I am taking a break from all my Chinese Zen materials and doing a bit of dabbling in metaphysics and returning to India for a while. The main reason for this is that I want to do a bit of renewed reflection on spiritual nondualism. And India is certainly rich in that tradition. However, we westerners should not forget our own possibilities and our own resources for discovering in the depths of Christianity and Islam a true nondualism. Perhaps some day I will spend some time with that, but here and now I want to touch base with perhaps the greatest, most profound of India’s proponents of nondualism or advaita; and that is Sankara, and I would like to also touch base with two westerners who came to India and found themselves deeply challenged by Sankara and deeply inspired and profoundly influenced both in their spiritual and in their intellectual lives: the Belgian Jesuit Richard De Smet and the English nun Sara Grant.
Metaphysics is not everyone’s cup of tea, quite understandably. In fact, in the spiritual life, it can be quite detrimental if one gets lost in a lot of abstractions that facilitate one’s disconnect from life as lived. Probably most people can go a long way without any explicit metaphysical language; but all human beings have an implicit metaphysics—it is their explanation/understanding of what constitutes reality. The moment you put together subject and predicate in a statement you imply a metaphysics—whether it has to do with some reality or whether it is a delusion can be determined by some kind of inquiry. In any case, metaphysics, rightly understood, can be a help in the religious life in various ways…especially in keeping our religious language from succumbing to superstition, infantile sentiment, simple narrow-mindedness, etc. Nondualism has both a religious/theological component and a philosophical component…if we are going to think about it and talk about it and not just mouth pious formulas that we picked up somewhere. That means an authentic metaphysics will have a real role in examining what we mean by nondualism and its implications for our spiritual journey.
Now if you want the “real thing,” genuine metaphysics, you will have to go to classical and medieval Europe…OR…classical and medieval India! For certain you will not find the “real thing” in modern academic philosophy departments, at least not to any substantial amount. Long ago I had a great classics professor who was an expert in ancient Greek. He told me that every once in a while a young student who was studying Greek with him would ask his advice whether he should transfer to the philosophy department because he/she wanted to think about the meaning of life. He told them that from his perspective that was probably the last place he would go to in order to explore the meaning of life. Same thing for advaita….you will not find the proper tools to explore this deepest of all spiritual treasures in modern philosophy departments, alas.
India had and still has a very rich and complex religious culture. But when you think of metaphysics and theology in the Hindu context, or, better, the sanatana dharma, then one cannot help but first think of Adi Sankara (sometimes spelled differently), the great religious thinker from 9th Century India. Sankara became THE voice of advaita Vedanta, the radically nondualist religious vision of reality. I won’t get into the complexities of his thought and writings here—that calls for a lot more than just a bit of blogging! But I have found several things about him fascinating and intriguing.
- India’s religious culture cannot be reduced to advaita Vedanta, nondualism—Westerners who feel liberated from the dualisms of Western religious thought are prone to see all of India through this optic of advaita. The picture is much more complicated than that. There are some very different schools of thought and practice in India. In fact there are six major religious schools of thought in India, and most of them are dualistic to one extent or another—nondualism is not even the majority position in Indian religious thought but you might think otherwise if you just read Abhishiktananda…he became such a passionate adherent of nondualism that you don’t hear too much about all the other folks! For example, there is the whole religious stream emanating from Ramanuja, an 11th century figure. He is a very important figure for devotional Hinduism, bhakti, and he was the proponent of what became known by scholars as “qualified nondualism.” This was not the austere, pure, absolute nondualism of Sankara; it claimed a real plurality and a true distinction between Atman and Brahman and this left the door open for devotional piety, for giving value to religious rituals and religious sentiments, etc. Ramanuja followed the tradition of the Tamil Alvars, the poet-saints of South India who were the great exponents of bhakti devotionalism, but his exposition was not simple dualism but rather something that tried to hold the values of both lines of thinking and also more accessible to the householder. He believed in devotion to a personal God (Vishnu) which then led to liberation and ultimate union. Sankara was much more intellectual—but not in a modern academic sense and also purely “monastic.” But then there was also dvaita (strict theistic dualism), the philosophy of Madhvacharya. This is a religious sensibility that would be very familiar in the non-mystical Western Christianity…you become devoted to a personal divinity, etc.
- It is interesting to me that not even Abhishiktananda felt comfortable with Sankara. In part, he seemed to be “too intellectual” for Abhishiktananda. This is not an uncommon attitude among people who are deep seekers and of mystical experience. Their fear that what their life is all about is being truncated by the limitations of concepts, words, intellectual manipulations, etc. This is not an illegitimate fear, the problem is truly there; however, if we drop the effort to express what is in the depths, or worse accept any and all formulations, then we will surely succumb to fundamentalism, pettiness, manipulation by our own delusions and feelings, etc. So an honest philosophy and theology is to be welcomed as an aid on our journey. In any case, Sankara is anything but a superficial thinker trapped in his own words and concepts. Furthermore, he relies on his own Scriptures, the Upanishads, and he explicates the profound and mysterious depths he finds there using the tools of a high level rationality. But on top of that he is thoroughly oriented to an existential realization of the Truth, not just verbal formulations. But I think that the main reason that Abhishiktananda found Sankara difficult to swallow is that he accepted or assumed a certain common interpretation of Sankara that later was shown to be mistaken(but still maintained by many both in India and in the west). Even today there is a widely held belief that Sankara’s presentation of Advaita is pessimistic, world-denying…the world we experience as illusory, monistic, devaluing of the human person, etc. Abhishiktananda tended to read Sankara along those lines, reading Sankara along the lines of certain authorities, and that’s why he was not comfortable with Sankara. Bettina Baumer, scholar, friend and adherent of Kashmir Shaivism, later pointed out that Abhishiktananda, without being aware of it, was much closer to the kind of advaita of this path than Sankara’s because it valued the world in its multiplicity more truly and it seemed less intellectual in its presentation.
- India is afflicted with many social and cultural problems, among which are the notorious varnas, the caste system which structures society in an unjust way. While not quite as bad as slavery in the history of the U.S., this ossification of human society into predetermined segments has taken a terrible toll on India’s poor. Also, just like slavery, it has received a large amount of religious rationalization and support. Modern Indian thinkers have often seen a solution to this problem outside their religious tradition—they are especially critical of the monastic-like advaita Vedanta path. Many Indian reformers have been influenced by prophetic westerners, and also by the spirit of modern western liberalism. Some of this has had a salutary effect on India; some of it has deformed the Indian spiritual sensibility very badly. Figures like Gandhi were able somehow to hold both in his heart. As he saw it, India had more than one critique of such religious distortions of the human reality in its own ancient tradition. It’s not much, but it is striking and powerful….especially when you see it among the advaita folk! There is an ancient story from the time of Sankara which reminds you of Gandhi; whether it depicts an actual incident or not, the important thing is that there is this story:
“In Kashi on an occasion while Sankara, accompanied by his disciples, was going towards the Ganga for a holy bath and prayers, he saw a paraiah…coming across his path and shouted to him: ‘Move away! Move away!’ But the paraiah replied: ‘When hundreds of Upanishadic texts speak about the unique, pure, relationless, indivisible One Reality of the nature of Truth, awareness and happiness, your imagining difference is surprising. Some wear dress of recluses and act like them; without any real knowledge they deceive householders. When you shouted ‘Move away,’ were you addressing the body or the self? All bodies are made of food, they are all material, and do not differ from one another. As for the inner witness Self, how is the consideration of its difference in a paraiah and a brahmana appropriate? As there is no difference in the sun’s reflections in the divine Ganga and toddy, so there is none among the One Self’s reflections in various bodies. Neglecting the one perfect, eternal and bodyless Person in all the bodies, why this false apprehension, ‘I am a pure brahman, O Dog-eater, get away’? Surprised and deeply shaken, Sankara immediately recognized the truth of this and replied, ‘O You best among the embodied, you have asserted what is Truth. So because of the words of you who are the knower of the Self, I am at once abandoning the notion ‘this is an outcaste.’ Sankara at once broke forth into five verses each ending with ‘he who has such steadfast insight is my guru, whether he be an outcaste or a brahmana. This is my firm understanding.’”
Now this is a remarkable story, over a 1000 years old! Among various things, it points to the fact that spiritual authority is not based on being part of some group or having some credential—several Desert Father stories along the same lines. But for our purposes here, the main point is that amazingly it manifests the social implications of advaita, nondualism. Sadly, there is very little in the history of India that shows that this lesson was fully understood or accepted. But lets step back a little bit from the obvious implications of this story and glance at the deeper insights it points to.
All of our ordinary daily life is structured along dualistic lines. This is the fact of our normal experience. Whether it be intellectual, biological, psychological, social, religious, material…. The subject-object relationship is the basic paradigm; “I” am the subject and the “other,” whether it is “God,” a friend, a stranger, a loved one, a thing, an animal, a concept, etc., is the “object” out there, apart from me. (Incidentally, in the modern West society is built up on an economic foundation of atomized individuals bound to each other in some contractual form, and the handshake is really a symbolic expression of that situation. Note in India, classically you put your palms together, bow slightly and say “namaste,” and both in China and Japan, classically you would bow to another person—all this suggests some other kind of relationship.) So, the dualistic structure of our everyday experience deeply shapes our sense of our relationship to the Divine Reality. It takes some doing to break out of that conceptual prison!
But if you somehow awaken just a bit from this rigid dualism into some awareness, no matter how dim, of an Absolute Ultimate Reality, no matter what you call it, you begin an incredible journey into nondualism—all dualities then are relativized…they are seen as insubstantial as wisps of cloud…they are seen as both truly “real” and as truly “unreal”—-because that duality itself is now undermined also! The Absolute Ultimate Reality cannot be just another “object” out there among all the other objects for you, the subject, to behold or relate to, not in any ultimate sense anyway.
Think of the Buddhist novice, he/she starts out with an awareness of samsara, this is the stage on which our lives unfold, and which explains that deep suffering which the Buddha diagnosed as the driving engine of most of our problems. The Buddhist begins his journey toward nirvana, his liberation “from samsara.” The problem is that this seems to lock him/her into another dualism: samsara and nirvana. Nirvana seems to become another kind of “object” out there for me to realize, to achieve, etc. But the real Buddhist awakening or enlightenment begins with the realization that samsara = nirvana! Mind-boggling for westerners especially, impossible to intellectually grasp, seems like just word-play, a kind of spiritual sleight-of-hand trick….! But as the Zen people put it, before enlightenment mountains are only mountains, during enlightenment mountains are no longer just mountains, after enlightenment mountains are just mountains again. In nondualism you do not “leave” the world of experience, you simply see it in a radically new way, and you see your identity within that world in a radically new way. As William Blake put it, you will see infinity in a grain of sand, and eternity in a moment.
Now consider the Christian context and the world of sex, the dualism of male and female. Christianity does seem like a very strongly dualistic religion, and on the surface of things it truly is that. It’s mystical tradition, which is not generally taught to people, suggests otherwise. Consider the realm of sex…surely the dualism of male and female seems solid; but sexual expression in the union of male and female has served as a powerful symbolic reenactment of the human divine union, and Christian mystics have drawn heavily on the rhetoric of eros in such writings as the Scriptural Song of Songs to point to a realm of identity that is far beyond such facile dualism—and this is true in a number of other religious traditions.
Now consider conservative traditional Catholic theology and its view of the Mystery of the Incarnation. It puts a heavy emphasis on the maleness of Jesus, and this has serious repercussions in various ways, among which is the exclusive maleness of the priesthood. What many don’t realize is that this is possible mainly because of a deep-seated, thorough and solid dualism of this theology’s vision. The ultra strong dualism of male and female is then superimposed on the maleness of Jesus. Behind all this is of course the untouchable dualism of the human—divine reality in terms of creator—creature. What is downplayed is the language of St. Paul when he asserts there is no longer male or female in Christ…there is only Christ who is all in all. This is all pushed into the eschatological future, a distant reality somewhere out there…another dualism. This theology seems to be ignorant of what many mystics experienced, best expressed by Dostoyevsky’s Fr. Zosima, that “Paradise,” “heaven” starts right here, right now if we have the eyes to see it. Finally, it is interesting to look at the very identity of Christ through this lens. He is in traditional doctrine both fully human and fully divine. Teachings that were presenting a dualistic Christ as it were, as if these two natures were two separate entities put in “one container,” were considered heretical. The traditional doctrine says that, yes, there are two “natures” in Christ, but there is only one person, not two persons. The personhood of Christ suggests a profound nondualism that cannot be rationally explicated. It only remains to say that once we say that we are “in Christ,” and Christ is “in us,” what we have is the beginning of a truly Christian nondualism.
Well, we have gotten far off track, but I just wanted to ponder some of the issues, implications, and consequences once we discover advaita!
Now to turn to the next person “from India”: Richard De Smet, the Belgian Jesuit. At age 16 in Belgium the young De Smet reads his first article on advaita. He is captivated by this reality, almost totally unknown in popular western Christianity. He was fortunate to have a good Jesuit teacher who shared his interest in Indian spirituality. At 18 De Smet joined the Jesuits and after finishing his initial studies he got to go to India, to Calcutta specifically because the Belgium Jesuits were assigned that area of India as their “mission territory.” He studied Sankara and was deeply impressed by this great Indian teacher. One day he heard a lecture on Sankara by the renowned Hindu scholar Radhakrishnan. In this lecture Sankara was portrayed as a purely rational philosopher, while De Smet’s intuitive sense of Sankara was very different. De Smet decided to investigate Sankara thoroughly for his Ph.D. dissertation, and it proved to be a real groundbreaker. Through the years, the ‘50s, ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s De Smet lived in India and became a top Sankara scholar, so much so that even many Indians regarded him as THE expert on Sankara.
De Smet’s reinterpretation of Sankara was enormous in scope and implication. He showed how Sankara was more a spiritual theologian than a rational philosopher, yet without diminishing the metaphysical depth of his thought. He showed how Sankara primarily depended on the Hindu scriptures, the Upanishads, that his thought was no more than an in depth exploration of the advaita doctrine in the Upanishads. According to De Smet, Sankara starts from spiritual experience and all his explications are meant to lead to ever deeper spiritual realizations. In all this De Smet can’t help but compare Sankara to Thomas Aquinas. The two are surprisingly close in their methodology and much closer than ever suspected in their substance. Furthermore, De Smet explored in great depth the notion of personhood in Christian thought and in Sankara’s advaita. It had been thought that these were totally irreconcilable until De Smet showed the matter was far from clear and that the notion of person in Aquinas, for example, was quite coherent with Sankara or at least there could be a real dialogue between the two traditions. Finally, De Smet rescued Sankara’s view of the world and the notion of maya from very negative interpretations—the world of our experience is not simply illusory.
A final thought here: De Smet and Abhishiktananda lived in India and had their best years at about the same time. However they seem not to have really connected. For his part, De Smet truly admired both the writings of Abhishiktananda and the person. They were very different people with very different backgrounds, and it does seem that Abhishiktananda resisted getting to know De Smet more. They were both present for several of the interreligious gatherings that Jacques Cuttat had put together to create an atmosphere of interreligious dialogue even before the impact of Vatican II had unfolded. But it turns out that Abhishiktananda did not want De Smet at the first meeting because he thought this would make it into too much an intellectual, conceptual dialogue. To the other meetings De Smet was invited. He also was acquainted with Bede Griffiths and was invited to give talks at the Shantivanam Ashram. But most interestingly, De Smet was highly regarded as an expert on Sankara by many spiritual Hindus. On one occasion he was invited to give a series of talks on Sankara and advaita at the famous and historic ashram in Rishikesh, Sivananda Ashram. There were gathered many Hindu spiritual figures and leaders and De Smet was warmly accepted.
Another figure “from India” that I want to I want to touch base with is a student of De Smet’s, the Catholic nun and theologian Sara Grant. She is another one of those Europeans who was drawn to India out of spiritual need. She became a nun at age 19, went to Oxford studying classics and philosophy, and at age 44 came to India to teach philosophy at a Catholic college. She also found her spiritual home in advaita and did a doctoral dissertation under De Smet on Sankara. She made her home in India and engaged in academic work and in ashram living. Being a student of De Smet’s she promoted the new interpretation of Sankara which was generally well-received by Hindu followers of advaita, as for example when she lectured on several occasions at the famous Sivananda Ashram in Rishikesh. She was good friends with Abhishiktananda and described herself as a “non-dualist Christian.” Here is an interesting quote from her in an essay that was written as a tribute to De Smet:
“Anyone familiar with the thought of Aquinas…may be tempted to ask at this point if the challenge of advaita cannot simply be reduced for Christians to an exhortation to return to the study of St. Thomas with a greater alertness to the non-dual and apophatic dimensions of his theology. From my own personal experience, I do not think so. I have found and still find, that the advaita of the Upanisads and of Sankara challenges my Christian ‘faith seeking understanding’ in at least three ways….
- By its uncompromising insistence on and spelling out in detail of the demands the theological quest makes on a human being: one cannot ‘do’ theology as one may ‘do’ mathematics or history or any other branch…. Unless our lifestyle and value systems are in harmony with the Truth we are pursuing, we cannot hope for real enlightenment.
- By the starkly apophatic character of the Upanisadic teaching regarding the supreme Reality, a dimension which has been heavily overlaid in Christian tradition in recent centuries and yet appeals so strongly to people today, starved of transcendence and mystery. The keen sense of this transcendence and the relative non-being of all created things which the so-called ‘advaitin experience’ opens up can shatter our comfortable self-assurance…. We badly need a reminder that, as Paul well knew, ‘eye has not seen, nor ear heard, neither has it entered upon the heart of man,’ what God has in preparation for us. A firm and trusting admission of a healthy agnosticism might go far to stem the tide of disillusionment created by taking for granted as sufficient for people today the myths and symbols which satisfied older and less sophisticated generations than our own, who moreover recognized them for what they were—myths and symbols which had to be accepted in simplicity to reveal the hidden treasure they enshrined.
- By the Copernican revolution which would be brought about in our theological expression of our faith if we adopted as basis ‘God’ as the immanent yet transcendent Self instead of the ‘God up there’ or ‘out there’ of traditional imagery to whom modern humans find it increasingly difficult to relate…. Formulations of faith which we can recognize as perfectly valid in terms of the universe of discourse of the generation or culture in which they evolved frequently do not speak to a later age or different culture, and may even be blocks to the communication of the living message of the Gospel. I think, and I speak from a fairly considerable experience, that the non-dual tradition of Hinduism can provide us with a universally effective means of transcending the cultural and religious barriers that divide us without destroying the rich treasure of our diversities…. The Gospel radically lived leads straight to advaita, or, from the other angle, that the perfect practical handbook for living out the Gospel is advaita.”