Lately, the more I come in contact with people of other faiths the more I become aware of how ignorant I am of their traditions and beliefs. I never had good opportunity to take a course in comparative religions and with my own children now in college it is unlikely that the chance will arise. So I picked up two books that have come highly recommended; William James’ “The Varieties of Religious Experience” and Huston Smith’s “The World’s Religions”. I decided to start with Huston Smith since it looks to be a bit of an easier read.
Smith was born 1919 in China to Methodist missionaries and lived there until he was 17. He taught at the Universities of Colorado and Denver, Washington University in St.Louis, Syracuse University, MIT and is now the Visiting Professor of Religious Studies at Berkeley.
The book’s first section, about the Hindu religion, is quite fascinating. I’d like to share some of what I have read so far;
“The Upanishads (part of the Hindu scriptures) speak of a ‘knowing’ of That the knowledge of which brings knowledge of ‘everything’. It is not likely that ‘everything’ here implies literal omniscience. More probably, it refers to an insight that lays bare the point of everything. Given that summarizing insight, to ask for details would be as irrelevant as asking the number of atoms in a great painting. When the point is grasped, who cares about details?”
This would suggest some Hindu parallels with many who struggle over parts of the Judeo-Christian scriptures. What should we take literally and what parts are best seen as metaphors? But in essence, if we share the ‘truth’ of scriptures, then why worry over points of interpretation?
In speaking of the discipline of meditation (similar to what some Christians may call ‘contemplative prayer) he writes;
“The word yoga derives from the same root as does the English word yoke and carries a double connotation: to unite (yoke together), and to place under disciplined training (to bring under the yoke, or ‘take my yoke upon you”). Both connotations are present in the Sanskrit word. Defined generally, yoga is a method of training designed to lead to integration or union. But integration of what?”
The successful practice of this discipline leads to an answer to his last question;
“There remains the final climactic state for which the Sanskrit word Samadhi should be retained. Etymologically ‘sam‘ parallels the Greek prefix syn, as in synthesis, synopsis, and syndrome. It means ‘together with’. Adhi in Sanskrit is usually translated Lord, paralleling the Hebrew word for Lord in the Old Testament, Adon or Adonai. Samadhi, then, names the state in which the human mind is completely absorbed in God.”
God? I was always under the impression that the Hindus were polytheistic. But according to Smith, they believe only in one “God” yet realize that he is too great to be identified with any single or even multiple characteristics. So they have perhaps a hundred forms in which God reveals himself to them, each form identifying with a certain characteristic of the Supreme Being. Hinduism stresses (much more so than most Western religions) that all people are different and different people, with different personalities, life stories and stages in their journey will best identify with one or more of these different forms. But it is only Westerners that are concerned over whether or not Hindus are polytheistic, pantheistic or monotheistic. A Hindu saying goes “The Truth is One, but different sages call it by different names.”
The following common prayer addresses the inability of finite man to perceive the infinite God and the inadequate ways he attempts to do so. It is often said at the beginning of common religious services;
“O Lord, forgive three sins that are due to my human limitations:
Thou art everywhere, but I worship you here;
Thou art without form, but I worship you in these forms;
Thou needest no praise, yet I offer you these prayers and salutations.
Lord, forgive three sins that are due to my human limitations.“
Even with all of their many metaphorical expressions for God, they believe that at times God will physically come to earth as specific individuals;
“The ideal form (for seeing God) for most people will be one of God’s incarnations, for God can be loved most readily in human form because our hearts are already attuned to loving people. Many Hindus acknowledge Christ as a God-man, while believing that there have been others, such as Rama, Krishna, and the Buddha. Whenever the stability of the world is seriously threatened, God descends to redress the imbalance.”
“When goodness grows weak,
When evil increases,
I make myself a body.
In every age I come back
To deliver the holy,
To destroy the sin of the sinner,
To establish the righteous.”
(Bhagavad-Gita, IV: 7-8)
It would seem to me that the intentional Hindu may be open to a discussion of the Christian Gospel if we did not insist upon first affirming our belief that we were ‘right’ and that they were somehow ‘wrong’. An open discussion, with both sides respecting the beliefs and traditions of the other would probably lead towards an appreciation of the common points of each religion. When this happens it may cause the door to swing invitingly open for further exploration of the Christian tradition.