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A COMPARISON of CHRISTIANITY and HINDUISM
The following is a series
of notes sent to me from a gentlemen I had exchanged a number of posts with
a few years ago. At the time, he was a New Ager and I was an evangelical Christian
arguing for the exclusivity of the Christian message. We exchanged the usual
argument/counterarguments, we each made a few good points, and then amiably
agreed to disagree. At the time I never guessed I'd hear from him again.
Well guess what? About a year ago he writes me out of the blue (how he found out about my website I know not) to inform me that he had converted to Christianity (Catholicism to be precise) and that he now agreed with many of my earlier posts! What a kick in the head that was, for it turns out that in the interim I had left Christianity and moved on towards more metaphysical and eastern teachings (which is where I find myself today.) In effect, we swapped places! Bizarre, huh?
In any case, while the guy was on "the Dark Side" he was something of a proponent of Hinduism, and sent me an attachment that detailed the similarities and differences he noted between the two faiths. Now I must confess that I do not study other faiths in great depth, preferring to follow the Divine intuitively rather than through more traditional processes (such as studying other faiths in detail, although I do from time to time borrow wisdom from various writers and other, mostly eastern, faith systems as they speak to me) so I suspect he knows more about what the faith teaches than I. As such, I found his little tome most interesting and thought others might as well, so I offer it in unedited form--and without commentary--for your consideration. Obviously I don't agree with everything he writes and Catholicism doesn't resonate with me on any level, but I thought others might be interested in some of his observations and ideas as they correspond to their own spiritual walk. Many of the points he makes are particularly insightful and worthy of careful consideration.
BTW: The gentlemen prefers to remain anonymous but if you'd like to contact him or have a comment you'd like me to pass on, I'll forward it to him. He may or may not respond, but he will see it. Enjoy!
Some Notes on Conversion
C. S. Lewis was fond of saying that, in the field of comparative religion, you really only need to study two of them: Hinduism and Christianity. As I tend to agree with this assessmentand I happen to know a fair amount about Hinduism (probably more than I know about Christianity at this point)I have decided to jot down some of the thoughts that occur to me as I contemplate the two religions.
Evil and suffering are the result of our karma.
Christianity: Evil and suffering are the result of our sin.
These two statements look the same to me. Both traditions are agreed that, one way or another, it's all our fault. Neither tradition blames God for it (at least not the personal Creator-God). An ex-Christian looking to flee to the East to escape the "sin" doctrine had better look to flee elsewhere.
Hinduism also makes distinctions between individual karma, group karma, universal karma, etc. This same type of distinction is made in Christianity between individual sin and original (universal) sin.
The main difference appears to be that there are both good and bad karma, while there is only bad sin. The good part of karma seems to be covered by other names in Christianity (maybe "merit" or "good works"?).
Hinduism teaches that good karma will lead one to a blissful after-life and/or happy future lives, but not to moksha (ultimate release). Similarly, in Christianity, good works do not "earn" one the ultimate heaven (the Beatific Vision), but do please God and make one happier.
* * * * * * *
In Orthodox Christianity, man consists of body (soma), mind/soul (psyche), and spirit (pneuma). Western Christianity has conflated soul and spirit. Sometimes Catholicism speaks of spirit as a higher phase of the soul.
According to the Orthodox, both men and animals have souls, but only men have spirit, which is immortal. This seems to come mainly from Greek philosophy. Plotinus speaks about the different phases or types of soulfor example, vegetative soul (which men and animals share), rational soul (which is unique to men), and absolute soul (which is basically God).
Within or behind the soul/spirit is the Logos (Christ). The Logos and the soul/spirit are not identified in Christianityrather, the Logos has created the soul/spirit and is eternally present to it as its ultimate Source.
In Hinduism, man consists of a physical body, a subtle body, and a causal body. The subtle body in turn consists of three levels or "sheaths"prana (the life force, or "energy body"), manas (lower mental functions and emotions), and vijnana (higher reason or Intellect). Prana is associated with breath. Plants, animals and men all breathe (ie, they are all "alive") and so have the pranasheath. Animals and men have emotions and basic mental functions, and so have the manassheath. The vijnanasheath is unique to men.
Behind all these bodies and sheathsdistinct from them, but ultimately one with themis the universal Self, or Atman.
Roughly, then, these are the equivalences between the two teachings (C = Christianity, H = Hinduism):
physical body (C) = physical
body and/or prana (H)
soul (C) = prana and/or manas and/or vijnana (H)
spirit (C) = vijnana and/or causal body (H)
Logos (C) = Atman (H)
Father (C) = Brahman (H)
Christianity teaches that the soul is immortal. Does this mean only the "higher" soul (vijnana), or soul+spirit (manas+vijnana)? If the former, then only the inner spirit is immortal; if the latter, then the day-to-day personality is also immortal.
Hinduism does not have a consistent teaching on this (or any other) subject. However, at least the Shaivas believe that vijnana (the rational soul or spirit) is immortalagreeing with Christianity on this important pointwhile manas (the "lower" soul) is not. The prana-sheath dissolves with the physical body, while manas+vijnana exists in the subtle world, which can be heaven-like, hellish, or just neutral. The subtle world is considered to be purgatorial in naturethe lower soul exhausts all its various drives and lusts ("sins") there. When this "purgatory" is over, manas also dissolves, leaving only vijnana in a purely spiritual realm. It is vijnana that eventually takes on new lower sheaths to reincarnate. Note that no individual reincarnates in this schemerather, vijnana (the immortal part of us that decides and chooses) assimilates the experiences of one individual, then becomes a new individual. Therefore, the Catholic teaching against reincarnationtaken to mean that an individual is reborn in a new physical bodycould actually be considered to be consistent with Hinduism (although neither tradition seems to agree with this).
It seems to me likely that the original Christian teaching was that the lower soul (prana+manas) perishes with the physical body, and only the spirit (pneuma) survives to go to Heaven/Purgatory or Hell. The lower soulour day-to-day personalityis later resurrected (actually, re-created) along with the physical body as part of the New Creation. But I could very well be wrong about this.
The idea that the lower soul (ie, the ordinary personality) perishes with the physical body seems very rational and intuitively correct, at least on the surface. Surprisingly, however, quite a lot of evidence from parapsychology seems to indicate otherwise, and would tend to give more credence to the Catholic idea that the whole soul/spirit, including the lower elements, is immortal. If the Catholics are right, this must mean that virtually everybody on Earth winds up in Purgatory for a longer or shorter time after death. (And in fact, the Catholic apologist Peter Kreeft says that he would agree with this statement.) In nearly half a century of living, I have never yet met a person who I thought merited either an eternal Hell or the Beatific Vision as they werenor do I expect to ever meet either type of person.
In sum, Christianity and Hinduism are not quite compatible on the subject of man's constitution and destiny, but they are not nearly as far apart as is commonly supposed. There are large areas of broad agreement.
* * * * * * *
Another similarity between Hinduism and Christianity that I have never seen pointed out by anybody: In Hinduism (and its bastardized Western offshoots such as Theosophy), karma can only be "made" in the physical world. After death, in the subtle/causal world(s), one only enjoys/suffers the effects of what one did on Earth - one does not make new karma there. This idea, though expressed in very different language, is quite similar to the Christian doctrine that there is no chance to change one's eternal destiny after death - one is bound to Heaven/Purgatory or Hell based entirely on one's earthly life.
* * * * * * *
Christianity is the most mysterious religion in the world - its teachings are paradoxical from top to bottom. C. S. Lewis is quite right when he says that it's not at all like something that was made up. It would never enter any sane person's mind to make up the kinds of things that Christianity claims and hope to get anybody else to actually believe them. Contrast it, for example, with the cool, ultra-rational discourse of Buddhism. Christianity is either stark raving insanity, or else it has got hold of a truth (or truths) that no other religion has.
* * * * * * *
I now believe that Christianity is absolutely unique in certain ways. Its understanding of the human heart is subtler and more profound than any other religion that I am familiar with. As a result, it satisfies certain deep human needs that the other traditions seem not to be even aware of. (Chesterton is very illuminating on this particular subject.) Furthermore, as these human needs are too deep and mysterious for rational daylight understanding, so also the way in which Christianity satisfies them is equally mysterious, and cannot really be plausibly explained. This is why so much of Christian theology sounds almost silly to non-Christians (as it did to me for many years), but begins to make intuitive sense once one is inside the faith. I personally cannot believe that anyone is ever converted to Christianity by intellectual argument. Certainly I was not - my own conversion remains a mystery to me, and I suspect it always will be.
* * * * * * *
Chesterton was right when he said that unbelievers do not deny Christianity because they think that the things it teaches are badon the contrary, they deny them because they think that Christianity's claims are too good to be true. This is assuming, of course, that they truly understand what it is that Christianity teachesmany being totally deceived on this point. It has taken me literally decades to fight my way through all the errors and lies I have been told over the years about Christianity, many of the worst ones having come from Christians themselves.
* * * * * * *
My excessively long flirtation with what Christians very loosely call "pantheism" (ie, Indian religions, Western idealist philosophies, occult schools, etc)that is, my attempts to create my own personal religionhad at least one very fortunate consequence. It introduced me to the intellectual arguments by which modern materialism can be philosophically undermined. This is an extremely useful tool in the hands of a Christianand indeed, I find all the best Christian apologists (Lewis, Chesterton, Kreeft, etc) using the very same arguments against materialism and scientism that I was first taught by people like Huston Smith during my "pantheist" days. I was always much closer in outlook to Christianity than I was to the modern viewpointI always have believed implicitly in God and non-physical realms, for example. If I had become a secular humanist instead of a Christian, that would have been a much larger leap for me.
* * * * * * *
I believe that I have now reached the absolute zenith of contrariness - by converting to Christianity, I have actually become an apostate to the personal religion I created for myself! I guess it doesn't say much for a faith when, after an evolution in doctrine lasting decades, its founder and sole disciple rejects it.
* * * * * * *
A significant part of the intellectual side of my conversion lies in the fact that I had increasingly, even overwhelmingly, become aware of the radical inadequacy of various non-Christian teachings. Non-dualism, in both its Hindu and Buddhist forms, exercised a very strong influence over me for a very long time. But in the end, I came to see clearly that all such doctrines cut the ground from under one's feet. They ended in a place that I came to see as being perilously close to madness. The very reality of the individual (including free will and immortality) was denied, good and evil were denied, God was denied. Nothing was ultimately worth anything - including the doctrines themselves, which then exploded in a puff of logic. I also came to see that all such doctrines are essentially the same as the intellectual poison (deconstructionism, etc) that is currently undermining the Western world, and which is allied with radical left-wing secularism for that very purpose. The other monotheisms, Judaism and Islam, are also deficient in various ways from a Christian perspectivechiefly in the fact that their divine revelations seem to consist almost entirely of following certain rules. To me, Judaism seems like an incomplete and inadequate preparation for Christianity, while Islam seems like a watered-down and devil-ridden parody of Christianity.
In nearly half a century
of living, I have never found anything other than divine Love (agape) that actually
gives meaning to human life. Christianity is the only teaching in the world
that gives ultimate, cosmic primacy to agape ("God is Love"), although
most of the other traditions at least hint at it. Unlike the Eastern non-dualisms
(and even some forms of Judaism), Christianity also teaches the immortality
of individuals, without which - once again - human life is really meaningless
and ultimately pointless. And it emphasizes the importance of free will to a
shocking degree. According to Christianity, all the evil in the universeincluding
an eternal Hellis allowed to exist by an all-good, all-powerful, all-loving
God for the sake of free will and for no other reason. In the modern West, we
are (most of us) very proud of our belief that every individual human being
is somehow precious, with an inviolable dignity and responsibility for his/her
actionsour whole system of law and morality assumes this. But make no
mistake: all such ideas derive from Christianity and from nowhere else. It is
absolute nonsense to speak of the ultimate worth or dignity of the individual
outside of a Christian context. (The modern Western world has cut down the treeChristianitybut
still wants the fruits of the tree, which it has developed a taste for. Good
Thus I was faced with a rather stark choice. Either my own personal life was ultimately meaningless, or else it was full of an infinite meaning. (The same applied to life in general as well as to each individual human life.) Other teachings had finally led me into a cul-de-sac of meaningless despair that I could no longer get myself out of. Instead, I chose to believe that my life had meaning, purpose and value, and so I chose to follow (ie, intellectually assent to) the personal calling I had received, and became a Christian.
* * * * * * *
There are two kinds of monism: Western materialism, and Eastern non-dualism. The first believes that only matter exists, and consciousness is an illusion; the second believes that only consciousness exists, and matter is an illusion. While these two philosophical views would seem to be polar opposites, they are in reality quite closely related to each othervirtually the same thing, in fact. Both kinds of monism are, in effect, philosophical black holes or universal solvents in which a single argument is used to suck in and/or dissolve all of reality. (Indeed, this radicalism is the very quality of non-dualism that used to attract me the most.) Absolutely everythingGod, love, free will, "meaning", good and evil, right and wrong, "common sense", individual responsibility, the individual himselfall are annihilated by the logic of the argument.
The argument, in both kinds of monism, is a remorseless use of left-brain logic as applied to experience, and it is coupled with a refusal of any other type of information or knowledge. No intuitive insights, no emotional "fantasies", no "mystical revelations", are to be admitted. (This is as true of classical Advaita Vedanta and Buddhism as it is of modern Western thought.) And my immediate question is this: On what basis is it assumed that only logic is valid as a means of acquiring knowledge? Does logic itself dictate this? When exactly did God die and leave logic in charge? Is the reality we experience every day the result of logic? Is logic the source of the natural worldbugs, oceans, galaxies? Did the Big Bang proceed from logic?
Logic is, of course, nothing but a powerful, albeit limited, intellectual tool. To sacrifice God and the universe - not to mention ourselveson the altar of mere logic seems to me now to be about as close to madness as anything could be. G. K. Chesterton wrote that the madman is not one who has lost his reasonrather, the madman is one who has lost everything else but his reason. Monism, in both its forms, provides an outstanding example of what he meant.
* * * * * * *
Dissatisfaction (to say the least) with "pure" non-dualism led me to fall back on the Hindu school of Kashmir Shaivism for a while. It was still monistic, but also theistic, which attracted me very much (I have a deep-seated devotional need). Philosophically it was very sophisticated. Also, it was still in the sphere of Indian religious thought, which I regarded as superior (or was simply more at home in through long familiarity).
But I encountered two major problems. One, I was not about to become a devotee of Shiva (too weird, even for me). Two, the ultimate goal of Kashmir Shaivism was spiritual power. Enlightenment carried along with it a beatific peace, of course, but the real aim seemed to be control and power over life (as it is with all tantric schools, as far as I can see). Not a word was said about such things as love, or suffering.
Kashmir Shaivism was my last hope for really embracing any philosophy of Indian origin, and it failed. It wasn't what I wanted or needed. Hence, with a very heavy heart I had to "hit the road" again - this time out of India for good, and my next stop unknown. India, for me, was at the summit of spiritual philosophyanywhere else was bound to be a step down, not to mention unfamiliar. I sighed, and headed west .
* * * * * * *
Regarding the question of the relationship (if any) of Jesus to the prophets and sages of the world's other religions, I have come up with a metaphor to describe how I understand it. I did not think through this question and come up with my metaphor as a result of logical argumentrather, it simply appeared in my mind one day, and I have found it to be pretty durable after weeks and months of probing and pondering it. My metaphor can be stated in six words: Jesus Christ is the open window.
It is a fairly common metaphor to call a great sage a "window on heaven" or a "window on God". Every religious tradition has these "windows" (Christians call them saints). They are people who have so conformed their lives to the Divine and so utterly surrendered their self-will that they have become transparent, as it were - they are like clear windows through which one can actually "see" God. The historical Jesus of NazarethYeshua bar Yosefwas certainly such a clear window, at the very least. So were Lao Tzu, and the Buddha, and Ramakrishna and Ramana Maharshi, and the whole galaxy of saints of all these traditions.
But notice: one can only see through a window, no matter how clear it is. One cannot reach through it, or actually climb through it to reach the other side, unless the window is openunless the glass has been removed.
In so far as the historical Jesus of Nazareth is a clear window on God, he is essentially no different from the saints and wisdom-teachers of the other religions. And this is the belief of modern, liberal Christianity. (See Marcus Borg, among many others.) They revere Jesus as having revealed God to us through his lifehis love, his self-sacrifice, his wise sayings, etc. To them, Jesus is a clear windowpossibly (though not necessarily) the clearest one to ever have appeared. He is the supreme example God has given us of a model to be followed.
And this is, in many ways, a fine belief. It encourages loving and moral behavior. It believes in God, and hence that life is meaningful. It is rational and spiritual at the same time. The only thing I can find to say against it is that it isn't Christianity.
For the very heart and essence of Christianity is its proclamation of the open window. Notice: "the" open window, not "an" open window, for it is a part of the proclamation that there is only one. Jesus of Nazareth may have been only one of a number of clear windows (though traditional Christians wouldn't grant this, of course) - but Christianity is not about Jesus of Nazareth, except in retrospect. It is really about the death of this historical prophet, which, it is claimed, somehow shattered the clear window that he had been. In other words, the death of Jesus of Nazareth created (in some way that theology has been trying to explain for 2,000 years with only limited success) something absolutely uniquean open window through which one could not only see God, but could actually reach through and "touch" God (and vice-versa, of course). That open window is not the historical Jesus of Nazareth, but rather Jesus Christ, the risen, living Lord. It is no disparagement of other religions to say that they do not offer a truly open window to God, since none of them has ever claimed to offer such a thing, as far as I know.
The real difference between traditional (open-window) Christians and liberal (clear-window) Christians is this: the latter believe that they are more "progressive" and "advanced" in their views because they have rejected the supernatural and the miraculous. However, their position represents, in fact, a retrograde movement. They have jettisoned the very heart of the Christian proclamation, the whole reason the religion even came to exist in the first place. Clear-window Christianity, as admirable as it is in many ways, appeals only to people who are already spiritually inclined and naturally good-hearted. It has nothing to offer (beyond vague compassionate mutterings and promises of government handouts) to the destitute, to the broken-hearted, to the addicted, to the proud, to the wicked, to the suffering, to the lost. Clear-window Christianity has never saved anybody's soul, has never fundamentally transformed anyone's life, and it never will, because it can't. Only God can do those things, through the open window.
* * * * * * *
All who are saved (however one understands that concept) are saved by (or through) Christ. Necessarilythe Christian claim is that He is the creator of the universe, so through whom else, exactly, would salvation come? However, one's salvation does not depend on knowing anything about His historical manifestation as Jesus. This is a perfectly orthodox Christian statement, whatever the Bible-thumpers may think about it.
* * * * * * *
Protestants are against the idea of Purgatory because they don't seem to understand the difference between justification and sanctification. Justificationwhich they typically call "salvation"is a matter of a change of heart (metanoia), and happens in an instant, although it has (usually) permanent effects. It is a surrender of one's own life and will, and a re-orientation towards God rather than towards oneselftruly a kind of death and rebirth. But sanctification (what the Eastern Orthodox call "divinization") is a long, long process of gradual purgation and purification, and it has generally scarcely even begun at the time of one's death, regardless of whether one is "saved" or not. In Hinduism, of course, this process is carried out in future physical liveshence, our very Earth is, to them, a part of Purgatory (a view that I think has much to commend it). But Protestants seem to think that one who is saved will be merely changed into an angelic being at death. If this happened, would it be in any way the same person who had been so changed? What would have been the point of our life on Earth if it is all to be magically transformed and forgotten at death, as though it had simply never happened? And what would have become of the person's freedom in that case?
* * * * * * *
Protestants who deny the immortality of the soul, and hence life after death, as a heretical Greek idea that snuck into Christianity through the back door, need to understand a couple of things. First, the Christian heritage is as much a Greek one as a Jewish one. If the original Jewish Christians had gotten their way, Christianity as we know it would never have existed - it would have been merely re-absorbed back into Judaism (see "The History of Christianity" by Paul Johnson). Christianity exists today almost solely due to Paul's mission to the gentiles (ie, the Greek-Roman world). Secondly, the Bible offers at least as much support for the idea of an immortal soul as otherwise. "Annihilationist" Protestants usually justify their beliefs on Paul's letters exclusively, as though the rest of the Bible were somehow less valid. This is clearly a case where the Bible offers no consistent teaching, and so must be interpreted. And I would rather trust the interpretations of Church tradition (which is older than the New Testament itself, incidentally) than the guesses of individuals based on cherry-picking certain Bible verses that they happen to agree with (it's not only liberals who approach the Bible that way!).
* * * * * * *
Christianity makes this
truly mind-altering claim: that due to the Resurrection and the Ascension, there
is at the heart of the universe - a human being. At the unfathomable, eternal,
transcendent spiritual Source of all CreationThat which gives birth to
quasars, galaxies, nebulae, suns, worlds without numberis a Man. Really,
who can calmly debate the merits of such a monstrous claim? It must either be
accepted as Truth, or else rejected as utter lunacy. There is no "reasonable"
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