BOOK REVIEW: Two Saints by Arun Shourie

Two Saints: Speculations Around and About Ramakrishna Paramahamsa and Ramana MaharishiTwo Saints: Speculations Around and About Ramakrishna Paramahamsa and Ramana Maharishi by Arun Shourie
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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I suspect this book is extremely controversial for many, though it echoes many of my own views. The central premise of the book is that there is a middle ground position between: a.) true believers who insist that gurus and god-men hold superpowers and can perform miracles, and b.) rational skeptics who hold that god-men are inherently frauds and their followers are necessarily either shills or dunces.

What is this middle way? First of all, it denies the existence of the supernatural and rejects the premise that certain men and women — through great virtue or intense practice — can circumvent the laws of physics. (Which isn’t to suggest that great virtue and intense practice can’t have profound impacts on a person and the community in which he or she resides.) Secondly, on the other hand, it acknowledges that scientific findings (or at least feasible hypotheses) on matters such as out-of-body experiences (OBE,) hypnotic trances states, hallucinations, epileptic seizures, the placebo effect, and near-death experiences (NDE) can offer insight into how rational, intelligent, and good-natured individuals might develop a belief in the supernatural. There is a third premise that is implicit throughout Shourie’s discussion of the life and works of these two great teachers (also which I share), which is that a lack of superpowers in no way detracts from what these two great gurus achieved.

As the subtitle suggests, the author is merely speculating as there is no way to put these ideas to the test, given these individuals are long deceased and (unlike, say, the Dalai Lama) would be unlikely to show an interest in such explorations even if they were alive. However, Shourie seeks to systematically demonstrate connections between the events described by the holy men and their followers and what scientific papers have described with respect to studies of unusual phenomena like OBE, NDE, and hallucinations. (e.g. it’s long been known that with an electrode applied to the right place on the brain a neuroscientist can induce an OBE in anyone. The widespread accounts of this feeling /experience that one is rising out of one’s body, often by respectable individuals of impeccable character, is one of the reasons for believing there must be an immaterial soul that is merely carted about by the body.)

The titular two saints that Shourie makes the centerpiece of his inquiry are the Bengali bhakti yogi Sri Ramakrishna and the jnana yogi from Tamil Nadu, Sri Ramana Maharshi. [For those unfamiliar with the terms “Bhakti Yogi” and “Jnana Yogi,” the former are those whose practice emphasize devotion and worship while the latter are those whose practice emphasize self-inquiry and study. The third leg of the stool being “Karma Yogis,” who focus upon selfless acts is the core of their pursuit of spirituality.] These two teachers were both born in the 19th century, though Sri Ramana lived through the first half of the 20th century. Besides being widely adored and seen as holy men of the highest order, they also serve as a kind of bridge between the ancient sages who lived out simple lives of spirituality in destitution and the modern gurus who often have vast commercial enterprises ranging from hair-care products to samosa mix all run from ashrams that are similar to academic universities in scope and grandeur. Some might argue that Ramakrishna and Ramana were the last of their kind in terms of being internationally sought after as teachers while not running an international commercial enterprise. Another way of looking at it is that they are modern enough that the events of their lives are highly documented, but not so modern as to have the taint modernity upon them.

The book is organized over sixteen chapters, and is annotated in the manner of scholarly works. The early chapters delve deeply into the life events of these two men, and in particular events that are used as evidence of their miraculousness. Through the middle, the author looks at how events in these individual’s life correspond to findings in studies of subjects such as the placebo effect (ch. 10,) hallucinations (ch. 7, e.g. given sleep or nutritional deprivation,) and hypnotic suggestion (ch. 9.) Over the course of the book, the chapters begin to look more generally at questions that science is still debating, but which are pertinent to spirituality – e.g. what is the nature of the self (ch. 12), what is consciousness? (ch. 13), and what does it mean for something to be real (ch. 15.) The final chapter pays homage to these two saints.

I found this book to be highly thought-provoking and well-researched. Shourie is respectful of the two teachers, while at the same time insisting that it’s not necessary for them to be super-powered for them to be worthy of emulation, respect, and study. I’d highly recommend this book for anyone interested in the questions of mystical experience and the scientific insights that can be offered into it.

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BOOK REVIEW: Rasputin by Maria Rasputin and Patte Barham

Rasputin: The Man Behind the Myth - A Personal MemoirRasputin: The Man Behind the Myth – A Personal Memoir by Mariia Grigor’evna Rasputina
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This was an impulse buy made at my local used bookshop. How could I not pick it up? There are few historic figures with as much swagger, and who are as steeped in mystique and myth, as Grigori Rasputin. This Russian mystic has been fictionalized as a villain by Disney and in the “Hell Boy” universe. If one knows anything about this holy man, it’s that he proved exceedingly hard to kill and that he is believed to have had great sway with the Tsar and his wife (i.e. the Tsarina) in large part owing to the apparently miraculous effect his presence had on the healing of their hemophiliac son, Alexei. (Skeptics will note that it’s widely believed Rasputin did – in fact – save the boy, but probably not through communion with a deity. Instead, he did it through a combination of luck in keeping the doctors from giving the boy aspirin [its blood-thinning nature wasn’t yet recognized], old folk wisdom [i.e. stressing the kid out with a dozen poking / prodding doctors is as likely have a deleterious effect on health as a positive one] and a placebo effect arising from the holy man’s larger-than-life charisma.)

It’s always hard to know what to expect with a biography written by a family member. In this case, the lead author is one of Rasputin’s daughters, Maria. While there is the same potential for bias in an autobiography, in a relative’s biography one never knows whether the writer will deify or vilify they subject – but one strongly suspects they will do one of the two. This is made all the more difficult in this book on the life of Grigori Rasputin because the author is at once exceedingly forthcoming about the man’s drinking and womanizing but simultaneously rails against Rasputin’s enemies and always holds that he was fundamentally virtuous and pious (outside of sleeping around, sousing it up, and taking bribes [which the author claims were redistributed Robin Hood style and which it’s further suggested didn’t result in promises to intercede with the Tsar / Tsarina that he wouldn’t have agreed to on the grounds of virtue and merit alone.]) It should be noted that there was a journalist co-author who may have rounded of the coarse edges of personal bias, though – as I suggested – Maria Rasputin comes across as being at ease with her father’s less godly proclivities.

The book begins in media res with a description of the night that Rasputin left his home and daughters never to return. This intro presents his daughter’s perspective as she experienced that night at the time – i.e. without any of the insight of later investigations and research that comes later at the book’s end. It’s a skillful set up for the book, and in general this book avoids becoming bogged down in minutiae of personal interest as is common in biographies. The book then proceeds chronologically from sparse coverage of Rasputin’s youth with particular emphasis on the events and indications that he wasn’t the typical farm boy through to the aftermath of his death. In between the book charts the rise of Rasputin from peasant farmer to personal friend to the royal couple who visited them freely while abandoning all the protocol that was required of others on visits to the Tsar’s court.

I did do a bit of research out of curiosity about how biased or neutral the book was. In general, it seems to be a reasonably accurate portrayal of events. While I did find information that seems to conflict with the author’s presentation, it doesn’t appear to be a matter of an attempt to propagandize but rather a result of differences of perspective. One type of bias revolves around the belief in supernatural powers that can readily be seen in the case of Tsarevich Alexei mentioned above. Maria Rasputin was clearly a believer that her father had powers, and so she presents the healing as being divine (though she does state that keeping the doctors away probably had a role and she says that her father never claimed responsibility for cures but always said thanks should be given to God.) Another example is the belief of the authors that Rasputin was still alive when he was thrown into the river that is based on abrasions on his wrists as if he was struggling in the water, but supposedly there was no water in his lungs. (With respect to the claim of Rasputin being hard to kill, after healing up from having been disemboweled with a knife, on the night of his assassination Rasputin was [allegedly] poisoned, shot multiple times, castrated, and then dumped into a frozen river. The author suggests it was the drowning that finally got him, but the more common view is that the gunshot to the head had already done the deed – and furthermore, the assassins probably in some way fouled up the poisoning because there wasn’t any posthumous evidence of it. It should be noted that the authors, too, suggest that the assassins must have gotten it wrong with the initial attempt to poison Rasputin because of the lack of evidence of poison – i.e. they make no supernatural claims on that issue.)

Concerns about bias aside, the book is highly readable. It is fascinating throughout and it complies with Elmore Leonard’s advice to novelists to “cut out all the parts people skip over.” The author captures the political intrigue as well as Rasputin’s mix of seedy and saintly sides that combine to make his story so fascinating. We see his ups and downs as he became immensely popular (always with powerful enemies) and then how he lost influence in World War I when his pacifism conflicted with the jingoistic outlook of the day.

I would highly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in the life of Grigori Rasputin.

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BOOK REVIEW: Doors of Perception & Heaven and Hell by Aldous Huxley

The Doors of Perception and Heaven and HellThe Doors of Perception and Heaven and Hell by Aldous Huxley
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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The two essays collected in this thin volume recount Aldous Huxley’s experience taking mescalin (a psychedelic drug / hallucinogen derived from a cactus root) in the 1950’s, and the insights derived from that experimentation. The book contains descriptions of what Huxley observed under the influence, such as the hallucinations of “sacred geometry” that are common among those consuming hallucinogens. However, much of these essays are about how what he witnessed mirrors art and the text of mystical religions. Huxley provides a steady diet of food-for-thought on these topics. It is when Huxley relates the psychedelic experience to the mystical, religious, and artistic experience that I found this volume to be the most intriguing. “The Doors of Perception” is a mix of description and discussion of these linkages. “Heaven & Hell” delves much more deeply into said linkages, and I was blown away by some of the ideas in the latter essay. There is also a bit of discussion of the commonalities between schizophrenia and psychedelic experience.

Huxley devotes some space in both essays to discussing the science of these experiences, but I don’t see those parts as the strength of the volume. While Huxley was a scientifically minded fellow, his reporting on science errors on some of the grand scale issues (e.g. memory, which is far more fallible than was thought in his day.) (Specific [small-scale issue] findings are probably accurate.) The thing is, Huxley was also a mystic and he viewed biology as a “reducing valve” that mitigated our experience of consciousness—a grand field existing wholly beyond the nervous system, such that our experience of it was hemmed in by biology—rather than being created by it. This isn’t particularly a criticism. For one thing, when one beholds the bold sensory experiences that Huxley witnessed and contrasts them to the visualization of everyday consciousness, it’s hard not to believe that one is on a plane entirely outside the bonds of biology. While I’ve never done psychedelic drugs, my limited experience with the more-real-than-real world of lucid dreaming makes me sympathetic to this long-held and widely held belief. Additionally, neuroscience was still in it’s infancy during Huxley’s time. [It may still be in its infancy, but a great deal has been learned—particularly since the technology of the 1990’s—that points to biology being the source of many of these experiences that seem amaterial.]

The two essays are each short. “The Doors of Perception” is about 50 pages, and “Heaven & Hell” is about 40. Even with the front matter and appendices, the book comes in at only a little over 120 pages.

There are no graphics in this volume, nor is it annotated—except for in-text references and a few footnotes. With respect to front matter, there is a Forward by J.G. Ballard and an Introduction / bio-sketch of Huxley by David Bradshaw. There are also a series of appendices that report on various topics related to mystical / psychedelic experiences such as the effects of CO2, strobe lights, and starvation, as well as the relationship to lighting, works of art, and mental illness.

If one is interested in alternate states of consciousness, I’d highly recommend this book. Huxley’s ability to capture his experience vividly and his thought-provoking suggestions about the experience make these essays worth the read.

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