The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 1: Contemporary Context

East_India_Company_¼_Cent_1845_-_reverse

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.

Tell a Better Story

Rick Santelli rants about “losers” during the 2009 financial crisis.

I want to remind you of this.

This was in February of 2009. The housing bubble had burst. Financial speculators and banks crashed the economy. Unemployment went up to 7.5%. The jobless claims, highest in 26 years, climbed to a whopping 600,000. In the midst of what became a global financial crisis, this man, Rick Santelli, in what became a viral rant, rejected the idea of a stimulus to people who were losing what little wealth they had accumulated in their homes. He called them “losers who couldn’t afford to pay their mortgages” and balked at the notion he should “help pay for their extra bathrooms.”

In comparison to the crisis we face now, the financial crisis of 2008-2009 seems almost quaint.

We know what happened: Somehow, in the midst of a recession, people whose biggest hurt was losing a little bit of value from their stock portfolio shifted the blame from speculators onto people who didn’t own stocks, whose biggest dream of financial security was owning a home.

I’m glad that the term “gaslighting” has gotten some traction in the intervening years, because this is exactly what that moment was: gaslighting on a massive scale. It takes some gall to blame a crisis manufactured by rich people on middle-class and poor people. Not only were they pissing on us and telling us it was raining—they were blaming us for not bringing an umbrella.

And it didn’t take much to turn “taxed enough already” into some catchphrases for white resentment. Our oligarchs found common cause with white folks who resented a black president. And of course, it affected historically marginalized people—black folks, single women, immigrants, and children—disproportionately. Just like now.

I need to point out that this was an *engineered* crisis. Human beings created it. It was not caused by a virus. Now we face a new crisis, and although it wasn’t engineered by wealthy people playing with money, it has certainly been compounded by them. Because we do not have universal health care, guaranteed time off, and other worker protections, people are forced to work in dangerous conditions, cannot get tested, and do not have the means to self-isolate.

For the last few decades, whenever the notion of universal health care is brought up, they ask, “Who is going to pay for it?” We’re ALL paying for it, right now. We are going to be paying for NOT having universal health care for decades.

This principle has never been clearer: that if my neighbor is not able to thrive, it affects me. Our mutual interdependence means that if my neighbor lacks health care, my own health is endangered. It has never been clearer that blame for this crisis cannot be pinned on the people it hurts. This is not about someone buying “an extra bathroom” they can’t afford.

It has never been clearer that a “social safety net” is not just for my neighbor who is down on their luck — it is for me, for my protection, because it is better for all of us if things like education, health care, and a basic standard of living are available for everyone. It doesn’t make sense for us to pay $30,000 a year to house a prisoner if we could subsidize a drug treatment program for $2000 a year.

“Extra bathroom” my ass. We are ALL paying for not caring for our neighbors.

By the way, in March, Santelli suggested just letting people die from the virus. So yeah. A tiger and his stripes, and all that. They are going to blame us for not bringing an umbrella AGAIN. The only modern industrialized country in the world without universal health care has become the epicenter of preventable death and unnecessary suffering.

Like Pharaoh, they are going to say the reason we don’t want to make bricks with straw, or hamburgers without PPE, is that we are “lazy, lazy” (Exodus 5:8). They do not know the story—that leaders with hardened hearts bring MORE plagues upon their country.

As a person of faith, I understand that we live by certain stories. This is the only script they know.

We have so many better ones.