The Spectrum of Faith

“Faith is the conviction behind sustained effort.”Swami Tripurari, Bhagavad-gita: Its Feeling and Philosophy

(UPDATE: This article was republished on the Harmonist with a good discussion in the comments.)

In a recent Twitter discussion, I posited that atheists do indeed have faith. Their faith is in reason and sense perception, i.e., rationalism and empiricism. This statement gave rise to an observation by Susan Katz Miller (@beingboth):

Christianity tends to be more binary: faith/no faith. Jews, Hindus, others less so, no?

Susan is right. Christians view faith as something you either have or you don’t. However, Hindus view faith (śraddhā) along a spectrum of both quality and depth (guṇa and adhikāra). Within that spectrum, Hinduism has room for those who consider themselves faithless and provides a context in which tender faith (komala śraddhā) can grow into strong faith (sastriya śraddhā).

Belief and Faith

Mere belief in religious doctrine will not propel us into the practices and lifestyle exemplified by the saints. We must do more than believe and carry on with a materialistic life. Such belief is arguably similar to the empirical faith of atheism. On the surface, we appear to make progress and attain happiness by pursuing bodily comfort (kāma) and acquiring wealth (artha). These pursuits are based on faith that our existence is limited to our body and mind. With this premise, athiests use reason to improve their material life while the religious ask God to improve it for them. And since our bodies are subject to hunger, disease, and ultimately death, the effort to maintain a limited and brief existence is neither reasonable nor fulfilling. This is the wisdom is presented in all scriptures:

Do not love the world or the things in the world. The love of the Father is not in those who love the world; for all that is in the world—the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, the pride in riches—comes not from the Father but from the world.
—1 John 2:15-16

For if you think of this world, you will not find it worth sacrificing your soul and faith for it. But you will find your soul worthier of honour by ridiculing this world. This world is abhorred of God almighty and the messengers. It is an abode of affliction and a station of foolishness. Be on your guard from it.
—Harith al-Muhasibi, Kitab al-Khalwa

A person who has abandoned all desires for sense indulgence acts free from desire. Indifferent to proprietorship and free from egotism, he attains peace.
—Śrī Kṛṣṇa, Bhagavad-gītā, Chapter 2, Text 71

The Noble Truth of the Origin (cause) of Suffering is this: It is this craving (thirst) which produces re-becoming (rebirth) accompanied by passionate greed, and finding fresh delight now here, and now there, namely craving for sense pleasure, craving for existence and craving for non-existence (self-annihilation). The Noble Truth of the Cessation of Suffering is this: It is the complete cessation of that very craving, giving it up, relinquishing it, liberating oneself from it, and detaching oneself from it.
—Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta (translated by Piyadassi Thera)

With the above verses, scripture seeks to increase the depth and quality of our faith, and in doing so, invites us to engage in the actions that allow us to experience life beyond the limitations of the temporal body and mind. The implications of such an experience are made obivious by the existence of scripture itself. Scripture represent thousands of years of reflection on the transcendent experience of God possesed by the saints of every tradition.

Depth and Quality of Faith

With tender faith, we may adopt the practices recommended by scripture. Such faith is not without reason and after much deliberation, recognizes the limitations of reason. Where reasons ends, humble practice begins. This heartfelt practice (sādhana) is a transrational act best performed under the guidance of living saints (sādhus). The results of such practice deepens faith which in turn deepens practice.

As our faith in the scripture and the saints deepens, faith in everything the world has to offer wanes. We should actively seek out those saints whose faith is so deep the world has very little consequence (sādhu-saṅga). Although in the world, they are not of it. They live not by taking from others to maintain a temproary existence but by giving to God out of blissful love. In the company of these saints, they share their faith with us, and doubts about the existence of God wither away in the presence of their love for God. Śrī Kṛṣṇa Caitanya, consumed by this love, exclaims:

Oh Lord, I don’t want wealth, followers, beautiful women, wisdom or verse. I only ask for unalloyed devotion unto you, forever.

—Śrī Kṛṣṇa Caitanya, Śrī Caitanya Caritāmṛta, Antya-līlā, Chapter 20

Further Reading

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