“You are going to hell,” my grandmother said, after she found me meditating in front of a photo of my guru. Her fundamentalist outburst made me mad—as hell! So, I hated in return, hated my Christian grandmother for being such a narrow-minded person.
Then I realized I was just like her: a bigot. Sitting high up on my spiritual cushion of superiority and disdain, I looked down upon anyone inferior to me and my practice.
Then I realized I could separate the loving, caring person she actually was from her fundamentalist message, and that I could send her Loving Kindness without accepting her religious dogmas.
I realized that it’s possible to spread oneness and love without dumbing down our discerning intellects.
Are all hierarchies pathological?
I was reminded of this pivotal, teenage experience when Padma Kadaq wrote the following thought-provoking questions and observations in a response to my blog, Diet for a Yogi Planet:
“Is the judging of beings, as being higher or lower, not the same as judging within the same confines of each realm, i.e. the human realm. Could not this lower and higher logic be applied in the human realm making the caste system, by your reasoning, completely valuable? Do you believe the caste system to be intrinsically true? That there are groups of humans born into families who are lower or higher based on their birth? Certainly by your logic and the logic of Mr. Wilber this would be legitimate.”
Such concerns have been on my mental radar screen ever since I went to India to study yoga. When I arrived, I naively thought most things Indian were inspiringly sacred and deeply spiritual. But it was not true, of course. There’s a lot about Indian society that is cruel and outmoded, especially for women, lower castes, the poor, the animals.
Never have I been to a place where men beat their dogs, their women, and their servants with such self-assured impunity as in India. In many regards, sacred India is not a very sacred place at all.
It’s easy for us “intellectually enlightened” Westerners to realize the insanity of the caste system, the underlying inhumanity of a cultural system that takes it for granted that some people have no equal rights. It’s easy to do that and forget the materialistic insanity of our own lifestyle based on the blood sweat and tears of those very poor people in India.
It’s easy to forget the shadow sides of globalization and hence our own complicity.
As Padma writes: In India “there are groups of humans born into families who are lower or higher based on their birth.” And that caste system upholds an economic slavery making it possible for us Americans to buy cheap shirts and jewelry at the mall. Nothing much spiritual in that, is there?
Still, spirituality is, and has always been, the upright backbone and inner dharma of Indian culture. Much more so than, let’s say, in George Bush’s Texas. When a Brahmin is initiated by certain Tantric teachers on the path of Yoga, for example, he must do something still unthinkable for many Brahmins in India. He must cut the Brahmin thread. He must relinquish his adherence to the Brahmin caste. He must surrender his bigoted feelings of superiority.
When I lived in a Tantric ashram in Nepal, my Brahmin friend did just that. Then he mysteriously vanished for three months. When he came back for a visit, he said he had been given a choice: become a Tantric yogi and be ostracized by his family forever, or remain a Brahmin and a respected member of the family. A self-proclaimed coward, he chose to remain a Brahmin.
So, Padma—responding to my use of the volatile word “hierarchy,” when I argued that it is a natural phenomenon in nature—made some excellent points. Indeed, many people look askance at such concepts as hierarchy, because of such pathologies as the caste system. Yes, just look at Hindu countries such as India and Nepal where such inhumanity has been culturally perfected by religious dogmas and bred into people’s consciousness for thousands of years.
Yoga philosophy, however, does speak in terms of higher and lower consciousness, does speak in terms of hierarchical levels of being. Still Yoga philosophy does not support the caste system, does not support pathological hierarchies. There are no decrees about the caste system in Tantra nor in traditional Yoga. These pathologies came from the Vedic priests, not the yogis.
What are natural hierarchies?
The point I tried to make in my blog Diet for a Yogi Planet was that there are natural hierarchies in nature, and both healthy and pathological hierarchies in human culture.
Most would agree that a wolf is on top of the food chain and a natural part of a healthy, ecological hierarchy.
Few will argue against the idea that a cow has more developed consciousness and awareness than a carrot. Indeed, that’s one of the reasons yogis eat carrots rather than cows.
Even though both the carrot and the cow have consciousness, have cognition, the cow is more conscious, more aware, feels more pain than a carrot when killed. Thus the cow is higher up on the hierarchy of nature than the carrot. Hence, those following ahimsa (the principle of yogic less-violence) eat carrots rather than cows, because this causes less harm, less violence.
On the other hand, no one in their right mind will argue that the caste system is a natural and healthy hierarchy, nor fascism.
Such cultural pathologies do not honor human beings and our intrinsic right to respect, dignity and equal opportunity.
Nevertheless, there are healthy human hierarchies. To accept that someone is a mentor, a teacher, a guru, and that you are a student, this can be healthy, harmonious and natural. This realization makes us embrace, at least temporarily, a hierarchical, top-down relationship between human beings.
That such hierarchical relationships are healthy, does not mean we have to follow or respect all teachers or gurus, especially not those who behave like bigots and jerks.
Loving kindness to all
To embrace the idea of loving kindness toward all does not mean we have to silently accept pathological behavior. We may not love Glen Beck’s inane and venomous talk-shows, but he still deserves, even needs, our loving kindness. Having the capacity for loving kindness does not preclude us from speaking up, or turning the TV off, when stupidity and insanity stares us in the face.
In other words, subscribing to the idea of healthy hierarchical levels in nature and human culture is not the same as accepting pathological hierarchies, such as the fascism of the far right, such as the caste system in India.
Nor does it preclude us from cultivating loving kindness toward all beings. Not even toward a mass murderer. Not even toward the Indian wife-beaters. Not even toward the memory of my fundamentalist grandmother. Sweet heart-blessings to them all!
To love and respect all beings in nature, to see and embrace the oneness of nature, does not preclude us from the capacity to differentiate between high and low consciousness in nature. Indeed, love and a discerning conscience are not mutually exclusive.
It is this holistic differentiation, this conscious insight and awareness which informs yogis to choose a vegetarian diet. It is this insight that gives us the bravery to speak up against injustice. Some call this state of loving fierceness sacred activism.
All human beings deserve to receive our loving kindness—even spiritual jerks and religious fundamentalists.
Indeed, a consciously or unconsciously bad message, such as my grandmother’s, does not mean that a fundamentally bad person delivered it, and that it therefore requires an equally bad response.
Loving kindness is always the right response, no matter how bad the person or the message is.