The Hierarchical Structure of Religious Visions

David Christopher Lane

Del Mar, California

I do not know whether my realizations are right or wrong. I do not make any claim that my realization is final. People say that my Form manifests to them and helps them in solving their worldly as well as mental problems, but I do not go anywhere, nor do I know anything about such miraculous instances.

My Guru had directed me, "Faqir, change the mode of preaching before abandoning this mortal frame." Now, after such experiences, I question myself, "Faqir Chand, what mode of preaching do you wish to change? Which teachings should I alter?" The change that I can make in the present mode of preaching is "O Man, your real helper is your own Self and your own Faith, but you are badly mistaken and believe that somebody from without comes to help you. No Hazrat Mohammed, no Lord Rama, Lord Krishna, or any other God, Goddess, or Guru comes from without. This entire game is that of your impressions and suggestions which are ingrained upon your mind through your eyes and ears and of your Faith and Belief. This is the change that I am ordained to bring about….

Baba Faqir Chand, 1976


In the summer of 1978 I visited Faqir Chand at his ashram, Manavta Mandir, in North India. At that time I had several personal interviews with the sage (Kamal, 1978). It became exceedingly apparent to myself and Professor Mark Juergensmeyer (who visited with the sage in late August of 1978) that Faqir was something of an anomaly amongst Indian gurus (see Kamal, 1978). For, although the then ninety-two year-old saint had a rather large and devoted following, estimated to be in the tens of thousands, he absolutely disclaimed himself of any miracles attributed to his spiritual work, saying quite frankly that they were products of either the devotee's karma or intense faith. Indeed, it was this very insight which allegedly led Faqir to his own enlightenment.

When Faqir Chand began to initiate disciples into surat shabd yoga (lit., "the union of the attention with the inner spiritual sound") at the request of his master (Maharishi Shiv Brat Lal, who was famous for his numerous spiritual writings in Urdu), a most curious thing happened. His devotees began reporting that Faqir's radiant form appeared inside their meditations. Others related miracles that were caused by Faqir's prasad (blessed food), letters, or advice. However, all during this time Faqir claims that he had absolutely no knowledge or awareness of his form appearing to distant provinces or performing miracles to the sick and dying. As Faqir himself wrote, "People say that my Form manifests to them and helps them in solving their worldly as well as mental problems, but I do not go anywhere, nor do I know anything about such miraculous instances" (Chand, n.d./1976).

It was at this point when Faqir asked himself, "What about the visions that appear to me? Are they a creation of my own mind, and does my guru also not know about his appearances to me?" Only then, according to Faqir, did he realize the truth: "All manifestations, visions, and forms that are seen within are mental creations" (Chand, n.d./ 1975).

After his realization, Faqir began preaching his belief that all saints, from Buddha, Christ, Kabir, to even his own master Shiv Brat Lal are ignorant about the miracles or inner experiences attributed to them. In a paper given to the American Academy of Religion in March 1981, I used the term, "The Unknowing Hierophany," to describe what Faqir Chand believes, that is, a "Divine" vehicle within the temporal world that is unaware of its spiritual manifestations.

Though Faqir is probably the most outspoken, other great religious leaders, saints and mystics have expounded on this same unknowingness. However, it is not seen by most (especially by devotees) as an explanation of their subservience to the Great Mystery, but rather as a statement designed to exhibit a saint's humility, or, as a tacit attempt for concealing his real mission and purpose.

Jesus, for instance, is reported in the Gospel of Mark as asking the crowd that was following him, "Who touched me?" After this, a woman who had suffered from a "flow of blood" for twelve years came up to Jesus and told him about her plan for a Divine cure. By a brief touch a miracle happened, and she was cured from hemorrhaging. At this Jesus said, "Daughter, your faith has made you well…" (see Nineham, 1976).

The famed sage, Ramana Maharshi, when asked about Jesus' power to perform miracles, substantiates what Faqir Chand had taught for over forty years:

Was Jesus aware at the time that he was curing men of their diseases? He could not have been conscious of his powers….

Such manifestation is as real as your own reality. In other words, when you identify yourself with the body as in jagrat, you see gross objects; when in subtle body or in mental plane as in svapna, you see objects equally subtle; in the absence of identification as in sushupti, you see nothing. The objects seen bear relation to the state of the seer. The same applies to visions of God (Maharshi, 1972).

Another expression of this unknowingness is given in a speech by Charan Singh, the present Satguru at Beas who commands perhaps the largest following of any master in India. In 1951, when Charan Singh was appointed the successor to Jagat Singh, he told the vast gathering of devotees,

I feel that I am like a stone idol in a temple. According to their notions of love, some bathe it with cold water, some with hot water, and some deck it in fine clothes; but it is still an idol all the same (Singh, 1951).

Along with this "unknowingness" there is also the internal, ever-present supreme knowledge which saints and sages have described as the hallmark of enlightenment. Jesus said, "The Father and I are one." The Sufi martyr, Mansur al-Hallaj, shouted before his execution, "ana'l-Haqq" (I am the Truth). Sarmad, the Jewish-Indian saint, exclaimed, "I am King of Kings." And Meister Eckhart, in slightly different language, wrote, "The eye with which God sees me is the same eye which I perceive Him" (the preceding quotations were paraphrased).

However, this kind of knowledge cannot be equated with logical, objective learning. The former is the realization of one's real and eternal nature, a transcendental experience of oneness. The latter is concerned with dualistic thinking, knowing about things; hence, it is based upon an illusory division of the world into two separate components: the subject and the object. Hence, when saints talk about the ultimate knowledge, they are referring to the Ground of Being, that which is the condition of all subsequent conditions (Wilber, 1981). Consequently, an enlightened master may not know anything about academic subjects such as quantum mechanics, anthropology, or critical history.


A crucial question arises at this junction, however, with regard to spiritual manifestations. If Christ, Kabir, and Faqir Chand were not aware of how their miraculous powers manifested, does it then hold that all such vision, etc., are individual creations, determined by the faith and concentration of zealous devotees? At first glance, the answer would appear to be "yes," because many internal visions are not of factual and historical human entities, but of amalgamated characters, mythic beings, and fictional heroines--some whose life stories may be entirely based upon the writer's won creative mind.

On such instance concerns a Tibetan monk who is allegedly over five-hundred years old (see Lane, 1983) and resides in a remote hut in the Himalayas. The author has had personal correspondence over several years with members of an esoteric contemporary religious organization who profess to have extraordinary visions of this Tibetan monk, describing in detail his appearance and peculiar dress. However, documentary research (Lane, 1983) has shown that the founder of this organization appears to have created the Tibetan, basing the monk's life story on the biographies of Kirpal Singh, Sawan Singh, Shiv Dayal Singh, Kabir, and several other real-life gurus.

What all this presents is a devastating problem in the study of religious visions. If there is no functional necessity to distinguish between a vision of a genuine historical personage and a fictional guru, does it really matter then if one has a vision of Christ, a blue Krishna, a living saint, or the local minister? Indeed, are all religious visions qualitatively the same?



According to Ken Wilber (1980; 1981; 1983), a transpersonal theorist, there is a qualitative difference between religious visions, precisely because not all spiritual manifestations occur on the same structural level. For instance, if one sees an image of Jesus in a dream while asleep, it would probably be qualitatively different from one seen with eyes open while awake. The difference here is not so much one of content as it is of context.

Since there are various levels of consciousness (creating several contextual layers), the first step in any critical examination of religious visions, Wilber contends, is to perform a hierarchical structural analysis so as to determine on which level a particular manifestation is taking place. Wilber (1983), drawing from his study of the Perennial Philosophy (the term was first coined by Leibniz: see Huxley, 1970), postulates a dynamic spiritual cartography in which the various stages of consciousness are mapped out. Such a schema, he argues, allows for a much needed adjudication for the variety of religious expressions by assigning them a place in the hierarchy. Elaborates Wilber (1983),

…the hierarchical nature of this spectrum will give us a critical-normative sociology of religion, one that is capable of structurally analyzing various religious expressions, assigning them a spot in the hierarchy, consequently adjudicating their degree of authenticity, and accordingly pronouncing that, in terms of an overall critical sociological theory, this or that religious engagement is higher than this or that other religious engagement, precisely as we now say, for example, a stage-6 moral response is higher than a stage-4 response….

(insert figure 1 here, Wilber's Developmental Hierarchy)

Wilber's developmental hierarchy begins at the lowest stage of man's evolution (what he terms the "archaic"--stage 1) and culminates at the zenith of human attainments (the asymptotic limit of Brahman or Godhead--stage 10).

These stages may also be classified under three main categories: subconscious/pre-personal (stages 1-5); self-conscious/personal (stage 6); and superconscious/transpersonal (stages 7-10).

Following Wilber's schema, religious visions--by definition and implication--are non-rational occurrences taking place on either the subconscious/pre-personal level or the superconscious/trans-personal level. It is important to note here, however, that just because all visions, as such, are non-rational, does not mean that they are necessarily trans-rational. A distinction must be made between subconscious and superconscious manifestations. If this is not done, a "pre/trans fallacy" occurs, resulting in the confusion of infantile images with genuine spiritual apparitions (Wilber, 1980b).

Many so-called religious visions, for instance, may be nothing more than vivid images which manifest quite normally while one is dreaming. Simply because an image is of a holy or revered personage does not qualify it automatically as a trans-personal manifestation. As the late Faqir Chand asserted, a saint, or a guru, does not consciously project his form; rather, it is the intense faith and concentration of the devotee who creates the image within (Lane, 1982b). Therefore, the proper adjudication of spiritual visions lies not in the manifest content of the "apparition," but in the context and structure wherein one beholds the sacred image.

The important question concerning the authenticity of religious visions, as Wilber clearly points out, is not one of content (structurally speaking, it matters little if one beholds the Virgin Mary, Buddha, or Krishna), but of context. That is, on which level of consciousness is the vision seen? Is it a subconscious dream image? A psychic intuition? Or, a genuine encounter with a subtle plane deity? It is only after such a contextual-structure determination that the critical phenomenologist can then proceed to analyze the content of the vision properly, assessing its degree of legitimacy. That is, how well does the particular image integrate the perceiver, within that hierarchical level?

The aspects of authenticity and legitimacy are necessary in determining: 1) the level of consciousness wherein the vision is occurring; and 2) the degree of validity that the particular image has for integrating one to that structural level of adaptation. Ken Wilber, in A Sociable God, explains these two important concepts in further detail:

"Degree of authenticity" refers to the relative degree of actual transformation delivered by a given religion (or world view). This is a vertical scale: "more authentic" means more capable of reaching a higher level (and not merely integrating the present level) (p. 61).

"Degree of legitimacy" refers to the relative degree of integration, meaning-value, good mana, ease of functioning, avoidance of taboo, and so forth within any given level. This is a horizontal scale; "more legitimate" means more integrative-meaningful within that level (p. 60).

Hence, following these important distinctions made by Wilber, there can be a hierarchical structural adjudication of visions, determining the authenticity of the religious encounter (employing Wilber's developmental cartography, is it happening on stage 3, 4, 7, or 8?). And secondly, there can be a horizontal-translative appraisement, measuring the degree of legitimacy that the particular apparition has (see Figure 2).

For instance, if one beholds an image of the previously described Tibetan in a dream, it is, according to Wilber, an inauthentic vision because it occurs on a subconscious/prepersonal level (stages, 3, 4, or 5). Authentic religious experiences, he argues, begin only after the rational-egoic structure (i.e., the psychic-stage 7). However, such an apparition may have a significant degree of legitimacy if it helps integrate an important myth or world view advocated by a movement (Lane, 1982a).

With regard to visions of fictional heroes, saints, and masters, it is conceivable that an earnest devotee may have an authentic experience of a fabricated mystic in the psychic-subtle planes. However, the authenticity of this encounter has nothing to do with the image-content as such. Rather, it is the structure itself which give numinous power to the experience. Whether or not a guru or a master is a literary invention or a historical personage matters very little in terms of authenticity; it does have an important role, though, in determining the degree of legitimacy of the encounter (Wilber, 1983, pp. 60-64).

Therefore, Faqir Chand's implication, that all visions are illusions, needs some qualifications. First, Faqir Chand was making his statement presumably from a ninth and tenth

(insert figure 2 here, A Transpersonal Study of Religious Visions)

plane perspective (the causal-transcendental stages); and, from such a state all of the lower regions may be illusory in that they are subsumed by the Infinite or Brahman (Lane, n.d.). Secondly, Faqir Chand, because he may be speaking from a transcendental point of view, could give the erroneous impression that a dream experience and a subtle plane encounter are one and the same. Actually, Faqir Chand stated in a July, 1978 interview that he was aware of the distinction between "dream visions" and subtle-plane manifestations; however, he considered both to be illusions and unnecessary in light of God-Realization, which is by implication groundless and vision-less (see Lane, 1980). And finally, though Faqir Chand asserts that the guru is not conscious of his spiritual manifestations, this does not mean that there is no qualitative difference between such apparitions. Rather, as we have noted, there could be a developmental hierarchy involved in religious visions.

With such qualifications aside, it is, nevertheless, important to realize (along with Faqir Chand) that authentic visions (be they psychic, subtle or causal) eventually give way to the Transcendental Reality of the Absolute which is the source from where all life manifests--Itself being visionless, groundless, without form or structure, void of center, infinite in all dimensions… (Wilber, 1980).


By understanding the hierarchical nature behind spiritual manifestations, we begin to see how our study of religious visions might be structured. First, the dimension of unknowingness, as related by Faqir Chand and illustrated elsewhere, is an essential a priori foundation. In the study of religious visions, this represents a "bracketing out" of causal questions, an acceptance as valid, though not reducible, though not explainable, or the phenomena "as is." This serves as a vital informational stand, much like the phenomenological approach in near-death studies taken by Raymond Moody, Kenneth Ring, and Michael Sabom. However, as Frits Staal (Exploring Mysticism) and Ken Wilber (A Sociable God) point out, this very position--that of phenomenological-hermeneutics--can become anti-informational if allowed to stagnate. Comments Wilber (1983):

But taken in and by itself, hermeneutics seems finally to suffer a series of unhappy limitations. Foremost among these is its radicalization of situational truth and its consequent lack of a universal or even quasi-universal critical dimension, a way to judge the actual validity, not just interpretive mesh, of a religious truth claim. Krishna may have been transcending, but was the Hopi really producing rain? How are we to differentiate the authentic from the less authentic engagements?

Therefore, the study of visions, though it has to begin from a non-reductionistic posture, can move away from a purely phenomenological investigation into a critical developmental structuralism, so that the authenticity and legitimacy of the encounter can be fully explored and assessed. Hence, the examination of religious manifestations--and perhaps most religious claims--becomes both a psychologically and sociologically useful discipline in evaluating the nature of human existence.


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