What Calls You, Pilgrim?

What Calls You, Pilgrim?

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

 In a generous comment on my book The Yoga of the Christ,[1] the justly highly regarded comparative religionist, Huston Smith, hailed it as a “landmark in interfaith dialogue.” However, I have become increasingly uneasy about this comment because I do not believe that I was engaging in interfaith dialogue in that book or in any of my other writings or talks. I have wished to engage in what may be called an inter-pilgrim dialogue.  In my judgment, there is something wrong with interfaith dialogues. When the East-West or interfaith dialogues are too much bound by the past, the dynamic nature of cultures and religions, and above all of human beings, cannot be appreciated.

If one has never met someone from another culture or religion, interfaith or inter-cultural conversation is obviously a good idea. But I wish to suggest as strongly as I can that interfaith dialogues are at best a preliminary stage of human to human dialogue and can even be an impediment to a deeper understanding. A dialogue of cultures and worldviews, in which the parties involved declare their adherence to one or another faith or culture, can fix these faiths and cultures into the entities that they were. In fact these cultures and religions are alive and dynamic and are undergoing large and serious transformations right now. An inter-pilgrim dialogue, which is of necessity somewhat trans-cultural, trans-religious and trans-disciplinary, is needed to move into a future of a larger comprehension. We don’t need to stunt the growth or prevent a radical reformulation of the traditions by insisting that everyone declare their adherence to one or another version of the past. Every major spiritual teacher, especially the really revolutionary ones like the Buddha and Krishna and the Christ, points out both the great call carried in the subtle core of the traditions as well as the betrayal (a word which comes from the same root as tradition) of the real living heart of the Sacred by them. To fix the other, or myself, in some past mould and thus to deny the possibility of a wholly unexpected radical transformation is surely a sin against the Holy Spirit: treating the other as an object rather than a person, an ‘it’ and not as a ‘Thou.’

These days when I visit my family in the city of Chandigarh in India, I hardly meet a person who does not have a friend or a relative who has not been to one or another Western country. Dialogue of worldviews is not merely an academic matter for discussion in learned assemblies. When people brought up in very different cultures, with different religious and musical backgrounds, whisper to each other sweet nothings in intimate embraces, much non-verbal and direct dialogue of worldviews takes place. A great deal of such dialogue is now going on, especially in large urban centres all over the globe.

And the products of such dialogues include scholarly cross-cultural and comparative studies of many kinds as well as literature, films, theatre, music which is not bound by one geographical or national boundary or influence. Many examples of very fruitful cross-cultural experimentation in the arts can be given. Above all, an increasing number of children of different ethnic and cultural parentage, often highly beautiful and intelligent, are by their very existence culture jammers and embodiments of worldviews in dialogue.

Culture is not imbibed only from books. The festivals celebrated in one’s family, the music in the background, the myths and legends, the food one eats and much more embody a culture. The musical dialogues between Yehudi Menhuin and Ravi Shankara, and the attempts of Peter Brook to portray the intricacies of the Mahabharata in theatre are examples of the results of exchanges between cultures. These days the Governor General of Canada is a woman of Chinese origin; and the premier of the Province of British Columbia last year was an immigrant from Punjab. It was amusing to see a couple of years ago in the financial section of a Canadian newspaper a photograph of the CEO’s of two large airlines which had just decided to merge, United Airlines and U.S. Air. Both the CEO’s were of Indian origin. All these people are engaged in a dialogue of worldviews, not necessarily under such a title, but in their daily activities. There are more and more interactions at various levels between people coming from quite different cultural backgrounds. They may not be self-consciously engaging in dialogue, but exchange and dialogue take place.

I myself have now lived longer in the Western world than in India. For many years now I have thought and expressed myself in a Western language. Also, for years I was trained in Physics, which surely has been the Western yoga of knowledge par excellence, and I am married into Christianity and the Western culture. I occasionally ask my friends, or organizers of the symposia to which I am sometimes invited to represent the East, ‘What makes me an Easterner?’ I am happy enough to be an Indian or an Easterner, but what makes me an Easterner?  Place of birth? Skin colour? Certain philosophical or religious inclinations?  Because I am a Hindu I can happily embrace both the Christ and the Buddha, as could any one anywhere in the world appreciate and love the great creative contributions of Albert Einstein or Dogen Zenzi without having to be a Swiss Jew or a Japanese.

I am also the father of children nourished by two great cultures; they are double breeds. They willy-nilly carry on a dialogue of worldviews in their cells. They, and so many of their friends, who are in and out of our home, are more and more transnational and transcultural in their attitudes, tastes and perspectives. They are not convinced of the necessity of denying the great wisdom and practices of other religions because of an adherence to some exclusivist dogma of one or another religion. They can take delight in and be nourished by not only the two cultures of their parents but even others because they are not wholly hemmed in by the conditioning of one particular culture. Freedom of movement from one position to another, from one language to another, bears the seeds of delight, a taste of Brahman, the Vastness.  A lack of mobility, a sense of being constrained and constricted, is how Dante conveys the notion of hell.  On the other side, the higher the heaven, the more freedom of movement; the higher the angels, the more wings they have so that they can be more mobile with more felicity.

Juxtaposition Without Conquest

One of the outstanding features of our age since the Second World War is that now a juxtaposition of two major cultures or worldviews does not necessarily mean that one of them has to be the victor and the other the vanquished. This is one of the important features of post-modernism in the West. The modernist project in the West, dearly beloved and strenuously pursued during the period from the European Renaissance to the Holocaust in Nazi Germany and the Atomic incineration in Japan, was predicated on many assumptions and attitudes. Among these was the assumption–very much supported both by the Western intellectual tradition and by the major Western religion–that there is one expression of and one way to truth and that the West has it, religiously in the form of Christianity and epistemologically in the form of modern science. Since the Second World War, it has been difficult for the Western intelligentsia to seriously hold this view. This may still be the case in ordinary mass psychology, but most of the intellectuals no longer subscribe to this attitude, certainly not as strongly as they used to. In liberal scientific circles it is fashionable now to acknowledge other ways of knowing; and in liberal Christian circles the official Church dogma Extra ecclesia nulla salus  (Outside the Church there is no salvation) creates various degrees of embarrassment and is often denied and downplayed.[2]

There are several reasons for this massive shift in attitude, some of which are consequences of inherent elements in the two Western institutions mentioned above, namely, science and Christianity. The amazing acceleration and increase in the means of transportation and communication brought about by modern science and technology has resulted in a large number of people from different cultures interacting with people from other cultures — businessmen, students, teachers, volunteers, immigrants, tourists, scholars.

Christianity has also in its activities contributed to the major attitudinal difference, more as an unintended consequence. Although very much an Asian religion in its origins, Christianity has for the last sixteen hundred years been culturally primarily associated with Western culture. The conversion of Emperor Constantine in the fourth century CE made Christianity very much an imperial religion. All the major Christian doctrines were established in the first seven Councils which were all convened by imperial initiative. The relationship of Christianity with the centres of power in Europe has continued for so long, including later the association of Christianity with the colonial powers of Europe, that a deep Eurocentricism and a sense of superiority adhere to Christian dogma and practice, including the conviction that no one can be saved without conversion to Christianity. The conversions themselves have resulted in a shift of religious demographics. Until 1920, more than 80% of all the Christians in the world were of European descent. Since 1980 however the majority of Christians in the world are of non-European descent. And a great many of the Christians now live in places where they are a religious minority. Coupled with a general decline of European colonialism, this has activated a dialogue of worldviews. About a decade ago, the World Council of [Christian] Churches was meeting in British Columbia, Canada. A television report on one of their open meetings was a particularly colourful spectacle, much of the colour being in the delegates present there from various ethnic groups.

However, the Eurocentricism, and the associated sense of superiority of the European races and culture, which has very much coloured Christian doctrine, does not seem to have yet suffered the fact of the shift in religious demographics. The late Paulos Mar Gregorios who was the Metropolitan of the Syrian Orthodox Church in Delhi told me of an incident which illustrates this. Metropolitan Gregorios was a man of much substance: in addition to his religious qualifications he was a distinguished scholar. At one time he was the President of the Indian Philosophical Congress. He was also for some time the President of the World Council of [Christian] Churches. In this capacity he had an audience with the present Pope at the Vatican.

Metropolitan Gregorios asked the Pope what he thought was the reason for such a small percentage of Indians having converted to Christianity although it had been in India for such a long time. The Pope said to him the reason was that the Indian mind was not developed enough to understand the subtlety of thought of St. Gregory of Nyssa or of St. Thomas Aquinas. Somewhat taken aback Metropolitan Gregorios asked the Pope if he had read Shankara or Nagarjuna. He was immediately shown out of the room where the audience was taking place. I found the incident merely amusing because I did not find this surprising at all, but he had been much saddened by it, for the issue was more personal for him. As he said, he realized for the first time and first hand that every Indian Christian is considered to be a second class Christian in the Vatican. This was even more galling for him because he belonged to a branch of Christianity as ancient as any.

In due course, all this is bound to change. However strongly entrenched, such attitudes hardly represent the best of Christianity. Non-Western cultures of the world have brought forth or have fostered quite distinct sorts of Christian understanding. Some people, such as Father Bede Griffiths, have set up Christian ashrams in India where they have tried to incorporate many distinctly Indian ceremonies and rituals. Many others have learned meditation in the context of Hinduism or Buddhism and have set up Christian ashrams in the West. However, the transformations which are needed are much deeper than these. What is needed is an inter-pilgrim dialogue–in which the pilgrims do not already know what God is and what Truth is but are searching–rather than inter-faith dialogues in which some past councils or texts have already established the creeds and the dogmas one must believe and it does not matter what one’s experience actually teaches.

Shadows of the Sun 

As long as we speak in terms of defined identities and engage in inter-faith or inter-cultural dialogues, we add to the entrenchment of the ‘faiths’ and ‘traditions’ of the past and interfere with their dynamic transformations which alone bespeak of the life and vitality of the traditions. Here I will take an illustration of two of the very subtle insights, one of India and the other of the Biblical tradition, to indicate how a non-experiential dogmatic adherence to past formulations of these insights, possibly their highest insights, have produced their shadows.

From India, we take the insistence of all the sages on the oneness of all there is. This is one of the fundamental truths of Sanatana Dharma, a more appropriate label for the Indian tradition, from the Rig Veda through Gautama Buddha, Mahavira, Nagarjuna, Shankara, Kabir, Nanak, Ramakrishna to Ramana in our own times. Sometimes this insight is expressed in a stark and transpersonal manner, such as Shankara’s realization that all is Brahman and therefore Brahman satya jagat mithya (Brahman is truth, the world, if seen apart from It, is false) and sometimes in more personal terms, such as in the Bhagavad Gita, that all there is is Krishna. In spite of the differences in the formulations over several thousand years, the degree of realization and embodiment of this essential truth marks the degree of largeness of being and wisdom of a sage. Attachment to an exclusive traditional formulation in terms of the oneness has mitigated against the recognition of the uniqueness of each individual manifestation. In the realm of encountering other religions, an abstract commitment to the essential unity of all religions in the Indian mind has not often permitted a detailed study of and enjoyment of the wondrous and quite remarkably different manifestations of various religions.

It is often claimed by well-meaning liberal Hindus that Christianity is the same as the Bhaktimarga of Hinduism and leads to the same truth. A practical implication is that very few Hindus have ever made a detailed and serious study of Christianity or of any other religion. There are happy exceptions, but very few in the long history of the encounter of India with non-Indian religions. Can a person, or a religion or a culture, be satisfied and feel acknowledged, if they are told that they are all essentially Divine, or lead to Divinity, and that therefore there is no need to engage with their particularity? In an analogy to be found in the Chandogya Upanishad (6.1.4), and much quoted and admired by the Vedantists, it is said that clay alone is real, while its modifications are only names arising from speech. However true this statement may be at the mountain peak of consciousness–a vantage point vouchsafed to very few persons in human history–here below it can become a facile and destructive dismissal of all art, uniqueness, and individuality. Is an exquisite Chinese vase the same as a lump of clay?

From the Biblical traditions we could take the very subtle and powerful enunciation of monotheism in the Jewish Shema: “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God is one Lord: and thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thine heart, and with all th soul, and with all thy might” (Deuteronomy 6:4-5). This has had an enormous impact on Christianity and Islam as well. Monotheism is often considered by pious people and scholars in the West to be the acme of religious understanding. But no other religious notion has had a more pernicious consequence in creating bigotry and fanaticism than monotheism. ‘Monotheism’ everywhere has resulted in ‘My-theism’ leading to warfare against other people’s religious forms. No one would say that there is one God and it is not my God but yours. The late Nobel Laureate Octavio Paz once said:

“We owe to monotheism many marvelous things, from cathedrals to mosques. But we also owe to it hatred and oppression. The roots of the worst sins of Western civilization–the Crusades, colonialism, totalitarianism–can be traced to the monotheistic mindset… For a pagan, it was rather absurd that one people and one faith could monopolize the truth.”[3]

Octavio Paz (who was appointed the Mexican ambassador to India in the sixties, a position which he regarded highly significant both in his life and in his work as witnessed in various books written during his stay In India, especially The Grammarian Monkey and East Slope) could not be unmindful of the fact that beautiful sacred buildings could hardly be said to be exclusively related with monotheism–witness the marvelous temples of the ‘polytheistic’ and trans-theistic Hindus and Buddhists. Many of these temples were destroyed by the monotheistic fervor which views every other religion’s sacred images and buildings with lack of respect or even hatred.

The subtlety of understanding which insists that the Ultimate cannot be captured in any image or form cannot be sustained by the mind unprepared to live without crutches of form, colour, name, beliefs and dogmas of faith. Every religion has idols; it is only other peoples’ idols the monotheists find troublesome, not their own. All scriptures, theologies, liturgies, no less than images and idols, are particular expressions of religious understandings. Mental idols are more pernicious than idols made of wood and stone because they cannot be so easily seen or seen through. Here, largely owing to shortage of time and space, I would simply quote the distinguished scholar of religion, Wilfred Cantwell Smith (with whom I was privileged to teach a course called ‘Religions of India’ many years ago):

For Christians to think that Christianity is true, or final, or salvific, is a form of idolatry…     Our conclusion, then, is this. In comparative perspective, one sees that ‘idolatry’ is not a notion that clarifies other religious practices or other outlooks than one’s own; yet it can indeed clarify with some exactitude one’s own religious stance, if one has previously been victim of the misapprehension that the divine is to be fully identified with or within one’s own forms. Christians have been wrong in thinking that Hindus are formally idolaters. We would do well, on the other hand, to recognize that we Christians have substantially been idolaters, insofar as we have mistaken for God, or as universally final, the particular forms of Christian life or thought.     Christianity –for some, Christian theology–has been our idol.     It has had both the spiritual efficacy of ‘idols’ in the good sense, and serious limitations of idolatry in the bad sense.[4]

If we keep hanging on to ‘faiths’ frozen in some past formulations, we certainly make them into idols in the pejorative sense of this word. Then it is difficult to see how one would reconcile the insistence on the oneness of all there is with the uniqueness of each manifestation, and the clarity of knowing that the Ultimate is beyond any forms whatsoever and the generosity that sees the Divine in all forms and celebrates image making as an aid to seeing the Divine. Inter-pilgrim exchanges are different by nature. Much can be exchanged on the mountain slope when one pauses with pilgrims from different directions for refreshment and for learning of the dangers which lie on the journey ahead. Only the actual voyagers on the spiritual paths, the sages and saints[5] in all the traditions, simultaneously experience the oneness of all and the uniqueness of each creature. They stress the ineffability of what they have experienced on the mountain peak while being grateful for all the images, forms, icons, scriptures, prayers and rosaries they used as helpful aids on their journeys.

One may wonder if future pilgrims nourished in the global culture would still feel constrained to label themselves as Hindus or Christians. Even if they do, they will be Hindus and Christians of very different sorts from the ones in the past. Lest we should think this is all too romantic, we have already had models of such with great beings (mahatmas) with large perspectives: J. Krishnamurti, Shri Aurobindo, Thomas Merton, Father Thomas Berry, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, to name only a few. Roaming in many landscapes, physical and cultural, one can gather much insight. As a young man I was a member of the Youth Hostels Association of India. Their motto used to be, and I imagine it still is, charan vai madhu vindati (wandering, one gathers honey). Only recently I re-encountered this in Aitareya Brahmana (7.15.5) with delight.  I would have thought that Huston Smith himself, nourished by the wisdom of many great traditions, is one such model.

Looking at Ganga and Jordan from an Aeroplane

We can count on, or at least hope, that the holdback religions and faiths will give way to world spirituality and world theology. My writings are occasionally criticized by reviewers who are offended by what they regard to be ‘spilling Ganges water into the Jordan.’ It is certainly true that my eyes have been affected by the light reflected from the Ganga. It is also true that the world I live in now and most of the people I encounter have been more influenced by teachings either spoken loudly or whispered on the banks of the Jordan. If the ancient texts are going to have contemporary relevance, both the Ganga and the Jordan will have to be kept simultaneously in view. I could not have arrived where I am now without flying over many rivers, including the Ganga and the Jordan. A view from an aeroplane surely does reveal different aspects of our planet than does the view from a camel by the Jordan or from a bullock cart by the Ganga.

It surprises me that so many people who are convinced of the universal and objective nature of scientific knowledge work so diligently to find in the latest discoveries of the sciences an exclusive vindication of statements in the Vedas or in the Qur’an or of dogmas accepted by the Church Councils at some stage in history. That we are Hindus or Jews or Christians largely depends on where we happened to have been born. It is extremely difficult to believe that truth suddenly changes across a border defined by a river or a mountain range which correspond to political boundaries of past or present empires. I do not have any rigorous data about this, but I imagine that easily 98% or even more people in the world sooner or later–especially at the time of marriages or funerals–revert to the ceremonies and the rituals of the religion which they inherited from their forefathers, with minor variations on the theme. This is quite understandable for, just like the ordinary languages, much of our emotional-religious language is acquired in early childhood and we make sense of the deeper religious aspirations with the aid of these acquired categories of feeling and thought. It is very likely that people who vehemently adhere to one creed or dogma would equally vehemently adhere to another if they had been born in another religious context. The recognition that others exist, as thinking, feeling and autonomous beings sometimes engaged with ultimate concerns, is a step towards freedom from self-occupation and self-importance, a step of crucial import in spiritual awakening.

Attunement to the spiritual dimension surely is an attunement to a quality of vibration, not exclusively to a particular form of the instrument producing the vibration. It has not been easy for some to accept that one can have a transfusion of blood from those whose skin colour is different from their own. It is much harder to allow the possibility of spiritual nourishment underneath religious and racial skins. In my own case, I was born a Hindu. There is much that is good and wise in the Hindu tradition. I am certain I could have been dealt a worse heritage. But the Hindus do not have and cannot have a monopoly on Truth or Wisdom or Insight. One wishes to and strives to grow up, a part of which is to develop a connection with a level of unitive consciousness indicated quite simply by Maharishi Ramana In saying “There are no others.”  This is not an elimination of others in self-occupation, but seeing through the otherness in an integrative perception. It will sadden me if I am merely a Hindu at my death, restricted to my own selfhood defined by contingencies of history or geography. The past is always with us and in us, but future vision needs to be based on some ability to fly with freedom from the past. More one belongs to God, the less likely one is to belong exclusively to one religion and to claim Its monopoly for access to the Ultimate.

        “Sir,” answered the woman, “I can see you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshipped on this mountain, but you people claim that Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship God.” Jesus told her, “Believe me, woman, an hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem… Yet an hour is coming, and is already here, when those who are real worshippers will worship the Father in Spirit and truth. Indeed, it is just such worshippers the Father seeks. God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in Spirit and truth.” (John 4:19-24).

In spiritual matters what is most relevant is how the quality of the person is affected by whatever theology or philosophy or ritual one finds helpful. The person cannot be left out of these concerns, neither oneself nor others. Inter-faith dialogues are good and possibly helpful, inter-pilgrim dialogues are likely to be much more fruitful. We need to be careful not to fix these faiths and the faithful in them. Surely the important thing is to see and to relate with the person behind the faith. It is not that they are Jews and we are Jains, it is more that some of us have a Jewish background and heritage and some others of us have a Jain formation. At our best, we would wish to be related to the Ultimate or to God who all our sages say is neither Jewish nor Jain. If we are permanently restricted to relate to each other only as a Hindu to a Christian, and not as a person to a person, I wonder if we can ever relate as a person to the Person.

As and when religions do their job of insisting on the primacy of the person over any system–theological, metaphysical, economic or political–they are naturally occupied with the cultivation of wise and compassionate people. When such people engage in science, or any other activity, they are naturally concerned for the welfare of all beings, including the earth–not only as generalizations, but also in concrete relationships. As we draw inspiration and instruction from the wise sages and prophets of the past, we shall not be occupied with only our personal salvation, but also for the enlightenment of those who will welcome the dawn with song when we are no longer here. The development of a comprehensive person, one who is closer and closer to the First Person Universal, less ‘I am this’ or ‘I am that’ and more as ‘I AM,’ is a calling of all religions, so that we can awaken from the dead, as St. Paul beautifully said (Ephesians 4:13), to “mature manhood, measured by nothing less than the full stature of Christ.”

However, dogmatic churches and institutions have a strong hold and much vested interest in preventing a free flow of ideas. My book The Yoga of the Christ was published initially in 1990. This was a loving look at the Gospel According to St. John, and somewhat to my surprise it was translated into several languages. In the process of publishing it in Greek, I had such a pitiful request from the Greek publisher in Athens to allow him to change the title, for as he said, “The Orthodox Church will have our publishing house burned down if we published a book with a title containing both ‘Yoga’ and ‘Christ.'”

There are signs everywhere of pilgrims on the spiritual paths, and even cultures on the large finding something of value in the other–not only because the other is much like us in many aspects and at many levels, but precisely because the other is different from us, a unique manifestation of the spirit, and can teach us perspectives which have been excluded by our specific cultural conditioning. At a cultural level, the turning of the East to the West has been going on for some time and hardly needs to be elaborated here. But there is also a serious turning in the West to the East, felicitously expressed in the title of a book by Harvey Cox, Turning East.

I can give an example from a personal experience. In 1963, while a graduate student in Physics at the University of Toronto, I was involved with a few friends in organizing a symposium on various aspects of religion. We had many well-known scholars, some of whom–such as Marshall McLuhan, Northrop Fry and Emile Fackenheim–later became great luminaries in a variety of fields. Given our limited budget, we could not invite speakers from outside the Toronto-Boston-Montreal zone. However, this is not a negligible region from the point of view of intellectual competence. But we could not find anyone willing and able to speak about mysticism. It was very difficult to find in the bookstores anything about or by any of the many very great mystics in Christianity, not to speak of other religions. A minister of one of the large Protestant sects in Toronto even went so far as to say, “Mysticism has nothing to do with Christianity.”  When I had the temerity to mention the names of St. John of the Cross, St. Teresa of Avila, Meister Eckhart and several others, he blurted out something which he immediately wished to retract, “If mysticism exists in Christianity, it is just a Catholic heresy.” Nowadays, one cannot go to any religion oriented bookstore in Toronto or any other city in the Western world, including in the small bookstore in the basement of the church whose minister had offered the above insight, which is not chock-full of books on mystics and mysticism. There has been a marked shift in interest towards inner spiritual experiences. In the process, no doubt aided by the exposure of some Western pilgrims to the Eastern traditions, there has been a joyous discovery or re-discovery of the inner dimensions of Christianity.

The purpose of all spiritual disciplines–which are not the same as religions–is to relate us with the spiritual (which is to say supra-material and supra-mental) dimensions. This tuning into the subtler dimensions is possible only by cleansing our ordinary perceptions, and by quieting the mind. The requirement of meditation as well as of any serious prayer is to be present with stillness and a silence of the body, mind and the emotions, so that one might hear a rose petal fall, the sound of the thoughts arising, and the silence between thoughts. The arising of thoughts and emotions is a part of the play of Nature, and watching this play with complete equanimity, without being disturbed, belongs to the Spirit. Alert without agitation, a centred-self without being self-centred, a