There are two kinds of people in this world. Devotees and demons.
I think this is absolutely true.
But let’s parse this out a bit.
First of all, what is the source of my seemingly eccentric and dogmatic statement?
In the sixteenth chapter of the Bhagavad-Gita, Krishna speaks of two kinds of natures that exist in this world and in our being: the divine and the demoniac. After listing a number of qualities that are of the divine nature, such as charity, aversion to faultfinding, purification of one’s existence, cultivation of spiritual knowledge, and freedom from envy and from the passion for honor, Krishna lists six qualities-pride, arrogance, conceit, anger, harshness and ignorance-which mark the demoniac nature. In the remainder of the chapter, Krishna unpacks further how the demoniac nature unfurls in our reality.
In the ninth verse of the chapter, Krishna says:
Following such conclusions, the demoniac, who are lost to themselves and who have no intelligence, engage in unbeneﬁcial, horrible works meant to destroy the world.
In his commentary on this verse, renowned Vedic scholar/teacher A.C Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada writes:
The demoniac are engaged in activities that will lead the world to destruction. The Lord states here that they are less intelligent. The materialists, who have no concept of God, think that they are advancing. But according to Bhagavad-gītā, they are unintelligent and devoid of all sense. They try to enjoy this material world to the utmost limit and therefore always engage in inventing something for sense gratiﬁcation. Such materialistic inventions are considered to be advancement of human civilization, but the result is that people grow more and more violent and more and more cruel, cruel to animals and cruel to other human beings. They have no idea how to behave toward one another.
As a follower of the Gita, there is a straightforward-ness in Swami Prabhupada’s presentation which I find refreshing, important, and essential. It cuts to the rotted root of injustice, oppression, and hatred which exists in our world. It points to a deeper conception of why this injustice exists, in that without a conception of a divine reality, or a divine ethic, we all-too-fallible humans will inevitably fall prey to the demoniac nature which surrounds us, and within us.
At the risk of appearing as a heretic (even more so than I appear to be already) to some more orthodox/literalist followers of the Gita, I want to critically examine what Krishna and Swami Prabhupada are saying in tandem in this chapter of the Gita. A surface interpretation of the dichotomy of the divine and demoniac here may provide a certain sense of clarity, but often what seems absolutely clear can lead to absolute expressions of theology and morality which can alienate and marginalize. This seeming clarity can also be at odds with people’s actual and visceral experience in the world, so I want to make a humble attempt to go a little bit deeper.
In thinking of my own experience doing interfaith work in New York City, I have always made a sincere effort to be as open-minded and open-hearted as I can, with the appropriate respect and understanding of the natural boundaries that exist between different faith traditions. This mood has allowed me to develop wonderful relationships with Russian Orthodox priests, Reform Jewish rabbis, Wiccan priests, and just about everything else in-between. Being able to build, and walk across, bridges between faiths is one of the most important aspects of my spiritual journey. Real interfaith work is a vehicle for creating the kind of deep and active compassion that is the most needed quality in this world at the present moment.
Yet as I went deeper into this work, I began to wonder what are the mechanics, as it were, of extending this joyful sense of communion towards those who identify as atheist/agnostic. More distinctly, I challenged myself to be as open-minded and open-hearted, with the same understanding of boundaries, with those I may encounter in my work and service who may not believe in God or a divine reality beyond the material reality we all inhabit together. This was a particular challenge for me, as I mentioned above, because to many within my tradition the terms ‘atheist’ and ‘demon’ go hand-in-hand. As usual, my innate sense of curiosity, or to put it more plainly, my independent streak, my desire to understand the truth beyond what may be “obvious” or “comfortable”, compelled me to question the basic assumption at hand: Does being atheistic mean one is inherently demoniac as described by Krishna in the Gita?
My opportunities to interact with serious and intelligent atheist thinkers were few and far between, so I was grateful to be invited to the 2012 World Faith Gala at the NYU Center for Spiritual Life this past December, with Chris Stedman as the featured speaker for the evening. Stedman is a unique figure in the world of interfaith, as many of you already know. He is one of the founders of our esteemed community of thinkers here at State of Formation along with the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue. He is the Assistant Humanist Chaplain at Harvard University and a prolific writer, including blogging gigs at the Huffington Post and the On Faith blog at the Washington Post. Last year, Stedman published his first book, Faitheist: How An Atheist Found Common Ground With The Religious, detailing his journey from being a “born-again” Christian through the acceptance of his alternative sexuality and eventual turn towards identifying as an atheist, along with his concurrent work and experience organizing for justice with communities of faith, even as he became someone for whom faith as most religious people know it no longer necessarily applied.
As I listened to Chris that evening, and had the chance to meet him, the thoughts I had been having about my desire to understand the humanity and reality of the atheistic perspective became more intense. First of all, the work that Chris is doing is indeed of an enlightened nature. He is someone who understand the values of wisdom, empathy, and compassion. These are indeed spiritual values, but to understand them as spiritual values in the context of the work and convictions of someone like Chris Stedman means that one has to take a much broader, inclusive, open, and truer understanding of what it means to be spiritual. Hearing Chris speak, meeting him, and reading his words, it struck me that one cannot automatically assume that someone who is an atheist is inherently demoniac. Chris Stedman, who he is and what he does, is proof enough to me that what Krishna is saying in the Gita has to be understood with discretion, intelligence, and compassion. It has to be understood beyond the surface.
As our human civilization faces a massive existential crisis in understanding that our consumerist way of life is no longer, and never was, a sustainable way for us to interact with the web of ecology that surrounds us, what is needed most is the kind of dynamic communication that builds a sense of community across not only the boundaries of different faith traditions, but across all unnecessary boundaries between people who sincerely want to create justice on this planet today, tomorrow, and going forward. There is a tremendous courage that is needed to cross through these boundaries, and the realm of Interfaith is a place where this cutting edge exists. In Faitheist, Stedman writes:
I believe that change will come from within-that by participating in Interfaith work, the nonreligious will broaden the meaning of such efforts and that the language used to describe them will change accordingly…I cannot begin to recount all of the times Interfaith work has opened up a space for robust conversations on problematic religious practices and beliefs. In fact, it has been a hallmark of my experience working in the Interfaith environment. Furthermore, it has allowed me to engage religious people about atheist identity and eradicate significant misconceptions about what atheism is and what it isn’t.
I regularly hear from atheists who are leading the charge for Interfaith cooperation on their campuses and in their communities, and their experiences echo mine. They too have found that Interfaith is expanding to incorporate them and that, when done well, Interfaith engagement doesn’t require that people check their convictions at the door; it invites people to try and understand and humanize the other.
This understanding, and this shared grasp of what it means to be human in this world, at this time, is immeasurably more powerful and effective in organizing, working for, and living by the principles of divinity than by any surface labeling of who is divine and who is demoniac.
Let us look again to what Swami Prabhupada said above, to truly understand what is demoniac. The demoniac nature is that which exploits the material nature simply for the selfish exploitation of the senses, an exploitation that invariably leads to violence and cruelty. It does not take a great leap to understand, through the examples of our shared history and our contemporary experience, that those who may claim to have an obvious “concept of God” can easily become wrapped up in demoniac qualities. This is not a black-and-white equation. There are “devotees of God” who act demonically. There are “demons” who act divinely. If we stay on the surface of this dichotomy, without diving deeply, without the kind of courageous thought and activism that someone like Chris Stedman is offering, we will add nothing to the equation but the kind of irrational hatred that scars our very existence.
As I said before, the Gita is straightforward, and everything I have said above is not to discount that there are people who are obviously divine and obviously demoniac, and that those categories can fall alongside certain accepted parameters of faith/lack of faith. But instead of condemning every atheistic/agnostic person to be inherently demoniac, I challenge anyone who is confronted by this dichotomy to think a little deeper, to broaden their experience working with and knowing the non-religious, to try to understand that the religious and the non-religious have a lot to learn from each other, and to read Faitheist. The true arts of compassion and communication require much more than intellectual and theological complacency. They require a courage based in a divine sense of love that belongs to all beings regardless of what they identify as.