| Chapter 2: Hindu-Christian Dialogue
Our long pilgrimage through Buddhist-Christian dialogue will allow us to examine the Hindu-Christian dialogue at less length, yet see the same kinds of issues emerge. The roots of Hindu-Christian dialogue can be traced back as far as the Jesuit missionary Roberto de Nobili in the 17th century. He realized that he needed to enter deeply into Indian religious thought and religious customs in order to really make contact with the people to whom he wanted to bring the message of Christianity.
Modern Hindu-Christian Dialogue
The modern phase of the Hindu-Christian dialogue can be found in the work of the Bengali Brahmin convert Brahmabandhab Upadhyaya who founded the journal Sophia and tried to create a Hindu-Christian ashram, and in the work of the Belgian priests C. Dandoy and P. Johanns who created the review The Light of the East in the 1920s and 30s in collaboration with Swami Animananda who was a disciple of Upadhyaya. Other contributors to this modern dialogue with Hinduism include Olivier Lacombe, Jacques-Albert Cuttat, and R. C. Zaehner.
An interesting example of this earlier dialogue from the Hindu side can be found in Swami Siddheswaranandas Hindu Thought & Carmelite Mysticism, which was the result of a series of lectures given at the Sorbonne between 1949 and 1953. There he addressed the question of the parallels between Hindu thought and the Carmelite mysticism he had been studying. This reading must have been penetrating enough because it gave him a sense of the difference between the two traditions. He realized that someone who had read the descriptions of spiritual experience in Teresa of Avila, and then got to know Ramakrishna, would try to find parallels. But he concludes that: "This way of thinking prevents us from realizing perfectly the different positions of these mystics. To reduce these different positions to unity is to create artificially a universal which crumbles under the slightest critique."1
Later he asks himself whether the thought of John of the Cross is really pure jnana, or union by knowledge by which the soul is united with the Absolute, and he says it is impossible to say. But he goes on and comments: "Insofar as St. John of the Cross is a seeker of the Supreme Cause, one cannot say of him that he is a pure jnanin. For him God remains the Father of creatures, the Supreme Cause to which the world is subordinated. When the soul is united with Him, it remains despite that union, different from the Spirit which illuminates it. Certainly, "The soul is transformed; it participates in that which is God, it appears to be God rather than the soul; it is God by participation (but) it conserves its natural being, as distinct from God as before, despite its transformation, as the window is distinct from the ray which shines through it"."2
But it is with the founding of the first Catholic ashram Saccidananda, or Shantivanam, on the banks of the Cavery River at Kulittalai in Tamil Nadu by the French priests Jules Monchanin and Henri Le Saux in 1950 that the Hindu-Christian dialogue attained a new level of intensity. Saccidananda Ashram was followed in 1955 by the creation of Kurisumala Ashram in Kerala by Bede Griffiths and Francis Mahieu. Jules Monchanin died in 1957, and Le Saux felt called to a solitary life and left Saccidananda for the Himalayas in 1968. The ashram was then taken over by Bede Griffiths. Other well-known Hindu-Christian ashrams include Jeevan Dhara founded by Vandana Mataji in the Himalayas and Christa Prema Seva Ashram in Pune, refounded by Sara Grant in 1972, and Anjali Ashram in Mysore founded in 1979 by D.S. Amalorpavadass.3
The Current State of the Hindu-Christian Dialogue in India
Deep interest on the part of Christians perhaps mostly Westerners in the Christian-Hindu dialogue should not blind us to the lack of enthusiasm that Hindus might have for it. Richard Taylor, assessing the current state of Hindu-Christian dialogue in a study published in 1989, reports how an Anglican missionary, deeply involved in this dialogue, told him "that there are very few Hindus really interested in dialogue."4 Along the same lines, Bede Griffiths stated: "Hindus as a whole are not much interested in dialogue. They tend to think that all differences in religions are unimportant."5 And conservative Hindus in North America feel that even progressive ashrams like Shantivanam and Jeevan Dhara are "misappropriating Hindu style and contents in order to mislead Hindus and to engage in illicit religious conversions "6 Certainly, the current resurgence of Hindu nationalism in India and the many acts of violence against Christians would make us believe that this climate has not changed for the better.
Abhishiktananda (Henri Le Saux) (1910-1973) was a French Benedictine monk who went to India in 1948 and, together with Jules Monchanin, helped found the Hindu-Christian ashram, Shantivanam. It is perhaps indicative of the course that his life in India took that he is usually referred to by his Hindu name, while this is not the case with Jules Monchanin or their successor at Shantivanam, Bede Griffiths. It was in the life of Abhishiktananda that the interior drama of the Hindu-Christian dialogue made itself felt most poignantly. He felt a deep call within himself to follow the advaitan or nondual path as far as he could into the depths of his soul, but at the same time he felt tormented by the feeling that such a calling was irreconcilable to the Christian faith to which he was so deeply attached. This conflict was to continue in varying ways for most of his life in India.
His letters and journals from those years reveal three broad stages in his journey. In his first few years in India he expressed the desire to bring Christ to the people of India, and he saw Christianity as the fulfillment and culmination of Hinduism. This attitude changed under the impact of deeper and deeper advaitan experiences brought about by his meeting with Sri Ramana Maharshi and his long retreats on the sacred mountain of Arunachala. The growing advaitan life within him precipitated a long struggle to reconcile it with his Christianity. In his final years when he finally had found a true disciple in the French theological student Marc Chaduc, it appears as if that struggle resolved itself in favor of advaita.
We are left at once admiring his spiritual courage to plunge into the depths of the advaitan experience, while at the same time regretting the limits of his theological formation that made this such a torment, and in final analysis, not being able to embrace the advaitan formulations of Christianity that he set forth in order to resolve the conflict.
In the early stages of his stay at Arunachala he realized that his life as a Hindu sannyasi, that is, as a wandering Hindu monk given over to the contemplative life, had been in his mind a means of an apostolate to bring Christ to India, and not seen so much for itself. Now he begins to contemplate that goal in a more radical way.7 Yet, at this early stage, he still will say, "I dream of a Christian India because I think that then only will India find its spiritual fulfillment."8
But with his deepening experience of advaita comes the growing tendency to look at Christianity with advaitan eyes. "Descend to the greatest depth of myself, into the divine Self, ground of my own self, and embrace all beings in nonduality." And in a moment he will write about this kind of deep knowledge, "Is that not in any case the essence of eternal life defined by Christianity ?"9
Or more pointedly, "And the Spirit in his own time will cause to arise in the dawning of my soul, the Supreme Ego, the "I am Brahma," (Brahma aham asmi) the true I (aham)." But then he will immediately say something that is very difficult to reconcile with the inner spirit of Christianity, "It is a mistake to say THOU to the Spirit, for the Spirit is not other than myself."10
He writes profoundly of the advaitan experience: "One simply IS. And this fundamental experience is at the same time that of the unique and single EXISTENCE."11 And he goes on to say how this existence, or BEING, embraces what one used to call ones self, or others, or God. But he is unable to look at this experience from the perspective of his own Christian faith and the resources of the Christian mystical and metaphysical traditions.
He will write, "Dare to make the final leap into pure advaita so the voice continually whispers to me "12 But the way he is doing this is going to make his Christianity seem more and more problematical, and this growing difficulty is symbolized by his great reluctance to be at Shantivanam. Yet, at the same time, his Christianity which has such deep roots inside him fights back. "What gnaws at my body as well as my mind is this: after having found in advaita a peace and a bliss never experienced before, to live with the dread that perhaps, that most probably, all that my latent Christianity suggests to me is nonetheless true, and that therefore advaita must be sacrificed to it In committing myself totally to advaita, if Christianity is true, I risk committing myself to a false path for eternity "13 Unfortunately, it does not seem to occur to him that there could be a way to live out both the deep advaitan experience and his deep commitment to the Christian faith.
It is worth looking at in more detail but still very briefly considering the hundreds of pages that Abhishiktanandas letters and journals cover - first at these interior conflicts and then how he seemed to resolve it in favor of an advaitan perspective. He writes in his journal for Christmas, 1953: "Christmas in the depths of the heart, at the heart of Arunachala. But can an advaitan Christmas be felt? Whatever is felt is not of the truth. Whatever is thought is not of the truth " But in a moment he goes on: "And even so I let myself be caught up in singing First Vespers and Matins. And I was tormented while remembering the joys of the past."14 He sums up this trial: "From now on I have tasted too much of advaita to be able to recover the "Gregorian" peace of a Christian monk. Long ago I tasted too much of that "Gregorian" peace not to be anguished in the midst of my advaita."15
A little later he will write: "The West has never really accepted that there is anything beyond understanding. In fact, the concept of understanding has taken precedence over the concept of being." In a similar vein, "every Thou addressed to God is a lie, or rather an error."16 It is as if he takes the valid idea that the divine reality transcends our thoughts and feelings, but unduly extends it under the influence of advaita so that it becomes a principle that can only be destructive of Christianity. Then he is led to say: "The mystery of the living God is no other than the mystery of the atman."17 Or, "Christianity can only be advaitan."18 And yet, with all this, he writes on Dec. 26th, 1954: "Christmas eve full of anguish. Very different from last year. A deeper fall into the abyss. Walking on a knife-edge. Unable to decide for one side or the other. What a torment."19
As late as 1970 we find traces of this same conflict. One day he will write: "Christianity has been ossified into a religion." And the next, "The fundamental anguish of no longer being able to find ones "bearings" in a faith that is woven into ones guts!" And yet, a few days later, " the whole long history of salvation boils down to the blinking of an eye a flash of lightning an awakening. It has its conceptual, mythical and sociological form only for one who is not awakened "20
But towards the end of his life, probably under the influence of having the experience of a disciple who seemed to whole-heartedly give himself to the advaitan experience, the conflict seems to lessen and be resolved from an advaitan perspective. "The saving name of Jesus is Brahman, it is atman. He saves by revealing the atman-brahman Nothing that is on the conceptual level has absolute value. Now, Christian dogmas are conceptual-mythical expressions of the "mystery". "Christs namarupa (names and forms) necessarily explodes, but the Church wants to keep us virtually at the level of the namarupa."21 Later he will continue that thought: "Christ is not a namarupa. His true name is I AM."22 What he is saying is that Christianity, and Hinduism as well, as religions are the conceptual expression of the fundamental experience of advaita, and as such they must be transcended. "Christian experience is really the experience of advaita lived out in human communion. And that is what the Trinity is. But we have sought to escape this fire by deifying formulas and institutions."23 Or, "Do I call him Christ? Yes, within one tradition, but his name is just as much Emmanuel-Purusha. Can he be Krishna? Rama? Shiva? Why not, if Shiva is in Tamulnadu the form of that archetype which seeks to become explicit at the greatest depth of the human heart?"24
With this kind of approach not only the whole effort to theologically understand the mystery of Jesus that appears in the Gospel dissolves, but the Incarnation, itself, becomes a manifestation of the advaitan experience. "The Jewish-Greek effort to give an absolute character to the Incarnation is the effort of someone who has not been blinded by the Divine Light."25 Christianity as it has been traditionally understood in the Church and how Abhishiktananda, himself, understood it as a Benedictine monk, recedes away. Advaita moves to the center of the stage and everything is interpreted in the light of his profound experience of it. "The trinitarian mystery is the revelation of my own depth The Trinity can only be understood in the experience of advaita."26
Jacques Dupuis on Abhishiktananda
Jacques Dupuis, a Belgian Jesuit, spent many years in India where he had known Abhishiktananda. In recent years he taught at the Gregorian University in Rome, and edited its review Gregorianum. His deep theological interest in interreligious dialogue, together with a personal sympathy for Abhishiktananda and his interior journey, make his evaluation of Abhishiktanandas work all the more interesting.
He begins his study of Abhishiktananda in his Jesus Christ at the Encounter of World Religions by pointing out that Abhishiktanandas encounter with Hinduism was more difficult than that of the native Indian convert to Catholicism Brahmabandhab Upadhyaya who at the beginning of the century had also wished to live as a Hindu-Christian monk. For Upadhyaya Hinduism was a cultural and social reality while, as we have seen for Abhishiktananda, it meant a terrible struggle in order to live out what he conceived as the implications of advaita. Dupuis summarizes the kinds of questions that he faced: "Is this the experience of which the Christian mystics have spoken and written? It is at least akin to it: Both are in themselves ineffable, beyond words and concepts. However, is not the experience of advaita still more radical than its Christian counterpart, if it is really the awareness of the Absolute itself translated into a poor, reflected gleam in the ephemeral consciousness of my phenomenal self a reflection that denies itself in the very act of self-expression, in the awakening of authentic awareness?"27
Advaita seemed to demand of Abhishiktananda "the supreme renouncement of himself, and over and above that, the still more radical renouncement of the Divine "You" encountered in prayer."28 If advaita appeared to Abhishiktananda to require this, it is little wonder that this struggle would last "almost to the end. It is not an exaggeration or derogatory to say that his whole life was marked by the quest for a synthesis ever elusive, never accomplished save in the "discovery of the Grail" that swept him off."29
Dupuis believes that Abhishiktananda found a certain serenity at the end of his life in accepting "a life of irresoluble tension transcending theoretical reconciliations. Abhishiktananda writes: "It is still best, I think, to hold, even in extreme tension, these two forms of a single faith, until the dawn appears."30 Dupuis also feels that Abhishiktananda came upon an answer after his heart attack in 1973, and expressed it as follows: "After several days, it finally came to me, like the marvelous solution of an equation: I have found the Grail. And I say this, I write it, to anyone who can grasp the image. At bottom, the quest for the Grail is but the quest for Self. It is a unique quest, signified by all the myths and symbols."31
But certainly we can ask, as we have asked before, whether this Grail is not, in fact, Abhishiktanandas acceptance of the ultimacy of the experience of advaita from which he will now serenely judge all things, Christianity included. How else are we supposed to think when Abhishiktananda insists that Christianity is a realm of words and forms, while advaita, in itself, is an existential experience? Given this perspective, he will write: "The awakening to mystery has nothing to do with the dogmas of the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Redemption The whole Trinitarian edifice collapses."32
Statements such as this lead Dupuis to point out their problematical theological character. Is it really possible, for example, to draw such sharp distinctions between concepts and experience, and the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith? "Are we then to say that the advaita experience, in its ineffability, ultimately transcends the Trinitarian experience, which depends on concepts ?"33 "Should we, and can we identify the consciousness of Jesus with the advaita experience ?"34 And Dupuis concludes: "We have seen that Abhishiktanandas experience poses more problems than it solves. The way in which he experienced the encounter between Hindu advaita and Christian doctrine seems to pose more than one dilemma: between mystical apophaticism and theological cataphaticism; between a unity that abolishes distinctions and an interpersonal communion that deepens in direct proportion to the distinctions themselves; between history conceived as an epiphenomenon of relative value and history invested with ontological density."35
The issues that Dupuis raises have a single root. Abhishiktananda has taken the perspective of advaitan experience and views everything from there. The non-conceptual nature of that experience, for example, leads him to question the validity of concepts in general, as well as the value of history. Christianity and its most intimate mysteries of the Trinity and the Incarnation however much Abhishiktananda was attached to them become mythic formulations pointing to the advaitan experience that transcends these names and forms like it does all names. Little wonder that Abhishiktananda felt that he was being torn in two because such an interpretation leaves little of authentic Christianity intact. Did he arrive at a true synthesis of Christianity and advaita in the closing moments of his life? It seems unlikely. Rather, it is more probable that he accepted the advaitan perspective that he had been moving towards for so long.
It is important to realize that Abhishiktanandas dilemma, and particularly his answer to it is not intrinsic to the Hindu-Christian dialogue itself. Dupuis indicates that it was not present in the same way in the life of Upadhyaya, nor does it appear in the same way in the life of Jules Monchanin with whom he founded Shantivanam, or that of Bede Griffiths who followed him there.
Bettina Bäumer, who could be called a disciple of Abhishiktananda, describes him as someone who "underwent this excruciating and blissful experience, remaining faithful to both traditions and he found freedom by transcending both."36 This idea of transcending both is amplified when she writes: "A Christian may reach a point in his or her experiences where the externals of religion are transcended, and thus touch also upon the experience of other traditions. This has been called "transcending religions" in a mystical experience, where the labels do not matter any longer."37
How does this work out in practice? "If somebody asks (or I ask myself): how can you believe in Christ and Shiva at the same time? My answer will be a further question: who is Christ? Who is Shiva? And, who am I? Shiva is not a name or any mythological personality, he is the "gracious one", the great Lord (Parameshvara), the ultimate Reality (anuttara), the most intimate I-consciousness of every conscious being. Christ is not merely the historical personality, otherwise I would not have cared to follow him. He is "the Way, the Life and the Truth" but not in an exclusive sense; on the contrary. Even beyond that he is essentially the "I am": "Then you will know that I am." How can one limit the "I am" to only one person? Here I learn from Kashmir Shaivism or Ramana Maharshi that the ultimate "I" of every conscious being is the divine "I". The ultimate realization is not of some "objective" truth: "This is He", but the personal discovery: "I am He". In this way every spiritual practice in the inter-religious context leads to a kind of purification from mere conceptions."38
But in this passage it is not both traditions that are transcended which, in itself would pose all sorts of problems for Christianity but rather, Christianity is transformed into Hindu categories.
In an article called "Abhishiktananda and the Challenge of Hindu-Christian Experience" she develops these ideas more at length. She feels that there are four stages in Abhishiktanandas evolution in which he goes "from the convinced missionary with a certain fulfillment theology to the stage of one who was shaken by a real encounter with Hindu spirituality and torn apart by two experiences, two ultimates, two identities, two worlds of religious expression, and, in his own words, two loves; from there to a third stage of relativizing all formulations, all names-and-forms, all concretizations of the one, unspeakable, inexpressible Mystery, and, finally, to a stage of reidentifying the correspondences which he discovered at both ends of his experience in the light of an explosion of all previous concepts."39
It is this last stage that most interests us because where I am seeing a certain acceptance by Abhishiktananda of his advaitan perspective, and thus, a lessening of tension because of this, Bettina Bäumer is finding a more positive meaning, "which amounts to a liberation, which did not destroy his faith in Jesus but transformed it."40 Lets look at several of the passages in Abhishiktananda she brings forth to demonstrate this. "Moreover I recognize this mystery, which I have always adored under the symbol of Christ, in the myths of Narayana, Prajapati, Shiva, Purusha, Krishna, Rama, etc. as the same mystery. But for me, Jesus is my sadguru. It is in him that God has appeared to me; it is in his mirror that I have recognized myself, in adoring him, loving him, consecrating myself to him."
"Christ is the total transparency of this aham asmi (I AM) to which I awaken at the source of my consciousness. Christ if he has any value for me is the very mystery of this awakening to myself."41
Unfortunately, these kinds of passages seem to emphasize the basic problem rather than resolve it. Abhishiktananda seems to be saying that he has a special relationship to Christ because that is how he enters into the advaitan experience. But it is this experience, itself, which is firmly in the center of his spiritual universe, and Krishna, Rama, or Buddha, can all be ways to transcend the world of names and forms, and enter into advaita. It is precisely the centrality given to the advaitan experience which is at issue. Once it is put in the center of things in this way Christianity, as it has been historically understood, is transformed in a way which appears incompatible with Christian faith.
Sara Grant, a Catholic sister and a member of the Hindu-Christian ashram Christa Prema Seva, made a detailed study of Sankara, the 9th century Hindu sage, and she came to the conclusion that Sankara and Thomas Aquinas agree on the kind of relationship that exists between creator and creation. They find a relationship in which the creation is dependent on the cause "for its very existence as a subsistent entity, whereas the cause is in no way dependent on the effect for its subsistence."42
This is certainly promising for the Hindu-Christian dialogue, but how does it fit in with the doctrine of nonduality that is expressed by the great Hindu sages when they utter words like tattvamasi, that art thou, or aham brahmasmi, I am Brahman? Sara Grant writes: " even today it remains an open question whether Sankara personally believes in this ultimate survival of the individual as such. Most commentators would probably say he did not."43 But this does not seem to give her much pause in subtitling her book: "Confessions of a Christian Non-Dualist." She goes on to say: "that the Gospel lived radically leads straight to advaita." And "the perfect practical handbook for living out advaita is the Gospel."44 This, she feels, would have all sorts of theological repercussions for we would have to look at: "our dualistic way of thinking and speaking about God as somehow "over against" us, as an ultimate Object, or even "Thou"."45
Abhishiktananda Through Advaitan Eyes
Whatever the difficulties we might have in deciding just where Abhishiktananda stood, he can appear quite straight-forward to an advaitan Hindu, as witnessed by Swami Nityananda Giris article, "Sadguru Sri Gnananda" who was Abhishiktanandas guru. There Swami Nityananda tells the story of how Sri Gnananda met a Jesuit priest from Tamil Nadu who was drawn to advaita, and who Abhishiktananda had advised to see him. The Jesuit "asked the sage whether he should become a Hindu to pursue his advaitic Vedantic sadhana. Sri Gnanananda told him that there was no need to change his religion. Vedanta is the transcendent element in all great religions. He should go deep into his own religion and would discover it there. Advaita would make a Christian, a true Christian. Later the priest became an internationally known teacher of Zen meditation."46
This sounds much like the kind of advice that Yamada Roshi would give to his Christian students, and we need not take this story as an indication that the Jesuit accepted it without qualification, but simply as a typical Eastern attitude towards Christianity. Nityananda gives us a straight-forward vedantan view of Christianity. Christ is an avatar, and God appears at a certain stage as the Lord of creation and the cause of it. But at a higher stage we have to go beyond God to the Godhead, or Brahman. "God and Godhead are to be understood as two states of the One Reality: the Relative and the Absolute, the Becoming and the Being. The Godhead is the plenum of undifferentiated Existence beyond time, space and causation, which is called sat."47
All this is very beautiful and of great metaphysical depth, but from a Christian perspective does not embrace the whole essence of Christianity. And what conclusion does Swami Nityananda come to about Abhishiktananda? "When we read Swami Abhishiktanandas description of his experience of I AM, it is clear that he left far behind all his theological attempts to get the advaitic experience into a Trinitarian framework."48 And he has plenty of ammunition to draw on for this conclusion, including a letter that Abhishiktananda wrote to Murray Rogers: "The more I go (on), the less able I would be to present Christ in a way which could still be considered as Christian "49
Once again, the point here is not to denigrate in the least the essential advaitan experience, which I believe to be a profound mystical experience of God, but because it is so powerful it needs to be handled by Christians with great delicacy.
Naturally there is much more to the Christian-Hindu dialogue than the role played by Abhishiktananda, but he illustrates in a profound and interior way the same kind of issues we have seen in regard to the Sanbo Kyodan school.
Anthony de Mello
Anthony de Mello in his book Sadhana: A Way to God suggests doing various exercises like becoming aware of ones breath. He warns people, however, not to overdo it lest they produce hallucinations or, "draw out material from the unconscious that you may not be able to control."50 He goes on to deal with an objection sometimes raised in his contemplation groups that such an exercise in awareness has nothing to do with Christian prayer and contemplation. In response he tells us that such an exercise is contemplation like that found in the Cloud of Unknowing, or in John of the Cross "dark night of the senses."51 We have a mystical faculty of the heart which would spring into action if we would quiet the dross of words, thoughts and images that cover it. It is a loving, silent gaze at God, but since God is formless, we are gazing at a blank. "Now that is just what is demanded of some people if they would go deep into communion with the Infinite, with God: gaze for hours at a blank."52 If they persevere they will little by little discover there is a glow in that darkness, that their idleness is filled with Gods activity.
This is where exercises in awareness come in. We must silence the mind, and this is what we do with exercises like observing our breathing. Thus, such an exercise is contemplation in the strict sense of the word.53 Indeed, the results are identical with religious exercises and with what people experience while practicing "the prayer of faith or the prayer of quiet."54
What are we to think of this? At the least, it is oversimplified and misleading. Christian contemplation, strictly speaking, or its initial stages in the prayer of quiet is not the result of anything we can do. Nor does someone like John of the Cross advise us to deliberately silence our discursive activity. While the terminology here may be Christian, the structure is borrowed from Eastern thought and imposed on a Christian situation. Therefore, those in his contemplative groups who questioned de Mello were raising important issues that his answers do not adequately deal with.
After I wrote these lines about de Mello, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a warning letter about the dangers they felt existed in de Mellos writings. This set off an uproar by evoking all sorts of emotions that have polarized the Church since the time of the Second Vatican Council, and it brought forth criticisms of Romes insensitivity to the concrete demands of interreligious dialogue. But two points need to be made about this. First, we need to look at the dynamics that underlie these kinds of conflicts, which we will do when we look at the state of contemporary Catholic theology. This is a question we will turn to in Chapter 3. But there is another issue, as well. Are there, in fact, theological deficiencies in de Mellos writings that ought to be examined?
Wayne Teasdales Toward a Christian Vedanta which appeared in 1987 was one of the first major studies of Bede Griffiths, and it directly addresses an issue that is closely allied to the questions we have been pursuing. "Can there be a Christian advaita?" it asks, a Christian form of Vedanta?55 And Teasdale tries to answer these questions by looking closely at Bede Griffiths understanding of the relationship between the Trinity and Saccidananda, or Hinduisms being, knowledge and bliss, which represents the fullest experience of advaita. He sets this question in its context by looking at the history of Christian sannyasa, that is, attempts by Christians, starting with Roberto de Nobili and later Brahmabandhap Upadhyaya, to live out the Hindu monastic quest for the absolute as Christians.
Bedes attempt to create a Christian sannyasa embraces not only a similar lifestyle at the ashram of Shantivanam, but a theology and contemplative spirituality, as well. Bede writes: "We seek to express our Christian faith in the language of the Vedanta as the Greek Fathers expressed it in the language of Plato and Aristotle."56 And the heart of this attempt is the relationship between Saccidananda and the Trinity. Here we return to the issue that we saw tormenting Abhishiktananda. Abhishiktananda was an important influence on Bede as one of the founders of Shantivanam, and as a radical pioneer on the path of trying to create a Christian sannyasa. If we put the whole question in another way we can ask how we should interpret the language that stems from the Upanishads, the "thou art that." "I am Brahman." Do we see it as a testimony to ontological identification, or do we take them as mystical utterances pointing to the transformation of the soul in God by knowledge and love?
Bede comments on these statements: "In the depth of your own consciousness you are one with that power which creates the tree. You are one with the Brahman. So in the depth of our own being each one of us can experience this reality of Brahman, the source, the ground of all existence and of all consciousness. That is the Hindu mystical experience."57 But he understands them in the sense of a transformation by knowledge and love. He does not accept the assertion that the individual person is "finally lost in the ultimate state of unity." Bede "maintains that the person only loses his or her separate existence, not identity, for that remains. The person is transfused with the Divine light, "and participates in the very being and consciousness of God.""58
Bede also emphasizes the role of the Purusha, or Lord of Creation, or Supreme Person in Hindu thought, which he sees as an expression of the personal aspect of the supreme reality, and one with Atman or Brahman, and thus bringing out the role of a personal God in Hinduism. In this way "the ultimate reality, the Brahman, is conceived as a personal being, the object of worship and adoration."59 It is already possible to notice a difference in tone that is emerging between Bede and the Abhishiktananda we saw in his journals. Bede also distinguishes advaita as a state of mystical consciousness from advaita as expounded by Sankara. " that kind of advaita which denies any reality to this world and says that God alone is real is only one form of Vedanta, and one which I certainly would never accept."60
Abhishiktananda will say, "Engulfed in the abyss, he (man) has disappeared to his own eyes, to his own consciousness. The proximity of that mystery which the prophetic traditions name God has burnt him so completely that there is no longer any question of discovering it in the depths of himself, or himself in the depths of it. In the very engulfing, the gulf itself has vanished. If a cry were still possible at the moment perhaps of disappearing into the abyss it would be paradoxically: But there is no abyss, no gulf, no distance. There is no face-to-face, for there is only That-which-Is and no other to name It. Advaita! "61
Teasdale comments that the line "God has burnt him so completely" indicates "not identity, but suggests an intimate union that obscures distinction. The rest would seem to imply a kind of identity, but it can also mean that the experience of unity with the Absolute is so deep and intense, that it is as if only the Absolute really is. It seems to me drawing on the Christian tradition of mysticism that union can be so far-reaching with God, and the soul so dominated by His glory and His act of being, that the person seems to be God. But it is not so in the ultimate sense."62 A little later he writes, "Sat is actually the pure intuition and experience of ones own being in Gods, or the experiential intuition of the Divines being, the Brahmans, at the center of ones own existential act."63
Bede takes the relationship of Jesus with the Father as the ultimate model for a Christian advaita. There is unity, yet distinction, and he stresses the relational aspect. He carries the same perspective into his view of the Trinity. "In the Godhead itself, in the Ultimate Reality there is unity-in-distinction It is all interpersonal relationship."64 Elsewhere he writes, "The Ultimate Reality is love, and love is relationship."65
Teasdale clearly sees that Abhishiktanandas views on the relationship between Saccidananda and the Trinity need to be distinguished from the positions taken by Jules Monchanin and Bede. Abhishiktananda identifies the two while Bede is much more circumspect. Bede is really asking whether the doctrine of the Trinity can be expressed not only in Western theological language, too dominated in his mind by Greek thought, but in the sat, cit, ananda language of India. That is a properly Christian theological question, however difficult it is to answer. It must be realized, for example, that the baptism of Plato and Aristotle meant a transformation of their philosophies, and not a simple acceptance of them as a whole, still less a subordination of the mysteries of Christian faith to them. The insight that gave birth to Saccidananda is a kind of deep intuition of being, and therefore a very good candidate as an instrument to help create a Christian theology cast in Hindu terminology, but it is also an intuition that took place in India not in a philosophical or speculative way, but rather, in a mystical manner as the goal that the seer sought to unite himself to. Abhishiktananda, as we saw, tended to identify this goal with the goal of the Christian life of prayer and contemplation, but even if we reject this identification, we can still accept the authenticity of the Saccidananda experience and use it as a way to create an Indian theology.
While here and there Teasdale seems to express some hesitation about the relationship between Bede and Abhishiktananda in regard to this identification of Saccidananda and the Trinity, i.e., Bede "does not reduce the two experiences to each other,"66 and says, "although an identity between Saccidananda and Trinity is not claimed by Bede, it is perhaps implied,"67 it is because he is struggling, as Bede did, to be faithful to the Christian mystical tradition and Christian theology, and yet be fully opened to the beauty and truth to be found in the experience of Saccidananda. Teasdale suggests that there is an existential convergence between the two, but ultimately he concludes:
"In the light of Bedes understanding of a Christian advaita as it has been presented above, I think it is not inappropriate to say that the Trinitarian intuition represents a deeper experience on this ultimate continuum of realization, because of its dimension of personalism which is lacking in Hindu advaita, at least insofar as this has been represented in the mainline literature of Hindu philosophy and spirituality, particularly in the interpretation of the Sankara school of advaitism. Because interpersonal relationship is the essential characteristic of the Trinity, and since this relationship is one of communion in knowledge and love, it is thus a fair assumption to suggest, on the basis of Bedes statements, that the Trinitarian doctrine/intuition is actually a deeper, more ultimate experience of the Ultimate Reality and Mystery than the advaitic/Saccidanandan doctrine/intuition and experience. And this is as it should be, for a Christian can never accept a doctrine as more ultimate than the revelation of the personal nature of Divine being that has come to us in Jesus Christ."68
There is another perspective in which to look at this issue, and that is to say that in the experience of Saccidananda there is an actual mystical experience of God, but one that rather easily lends itself to being interpreted in nondual terms, while in the experience of the Trinity it is this very same God who is experienced, but now according to a certain inwardness where it is seen that God is a mystery of interpersonal love.
Judson B. Trapnell in Bede Griffiths: A Life in Dialogue describes Bedes conversion as a young man and how, in its aftermath, he developed his ideas on faith and religious experience in part by reading Jacques and Raissa Maritain on knowledge by connaturality. It would not be surprising if Bedes conversion experience played an important role in the kinds of distinctions he was to draw later between the Christian life centered on the Trinity, and advaita.
Under the heading of Christian advaita, Trapnell traces Bedes ideas on this theme, and the picture that emerges is similar to the one painted by Wayne Teasdales study. But Trapnell in a series of articles that appeared in the Indian theological journal Vidyajhoti focuses on the differences between this approach of Bede, and that of Abhishiktananda. Bede, he tells us, late in his life became more sensitive to how his own approach differed from Abhishiktananda, a process that was aided by his reading of James Stuarts biography of Abhishiktananda written. "In a 1991 lecture Griffiths remarked that his predecessor at Shantivanam had gone too far in plunging into the experience of advaita and had thereby lost an important measure to balance in his theology."69
While Abhishiktananda could exclaim: ""what Christ is, I AM!" and, "I feel too much, more and more, the blazing fire of this I AM, in which all notions about Christs personality, ontology, history, etc., have disappeared. And I find his real mystery shining in every awakening man, in every mythos,"70 Bede would comment: "This I AM experience is not my experience. I want to get free of the I and bring it into the ultimate. I find the same (problem) with Ramana Maharshi. Its extremely difficult for me; I feel its a language which doesnt resonate with me. With him it seemed to, but it doesnt work with me at all. It confuses, I feel, if you say, I AM is the ultimate. I think the I AM was a preliminary; it was Yahweh who is the I AM. But I think Jesus had gone beyond. Jesus always related to the Father; its not simply I AM. So thats where I differ."71 Bede was not going to follow Abhishiktananda in his plunge into advaita. " I think he went too far in that direction," Bede stated.72
In a videotaped interview Bede remarks that Abhishiktananda came nearer and nearer to resolving the tension between advaita and his Christianity, but he never really resolved it. He goes on to say thatpersonally he had not the same tension: "I believe that advaita is not one, is not two. It is really relationship. The Trinity is the perfect example of nondual relationship." He goes on and comments that the Hindu name for God is Saccidananda, and the Hindu aims at becoming one with the supreme being, the supreme reality in pure consciousness, and that produces a state of bliss. But it is not exactly love. There is no relationship in it.73
In a sympathetic, yet critical article, "Enveloped by Mystery,"James Wiseman looked at Abhishiktananda's thought and concluded: "When critiqued in the light of traditional Christian thought, some prominent features of Abhishiktananda's theology are heterodox." And placing it against the background of contemporary discussions about religious pluralism, he comments: "Abhishiktananda's manner of not merely distinguishing between the cosmic Christ and Jesus of Nazareth but sharply dichotomizing them (with Jesus being but one of many authentic manifestations of the ineffable divine reality) cannot be expected to find acceptance in mainstream Catholic or Christian thought.
"Moreover, those who hold that the formulations of traditional Western theology, however ultimately inadequate, nevertheless do provide a genuine access to truth will be uncomfortable with the very sharp dichotomy Abhishiktananda drew between experience and conceptualization "74
Wayne Teasdale is a Christian sannyasi, that is, a follower of both the Christian and Hindu contemplative paths, and a disciple of Bede Griffiths whose nuanced study of Bede we have just seen. In "Christianity and the Eastern Religions," he puts forward a model of interreligious dialogue that he calls complementarity: "Each tradition has evolved a unique perspective on the one ultimate reality, and each has a contribution to make to the whole picture."75 And the contribution of each religion is to be sought more on the level of contemplative practice than the conceptual formulation of doctrine.
Hinduism, Buddhism and Christianity, for example, each highlight in different degrees the three fundamental forms of revelation: the cosmic, the mystical, and the historical, and thus lend themselves to the approach of complementarity. When Teasdale looks at the dialogue between Christianity and Hinduism, however, in more detail, the difficulties in carrying out such a program begin to emerge. Abhishiktananda "said that Uphanishadic mysticism brings us to the depths of the Spirit, the same Spirit at the heart of the trinitarian Godhead,"76 and thus he felt there was "a real ontological continuity between Saccidananda and the Trinity." Teasdale sums up Abhishiktanandas position by saying, "He possessed a certitude that both advaita and Trinity were absolute; he also knew that they were somehow one, but he didnt quite know how this was so."77
When it is a question of the dialogue between Buddhism and Christianity, Teasdale tries to show how the Buddhist doctrine of no-self and the Christian doctrine of the Trinity are not as far apart as first may be imagined. God is not a self "in the richest sense of the substance doctrine of Greek essentialistic metaphysics."78 God is a dynamic interrelationship, an inner communion of being, a Presence. "Ultimately, enlightenment is the awareness of and participation in this interrelationship in communion, in Presence, at the very heart of God: that is transcendent consciousness."79 It, of course, remains a question whether such a formulation really overcomes the difference between self and no-self, and whether Buddhists, themselves, would find it acceptable.
In The Mystic Heart: Discovering a Universal Spirituality in the Worlds Religions, Teasdale eloquently argues for what he calls an interspirituality in which this kind of complementarity among the worlds religions will hopefully lead some day, in some form as yet indiscernible in detail, to a universal spirituality. But such a visionary program does not prevent him from asking whether they are all pursuing the same spiritual goal, and in pursuit of an answer, he gives the reader short but incisive summaries of the contemplative paths of Hinduism, Buddhism and monotheistic mysticism. And while his reflections that we have seen in the previous article could be called theoretical, although still dealing with the contemplative path, here in trying to grope towards an answer he seems to rely more on his personal experience: "I have had many Advaitic experiences, and ones that might be regarded as Buddhist in nature. But my primary and enduring understanding is informed by an intimate and personal relationship with God."80
This leads him to conclude: "The unitive experience of the God-centered traditions of mysticism points to a strong sense of the persons distinct identity in relation to the divine. This experience is thus vastly different from the Hindu and Buddhist, although in all three of these approaches there is an awakening and enlargement of ones consciousness, identity, and potential. It is really a difference of emphasis, as Bede Griffiths wrote: "Perhaps the fundamental difference is this: that the heart of Christian mysticism is a mystery of love, whereas both in Hinduism and in Buddhism it is primarily a transformation of consciousness." Although the ultimate goals are not identical, they are complementary. The religions need one another precisely because they complete one another! Together, they enlarge our understanding of the ultimate. This is what animates and characterizes interspirituality."81
In the videotaped interview The Heart of the Christian-Hindu Dialogue, Teasdale gives a richly detailed account of the history of the Hindu-Christian dialogue, and goes on to describe the relationship between advaita and Christian contemplation: "When you experience pure unity with God, there is the temptation to feel that the identity of the person is obliterated, or that the experience of being overshadowed by God, overwhelmed by the divine, so invades the identity of the person that the persons identity is submerged and becomes so totally passive and experientially like a shadow identity; it is like a phantom identity. So one can jump to the conclusion that ones identity is not real because it is overshadowed; it is overwhelmed and invaded. I feel much of the language of pure unity derives from a misunderstanding of the experience of unity There is the personal. God is both personal and impersonal. In the whole Buddhist nirvanic consciousness there is a dimension of God, of the Godhead. Pure advaita is a dimension of it, but the personal is also a dimension of it There is a dynamic communion going on within God." 82
There is a dialogue between Christianity and Yoga, as witnessed to by books like Thomas Matus Yoga and the Jesus Prayer Tradition and Thomas Ryans Prayer of Heart & Body, but at first glance there is nothing in the religions of the East that seems stranger and more alien to Christian spirituality than kundalini yoga. There the latent energies of the body that the ancient Hindus conceived in the form of a serpent coiled around the base of the spine could be awakened by breathing exercises and meditation, and made to ascend the psychic nerve channel associated with the spine, awakening the various energy centers, or chakras leading to a transformation of both body and mind. The first chakra at the base of the spine is called the muladhara. It is said to have four petals, be yellow in color and is associated with the element earth. The next psychic center is in the area of the reproductive organs. This is the svadhishthana with six petals. It is white and associated with water. Next, at the navel, comes the manipura chakra with ten red petals symbolizing the element of fire. It is followed by the heart, or anahata, chakra with twelve petals. This chakra is smoky and is associated with air. At the base of the throat we find the visuddha chakra of sixteen petals. It is blue, and connected with ether. Between the eyebrows is the ajna chakra with two petals and associated with mind, and according to Swami Sivananda, visions of a personal god.83 The final chakra and the goal which the energy has been seeking is the sahasrara with 1,000 petals. It is here that the yogi "loses his individuality in the ocean of sat-chit-ananda, or existence-knowledge-bliss" and becomes one with the lord or supreme soul.84 This kundalini energy is awakened by pranayama, or breathing exercises, asanas or yoga postures, mudras, or special yogic gestures, concentration and devotion.
Kundalini was cultivated not only in ancient Hindu India, but in early Buddhism, as well, from whence it traveled to Tibet and survived until the present, and is to be found in Taoist literature, as well. During the 20th century it became known to the West through such works as The Serpent Power: The Secrets of Tantric and Shaktic Yoga by Sir John Woodroffe, Tibetan Yoga and Secret Doctrines edited by W.Y. Evans-Wentz, Taoist Yoga: Alchemy and Immortality by Lu Kuan Yü, and more recently, through Gopi Krisnas Kundalini: The Evolutionary Energy in Man, and through exiled Tibetan meditation masters, for example in Geshe Kelsang Gyatsos Clear Light of Bliss. Through these kinds of works we enter into the strange but fascinating world in which it appears that the body, itself, and its deepest energies become the instruments by which enlightenment is achieved.
We might be tempted to write all this off as of no relevance to Christian spirituality, but it is important to note that kundalini-like phenomena have appeared in other times and places with no direct connection with Eastern religions. Among the !Kung Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert in Botswana, for example, it is called !kia and is connected with healing and religious functions and is found among many men and women. !Kia is exercised during an all-night dance and is due to an activation of an energy called n/um which resides in the pit of the stomach. As the dance progresses the bushmen describe the n/um as something hot that rises up the spine to the base of the skull. It causes the person to shiver and tremble, and rapid shallow breathing draws it up. "You feel it as a pointed something which is in your backbone, and the base of your spine tingles. And then it makes your thoughts nothing in your head."85
Further, there has been a contemporary explosion of interest in kundalini in the West with more and more accounts of Westerners who believe they have experienced awakenings of kundalini-like energy. These things can be taken as indications that beneath the rich weight of the esoteric symbolism in traditional Eastern kundalini descriptions there may be a core experience of great power and significance.
Philip St. Romain
It was the publication of Philip St. Romains Kundalini Energy and Christian Spirituality in 1991 that opened the door to the encounter of kundalini yoga and the Christian spiritual path. St. Romain was a Catholic devoted to the Christian life of prayer and contemplation when he underwent an unexpected spontaneous kundalini awakening that threw his life into turmoil. He had at that point no idea of the long traditions of kundalini yoga that existed in the East, and looked in vain in the Christian mystical literature to discover what had happened to him. He struggled to deal with the kundalini experience, itself, with its brightly colored lights, and movements of energy in various parts of the body, as well as to understand it in the light of his own training in biology and psychology, and to bring it into relationship with his own Christian faith.
Gradually he came to the conclusion that the purpose of kundalini was not to gain some sort of higher powers, but to lead to a kind of cosmic consciousness that was close to or identical with the kind of enlightenment found in Zen or other Eastern traditions: "No longer do sense perceptions feed through the intellect; no longer are there "thoughts in my eyeballs," interfering with my perceptions, as of old. Now there is just-seeing, just-smelling, just-tasting and all this intelligently, with a silent mind.
How sweet it is this enlightenment experience! How joyful! How freeing! No longer is there any sense of alienation, for the Ground that flows throughout my being is identical with the Reality of all creation."86
He eventually saw that it would not do to simply identify kundalini with Christian contemplation, or the working of the Holy Spirit, despite the analogies that exist between the two. He finally arrived at a hard-won sense that the way of kundalini energy and the undeniable beauty of enlightenment complemented but did not replace the Christian spiritual path. He expresses this sense of harmony between the deep experience of Eastern forms of meditation and the Christian life of prayer and contemplation elsewhere, 87 and thus he joins the people we saw in Chapter 1 who have found no conflict between contemplation and enlightenment at the level of experience. When we look at the question of the affective ego later, we will return to Philip St. Romains remarkable story.
Our pilgrimage through the writings of Catholic participants in East-West dialogue allows us to see that these dialogues raise any number of important questions. We can summarize some of these issues in a series of interconnected and overlapping points.
The Personal and the Impersonal
Whether ultimate reality is personal or impersonal goes to the very heart of the Buddhist-Christian or Hindu-Christian dialogue. Christianity is fundamentally and intrinsically personal. There is certainly a whole nuanced tradition which tries to explain how God is beyond all the names that are applied to God. But in final analysis, God is affirmed as a person, even a communion of persons, and the Incarnation is supremely personal. To imagine that this I-Thou relationship which is so rooted in Christian thought and which is expressed throughout the Christian life of prayer and contemplation must, in some way, yield to a higher impersonal stage is, I fear, to seriously misread both the Christian mystical and theological traditions. Even a John of the Cross who is so insistent on us leaving all things behind will sing in his Spiritual Canticle, as we saw, "Where have you hidden yourself, my Beloved?" In short, while there is a very strong Christian apophatic tradition that cannot be neglected, it is hard to see how the personal nature of Christianity can give way to some impersonal absolute without Christianity losing its identity. Another way of putting it is that a relational love mysticism is at the very center of Christianity.
Duality and Nonduality
It would be misleading to call Zen Buddhists, and advaitan Hindus nondualists and Christians dualists. It would be better to say that for Christians God is intimately present to all things by giving them the gift of existence moment by moment, and God is even more intimately present by calling all people to share in Gods love. There is, then, a certain Christian nondualism, if you will, in which we are called to become God by knowledge and love. But this cannot be given an ontological meaning so that I could say in a metaphysical way, "I am God."
It would probably by wrong, as well, to imagine that Zen Buddhism, or even the advaitan Vedanta is making any kind of ontological nondualist claims. Rather, they are trying to take into account a nondual experience, and sometimes their post-experience reflections can leave the impression that they are creating a nondual ontology. But they are not interested in philosophy in the Western sense, but rather, leading people to the experience, itself. The real question, which we will pursue later, is whether enlightenment is nondual in itself, or is presented in a nondual way because of the very means by which the enlightenment experience is attained. There should be no rush to judgment on the part of Christians as if they need to express Christianity in some nondual ontological fashion. This is not precisely what Zen Buddhists, and advaitan Hindus are doing.
Concepts, Eastern and Christian
A certain insistence in Catholic theology today on the relative and limited nature of concepts is understandable given its over-conceptual past, as well as the impact of post-modern philosophies and deepening dialogues with Eastern religions. But Christian revelation carries with it a healthy respect for conceptual statements. It is implicit in Christian revelation that these statements tell us something about the Christian mysteries, themselves. The webs of concepts, woven by Christian theology, are, of course, limited and inadequate and can be progressively improved. But that is a far different matter than to imagine we can create entirely new webs of concepts, and even webs that are contradictory to each other, and suppose that there is no way to truly judge them against the Christian mysteries, themselves. A Zen Buddhist view of concepts, for example, in which they appear as skillful means, or pointers to the ineffable reality, cannot immediately be assumed to be an adequate model for how concepts are to be used within Christianity.
Core Experiences and the Culturally Conditioned Nature of Language
It has become almost axiomatic that all religions lead to the same summit, and differ only because of the language and culture they express this journey in. But it is a quite different matter to actually prove this. Even from a phenomenological point of view it hardly seems warranted to say that Christianity and Zen Buddhism are simply two paths leading to an identical goal, and that John of the Cross, "Where have you hidden yourself, my Beloved?" is identical to Master Fumons, "The ocean beds aflame, and out of the void leap wooden lambs."
We have seen how the Sanbo Kyodan appears to have attempted to isolate a certain core experience of enlightenment and identify it with the heart of Buddhism, and how it is but one more step for the Christian members of the Sanbo Kyodan to imagine that this core experience is at the heart of Christianity, as well. But this is exactly what needs to be demonstrated. If, on the other hand, at the heart of Zen Buddhism, or advaitan Hinduism is a nondual experience of the ultimate ground of things, and at the heart of Christianity a relational love mysticism, then while they are both dealing with the Absolute, they are doing so under different formalities, and to translate Christianity into nondual Buddhist, or Hindu categories is to alter its fundamental nature.
The Christian Life of Prayer and Eastern Ways of Meditation
The practice of discursive and affective forms of Christian prayer will, according to John of the Cross, lead to the dark night of the senses in the wide sense of that phrase, that is, to a certain interior crisis in which the more palpable and affectively satisfying ways of praying begin to fail. It may well be that Zen or Hindu meditation could play a role in helping Christians to deal with this difficult time of transition, but that is very different from erecting these meditations as a second and completing stage of the Christian life of prayer. Then the problem posed by the dark night of the senses is solved not in confronting the question of Christian contemplation, but by supposing that eastern meditation can take the place of the Christian contemplation that is absent. It has yet to be shown that the experience of enlightenment is equivalent to what happens in the Christian path of contemplation, so such a substitution is unwarranted.
With these issues in mind, lets go on and examine the theological background to this tendency of some Catholics engaged in Eastern forms of meditation to reinterpret Christianity as another example of nonduality.