Dialectical Spiritualism: William James

BY: SUN STAFF - 17.8 2017

Conversations wtih HDG A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, excerpted from  Dialectical Spiritualism: A Vedic View of Western Philosophy.

William James (1842 - 1910)

Hayagriva dasa: In his most famous book, The Varieties of Religious Experience, James writes: "Were we to limit our view to it, we should have to define religion as an external art, the art of winning the favor of God The relation goes direct from heart to heart, from soul to soul, between man and his maker."

Srila Prabhupada: There are varieties of living beings living everywhere from the water up to the higher planetary systems. In fact, Padma Purana informs us that there are 8,400,000 species: plants, creepers, trees, insects, aquatics, birds, animals, and so forth. God is concerned with all of them, because they are all part and parcel of God. In one word, God is the Father and maintainer of all living entities. He has two subordinate energies— material and spiritual. In the material world, material nature is the mother, God is the Father, and the various living entities are all sons maintained by the Supreme Father. This is the basis of universal brotherhood. It is also confirmed in Bhagavad-gita (sarvayonisu, Bg. 14.4) that material nature is the mother and that Krsna is the seed-giving father. If we understand these relationships, we will attain peace and advanced knowledge.

Hayagriva dasa: Concerning the founding of religions, James writes: "The founders of every church owed their power originally to the fact of their direct personal communion with the divine. Not only the superhuman founders, the Christ, the Buddha, Mohammed, but all the originators of Christian sects have been in this case; — so personal religion should seem the primordial thing, even to those who continue to esteem it incomplete."

Srila Prabhupada: Yes, the Supreme Father is a person. We have no experience of a father being anything but a person. Just as in the material world, all fathers are persons, the ultimate Father is also a person. The personal conception of God is there in every religion: Christian, Mohammedan, and Vedic. In the Vedic religion, it is stated, om tad visnoh paramam padam. Those who are spiritually advanced know that the Supreme Father is Lord Visnu. Lord Visnu and Krsna are the same. Impersonal realization is imperfect and incomplete, whereas Bhagavan, the personal God, is the ultimate end of realization. Our first business is to know God and our relationship with Him. Then we can act accordingly to perfect our lives. This is the process of God realization.

Hayagriva dasa: James considered religion to be the source of philosophy. He writes: "Since the relation [of man to God] may be either moral, physical, or ritual, it is evident that out of religion in the sense in which we take it, theologies, philosophies, and ecclesiastical organizations may secondarily grow."

Srila Prabhupada: Philosophy means advancing knowledge, and we are perfecting our knowledge when we begin our understanding of God. Due to foolishness, we sometimes deride God's existence. Sometimes we concoct some imaginary idea, and sometimes we have impersonal and pantheistic conceptions. Philosophy is the search for God, but due to our imperfection, we have different opinions and conceptions of Him. God is a person, and when we know God, talk with Him, see Him, feel His presence, and play with Him, we have attained the highest platform of God realization. We then come to realize that God is great and that we are small and always subordinate. Carrying out God's orders is religion, and the more we realize this, the more we perfect our religion.

Syamasundara dasa: James noted that there are two fundamental philosophical temperaments. One is called tender-mindedness, and this is typified by the rationalist, the idealist, the optimist, the religionist, and the dogmatist. Tough-mindedness is typified by the empiricist, the materialist, the pessimist, the atheist, the fatalist, and the skeptic.

Srila Prabhupada: This depends upon our education, whether we become tender or tough-minded. In either case, we propose that originally the soul is good. Tenderness and toughness are developed later on. They are not the standard. When you come to the platform of the soul, everything is good. From Bhagavad-gita, we understand that every living entity is part and parcel of God, and God is good. Arjuna accepts Krsna as pararn brahma pararn dhama pavitram (Bg. 10. 12). The word pavitra means "pure." Because we are part of God, we are pure. Impurities are acquired due to contamination in this material world. We may be either tender or tough-minded: this is due to our impurity acquired in this material world. We don't credit a person either way, being tender or tough. A man suffering from a headache thinks that it is better to be suffering from indigestion instead, and vice versa. Because the pure soul is affected by the three gunas — sattva, rajas, and tamas — he is suffering. He must be relieved from all suffering. From the material point of view, one may be a brahmana contaminated by sattva-guna, or a sudra contaminated by tamo-guna or rajo-guna, but from the spiritual platform, both are contaminated by material nature. Because of this, both are suffering. It is explained in Bhagavad-gita that the brahmana thinks, "Oh, I am so pure and learned. I am so this, I am so that." This is called contamination by sattva-guna. He is not thinking that he is part and parcel of Krsna. As long as we are affected by these material modes of nature, our position is the same.

Syamasundara dasa: James called himself a radical empiricist. He did not see the universe as a neat set of relationships because direct experience informs us that facts are mosaic and discontinuous in their design. Thus for him the universe is a composition of facts which do not form a perfect unity.

Srila Prabhupada: Because he is seeing the universe with imperfect eyes, it appears imperfect. Actually, everything is complete. According to the first verse of Isopanisad:

om purnam adah purnam idam 
purnat purnam udacyate 
purnasya purnam adaya 
purnam evavasisyate

'The Personality of Godhead is perfect and complete, and because He is completely perfect, all emanations from Him, such as this phenomenal world, are perfectly equipped as complete wholes. Whatever is produced of the complete whole is also complete in itself. Because He is the complete whole, even though so many complete units emanate from Him, He remains the complete balance." (Isopanisad, Invocation) God is perfect, and whatever is created by God is perfect. James thinks that it is imperfect because he cannot see it through the eyes of God.

Syamasundara dasa: For James, the ultimate unification of the universe is never fully attained. He writes: "The universe continually grows in quantity by new experiences that graft themselves upon the older mass; but these very new experiences often help the mass to a more consolidated form."

Srila Prabhupada: This conception results from a poor fund of knowledge. The universe is complete, but man alone is not complete. Because the universe is created by a perfect being, it is also perfect. It is not that the universe is evolving. It has been perfect since its creation. Since our knowledge is imperfect, we think that it is evolving.

Syamasundara dasa: Is this because my observations of the universe are evolving toward a unity?

Srila Prabhupada: Yes.