Huston Smith: Beyond the Postmodern Mind

postmodernHuston Smith, Beyond the Postmodern Mind. The Place of Meaning in a Global Civilization, 3rd ed., Wheaton: Quest Books, 2003.

Review by Bhrigupada dasa

No matter how much we as Gaudiya practitioners may romanticize the bygone eras that are often spoken about in various scriptures, the fact of the matter is that we are living in the 21st century. Trying to turn back time is not likely to impress anyone outside the ashram doors, even if there had been any successful examples to point to. The story of Pariksit in the Srimad Bhagavatam is a poignant reminder of the inexorable progress of time. Does that mean that we just have to roll over and accept the zeitgeist of postmodernism, the endless doubts over anything even remotely connected with the grand narratives of modern or pre-modern society, a life without purpose or meaning? Do we need to reduce the God of the Goswamis into a lifeless deist deity, little more than the first mover of a universe more remote from him with every passing moment? I should think not.

One interesting and little explored alternative for devotees wishing to present Gaudiya Vaishnavism in a contemporary way is to align with the trend of thought known as perennial philosophy. First given scholarly attention by G.W. von Leibnitz in 1714, perennial philosophy was famously defined by Aldous Huxley in 1945 as “the metaphysic that recognizes a divine Reality substantial to the world of things and lives and minds; the psychology that finds in the soul something similar to, or even identical with, divine Reality; the ethic that places man’s final end in the knowledge of the immanent and transcendent Ground of all being; the thing is immemorial and universal. Rudiments of the perennial philosophy may be found among the traditional lore of primitive peoples in every region of the world, and in its fully developed forms it has a place in every one of the higher religions.”

Now, it is not unlikely that mayavada warning bells will go off for many devotees reading this, and that is not entirely without reason. Huxley’s take on perennial philosophy is decidedly advaitic, as is of course that of Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan and many other authors. However, perennialism need not be taken in that direction. In fact, as Jason Fuller has argued, much of the writing of Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakur can be seen as an early attempt to align Gaudiya Vaishnavism with perennial philosophy, though Bhaktivinoda never used that exact term himself.

Perhaps the best known proponent of perennial philosophy today is Huston Smith, Professor of Philosophy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and at Syracuse University, author of best-selling and award-winning books such as The World Religions (first ed. 1958) and Why Religion Matters (2001). In Beyond the Postmodern Mind, he provides not only an apology for his thought, but goes headlong up against some central issues in the modern/ postmodern project.

Smith’s basic premise is that the doubt of postmodernism creates alienation, and that the modern preoccupation with science leads to a worldview dominated by the need for control. The limitations and dangers of those approaches to life are plain to see all around us.

The present book is divided into four parts. The first one, “Dark Wood”, is the background, presenting in two chapters a brief history of postmodernism as well as a sustained argument for the necessity of metaphysics. While somewhat difficult for a general reader, the chapter on metaphysics shows clearly that the modern philosophical arguments against the feasibility or even desirability of metaphysical thought are not conclusive.

Part two, “A Clearing”, describes in one chapter Smith’s take on the perennial philosophy. While not strictly monistic as many other perennialists, Smith divides God into two: God the unmanifest, ineffable Godhead and God manifest, clothed with personal attributes. This certainly smacks of Shankara’s nirguna and saguna Brahman. However, Smith makes it clear that this does not mean that the Godhead is impersonal; rather, it is suprapersonal. The Bhagavata version of this might be likened to the neophyte (kanistha) and superlative (uttama) devotees’ understanding of the personality of Godhead. More problematic, perhaps, is how Smith divides our innermost being into the soul, the part of us that engages in an I-Thou relationship with God as Martin Buber put it, and the spirit, according to Aldous Huxley, “something similar, or even identical with, Divine Reality.” While orthodox Vaishnavas would have no problem acknowledging the similarity between atman and Brahman, this divide implies the superiority of mystic union to that of a dynamic relationship between God and devotee. This is of course unacceptable to a Gaudiya Vaishnava.

In part three, “Looking Around”, Huston Smith moves into today’s society and deals with higher education, the humanities, philosophy, theology, science, and society in as many chapters. While Smith presents many good points here, this is also the part of the book that is most dated (some chapters originating in the late seventies), and that does show at times, such as in his treatment of evolution. There are also some rather silly mistakes here, such as misreading aryurveda for ayurveda, thus thinking it means the medicine of the Aryans. (That such a mistake is allowed to persist in a third edition of a popular work such as this tells much about the knowledge of ayurveda in the U.S., one could add.)

The four chapters of part four, “A Way Out”, look toward the future, presenting possible ways in which to break free of the straightjackets of modernism and postmodernism. This is perhaps the most exciting part of the book. Huston Smith’s definition and description of a jivanmukta, or fully-realized person, may be of particular interest to devotees, though the language may at times sound off-putting. Again, we must beware against letting a different type of language mislead us – when Smith talks of dying to the self, he seems to be speaking about dying to the relative, selfish side of our personality, much as when Srila Sridhara Maharaja quoted Hegel’s “die to live”. The third edition of the book ends with an autobiographical epilogue, in which the author recapitulates twelve frontiers that he has passed in his intellectual and religious life so far.

Personally, I am not terribly impressed with everything that Huston Smith writes. However, he does present a credible, genuinely spiritual alternative to much of prevailing thought, without the need of returning to a pre-modern mindset and turning one’s back against the intellectual tradition of the West. Further, he does so with an intellectual acumen and excitement that is sorely lacking in much of present-day Gaudiya Vaishnavism. This should serve both to enthuse and shame us. It is more than a hundred years since Bhaktivinoda Thakura called for “future saragrahis”, or essential spiritual practititoners, to continue his work. It is our responsibility to take up that call in earnest and try to demonstrate his understanding of a perennial philosophy of love of God, based on the categories of sambandha, abhidheya, and prayojana, in a way that can be appreciated by spiritually minded intellectuals outside the limits of institutionalized Gaudiya Vaishnavism.


Bhrigupada Dasa (Dr. Mans Broo) is Adjunct Professor of Comparative Religion at Abo Akademi University, Finland.

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5 Responses to Huston Smith: Beyond the Postmodern Mind

  1. It is a pity that Smith’s book, while timeless in many respects, is dated with regard to his chapter on evolution. I also found that chapter disappointing.

  2. Smith also has a book he co-authored with David Ray Griffin entitled Primordial Truth and Postmodern Theology that I read some time ago. Griffin is a postmodern theologian of sorts (and unfortunately a 9/11 truth seeker), and the book is a discussion between the two authors centered on their very different positions. They agree on much but disagree, I believe, on more in a qualitative sense, with Griffin taking a Whiteheadian position on the omniscience of God, etc. that to me takes the life out of the Godhead. I have to admire Smith for standing his ground and taking a very unpopular position in academia in support of a fully transcendent reality, and also for the elegance with which he does so despite his impersonal leanings and other positions on certain issues.

    At any rate, I was reminded of him, his life experience, all that he has stood for, and this review recently with the announcement of Smith’s latest book Tales of Wonder; Adventures Chasing the Divine, an Autobiography. I am not interested in reading this book, but again, Smith has lived a long life of personal conviction despite considerable opposition and held his ground admirably, and that is something I personally identify with.

  3. Here are some thoughts on perennialism as opposed to postmodernism as the cultural corollary to a global economy/civilization. Note that here I am referring to contemporary postmodern globalization, a hybrid syndrome driven by postmoderns who envision an economic universalism without expecting a corresponding social and cultural uniformity worldwide.

    In today’s world global markets and technology tend to unify the global village, while minority ethnicities and differences tend to pull it apart. The obvious problem here is that the unification derived from global markets and technology is nothing other than food for the fire of consumerism that it has created. Consumerism is one thing while the need to consume is another. The latter is a human necessity and the former an artificial creation, one that is from a spiritual point of view is harmful: fostering greed.

    When this greed-fest is inhibited by ethnic religious minorities we try to educate them and invite them to the table. We (as postmodernists) are so kind (as opposed to modernists) in doing so as to allow them to continue with much of their rites and rituals as long as they understand them to be less than what they thought they were. Indeed, we may even see fit to fight for them and even partake of them and celebrate them as much as we find them useful in the here and now. This to me is a sham in the name of preserving diversity.

    The heart of these religious traditions that often escapes many of their adherents also escapes their liberators. But it is their transcendent heart that offers a much deeper unifying force, one that in no way dismisses the traditions diverse approaches to it. The perennialist position is to unify the globe around the transcendent heart of the world’s religious traditions.

    A Vedantist sees the culture of greed as a”displacement reaction,” to use a psychological term. A displacement reaction occurs when a normal need cannot be met and something else is substituted in its stead. Blanketing ourselves in consumerism add-ons obscures a deeper underlying malaise of an unfulfilled yearning that things and even thoughts cannot cure. This underlying need derives from the fact that we are three dimensional beings at present: physical, psychic, and ultimately spiritual. Consumerism is a displacement reaction that derives from a culture that underestimates our psychic and denies our spiritual dimensions.

    Our displacement reaction of consumerism is fueled also by our anthropocentrism, the idea that individual human well-being is taken the measure of all things. But humans are not the center of all meaning and the source of all value, and material consumption is not all that being human is about. As different as it is from modernism, anthropocentrism and consumerism are the nonetheless the agenda of postmodernism’s new world order (or disorder), and this has been explained convincingly by a number of postmodern philosophers themselves. So here again Gaudiya Vedanta’s perennialism comes to our aid in its advocacy of a center-centered life rather than on off-center-centered life. And once the actual center is established, there is room for a broad circumference. To use Prabhupada’s analogy, if many stones of different shapes are thrown into a pond in the exact same place, the result is a broad and harmonious rippling effect.

    • Citta Hari dasa

      This is a brilliant analysis. I was just talking about the displacement reaction phenomenon (not using that term) last night with a friend. We laughed at the apt line from the song that says we’re “looking for love in all the wrong places,” and in our unfulfilled state we will do anything in an attempt to fill the void. Part of why the consumer culture is so difficult to change is that people’s very identities rely on the objects and/or power and status they have invested themselves in. To acknowledge that consumerism is as destructive as it really is (and so question the systems that allow it to continue) would be an assault on their sense of self and such a move is far too dangerous to entertain for many. And so we see that in the face of massive amounts of evidence there arises an equally massive edifice of denial.

      Only by recognizing our source in consciousness will our displacement reactions cease. This is where social/political movements, environmentalism, etc. tend to fall short, seeking only partial solutions due to their failure to address the dimension of consciousness. Something is better than nothing, of course, but to think that humanity’s greed will be addressed adequately (forget comprehensively!) based on morality (we shouldn’t be greedy because greed is wrong) or out of fear when faced with the eventuality of destroying the biosphere is naive. The center is still humanity, or the earth, not consciousness. Clearly then if we want to “save the world” in any lasting way only a perennial philosophy like Gaudiya Vedanta can offer real help.

    • In complete agreement to Tripurari Swami’s comment, I wanted to express my sentiments about what he wrote.
      This article was previously published here: The United Cultures of the World

      When I look into the world, and I try to see where the greatest vacuum is, I feel it is in the arena of preservation of spirituality and culture.
      The United Nations has it’s commendable focus. It gets the most powerful nations to talk to each other so that conflicts can be resolved. The World Trade Organization has it’s commendable focus, the spreading of resources around the planet. But it makes me wonder, who is preserving the cultures around the world?

      In achieving peace, the United Nations uses all means possible. A lot of them are commendable. The United Nations is against all things that are against world peace. But that is not always a good thing. I have observed people fighting to preserve the destruction of anything that they identify with. Sometimes they are fighting to preserve their family. Sometimes they are fighting to preserve their possessions. Sometimes they are fighting to preserve their culture. Sometimes they are fighting to preserve articles of their faith. If we seek to destroy everything that we fight for, we need to start with destroying ourself. After-all, every one of us certainly experiences doubts and conflicts within us, do we not?

      Many things in our life we can earn. But there are somethings in our life are either given to us or we never receive them. Receiving our identity from our own unique culture is one of those things.

      We started off talking about the United Nations interest in preserving peace. I was expressing that sometimes it seems that the United Nations is a lot more interested in preserving peace than in preserving culture. This is especially true of any culture that conflicts with the UNs peace-making process.
      Unless each of us works to actively preserve our own culture, the message we are giving to our children is that they should identify less and less into the cultures they were born into. Why are we stating as an absolute that everyone has to embrace the unidentifiable….known as world culture? How is this imposition a solution to anything? Are we not basically watering down all the cultures of the world by not allowing any of them to remain unique?

      Like I started off asking, “Who is working on preserving all the cultures of the world, including our own?”

      We may have experienced how unquestioned and unabated corporate advertising has affected the cultures of the world. How much advertising is preserving cultural values that go against its product’s use is questionable.

      What is the solution?
      I strongly feel that it is time for all the cultures of the world to unite against all forces in the world that seek to destroy them by imposing their standards. Other people will never be as motivated in preserving our own cultures with the love and authenticity that we feel in our own heart. We each need to take the responsibility of conserving our culture with pride. It is time for all the cultures of the world to unite against those who abuse their power by pretending to love us. It is time for all the cultures of the world to seek friendship with each other and unite against any force that seeks to destroy our fellow brother’s culture.

      I say that we let the United Nations remain our Sister’s responsibility. And let the World Trade Organization remain our Father’s jurisdiction. But, oh brother cultures of the world, I say, that we stand back to back with each other. I say that we stand like bulls with their horns facing out, but their backs to our brother’s back. And in this way, let us all be a circle so that our horns face out into the world. United, we will be a wreath of thorns, keeping a safe protective barrier from those who will be foreign to all of our cultural interests. Naturally the wreath will also be a safe barrier for those that are with our Sister and our Father who we may accidentally cause harm. I feel that this is in the best interest of the whole world. I feel that it is only in this way that Mother Earth would want us to live.

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