Reading "Islam and the Misuses of Ecstasy" by Sam Harris brought back some memories. I wouldn't call them exactly religiously ecstatic, but they were damn close.
The first time I went to India, for two weeks in 1977, I was able to experience one of the large "bhandaras" held at the headquarters of Radha Soami Satsang Beas in the Punjab. This is a photo I took, showing just a portion of the gigantic crowd that had come to hear and see the RSSB guru.
(I wrote in "God's here, but I've got to go" about the decidedly non-ecstatic experience of desperately having to pee while the guru was giving a lengthy discourse and everyone was sitting spellbound.)
Since Radha Soami Satsang Beas is an offshoot of the Sikh tradition, before the guru would appear chanters sang, if that's the right word, passages from the Adi Granth. This was deeply moving to me, even though I couldn't understand what was being said.
Believing is powerful.
Most of the tens of thousands at the bhandara believed that the guru was God in human form, a modern-day Jesus. I did also, though likely not as fervently -- having a more skeptical Western mind.
The atmosphere at a religious gathering like this is almost impossible to describe to someone who hasn't been devoted to an other-worldly belief system. It isn't like being at a football ("soccer," as we Americans say) match where 70,000 people are cheering for their team.
There's some resemblance to the empassioned communal frenzy of a sports event, but religious ecstasy flows in much deeper waters. After all, we're talking eternal salvation here, not a temporary win-loss record.
Sam Harris speaks eloquently of the appeal that such religious experiences have.
First, by way of putting my own empathy on my sleeve, let me say a few things that will most likely surprise many of my readers. Despite my antipathy for the doctrine of Islam, I think the Muslim call to prayer is one of the most beautiful sounds on earth.
...I find this ritual deeply moving—and I am prepared to say that if you don’t, you are missing something. At a minimum, you are failing to understand how devout Muslims feel when they hear this. I think everything about the call to prayer is glorious—apart from the fact that, judging by the contents of the Koran, the God we are being asked to supplicate is evil and almost surely fictional.
Nevertheless, if this same mode of worship were directed at the beauty of the cosmos and the mystery of consciousness, few things would please me more than a minaret at dawn.
However, there are dangers in religious ecstasy -- particularly, for Harris, the Muslim variety.
This video has everything: the power of ritual and the power of the crowd; tears of devotion and a lust for vengeance. How many of the people in that mosque are jihadists? I have no idea—perhaps none. But their spiritual aspirations and deepest positive emotions—love, devotion, compassion, bliss, awe—are being focused through the lens of sectarian hatred and humiliation.
Read every word of the translation so that you understand what these devout people are weeping over. Their ecstasy is inseparable from the desire to see nonbelievers punished in hellfire. Is this some weird distortion of the true teachings of Islam? No. This is a recitation from the Koran articulating itscentral message. The video has over 2 million views on YouTube. It was posted by someone who promised his fellow Muslims that they, too, would weep tears of devotion upon seeing it.
The reciter is Sheikh Mishary bin Rashid Alafasy of Kuwait. He has as many Twitter followers as Jerry Seinfeld and J.K. Rowling (2 million). In doctrinal terms, this is not the fringe of Islam. It is the center.
I only watched the first four minutes or so of the eight minute video. That was enough to get the "infidels will burn in hellfire" message.
And to be reminded of how beautiful chanting of sacred scripture can be. I hadn't realized how much Islamic chanting sounds like Sikh chanting.
As Harris reminds us, though, there is an ugly message being carried by the beautiful sound.
Islam marries religious ecstasy and sectarian hatred in a way that other religions do not. Secular liberals who worry more about “Islamophobia” than about the actual doctrine of Islam are guilty of a failure of empathy. They fail not just with respect to the experience of innocent Muslims who are treated like slaves and criminals by this religion, but with respect to the inner lives of its true believers.
Most secular people cannot begin to imagine what a (truly) devout Muslim feels. They are blind to the range of experiences that would cause an otherwise intelligent and psychologically healthy person to say, “I will happily die for this.” Unless you have tasted religious ecstasy, you cannot understand the danger of its being pointed in the wrong direction.
Perhaps an even more fruitful inquiry would be to ask how the human animal gets so emotional? Humans are easily led into emotional extravaganzas whether they be sports, war, religion, etc. The whole of human history is mostly a bloody and sad testimonial to our unbridled emotional tendencies. Sure, if we could only keep it on a positive note, singing a positive tune. But that is not what happens..
Posted by: iloveDrAnn | June 19, 2013 at 10:46 AM
I think the Muslim call to prayer is one of the most beautiful sounds on earth.
Yes I agree, . . it is so beautiful
But in the case of the Beas Bhandara
the specific difference is
that the Guru sais nothing or better
"Everybody hopes that he will keep silent"
A moment like that but I had it also
at all other occasions and the most interesting was
when having an hour of so with Him at the airport
or at private interview in Beas
You experience really what you aim at in meditation
Your consciousness rises up to
the third eye
your body'seems numb'
The Sound starts more pulsing and even sweeter
and at the same time you talk to Him
because you know that he prefers
"make no show of it"
like you are two persons
One having Dhyan as it is called
a kind of being bewitched but
A fgriend of mine who was a long time coke user
"it's a million times more" adding
and it's free
She was initiated in 2012
Vack to the Bhandara you describe
from the sceptic analysing standpoint
which prevented you to benefit :
A million guys in front of the Guru these days
and they don't move
All in a state of super love
And not at all in any state generated by the 6 lower chakras when excited
and You Brian, after so much study
YOU SHOULD KNOW the difference
Posted by: 777 | June 19, 2013 at 12:12 PM
I listened to the mullah
somewhat and he is praying to brahma, jehova the proctor of the first region
who excercises total justice like
the eye for an eye in his myriads of big bang universes
This diety has no merci
In silver age when advaita guys were stronger their goal was unification of all mankind with this proctor
All religions pray on the level of
our lower chakras and it is meat which keeps them there
As you all can imaging and will admit-even as a sceptic-
is that the Holy Ghost is not low phenomenon
but is on the top of our chakra body
and if you do not hear that sweet vibration ask a guy in the know
to connect you
"Yes, when there is a Holy Ghost, there are lower ghost too"
Thes lower spirits seek entrance to where the Holy Ghost doesn't is
Posted by: 777 | June 19, 2013 at 12:33 PM
Wow. I'm speechless.
Posted by: Skeptic | June 19, 2013 at 06:45 PM
"Wow. I'm speechless."
Because you don't dare say anything critical about Islam, infidel.
Posted by: cc | June 19, 2013 at 08:25 PM
Haha cc! No I'm just trying to absorb the whole conversation, blog post and comments. I think it's very interesting and thought provoking. I would only caution going beyond the intellectual examination of human nature to slip easily, in a very human way, to the emotional stance of fear based hatred of Islam which is no better than what Islam is being accused of.
Posted by: Skeptic | June 20, 2013 at 04:51 AM
"...the emotional stance of fear based hatred of Islam which is no better than what Islam is being accused of."
You're equating reasonable caution with bigotry. When someone believes your rejection of their belief makes you unworthy of life, do you bring attention to their madness or shrug it off as "human nature"?
Posted by: cc | June 20, 2013 at 11:41 AM
There is nothing wrong with reasonable caution of Islamic teaching. When I watch Sunday morning Christian evangelists on TV it scares the crap out of me. My only caution was to not let reasonable caution turn to fear based hatred, of Christians or Muslims.
Posted by: Skeptic | June 20, 2013 at 05:15 PM
How are these quotes different from Muslim Recitation video from the blog?
I live and work in a very diverse community. I have friends and colleagues from every corner of the planet and every religious background and ethnicity. I don't find my Muslim friends and coworkers any scarier than any others.
Religious zealots of any stripe do concern me though, including the Sant Mat variety.
Posted by: Skeptic | June 20, 2013 at 05:53 PM
Hatred is an emotion with no rational basis, so for you to be concerned that reasonable caution could "turn to fear based hatred" is as irrational as hatred itself.
Posted by: cc | June 20, 2013 at 07:28 PM
"Hatred is an emotion with no rational basis, so for you to be concerned that reasonable caution could "turn to fear based hatred" is as irrational as hatred itself." cc
Ever read a history book or opened a newspaper? Just saying...
Posted by: Skeptic | June 22, 2013 at 07:53 AM