Thursday, August 30, 2007

The Upanishads and Christianity

A couple of months ago I picked up a copy of Swami Paramananda's translation of The Upanishads on sale while browsing at Powell's City of Books. (Those of you who have only experienced Powell's online don't know what you're missing.) After my recent tour of Franciscan spirituality, I was in the mood for something mystical, so I pulled this off the shelf.

For the past sixty years or so, Western culture has had a sort of infatuation with Eastern religions. They give us something we find lacking in our own culture. They're mysterious and offer a view on esoteric wisdom from the farthest reaches of human history. And so Westerners are particularly drawn to these religions in contrast with our own religions. We read things like the Upanishads and are immediately struck by the fact that the Bible doesn't have anything like this.

We've been told that the Bible opens a window on another world, but when we pick it up and read it, we find it full of this world. We see lying, cheating, jealousy, greed, adultery, murder -- and that's just Genesis. But the Upanishads really look like a window on another world. These are the kind of things we wanted to be thinking when we were lighting up a doobie and saying dreamily, "What if our solar system were just like one atom in...."

As I was reading Parmananda's introduction today, it clarified for me what's at the root of this and why Christians shouldn't be ashamed of the Bible in the face of it, without dimishining the value of the Hindu scriptures.

For one thing, the Upanishads are just a part of a larger work (the Vedas). They are the wisdom writings, freed from prescriptive cultic instruction on sacrifices and the like. How much more would people like the Bible without the book of Leviticus? But Leviticus is there, and the Upanishads still have their lofty view.

The real meat of the difference is in the way that Judaism and Christianity approach religion as contrasted to Hinduism. Parmananda writes, "The value of the Upanishads, however, does not rest upon their antiquity, but upon the vital message they contain for all times and all peoples. There is nothing peculiarly racial or local in them." There it is. The wisdom of the Upanishads is grounded in the Universal. The wisdom of the Bible is grounded in the Particular.

Parmananda quotes Thoreau as saying, "What extracts from the Vedas I have read fall on me like the light of a higher and purer luminary which describes a loftier course through a purer stratum free from particulars, simple, universal." Free from particulars -- is that really something to be commended? Yes, but also no. This quality is necessary for the universal quality of these writings. It also, undoubtedly, makes them more accessible. By contrast, the spirituality of the Judeo-Christian scriptures is grounded precisely in the particular. Rather than ponder what God is like, the Bible is concerned to tell us what God has done.

The trouble in all of this is that Christianity, while it inherited this view of particularlity from Judaism, doesn't always seem to know what to do with it. We often seem to want to be universal and "free from particulars." And as post-Enlightenment Christianity has tried to shuck its dogma, the particularity has often gotten lumped in there. And so instead of a God who acts in history -- a God who becomes history -- we end up with a great teacher and wonder what to do with the fact that he was crucified. And the fact is, Christianity can't support its own weight in this sort of construction.

So you've probably noticed I'm not talking about the Upanishads anymore. Everything brings me back to Christ. And so what I see in this is a lesson for Christian mission. While the Christian gospel is universal, it is also, and must be, particular. The particularity is the Gospel. The Gospel is not that God is love. The Gospel is that God so loved that world that he sent his only begotten son. And so as Christians, we aren't in the business of showing people our great wisdom (1 Corinthians 1:17-25). We are in the business of telling people what God has done. If our mission is to succeed, we need to learn to get people excited about the particular.


Cecile said...

This is great!

Jerald Cantor said...

A great blog and very helpfull post. I really like it. upnishads for busy people

Kirk Mulder said...

I came from Christianity (not surprising, I'm from America, so to become a Christian here is much akin to an Iranian "becoming" Mulsim). I arrived at "Hinduism" (Specifically Advaita Vedanta) through my continued seeking, asking and knocking, as advised by Jesus Himself.

So I have a very different perspective. I recognize that "the particular" of which you speak--Jesus as sacrificial lamb--actually comes from the Pagan roots and is not what the miracle of Jesus is about.

Jesus is a Sage, a Realized being, what Buddhists call "a Buddha", what Hindu Advaitists call "a Jnani", A Knower of Truth.

This is why the Gospel of Thomas, which has recently been realized to be one of the older gospels, doesn't contain the story of the crucifixion.

The "particular" shouldn't really be glorified. It's akin the story of "Lucifer" who fell from heaven in pride of being great in and of himself.

The Universal is that which IS. The particular is only an appearance within and cannot really exist without it. "I Am That I Am." The One Animates and gives life to all which appear. Behold the pride when we claim we exist individually and apart from the whole!

This is the "light" which is really darkness, of which Jesus speaks of in Matthew 6 and Luke 11. Such vision is not true vision it is actually dark ignorance.

All due respect, that's my offering after reading your post. God bless.

Anonymous said...

Interesting discussion. After reading the original post and comments, I think it's worth pointing out that the mission of Christianity is "both/and" in this sense: that it is both Particular and Universal. It is eternal wisdom incarnate; the Logos entering the World; myth become fact (as Lewis and Tolkien put it). A wise bishop told me the genius of Christianity is in the Cross -- but he meant it as concretely and abstractly: the intersection of all things, the contact between the immanence and transcendence of God. In a Name, Jesus. Christianity has something definite, something salvific, to offer every person, culture and philosophy on earth, from the Logos of the Greeks, to the Dharma of the Indians and the Tao of the Chinese. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.