The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 24: Divine Worship

Notre-Dame de de la Daurade - Chapelle des anges adorateurs

Chapel of the worship angels, Basilica of Notre-Dame de la Daurade in Toulouse. From Wikimedia Commons

The process of offering is Brahman; that which is offered is Brahman. Brahman offers the sacrifice in the fire of Brahman. Brahman is obtained by those who see Brahman in every action. (BG, 4: 24)

Krishna has been telling Arjuna that one can reach God [Brahman] by several paths. He has been explaining two paths, contemplation and action, though neither are as unlike each other as we often suppose. He will go on to say there are many sacrifices, besides material sacrifice, that we can offer in true worship.

Here we need to pause again. I’ve been using the word “God” rather loosely. I am fond of saying, “The word ‘God’ is a placeholder.” God is a role, not a name. When pushed to tell God’s name to Moses, God simply says, “I AM,” and one of the first commandments given to God’s chosen people is to rarely use God’s name! God resists being defined and hemmed in.

In the Hebrew Bible, God is very much a personal character—speaking to people, making promises, getting angry, changing God’s mind. In Greek philosophy, all this activity seems a bit barbaric. For the Greeks, God is the unmoved mover, unchanging and untouched by human concerns. Christianity holds these two perspectives in tension: God is both active in history, whose mercies are “new every day,” but simultaneously the creator of time and “the same yesterday, today, and forever.” God won’t be restricted by time and space, nor boxed out of it!

Hinduism explores the same tension. Brahman can mean both the uncreated Ultimate Reality, and the “world-ground” [Feuerstein], the foundation of the universe. Theologian Paul Tillich called God “Being Itself” who incorporates both being and non-being, who is both changeless and ceaselessly changing. Afrofuturist author Octavia Butler wrote, “All that you touch You Change. All that you Change, Changes you. The only lasting truth is Change. God is Change.”

What Krishna describes above is an archetype: Brahman is the ritual, the sacrifice, the one offering, and the fire itself. The creation of the universe itself is a ritual offering of God to God. Like a fractal, this action is repeated by all the Creator’s creatures: A monk sitting alone in meditation is sacrificing her time and attention. The prince (like Arjuna) charging into an epic battle against overwhelming oppressive forces is making a sacrifice. The student sitting at the feet of a master is making a sacrifice. The person giving alms to a beggar is making a sacrifice. All replicate the sacrificial action of God.

Christians refer to Jesus as “the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world.” The whole world exists for the sake of this one historical event, an expression of God’s self-sacrificial love. We also often say that when we serve others, “we are being the hands and feet of Christ.” Yet Christ also claims the place of those being served, the “least of these” (Matthew 25:40). When we take part in such simple acts of love, we are participating in God’s own action, returning self-sacrificial love to its Source.

God Who Will Not Be Constrained, may my life and vocation reflect your self-sacrificial, creating, redeeming love; may all our actions and lives be worship.

The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 23: The Principle of Non-Dualism


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

[The wise] live in freedom who have gone beyond the dualities of life. Competing with no one, they are alike in success and failure and content with whatever comes to them. They are free, without selfish attachments; their minds are fixed in knowledge. They perform all work in the spirit of service, and their karma is dissolved. (BG, 4: 22-23)

Krishna casually drops another big principle here: Non-dualism. Dvandva is a word that Easwaran translates as “dualities” and Feuerstein translates as “pairs-of-opposites” (see my note on the text here). Hot and cold, pain and pleasure, up and down — all of these are reported by our senses, and we begin to perceive the world in terms of them.

But the awakened see that the world is not so one-dimensional. Our senses mix things up: at the first unexpected shock of an ice cube touching the back of your neck, your brain reports the sensation not as cold, but as burning. There are plenty of examples of pain and pleasure being almost indistinguishable, like when you scratch an itch. And the direction “up” only has meaning when you are planet-bound; get on a rocket and go “up” long enough, and up ceases to have any meaning in outer space.

These pairs-of-opposites are mental models, but they only have meaning in our heads. We get used to them and we use them to make value judgments: beautiful and ugly, good and bad, friend and enemy, human and non-human, valuable and worthless. We stop seeing things as they are and see them only in relation to our desires.

We extend this to all kinds of social and political relationships. It is a truism that we are more polarized than ever. We see the world through the distorted lenses of race, class, and gender. If something falls outside our binary mental models, or if more than one thing is true at a time, we struggle to fit it into our worldview. Can something be both trash and treasure? Ugly and beautiful? Can a person be both sinner and saint? Masculine and feminine? Human and divine?

Not only does taking a step outside of our mental models can help us cope with stress and the world’s craziness; it also helps us understand reality. Jesus himself is a paradox, an example of non-duality. He speaks in riddles and parables: you find your self by losing it. God shows power by becoming weak. Here’s Paul on the subject of non-duality, first for himself:

… I have learned how to be content in any circumstance. I know the experience of being in need and of having more than enough; I have learned the secret to being content in any and every circumstance, whether full or hungry or whether having plenty or being poor. I can endure all these things through the power of the one who gives me strength. (Philippians 4:11-13)

And second, for society:

There is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither slave nor free; nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:28)

God in whom all things hold together, we live in the midst of duality, division, and polarization caused by selfish attachment. Help us leave behind mental labels when they cease to be helpful, and see things as they are.

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)

Some Learnings on Sadness and Worry

This is my own learning, and it may be helpful to you, or not:

As much as I believe that we can feel better if we reframe and adjust our thinking, there is healing that comes from acknowledging pain and honestly naming our hurt.

I am incredibly sad. I was looking forward to things that now are not going to happen, at least this year. Sometimes I am tempted to minimize my sadness: after all, other people have it worse. But that is not actually helpful thinking.

I am also worried—about individuals, about the church, about the economy, about our failing government, about what the world will look like on the other side of this unmitigated clustertruck. Sometimes I am tempted to just put a good face on it, to mimic non-attachment and parrot the words of Jesus, to say, “Well, tomorrow will take care of tomorrow.”

It is not weakness to name sadness and worry, and it is not strength to avoid them.

Here are my learnings:
1) If I name my negative emotions instead of avoiding them, if I look at them squarely, allow myself to feel and cry, I am able to feel my gratitude and my hope more deeply on the other side of it. I cannot be truly grateful unless I also acknowledge my disappointment. In Buddhist terms, I cannot experience “non-attachment” by being dishonest about what I’m attached to. In Christian terms, God embraces my suffering. I have to name my worry—that my brain is trying to solve an unsolvable problem—in order to move toward solving the problems I *can* solve.

2) When we name our negative emotions in public in a supportive community, we find that others feel the same way. The Powers that Be want us to be silent about our pain, to put a good face on it, so they can pretend that their policies are effective and the status quo is fine.

Naming our pain is the first step to community organizing. The Powers that Be do not want us to do that. They describe our exhaustion as laziness, our anger as “divisiveness,” our worry and fear as cowardice. It is in their interest to gaslight and minimize our cries. We have this critical voice in our heads and in the world, always policing our pain. It is not the voice of God. The last thing they want us to do is say to each other, “Oh, you are afraid of losing your for-profit healthcare in the middle of a pandemic, too?”

3) Any version of Christianity that tells you that negative emotions belie a “lack of faith,” or that your pain and fear is unacceptable to God is garbage. Exodus 2:24-25 describes God’s activity when the Israelites “cry out” — God hears. God remembers. God sees. God understands. Hagar names God “God who sees me.”

Many would-be spiritual gurus think policing negative emotions is a sign of sanctification or enlightenment. They think their job is to help other people feel better. It is not. Holy Week is, in part, about God embracing the whole reality of human suffering and loving it to death. This kind of divine incarnation is “beyond good and evil” the way we normally think of it.

It’s okay to feel whatever you feel. Preachers and pundits will gaslight you in the name of Jesus, Buddha, the Market, the Party, or whoever. But acknowledging our suffering will allow us to distinguish between the suffering that is manufactured—by our individual selves and by society—and the suffering that is simply part of being human.