Anthropology has long shown that religion, rather than an intellectual contrivance or a set-out system of commandments and controls, is simply a social and cultural phenomenon, evolving in a cultural group like agriculture, healing, food-preparation, or rituals of birth, marriage, and death. Religion is loftier because it intends to address the origins of the universe and the trajectory of human existence within a perceived scheme.
But because religion is a common phenomenon, a universal expression, its contents can be cataloged and compared. The panoply of detail is fascinating, and comparative studies inviting. How each culture finds an interpretation of the universe that fits its own physical and psychological experiences reveals a criteria for self-understanding, regardless of an individual’s social or cultural upbringing. The process mitigates hostility towards one’s own culture while promoting understanding of other’s cultures. Thus distilling common factors is both a relativizing process but also a “scientific” process. Once information is gathered, imagination and creativity salvage the effort from the extremes of exceptionalism on the one hand and relativism and science on the other.
Since no modern can adhere to the practice and ritual of a given religion without, in effect, betraying or ignoring the cultural specificity of the given ritual, the dilemma for the sensitive and respectful has been to create syncretic approximations to a more universal religion, synthetic approximations to universal systems of thought, decorated by spiritual or ritualized elements.
In the Eastern world, such syncretism has been more natural: Vedanta as the product of Vedic and spiritualized Hinduism, Zen as the product of Taoism and Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhism as the product of Buddhism and Bon. The distinction between popular ritual and intellectual thought, too, has been easier to maintain in the East, as even the Dalai Lama has noted. The religious tensions of the East have been promoted by external imperial expansion, as in the Muslim presence in India, the coming of Christian missionaries in China and Japan, or diasporic circumstances, as suffered by the Rohingya in Myanmar.
In the West this tension has been more intrinsic to history. Persecution, pogroms, and wars of religion have dominated Western history not only in antiquity and Early Modern Europe but even today, where violence, however, is transmuted into cultural rivalry. After the rise of science and technology, the displacement of institutional religion excluded popular spiritual alternatives other than esotericism. The influx of Western-language translations of sacred books from the East in the late 19th century, promoted a new syncretism, dominated by Theosophy, which linked Western spiritism and generic supernaturalism with imagined Tibetan Buddhism, with its deities, demons, and angels. Permutations such as Fourth Way, New Thought, anthroposopy, and other syncretic bodies of thought emerged. The premise of many syncretisms is that a more original or root body of knowledge, necessarily esoteric, exists at a level never explored or consciously suppressed by the major religious authorities.
This premise now crosses the East and West divide. Helene Blavatsky, founder of Theosophy, believed that in Tibetan Buddhism were to be found mysterious supernatural powers as much as universal knowledge, and hidden masters who knew this knowledge and skills. G.I. Gurdjieff similarly presented hidden masters as the source, in his estimation the mysterious Sarmoung Brotherhood. In a curious inversion, the successors of Blavatsky, Annie Besant and Charles Leadbeater, identified a young J. Krishnamurti as Theosophy’s forthcoming World Teacher, for which Krishnamurti was being groomed. After much education, travel, and socialization around the world, Krishnamurti rejected the ideas of the Theosophists, but he became a world teacher after all. And Krishnamurti’s premise is basically that no body of thought or tradition derived from institutions is reliable or believable. Krishnamurti combines a Socratic philosophical method of questioning with a Buddhist emphasis on self and enlightenment of self as a contemplative project.
Where does the syncretism that especially animates the Western interest in yoga, meditation, and similar practices go for vindicating the logic of the new thinking? Here T.D. Suzuki (or a successor) explains the nature of Buddhism to Westerners, and Westerners explain Buddhism to readers of specialized presses or glossy magazines that offer expensive retreats in highbrow locations around the world. As with the subject of religion, the new syncretism can be viewed simply as a cultural phenomenon. Only a given individual and the person’s intellectual effort can reconcile truth, but that is an intellectual effort that frustrates the very goal of syncretism. Is one best off sailing new waters, or familiarizing oneself with already-met waters? Or realizing that whatever waters one encounters, the river is different every time one attempts to step into it.