Author: Koenraad Elst.
Editorial note: Dr. Koenraad Elst wrote this for the Infinity Foundation Mandala project almost two decades ago. The recent interview of ex-Christian Esther Dhanraj has provoked lots of discussion. This essay by Dr. Elst, in his own inimitable style, we hope, will add more perspective.
In the Upanishads, the youngest layer of Vedic literature, attention shifts from the ritual fire sacrifice to the interior of man’s consciousness. If we empty it of the sensory and mental contents which usually occupy it, we see in it our true nature, the Self. However, experiencing the mental silence in which the realization of the Self dawns is easier said than done. So, determined seekers made it their full-time occupation to pierce the veil of mental dross, to seek liberation from the web of ignorance, false identification and attachment. It is among this class of seekers that the Buddha emerged as the discoverer and teacher of the most successful and well-rounded method.
The goal of the Upanishadic and Buddhist yogis was “liberation” (mukti, moksha), or, in the Buddha’s more negative-sounding terminology, “blowing out” (nirvana). This is a double-negative concept: first a problem intrinsically affecting all people is defined (suffering, ignorance, attachment), then a method of eliminating the problem is devised and put into practice, ideally resulting in liberation. Exactly the same doctrinal structure forms the core of Christianity: all human beings are afflicted with original Sin incurred by Adam and Eve, and now they stand in need of Salvation, which the religion provides. This notion of a radical wrongness in the human condition and of a concomitant radical jump out of it and into the state of Salvation does not exist in Judaism and Islam. Neither does it exist in most Pagan religions, such as the ancient Greek religion, Confucianism or Shinto, nor even, apparently, in the oldest Vedic layer of Hinduism.
How is Liberation or Salvation achieved? The original Hindu-Buddhist answer is: through right effort, viz. through a meditative practice which stills all mental distractions. However, this path of self-liberation is demanding and fails to deliver the immediate consolation ordinary people hope for. So, soon enough a devotional practice developed which attributed to the Buddha, or to Shiva or Krishna, the power to somehow “grant” Liberation to his devotees. Hindu philosophers have distinguished between two approaches to Liberation: the “way of the baby monkey”, which clings to its mother through its own effort, and the “way of the kitten”, which is picked up by its mother between her teeth. In practice, the way of the kitten is the most popular by far: people make the effort of putting themselves into a religious mood but expect the real breakthrough to Salvation from a caring and interventionist Divine Person. Though most Hindus and Buddhists vaguely know of the fruits of meditation, few of them actually practise it, while most settle for devotional practices such as chanting and waving incense sticks before an idol of a Divine or Liberated Person.
It is at this devotional stage, which purists would evaluate as a degenerative stage, that Christianity has picked up the Hindu-Buddhist notion of Salvation. Just like the Oriental devotee expects Shiva or the Amitabha Buddha or Guan Yin (Chinese Buddhist goddess) to save him, the Christian reveres Jesus Christ as the agent of his Salvation. Though Christian mystics have tried to come closer to God through meditative techniques, Christianity as such has no technology of Salvation, unlike orthodox Buddhism. Official Christian doctrine confines the possibilities of Salvation to the salvific intervention of God through His only-begotten Son, Jesus Christ.
Jews and Muslims have always denounced Christianity as an incomplete or downright false pretender to monotheism. They see the doctrine of the Trinity (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) as detracting from God’s unity and unicity. Leaving aside for now the Holy Spirit, it is mainly the Divine Person of the Son, God Incarnate, which strict monotheists find theologically incorrect.
In Hellenistic society, people had a very fuzzy notion of “god” and didn’t mind describing remarkably spiritual people or purported miracle-workers as “divine”. Ancient heroes such as Hercules were deified after their deaths in a process known as apotheosis, “transformation into a god”, and placed among the stars in the night sky. The Hindus posthumously deified their heroes Rama and Krishna by reinterpreting their lives as incarnations of Lord Vishnu. In Buddhism, the historical Buddha is gradually given the status of a divine incarnation, one in a series of enlightened beings descended on earth in order to bring Liberation to all the suffering beings. Pagan Semitic cultures, e.g. in Ugarit, likewise gave a posthumous divine status to their revered kings by associating them with one of the gods, such as El or Ba’al. This process of association was called shirk, a term generalized by Mohammed to every “association” of lesser beings with the one God, Allah (“the god”). Muslims refer to all polytheists as mushrikin, “associators”, viz. of lesser beings with Allah.
In the opinion of the Muslims, the Jews and the Arian heretics of Christianity, the allotment of a divine status to Jesus Christ is not truly different from the procedure by which the Pagans gave divine status to their kings and saints, to stars and mountains, even to animal species (Egyptian cats, Hindu cows) and sculpted statues and trees, briefly to creatures instead of the Creator. They think, quite sensibly, that Christian belief detracts from monotheism by adopting as its most central dogma the highly Pagan notion that a creature, the son of a woman, could be God. On this point, Christianity is undeniably less akin to Judaism and Islam than to those sects of Hinduism and Buddhism which deify historic figures like Krishna and the Buddha.
Christianity’s number one selling point is its emphasis on the virtue of love (not to be misinterpreted as erotic love) or charity. Missionaries love to contrast universal Christian charity with Jewish ethnocentrism, Muslim or Marxist conflict-prone fanaticism, Hindu callous indifference to the suffering of anyone belonging to another caste, or Buddhism’s ethereal disinterest in any useful worldly work per se. However, this notion of universal fellow-feeling and its implementation in works of charity definitely predates Christianity.
Four centuries before Christ, the Chinese school of Mozi already preached jian’ai, “universal love”, and put it into practice in self-supporting communities (comparable to those established by the Epicureans in the Hellenistic world). These Mohists argued that one’s love should be distributed evenly over all fellow-men, while their Confucian contemporaries contended that love should be differentiated in intensity: more love for close relatives, less for distant acquaintances, less still for unknown people. Yet, even the Confucians taught that some fellow-feeling or “fellow-humanity” (ren) should be extended to all mankind. Meanwhile in India, the Vedas and later the Buddha extolled fellow-feeling or compassion (daya c.q. karuna), not just towards one’s fellow men but towards all sentient beings.
It may be admitted that Christianity gave its own twist to charity. The activist streak of going out and opening orphanages or hospitals is less in evidence in Hinduism or Buddhism than in Christian settlements. Unlike Buddhist and Hindu monks, who are only expected to do their devotional or yogic duties, Christian monks of most orders are required to work. It may be conceded that Buddhist monks sometimes did take upon themselves certain charitable activities, notably in medicine, which is after all an application of the basic Buddhist vocation to relieve suffering. Among the duties of kings, Hindu scriptures include the care for the needy and the handicapped. Even so, there is just no denying that among religious personnel, Christian monks were and are encouraged far more systematically than any others to give a materially constructive expression to their sense of charity.
The reason for this difference, according to Hindus and Buddhists convinced of the superiority of their own tradition, is that Christian missionaries had to “sell” their doctrinal “product” by giving the extra bonus of material help, just like salesmen of inferior products try to make people buy them with the lure of extras. In this view, a convert to Buddhism opts for the Buddhist Way, while a convert to Christianity may take Christian beliefs in his stride while primarily seeking access to the Christian network of charity. A less polemical explanation would be that the wider family units in India could better provide for the needs of their own sick and needy members, hence requiring less help from “public” charities than the uprooted masses of the late Roman empire or the industrial-age West (note that Mother Teresa made her name in Kolkata among uprooted immigrants into the modern city, not in a traditional Hindu social setting). The reason may also be that Christianity simply happened to acquire its mature form in a pre-existing activist culture: first the Romans with their no-nonsense dynamism and their feats of engineering, later the Germanic peoples in their cold climate requiring daily labour and inventiveness for sheer survival, as contrasting with the Buddha’s Gangetic setting where the relative opulence of nature and the immense heat discourage physical exertion.
But the most fundamental reason why traditions originating in India lay less emphasis on material compassion and activist forms of charity, is simply that they pay more attention to what they perceive as a deeper human need. Clothing the naked and feeding the hungry is very fine, but as the Buddha knew from his own young days of luxury, even the well-fed and well-clad are subject to unhappiness and suffering. The highest compassion is therefore not the sharing of material things or emotional attention, but the imparting of the ethical and meditative methods leading to Nirvana.
In any case, the whole idea that man should care about his brother, that he should take responsibility for the welfare of society as a whole or for needy human beings in particular, clearly precedes Christianity. Like the Christian, though since centuries earlier, the Hindu or the Buddhist is his brother’s keeper, and is taught from childhood not to indulge in self-centred inanities and mindless self-indulgence, of course not to be confused with disciplined self-introspection. Caring for others may legitimately be called a Christian virtue, but it is not exclusively Christian and finds older models in at least Mohism, Confucianism, Hinduism and Buddhism, and no doubt in other pre-Christian teachings as well.
Christianity is not as original as it flatters itself to be. Just as it is now widely accepted that the Old Testament has profusely borrowed from older Mesopotamian and Egyptian sources, the New Testament has likewise borrowed some of its core imagery and defining beliefs from the ambient Hellenistic-cosmopolitan culture and from the Indic teachings which had gained a certain popularity in the Eastern Mediterranean region. This implies that rather than being a direct gift from God, Christianity is simply a human construct, just as it already believes all other religions to be. Those who are inspired by Jesus’ example and teachings might do well to study their Saviour’s own sources of inspiration.
Dr. Koenraad Elst was born in Leuven, Belgium, on 7 August 1959, into a Flemish (i.e. Dutch-speaking Belgian) Catholic family. He graduated in Philosophy, Chinese Studies and Indo-Iranian Studies at the Catholic University of Leuven. During a stay at the Benares Hindu University, he discovered India’s (Read More)
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