Suggesting the world would be better off without religiontakes a certain courage. Rosamund Burton meets a fearlessseeker of the truth.
Imagine Jesus sitting in a Sydney cafe drinking a chailatte, and it gives you some of an idea of my firstimpressions on meeting Sankara Saranam. He has longbrown hair with a few wisps of grey and a beard, andhis loose fitting embroidered Indian style top addsto his Christ-like appearance. Despite the waiter addingthree additional heaped teaspoons of chai mixture intothe teapot, followed by much stirring, Sankara stillfinds his beverage "lacks guts".
But the man himself is certainly not someone who lacksguts. He is the author of recently published "GodWithout Religion: Questioning Centuries of AcceptedTruths", which, as the title make clear, challengesall forms of religion. Sankara's basic premise is thatall are based on stories or beliefs rather than on truth,due to those in power wanting to exercise and keep control.
Certainly in recent years, we are starting to see evidenceof how Christianity has been shaped by those in power.For example, for two thousand years, Mary Magdalenewas portrayed as a prostitute. But since the discoveryof the Gnostic Gospels, she is increasingly likely tobe seen as someone who was on an equal footing withthe 12 disciples and, in all likelihood, the partnerof Jesus. But I wondered if there are the same inconsistenciesin other religions? "What about Tibetan Buddhism?"I ask.
"The whole lama tradition was started by monasteriesin the 15th century," Sankara replies, "sothey could maintain control and power." Those samecontrol and power issues surrounding reincarnated lamasare still occurring today, between Tibetan religiousleaders and the Chinese authorities. Never one to mindruffling feathers, Sankara suggests His Holiness theDalai Lama should be questioning the whole idea of reincarnationin this day and age.
The idea of a world without religion to me is likesaying let's do away with history, because faith andculture are so interlinked. Perhaps that's why so manypeople today who are not active practitioners of a religionare still likely to label themselves Catholic or Anglicanfor example, or say they are Christian.
Sankara's own background is Jewish.
"The Jewish identity doesn't fall away,"he claims. "It's deeply cultural. It took me lesstime to get rid of the Jewish religion than the Jewishculture." Both Sankara's parents are Iraqi Jewswho were born in Baghdad. They were from wealthy andrespected families, who coexisted well with the Muslimmajority. But after World War Two, rifts opened betweenJews and Muslims, with many families migrating to thenew state of Israel. His mother's family actually migratedto the United States, but his father's side settledin Israel only to find themselves treated as secondclass citizens because they were Middle Eastern ratherthan European Jews.
"I learnt there was more divisiveness within religionsthan between them," says Sankara. "You thinkthat sounds preposterous, but it isn't." He goeson to explain that when he lived in Israel for a coupleof years in his late twenties he had no problem withpeople of other faiths, but did experience antagonismfrom Jews, because he was not adhering to the typicalJewish dress code.
Sankara was born in America. He went to a Hebrew schoolinitially and then onto public school where he foundhimself a target of anti-Semitism. Both his family'sand his own personal experiences, combined with hisnatural inclination to question aspects not only ofJudaism but also of other religions, has led him toseek a spiritual path that goes that beyond the narrowconfines of identity and faith.
Having excelled at science and maths at school, hewent to engineering school with the intention of becominga rocket scientist. Already diverging from that earlygoal, he studied classical guitar before, at the ageof 23, entering a monastery in South Carolina foundedby Paramahansa Yogananda, who started the Self-RealisationFellowship.
Sankara had already been practising pranayama techniqueswhich have been used by yogis for thousands of yearsto control the body and mind, but his practice was deepenedand strengthened during his four years at the monastery.
He then spent two years in Israel studying Hebrew mysticism,and his first book, "Yoga and Judaism" revealedthat the Hebrew prophets practised yogic methods ofmysticism.
Returning to the US, he spent another two years studyingcomparative religion at Columbia University in New York.It was during this time that he founded the PranayamaInstitute, and posted on his website the pranayama techniqueshe had learnt and been using over the years, to makethem freely available to anyone who wanted to learnthem.
"Prana" refers to nervous energy and "yama"means control, explains Sankara. "Getting in touchwith the motion of prana in the body and brain helpsus to better understand our existence, while controllingthis motion by directing awareness inward can unitehumanity in the shared experience of God by expandingthe sense of self."
By the time he had finished his masters degree, hehad developed a similar opinion about academia as hehad about religion. He saw it as creating narrow identitiesand defending theories, rather than a quest for trueknowledge. "It's about accreditation, not education,"Sankara asserts.
In 1998, Sankara and his wife moved to New Mexico.She worked for the District Attorney's Office and tookcare of their day-to-day affairs, while for the nextseven years Sankara devoted his time to study.
He posted over 5,000 pages of his findings on his websiteand received responses from people in over 70 countries.It is this interaction that forms the basis of "GodWithout Religion".
Originally, Sankara published the book himself, butit has subsequently been picked up by publishers ineight different countries, including India, Australiaand, recently, the United States.
The book includes 17 techniques for the reader to discoverand define God on their own, rather than accepting theinterpretation of a particular religious doctrine. Methodsinclude forming or joining a colloquium of people interestedin spiritual matters, and asking questions and discussingissues. He also recommends the use of affirmations,what he calls "commonsense asceticism" whichis the moderation of food, speech and sex, and pranayamatechniques.
As he talks, it becomes apparent that it is not onlyreligions that Sankara regards as holding power andcontrol. It is also large corporations. In typical fearlessstyle, he has set his sights on pharmaceutical companiesas modern day "evils", closely followed bythe petroleum giants. The decentralisation of power,he says, is central to his philosophy and his wife andhe live with their two children on a 240 hectare property,where they rely on solar power and practise holisticland management and permaculture.
Sankara's strong views extend beyond religion and philosophyinto the everyday realm of television - according tohim, we should simply stop watching it. He also feelsthat women's power is taken from them, particularlyin the Third World, by having too many babies. He looksat the impact of this, not only in terms of gender inequality,but also the detrimental effect that an ever increasinghuman population is likely to have on human beings andthe planet as a whole. He believes that women are, inmost instances, higher custodians of spiritual valuesthan men, and has come up with the idea that women shouldbe given the choice to undergo voluntary sterilisationin exchange for money, education, job security and prioritywhen it comes to adoption. This is certainly a controversialidea and not one with which I personally agree. Buthe is adamant that this would not only help empowerwomen, especially in countries where they are not onan equal footing with men, but would also help combatoverpopulation.
"It's hard for women to sacrifice," he says,"but somebody has to sacrifice. If we are not willingto sacrifice, then what is going to happen? At leasttry to have them later in life, after 25, and extendthe length of the generations. Also, we need to supportpolicies that will enable the development of women insocieties."
Certainly in Australia I think many people are questioningreligion and looking for valid spiritual alternatives,and Sankara's book is a significant publication foranyone seeking spirituality without faith.
The author constantly emphasises the need to question.Instead of seeking to provide answers about God as organisedreligions do, he encourages people to explore theirideas of God by asking questions which he believes willultimately expand their sense of identity. He callsthis "an expanded sense of self" which, hesays, "can expand to include all of humanity, regardlessof nationality, beliefs, ethnicity, race, gender, orlifestyle. If a suburban Midwesterner could identifywith an Iraqi farmer, a straight white southerner couldrelate to a gay African American couple...we wouldn'tbe able to propagate hatred and violence." In achallenge to new age spirituality, Sankara claims peopleare often only replacing one belief system with another,and the result may be the same as blindly followinga strict religion. Too often, he says, new age spiritualityfails to be progressive because it discourages sincerequestioning.
Many prominent religious figures in the world todayare espousing tolerance of other faiths, and there isincreasing acceptance that the goal of God realisationcan take many forms. Sankara has gone a step furtherand given people a path to experience God outside theframework of any particular religion or belief. "GodWithout Religion" will certainly have readers questioningboth the ideas and the author, but I believe thinkingalong these lines is likely to become increasingly popular,and it is exciting to contemplate the effect this willhave on spirituality throughout the world. And, suchquestioning is exactly that this iconoclastic spiritualthinker is seeking to encourage.