Vedantic Insights of the Ascetic Knight
Professor A.M. Pinkney
Religion 252-Introduction to Hinduism and Buddhism
16 October 2014
Vedantic Insights of the Ascetic Knight
In 2014, Christopher Thomas Knight, who lived as a forest dweller for 27 years and sustained himself by stealing virtually everything he owned, was arrested and put in jail for the crimes that he committed. Although Knight's lifestyle may seem completely alien and even unethical to Western societies, it is not so straightforward for Hindu societies. within such a diverse tradition, just about anything and everything can be found. In fact, Knight's choices and ethics particularly complement classical Hindu traditions-more precisely upanisadic literature-especially in the sense of defining the self and in terms of carrying out one's dharma.
First of all, in order to understand how Knight's perception of self is comparable to those found within Hindu traditions, we must start by defining what this concept represents within the tradition. It is important to note that the notion of self that is relevant to our discussion is one interpretation amongst the many that exist within the Hindu traditions. Namely, the Advaita view of the self present in the upanisadic literature of the Vedantic traditions is what we will focus on.
According to the worldview present within the Advaita Vedantic traditions, to understand the self-or atman-as a distinct and definable entity that exists in separation of all other realities is to be “Ignorant of the nature of the true Self” (Rodrigues 2006, 51). This means that the self as we commonly know it is an illusion behind which lies the true nature of one's atman. To uncover this truth is to come to the "realisation of the ultimate nonduality of all existence” (Pinkney, 18 September 2014). In this sense, "atman is identical with brahman" (Heehs 2002, 88) in the literal sense.
Furthermore, brahman-“Absolute truth and consciousness"-is understood as being "other than the known" (Heehs 2002, 88). brahman is "formless" or without attributes, something that is understood within the tradition as being nirguna (Heehs 2002, 88). Therefore, the self, which is not seen as a distinct entity, is also nirguna. In short, the upanisads demonstrate an understanding of the fundamental concept of self as being formless, without attributes and inseparable from brahman.
Vedic traditions suggest non-duality with brahman. Therefore, it is important to clarify that, although Knight never directly speaks about his personal religious faith or God, his experience in the forest and what knowledge he gained from it can be compared to the knowledge one gains from brahman in the Vedantic school of Advaita. As previously stated, brahman is an ineffable reality. How one might choose describe brahman based on personal knowledge or experience will never be sufficient because such an entity cannot be described with words. Similarly, Knight's experience in the forest seemed to be one of ineffableness. Although Finley hoped and pressed for some sort of grandiose revelation on Knight's part, this was just impossible for Knight to be able to put into words. This also suggests that the insight that Knight did gain was obtained through experience, once again pointing towards Vedic scriptures that states brahman had to be experienced, not spoken about.
Next, we must determine Knight's insights into non-duality in order to compare them with those present in the Advaita vedanta worldview. During his conversation with Michael Finkel, Knight reveals that he gained perception through his isolation in the forest, but that he also "lost [his] identity" once he “Applied [his] increased perception to [himself]" (Finkel 2014, 15). This means that this new perception allowed him to transcend his own identity as if it had disappeared in the light of his newly attained knowledge. He further details by stating that he "didn't even have a name” (Finkel 2014, 15). By gaining this notion of a formless and nameless atman, which is key to the Advaita Vedantic worldview, there was no longer a "need to define [himself]" (Finkel 2014, 15). He no longer had any characteristics defining his person-not even a name-he was "just there” in existence (Finkel 2014, 15). These statements strongly points towards the Vedantic idea of non-duality with brahman.
As we know, Knight interestingly gained his perception by being in isolation for decades. However, how would his isolated life in the forest allow for such deep insights? Vedic traditions were, up until the upanisads, concerned with "ritual performance and karmic action" aimed at "[securing] wealth, longevity, and other such worldly ends" (Rodrigues 2006, 52). However, the upanisads were concerned with "shedding one's pursuit of those goals" which allows us to gain "knowledge of the Self (atman) or Absolute Reality (brahman)" (Rodrigues 2006, 52). Therefore, all actions stemming from desires other than gaining this liberating knowledge prevents one from reaching their goals. By leading a typical life in society, such detached actions are virtually impossible because “The secrets of the upanisads lie beyond the ranges of senses, thoughts and words" (Heehs 2002, 89). Therefore, complete isolation and focusing of attention towards meditative practices is necessary and inevitable to reach such a state of being.
In a similar sense, Knight believes that society is "too loud", "too colorful", and full of “Inanities" and "trivia” (Finkel 2014, 15). Living within society is also confusing because one has to conform to norms or-in Knight's words-figure out “What is proper" (Finkel 2014, 15). Therefore, if one works within an upanisadic framework of attaining liberating knowledge, all these distracting elements of society would be seen as preventing Knight from reaching this state of enlightenment.
A largely controversial element of Knight's story was the fact that he stole virtually everything that he owned and even broke into homes in order to sustain his life in the forest. Although in Western societies this is definitely seen as criminal and reprehensible activity, if one works within the Vedic concept of dharma this may not be so straightforward. Dharma can be understood as being personal, Visesa-dharma, or universal, Samanya-dharma (Pinkney, 16 September 2014). In the case of Samanya-dharma, it pertains to ethics, justice and universality in the sense that it is "recommendations for behavior" that is "common to all human beings" (Naranayan 2001, 182). However, it is important to note that, although dharma does speak about ethics, it does not foster the idea of universal laws of ethics, which is very much present within Western societies. In this sense, a universal law against stealing does not exist and Knight's choice to sustain his isolated life by stealing may not be seen as being so strongly negative in a Vedic Samanya-dharma framework.
Also, another instance in which ethics are not so straightforward within the tradition can be found within the Ramayana. Although Rama is seen as someone who is a "paragon of virtue” (Naranayan 2001, 188), his treatment of his wife Sita is subject to questionable ethics. At one point of the narrative, she is returned to Rama after being held captive by Ravana and her chastity is doubted which is seen as an example of the "victim being blamed” (Naranayan 2001, 189). Despite this, he is still considered to be one of the "moral exemplars for centuries" within the tradition (Naranayan 2001, 188).
Finally, Knight's lifestyle as an isolated forest dweller can be compared to a Hindu ascetic wishing to reach the ultimate realization of brahman. As previously mentioned, Hindu traditions emphasize on the concept of Visesa-dharma. This is relevant for our discussion because in the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna makes Arjuna-who is a warrior- "[recognize] why he must fight" (Miller 2004, 8) in order to carry his personal dharma and kill the enemies. Although in the West, killing someone is largely seen as inherently unethical, in Hindu traditions if this is part of one's dharma this is what one should do. In short, this suggests that Knight's choice to sustain himself by stealing may not be seen as unethical if it is part of his Visesa-dharma.
However, if one thinks about dharma in the sense of the varnasramadharma system, Knight's choice to live isolated in the forest may be frowned upon within a Hindu framework. It is relevant to know that the Brahmin's personal dharma is an “Idealized social 'model for' reality" (Pinkney, 16 September 2014), known as the varnasramadharma system. This system touches upon “The behavior recommended for each caste and each stage of life” (Naranayan 2001, 183). Being an ascetic is the final stage; one has to live through the three other stages of life-namely the student, householder and retiree stages-before retreating from society if one wishes to successfully carry out Visesa-dharma. This is something that Knight did not do simply because he failed to live the life of a householder before isolating himself from society. Therefore, although Knight's isolated life is comparable to that of a Hindu ascetic, his choice to leave society at the young age of twenty would suggest that he was not carrying out his Visesa-dharma within this idealized Vedic system.
However, if one turns to the Shramanic traditions, Knight's choice of living in isolation as a forest dweller definitely reflects tradition. The upanisads were very much focused on gaining knowledge through "[practicing] penance (tapas) and faith in the forest" (Pinkney, 18 September 2014) and "philosophical speculation" (Heehs 2002, 87). They were also "[disgusted]" by the Brahmins way of leading a ritual based faith (Pinkney, 18 September 2014). Therefore, despite being in continuation with the rest of the Vedic corpus and revering it as authoritative, the upanisads clearly contain new and radically different ideas. The core of these texts focuses on attaining liberating knowledge of brahman through ascetic dedication rather than ritual practice. Knight's isolated, simple and immaterial life in the forest reflects just this. He rejects society and its imposed norms of holding a job and having a family. Through this lifestyle, he gains insight into the metaphysical matters of life reflecting the aim of the upanisads.
To conclude, one can draw many similarities between Knight's retreated lifestyle and Vedic-more particularly the upanisadic-traditions. It may be in terms of his choice to lead an isolated lifestyle in which he made many personal realizations that are in line with the Advaita Vedantic school of thought. Furthermore, under the light of personal dharma, not only may it not be ethically wrong for him to sustain himself by stealing, it may also mean that he is simply carrying out his dharma, which has been seen at numerous occasions within the tradition as fostering unethical behavior in order to fulfill one's personal dharma. Lastly, his choice to lead almost his entire life in isolation may not fulfill the ideal system of varnasramadharma, but if one looks at the upanisads as a distinct part of the vedas having new radical ideas, it is easy to see that this retreated behavior is what would be recommended by the tradition. Perhaps in this sense Knight may even be more comparable to Buddhism or Jainism ideologies of focusing all attention and efforts of our lives on attaining this fundamental state of enlightenment.
Finkel, Michael. "The Strange and Curious Tale of the Last True Hermit.” GQ Magazine, September 2014. URL: http://www.gq.com/news politics/newsmakers/201409/the-last- true-hermit. Access date: 1 October 2014. Class PDF, 1-16.
Heehs, Peter. 2002. 'The Upanishads.' In Indian Religions: A Historical Reader of Spiritual Expression and Experience, ed. Peter Heehs. New York: New York University Press.
Miller, Barbara Stoller. 2004. The Bhagavad-Gita. Random House LLC.
Narayanan, Vasudha. 2001. 'Hindu Ethics and Dharma.' In Ethics in the World Religions, ed. Joseph Runzo and Nancy M. Martin. New York: One World Publications.
Rodrigues, Hillary. 2006. 'karma and Cosmology.' In Introducing Hinduism. New York: Routledge
'North Pond Hermit' speaks to GQ Magazine
Christopher Knight, who committed hundreds of burglaries while living in the central Maine woods for 27 years, talks publicly for the first time.
August 20, 2014
The man known as the North Pond Hermit has spoken with a journalist for the first time, saying in an article published online by GQ Magazine on Wednesday that he "has to figure out how to live” in an unfamiliar world.
The case of Christopher Thomas Knight — who was arrested on April 4, 2013, after spending 27 years alone in the woods in the Rome and Smithfield area while committing more than 1,000 burglaries — garnered worldwide media attention after the Kennebec Journal first reported the story that month.
Since his arrest, Knight has declined requests by the Kennebec Journal for an interview, but journalist Michael Finkel writes that he first connected with Knight through hand-written letters to the Kennebec County jail before he agreed to interviews.
Finkel's article, which will appear in the magazine's print edition set to hit newsstands on Aug. 26, paints Knight as often introspective, but terse.
“I don't know your world,” Knight, now 48, told the magazine. “Only my world, and memories of the world before I went into the woods. What life is today? What is proper? I have to figure out how to live.”
Knight pleaded guilty in court last year to a handful of burglaries and thefts in connection with the camp break-ins...
In June 2005, the Morning Sentinel published a story on "hermit of North Pond,” who had been so named by locals because of the mystery surrounding the break-ins. “For the last 15 years,” it said, "he has been picking his way through dozens of the 300 or so camps around North Pond.”
In September 2013, Knight was accepted into a special court program that will allow him to get counseling for an alcohol problem. At the time of his arrest, Pine Tree Camp employees said Knight would often steal certain types of beer, but not others. He skipped Bud Light and Miller Lite, they said, but he took Budweiser.
McKee said Knight "felt bad about what he did,” and that's part of the reason he didn't grant media interviews.
“He didn't want to look like he was trying to advance anything other than remorse,” McKee said.
In the GQ article, Knight admits feeling guilty about the burglaries but said he was forced to steal to survive. “It was usually 1 or 2 a.m. I'd go in, hit the cabinets, the refrigerator. In and out. My heart rate was soaring. It was not a comfortable act. I took no pleasure in it, none at all, and I wanted it over as quickly as possible,” he said.
Knight also told GQ Magazine that he wished to return to the woods, but he knew that he wouldn't be able to because of the terms of his release.
"Sitting here in jail, I don't like what I see in the society I'm about to enter,” he said. “I don't think I'm going to fit in. It's too loud. Too colorful. The lack of aesthetics. The crudeness. The inanities. The trivia.”
Knight hasn't said why he left his Albion home sometime after 1986 to live in the woods. The GQ article suggests he might have Asperger syndrome, a form of autism, but Knight told the magazine he is not taking medication.
In the GQ interview, Knight doesn't shed much more light on why he went into the woods, saying he doesn't have a reason and "can't explain why.”
On his final visit with Knight, Finkel reports that Knight said he was never happy around others in his youth.
At his campsite, Knight is quoted as saying, “I found a place where I was content.” He also told the magazine he "expected to die out there” in the woods.
“What I miss most is somewhere between quiet and solitude,” Knight said. “What I miss most is stillness.”
Finkel never got a clear answer to the “Why" question. He said he doesn't know for sure, but he said Knight's motivation could be like anyone else's: He wanted contentment.
“He said he found a place where he was more content than any other place,” Finkel said. “It might be as simple as that.”
Web (December 28, 2014)
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