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Mayapur temple , ISKON headquarter.
Mayapur temple , ISKON headquarter.

What Do the World’s 1.2 Billion Hindus Think About the Mind?

Neurosurgeon Michael Egnor interviews Hindu Arjuna Gallagher on the similarities and differences between that tradition and Western theism

In our most recent Mind Matters News podcast, “Hinduism, Reincarnation, and the Mind–Body Problem,” neurosurgeon Michael Egnor interviews Arjuna Gallagher, a Hindu in New Zealand. Gallagher hosts a YouTube channel called Theology Unleashed, which features an array of guests who have something to say about the spiritual dimension of our lives — philosopher David Bentley Hart, neuroscientist Mark Solms, atheist Matt Dillahunty… a variety of voices that can help us understand the intellectual climate in which we live. Gallagher has also produced a documentary, The Persecuted Saints You’ve Never Heard Of.about the persecution of Orthodox Christian monks.

A partial transcript and notes, Show Notes, and Additional Resources follow.

Michael Egnor: I don’t know a lot about Hinduism, and I would suspect that many of our listeners don’t either. What is Hinduism?

Michael Egnor

Arjuna Gallagher: The word Hinduism is often misused as if it describes one religion, but really it’s a category of religions. I was recently listening to Dr. Howard Resnick on a Muslim interfaith dialogue podcast. He explained that comparing Islam to Hinduism is a category mistake. The accurate comparison would be the Abrahamic traditions [Judaism, Christianity, and Islam] to Hinduism…

Michael Egnor: If you were to describe central themes that are held by most, if not all, Hindus, what might they be?

Arjuna Gallagher: You do get a lot of diversity but the things that are common are an acceptance of the Vedas as authoritative… And the belief in cyclical time. All Hindus are going to believe that time didn’t have a beginning it doesn’t have an end. There’s periodic creation and destruction. Everything has always existed but sometimes it appears and sometimes it disappears — or is destroyed.

Note: Veda, (Sanskrit: “Knowledge”) a collection of poems or hymns composed in archaic Sanskrit by Indo-European-speaking peoples who lived in northwest India during the 2nd millennium BCE. No definite date can be ascribed to the composition of the Vedas, but the period of about 1500–1200 BCE is acceptable to most scholars…

Those three Vedas—Rig, Yajur, and Sama—were known as the trayi-vidya (“threefold knowledge”). A fourth collection of hymns, magic spells, and incantations is known as the Atharvaveda (“Knowledge of the Fire Priest”), which includes various local traditions and remains partly outside the Vedic sacrifice.

A few centuries later, perhaps about 900 BCE, the Brahmanas were composed as glosses on the Vedas, containing many myths and explanations of rituals. The Brahmanas were followed by other texts, Aranyakas (“Forest Books”) and Upanishads, which took philosophical discussions in new directions, invoking a doctrine of monism and freedom (moksha, literally “release”) from the cycle of death and rebirth (samsara). – Britannica

Arjuna Gallagher: Some of them [Hindus] are going to believe that there’s an eternal spiritual world, which is never destroyed. It doesn’t have a day or a night… in the sense of destruction or annihilation, I mean. I’m not a super expert scholar on the differences within the various Hindu traditions.

Michael Egnor: Sure. Do you believe that God is personal?

Arjuna Gallagher (right)

Arjuna Gallagher: This is a big debate within Hindu traditions for thousands and thousands of years. The followers of Adi Shankaracharya take a more impersonal view and it’s very much like Buddhism. Whereas the Vaishnavas have a very personal view of God. And that’s what I’m a follower of.

Michael Egnor: If God is not personal… I do know that Hinduism generally involves a notion of karma, and a notion of reincarnation — and a notion that people are compensated for their good or bad behavior in future lives. If God isn’t personal, how are their lives judged? I mean, how does good and evil come out of an understanding of God as impersonal?

Arjuna Gallagher: That’s a good question, and that’s an argument you could offer against the impersonal views. They have a mechanistic idea that karma is just a material mechanism that goes on all on its own.

But of course, there’s problems with that. To execute karma you need to be tuned into incredibly subtle nuances of a person’s motivations and intentions. And it’s hard to think how something that lacks personal features could be that tuned into personal qualities.

Michael Egnor:Indeed. What does “Hare Krishna” mean? I hear it a lot.

Arjuna Gallagher :We’re called and we call ourselves Hare Krishnas, because that’s part of the mantra we chant, “Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare.” These are names of God. And the idea is that by associating with God’s name, we become purified because God is all pure. And when we associate with God, we become pure so we chant these names all the time.

Arjuna Gallagher: The names are quite unique because they’re vocative and in Sanskrit you have more grammar, it’s more flexible. So the vocative is how you call out directly to someone. Other mantras are more offering respects from a distance, but this is a direct call to the divine.

Note: Here, Arjuna means that Sanskrit, the ancient sister language to Latin and Greek in which the Hindu scriptures are written, has (like them) a vocative case, — that is, a special usage when one is calling out to someone, including God.

Michael Egnor: The sense that I have of Hinduism — and I think that are a lot of listeners will have as well — is that there certainly is a pantheon of gods. What role do those gods play? Is it really pantheistic or is there one overall God and these other deities are beneath that God?

Arjuna Gallagher: Many Hindus believe something that’s rather pantheistic or that all these different demigods are equal and you can worship any one of them and get the same result. The result is that it’s something you can temporarily fix your mind on until you’re advanced enough to fix your mind on that personal absolute, which is beyond all these forms.

This is not the Hare Krishna view… No Vaishnava subscribes to that view. The Vaishnava view is that God is a person and that his name, form, pastimes, are all fully divine. When we meditate on those things, we’re advanced.

Hare Krishna temple in Vrindavan, India/Rishabh Gaur

As for the demigods, on the Vaishnava view, they are something like archangels perhaps… But they’re like engineers, which oversee the functions of the material universe. So there’s even a demigod controlling the weather. Everything in the material universe is conducted by a person. They’re powerful personalities and they’re jiva souls, which means they’re just like you or me. And we could become a demigod in a future birth.

Michael Egnor: Are they worthy of worship in the Hindu faith?

Arjuna Gallagher: … If I worship my guru thinking he’s God, that’s wrong. But if I worship my guru, understanding he’s a servant of God and he’s helping me come closer to God, then that’s fine. And then we also worship God. But yeah, it’s not this hard distinction of a kind of honor you give to one or the other. It’s more about the philosophical understanding that’s stressed.

Michael Egnor: I see. In the Christian view, or at least from the Thomistic view, which I think is pretty mainstream, angels are separated intelligences. They’re souls without bodies. And obviously there can be good angels and bad angels, demons. Are any of the members of the pantheon in the Hindu faith demonic, as opposed to angelic?

Arjuna Gallagher: Yeah, there are demons and they’re always fighting with the demigods. There’s a tug-of-war back and forth. And you could ask a problem-of-evil question about that. One answer is that the purpose is [that] the demigods can forget about God. But when there’s trouble, then they’re reminded and they go take shelter at God. So the demons serve that purpose.

Michael Egnor: I’m sure you’ve heard of the Euthyphro dilemma that was posed by Plato. Is something good because God wills it, or does God will it because it is good?

Note: The Euthyphro dilemma comes from Plato’s Euthyphro dialogue, which has had different forms over the centuries. Basically, it is “Are moral acts willed by God because they are good, or are they good because they are willed by God?” Another way of saying it is, does God say that things are moral because they are by nature moral, or do they become moral because God declares them to be? The dilemma is that if the acts are morally good because they are good by nature, then they are independent of God and morality somehow exists apart from God. These acts would already be good in themselves, and God would have to appeal to them to “find out” what is good. Of course, This raises questions on how moral absolutes can exist as independent abstract entities apart from a divine being. On the other hand, if something is good because God commands that it is good, then goodness is arbitrary, and God could have called murder, good, and honesty not good. The problem here is that it means God could also be a tyrant if he so chose to be. But, he chooses to be nice. – Matt Slick, CARM

Many sources consider it a false dilemma, as Slick goes on to note: “God appeals to nothing other than his own character for the standard of what is good and then reveals what is good to us. It is wrong to lie because God cannot lie (Titus 1:2), not because God had to discover lying was wrong or that he arbitrarily declared it to be wrong.”

Michael Egnor: How does Hinduism look at the origin of good and evil? Is the origin of good and evil something that exists independently of God (for those Hindus who believe in a personal God)? Or is good and evil a command of God?

Arjuna Gallagher: We don’t have the same dichotomy of good and evil that you find in Christianity. What is discussed in the tradition is people becoming conditioned by the modes of material nature… and good qualities overcoming bad, bad qualities overcoming the heart.

With the idea of karma, you don’t get an idea of evil so much, because everything that happens serves a higher purpose.

An analogy is the jail system. It’s not good that there’s a jail with prisoners in it. But because criminals exist, it’s a good thing that the jail system exists… Let’s hypothetically say that the jail system is actually doing a good job at keeping criminals off the streets and reforming them.

So everything in the material world serves the purpose of elevating souls from their conditioned state, giving them a chance to try to express their selfish desires, become frustrated, and ultimately turn back to God.

Michael Egnor:The issue of reincarnation often comes up in discussions of Hinduism. What are your beliefs on reincarnation, and what do you understand to be the general belief of most Hindus?

Arjuna Gallagher: Reincarnation would be another one that almost all Hindus would subscribe to. You’ll get differences, of course. The impersonalists think that we don’t have separate souls. They’ll think maybe something’s going from lifetime to lifetime, but eventually an illusion will be dispelled and you’ll realize that you’re one with everything and you don’t have a separate identity.

The Vaishnava view, which Hare Krishna is one form, is very much personal: That the soul has always existed, will always exist, and can transmigrate among any number of forms. And this human form of life is a special opportunity to turn back to God.

Michael Egnor: One of the criticisms of reincarnation is that it tends to — or it seems that it might — encourage a sort of callousness. A sort of sense if a person is in the particular life he’s in… because of what he’s done in prior lives and he kind of deserves it. Is that an accurate way of looking at reincarnation and at ethics and Hinduism?

Arjuna Gallagher: That’s a common objection Christians will give to using reincarnation to solve the problem of evil. The trouble is, it’s a misunderstanding of a few things.

Karma and reincarnation is supposed to be personal responsibility, not blaming other people…

Karma like falling dominoes. Businessman pushed dominoes and expects and analyzes the result. Dangerous situation
karma

How the guru sees himself is very different from how the disciple sees himself. If the guru sees himself the way the disciple does, then he is not a qualified guru. The guru is supposed to be humble.

Similarly, with this karma thing — it actually has happened, I believe — that a Hindu has seen a starving child and thought, “This child is starving because it’s their karma. … It’s there to teach them certain lessons and I better not get involved.”

What this misunderstands is that how I view what happens to me is karma, so I see things that happen in my life as meant to teach me lessons…

But then how I should view other people is based on dharma. One way we can translate the word is “duty.” Another way we can translate the word is “religious principles.” Certain principles or duties govern the way I act in the world.

I have children, so I have a duty to look after the children. And everyone has a duty when they see a starving child, to feed the child. Certain duties are based on my position in society and certain duties that are universal. A police officer has a different duty with regard to a criminal than a doctor. A doctor’s supposed to treat everybody, regardless of their criminal status. Whereas a police officer is supposed to discriminate.

Michael Egnor: We spoke about this a little bit earlier but, in the variants of Hinduism that don’t believe in a personal God, it’s awfully hard to see where duties could come from.

It certainly is evident where you could get a duty if the creator is personal, because that would be the creator’s will that you do that. But if there is no will and no person at the core of existence, then how could one properly be said to have a duty, rather than just a desire? Where could duties come from without a personal God?

Arjuna Gallagher: That’s an interesting question. Unfortunately, not a lot of Hindus have got into the realm of philosophy of religion. It would be interesting to see how they would answer that. They might want to say they just exist necessarily. We say God is a necessary being. They might want to say these duties are necessary.

Michael Egnor: Some of your YouTube videos have dealt with testimony that people have given, they can recall prior lives. How does that work and how credible do you believe that is?

Arjuna Gallagher: With the evidence for reincarnation, in any particular case you could doubt it. The skepticism can go too far: “This person is giving evidence for something that I don’t think could be true,” because of prior assumptions about worldview. And if you just ignore all the pieces of evidence which contradict your worldview, then your worldview is not responsive to evidence. Rather, it’s something you use to filter the evidence in order to make sure your worldview’s never contradicted.

But where the real credibility comes in this evidence is when you pile a lot of it together and start to see patterns. If the evidence comes in the form of children who spontaneously report memories of past lives, if it’s not caused by them remembering past lives, then we wouldn’t expect the data to follow certain patterns which would be predicted by past life remembrances.

Michael Egnor: In some ways, I see a bit of an analogy to near-death experiences. You can write off quite a few of them, perhaps as the effects of medications or of delusion or of deception or something of that sort. But there may be a core of them that seem to be veridical, that you have to give some credence to.

Note: In After (2021), psychiatrist Bruce Greyson describes a number of near-death experiences (NDEs) that involve veridical information — information that the person recounting it could not have known apart from being a witness while technically dead. Here’s a summary of some examples.

Michael Egnor: How does one know if knowledge of prior lives is genuine, as opposed to, for example, demonic? If there are evil intelligences out there — because that’s been raised re near-death experiences, even the ones that seem real — how do we know where they came from?

Arjuna Gallagher: I’ve debated this before. In philosophy, there’s this problem called Last Thursdayism, — we can’t prove that all of my memories of everything prior to last Thursday are actually real.

If you want to say these children’s memories of existing in a previous birth were planted by a demon, then you’re opening yourself up to the problem of Last Thursdayism. You need to give some amount of credence to memories in order to have a coherent worldview, which includes last year existing.
In many of the cases there’s no veridical aspect. One researcher’s work has been on healing these children. She’ll do psychology techniques where she’ll tell the parents to talk as if this is real. “You were run over by a bus, that was a different life, that was a different body. Now you’re in this life and that’s not happening now.” By talking to the children in this way, by explaining that their memories are real but they’re not there anymore, they were able to release this trauma and stop having a phobia of buses in this example…

But in many cases, a match is identified and it’s often found that these children knew information that wasn’t on the internet, that only this person knew or only intimate family members knew.

For instance, there was one case where the child located a buried … I think buried treasure. One child located a gold coin, one child located in a drain on the property that nobody had noticed before, where the previous personality had carved a name. And they’ll also carry over birth marks, which match scars or wounds on the body of the deceased individual. And they’ll carry over personality traits. So you’re getting three different aspects of things which are carrying over, along with memories, which should prove to be accurate for the life of a previous personality. So there’s a configuration of evidence.

Michael Egnor: Yes, it’s absolutely fascinating… There’s been the observation, as you pointed out, with the Last Thursdayism problem. How can you prove that there was even a last Thursday?

In order to demonstrate the validity of perceptions or concepts you have to depend on perceptions and concepts. So fundamentally this kind of radical skepticism is kind of unavoidable, but then again, nobody can live that way. That is, that we all believe that last Thursday happened and that our perceptions and concepts have some basis in reality.

And what that gets down to is that everybody needs to have faith of some sort. You have to believe in something that you can’t prove. I’ve found this to be a very powerful argument against atheism.

I you believe in theism, and particularly if you believe in a God who is rational and who is reliable, then your faith is grounded. Your faith makes sense. I believe last Thursday happened because God wouldn’t let me be deceived like that.

Whereas if you’re an atheist, you have no one to appeal to. Then you just have this radical faith that last Thursday happened and you can’t prove it. In that sense, faith is the ground for reason. Faith in God is the ground for reason. If you don’t believe in a rational God, then you have no reason to believe that you actually know anything.

Arjuna Gallagher: Yeah. That’s the argument from reason. I quite like the way C. S. Lewis Lewis put it. I can’t remember the exact wording, but it was something like thinking that chemicals smashing together in your brain could produce accurate knowledge. Or thinking you could disturb the contents of a glass of milk and get it to splatter on a page and produce an accurate map of the world. I think I butchered the quote, but you get the idea.

Note: “Supposing there was no intelligence behind the universe, no creative mind. In that case, nobody designed my brain for the purpose of thinking. It is merely that when the atoms inside my skull happen, for physical or chemical reasons, to arrange themselves in a certain way, this gives me, as a by-product, the sensation I call thought. But, if so, how can I trust my own thinking to be true? It’s like upsetting a milk jug and hoping that the way it splashes itself will give you a map of London. But if I can’t trust my own thinking, of course I can’t trust the arguments leading to Atheism, and therefore have no reason to be an Atheist, or anything else. Unless I belleve in God, I cannot belive in thought. So I can never use thought to disbelieve in God.” – C.S. Lewis (1898–1963), The Case for Christianity, p. 32.

Michael Egnor: That’s exactly right. Everybody lives completely on faith… It depends on the logical notion that something can’t be true and false at the same time. And we don’t have any independent reason to think that logic is true. That is, it may very well be that thinking doesn’t mean that you exist if logic doesn’t work. So you’re still left with this radical skepticism. We all have faith, there’s nothing we can be sure of. But a faith in God is at least a rational faith.

Arjuna Gallagher:But the counterargument would be that evolution produced our rational faculties. And I guess perhaps that could be debated, but I don’t think it evolution can explain the existence of all of our rational faculties and our perceptions.

Next: Understanding the Hindu view of free will and evil

Here is the series of four discussions between Michael Egnor and Arjuna Gallagher:

What do the world’s 1.2 billion Hindus think about the mind? Neurosurgeon Michael Egnor interviews Hindu Arjuna Gallagher on the similarities and differences between that tradition and Western theism. Egnor and Gallagher discuss the concept of God (or gods) karma, and reincarnation, in light of what we can really know about the world we live in.

Understanding the Hindu view of free will and evil Arjuna Gallagher points out that concepts of reincarnation and karma make both problems look very different in the Hindu tradition. Michael Egnor observes that recognition of evil is a strong argument for the existence of God, yet a key source of doubt. Perhaps the topic is simply beyond us.

What do Hindus think about the Big Bang? The cyclic universe? Hinduism posits a creator God but assumes the creation of cyclic universes. In the Hindu view, the material universe is meant to enable living consciousnesses to have sensory experiences that ultimately bring them back to God.

and

A Catholic and a Hindu tackle Woke culture. In a wide-ranging discussion, Michael Egnor and Arjuna Gallagher look at Woke culture, abortion, euthanasia, and microaggressions. On Cancel Culture and euthanasia, Egnor and Gallagher are in general agreement but they find some points of difference on abortion.

You may also wish to read: Michael Egnor appeared on the podcast hosted by Arjuna Gallagher, Theology Unleashed, with atheist spokesman Matt Dillahunty Here is a link to all the segments with transcript and notes.

Show Notes

  • 00:05 | Introducing Arjuna Gallagher
  • 01:33 | What is Hinduism?
  • 03:03 | Central Themes of Hinduism
  • 04:09 | Is God Personal?
  • 04:42 | God and Karma
  • 05:39 | What does Hare Krishna mean?
  • 06:25 | Is Hinduism Pantheistic?
  • 10:01 | Hinduism and the Origin of Good and Evil
  • 11:27 | Reincarnation
  • 16:07 | Testimonies of Reincarnation
  • 17:55 | Visions by a Demon?

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What Do the World’s 1.2 Billion Hindus Think About the Mind?