and emphases):

“I did not attempt to eat the hospital food. My family and friends supplied all the food I needed. I am particularly fond of smoked salmon, and one evening I carelessly tossed a slice of it into my throat. It went down the wrong way and almost immediately the graph recording my heartbeats plummeted.

The ward sister rushed to the rescue, but she was unable to prevent my heart from stopping. She and the doctor subsequently told me that I died in this sense for four minutes, and I have had no reason to disbelieve them.

The doctor alarmed my son Nicholas, who had flown from New York to be by my bedside, by saying that it was not probable that I should recover, and moreover, that if I did recover physically it was not probable that my mental powers would be restored. The nurses were more optimistic, and Nicholas sensibly chose to believe them.

I have no recollection of anything that was done to me at that time. Friends have told me that I was festooned with tubes, but I have never learned how many of them there were or, with one exception, what purposes they served. I do not remember having a tube inserted in my throat to bring up the quantity of phlegm which had lodged in my lungs. I was not even aware of my numerous visitors, so many of them, in fact, that the sister had to set a quota. I know that the doctors and nurses were surprised by the speed of my recovery and that when I started speaking, the specialist expressed astonishment that anyone with so little oxygen in his lungs should be so lucid.

My first recorded utterance, which convinced those who heard it that I had not lost my wits, was the exclamation: “You are all mad.” I am not sure how this should be interpreted. It is possible that I took my audience to be Christians and was telling them that I had not discovered anything “on the other side.” It is also possible that I took them to be skeptics and was implying that I had discovered something. I think the former is more probable, as in the latter case I should more properly have exclaimed, “We are all mad.” All the same, I cannot be sure.

The earliest remarks of which I have any cognizance apart from my first exclamation, were made several hours after my return to life. They were addressed to a Frenchwoman with whom I had been friends for over 15 years. I woke to find her seated by my bedside and started talking to her in French as soon as I recognized her. My French is fluent and I spoke rapidly, approximately as follows: “Did you know that I was dead? The first time that I tried to cross the river I was frustrated, but my second attempt succeeded. It was most extraordinary. My thoughts became persons.”

The only memory that I have of an experience, closely encompassing my death, is very vivid. I was confronted by a red light, exceedingly bright, and also very painful even when I turned away from it. I was aware that this light was responsible for the government of the universe. Among its ministers were two creatures who had been put in charge of space.

These ministers periodically inspected space and had recently carried out such an inspection. They had, however, failed to do their work properly, with the result that space, like a badly fitting jigsaw puzzle, was slightly out of  joint. A further consequence was that the laws of nature had ceased to function as they should. I felt that it was up to me to put things right. I also had the motive of finding a way to extinguish the painful light. I assumed that it was signaling that space was awry and that it would switch itself off when order was restored.

Unfortunately, I had no idea where the guardians of space had gone and feared that even if I found them I should not be able to communicate with them. It then occurred to me that whereas, until the present century, physicists accepted the Newtonian severance of space and time, it had become customary, since the vindication of Einstein’s general theory of relativity, to treat space-time as a single whole.

Accordingly, I thought that I could cure space by operating upon time. I was vaguely aware that the ministers who had been given charge of time were in my neighborhood and I proceeded to hail them. I was again frustrated. Either they did not hear me, or they chose to ignore me, or they did not understand me. I then hit upon the expedient of walking up and down, waving my watch, in the hope of drawing their attention not to my watch itself but to the time which it measured. This elicited no response. I became more and more desperate, until the experience suddenly came to an end.

This experience could well have been delusive. The slight indication that it might have been veridical has been supplied by my French friend, or rather by her mother, who also underwent a heart arrest many years ago. When her daughter asked her what it had been like, she replied that all that she remembered was that she must stay close to the red light.”

Let us take note of the salient features of Ayer’s NDE and their implications:

1. He suffered a certified cardiac arrest for at least four minutes. What this implies is that his brain was deprived of blood flow for four minutes! It is an established fact in medical science that brain activity starts to radically diminish within 10 seconds after a cardiac arrest. This means that Ayer’s brain activity must have significantly diminished and may have even undergone suspension for three minutes and fifty seconds !

2. Further, the combination of cardiac arrest and the excess of phlegm resulting in the paucity of oxygen in his lungs, and, therefore, in his brain, makes it extremely improbable, from the standpoint of medical science, that any significant brain activity could have occurred during this time. From the standpoint of medical science, he was UNCONSCIOUS, which means the absence of conscious experience and thought!!!

3. However, Ayer had an astonishing near-death experience in this narrow window of time in which his brain activity must have diminished dramatically and even undergone suspension, and, what is truly baffling, was able to voluntarily engage in complex reasoning about space and time during the NDE.  He was also able to recollect vividly the whole experience.

4. Curiously, by contrast, Ayer had no recollection, and presumably, no knowledge of what was being done to him, e.g., a tube being inserted into his lungs to drain the excess of phlegm in his lungs, the presence of visitors in the room, etc.

If indeed Ayer’s complex NDE was merely a function of his severely impaired but still functioning brain, an absurd claim in itself and one that Ayer himself entertained, why on earth would this functioning brain have rendered him incapable of knowing what was being done to him by the nurses and the doctor, what was said by them  in those moments, awareness of the presence of visitors, and so on? We should expect that his severely diminished brain activity and capacity would only, if at all, register something occurring in his vicinity in the hospital room rather than bring  about an astonishing and coherent near-death experience marked by an encounter with “supernatural” beings and the ability to vividly recall that experience!

5. Ayer’s NDE encounter with a red light “responsible for the government of the universe”  and its “ministers” was characterized by a remarkable continuity, and, hence, overall coherence. Now,  it is extremely improbable that a severe impairment of the brain, of the sort Ayer must have undergone due to his cardiac arrest and the paucity of oxygen in his phlegm-filled lungs, can generate unusual experiences involving elements of complex reasoning (about space and time) by the subject and characterized by a remarkable overall coherence.

6. Although his physical eyes were incapacitated due to the cardiac arrest, Ayer could still perceive a red light and its “ministers” (the latter presumably had some form since he refers to them as “creatures”) and also perceive space. Given the incapacitated condition of his physical body and its brain, how on earth was it still possible for Ayer to vividly perceive color, form, and space?

7. Ayer also had an immediate, non-inferential  knowledge of the fact that the Red Light he saw was responsible for the government (maintenance or regulation?) of the universe (this or some other universe) and that the “ministers” in its company were in charge of maintaining the structure of space. How could he possibly have known this non-inferentially were it not for the operation of some form of extra-sensory perception? Note also that his brain was severely impaired and could not possibly be the locus of this ESP.

8. Ayer mentions that the Red Light was not only painful to look at, but also caused pain when he turned away from it. This, obviously, implies that he could not only perceive color, but also experience pain.  It also implies he could make a movement or motion with some form of body. This points to an explanation of his NDE in terms of the possession of a “subtle body” which is the locus of these perceptions, sensations, and motions.

9. A remarkable feature of Ayer’s NDE is the striking contrast between his perception and knowledge of the governor of the universe and its ministers responsible for maintaining the structure of space and his attempts to communicate with them on the one hand , and, on the other hand,  the total lack of any attempt on the part of these supernatural beings to acknowledge him or to communicate with him.

Either they were aware of him and chose to ignore him in just the way human architects ignore a bird sitting on a branch, twittering, and watching them work, or they were unaware of his existence. If they were unaware of his existence, it is likely due to the fact that his subtle body was not perceived by them presumably because their bodies were completely different, e.g., made of a brightly colored substance of some kind.

10. Most remarkable is the fact that nothing in Ayer’s repertoire of materialist and naturalist beliefs prepared him for his NDE or led him even to anticipate remotely the likelihood of that NDE. In his account of his NDE, Ayer refers to some kind of “river” he had to cross and fails to describe how he managed to cross it on his second attempt, but it could have been a  “river of light”, a band or barrier of light he had to cross to reach another realm and which he mistook for an actual  “river”.

Ayer suggests that this aspect of his NDE experience was elicited by his “classical education”. But a mere acquaintance or familiarity with the Greek legend of Charon assisting departed souls to cross the river Styx is woefully insufficient to account for this feature of Ayer’s NDE in which he attempted to cross some kind of “river” and succeeded on the second attempt.

If his familiarity with the legend actually elicited  this feature of his NDE, then why did he not also see Charon on his boat? And given the near cessation of his brain activity due to cardiac arrest and paucity of oxygen in his lungs, how exactly does his prior familiarity with the Greek myth have the power to shape his NDE?

Why doesn’t everyone who is familiar with the Greek myth or fervently believes in it and has an NDE  see the river,  Charon, and his boat? I think that the invocation of Ayer’s familiarity with the Greek myth of Charon in this context has all the hallmarks of an implausible “ad hoc hypothesis” in defense of  a materialist or naturalist theory of consciousness and the universe!

A 19th-century interpretation of Charon’s crossing by Alexander Litovchenko.

And what about the red light “responsible for the government of the universe” and its “ministers” in charge of space-time? There is absolutely nothing in Ayer’s well-known stock of beliefs and views which contains or even remotely suggests anything like the existence of these sorts of entities. What background beliefs, then, could have elicited or brought about these central features of his NDE? I see absolutely no connection between Ayer’s belief-system and his NDE. In fact, everything we know about his belief-system emphatically excludes the likelihood of having an NDE, not to mention having the sort of NDE he had.

All these features and implications of his NDE make Ayer’s desperate attempts in subsequent pieces on his NDE, notwithstanding his grudging and attenuated acknowledgment that the NDE has merely somewhat weakened his inflexible attitude toward his belief that conscious experience cannot survive the death of the brain,  to cling to  a materialist/naturalist view of consciousness and the universe  intellectually pathetic, cowardly, and dishonest.

In terms of the worldview of Suddha Sanmargam, based on Ramalingam’s Agaval and the Vinappams or Petitions of Suddha Sanmargam, consciousness is our essential property given our status as souls or individual subjects capable of experience, knowledge, volition, and intentional action. Our consciousness is not dependent on the brain for its existence, but, rather, uses the brain as its instrument to gather experience, know, and function in the material world.  However, our consciousness is finite. It is also afflicted by ignorance and its train of limitations and flaws. Hence, we do not know many of the salient truths pertaining to our own embodiment.

The mind-boggling relation between our consciousness and the brain is the result of supernatural intelligent design, and, ultimately, an act of compassion by Arutperumjothi to facilitate the development of souls from a state of primeval ignorance.

Hence, the exact nature of the relation between our consciousness and the body we temporarily inhabit will remain enigmatic unless we attain enlightenment, or unitive experience and knowledge of Arutperumjothi.

“Disembodiment”, whether by means of death, or cardiac arrest, or other unusual causes, frees our consciousness from its habitual confinement, by way of identification and attachment, to the physical body and its limitations. Hence, we should expect disembodiment to expand the range of perceptions our consciousness is capable of and this may well include perceptions of some “supernatural” beings, particularly those beings which inhabit the realm or universe into which we have drifted in our freedom from the confines of the physical body.

Actually, “disembodiment” is a misnomer for the condition of our consciousness after separation from the confines of the (gross) physical body.

In one of the Vinappams or Petitions of Suddha Sanmargam addressed to Arutperumjothi, Ramalingam refers to a “subtle form” inhabited by a  soul prior to its embodiment in the gross physical body. He also expresses his awe and gratitude at the power of Arutperumjothi in effortlessly and harmoniously bringing about not only a soul’s embodiment in this subtle form or body, but also its  further embodiment in a gross (antonym of “subtle”) physical body. This “subtle form”  or subtle body is the instrument used by our consciousness after the death of the physical body. 

"Chakras" in the subtle body, Nepal, 1600's

“Chakras” in the subtle body, Nepal, 1600’s

Many aspects of Ayer’s NDE  (and, generally, many aspects of NDE’s and OBE’s or Out-of-Body-Experiences) make sense only on the supposition of a subtle body with its own modes of perception, including perception of color and form.

That part of Ayer’s NDE in which he sees the red light and its ministers and walks up and down waving his hands trying to draw the attention of the supernatural “ministers” in charge of space-time may best be explained in terms of having a subtle body and making the relevant motions with it.

Since his physical body and its eyes were not functioning normally due to cardiac arrest, his near-death experience involving perception of color and form can only be explained in terms of the possession of another type of body, a “subtle body”, with its own capacities of perception. His claim that the red light was painful to look at clearly implies experience of pain and his claim that it was uncomfortable even when he turned away from it implies some type of bodily motion.

All this points to the best explanation of his near-death experience in terms of its locus in a subtle body independent of his physical body.

I will examine these issues further in my next post in this series.


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