Relativity and the Path to the Absolute

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Because many factors influence the way we see the world, too much faith in our own perspective can be materially and spiritually dangerous.


My husband and I were counseling a couple and making progress, but then we reached an impasse. The husband insisted that his perceptions of the couple's interactions were reality and anything different from those perceptions was false or illusory. In other words, his wife's view was wrong if it differed from his. My husband and I did our best to help him broaden his perspective. We hoped he could entertain the possibility of seeing things differently. But he wouldn't budge from his position, and he ended the couple's counseling.

After this incident I reflected on a heated debate I'd had with a friend of mine before I became a devotee. He insisted that there was no absolute reality, only our individual subjective reality, while my stance was that there was an absolute reality-we just couldn't perceive it. He insisted that my position was just my subjective reality. We both walked away frustrated and angry.

Later, after becoming a devotee, I discovered that according to the Vedic teachings my assertions were right. But now I could understand something about the nature of that absolute reality: It is Krishna. Everything we see in this world comes from one of Krishna's many energies. But His illusory energy (maya) keeps us from perceiving things properly. Just as a magician can make us think we're seeing something that's not there, Krishna uses illusion to create our supposed reality.

One might wonder why God would want to prevent us from seeing the truth? Actually, that isn't His desire, but rather He is supporting our own desire to enjoy separately from Him. When we are totally disconnected from our Lord, we cannot perceive reality. Instead, we believe in an illusory "reality," like people under the spell of a stage hypnotist who think they're a duck or a dog. In fact, by maya's influence the soul in the material world does think it is a duck or a dog or a man or a woman. But that relative reality is temporary and will vanish at death. Only the eternal soul endures.

Dhruva Overcomes Illusion

Sometimes even great devotees become bewildered by the illusions of the material energy. Dhruva Maharaja was a powerful king and devotee of the Lord. Yet when avenging his brother's death, Dhruva was bewildered by the magical feats of his opponents, the Yakshas, who were skilled at creating wonderful illusions. Dhruva believed he was in the midst of an environmental holocaust. He saw trunks of bodies raining down from the sky along with dangerous weapons and great boulders. He saw a tsunami and an array of wild animals coming to devour him.

Divine energy protects great devotees. For Dhruva, that divine energy came in the form of merciful sages who arrived to instruct him on how to dispel the illusion. Following their instructions, Dhruva remembered Krishna and His holy names and was able to see through the illusions created by the Yakshas. This same divine shelter is available to all of us. When we chant Hare Krishna, the illusion of the material realm begins to lift. Krishna sends us help in the form of spiritual guides to teach us how to dispel the material illusions and reawaken our dormant love for God. Then we become perfectly situated in the absolute reality.

Brain Filter

The husband we were counseling was sure there was an absolute reality, but he mistakenly believed he could perceive it through imperfect senses. Science tells us that at every moment we are bombarded with over six million bits of information that come streaming in through our senses. Scientists postulate that the reticular activating system located at the base of the brain acts as a gatekeeper to prevent us from becoming overwhelmed by this overload of information. This filtering system allows information into our conscious awareness based on our experiences and our beliefs about ourselves.

In the Bhagavad-gita Krishna explains to his friend and disciple Arjuna that He is the source of all remembrance, knowledge, and forgetfulness. Krishna, as the Supersoul within our heart, sanctions what information comes into our conscious awareness. According to our desires, Krishna strengthens our faith in certain perceptions or ideals so as to support a particular experience within the material realm.

While modern science and ancient wisdom aren't always in harmony, scientific explanations can sometimes be useful in making philosophical points. For example, we might say that our prarabdha (manifest) karma appears through the medium of chromosomes or DNA. Similarly, the Supersoul may, through the medium of the reticular system, filter out information contrary to our beliefs. For example, if people tell me I'm a nice person, I might reject their perceptions and think they want to sell me something or manipulate me in some way.

Besides this information filter in the brain, our senses also make mistakes. We might see a rope and think it is a snake. And depending on how invested we are in convincing others about what we think, we might cheat or lie about our data. An experimenter's desire for a particular outcome often contaminates scientific experiments.

Until we have purified our consciousness, our conditioned nature will influence our thoughts and our ability to understand even absolute knowledge descending from pure sources. For instance, if because of my upbringing I believe that God is vindictive and angry, then I will filter out information that shows how loving and merciful He is to His devotees. So it is prudent to question our own perception of reality and stay open to input from others, especially spiritually advanced persons.

Stages of Thinking

Another aspect of our psychological makeup that affects our ability to perceive absolute reality is our cognitive development, or the way our thought processes have grown. William Perry, a developmental psychologist, describes stages of cognitive development I feel can be useful to devotees in distinguishing between fanaticism and enlightenment. The first stage is black-and-white thinking, where we can't entertain viewpoints different from our own and our thinking is rigid and dogmatic. Some of us don't move beyond this stage; the rest progress to relativistic thinking and hear and consider different perspectives and opinions. Relativistic thinking helps people start and keep intimate relationships. The final stage, which Perry says is rarely achieved, is commitment. A person on this stage has fixed beliefs but tolerates others' perceptions. According to Perry's research, only a select few persons of highly developed spiritual consciousness could be classified in this final stage.

At first glance the black-and-white thinker and the committed thinker may look alike: They're both convinced of their beliefs, unlike the relativistic thinker (stage two). But the committed thinker will oblige and accept others, whereas the black-and-white thinker is often fanatical and unbending. Terrorists are stuck in stage one and create havoc in the world by thinking their subjective reality is the only truth. Their mission is to convert others to their heinous way of thinking. As recent history has shown, this kind of sectarian thinking in the guise of religion is extremely dangerous.

Dangers of Sectarianism

Srila Prabhupada, a superlative committed Vaishnava, stressed many times that his society, the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, was nonsectarian. He wasn't invested in converting people from one religion to another; he wanted to help people develop love for God. Prabhupada's predecessor Bhaktivinoda Thakura listed sectarianism as one of the main obstacles that impede spiritual progress, because it creates problems in finding a guru and associating with sincere devotees who may be outside one's tightly defined group.

In accepting the Absolute Truth, we have to remember that we live in a relative world and our perceptions and experiences are subjective. If I feel cold and someone else feels hot, is it hot or cold? To say "I feel cold" expresses my subjective reality, but to say "It is cold" imposes my subjective reality on others. Prabhupada teaches us not to rely upon our subjective reality to understand truth. He uses the example of a group of blind men trying to figure out what an elephant is by touching it. One man, feeling the trunk, declares the creature to be a great snake. Another, putting his arms around a leg, surmises the elephant to be a huge pillar. The limited, subjective perception of each man in the group fails to correctly identify the elephant. To arrive at the truth, they need help from a man with sight.

Relativity will influence us until our conditioned nature is purified. Therefore, Prabhupada teaches us to cultivate a humble attitude and serve others, especially advanced souls. Only by their mercy can we understand the realm of the Absolute. When we stop asserting our impressions and perceptions as the absolute standard and accept the experiences of others, we become more loving.

This kind of thinking will help increase our effectiveness in spreading the teachings of Vaishnavism, as well as in sustaining relationships with other Vaishnavas, including our spouses. Black-and-white thinking makes for a rocky marriage and a high probability of divorce. If we see ourselves entrenched in asserting absolutes from our relative perspective, we should pray to progress beyond this stage of thinking.

Moving beyond black-and-white thinking will help us advance spiritually. Then one day we will enter the absolute reality, where our subjective perceptions are perfect. At that stage, no longer contaminated by the material energy, we come under the influence of Krishna's internal energy and view the spiritual reality through our particular relationship with Krishna. The cowherd boys see Krishna as their best friend, the elder cowherds see Him as their son, and the young cowherd girls see Him as their lover. They all feel that their position is the best, and subjectively they are all correct.

By sincerity, service, and mercy we can transcend material existence and enter a world devoid of tension between the subjective and the absolute realities. In the material word, the relative and the absolute compete for supremacy and can destroy relationships. In the spiritual world, the relative and the absolute work together to accentuate loving relationships. Once going there, we will never have to come back to a world of relativity where "it's my way or the highway."

About the Author: 

Archana Siddhi Devi Dasi

Archana Siddhi Devi Dasi is a disciple of Srila Prabhupada. She has a B.S. in psychology and a master's in clinical social work. She joined the Hare Krishna movement in 1976 while in graduate school. She lived and served at the Potomac, Maryland, temple for twelve years. Her main service was book distribution.