During childhood years growing up in India, I lived as a closet Hindu, unable to reach out and practice Hindu spirituality because it was misunderstood and feared by my parents who are both Roman Catholic. I was, in fact, the first member in my immediate family to lay claim to our Hindu ancestral roots. Most Indian Christians, like many Western Christians, are scared of yoga being “of the devil” and haven’t the slightest clue about the deeper aspects of Hinduism.
When I was asked to present an Easter chanting retreat last year at the Kripalu Center of Yoga and Health in Lennox, MA, I was not sure how the yoga community would respond. Over the past 15 years of teaching Eastern spirituality in the West, I found myself being a closet Christian, since most venues that I teach Eastern spirituality have strong reservations about Christianity. People who attend my workshops and retreats are, for the most part, generally disillusioned with the Christian tradition. What value does Jesus’ teaching hold for the yoga community?
I find it difficult to tell people that I am a Christian because I mean something very specific by that statement, something that would take a whole book to explain. My mentor, Dom Bede Griffiths, was an extraordinary holy man who carried in his person the combined auras of a Sufi mystic, a Hindu guru and an Old Testament prophet. He was a great scholar of comparative religion and I had the privilege of living the unusual combination of a Benedictine monk and yogi under his direction at his unique Hindu-Christian ashram in South India for almost five years. Here, although we were Benedictine monks, we studied the Vedas, the Upanisads, and the Bhagavat Gita, and we practiced a wide range of yoga and eastern meditation techniques. Even our Eucharistic service resembled ancient Vedic and Tantric rituals. We were authentically Christian and authentically Hindu, both at the same time.
Griffiths was part of a group of innovative thinkers who argued that underneath the Christian religion, underneath all religions for that matter, is an authentic mystical experience and a unique spiritual revelation meant for all humanity. Although all religions come from a common source and share many commonalities, each has something unique to offer, and each presents distinctive challenges for the growth of the others. The problem is that, very often, in order to bring about unity among religions, we revert to syncretism, which is to say: “It’s all the same”, or, “It makes no difference”. Bede Griffiths had a real problem with this sort of an approach. First, it undermines the uniqueness and specialties of a tradition, blurring the fine points and watering down the emphasis on certain essential teachings. Second, it too easily dispenses with the challenges and balances that the traditions bring to each other. Rabbi Gilberman, who I had the pleasure of spending Christmas with last year at the Sivananda Yoga camp in the Bahamas, says: “God deliberately did not give the whole truth to any one tradition, because that was the only way that all of them would come together and work together. For any tradition to claim that it has got the whole truth is an insult to God.”
Griffiths argued that Greek philosophy was conveniently available at the time when Christianity needed a philosophical system to understand and defend the validity of its revelation. Imagine if Indian philosophy, yogic meditation and Tantric rituals were in the geographical vicinity of Christianity’s development, what a different Christianity we would have! The famous guitar player, John McLaughlin, is known to have remarked: "All throughout human history, the divine has revealed itself to the various cultures of the world, but faithfully, each time, the devil followed right behind and organized them.”
The point is that it is not too late to rethink Christian revelation in terms of Indian philosophy and theology. In fact, it is imperative that we do this, so that we can move to a more global expression of Christianity as well as a global unity of all religions. Never was such an effort more needed than the present time, when East and West are coming together so strongly in so many areas – commerce, industry, technology and art – but still so far apart in their religions beliefs.
The primary message of the Christian Church is Jesus' statement: “The Kingdom of God is at hand, repent.” This statement has tremendous baggage. "The Kingdom" and "God” are both male terms, which, in our efforts to be politically correct today is a tragically out of place. "At hand" has been often been interpreted as an approaching experience that will be given only to those who profess their faith in Jesus Christ. Finally, the word "repent” conjures up images of doomsday preachers scowling and waving their fists in your face. The sum aggregate of these words is the “good news” that Christian missionaries have been preaching to the world for the past 2000 years. Yet, for many today, this message lacks meaning or motivation, unless, of course, it can be reinterpreted.
The way a Hindu would understand this statement is that, “Enlightenment is available to all. It is present right now, in this moment, and, it is within our grasp. All we need to do is turn within and discover it for ourselves!” The language of Jesus was highly political and one may argue that this is not what he meant. Yet, it is precisely through revised interpretations, such as this, that the Hindu and the Christian, the Buddhist and the Jew, can meet: not in the exclusivist Christian message that only those who profess belief in Jesus will be saved. I remember a wonderful story about humanity gathered outside the gates of heaven waiting in anticipation for the last judgment and God commands St. Peter to let everyone inside. The only unhappy folks were the Christians who were complaining: “If only we had known!” Of course, Christians are not the only ones who think that they alone will be saved.
Eastern traditions teach that anyone who frees themselves from their ego (repents), and looks within, can discover their own immortality, even in this life. Enlightenment is available to all, not a select group. The Upanisads have a wonderful statement: “The Self is known to those whom the Self chooses, for they in turn choose the Self”, which means, choosing the deeper Self, or higher Self, over the ego. This is a dynamic choice. Jesus articulated it as, “Those who lose their own soul will find it.” In other words, when we surrender the ego – the temporary, constantly changing self subject to death – we discover the Self – the eternal, unchanging, immortal presence, which is the real “I” behind the ego: consciousness itself.
Another key teaching of Christianity that is profoundly relevant to the yogic experience is Jesus’ statement: ‘I am the way, the truth and the light”. Here again, it is the experience of the higher Self that he is referring to – not his name, or his historical presence on earth, or the dogmas of any of the Christian Churches – but the fusion of his “I” with the very ground of all being, the source of all intelligence and all life that he called “Father.” This is why he could proclaim, “I and the Father are one”, a statement cost him his life. Yet, he was willing to give up his life willingly to awaken the world to the knowledge that the death of the physical body and the ego is not the end of human existence. However, Hindus and Buddhists had this knowledge. It takes a lot of humility for Christians to admit that Jesus’ profound identity with God was already a part of human consciousness, documented with stunning clarity in the Upanisads, five hundred years before the birth of Jesus. Yet Jesus’ statement of being the way the truth and the life has had missionaries arguing with Hindus and Buddhists over hundred of years that only faith in Jesus himself can lead to enlightenment. My mentor often joked that he was sure glad that Jesus didn’t say that he was the “only way, the only truth and the only life.”
For the yogi, Jesus’ statement reflects the mechanism, the path and the yoga. Each of us, like him, has to turn within and discover that our own deepest “I” is the way, the truth and the life; and, that it is the same in each of us. This democratizes the whole experience of Self-Realization, taking it out of the hands of gurus as well as church officials, and this is what Easter is truly about - the liberation of the human soul from all forms of bondage. Even religion can be a form of bondage if we cannot break free of it, like Jesus, and claim an immortality that is free of all external references.
It is crucial for the Christian community to start to engage in dialog with yoga, because yoga, for a great many people today, is the way, the truth and the life. However, nothing is complete when it is unidirectional, so it is equally important for the yoga community to understand and appreciate the core teachings of Christianity and to examine whether they present any challenges toward the growth or deepening of their practice. There is a tendency among western yogis to dismiss Christianity altogether, and this is quite understandable, but we do need to recognize that it is unfair to compare the shadow side of one tradition with the positive aspects of another, which is not a level playing field. Often, when we cross over from one tradition to embrace another, we are blind to its shadow, like my parents, whose ancestors were Hindu at one time. I hope you, dear reader, will not succumb to that tendency, but reestablish the questions, the tensions, and the conversations: for it is only through a deeper understanding of both the light as well as the shadow, and through responding to the challenges of the various forms of revelation, that we can truly open to enlightenment.
All rights reserved. Copyright Russill Paul © March 2006, www.russillpaul.com