The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 41: The Two Paths

 
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Two Paths Diverged… by Ché Lydia Xyang. From Wikimedia Commons.

 

This Supreme Lord who pervades all of existence, the true Self of all creatures, may be realized through undivided love. There are two paths, Arjuna, which the soul may follow at the time of death. One leads to rebirth and the other to liberation. (BG, 8:5-7) 

Krishna goes on to describe the transmigration of souls. Those who have come to know and see Brahman, that the Lord of Love is everywhere and in all creatures, are able to finally shed the endless cycle of rebirth and join with God in ecstatic, eternal unity. The rest of us have to schlep back to the beginning and have another go.

But though we are all trying to escape rebirth, having another life is not really so bad. As Stevie Wonder puts it:

I’m so darn glad he let me try it again / Cause my last time on earth I lived a whole world of sin
I’m so glad that I know more than I knew then /Gonna keep on tryin’ / Till I reach my highest ground.

Biblical authors largely reject the idea of reincarnation. When they do speak of life after death, they favor the idea of bodily resurrection. Martha says at the death of her brother Lazarus, “I know that he will rise in the resurrection on the last day” (John 11:24). Hebrews 9:27 puts it succinctly: “People are destined to die once and then face judgment.” New Testament authors probably knew that the Greek philosopher Plato had written about reincarnation and the transmigration of souls. They knew about reincarnation—they just didn’t believe in it.

Some folks point out Jesus’s reference to John the Baptist in Matthew 11:14 as support for reincarnation, “If you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come,” but it isn’t clear that Jesus actually means reincarnation. The second coming of Elijah was a widespread belief because Elijah had been taken bodily into the heavens (2 Kings 2:11), so people expected him to return a similar way. When Jesus says, “If you are willing to accept it,” he’s asking the crowd to interpret Elijah’s “return” metaphorically, since John the Baptist hadn’t dropped out of the sky.  

Today, nearly a quarter of American Christians also believe in reincarnation (see the Pew study here). Many conservative Christian leaders are alarmed by such findings. It’s probably not a surprise that I’m not alarmed by these unorthodox views. I think spiritual tinkerers (Robert Wuthnow’s term) who create a bricolage of theological beliefs are responding to toxic Christianity. I suspect many Christians prefer the idea of reincarnation because the two paths they were taught—heaven and hell—seem arbitrary and unloving. They’ve heard from fundamentalists that people who die without knowing Jesus are bound for hell, and they’ve rejected that worldview because it contradicts the notion of a loving and just God. They prefer the notion of reincarnation because it only seems right that people would be given another chance. (Although, I also wonder—couldn’t that be a kind of hell?)

I prefer to have metaphysical humility when it comes to these things. I don’t know exactly what happens when we die. We have first-hand accounts of near-death experiences, but since those people are still with us, I don’t take it as empirical knowledge.

There is so much we do not know about consciousness itself. I am skeptical even about this notion of myself as a separate entity from the rest of creation. There is a part of my brain that creates this sense of separateness, and it can be suppressed. So I question this notion that my soul is a unit that travels somewhere. Sometimes I suspect that we are already there, and the life we are living is actually a vivid remembering.

I take this as a challenge to remember a better life.

Prayer:
God, You are the Beginning, the Destination, and the Journey itself.


PS: I don’t think it’s an accident that Carrie Underwood’s video for Love Wins uses both Holi and gospel choir imagery. I think it’s pretty clear that the response of spiritual tinkerers to toxic fundamentalist Christianity is to reach toward other traditions. I think cultural appropriation is part of what happens when we realize our culture

The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 40: How to Die (Part 2)

 
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The Death of Socrates, by Jacques-Louis David, 1787. From Wikimedia Commons

 

Those who remember me at the time of death will come to me. Do not doubt this. Whatever occupies the mind at the time of death determines the destination of the dying; always they will tend toward that state of being. Therefore, remember me at all times and fight on. (BG, 8:5-7) 

Last time, I explained why I don’t buy into the idea that “whatever occupies the mind at the time of death determines the destination of the dying.” I said that this philosophy does harm, and it attaches stigma to mental illness and to death by suicide.

But now I want to turn and look at it from the perspective of one who is preparing for death. In many traditions, contemplating one’s own mortality is a spiritual practice. We learn to approach death not with dread, and not even with courage, but with curiosity and acceptance. Saint Francis, in the Canticle of the Sun, even refers to death as a welcomed sister: “Praised be You, my Lord, through our Sister Bodily Death, from whom no living man can escape.”

Krishna goes into detail about how one is to accomplish this practice:

Remembering me at the time of death, close down the doors of the senses and place the mind in the heart. Then, while absorbed in meditation, focus all energy upwards toward the head. Repeating in this state the divine name, the syllable Om that represents the changeless Brahman, you will go forth from the body and attain the supreme goal. (BG, 8:12-13).

The idea here is that meditation has become such a natural practice that one can seamlessly transition from a state of meditative ego-death into real death. The energy that flows through our bodies simply departs and goes to be part of the cosmic dance. I am no longer I; I become We.

I should point out again that all of this dialogue is supposedly happening in Arjuna’s chariot, just before battle. There will presumably be many people who aren’t able to die in such a meditative state. Getting an arrow in the throat tends to disrupt mediation!

Still, the ideal in the practice of meditation is that one who is enlightened can maintain this meditative state even while going about daily tasks. A practiced meditator can meditate while doing the dishes. An advanced practitioner can meditate while being in conversation. Perhaps an expert meditator could be at peace in the midst of a battle.

So rather than read this scripture as a metaphysical description of what happens when we die, I read it as an encouragement to become so practiced at meditating that not even death disrupts your practice. Death becomes simply an advanced form of meditation. I read it as an invitation to reflect on our own mortality, to imagine what becomes of our consciousness at the point of death. If we truly see God everywhere, as Krishna repeats frequently, then we will see God even in “Sister Death.”

Prayer:
Praised be You, my Lord, through our Sister Bodily Death, from whom no one escapes. Let us not fear, but regard her as trusted family.

The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 39: How to Die (Part 1)

 
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Waiting for the afterlife, by Pedro, from Wikimedia Commons

 

Those who remember me at the time of death will come to me. Do not doubt this. Whatever occupies the mind at the time of death determines the destination of the dying; always they will tend toward that state of being. Therefore, remember me at all times and fight on. (BG, 8:5-7) 

Hogwash.

Excuse me—I generally try be circumspect about critiquing the theological or metaphysical claims of other traditions, and I will get around to how I interpret these verses tomorrow. But in this case, I need to start with an objection. I’ve heard this same line of reasoning among Christians, and I’ve seen the harm it does. Some Christians live in perpetual fear that between the time of confessing their most recent sin, being forgiven, and then being killed in a car accident, their last words or last fleeting thought might be, “Oh, shit.” Then they would wind up in hell, because they died with unforgiven sin (which was simply their amygdala trying to keep them alive). In this system, what occupied their mind at the time of their death would disqualify them from salvation.

It’s the same principle in both Christian and Hindu circles: your afterlife depends on your achieving equanimity or an ideal state before you die. 

Don’t get me wrong: I think meditating on our mortality and thinking about the way we want to die is helpful. I think our faith and practice should help us approach death with a sense of peace instead of dread. But I don’t for a minute believe that the last state of consciousness of a person determines their destination in the next life. I reject this line of thinking for two reasons. First, I don’t think time exists for the dead in the same way it exists for the living. Second, I believe in grace—that God is love and it is that love that holds the universe together and draws all things towards God.

I’ve already shared a bit about how God is not limited by time. In both Hinduism and Christianity there is the hint that all times are available to God. Here on this planet, in this plane of existence and this timeline, we consciously experience the movement of time as one moment after another. But many meditators and pray-ers say that in moments of transcendent awareness, time ceases to exist. In mystical experience, we can live a lifetime in thirty minutes, or download experiential wisdom in an instant. To God, all moments are now. Even now, Moses is being placed in a basket. Even now, Buddha is sitting down to meditate under a tree. Even now, our great grandchildren are wondering what our lives were like.

The notion in the scripture above is that one should launch one’s soul with a good trajectory into the life to come. I do not question that this is a noble ambition. I question the idea that where you land depends on the skill of your throw. In the timeless realm of pure consciousness, we are already with God, just as God is with us now, in the “past.”

What Krishna describes in this section has its roots in the Upanishads, and I will explore it in the next post. I think there is more going on here than the surface meaning. I just feel it’s important to start with my objection in this case because, as I said, I’ve seen this line of reasoning do such emotional damage. People worry about victims of suicide being bound for hell, for example, or about minor infractions of scruples in the moments before death. How we die is, hopefully, a reflection of how we live. It might be related to our character. But we don’t get to choose how we die. Just for comparison’s sake, remember that for the Vikings, death in battle was the ideal way to die—and a guarantee of a good afterlife!

We may die “better” or “worse” than we lived, but either way we still die. I take hope from Luke’s gospel, in which Jesus turns to a thief on the cross and tells him they will be together in paradise that very day (Luke 23:43). I also consider that people in the first century thought crucifixion or hanging were signs of God’s judgment, but Paul reframed that notion: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law by becoming a curse for us—because it is written, Everyone who is hung on a tree is cursed” (Galatians 3:13). I know that I certainly hope to die in the mindful way Krishna describes in the passage above; but I also have faith that however I die, I will live in God.  

I felt it important to share how I disagree with the surface meaning of this passage first. I will share how I understand its deeper meaning and purpose next.

Prayer:
Help me live as if I will die tomorrow, and help me live as if I will never die. Help me die as one who has fully lived, and help me die as one who will live in You.

Time for a New Religion

Hey, American Christians! Time for a new religion.

Christianity hasn’t made you more loving, or generous, or less violent and militaristic. Your scriptures say that God loved the world so much that God gave God’s only son, but you don’t love the world enough to even slow your economy in the face of pandemic or environmental collapse. So obviously, preaching Christianity from American pulpits hasn’t worked for y’all.

So let’s try a different religion. In this one, your immortal soul doesn’t go to heaven or hell. It time-travels and goes into the person who, during your life, you most treated like shit. Your reward, or punishment, is that you get to live their life. Punched someone in the face? You’ll feel it. Spread life-ruining gossip? You’ll feel that, too.

Suffering is inevitable for everyone, of course, but whatever suffering you manufactured for others will be visited upon you.

Of course, you’ll get their joys, too. And maybe you’ll have a chance to learn a lesson and develop more kindness, or maybe the lesson will simply make you more bitter and evil. It’s really up to you.

And here’s the kicker: depending on the size of your effect—say, you created or influenced public policy—you may actually wind up living multiple lives. If, for example, you were a ruthless dictator who killed thousands or millions of people, your reward is that you get to live every single one of their lives. You’ll get their joys, of course, but also millions of dashed dreams, millions of unimaginable griefs, just unbelievable pain. If you were a billionaire whose lobbyists pushed millions into poverty, you get to live ALL of their lives. You’ll get to feel what it’s like to have too much month left at the end of the paycheck. You’ll feel the rage and sadness of watching loved ones die because they can’t afford preventive healthcare. You’ll feel the trauma of racial disparities and other systemic injustices.

What happens to you when you die? You get to walk in the shoes of the people you hurt.

As a matter of fact, it’s silly to say “you’ll get to” live their lives. It’s already happening, because of time travel. See? The pain you inflict upon them is the same pain you are inflicting on yourself now. You just don’t know it yet. You may not even know it then, in the future-present. It depends on how spiritually stupid you insist on being.

You can erase some of this, of course, with your good deeds. And it may be that after you live the lives of people you hurt, you’ll get to live the lives of people you helped. There may be a reward, many lifetimes from now. But I suspect that in this new religion, we’ll need to keep that a far-off hope, because American Christianity has demonstrated it has a far greater affinity for hell and threats of punishment than for heaven. We seem to prefer a theology of deserving to a theology of grace. That’s why I think this new framework will be perfect for us.

And if you’re following the logic of this transmigration of souls, you begin to realize that we’re not actually separate souls. We’re all the same life, which makes it vitally important that we care for each other and the earth while we have the chance. You may have eternity to work it out, but there is an urgency to it—in part because our species won’t live forever, either, especially on our present trajectory. We can’t wait to fix our behavior and our attitudes until tomorrow, because tomorrow is already now.

American Christians, some of you may realize this sounds a lot like Hinduism. And, for the record, India is certainly having their own problems with selfishness, hatred, and terrible social policy right now. But maybe it’s time to try living our private lives (and adopting social policies) that take karma seriously.

You know, like “love your neighbor as yourself,” and “do to others as you would have them do to you.” Because those aren’t just hypothetical statements spouted by some random messiah. And your current leaders who are loudest in claiming allegiance to him while doing harm are liars. Or, as he said, “wolves in sheep’s clothing.”

So it’s time to re-evaluate. It’s time you tried out a different religion. Or no religion at all.

And if this sounds like blasphemy to you, then you never knew Jesus Christ.

(Matthew 7:21-23, Luke 6:46-49, Matthew 25:41-46)