This month we are looking at Chapter 9 of Bede Griffiths’ book A New Vision of Reality.
The basic premise behind this chapter is that there are various levels of consciousness in life, and that all religious traditions have in their different ways aspired to not only map out what these levels of consciousness are but to also develop practices that enable us humans to traverse these levels even up to the Godhead, or the Absolute, or the Ultimate Reality or the One. He concentrates primarily on the Hindu traditions in exploring this, with sideway glances at Buddhism and the Western tradition and the modern exponent of levels of consciousness, Ken Wilber. He plans to look explicitly at the Western traditions, namely Judaism and Christianity, in the next chapter.
He begins by making reference to the break-through in consciousness that took place six centuries before Christ with the Upanishads and the Buddha.
From that time there has been in India an exploration of these higher levels of consciousness which has gone further than anywhere else in the world…. It is the discovery of the levels of consciousness in human existence, leading to the ultimate reality.
What is involved then is the search for the Self, the inner Reality of the human being…. This is to discover one’s self and the whole creation within and this is the goal of yoga, as it came to be called….. yoga is the practical method of how to explore, how to discover ultimate Reality.
In his typically inclusive style, he develops this theme:
It was common knowledge to all ancient people that beyond the human is this cosmic order. The angels in the medieval Christian tradition were part of this, and there were nine orders of angels, nine orders of consciousness, beyond the human. The human is the lowest level of consciousness and beyond are all the other orders. In the Hindu tradition there is this vast cosmic order beyond. It corresponds to a large extent with the world of ideas of Plato, while for Plotinus it is the nous which includes all the ideas from which the whole creation comes forth. It is here in Plato and Plotinus that Western philosophy comes nearest to the eastern tradition, although these developments tended to be lost later on in the West.
I don’t think I am being unfair to Bede in saying that following him is not all that easy. He writes in a way where he seems to accept everything largely uncritically, with some important exceptions, explicating the many different attempts to delineate the levels of consciousness within Hindu tradition. On top of this he wants to keep modern scientific consciousness ‘in the hunt’. This of course is his overall goal: to produce a New Vision of Reality in which all the great traditions and science can be seen as significant and important contributors. Little wonder, we might say, that the text is difficult!
One exception to his inclusive generosity is his concern that a good deal of Hindu tradition tends to move away from nature and the physical, a trend in the end he believes is saved by the current popularity of the Tantra, where the aim rather is ‘to reach the Supreme through all the level’s of one’s being’.
Today what is represented by Tantra is of extreme importance because the danger in Hinduism has been this separating away from the material world, from the human world, to concentrate on the Supreme beyond, and that leads to a rejection of the material world. The material world becomes known as maya, which is often translated as illusion.
Big issues here, as much part of the our Western traditions historically as the Eastern. But now within the scientific West matter and energy have completely won the day to the exclusion of mind and spirit as anything but epiphenomenons. Only some philosophers and the remnants of our religious traditions uphold the original nature of mind and spirit, equal in importance to the physical world. There is great interest in the brain in the West, but not so much in the mind in its own right, totally unlike the great Eastern traditions. Perhaps our modern, secular, scientific consciousness is the first culture ever to repudiate any desire for or sense of an ‘ascent to the Godhead’ through other levels of consciousness. We are trapped in our physicality, enthralled increasingly in being ourselves able to make intelligent machines that are on the verge also of being themselves ‘conscious’! Is this ultimately some sort of 'return of the gods'?
Bede is of course fully aware of this. But he is nothing if not an optimist.
[The Eastern tradition] is completely contrary to the Western tradition which imagines that when one gets to the intellect one has come to the end. In the Eastern tradition the intellect is really only the beginning, when one has gone beyond the gross world and is entering into the subtle world and into the transcendent.
Very few people in the West (now) have any experience of gods and angels, or any other presences. They tend to think that talk of such entities is all a matter of fairy stories; in fact they think that fairies are only stories. But in fact all these entities correspond to experiences in the subtle or psychic sphere. Beyond the physical there is a subtle psychic world and the subtle senses perceive the psychic world within the physical…. Then there are the higher levels of various spheres of spirits, until one comes to a higher level still where are the gods, the devas. This is the cosmic order, the level of cosmic consciousness, and it is what St Paul refers to as the cosmic powers. The writers of the New Testament were just as aware as any other ancient people of this whole world of angels and demons.
Not sure many modern, secular people, let alone professional scientists, would be able to follow Bede here; and I suspect some Christian theologians would not be able to either. Is there a way of conceiving ‘levels of consciousness’ that comes out of our empirical, evolved world rather than having a metaphysical tradition, however old and venerable, imposed upon it? Carl Jung believed there is.
So for me the ‘take home’ from all this is that our fascination with consciousness and its origin and limits has a long history that has manifested in different ways universally. Little wonder also that a hierarchy of consciousness developed universally, augmented and informed by mental and spiritual experiences of worlds beyond our everyday struggle for survival. Some human beings have wanted the ‘lot’; absolute knowledge, absolute power, absolute authority, absolute being. All this while many others have been content to be in charge of the rest of us without necessarily wielding the absolute, just appealing to it. How many times has ‘God’ been invoked to support an argument or justify a position or claim a right or force someone to do or believe something?
Where is the Absolute now in our modern Western secular, scientific world? Do we need one?
1. What meaning do you put to the idea of ‘levels of consciousness’?
2. Have you experienced a very different state of consciousness from your normal state? Can you describe it? Was it drug induced? (you don’t have to answer this last question!!!)
3. Can you imagine yourself experiencing the ‘Absolute’? What do you think it would be like?
4. ‘God’ was once a powerful name and focal point in western culture, upheld by a powerful institutional Church. The Church has fallen on hard days as an institution, and so ‘God’ has as well. Is any other sense of the Absolute trying to move in on the vacuum?
5. Empathy is the capacity to put ourselves in someone else’s ‘shoes’; to think and feel like them. Are there limits to this? Can we put ourselves into an animal’s ‘shoes’, as in totemistic societies? Can we fully empathise in this sense with another human being, say Queen Elizabeth or Donald Trump!! Is this about consciousness?
6. Some exponents of Artificial Intelligence and Neuroscience (AI) claim that one day soon machines will be conscious! What do we make of that?