The following study is more of an essay on comparative spiritual psychology than on comparative religion. What I mean to say is, that I will limit myself to themes dealing with the functioning of the mind; I will refer to the socio-historical context only to the extent that it can help to clarify the differences within the concept of spiritual psychology itself. The central theme of this text will be the relationship between spiritual experience and spiritual authority. To what extent does a mystic or a sage have the authority to transmit his experience within the framework of the tradition? In this sense, this second part is a continuation of my previous work on Guru and Psychotherapist.
The ideas that I will put forth are, on the whole, not new, but they have rarely been put together in this form.
In this work, I have utilised some university sources; the main contributions to this text, however, come from my five-year experience in India, and from my frequent meetings with some of its spiritual teachers.
It sometimes happens that members of a given religious persuasion write about comparative religion: the Hindu is not so interested in this exercise. In as much as they believe that every religion is good, and that one must follow the religion into which one was born, they do not see the utility of entering into the details of another religion. The common Hindu has a very limited knowledge of Christianity. He often confuses it with Judaism. If he is asked about the significance of Christmas, which is called 'bara din' (big day) in India, and is a holiday, he will sometimes reply that it is to celebrate the moment when the days become longer, leading us, unwittingly, to the Roman times ... He reproaches the Christians with being impure because they eat with both hands and do not take castes into account; he also bears them the grudge of being closely associated with the colonizers. Among the more educated Hindus, and it is to them that I will refer, there is a certain openness of mind; but it is difficult to fathom how much of it stems from a politeness towards foreigners, and how much from a real conviction in a somewhat facile universalism.
This openness takes many forms, which are more effective in baffling zealous missionaries that fierce polemics. For example, one Hindu told me that when he visited the many temples of the Devi (the Mother-Goddess) in Benaras, he did not neglect to go to church and light a candle before the statue of Our Lady. In a Bombay newspaper the following notice was seen: Thank you Jesus, the Virgin Mary, the Holy Spirit and Sai Baba of Shirdi for favours which have been granted. In a less anecdotic view it may be mentioned that Swami Ramdas, a famous saint of the 20th century, carried with him a copy of the New Testament, when he left everything and went wandering.
Throughout this work, it would be useful to bear in mind, if only as a hypothesis, the distinction between esoterism and exoterism. Exoteric teaching, being intellectually founded on a well-defined theology, allows one to distinguish between different religions, in the best of cases, and to oppose them, in the worst. It is meant for a great number of people, for all those who need a clear-cut religious system in order to stabilize their life without intensively seeking a life of mysticism. In esoterism, which is not to be confused with occultism, the parallels between different traditions become obvious. In Chapter III, we will discuss in greater detail, whether or not there is an esoterism in Christianity. What can be said immediately, however, is that there is a Christian esoterism as well as a Hindu one, but it seems to be more acknowledged and developed in Hinduism. Keeping in mind the distinction between exoterism and esoterism helps in the acceptance of different beliefs and persons as they are.
In addition, within exoterism itself there is an important distinction which, in my view, has not been emphasized enough: on one hand there is the need for a spiritual practice as well as an ideal of balanced life which can prevent one from wasting his inner energy. This is useful for those who follow the exoteric aspect of a religion, and becomes almost indispensable for those who wish to penetrate its esoteric aspect. On the other hand, the necessity of resorting to rituals, and the dependence on a hierarchical organisation or a rigid dogma, diminish as one penetrates the esoteric core of a religion. In India, the various spiritual traditions are similar in the style of life and the moral observances which they expect from spiritual aspirants, while differing widely in their metaphysical ideas and in the importance they give to rituals.
In this chapter, I deal more with the institutions of Christianity and the mysticism within Hinduism. Of course, I do not believe that there are not institutions in Hinduism, or that there is no mysticism in Christianity. However, I feel that in Hinduism the mystics are less hampered by institutions than in Christianity, and I believe that those who have had a close contact with Hinduism will agree with me. I am not comparing two institutions or two mysticisms; I am comparing the relationship or the extent of the impact if I may say, of institution and mysticism, in two civilizations. It would be difficult for me to find a real Christian equivalent of the Hindu guru-disciple system: they hardly exist within Christianity, and in this part of the book I wonder why.
In Hinduism, mystics transmit their experience more easily because of the widespread belief in the spiritual master. Besides, it must be admitted that the mystical experience is considered to be marginal in the West, most often attracting the unbalanced, while in India it is integrated in society. It is due to all these factors that the transition from the exoterism to the esoterism is more peaceful in Hinduism than in Christianity. By insisting on a community life, Christianity develops its action within the masses, helping them to rise to a certain average spiritual level; it also favours female mysticism through the organisation of convents, but these communities have their own inertia, and have various ways of discouraging a subject who has uncommon mystical capacities; the jealousy of the other members of the community helps in this levelling process.
If the transparence of an aspirant vis-a-vis his guru is a real factor of progress, the transparence or the excessive exposure vis-a-vis a community can become a factor of regression. The communities have their own ego, and they seek the survival and the expansion of this ego above everything else. It is only an authentic guru, sufficiently disidentified from his ego, who can respect and let develop fully the inner vocation of a disciple. Besides, someone who follows the path of knowledge will be less vulnerable to exploitation by any particular community, than someone who follows a devotional and emotional path. He will be more independent of the community. In this context, the image of the little flock, so dear to Christian sentiment, may have a rustic charm, but that does not make it any less equivocal: the aim of the good shepherds is to kill and eat their sheep, is it not? or sell them to be killed .... And what glory is there in gregariousness? Can lions be found living in flocks?
The very similarity of the terms used for transmission of knowledge in Hinduism ('parampara') and in Christianity ('paradosis' in Greek) makes a comparison between the two seem natural. I am well aware that Hindusim is a system complete within itself which has its internal logic, just as does Christianity; however, this need not prevent comparisons between the two or certain precise points. These comparisons can stimulate intellectual, and more importantly, spiritual awareness. If not one freezes the mind by saying that the other is completely different and both are deprived of the potential benefits of the relationship.
Before considering the Hindu vision of Christianity more precisely, I think that it would be useful to be cured of the ecumenical illusion. The great religious institutions have their phases of openness but also have phases of closed-mindedness, and it is these latter phases which have made them exist to the present day. As far back as the beginning of the 3rd century, Hippolyte, a Roman Christian born in Greece had heard of Indian Brahmins and had included their traditions among the sources of heresy: "Among Indians there is the heresy of those Brahmins who are interested in philosophy, who lead a self-sufficient life, and who abstain from eating living creatures and all cooked food..".... They say that God is light, but not a visible light like that of the sun or fire; to them God is a discourse, not that which can be expressed in articulate sounds, but that of knowledge (gnosis) through which the sages perceive the secret mysteries of nature.1
Nonetheless, the name of St. Thomas' Gospel itself could indicate a special link between early Christianity and India because it is said that Saint Thomas lived in South India. His relics kept in a cathedral on the seashore in Madras are still venerated. It evidently remains to be proven whether it was the same Thomas, or in reality there were two different ones. The religious institutions can integrate foreign elements if the pressure of circumstances is strong, or, as the Christians would rather say, if the pressure of the Spirit is strong. Perhaps the two points of view can be successfully reconciled by saying that the Spirit is at work within the circumstances .... In Christianity this began with Saint Paul and the adaptation of a Jewish sect to the Greco-Roman milieu. At the end of the 2nd century, Saint Clement of Alexandria contributed greatly to this integration. He was called the first Christian humanist. Saint Patrick integrated Celtic traditions in Irish monasticism, and Saint Thomas of Aquinas gave Plato and Aristotle a place of honour in some parts of his theology. In our century, Indian Christianity has begun to integrate elements of Hindu religious culture, not just in the rituals and sacred art, but also in vocabulary and ideas. We will develop this idea by referring to Aloysius Pieris in the last section of the third part.
After about twenty centuries of definitions which automatically imply exclusions, Christianity today, definitely has less flexibility than the sect which Saint Paul had joined. Indian Christians sense that they need to adapt to India, the only question being to what extent. This adaptation can sometimes take the form of a close game of 'converted converters'. Those who, following Karl Rahner, speak of the unknown Christ at work in non-Christian religions, seem to show a tendency towards a revival of a neo-colonial style, difficult for Indians to accept.
The members of the various Churches should remember the essentially positive attitude of Saint Clement of Alexandria towards the non-Christian ideas of his time: The multitude is frightened by Hellenic philosophy just as children are frightened by masks; it is afraid of being misled; but if their faith (I cannot call it knowledge) is such that intelligent discourse can cause it to disappear, or that it disappears in any case, then it is better that they confess to their inability to preserve the truth. The truth is actually immutable, only the false opinions get dissolved.2 In this sense, Saint Justin - the Martyr spoke of the disseminated Word (spermatikos logos) in non-Christian wisdoms (Apologies 1-46, 11-8, 13 and II 10, 3): All the right principles which the philosophers and legislators have put forth, have come from what they have partially contemplated of and found in, the Logos. That the truth be propagated in different places is a common idea shared by Hindus as well, but the Christian missionaries have difficulty convincing them of the necessity of giving the name of Jesus of Nazareth to this truth.
If one understands the lessons of history, one cannot help but expect the religious institutions to emerge from their shells, so to speak; but the unity so elusive at the level of institutions, is much more so at the level of individuals who dive deeply into their inner experience. To quote one of the many examples of the striking similarity between the themes of spiritual experience in Hindu traditions and in Christianity, I can mention this one: Jesus compares the realm of God to a mustard seed the smallest of seeds which , when it is grown, is the greatest among the herbs, and becometh a tree, so that the birds of the air come and lodge in the branches thereof. (Mt. 13: 31-32). In the 'Chandogya Upanishad' we read: This Atma which resides in the heart is smaller than a grain of rice, smaller than a barley-corn, or a mustard-seed, smaller than a grain of millet, or the kernel of a grain of millet. This Atma within the heart is also greater than the earth, greater than the atmosphere, greater than the sky, greater than these worlds (III-14-2). (Transl. Hume)
The Hindu monastic initiation ('sannyas') is theoretically the last ritual in the life of the spiritual aspirant. The underlying idea is that the renunciate is beyond all obligatory cultural practices and the social organisation of religion. The sannyasi is constantly immersed in the spiritual; therefore he does not need reminders like ceremonies and symbols. The religious institution is like a mother who has the function of protecting and educating; but adults are separated from their mothers. Can an infant who dies before the separation of birth be considered as a success? This difference between Christianity and Hinduism is summarized by Vivekananda when he says: The young man who does not go to the temple must be criticised, but also an old man who continues to go there.
A detailed study of comparative religions does not seem to have a utility for those who are spiritually mature: all religions have the same basis ... man, and the same goal, God. Knowing this should be sufficient for the seeker. The intellect, however, is a function of life, and as such it cannot be kept at rest for long. Unless it is given an object of reflection, a bone to gnaw at, for instance like the study of the common basis of religions, of the 'philosphia perennis', it runs the risk of trying to defend itself behind a rigid doctrine, trying to protect itself behind the 'walls of reasoning' which become more and more insuperable, and of ending up in an impasse of sclerotic intolerance, despite a life time of sincere effort. For all these reasons I feel it is necessary to travel via the mind at least by reading about other cultures - even if one cannot travel physically. In this way one will avoid dying like the frog in the Indian story who was convinced till the end that there was no ocean greater than the pond in which it was born.
The relative failure of the missions can be better understood by studying the Hindu vision of Christianity. Despite the efforts to evangelize which began with the Portuguese, and the support of political powers in the 19th and in the first half of the 20th century, only 2 to 3 % of the Indian population professes to have the Christian faith, and these are mainly found in Kerala. It must be said that after five centuries of occupation by Islam, the Hindus were used to defending themselves against a missionary zeal - that of Muslim ulemas - which was more aggressive than that of the Protestant pastors or Catholic Fathers: They would no longer allow themselves to be imposed upon by other religious traditions, including the pure and austere monotheism of the Bible.
The missions mainly touched the low castes who had been ill-treated by orthodox Hindus - which clearly was the case in Kerala. These castes had very little knowledge of Hinduism. In fact, it is rare to find a Hindu with some intellectual and spiritual experience of his religions converting to Christianity. He is wary of idea of the Unknown Christ of Hinduism which he will consider as a covert manoeuvre to convert him. Raimundo Pannikar3, the author of the book with this title, acknowledges that he has written more for Christians interested in Hinduism than vice versa. Indeed the Hindus will certainly sympathize with the kind of mystical experience alluded to in Teilhard de Chardin's Divine Milieu because the basis, not just of their mysticism, but also of their ethics and metaphysics, is an actual experience of unity. To label this divine Milieu, this unified field as it would be called in physics, cosmic Christ in one stroke however, may seem more of a limitation than a consecration. The Vedantins will think so: they have already rejected the labels of Vishnu, Kali etc. which the great Hindu sects sought to give this divine Milieu as being too limiting. To my mind, the fact that, on the whole, Hinduism does not seek conversions is a sign of its spiritual greatness and its disinterestedness; the few Hindu groups that do preach in the West seem to have been influenced by the Christian missions in India.
The Hindu who makes an effort to understand Christianity will see in it a devotional sect centred around Jesus in the same way that others can be centred around Shiva, Krishna or Rama. Some Indian Christians tend to interpret Christ as their guru (they sometimes speak of the Christ panth, as they do of the Kabir panth, the sect of Kabir). From a Hindu point of view, however, Christ is more of an æishta devataÆ (divinity on whom one chooses to concentrate one's devotion) rather than a guru in the usual sense, which would imply a physical person to whom one could talk normally. In Hindu vocabulary, Christianity develops the bhakti-yoga (devotion) and the karma-yoga (action), but very little the jnana-yoga (intuitive knowledge), with a few exceptions. I asked Father Stuart, friend and biographer of Swami Abhishiktananda, why, according to the latter, Christians missions found it difficult to develop in India. He replied that it seems to be because Christianity appears to be marked with three profound conditionings alien to the Hindus: the moralistic conditioning of the Jews, the intellectual conditioning of the Greeks and the institutional one of the Romans. Beneath all these influences, the experience of Jesus is not easy to perceive. We have seen the influence of Christianity in India: we should also consider the influences of Hinduism and Buddhism, born of the same cultural atmosphere, on the West and its Christian culture. It is estimated that in the United States there are about 10 million people involved in the new religions which combine Oriental elements with certain psychotherapeutic methods, (more or less successfully, as each type is different). The polymorphous and unorganised nature of this 'back lash' from India towards the West makes it much more difficult for the ecclesiastical authorities to counter.
It is a 'functioning anarchy' to use the expression which some people apply to Indian politics, or even to Indian society in general....... A study conducted in 1984 and reported by A. Godin in his 'Psychology of Religious Experiences (Le Centurion), shows, for example, that in Quebec 85% of the people call themselves Catholic, but only 15% believe that some will go to heaven, others to hell. 19% believe, on the other hand, that one will be reincarnated into something else (p.62). We live in a century where certain ideas, such as that of reincarnation, spread almost by themselves.
One influence of the Hindu system which is visible within Christianity in India in the proliferation of small independent groups, often centred around a leader. On the other hand, in the more spiritually inclined, and they are not necessarily to be found in these independent groups, one finds a greater development of meditation and an openness towards non-dualism. An Indian Catholic nun whom I questioned, and who seemed to be very well integrated in her order, even expressed to me the need for Indian Christians to take into account the feminine aspect of divinity, something which is sure to create some ripples in a religion based on the male-dominated Bible.
In any essay such as this, it would be useful to mention some probable Indian influences on the sources of our Western culture: Iamblichus, the biographer of Pythagoras, tells us that the latter studied the doctrine of Brahmins besides that of the Egyptians and Assyrians. The Hindu influence is found not only in the doctrine of metempsychosis (reincarnation), but also in Pythagorean Mathematics, and in the vegetarianism and even the very precise dietary restrictions (for instance those concerning red beans) observed by his school. Anaximenos tells us that Socrates met an Indian sage at Athens. Alexander the Great liked to have discussions with Hindu ascetics (gymnosophists) at the time of his conquests, and one of them, called Kalanos, accompanied him back.
Emperor Ashoka, the great propagator of Buddhism in the 3rd century B.C. sent missionary-emissaries to Syria, Egypt, Macedonia, Cyren and Epirus. Closer to the Christian era, the Buddhist influence was evoked in the monastical organisation and the celibacy of the Essenes and their allied groups. It is clear that these traits are not the characteristics of Jewish culture. This could perhaps help in understanding why nascent Christianity, influenced by the Essenes, was rapidly rejected by the Jews. According to the Old Testament, the state of the single man is comparable to that of the warrior who is away from his wife during war. It has hardly been conceived of as a long-term state of life. One tradition, however, says that Moses abstained from sexual relations after his vision of God on Mt. Sinai; in fact it was necessary for him not to be involved sexually when new revelations could take place, and he never knew when they would take place. The Hellenization of nascent Christianity was not the only factor responsible for its rejection by Judaism; Philo of Alexandria is a good example of an orthodox Jew who was much hellenized. The refusal of circumcision and orthodox dietary restrictions by saint Paul contributed to the separation of Christianity from the Jewish roots.
A little later in Alexandria, the Therapists seems to have been influenced by Eastern ideas. In the 2nd century, the town provided a favourable milieu conducive to the development of religious groups with a wide spectrum of diverse ideas. In the Christian gnosis presented by Saint Clement of Alexandria (the author of æStromatesÆ) and in Origene, it is difficult to distinguish that which accrues from the common fund of mystical experience, that which is an oral transmission from master to disciple dating back from Saint Clement to Christ, and that which is due to a more or less direct Eastern influence.
A study of the sources shows that the story of Saint Josaphat, Saint BarlaamÆs companion, was one directly inspired by the story of BuddhaÆs youth. One may smile thinking that the Catholic Church, which celebrated the feast of Saint Josaphat on the 27th of November, and the Greek Church, which celebrated it on the 26th of August, worshipped Buddha without knowing it.5 Budhist missionaries, however, are yet to write a book with the possible title of The Unknown Buddha of Christianity....
With the study of the manuscripts of Nag-Hammadi discovered in Upper Egypt, historians have been able to better assess the diversity of early Christianity. I will rely mainly on the works of Pr. Elaine Pagels who has published the texts of Nag-Hammadi and who is a specialist in the field of history of early Christianity, to show how the evolution towards a centralised Church was accompanied by the definition of dogmas particularly favourable to the concentration of power in the hands of the ecclesiastical hierarchy. If Christianity had been able to develop in a more diversified manner, as it had the tendency to do at the beginning, it would certainly have been easier for it to be integrated with this confederation of religious groups that is Hinduism.
The mass of Christians the world over, whether Catholic, Orthodox or Protestant, actually have a common body of fixed beliefs which is much more important than that which the Christians of the earliest centuries had, despite their small number.
Herein are efforts towards helping a renewed reflection on Christianity by taking the stance of the external observer, in this case a Hindu. In this sense, there is some kind of analogy between this study and the 'Persian Letters' of Montesquieu. As far as I know, Montesquieu never set foot in Persia, and his æLettersÆ corresponded to a literary form. As for me, I have lived for more than five years in India and continue to live there; besides, I am hardly concerned with literacy processes.
I am not engaged in establishing myself in the Christian camp any more than I am in identifying myself with the Hindu camp; I have benefited from a Christian formation which was more advanced than the average; for five years I have been following a spiritual practice in India: I follow the path of Vedanta, but I do not feel that therefore I am a Hindu; and I do not feel the need of this label.
In presenting the Indian point of view on Christianity, it might happen that I am somewhat over critical of Christianity : some people will probably say that it is a question of prejudices, or rather post-judices, of a person who belonged to Christianity in the West, and who now views it from the outside with the help of his experience of another continent, as much in a geographical sense as in a spiritual one. In my opinion, there is no judgement in the pages that follow, there is only discrimination; I wish to emphasize the difference between the spiritual transmission of Christianity and Hinduism, because meditating on it is fruitful for inner development.
I understand that in an effort to safeguard their internal peace, a number of Christian mystics make a radical distinction between the Church of Spirit, i.e. the mystical body of Christ, immaculate and beyond space and time, and the Church as an institution, affected by all the ills of humanity. This is too facile a dissociation to my mind. However I also understand that these mystics often choose to remain silent. If their silence is not due either to fear or to laziness, but is due to a control over their minds, then I deem it to be great. When one chooses to break the silence and to write, however, one has to be able to say yes or no. According to me, detaching oneself from socially received ideas forms an integral part of the inner journey.
Nevertheless I respect those who are attached to these ideas at their level of evolution. It is better for them not to bother to read what follows.
I write for those who are already convinced that the Absolute can be reached through each spiritual tradition, and besides, that the Absolute is beyond all spiritual tradition, for those who seriously seek to fully realise the 'nada, nada' of Saint John of the Cross. I do not write like a Hindu sage who is content to say that all religions lead to the same goal and to stop at that in his declaration about comparative religions. I subscribe to this idea from the point of view of the Absolute; while stating that from a relative point of view, however, every religion has its good points and its bad points. I wrote the text which follows after writing an article on The Spiritual Master in Christianity and it is in some way a development of that article.
I was steeped in Christian culture from childhood and I was particularly interested by monastic life. During successive retreats, I spent about six months in a Benedictine monastic environment; I therefore had the time to experience this kind of life from the inside, upto a certain point, and in a more concrete manner than many Christians. In India, my practice of the path of non-duality was greatly helped by my close association to a spiritual master, a Westerner, disciple of Ma Anandamayee and follower of the Vedantic path himself. Moreover, being a foreigner, I felt naturally disidentified from the agitation of a society of which I knew very little, and I could thus benefit from a solitude which was physical, psychic and spiritual, which is difficult to obtain when one lives in one's original milieu. This retreat allowed me to observe my mind in its natural state and to better understand its real functioning.
I can now say that I do not feel identified with either Christianity or Hinduism. I think that the greatest service that a religion can render to those of its followers who have a mystical vocation, is to lead them beyond itself, to allow itself to be transcended by the inner experience of the seekers who are progressing along the path. It is difficult for the religions of the Book to accept this notion. In Judaism, for example, it will be difficult, even for a saint or a hassid to abandon the 613 commandments of the Torah; a Sufi will not be able to abandon the 'sharia' and the prayer five times a day; even a confirmed Christian monk will find it difficult to give up mass, confession or the daily recitation of Psalms. Hinduism and Buddhism, on the contrary, more easily, acknowledge the supremacy of the experience of the One beyond all forms and rituals, as alluded to in Vedanta, in Tibetan Mahamudra or in Zen.