Spiritual Relativism

A photograph I took while hanging out (literally! ha) in a crevasse on the Matanuska Glacier in Alaska.

My friend Chris recently wrote an article for the Huffington Post on the blessing of guru parampara (connection to a lineage of teachers) and the spiritual relativism of modern-day seekers. As a former spiritual relativist now committed to an orthodox Hindu parampara (to encapsulate my life history in a nutshell), I’ve struggled with this question a great deal – and I see my friends struggle with it today. Of a close-knit friend group of dozen or more spiritual seekers, I’m the only who has, as it were, “landed.” It’s painful to watch how conflicted my friends are who are agnostic, who are exploring secular Buddhism and yoga (spiritual relativism at its best), or who are even trying to live multiple religious traditions at once (the “interfaith” experience). It’s also difficult sometimes to counsel each other in the frequent moments of inner crisis that come with sincere investigation of the workings of the mind and search for spirit and being. We seem to be coming from totally different directions and it can be challenging to be both sensitive and authentic.

There is a great deal of beauty and value to the spiritual relativist perspective, to be sure. I see many of my friends finding real inspiration in their everyday experiences. They borrow teachings and approaches from a variety of traditions and are able to appreciate a diverse range of blessings in the world. They have very deep friendships and have highly developed human values. Indeed, secularists and relativists have some of the most highly developed human values and deep faith in reasoning and human capacity. Religious people can be prone to premature transcendentalism – as one friend calls it – where we meditate, quote platitudes, and feel good about ourselves while neglecting human values, or in other words, being a good person. I’ll make a slight spiritual relativist tangent here: the Prophet Muhammad told us that the only “sin” is not feeding the hungry. (Or something like that.)

At the same time, though, I wonder what is anchoring my friends’ faith human values, or even faith in their own personal value. If their reasons for living in the world in the way that they do are not rooted in something eternal, how can they have lasting value? One does see many spiritual relativists – even advanced philosophers or yoga practitioners – begin to act in deeply harmful ways, destructive to themselves or others. Based solely on logic and human reasoning they sometimes come up with philosophies extremely harmful to others’ wellbeing (such as social Darwinism, militant rationalism, judicial activism, or… Nazism), or simply completely useless (such as cultural anthropology).

Well, perhaps it’s a bit of a stretch to equate my friends, sincere seekers who do wonderful service to their communities, to philosophers and secular fanatics. I deeply value their friendship, their open-hearted acceptance of a useless person like me who is always talking about religious nonsense, the values they teach through example, and the service they do for their communities. Yet I worry sometimes that they live so unmoored. Some of them have shared with me the deep internal emptiness they feel, and I worry that they don’t have a faith to fill the void. Now, we all feel emptiness to some extent. Whether we are religious or not, we fill our days with entertainment and productivity to create personal value and to avoid actual presence. I’m doing that right now: writing a blog post that is completely useless, eating food mindlessly, and listening to music. All of it is “spiritual” in nature – but am I right now?

I’ve been in periods of deep internal darkness, emptiness, despair. I’ve been on a self-destructive path, and at a certain point in my teenage years considered myself so worthless, unhappy, and caught between impossibilities that I considered ending this life. (And I didn’t even believe in reincarnation then!) A lot in my life has changed since then – including becoming religious. Now, I’m not saying that becoming religious fixed all my psychological problems, cleaned up all my “baggage,” or has made me “saved.” I see major fractures in my personality: the constant problem of hypocrisy, depersonalization of others for the sake of my own immediate gratification, avoidance of reality, faithlessness, and self-loathing. But these don’t control me. Through learning to be aware of the workings of my own mind and ego, through many tears and dark nights of the soul, through immense love and support of others, and through the grace of God I’ve learned to see through my mind’s desires and act from faith. I fail in this many times a day (failure is a term of self-loathing if I’ve ever heard one) but believe that God’s grace will continue to throw a rescue line into the crevasses I constantly fall into as I try to cross the glacier of material existence. (What a metaphor!).

Becoming religious isn’t what “saved” me. I do not believe I am “saved.” I do not believe I am a better person or on a higher level than my friends who are not religious. I do not believe I can (or ever will) transcend all the crazy workings of the material world and my own mind. But I do believe that it is only by God’s grace and by the mercy of the guru parampara that I am moving closer to my true nature. My relativist friends have deeply developed ethical principles; they have excellent reasoning and intuition; they have a great deal of spiritual wisdom and different practices to draw on; and they often have a great deal of presence to reality, and dare I say spiritual being. But I feel that because they are not connected to something eternal, what they are building is a castle in the sand.

I will let the Bhagavad Gita say the rest.

Arjuna said: What is the destination of the man of faith who does not persevere, who in the beginning takes to the process of self-realization but who later desists due to worldly-mindedness and thus does not attain perfection in mysticism? O mighty-armed Krsna, does not such a man, being deviated from the path of Transcendence, perish like a riven cloud, with no position in any sphere? This is my doubt, O Krsna, and I ask You to dispel it completely. Except for Yourself, no one is to be found who can destroy this doubt.

The Lord said: Son of Prtha, a transcendentalist engaged in auspicious activities does not meet with destruction either in this world or in the spiritual world; one who does good, My friend, is never overcome by evil… By virtue of the divine consciousness of his previous life, he automatically becomes attracted to the yogic principles–even without seeking them. Such an inquisitive transcendentalist, striving for yoga, stands always above the ritualistic principles of the scriptures. But when the yogi engages himself with sincere endeavor in making further progress, being washed of all contaminations, then ultimately, after many, many births of practice, he attains the supreme goal. A yogi is greater than the ascetic, greater than the empiricist and greater than the fruitive worker. Therefore, O Arjuna, in all circumstances, be a yogi. And of all yogis, he who always abides in Me with great faith, worshiping Me in transcendental loving service, is most intimately united with Me in yoga and is the highest of all.

BG 6.37-47

Before I close please allow me to add a disclaimer of sorts. I am speaking based only on my own experiences and observations, which are necessarily faulty and deeply influenced by the workings of my ego. I have tried to speak with both insight and compassion but have very little of either and know that I have probably offended some readers. If you are one of these people or an ally and find it worthwhile, please comment with a rebuttal or rebuke.

Crevasse line
A photograph I took while hanging out (literally!) in a crevasse on the Matanuska Glacier in Alaska, summer 2011.

4 thoughts on “Spiritual Relativism

  1. This post is great and thought-provoking, if nothing else. One of the thoughts it provokes with my own brain is a question: What do you perceive you have, exactly, which your non-parampara friends don’t?

    I understand the value of having “landed” as you put it, and have no intention of arguing that (or arguing, period). But throughout the entire post, along with pointing out faults and flaws that apply to almost every human, including your friends, you also point out their virtues.

    These virtues seem identical to anyone else who might, as it happens, belong formally somewhere. No? Many of these virtues are the same things anyone gains from such “membership.” (Ex: deeply developed ethical principles, excellent reasoning and intuition, a great deal of spiritual wisdom, great deal of presence to reality and spiritual being…)

    I don’t mean this to sound snarky in the least, but one thing, it seems, the post lacks is exact identification of what you have that they don’t. If all the virtues you admit these folks have can be described with words like deep, developed, excellent, spiritual wisdom, presence, reality, and being, please now share what it is that you actually have, which they don’t, and which is “eternal.”

    Thank you, again, for this post and for sharing as you have! Om Shanti


    1. Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Dhristi. This is a good question and a hard one to answer, especially if one is trying to be sensitive and avoid offenses. I started writing a response to you but it was getting so long that I’m just making a full-length post out of it, which should appear later today.


      1. Avolara-ji,

        I appreciate your attentiveness. If it’s any consolation as you compose the post you just mentioned, a wise man once said, “I’m responsible for the words I say, not for how you understand them.”

        In my own life, I’m known in certain circles for calling a spade a spade. There’s no offense there, unless the spade is lazy and lack control over its own emotions.

        I encourage you do do similarly. Don’t worry about offenses. You write well, and you write clearly. So long as you’re able to clearly and directly explain what sets you apart and how that is eternal, it should be no worry of your’s whether the Truth offends.

        Om Shanti


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