Sankara Saranam, founder of the Pranayama Institute, received his BA in Religion from Columbia University, where he graduated magna cum laude, and his MA in Eastern Texts from St. John's College in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He now devotes his life to making pranayama techniques available worldwide at no cost, and writes a weekly online column read by students in over seventy countries. He resides in a log cabin in northern Georgia with his wife and their young son.
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Q: What led you to write GOD WITHOUT RELIGION?
Sankara Saranam: After living as an ascetic for nearly two decades, 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.
Q: 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?
SS: Americans are often taught that this country is founded on religious beliefs, but many Founding Fathers, Thomas Jefferson for one, actually opposed organized belief systems. 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.
Q: As founder of the Pranayama Institute, please tell us what pranayama is and why you chose it.
SS: The scientific basis for all mystical traditions, pranayama is the secret technique of yogis and prophets, including 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. I chose to focus on pranayama as a path to spiritual knowledge because of its scientific rationale and its universal application.
Q: How do you define the expansive sense of self, and why should we seek to understand it?
SS: 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 white Ivy League graduate could relate to the dilemma of an inner-city African American, 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.
Q: 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?
SS: I'd ask how deeply they are looking. More often, religion distances worshipers from their inherent spirituality by directing their attention to outer rituals that reinforce dogmatic belief systems. Religion stifles questioning, which is why antagonism between mystics and orthodoxy --- such as Jesus and various Jewish leaders, Buddha and the Brahmin, 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 direct knowledge of the universal self glimpsed through the eyes of all.
Q: 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?
SS: GOD WITHOUT RELIGION offers a way for individuals to discover and define God on their own terms rather than accepting the interpretation of a particular religious doctrine. The book encourages readers to explore their ideas of God by asking a series of questions that ultimately expand and deepen their 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.
Q: There has been a strong movement toward religious fundamentalism over the past several decades. Why do you think this has occurred?
SS: 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.
Q: htened as religion. Please explain.
SS: Individuals often turn to New Age approaches after rejecting organized religion, yet in doing so they only replace one belief system with another. It's tempting to follow a teacher whose answers to spiritual questions seem more universal or whose understanding encompasses greater knowledge and more love. Yet the result may be the same as blindly following a strict religion.
Q: 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 idealist?
SS: 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 then do the ideas of Mohandas Gandhi, Albert Einstein, Martin Luther King Jr., and Nelson Mandela. A certain amount of idealism is necessary for change.
Q: 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?
SS: Calling any scripture the Word of God immediately lays the groundwork for prejudice, divisiveness, and even bloodshed, as history has repeatedly demonstrated. Selective interpretations of "sanctified" texts support the ambitions and desires of the interpreters --- implying that God has graced one group of people with the truth while excluding others. In many instances, religious authorities have even 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.
Q: Why do you disagree with scholars and pundits who say now is the time for more religion?
SS: 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 and divisiveness. Every religion claims a monopoly on virtue and truth, as does every system of beliefs about gender, race, ethnicity, and nationality. Identifying with anything less than our humanity keeps us from inwardly experiencing the circumstances of others, including our own brothers and sisters. So I'd have to say that now is the time for less religion, more reason, and far more understanding.
Q: What do you see as an effective response to the threat of terrorism in America?
SS: 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. That can go a long way toward increasing their population's self-respect as well as their respect for America.
Q: 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?
SS: 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. By expanding our national identity from greedy bully to global philanthropist, we will no longer be a target for terrorism.
Q: 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?
SS: 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.
Q: How is it possible to arrive at the idea of a universal God you mentioned earlier?
SS: 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, wonderers 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.
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