Issue 42, December 2003
A Strife from India to ‘think together’ on Jesus
K. P. Aleaz
My ‘thinking together’ as an Indian Christian has mainly been in the company of Advaita Vedantins and advaitic experience in terms of a perspective in theology of religions I have called Pluralistic Inclusivism. It is an approach, which is totally open to receive insights from other religious experiences and theologies. The suggestion is to go beyond a comparative approach to an inter-relational approach as religious traditions are not static finished products, but dynamic inter-related experiences of growth. Pluralistic Inclusivism stands for dialogical theologies that encourage the relational convergence of religions, conceiving on the one hand the diverse religious resources of the world as the common property of humanity and on the other a possible growth in the richness of each of the religious experiences through mutual inter-relation. Pluralistic Inclusivism as related to Christian thought is an attempt to make Christian faith pluralistically inclusive, i.e. the content of the revelation of God in Jesus is to become truly pluralistic by other faiths contributing to it as per the requirement of different places and times. It is through such pluralistic understanding of the gospel that its true inclusivism is to shine forth. Here pluralism transforms itself to focus on its center, which is God as God in the universally conceived Jesus. Inclusivism transforms itself to bear witness to the fulfillment of the Christian understanding of Christ in and through theological contributions from people of other faiths. The basic affirmation here is that there is a possibility of the fulfillment of the theological and spiritual contents of one’s own faith in and through the contributions of other living faiths.
For an Indian Christian, and perhaps for all Christians, there is a possibility of the fulfillment of the theological and spiritual contents of his/her faith in and through the contributions of Advaitic experience. Advaitic experience becomes a major hermeneutical (under-standing and interpretation) context of India. The gospel is always in the process of formulation in terms of one’s hermeneutical context. There is always the emergence of the new. We cannot accept some timeless interpretation from somewhere and make it applicable to our context. Understanding and interpretation belongs exclusively to us and to our context, and there is the possibility for the emergence of new meanings in the process of this. Knowledge of anything is an immediate existential knowledge formulated in the very knowing-process.
In our knowing-process there exists nothing externally ready made that can be adapted, indigenised, incultured or contextualised. Adaptation, Indigenisation, Inculturation or Contextualisation of the gospel is an unreality; what really happens is the opposite, i.e. gospelisation of the hermeneutical context or experiencing the emerging gospel from within a hermeneutical context.
Advaitic experience presents an ideal integral God-world-human relationship. God as our and the rest of creation’s Innermost Reality (Atman) is simultaneously the Supreme Reality (Brahman). According to Sankara, an important exponent of Advaita, creation, which includes humans, is the effect, name and form, and extrinsic denominator of Brahman-Atman. The Atman pervades, illumines and unifies the whole world, the whole of history and the entire human personality. The reality of humans and the world is totally derived from the Supreme Atman. In Advaita, the between Brahman-Atman and creation, which includes individual beings is total, and it is this relation, which gives meaning to human life and fulfillment to creation. Such an Advaitic experience is a hermeneutical context of an Indian Christian experience. There is a possibility of the fulfillment of the theological and spiritual contents of the Christian faith in and through the contributions of such a school of thought of Hinduism as Advaita Vedanta.
It is my contention that an interpretation of the person and function of Jesus is possible from within Advaita Vedanta that enriches Christian experience and I have attempted an elaborate discussion on this. The significance of Jesus lies in his denial of any significance for himself through complete self-sacrifice and Advaita Vedanta provides a theological basis for this self-sacrifice of Jesus and thus explains his meaning for us: It is Being Himself/Herself who is perceived in a form other than His/Her own. We should not make any assumption of anything other than Being at any time or place. For those who know the real character of the rope and clay, the name and idea of serpent and jar, cease and in the same manner for those who know the real character of Being, the name and idea of Jesus cease. The total sacrifice of Jesus is the total affirmation of Being. We have to sacrifice ourselves as Jesus did to discover our reality as Being. Our interpretation of Jesus as the extrinsic denominator (upadhi), name and form (namarupa) and effect (karya) of Brahman affirms this relation of total dependence on the part of Jesus upon Brahman.
In Advaita Vedanta Creation, which includes individual beings, is considered as the extrinsic denominator (upadhi) of Brahman. Jesus in his person is able to identify the Supreme Being through the denial of his own person, which is the extrinsic denominator of Brahman. Brahman as related to the names and forms of the bodies, which form Brahman’s extrinsic denominator, are the jives (living beings) and it is this jiva-Brahman relation that is explained by Sankara through the comparison pot-space (ghatakasah) and Cosmic Space (mahakasah) and the reflections (abhasah) of sun or moon or human person. This relation is applicable to Jesus as well. Jesus is the reflection of Brahman. If Brahman is the total space Jesus is the space inside a pot.
In Advaita Creation is again understood as the name and form (namarupa) of Brahman. Therefore Jesus can also be conceived as the name and form of Brahman. Brahman’s becoming Jesus does not mean becoming something extraneous to His/Her own essence as one does by begetting a son. Jesus is only the manifestation of name and form that is latent in the Atman into all the states by retaining its own nature as the Atman and remaining indistinguishable from Brahman in time and space. The symbol ‘son’ cannot express the depth of the relation between Jesus and Brahman/Atman; name and form would be a better symbol and India suggests this through Sankara’s Advaita Vedanta.
As creation is the effect (karya) of Brahman, Jesus also can be conceived as the effect of Brahman. Despite the non-otherness (ananyatva) between Brahman and Jesus, Brahman, the Cause, as cause is ontologically superior and anterior to Jesus, the effect as effect. Jesus is non-other than Brahman as his internal reality-providing Cause, whereas, Jesus is not non-other than Brahman as his efficient Cause. The relation between Jesus and Brahman is tadatmya i.e., non-reciprocal dependence relation: Jesus, the name and form in all his states has his Atman in Brahman alone, but Brahman does not have Jesus as Brahman’s Atman. The entire body of effects including Jesus has no existence apart from Brahman. Brahman as Cause is the root, support, repository, upholder, controller and director of Jesus, the effect.
An understanding of the function of Jesus as emerging from Advaita Vedanta goes beyond the atonement theories through which the Christian church has tried to understand it. The alternative understanding of the function of Jesus is that he re-presents the all-pervasive, illuminative and unifying power of the Supreme Atman; he re-presents to us the Supreme Brahman who is Pure Consciousness as the Witness and Atman of all; and thus he re-presents to us the eternally present human liberation.
The function of Jesus is to show us the Supreme Brahman who is Pure Consciousness as the Witness and Atman of all; Jesus bears witness that Consciousness is Brahman’s own form; that the Atman should be realised in one form only, i.e., as homogenous Pure Consciousness. The life of Jesus tells us that unless there be some principle running through everything and abiding through all periods of time or some unchanging witness of all, there can be no human dealing involving remembrance, recognition etc. and that principle is the Atman who is Brahman.
Jesus proclaims the gospel that the Supreme Atman pervades everything, everywhere, for all times; being all-pervasive like space, Brahman can very well dwell inside everything. The implantation of the Atman in the five sheaths of human person namely physical, vital, mental, intelligent and blissful as well as innermost to all of them, we can identify from the life and work of Jesus. The Atman as witness pervades the sight, hearing, thought and knowledge of Jesus and us. The elements related to Jesus and us perform their activity through the pervasive presence of Brahman-Atman. Jesus points to the fact that the effect is pervaded and held together by its cause and the Supreme Cause, Brahman-Atman pervades and holds together everything, though at the same time totally different from all His/Her effects.
The life and work of Jesus also proclaims that as an emerald or any other gem dropped for testing into milk etc. imparts its luster to them, the luminous Atman unifies and integrates the intellect and all other organs within the human body and imparts His/Her luster to them. The jivatman of the human representative Jesus is the reflection of the Supreme Atman in his body, senses, vital force, mind, intellect and ego.
The Atman unifies all and everything in Him/Her as His/Her homogeneous essence. Jesus stands out in history proclaiming the gospel that the Atman is the common referent of the universe, its origin and its end; all things are unified in Brahman because the varieties of genus and particulars are not different from Him/Her. Jesus is the visible manifestation of the Atman’s identification with everything; he reminds us that the Atman cannot be taken apart from anything else. The life and work of Jesus proclaims the unification of the elements, organs, objects, mind, intellect and vital force in the Atman.
The life and work of Jesus re-presents the eternally present human liberation as well. It is the witness of Jesus that liberation is an ever-attained fact. Liberation is the cessation of bondage and not the production of any fresh result; it is simultaneous with the rise of complete illumination; it is a matter of immediate direct result, the result of knowledge being a matter of direct experience. Liberation as we experience in Jesus is the removal of ignorance and the affirmation of one’s own real nature, which is the Atman who is beyond acceptance and rejection. The life of Jesus affirms that the knowledge of the innermost Atman becomes possible for the whole humanity when the ego vanishes; when the identification of other things as Atman is destroyed, the experience of the Atman as one’s own Atman which is natural alone will remain. A life centered on our innermost Reality Atman, consequently, is the liberated life as proclaimed by Jesus.
Thinking together with Advaita Vedanta can thus give birth to a novel understanding and experience of the person and function of Jesus. This thinking together need not be limited to a Christology alone. It can continue in other areas such as epistemology. It can continue for a convergence of Advaita Vedanta and Eastern Christian thought.
The Revd Dr K. P. Aleaz is Professor of Religions at Bishop’s College and North India Institute of Post-Graduate Theological Studies, Kolkata, India.
Back to list of contents