Satish B. SettyArchiveAboutRSS Feed

Sam Harris on Hinduism and Indian religions

Sam Harris is a well-known atheist, a Secular Buddhist in particular. He runs a Vipassana-like meditation course (appropriated by the West as Mindfulness these days) and is quite popular among atheist circles with the likes of Richard Dawkins, etc.

In his work The End of Faith, he is quite genuine about his admiration of Buddhism and why it is so. Some of his observations are complete ignorance (Many Hindus consider Jesus as an avatar of Vishnu – Lol, What?!)

Indeed, the only reason India and Pakistan are different countries is that the beliefs of Islam cannot be reconciled with those of Hinduism. From the point of view of Islam, it would be scarcely possible to conceive a way of scandalizing Allah that is not perpetrated, each morning, by some observant Hindu.

Christianity and Islam both acknowledge the sanctity of the Old Testament and offer easy conversion to their faiths. Islam honors Abraham, Moses, and Jesus as forerunners of Muhammad. Hinduism embraces almost anything in sight with its manifold arms (many Hindus, for instance, consider Jesus an avatar of Vishnu). Judaism alone finds itself surrounded by unmitigated errors.

My debt to a variety of contemplative traditions that have their origin in India will be obvious to many readers. The esoteric teachings of Buddhism (e.g., the Dzogchen teachings of the Vajrayana) and Hinduism (e.g., the teachings of Advaita Vedanta), as well as many years spent practicing various techniques of meditation, have done much to determine my view of our spiritual possibilities. While these traditions do not offer a unified perspective on the nature of the mind or the principles of spiritual life, they undoubtedly represent the most committed effort human beings have made to understand these things through introspection. Buddhism, in particular, has grown remarkably sophisticated. No other tradition has developed so many methods by which the human mind can be fashioned into a tool capable of transforming itself. Attentive readers will have noticed that I have been very hard on religions of faith — Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and even Hinduism — and have not said much that is derogatory of Buddhism. This is not an accident. While Buddhism has also been a source of ignorance and occasional violence, it is not a religion of faith, or a religion at all, in the Western sense. There are millions of Buddhists who do not seem to know this, and they can be found in temples throughout Southeast Asia, and even the West, praying to Buddha as though he were a numinous incarnation of Santa Claus. This distortion of the tradition notwithstanding, it remains true that the esoteric teachings of Buddhism offer the most complete methodology we have for discovering the intrinsic freedom of consciousness, unencumbered by any dogma.

It is no exaggeration to say that meetings between the Dalai Lama and Christian ecclesiastics to mutually honor their religious traditions are like meetings between physicists from Cambridge and the Bushmen of the Kalahari to mutually honor their respective understandings of the physical universe. This is not to say that Tibetan Buddhists are not saddled with certain dogmas (so are physicists) or that the Bushmen could not have formed some conception of the atom. Any person familiar with both literatures will know that the Bible does not contain a discernible fraction of the precise spiritual instructions that can be found in the Buddhist canon. Though there is much in Buddhism that I do not pretend to understand — as well as much that seems deeply implausible — it would be intellectually dishonest not to acknowledge its preeminence as a system of spiritual instruction.

Contemplatives within the other Semitic traditions have had their mystical impulses similarly constrained. Sufism (itself influenced by Buddhism, Hinduism, Zoroastrianism, and Christian monasticism) has generally been considered a form of heresy in the Muslim world—as the terrible deaths of Al-Hallaj (854–922) and other distinguished Sufis attest. Where its doctrine has remained mindful of the Koran, Sufism is wedded to an indissoluble dualism;

First, the Muslim conception of tolerance applies only to Jews and Christians — “People of the Book” — while the practices of Buddhists, Hindus, and other idolators are considered so spiritually depraved as to be quite beyond the pale. Even People of the Book must keep to themselves and “humbly” tithe (pay the jizya) to their Muslim rulers.

“Idolatry is worse than carnage” (Koran 2:190). The rule of the Moghul emperor Akbar (1556 - 1605) offers an exception here, but it is merely that Akbar’s tolerance of Hinduism was a frank violation of Islamic law.