Warning: Long, no pictures.
Disclaimer: I don't really know much about this subject, so there may be mistakes in my representations of certain beliefs/theories. Either way I'm waaaay under-qualified to write about this subject in any authoritative way. Enjoy!
Wherever you go in India, you seem to be bombarded by issues of the religious, the spiritual and the meta-physical. Be it yoga, meditation, LSD, Hinduism, reiki or chakras, spiritual experience and advice abound.
A year ago I wrote this regarding drug-induced 'spiritual experiences':
'I find it interesting that, when spirituality is involved, people's values can change so easily. A huge amount is down to personal experience of course - A Canadian girl and an American guy I met (both intelligent and lucid) both claimed to have had profound, 'eye-opening' experiences having taken acid. Both mentioned feelings of things like universal energy, and more significantly that this was real, not drug-induced ramblings - when they were sober their view on the world had changed. It didn't seem ridiculous or hilarious the next day like other drug experiences might, but it made sense. A wince from me I'm afraid. A lot of what they do, the choices they make, how they live their lives is based on an experience they had whilst on LSD? I've not taken LSD so I suppose I can't comment in full, but the idea that, rather than simply changing the way your mind or body works (as drugs do by definition), a synthetic chemical can actually make the scales fall from your eyes and reveal the world as it really is seems very unlikely to me. Perhaps I'm just a grumpy skeptic.'
In Varanasi I met a friendly, intelligent and frighteningly well-read Norwegian with a keen interest in the meta-physical, who gave me some audio-books by various authors who are fairly well known in the field (Ram Dass/Timothy Leary/Robert Anton Wilson/Watts). Although my reaction to these talks were mixed, it at least made me see where I was missing the point when talking to the American and the Canadian.
Rather than 'showing you the truth', the belief is that these drugs alter your consciousness - alter the way you perceive the world. So far so good. The next step is a little harder to swallow for some; that reaching these different levels of consciousness allow you greater freedom of understanding. Understanding, for example, that we have a collective consciousness, that we're all connected, that our perception of reality is just one of many. That consciousness isn't fixed to the body, or even to mortality. I'm not explaining it well (mainly because I don't understand it well) but they are all main points. This is the understanding the Buddha achieved when he became enlightened; he achieved access to all levels of consciousness, and was connected with all things. These ideas have been around for thousands of years, in various religions, spiritual practices and belief systems but key points seem to resonate.
The claim about psychedelics then, is that they bring you to another state of consciousness - rather than study yoga (for example), psychedelics proved a temporary shortcut. Not to enlightenment perhaps, but to some other 'level'. There's a reoccurring storyline associated with these 'acid prophets' - they began by having 'mystical experiences' due to LSD or psilocybin, experimenting with these or other mind-altering substances, realising their limitations (you always have to come down at the end), and progressing to some spiritual practise - Yoga or Buddhism for example. Many of them were massively intelligent people - Ram Dass is a famous case; a rich, well educated American in an 'upwardly mobile middle class Jewish family', lecturer at Havard, etcetc, all uprooted in the search for the 'truth', for spiritual awareness and conscious flexibility.
I find a lot of this very interesting. In a way it all seems like another religion to me. Of course I think it's inherently much less damaging (if it is at all) than most other organised religions/belief systems, and more specifically the destructive, dogmatic religions (Christianity, Islam, Judaism). Having said this, it certainly has a lot of similarities, and the way in which the ideas are presented does not help them in that respect. Several of the sources I've seen share many similarities with religious propaganda, and others are simply presented in a way which make these ideas seems very desirable. Which is ironic, since the loss of desire is heavily related to most of these belief systems. The idea that 'you shouldn't change anything after hearing this - things will change themselves', 'you shouldn't adopt these practises because you feel you ought', that 'you shouldn't believe what I'm saying - look into it yourself', etcetc crop up fairly frequently, but I feel these ideas are juxtaposed with the method of presentation.
Again, Ram Dass is a good example. The first half of his talk 'Be Here Now' is a very entertaining account of his journey to India, and he himself is funny, likable and seems genuine. The second half reminded me of Zeitgeist (which should be seen if only to see just how poorly made, badly written and downright brainwashy an 'informational' film can be); airy pseudo-science brushing over huge revelations about the way he claims the universe works. Or maintaining that you should just carry on living your life, it's of no consequence whether you adopt these beliefs, if you're 'meant' to practice them it will happen anyway - whilst simultaneously making them seem very desirable indeed; mentioning sexual pleasure, unimaginable happiness, utter truth.
Alf, the Norwegian, came to his defense somewhat, mentioning the intended audience when it came to the 'dumbing down' of the sciencey parts, and his large following requesting words of wisdom, which explains why he held the talks in the first place. Still, I found the discrepancies interesting.
One difficulty for me is that so many of the terms used are heavily loaded. Spirituality, energy, life force, whatever - to the average westerner they sound, well, like new-age hippie-freak talk. It makes it difficult for people to make intelligent, reasoned claims without sounding all ethereal and crazy. Things like the Zeitgeist film are the reason - there's all awful lot of bollocks out there that attaches itself to these ideas, contaminating them and making it hard to wade through the gibberish. It can leave a bitter taste in my mouth however well written and presented it is, which is a shame because most belief systems have something to offer; advice or observation, even just a representation of human psychology and behaviour on a grand scale. Another problem is that these ideas tend to get lumped together - as I have done here. I'm sure there are many followers of Jungian psychology who would read this and despair that his theory of collective consciousness would be mentioned in the same sphere of belief as chakras and universal energy.
The basic problem I have with the whole thing is this: I can't accept the claims made (Ram dass' guru could apparently tell the future, knew everything, there are people that people claim to never eat or drink; living off prana, etcetc) without some kind of reason to believe in them. Proof, I suppose, or plausible scientific explanations. Having said that, I honestly believe that there are people who honestly believe this stuff. And fine, there will always be an exploitative contingent in any belief system (especially one so undefined and manipulable) but if there are intelligent people who really do believe in these things... well, why do they?
It seems to me that there are three possibilities. It's true, they think it's true but it's false, and they know it's false but sell it for personal gain. (You could argue that the fourth option is that they know it's false but they give it away for the greater gain - that these beliefs make people happy/they promote views of 'loving kindness' so the lie is for the greater good. Seems unlikely to me.) I've already mentioned that there are obviously people exploiting these views for personal gain, that much is not in doubt. But I also maintain that some people really think what they're selling (or giving away in a lot of cases - Ram Dass is not a wealthy man at all despite selling millions of books; he sold them for 7c each) is the absolute truth.
I feel like this is the human reaction to life that is apparent in the manifestation of religion. The craving, that overwhelming need to find meaning that leads to faith, of whatever kind. For me, at least to some degree, all established belief systems are a result, reaction to and attempted cure of human misery. Like belief in God, I feel like a belief in such meta-physical ideas would be incredibly comforting. I sometime wonder how awesome it would be to believe there's a big man in the sky looking out for Cheesies. I don't, and very much doubt I ever will, but I can see the appeal. Equally, believing we're all connected, that death is simply a different state of being, that our consciousness is not attached to our bodies - I mean, that's pretty cool, no?! So sometimes I come to the conclusion that these people are subconsciously embracing the delusion, as with the religious (apologies to any religious readers!), to make themselves happy, to ground themselves, to give their life meaning. And perhaps taking acid makes your brain do somersaults in a totally benign way, and some people fit these somersaults into a belief system because it's more comforting to think that rather than to simply think your brain can make you see and feel weird shit, but you're still alone and your existence is pointless and full of suffering.
But then I think of the incredible claims; the more empirical side of things. I read an article last year about a hospital that took in a religious man in India who claimed not to have eaten in 80 years. They kept him in for weeks, monitored him closely - his intake, his bodily functions, his vitals, etc. He didn't eat or drink, he didn't go to the toilet, he didn't get sick, or thinner, his vitals were all normal. Reading it in a newspaper isn't adequate evidence for me, but these and similar claims are fairly widespread (especially in the East) and getting more common. Many people say that we are very close to, for example, providing a plausible scientific explanation for the collective consciousness theory.
On the other side of the coin, then, I find it hard to believe that there is some kind of mass mental block, or mental illness, or brainwashing or something that explains all these claims (and by claims I mean the 'miracles' - mass faith is a whole lot easier to explain than lots of people believing they themselves don't eat). But it's either that, or they actually happened and continue to happen, or these people simply don't exist/believe at all, and it's all one unimaginably huge scam by absolutely everyone in the business, which seems ludicrous. Well, all the options seem sort of ludicrous.
I think things like alien abduction figures, continued attendance of seances and fortune telling or the 'miracles' in faith healing show some insight into the type of human behavioral phenomena that explain mass belief in these things (if they're false) - a return to the idea of the intrinsic need to believe, a response to desperation. Or maybe scientific breakthroughs and thorough research might shed some serious light on the way the universe works and how we perceive reality in the near future. For now though, I'll be staying a skeptic until something better comes along.