Religious Experience in Indian Traditions

The problem is considerably worse when Indian religious traditions are considered. There are a great many broadly theistic traditions in India, but all "orthodox" traditions accept the authority of the Vedas and Upanishads; in addition, different traditions look to teachers of wisdom who interpret those texts in various ways.

The Hindu scriptures are traditionally said to be learned from the gods by ancient sages. This is a form of verbal inspiration. As in the Abrahamic tradition, such inspiration is accompanied by an encounter with the gods by an enlightened sage. Such sages are often believed to be avatara, or personal embodiments, of a god. Thus, Sankara, founder of Advaita, the nondualist form of Hindu thought, is widely taken to be an embodiment of the god Siva. An avatar is omniscient and fully manifests the principle of divinity that is disguised or hidden in most humans. Followers of Advaita aim to realize the sense of union with the Divine themselves. In the modern form of Hinduism known as neo-Vedanta, the experience of nonduality becomes the main aim of religious practice, to which meditation leads.

Other forms of Hinduism, like Gaudiya Vaishnavism, are much more devotionally oriented. But Gaudiya Vaishnavism, too, aims at the experience of loving union with Krishna, an experience that the god fully realized with humans during his earthly embodiment. In these traditions, there is much disagreement about exactly how the object of religious experience is to be described, but there is an agreement that experience of a higher reality of intelligence and bliss is possible, that it has been achieved, even if rarely, and that it is achievable in principle by all, even if only in some future life.

Buddhist traditions reject any idea of union with an eternal Self or devotion to a Supreme God. But, if anything, they emphasize experience of higher states of human consciousness more than theistic traditions. When Siddartha Gautama achieved Enlightenment, it was after many years of ascetic practice, and it was an entrance into a higher state of consciousness. This experience is normative for disciples of the Buddha, but it is interpreted in very different ways by different Buddhist groups. In general, Theravada traditions concentrate on the practice of meditation, leading to nonattachment and a deep sense of inner peace that brings freedom from sorrow. Many Mahayana traditions, however, use texts like the Lotus Sutra that have been received in revelatory experiences from a living Buddha in a spiritual realm and have a more devotional approach to heavenly buddhas or boddhisattvas, those who are believed to have achieved Enlightenment.

There are many rules of practice for Buddhist monks, outlined in the Vinaya, or monastic discipline. But Buddhism is not primarily a system of social ethics. Its concern is with identifying and overcoming the causes of suffering by mental discipline. Rituals, systems of doctrine, and codes of ethics are primarily means to the achieving of a specific state of consciousness. In such schools of thought, experience becomes a primary goal of religious practice. But it might well be said that such experience is realistically pursued only by a rather small monastic elite. Most lay followers admire and encourage them but are themselves content with learning compassion and mindfulness in more mundane ways.

The Importance of Experience in Religion

Overall, it seems that distinctive forms of experience that may be termed religious are important to religion and that, without them, religions might not have come into existence. But there are many sorts and degrees of religious experience. At its most intense, a religious experience occurs only to a prophet or sage. Most religious believers may hope to have a vaguely similar sort of experience, to a lesser extent, or they may simply admire and trust the testimony of those who claim to have had it. Religious experiences in general are not inerrant, and adherents of each religious tradition are logically bound to think that most religious experiences (that is, experiences in the many traditions other than their own) will be described in ways that contain some errors of interpretation. All traditions are also painfully aware that the risk of deceit and deception, of mental imbalance and moral disorder, is always possible in human life. So, many religious experiences will be deluded, immoral, or unbalanced, and each tradition attempts to limit and counteract the influence of such experiences as much as possible.

In order to do this, most religious traditions contain revelations accepted as authoritative, and these can usually be traced back to some person believed to be in the best possible position to know the truth about Spiritual Reality. Being in that position involves possessing intellectual, moral, and positive mental qualities of a high order and being in an interpretative tradition that provides the possibility of a correct description of the experience. Only then will a claimed experience of such a person be accepted as a genuine insight into a higher divine reality.

Interpretative traditions differ quite widely, and religious experiences range from alleged encounters with a God or personal Spiritual Being to a sense of union with that which is Supremely Real or to entrance into a higher state of consciousness, free from suffering, greed, hatred, and delusion.

These types of experience are not quite as exclusive as may at first be thought. They share the sense of a higher reality of wisdom, compassion, and bliss. It is further descriptions of this reality as personal, as all-embracing, or as impersonal (we might say, though in an oversimple way, as God, Brahman, or nibbana) that produce divergences of interpretation. More differences arise when the descriptions get even more specific, detailing the precise "commands" of God or the characteristics of an enlightened being.

If this is the case, it suggests that religions may make a claim to access a higher spiritual reality in a number of different but not necessarily contradictory ways—by devotion, mystical union, or self-discipline, for example. The Ultimate Reality may be such that it has personal and impersonal, transcendent and immanent aspects. These can be taken as aspects of one rich reality, which can only be spoken of analogically in any case, rather than in complete and exclusive descriptions. However, religions then tend to congeal into competing traditions that claim sole possession of inerrant truth. At that point, either only one tradition can be correct, or they may all be correct in some points and incorrect in others (or, of course, they may all be incorrect on most important points).

Religious experience, the claim to apprehend a higher spiritual reality, thus seems to be essential to religion, though it is not an essential part of every believer's life. If all such claims are false or deluded, religion would seem to rest upon a mistake. In the world religions as a whole, the varieties of religious experience do not seem to present us with just a mass of total contradictions. Rather, the data look like a set of closely related and complementary claims at a general level, but that get complicated by doctrinal, ritual, and ethical differences that increase proportionally with increasingly detailed attempts to describe the precise character of the experienced reality and its relationship to ordinary human life and expectations.

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