The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 56: The Ashvattha Tree

Ficus carica, an edible fig, aka pipal or ashvattha, by Dinesh Valke from Wikimedia Commons

Krishna uses a striking metaphor for reality: an upside-down tree.

Sages speak of the immutable ashvattha tree, with its taproot above and its branches below. …Nourished by the gunas, the limbs of this tree spread above and below. Sense objects grow on the limbs as buds; the roots hanging down bind us to action in this world. (BG 15:1, 2)

This is not just any tree. It is the “sacred fig,” or bodhi tree, the same kind of tree the Buddha meditated underneath when he received enlightenment.

The notion here is that we can see all of reality as such a tree, with its roots “upward,” in the heavens, and its branches “below,” manifesting as the created world. In truth, there is no up or down, but the image is intended to show us how the created world of sensible, changeable things grows out of timeless, eternal, ultimate reality. It’s a visual metaphor for how all of existence is “rooted” in God and grows out of God’s being. The taproot grows from Being Itself. All we tiny buds of sense-experience, with our thoughts and feelings about the changeable world, draw consciousness like nutrients from the root. Existence is not some static, dead thing. God does not merely exist, but lives, and we live because God lives.

Christians will likely hear two resonances in this description of reality: The Tree of Life and Jesus’ description of the vine and branches.

In the Garden of Eden, there are actually two trees, one of Life and one of Knowledge. Adam and Eve choose one and forego the other. They opt for an experiential understanding of opposites, “good and bad,” instead of intimate life with God. Christians have generally interpreted this decision as “the wrong choice,” or the doctrine of the Fall, but it isn’t clear from the text that the author understands it that way. The story makes no value judgment on their disobedience. They get what they want: intimate knowledge of shame and alienation. It’s only a “bad” decision from this side of the story, from the perspective of already knowing the difference between good and bad. Before that? It’s like asking what existed “before” time or the laws of causality. In a way, we’re still living that story, making choices about which tree we want to live by: the tree that offers a world of “pairs-of-opposites” or one that offers us transcendence and connection to God. In Hinduism, they are the same tree.

Jesus tells his disciples that they are the branches, and he is the vine. Abiding in him is a choice, something one has to will to do. Abiding is an act that connects us to what he calls “abundant life.” And when we get to Revelation, we see the Tree of Life again. This time its leaves are for “the healing of the nations.”

The interdimensional tree makes appearances in other faith traditions. In Norse mythology, it is Yggdrasil, and connects different worlds to each other. We can call it an archetype, if you believe in such things. Perhaps it is rooted in our collective unconscious, or perhaps it is a natural and handy symbol that different cultures attached significance to independently. Trees, after all, are mysterious to us. They are simultaneously familiar and alien to us. They typically outlive us, and many go through cycles of life and death (or hibernation) through the seasons.

I find the upside-down tree image particularly compelling, though, as a representation of multidimensional reality. We living consciousnesses are so much more complex than we know. There is more to us than meets the eye, more than meat held together in a skin-sack, running back and forth in a state of worry and lust to preserve a handful of microscopic genes. The world of sense-objects is held together by something vast, organic, and alive. We are part of it.

Those who attain enlightenment recognize that we are not locked in the isolated prison of our own subjective experience. We are connected, like limbs of an enormous tree, and we grow from the same Ultimate Reality.

Prayer:
Great One, you are so much more than animal, vegetable, or mineral can understand.

The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 55: The Gunas

Street art at Chet Singh ghat. Shiva’s trident, representing the three gunas, 2015. By juggadery. From Wikimedia Commons.

Sattva binds us to happiness; rajas binds us to action. Tamas, distorting our understanding, binds us to delusion. …When sattva predominates, the light of wisdom shines through every gate in the body. When rajas predominates, a person runs about pursuing selfish and greedy ends, driven by restlessness and desire. When tamas is dominant a person lives in darkness — slothful, confused, and easily infatuated. (BG, 14:9, 11-12)

The three gunas are what Easwaran calls “forces of evolution.” Brahman sets them up to play, and they spin the universe into action. They operate in the realm of prakriti, the created cosmos, and all action comes from their interaction.

While sattva tends toward enlightenment (“upwards”), it is still a guna. It is not better or worse than the other forces, because there are no value judgments here. And while tamas pushes downwards, it is not “bad.” It is simply a force of evolution. And while rajas is about restless activity, it isn’t actually “going” anywhere. Krishna says, those [who live] in rajas remain where they are. (BG, 14:18).

From a human perspective, sattva, harmony and happiness, are desirable. Sattva moves us toward wisdom and enlightenment. But true enlightenment is what Krishna refers to as “going beyond the gunas.” The enlightened, like God, enjoy the play of the gunas without becoming attached to them. It is possible for human beings to become “attached” to seeking enlightenment, to chase spiritual experience the way some people chase money or sex or getting high. This becomes rajas, “restless activity,” born from attachment and unfulfilled desire.  

The goal is to become like God, to enjoy the play of the gunas without becoming bound by them or attached to them. Krishna describes the one who as gone beyond the gunas as someone characterized by equanimity: Clay, a rock, and gold are the same to them. Alike in honor and dishonor, alike to friend and foe, they have given up every selfish pursuit (BG, 14:24-25).

This reminds me of the Sermon on the Mount, in which Jesus tells his disciples to give up pursuing treasures on earth, and to show impartial, unconditional love to friends and enemies alike. The life Jesus commends to his disciples is not ceaseless busy-ness, but a balance of work and rest. Those following the way of Jesus give up petty grudges, coveting pleasures they cannot or should not have, and delight in peace-making and the simple pleasures of universal love.

Going “beyond the gunas” means that we are no longer bound by or attached to the value-judgments of human society or our ego’s motivations. When we see things as they really are, we do not see them through the lens of “good” and “bad.” They simply are. My enemies are not “bad;” they are simply motivated by different things, subject to different gunas in their own context. I can view them with compassion instead of judgment. And in my own life, though I am still subject to these forces of evolution—activity, inactivity, and enlightenment—I can view my life from a divine perspective.

Prayer:
Wise One, fill me with your wisdom. Help me live with radical acceptance.

The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 54: The Changeless and Ever-changing God

Mosaic from an archeological site in Jerash, Jordan

[Brahman] dwells in all, in every hand and foot and head, in every mouth and eye and ear in the universe. Without senses itself, it shines through the functioning of the senses. Completely independent, it supports all things. Beyond the gunas, it enjoys their play. (BG, 13:13-14)

Yesterday I wrote of Tillich’s theology of being and non-being, and how the paradox of God creates tension. I ended with “there is no creation at all without tension.”

Hindu metaphysics says something similar. In the next chapter (14), Krishna will addresses how the world we experience through our senses comes to exist, but here he lays the groundwork. How can this world, this finite creation of change, of pleasure and pain and “pairs of opposites,” come from a changeless, non-dualistic God? How can a God who is pure Consciousness, beyond time and space, give rise to a bunch of little consciousnesses who, most of the time, don’t really know what they are doing as they go about their limited time and space?

Krishna introduces the concept of the gunas. Easwaran describes these as “forces of evolution.” These are the fundamental kinds of activity from which everything else in the created universe emerges. They are forces of change: toward activity and passion (rajas), toward inactivity and dormancy (tamas), and toward enlightenment (sattva). All change falls into one of these categories.

But Brahman, God, Being Itself, is beyond all such change. For example, God does not “see” the way we see. We see because photons bounce off of objects, penetrate our eyeballs, and activate photochemical receptors on our retinae. This is not how God “sees.” In one sense, God is not a body and has no eyeballs. In another sense, God actually has ALL the eyeballs in the universe, sees through them, yet does not need any of them to “see.” God animates all things, and is animated by none. This is why Krishna says, “Without senses itself, it shines through the functioning of the senses. …Beyond the gunas, it enjoys their play.”

The very sense of sight, in this way, is a revelation of God, because God “shines through the functioning of the senses.” Sight is not just about receiving data from passing photons. It has deep personal meaning. “Being seen” by other consciousnesses makes us feel real and alive. The Zulu greeting “sawubona” literally means, “I see you.” Hagar, feeling abandoned and abused, names God “the God who sees me” (Genesis 16:13). Our senses gather data from our world and keep us alive, but they are so much more than that. They bring us joy, relationships, and beauty.

What does this tell us about the relationship between our changeless God and changing creation? It’s not like God woke up one day, felt bored, and decided to create something. Yet God experiences everything we experience, included waking up, feeling bored, and creating something. God is deeply involved in change. The gunas, in Hindu metaphysics, are how God gets to remain changeless yet create change and, in some sense BE change itself. The gunas allow God to have God’s cake and eat it, too. They are the foundational forces of creation, like gravity and electromagnetics.

Prayer:
Changeless and ever-changing God, change us. Help us delight in creation as you do.

The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 53: Being and Non-being

Lorenz attractor by Wikimol. From Wikimedia Commons (click for source)

I will tell you the wisdom that leads to immortality: the beginningless Brahman, which can be called neither being nor non-being. It dwells in all, in every hand and foot and head, in every mouth and eye and ear in the universe. …It is both near and far, within and without every creature. It moves and is unmoving (BG, 13:12-13, 15)

I’ve mentioned Paul Tillich a few times in this series, and here in the first sentence the resonance is most powerful: Brahman, Krishna says, can be called neither being nor non-being. Tillich referred to God as the “Ground of Being,” or “Being Itself.” We often refer to God as “the Supreme Being,” but that implies God is one sort of thing among other things, just bigger or more perfect. But if God is the author of existence itself, then God is not just the biggest and best, one being among other beings. God is All.

This “Ground of Being,” Tillich said, also contains non-being. The very possibility of things to exist requires their non-existence. There is a point where they stop. This is not the case with God. So being and non-being are contained with the Ground of Being.

So we mortal creatures exist somewhere between being and non-being. We have a temporary existence. We experience finitude and have boundaries. We die. Tillich said that this experience of finitude causes us anxiety, and we often try to escape, either by puffing ourselves up with pride to delude ourselves we are more important than we are, or by indulging ourselves in hedonism and forgetting our mortality.

To face our finitude and connect to the Ground of Being, Tillich said, requires an act of courage. This is the title of his book, The Courage to Be.  

I believe Krishna is getting at a similar philosophy here. Brahman can be called neither being nor non-being. It pervades all beings, lending us some existence so we can live for a while and experience love, so that we can come to knowledge and bliss in unity with our Self and with the Ground of Being.

While I appreciate Paul Tillich’s theology, I recognize it’s pretty deep for the average church-goer. We are not usually taught Christian existentialism in church. But I believe we’d have a deeper appreciation for all life if we did embrace the paradoxes of our theology, if we spent some time wrestling with the question of Being. I think part of the reason we avoid the heavy questions in church is not because they are difficult, but because they are scary. Most of us would rather not talk about the terror of our own finitude or anxiety about our own mortality.

But if we do not, I do not think we can enjoy the bliss of unity with God, either. The paradoxes create tension, and there is no creation at all without tension.

Prayer:
God of being and non-being, create beauty in the paradoxes of my life.  

The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 52: The Knower and the Field

Depiction of the concept of soul (Ātman) in Jainism, by Vijay K. Jain, 2012. From Wikimedia Commons.

The body is called a field, Arjuna; the one who knows it is called the Knower of the field. This is the knowledge of those who know. I am the Knower of the field in everyone, Arjuna. (BG, 13:1-2)

If you start practicing meditation with a guide, they will usually say something like this: “Let’s begin by drawing your awareness to your body. Feel where your feet make contact with the floor. Feel the position of your spine. Is there tension anywhere? Feel the way the cool air enters your nostrils and fills your chest.” We go on paying attention to the body and its senses because it slows us down and draws us into mindful awareness.

Mindful awareness lets us begin to understand the relationship between our emotions and our body. I carry anger high in my chest and in my neck. I carry my grief in my face and shoulders. I carry my tension by pressing my tongue into the roof of my mouth. When I pay attention to these places in my body where I feel my emotions, I can relax them. I can take a step outside my thoughts and feelings, which are very much rooted in my physical body, and become aware of my Self as something other.

Most of us walk around thinking that the chaos of our thoughts and our feelings is “I,” my self, when it is really just part of a story we are telling ourselves. This is a false self, and it is often frustrated because it only exists to meet short-term goals: to find pleasure and avoid pain, to meet my needs and keep me alive. But there is a deeper, truer Self, who recognizes that my body is part of the universe, my needs are temporary, and that my true Self does not end at the periphery of my skin.

Krishna says this conscious awareness is God: “I am the Knower of the field in everyone.” This used to sound like heresy to my Christian way of thinking, but I’ve come to understand it from a different direction. I’m not saying I, David, my ego, my thoughts and feelings and the story I’m telling myself, am divine. I’m saying that the animating Breath of God in me still belongs to God. The animating force that God breathes into the first human wakes up this lump of clay and gives it awareness:

…Then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being. (Genesis 2:7, NRSV)

In Genesis, when God decides to limit the length of a human life, God says this enigmatic phrase:

Then the Lord said, “My spirit shall not abide in mortals forever, for they are flesh; their days shall be one hundred twenty years.” (Genesis 6:3)

I do not think there is enough in the Bible to construct a metaphysics of life and consciousness, but there are hints that the authors think along the lines of Krishna, here: We are sustained by the breath, or the spirit of God. The stuff in us that gives us life is God, and when it departs, it returns to God. Without it, we are just dirt.

Of course, the dirt is also God, just in a different way.

This is different from the usual mind-body or soul-body split we think of in Western philosophy. The field and the Knower are both different manifestations of God’s endless creative action.

Prayer:
God within me and beyond me, draw me out of my false self and into unity with You.

The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 37: Don’t Compare Their Worst to Our Best

 

Detail of Palau de la Música Catalana Symphony Hall, Barcelona by Ron Sterling, from Wikimedia Commons

 

I once heard an evangelical Christian missionary describe his work among Hindus in India. This was the way he framed his work: “There are over 3000 gods and goddesses in Hinduism, and it is impossible to please all of their various deities. You are constantly terrified about making one or more of them angry, and then you will be doomed to be reborn. Accepting Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior frees you from that oppressive system.”

This is a stunning mischaracterization of Hinduism. Hear this passage from the Bhagavad-Gita:

After many births the wise seek refuge in me, seeing me everywhere and in everything. Such great souls are very rare. There are others whose discrimination is misled by many desires. Following their own nature, they worship the lower gods, practicing various rites. (BG, 7:19-20) 

The above passage from the Gita is an internal critique within Hinduism: “There are some practitioners of our faith who don’t understand the point of it, who obsess over rituals and worship lower gods.” Both the missionary and the Gita agree that this is a problem; they disagree—sort of—on the solution.

In many faith traditions there are people whose grasp of their faith is little more than superstition. They believe that if they pull the right cosmic levers and get lucky that the universe will spit out a jackpot of blessings. But this is not a difference between Hinduism and Christianity—it’s a difference between immature faith and mature faith.

I’ve heard the same kind of ignorant Protestant rhetoric applied to Roman Catholicism, claiming that Catholics worship Mary and the saints. And out of hundreds of millions of Roman Catholics, it is certainly possible to find a few who practice this way, whose faith is rudimentary. Again, this is not a difference between Catholicism and Protestant Christianity, but a difference between immature and mature religion. If you live in the Bible Belt, you also know that among evangelical Protestants there are also many immature, hate-filled Christians who wouldn’t know Jesus from a hole in the ground, who think of God as a cosmic policeman.

You can find plenty of ex-Hindus, ex-Catholics, and ex-Evangelicals who detest the legalistic, guilt-ridden way they were raised. It is not fair comparing the worst of one religion with the best of another. Krister Stendahl made this one of his main rules of interreligious study.

This is also one reason why when we read Jesus’s words about the Pharisees or “the Jews” (in the Gospel of John), we need to hear him criticizing Judaism from the inside. When Jesus complains about religious legalism, he is making the critique as a faithful Jew. Too many Christians receive Jesus’s words a criticism of Judaism, instead of hearing them as a criticism of immature, self-serving religion.

When some people outgrow the immature, literalistic, legalistic version of their faith tradition, they will reject faith altogether, or embrace a different tradition. Others will find resources and wisdom within it. These are all signs of faith development. More on this tomorrow.

Prayer:
God of Growth and Life, as flowers bend toward the sun, help us grow toward you.

The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 36: Many Paths, Many Stories

 
Ludwig_Deutsch_-_The_Morning_Prayer,_1906

The Morning Prayer, by Ludwig Deutsch, 1906. From Wikimedia Commons.

 

Good people come to worship me for different reasons. Some come to the spiritual life because of suffering, some in order to understand life; some come through a desire to achieve life’s purpose, and some come who are men and women of wisdom. (BG, 7:16) 

We don’t all seek God—or enlightenment—for the same reasons. This is a truth Hinduism has folded into its philosophy from the beginning. Human beings are born different. We have different spiritual antennae and resonate to different things. Some of us are looking for love and acceptance, others of us are looking for knowledge; some of us are driven by achievement, and others by freedom from expectations. This is not an exhaustive list. Through experience—which entails a lot of frustration and disappointment—all of these paths lead to wisdom, and toward a greater intimacy with God. 

Judaism expresses these differences in story. Jacob was a cheater who got cheated, but through wit and struggle learned the suffering love of a husband and father. Moses was a privileged young man who started off thinking of justice as retribution, but through exile and an encounter with God learned that justice is about the complex, frustrating work of liberation and healing. Naomi was a widow, bitter at her loss, feeling abandoned by God, but found grace and provision through her relationship with her foreign-born daughter-in-law.

Feuerstein’s translation of the above passage describes the four kinds of people as “the afflicted, the desirous-of-knowledge, [those whose] object is the welfare of the world, and the knower.” I can easily think of people I know in my own life who fit all of those categories. They all have different personalities and stories, and their flavor of faith may look slightly different—but they radiate a quiet confidence in God and an acceptance of the world. Richard Rohr, the Franciscan mystic, often says that the three paths of spiritual growth are great love, great suffering, and contemplation. And as the Bible stories illustrate, great love almost always entails great suffering.

Krishna goes on to say that wisdom is the superior path, but Krishna has this habit of contradicting himself every few minutes. He will say “selfless service is the better way,” and then will say “meditation is the better way.” Whatever subject he’s speaking about at the moment, he will say, “this is the best.”

I suspect there is a tongue-in-cheek truth to this inconsistency. I met an ex-prisoner who referred to himself as “God’s favorite child,” but he was quick to say that it was true of everyone. I’ve heard stories of multiple members of the same family who were convinced they were grandma’s favorite because she told them each—in private—that they were her favorite. I think that as God considers Jacob, or Moses, or Naomi, or you or me, God would tell each of us that the way we came to know God was the “best” way.

Prayer:
God, I’m glad that I am your favorite. Bless my path, and the paths of all of us pilgrims.

The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 35: Two Natures

 
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An artist’s depiction of the binary star series, J0806; by NASA, from Wikimedia Commons

 

In these two aspects of my nature is the womb of all creation. The birth and dissolution of the cosmos itself takes place in me. There is nothing that exists separate from me, Arjuna. The entire universe is suspended from me as my necklace of jewels.  (BG, 7:6-7) 

We looked at the feminine imagery of this passage yesterday. Now let’s take a brief dip into metaphysics.

Krishna has been talking about “two natures,” a lower nature and a higher nature. In Hindu philosophy these are usually called prakriti and purusha, or “the elements” and “pure consciousness.” Here, Krishna calls the higher nature jiva-bhuta, or life-force.

These two natures don’t map directly onto Western categories like human and divine, or matter and spirit. We’ll notice a difference when we start listing the elements: earth, water, fire, air, ether, mind, intellect, and ego. The “elements” in this system include both tangible and intangible aspects of our world, including our own thoughts, feelings, and narratives. The experience of our subjective selves, in Hindu philosophy, is very much a part of the material world.

There are three gunas, states or forces, that act upon the elements: tamas (tending toward disorder, delusion, and inaction), rajas (tending toward desire, the ego, and passion), and sattva (tending toward enlightenment and unity). These are the forces of evolution and change.

Krishna is saying that both changeable realm of prakriti and the unchangeable purusha are part of the divine dance of creation and destruction. There is a place where we experience time and change and separateness, and there is a place where we experience Oneness, where all times are now. These two places are connected; they are part of the same reality. This divine dance is “The Womb of Creation,” Krishna says.

This mystical awareness of the unity of all things is difficult to put into words, and metaphysics is our attempt to do so: to try to describe how our essential unity—we are all part of the same reality—can be experienced as separateness, as me and you and dog and tree and rock and ocean, as thought and emotion and this Self that is neither, both, and more. Trying to understand the elements of reality is like putting creation under a microscope so that we can understand the big picture.   

When Krishna says There is nothing that exists separate from me, I also hear Paul quoting a pagan poet, saying that God is the one in whom we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28). The Womb of God is such a powerful metaphor, especially because even though we are “born,” we are still present in God. There’s nowhere we can go and be “outside of God,” because all of creation is still inside, and still part of God, and God is in every strand of creation’s DNA.

Prayer:
God in Whom we live and move and have our being, overcome our illusions of independence.

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.