Thursday, December 22, 2005

Heaven? what the hell?

I was watching TV last night, gasp, me watch TV say it isn't so but sorry true believers it is the case. Nonetheless, I was watching TV yesterday and more specifically the Barbara Walters Special on Heaven: Where is it? How do we get there? Suffice to say that as usual Barbara Walters was annoying and has a panache for the obvious, no one can state the obvious with as much surprise and bewilderment as her. Sorry about my tirade but she annoyed me.

Getting back on point, the show was about heaven and the various conceptions of it. It was strongly biased and only highlighted Judeo-Christian-Islamic views of heaven except for a tiny segment on Buddhism. Heaven is a very important concept to most if not all religious thought, more accurately it is the afterlife that concerns most religious thought. The very thought of Heaven as an actual place is an fascinating idea. It is fascinating in that despite living in the 21st century with the great intellectual and scientific knowledge that we as a civilization possess, most people believe that Heaven is an actual location in this world and furthermore it is a place we can enter with our spiritual bodies. The Christian and Islamic perspective presented in the show had some basic common ground:
1. There is a Heaven
2. It is a real place with physical qualities despite being a spiritual place
3. We as human beings can enter it in our spiritual bodies
4. Our spiritual bodies are reflections of how we perceive ourselves
5. In heaven we can interact with our departed friends and family
6. In heaven we keep our gender
7. In heaven we can eat anything we want, do anything we want, have sex (this last part is more Islamic faith than Christianity)

What primarily interests me is the fact that people continue to associate our world, our physical ideas to this spiritual idea. For example, it is a place, a world which is a perfect version of this flawed world we live in. We continue to possess physical qualities like faces, arms, mouths and organs. This stems from the idea in Christianity and Islam that we only possess this life and our bodies in this life are reflective of the spiritual bodies we possess. At the End of Days, God reunites the bodies with the souls and pronounces judgement upon them based upon the acts they have committed in life.

These visions of heaven seem to be our ideas of escaping the confines of our flawed and what appears to be inevitable world. My primary issue is not with the concept of heaven or afterlife but such a physical and mundane vision of the afterlife. The above vision of heaven is extremely restricting because it is limited to how we perceive ourselves now and our world. Heaven, here, isn't a place were we break free of our earthly and physical confines. It is a place where we must go for bliss and perfection instead of what we are. Heaven is distinct from us and the world around us, meaning happiness cannot be found in our current existence because somehow we are flawed and only in being in Heaven can make us whole and happy.

Buddhism does have heavens but they are only transitory states and dimensions until one reaches nirvana or nirodha, which means annihilation of movement (loose definition). Nirvana is the final annihilation of the self since the self is the source of all suffering. Hindu thought does not postulate a final heaven, there is moksha or salvation, which is the intuitive understanding of the true nature of universe, God and the soul. The term used in Advaita Vedanta is jivamukthi or salvation while living, which is a total change of perspective in which all perspectives are understood and "heaven" is the very existence that we are. It is not a place nor a experience but its our true nature. Hindus and Buddhists doesn't require the physical confines or preceptions of ourselves because of the idea of rebirth. Nonetheless, one important thing we can take from the Hindu and Buddhist viewpoint is that heaven or perfection can "occur" in this life but it requires us to change our views of the world, this world is perfect, it is pristine; it is we who bring the imperfections and flaws by failing to find the harmony with our ownselves, the people around us, the world and nature. Once we find that peace and harmony in ourselves, we won't need to search for any heaven outside of us or beyond us. Thoughts?

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Destiny versus Free Will

In the past few months I have been having random conversations with people about the role of destiny or fate versus free will. There are different ways to look at both of them but first I want to try and break them down individually. Destiny or Fate is said to govern all beings. In Ancient Greece, fate was personified by the Moirae or the Three Blind Women who spun the yarn, measured it and finally cut it. Even the Gods themselves were governed by their power and could not escape it. The classic story of Oedipus Tyrranus or Rex is a perfect example of destiny at work. Oedipus was abandoned by his parents when he was born because of a curse placed upon his father that Oedipus would kill him and marry his own mother. When Oedipus grew up he also heard the prophecy and ran away from his adopted parents. In a twist of FATE, he happened upon a man on the roadside and after an argument, Oedipus killed the man. The man unknown to Oedipus was his father. After a series of challenges, Oedipus finally married Jocasta, the queen of Thebes and his mother, thereby fulfilling the prophecy unbeknowst to him. Eventually he discovered this after many years and poked out his eyes and Jocasta killed herself, the power of fate.

The defining feature of Fate or Destiny, is one's inability to avoid or escape. Things will happen the way they happen because they cannot occur in any other way. People live and die based not on their own actions but because it was meant to be. Interesting enough most romantics strongly believe in this idea but its tailored to their love interest, ie: john and jane were meant to be. Destiny bring purpose and some level of comfort into the lives. Their lives aren't pointless because they have a purpose, something they were meant to do. Our paths have been paved for us because it is important in the grander scheme of things. Destiny removes a certain amount of responsibility from our mindset. Our actions can't be fully due to our intent because it would have happened regardless.

Free Will is the power of the individual and embraces chaos. Free will necessarily implies chaos because it requires that we can act or will without any real reason or purpose. We as individuals determine our our path and course, there is nothing set for us. It is also another romantic idea but in a different sense. We do things because we want to do them, our failures and successes are dependant on our actions and will. Free will removes from us a sense of higher purpose and order. Free will makes us responsible for our own actions at the expense of our sense of deeper purpose.

When misfortunes unexpectedly occur we tend to blame it on fate, not our own actions. We didn't get the promotion because it wasn't supposed to happen or the relationship didn't work out because it wasn't meant to be. On the otherhand, when good things happen to us we tend to say it was due to hard work or our actions. We got the promotion because we worked hard and made it happen.

It seems from all this that destiny and free will are mutually contradictory but thats not necessarily the case. Destiny is fundamentally a top down perspective. We can only justify it based on something grander and larger than us, many times its God. Free will is a bottom up perspective. It is from the vantage point of the individual who doesn't have all the information or knowledge. Imagine this, you have designed a maze and accordingly placed 3 rats in the maze at various positions. From your perspective you know the only way to get to the end of the maze, the rats clearly don't for them they have a wealth of possibilities to get to the end. Free will is about possibility while Destiny is much much closer to probability. Yes this analogy is not perfect because Destiny would imply 100% probability but given my relative non-omniscience, I can't make such a definite statement. :) Any thoughts?