K K Hebsoor
Author’s Note : This article is the second chapter of the author’s book, “The Heart of Christ: Unraveling 9 Hard Sayings from the bible Through the Lens of Vedanta.” In this book, the author selects nine sayings from the Bible whose traditional explanations he finds rather underwhelming. But he argues that the sayings themselves have merit if understood from the lens of Indian scriptures – the Upanishads and the Gita – further evidence (in the author’s opinion) that Jesus studied under Indian masters in his “lost years,” i.e., the eighteen years when Jesus was not seen in his native land and when nobody knew his whereabouts.
It is the author’s opinion that without spiritual clarity, one cannot make sense of the phenomenal world. Without question, Sanatana Dharma is the broadest and most inclusive of all spiritual systems in the world. Nevertheless, it is foolish to interpret the Vedic adage, “ekam sat, viprah bahudah vadanti,” as all religions being the same. When formulated in terms of a personal God, all may have the same goal. But Hindus have become weak, individually and societally, by assuming that this implies , the onus is on them to defend and/or practice other people’s religion and sampradaya instead of their own. Nothing is more foolhardy.
“What is harder than rock? What is softer than water? Yet hard rocks are hollowed out by soft water.”
“The basic recurring theme in Hindu mythology is the creation of the world by the self-sacrifice of God—”sacrifice” in the original sense of “making sacred”—whereby God becomes the world which, in the end, becomes again God.”
– Fritjof Capra, The Tao of Physics
The teachings of Vedanta, organized in books called the Upanishads—Hinduism’s highest teachings—summarize and appear chronologically at the end of the Vedas. The Vedas, including the Vedanta, are the voluminous scriptural works of Sanatana Dharma, or “Eternal Law,” commonly known as “Hinduism” in the West.
The Sanskrit word “Dharma” is commonly translated into English as “religion,” but this is an inadequate translation and hence a misnomer. “Religion” connotes obligatory laws to be followed (from the Latin for “Religare” or “Religio” meaning “binding”). “Dharma” comes from the Sanskrit root “Dhri,” which means “to support.”
For example, we can ask, what supports the natural world in the sense that it governs and protects it? The answer is: laws, in this case, natural (physical) laws.
To illustrate, gravity, cycles of day and night, rules of molecular combination in chemistry, and so on, are all laws of nature, governing and therefore also protecting, how nature operates. You may ask, “How do natural laws protect? Aren’t they neutral?” Indeed, by virtue of their neutrality, they apply uniformly and prevent whimsical behavior. If gravity didn’t behave as a law, meaning act uniformly on everything, and every time without exception, then the next time you jump, you could just launch yourself into outer space!
Next, we probe what supports, governs, and protects society? Civil and social laws. Our everyday engagement with strangers and co-workers as well as our behaviors in public spaces (or even at home) are regulated and preserved by civil and social laws, thus preventing descent into chaos and anarchy.
Likewise, we can ask, what supports humans in their spiritual lives? The answer: spiritual laws. The entire body of such spiritual laws as revealed to the ancient rishis—forest-dwelling sages and “spiritual scientists”in India—is called “Sanatana Dharma.” These laws are “Sanatana,” which means they are eternal, both in time and space, and hence universal. In addition, they are conditioned upon contexts, goals, and situations, just like the aforementioned natural and civil laws. The latter aspect of these laws—contexts, goals, and situations—constitutes the basis for why Hinduism is often referred to as “a way of life.”
However, it is not just an arbitrary way of life. Rather, in conformance with the true definition of Dharma above, it is a way of living that supports all life. It is a way that protects and uplifts the inner and outer expressions of life, guided by the spiritual principles (not dictates), enumerated in Indian scriptures. These principles emphasize the centricity of truth, honesty, integrity, non-covetousness, humility, control of the senses, a mental detachment from greed and materialism, all arising primarily from love of God, whatever your conception of Him or Her.
The term “religion,” on the other hand, connotes fixed obligatory laws that people must follow, as dictates. This, Hinduism isn’t—not in the manner that other religions are. This is explained with a simple example: If you need to attend a job interview with a bank on Wall Street, you would be well-advised to wear an Armani suit and tie. In contrast, if you want to enjoy a day at the beach, you’d don swimwear! If you reverse the clothing choice and interview with the Wall Street bank in a swimsuit, it is safe to say that you won’t get the bank job (no matter how well you interview). And if you visit the beach in an Armani suit and tie, not only would people laugh at you, but you would not enjoy the sun or a swim in the ocean. The dress code, therefore, is obligatory only insofar as the context and goals are concerned. This is obviously a simplistic example, but it captures the gist behind the explanation of the word “Dharma.”
If you have a spiritual (or material/secular) goal, there are proven laws that will get you there, contends Hinduism. Hence, Sanatana Dharma is that collection of (eternal) laws that support men and women, anyone, anywhere, anytime, in any era, in his or her spiritual and material life and quest on Earth. The Upanishads are those writings that not only describe the workings of the spiritual world but also offer laws that govern the attainment of spiritual goals and the path to real and permanent emancipation. This kind of emancipation is widely called Liberation, Illumination, Enlightenment, release from the cycle of birth and death, and so on.
Hinduism’s writings, voluminous, vast, grand, and ambitious in their scope, nevertheless adhere to a fundamental principle or doctrine: ekam sat, viprah bahudaha vadanti, or, “there is one truth, the wise say it in various ways.”
In summation, there is no exclusivity. No one can claim a monopoly on spiritual truth, the spiritual experience, or the paths to reach it. There is only one truth but a million ways to say it. In this sense, no other tradition is as democratic, welcoming and scripturally inclusive in its very foundations with respect to who qualifies for the “kingdom of God.” No other religion, scripturally, allows such latitude—every system, other than Hinduism, claims that only its own specific path leads to enlightenment.
Unlike the Abrahamic religions, Hindu spirituality is a matter of practice rather than pure “belief.” Besides, from the start, the emphasis is on experience and on gaining knowledge through experience. Theoretical, conceptual, or philosophical argumentation for its own sake, or attempts to establish who may be more correct, are generally discouraged.
What does experience teach you? Do you need to think, to know that you exist? Or is it your direct, immediate, and unmixed experience without thinking?
Asked differently, is it not your experience that you exist prior to thinking? Let’s definitively close this point out: the French mathematician and philosopher Descartes declared, “I think; therefore, I am.” Yet, in consideration of that statement, one is forced to ask: the stone does not think—therefore, it isn’t?
Such abstract argumentation as the above in the Western philosophical domain has a fancy name, “theology.” When a Christian Apologist once went to Japan and asked a Zen monk, “But what is your theology?” the monk paused and replied, “What theology? We just dance.”
This could be an excellent answer for the Upanishads, too. In fact, the Upanishads go further and describe in quite exhilarating detail how the cosmic dance looks. They even urge, almost seduce, the reader and spiritual seeker to go on that adventure, experience that choreography themselves, and “become” the dance itself.
The knowledge of the supreme truth, Hinduism claims, isn’t the same as the experience itself. If you wish to show your daughter the North Star, you identify it in the night sky, and following the direction you are pointing at, your daughter sees it on her own. This act of seeing exemplifies the experience. Here, the experience of seeing is with one’s physical eyes. Spiritual teaching is the same, except the eyes required are “inner” or “spiritual” eyes.
The highest spiritual knowledge isn’t something that is knowable in a conceptual sense with the mind-apparatus; it cannot be worked out logically.
The standard approach in the Abrahamic religions for resolving this issue is, therefore, to ask followers to believe scriptural doctrines of spiritual truths (which the clerical authorities claim they know better) as a creed—hard-wired into your system, as it were.
Hinduism asks you to believe only what you can experience, at which point, it is no longer a “hard” belief because it is then in your experience. And where you haven’t yet experienced it, you are invited to “believe” it, but in the manner that a scientist does—as a hypothesis to be tested and confirmed. If you cannot confirm it, then reject it (for the given conditions and assumptions of that hypothesis).
Hinduism claims that anyone can experience the final spiritual truth, and in fact, it urges everyone to keep seeking until they do finally experience it. And how will you know it is final? You’ll know it just as you would know when you’ve reached the top of Mount Everest if you were to climb it.
Accordingly, the sayings of the Christ presented here are precisely like the pointing described above—exhorting the faithful to have an experience of the infinite.
The traditionalists may disagree with this premise. What they say amounts to this: You should wholeheartedly accept the description of someone else’s experience of the truth as being enough for your life.
To further illustrate: “We’ve been to the Grand Canyon; here is how it feels; you don’t need to go there; take it from us,” they insist. However, the heart rebels: “I want to go on that adventure and experience the Grand Canyon, too,” it contends. And it should.