In a groundbreaking approach to today’s tough spiritual and social dilemmas, God Without Religion offers an intelligent and compassionate bridge from dogmatic belief systems to progressive spirituality. The son of self-exiled Iraqi Jews, Sankara Saranam shows why organized religion has long been the cause of humanity’s worst wars and most acute suffering–then guides us beyond our divisive history into more expansive perceptions capable of creating a unified, peaceful future. Through a series of penetrating inquiries and practices, readers are invited to examine their beliefs, turn inward, and develop a direct understanding of God.
Sankara Saranam, writer and researcher, world traveler and lecturer, also plays classical guitar, composes music, and writes poetry. An ascetic and mystic, he was initiated in the advanced techniques of Kriya Yoga Pranayama as a monastic in the Self-Realization branch of the Swami Order founded by Paramahansa Yogananda. He now devotes his life to making pranayama techniques available worldwide at no cost.
Born in 1968 to Iraqi Jewish parents who had fled their homeland years before, Sankara was raised in the Midwest and New York City. He received his bachelor of arts degree in Religion from Columbia University, where he graduated magna cum laude, and his master’s degree in Eastern Texts from St. John’s College in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He currently resides in a log cabin in northern Georgia with his wife and their young son.
Sankara writes a weekly online column that is read by students in over seventy countries.
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An Interview with Sankara Saranam, Author of God Without Religion
What led you to write God Without Religion?
After living as an ascetic for nearly two decades, engaging day and night in sophisticated methods of sense-introversion, and eventually coming to an inner understanding of how the human sense of identity manifests, I felt burdened by my discovery and needed to share what I’d found. I wanted to help people by demonstrating how the ideas of God introduced by organized religions have propagated divisiveness through split-level thinking like “us and them,” “believer and infidel,” and “saved and damned,” leading to prejudice, violence, and ultimately, war. I wrote God Without Religion to introduce the idea of a universal God-a concept approached by past philosophers and mystics, but never explored comprehensively from the inside out.
Do you think the average American can relate to a book that challenges the religious bedrock on which this country was founded? Whom do you perceive to be your readership?
Americans are often taught that this country is founded on religious beliefs, but many Founding Fathers, like Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson, actually opposed organized belief systems. Jefferson said that he inwardly swore “eternal hostility” toward organized religions. Lincoln, widely considered the most spiritual United States president, admitted during his campaign that he’d never joined a church. God Without Religion seeks to inspire a personal involvement with a new idea of God and is intended for anyone interested in spiritual growth, regardless of religious, cultural, or political affiliation. Atheists, too, can benefit from this book.
As founder of the Pranayama Institute, please tell us what pranayama is and why you chose it.
I chose to focus on pranayama as a path to spiritual knowledge because of its scientific rationale and its universal application. The scientific basis for all mystical traditions, pranayama is the secret technique of yogis, prophets, and early religious figures such as the Buddha, Elijah, and Jesus Christ. Prana refers to nervous energy and yama means control. Getting in touch with the motion of prana in the body and brain helps us better understand our existence, while controlling this motion by directing awareness inward can unite humanity in the shared appreciation of God experienced by the expansive sense of self.
How do you define the expansive sense of self, and why should we seek to understand it?
The sense of self, or identity, can expand to include all of humanity, regardless of nationality, beliefs, ethnicity, race, gender, or lifestyle. If a suburban midwesterner could identify with an Iraqi farmer, a straight white southerner could relate to a gay African American couple, or a Congressman could see a Palestinian merchant as part of his family, and vice versa, we wouldn’t be able to propagate hatred and violence. God Without Religion guides readers to expand their sense of self until it encompasses every living being, eradicating all preconditions for conflict and war.
You state that organized religions direct people to look “without” rather than “within” for their happiness. A minister, rabbi, or priest would most likely disagree with that. What would you say to them?
I’d ask how deeply they are looking. For example, a rabbi might counsel his congregation to look within, but not so deeply that they forget they are Jews. More often, religion distances worshipers from their inherent spirituality by directing their attention to outer rituals that reinforce dogmatic belief systems. In either instance religion stifles questioning, which is why antagonism between mystics and orthodoxy–such as Jesus and Jewish leaders, Buddha and the Brahmin, and the Sufis and Islam–permeates the history of religion. Instead of facilitating a dialogue with God, religious leaders interpret God for their followers, which has the effect of narrowing the sense of self so much that it is perceived as separate from the infinite self of God. If we were to focus awareness inwardly, very deeply, we would no longer need an interpreter because we would have a direct knowledge to the universal self peering through the eyes of all.
What does the universal divine have to do with the God of the Hebrews or the Christians or of Islam, or the teachings of the Buddha or Joseph Smith? Do we really need yet another interpretation of God right now?
God Without Religion offers a way for individuals to discover and define God on their own rather than accepting the interpretation of a particular religious doctrine. Instead of providing answers about God as organized religions do, the book encourages readers to explore their ideas of God by asking a series of questions that ultimately expand their sense of identity. I call this “worshiping by wondering.” Wonder is the gateway to spiritual knowledge. The more questions we ask about the nature of God, the more profound the answers will be, leading to deeper questions which broaden our perceptions and expand our sense of self. Constantly challenging our conclusions and refining our knowledge of God promotes the deep spiritual growth needed to transcend the violence so prevalent in the world today.
There has been a strong movement toward religious fundamentalism over the past several decades. Why do you think this has occurred?
During difficult and complex times, people tend to seek external security in hopes of relieving inner feelings of unhappiness, emptiness, or inferiority. Fundamentalist doctrines promise many forms of security in exchange for winning God’s graces. But moving toward an infinite God and subscribing to fundamentalism is a contradiction in terms. Fundamentalism’s literal interpretations of so-called divine law entice followers to identify with increasingly smaller and more cultlike segments of humanity rather than with an all-encompassing God. Nor can these interpretations be proven: there is no evidence of a God giving preference to certain people over others, creating miracles to prove his existence, or demanding that his favor be won. Certainly, it’s possible to worship God through an established belief system, yet in doing so we run the risk of stunting our spiritual growth. The guidance we need in hard times is already within us, and all we must do is grow to encompass it.
Surprisingly, you are very critical of New Age approaches to spirituality. You say they are as unenlightened as religion. Please explain.
Individuals often turn to New Age approaches after rejecting organized religion, yet in doing so they are only replacing one belief system with another. It’s tempting to follow a teacher whose answers to spiritual questions seem more universal or whose approach encompasses greater knowledge and more love. Yet the result may be the same as blindly following a strict religion. Without experiencing the answers firsthand, worshipers are unable to test them in their own lives. Too often, New Age spirituality fails to be progressive because it discourages sincere questioning.
You have formally studied engineering, music, Eastern classics, and comparative religion in universities, and you have lived as a monk. With your interests so varied, what prompted you to become a yogi?
From childhood I practiced worshiping by wondering, exploring the nature of the cosmos and the part my life played in it. After rejecting organized religion’s limiting view of the cosmos, I turned to science for answers, then to music, both of which led me back to the relatively narrow world of the senses, feelings, and thoughts. It was my extensive exploration of Eastern and Western philosophy that led me to become a yogi, which is simply someone who looks deeply within. Having exhausted the capacity of my senses, feelings, and thoughts to determine the substance of existence, I could now examine them as mere instruments of relative knowledge.
In God Without Religion you state that religions have contributed to centuries of conflict and warfare. Do you honestly believe that if the world turns away from religion there will be less conflict among nations? Aren’t you being a bit idealistic?
War is caused not so much by religion itself as by the ignorance and narrow viewpoints it fosters. In turning its back on organized religion, humanity could collectively end the phenomenon of war by replacing ignorance with knowledge. Getting to know more about people everywhere and empathizing with their needs, we would then embrace an increasingly expansive identity. Eventually we would be incapable of warfare, because we would realize that violence against another was also violence against ourselves. This view may indeed sound idealistic, but so did the ideas of Mohandas Gandhi, Albert Einstein, Martin Luther King Jr., and Nelson Mandela. A certain amount of idealism is necessary for change.
You are one of many thinkers offering insights into religion and ways to build a better world. Why should people listen to you rather than Billy Graham, Pope John Paul, Jerry Falwell, the Dalai Lama, the Lubavitch rabbis, or Seyyed Nasr?
I would never advise people to listen to me instead of to religious leaders. On the contrary, it is essential to listen to them, for only then can we evaluate and question their claims. In listening we may find ourselves excluded or included, depending on whether the message is divisive or universal. For example, Jerry Falwell says that the Bible contains a verse suited to every challenge of life; does he give the same courtesy to the Gita or Bertrand Russell’s writings? Does he admit that the narrow self will pick whatever verse that suits its own desires? The Dalai Lama claims that meditation widely practiced can help bring world peace, but aside from the fact that the practice of Buddhist meditation and unethical conduct are not contradictory, why does he not give the same credit to prayer to an inclusive image of Jesus? Lubavitch rabbis teach that the Jewish soul is somehow intrinsically superior and most dear to God; Christian ministers teach superiority by assuring the faithful that God will award them with an eternal heaven won from the merits of a brief lifetime while others will go to an eternal hell; and even Sufi teachers like Nasr show divisiveness by glorifying the Qur’anic call for an inner jihad, as opposed to the nondenominational pursuit of a righteous war against the narrow sense of self that is common to all mystical traditions.
Religious leaders of all denominations claim their particular faith is in possession of the Word of God. Among monotheistic religions, how can there be so many different and contradictory Words of God? How do you view these “direct transmissions” from a deity?
Calling any scripture the “Word of God” immediately lays the groundwork for prejudice, divisiveness, and even bloodshed, as history has repeatedly demonstrated. Such a claim either depicts God as contradictory, nonsensical, and violent, or implies that God has graced one group of people with the truth while excluding others. Selective interpretations of “sanctified” texts support the ambitions and desires of the interpreters and easily leads to exploitation and persecution of minority groups. In many instances, religious authorities have conveniently added their own words to these texts, as occurred in Matthew 28.19 where Jesus commands Christians to convert and make disciples of all the nations of the world, a segment added centuries later to justify crusades and inquisitions. Religious texts are like inkblot tests-the myths that people construct from reading them, including Word of God claims, tell us more about the readers than about the books themselves. In that sense, they are artifacts-the words of human beings-and are neither holy nor unholy.
Why do you disagree with scholars and pundits who say now is the time for more religion?
I agree with the underlying observation that now is the time for increased friendship, love, and communication. But more religion promotes the opposite effect: increasingly limited identification. Every religion claims a monopoly on virtue and truth, as does every system of beliefs about gender, race, ethnicity, and national allegiances. Identifying with anything less than our humanity keeps us from inwardly experiencing the circumstances of others, including our own brothers and sisters. It is the shared spirit of humanity that engenders friendship, love, and communication, none of which can be stamped with a sectarian trademark. So I’d have to say that now is the time for less religion, more reason, and far more understanding.
You say that pranayama can help with a variety of problems: overeating, insomnia, tension, concentration, digestion, and more. It sounds too good to be true. How can it help a person leading a fast-paced life?
The practice of pranayama harnesses energy so the person can live in harmony with the laws of nature. It does this by shifting the individual’s center of awareness in the body and brain. Through pranayama, the self viewing the world and others is redefined. Eventually, the practitioner begins to value knowledge over wealth, inner happiness over possessions, creativity over entertainment, and expansive intuitive perceptions over fleeting pleasures. Fast-paced living shows in the breathing pattern. Pranayama slows the breath, and hence slows down life. With a new physioelectromagnetic pattern established over time, the slower pace begins to feel more natural.
From a practical standpoint, how can we know when we’re identifying too narrowly with other people and the world?
People having a narrow experience of life are not happy. The fact that so many individuals are now actively seeking new paths to happiness shows that we’re ready for a new, more expansive viewpoint. Today’s most controversial debates illustrate that we’re grappling with the problems incurred by a narrow identity. The issue of gay marriage, for example, appears to be a battle over definition but is actually the heterosexual majority’s inability to identify with, and therefore respect, same-sex couples. Whenever we find ourselves taking an extreme stand on a subject, it’s an indication that we are identifying too narrowly with others. A universal God breathes in everyone without exception.
By comparison, what are the signposts of a self that’s beginning to expand? How do we know when this is happening?
One way to gauge expansion is by examining our willingness to make sacrifices that might benefit others. Most people will make sacrifices for their family by, say, giving food or money to a needy relative. An expanding self would go further, extending the idea of family to gradually include the larger human family and sacrificing for the greater good of humanity by donating goods and funds to charitable causes. For real change to occur, nations need to be willing to sacrifice resources and wealth for the well-being of other nations. Sacrifice, in this context, is not about deprivation but about replacing personal interests with transpersonal interests.
What do you see as an effective response to the threat of terrorism in America?
Whereas America’s consumer culture values the acquisition of wealth over knowledge, terrorism is a tactic employed by the politically and economically disenfranchised who are desperate for self-respect. Americans can respond to the threat of terrorism by learning to value knowledge over money. Foreign policy based on knowledge of other cultures would then make allies of our enemies. So instead of viewing countries as corporations do-by what we can squeeze out of them-we ought to start asking ourselves what we can sacrifice for them.
What if Americans don’t want to give up their material desires in exchange for more knowledge? What if they’d rather meet terrorism head-on with increased surveillance and military stockpiles?
The law of cause and effect would suggest that the greater our ignorance of the concerns of the disenfranchised, the greater the grounds for terrorism. A parallel dynamic can be seen in the health care system. Despite the billions of dollars spent annually in attempting to cure diseases caused by patterns of unnatural living, the incidence of disease is increasing; reversal hinges on healthier patterns of living. Similarly, to eliminate terrorism we’ll have to begin changing on a deep level rather than just striking back. If we expand our national identity from greedy bully to global philanthropist, we will no longer be a target for terrorism. We can become the world’s largest distributor of aid rather than the largest consumer of resources.
You are very critical of religion’s oppression of women and minority populations. Do you also support feminism, gay activism, and other human rights campaigns?
Obviously, various rights organizations are needed to protect human entitlements and ensure the passage of legislation. Therefore I support these groups in spirit, while encouraging participants to aspire to a universal identity rather than getting locked into a group identity that by definition will exclude others.
How is it possible to arrive at the idea of a universal God you mentioned earlier?
The idea of an infinite God shared by all people emerges from an unexpected form of devotion: worshiping by wondering. Instead of restating old beliefs, we begin asking new questions: What is God? What is the connection between God and self? What happens to my definition of God as my sense of self expands? Every answer is then challenged, transporting us as freethinkers beyond the boundaries of organized religion and into true spirituality, which is permeated throughout with a personal, all-loving image of God used to focus the heart and mind. Mastery comes, as it long has for mystics, with the dedicated practice of specific techniques, which are included in the book.
© 1997 – 2012 All Rights Reserved Sankara Saranam
Sankara Saranam Discusses Non-attachment – Part 1
Informal talk on non-attachment given by acclaimed author Sankara Saranam.
Sankara Saranam Discusses Non-attachment – Part 2