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Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan (1888-1975) – Great unifier or opinionated reductionist?

Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan (1888-1975) was an Indian scholar of religion and philosophy who taught at the University of Calcutta and Oxford. He became the first Vice President (1952) and the second President of India (1962).

More interesting to me, he was an influential interpreter of Hinduism. His translation of the Bhagavad-Gita was a standard for students of Comparative Religion back in the mid-1980s. But this wasn’t the copy I kept in my coat pocket while traveling throughout India. Instead, I preferred a small, cheap Indian paperback that lacked the intellectual varnish of the Radhakrishnan publication.

For Radhakrishnan, diverse world religions are different aspects of the same Source. So religions can be unified through a universal interpretation of Vedanta, particularly, Advaita Vedanta. Advaita Vedanta argues that the soul (atman) and ultimate reality (brahman) eventually merge as one. There is no ultimate individuality.

Radhakrishnan’s intentions were noble. I have no doubt that he wanted to sow worldwide peace and promote mutual advantage. But what we want to believe and what’s really happening are often quite different.

Accordingly, Radhakrishnan believes that the Christian message, which clearly glorifies individuality and sainthood in the service of God, fits within his non-individualistic take on Hinduism.¹

Image – Wikipedia

Radhakrishnan’s work is widely respected in India and around the world. This isn’t surprising because Hinduism, like most religious perspectives, tends to incorporate or, depending on how you look at it, reduce different world religions to agree with its own understanding of the godhead. Some find this an attractive approach while others believe it overlooks or, perhaps, trivializes important theological differences.

Consider, for instance, a fairly standard Hindu view of Christianity. For many Hindus, Jesus Christ is just another messenger—some might say avatar. Christ is one among many wise historical figures, and certainly not the most evolved messenger or avatar. For some, Christ is a well-meaning cosmic schoolboy because he doesn’t teach about the supposed “truth” of reincarnation. He’s not evolved enough to “know.”

So for many Hindu believers in reincarnation, Christ the cosmic schoolboy is not the only Son and incarnation of God as traditional Christians, themselves, believe.²

One could argue that this approach, even if well-intentioned, contributes to a condescending and divisive “we know better than them” attitude that runs through most faith groups around the world.

When individuals rigidly believe that their particular religious beliefs represent absolute or the best available truth, there’s arguably little room left for meaningful dialogue.

The agenda to ‘convince and convert’ is found among most religious people. Sometimes this agenda is masked with an agreeable persona of trying to understand. Whether or not this facade of trying to understand represents unethical deception or a wise kind of “fishing” for souls remains open to debate.³

¹ This might be due to his never having an unadulterated Christian experience. Some think he was, in part, reacting to a negative experience with Christian missionaries in India. See . There are some schools of Indian thought that conceptually fit better with Christian cosmology.

² For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life – John 3:16. Hinduism is not the only non-Christian belief system that modifies traditional Christianity to fit within its own framework. Almost all non-Christian religions do this, old and new. Likewise, many Christians reinterpret non-Christian beliefs to fit with their own cosmology.

³ “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will send you out to fish for people.”

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Puranas – Diverse body of Hindu myth

Indian pupils dressed as Hindu god Lord Krishna are restrained by a teacher after a quarrel as they awaited their turn in a fancy dress competition to celebrate ‘Gokul-Ashtami/Janmashtami’, the birth of Lord Krishna, at a school in Mumbai on September 1, 2010. According to Indian mythology and the Hindu Puranas, Krishna is the incarnation of Lord Vishnu, who took birth to kill his maternal uncle the evil king Kansa and free the people of Mathura and other nearby towns from his cruelty and save them from his evil clutches. AFP PHOTO/Indranil MUKHERJEE

In Hinduism the Puranas (Sankrit: old, ancient) are a rich and diverse body of mythology, detailing topics such as grace, retribution, homeopathy, cosmic cycles of destruction and rebirth, karma and karma transfer.

The Puranas originated in the Gupta period (4th century CE); they include the Mahabharata and Ramayana. The Bhagavad Gita is part of the Puranic narrative and most scholars believe it is a later addition to the Mahabharata.

Although the Sanskrit root of the word “Puranas means “old” or “ancient,” the Puranas are not the oldest – nor are they held as the most authoritative – of Hindu Scripture. However, they are widely influential.

The Puranas include cosmos creation myths such as the Samudra Manthan (churning of the ocean). These ideas spread to southeast Asia. It is represented in the Angkor Wat temple complex of Cambodia, and at Bangkok airport, Thailand (immediately above) – via Wikipedia

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Depending on which scholar you’re talking to, the word yoga comes from the Sanskrit root yujir (yoke, bind together or union) or yuj samādhau (concentration).

Hatha yoga is a precisely defined set of bodily postures, along with breathing and mental exercises designed by Patanjali.  Taken together, these are said to ultimately connect the ego and soul with God.

Although hatha yoga is fashionable in the West, there are other important Hindu yogas. And the entire idea of yoga runs far deeper than stretch suits and inflatable balls.

For the traditional Hindu, yoga means any technique or practice that links individual will to the Divine Will.

The Bhagavad-Gita, one of the most revered books in Hinduism,  outlines four different but related types of yoga.

  1. Jnana yoga is the yoga of divine knowledge
  2. Raja yoga is the yoga of right rule
  3. Karma yoga is the yoga of sacred duty or action (this relates to another important Hindu concept, dharma)
  4. Bhakti yoga is the yoga of pure devotion to God

Depending on where a seeker is in his or her spiritual journey, these four different yogas can intermingle in different degrees and combinations.

For example, a hard working businesswoman (karma yoga) does puja in the morning (bhakti yoga). On returning home after work she meditates on spiritual lessons learned from the day’s activities (jnana yoga). At night she participates in a women rights group to help eradicate sutee (raja yoga). In addition, she may practice the bodily and contemplative postures of hatha yoga to ease her stress.

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Another aspect of yoga relates to Tantricism and is both championed or possibly denounced among the Hindu faithful. This type of yoga is called kundalini yoga.

Kundalini yoga involves awakening the spiritual “serpent power” said to reside in the base chakra. Through intense and prolonged training with a spiritual master (guru), the seeker learns how to channel this power up along the spinal column so it resonates within each of the seven chakras. Some stress the importance of moving beyond the lower chakras, but most advocate achieving balance among all of them.

Believers in this mythological system of the body say the most noble chakra is located at the top of the head (crown chakra). When this chakra activates and is properly balanced with all the other chakras, one is said to be in a state of samadhi—that is, complete and perfect union with God.

It’s worth nothing that different schools say different things about the chakras. The main point of difference seems to be the precise number and location of the chakras. So modern people grasping onto some simplified chakra theory as if it were the gospel truth might do well to brush up on the history of religions. Otherwise, a given chakra theory might become just another New Age dogma, influencing a person’s thinking just as forcefully as any other kind of religious teaching.

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Sri Aurobindo

Sri Aurobindo (formerly Aurobindo Ghose, 1872-1950) was a British-educated Indian freedom fighter and nationalist (seen by some British colonialists as a terrorist) who morphed into a mystic philosopher and futurist.

English: Sri Aurobindo presiding over a meetin...

Sri Aurobindo presiding over a meeting of the Nationalists after the Surat Congress, with Tilak speaking, 1907 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Aurobindo apparently took the bellicose aspect of the Bhagavad Gita – that Arjuna must fight to fulfill his dharma (sacred duty) – to heart. Bombs were constructed in the family home at Calcutta while he headed a resistance movement against the British in India. After two British women (a mother and her daughter) were killed by a stray bomb, Aurobindo was held in jail for about a year before being acquitted.¹

While in jail, he began a difficult spiritual path, culminating in his unique views and the founding of an ashram at the French settlement of Pondicherry, India.

Sri Aurobindo said he was visited by Vivekananda [another prominent Hindu guru (ed.)] in the Alipore Jail. In his words, “It is a fact that I was hearing constantly the voice of Vivekananda speaking to me for a fortnight in the jail in my solitary meditation and felt his presence.[23] The voice spoke only on a special and limited but very important field of spiritual experience and it ceased as soon as it had finished saying all that it had to say on that subject.”²

Aurobindo’s “integral yoga” is intended to infuse what he believes is the highest “supramental” reality into the lowest, physical and “subconcient” plane of physical existence.


Shrine (Photo credit: premasagar)

According to the story, Aurobindo mystically foresaw his future spiritual partner, the French woman Mirra Alfassa, while she was residing in France, and well before she arrived in India. Moving to India and living with Aurobindo at his ashram, Alfassa took on the new appellation “The Mother.”

After establishing the ashram in Pondicherry, Aurobindo became increasingly in need of solitary meditation and eventually stopped appearing before gathered disciples (darshan). Although, so the story goes, the Mother still brought him a cup of hot chocolate at night.

Aurobindo translated and wrote extensively on Hindu scriptures, expounded his ideas in works like The Life Divine and original poetry like Savitri. Unlike Plato, Aurobindo believed that poetry is the best medium for communicating spiritual ideas.

In The Riddle of this World Aurobindo tried to answer central religious problems (such as the existence of evil) and wrote about different types of evil beings (asuras) whose sole intent apparently is to torment, confuse and hinder those on a spiritual quest toward the highest, supramental awareness.

Fear and Abandonment

Fear and Abandonment – reinekaos via Flickr

Aurobindo says an intermediary state, a midpoint between worldly imperfect and sacred true knowledge, exists in which

one may go astray…follow false voices…that ends in spiritual disaster.

These voices arise from the imperfect guidance of

little Gods…[or from] the well-known danger of actually hostile beings whose sole purpose is to create confusion, falsehood, corruption…³

Today, of course, many would just say someone who follows false voices is mentally ill. The difference, however, is that Aurobindo attributes a spiritual source to the deception/delusion, instead of just writing it off as some kind of brain-based hallucination (which, of course, is also possible).

Aurobindo says he was divinely provided with funds for his spiritual mission but added that the Lord has a “maddening habit” of waiting until the last moment before coming through.

He also believed that he assisted the Allies in winning WW-II by virtue of his meditative intercession. So he clearly saw himself as no small player in the world of mysticism. His later writings talk of a future that includes an evolved humanity with flexible, shapeshifting bodies.

The ashram book publisher, Sabda, prints and binds Aurobindo’s writings. Some of his contemporary followers reside in Auroville, an experimental town lying just outside of Pondicherry. Lonely Planet’s TV host Justine Shapiro visited Auroville and seemed to imply that it was a haven for foreigners seeking enlightenment while exploiting local laborers.

On visiting the Sri Aurobindo ashram in the late 1980s I was asked to follow the Indian custom of removing one’s sandals at the entrance. On returning to the ashram entrance at the end of my visit, I found that my sandals had disappeared. The gatekeeper didn’t seem overly concerned, and she didn’t help to try and find them. Riding a bicycle barefoot back to my hotel made me realize the huge gulf between those who do and do not have shoes in India. As the Joni Mitchell song goes, “You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.”

This, perhaps, was the most important lesson I learned that day.

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² Ibid.

³ Aurobindo Ghose, The Riddle of This World, Calcutta: Arya Publishing House, 1933, pp. 56-57.


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English: Shri Gaudapada Statue Picture Categor...

Shri Gaudapada Statue Picture Category:Shri Gaudapadacharya Math (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Atman (probably from Skt. an “to breathe”) is a concept found in Hinduism, particularly in the school of Advaita Vedanta, that may be roughly understood as the “soul.”¹

In the Upanisads, the Atman is eternal, all-knowing and cannot be destroyed. The lower-case version atman, translated from the Sanskrit, usually refers to the personal soul. Meanwhile, the upper-case Atman is the universal soul, said to be identical with the Brahman. And this is where the Hindu understanding of soul arguably differs from say, the Christian view.

The aim of mystical Hinduism is the joining of the personal atman to the universal Atman-Brahman. Just what this implies depends on the particular Hindu thinker one subscribes to.

Having said that, we have to remember that there are different schools of Hindusim (see Related Posts, below), and it’s arguably a simplification to lump the diverse strands of Hindu philosophy and experience into a homogeneous package, as so many overzealous Christian apologists seem to do.

Christ icon in Taizé

Christ icon in Taizé (Photo credit: lgambett)

By the same token, it’s equally simplistic to equate potentially diverse Christian mystical experiences with their Hindu counterparts as if all were identical. This seems an unjustifiable tendency among some New Age enthusiasts who use the term “Christ Consciousness” to denote an alleged ultimate awareness said to be qualitatively identical to all other forms of revelatory and mystical encounters.

In fact, whenever people distort the lightness and beauty of Christian spirituality by cherry picking aspects of the Bible to apparently support their mixed up view of religion, a red flag goes up in this writer’s mind. To me it signals that the person really doesn’t know what they’re talking about.

¹ This entry focuses on the Hindu view of atman, mostly because I took three graduate courses at Santiniketan, W. Bengal involving the topic. Although the courses covered Buddhist and Jain variations of the concept, two of the three credits earned focused on the Bhagavad Gita, so my memory is strongest regarding the Hindu understanding. For the Buddhist and Jain variations, see

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Arjuna's Chariot

Arjuna’s Chariot (Photo credit: code_martial)

Arjuna is a renowned Indian culture hero and Krishna‘s charioteer in the Bhagavad Gita. Arjuna arguably has the status of a demigod among of much the Hindu-Indian populace. In the Gita he is prodded by the god Krishna to fight kith and kin.

Despite his initial reluctance, Arjuna overcomes the chronic procrastination that Shakespeare‘s Hamlet cannot—that is, the crippling fear, self-doubt and excessive thinking that can lead to inaction.

Krishna philosophical rationalization for killing can be summed up as follows: He instructs Arjuna that the body dies but the soul is immortal. Moreover, the sacred duty (dharma) appropriate to Arjuna’s kshatriya caste demands that he fight.

According to a literal interpretation of the Gita, it is better to do one’s dharma – even if it means killing – than to ignore it.

Today the Gita is cherished for its psychological and spiritual value. Arjuna’s “killing” is usually interpreted as the death of negative attitudes and actions which otherwise would bind the eternal soul (atman) to worldly pleasures and desires.

Politically, however, the Gita may be taken as similar to the Christian idea of the Just War and the Muslim idea of Jihad. Most religions, even Buddhism, try to justify “unavoidable” war somewhere within their teachings. For this and other reasons, religion in general has been challenged by some pop stars (e.g. Elton John and John Lennon) and by other prominent figures throughout history.¹

¹ See

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Mahatma Gandhi by dbking via Flickr

Ahimsa is a Jain ideal of non-violence, perhaps best illustrated by the life and passive resistance of Mohandas Gandhi.

The Sanskrit term Himsa means “harming.” The prefix a implies the opposite, “not-harming.”

Ahimsa is based on respect for all life because it’s believed that the divine spark resides in all creatures. And because all creatures are interconnected, it’s believed that violence to any living being merely harms self and others. Moreover, violence binds the aggressor to undesirable future incarnations on Earth.

The ideal is central to Buddhism and particularly Jainism. Because the early Hindu Vedas prescribe animal sacrifices and the Bhagavad Gita advocates killing without attachment, it would be difficult to say that Hinduism fits perfectly with ahimsa. But the idea is found within the Hindu Chandogya Upanisad and in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras.

Not unlike Catholicism from St. Augustine of Hippo onward, Hinduism advocates peace while maintaining room for allegedly necessary violence, theologically defined as the Just War doctrine.