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Hindu Interpretation Of Christ From Vivekananda To .

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.Hindu Interpretation of Christfrom Vivekananda toRadhakrishnan· BALWANT A.M. PARADKARTh() purpose of this paper is not to furnish an exhaustivesurvey of Hindu interpretations of Chdst, but to view the highlights, particularly the interpretations of some leading andresponsible Hindu figures whose views influence strong movements1 in the ongoing Hindu renaissance. These . may beindicated as follows :I. Swami Vivekananda }The Ramakrishna MissionII. Swanri AJdhilananda. . . The Sarvodaya MovementIII. Mahatma GandhiIV. Bhai Manilal C. Parekh }New Hindu SecularismDr. S. Radhakrishnanv.IRecent research has shown that Swami Vivekananda wasmuch more indebted to tll.e Brahmo Samaj for his religiousawakening than is commonly realized. It is from this contactthat his warm appreciation of Christ is to be traced. It is significant that -Swami Vivekananda inaugurated the RamakrishnaMission. after his master's death, on Christmas Eve.But we touch the heart of Vivekananda's interpretation ofChrist when we note three things. First, his approach to Christwas not that of a seeker but that of one who found satisfactionin philosophical-mystical Hinduism. Second, he is influencedby a certain historical scepticism, due apparently to beinginfluenced by the Christ-myth speculation of the late nine.teenthcentury. Third, he viewed everything at all times from the angle' In the period before us, there are two other outstanding names:Dr. Bhagavan Das of the Banaras Hindu University, and Shri Aurobindoof the Poridicherry Ashram. Neither of these ·gave much sustained attention to the Christ theme. Shri .Aurobindo's 'integralism' is of growingEast-West significance.··65

of Advaita Vedanta. 'It is', he said, 'the Vedanta, and Vedantaalone that can become the universal religion of man . ·. no otheris fitted for that role '. 2 He felt that 'Christianity with all itsboasted civilization .is but a collection of little bits of Inqianthought. Ours is the religion of which Buddhism, with all itsgreatness, is a rebel child, and. of which . Christianity is a very,patchy imitation'. 3.:In Vivekananda's treatment of Christ there is an unresolvedproblem. There is a vein of historical scepticism. He admiresChrist greatly. But how can one consistently admire a personwhose historicity is open to question ? Except Hinduism, hesays, ' All the other religions have. been built around the life ofwhat they think is an historical man, and what they think is thestrength of the religion is really the weakness, for disprove thehistoricifyt of the man and the whole fabric tumbles to theground. . . The glory of Krishna is not that he was Krishnabut that be was the great teacher of Vedanta . . . Thus ourallegiance is to principles always, and not to the person.' 4 Withreference to Christianity' he said, ' If there is one blow dealt .tothe historicity of that life (Christ's), as bas been the case inmodem times . if that rock of historicity, as they pretend tocall it, is shaken and shattered, the whole building tumbles down,broken absolutely, never to regain its lost status.' 5 Thus, springing as it does from such a sceptical attitude, one can attach noth. ing more than rhetorical· significance to Vivekananda's statement,'Truth· came to Jesus of Nazareth and we must all obey him.' 6We do not in Vivekananda find a systematic discussion of theoutline of the life of Christ. He rejected outright Nicholas Notovitch's speculation that Christ had been tutored by Brahmin priestsin the temple of Jagannath in Puri (Orissa). 7 But regarding thecentral fact of the passion of Christ, the Crucifixion, Vivekanandasaid, 'Christ was God incarnate ; they could not kill him. Thatwhich was crucified was only a semblance, a mirage.' 8 Accordingto Vivekananda, Christ was a Bhakta and essentially a Sanyasin.Vivekananda believed that Christ believed in reincarnation. 9The Johannine claims for Christ's divinity (in an exclusive andfinal revelation) do not present any problems at aU to Vivekananda. For, 'Christ', be says, 'preached dualism to the masses Vivekananda, Lectures from Colombo. to Almora, p. 90. Ibid., p. 195.' Ibid., pp. 200-201. Ibid., pp. 90-91. We cannot go here into the question of the historicity of Christ. The Christ"myth theory has several times been refuted,and notably by H. G. Wood, Did Christ Really Live? (S.C:M. 1938). Forsatisfying critical reconstruction of the life of Christ sea the two outstanding lives by Vincent Taylor arid Ethelbert Stauffer. Ibid., p. 204.' Ibid., pp. 182, 3. Gambhirananda, History of the Ramakrishna Math and Mission,P. 39. VivekanaiJ.da, The Complete Works, vol. I, P; 319.'66

and non-dualism to His disciples.' 10 It is entirely in the lightof such a reductionist · orientation that Vivekananda's interpretation of Christ must be understood. Hence the RamakrishnaMission finds no difficulty at all in quoting liberally the greatMahavakyas of the Gospels such as 'I and my Father are one',or the sayings of Jesus concerning his authority in Thus Spakethe CHrist (which reached the 30,000th printed copy in Vivekananda's birth centenary year, 1963): There, Vivekananda isquoted as saying:So we find jesus of Nazareth, in the first place, the trueson of the Orient . . . He was a soul! Nothing but a soul,just working in a body for the good of humanity ; and thatwas all his relation to the body. He was a disembodied,unfettered, unbound spirit . . . In him is embodied all thatis best and greatest in His own race and He Himself is theimpetus for the future, not only to his own, but also to theunnumbered other races of the world. If I, as an Oriental.am to worship Jesus of Nazareth, there is only one way leftto me, that is to worship Him as God and nothing else.UIt is clear from these that for Vivekananda the Atonement isno problem, for (according to him) Christ really did not suffer.If Vivekananda calls him God, it is on the Advaita understandingthat God (lsh1vara) is a lower and not the absolute spiritual reality.Indeed, Vivekananda's interpretation of the doctrine of mayafollows an extreme line which few Advaita apologists would beprepared to accept today. For him it is nothing more and nothingless than cosmic illusionism. Hence the docetic overtones to hishandling of the body, person and significance of JesU's.The teal difficulty for Advaitins (and Vedantins) in acceptingthe finality of the self-revelation of the Supreme Spirit in ChristJesus i'S that they eschew ultimate metaphysical personalism.With this -follows an ambivalence in regard to creation and asuspicion of the significance of time. Without a change of metaphysical premise, it will be impossible for Advaitins to see theabsolute significance of Christ.nThe Ramakrishna Mission, when it establi'shed a firmerfooting in the Western hemisphere, required a fuller adumbnitioriof the. Hindu interpretation of Christ. A book supplying thiswas furnished by a leading Swami of the Mission two years afterIndia achieved political independence. The book is published byno Ie a concern than the Philosophical Library, New York.10Vivekananda, The Complete Works, Vol. II, pp. 142-3, 351 ; Vol.IV, - 144.' Swami Suddhasatwananda (Ed.), Thus Spake the Christ, quotingVivekananda, pp. xvi-xvii (from his Complete Works, Vol. IV, p. 143).67

Swami Akbilananda's Hindu View of Christ (pp: 291), owingto its insidious challenge to Christian orthodoxy, deserves to bemuch better known than it is. Here we find the attempt to workout in a more orderly way, in a strictly Vedanta setting, 'thenumerous scattered suggestions of Swami Vivekananda. Thisvolume contains an 'Introduction' by Walter G. Muelder, Dea:nof the School of Theology, Boston University. Dean Mueldermisleads the public into thinking that Swami Akhilananda succeeds in 'giving the Christian equivalent of Hindu thought andthe Hindu equivalents of synoptic and Johannine teachings 'YMuelder declares that the Swami ·i's not baffied by the Christianthought of conversion because Jesus' word to Nicodemus, 'Youmust be born anew ' is fully acceptable. The author comes toterms not only with Christian teaching but with Christ himsel . 13This is a dangerously misleading statement, as the. Swami's bookdoes nothing of the kind ; rather he strongly attacks the evangelical emphasis on conversion experience. 14 In fact, one of thethings that is striking about Akhilananda's bibliography (pp. 285287) is that it is heavily weighted with literature .of the quest for .the Jesus of history of the Liberal period. 15 The post-liberal,conservative critical reconstruction has not been reckoned with.Moreover, the bibliography is weighted with books interested . inthe psychology of Jesus and questions of general 'religiousconsciousness'! .A notably striking feature of the work through10 chapters is frequent quotations from the writings of ri Ramakrishna, Swami Vivekananda and Swami Brahmananda. Somuch so that one wonders whether it was his intention, in givingthe ' Hindu ' view of Christ, to · infuse a conscious Vedantaapologetic.Akhilananda regards Christ a:s an Incarnation. He saysIncarnations have the following characteristics:·(1) They have a purpose, goal and method of life. 16(2) They come to fulfil the crying need of the age? 7(3) Incarnations are at peace .with themselves?S(4) 'However, the Hindus believe that there have beennumerous incarnations (Avataras) in the history ofthe world, of whom Jesus was one, while . theChristians take lesus to be the only one. There " sWami. Akhilananda, Hindu View of Christ (Phil. Lib. N.Y., i949),." Walter E. Muelder, Ibid., p. 7.u Ibid., pp. 256-257.·15That there has been a conservative scholarly reconstruction by suchuniinpeachable . N.T. scholars as. C. H . Dodd, Vincent Taylor, T .W.Manson, 0. Cullmann, E. · Stauffer, F. F . Bruce, etc., would be unknown·from' the bibliography. Akhilananda, Hindu View of Christ, p. 17." Ibid.; P. l8; ·.,. Ibid., p. 20.68

we have a basic resemblance and the : basicdifference between Hinduism and Christianity.' 19(5) An Incarnation ' is always aware of his divine nature ;consequently, he is not bound by any limitationwhatsoever'. 20· (6) The human and divine are wonderfully blended inIncarnations. 21·,·.·.(7) ' Incarnations have no longing for or consciousness ofpermanent multiplicity.' 22 · ··(8) Incarnations are eternally free to transform individualsand start new civilizations. 23(9) They live lives of intense God-consciousness. 24(10) They unfailingly practise what they preach. 25(11) They come not to destroy but fulfil, and to establishDharma. 28 (Reference to Mt. 5 : 17 and Gita4:8).(12) ' When they depart from the world, they feel no painor agony because they are leaving it ; there is nofeeling of separation.' 27(13) An Incarnation is a Trilokanga, i:e. knows the past,present and future. 28(14) Incarnations love their disciples and followers. 29(15) This is the distinctive mark which separates incarnations from all others. 30·Swami A.khilananda is somewhat above Vivekananda'sscepticism regarding the historicity of . Jesus. .He summarilyrejects the views . of critics who discount the Fourth Gospel. Buthe interprets all the 'I am' sayings in the non-dual sense suggestedby Vivekananda. . (That is, he will not take seriously the emphasison the historical of Jesus, which presupposed an unabrogatedand unabrogatable metaphysical divine-human polarity). Hence,Akhilananda will have nothing to do with critics who questionvindications of J sus' sanity in the psychiatric study of Jesus.In a whole chapter (2), Akhilananda stresses that Jesus ·wasan oriental. In another chapter (3), he stresses that Jesus wasa Yogi: He was a Bhakti, Karma, Raja and Jnana Yogi. ' Wheredid Jesus learn Yoga? It is not inconceivable that he learnedthe technique of the Yogas in the Near East where he lived. Weare told that the followers of Buddha had their monasteries and10Akhilananda, Hindu View. of Christ, p. 21. I bid., p. 24.n Ibid., p. 24.,. Ibid., p. 25. I bid., p. 28.,. Ibid., p. 28. Ibid., p. 28." Ibid., p. 32 ., Ibid., p. 33." Ibid., p. 36. Ibid., p. 37. Ibid., p. 38.69

centres all over the Near East at the time Jesus was b0rn.' 31This statement is a symbolic disclosure of the entire absence inthis book of knowledge of the Hebraic-Jewish background of theGospels. The author elaborates on the mystique of Jesus (ch.' 4).Two chapters, (5) and (6), are given to a diffuse account of theethical teaching of Christ, wherein Christians are reproved fornot taking Jesus' teaching literally, and for their failings ofmilitarism and imperialism. Here the book reflects very muchthe (Indian) nationalistic temper of the 1920s and 1930s.No discussion of Christ is ever· complete without an accountof Jesus and his cross. Swami Akhilananda's seventh chapter,on ' Christ l!nd the Cross ', turns out to be a plea for pacifism, asJesus was a satyagrahi. For the author, the cross is of significanceas ·a moral example for conquest of self, egoistic and egotisticpassion . Concerning circumstantial. legal and theological questions-Why was Jesus convicted? Was he a messianic pre.tender ? What is the significance of such a claim ? What isthe import of the pre-Passion sayings of Christ? How did heinterpret his impending death ? Why is the greater portion ofthe Gospels taken up with the passion story ? Why is the re tof the New Testament preoccupied with interpreting one eventabove all in the life of one person, namely the death of Christ?for all such questions there is not a word of exposition. or al;i.swer.Closely linked with the need for an account of the cross isthe need for a discussion of the resw;rection . 'The poor,childish people ', says Swami Akhilananda, · ' needed signs, andJesus gave them John's preaching of repentance and His ownresurrection '. 32 His eighth chapter, 'Spirit of Easter', turns outto be an exhortation to what is usually called sanctification.' Another fact we learn from Easter is that a man can overcomeand defy death. How can we do that when we know that sometime or other this cruel deat'h will come to us ? ' 0 ·death, whereis thy sting ? 0 grave, where is thy victory ? ' Death can bedefied only when we have that realization of the abiding presenceof God in us.' 33 ' This ', he says, ' is not a question of theacceptance of facts, but is a question of constant grappliilg withour craving '. 34 It is the spirit of Easter without the Easter fact.IIIMahatma Gandhi's interpretation of Christ is of significancebecause of the paradoxical effect or consequences of his reverencefor Christ.As the Mahatma was not a mystico-philosophical monastic,his interpretapon of the Christ theme did not have the explicit(though it did have an implicit) philosophic derivation so clearly""""70Akhilananda, Hindu View of Christ, p, 96.Ibid., p. 86.Ibid., p. 217.Ibid., p. 215.

eVident among the major exponents of the Ramakrishna Mission.Therefore, whenever Gandhi touched upon the Christ theme, ithad a ring of authenticity. Indeed, he carried the name of Jesusto the obscurest comers of India more than anyone before him.But the Christ he admired was not the New Testament Christ orthe Christ of the major Christian orthodox interpretation.It is impossible to measure wuantitatively) the Christianinfluence on the ·Mahatma. On the basis of his own testimony,we know that his religious awakening was due chiefly to his· student-day contacts in England. At least two of his biographers 35 are impressed by the volume of such influence. Dr.E. Stanley Jones has given a fairly convincing study of the extentto which the Mahatma's practice and teaching outgrew the classical Hindu faith which he professed.Gandhi was a life-long student of the New Testament. Hesaid that he read it daily along with the Gita. But we have noevidence that he studied it systematically. We may at best saythat he had unorganized acquaintance with it. From time to timenumerous booklets by Mahatma Gandhi have appeared on suchtopics as religion, scriptures, Christianity and Jesus. These are.topical arrangements of the things he said or wrote at sundrytimes. The most convenient of such arrangements is No. 6 of the'Pocket Gandhi Series', The Message of Jesus Christ. 38 Its editor,A T. Hingorani, observes, ' The rich and radiant personality ofJesus cast a fascinating spell over him '. 37Yet-due incipiently to Hindu interpretations of theindifference of the universe of spirit to nature, time and historythe Mahatma could say with ease: ' I may say that I have neverbeen interested in a historical Jesus. I should not care if it wasproved by someone that the man called Jesus never lived, andthat which was narrated in the Gospels was a figment of thewriter's imagination. For, the Sermon on the Mount would stillbe true for me.' 38Gandhiji was very fond of giving religious and moral exhortation by deed and word. However, he was equally insistent thatChristians should practise but never preach. ' All I want them todo', he said, 'is to live Christian lives, not to annotate them '. 39In his oft-quoted analogy, they should emit fragrance as the rosewhich never speaks about itself. But to the question ' Did notJesus Himself teach and preach?' he answered, 'We are ondangerous ground here. You ask me to give my interpretationof the life of Christ. Well, I may say that I do not accept everything in the Gospels as historical truth . . . I draw a great. Vincent Shean, Lead Kindly Light. B. Stanley Jones, MahatmaGandhi. An interpretation (Reprinted, cheap Indian edition, LucknowPub. House, this year). M. K. Gandhi, The Message of Jesus Christ (Bharatiya VidyaBhavan, 1963)., Ibid., p. 42. Ibid., p. 65. Ibid., p. 72.71

distinction between the Sermon on the Mount and the let(ers ·ofPaul. They are a graft on Christ's teaching, his own gloss apartfrom Christ's own experience.' .to But confronted with ,theprima facie Johannine evidence, Gandhi's answer was, 'Thefundamental verses of St. John require to be re-read and reinterpreted '.'11 Poiriting to his breast he would firmly insist 'lexercised my judgement about every Scripture, iilcluding tbeGita '.1 2 A moment eadier, speaking of different scriptures hesaid, 'I don't approach them with a critical mind '. 43 For him,in fact, the Gita wa& 'the key to the Scripture of the world '.44The Mahatma seems to have been influenced by the Islamicobjection to Christ's unique divine Sonship. 'Thus', he said,'to believe that Jesus is the only begotten son of ·God is to meagainst reason, for God can't marry and beget children. Theword ' Son ' there can only be used in a figurative sense. In thatsense, every one who stands in the position of Jesus is begottenson of God '. 45 On another occasion he said, 'I have often madeit clear that I regard Jesus as a great teacher of humanity, but Ido not regard him as the only begotten son of God '. 46 The mosthe could say, therefore, was 'I could accept Jesus as a martyr,an embodiment of sacrifice, and a divine teacher, but not as themost perfect man ever born. His death on the cross was a greatexample to the world, but that there was anything like amysterious or miraculous virtue in it, my heart could not accept '. 47So ' I can pay equal honour to Jesus, Mohammed, Krishna,Buddha, Zoroaster, and others that may be named '. 48In making this assessment, Gandhiji depends a good deal on'feeling'.'For many, many years I have regarded Jesus of Nazarethas one among the mighty teachers that the world has had .I 'Claim humility for this expression for the simple reason thatthis is exactly what I feel. Of course, Christians claim ahigher place for Jesus of Nazareth than as a non-Christianand as a Hindu I have been-able to feel. I purposely use· the word " feel " .instead of " give ". because I consider thatneither I. nor anybody else, can possibly arrogate to himselfthe claim of giving place to a great man. The great teachersof mankind have had the places not given to them, but theplace has belonged to them as a

Swami Vivekananda } Swanri AJdhilananda Mahatma Gandhi Bhai Manilal C. Parekh } Dr. S. Radhakrishnan The Ramakrishna Mission . . . The Sarvodaya Movement New Hindu Secularism I Recent research has shown that Swami Vivekananda was much more indebted to tll.e Brahmo Sam