Christians, Hinduism, and the Bhagavad Gita
Mary C. Moorman
Christian Apologist Gregory Koukl offers an all too typical treatment in his Reflections on Hinduism of 1993. Koukl’s basic moves include denouncing Hinduism as ultimately untenable and illusory, epistemologically chaotic, morally bankrupt and confused, radically negative of all positive aspirations, hopeless, and contradictory to the point of absurdity. Koukl reveals his basic frustration with Hinduism in these terms: “so a person who rejects rationality, a person who rejects logic, a person who rejects the world as a real thing and contends that it is merely an illusion can therefore have nothing to say about the real world because the real world is not real. And any commentary about it would be essentially acknowledging its reality. Any commentary trying to correct your view, such that you would now believe the world is an illusion, must be done by using rationality which ultimately doesn't exist. That's why if Hinduism were true we could never know it. I think that's a valid point whenever you're dealing with someone from Eastern religion.”
Eric Sharpe describes the disposition of the 19th century evangelical Christians who encountered Hindu culture without consulting formative Hindu texts, and who thus judged popular Hindu practices with suspicion of the Gita’s narrative framework, internal inconsistency, unconvincing ethics, impracticability, indifference, and fatalism. A more benign tone of “natural theology” view was promoted by such Western Christians as Murice Boyle, who proposed that “the Hindu asks important questions concerning human nature/destiny, but that only the Christian Gospel can provide adequate answers to these questions,”and the French Abbe Dubois, who again affirmed that Gita- as a piece of natural theology- was sufficient to identify human problems, but not their ultimate solution. In sum, the western sentiment was content to conclude that “there are wounds which Hinduism cannot soothe.”
In this regard, although Sharpe describes the Gita as “a scripture for the world,” he is quick to acknowledge that in the modern “free interchange” of Scriptures, the (highly mobile) Gita inevitably becomes prone to misunderstanding when it is “torn loose from its religious matrix.” Among its various audiences, the Gita has been received as a romantic symbol of “universal spirituality” to the ambitious, curious, and religiously conflicted American Transcendentalists of the 19th century; Sharpe notes that the world has generally approached the Gita from one of two angles: “either as a piece of archaic literature, to be dissected, analyzed and placed in an essentially remote religio-historical context, or as an exotic insight into the ultimate mystery of the universe, (being) Hindu only incidentally.” In these modes of approach, most readers have not even pretended to be able to evaluate the Gita in its original form or native setting, and the interpretation of the Gita’s “message” has been of variable quality, being divorced from the (potentially myriad) meanings/essences which the text has born for generations of devout readers.
Sharpe adds that attempts to discover “what the Gita might have meant originally,” or “was intended to achieve” are hardly simple options, since different translators bring to bear different impressions, and each translation assumes the literary conventions of its own period and country. Sharpe particularly descries the translated Gita’s treatment in the West as a resource for glamorized “mysticism,” as an aesthetic, popular offering, and as a means of political expedience for European colonizers. Sharpe laments the dearth of Christian readers who have been willing and able to approach the Gita within its proper context.
Commenting upon devotional and practical reference to the Bhagavad Gita, Eknath Easwaran explains that Sri Krishna’s message “describes the eternal truth of life that the fiercest battle we must wage is against all that is selfish, self-willed and separate in us.” In this vein, Easwaran elaborates on the Gita’s “timeless” explication and treatment of the human problematic, the Hindu view of ultimate reality, and the offered paths of liberation.
In particular, the Gita describes the human problematic as a “war within,” typified by Arjuna’s insistence that he and Krishna drive their chariot between two armies poised for a battle. Here, Arjuna fully realizes that it is his own “kinsmen established in opposition.” Arjuna then “falls into confusion” and mournful reluctance at this realization, and hence represents the confused, ego-ridden individual faces who the tragic conflict that results from his self-will and his craving to satisfy personal desires, and who thus experience insecurity, loneliness, and despair. Arjuna symbolically drops his bow in despair, and his mind reels at a situation from which he can forsee nothing good proceeding; after all, this is a battle between those whom he loves most dearly.
Easwaran comments that Arjuna’s own agonized hesitation, paralysis of the will, inertia, and incapacity to act at the edge of battle depicts the universal situation of humanity’s confusion and futility as we face the fact of a disunity that persists both within ourselves, and between ourselves and the world around us. In short, we thus become contrary to the nature of the universe; Easwaran points that each person has “manifestations of the disunity seething within (his) own consciousness.” Accordingly, Arjuna dramatically utters his reluctance “overwhelmed by sorrow;” he “casts away his bow and arrows, and he sat down in his chariot in the middle of the battlefield.” Nonetheless, the harbingers of the Gita’s solution are apparent even in the first chapter of the Gita, in the evocative statement of Sanjaya: “let everyone take his proper place and stand firm…”
The Gita’s view of ultimate reality, as expressed in Krishna’s responses to Arjuna (whose “eyes are burning with tears of self-pity and confusion”), lies in the promise of the resolution of this conflict in “(discovering) the Lord within (who) is the supreme purpose of life, worthy of all our time, energy, resources, and dedication.” The discovery and practice of this “Lord within” both consummates creation’s own evolution towards a total unitive state, and also fulfills each individual’s supreme purpose: the realization of the unity of life, as enjoyed by “the victorious (person) who has conquered himself,” and has “eradicated all that is selfish within him” even - in the midst of his daily life, and especially through the performance of his socially determined duties.
Thus, the Gita’s solution to the human problematic proceeds as follows, as narrated by Krishna’s reproachful correction and instruction to Arjuna: Arjuna must not yield to weakness, but must “arise with a brave heart and destroy the enemy.” Though Arjuna protests further about his own grief at this prospect, and the questionable moral implications, he admits that in his own paralysis of will and confusion, he will “fall at Krishna’s feet” and submissively receive his instruction. Krishna refers Arjuna to the example of “the wise,” who “realize that sorrow has no cause,” and who remain unaffected by temporal, sensorial changes; thus “the wise” “grieve neither for the living nor for the dead.” Though humans change in form through the cycles of life and its fleeting changes, there will never be a time when they cease to exist; thus their deaths in battle are relatively inconsequential. The “glorious,” true self is unmanifested and remains (like Krishna himself) beyond all change, impermeable even to harm and inevitable death. Thus, Arjuna should act with enlightened indifference and detachment, and considering his dharma (which Krishna particularly endorses- ), he should not vacillate at the prospect of grievous war, since shirking his duty would be the greatest sin; rather, given that there is nothing more glorious for one in his station as a warrior, he should fight.
In practice, Krishna recommends that Arjuna “listen to the principles of yoga,” in order to attain spiritual awareness, self-control, and the singleness of purpose- even in the midst of great distraction- that results from seeking Krishna himself. The ultimate goal of such disciplines- which result in laudable detachment and “holy indifference” towards the rewards of work - is the capacity to “see the Lord everywhere,” and a “heart that is completely united in love for the Lord of love:” This vision of “the Lord” unifies the human heart by subsuming all other desire and allows for indifference and consequent peace.
As Easwaran elaborates, humanity across the ages- and in contemporary contexts as well- must fight their own internal “wars;” each one must realize the unity underlying all life, and live in harmony with this awareness in the midst of daily life, by “learning to see the Lord in everyone,” and by “ensuring the joy of others.” These means of the unification of human consciousness that lead to the climax of meditation- “coming to rest in the Lord-” are also daily means of reducing human self- will, “the only obstacle between the Lord and us.” Such paths to liberation from the “perennial opposition” within the universe include selfless service, patience for others, wisdom in action, renunciation, and meditation; by these disciplines one stands against the violence within himself and thus inspires others to the same, thereby benefiting everyone. On the whole, Arjuna’s dilemma and Krishna’s instruction at the edge of battle are so critical to the human situation, because each individual must “fight that which he has considered to be a part of himself.” As Krishna urges in Gita III.41 and 43, “fight with all your strength, oh Bharata; controlling your senses, attack your enemy directly, who is the destroyer of knowledge and realization…let the Atman rule the ego… slay the fierce enemy that is selfish desire.”
From this emphasis on attentiveness, renunciation, and contemplative union with Krishna, Arjuna persists in seeking “one (moral) path to follow to the supreme good,” given that one does not attain freedom by shirking action or work. Here, Krishna’s admonition is clear: “you are obliged to act, Arjuna… fulfill all your duties.” From Krishna’s prior instruction, Arjuna understands that he is to perform his duties in full, but with detachment and selfless inattention to personal profit, since Brahman is present in every act of selfless service. In sum, the Gita’s “rule of life” could be summarized in the following injunction: the welfare of others, rather than the welfare of the self, is to be sought in every (detached) action performed in the fulfillment of duty, which is ultimately performed for the sake of Krishna himself.
At this point, faced with the Gita’s seeming moral indifference, supplemented only by Easwaran’s highly affective devotional commentary, it is most helpful to refer to David Atkinson’s account of the lived experience of the Gita in the public life of its modern disciple Ghandi, who took the Gita as the quintessential work pertaining to the adhikara of the experienced and lived moral life of “truth in action.” Here, Atkinson portrays Ghandi as reading the Gita in the same way as Easwaran: Arjuna is taken as the archetype of every human, whose spiritual growth and understanding are impeded by attachment to consequences. Arjuna must thus enter the allegorical “war” of his own struggle between good and evil, taking Krishna as the desired object of perfect human self-realization, and as the object of self-sacrificing, detached action in love. In Ghandi’s scheme, adherence to the Gita’s admonition to “perform one’s duties” and to “see the divine in all things” will promote the disinterested, sympathetic thought and action that liberates and transforms the individual, and then his society, into the unitive and nonactive ideal of union.
While Ghandi certainly provides a lived demonstration of the Gita’s meaning and practical relevance, Western readers might remain confused at several critical points. Ghandi’s example certainly refutes ignorant accusations of basic “agnostic indifference” and “moral confusion” at the heart of the Gita. Nonetheless, Western readers may still wonder about Ghandi’s drawing moral distinctions between “good” and “evil” in the ideally nondual experience advocated by Krishna.
Here, David Loy explicates such apparent problems by hermeneutically explaining that the Gita’s radical nonduality pertains to the ever-continuing aim of the transformation of dualistic modes into a unified, nondualistic reality. The best yogi practices in such a way that the combined disciplines yields “equanimity as each mode is taken not as the attaining of something new, but as merely transforms what it already is into a nondual mode.” Furthermore, in as much as the Gita transforms work and duty into a sacrifice to Krishna, the Gita cuts through all selfish motivation. In orientation to Krishna, intentional action becomes “really equivalent to no intention at all”- since Krishna’s higher nature is the transcendent ground of all being. In submitted union with Krishna, human action is realized to be one with His non action, human being with his non -being, etc.
Finally, the reader who approaches the Gita from a Western framework and understanding will be assisted by Sebastian Painadath’s delineation of critical points for Western (Christian)/Hindu dialogue. In describing the “integrated spirituality” of the Gita, Painadath presumes Loy’s concept of “transformative nonduality” when he describes the “transpersonal divine mystery (that) reveals itself as the personal Lord, inviting total surrender from the human seeker,” and the free pursuit of dharma, the total harmony of true nature according to unitive love. Painadath here refers to the following mutual themes, familiar to both Christian and Hindu conceptualization: the story of the incapacitated human in agonized quest for the personal God; consummation in total surrender to this personal God; and the consolation of inner enlightenment through conformity and obedience to God. Painadath highlights further points of Christian/Hindu agreement in the notions of the personal and self-revealing God in search of the human person, who makes His fundamental inexhaustible mystery cognizable and experienced in the manifestation of the “redeeming” Lord Krishna; the “result” of such encounter is the achievement of desired union between God and the person through various phases of textual knowledge, cultic devotion, ritual devotion, and especially the performance of duties.
For purposes of Hindu-Christian conversation, one particular issue that invites nuanced scrutiny and greater conversational depth emerges at the point where Painadath discusses one of Hinduism’s “potential challenges” to Western Christians: namely, the Hindu premise that “the history of humanity is the history of salvation,” in an ongoing cycle of divine revelation and human progress. Here, parties to a Christian/Hindu conversation might query whether it is possible that one particular historical event might be absolutely central and normative for the entire historical process. In particular, conversation partners might recall that the paradigmatic encounter between Krishna and Arjuna is in fact canonized and upheld (in Ghandi’s terms) as the “quintessence” of Hindu understanding. If Hindus are willing to acknowledge a point of “quintessential” revelation, they will be much more sympathetic to Christian claims of the quintessential revelation of God in Christ, and in the quintessential delivery of redemption in His crucifixion and resurrection.
A second and related dialogical issue involves Painadath’s statement that all moments of divine revelation stand in dialectic relationship to one another, without uniqueness or precedence. It is at this point that parties to an authentic Christian-Hindu conversation would need to explore the criticocreative dialogical options available to them, given that authentic Christian belief holds not only that God reveals Himself truly "at various times and in various different ways," but also, as the relevant Epistle excerpt continues, “God has in these last days spoken (definitively) to us by his Son, who is the exact representation of God’s being.” Such apparent disjunctures regarding the priority and uniqueness of relevant faith claims requires exploration beyond the prior limitations posed by refusals to acknowledge a paradigmatic or consummate human encounter with the Divine.