Friday, November 30, 2018

Krishna, Christ, and Manitou

Recently, J. P. Moreland did a whirlwind presentation on near-death experiences:

Unfortunately, the video froze up near the end. But it was an interesting overview.

A common Christian objection to NDEs is the oft-repeated claim that non-Christian NDErs interpret their purported encounter in non-Christian terms. If we think NDEs are real, that seems to be an argument for religious pluralism. 

In this course of his presentation, Moreland recommended this book:

John Burke, Heaven: Near-Death Experiences, God’s Promises, and the Exhilarating Future that Awaits You (Baker Books, 2015). And Moreland quoted this passage:

Osis and Haraldsson, two researchers, studied five hundred Americans and five hundred Indians to determine how much religious or cultural conditioning shaped one's near-death experience. They noted, "If the patient sees a radiant man clad in white who induces in him an inexplicable experience of harmony and peace, he might interpret the apparition in various ways: as an angel, Jesus, or God; or if he is a Hindu, Krishna, Shiva, or Deva."

Though I have heard researchers state conclusions like this, i have never read of NDErs describing anything like Krishna (who has blue skin), Siva (who has three eyes)... (pp141-42).

I haven't read Burke's book, and I'm dubious about using NDEs to detail heaven and hell. But it does draw an important distinction. Hindus use the names of their gods to denote what they saw, but what they (say they) saw doesn't match Hindu iconography. They're just using the religious designations culturally available to them. But to say they saw a being by that name doesn't mean they saw an individual who corresponds to the Hindu god–because the visual impression is different from the conventional designation. 

To take a comparison, suppose Jesus appeared to an Iroquois brave in the 15C. Suppose the Christophany looks like an ancient Palestinian Jews with a robe, beard, and sandals. The Iroquois brave has no word for "Jesus" or "Christ". So he might call him Manitou. That would be the only designation available to him to denote a numinous, humanoid being. 

That might convey the impression of religious pluralism if we fail to make allowance for the fact that he can only use the vocabulary and categories his culture provides. 

If, however, he provided a visual description that didn't match the traditional Iroquois iconography for Manitou, then it would be invalid to infer that he saw Manitou. Rather, he saw a being whom he calls Manitou because that's the only name he has at his disposal to denote a numinous, humanoid being. It doesn't mean his experience actually refers to Manitou. 

Perhaps, then, NDEs have less religious diversity than meets the eye. In principle, non-Christian NDErs might report meeting a heathen deity because that's their only frame of reference. But they didn't actually see a pagan god. They simply use the name of a pagan god as a placeholder. 

I'm insufficiently well-read on NDEs to know how non-Christian NDEers describe their encounters, so I don't know how applicable that distinction is. But it's something to make allowance for when assessing their reports. 

1 comment:

  1. Similarly, as we know, there are hellish NDEs where Hindus (among others) see something sinister but interpret it as a Hindu god. For example:

    Vasudev Pandey was interviewed in 1975 and again in 1976. He was born in 1921 and had nearly died in his home of what he described as "paratyphoid disease" when he was about 10 years old. Vasudev had been considered dead and his body had actually been taken to the cremation ground. However, some indications of life aroused attention, and Vasudev was removed to the hospital where doctors tried to revive him, using "injections," with eventual success. He remained unconscious for 3 days and then became able to describe the following experience (as narrated to us in 1975):

    Two persons caught me and took me with them. I felt tired after walking some distance; they started to drag me. My feet became useless. There was a man sitting up. He looked dreadful and was all black. He was not wearing any clothes. He said in a rage to the attendants [who brought Vasudev there]:

    "I had asked you to bring Vasudev the gardener. Our garden is drying up. You have brought Vasudev the student."

    When I regained consciousness, Vasudev the gardener was standing in front of me [apparently in the crowd of family and servants who had gathered around the bed of the ostensibly dead Vasudev]. He was hale and hearty. People started teasing him saying, "Now it is your turn." He seemed to sleep well in the night, but the next morning he was dead."

    In reply to questions about details, Vasudev said that the "black man" had a club and used foul language. Vasudev identified him as Yamraj, the Hindu god of the dead. He said that he was "brought back" by the same two men who had taken him to Yamraj in the first place. Vasudev's mother, who died before the time of the interview, was a pious woman who read scriptures which included descriptions of Yamraj. Vasudev, even as a boy before his near-death experience, was quite familiar with Yamraj.