Chapter: 6. Jesus
When I first visited Gobind Sadan, a Sikh interfaith community on the outskirts of New Delhi, some eighteen years ago, the receptionist told me how she prayed every day that she would have a vision of Jesus. When we went back in 2001, the same woman shared with our group the vision she had had quite recently of Jesus, as a luminous figure standing beside her, who assured her of his love and blessing. The woman remains a devout Sikh.
The founder and leader of the ashram, HH Baba Virsa Singh himself had a vision of Jesus some years ago -- and he told us of a recent vision of the Prophet Mohammed. As a result of his vision of Jesus, Baba Virsa Singh created a beautiful garden, known as the Jesus place, which has in it a statue of Jesus. On our recent visit, we arrived just in time for the evening prayers at the Jesus place, during which hundreds of candles are lit and placed before the statue. We noticed that Jesus was wearing a coat and a woollen hat. Because nights in February are chilly, every evening a Sikh comes and puts them on the statue. The Jesus place is a favorite spot for members of the ashram and visitors to come and pray and we made our way back there several times.
Some Hindu holy men, especially as we have seen the influential nineteenth century teacher Sri Ramakrishna, have also claimed to have had a vision of Jesus. Many other Hindus and Sikhs have a great love for Jesus. Indeed when my friend Professor Seshagiri Rao, a distinguished Hindu scholar, was asked to address an international Christian missionary conference, he began by saying, "I speak to you as a fellow lover of Jesus Christ. . ."
During the last two centuries a number of Indians have responded sympathetically to Jesus and tried to see his significance in an Indian context. Fr. Hans Staffner, a Jesuit who was born in Austria but whose working life was spent in India, distinguishes three groups of Indian admirers of Jesus.
A number of Hindus admire Jesus as a moral teacher and example. The early nineteenth reformer Raja Ram Mohan Roy (1772-1833), who is buried at the Arnos Grove Cemetery at Bristol, wrote, ‘I found the doctrine of Christ more conducive to inculcate moral principles and better adapted to rational beings than any other that has come to my knowledge.’ Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948), who often spoke of Jesus, wrote ‘the gentle figure of Christ, so patient, so kind, so loving, so full of forgiveness that he taught his followers not to retaliate when abused or struck but to turn the other cheek -- it was a beautiful example, I thought, of the perfect man.’ Jesus, he said, ‘was non-violence par excellence.’
Staffner’s second category includes Hindus who were intensely committed to Jesus Christ but did not wish to join any existing Christian church. He takes as examples, Keshab Chandra Sen (1838-84) who for a time was leader of the Brahmo Samaj and who founded the Church of the New Dispensation and P T Mozoomdar (1840-1905), author of The Oriental Christ. Both had a deep love for Jesus but insisted he was an Asian not a European. ‘The Western Christ’, Keshab Chandra Sen said, ‘was not congenial to the Indian mind. . . the picture of Christ’s life and character is altogether a picture of ideal Hindu life.’ To this group might be added those Hindus who regard Jesus as an avatar or ‘an incarnation’.
Staffner’s third category is Hindus who were baptised and became Christians but claimed that being Hindu by birth they remained socially and culturally Hindu. Staffner includes Brahmabandhab Upadhyaya (1861-1907), a close friend of Swami Vivekananda, who tried to interpret Christianity in Indian philosophical categories, Narayan Vaman Tilak (1861-1919), who is loved throughout Maharashtra as ‘the poet of children and flowers’, and Pandita Ramabai (1858-1922), who saw in Jesus Christ the hope and salvation of Indian womanhood. Those who belonged to Staffner’s second and third categories wished to separate Jesus from the Western cultural dress and thought forms in which he was presented by missionaries.
Although a number of Indian Christian thinkers have tried to interpret Jesus in Indian terms, my first impression of the Indian church in the sixties was that it was very Western and that many Indian Christians wished to maintain a distance from the surrounding Hindu society. I was, however, quickly made aware both of the deep love that many Indians have for Jesus and their difficulties with the exclusive Christian claim that Jesus is the unique Son of God. ‘Let us find God not only in Jesus of Nazareth but in all the Great Ones that have preceded him and all that are yet to come’ said Swami Vivekananda. Mahatma Gandhi also said, ‘I cannot ascribe exclusive divinity to Jesus. He is as divine as Krishna or Rama or Mohammed or Zoroaster.’
Rama and Krishna
India has its own tradition of divine incarnations and this may make a special bond between Hinduism and Christianity. The word avatar means literally a ‘coming down’ or ‘manifestation’. One of the three high gods, Vishnu, is believed of his free choice on occasion to have taken bodily form as an animal or as a human being,
‘For the protection of the virtuous,
For the destruction of the wicked
For the establishment of Right (dharma).’
The best known incarnations are Rama and Krishna, in whom Vishnu took on a fully human life, including conception, birth and a natural death.
Rama, who perhaps most powerfully embodies the traditional Indian notions of dharma or righteousness, is the hero of the major epic called the Ramayana. This tells of his birth and childhood and his life in the sacred city of Ayodhya, from which after a court intrigue he was banished to a forest. He was accompanied there by his faithful wife Sita, but she was abducted by Ravana, the demon king of Lanka. Eventually with the help of his monkey friends and especially of the monkey god Hanuman, Rama defeated Ravana and rescued Sita. Rama, however, did not believe Sita’s protestations that she had remained faithful to him whilst a prisoner of Ravana. Sita therefore had a funeral pyre built on which she threw herself but was rescued by the gods. Rama and Sita returned to Ayodhya, but because of false rumors that Sita had been unfaithful she was banished but eventually restored, although by that time her heart was broken. The epic ends with their death and ascent to heaven.
It is said that ‘whoever reads and recites the holy, life-giving Ramayana is freed from sin and attains heaven’. The same result is achieved by anyone who, like Gandhi, repeats the name of Rama as he or she is dying or for a dying person by someone repeating the name of Rama in his or her ear.
In the vast literature about Krishna, he is seen as the divine child, the young herdsman and endearing lover and as an avatar of God. The stories of his childhood appeal to the maternal instinct and in many villages women worship the divine child. The young Krishna’s love for the milk-maidens is interpreted as symbolic of God’s love for the human soul which is called to respond to that divine love. In the Bhagavad Gita Krishna is seen as a personal God, the source of life and the sustainer of virtue.
The Gita, which is part of a massive epic poem called the Mahabharata, explores the crisis of conscience that faces the warrior Arjuna when he finds himself opposed in battle by members of his own family. The charioteer, Krishna in disguise, tells Arjuna that it is his duty as a warrior to fight, but Krishna’s teaching goes far beyond this. Krishna says that only deeds, which are done without attachment to their results and through devotion (bhakti) to God and with trust in God’s grace, can lead to realization of the Divine. Krishna indicates the three paths of knowledge, action with detachment and of love which can lead to full knowledge of God. The climax of the Gita is Krishna’s stupendous theophany when Arjuna is granted a ‘celestial eye’ (11, 8) whereby he can see the transfiguration of Krishna into the ‘self which does not pass away’ (11, 1-4). Arjuna, rather like Job, is overwhelmed with a sense of unworthiness and sin. Krishna comforts him and once again assumes ‘the body of a friend’ (11, 50).
Parallels have been drawn between the stories of Jesus and of Rama and Krishna. For example, the birth of both Jesus and Krishna was signified by a star and took place in the middle of the night whilst an evil king was asleep. Christians often say that Jesus was a historical person whereas Rama and Krishna were mythological. This, however, is to overstate the case. There probably are historical persons behind the stories of Rama and Krishna, but in the remote past. There are also mythological elements in the story of Jesus. Even so, the historicity of Jesus -- even if details of his life are much disputed -- is of great significance to Christians whereas there is in Indian thought a certain indifference to the historical. Vivekananda said the power of the Gospel was independent of it having actually happened. ‘It does not matter at all whether the New Testament was written within five hundred years of his birth, nor does it even matter how much of it is true.’ Gandhi too said that he did not care whether the crucifixion was historically true, it was truer than history. The Indian scholar A. D. Pusalker has said that ‘an ordinary Hindu is never concerned with the historicity of Krishna; to investigate the problem is a sacrilege to him.’
To many Hindus ‘divinity’ is supreme holiness or goodness not another order of being. Pöhlmann recounts that two gurus told him that God was incarnate ‘in my mother and every human being.’ Gandhi said ‘If a man is spiritually ahead of us we may say that in a special sense he is the son of god, though we are all children of God. We repudiate the relationship in our lives, whereas his life is a witness to that relationship.’ Keshub Chandra Sen told his listeners that Christ was already in them. ‘The holy Word, the eternal Veda dwells in every one of us. Go into the depths of your own consciousness, and you will find this indwelling Logos, the Son of God, woven warp and woof, into your inmost soul. Whatever in you is good and holy is the Son . . . None can reach Divinity except through the character and disposition of the Son inherent in him.’
It is not surprising, therefore, although it is often a shock to Westerners that some Hindu spiritual teachers are regarded as divine. Sai Baba (b. 1926), a spiritual guide with miraculous powers, is regarded by some of his followers as a manifestation of God. It was also interesting on a recent visit to the Brahma Kumaris World Spiritual University at Mount Abu to see that the founder Dada Lekh Raj, whose spiritual name is Prajapita Brahma, who died in 1969, is treated almost as divine and as an embodiment of the god Siva. In India there are swamis who say of themselves ‘I and the Godhead are One’ and to whom disciples come just for darshan -- to sit in the presence of the holy person. Some Hindus class Jesus amongst the great seers who realized oneness with the Absolute. They think that when Jesus said ‘I and the Father are One’, he was describing an Advaitic or Monistic experience of identity.
Only Son of God.
Although in India Jesus is often spoken of as an avatar, some Christians have avoided the term because it seems to accommodate Jesus to Hindu presuppositions and may obscure the Christian claim that Jesus was unique or the only Son of God. This affirmation, however, is a problem for most Hindus and for some Indian Christians.
The distinguished Protestant theologian Stanley Samartha, who was Director of the Sub-Unit on Dialogue of the World Council of Churches, has written in strong terms in his One Christ, Many Religions of the negative consequences of an exclusive claim in a multi-religious society. First, he says, it divides people into ‘we’ and ‘they’, the ‘saved’ and ‘unsaved’ and this hinders building a sense of national community and may be one reason why, in much of India, Christians are on the margin. Secondly it makes co-operation among religious communities on social problems almost impossible. Thirdly, because Christianity and Islam have world-wide connections, any tensions within Indian society easily become internationalized and thereby heightened. Fourthly, Samartha maintains exclusive claims raise serious theological questions. For example, what happened to the millions of people who were born before Jesus? Again, to emphasize that God’s saving love is only revealed in Jesus seems to go against belief that God is the Creator, Sustainer and Redeemer of all humanity.
Earlier in the book, Samartha suggests that the rejection of exclusivism is deeply embedded in Indian though. Hindus speak of a unity of religions and their non-contradictoriness. Because of the basic differences in humankind, they regard it as natural and inevitable that there are religious differences. People are born into a particular religious community and tradition because of its suitability to their spiritual development, which is itself controlled by the laws of karma. God attracts a believer to the path that is right for him or her.
This sense of an all-embracing unity is common in Indian religions. Jainism holds that because of the indeterminate nature of Reality, different viewpoints are possible and that none can claim final knowledge of the truth -- which brings us back to the pervading sense of Mystery. The Advaita or ‘non-dual’ teaching that pervades much of Hinduism has a vision of a grand unity that holds together diversities in harmony.
Samartha therefore argues that whilst the classical creeds expressed Christian belief in terms of Greek philosophical thought, they are not the only way in which God’s revelation in Jesus Christ may be spoken of and indeed are often unhelpful in an Indian context. The Gospel needs to be expressed in terms of Indian thought and the ways of thinking of other cultures. For India, the Christian message should include a sense of Mystery and a freedom from propositional theology.
Samartha also complains that some popular Christian devotion has become almost a Jesusolatry -- worship of Jesus alone. In orthodox Christian thinking, as he says, Jesus is not the sum of the God-head, rather the believer goes with Jesus to the Father. It has also been said that Jesus is wholly God but not the whole of God.
Samartha, further, criticizes what he calls ‘a helicopter Christology’, in which Christ as Savior is suddenly brought in from the West. He contrasts this with a ‘bullock-cart Christology’, which starts from below -- touching the unpaved roads of Asia.
Samartha suggests that it is better to think of Jesus in terms of ‘divinity’ rather than ‘deity’. ‘It is one thing to say that Jesus of Nazareth is divine’, he writes, ‘and quite another thing to say that Jesus of Nazareth is God.’ Samartha quotes two New Testament scholars as saying, ‘the God present in Jesus is God himself. It is not that Jesus in his own being is identical with the God who is present in him.’ Samartha insists that Jesus’ primary concern was not with his own status but with the coming Kingdom of God and that this concern is relevant to all people.
Some modern Western Christological thinking seems to come close to Samartha’s views and the attitude of some Hindu writers about Jesus. Orthodox Christian theology begins with God who becomes man. Liberal Christian thinkers tend to start with the real human being, Jesus, who lived in first century Palestine. They see in the perfection of his humanity, for example in his total self-giving, a window on to God. The Scottish theologian Donald Baillie, in his influential book God was in Christ, tried to explain the incarnation in terms of the paradox of grace. The essence of this, he wrote, ‘lies in the conviction , which a Christian man possesses that every good thing in him, every good thing he does, is somehow not wrought by himself but by God.’ God, as it were, acts through the believer. Baillie suggested that ‘this paradox of grace points the way more clearly and makes a better approach than anything else in our experience to the mystery of the Incarnation itself; that this paradox in its fragmentary form in our own Christian lives is a reflection of that perfect union of God and man in the incarnation on which our whole Christian life depends, and may therefore be our best clue to the understanding of it.’ The union of Jesus with the Father is in this way seen more as one of total obedience and moral union rather than as ontological or a union of being.
In my recent book Christian-Jewish Dialogue: The Next Steps I suggested that ‘there was nothing un-Jewish in thinking that a great man had been signally honored by God in being taken up to heaven, in being given a role in the final judgement of the world and in being recognized as Messiah or Son of God. To the first believers, the term ‘Son of Man’ probably implied Jesus’ moral obedience to the Father.’ I also refer to James Dunn’s argument that to call Jesus ‘Lord’ was evidently not understood in earliest Christianity as identifying him with God.’ Dunn says that ‘what the first Christians seem to have done was to claim that the one God had shared his lordship with the exalted Christ. Paul applied to Jesus language elsewhere applied to divine Wisdom ( I Cor. 8, 6). He also spoke of God’s glory being made visible in the face of Jesus Christ (II Cor 4, 6) a term used in the Bible of the appearance of God in human form, sometimes called the angel of the ‘Lord.’
Like Samartha I do not see the creeds as immutable, but as historical documents pointing to the central Christian experience of God’s love in Jesus Christ. No one Christology is adequate, we need Christologies which try to convey the significance of Jesus to Hindu or Jewish or Muslim friends as well as Liberation and Feminist Christologies.
The Christian claim is that in Jesus we are met by God. Using the term avatar of Jesus may be helpful for some Hindus, for others it may suggest that Jesus is just one more intermediary whereas the Christian conviction is that in Jesus they have seen ‘the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.’ In Jesus, I believe I have been met by the Living God who offers forgiveness and loving acceptance. All Christologies are at best inadequate attempts to convey the wonder of divine grace. As we share our experience and gladly hear the experience of others, we shall not compete about titles but join together in a chorus of praise to the one God who loves us all. Dialogue, as has been said, should be telling each other our beautiful names for God.
‘Once again, I resonate with words of Fr. Bede Grifiths, who wrote: believe that the Word took flesh in Jesus of Nazareth and in him we can find a personal form of the Word to whom we can pray and to whom we can relate in terms of love and intimacy, but I think that he makes himself known to others under different names and forms. What counts is not so much the name and the form as the response in the heart to the hidden mystery, which is present to each one of us in one way or another and awaits our response in faith and hope and love.’