K K Hebsoor
In this essay, the author lays out how one of the fundamental tenets of Christianity – the exclusivity of Christ’s divinity and the people’s blind acceptance of it – has wreaked havoc in American society and is largely the cause of the racial strife it is enduring now, and has endured previously.
This article is in fact a direct rebuttal to a recent American bestselling book, “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents” by a Pulitzer winning author, Isabel Wilkerson, even though this article was written before that book was released. This essay is available as an e-book on amazon worldwide.
As we are getting through 2020, what seemed like a politically fractured nation (impeachment inquiry) when we entered January 2020, transformed suddenly and dramatically into times of unprecedented uncertainty and change when turned the corner into March.
On the dimension of health and safety, the coronavirus pandemic has, since then, instilled fear and apprehension in people in an unprecedented manner all over the world in both scope and intensity. Its economic effects have been devastating. And yet, as though that wasn’t enough, the deeply suppressed frustrations and anger directed at America’s social (in)justice system overflowed into the public sphere in May and June, in the wake of another Black man’s death at the hands of America’s police. In one instance of the long saga of brutal treatment by the police of Blacks in America — incontrovertible evidence of which was captured in ~8 min of video of George Floyd’s shocking death by bystanders watching it — the world saw the smoking gun of the accusations of systemic racial discrimination in Police departments across America.
The (unacknowledged) roots, the fundamental grounds that had kick-started the Black Lives Matter movement initially, now stood exposed for all the world to see.
Against all odds, it converted even the hardest non-believers (of said accusations of systemic racism) into believers overnight. Consequently, people the world over stood in solidarity for the protesters’ public outpouring of decades-old pain. This was visible when the demonstrators disregarded—at risk to their own health—all the pandemic-related social-distancing safety restrictions, to come out in a groundswell of grassroots energy. These protests have turned into a movement that has gripped America in both peaceful and violent expressions in every big and small city and town, screaming for socio-economic change in a manner last seen only in the 1960s, and probably not even then.
The current presidential administration’s heavy-handed approach has failed on both fronts of this current crisis that America is facing – socio-economic upheaval and pandemic. But unlike in a monarchy, a democratically elected government is only a reflection of its people. And so, notwithstanding the failure of the government’s approach—or perhaps because of it—it may be worthwhile to ask: what particular failure of the American people or the American experiment in democracy has led to this situation, where again as before (and repeatedly) in its history, the country has faced such uproar? The more pointed question is, are there deeper issues—especially on the spiritual dimension—at play here, in so far as this, and its past social tumults are concerned?
I’m of the opinion like many, that as human beings, we are “whole entities.” By this, I mean that even though we may view and interact with issues in the external world – political, social, scientific, ethnic, medical, etc., – as apparently separate from it, it is my deep conviction that all these silos within us are tied together ultimately on the spiritual dimension.
Consequently, I feel that the deluge of emotion on the streets with clarion calls for equality and justice is evidence of a gaping cavity in the spiritual makeup of American society as a whole. The people seek lasting, meaningful answers, no more “bandages”; they are searching for solutions to which they could relate at the spiritual level (though not articulated in those words), and which would be sustainable in their justness and equitable-ness on a societal level.
Has the Christian Church Failed America?
Although America is a country that constitutionally sanctions separation of church and state, the reality for generations has been far from this ideal. This is neither a criticism nor a lament, only an observation. And even though American society is proud to be multi-religious and pluralistic, a majority of people in the country follow the Christian church. And sadly, it appears as if the church has failed its followers and larger American society in general, in monumental fashion.
NPR (National Public Radio), America’s reliable, centrist and publicly-funded media outlet, published on its website, a critique of America’s church leadership and how Christianity has actively encouraged white supremacy in American society and thereby preserved the status-quo of racial inequities and injustices for centuries. Bart Ehrmann (www.bartdehrman.com), a professor in North Carolina who grew up as a conservative church altar-boy and professes now to be an agnostic, has shown through his research, how the church has misrepresented the original spiritual teachings through the ages to the point that they have become plain lies today (“Heaven and Hell: A History of the Afterlife” by Bart Ehrman, 2020).
In 1965, a Hindu monk, Swami Abhedananda of the Ramakrishna Order, explained in a book, “Why A Hindu Accepts Christ and Rejects Churchianity” that the history of the establishment of the Christian church three hundred years after Jesus passed, was a bloody affair and a power grab in an anarchic political environment by the Roman Emperor Constantine who killed his own son and wife. He further explains how the early church councils did not establish the church creeds which are followed to this day by civil, erudite, and elevating spiritual debate, but by shouting and killing one another, till the “most ruffianly side proved its orthodoxy.” He mentions 137 corpses (of priests who presumably dared to have a different opinion to the winning side) at the council of 431 AD as evidence. Putting all of this together, the Swami says, “We can easily imagine the nature of the guiding spirit of the councils that established the creed of the church.”
God and Man: Congruence
(Re)Enter Hinduism, whose structure, system, and conclusions, the esteemed Aldous Huxley termed, “the perennial philosophy.” Hinduism’s approach is the need of the hour, with its peaceful, gentle, nurturing, and unifying system on the matter of spiritual evolution. But what is its relevance in today’s social upheaval going on in the U.S.? Let’s explore this.
The great 19th-century mystic, master, and saint, Sri Ramakrishna once narrated the following story:
A young man went to a great master and challenged him, “Where is God? God doesn’t exist.” Realizing that this young man was primed for the highest teaching and message, the master pronounced, lovingly but sincerely, “God is not separate from you, He’s in you, and you are in Him, in fact, everything is God.”
The young man, simultaneously joyful at his confirmation that there was no separate God, and yet a bit confused and surprised with the master’s words, asked, “You say that there is no separate God, that everything is God?”
“Yes, indeed,” affirmed the master.
“So, I am God?”
“Yes, indeed,” confirmed the master again.
“And you are God, and he and he, and that dog?” asked the man, pointing to others present in the assembly and a stray sitting on the steps of the master’s house.
“Everybody and everything, indeed, even the objects that don’t move,” asserted the master strongly.
Huh, how about that, thought the young man to himself, and went away after humbly thanking the master.
But he’d walked only a few paces from the master’s house when doubt sprang eternal! Not fully convinced, he wanted now to test this newfound knowledge he’d gained. As he strolled down the dusty road thinking how he might do this, he saw a lot of men and women running at him from the opposite direction, gesturing wildly as well as running away from the road, screaming, “Run away! An angry elephant is charging down this street!”
Ah! This is the perfect opportunity to test the master’s teaching, he thought! He said to himself, Well, then, everything is God, I am God, and the elephant is God; God cannot hurt God, and I don’t need to fear anything. Why should I run, the elephant won’t hurt me!
Consequently, he stayed calm and remained on his course. Soon, he saw the angry elephant at a distance and lurching straight at him on the path. The mahout, riding on the elephant, shouted at the man repeatedly, “Get out of the way, GET OUT OF THE WAY!”
Hearing the mahout’s words, the man was a little afraid now. But he gathered his courage and persisted, making his way straight at the elephant that was coming right at him. He was convinced that since he was God and the elephant was God, and since God would not hurt God, the elephant couldn’t and wouldn’t hurt him.
Well, as soon as the elephant was upon him, it swiftly picked him up with its trunk, twirled him angrily in the air like a little toy in a young boy’s hand, and flung him effortlessly far into the countryside. The young man soared through the air, hit a thick leafy tree that fortunately stopped his flight, and fell to the ground, his body colliding with its thick branches all the way down.
Thoroughly shaken up, his pride hurt more than anything but also not without a few scratches, he picked himself up gradually off the ground. Then, without even thinking to straighten himself up, disheveled, bruised, and limping, slowly but surely, he went straight to the master. He narrated the incident that had just happened and demanded, “You said everything was God! Why then, if the elephant was God, and I am God, did the elephant pick me up and fling me, hurting me in the process?” And he added for good measure, “God doesn’t hurt God.”
The master nodded and confirmed, still full of love, “Indeed my child, you and the elephant are both God just like I said you were, but why did you not listen to God’s voice coming from the mahout, who was telling you to get out of the way?”
(All present in the assembly, of course, broke into laughter!) [End story]
Humorous as this story is, it is equally eye-opening in the most subtle manner. On one side, it clearly points indirectly at the precise meaning of “You are God,” namely, that in Spirit and essence we are all Godlike. And it almost instantly corrects any misconception one might have that our Godliness might have anything to do with our body, with which we are mostly always identified.
The most striking thing in this story is how the declarative of congruence between God and man (“God is not separate from you”) is balanced by the interrogative that’s continuously going on within the mind of the pupil in the course of the story. The master’s declarative stands, but the pupil’s interrogative is retained all the way through the rest of the story even when it ends, leaving the reader with a sense of mystery, and a sense of wanting to find out, just as the pupil does, what the true meaning of the congruence alluded to by the master, really is!
This is, of course, unmistakably the path and method of Hinduism – elevating you by declaring your essential identity with God, not separation from Him, and encouraging and nurturing you to discover the truth of this premise by and for yourself through your own efforts. This is the ascendance of man from man to his real nature of Godhood.
Here’s another story before we delve into a discussion.
One of the four Vedantic Mahavakyas, “Great proclamations” which are “Aha!” moments in spiritual self-discovery, comes to us from the Chandogya Upanishad:
…तत् त्वम् असि |
“Tat Tvam Asi”
“You are That!”
This appears in the context of a beautiful story, which is reproduced here in shortened form:
The boy Svetaketu comes back home [from boarding school] after the completion of his studies, very proud of his education. So his father Uddalaka puts him to the test, but lovingly. He asks his son, whom he addresses as somya, “loved one,” “Dear somya, did you ask your teacher for that teaching by which what’s never heard becomes heard, what isn’t thought of, becomes thought of, and what’s never known becomes known?”
Svetaketu replies, surprised, “What is that knowledge father, can you teach me?”
So the father, Uddalaka, teaches him, “If you know clay, you know all things that are made of clay—they’re only different in name and form (nama and rupa, in Vedantic language) but clay is their reality. The same applies to gold—if you’ve seen one gold necklace, you know everything that’s made of gold, since they’re only different in name and form, but their reality is gold; same with iron, and so on. Somya, before this world was manifest, there was only One Pure Existence, without a second. Out of Himself, He brought forth…everything in this universe…and entered into it, deciding ‘I shall manifest myself in many forms.’
…You are That, Svetaketu, you are That!”
Demonstrating with such metaphors, Uddalaka reveals to his son that his essence is identical with the One Pure Existence, pure Spirit, through that final statement:
…तत् त्वम् असि |
“Tat Tvam Asi”
“You are That, Svetaketu, you are That!”
God and Man: Separation
Compare the above ideas with the fixed assertions in the Abrahamic traditions where everything is concretized. ‘God is this. Heaven is that. Here is what happens when you die. Here’s how you get there. Here’s who you’ll meet and how you’ll live there.’ And on and on. The critical first axiom on which this concretized worldview and structure is based is that God created man and this world AND thereafter, He withdrew. Therefore God and man are separate and will be forever separate on Earth. Small (and big) details aside, if we obey His laws, at best, we may only hope to seek to be in His presence in the afterlife, namely, after our death, in a separate reality called Heaven.
Swami Abhedananda makes clear that the Hindus do not hesitate to accept Christ as an incarnation of divinity in human form. “The Hindu conception of the incarnation of God is much deeper than that of the Christians,” he continues. “Whether Jesus was a historical personality or not…Christ means that supreme state of God-consciousness where all duality vanishes…and where the tremendous onrush of the Divine Essence…causes us to realize our eternal oneness with the Heavenly Father in the spiritual plane” while still living here on Earth, I would add. “Whoever reaches that state becomes a Christ, whether he be Krishna, or Buddha, or Jesus of Nazareth…the name makes no difference to the Hindu.” This was indeed the message also that Christ preached, for example, referring to Psalms 82:6, Jesus says in John 10:34, “Is it not written in your law, ‘I have said ye are Gods.’”
But this is not, and has never been, the teaching of the church, which controls the message that everyday people hear. The everyday people to whom I’m referring are church ministers (see NPR article), politicians (who listen to such ministers), and just normal blue- and white-collared people in American society. They are the kind who either do not have time, or do not make the time, to study, contemplate, discuss, and acquire a deeper understanding of scripture – they often want to be told something that they can simply follow. And what message is the church giving them?
The church has arrogated and distorted Christ’s message. And I don’t mean that they’ve done that now, or recently, or that they’ve done it only in America. Rather, Christ’s message was twisted by the church in 321 AD when Constantine declared what henceforth should be the creed of Christianity going forward. Consequently, the messages that the church has been preaching since that time, are (1) “Separation,” i.e., God and man are forever separate, and (2) “Exclusivity,” meaning that only Christians have the path to eternity (which, according to them, exists in a different reality). If you temporarily tune out the main message, namely of eternity and the details—‘how’ and ‘where’—of it, then the subliminal message that comes through is the one of exclusivity. This brings out and magnifies the classic “tribal” in-group versus “out-group” mentality when applied to everyday life. One needs only a cursory reading of history to understand how the church has wreaked havoc on human beings in every age and country through such a message.
When God and man are kept permanently separate, is it any surprise then that men on Earth, in the name of following such a God’s laws, would reenact this separation by behaving with one another in racially, socially, and culturally discriminating and hierarchical ways? Isn’t it natural to expect that this “separation” worldview at the spiritual level, would cascade over into this created world? Isn’t it clear, given such a spiritual thesis, that those who can grab power over others will race to it, and when successful, will exercise it over others who don’t have it?
The basis for this contention is that, at an unconscious level, children actually learn behavior by imitating parents. It was established long ago, that if parents verbally preach one kind of behavior to children, but practice another, children grow up learning from emulating the practice, rather than from following the verbal instructions. Since we are God’s children, (“God created man…”), people will behave in a manner copying God. So, in the model where God keeps himself separate in a “power-relationship,” no matter what God’s laws may say (and Christian laws don’t say very much about not discriminating racially), how His followers actually behave will be (determined) by imitating Him and exercising that power on his fellow men. This “separation” spiritual model is the root cause of every kind of discrimination including racism.
It is a tribal model, where one group prefers “their own” over another, trusts “their own” more over another. In this context, men will care even less about laws that other men make, even when those laws are made by their own brethren. Man-made laws such as in the glorious American Declaration of Independence that states, “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal…” unfortunately hold no sway in the setting where God behaves in a manner as to create distance and establishes (material) power over man.
The church may argue that the above description fails to credit the fact that God gave to man, Jesus, his only begotten son (according to them), to intervene in man’s affairs, and that one of the aspects of that intervention would be to intercede to prevent man’s racist behavior. Well, if this is true, then how is it that those very men and women who accept Jesus’s word are precisely the ones who have perpetrated (and continue still) this abomination of racism and white supremacy as documented in the above-referenced NPR article?
Secondly, the church precludes the possibility of God coming to Earth again until the end of time to intervene once again in the manner that Jesus did. Then what’s to prevent even the faithful from acting out against God’s “true wishes” (presumably against racism) while in fact, arrogating his authority and insisting that their own actual actions are indeed representative of His true wishes?
After all, this latter situation is exactly what the world has witnessed from the church and the West (colonialism) for centuries, in the process of the church’s evangelical expansion. Murder, censure, rape, pillage, condemnation and crucifixion of the innocent on false accusations of blasphemy, and so on have been the norm — the church has, in Jesus’s name, perpetrated every kind of abhorrent and vile act against fellow men of different color and race, in pursuit of converting people to Christianity. And to what end? To again be discriminated against, on the very basis of that color and diversity, no matter the success in conversion!
If the church claims to have condemned those “bad actors,” then those perpetrators didn’t receive their just punishment for their crimes while they were still alive on Earth, did they? And if the church maintains that they received their punishment in the afterlife, we don’t have confirmation of it here on Earth. Consequently, this only further encourages their successors today to continue in their ancestors’ line of thinking and doing, namely, of repeating the crimes of the past, including indulging in racist behavior, under a different guise.
Last but not least, intellectual and thoughtful Christians, especially in the West—who are unfortunately derided by the conservatives as being “the liberal left”—who read this essay may object, saying, “Sure, the church may hold Christ’s exclusivity as a creed, but this is not how we intellectuals feel. We accept that there are many paths to God.” This may be true. But these intellectuals who are a miniscule minority, don’t control the public narrative which divides instead of unifying.
The nexus between racism and the church is strongly established (see article). My analysis only pinpoints precisely the knot where this nexus occurs, namely the religious doctrine of “exclusivity.” It isn’t enough that intellectual Americans or even learned scholars declare that God is within us all, and therefore all paths are valid. The authority of the church has to declare that. The authorities of all religions in the world have to declare that. Until then, the world will continue to be puzzled by the source for the kind of racial divide which brings out periodic unrest from time to time.
So, where does this leave us? Has the Christian Church failed American society? You be the judge, but it appears that institutional Christianity in its standard form, is out of answers.
A Vibrant Version of Morality to End Racism
Let’s remember that the above Christian version of God and man is a model. Hinduism’s model is kinder and more “holistic and centered” in a world-affirming way. It contains implicit assumptions whose conscious cognizance spontaneously brings out human behavior that’d be consistent with an expansive view of humanity and the brotherhood of man, that is, a unifying, not dividing approach. This is the kind of individual and collective comportment that precludes racism and discrimination based on superficial differences.
Hinduism’s model for mankind—guided by the saying that appears in the Rig Veda, “There’s one truth, the wise say it in different ways”—celebrates diversity with respect, not merely with a patronizing “tolerance.” It is suited for all people, without compromising the religious belief-systems to which they subscribe.
From the story of Svetaketu and Uddalaka above in the Chandogya Upanishad, it should be clear that in Hinduism’s model of the Universe, God, or the “One Pure Existence” is the essence of everyone, since it (or its anthropomorphic version, God) “…entered into everything, deciding, ‘I shall manifest in many forms.’” This is further confirmed by Sri Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita when he says (18:61), “O Arjuna, the Lord sits in the heart of all beings.”
In practical life, the model of the congruence of God and man, of God being within man, is an excellent one, for, if God is within you, then He’s also within all other beings. The significance of this relates to the interaction between people, which acquires a new dimension as in seeing oneself within the other and seeing God in everyone. This paradigm of looking at the world then becomes a real basis for empathy, compassion, respect, patience, and understanding – which goes beyond mere tolerance.
The exegesis around this truth —that God is within us all—is the most genuine basis for the practice of morality. When morality is practiced as a collection of dictates just because God gave it to us, it is robbed of its “rasa,” its “juice,” its inner essence, its richness, and depth.
When diversity in both its meanings, (1) visible distinction/differences between people, and (2) our separateness from the divine, is considered fact, sooner or later, any idea of morality “dries up.” Eventually, and repeatedly in every generation, it begs the question, “Why should I care for others, just because God said it?” And the reality is, there is no truly satisfying answer to this question within this framework where diversity is presented as an unalterable fact, as it is today, especially in the Western world.
However, when God is considered to be within us, to be our innermost being, then by logical extension, He is within everyone else, too. There can then be only one correct inference, that despite visible separateness and differences in body, form, cultural norms, etc., the “other” is really “me” in essence because we are both of the essence of God. And any immoral actions (racism included)—which fundamentally constitute causing some kind of harm to others, whether bodily or psychological—will boomerang on us. As the well-known idiom based om the theory of Karma warns us, what goes around comes around. This understanding will automatically guide moral behavior of right and wrong that is rich, meaningful, and true!
Even though the above ideas have been, and had been known in Indian spirituality and culture from time immemorial, it took the genius of Mahatma Gandhi to adopt it as a political ideal through the instrument of satyagraha, “insistence on truth.” It was his leadership in the practice of this ideal in the political arena that galvanized the nation into a non-violent army, which brought the British to their knees. Before that, for two centuries, Indians had been struggling to end colonialism and the systemic racism and oppression inflicted upon Indians by the British, a foreign power ruling in the sovereign land of the Indians.
Today’s social situation in America is, in a sense, its moment of truth, the moment when it can show to the world how truly diverse it is in the domain of adopting ideas also, not only people from different countries as immigrants. America’s political and religious leaders of all stripes and colors are enjoined to adopt the spiritual model elucidated here in plain language for the purpose of creating a truly moral environment. It is the only way for nourishing sustainable and happy relationships between races at a grassroots level through genuine respect, thereby automatically and effortlessly transforming American society into a model of unity in diversity.
By adopting this philosophy, America can also recapture the mantle of political leadership in the world. With this approach, we wouldn’t need to be constantly seeking “a way to peace” between peoples through political treaties, because peace itself would be the way. It would be the natural outgrowth of a truly connected inner attitude towards the spiritual truth of our being, and authentic regard for one another all over the world, no matter our outward differences.
 Paraphrased from Chandogya Upanishad, Translated with notes based on Adi Shankara’s commentary by Swami Lokeshwarananda, published by Ramakrishna Mission Institute of Culture, 2017 edition.