The Languages of Religion

Recently I came upon this incredible quote by Abhishiktananda–it was in his diary: “The ashram they want me to set up would be an ashram based on Christian namarupas. I am no longer capable of that. No more could I establish an ashram using Hindu namarupas. I can only agree to have with me one who is ready to go beyond all namarupas.”

This entry in his diary is from 1972, toward the end of his life. The implications of this seemingly simple statement are truly revolutionary, and I am not sure that there are many who would follow him in this. Let us step back a bit and take a look at the meaning of such a statement.

Religion is composed of these different languages. Each of the great world religions is a language in itself with its own grammar, syntax, vocabulary, colloquialisms, and codes of interpretation. A whole semantic field of meaning and signifiers is established by each language. Now by “language” here we mean not only the words, concepts and teachings of each religion, but also the prayers and rituals, the art and symbolism, the authority structures, the spiritual methods, the special (“holy”) places, etc., etc. All of these render the various forms of each religion. These are the namarupa, in Abhishiktananda’s terms, of each religion. Now maybe you begin to sense the radical and revolutionary nature of that little statement of his. The namarupas are not merely the “externals” of a religion. They are its doctrines, its practices, its claims, its core rituals, its “face” in the public square.

Most of us live within one of these particular languages. There is the Christian language, the Buddhist language, the Islamic language, and the Hindu language(I am not leaving out the Sikhs or the Jews or Native American religions, etc., but I just want to consider the major religions and everything I say there would also be applicable to all the other smaller religions. ) Now there are real and serious differences among these languages–I mean, by analogy, think of the difference between Chinese and English. And whether one is born into a language or whether one comes in as a convert so to speak, there is a real effort and a learning process to undergo if one wants to become “fluent” in that language and able to appreciate its more subtle nuances. One can also say that within each religious language there are also different dialects so to speak. There are different versions of Christianity and different versions of all the other great religions.

Now let us return to the Abhishiktananda quote. You sense a certain frustration and exasperation in this statement–as was also evidenced often in the last years of his life. There are some very important reasons for this exasperation. First of all, from his viewpoint all the great religions, at their clearest and at their best, point to an Absolute Reality that is beyond all languages, all namarupas, to the Beyond beyond all the beyonds…the Further Shore…and each religion is merely a vehicle to get there in one way or another. In Christianity even the Church is such a vehicle from this viewpoint. Now it is not at all easy or clear to see this claim as being true in any of the great religions. Each religion, each language, has in its own way a tendency to ensconce the participant within the horizon of its own language. Each language has its own specific way it leads the person to cling to the namarupa of that language. The “Beyond” becomes only a faintly hinted at possibility in the writings of the mystics of that religion and certainly not something that your everyday religionist ponders. For Abhishiktananda, due to his own deep and mystical “experience” of the “Beyond,” this was a source of frustration because for him this was not meant as something only for some rare birds but the spiritual patrimony of all human beings.


Let us now consider the language which is called Christianity, which at times was the most acute source of exasperation for Abhishiktananda. Recall what he was like when he first came to India: he was eager to bring the Gospel to India and the Christian monastic life, but to inculturate both thoroughly in Indian culture(You know, dress like an Indian, eat like an Indian, live like an Indian, use Indian cultural forms in worship, etc.). In some ways Abhishiktananda was ahead of things; in other ways he was quite traditional. Basically he was going to translate the namarupa of Christianity into Indian culture; later, after a deepening of experience in Hinduism, especially the advaita of the Upanishads, he begins to move toward a position of trying to translate the namarupa of Chrisitianity not only into Indian cultural forms but into the very heart of Indian religiosity, or at least the Upanishadic variant of it. By the mid ‘60s he gave up on that project altogether as a result of an ongoing religious crisis due to his discovery and experience of the Upanishadic vision (and Ramana Maharshi) and how it stands on its own and in some ways superior to anything that the Christian language ostensibly presents; and all this can be summed up in one word: advaita, nonduality. In the last years of his life he practically turns the tables on the whole missionary thrust of Christianity: it is Christianity itself which needs this Upanishadic vision in order to open up its deepest meaning. At this point he is moving between these two languages in a way that transcends their namarupa, and he no longer has any patience with an exclusive commitment to any namarupa.

Needless to say the average Indian Christian did not follow him on that path, and that is so true even today–as converts, even if from generations ago, they have embraced the namarupa of Chrisitianity, perhaps at great cost to themselves, and they are not about to relativize what they see as an absolute reality.  And of course a lot of Christian/Catholic theologians would not want to go that far either, and certainly the institutional Church would only allow a certain “Indianization” of piety and religious culture. And of course the Church sees its fundamental namarupa, its doctrines, as definitive, non-negotiable, and privileged statements, even though they are put in Semitic-Hellenistic terms. Abhishiktananda wanted to translate this language into the Upanishadic/Sanskrit language of advaita. Not a promising prospect! As I pointed out in a posting long time ago, the Christian language is interpersonal and relational while the Upanishadic is of being and nondualism. The two seem to travel on parallel tracks.

Now there is another problem for Abhishiktananda–his “Beyond” might be a bit too beyond for the comfort of Church folk and theologians. In Christianity, yes, there is that sense of being called beyond but this “beyond” is still somehow, more or less, demarcated by the namarupa of Christianity. So Jesus takes us to the Father, etc., etc. With very few exceptions among Christian mystics like Pseudo-Dionysius and Eckhart, most of Catholic Chrisitianity (and the other Christian dialects) stay within their namarupa, their language, precisely because it is considered as privileged because “chosen” by God. So, the argument goes, if God wanted to reveal Himself in Indian/Sanskrit terms, he would have chosen India for the Incarnation, but there is a reason why this Semitic language was chosen and then the Greek. This is the kind of reasoning that drove Abhishiktananda up the wall. There is, then, this interesting example of Thomas Aquinas, a giant in Catholic theology and Western intellectual history. Recall how at the end of his life Thomas has this mystical experience of the Reality of God–right in the middle of celebrating the Eucharist, in the middle of Mass; and he is so shook up that he calls all his theological and spiritual writing “dung” (a euphemism as I once pointed out). Thomas has gone “beyond,” so beyond that he can’t even celebrate the Eucharist the last few months of his life. Church folk who believe that you can never take leave of the namarupa simply say that Thomas suffered from a mental breakdown. Of course.

At this point it is important to point out that neither Abhishiktananda nor anything said here is an invitation to play havoc with the namarupa of one’s religion or that one can abandon this or that namarupa willy-nilly. This is the kind of thing that liberal Christianity is prone to–just pick and choose among doctrines and beliefs, change rituals to suit personal whims, etc., etc. This is the old changing-the-furniture-on-the-Titanic picture–they miss the significance of the whole structure. Liberal Christianity does not refer to a Beyond but merely to a redo of the namarupa; and it does not ground itself in a Transcendent experience of Absolute Reality. In some ways it fixes one even more solidly within the language of one’s religion because it gives the feeling that it’s all so malleable. A more traditional approach says, ok, this is what it is but it calls me beyond everything. And what conservative Catholics call “cafeteria Catholicism”–picking and choosing the namarupa– is NOT what Abhishiktananda is about. Incidentally, this points to another large problem: the renewal and revitalization of a religion’s namarupa. When that originates without deep inner experience as the ground, then the changes tend to yield superficial results. Compare modern Catholic liturgy with the old Latin Mass (which Merton always preferred!); or Gregorian chant with the new stuff. Gregorian chant came from a very deep place, but unfortunately when it’s presented as a show piece these days, or as an ideological badge, well, it just shows the incredible shallowness of our ecclesial experience.

Now recall a couple of famous Zen sayings: before enlightenment mountains are only mountains, during enlightenment mountains are no longer only mountains, after enlightenment, mountains are once more only mountains. And: before enlightenment, chop wood and wash dishes; after enlightenment, chop wood and washes dishes. This is a very healthy insight from the Zen tradition. Whatever be the experience of “going Beyond,” one comes back and lives within the namarupa of one’s daily language. Truly you will be seeing it in a new and unspeakably deeper way, but the fact is that the deepest expression of any religious language will be concealed by its “ordinariness,” how it seems NOT different from the casual practitioner’s language. When you have real knowledge of the Absolute Reality, you will be at home within the namarupa of one’s religious language. For a few, however, there is a real vocation to “transgress” the bounds of their language.

Now it is worthwhile to remember three of Abhishiktananda’s predecessors who also had to wrestle with religious namarupa: Ricci in China, de Nobili in India, Desidiri in Tibet. These three great Jesuits, who lived in the 17th and 18th centuries, were inflamed with this apostolic zeal to bring Christ to the enormous religious and cultural structures of Asia. When they got there they found themselves in an enterprise that was much more complex and more profound than any simple missionary effort to “bring good news” to a “lost people.” They were opening a door that Abhishiktananda walked through! In some ways they sound very conventional and traditional to our perspective; in many other ways they were and are way ahead of where the Church was and is. All three, each in his own way, discovered that they were encountering something that was solid, real, profound and not at all explainable in Semitic, Hellenistic, or modern Western terms. They were faced with the beginnings of a realization that they were not so much “bringing God” to these people but the first glimmers that they were finding God within these cultures. The institutional Church ultimately did not approve of their approach and their vision because it diverged from the theological party line. These men were giants of their time and someday I need to spend more time examining the work of each.

But here let’s just briefly consider this phenomenon when two very different languages “collide.” Take a poem in ancient Chinese, for example, and your language is English. Certainly you can take the words of the Chinese poem and translate them into English if you have developed enough fluency in Chinese to do so. You will have a certain verbal equivalence if you are any good, but will you have THE poem? Most would say, no. Translating the words is not enough; there is the subtle nuances of language, the shades of meaning that the equivalent words in the new language might not at all be capable of conveying. Think of just moving between two modern Western languages like English and German, like translating the poetry of Rilke into English. It has been done and rather well, but it’s not easy. Now with ancient Chinese it is a lot more difficult. It helps if the translator has something of the depth of experience that the poet had and the translator is able to connect to that experience.

So by analogy this applies also to the case of two languages of religion encountering each other. The namarupa of one language is not equivalent to the namarupa of another language, and to translate the namarupa of one language into terms of another language may very well be impossible. As long as we stay on the level of concepts, doctrines and ideas that each religious language carries, we will simply end up talking to each other about these things (and that’s certainly a good thing to do), and be nice to each other and share our religious paths, etc., but it won’t be until we look at both sets of namarupa from the profundity of deep experience that is way beyond any words or concepts–and here many scholars and theologians will disagree because words are their livelihood– that we will begin to sense what is and isn’t common in the Beyond that each is pointing to.

With all of the above in mind, I will conclude by offering you a Tibetan song, a Tibetan namarupa if you will, one I heard Tibetan nuns singing. It was composed by a great 19th century lama who was an amazing patron and supporter of Tibetan nuns. I found this English translation of it very moving and illuminating. Translated by a modern Tibetan lama, I have hopes that it conveys the original as well as it can. See if it has any message for you. Does the namarupa of this song hint at a “Beyond” that resonates with you? (Ps. “Mara” is the “demonic” figure that tried to tempt Buddha the night of his enlightenment.)


A Vajra Song of Tsoknyi Rinpoche I

Don’t wander, don’t wander, place mindfulness on guard:

Along the road of distraction, Mara lies in ambush.

Mara is the mind, clinging to like and dislike;

So look into the essence of this magic,

Free from dualistic fixation.

Realize that your mind is unfabricated primordial purity.

There is no buddha elsewhere; look at your own face.

There is nothing else to search for; rest in your own place.

Non-meditation is spontaneous perfection, so capture

The royal seat.