In his classic best-selling book on the world’s religions, philosopher Huston Smith writes, “We are about to begin a voyage in space and time and eternity. The places will often be distant, the times remote, the themes beyond space and time altogether.” But we do this because, wherever we find it, “authentic religion is the clearest opening through which the inexhaustible energies of the cosmos enter human life … and inspire life’s deepest creative centers.”
This is the voyage we are beginning today, in this first installment of our year-long series on Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Islam, Christianity, and other world religions. Because we are in search of more aliveness. Because we are in search of that which inspires life’s deepest creative centers.
It is very true: “The full story of religion is not rose-colored; it is often crude.” Huston Smith freely admits that, and we must too. But here our focus is on what is best and most inspiring, even as we know that every religion including Unitarian Universalism has chapters that are shameful and not praiseworthy. Every religion, at times, has been co-opted to serve unworthy ends and to spread suffering rather than heal it.
We acknowledge this and we grieve this—how religion’s potential to save can be wasted.
But that’s for a different sermon series. This one is about what is best in the world’s religions, not what is worst.
And with this, we head out on our “Blue Boat Home” voyage in space and time and eternity.
Let the voyage to greater aliveness begin, with this month’s focus on Hinduism.
Hinduism has five primary sacred texts, unlike Christianity, for example, with its one Bible. The particular sacred text of Hinduism we start with is called the Upanishads, written between 800-600 BCE.
“Upanishad” literally means “sitting near a teacher to receive instruction,” and one of the most famous stories it tells is about exactly that. It’s the story of a young man named Svetaketu (shway-ta-kay-too) who has just returned home after many years at school studying the most ancient Hindu religious texts of all, called the Vedas, and learning from them the prayers and rituals of the priests. Svetaketu is like a wet-behind-the-ears seminarian. But now he comes home, and his father sees that his wet-behind-the-ears seminarian son doesn’t really grasp the most important thing of all. So, father teaches the son, says, “although your eyes do not help you see God, yet there are other ways you may use to find out whether or not God is. God, like the salt, is everywhere—here, there, and far off. As the salt is hidden in the water, so is God hidden in all the world. God is spirit, as you yourself are spirit. God is hidden in you, my son. God is you, and you are part of God”
Tat tvam asi. That thou art.
This story is 2800 years old.
But now do this for me. Risking whiplash, I’m going to ask that you fast forward 2300 years from the writing of that story, to the 1500s, where we meet up with a Hindu mystic named Mirabai, who is a woman and a poet. Listen to the words of her poetry as she communicates her devotion to the Lord God Krishna:
I can’t forget about love
for more than two seconds.
I get dizzy if I think about anything
but the way you pant
in my ear.
That’s Mirabai, speaking directly to the God of her understanding.
In a second poem, Krishna is again the focus:
He left His fingerprints on a glass
the earth drinks from.
Every religion has studied it.
Churches and temples use the geometry of those lines
to establish rites and laws and prayers
and our ideas of the universe.
I guess there is just no telling how out of hand—
and wonderfully wild—
things will get
when our lips catch up to His.
That’s the poem. How different this is from what Svetaketu’s father in the Upanishads says, as he describes God abstractly and intellectually, as like salt hidden in water. For Mirabai, when you talk about God, abstraction and intellection are beside the point. God is something arousing desire and love–the biggest desire and love there can be!
Scripture for her can’t help but be a kind of erotic poetry!
So you see: between the two there is indeed a great difference, and it’s because, over the course of the 2300 years separating them, Hinduism evolved. Hinduism evolved to become more inclusive, more accommodating to the realities of human diversity.
Let me ask this: How many of you feel more alive in the abstract and cool world of ideas?
What about those of you who feel more alive in the hot emotional world of personal relationships?
“People are different,” says our guide through the world religions, Huston Smith. “Few observations could be more banal, yet serious attention to it is one of Hinduism’s distinctive features.”
That’s our particular focus today: not just Hinduism in general, but how Hinduism acknowledges and does justice to very real human diversity. For temperaments and preferences that are on the cool side, there is Philosophical Hinduism. For temperaments and preferences that are more on the hot side, there is Devotional Hinduism.
So many religions in our world emphasize a one-size-fits-all approach. Not Hinduism. Not Unitarian Universalism either. Let’s take a closer look. We’ll end up reflecting on how the one’s embrace of diversity might speak to the other’s.
Consider Philosophical Hinduism. Scholars tell us that this tradition builds on the oldest (Vedic) layer of the religion and its core concern: chaos. Religion scholar Stephen Prothero describes this concern as follows: “Demons of chaos are always arrayed in a pitched battle with the gods, so family, community, and cosmos alike are forever collapsing into disarray. The aim is to create and sustain social and cosmic order … but this cannot be accomplished by humans alone. So the priests turn to the gods through ritual, and especially through the fire sacrifice, the central preoccupation of the Vedas.”
Now think back to the story from earlier, how Svetaketu goes to seminary. He was probably studying exactly these Vedic rituals—learning how to do the fire sacrifice just right, which essentially involves feeding the gods with animals, milk, grains, and other plants, so that the gods, in turn, feed the world and feed humanity by ensuring the cycle of the seasons, the fertility of harvest and children, and victory in war.
Religion mattered because it functioned as the glue that kept everything together.
But around 800 B.C., and for the next several hundred years, civilization in India would begin to see a dramatic shift. And not just in India—around the world. Essentially, human communities had found greater solidity and reliability, and they were growing. Says scholar Karen Armstrong, “As a result of urbanization and a new market economy, people were no longer living on lonely hilltops but in a thriving, aggressive, commercial economy. Power was shifting from king and priest, palace and temple to the marketplace. Inequality and exploitation became more apparent as the pace of change accelerated in the cities and people began to realize that their own behavior could affect the fate of future generations.” That’s Karen Armstrong, and her last point is crucial. All these cultural changes, happening simultaneously in different parts of the world, led to a worldwide emergence of individualism. People started to become conscious of themselves, curious about who they were as independent personalities, curious about their nature and destiny, committed to finding ways to express themselves more completely and deeply.
So, during this period in history, roughly 800-200 B.C., we witness the emergence of religious and philosophical traditions which continue to impact us today: the Philosophical tradition in Hinduism that we’re talking about right now, together with traditions we will come to explore in later months: the Therevadan tradition in Buddhism, the Hebrew prophets, Confucianism, and Taoism. The Greek philosophical tradition of Socrates and Plato is also a product of this profound time, this pivotal moment, around which the world even today still seems to revolve.
No wonder scholars have come to call this period of 800-200 B.C. the Axial Age. It is the axis around which everything turns.
It changed us forever.
In India, for young Hindus like Svetaketu, the change began when his father taught him something that he had never heard before in his seminary training. He wouldn’t have, when the focus at the school was the Vedic fire sacrifice and its power to create social and cosmic order. But the times were changing. Svetaketu’s father understood that. He saw—and by this I mean the writers of the Upanishads, who essentially gave birth to Philosophical Hinduism, saw—that the problem of life wasn’t so much chaos as it was ignorance. People ignorant of who they really are.
That’s the real problem.
But cut through it with wisdom, and people transform.
The father therefore teaches his son. God is like salt: in everything, and in people too. A person’s soul—Atman—is identical to the soul of the world—Brahman. If people can directly and experientially know this, they will become nothing less than channels of bliss and peace.
Many years later, a Hindu saint named Tukaram would put it this way, in the form of a short poem:
I could not lie anymore so I started to call my dog “God.”
First he looked confused,
then he started smiling, then he even danced.
I kept at it: now he doesn’t even bite.
I am wondering if this might work on people?
Philosophical Hinduism bets that it will.
But there must be sacrifice. Release from ignorance requires full-time renunciation from various aims of life, in the same way that, today, Olympic athletes must renounce such things as smoking and other unhealthy habits to achieve their athletic dreams. Release from ignorance, for Philosophical Hindus, requires renunciation from pleasure, renunciation from wealth, renunciation from power, renunciation from family and relationships and sex and work and civic duty. It’s not just about reading books, is what I’m trying to say. Renunciation changes everything. Marriages are legally terminated; renouncers no longer answer to their birth names; they abandon their possessions; families mourn them as if they had actually died.
It’s extreme! But here’s why: for teachers of Philosophical Hinduism, ignorance isn’t simply a matter of low IQ, of not knowing important names and dates and facts and theories. It is, rather, a state of being like kings who, having fallen victim to amnesia, wander their kingdoms in tatters not knowing who they really are. And when the Philosophical Hindu says “wandering,” he or she is thinking of “samsara,” which is a condition of endless birth and death and rebirth—reincarnation. Eternal souls wandering from life to life to life … and the irony is that over the course of lifetimes, we naturally find ourselves becoming more and more dissatisfied, since we drink from pleasure fully and find that it does not fully satisfy, we drink from wealth, we drink from power, we drink from doing our duty—we do all this over the course of lifetimes, and eventually we find ourselves saying, Is that all there is?
Of course: because God is within us, and God is infinite being, infinite knowledge, infinite bliss. The more lifetimes we live, the more we become aware of God’s infinity within us, and the greater our desire to merge with it so as to experience Oneness.
But as this is happening, which is wonderful, there is a countermovement, which is horrible. The more lifetimes we live, the more we wander; the more we wander, the more entangled we become in the very world that is becoming increasingly shallow and trivial to us. This entanglement is caused by “karma”—the moral law of cause and effect. Karma dictates that for every hurt we cause, we must compensate with a healing, which means that over time we are bound more and more tightly to the world, where we must pay every debt. This is what the original Philosophical Hindus believed. That’s why the only way out of further entanglement, for them, is to stop playing the game. End it, cold turkey-style. Stop giving it room in your life, so there can be increasingly more and more room for God, until we one day come to directly experience Tat tvam asi: Thou art That.
To this end—to the end of spiritual liberation—Philosophical Hindus die to their surface egos and to the world. They go homeless; they are celibate; they beg for food. They meditate in various ways so as to enter fully into the insight that Svetaketu was being taught. God, for them, is something completely beyond knowing—infinite—so they renounce specific images of God. God is also impersonal, like salt dissolved in everything, so talking about a relationship to God makes no sense, and neither does praying to God for help, or relying on God’s grace to break through ignorance.
In other words, even though Philosophical Hinduism is staunchly theistic in belief, in practice it is atheistic. Spiritual progress is up to just you and the human community of renouncers you belong to.
It’s a cool path to God. Not in the sense of “ayyyyy” (as the Fonz would say it, from the TV show Happy Days), but in the sense of calm introversion, of dispassionate focus, and of self-reliance.
Again, so very different from the sensibility of a Mirabai, the Hindu mystic from the 1500s, whom we heard sing,
I can’t forget about love
for more than two seconds.
I get dizzy if I think about anything
but the way you pant
in my ear.
In another poem she says,
The earth looked at Him [Krishna] and began to dance.
Mirabai knows why, for her soul too is in love.
If you cannot picture God
in a way that always strengthens you
you need to read more of my poems.
The contrast with the Upanishads is stark. Here is heat. Here is a version of Hindu spirituality where one’s ability to cut through self-ignorance depends upon how intensely you relate to God in personal terms.
Not cool at all. Instead: HOT.
Above all, you don’t have to renounce the world to do this. You can be in the world and love God at the same time. Love cuts through the bonds of karma; love is the way to ultimate release, or what Hindus call “moksha.”
This is Devotional Hinduism, and it started to emerge around the time of Jesus, in the first century. Scholar Stephen Prothero describes it as a popular reaction to the social privileges of adherents of Philosophical Hinduism. “Historically,” he says, “most renouncers have come from the upper castes, and almost all have been men. But what about the rest of us?” What about the rest of us who don’t have the social standing and status to pursue spiritual growth full-time? What about the rest of us whose obligations to raise children, maintain a family, work, and so on, don’t go away, even as our desire to know God and to experience spiritual fulfillment also don’t go away, but hound us day and night?
What about that?
With Devotional Hinduism, the quest for God-realization takes a decidedly more inclusive turn. From impersonalism and abstraction, we turn to an explosion of energy and color and sensual form. Intellectual philosophy gives way to sacred texts like the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, epics that, for Hindus, are billed as The Greatest Story Ever Told. From the Mahabharata in particular we get the Bhagavad-Gita, which, since the nineteenth century, has functioned as something like a Hindu New Testament. About it, one of our own Unitarian Universalist spiritual ancestors, Henry David Thoreau, once said, “One sentence of the Bhagavad Gita is worth the State of Massachusetts many times over.”
Devotional Hinduism spread like wildfire. Of those who seriously practice Philosophical Hinduism today and have the luxury and privilege to not have to work and take care of children and, in general, to unplug from society, there are just a few million. By contrast, of those who practice Devotional Hinduism, we’re talking close to a billion people.
I hasten to add, both strands of Hinduism are proven by results. Both traditions have produced universally-acknowledged saints and sages. But Devotionalism is the clear winner if we’re talking growth strategy.
Besides affirming that people don’t have to be full-time renouncers of the world in order to connect with God, Devotionalism also affirms that it’s a good thing to picture God in many different ways. For Philosophical Hinduism, God is beyond all human knowing; every image and symbol falls short, so why go there? But Devotionalism understands that you can’t fall in love with abstractions. Impersonal images like salt provoke no passion! All images and symbols may fall short, yes, but they still may disclose something informative about God. Furthermore, some images and symbols are not only informative, they are also inspirational. So more of those kinds of symbols, please! For Mirabai it was Krishna; earlier we heard Melinda speak about her experience of Ganesh; and what about you?
What symbol of the Divine might provoke heart passion in you?
What matters is building passion to the end of energizing personal transformation. Building a hot fire in the soul that burns away all illusions, until you see what is truly real: Love.
There is one more thing we need to know about Devotionalism: that it affirms the reality of grace. Huston Smith rightly says that one of the questions which has always divided people is if the universe is friendly. Philosophical Hinduism says that it is not so much unfriendly as it is indifferent, and one must work out one’s release from ignorance by oneself in community with other renunciants. Devotional Hinduism, on the other hand, disagrees, and says that God is a personal God who grants us help and strength as we ask it for it. Chanting the Lord’s name, or pilgrimages to sacred sites, or observing sacred festivals, or food offerings to your chosen deity, are all examples of ways of inviting grace into one’s life. People are just not alone in the universe, and the path to awakening is just not a grim grit-your-teeth and do-it-yourself endeavor. Help is abundantly ours for the asking, from spiritual beings wiser than ourselves.
Remember the sermon last week about Coyote and Woodpecker?
Devotional Hinduism says yes, absolutely—help is on the way.
Aaaand that’s a little bit on Hinduism—two traditions of this great world religion, thousands of years old, to which 15% of the world’s entire population belongs. Note some of the spiritual themes that have been building over the past several minutes:
· First: where people go to connect with the sacred: either withdrawal from the world, or of going into the world even more deeply than before.
· Second: the source of ultimate hope: either into oneself and the Spark of the Divine deep within; or oneself in the context of a network of relationships spanning outwards—nature, family, friends, society, spiritual beings.
· Third: the source of ultimate wisdom: either the abstract reaches of philosophy, theology, and theoretical science; or stories, poems, songs, popular culture, a picture of Krishna on your home altar (or Jesus or Buddha equally, and others).
· Fourth: the value of images of sacred reality: either rejecting them as fatally misleading and taking a strictly agnostic approach, or taking them seriously without taking them literally, understanding that their truth is partial, yes, but still a part of truth, still a bridge into the Mystery.
· Fifth and finally: styles of religious practice: either calm and stately and meditative so as to enter into philosophical clarity; or revival, laughter and tears, energy so as to enter into a transformative heart space of love.
All of these themes and different ways of answering them are alive for us today as Unitarian Universalists, too, because, like our Hindu cousins, we share fully in the human condition and its rich diversity.
I’ll end with questions for you: Where do YOU go to connect with the sacred? What is the source of ultimate hope for YOU? Or the source of ultimate wisdom? What images of sacred reality speak to YOU? What’s YOUR style of religious practice? Are YOUR answers cool or hot, hot or cool?
More like Svetaketu’s or more like Mirabai’s?
More Philosophical or more Devotional?
Whichever emphasis is yours, there’s a place for you here at West Shore, and in this we follow Hinduism’s inspiring capacity to affirm the different ways people seek out knowledge and experience of the Divine. Sometimes this inclusivity is not easy. Sometimes it’s really hard. Take something as small as clapping in services, for example: the cool style doesn’t like it because it takes away from the calm and focus that feels like genuine spirituality to them; whereas the hot style likes it because adds to the energy and joy that feels like genuine spirituality to them. How do we solve this disagreement, and honor both sides?
Perhaps the place to begin is in affirming what the great Sri Ramakrishna once said:
As one can ascend to the top of a house
By means of a ladder or a bamboo
Or a staircase or a rope,
So diverse are the ways and means to approach God,
And every religion in the world shows one of these ways.
Bow down and worship where others kneel….
It does not mean we will always agree, but let there always be reverence and respect and willingness to compromise, as we journey towards Truth together.
People kneel in this sacred space to many different things, and in many ways.
Even though some of those things might not speak to you personally, still, as Sri Ramakrishna says–channeling the wisdom of the great world religion of Hinduism–still, bow down and worship where others kneel….