Divine or delusional?

Only you can decide whether your surreal experience is authentically spiritual or a mere brain phenomenon


What is spirituality and how does a seeker of spirituality know that he or she is on the right path? Especially, when for every miraculous experience, there are more than a dozen scientific conjectures. You may dismiss them as forced facts conjured by cynics but sometimes these scientific explanations may make you think and doubt your own beliefs.

This article is my attempt to help you make sense of your own spiritual experience.

However, do not attempt to judge another person’s experience. To do so, will surely impair your spiritual progress.

Let me begin with two short stories.

The story of Narada

Narada was a fatherless child. His mother brought him up in an ashram of Sages, where she worked as a maidservant. One night, while going out to milk a cow, a poisonous snake bit her and she died soon after.

Narada took this stoically. He understood this to be the mercy of God, who always acts for the benefit of His devotees. The orphan Narada began his wanderings heading northward.

After a long journey, Narada bathed and began to meditate upon the Lord in his heart. Almost immediately he experienced a theophany [a vision of God], in the form of Hari. Absorbed in an ocean of ecstasy, Narada lost all sense of separate existence.

With infinite compassion, the Lord spoke to Narada:

“You will not see Me in this life again. Immature devotees with material impurities, who are not in yoga [divine union], cannot see Me easily. By constantly yearning to see Me, you will become purified of material desire. By my grace and by being constantly absorbed in me, you will travel the universe, uplifting my devotees.”

Narada Muni, transformed by his spiritual experience, chanting and singing the Lord’s name, eternally wanders through the universe. Even today, Narada everlastingly remains in the service of the Lord and His devotees.

The conversion of Paul

Saul of Tarsus, a tentmaker and a Pharisee, lived in Jerusalem around AD 34. He was the prime scourge of the early Christians. Saul took it upon himself to stamp out the new Christ worshipping sect. Venomously opposed to the new cult, he encouraged the stoning to death of the first early Christian martyr, Stephen.

On his way to Damascus to arrest and oppress Christians, Jesus appeared directly before Saul as a blinding light and said to him: “Why do you persecute Me?”

Saul asked “Who are you?”

Jesus answered “I am Jesus—whom you persecute. Go into the city and you shall hear what you need to do.”

For three days and nights, Saul remained stupefied, blind and dumb. He could not eat and drink anything. His companions led him by the hand into Damascus. Meanwhile, the Jew Ananias had a divine vision about Saul and his arrival.

Ananias met Saul and restored his sight and well being. He told Saul that it was Jesus who sent him to restore his sight and fill him with the Holy spirit. Saul now stood converted by his spiritual experience. He assumed the name Paul and became a living vessel of the Lord. Paul’s life’s mission now became to spread the Word of Jesus.

The holy apostle Paul travelled, glorifying Jesus through the Roman Empire. Thanks to the Pax Romana [Roman Peace accord], Paul freely preached the Word of Jesus extensively in the Mediterranean. His writings in The New Testament continue to strongly inspire Christians even today.

So, did Narada and Paul have spiritual experiences? Before I answer that, let’s understand how science views such encounters.

Scientific and divine experiences

Modern science looks askance at spiritual experience. This mistrust drives psychiatrists to often diagnose spiritual visionaries as insane. Neurologists use epilepsy, as a catchall to explain spiritual visions, and the voice of God.

Dr D Landsborough, published an article in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery, and Psychiatry, in 1987. He compared Paul’s experience to an attack of temporal lobe epilepsy. The blindness that happened later, he attributed to a postictal episode.

With advances in neuro-imaging in the last 20 years, we now know more about the function of the brain, than we ever knew in all history.

We now know what happens to monks in deep meditation when they experience ‘Oneness with the Universe.’ Functional neuroimaging also explains the experience of deep meditation. There is stoppage of function in specific parts of the parietal lobes of the brain. These areas work to define the boundaries of the body. They also orient the body in space. When you suppress their function through meditation, there is direct experience of Advaita [Monism] or ‘Oneness with the Universe.’

Neuroscience also has an explanation for out-of-body experiences. Dr Olaf Blanke, neurologist at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland, in an elegant experiment, showed that electrical stimulation of the angular gyrus of the brain leads to such an experience.

Michael Persinger, a cognitive neuroscience researcher and professor, is famous for his discovery of the ‘God Helmet.’ Persinger used an electrical current around a helmet to form a magnetic field. This magnetic field results in the subject perceiving a ghostly image. Some subjects who wear the Persinger helmet liken it to an experience of seeing God.

Dr Candace Pert, ex-head of biochemistry at the National Institute of Health, Bethseda, Washington pioneered the discovery of a morphine-like substance within the body. This endogenous morphine is just one of the huge variety of molecules created within you. Your body can produce feel-good substances like endorphins and serotonin. To experience peace, bliss, and happiness, you only need to train your body to produce these substances.

Is your spiritual experience for real?

What should you make of your spiritual experience? Is the voice you hear the Voice of God? Or is it a psychotic delusion? What is the vision you see? It could be the result of some form of epileptic attack. Or, it could be a revelation of the Divine.

Is your experience spiritual or physical? Lights, voices, waves of ecstasy, and currents rising up your spine, may or may not be a spiritual experience. But, as with Narada Muni or the Apostle Paul, it is not your spiritual experiences that are important. What is incontrovertible is the personal transformation, and the profound changes in the direction of your life.

There is one way you can understand a spiritual theophany or epiphany and that is through its consequences. Here are a few indications that you have truly experienced something that changed your life:

  • Sense of depersonalisation with weakness or even absence of sense of self
  • Not being affected by worldly troubles and viewing changes and reverses in life with severe detachment
  • Inability to take seek happiness in worldly pleasures and delights [Anhedonia]
  • Heightened sense of compassion to the suffering of other people
  • Acute discomfort while engaging in selfish activities
  • Comfort and joy while engaged in selfless service
  • Profound directional change away from money, power, status and toward missionary sharing of your faith

A spiritual experience is an intimate exchange between you and God. This is similar to an interaction between a lover and a beloved. Experiences between a seeker and the Divine are confidential. You must share them only with your spiritual guide and teacher.

Eventually, all experiences are generic. It is the prism through which you see the experience that decides the direction your life will take. Some people may be touched by a certain experience while others may be unmoved. So in the end, it is you who decides whether your experience is spiritual or not.

A person who is spiritually inclined may take a random incident to be a Divine Sign. On the other hand, someone who is far from spirituality may look at a spiritual experience with cynicism. To experience a transformation of your life, learn to look at life through a spiritual prism. If you do, eventually you will see Divinity everywhere, and all of creation resting in God.

This was first published in the April 2013 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

Magnifying lens over an exclamation markSpot an error in this article? A typo maybe? Or an incorrect source? Let us know!

Shantanu Nagarkatti
Shantanu Nagarkatti is well known for both, his surgical skills and his spiritual writings. As an eclectic teacher of Spirituality, he integrates the best of science and religion.


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