Part II. Chapter 1
How Jesus is Considered by Hindus
The answer to the question may be summarized in two words: Jivan-mukta and Avatar. A jivan-mukta is a living liberated being, someone who has attained the peak of his spiritual life and who is identified with the Absolute, while living normally. An Avatar is an especially complete descent of the divine into a human form. In a restricted sense there are ten Avatars including Rama, Krishna and Buddha; sometimes twenty-four Avatars are depicted. In a broader sense, all great sages can be regarded asAvatars. Christ can also be perceived as a guru by Hindus. We have already studied this aspect in the article 'Spiritual Master in ChristianityÆ' (a contribution to Swami Abhishiktananda Souvenir Volume, Bangalore, 1994, published with the title Shabda Shakti Sangam). Hindus can easily accept Christ's divinity, but not his uniqueness, which they consider to be a sectarian claim. I assume that the broad outline of the Church's vision of Christ is known by the reader. We will use the Gospel of Thomas, along with the Canonical Gospels, to facilitate a renewed look at Jesus.
Jesus, living liberated being
In addition to his identification with the universal conscience, one of the main characteristics of Jesus which makes us think of him as a living liberated being is that he finds the unique source of his own power within himself. Many people seem to be sure of themselves; but it is rare to meet someone who is really sure of himself from the spiritual point of view, that is someone who sees clearly in the distant domains of the mind, where others only see elusive shadows and are content to repeat the truths they have heard with a conviction which is more emotional than experienced. To know how to distinguish between someone who is really sure of himself and someone who is only pretending to be demands of the would-be disciple a great deal of discrimination. A logion of the Gospel of Thomas says, They said to him: Come, let us pray and fast today. Jesus answered: What wrong have I done? How have I been conquered6? Like the liberated being in Hinduism, Jesus is beyond the duality of sin and redemption which is the foundation of the education of children and of basic moral and religious formation. He is stable, beyond the play of affectivity and culpability, play which is the daily bread of each and everyone.
This confidence of Jesus brings to mind the confidence of Job in the Old Testament, although the latter does not appear to be a liberated being. He blankly answered to Bildad of Shuah who was trying to make him feel guilty that he was sure of his innocence: 'As long as a vestige of life animates my body, as long as the breath of God blows through my nostrils, my lips will speak no evil, my tongue will tell no lie. Far from giving you satisfaction, till my last breath, I will maintain that I am innocent. I cling to my goodness and shall not let go; truly, I am not ashamed of my life.'(Job 27:3-6).
With the same confidence, Paul affirms the superiority of the spiritual over the psychic, or the psychological, I would say: The psychic man receiveth not the things of the spirit of God for they are foolishness unto him : neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discovered. But he that is spiritual judgeth all things, yet he himself is judged by no man. (I Cor. 2: 14-15).
This verse was explained by Saint John of the Cross. It assumes a special significance when one realises that Saint John of the Cross lived in the hardest time of the Inquisition, and that he himself had been sentenced to nine months in the dungeons. During this period, he was whipped in public, every Friday in the refectory before the other monks. He carried forever scars which made him suffer till the end of his days. He nevertheless held fast to his beliefs, sure as he was of his spiritual experience, and continued to assert: The just judge, but are not judged. It is good to recall ouch confidence nowadays, in an age where one consults a specialist in every field, and where one forgets that if there is a specialist to deal with our own mind, it can only be ourselves, once we know the basic rules by which to dive inside.
Saint Clement of Alexandria, who as we have seen above may have been influenced by the East, maintained this complete independence of someone who in India would be called either living liberated being (jivan mukta) or he who knows (Buddha): He who has been the Inspirer of those who have written the divine Books (the Holy Spirit) as his interlocutor, who has been initiated by him into the secret mysteries, he himself then becomes a book inspired by God for others. In the same vein Saint Clement also quotes Plato: The human being who is devoted to the contemplation of ideas will live like a god among men: (Stromates, Book IV, Ch.23)7. According to Plato again, he will attain inner independence: when one has been associated with reality, when one has lived with it, a light like that of a bursting flame is kindled in the soul, a light which will feed on itself henceforth (Plato, Letters VII, 341). One can understand how, with such teaching, Origene, Clement's successor to the Catechetic chair at Alexandria, did not seek at all costs to remain in the ecclesiastical institution when his bishop, jealous of his success, succeeded in having him excluded from it. This independence of the spiritual is summed up by the Orthodox writers in a laconic phrase: whoever knows how to pray is a theologian.
Jesus, being free, can show the path of liberation, of healing. He sums up the essence of therapy and of meditation in this logion of the Gospel of Thomas: If you can take out what is within you, it will save you. If you cannot, it will destroy you.8
A living liberated being of medieval India, Lalleshvari, also alludes to the utilisation of meditation as therapy: The impressions of the subconscious (vasana) are subtle, but they have the strength of elephants. A Hindu hermit whom I met told me that he knew his guru was a liberated being because she could say, like Christ Come, follow me., and people really followed her. He himself was not interested in religion, he was doing research in biochemistry; nevertheless, all of a sudden he decided to stay with her, and for the first three years spoke to no one but her. According to him, this power of calling a disciple as Christ did in the Gospel, is a characteristic trait of the realised being; it may be true, provided the vocation is durable and does not disappear after a period of momentary enthusiasm.
The idea of man-god is prevalent in India. Christianity on the contrary reserves this powerful title exclusively for Jesus. Gregory the Theologian said, The Word became incarnate so that I may become God to the extent that he became man.
If Word were replaced by spiritual master or guru, each disciple in India would be able to say the same of his 'Sadguru' (guru capable of leading his disciple to realisation). Having a living Sadguru, in flesh and blood, allows an intensification of spiritual life and a reduction of illusions and imagination. Unfortunately many people, especially in the West, pretend to have awakened the inner Sadguru when they have not even reached the level where they could understand the need for an external guru.
To resume the thread of our thought in ancient times, it was accepted among pagans, as among Jews, that a being who more than others, concentrated the divine power within himself be called Son of God9. Apotheosis, the divinization of Roman emperors was an analogous phenomenon in pagan Antiquity.
In the Bible, there is a strange passage in which one can no longer say whether it is Yahve or Moses who is speaking (Dt. 29, 1-6); Moses begins to declare: Ye have all seen what Yahve has done before your eyes, and then continues without transition (v.4): I have led you forty years in the wilderness which could effectively be understood as referring to either Yahve, or Moses, or both; then again with no transition, he adds, that you might know that I am the Lord your God. (v.6). Orthodox commentators will obviously say that Moses forgot to change the direct speech into indirect form but one can also see in it an allusion to the non-dual state in which Moses found himself then, just as Christ did when he said, Before Abraham is, I Am.
The introductory sentence of the Psalm 90 is usually translated as, From Moses, the man of God, but the real Hebrew text is ish ha elohim, literally, The man, the God, i.e. the man who is God according to the usual turn of the Hebrew sentence. Should the author have really meant to say the man of God, he would have written shel elohim. This phrase, the man-God recurs quite often in the Book of Kings (2K, IV 21, for instance) especially regarding Elishah.
Yahve said to Moses: You will be a God for Aaron (Ex. 4-16). In the Psalm 82 one finds (v.16): I said - you are the sons of Gods, which in the era of Christ was understood thus: having received communication of the Law, all Israelis could be called gods. Jesus uses this verse to point out that there is nothing shocking in his calling himself son of God. In the Gospels, Jesus's assertions about himself are generally veiled, at least before his clear declaration in front of the Sanhedrin. In India, it is normal for a Sadguru to reveal his unity with the divine to his disciples only gradually. It is always present, but only gradually do the disciples become able to see it, until, at some point, the guru really gets transfigured in their eyes. Philo of Alexandria wrote, at that time: Those who possess the science of the One are rightly called sons of God. Perhaps he felt that this remark would shock the monotheist intolerance of his fellow believers, and felt the need to justify himself by immediately adding, As Moses has taught.
In this reflection on the man as God, it is interesting to note the remarks of Eckhart quoting Saint Augustine: Man is whatever he loves, said Augustine, if he loves a stone, he is a stone, if he loves a human being, he is a human being; if he loves God — I dare not continue, because if I say he is God, you would stone me to death, but I refer to you to the Scripture10. It is difficult not to notice the fact that Augustine - bishop and later declared a Doctor of the Church - did not dare to convey his experience of unity with God for fear of being stoned to death by those whom he was supposed to guide in their spiritual life. This strange situation makes one think about the distance by which dogma and its propagation can be separated from spiritual experience.
Eckhart himself was less fearful, which led to his condemnation; he would certainly have been more severely punished had he not worn the Dominican habit which was the habit of many of the judges of the Inquisition. He comments thus on the words of Saint Augustine: This is why man, when he is totally united in love with God, formed and transformed in that divine conformity within which he is one with God, is detached from images. Man possesses this when he lives in himself. In the same sermon (Bleibet in mir), Eckhart also declares: Not only is there no distinction between such a man (the virtuous who has renounced the world) and God, but there is also no plurality, there is only One. This virtuous man who is one with God, should be able to manifest himself in each generation: God never rests, he constantly pursues and entreats so that the virtuous manifest himself (sermon 'Justus in perpetuum vivet')11.
In attenuating the distinction between Jesus as natural Son and the Christians as adopted sons, Eckhart spontaneously comes closer to the Indian idea of non-duality and the Hindu conception of Christ: In its nature the soul is not different from Our Lord, its being is only more gross because the being of Christ is united with the eternal Person. The more the soul detaches itself from this gross level, the more it becomes identical to the Person. From here Eckhart arrives at a formulation which is found on the lips of Vedantic masters, and which if its really lived, represents the peak of spiritual life: If I had not been, God would not be either.12
As we shall see later, insisting on the uniqueness of Christ is entirely to the advantage of the ecclesiastical institution: if each Christian has one God, one Christ, one Pope, one bishop and one parish, the hierarchical machinery will function perfectly without any impediment. If a Christian mystic, through the natural course of his inner evolution can succeed in viewing this Church dogma in relative terms - even if this had seemed fundamental to him he will undoubtedly go through a period of obscure darkness, but he will progress rapidly towards that Truth at which all religious point, but which none can exclusively possess.
In this context, how can we understand the words of Christ: I am the Way, the Truth and the Life? One possibility is that these words were added by those zealous disciples who wished to impose their sect upon the society of that time. A second possibility is that the I of the liberated being identified with the Absolute, and no more the I of Jesus of Nazareth, son of Mary. By virtue of this, all sages who have attained this identification can use the same words: although such a case is rate, it is not unique. This latter argument, it should be noted, is the one used by Shankaracharya to interpret the non-dualist character of the passages of Bhagvad Gita in which Krishna says I. According to Shankaracharya, it is no longer a question of a personal Krishna on his chariot, worshipped by a particular sect of devotees but of the Absolute who is speaking.
A third interpretation is that Jesus implies For you, I am the Path ....... He addresses those disciples who could be tempted to leave him and seek other teachers, either during his life, or after his death. He calms and pacifies their fickleness by telling them that they need not seek elsewhere either now or later, because they have him to guide them. By this, though, did he wish to retain his monopoly by excluding the teachers of later generations, or did he, on the contrary encourage them to have the same confidence that he had, so that they would be able to say in their turn, with their own authority, to their disciples: I am the Way, the Truth and Life? It would be useful to regard this question in a new light the logion 38 of the Gospel of Thomas: The words that I say to you new, no one will be able to say them to you ...... can be interpreted in the same way. The you indicates the disciples who had known Jesus in flesh and blood: it made no sense for them to go and seek other teachers even if they felt disturbed by Christ's forthcoming death: There will be days when you will seek me and will not find me. But should this particular meaning apply to subsequent generations?
Briefly then, for a Hindu, a liberated being can say everything that Jesus said, including the ideas expressed in the Last Supper (Jn, 13-17); he , however, will not declare: I am the only path, except perhaps for pedagogic reasons, to help the unsteady mind of some disciples to concentrate on a single form which at that moment is the form of the teacher. To ensure the stability of their inner practice and of the institution which they founded it was quite important for the apostles to see in Jesus the last man-god, even the only one, just as the first Muslims had interest in seeing in Mohammed the seal of Prophecy, but does Christianity not, in refusing to accept the possibility of the existence of a liberated being in each generation, exhibit the feigned indignation of the Jews who feared the loss of their power as religious teachers and said, ready with stones in their hands: Thou, being a man, makest thyself God! (Jn 10, 33)
Be that as it may, the lesson to be gleaned from the last teachings of Jesus is clearly one of non-separation : I am in the Father, and the Father in me (Jn 14, 10). That all may be one: as You, Father, art in me and I in Thee, that they also may be one in us (Jn 17, 20).
As in the Hindu initiation to sannyas, so in the initiation of Jesus by John the Baptist, one finds the symbol of the teacher prostrating himself before his disciple while washing his feet. The self effacement of the teacher, the teaching of unity and complete transmission are inseparable : I no longer call you my servants, for the servant knoweth not what his Lord doeth; but I have called you friends, for all things I have learned of my Father, I have made known unto you. (Jn 15, 15).
We have just spoken above of Jesus as a spiritual teacher. Just as this notion is not surprising for a Hindu, so also it can be said that it was familiar to the Jews of that time, even if this was not described in detail in the Bible. Indeed the law itself, being both oral and written, necessitated the presence of a master (rabbi) for it to be taught; one specks of the Laws: Why does one say Torahs in plural and not Torah in singular ? To teach us that two Torahs were given to Israel : one written, the other oral ...... Moses remained for forty days on the mountain, sitting before the Saint, blessed be his name, like a disciple sitting before his master. He read the written law by day and the oral law by night13 To some people this conveys that Moses on Mount Sinai could not have received the revelation directly from Yahve, but rather received the teaching from a spiritual teacher who was identified with the Absolute, either a teacher in flesh and blood, or a teacher in a more subtle form. It is true that for a Hindu this does not make much of a difference, because in the final analysis the teacher in his physical form, the teacher in a more subtle form and the divine are all one.
Marcel Jousse, in studying different supposedly primitive traditions, as well as the transmission of knowledge in the Aramean Targums has developed the idea of a global-oral tradition. The basis of his anthropology is mimism i.e. mimicry, or the law of imitation in the strongest sense of the term: the child first learns from his parents by imitating them, the disciple learns from his teacher again by imitiation, by echoing and reflecting. It is interesting to note that Rene Girard, another original thinker, also based his anthropology on this first law of imitation which he calls mimesis, He draws a number of conclusions from it: sooner or later, mimesis engenders violence. If I see my neighbour taking an apple which is before us through mimesis, I automatically feel like taking the same apple. It there is only one apple, conflict and violence will necessarily arise. However, in the field which interests us, i.e. the relationship between guru and disciple, mimesis does not involve conflict, because the object of common desire, the divine, is limitlessly available. This is the meaning of the Indian proverb: Each one seeks to be better than the other , it is a natural law. Only two types of persons wish for the other to be better than them : the father vis-a-vis his son and the guru vis-a-vis his disciple.
This law of transformation by imitation seems so fundamental that its analogy is found in the biological field. Vlail Kaznatchev, a member of the Soviet Academy of Sciences, conducted the following experiment: he prepared two cell cultures in two test-tubes side by side. He introduced a virus into one of the two cultures and a day or two later, the other culture showed the symptoms of the same disease. There was no contact between the two other than an optical contact. The experiment also worked in an ambience deprived of the electromagnetic field. So, this seems to point to the existence of a non-electromagnetic field, which Kaznatchev labelled informational field, for want of a better word. It would correspond to the holographic cover of Pribram, and would permit the transmission of information in a manner that we cannot yet understand.
There is a tendency among Western intellectuals to belittle the imitation of the guru by the disciple by saying that it is merely mechanical, and does not develop the disciple's capacities or intelligence. To clarify the matter one must distinguish between two kinds of imitation: an automatic, imitation of an isolated behaviour, which is a superficial phenomenon having very little formative value for the disciple, and a conscious and constant imitation of the way of being (or the 'bhava' as the Hindus say) of the guru by the disciple, which has a powerful impact on his evolution. For this, it is necessary that the disciple devote time to meditate on the guru : one form of devotion is imitation in meditation.
Jesus considered as an Avatar
Hindus have a strong sense of divine immanence which is not in contradiction with their sense of transcendence. The two go together. As they see God in a statue, in a cow, in a monkey, in a serpent, why not then in a spiritual master ? And yet they do not call themselves idolaters: they just develop the capacity of moving from the God without form ('nirguna') to the God with form ('saguna'); just as there is no blasphemy in representing God, so too is there no blasphemy in recognizing, in the strongest sense of the term, God in a human being. The scandalized attitude of the grand priest, the tearing of clothes when Jesus accepts being called Son of God, is unthinkable in India. The Hindus would be more easily scandalised in matters of ritual purity or of cuisine..............
According to Geoffrey Parrinder15, a Christ who is human because he is historical, is in opposition to the incarnations like Krishna and Rama, who are immersed in the unreality of myths. In order to explain the Hindu position it must be said, however, that the majority of the followers of Ram or Krishna consider them as historical persons. According to Parrinder again, a distinction could be made between incarnation in the Christian sense of the term, and æavatarÆ, representing an incarnation in the Hindu sense. In Christianity, incarnation is unique phenomenon concentrated in the person of Christ. The notion of Avatar would represent a cyclical phenomenon, each cycle having a single avatar.
This distinction, however is not so simple: in the Biblical field itself, Parrinder tries to distinguish between the theophanies (angels and visions), and incarnations, the two phenomena being called divine manifestations. He, however, completely forgets to mention prophets, those who speak on behalf of God according to one of the two possible etymologies of the term. To what extent can a human being whose words are acknowledged as being the words of God be considered not only his manifestation, but his incarnation ? Behind these attempts at opposing the two lies a sclerosis of the spiritual experience into religious categories: for the Muslims, all the great personages of the Bible including Christ, are prophets; for the Hindus all the prophets, including Mohammed, are incarnations in the larger sense of the term. Considered in a favourable light, these differences of name favour the individualisation of religions, while from a less favourable point of view, they favour their mutual exclusion. Going beyond these labels for which some people are ready to wage wars, it seems important to me to ponder on the mystery of God within man, and especially on those beings who are intensely divine while being intensely human. If such beings had existed, do they still continue to exist, and if so, are they manifest or hidden ?.
Saradananda, one of the twelve disciples of Ramakrishna's inner circle, author of Ramakrishna, the Great Master16 seems to have a clearer vision than Parrinder on the matter : for him there is a continuity between the notion of living liberated being or jivan mukta and that of incarnation, or avatar. The incarnation is characterized by the rapidity of his sadhana, and by the fact that he descends to earth mainly to help human beings along the spiritual path. The jivan-mukta is free to either help others or not, free to be bodhisattva (a spiritual aid) or arhat (the recluse who has attained spiritual realisation) to use Buddhist terminology.
Ramakrishna was not much concerned about fixing a rigid definition of the word incarnation. According to him, an Avatar is someone who can give salvation. There can be ten twenty - four, or an infinite number of them. Every time there is a special manifestation of the power of God, there is an incarnation. To someone who found it difficult to believe in incarnation, he said, It is not important; it is enough to believe that God exists, and that the entire universe, and all beings are his manifestation17. At Pondicherry I met Kameshwar Rao, an old disciple of Shri Aurobindo and the Mother. I asked him why the gurus were considered as divine incarnations in the ashram. He began smiling like a child caught red-handed, , and answered almost apologetically : You know when one is a disciple, one always considers the master as an incarnation.
For Hinduism, the idea of incarnation and its utility are clearly defined in the Bhagvad-Gita: For the protection of the virtuous, for the destruction of evil, for establishing justice, I take birth in every age (IV-8). Providing a support for devotion, the Gita says, Leave everything, come and seek refuge in me; I will deliver you from all misfortunes don't dwell in suffering. 18.
This concentration on Krishna should not be understood just as concentration on a chosen divinity. ('ishta devata'), but also as a concentration on the spiritual master (guru) . Hindu spiritual discipline consists of choosing a guru after mature reflection, and of watching his own ishta-devata gradually manifesting himself in him. This is clearly illustrated during certain festivals : Ma Anandamayi appearing dressed as Krishna, for example, or Ma Amirtanandamayi adorned like the Goddess, receiving a thousand visitors twice a week.
Whenever Ramakrishna saw one of his disciples who was a devotee of the infant Krishna (Gopal) coming, he assumed the posture in which the latter is generally depicted. For Hindus there is nothing extraordinary in thinking that Christ's disciples saw in him their guru as well as their God.
Vivekananda recounts how Ramakrishna began teaching him Vedanta At the beginning, at Dakshineshvar, the Master advised me to read books full of non dualist ideas, which he did not allow the other disciples to read. Sometimes I said to him, quite frankly; What is the use of reading all these books ? Just to think I am God is a sin; and these books teach this blasphemy! The master smiled and said: 'Am I asking you to read these books for yourself ? I want you to read them for myself, too. Please do it, so that you are not obliged to think that you are God. At his request, thus, I was bound to read the books a little for him.'
As a sign of their humanity, the incarnations also have their spiritual masters : Rama, Krishna and Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, all had their respective gurus. In the earlier book, Guru and Psychotherapist, we have seen that John the Baptist could be considered as Christ's master in the traditional sense of the term because he granted him initiation in the form of Baptism, and was the intermediary or the pretest, of the divine powerÆs descent in the form of a dove. The Hindus maintain that the advantage of a multiplicity of incarnations lies in avoiding religious totalitarianism. The entire universe is not obliged to shrunk and be confined in the Procrustean bed of a single incarnation. This is expressed by Krishna in the Gita, Krishna being interpreted, as the impersonal self : In whatever way men approach Me the even so do I reward them : my path do men tread in all ways, O Arjuna. (IV, 11).
The importance of the notion of the descent of divine power is acknowledged in Hinduism as well as in Christianity. This idea, dear to Shri Aurobindo, is contained in the term avatar itself ('ava' meaning below, and tar mening to go20–). In a certain sense, this descent represents a diminution. In the Epistle to the Philippians , Saint Paul affirms that in moving from the Godly form (morphe) to that of the servant of God, Christ emptied himself ('ekenosen') . In the Vishnu Purana, Krishna is called the avatar of a part of Vishnu, in the sense that as Parrinder says, Krishna is part of the personal form of Vishnu which is a part of the impersonal and the non-manifest.
Refusing to see the incarnation of divine grandeur in the guru is a mistake. The Gita says : The foolish despised me because I had taken on a human body. They are unacquainted with my superior nature as supreme Lord of all beings. (IX, II).
This distrust of the spiritual master's divine aspect is specially widespread amongst Christians, orthodox Muslims and Theravadin Buddhists. Perhaps the attachment to a great being in the past prevents them from acknowledging, or even seeking, the great beings of the present. The spiritual master is as Christ to his disciples, he is 'anakephaiosis', the recapitulation of tradition (cf Eph. I, 10). For Ramakrishna, the difference between a liberated being and an incarnation only depends on the degree of mainifestation of divine power 21.
Despite Ramakrishna's humility (he did not even accept being called 'Baba', a popular term of respect, much less 'guru'), his disciples did not hesitate to make a cult-figure of him. Even before the master's death, an assemble of pandits had given a decision on his case; after examination, they acknowledged that he had shown all the traditional signs of an Avatar. The Indian pandits seen to have been more tolerant than the Sanhedrin of Jesus's time.
Vivekananda was not in favour of ritual cult of his guru. He was conscious, however, of the similarity between the function of the spiritual master and that of Christ : when he himself founded the Ramakrishna Order, he chose to do it one Christmas eve by bringing together twelve members; about fifteen years later, he fell seriously ill, two days before his death, he himself served food to the disciple who was taking care of him, which was reminiscent of Christ during the last supper. On Friday, early in the afternoon, he retired to his room for meditation. A few hours later he was found dead. Today, Ramakrishna's statue can be seen in the centre of the temples of the Mission. The Ramakrishna Mission has recently demanded that it be considered as a religious minority independent of Hinduism in general, and thus ultimately, as a kind of new religion. This was, of course, done with clear motives : the members wanted to take advantage of the governmental concessions given to minorities. Nonetheless, this evolution is a good example of how the veneration of a spiritual master can lead to the quasi-creation of a religion within less than a century. Ramakrishna's disciples continue to be known for their tolerance, however; besides, they are too Hindu to ever proclaim that their man -god is the only one, or even that he is the last one.
Let us return to the West in concluding this section on Christ as a living liberated being and an Avatar, it can be said that his aim was net just to gather together the lost sheep of Israel. He had wanted to train some disciples so that they, in their turn would become spiritual masters, and sons of the Father, although they preferred to be called disciples till the end, as true masters often do. To this end, they had received one last encouragement from Christ during the Last Supper : Verily, verily, I say unto you he who believeth in the works that I do shall he do also, and greater works than these shall he do..... But be of good cheer, I have overcome the world (Jn XIV 12 and XVI, 33).