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Friday, February 3, 2012

Is Jesus the only Avatar?

Prompted by my random posting about the afterlife, an anonymous reader from Australia left a comment with several links to websites dedicated to Avatar Adi Da Samraj, obviously in the attempt to shed some light on my confused mind. I want to thank the anonymous reader for his/her concern, but I also want to take this opportunity to say something about how I came to be or, I should say, to remain a Catholic.

Hinduism and its concept of the afterlife aren't new to me, for in the process of my conversion I have taken them into consideration. In fact, although I had fallen in love with Jesus, I did not assume that Christians were the only holders of the truth. I found parallels between Hindu philosophy and western culture. Let me give you some examples.

In Hinduism, the Vedic Hymns precede all forms of life, including the gods (like in the Gospel of John: In the beginning was the Word…). The hymns don't separate nature from Brahman, who is the only reality, ultimate and impersonal. Dreams are as real as reality, which is also a dream from which those liberated from samsara, or the endless cycle of death and rebirth, are awakened. Shan Kara (788-820), one of the two most influential Indian philosophers, maintains that reality is entirely originated from speech, meaning that what we can describe is more real than what is really out there. In other words, we sort of create or shape reality through language. For Shan Kara, the world as we know it is an appearance, namely it exists in relation to the minds to which it appears. We split up reality in concepts to be able to deal with it. In the absence of the observer, reality is a whole.
Ideas like these are not as foreign to our culture as one may think. Marcus was a 300 C.E. prophet who had a vision suggesting that the whole alphabet, and all human speech, can become a mystical form of divine truth. He believed that the restoration of all things will take place only when the illusion of separateness will be overcome. Plato also maintained that the intelligible world is more real than the one of sensory reality.
Thomas of Aquinas describes God very much like Shan Kara describes Brahman: utterly simple, timeless, changeless and ineffable.

Hindu philosophy states that "the effect is in reality no different from the cause", meaning that we are one with Brahman, although we are actually separated from Him because diversity belongs to the realm of appearances. This concept is not so different from what Aquinas wrote, namely that we are the "effect" produced by God, a reflection of Him and dependent on Him. But Shan Kara sees the act of creation in a negative way, because it's the result of Brahman's desire for "another".

In the place of Hell, in Hinduism there are the laws of karma, which unfold during our lives on earth. Our salvation is not to improve the world, but to escape it. For Shan Kara, the concepts of individual soul and of personal God are illusions. His God is beyond good and evil, and is not concerned with His creation.
Instead, the Indian philosopher Ramanuja (1017-1137) is much more close to our own view of religion. He teaches that Brahman can be seen as a personal God and possesses qualities in their higher forms. The universe is the product of His creative activity and the soul is real and eternal. The true self is not pure consciousness beyond experience; on the contrary, it can experience a state of bliss in knowing Brahman. We don't have to renounce the world; rather we have to learn how to live in it freely.

Modern Hindu thinkers have rethought the old, depressing idea of reincarnation: Instead of an endless cycle of rebirth, where a soul might reincarnate from a human to an animal body, the process of rebirth is now seen as a constant progress towards the final goal.

Hindu theology is not incompatible with the Christian theory of Incarnation, if one sees Jesus as an Avatar, or God-Man. Avatar is the first soul that ever manifested itself in the universe. When incarnated, the God-Man realizes his divine status, but at the same time is fully human. The Avatar does not reincarnate, because he is the consciousness of God that takes on a human body. When humanity is driven by corruption and anger, the God-Man comes on earth to bring it to a new level, where spiritual awakening is available to all. Modern schools of Hinduism maintain that Krishna, the Buddha, Muhammad and Jesus were all Avatar, and here the similarity with Christianity ends.

As we have seen, it's possible to compare different theologies and find affinities between them. But ancient Buddhism denies the existence of a Creator, and Muhammad doesn't describe God as a forgiving Father.
How are we to explain these fundamental differences? As a Christian, I believe that Jesus alone was Avatar, whereas the others were interpreting the Unknown according to their personality and culture. Jesus Christ took upon himself the evil forces that ruled the world and crushed them under the weight of His Passion. He loved humanity more than anyone else ever did. As opposite to eastern religions, Jesus did not deny the reality of the self and of God's creation; rather he brought it to a higher level. He taught that it's crucial to improve ourselves and to care for other people. He said that He lived in each and every one of the poor on earth and that the Father lived in Him. Therefore God is within us. For Jesus there are no boundaries between us and the rest of the universe, provided that we are able to live up to this communion of souls.

In my youth I practiced Buddhist meditation, so turning to Christianity I had to learn how to appreciate the theatricality of the Old Testament prophets and their fearless attitude toward the establishment. They did not behave like Hindu sages, but as shameless, rebellious God messengers. They were angry, because their people did not understand the will of Yahweh. The ancient prophets had deep religious insights, for their God cares for His creation's outcome.
On the other hand, it's obvious that Hindu philosophy can be read in Jesus' words. The kingdom of heaven as He describes it was a revolutionary idea in ancient Judaism, but not in Vedanta. Jesus said that the kingdom is not only with the Father, but it is present here and now and at the same time is within us. He describes it as a mustard seed that grows until it becomes a large bush. Similarly, Brahman is said to be greater than the greatest and smaller than the smallest. Jesus is speaking of karma when He says "As soon as you sow, you shall reap". But most of all, Jesus preaches detachment from earthly affection, like eastern religions do.

To be continued….if you have the patience to read more!

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