The Spectrum of Faith

sadhuBy Gauravani das

“Faith is the conviction behind sustained effort.” —Swami Tripurari, Bhagavad-gita: Its Feeling and Philosophy

In a recent Twitter discussion, I suggested that atheists do have faith. Their faith is in reason and sense perception, rationalism and empiricism. This statement gave rise to an observation by Susan Katz Miller (@beingboth):

Christianity tends to be more binary: faith/no faith. Jews, Hindus, others less so, no?

Susan is right. Christians often view faith as something you either have or you don’t. However, Hindus tend to view faith (sraddha) along a spectrum of both quality and depth (guna and adhikara). Within that spectrum, Hinduism has room for those who consider themselves faithless, and also provides a context in which tender faith (komala sraddha) can grow into strong faith (sastriya sraddha).

Belief and Faith

Mere belief in religious doctrine will not propel us into the practices and lifestyle exemplified by the saints. We must do more than believe and carry on with a materialistic life. Such belief is arguably similar to the empirical faith of atheism. On the surface, we appear to make progress and attain happiness by pursuing bodily comfort (kama) and acquiring wealth (artha). These pursuits are based on faith that our existence is limited to our body and mind. With this premise, atheists use reason to improve their material life while the religious ask God to improve it for them. And since our bodies are subject to hunger, disease, and ultimately death, the effort to maintain a limited and brief existence is neither reasonable nor fulfilling. This wisdom is present in all scriptures:

Do not love the world or the things in the world. The love of the Father is not in those who love the world; for all that is in the world—the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, the pride in riches—comes not from the Father but from the world. (1 John 2:15-16)

A person who has abandoned all desires for sense indulgence acts free from desire. Indifferent to proprietorship and free from egotism, he attains peace. (Bhagavad-gita 2.71)

For if you think of this world, you will not find it worth sacrificing your soul and faith for it. But you will find your soul worthier of honour by ridiculing this world. This world is abhorred of God almighty and the messengers. It is an abode of affliction and a station of foolishness. Be on your guard from it. (Harith al-Muhasibi, Kitab al-Khalwa)

The Noble Truth of the Origin (cause) of Suffering is this: It is this craving (thirst) which produces re-becoming (rebirth) accompanied by passionate greed, and finding fresh delight now here, and now there, namely craving for sense pleasure, craving for existence and craving for non-existence (self-annihilation). The Noble Truth of the Cessation of Suffering is this: It is the complete cessation of that very craving, giving it up, relinquishing it, liberating oneself from it, and detaching oneself from it. (Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta, translated by Piyadassi Thera)

With the above verses, scripture seeks to increase the depth and quality of our faith, and in doing so, invites us to engage in the actions that allow us to experience life beyond the limitations of the temporal body and mind. The implications of such an experience are made obvious by the existence of scripture itself. Scripture represents thousands of years of reflection on the transcendent experience of God possessed by the saints of every tradition.

Depth and Quality of Faith

With tender faith, we may adopt the practices recommended by scripture. Such faith is not without reason and after much deliberation, recognizes the limitations of reason. Where reasons ends, humble practice begins. This heartfelt practice (sadhana) is a transrational act best performed under the guidance of living saints (sadhus). The results of such practice deepens faith which in turn deepens practice.

As our faith in the scripture and the saints deepens, faith in everything the world has to offer wanes. We should actively seek out those saints whose faith is so deep the world has very little consequence (sadhu-sanga). Although in the world, they are not of it. They live not by taking from others to maintain a temproary existence but by giving to God out of blissful love. In the company of these saints, they share their faith with us, and doubts about the existence of God wither away in the presence of their love for God. Sri Krishna Caitanya, consumed by this love, exclaims:

Oh Lord, I don’t want wealth, followers, beautiful women, wisdom or verse. I only ask for unalloyed devotion unto you, forever. (Sri Caitanya-caritamrta, Antya-lila, Chapter 20)


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21 Responses to The Spectrum of Faith

  1. “Susan is right. Christians view faith as something you either have or you don’t.”

    This is certainly a simplistic, if not totally incorrect assertion. I don’t fully grasp the tendency of the Western devotee to mis-represent Christian theology; it surely is a common tendency. Likely because, like the atheist Susan, they do not care to analyze Christian theology. I’m not saying the average devotee should exercise such feats of comparativism, but if you’re going to agree with atheists over other sects who also believe in a personal god, you should do your homework.

    “We all have in our hearts some areas of unbelief. Let us say to the Lord: I believe! Help my unbelief.”

    – Pope Francis, May 24, via twitter

    • Gauravani dasa

      Yop,

      One point of clarification: Susan is not an atheist and her observation of binary faith in Christianity comes from her experience as an interfaith child and parent in a Protestant and Jewish household.

      My intention in this article is to challenge the idea that belief in a God whose purpose is to satisfy our desires is any different than the faith of an atheist in reason and sense perception. The basis of both is the conviction that our existence is limited by the body and mind. And in both cases, attachment to the world and its prospects remain as a result of the actions fueled by said faith.

      My argument is this: deeper faith and corresponding practice produces detachment from the world and attachment to God. Most importantly, that detachment only arises because God is lovable–it is possible to develop attachment for him because of his form, qualities, lila, etc. This is a much different idea of God than that held by the religious who petition God to fulfill our desires.

      However, I do recognize that faith in God is better than no faith at all. But, again, I’m making the case that faith can go further and deeper but only when we challenge the idea that our existence is limited to body and mind.

      Yop, do you have a specific reference to Christian theology that would nuance my understanding of their faith?

      • 1. “…challenge the idea that belief in a God whose purpose is to satisfy our desires”

        Another assumptive statement. Christians actually wish to conform to God’s desires for them.

        2. “This is a much different idea of God than that held by the religious who petition God to fulfill our desires.”

        See above. It seems as if you are inferring some anecdotal evidence, or some personal experience with Christianity in the past. Or are you referring to ancient Brahmin sacrifice? We know Prabhupada describes appeasing the gods through surficial modes of sacrifice, and how it’s not that deep and so forth.

        3. “do you have a specific reference…?”

        Did you not care to read the quote from Pope Francis above? Like a Vaisnava guru or saint, such a quote is living, breathing theology.

        If you desire more clarification, I encourage you to peruse the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

        Your opinion of Christianity is obviously limited by your (lack of) knowledge of the practice. I am no theologian, but know it’s not as simple as you present it in your above blurb. Reiterating what I wrote above: I wouldn’t assume the average devotee would delve deep into a comparative mode. You take the risk of truly mis-representing Christian thought if you don’t do your homework, though.

        • I would like to have this discussion on the merit of the reasoning presented but since you continue to question my qualifications for engaging in the discussion, you should know that I am married to a Christian minister with a Masters of Divinity from Duke University whose book on our interfaith marriage will be published in October.

          My wife and I discussed your points and while it is true that Christians want to be aligned with God’s desires for them (to be “in relationship” with him), there is a lot of ambiguity in Christian circles about what that really means.

          The result of this ambiguity is either prosperity theology or “purpose driven” theology. In both cases, without a clear distinction between matter and consciousness, Christians assume that God’s desires for them involve bodily comfort or the enjoyment of heavenly existence. In other words, service and worship for God is performed for a particular benefit (karma-kanda) that is directly related to the worshipper’s material conception of himself and God.

          If you would like to present evidence that the Christian conception of God includes a distinction between matter and consciousness and a corresponding theology of the relationship between God and the individual soul, please do so.

          • It gladdens my heart to hear you and your wife are experiencing a successful interfaith marriage.

            It makes your hard-and-fast attitude toward Christianity that much more curious.

            Re: “present(ing) evidence: I know of no equivocal theological distinction in Christianity. I am neither apologist nor theologian. However, variant attitudes orbiting matter/spirit duality exist in both Christian (including appendent “post-christian” Western philosophical schools) and Vaisnav traditions. It’s not black and white in either school of thought.

            You do a disservice to Christianity by oversimplifying its, if you will, general tenants. I do not think you unqualified to go forth and perform research for an article like this by digging deeper into the writings of Catholic/Christian thinkers.

            Your wife’s book sounds mighty interesting. Does it include dialog transcription of your shared spiritual and philosophical discussions? I wish you both continued success and look forward to potentially reading said book.

          • Gauravani dasa

            Yop,

            As Tripurari Maharaja pointed out, this is more an argument for a spiritual orientation to life than a bias against Christianity specifically.

            My wife would also be quick to point out that I have an “edge” when talking about this topic. But it is hard not to feel strongly about the ideal that Sri Caitanyadeva came to give.

        • 1. “…challenge the idea that belief in a God whose purpose is to satisfy our desires”

          Another assumptive statement. Christians actually wish to conform to God’s desires for them.

          This is really an argument for an essential, experiential spiritual orientation to life as opposed to a religious orientation to life, not Christianity vs Hinduism. However, the advantage I see in Hinduism is that it clearly posits mukti or prema as the goal of religious practice—religious life leading to the culture of monistic or theistic mysticism. Although this (theistic mysticism) is also there in Christianity, it is not as well developed and Christian scripture does not articulate a systematic practice of mysticism for those who have passed through the religious orientation. Merton was quick to acknowledge this upon visiting the East.

    • Yop,

      Rajiv Malohotra’s Being Different provides much food for thought on some of the issues mentioned.

      Further info:

      http://beingdifferentbook.com/

  2. Citta Hari dasa

    If atheism is the superior way to live then where are the superior results of that worldview? While many atheists are good people, as far as I know we have yet to see atheism consistently produce people of saintly character. Where is their detachment from things, their bodies, and their ideas? Where is their selflessness? Christopher Hitchens certainly didn’t exhibit superior character. One is left to question whether faith in reason alone is really such a good thing.

  3. Gurunistha dasa

    A nice one, Gauravani.

    It’s a wonderful insight in hinduism how everything is actually constituted of faith. Of course it’s important to remember that we don’t at the same time advocate the kind of “create your own universe” philosophy that’s so prevalent in the New Age circles. There are objective facts like the existence of the Godhead, Jivas, and so on, but the way we perceive different realities and things is defined by our faith that we have acquired from innumerable past impressions or samskaras.

    Samskaras also very conveniently explain why people are born with different kinds of inherent natures and leanings spiritually speaking. I would imagine that that’s very hard to explain for spiritual traditions that view humans as a “tabula rasa” and don’t have a concept of reincarnation and karma. Inevitably then a person’s decisions will be judged solely on the basis of this one life and from a hindu point of view that seems unfair, because we are mostly at the mercy of our acquired natures.

    • Gauravani dasa

      Agreed, Gurunistha. It is also important to point out that strong faith is sastriya-sraddha, faith in the scripture, which is where the Godhead, jivas, etc. are all described.

      Practically all of Hindu philosophy requires that the distinction between matter and consciousness be established before being able to understand the rest of the philosophy, including karma and reincarnation.

      • “Practically all of Hindu philosophy requires that the distinction between matter and consciousness be established before being able to understand the rest of the philosophy, including karma and reincarnation.”

        First of all using the umbrella term Hindu is dangerous because living Hinduism is more about orthopraxy rather than orthodoxy. Belief in details of after lives, soul etc is not the core of how Hindus live their life. The life is very much in dharma, artha and kama.

        “Of course it’s important to remember that we don’t at the same time advocate the kind of “create your own universe” philosophy that’s so prevalent in the New Age circles. There are objective facts like the existence of the Godhead, Jivas, and so on, but the way we perceive different realities and things is defined by our faith that we have acquired from innumerable past impressions or samskaras.” Catholic Church arbitrarily selected some documents for the New Testament and there have always been multiple sects within any doctrine that started including Buddhism. So this new age kind of idea is not entirely new. After some centuries, the older generation asserts that they are the genuine torchbearers, while the newer generation adds to their own. This process has continued over generations. What is heterodox is one time becomes orthodox in another.

        • First of all using the umbrella term Hindu is dangerous because living Hinduism is more about orthopraxy rather than orthodoxy. Belief in details of after lives, soul etc is not the core of how Hindus live their life. The life is very much in dharma, artha and kama.

          But the article is about Hindu and Christain philosophy, not on the ground practice. And the primary motivating force for dharma is concern for the next life.

    • Haribol Nistha ! I have considered that the karma-reincarnation model is a rational approach to “original sin”. There is a lot of feeling today that humans are born sweet and pure-hearted. But our perspective of the individual coming into this world as an infant with lifetimes of psychological baggage going back to one’s original desire to enjoy independent of being of service to God, corresponds perhaps, or sheds light on the concept of original sin.

  4. “create your own universe” philosophy that’s so prevalent in the New Age circles.

    Could you please kindly explain?I am confused.

    • Gurunistha dasa

      Sreekar,

      The idea is called Law of Attraction and seems very wide-spread in the alternative spiritual circles. A recent movie called The Secret (2006) resurfaced and popularized the idea that’s been around in the west since the Theosophists.

      It’s this idea that you can completely form your own reality based on the kind of “energy” you send to your surroundings and that you can become anything you want by just wanting it enough. It seems like the idea is based on some kind of a vague nirvisesa brahman conception, which fuels the idea that we can become everything because we *are* everything.

      Here’s more about it: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Law_of_Attraction

  5. “Binary faith” is an unfair, misleading phrase when one assesses a practice in which they do not participate. It is quite obviously a phrase employed to suggest superiority of one practice over another in a mode of evangelism. This is the essence of sectarianism.

    • Yop,

      The phrase (bninary faith) was voiced not by one entirely assessing a practice in which one does not participate. It was voiced by Susan Katz Miller, who raises her children in two faiths, Judaism and Christianity. Her father was jewish, her mother protestant. Her husband is a Protestant. The author of the the article has cited her opinion. And I think you overlook the nuance in her statement. She says that (apparently in her experience) Christianity “tends” to be binary in comparison to other faiths. I think there is some truth to this with regard to Hinduism in that while there are obviously stronger and weaker Christians in terms of their faith as translated into practice, Hinduism as represented by Gaudiya Vaisnavism clearly articulates different qualities of faith as well as different degrees of it. In other words Christianity tends to limit the discussion of faith to whether or not one has faith in Christ and the fact that doubts may also be present among the faithful. Whereas the Gaudiya tradition describes three distinct levels of faith and four distinct qualities of faith. And we Gaudiyas would of course use this criteria when assessing the fatih of other traditions.

      We might for example acknowledge a rajasic quality in a Christian’s faith that does not clearly distinguish between matter and consciousness (perhaps a Thomist) and a sattvic quality to a Christian whose faith does (perhaps a Fanciscan). Similarly we might also acknowledge how a Gaudiya’s faith is affected by material qualities. So it seems that there is a more expansive framework within Gaudiya siddhanta for discussing the nature of faith than what is found in Christianity.

      Also faith in Gaudiya Vasinavism has much to do with the nature of being and not only believing in the Godhood of Sri Krsna. In my experience as Chatholic, faith involved more believing than it did a discussion on the nature of being, which in Vaisnavism has much to do with growing one’s faith. The Bible and the Gita are quite different in this regard.

      • Thank you, Swami. After reading your clarification, I see I was in error focusing on this phrase.

        I think I took Gauravani’s head-nod to Susan to mean “binary” as it relates to operative Christian practice. In my haste I ignored the “tendency” qualifier.

        My apologies if I have offended anyone.

  6. For me personally, faith is something that is fed and kept alive by my direct experiences. As such, it is very much connected with reason and logic. My initial faith in the process of bhakti came from my direct experiences with the processes of yoga and religion. Bhakti combines the two. Over the years my faith has grown, as I have experienced the results of the bhakti process. But that faith has also changed, as I saw the failures of my understanding, or failures of my various beliefs connected to the process and doctrine of bhakti.
    I have a very hard time understanding faith which is not based in observable reality and/or direct experience – at least to a significant degree. Anybody can promise you incredible rewards after you die. That is the easiest con game in the world. For me, real spirituality is here and now, bearing fruit as we live and practice.

  7. The article states:

    “With the above verses, scripture seeks to increase the depth and quality of our faith, and in doing so, invites us to engage in the actions that allow us to experience life beyond the limitations of the temporal body and mind.”

    Those verses don’t serve to increase faith. They are sambandha, in that they provide a rationale for understanding the limitations of sensual pursuit. This is a big part of our vaishnava presentation. But it is not to create faith in God, but only to point out that materialism won’t satisfy us.

    Kula-pavana writes:

    “For me personally, faith is something that is fed and kept alive by my direct experiences.”

    I like this. That direct experience is of two kinds. One is sadhu sanga. And the other is the experience that fulfills our hearts when we engage in abidheya, devotional practices.

    Also, it is very significant that the way in which we live, from a material point of view, will have a profound affect on our ability to cultivate various qualities of faith. There is faith in the mode of ignorance, passion and goodness. Bhagavatam states that the killer of the soul cannot sense spiritual attraction to the subject matter of Bhagavan.

    The mode of goodness is recognized as a springboard into transcendental experience. Ignorance and passion inhibit that experience. And therefore the do’s and don’ts, or yam, niyam which are the core of the simple religions, can act as a profound “cover charge” for entrance into the mystical experiences that make one’s faith unshakable. In other words, one cultivates the mode of goodness, not to become a “good boy” who goes to heaven after leaving this material body. One cultivates the mode of goodness because it facilitates one’s ability to experience and cultivate faith in transcendence, here and now. Therefore brahminical life is prescribed – not to generate pride, but humility – based on the ability to sense and rejoice in the omnipresent reciprocation of love with Bhagavan.

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