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We generally think of religion as something that pertains to transcendence beyond the current material existence. The reality, however, is that the day-to-day practice of religion involves societies whose cultural norms must be compatible with the tenets of the religion. If there is a misfit between culture and religion, then most likely the religion would be changed rather than the culture. This fact has important implications for the understanding of religion, namely, that the vision of transcendence we create is often determined by the vision of material existence we currently want to lead. Similarly, those serious about the long-term viability of religion must pay close attention to its cultural fit. This post examines these ideas through examples of historical and current religious affairs.

What is Religion? What is Culture?

Before we begin, it is important to provide some working definitions of religion and culture.

Culture, broadly speaking, is our set of moral values, or those ideas that we believe are going to make us materially happy. In Sāńkhya philosophy, this is a very subtle level of material reality called mahattattva which is a collection of our moral values—or the things that we consider morally right and good—because they are tied to our view of ourselves as good and right beings. Mahattattva has two aspects—internal and external. The external aspect is what a person considers morally good action, while the internal aspect is what kinds of ideologies and viewpoints a person considers morally acceptable.

For example, most people today consider equality as an important moral value, that leads to democracy and initiatives such as social security, healthcare, the right to employment, non-discrimination, the right to unionize against powerful interests, etc. The idea of equality runs against the idea of social classes, and not too long ago, society wasn’t designed to be equal for everyone. For instance, slavery, social castes, gender differences, etc. were considered morally correct not too long ago. By contrast, truthfulness and honesty were considered important moral values earlier, but they aren’t considered important now. Now it is more important to be rich and successful than honest.

Religion also deals with similar issues, although its primary focus is transcendence. The main focus of religion is to define what we mean by transcendence (e.g. the nature of the soul and God), and how one would attain this transcendence from the current material state. In the simplest case, we can equate a good moral life here with the process of transcendence, thereby collapsing the difference between religious demands of transcendence and cultural demands of material happiness. In other more complex situations, we may pit material happiness and transcendence against each other: e.g. supposing that transcendence involves renunciation, austerity, and sacrifice.

Clearly, both religion and culture are involved with the question of happiness. The difference is that culture seeks happiness here and now, while religion seeks it in the afterlife. A significant struggle between these two ideas of happiness can exist. Which of these needs wins over the other, how their contradictions are resolved, and what happens when these contradictions cannot be resolved, are questions that I will try to ponder here.

Before we try to address the interaction between culture and religion, let’s put their tensions in perspective by considering a few examples of different religions and cultures.

The Evolution of Religion in India

Hinduism and Buddhism are among the oldest religions in the world today, and Buddhism arose as a new religion in response to what society of that time expected from Hinduism but could find it. Classical Hinduism is a four-tier society comprised of Brahmana (intellectuals), Kshatriya (rulers and warriors), Vaisya (businessmen), and Sudra (workers). These tiers are expected to be useful for social organization, but they are not castes, only classes. That is, the son of a Brahmana is not necessarily a Brahmana, although society will have intellectuals who have different responsibilities and rights. Buddhism emerged as a response to Hinduism when the Hindu cultural system—which was supposed to be a class system—became a caste system.

The caste system meant that there was a privileged priestly class, which claimed to be the sole connection to the world beyond this one, denying people direct access to transcendence and restricting their mobility across different social roles and classes. Buddhism arose as a wholesale rejection of the Brahmana class itself when Buddha propounded the “Middle Way” thereby rejecting both extremes of asceticism and ritualism—one of which invited suffering on the body and mind to purify them, and the other created incessant sacrifices for the pleasure of the body and the mind. It is notable that the Brahmana caste of that time was known for asceticism and ritualism and by rejecting both extreme alternatives in his “Middle Way”, Buddha rejected Hinduism itself. It was socially convenient because large masses of people did not want to torture their bodies and minds for “purification”, nor did they like the idea of remaining socially subordinate to the Brahmana for their transcendence.

While most historical descriptions of Buddhism extol the Buddha’s enlightenment where he rejected both extreme material pleasure (as a prince) and extreme asceticism (as a renunciate) the reason for the widespread adoption of Buddhism in India wasn’t what Buddha had achieved but what people at large were prepared to do for happiness in the current life as well as happiness in the afterlife. They could not deal with expensive rituals, constrained social mobility, and asceticism. They could deal with meditation, mindfulness, philosophical discussion, communal living, and the inquiry into the self.

Essentially, Buddhism emerged when Hinduism became discordant with the needs of the society at that time. Over time, Buddhism itself became ritualistic, and by the time Shankarāchārya arrived, the dominant difference between Hinduism and Buddhism was the caste system. As Shankarāchārya overturned the ritualistic practices, he undermined both the caste system in Hinduism and the ritualism in Buddhism, thereby killing two birds with the same stone. But the Advaita philosophy propounded by Shankarāchārya was too abstract, intellectual, and dry. It wasn’t going to satisfy the broad need among the population to feel that they had some kind of direct connection with transcendence.

This need then led to the Bhakti Movement in North India and Vaishnavism in South India. Many scholars and philosophers talk about the philosophical differences between Advaita and Vaishnavism, and how the philosophy evolved from one to another. Equally important for us to understand is the social and cultural underpinning of this shift, which was that the study of philosophy to acquire a knowledge of jiva, māyā, and Brahman did not appeal to people at large. India was and is to an extent a lively and vibrant society with large families, elaborate customs and festivals, fertile land and water, and weather well-suited for outdoor activities. You don’t expect people to renounce all this material goodness and meditate in a forest or a mountain. You can, however, marry a vibrant culture with the festivals, foods, music, art, dance, in life around a temple with a deity.

In the millennia of Indian religious evolution, there have been many well-recorded philosophical shifts. What is, however, often neglected is that these shifts were accepted and adopted because of their cultural fit with the needs of the people of that time. Without such cultural and social fit, these religious and philosophical shifts would have never occurred on a large scale.

Let’s take two more examples in Christianity and then Buddhism. I realize that each religion has many schools of thought and various sects. This is a generalization.

The Evolution of Christianity

Christianity had humble origins among the people of Jerusalem but after initial struggles it was married to the Roman Empire, leading to dramatic shifts in its culture—the rise of the Catholic Church. Romans, you see, were system builders. They built cities and states, they had an elaborate system of pagan worship, and the society was rich, powerful, and sensual. How could one fit a religion that espoused simplicity and charity into an elaborate empire with considerable richness and power?

The compromise was one that involved a special status for kings while replacing the priests of erstwhile pagan worship with the priests of a Church involved in elaborate worship. The religion that emerged was not purely what Christ had originally expounded, but one that Romans could accept, given their social and cultural needs. Why did the Romans accept it in the first place? The main reason was that a system of many gods and goddesses is not ultimately suited to build a cohesive society. Society was slowly disintegrating due to the variety of pagan demigod worshipers. A monotheistic system is easier to govern because you have only one God to contend with. Everybody can be aligned around a single deity, which is far better than many competing gods and goddesses. The Catholic Church, therefore, emerged out of the political necessities of the time. The Roman Empire found that pagan worship was detrimental to its sustenance and it had to be replaced by a new religion.

Of course, many adjustments for the benefit of priests and nobility had to be made just so that these nobles and priests bought into the idea of a new religion and would not resist it. Roman society became a little less hierarchical while Christianity incorporated a little bit more of hierarchy: it accepted the Divine Rights of the Kings and the special status of the priestly class, both of which had nothing to do with original Christianity, but were necessary adjustments to fit into the Roman Empire.

As Christianity spread to other parts of the world, it had to contend with entire new social circumstances. Many people did not want the Divine Rights of the Kings, or the special status of Catholic priests. They wanted equality and self-determination, and the ability to interpret the Bible according to their realization, which led to the Protestant Reformation where some of the special statuses of the kings and Church were removed. As the demand for autonomy continued, the role of the monarchy in religion itself was rejected, leading to the separation of religion and state, and the rise of democracy and capitalism, which were given a moral foundation in the Protestant religion.

Most of what we see today in Christianity comes from the fundamental idea that we are equal and have the right to self-determination. Since these are ideas that you cannot simply explain based on a material principle, the Christian religion is used to provide the moral foundations of the so-called “free world”. In this foundation, religion and God are personal matters and they are to be separated from public matters. So, you keep religion out of democracy and capitalism because that is the basis on which you have originally rejected the Divine Rights of the Kings and the hegemony of the Catholic Church.

And once we separate the public and private domains, two side-effects are created. First, social conduct in the world is disconnected from questions of transcendence; this leads to the idea that I only have to accept Christianity as my faith, but I don’t have to worry about my social conduct because religion is a private matter and what I do in the social sphere (e.g. democracy and capitalism) is justified by my right to self-determination but does not influence my afterlife. Second, since we separate private and public spheres, religion (or its rejection) becomes a personal choice. The “divine right” to self-determination is established on Christian principles but the “divine obligation” to accept the consequences of actions is optional. As we can see, religion has been used to justify free choices, and then those free choices are employed to reject religion itself.

The Evolution in Buddhism

The Buddhists have gone in a direction relatively opposite to other religions. While most religion arises from the idea of transcendence, Buddhists have rejected transcendence as even a valuable goal. There is no soul or God. There may even be no afterlife. What we have is what we can see here and now. There is no personal liberation after this life. All we have is social conduct that must be moral and just. Buddhism, therefore, has become less of a religion and more of a moral conduct system.

In some parts of the world, Buddhism is also married to ritualism—thereby fulfilling a social need where temple worship, social gatherings, and cultural festivities are married into a religious act—although the real purpose of such action (e.g. transcendence from matter) cannot be clearly articulated. Since there is hardly any concern with transcendence (because there is no soul and God), religion inevitably gets married into the social fabric creating a collectivist culture of seeking the greater common good, because there is no philosophical foundation upon which you and I are spiritually separate individuals.

Should we say that Buddhism is dominant in Asian societies because they have collectivist thinking? Or should we say that collectivist societies have adopted Buddhism as the philosophical backdrop under which they can justify collectivism by rejecting an eternal spiritual individuality? Buddhism provides that philosophical backdrop in which our material identity—e.g. body and mind—is a temporary illusion and unlike Hinduism where there is an individual soul underlying this illusion, in Buddhism there is nothing. The world is comprised of opposites, and if you remove one side of the opposition, the other side disappears too. Ultimately, as these opposites are removed, we are left with nothing. Therefore, once you take away the material identities, there is no soul or God, and hence no transcendence.

Buddhism is a convenient system for a society that shuns individuality and upholds collectivism—e.g. societies bound by their national and racial identity. Buddhism provides unity by rejecting the soul and individual responsibility. It supports collective moral action because it values the life here and now, over the possibilities after any life after death. In that sense, Buddhism supports the notion of making the present life prosperous through collective action. This idea has proven useful in many Asian countries (where Buddhism is prevalent) that have managed to transform a religious philosophy into a theory of social justice and then into the duty of the leaders of society.

Religion and Culture are Inseparable

History shows that religions succeed when they fit the cultural milieu of the time. There are different religions today because there are different value systems around the world—the ways in which people think they are going to become happy.

  • The Christians separate material and spiritual lives; you are allowed to accept God in private life, while you practice democracy and capitalism in social life. Do both and you will be happy in both the worlds, and these are disconnected.
  • The Buddhists think that there is no afterlife or transcendence. We are united by our social condition such as race or nationality and we have to act collectively to make the best of it. This gives rise to the emphasis on “being in the present”.
  • The Hindus think that life is good because we have so many opportunities to enjoy this life. But the enjoyment is not separate from transcendence. We can mix pleasure and religion and make it one continuous celebration of life and God.

Religion does not change the person or society easily. Rather, the people choose and adapt the religion based on their material and moral value system. This moral system is ingrained in us as the “moral sense” or mahattattva which shapes our moral thinking by defining what we consider right and wrong, which ultimately shapes how we want to be happy in this life. Based on our current conceptions of what is morally good happiness, we may pick a religion, change to another religion, or reject all religious thought.

Therefore, the idea that we are driven to religion by some other-worldly transcendence is false. We are driven to a religion because it provides the philosophical framework in which we can lead a happy material life, here and now. Religion is mistakenly portrayed as the quest for happiness in the afterlife. Its adoption is based on happiness in this life. For this reason, religion can fit a society only if it satisfies the immediate needs of the people.

Cultural Preparation for the Vedic Religion

This leads me to the main point of this post, which is that Vedic religion too cannot thrive and survive outside a particular socio-cultural mindset. What is this mindset? It is the idea of social classes. If we look around at other religions such as Christianity and Buddhism, none of them support social classes. In fact, they talk about how people are equal or should be equal from a religious standpoint. In short, the world is flat.

Contrast this to the Vedic thought in which the world is structured as a tree with many levels. It emerges from a root and creates many trunks, branches, twigs, and fruits. There is social hierarchy because there are many hierarchical stages of life in the universe. There are 14 planetary systems in the universe, and each planetary system is itself divided into 14 “islands” and “oceans”, with each “island” divided into many further qualitative divisions. No part of the universe is the same as the other part. Every part of the universe has unique qualities, but they are either higher than some or lower than others.

There is a reason why Vedic religion depends on a social class structure, which is that the universe as a whole is itself a class structure. Just as in a conceptual hierarchy most of the higher concepts are abstract, similarly, the part of the world that can be sensually observed is very small. The universe is like an iceberg in which you can see the tip but most of it is submerged. To understand the tip, we must understand the parts that are submerged. The latter requires a class of people called the Brahmana who can understand and explain the things that we cannot perceive by the senses. The Brahmana is not a priest. He is one who understands reality beyond sensual perception.

Modernism Destroys Vedic Religion

Modernism is the idea that everything can be known by our senses and our reasoning. This means there is nothing beyond sense perception. The world is not a submerged iceberg but a stone on land. Therefore, all ideas of what lies beyond sense-perception must be rejected, and knowledge is only that which can be obtained by sense perception. This naturally leads to the removal of those who claim to see beyond the senses. And since everyone can see with their senses, everyone’s perception is equally good.

Thereafter, we see the tip of the iceberg, but not the submerged part. We speculate on how the universe works based on what we can see, but we cannot understand what we cannot see, but can only understand by the mind, judge by the intellect, intend by the ego, or value by our morality. The universe we see is a small fraction of the total reality, and if society is limited to sense perception, it loses a scientific understanding of nature. With the disappearance of all knowledge that is beyond sense-perception, true religion rapidly declines. All religions are reduced to some mechanical practices of the senses, without an understanding of what lies beyond sensations. Nobody can explain how these rituals and practices can lead to transcendence, and over time, people lose interest in religion because there is no one who can explain the true meaning and purpose of religious acts.

The Brahmanas are the scientists, but not practitioners of sense-perception science as currently dominate the world. They are the scientists of the reality that lies beyond sense perception. The Vaisya and Sudra are classes that have no understanding of anything beyond sense perception. The Kshatriya have some understanding of what lies beyond sense perception. And Brahmanas are the experts in the non-sensual reality. At the present, society comprises only of Vaisya and Sudra, which means that there is no understanding of what lies beyond sense perception. If we understand only sense perception, then we see the world as comprising material particles, which have no hierarchy among them, and then we create a materialist classless society. While religion can exist in such a society, it comprises only superficial rituals, which the intelligent class of people doesn’t accept.

The Importance of Hierarchy in Vedic Religion

Most people today don’t understand and don’t want to accept hierarchy because they have accepted a flat egalitarian model of society as the foundation principle of all religions. This is largely due to the influence of Christianity, and its offshoots in modernist ideas such as democracy and capitalism. We must see how every aspect of the Vedic worldview—from the structure of the cosmos to the structure of human perception—is tiered, layered, and prioritized by importance into a hierarchy. How can a religion that hinges upon a hierarchical structure survive in a flat, democratic, and classless society?

The fundamental necessity for Vedic religion is the class system called varṇāśrama. Many people think that varṇāśrama is a cultural and social system, which existed in the past in India, and this system is now out of touch with the reality of modern times. They don’t see (1) deep connections between every religion and social value systems, and (2) the deep relationship between the hierarchical view of nature in Vedic philosophy and the hierarchical structure of society. The widespread belief is that in the past Hindus were governed by a “caste system” and now we are educated by Western standards and must, therefore, adopt the egalitarian values underlying democracy and capitalism.

The most difficult idea in Vedic religion is that of hierarchy. Other religions and even science flatten the world: religions through the idea of social equality and science through “reductionism”. This flattening reduces matter to events, which cannot be given meaning, cannot be judged as true or false, cannot be desired, and cannot be morally valued. And yet, flattening is the standard methodology across all endeavors in society today.

Most critics ridicule two things about Vedic religion: (1) many gods and goddesses, and (2) the caste system social hierarchy. In the 19th century, many Hindu reformers such as Vivekananda, Dayananda Sarasvati, etc. “reformed” religion keeping these two criticisms in mind. They concluded that the many gods and goddesses are imaginary forms of a single Brahman, and society has to be made classless to survive. That so-called “reform” has had a damaging effect on society because it robs Vedic society of the single most distinguishing feature relative to all other religions and philosophies—hierarchy.

Science and the Idea of Hierarchy

Hierarchy is a scientific concept. It is a theory of space and time. It is a description of material categories. It is an accurate depiction of human perception. And it is a model of the cosmic structure. And yet, everything around us—other religions, modern science, and social norms and values—are opposed to hierarchy today. We can put Vedic religion on one side and everything else on the other side. Owing to this problem, it is very hard for the true Vedic religion to forge any alliances. It has to disseminate the idea of hierarchy and establish it as a scientific concept, on its own, if at all it has to survive over time.

The role of Vedic science lies in the idea of hierarchy as the fundamental organizing principle of nature and society. Given that this idea is opposed to modern science, all other religions, and the dominant socio-economic systems, the task is difficult and uphill. The idea of the hierarchy will transform the theory of space and time. It will transform how we look at numbers, mathematical operations, and scientific predictions. It will change how we understand human perception. It will alter our view of life as we will see the reality of higher and lower beings, quite different from us. It will change our view of evolution as something that grows in a tree form and disappears in a tree form. It will change our understanding of economics, social organization, and even organizational theory.

Science has an important role in establishing the idea, as the foundation of a new social order based on this organizing principle. The religion of people in a society that understands hierarchy will also be the Vedic religion. Science is important to Vedic religion because the idea of hierarchy is incredibly important both to the Vedic social organization as well to understand the conceptual foundations of Vedic religion.