The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 7: Facing Death

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© Tomas Castelazo, http://www.tomascastelazo.com / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

 

Krishna says to Arjuna that he need not despair about the coming battle. He can approach it in almost a detached way if he thinks differently about his despair, and if he changes how he thinks about the nature of reality. Psychologists call this “metacognition”—how we think about thinking. It is a principle of Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) that if I change my thinking, I can change how I feel. I’ll share more about this in the coming weeks.

Krishna tells him 1) that the Self is imperishable and cannot die, 2) that pain and pleasure are simply data, and cannot touch the Self unless we let them. Then he says

O mighty Arjuna, even if you believe the Self to be subject to birth and death, you should not grieve. Death is inevitable for the living; birth is inevitable for the dead. Since these are unavoidable, you should not sorrow. (BG 2:26-27)

Whatever you believe about life after death—whether our souls wing their way to heaven, get reborn in another form, or simply cease to exist—our fear of death is not rational. It may be functional, in that it keeps us alive by helping us avoid playing in traffic or juggling hand grenades. But death is part of life; if we’re in for a penny, we’re in for a pound. It doesn’t benefit us to worry too much about it. Or, as Jesus says:

Who among you by worrying can add a single moment to your life?… Therefore, stop worrying about tomorrow, because tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.  (Matthew 6:27 & 34)

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus doesn’t tell us not to worry because our soul is immortal and we cannot truly die. He says God will take care of us, and he implies even if we do die permanently, there is no sense worrying about it.

People who are not religious often claim that religion is simply a way to comfort people in the face of death. And religions often do construct elaborate mental models about what happens when we die — we might go to heaven or hell, get reincarnated, merge with a cosmic consciousness, time travel, or wake up to a new reality. But in the great wisdom traditions, the sages point out even if none of these are true, why worry?

The stoic philosophers present a similar idea. Epictetus said, “I cannot escape death, but at least I can escape the fear of it.” It doesn’t mean death and loss don’t affect us, but we can face them squarely. So much of our life’s energy is wasted trying to avoid death and the pain of loss, but as Seneca said, “It’s better to conquer grief than to deceive it.”

Qoholeth, the Teacher in Ecclesiastes, spends a lot of time on these questions:

Who knows if a human being’s life-breath rises upward while an animal’s life-breath descends into the earth? So I perceived that there was nothing better for human beings but to enjoy what they do because that’s what they’re allotted in life. Who, really, is able to see what will happen in the future? (Ecclesiastes 3:21-22).

These wise teachers do not speak about what they do not know. Instead they say the worst case scenario is that we face death with courage, knowing it is inevitable and finding meaning in our actions even if we fail. This is an important point, and it often gets left out of religious doctrine and summaries of teaching: The wisest among us acknowledge that we could be wrong. Maybe there is no heaven, or resurrection, or reincarnation, or union with God. Maybe we just end. And maybe that’s not so bad.

But the best-case scenario is that there is the possibility that there is something better already at hand; not only that we can have eternal life and union with God when we die, but that we can have it right now in this life. On this point, both Jesus and Krishna agree.

Prayer:
Source of Life, help me to love life the way you do, so much so that I no longer fear death.

The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 6: Introducing the Self

Atman

Click image for source

 

Atman is usually translated as self, soul, or breath. It is a basic concept in Hinduism and Buddhism. The sages put the Self under a microscope through meditation and introspection, and understood their practice to be a voyage of discovery.

Today, modern psychology, neuroscience, and even physics and mathematics are wrestling with the notion of consciousness. What is this thing that I understand to be my self? Am I a soul in a body, like a “ghost in a machine?” Am I a thing, an event, an illusion, or an emergent property of the universe? Regardless of how we understand it, neuroscientists have learned—or simply affirmed—that the practices taught by Hindu sages for thousands of years actually work for our mental health.

The impermanent has no reality; reality lies in the eternal. Those who have seen the boundary between these two have attained the end [goal] of all knowledge. Realize that which pervades the universe and is indestructible; no power can affect this unchanging, imperishable reality. The body is mortal, but that which dwells in the body is immortal and immeasurable. Therefore, Arjuna, fight in this battle. (BG 2:16-18)

Just in case you forgot, the last line reminds us that the context of this philosophical discussion is a battlefield. Though the battle is part of the impermanent world, it is still a battle that must be engaged.

One believes he is slayer, another believes he is slain. Both are ignorant; there is neither slayer nor slain. You were never born; you will never die. You have never changed; you can never change. Unborn, eternal, immutable, immemorial, you do not die when your body dies. (BG 2:19-20)

Is this comforting or disconcerting? If our souls are imperishable, then why does killing matter at all? After all, Christian crusaders who captured Jerusalem justified the indiscriminate killing of Muslims, Jews, and Christians by saying, “Kill them all; God will sort the dead.” Christian theology (and other religious thinking) has often dismissed injustices in this world and unnecessary suffering by offering people “pie in the sky by and by.” White evangelicals still insist that saving souls, not social justice, should be the main goal of the church.

I think the sages would say that this kind of thinking is unenlightened. Such people do not understand the true nature of the Self.

In contrast to Hindu scriptures and Greek philosophers, Jewish and Christian scriptures do not spend a lot of time on metaphysics. This is one reason there are so many different understandings of what happens when we die. Are we a soul trapped in a body? Or are we a “psychosomatic unity,” a soul-and-body mashed together, which can die permanently, but has the hope of resurrection? Our doctrines point to the second explanation, but I grew up hearing the first more often in church.

Something Jesus said corresponds to Krishna’s words to Arjuna:

Don’t be afraid of those who kill the body but can’t kill the soul [psyche]. Instead, be afraid of the one who can destroy both body and soul in [Gehenna]. (Matthew 10:28).

The first part of the saying affirms that there is part of us that survives death; but the second rejects that it is eternal. I honestly don’t think there is enough here to hang a doctrine of the soul on. From the Bible we have a handful of parables about souls—a few clearly intended for humor value—some poetry, and some references to breath and resurrection, but nothing about what consciousness is.  

The Hebrew Bible doesn’t say much about souls in part, I believe, because they had escaped slavery in Egypt, and Egyptian religion was all about souls. The Egyptians had an elaborate metaphysics about the soul (ka). The Pharaohs filled their tombs with gold that they could take to the afterlife, while countless slaves labored to build their fine cities. The escaped slaves wanted nothing to do with the religion of their oppressors, who viewed the afterlife as more important than this one.

That’s not to say that there isn’t plenty about consciousness in Christian tradition and mysticism. One of my favorite hymns is For the Beauty of the Earth by Folliott S. Pierpoint:

For the joy of ear and eye,
   For the heart and brain’s delight,
For the mystic harmony
   Linking sense to sound and sight.

It’s a beautiful lyric, but the place I want to draw your attention is to this “mystic harmony”—because there is no Christian metaphysical explanation about how our nervous system interacts with a non-physical soul. The Bhagavad Gita delves into this metaphysics. The Bible is mum.

Prayer:
Eternal God, you revealed to Moses that your name is I AM. Teach me who you are, and who I am.

The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 5: Understanding Time

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Geological Time Spiral, from United States Geological Survey

 

Arjuna recognizes that he will have to fight his own family, and he despairs. Krishna responds:

You speak sincerely, but your sorrow has no cause. The wise grieve neither for the living nor for the dead. There has never been a time when you and I and the kings gathered here have not existed, nor will there be a time when we cease to exist.

…Every creature is unmanifested at first, and then attains manifestation. When its end has come, it once again become unmanifested. What is there to lament in this? (BG 2:11, 28)

I’ve often heard that the greatest difference in Eastern and Western cultures, or between Abrahamic religions and most of the world, is the conception of time. Does time march forward, like a digital clock? Or does it move cyclically, and everything that has happened will happen again?

Time doesn’t only move forward in the Hebrew scriptures. We get a minority opinion in the book of Ecclesiastes. The author of Eccelsiastes is referred to as Qoheleth, “The Teacher.” Listen to how much Qoholeth sounds like Krishna:

Whatever has happened—that’s what will happen again;
    whatever has occurred—that’s what will occur again. There’s nothing new under the sun.
(Ecclesiastes 1:9)

Einstein informed us that time is relative—it behaves differently depending on how fast we are moving, or how much gravity we are experiencing. Time is part of the created order, so much so that we cannot “see” back before the Big Bang. What existed “before” time got its house in order in those first few milliseconds of the universe?

C.S. Lewis pointed out that God is outside of time, and doesn’t measure time by the clock. God “has all eternity in which to listen to the split second of prayer put up by a pilot as his plane crashes in flames.” We experience one moment after another, but from the perspective of eternity, our moments are spread out like a sheet of paper. All moments are NOW to God.

While I think this is a powerful perspective and I believe its theological truth, let’s not ascribe the same worldview to the ancient Hebrews. In the Bible, while God has an eternal perspective, there is still the notion that God experiences time:

You return people to dust,
    saying, “Go back, humans,”
because in your perspective a thousand years
    are like yesterday past, like a short period during the night watch.
(Psalm 90:3-4)

The ancient Hebrews understood God as a liberating God who acts in history: Tell [your children]: We were Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt. But the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand (Deuteronomy 6:21). Creation has a start and an end, and both are held in the hands of God as time moves in one direction.

But there is a place where Jesus turns this notion inside-out. When he is debating with Sadducees about the resurrection, he says: “…haven’t you read what God told you, I’m the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob?  He isn’t the God of the dead but of the living” (Matthew 22:31-32). Of course, everyone listening had always thought that God really meant “I was the God of Abraham.” Jesus puts the weight on I AM.

So to understand our relationship to time and to God, Jesus tells us that either a) we are resurrected—or “manifested” in the words of the BG—again at some point in the linear future, or b) all times are present to God as now, because the advance of time is simply an illusion we are bound up in. Eternity and eternal life is either on the horizon, or it is present even now.

Either way, in both traditions, this thing we call “death” does not have the last word.

Prayer:
God, my world is full of moments. Help me to experience them all as now. Bring eternity into our time.

The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 4: Harmony and Dissonance

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John Coltrane House, 1511 North Thirty-third Street, Philadelphia, Philadelphia County, PA — Public domain

 

On Saturdays, I plan to take some time to reflect on what we’ve covered the previous week, and perhaps follow a rabbit trail or two.

As I describe the Bhagavad Gita, I’m taking my time approaching the things you may already know about Hinduism that differ from Christian theology: reincarnation, multiple gods, karma, the goal of the afterlife, cosmic unity, and the practice of meditation. I want to come at those things from the side, as it were, so that we understand them in context. When Christians encounter a different religion, I want our response to be not, “Wow, that’s weird,” but “Wow, we’re weird.” Or better yet, just Wow. Exposure to other cultures helps us to realize the things we assume are universally true are not necessarily so—and things we may have thought are unique to our culture are more universal than we expected. What we’ve been taught about other cultures or other religions is often a cartoon version of reality.

It’s also true that a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. I take great care to make clear that anything I say about “Hinduism” is provisional. First, I may not know enough to know that I’ve misrepresented something. Second, there is great diversity in Hindu religion and philosophy.

But that exposure makes me even more aware that the same is true of Christianity. Saint Patrick and Joel Osteen can hardly be said to represent the same religion, and the same could be said of Dorothy Day and Mike Pence. Ask these famous Christians to define a word like “salvation,” and you’d likely get very different answers. What does it mean to say they all represent something called “Christianity?” How do they understand the call to “follow Jesus?”

“Enlightenment” in Hinduism and Buddhism is not the same thing as “salvation” in Christianity. They reflect different worldviews on what the central problem facing humanity is. When Christian missionaries showed up in India quoting scripture and saying, “You must be born again,” Hindus replied, “Are you crazy? We’re trying to stop being born again.”

So I reject the conventional wisdom that says “All religions basically say the same thing,” because a) even one religion doesn’t say the same thing! And b) because all members of a choir do not sing the same notes. In the most beautiful music, there is dissonance as well as harmony, places of tension and resolution. We do not have to collapse or ignore those differences to appreciate the polyphonic beauty.

Nor do we need to pretend that some things aren’t just flat out wrong. Sometimes in an ensemble, people get off key, or sing what they think is right, but it just ain’t. Even if you’re making it up as you go along in a kind of jazz improv, the professionals will wince and shake their heads when you hit a sour note.

My hope in listening to the music of different cultures and religions is that we come to a deeper appreciation and understanding of the whole, and our particular role in it.

Prayer:
Composer and Director of the Cosmos, let me be one with your music.

White Fog

CN: Racial Terrorism

Say their names.” Yes, world, say their names. Rage against the injustice. Celebrate who they were. And mourn all the gardens they will never tend, the phone calls with parents they will never make, the paintings they will never paint, the runs they will never take in the gorgeous spring air, the babies they will never cuddle. It’s so important to lift them up, and to give THEM attention, instead of their killers, to recognize that they had a life that was more than the label “victim,” that one of the cruelest parts of racial terror is the way it steals the individuality of these individuals.

But let me talk to my white friends a minute:

While our black neighbors relive this never-ending monotonous generational trauma which is, by definition, a kind of hell, we need to say some different names among ourselves.

Because Gregory and Travis McMichael believed—and still believe—they can get away with it. Because George Zimmerman did. Because Amber Guyger did. Because Daniel Pantaleo did.

George Zimmerman chased and picked a fight with a teenager who went out his door to buy Skittles. When George Zimmerman started losing the fight that George Zimmerman instigated, he used his gun, because the law told him he could. He killed a teenager. A boy. My son’s age. We need to say the murderer’s name: George Zimmerman. He’s still among us. Free.

So I put Travis McMichael and Gregory McMichael and George Zimmerman together. I put their names in the list with Amber Guyger, who may or may not have been cognizant when she killed her neighbor. So Travis and Gregory and George and Amber. I put their names in the list with Daniel Pantaleo, who choked a man to death while he begged for his life on a New York sidewalk. Travis McMichael and Gregory McMichael and George Zimmerman and Amber Guyger and Daniel Pantaleo.

I started trying to make a list of killers, of dream-destroyers, of people who robbed the world of gardeners and painters and teachers and children and siblings and parents.  I started making a list of people who think of themselves as moral, upstanding individuals, who killed because the law said they could, who said “oops” afterwards and got forgiveness, or something deceptively like it, because it’s perfectly understandable to white people when a white person kills a black person out of fear.

But when I got to the unknown killers who killed Sandra Bland and Freddie Gray, I realized there are so many killers whose names we will never know, because there is no video. And would video be enough, even if we had it? We don’t know the names of the gloaters and mockers and normal white people in the black-and-white photographs of public lynchings from decades past. Time and intentional forgetfulness have erased their names.

Our white history teaches that there are two ways to get away with lynching: hide your motivation, or hide your identity. You can even hide in public if you hide in a crowd, like in the lynching photographs. It’s what Gregory and Travis are hoping to do: hide in the crowd. They believe a white crowd will protect them. They may still be right.

Sometimes we allow newspaper headlines to hide identities with passive voice: “Suspected burglar slain,” as though someone didn’t hold the gun and pull the trigger, as though the suspicions were just floating through the air and not in some particular brain in some particular white man’s head, as though it’s nobody’s fault that the implicit bias in his head resulted in pressure on his finger, pressure which was transferred to a trigger.

Sometimes we allow legislators to hide the motivations of vigilantes with the laws they write. “Stand your ground” is one such example, because all you need to commit a lynching murder is 1) a gun and 2) fear. They have even written laws to excuse vigilante motorists for killing protesters with their cars. (While the law did not protect James Alex Fields, he was enabled by these legislators when he mowed down Heather Heyer. She was white. I hate to think that if she had not been, he would have had a greater chance of going free.)

Occasionally someone will be brought to something approximating justice, like Dylan Roof, but those names are the “bad apples” among the white crowd that allow us to make the fine distinction between murderers and vigilantes, between the those who wear hoods and those of whom it is said there are “good people on both sides.” The main difference between murderers and vigilantes is that the latter are convinced, when they put their hands on a gun, they can take for themselves the righteous authority to kill another human being, and that they will be excused by a white crowd.

I am sick of white murderers pretending they are Batman, that they can vanish in smoke, blending into a white fog of misunderstood intentions, of headlines that erase their identity, of well-meaning we-don’t-know-what-was-in-his-heart-and-we-are-all-sinners-so-we-should-forgive Christianese. I am sick of them being able to hide behind the well-crafted language of legislators, of racist stand-your-ground laws, of anti-protest laws, written by the same hands that gerrymander voting districts.

I am tired, as a white man, of having to see myself in these damned lynching photographs, because so many of my white neighbors want to hide behind our shared whiteness. The word “damned” seems tame and cliché, because these photographs really do seem like snapshots of hell, a moment of gleeful hatred and terror preserved for eternity. The identities are erased, even though their faces are preserved. What seeps out of those photographs is whiteness in all its poisonous anonymity, this breathtaking confidence that the white crowd protects them, that they can hide in a white fog.

No. I am going to write down the names of the killers. I am going to say them out loud and remind white people about them. I am going to tell what I saw: You put holes in a human being and poured human blood on the ground. You choked the life out of a divine soul. You broke the neck of a child of God. You hanged a woman for being uppity. Then you hid the evidence, you excused your intentions, you made it look like a suicide, and you tried to disappear into the crowd.

And you tried to make me an accessory to your crime by relying on my whiteness to protect you.

Cain, Cain, the Lord is walking in the garden, calling for you. Your brother’s blood is crying out from the ground. I will not allow you to hide within a white fog. I will not be a silent onlooker in your lynching photograph.

The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 3: Family Values and Conventional Wisdom

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“Whore of Babylon,” by William Blake, 1809, British Museum.

 

Arjuna laments that he must fight his own family. He then makes some statements that I think are illustrative and problematic.

Though [my enemies] are overpowered by greed and see no evil in destroying families or injuring friends, we see these evils. Why shouldn’t we turn away from this sin? When a family declines, ancient traditions are destroyed. With them are lost the spiritual foundations for life, and the family loses its sense of unity. Where there is no sense of unity, the women of the family become corrupt, and with the corruption of its women, society is plunged into chaos. Social chaos is hell for the family and for those who have destroyed the family as well. It disrupts the process of spiritual evolution begun by our ancestors. (BG 1:38-42)

First, let’s acknowledge that this is the patriarchy speaking. It is the same perspective we often find in Proverbs, which describes both wisdom and folly as women. The “corrupt woman” leads men astray and destroys families: Her feet go down to death; her steps lead to the grave. She doesn’t stay on the way of life. Her paths wander, but she doesn’t know it. (Proverbs 5:5-6). In this kind of conventional religion, women are constrained to play the role of virgin or whore, and society rises or falls based on the control of their bodies.

Second, let’s also acknowledge the truth of generational harm and trauma Arjuna describes. Much of the Hebrew Bible is about the disruption of family and the way that dysfunction is passed from parents to children: Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau, Rachel and Leah, Joseph and his brothers, all jealous and fighting over the affection of parents or spouses. (Much of this strife is caused by the patriarchy, by who has power and who does not).

I also want to consider Arjuna’s statements in light of conservative social policy, which often idolizes “family values” even as it makes it difficult for families to survive intact. Often it is idolization of the family that leads to its destruction. The religious right in America has argued for decades that society is on the decline because women no longer stay at home, divorce is too easy, prayer has been “taken out of schools,” and the family is no longer considered as sacred as it was in our mythical past.

Jesus’s ministry was tremendously disruptive to family values. He said because of him, families would be torn apart (Matthew 10:34-35). But he believed in a chosen family.

 He replied, “Who is my mother? Who are my brothers?” Looking around at those seated around him in a circle, he said, “Look, here are my mother and my brothers. Whoever does God’s will is my brother, sister, and mother.” (Mark 3:33-35)

While there is truth in it, I think Arjuna’s lament is grounded in conventional religion—the notion that religion should create social stability and uphold the status quo. He is speaking as one who is not yet enlightened. He knows enough to know there is a problem, but hasn’t identified it properly yet. Krishna is going to point out to him that the problem is much deeper than family disunity; the problem is that we do not know who we are. What has brought all these people to the point of battle is that too many people are attached to the wrong things, because they do not know themselves.  

Practically, it doesn’t mean that Arjuna can opt out of the battle at hand, any more than it means we can opt out of resisting patriarchy and other injustices in our world. But it illustrates the failure of conventional morality, and why we shouldn’t fall into the same trap.

Prayer:
Source of my being, I may not have picked this struggle; yet I will follow you through it.

The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 2: Literary Context

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This 2012 animated movie is available on Netflix. It does not cover the part of the story featuring the Bhagavad Gita, but does introduce the main character.

 

Arjuna: O Krishna, drive my chariot between the two armies. I want to see those who desire to fight with me. With whom will this battle be fought? I want to see those assembled to fight for Duryodhana, those who seek to please the evil-minded son of Dhritarashtra by engaging in war.

 …And Arjuna, standing between two armies, saw fathers and grandfathers, teachers, uncles, and brothers, sons and grandsons, in-laws and friends. Seeing his kinsmen established in opposition, Arjuna was overcome by sorrow. Despairing, he spoke these words… (BG 1:21-28)

The Bhagavad Gita is a dialogue, told in flashback, on the advent of a great battle. Arjuna is the reluctant protagonist. Epic heroes often overcome great obstacles and fight big wars, but they also carry enormous grief. Often the foes they fight are close friends or members of their own family. Luke versus Darth Vader. David versus Saul. Both David and Arjuna have been wronged, forced into exile by corrupt kings.

David said to Saul, “Why do you listen when people say, ‘David wants to ruin you’? Look! Today your own eyes have seen that the Lord handed you over to me in the cave. But I refused to kill you. I spared you, saying, ‘I won’t lift a hand against my master because he is the Lord’s anointed.’ Look here, my protector! See the corner of your robe in my hand? I cut off the corner of your robe but didn’t kill you. So know now that I am not guilty of wrongdoing or rebellion. (1 Samuel 24:9-11, CEB)

Both in the Bible and the Bhagavad Gita, timeless truths and other-worldly wisdom are set against a violent political and historical backdrop. Sometimes this seems incongruous: how can a God who tells God’s chosen people to commit genocide (Deuteronomy 20:10-18) also admonish them to “love their neighbor as themselves” (Leviticus 19:18) and to treat foreigners as their own citizens (Leviticus 19:33-34)? How can we have such violence in one passage, and calls for peace-making in the next?

People who are disillusioned by Christianity often go seeking a more consistent religion in other traditions, but a universal truth of humanity is that our species does not come to enlightenment or salvation without baggage. The baggage is both personal and cultural.

Anthropologists who study religion suggest that religion serves an evolutionary purpose. It calls members of a social group to make individual sacrifices for the good of the whole. Your tribe develops a totem or mascot “god” who represents your spirit and values. Over time, humans recognize that they are part of bigger tribes, and their gods—and their interests—align. This kind of religion helps us survive, but it also maintains the status quo. Freud explained religion this way in Civilization and Its Discontents.

Religion has another vector—unconventional wisdom that challenges the status quo, that points out the fact that some people are forced to sacrifice more than others in order for powerful people to maintain their control of groups. This vector makes room for disruptive spirituality.

This is why conflict is a frequent backdrop for revelation. We are in an existential state of war, with others and within ourselves. Power is unequal, oppression exists, and we ask “Why?” Both Judaism and Islam describe our relationship with God as one of struggle: the words jihad and Israel both describe a personal wrestling with God.

Prayer:
Source of Everything, we do not come to enlightenment or salvation without baggage. Help us, in our struggle, to let go of unnecessary suffering.  

The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 1: Contemporary Context

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By 5snake5 – Own work, CC0

 

The East India Company (EIC) was founded in 1600 in England. It became the Blackwater of the British colonial world, a private mercenary force dedicated to protecting the financial interests of wealthy people for more than 200 years. They had a private army that was bigger than the British army, and they became the de facto rulers of India using money and might.

Not coincidentally, the East India Company also played a role in the formation of the United States. Remember the Boston Tea Party? It was partly a response to the monopoly of the EIC.

I start here because before I talk about the spiritual truths of the Bhagavad Gita and how they relate to the Bible, I have to acknowledge the devastating effects of imperial rule and colonialism on India and on the rest of the world. And I believe one of our most difficult spiritual struggles today, in our church and in our society, is the legacy of colonialism. What we experience as dissatisfaction with “the institutional church” and “organized religion” is the way colonialism warps our relationships, our imagination, and our very souls.

There are some people who claim that even though its spiritual roots are thousands of years old, Hinduism is a relatively recent invention. While I think that’s an overstatement, it reminds me of a story I recently heard told by a Lakota activist. He said his grandfather was involved in establishing “The Native American Church” in 1918. “We need this institution,” his grandfather told him, “to protect our way of life from the white man’s institutions.” When the West encounters other forms of spirituality or faith, it forces them to organize in certain ways.  

So when I say that the Bhagavad Gita is not like the Bible, I’m not just speaking theologically, but also socially and politically. It does not have the central place in Hinduism that Christians give to their scriptures. But it should force us to take a step back and consider how we understand what “religion” is, and how it relates to this other idea of “spirituality.”

I would argue that not only is the Bhagavad Gita not like the Bible, but also that The Bible is not like The Bible, because this Greek and Hebrew text has been distorted by our Western colonial view of religion. Colonialism shapes how we understand our sacred scriptures and it shapes how we see the world.

“Orientalism” is a Western way of viewing Asian cultures as exotic and strange. (I encourage you to listen to this NPR piece on the cultural appropriation of “namaste”). The Bhagavad Gita was appropriated by British transcendentalists and mystics, not just because it was true but because it was strangely true. I think this makes it difficult to appreciate how truly strangely true it is!

If we are stuck on how exotic it is, we can’t fully appreciate how other-worldly it is, or what putting it into practice might mean for our world.

I am not a scholar of Hinduism, nor a historian. I approach the Bhagavad Gita as an interested layperson, finding points of connection between the wisdom there and the wisdom of the Bible and my own faith tradition. I welcome your comments, criticism, and discussion as I follow this devotional path.

Prayer:
Holy Mystery, we are a strange mix of the timeless and the now, the universal and the particular. We are shaped by history even as we imagine the future. Help us encounter you in the present, in this moment, and help us to be truly free.

The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita: A Note on the Text

I do not know Sanskrit and to be honest, my Greek is shaky at best. I rely on the wisdom and translations of others.
 
For this journey through the Bhagavad Gita, I’ll be using Eknath Easwaran’s translation (Easwaran, Eknath. The Bhagavad Gita. Nilgiri Press, 2007). It is readable and his commentary is helpful.
 
If you’re interested, you can compare it to the publicly-available 1900 translation by Sir Edwin Arnold.
 
I typically use the Common English Bible (CEB) for devotional purposes. and the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) for more scholarly purposes. I’ll make a note if I use a different translation. 

Summary: Critical and Devotional Reading

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We’ve worked through Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, and followed it up with Luke’s Sermon on the Plain. These were my objectives during the Lenten devotionals and those that followed:

  • To show that critical reading and devotional reading can go hand-in-hand. Each begins with a different question. Critical reading asks “What did the original author mean?” Devotional reading asks “What does this text mean to me?” When we come to some of Jesus’s most foundational sayings, I think we need to ask both kinds of questions.
     
  • To deepen understanding about the ekklesia. Conventional popular thinking argues, “Jesus never meant to create the church.” That would be a surprise to Matthew and Luke! Matthew’s Jesus clearly intends to create a community of prophets. The Sermon on the Mount is his manifesto for how the church should be “the light of the world.” Luke’s Jesus seems pretty confident that the Holy Spirit will do the job. Both versions of Jesus have no use for personal, private spirituality that doesn’t change the world. He believes our inner light should manifest in society.
     
  • To show how different biblical authors interpreted Jesus differently. Both Matthew and Luke are working from the same set of Jesus sayings, but come to different conclusions about how to understand them. What was true in biblical times is true today: we need different theological perspectives to reveal complex truth.

More than one thing can be true at a time! This is part of why, in my preaching and teaching, I try to give people a buffet of theological options. Christian history is deep and diverse, and what works for some simply will not work for others.

I’m going to turn now in a different direction: doing a critical and devotional comparison of the Bible and the Bhagavad Gita. This emerges from my conviction that if God is going to save the world, God must do so with the help of non-Christians. Bill Hybels often said that the church is the hope of the world, that the church is God’s plan A and there is no plan B. I do think that the ekklesia represents Christ’s physical body on earth, and that God intends to create a community that will change the world. But the climate crisis reveals that this salvation community cannot be made up only of Christians. We ain’t gonna save the world by ourselves.

And why should anyone trust us to? The legacy of the colonizing church in the West is a theology of domination and exclusion. It has treated the Earth as a resource to be strip-mined, packaged, and sold in the service of oligarchy. Its theology is far from the interconnected web of life we see in the creation story, where human beings are created on the same day as the rest of the animals, where we are unique mainly in that we are assigned the role of loving and caring for the Earth as God does.

While I believe Jesus intended and commissioned a prophetic community, I also believe that the church does not have a monopoly on truth or on God. Indeed, as we’ve seen in Matthew and Luke, Jesus seemed frustrated with religious posturing and exclusivism. He was less concerned with how people labeled themselves and more concerned with how they put love into action.

We in the church desperately need a different way to frame our role and identity, our very sense of self, to manifest God’s kin-dom in this present crisis. And that’s why I’m going to turn to a different faith tradition to get some perspective on my own.  

 Prayer:
Source of Truth, deepen my understanding.