Chapter 1. Introduction
Hinduism can help Christians in the West rediscover a sense of the mystical -- an awareness of the reality of the Divine, who or which can never adequately be described in human language. Hinduism can serve as a mirror to help Christians recover their mystical traditions and thereby help the Church to communicate with people today at the level of experience rather doctrine.
To explain a little more what I mean by the mystical -- a term I shall use quite often in this book -- let me quote a passage that I wrote for a collection of personal testimonies entitled Glimpses of God. I describe a visit to the ashram in South India of Fr. Bede Griffiths, who explored the relationship of Hindu and Christian mysticism.
‘At first the physical discomfort of sitting cross-legged on the floor, sleeping on a hard board and readapting to an Indian way of life made concentration difficult. The friendship of others at the ashram helped me to relax. Then walks beside the great holy river Cauvery at sunset and sunrise renewed the "sense of presence" -- an awareness of the scale of the universe and my humble place in it -- and a sense of peace and stillness. I felt as if I were able to relax in a warm ocean of love and that my worries and insecurity were gently washed away. I thought of my mother dying of cancer and knew that she, too, would soon be free from physical discomfort and humiliation, relaxing in the same ocean of love.’
Then, at the Eucharist, which incorporated so much of the Hindu temple ritual, the celebrant called us to communion with the words, "Jesus invites us all to share in God’s limitless love". The sense of presence became the experience of overwhelming love and acceptance. I recognized that my moments of panic, of defensiveness and of aggressiveness came from feelings of not being able to cope. But what did it matter if God wanted to make a fool of me? I was loved without reserve -- all I needed was to lean on the love of God, which is always available. I sensed that this limitless love of God embraces all people and indeed the whole of creation.
Neither experience was new. I have often sensed "the presence" in nature, most intensely in the desert of Sinai and in the outback of Australia, but also in the beauty that surrounds us everywhere in nature. I have long known the forgiving and accepting love of Jesus, even if, almost as often, I forget it. The Cross has always been for me the symbol of that total accepting love of God made known in Christ -- a love shown in Jesus’ concern for the poor and outcast. At each communion service I have been renewed in that love which the Cross communicates.
What was new was that, beside the Cauvery river, the "presence" of mystery in nature and the revelation in Jesus of infinite love and peace were united. And sensing that love, I felt renewed compassion for other people and for all living beings.
Compared to an experience of the reality of the Divine, debates about doctrine and reform of ritual and liturgy are comparatively unimportant and the struggle of the institutional church to reinvent itself is irrelevant. To define God is to limit that which is unlimited and infinite. All religious language should be tentative and provisional. It should never, therefore, be the cause of division.
Mystical vision helps us to see ourselves as part of a spiritual fellowship that knows no barriers. It also creates in us a sense of our oneness with all other people and with all life and so it inspires empathy for the poor and a concern to break down the unjust structures of society. It fills us also with compassion for all living beings. Thereby, mystic vision offers, I believe, genuine hope for the transformation of our world society and renewal of spiritual life.
As I was coming to an end of writing this book, I came across the advice given by Henri de Lubac, author of a classic study on Catholicism, to Fr. Jules Monchanin, one of the founders of the Shantivanam Ashram where Fr. Bede Griffiths made his home, ‘to rethink everything in terms of theology, and to rethink theology in terms of mysticism’.
Fr. Bede Griffiths first went to India in 1956, but it was not until 1968 that he settled at Shantivanam. I first went to India in 1962 and Bede Griffiths’ Christian Ashram, published in 1966, was one of the few books I found which resonated with my first hesitant attempts to discover a more universal expression of Christianity. I have been deeply influenced by Fr. Bede Griffiths both as a person and a writer. In writing this book, I had, however, not recently reread his writings, but as this book was nearing completion, I read Judson B. Trapnell’s new study of Bede Griffiths. The various quotations from Fr. Bede in this book were added at this stage. I mention this because it suggests I am not alone in having been helped by Hinduism to discover the mystical heart of Christianity.
There are many others who have been influenced in this way. Let Brother Wayne Teasdale, who was deeply influenced by time spent in India and who was initiated by Fr. Bede in the way of sannyasa, the way of renunciation and dedication to God, serve as an example. In his book The Mystic Heart, Brother Wayne develops a genuine and comprehensive spirituality that draws on the mystical core of the world’s great religions. He ends his book with these words,
‘Spirituality is the very breath of the inner life. It is an essential resource in the transformation of consciousness on our planet, and it will be enormously beneficial in our attempts to build a new universal society. Spirituality ... is the quality that we most require in our time and in the ages to come, but it is a quality refined only in the mystic heart, in the steady cultivation of compassion and a love that risks all for the sake of others. It is these resources that we desperately need as we build the civilization with a heart, a universal society capable of embracing all that is, putting it to service in the transformation of the world. May the mystics lead the way to this rebirth of the human community that will harmonize itself with the cosmos and finally make peace with all beings.’
The sense that spiritual renewal in the West will come from a rediscovery of the mystic heart of religion is not new. F. C. Happold, for example, in his Religious Faith and Twentieth-Century Man, published in 1966, spoke of the mystical ‘as as a way out of the spiritual dilemma of modern man.’ Many individuals have found this to be true by exploring Eastern religions or joining New Religious Movements. As Jacob Needleman noted in 1970 ‘the contemporary disillusionment with religion has revealed itself to be a religious disillusionment. Men are moving away from the forms and trappings of Judaism and Christianity not because they have stopped searching for transcendental answers to the fundamental questions of human life, but because that search has now intensified beyond measure.’
I myself have found lasting spiritual sustenance in Christianity. I recognize that the growth of the evangelical and charismatic traditions in the churches reflect a similar longing for religious experience. But I cannot accept the narrowness of their theology, as I have also drunk from the well-springs of other religions, especially Hinduism and Judaism. Both have helped me rethink my understanding of Christianity and in this book I explore the influence of Hinduism.
This is not another ‘Introduction to Hinduism’. When I first went to India I was told by Father Murray Rogers, who founded a Christian ashram near Bareilly, that the external dialogue has to be accompanied by an internal dialogue. By this he meant that as one learns about another faith, either by reading or conversation, one then reflects on this in an inner dialogue with the Lord. In this book I share some of my inner dialogue, which is why this has to be a personal account and why, despite the emphasis on my growing awareness of the mystical, I reflect on some other matters.
I recognize that Hinduism is immensely varied. Indeed the word is one imposed by Europeans on the religious life of India. Other people will have experienced different dimensions of Hinduism. Hinduism is not confined to India and I have learned from Hindus in other parts of the world. Hinduism, moreover, is not the only religion in India and it has seemed right to make some reference to what I have gained from talking to some members of other faiths there.
Christianity too, of course, is also very varied and maybe these religious labels will continue to lose their meaning in the twenty first century. My hope is that this book will encourage other Christians to make a similar journey and discover the spiritual enrichment that is offered to us by a deeper awareness of some of India’s religious traditions.
All the great faiths hold in trust sacred treasures which are the spiritual heritage of humankind. These need to be unlocked from the doctrines and rituals which too often imprison them so that as we sense our oneness with the Divine Reality we shall feel that we are one with all other people and be filled with a universal compassion which can transform the injustice and suffering in the world.