Book Review 'Two Saints: Two separate lives, a singular pursuit'

Published Jun 18, 2017, 2:46 am IST
Updated Jun 18, 2017, 2:46 am IST
These are figures that have millions of devotees and whose words have revelatory and evidentiary status.
Two Saints: Speculations Around and About Ramakrishna Paramahamsa and Ramana Maharishi, by Arun Shourie Harper Collins, Rs 515
 Two Saints: Speculations Around and About Ramakrishna Paramahamsa and Ramana Maharishi, by Arun Shourie Harper Collins, Rs 515

Arun Shourie’s new book, Two Saints, is an intriguing and, often, fascinating journey into the minds and lives of two particularly revered saints in India — Ramakrishna Paramahamsa and Ramana Maharishi. But it is far from your typical hagiography. Instead, Shourie focuses on interpreting their mystical and spiritual experiences in the context of modern neurology and psychology. These are figures that have millions of devotees and whose words have revelatory and evidentiary status. What they say, so it must be.

Two Saints, however, is an in-depth narrative and analysis of what are referred to as “out of body”, “near-death” experiences, altered states of consciousness, and the mesmeric power these men held over their disciples.

While careful not to cross lines that could be construed as critical of these much-revered figures, Shourie’s primary interest is clearly along the lines of rational, scientific investigation of these phenomena.

While he acknowledges the possibility that these experiences could be the result of mental ailments, neurological damage, and other psychologically reductive terms, he is also occasionally fulsome in his praise of both these men, stating that Ramakrishna purified tantraand pulled back onto the right course several strands of our religious tradition. His praise of Ramana is eulogistic too, crediting him with stripping away the dogmatic rigmarole that our religious discourse had got ensnared in. Both, he says enthusiastically, were the souls of consideration, against bookish, rote learning, and pioneering explorers of the inner world. They lived the same truth.

But a deeper question then arises — What exactly was this elusive truth that both men, and essentially all religions, seek? What are the answers to the biggest philosophical questions that have taxed everyone from sages to scientists over the many millennia of human existence? Is there life after death? Is reincarnation a possibility? Do humans have a soul? Why is suffering so prevalent if a divine creator controls everything?

Shourie first sets these questions out, and then delves into neurology in the context of mystic, or “peak” experiences. The brain comprises a series of networks, and new technology enables us to see when these networks light up, so to speak. But in the context of the “neural substrates” of the mystic experience, what makes these networks light up is the big question. Prior experience? A guru’s blessings? Divine intervention?

Shourie explains, in some detail, how these saints subjected themselves to incredible austerities. So did these experiences alter their minds to the extent that it predisposed them to such experiences? Essentially, that is the main question the book seeks to explore, in meticulous and well-researched detail (a Shourie hallmark), mostly by recounting the experiences of the saints and analysing them, but also by including a great deal of neurological research, operations and experiments that unrelated to divine experiences, but have similar connotations.

However, these explanations often meander, and are sometimes incomplete. Self-hypnosis, for example, is brought up very early in the book but is less explored compared to other areas. When Ramakrishna goes years without sleeping, Shourie interprets this in the context of sleep apnea, one of the most common of somatoform disorders, and provides a detailed explanation thereof, but then fails to explain how the guru managed to remain his sprig-htly self at all times while not having slept for years on end. Shourie is also dismissive of the possibility of Ramakris-hna having “musicogenic epil-epsy”, mostly because of lack of access to medical records.

Shourie provides compelling reasons for the depth and exhaustive nature of the research that went into writing this book. He argues that learning about neuroscience and neurology is a worthwhile end in itself, which it unquestionably is, and that it is not beyond the realm of possibility that examining the experiences of these saints will provide insight into how the brain functions.

If people undergoing neurosurgery have the same experiences that the saints had through meditation and related mental exercises, might it not be possible to track down these connections? That is a very intriguing possibility, and is what makes this book a compelling, if slightly elongated read. However, the important qualifier here is that psychiatric and psychological analysis are still new disciplines of scientific enquiry, and because of the lack of consensus on formal theoretic interpretation, open to a number of different exigent conditionalities.

Where the book truly excels is in taking us deep into the lives and minds of these two remarkable religious figures. Painstaking research and editing has gone into this aspect of the book, and it shows.

Two Saints traces their philosophical and ontological thought in fascinating detail, often throwing them into greater relief through the deft use of juxtapositions against other major religions, like Buddhism and Islam.  As the book progresses, the use of neurological science to explain mystic experiences becomes more and more pronounced, and, at the end, the reader is more or less left with the conclusion that Shourie is a rationalist naturalist, arguing that science can and does explain all these phenomena.

He discusses ordinary people’s experiences that are similar to those of the saints, and argues that many of these phenomena can be reproduced through the biogenic stimulation of the temporal lobes. But interwoven with these themes is a strong moral sense of humanity within a framework of Western rationalism. Shourie’s is a genuine attempt to reconcile, and create a dialogue between mystical experience and scientific empiricism.

The writer is research director for the Global Security Centre in India. He is also a freelance editor and research consultant