Cambridge, MA. It is the start of the new semester at Harvard, and these weeks are more than ordinarily busy — even as the relative quiet of the weeks between semesters and our 60+ inches of snow makes hibernation seem a better idea than robust activity. Classes have begun, and I am team-teaching a challenging course on the “Theories and Methods in the Study of Religion — as Relevant to Students in Preparation for Ministry;” we are reading admissions files for the graduate programs; the Center for the Study of World Religions is beginning its full program of events for the semester; the lectures I need to prepare and things to write form a mass that never really diminishes. It is all too much, but luckily I enjoy almost all of it.
But what I want to write about beginning today is the Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel according to Matthew, which we begin hearing at Mass on January 30, the Fourth Sunday of the year, and will continue hearing through the first Sunday in March, just before Lent begins. The Sermon is of course a prime teaching worthy of our meditation at the start of our (ever new) encounter with Christ, as Matthew intended. It is also a Gospel text that has gained great favor among Hindu readers. Mahatma Gandhi said of it, “Christ’s Sermon on the Mount fills me with bliss even today. Its sweet verses have even today the power to quench my agony of soul.” He also believed that Indians could delve very deeply into its meaning: “The Sermon on the Mount left a deep impression on my mind when I read it. I do believe with you that the real meaning of the teachings of Jesus will be delivered from India.” As you know, I agree, to the extent that we can always learn our own faith more deeply by learning what people of other faiths have to say about our texts and traditions.
Although Gandhi never wrote a commentary on the Sermon, one Hindu Swami did — Swami Prabhavananda (1893-1976), longtime head of the Ramakrishna Vedanta Society of Southern California, published in 1964 a small book entitled, The Sermon on the Mount according to Vedanta, the fruits of his actual preaching on the Sermon. On and off in the next weeks, I will introduce some of his insights, beginning with the reading we have for Sunday, Matthew 5.1-11, the eight Beatitudes. (When possible, I may also draw on what other Hindu teachers, such as Paramahamsa Yogananda, have said about the Sermon.)
Prabhavananda prefaces his teaching with two interesting insights. First, he indicates that like other great teachers, Jesus offered a more demanding and esoteric teaching to his serious disciples, and a more common, simpler teaching to the crowds. Surprisingly, he counts the Sermon as the advanced teaching of the inner way, for disciples and those who ready to advance spiritually; it is too hard for many people. Second, in keeping with Hindu instincts about the spiritual path, he seems to be reading the Beatitudes as a kind of spiritual ladder, so that one needs to advance upwards through all eight beatitudes. This is rather different from the view that each beatitude is for a different kind of persons, or all of them, in whatever order, for all of us all at once. Let us follow his teaching (as I read it).
Thus, being “poor in spirit” (#1) is the necessary starting point, since unless we are humble, we cannot learn, and nothing else can follow. Similarly, being one of those who mourn (#2) indicates a necessary detachment from this world, a deep sense of lack that can only be filled with God.
Meekness (#3), by Prabhavananda’s reading, is an abandonment of ego: “It is to live in self-surrender to God, free from the sense of ‘me’ and ‘mine.’” We are God’s servants, entirely dependent — yet once we thus renounce ego and possessions, “we find that in the truest sense everything belongs to us after all.” So too, “hunger and thirst for righteousness” (#4) must be understood in its Biblical context, as a hunger and thirst for absolute righteousness — for God alone. He refers to a familiar story, wherein the teacher shows the disciple in a simple way what it means really to desire God: when they are wading in a lake, the teacher suddenly holds the disciple’s head under water until he is gasping for air; letting go, he explains: “When you feel that intensely for God, you won’t have to wait long for his vision.”
In turn, mercy (#5) is the fruit of this desire for and attachment to God, a kind of yogic radiance of inner calm, by which one is now able to feel and share the joys and sorrows of those around us, as ours too. Prabhavananda develops “purity of heart” (#6) at greater length, for he sees this as the ongoing process of purification that enables us to receive God’s revelation to us. He notices that it is very hard to think of God, since we instinctively think of everything but God. The purification then is a matter of calm the mind and simplifying it, that it may attend to God alone.
Being a peacemaker (#7) is another fruit of increasing union with God. Admitting that he himself had always gained peace simply by the presence of a holy teacher, Prabhavananda quotes a classic scripture, the Bhagavata Purana: “He in whose heart God has become manifest brings peace, and cheer, and delight wherever he goes.” Perhaps Prabhavananda is a little puzzled as to why last of all we have the blessing on those who are persecuted and reviled (#8), but for him this too is a test of and fruit of turning ever more intensely to God. People to whom God is not central cannot understand the person focused on God — and therefore lash out at her. Prabhavananda insists though that here too a kind of peacemaking is at stake: this advanced soul does not respond angrily to those who persecute and revile, but only with mercy and compassion.
Should you hear the Beatitudes in Church this Sunday, think of Prabhavananda’s approach, and hear the text holistically, as one message, charting a single path: all eight beatitudes apply to all of us. Underlying his reading, of course, is a universalist view: this teaching, at the heart of Christianity, is for everyone, a gift leading all on the path to God. The Sermon is not a text by which God speaks only to Christians. See what you think; it depends on how you read all of Matthew. Don’t depend on my summation, of course, which is brief and quickly done. You can purchase the Swami's book rather easily or find it in a library; much of it at least is available on Google Books.
I will continue in future weeks with more of what Swami Prabhavananda has to say. Please add your comments, including other interreligious insights into the Beatitudes.