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Jesus in the Lotus
The Mystical Doorway Between Christianity and Yogic Spirituality
By Russill Paul
New World LibraryCopyright © 2009 Russill Paul
All rights reserved.
Christianity's Domestication of God
The Gap between Words and Actions
ARUN GANDHI, the fifth grandson of India's legendary leader, Mohandas K. "Mahatma" Gandhi, and cofounder of the M.K. Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence, tells the following story about his grandfather:
In the mid-1930s when the leader of India's oppressed class, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, announced that 150 million of his followers who were (and still are) regarded as "untouchables" would convert to a new religion, many Christian and Muslim religious leaders came to India to get a slice of the religious cake. Many stood on street corners of Indian cities denouncing the evils of Hinduism, explaining how the "untouchables" would find equality and dignity if they converted to Christianity. Weeks went by and not many of the "untouchables" took advantage of this offer. One day, Rev. E. Stanley Jones of the United Methodist Church asked my grandfather, M.K. Gandhi, why the "untouchables" were not accepting the Christian offer. Grandfather's reply was "The day you stop talking about how good your religion is and start living it, everyone will want to join it."
These are strong words, reportedly uttered by one of the most influential figures in contemporary history and someone for whom the New Testament, especially the Sermon on the Mount, was as important as his own scripture, the Bhagavad Gita. Although a devout Hindu, Gandhi demonstrated to the world what turning the other cheek looked like in modern-day circumstances. Paradoxically, he turned the other cheek to Christians who were oppressing him and his people. And turning the other cheek, as scholars now inform us, was not necessarily an act of submission in Jesus's times but quite possibly a brilliant act of loving defiance, and Gandhi used it rather effectively.
Gandhi's first encounter with Christianity was said to have taken place when he sought to attend a church service in South Africa. Deeply moved by his reading of the Bible, he was seriously considering becoming a Christian. However, a white church elder refused him admittance and spoke to him in insulting and racially divisive language, in stark contrast to Jesus's most important directive to "love your neighbor as yourself." Gandhi apparently vowed at that point to practice all that was good in Christianity, but without becoming a Christian affiliated with the church. (Another often-quoted declaration of Gandhi's: "When all Christians live by the Sermon on the Mount, I will be the first to become a Christian.") I experienced a subtler version of racism when attending a service in the United States recently. Most people ignored me, and many appeared to be uncomfortable when interacting with me as part of the service, particularly during the "greet your neighbor" part. How did we get here? When did Christians, once oppressed for following the teachings of Jesus, become the oppressors?
It is this contradictory expression of Christianity, professing one thing and doing another, that has created a great rift between Christianity and the Hindu tradition. Hinduism, although it has many clear rules and practices of its own, is supremely tolerant of other belief systems. Nonetheless, despite aggressive missionary activity in India since the fifteenth century, and despite a Christian presence in India since the fourth century (or earlier), slightly more than 2 percent of this deeply religious country is Christian. And those who convert to Christianity sever most of their ties to their culture and their extended family for the same reason that most Christians who practice Yoga or another Eastern spirituality in the West must relinquish most of their connections to their birth tradition.
Latin Christianity and evangelical Christianity emphasize salvation through the profession of faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior far more than the essential teachings and spiritual experience of Jesus. Without doubt, this has prevented many Hindus from truly appreciating and accepting the best that Christianity can offer. Additionally, because there is so often a stark contrast between the ideal and the expression, aggressive preaching (especially in India) often falls flat on its face. Gandhi often implied that Christians could preach far more effectively through their actions than through their words. Words, however, have become the cornerstone of Western Christianity, and the language of Christianity is often divisive and unhealthy, having been formulated from a position of superiority and prejudice toward other traditions. In fact, the issue of language in itself has caused many Christians to disassociate with the church.
The purpose of this chapter is not to criticize Christianity but to explain why the West needs Eastern spirituality today, and to identify some of the tensions that prevent such an exchange. Indeed, to criticize Christianity would be to criticize a tradition that is an essential part of my ancestry, one I continue to hold in great esteem. As you continue reading, you will see that I have a deep love for Jesus and that I understand the unique significance of his life, death, and essential message of the Kingdom of God, which I understand in terms of consciousness. Furthermore, I appreciate the many mystical concepts of St. Paul, such as the mystical body of Christ, and I have been awed by the writings of many great Christian mystics, including Meister Eckhart and St. John of the Cross. However, there can be no doubt in any rational person's mind that the West is in need of balance. Could this imbalance relate directly to the imbalance within Western Christianity? Some of the best parts of Eastern spirituality, especially Yoga, can contribute to restoring this balance. The East is not perfect either and can benefit from certain Western values, particularly from those values emphasized by Christianity that have shaped the West in positive ways. These core values must be retrieved, redeveloped, and reestablished.
My mentor, Bede Griffiths, was clear that the restoration of balance in Christianity will come only with the Western recovery of the intuitive mind, a corrective to its excessive rationality. At this time, the tools for such a recovery are readily available from the East, from the other wisdom traditions, which, of course, include Yoga. For this to happen, a meeting must take place at the deepest levels of human consciousness. Bede called this is the marriage of East and West that can be realized in the melding of Christianity and Yoga.
God's Separateness: Excessive Transcendence
Perhaps the problem of imbalance in Western culture, and consequently in Western spirituality, stems from the most fundamental attribute of God as described in the Semitic traditions: God's holiness. Bede put it this way: "In the Semitic tradition, God is represented as the transcendent Lord of creation, infinitely 'holy,' that is, separate from and 'above' nature, and never to be confused with it." Furthermore, God's injunction to Adam, to "be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it" (Genesis 1:28), has largely determined the West's relationship with the natural world and its domination of other cultures through colonial rule. The two together have resulted in the great destruction of the earth's natural resources and, in the past, intolerance toward the spiritual inclinations of indigenous cultures. Unlike indigenous cultures, Western peoples have tended not to replenish what they have taken from the earth and have not practiced taking in moderation. This has brought on global warming and other ecological imbalances. Is it not evident that our relationship with our planet is directly associated with the way in which we understand God?
The understanding of an overemphasized transcendence — that is, one not balanced with immanence — has caused Western Christianity to estrange itself from the multiplicity of forms expressed not only in nature but also within the infinite creativity of the human mind, especially in the sacred language of myth and its symbols. This understanding has placed God far away from our world of form and matter, in contrast to, for instance, the beliefs of many tribal cultures that have a strong sense of innate sacredness within nature. The East offers us a sense of the immanence of God, a sense that God is near, and within, us and in the varied forms of existence. Additionally, the East offers us the opportunity to understand and experience the mystery of God in nonanthropocentric terms.
The problem with an excessive focus on transcendence is excessive rationality, which is an abstraction from everyday reality. One way of describing rationality is as thinking that isdistanced from feeling and the direct experience of being. Bede pointed out that the Western psyche has its roots in the teachings of Socrates and the Greek philosophers, who developed the analytical mind, one that focuses on making judgments and on concepts. From the time of Jesus to the Renaissance, this type of mind, along with the oriental mythology of the Semitic Christian world, produced a somewhat balanced system that left a record of its tremendous achievements in the art, architecture, and mystical theology of the Middle Ages. However, during the Renaissance, this balance was lost, and the aggressive, analytical mind took precedence in society, as it still does today. It has resulted in the extreme separation of conscious and unconscious, mind and matter, soul and body. Western philosophy, Bede pointed out, swings between the two extremes of materialism and idealism as a result of a disease of the mind, a type of schizophrenia, that has developed since the Renaissance, when the united vision of the Middle Ages was lost.
Excessive rationality is epitomized in the famous statement of René Descartes, "I think, therefore I am." And it is evident from our manic Western lifestyles that the machine (the autonomous thinking mind) has taken over. The East, too, has developed powerful rational, logical, and analytical skills, but these are balanced with a sense of "beingness." This sense of beingness is what we refer to as the mystical dimension, meaning that it is hidden from normal perception as it is concealed by the content of our mind and our identification with the content. The phenomenal success of spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle has illustrated the great hunger for the mystical dimension felt by so many North Americans and Western Christians. Tolle taps into the spirituality of India, although he uses contemporary language and the model of the human psyche to help bridge the gap between the highest spiritual experiences of Yoga and the experiences of contemporary living. The spiritual experience of Yoga is based on the joy of being, which is markedly different from the "joy of having something," which is touted incessantly by the advertising media. Much angst in the Western psyche stems from the illusion that one has to "have something" in order to be happy. While this same mentality is penetrating the East, especially India, most people there are still happy simply in their sense of being, a fact that is evident to almost everyone who has been to India, even recently. In India, people might be starving or living in abject poverty, but still they have an unmistakable joy in their sense of being that is conspicuously absent in the West. This joy comes from the indigenous spiritual tradition of India. It is this joy that we must rediscover in the West, and Yoga is already proving to be the methodology that can help bring this about.
Disregard for the Earth and the Feminine Face of Divinity
The domination of nature — the "rape of the earth," as it is sometimes called — is also reflected in Christianity's view of the feminine. There is a maternal quality to the earth that every indigenous culture around the world has recognized. Before the shift to patriarchal domination that began roughly five thousand years ago, many of the early civilizations — including the Mesopotamian, Egyptian, and Indus Valley civilizations — were matriarchal. India is perhaps the only ancient civilization that has continuously honored this matriarchal presence. Christianity has had a hard time accepting the feminine as divine. For instance, even though Mary is referred to as "the Mother of God," she is not "God" herself but simply a channel for male divinity. The long and heated debate over women priests in the Catholic Church implies that women are not spiritual enough for the role. Yet psychological testing clearly reveals that women are more spiritual than men. Additionally, the fact that the gender of attendees at spirituality workshops and retreats is predominantly female, along with women's interest in spiritual matters as evidenced by their purchases of spiritually related products, demonstrates that women are more active spiritually than men.
The East offers us a balanced view of Divine gender as well as the transgender aspects of the Divine. Hinduism and Yoga regard the Divine as being he, she, and it, for the tradition recognizes that all pronouns are simply a convenient way of communicating with and about the Divine. However, the mystery of the Divine is infinitely more than what can be expressed in human speech. Almost every Hindu recognizes that the image — masculine, feminine, or abstract — is simply the medium through which an exchange of energy and information takes place. Do we not use a similar principle in understanding how the communion wafer transmits the mystical consciousness of Jesus? Yet for hundreds of years, Hindus have been accused of being idolaters.
Additionally, the East offers us powerful models of the sacred feminine as a legitimate face of the Divine, which many in the West crave. This is one of the reasons for the broad appeal of the Hindu symbols and mythology-based artworks that are now conspicuously displayed in yoga studios across the country.
Disregard for the Human Body
When Bede Griffiths first arrived in India, he was mesmerized by the naturalness of people's movements. He wrote, "Whether sitting or standing or walking, there was a grace in all their movements and I felt that I was in the presence of a power of nature."
Christianity is essentially about the body, as exemplified by the crucifixion and the resurrection. However, Christianity in a sense also disregards the body and human sexuality. The great saints of Christianity sought to subju-gate the senses; for instance, to suppress their sexual instinct, Saint Francis of Assisi reportedly threw himself naked in the snow and Saint Benedict rolled in thorns. Although such dramatic acts are relatively unknown today, the lack of nutritious food in many Christian monasteries and retreat centers across the United States continues to demonstrate this underlying, if unconscious, dispassion for what is, in Yoga, our most powerful and sacred vessel of Self-realization — our body. Christianity has paid little attention to diet, relying more on the statement by Jesus that what proceeds out of a person, meaning what a person says and does, is more important than what goes into a person (Mark 7:15). There is great wisdom in this teaching, but Jesus said it in a context of ritual cleanliness, not health. Unfortunately it has also prevented Christians from learning how to use and develop their bodies so that they become assets in their spiritual life and growth.
This estrangement from the body goes back to the early Greek philosophers, who distanced themselves from the body through their emphasis on concept. Indian philosophical systems, on the other hand, are rooted in contemplative experience that integrates intuitive vision, refined by tuning the body through the practice of yoga and meditation, and analytical thought, which enables the Indian spiritual tradition to maintain a healthy balance. Most seminarians in Christian spiritual training could benefit greatly from learning how to integrate yoga practice into their spiritual life. This, of course, would, in addition to the philosophy and spiritual practice, also involve learning more about the relationship between food and spiritual experience. Catholic priests, nuns, and monks are required to be celibate but are not shown how they can be celibate in a healthy way. Again, the combination of yoga and diet can offer some powerful tools for the healthy integration of sexual energy.
Even in marriage, which is celebrated as a sacrament in Christianity, the body is often subconsciously equated with "the flesh" (an analogy for "lower nature"). Many Christians, especially Catholics, see human sexuality as simply a practical function, somewhat like defecation, rather than as a spiritual force, and it is rarely spoken of in a spiritual context. For many Catholics, sex is something "dirty" and meant to be kept in the dark, which is extremely unhealthy. The sexual abuse among Catholic priests, along with the hundreds of millions paid out in lawsuit settlements that reflect the deep damage done to so many, is a clear indication that this does not work.
Excerpted from Jesus in the Lotus by Russill Paul. Copyright © 2009 Russill Paul. Excerpted by permission of New World Library.
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