What are “namarupa”? This is a term from Sanskrit that plays a large role in the later writings of Abhishiktananda. According to the various glossaries in his books the meaning is something like this: “name and form”…including the world of phenomena and all the signs used to refer to the unique mystery that is beyond all. Another approach to this can be found in the Tao Te Ching, which famously begins:
The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao
The name that can be named is not the eternal name
The nameless is the beginning of heaven and earth
The named is the mother of ten thousand things
(trans. by Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English)
When we speak of the Divine Reality, much of what we say is within the realm of “names.” There may be much that is true within this realm, but it cannot grasp the Ultimate Mystery of the Divine or our (and this is supremely important) our ultimate relationship to this Reality which is also beyond all names
As Abhishiktananda grew in knowledge and experience of advaita, nondualism, within Hindu religious thought, he was seriously tormented by Christianity’s inability to claim this very same mystical experience. The theological and spiritual language of Christianity seemed unredeemably dualistic. I am this solid reality over here and God is over there…to put it very crudely. As he wrestled with this problem he began to see more and more of Christian theology and doctrine as simply another example of namarupa. Not false or untrue, but not to be taken as literally true either. This was going to be his liberation from dualism to the mystical abyss of advaita.
The surface meaning of the words is only a pointer, if you will, at the ultimate truth. Ok, maybe more than a pointer; but the fact is that even our most sacred doctrines are in words that are necessarily culturally conditioned and bound. This is not something “bad,” just inevitable; and this holds for all religions. As Abhishiktananda was fond of pointing out, it is just as much a mistake for Hindus to absolutize their namarupa as it is for Christians. Words and symbols and rites are just that and certainly good and necessary but to take them as absolute and literal truth means you will not be able to engage other traditions in any meaningful way and you may miss the gift they bring to you in their spiritual experience of the Ultimate Reality. So, Abhishiktananda fretted over the fact that there seemed to be no interest or concern or means to translate the meaning of Christianity into Hindu terms, to liberate Christianity from its Judaeo-Hellenic roots. There seems to be no other way of then being liberated from a dualistic view of our relationship to the Divine. The situation has not changed 50 years later; we are now certainly much more friendly to other religious traditions, but we still refuse to see our own language and terms as a kind of namarupa. The challenge is too scary; the implications are enormous.
Consider this easy example from our liturgical/Biblical language: the Catholic feast of Christ the King. The terminology is alien to us because it comes from a monarchical social order. So you have to work at this language to extract its real significance, and that’s what a lot of homilies do on that feast day. Ok, that was obvious. But you need to go a lot deeper to see the nature of the problem. Consider the following list of terms: sin, justification; judgment; adoption; advocate; atone/atonement; “that we have been justified by his blood”(Rom 5:9), “Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (Heb 9:22); obedience; etc.; etc.; etc. There is so much more of this; and this is Biblical language, New Testament, which is then carried over to Church doctrine and theology. Yes, it is explicated in books and homilies, but the point is that such language arises in a certain context, like the ancient Mediterranean, but it can be really alien in another context. In fact even in my own situation I remember how I was troubled by the notion that “Jesus died for our sins” when I was just beginning to get into spirituality in my early teens. I wondered what does that really mean. Why does God require bloodshed as the Bible seemed to be saying? It didn’t occur to me, as a youngster, that bloodshed was a big deal in engaging the divine order in the Mediterranean world and, yes, elsewhere. It is a fundamentally and decidedly dualistic picture in which there is this awesome reality out there somewhere and poor little us who try not to displease this ultimate other. Ok, yes the New Testament does say we no longer need animal sacrifices but why does Christ have to shed his blood for us? And what is this “debt” he has to pay?
Recall the movie Gandhi, the scene early in the movie where Gandhi and associates are riding a train through India, and his Anglican friend climbs up to the top of the railroad car to cool off and meets a number of poor travelers riding there. One of them recognizes him as a Christian priest and says “I have a Christian friend and she drinks the blood of Christ every week.” The humor of that situation only illustrates the problem that kind of language presents to someone who is “outside” that context. But what I am more concerned at the moment is what that language means to us who are “within” that context. And here I don’t mean to question the doctrine of the “Real Presence,” in which I am a firm believer, and which certain Protestant groups “solve the problem” by turning that language into a kind of metaphor, a linguistic maneuver that evaporates away the profound dimensions of that language. No, the Catholic and Orthodox commitment to the so-called Real Presence is profoundly true but when it encounters Hindu advaita, it should not retreat into a narrow shell but rather discover its deepest dimensions and most profound implications, which I admit is a real challenge on the “language level,” for theology and Christian spirituality which in its namarupa is definitely dualistic. The first step would be to admit the namarupa nature of our whole theological enterprise, but you know that isn’t going to happen. However, some of Christianity’s deepest mystics and theologians have come very close to seeing that. And that’s why Abhishiktananda is still the “prophet” of our future; we have yet to catch up to him!
Now I would like to further challenge and explore various avenues of the above issues somewhat at random:
Consider St. Paul. His basic message is that there is no need for this enormous religious scaffolding known as “the Law” in order to relate to the Ultimate Divine Reality which he calls “Father” (following the example of Jesus). Don’t get lost in the “new” namarupa of his language, however; follow the dynamics and trajectory of his thought: You have this direct relationship of unity with the Mystery of God (he would say “in Christ” “through faith” but I refrain from that because this language has been beaten into religious clichés—it badly needs rescuing from its own namarupa quality).
Recall Abhishiktananda’s account of an early encounter with some Quakers. This was while he was still trying to be an orthodox Catholic. He said he was thoroughly surprised by the fact that they “didn’t believe in all those things you were supposed to believe in,” yet they were more Christian than most other Christians he had met. It was an eye-opener for him about not getting trapped within a need to absolutize the namarupa of Christianity.
The so-called Old Testament is a very complex text, filled with an incredible diversity of views. It has some beautiful things in it and also many horrible things. The problem is that this forms the background of the Christ event, and as it is often said in the New Testament itself and in Church doctrine this background is said to be necessary in order to understand the Christ event….Jesus is the fulfillment, etc. Orthodox Christianity has always considered this language as “non-negotiable” in its self-understanding. And here I don’t mean to suggest that we should willy-nilly change or drop traditional language, like Jesus’ use of the word “Father.” That is a totally superficial “corrective” by some liberal church people; well-intentioned but it is simply the substituting of one kind of namarupa for another. A much deeper approach is to take the traditional language and “see into it” much deeper than its literal sense. (By the way, if you want to get a glimpse of how “bad” the Old Testament can get, take a look at Phyllis Trible’s little book, Texts of Terror.)
Consider St. Paul’s reference to the “mind of Christ.” There is the line from Philippians: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus”(Phil 2:5). As an expression, I always wondered how close this was to Buddhism’s invitation to have the “Buddha mind” in realization. Again, not saying that the two are the same, don’t they circle around the same Ultimate Reality in many ways. Consider how Paul continues in his description of what constitutes having this “mind of Christ”:
“…who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death–
even death on a cross.”
Now compare all this with someone like Santideva, the great Indian Buddhist and the great ideal of the Bodhisattva; and you might find some very engaging similarities. They are working in a kind of harmonious way, circling around the same Ultimate Truth. What you need to do is not to get lost in the surface reality of the namarupa within both traditions. There is nothing wrong with the namarupa, nothing false; it’s simply that you need to get into the depths of what is being said, to that which is truly unnameable.
Consider this quote from J. P. de Caussade, an 18th Century Jesuit spiritual director and writer, from a work that was published only after his death called Abandonment to the Divine Providence. This is not exactly my favorite period of spiritual writing, nor are these folks much attended to by me, but this is a remarkable little work of spiritual direction:
“If we knew how to greet each moment as the manifestation of the divine will, we would find in it all the heart could desire…. The present moment is always filled with infinite treasures; it contains more than you are capable of receiving….[underlining mine] The divine will is an abyss of which the present moment is the entrance; plunge fearlessly therein and you will find it more boundless than your desire.”
Now this is quite remarkable, and if you know anything about Sufi spirituality, you would be amazed at the similarity. But now I want to quote something much more alien, from a definition of sorts of Dzogchen in Tibetan Buddhism:
“Dzogchen–the direct realization of the naturally abiding enlightenment within one’s own experience. This fundamental experience of limitless freedom, clarity, and openness is at the heart of who we are, and Dzogchen practice merely uncovers this experience.”
Do you see how these two quotes coherently converge? No, they are not the same thing in different languages; I would never venture to say that…..but it is amazing how both lead us to this fundamental realization of the Ultimate Reality which is always at our fingertips as it were, not far away, not somewhere else, but in the very fiber of our being. So the dissolution of another kind of dualism. The namarupa of these two traditions do not obscure the fact that here they are singing in harmony. Dostoevsky’s Fr. Zosima said that we are always in Paradise if only we had the eyes to see it. He uses the namarupa of Biblical language to point to that reality which the two authors above present in very different terms. Paradise is our real state of heart.