Chopra & Hinduism
Metaphysics (What exists?):
Spirit [brahman] is ultimate reality and there is nothing real (or at least “really-real”) besides spirit. This is usually construed both as a species of monism – the idea that “all reality is one sort of thing – as well as a species of pantheism – the idea that “all is god.”
3 Components of reality (divisions or aspects of brahman)
1. Spirit – the observer [purusha]
2. Mind – the process of observing [buddhi]
3. Body/Physical/Ego – the (thing) observed [prakriti]
3 Characteristics [gunas] of the physical [prakriti]
1. Activity – energy/passion [rajas]
2. Transparency – goodness/love [sattva]
3. Inactivity – inertia [tamas]
The process of creation is that of ontologically identical [“Atman is Brahman”], but numerically plural spirits [atman, purusha] in motion [buddhi] manifesting itself as the physical [prakriti].
Epistemology (How does one come to knowledge?)
The process of coming-to-know is that of re-orienting the process of will [buddhi] such that the illusion-self, or ego [prakriti] will be dissolved and the true-self, or spirit [atman, purusha] will overcome its ignorance [maya].
4 practical elements of the will or discriminator [buddhi] being re-oriented to overcome suffering [dukkha] and ignorance [maya]:
1. Silence [Mauna]
2. Meditation [dhyana]*
4. Nature activities***
* “Meditation,” here, can (seemingly) be narrowly or broadly construed. Narrowly, it would appear to correspond to (something like) the repetition of the so-called “transformative syllables” (like the pranava mantra, “Om”). Broadly, it may be thought to correspond to the entire “8 Limbs” of the Yoga-Sutra, proper: Abstention [yama], observance [niyama], posture [asana], breathing [pranayana], insensibility [pratyahara], concentration [dharana], meditation [dhyana], and “oneness with Brahman” [samadhi].
** There does not appear to me to be a straightforward analog to “non-judgment” in classical Hinduism. On the contrary, one of the “5 Abstentions” in Yoga is a commitment to truth [satya]. And the very concept of “truth” requires a complementary notion of “non-truth” or falsity. And, presumably, the ability to distinguish the true from the not-true depends upon some sort of judgment faculty or discrimination. Additionally, in Samkhya, the form of Hinduism from which Chopra apparently draws heavily (if not exclusively), the very word “Samkhya” means “enumeration” and has to do with the correct explication and recognition – for the purpose of enlightenment – of the categories of reality. In Samkhya, it is the mind [boddhi] which is our “discriminator.” And we need discrimination to rightly construe reality, cast off illusion [maya], and achieve enlightenment [bodhi, moksha, Samadhi, etc.]. Chopra himself posits several fundamental constituents of reality – chiefly, spirit, mind, and ego or body. Hence, Chopra is either recommending these categories to us as true judgments of what reality is, or he is not. Chopra thus faces a dilemma. If he is recommending his metaphysics to us as true, then his principle of “non-judgment” is either blatantly contradictory or selectively applied. If he is not recommending his metaphysics to us as true, then, frankly, we have no motivation at all to consider his recommendation. For why should we consider Chopra’s notions if Chopra himself does not even think that they are the truth?
*** I could find no precise analog in classical Hinduism to Chopra’s advocacy of (a vague notion of) “nature activities”. However, classical Hinduism does think of life as divided into various stages.
4 Stages of Life:
1. Student [brahmacarin]
2. Householder [grhastha]
3. Forest-dweller [vanaprastha]
4. Hermit/renouncer [sannyasin]
The third stage of “forest-dweller” may be what Chopra has in mind. Although, standard presentations of these four stages usually depicts that as at least possibly figurative. However, whether literal or figurative, the notion of forest-dwelling seems compatible with Chopra’s suggestion to commune with nature.
III. Ethics/Soteriology (What is good and right? What is redemption?)
The central problem (the “human condition”): Humans are plagued with ignorance [maya] of our true natures and this ignorance leads to suffering [dukkha].
What is good and right is governed by a sort of cosmic law [dharma]. Chopra actually gives the word “dharma” in his book. He renders it as “purpose in life.” Elsewhere, the term is given variously as: “law”, “truth”, “maintenance”, and “duty”. The idea of “purpose” and “duty” are connected because in Hindu thought one’s purpose is bound up with one’s station [caste] in life.
4 + 1 Hindu Castes:
1. Priests [brahmins]
2. Warrior-nobles [ksatriyas]
3. Merchant-farmers [vaisyas]
4. Servants [sudras]
0. Outcastes/untouchables [dalits]
Additionally, classical Hinduism is very misogynistic. Hence, there is at least a shadow-side side to the caste system, whereby males and females are further differentiated.
“Karma” designates the effect of previous lives and actions – whether “positive” or “negative” – on future possibilities. Karma governs reincarnation. It is the impersonal principle of “universal justice”.
One’s present station in life – in terms of genus, species, gender, and caste – is governed by karma. And one’s dharma-purpose is determined by one’s present station in life.
IV. A Few Minor Critical Observations of Chopra's Book The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success
In general, Chopra appears to me to be a fairly orthodox Hindu of the Samkhya-Yoga variety. As such, standard objections against Hinduism would apply. For example, there is a charge that standard formulations of Hinduism are sexist and far too parochial. But, let these general concerns pass.
More interesting to me are the issues of internal coherence is Chopra’s idiosyncratic presentation.
These specific concerns have a common undercurrent. Namely, in order to appear to integrate “Western science” and “Eastern philosophy” Chopra has to depart from standard formulations of both Western science and Eastern philosophy. For instance, Chopra speaks of cells as having “higher selves” and as being “perfectly” able to adapt and respond to their environments. However, he elsewhere connects the ability to create consciously with the possession of a nervous system, which cells plainly do not have. Additionally, it is not clear how cellular perfection can be reasonably inferred from evidence which much surely acknowledge all sort of cytological pathologies, including various cancers, viruses, and the like. Additionally, Chopra detaches “purpose” from the Hindu caste system and introduces the novelty of a sort of broad-based pursuit of affluence. Possibly, Chopra is assuming that his readership, being born in the United States, has, in virtue of being born in the United States and not into the abject poverty of an obviously “third world” country, shown that they have pretty good karma. For if they didn’t, they would have been born somewhere else. But, he doesn’t say this explicitly. In any case, the focus on wealth accrual is not found in classical Hinduism, which focuses upon overcoming ignorance and achieving enlightenment.
Chopra trades both ways on several concepts:
- Certainty: Chopra seems to imply that people can be certain that they have a unique talent and purpose. But, he elsewhere holds up uncertainty as a sort of epistemic virtue.
- Possibility: Chopra describes his metaphysical system as one in which possibilities abound – infinite possibilities, in fact. However, he explicitly says that out of an infinity of possibilities that presents itself to us every second, only one is the correct choice that will enhance our happiness and the happiness of our friends.
- Judgment: Chopra claims to advocate non-judgment (presumably in line with the politically correct, Pollyanna maxim of “tolerance”). However, he presents an entire metaphysical, epistemological, and axiological-soteriological system to his readers as the truth. Additionally, one cannot consistently affirm a “no judgment” principle and also affirm that there are right choices/actions as opposed to wrong ones. But, Chopra does both.
- Boundaries: On the one hand, Chopra wants to affirm that there are no real physical boundaries. For example, the entire universe is just an extension of one’s body, he writes. However, he does affirm that different, localized bodies have different, discreet “higher selves” and purposes. It’s not clear where these divisions of intention, purpose, and spirituality come from, if “all is one.” And it’s not clear why “humans” have purposes that are distinct from their cells. And there are many related difficulties.
- Response and anticipation: Chopra writes that responding to situations in anticipation is always “fear based.” However, if a reader were to adopt Chopra’s system, it’s not clear that the reader wouldn’t do so precisely because he or she anticipated good things and wanted to respond to reality the way Chopra advocates. But, then, either Chopra’s system is “fear based” also. Or, not all response-anticipation pairs are fear based.
Finally, and more seriously, there seems to me to be a pervasive difficulty running through Chopra’s entire presentation.
V. Major Criticism of Chopra
To review, Chopra sees humans as composites of spirit, will, and ego. The ego is the “false self”. The will is the “process of observing”. And the spirit is the “true self.” But, there are passages, too numerous for me presently to exhaustively enumerate, in which Chopra uses the word “you” without being clear as to which of the pieces of the composite self he is wanting to designate. For example, he writes: “As you gain more and more access to your true nature, you will also spontaneously receive creative thoughts…” (p. 20). “When your internal reference point is the ego…you spend energy is a wasteful way. … When that energy is freed up, it can be rechanneled and used to create anything that you want. When your internal reference point is your spirit…, you can harness the power of love…” (p. 56). “…seek my higher self, which is beyond my ego…discover my unique talents…ask myself how I am best suited to serve humanity…” (p. 100). “If you put your attention on these laws and practice the steps outlined in this book, you will see that you can manifest anything you want – all the affluence, money, and success that you desire” (p. 109). And examples can be multiplied.
The central difficulty then, or so it seems to me, is that there is a fundamental ambiguity to the word “you” that shoots through Chopra’s entire presentation. For, each occurrence of “you” could designate “spirit” (whether individual or ultimate), “mind”, or “ego”. And it is either not always clear which is intended. Or, when it seems clear, Chopra’s point is either undercut or the motivation a reader has for adopting his system is severely lessened.
Take just one example, the sentence from p. 109: “If you put your attention on these laws and practice the steps outlined in this book, you will see that you can manifest anything you want – all the affluence, money, and success that you desire.”
This sentence could be read any of the following ways:
“If ego-you puts the ego’s attention on these laws and practices the steps outlined in this book, the ego will see that the ego can manifest anything that the ego wants – all the affluence, money, and success that the ego desires” (p. 109).
“If the spirit puts the spirit’s attention on these laws and practice the steps outlined in this book, the spirit will see that the spirit can manifest anything that the spirit wants – all the affluence, money, and success that the spirit desires” (p. 109).
“If the will puts the will’s attention on these laws and practice the steps outlined in this book, the will will see that the spirit can manifest anything that the spirit wants – all the affluence, money, and success that the spirit desires” (p. 109).
Something like the latter reading is probably correct. However, and here is the practical difficulty, most people attracted to Chopra’s book are probably attracted by the prospect of being able to get what their ego desires. But, plausibly, Chopra’s system is not really designed to fulfill ego-desires. It’s designed to show that the spirit you have is one and the same with the spirit of everyone else and indeed the entire world-spirit. But, then, the real desires that will be fulfilled are not the ones that YOU (the ego) THINK that you have NOW; rather, the real desires that will be fulfilled are the one’s that your true self (the spirit) has and which YOU (as will) will only discover when your ego subsides and you overcome ignorance and gain enlightenment.
But then, at any time:
- You – as spirit – are truly, consciously plugged into the creative power of the universe
- You – as ego – have various distinctive, idiosyncratic desires.
But, it won’t be both. Hence, if you have the power to realize the ego’s desires, you won’t have the ego desires any more. And if you do have the ego desires, you won’t have the true power.
But, then, the point of Chopra’s system will have been deflated for many people.
Classical Hinduism strives to realize that the true self is really one with the universe. One gets “affluence” only at the price of losing one’s distinctiveness.
[Matthew Bell (Composed/Compiled Spring 2012, Posted Fall 2012)]