On the spiritual body

14 05 2019
Narada Muni Transcendental Spaceman

Narada Muni (source)

A reader left a comment with a link to an article by David Bentley Hart entitled The Spiritual Was More Substantial Than the Material for the Ancients. Here I will offer a few comments, specifically on the main themes of the corporeal vs. the spiritual body.

I will discuss here three themes that Hart touches on, though perhaps in my own elliptical manner. The first is the idea of matter or the flesh. Christianity especially since High Scholasticism has been very careful to defend the goodness of the material world. The prominent idea is that God created material things with their own perfection that must be respected. Failure to do so would tempt a fall into Gnosticism or Docetism. It could be argued that this was also the concern of the Patristic church. I would contend that the main difference is that the ancient world was far more comfortable with the concept of the material world being mainly a symbol or icon of the spiritual world. There was little or muted interest in material things in themselves. Arguably this changed with a greater appreciation of Aristotle and the birth of modern science. In spite of the world being “fallen,” the Creator’s perfection remained within it, and the study and appreciation of this material perfection was an act of worship in itself.

There is a compelling theological presupposition behind this, at least in the modern mind. If we are once again to take up St. Athanasius’ axiom, “God became man so that man might become God,” we can then also remember the corollary: that which was not assumed was not redeemed. God, in becoming a material man, assumed our nature and thus transformed it accordingly. The idea then is that if God has already assumed this nature and spiritualized it, it must at this moment also be sacred, and thus a source of goodness and grace. That the human body remains basically a bag of stool, urine, and other foul substances that is constantly decaying thus needs to be seen in a spiritual light. To condemn the corporeal reality too much would be a sin against God’s grace, the light of God’s Kingdom already among us.

Hart’s exegesis of the New Testament, particularly his descriptions of the heavenly body vs. the earthly body, are very valuable in reassessing the modern apotheosis of the human as it exists in its current state. To return to High Scholasticism, an essential theme in recovering an appreciation for the integrity of this creation is to harmonize faith and human reason as much as possible. Though human reason might be wounded by ignorance due to original sin, it is a defined dogma that our ability to perceive and interact with the world is sufficient for the purposes of salvation. For all intents and purposes, the way we perceive reality is the only one we need to know. The Christian cosmos is thus all-too-human: everything is perceived through the five senses and what we can extrapolate from them. There are supposedly angelic intellects, but they perceive with ease what we can only understand with much difficulty. The spiritual world in that sense is quite flat and transparent.

To invoke the Vedic philosophy of India, the world is definitely not limited to the five senses of every normal human being. Other humans may have more refined senses, they might be able to perceive and travel to other dimensions where other intelligent beings live. One story is that of a king and his daughter who, upon visiting another spiritual dimension for about five minutes, were told that ten thousand years had passed in their own dimension and no one would remember who they were back home. Even the world, Bhumandala, as described in the Srimad Bhagvatam could be seen as flat, a sphere, or as a cylinder, depending on in which dimension you were viewing it. In this vision of reality, the material creation is maya, or the illusory energy of the Supreme Personality of Godhead. Spirit souls fall into the material creation because they want to be the enjoyer, they want to play at being the creator and cause of all things, with unfortunate results. Thus, the body as it exists is neither good nor bad. It’s useful for coming back home to Godhead, but as I stated elsewhere, to become obsessed with the workings of the material universe would be like planning a trip to Disney World and spending all your time examining the car you need to drive there. Thus, things may not make sense to us or are contradictory precisely because the universe is far more complex than our reason fed by our five senses can understand.

Hart also speaks about the difference between the material body and spiritual body, citing the resurrected Jesus’ ability to be touched and to eat, etc. This is also found in the Hindu Scriptures: souls are not bodiless, but have an original spiritual body that can do more than the current human body. When Krishna comes to Earth in his avatars, he does not take on a human body but remains transcendental, even though he steals butter, fights demons, sires children, etc. Even spiritualized yogis are said to be able to plunge into the Ganges in one place and come out elsewhere in another part of this world or in another spiritual one. The most notable space traveler is Narada Muni pictured above, who by the power of his vina can travel anywhere in the universe by just flying there. Thus, Jesus’ resurrected body that can talk with people and pass through walls is a familiar phenomenon from the Vedic perspective.

One point of difference between the Greek ancient idea and this one school of the Vedic knowledge can be explained in a stark contrast with this quote from Hart’s article:

The common belief of most educated persons of the time was that, if any reality was bodiless in the absolute sense, it could be only God or the highest divine principle. 

While a non-dualist Indian school might agree with this opinion, the Hare Krishna school is dualist and believes that Krishna has a spiritual body, being a personality like you and me. In multiple places, Srila Prabhupada has described six four transcendental qualities of Krishna, the last four of which are ascribed to Krishna alone:

(61) He is the performer of wonderful varieties of pastimes (especially His childhood pastimes).(62) He is surrounded by devotees endowed with wonderful love of Godhead.(63) He can attract all living entities all over the universes by playing on His flute.(64) He has a wonderful excellence of beauty which cannot be rivaled anywhere in the creation.

Indeed, the devotee is encouraged to meditate on the murti of the Lord starting at his lotus feet and working his way up, or more importantly, chanting his divine name. (The divine names are considered to be consubstantial with Krishna, almost like receiving Holy Communion for the Catholic according to one devotee I spoke with). While this might seem vulgar to Western Christian ears, akin to Mormons saying that God has a body, paradoxically it is the less materialist position compared to stating that God is the simple formless Actus Purus of classical philosophy. In our interpretation of reality, influenced by the material world, things begin simply, evolve into complexity, and then break down through entropy back into simplicity. The idea that God is simple and formless can only come about through the idea that God is somehow the infancy of existence instead of its plenitude at the outset.

Krishna is the original Personality behind all existence. Krishna likes some things and dislikes others. He has friends and supposed enemies (who only exist because he likes to play the part of slayer of demons). Krishna eats, he sleeps, he loves, and so on. Everything that is not Krishna is only a dim image of Krishna, his friends, his pastimes, his qualities, his paraphernalia, etc. Existence begins with an individual person and unfolds into the simplicity and complexity that we know as the current state of things. Krishna, the flute playing cowherd boy, transcends all of it. Krishna is the only real “I”, the rest of us are just pretending.



One response

15 05 2019

Time is a flat circle.

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