Experiences and Ideas of Unity – with Social and Other Consequences
Abstract: The idea of Unity is widely employed in religions. Some speak of 'unity with God', 'unity in divinity', 'unity with all beings or existence', 'God is One and all are in God' and the pantheistic advaitic theory: 'God is in everyone, everything' and 'everything is God"
These are highly misleading statements when used in setting up behavioural ideals (as with commandments, sins etc.) from which to judge the unique individuality of humans and the diversity of societies, cultures and life in general. Like many other universal abstractions of a religious and political nature, the idea of unity lends itself to those with authoritarian agendas who wish to obtain respect, social control and power. It is easily used as a means to manipulate people through criticizing and belittling them them as selfish, divisive, falling short of selfless ideals, and as not being true renunciants or believers in the ‘highest of universal values’. The ideology of ‘unity’ has also developed through the aeons as a subtle and much developed form of theological speculation - including moralism - serving as a means to impress the authority of God on religious leaders and for them again to do so on others.
The experience referred to variously as Cosmic Unity, Oneness with Everything and for some ‘Unity with God’ is a central idea in all religions in which any mysticism is involved. This can no doubt be a powerful life-influencing event. It can evidently arise in many ways under very unlike circumstances. In whatever sense unity – or the idea of it - is essential to such an experience, it is mostly taken to be somehow more real, complete or higher than in normal perception. Mystics through the ages speak and write of such, which has inspired many others to believe in and seek it, none more so than today. Those who are convinced they have had this experience will tend to continue to orient their lives towards it. There is no way of determining positively when or whether a person actually experiences it, or rather conceives it as having to do with unity… afterwards. But one can examine the claimant’s behaviour, descriptions and explanations. These will often give grounds for supposing the experiences often differ, are limited in different ways. Of course, inconsistencies in descriptions or explanations can also demonstrate more about the nature of an experience.
In some cultures, notably India and parts of the Far East, the idea of mystical unity as a cosmic reality – along with moral values about selflessness and self-denial attendant on this supposed Unity of God and Creation - is most widespread and has historically tended to dominate Eastern religions.
Many usages or meanings of the word ‘Unity’
The word ‘Unity’ has many possible meanings – there is not just one idea of unity. The same goes for the experience of cosmic unity – much evidence shows that it is experienced very differently by many mystics and others. Some feel unity with Christ, others with the Universe and so on in dozens of variants, depending upon the predispositions of their minds and feelings. Their environment – social culture, religious beliefs and much more – set limits to how they will describe and interpret what they feel to be an experience of such unity… which itself may well itself be relative to such conditioners. However, those who speak of such an experience of unity mostly see it as the goal of existence, something giving ultimate fulfillment and meaning to life. They exalt it as all that is worth striving for in life. Many hold this experience as superior to – even infinitely more ‘real’ than – everyday experience, where difference and frequent disunity are prominent.
Abstract ‘Unity’ versus the diversity and actuality of individual experience
The idea of unity is one conceptual abstraction isolated from a multiplicity of qualities of experience, made into the key idea and figuratively ‘set in stone’. As such it is presented as opposed to - and as superior to - all dualisms, separations, differences, and multiplicities. One hypostatises one quality or aspect of our many-sided experience - giving it an undue special status - and so underrates and relatively degrades the rest. Only a very few ‘spiritual teachers’ are sophisticated enough to speak of unity of differences and fewer still see this as equivalent to differences in unity. Instead, unity is seen as the apex of existence, while all else is subordinated. This has led to relegating separate individuals to the bottom of a hierarchy of being – one which becomes embodied in hierarchical and authoritarian social organizations (especially where a church or priesthood is predominant).
‘Unity’ as defined, applied by - even embodied in - a ‘master’
The idea of unity is even represented in a person, such as in the Pope (substitute for or ‘vicar of' Christ) or similar roles like those assumed by Indian ‘Bhagavans’ and other such supposedly elevated beings. Among the most flagrant of all pretenders to such a presumption is Bhagavan Sri Sathya Sai Baba of India who claims he is no substitute but the actual Deity of all Deities Incarnate, and ‘all gods rolled into one’. It is easy to see that ‘God on Top’ means everyone else below as ‘servants’ or ‘subjects’ and hence inferiors. Likewise, any person who sets himself up as a superior being (‘spiritual master’ and so forth) is adopting an authoritarian position (i.e. as worthy of worship and ‘self-surrender’, to be obeyed as all-knowing and all-good). This inevitably leads to a social hierarchy among those connected with such a figurehead, and such hierarchies can be both explicit and formal or implicit and not institutionalised outright. All hierarchies give social or other powers to the higher anyone stands within it.
The dualistic divide that sets man apart from himself
The separation of reality into the spiritual and the worldly (the sacred and the profane) is a conception which, once introduced, causes much havoc with moral and social systems. In trying to assert ‘unity’, mystical religions and sects actually introduce and hypostatise (or 'set in stone') the dualism between supposed spiritual vs. worldly spheres or even levels of being. This is how a hierarchy arises – the metaphysical schism leads into a pyramid of values (with unitary, divine, godliness, self-sacrifice on top and human or ‘worldly’ and humanistic values below). Particularly in the East, unity is held up as a divine principle so as to prioritize self-sacrifice, self-denial, giving up individual desires and interests, self-negation (ostensibly as a means to merging with Oneness) self-denigration before God, and this alienation from one’s true (imperfect) nature is even taken to the extent of martyrdom.
This higher-lower split lays the basis for ‘spiritual doublethink’ and an ‘upside-down’ hierarchy which makes human reality and the world dependent on an abstract and intangible spiritual realm which is the result of speculation, mental fabrication and resultant belief without proof. The believer in perfect unity wants to get away from this world to a supposed transcendent reality, via the so-called ‘spiritual path’. The substitute ‘reality’ conditions goals, values and behaviour to the neglect of living in the world and starting out in understanding from the here and now, the close, and actual near and dear relations of life. Realistic and life-based self confidence is thereby weakened and confusion follows, leading on to self-alienation in its many peculiar and widespread forms.
Sacrifice and Selflessness as self-denying alienation
Obviously, sacrifice and self-denial are admirable altruistic qualities in many respects. Its motives are often be praiseworthy, giving and caring for others at one’s own cost. It is only really beneficial, however, when it actually results in doing – or achieving - what the recipient wishes. Sacrifice must serve the common good, not merely realises one’s own ideas of good based on abstractions and untestable and uncontrolled beliefs. Yet most religions urge one to sacrifice oneself and renounce one’s own desires in favour of a supposed higher order. It is the interests of cosmic unity as ordained by God – not so much of the worldly concerns and needs of particular people and social goals. In practice, though, such self-sacrifices directly benefit a church or a religious order, a guru or some worldly organization).
This dual order (self vs. the selfless). Religious moralism makes the higher principle better and more real than anything ‘worldly’– for such Unity is regarded as perfection and the peak of experience in this life or the next. A person’s cares and concerns are considered something inferior and to be cast aside at whatever cost to themselves or others in the supposed ‘higher purpose’. This self-denial leads to alienation from one’s body, social alienation through withdrawal from - or neglect of - one’s relationships (towards an ‘inner’ higher goal) and is essentially life-denying. The social and inner conflicts that follow from this are many and varied, though they are rooted in the same dualism.
The ‘spiritual values’ which are held so high function to cloud the personal and worldly consequences that arise for those who follow them, and not least who actually benefits from the fruits of ‘giving up to God’ in the worldly shape of the church or the guru and so on. The benefits may go to the needy, but usually a proportion goes quite elsewhere, sometimes an extremely large proportion.
The idea of unity is an abstraction and, as such, is not based on any controllable or empirical evidence. It may just as well be a miasma, a wishful speculation to soothe one’s anxieties about existence and the future or with which to attract and bemuse others through religious proselytising.
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