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Center for Action and Contemplation

Parts of a Whole

Thursday, August 16, 2018


Parts of a Whole
Thursday, August 16, 2018

Several central ideas affirmed by Jesus were already formed in the ancient Hindu Vedas, then unfolded by the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita. Three of these ideas are advaita, karma, and maya.

The word advaita is loosely translated as “having no duality,” implying that the proper or spiritual way of understanding things is outside the realm of comparison or judgment. The contemplative mind sees things in their unity and connection before it separates them as not completely one, but not two either. If you first emphasize dissimilarity and distinction, it is almost impossible to ever get back to unitive consciousness or similarity, from which most compassion, or at least tolerance, proceeds. If you start with advaita, you can still go back to making needed and helpful distinctions, but now love and union is prior to knowledge and information.

That is the unique and brilliant starting place of so many Eastern religions, as I believe it was for Jesus! Read Jesus’ words: “My Father’s sun shines on the good and the bad; his rain falls on the just and the unjust” (Matthew 5:45); “Whatever you do to the least of these, you do to me” (Matthew 25:40). With a dualistic mind, such statements are just idealistic poetry, which is largely how many Christians have read them.

For the Hindu, karma is the nature of the universe and moves us toward purification of motive and honesty about why we are doing what we are doing. Karma is an absolute law of cause and effect. What goes around comes around—eventually! We are responsible for our own thoughts and motives—which create the Real—and we cannot avoid the consequences. Negative thoughts will destroy us. We are punished by our sins more than for our sins. Goodness is its own reward now; we do not need to wait for heaven later.

I am convinced that Jesus taught the karmic world view, but many Christians understood him inside a reward and punishment framework. Here are just a couple illustrations: “If you show mercy, mercy will be shown to you” (Matthew 5:7, Luke 6:37); “The standard you use will be used for you” (Mark 4:24).

The third supreme idea of Hinduism is maya. This is often translated as “illusion,” but a better translation might be “tricky.” When Hinduism (or Buddhism, which is a child of Hinduism) states that all the world of forms is maya (or emptiness), it is trying to help you look deeper and broader so as not to be tricked by the short term pay-offs of the ego.

The Upanishads illustrate maya as “tricky” using the familiar experience of finding a rope on a path. We jump back, thinking it’s a snake, but it isn’t. Mirabai Starr says, “Wisdom comes with being able to engage in inquiry with curiosity (with childlike wonderment as Jesus calls it) [in order] to see what really is, and to discover it’s not something we have to defend ourselves against.” [1] Reality is hard, maya says, but also benevolent.

All phenomena pass themselves off as total and final in their independent and free existence. But just wait a while, look deeper, and you will see that all things are parts of much larger ecosystems of connection and life. In their separateness, they will pass. Everything is qualified and provisional and contingent on something else. The illusion of our separateness makes it hard for us to see and seek the common good or to rest in Divine Union.

[1] Mirabai Starr, “Unitive Consciousness: An Eastern Perspective” (an unpublished webcast from the Center for Action and Contemplation: 2015).

Image Credit: A Hindu Woman in Yoga Asana Meditation (detail), Lucia Puertas, 2010, river Ganges, Varanasi, India.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: The Bhagavad Gita does not counsel that we all become monks or solitaries. Rather, the true synthesis is found in a life-long purification of motive, intention, and focus in our world of action. The Gita calls the active person to a life of interiority and soul discovery. How can we do “pure action”? Only by gradually detaching from all the fruits of action and doing everything purely for the love of God. —Richard Rohr
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