Advaita and Christianity

The word “advaita” is a little Sanskrit word that means “not two.”  Very simple, very little words, right?  Well, not exactly.  These words point to the most profound, most mystery-laden, most mystical of all realities.  They refer, of course, to our own identity in relationship to the Ultimate Absolute Reality which we call God.  In English terms these words are often termed “non duality.”  A perfectly good term, which I don’t particularly care for (but it’s very popular)  because I think it is just a bit abstract, a very typical Western move to translate something that sounds very concrete, “not two,” into a more abstract-sounding notion or concept, “non duality.”

“Advaita” comes, of course, from India, from one branch of Hinduism.  It does not represent all of Indian religious consciousness; there is a large segment of Hinduism that is quite dualist.  So Advaita does not necessarily represent the “majority opinion” even in Hinduism. It does however have an ancient pedigree going all the way back to the Upanishads.  And it does have some very profound proponents, like Shankara.   Dualism means that the Divine Reality and your personal reality are two separate and distinct realities.   God is the Ultimate Other.  Advaita says, no, they are one Reality.  BUT in what way can they be said to be one? What is this “oneness” all about?  Those are very big questions and no answers on the level of concepts or notions are apparent. This presents all kinds of problems even within Hinduism, and then when we get to Christianity we find what seem like insurmountable obstacles in order to affirm a kind of Christian Advaita.  Let’s take a look at some of these problems and some of the possibilities.

The first thing is that we need to emphatically assert that no conceptual analysis of Advaita will ever reveal its reality.  No amount of metaphysics, philosophy, or theology will ever unfold this reality to your heart.  Learned folk are often enticed to dwell within their clever words, or else even mistake their interesting analyses for the very reality that they are talking about.  In some cases a good analysis can be truly helpful in sorting out what is true and what is ersatz and getting a handle on some aspect of the spiritual life. (Of course there are numerous books out there about Advaita that are totally bogus and written solely to make money for their authors, but about these we are not speaking.)  But with Advaita nothing, not even the most profound reflections and the deepest presentations, nothing can touch it, either positive or negative–all words, notions, concepts merely circle around this reality and perhaps in a way that can be helpful in getting a sense for it, but it will mostly be through a kind of symbolic and mythic language that barely recognizes itself as symbolic.  With Advaita only deep mystical experience can guarantee any kind of grasp of it–and even to put it that way is misleading. There is simply an awakening to it and then you no longer know it in terms of any words.  And if one awakens to this reality then no demonstration of its “incompatibility” with Christianity will be able to stand–and this is key.   Or as Abhishiktananda put it, all vanishes in a Consuming Fire.

Our goal here is not to reflect on Advaita in any general way or within its proper Hindu context but to ponder the possibilities of Advaita within the Christian mystical tradition. (My favorite guide in all this, Abhishiktananda, has of course gone the furthest in all this, but there is always more to address.)  And just to “open the door” a bit more we will consider two seemingly major problems, but closely related, that are most obvious but keep needing to be dealt with.  The first one can be called the “problem of pantheism” or “monism.”  This kind of problem arises when we depend too much on an intellectual/philosophical analysis of Advaita.  And it is also the kind of problem that is alarming to both Christian theologians and spiritual seekers alike.  Both begin to see this mirage of pantheism/monism.   After all Advaita does mean “not two,” and the inference then is that what we have is “one,” a oneness of the Ultimate Reality and me in my “I-ness” (or perhaps for some in my consciousness). So for Christian thinkers (in the negative) and for certain Hindu thinkers (in the positive) this oneness equates to something like “I am God,” or “God is me.” (By the way, my dear and favorite al-Hallaj, that most holy of holy men, did not fall into this mistake when he famously said while crucified “I am the Truth”–here meaning that he at that point was a totally transparent manifestation of the Divine Reality.)  So this is a crude way of putting it, but there are lots of representatives of Hinduism who would put it in some such way and there are many Christian thinkers and church people who believe that’s what Advaita leads to.  Both camps are wrong. Yes, “not two” does point to a kind of oneness, but this “oneness” is beyond conceptualization and properly speaking Advaita would be best expressed in another phrase: “not two, not one.” 

 Pantheism (or in another context “monism”) is really an intellectual abstraction, a mind game that the mind plays when it cannot affirm duality.  Duality after all is the very structure through which the mind perceives the world–everything is in a subject-object relationship seemingly including even the Divine Reality.  But that of course is seen as false as soon as we grow out of a superficial piety into a deeper sense of the Divine Reality, so in the negation of the dualism it reverts to another conceptualization: pantheism: everything is God.  Now certain Hindu figures and certain Hindu-oriented Westerners try to get around this dilemma in another form of rational trickery: the appeal to consciousness.  Basically the Divine Reality and your “I” are reduced to one transpersonal consciousness.  A lot of consciousness language by these folks!  But it all amounts still to pantheism, though in a more subtle form.  (And here we are not being critical of a legitimate use of the word “consciousness” as in Abhishiktananda’s “awakening” to Advaita.)

Can’t speak for the Hindus on this, but from the standpoint of Christianity this leaves a lot to be desired as a solution.  Christianity upholds the irreducible value of personhood–what Merton called Christian Personalism.   But this is not the modern focus on individuality and the self; it is more what Merton called the True Self, the person you are in God, not the creation of swirling images and illusions of selfhood within the social construct of our reality; the faces you make in the mirror of the world.  Furthermore, your true self, the true subject before every encounter, and the deep down reality of self that only God knows is not and cannot be the object of your apprehension or comprehension.  And why is this?  Well,  what if the Divine Reality is really the Subject within the subject of every subject-object encounter.  As Augustine put it, God is closer to me than I am to my own self.  Or as Paul hints at that:  I live now, not I, but Christ lives in me.  So to borrow and adapt from the Sufis, and as I have quoted this borrowed Sufi vision often in this blog, then upon realization, then we can say it is the Risen Christ who walks with my feet, it is the Risen Christ who sees with my eyes, it is the Risen Christ who hears with my ears, it is the Risen Christ who touches the world with my hands, etc. Or as Eckhart put it: the eye with which I see God is the same eye with which God sees me. When that superficial “I” is effaced (again a Sufi way of speaking), that “I” that is a psychological and social construct is dissolved in a new vision–  we no longer have “two” realities; but yet it is not one in the abstract sense of one substance, monism.  This Advaita is way beyond any such formulations and the mind cannot grasp it.   All it can utter truly is: “not two, not one.” Neti, Neti, not this, not that.

But we have not gotten out of our dilemma or solved anything about the possibility of Advaita in Christianity.  We have merely hinted at one way of looking at this seemingly impossible possibility.  There is one deep-down problem which probably illustrates best the hurdle facing us–at least in conceptual terms.  As an introduction to all this let me begin with a couple of quotes.  The first one is from Monchanin, co-founder of Shantivanam with Abhishiktananda, deeply learned in Christian thought and deeply interested in Indian spirituality and monastic expression with Abhishiktananda but who later has a falling out with him precisely over such issues as we are pondering.  Here is Monchanin writing to a friend and criticizing Abhishiktananda:

“It seems to me more and more doubtful that one could recover the essence of Christianity beyond advaita (Shankara’s non-duality).  Advaita, like yoga, and more so than it, is an abyss.  He who immerses himself in it with a feeling that he has lost his balance (vertigo) cannot know what he will find at the bottom.  I fear that it may be himself rather than the living Trinitarian God.”

And here is a quote from Abhishiktananda that illustrates at least in part the problem we face if we want to uphold BOTH traditional Christianity and Advaita:

“Truly speaking, there is no such thing as advaitic prayer.  Advaita is the central teaching of the Upanishads, and no prayer remains possible for him who has realized the truth of the Upanishads.  The equivalent of what is called in monotheistic religions the ‘experience of God’ has here nothing to do with any notion of God whatsoever, for the duality which makes it possible for man to think of himself as standing in front of God has disappeared in the burning encounter with the Real, sat.

And so there was this real anguish that Abhishiktananda wrestled with for over a decade and which really never subsided, due to the “twin loyalties” he now found pulling at him: the new-found and profoundly unexplainable experience of advaita, and his traditional Christian experience of prayer, of sacraments, of theology.  The irreconcilability of these two cannot be overstated–it is a serious problem.  Bede Griffiths, who followed Abhishiktananda at Shantivanam, thought that Abhishiktananda had gone perhaps “too far” in this direction and proposed a kind of modified non-duality, a kind of qualified advaita for Christians.  I am not so sure about this; I feel he is playing some games with some words in order to salvage some aspects of advaita and still maintain a Christian theology and a Christology that is recognizable in terms of Christian tradition.  Personally, I am more with Abhishiktananda and want my advaita straight, no dilutions!  But let us face the problem head on.

There are basically two very different paths, two different visions, two radically different views of that most profound fundamental experience of the Absolute Divine Reality, the Infinite Mystery.  A number of theological and spiritual writers have commented on this situation, but here I will follow mostly the work of an Indian Jesuit, Sebastian Painadath.  I will quote extensively from one of his essays: “The Spiritual Encounter of East and West.”  To be sure, Abhishiktananda knew about this kind of analysis and wrote of it himself–you can find an example of this line of thinking in his collection The Eyes of Light, an essay called, “The Experience of God in the Religions of the Far East,” written in 1973, toward the end of his life.  In any case, we will follow Fr. Painadath first just to have a different voice on this issue.  He begins by basically labeling these two different approaches as “the interpersonal approach” and the “the transpersonal approach” (by using this term I suspect Fr. Painadath is trying to save that western emphasis on the person and not lose it).  He begins with laying out a map of the interpersonal approach:

“In the interpersonal approach the Divine is experienced as a personal God.  As a result an interpersonal relationship between the human person and God evolves; this is a relationship in the pattern of I-Thou.  God, who is I, encounters the human thou in love; the human person, who thus becomes aware of his/her subjectivity, responds to the divine Thou in surrender.  Encounter with the divine Thou is expressed through personalistic symbols like father, mother, lord, king, friend, and bridegroom.  The primary medium of communication between I and thou is the word: when one speaks the other listens.  There is a constant dialectic between revelation and response, between  the demanding word and obedient surrender.  Disobedience to God’s Word and Will is sin.

“The I-Thou relationship between the human person and God finds articulation in doings: God enters the lives of human persons through events which are considered to be salvific events.  Human persons respond to God’s demands through acts of “doing God’s Will.”  Thus the relationship between the human person and God gives rise to a spirituality with ethical overtones and a dominant sin-consciousness.  Justice becomes the central concern of religious existence.  Interpersonal relationship with God creates human communities with a keen spiritual sensitivity to interpersonal human relationships.  Religion thus inevitably promotes social responsibility and creates salvific communities.  Believers feel themselves bound together in a spiritual community in and through which they experience the demanding and saving presence of God.  In the community a history-consciousness evolves, because of the salvific doings of God in the world.  History thus becomes salvation history.  This communitarian and historical understanding of the salvation process is the consequence of an interpersonal relationship between human persons and God.  God’s revelation is understood to be taking place in history and through the community.”

So….you begin to see the ramifications and consequences of this line of thought and this path toward the Divine Reality.  It is of course very much characteristic of the Christian path. And you can see that this is tailor made for a dualistic spirituality.  I mean it is really hard to see it as anything else, though I think some Christian mystics in their experience pushed into the arena of advaita without even being aware of it in those terms.  Folks like the Flemish mystics go way beyond any I-Thou piety of traditional Chrisitianity.

  Abhishiktananda has a slightly different take on this path, and he also lays out its dualistic tendencies but in a more mystical sense;  so let us listen to a small part of his account:

“There is the specifically religious approach called prophetic, also called ‘monotheistic’:  Man lays himself bare before Another, of an All-Other, so completely other that this other defies any definition of otherness that man can ever devise.  The presence of this Other is shattering, it is pure ‘Transcendence.’  He is Yahweh of the Bible, the Allah of the Koran.  I depend totally on him.  It is He who created me, he alone who maintains me in being.  I depend on him totally…he alone can bridge this abyss which my sin has placed between Him and me.  The dependence is total and the distance between us is infinite.  It is on the base of such an experience of God that the revelation received by Abraham is founded, the base of the entire Old Testament.  Only divine love can bridge this distance between man and God……..  At the time of the Gospels, however…there was no longer to be a simple external covenant, a Law…the word of God transmitted through intermediaries.  The Word of Yahweh, who created the world, who spoke through the prophets, itself becomes flesh, man, a member of the chosen people.  This infinite distance, this yawning chasm that stood between man and God is now bridged.  God sends to earth His own Son,…uniting the mystery of God and the mystery of man, at one and the same time, in his theandric nature…….  The whole biblical and Christian tradition of the experience of God leans upon this intuition of the God-Other; of a God who must needs bridge the abyss between Him and us and who,…calls us to Him, permits us to become His own children in His only begotten Son, who invites us to a union with Him in a similar fashion, and thus to participate in the mystery of his intimate life that the Spirit bequeathes to us in his very interiority.”

So here we have a very clear exposition of what you might call the “two-ness” of traditional Christian theology and spirituality, which expresses an authentic experience of the Divine Reality—but is it the only “way”?  No, there is still another path, also expressing an authentic experience of the Divine Reality, and here we will turn again to Fr. Painadath:

“In the transpersonal approach the Divine is experienced as absolute mystery.  No personalistic symbol can truly express the ineffable mystery of the Divine.  Hence the seeker goes beyond all names and forms in search of the God-beyond-God. {Important to note: Fr. Painadath is echoing Eckhart here}  Transpersonal symbols–like ground of being, depth of existence, ineffable silence,…and the ultimate Self of all–may surface in the course of this inner pursuit.  The medium in which one awakens to this awareness of the Mystery is contemplative silence.  In silence one enters into the deeper levels of consciousness and even into the experience of oneness with the Ground of being.  Transparency to the divine reality is the basic dynamic of this apophatic spirituality.  Opaqueness to the Divine Light is sin; it is ignorance: not realizing what one truly is….  Here spirituality assumes cosmic dimension.  When the divine Light within shines forth, one ‘sees the Divine in all things and all things in the Divine.’  This gnosis (jnana) recreates the life of the human individual.  Such an outlook on reality has mystical underpinnings.  A holistic vision of reality is the fruit of enlightenment.  Integration and harmony with all beings becomes the central concern of religious existence.  Alienation of the individual from the totality of reality is considered to be the cause of all suffering; it is the possessive attitude of the mind that causes this alienation.  Spirituality, therefore, means progressive liberation from egoism and insertion into the totality of reality….  Hermitages, spirituality centers, monasteries, and ashrams attract those who seek spiritual integration.”

So it is fairly clear that this approach to the Divine is much more amenable to the experience of Advaita, but it is also clear that this approach is not central in traditional Christianity but rather marginal if not totally absent in many instances.  Now let us listen to Abhishiktananda’s even more radical presentation of this approach and now within the experience of advaita:

“Over against this experience of God-Other, there is the experience that does not even allow for the possibility of recognizing this Other, either by name or by a distinguishing feature.  So crushing was this experience that it brings about the feeling of an emptiness in being.  Here one can recall the words of the Bible: ‘God is a consuming fire, none can behold him and live.’  And here it is not first and foremost a question of the life of the flesh.  What has been consumed by the flame and what has disappeared, as it were, is its thought, its selfhood, its consciousness of being, the ‘I’ that man thinks and pronounces throughout the day.  It is no longer a question of merely saying: ‘Thou art all, my God, I am but naught.’  For as long as this naught, this presumed nothingness still says that he is nothing he still considers himself something by virtue of this very utterance.  No, here there is place for naught else but silence.  Not, however, the silence of someone who would have ceased to speak.  Rather it is pure and absolute silence, as a matter of fact, there is no longer a person to speak…. In this experience man is no longer able to project anyone or anything opposite to himself, or to place in any part of the Real another pole to which he would conform himself and call God.  Having arrived, in effect, at the center of his inmost self, man is seized by the mystery that thenceforth it is beyond his power to pronounce either a Thou or an I.  The mystery has so engulfed him in the depths of his selfhood that it is as though he has vanished from his own sight.”

So…..Abhishiktananda has taken us to the furthest edge of what words can do here, and we are more than ever left with Monchanin’s question:  do we perhaps at the end of this journey meet only our own self and not the Living Triune God?  And what of these two very distinctive paths or approaches within Christianity?  This is an important question because it is only in the second approach that we find the fullest possibility of Advaita.  To repeat myself, no conceptual analysis, philosophical or theological, can solve these problems.  To be sure, a certain kind of integration of the two approaches is needed if one is to follow the path of Christian mysticism and contemplation, and this is what Fr. Painadath proposes:

“These two approaches to the experience of the Divine are not mutually exclusive paths of spirituality; rather, they are the two poles that are dialectically related in the evolution of an integrated spirituality.  The dialectics between the transpersonal and the interpersonal, silence and word, wisdom and love, being and doing, transparency and surrender, contemplation and devotion, harmony and justice is the constitutive dynamics of a liberating spirituality.  In the concrete cultural evolution of spiritual experience in a particular religion, one dimension may eventually dominate the other.  In general, the religions of Semitic origin tend to uphold an interpersonal relationship between the human person/community and God, while the religions of Indian origin move towards a transpersonal experience of the Divine.  Though mystical streams have always been present in Judaism, Christianity and Islam, the dominant powers of theology and authority hold them in check for fear of disruption in the community of believers.  Devotional forms of surrender to the divine Lord and prophetic movements of protest are found in Hinduism and Buddhism; but they have been subordinated to an overarching world view that is evidently cosmic and mystical.  A creative dialogue between these spiritual hemispheres would promote the integration of these dynamic elements of spirituality.”

I like what Fr. Painadath says and I basically agree with him, but I think he is being a bit too sanguine about the possibilities of these two approaches “living together.”  We shall see.  It was very difficult for Abhishiktananda, and we see him toward the end of his life abandoning a lot of traditional theology for a radical reinterpretation of the very foundations of Christianity–if Advaita is to be considered within the Christian sphere.  Maybe that is what is called for, but until some of his other unpublished papers are published we won’t be able to say how far he was willing to go down this road.

One last thing.  It surely seems that the Advaita perspective is badly needed within the Christian perspective if we are to make any sense of the writings and sayings of the many Christian mystics. And I think many ordinary people practicing ordinary piety sometimes slip into this experience and of course they are not able to name it.   But beyond that, a Christian who feels truly at home in Advaita, a true Christian Advaitin will also have the highest respect for and truly engage in all the symbols, devotions, rites and rituals of his community.  It will be an exceptionally rare Advaitin who is called beyond all these into a world of awareness that we cannot describe.  Most of us live in time and history and within a certain loka and a community of faith and these are a part of the Divine Manifestation in our lives.  So the little old lady praying the rosary (like my grandmother)who begins with the ordinary piety of I-Thou but who then becomes immersed  in a Great Silence that becomes One with her and in which she loses her self, well, perhaps this is a good exemplar of what Fr. Painadath is pointing to.