A context of pluralism
Traditional Asian thought, while sharing western abstract thinking, is very much context-dominated. The abstraction is not free from the context in which it is made, the reality of the experience. As the Japanese thinker Hajime Nakamura writes:
Europeans generally think of the abstract notion of an abstract noun as constructed solely by means of the universal meaning which is extracted from daily experience, so that they represent it in the singular form; on the contrary the Indians think of the abstract notion as what is included within experienced facts so fused with them that the essential principle is often represented in plural form.1
Traditional Indian openness to pluralism is ingrained in its very understanding of the Ultimate Mystery. In contrast to the Christian understanding of God as uniquely revealed to the biblical tradition and thus considered as an exclusive privilege to be this God's only people, the Indian seers present the Ultimate Reality as an inexhaustible ocean into which many rivers flow or as an immense mountain to which many roads lead. The rivers and roads are compared to different religions, none of which can claim the monopoly of the Reality. This is not a question of syncretism, or passive relativity, as it is generally understood. The focus is not on religions, as though they are all the same, but on the inexhaustibility of the Reality that no religion can exhaustively explain. Hence we have the acceptance of the pluralism of religions. As to themselves, the Hindus consider their religion as the Sanatan Dharm (eternal religion not traceable to any founder). They, thus, do not entertain syncretism. However, they were open to other religions and hence they welcomed them as they came to India either to propagate themselves, like Christianity, or to flee from persecution, like Zoroastrianism, or those who came as traders or conquerors like the followers of Islam.
Along with the understanding of the Mystery goes also the Asian epistemology that works not so much on the principle of contradiction as on the principle of relationship. Whereas the principle of contradiction advocates separation and isolation, the principle of relationship places one in the web of relationship with others as the mark of meaning. The principle of contradiction emphasizes that a thing has to be what it is. It cannot be at the same time A and non-A. The meaning of A is derived from the fact of its being in opposition to others. Hence there is room for uniqueness, in so far as what one is, the other is not. The Christian understanding of God and revelation is considered to be unique in so far as others do not have that revelation and that understanding of God. Christian identity is defined in terms of negation to others concerning what Christianity alone is. In contrast with this the Asian epistemology understands the meaning of a thing by relating it with others. Meaning is
Hajime Nakamura, Ways of Thinking of Eastern Peoples: India-China-Tibet-Japan (Delhi: Motilal
Banarsidass Publishers, 1991), p. 46, cited by F. Wilfred, From the Dusty Soil (Madras: University of
derived from the relationship, by reaching out and identifying with others. In this sense being and non-being are the characteristics of the Ultimate Reality. Sat (being) and asat (non-being) are the qualities of the unknowable Brahman. Reality cannot be conceived in terms of either-or but of both-and.
Due to this fact, a religious person cannot be indifferent to the followers of other religions, and far less by negating their religious value. What one has experienced is touching the person in that person's totality at the deepest roots. It is something specific and cannot be traded with others. Thus, the Asian religious traditions are open to religious pluralism with an attitude of acceptance of all religions. Commitment to one's faith implies also respect for others leading to interrelationship.
The earliest Vedas present the Ultimate Mystery as one Power seen with different names and forms by humans (Ekam sat, vipra bahuda vadanti, Rig Veda 1.164.46). The whole universe is the manifestation of the same Power at the physical, psychological and spiritual level. However, the material phenomena began to be identified in isolation, concentrating on the qualitative aspects of matter and identified as the reality. This is due to ignorance (avidya). The basic Power is presented through the symbol of fire, which is physical in so far as it is the energy that works through the universe, and yet psychological, the fire of life, and it is the manifestation of the Supreme and thus spiritual as well.
This Supreme Spirit is Brahman, that which holds the universe together. Brahman manifests through the whole universe. It is that which grows, wells up, swells. It is the word uttered in the sacrifice, expressing the meaning of the sacrifice. The seers of the Upanishads, the last part of the Vedas, which are actually esoteric teachings on the Vedas, in their meditation saw how Brahman, the Power of the universe, was actually the Power within each person. Brahman is consciousness. Brahman is atman (the individual self). Eventually the whole universe is conceptualized as a person, Purusha, the Supreme Person who fills the whole creation.
The idea of the Cosmic Man (Purusha) begins in the renowned Puru-shasukta in the Rig Veda. The passage describes the Cosmic Man in whom the whole world is to be found. 'This purusha is all that has been, and all that will be, the Lord of immortality' (RV 10.90). The sacrifice of this Cosmic Purusha led to the creation of the world (RV 10.90).
Later, the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad speaks of existence of the Atman in the form of the Purusha (1.4.1) and the Katha Upanishad presents Purusha as the summit of all creation (3.11). He is the Cosmic Lord in whom all become immortal (Svetasvatara Up. 3.7). He is the Lord of Lords, God of Gods, the Lord of the world, the adorable (Svet. 6.7).
The Bhagavad Gita presents the Cosmic Purusha as the origin of all, the guardian of the ever-lasting law (Sanatan Dharma), the immortal person (BG 11.18-19). Hinduism stresses the underlying unity of all existence. Equally, there is the awareness of the presence of the divine power in all things, the multiplicity. They are only manifestations of the One Reality, the Formless One. They are the 'names and forms' of the One Reality, the One without a second. Brahman is the source and end of all existence. 'That from which beings are born; that by which when born they live; that into which when dying they enter; that you shall desire to know. That is Brahman' (Taittiriya Up. 3.1).
The formless (a-rupa) Brahman can be recognized and worshipped in every kind of form (sarva rupa). He is the un-name-able and the possessor of every name. There is nothing that cannot manifest God to the soul which is open to him in deep awareness of itself. Everything is a sign of God, his linga (sign).2 A jnani realizes how any approach to God ends up in a sort of 'alas!' in so far as humans know God only when they realize that they know nothing about God.
When you think I know well —
Truly it is but little that you know...
He who knows him not, knows him;
He who understands him, has not understood ...
It is through an awakening that he is found ...
As when the lightning flashes ... the eye blinks ...
The knowledge of God implies that one gives up everything, including one's self; otherwise one remains at the stage of talking about God, a theologian, a brahmavadin. A knower of God is a contemplative, a seer, a brahmavid. For such a person there is no more I and Thou, setting oneself apart from God or others. 'For he who knows the supreme Brahman truly himself has become Brahman' (Mundaka Up. 3.2.9).
Swami Abhishiktananda, Saccidananda: A Christian Approach to Advaitic Experience (Delhi: ISPCK, 1974^ p. 5.
This awareness comes to one only when one enters into the innermost being of oneself, the cave of one's heart, in contemplation.
In this city of Brahman (the heart of man)
There is an abode, within it a small lotus flower;
Inside, a little space;
What there is within,
It is that one must seek,
That one must desire to know!
The identification of the Ultimate Reality (Brahman) and the individual self (atman) is brought out by the Upanishads through certain short formulas known as mahavakhyas (great utterances). The three most important mahavakhyas are: 1. ayam atma Brahma (atman is Brahman) (Mandukya Up. 2); 2. aham Brahmasmi (I am Brahman) (Bri. 1.4.10); and 3. Tatvam asi (That thou art) (Chan. 6.8.6). Through these utterances the Upanishads summarize the experience of the identification of the individual self and the Brahman, the one without the second (a-dvaita). It can be experienced only by those who have reached the experience of that stage of existence.
The Upanishads describe the Absolute in three-fold images; that is, in terms of pure existence (sat) (Katha Up. 6.12), consciousness (cit) (Mandukya Up. 2.2.11) and bliss (ananda) (Taittiriya Up. 2.1). In the compound form it becomes Saccidananda. The awareness of God is to be had not by discussions but rather by plunging deeper and deeper within, as Abishiktananda would say,3 so that one is led to discover the mystery hidden in the depths of one's being, 'set in the cavern (of the heart), beyond the firmament, that splendour into which the saints pass' (Kaivalya Up. 1.3).
One comes to the true awareness by going beyond all that is known and all that is not known, beyond all becoming and non-becoming (Isa Up. 10.14), beyond all words, all thoughts, all distinctions, all qualifications (Mandukya Up. 7). Then one will have conquered fear, old age and death itself in order to become Atmavid, a knower of the Self (Chandogya Up. 7.1). Abhishiktananda writes:
It would seem as if India, moved by the Spirit, invites the Christian to seek the mystery of God, Creator and Saviour, no longer outside or alongside himself, but in the profoundest depths of his own heart.4
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