Religions love stories. Take Christianity, for example. The story is pretty simple.
God so loved the world he sent his only Son, Jesus, to be born via a virgin birth and to die on the cross as redemption for the sins of humankind.
(Not being a Christian, this is my best attempt at a one-sentence story summary. Adjust as desired.)
The Indian mystical faith that I belonged to for 35 years, Radha Soami Satsang Beas, or RSSB, has a somewhat similar story.
God arranges it so there's always at least one Perfect Living Master on Earth whose job is to initiate marked souls whose destiny is to return to the equivalent of heaven via the master, or guru, taking control of their karmas and guiding them through higher regions of creation in meditation.
Yet what are devotees supposed to do when there's plenty of evidence that the current RSSB guru, Gurinder Singh Dhillon, not only is far from perfect, but in some respects doesn't even rise to the level of an ordinary decent human being?
Scroll through the posts in this blog's Radha Soami Satsang Beas category and you'll see that evidence.
Dhillon has engaged in massive financial fraud. The guru has made death threats against his cousin. He has ignored reports of sexual abuse at the RSSB headquarters. Dhillon has made questionable remarks to a female devotee. The guru has markedly changed the RSSB teachings. He has enriched himself by wrongly mingling his family's personal funds with the finances of public companies controlled by his initiates.
(As Stephen Colbert likes to say about President Trump's illegalities... allegedly.)
In everyday life, if someone thought their car was perfectly designed, then the vehicle started developing all sorts of mechanical problems, they'd quickly alter the story they'd tell about the car. "It's a gem to own" would change to "I'm sorry I bought this piece of crap."
However, religious stories are much less amenable to change. In part this is because people have so much more invested in those stories. Not monetarily, though sometimes this is true also, but emotionally.
After all, both Christianity and Radha Soami Satsang Beas make promises about eternity, not just this life. Believers in Jesus, or the RSSB guru, supposedly can expect a wonderful afterlife. While non-believers are sent off to hellfire, or at least rebirth, the faithful get to enjoy everlasting bliss with God.
So it's tough for RSSB believers to accept that the guru they're counting on for eternal life actually isn't who he is claimed to be. Instead of adjusting their spiritual story to account for new evidence about Gurinder Singh Dhillon, they engage in various sorts of attempts to discredit disturbing facts.
-- The scandals surrounding the guru are tests of faith. True disciples will stand by him, why false disciples will doubt him.
-- The guru is spiritually perfect, while flawed in his worldly guise. Thus efforts should be made to reach the guru within instead of being preoccupied by the failings of his outward form.
-- All of the accusations against the guru being reported by the Indian press are unfounded, and his innocence will be proven one day.
I've been paying more attention to the stories we humans love to tell ourselves because I've been reading a new book by Yuval Noah Harari, "21 Lessons for the 21st Century." I liked his previous books, Sapiens and Homo Deus, so figured I'd like this book also.
Harari is a clear thinker with an appealing way of explaining important ideas. I read his final chapter first because it is called "Meditation." Harari describes why he is attracted to mindfulness meditation. Here's a few passages from that chapter.
The actual practice is to observe body sensations and mental reactions to sensations in a methodical, continuous, and objective manner, thereby uncovering the basic patterns of the mind. People sometimes turn meditation into a pursuit of special experiences of bliss and ecstasy.
Yet in truth, consciousness is the greatest mystery in the universe, and mundane feelings of heat and itching are every bit as mysterious as feelings of rapture or cosmic oneness. Vipassana meditators are cautioned never to embark on a search for special experiences; instead they are encouraged to concentrate on understanding the reality of their mind, whatever this reality might be.
But I digress from the subject of stories. Here's some of what Harari has to say about religious stories.
While a good story must give me a role and must extend beyond my horizons, it need not be true. A story can be pure fiction, yet provide me with an identity and make me feel that my life has meaning.
To the best of our scientific understanding, none of the thousands of stories that different cultures, religions, and tribes have invented throughout history is true. They are all just human inventions. If you ask for the true meaning of life and get a story in reply, know that this is the wrong answer.
The exact details don't really matter. Any story is wrong, simply for being a story. The universe just does not work like a story.
So why do people believe in these fictions? One reason is that their personal identity is built on the story. People are taught to believe in the story from early childhood. They hear it from their parents, their teachers, their neighbors, and the general culture long before they develop the intellectual and emotional independence necessary to question and verify such stories.
...For if indeed the story is false, then the entire world as we know it makes no sense.
...Most stories are held together by the weight of their roof rather than by the strength of their foundations. Consider the Christian story. It has the flimsiest of foundations.
What evidence do we have that the son of the Creator of the entire universe was born as a carbon-based life-form somewhere in the Milky Way about two thousand years ago? What evidence do we have that it happened in the Galilee area, and that His mother was a virgin?
Yet enormous global institutions have built on top of that story, and their weight presses down with such overwhelming force that they keep the story in place. Entire wars have been fought over changing a single word of the story.
...Once personal identities and entire social systems are built on top of a story, it becomes unthinkable to doubt it, not because of the evidence supporting it, but because its collapse will trigger a personal and social cataclysm. In history, the roof is sometimes more important than the foundations.
This certainly is true in regard to Gurinder Singh Dhillon and Radha Soami Satsang Beas. Several million people around the world believe that the RSSB guru is divine and can't make a serious mistake. They've entrusted their souls to his care (even though no one has ever seen a soul).
Centers have been built in many countries where the RSSB faithful gather. Large amounts of money are donated by devotees to keep the wheels of RSSB turning. The organization is a potent political force in the Punjab, and perhaps also in other parts of India.
So there's a lot of reluctance to adjust the story of the RSSB guru to match the facts of his fraudulent financial dealings and other ethical failings. Instead, those facts are denied, minimized, ignored.
Which is weird.
The Indian word "sat" means truth. Satsang is a true gathering. Satguru is a true guru. Satsangi is someone who associates with truth. Yet truth is scoffed at when it conflicts with the traditional RSSB story of who the guru is, and what he stands for.
This is why genuine truth-seekers involved with RSSB face a choice: give up their dedication to truth, or give up their faith in Gurinder Singh Dhillon. It isn't possible to claim to be devoted to sat, truth, and also ignore the truth about the RSSB guru.
Many years ago I decided that truth meant more to me than the RSSB story that I believed in for over three decades.
I've never regretted that decision. But everybody has to decide on their own where they stand: on the firm foundation of truth, or on the flimsy scaffolding that holds up religious stories.