The Hindu Swami Initiation Ceremony and its Implications for Metaphysics and Physics


The biddidisa or elaborate initiation into swamiship includes a fire ceremony, during which symbolical funeral rites are performed. The physical body of the disciple is represented as dead, cremated in the flame of wisdom. The newly-made swami is then given a chant, such as : “This atma is Brahma” or “Thou art That” or “I am He.

This description is taken from Paramhansa Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi. A footnote explains, “This atma is Brahma” means literally “This soul is spirit.” It continues,

The Supreme Spirit, the Uncreated, is wholly unconditioned (neti, neti, not this, not that) but is often referred to in Vedanta as Sat-Chit-Ananda, that is, Being-Intelligence-Bliss.

Many people would read of this ceremony and immediately dismiss it as superstition and fantasy, as having no bearing whatsoever on science, perhaps even as having no bearing on rational philosophy.

In fact, this short passage explains the founding principle of a systematic philosophical doctrine that solves all metaphysical problems and which would, if physicists would only award it some study as a community, allow the construction of a fundamental theory that would serve as a workable interpretation of quantum mechanics.

The case can be put quite briefly. The four phrases; “This atma is Brahma”; “Thou art That”; “I am He”; and “neti, neti” have the same meaning. The Universe, Cosmos or Reality would be reducible to a phenomenon that cannot be spoken of as being ‘this’ or ‘that’, because ‘it’ would be undifferentiated. All metaphysical theories asserting otherwise would be false. This claim is made plausible by the well-established conclusion of philosophers the world over that all counter-theories are logically absurd.

It is the logical absurdity of partial positions that renders metaphysics in Western academia a muddle, so there is no doubting it. Philosophers here, on average, simply cannot make sense of their result, but they almost always reach it. For the swami it would be inevitable that all such positions are absurd. This would follow inevitably from the fact that they are false. This is precisely what the chants of the swami’s initiation ceremony are asserting. By reduction the world would never be ‘this’ or ‘that’. This is the perennial philosophy. It is stated simply and clearly by every sage from the Buddha and Lao-tsu to Rumi and Nicolas de Cusa.

So, this deals with metaphysics. If the world is neti, neti then there can be no such thing as a metaphysical dilemma. As for physics, the implication is immediate. If the Ultimate is undifferentiated, or if for an ultimate view the world is undifferentiated, then physics will never find the Real. This God of the Gaps, by being absent from physics, renders physics nonreductive. Its absence means that physics cannot explain what anything is or where it came from, and many phenomenon – nonlocal effects would be a clear example – become utterly incomprehensible. This is not a criticism of physics, but a recognition that it stops where metaphysics properly begins.

The phrase neti, neti gives us a solution for metaphysics and for all philosophical problems. The world would be a unity. It would be extended in space-time and not extended in space-time. It would have these two aspects. It would be as if there two worlds. Non-local effects would be local after all. Ulrich Mohrhoff and the Sri Aurobindo school has shown that a philosophically sound interpretation of quantum mechanics is made possible by this axiom of unity.

For this reason and many more, the idea that religion has nothing to offer science and philosophy is ridiculous. It is only that they do not take what is offered. The constant refusal to concede that the world’s oldest and most well-developed philosophical doctrine might be true, after all, accompanied by an almost complete lack of effort to show that it would not work, begins to look more and more like a fear of being found out in a mistake, or a blatant instance of ‘not invented here’ syndrome.

The primary aim of religion, metaphysics and physics is to discover what is true. It would not be surprising if discovering the truth required some joined-up thinking. To divide these three methods and areas of knowledge up and then to study one or two of them in isolation or exclusively would be a recipe for confusion and failure, and the evidence is all around us.

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