A Hindu Response to "Swami on the Sermon"

Cambridge, MA. Readers may remember that in the season between Epiphany and Lent, I offered a series of seven reflections on Swami Prabhavananda’s Vedanta Hindu commentary on the Sermon on the Mount, our Gospel text at Sunday Mass. I did so because his comments are insightful and spiritual, and because I wanted to exemplify a deeper and longer-term interreligious exchange, such as would also contribute immediately to what we would be hearing and reflecting on in the Christian context each Sunday. But of course, another side indeed of such interreligious learning is to hear from Hindu practitioners themselves, and for this purpose I am delighted to be able to post here an elegant and personal reflection by Pravrajika Vrajaprana, a Hindu nun in the Vedanta tradition who was a disciple of Swami Prabhavananda. She and I welcome further comments from readers. FXC

Pravrajika Vrajaprana writes:

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Santa Barbara, CA. As a disciple of Swami Prabhavananda and a Vedanta nun for over 30 years, it has been with great interest that I have read Francis X. Clooney’s “Swami and the Sermon” and the readers’ responses to it. Like Swami Prabhavananda, I, too, have found my life profoundly enriched by the life and teachings of Jesus, and like Father Clooney, I have found genuine insights into my own tradition by learning from a religious tradition different from my own.

Swami Prabhavananda took the teachings of Jesus seriously and he had a particular love for the Sermon on the Mount. In fact, it was through him (and his predecessor, Swami Vivekananda) that I learned to love and deeply appreciate Jesus and his teachings, finding (to my young astonishment) much more relevance there than I had expected.

I was a young, disaffected teenager in the 1960s, who—like many others during those times—was ready to throw the baby out with the bathwater when it came to religion. To my hypercritical and cynical eye, American Christianity reeked of hypocrisy—there was all too much interest in a dissociative “Sunday religion” or, alternately, in feverish social action, yet little was offered to salve a disheartened but yearning soul. Like all too many others, I was ready to dismiss Christianity as a spiritual dead end.

It was then, at the ripe age of fifteen, that I encountered Swami Prabhavananda and his Sermon on the Mount according to Vedanta. I read the book and saw how puerile and spiritually indefensible my easy dismissals were. The book was published out of a series of lectures that Prabhavananda gave on the Sermon, and he chose the topic because of his love for it and because he found in the Sermon a potent source for spiritual transformation. Taken seriously, and Swami did take them seriously, following the precepts of the Sermon would lead a spiritual seeker to the highest spiritual realization.

According to the Vedanta tradition, the goal of life is to have the direct experience of God. Not to “believe” in God, not to subscribe to any creed, but to have the direct experience of God. As Swami Prabhavananda saw it, the central theme coursing through the entire Sermon was that very assertion and he saw in the Sermon a blueprint to achieve that goal: “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.” To Swami’s mind this translated as: “Seek perfection! Realize God!”

In reading the readers’ comments on “Swami and the Sermon,” there has been some lively discussion concerning Prabhavananda’s assertion that the Sermon was an advanced teaching, directed to Jesus’ most serious and committed followers. The teachings are too hard for many, perhaps for most people, to practice. This has led at least one reader to suggest: "I believe it is a serious misreading of the Sermon on the Mount as if it is not for the ordinary Christian. It is a terrible dichotomy which encourages mediocrity in the followers of Christ. As if the Sermon on the Mount is unrealistic."

Swami Prabhavananda would, I think, contest this. He would reply that just because something is difficult, doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done. In fact, it’s all the more reason why it should be done. Much of spiritual life is, after all, an uphill battle: we are battling our own egotism, self-centeredness, laziness, fearfulness and sheer bull-headedness in order that we may attain genuine love for God and our fellow beings; in order for us to gain compassion, humility, sincerity, truthfulness and purity. And that’s just the short list.

 While the teachings of the Sermon are clear, they are not so easy to implement. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” The follow-through: We must be pure in heart to see God. Does that mean because it’s difficult to become pure in heart that we should not bother to struggle to do so? Hardly. Does that mean that most people will falter on the way or think that it’s an unachievable goal? Perhaps. As Father Clooney wrote in his third installment: “It is a spiritual advance in itself to admit when you cannot in fact live up to the teachings of Jesus.” To which I say, Amen.

The teachings eternalized in the Sermon on the Mount are no more unrealistic than any other lofty ideal. Whether or not these ideals are difficult to attain does not in the least affect the fact that they remain the highest ideals to which humanity can aspire. Most, perhaps, will not make these ideals, and the goal of achieving these ideals, the purpose of their lives. But those who have, have done more to save and serve the world than the tens of millions of others who haven’t bothered to try.

So in this holy Lenten season, let us remember these teachings of Jesus—teachings that have inspired people from every religious tradition the world has known. And let us thank Father Clooney and Swami Prabhavananda for bringing these much-needed ideals to our attention once again.

 

Pravrajika Vrajaprana

Sarada Convent, Santa Barbara

Vedanta Society of Southern California

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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John Raymer
6 years 8 months ago
"... Prabhavananda’s assertion that the Sermon was an advanced teaching, directed to Jesus’ most serious and committed followers. The teachings are too hard for many, perhaps for most people, to practice."
This would be a very reasonable statement for a Hindu but not for a Christian. Christians understand that Jesus came to give everyone an experience of God - especially the "least." Hinduism reserves the "experience of God" to the high castes - the Brahmins in particular. Hindu festivals and religious life are reserved for the higher castes - the dalit (untouchables) get no sabbath, no holidays, no festivals. The role of the dalit is to experience everyday the hell of life without God as pennace for the sin of his past lives. Only by enduring living hell can the dalit atone for his past and be redeemed. Therefore, the Brahmin is true to his religion when he says the Sermon on the Mount is too much for most people.

"The teachings eternalized in the Sermon on the Mount are no more unrealistic than any other lofty ideal." This statement may be true for a humanist or a Hindu but it is not reasonable to this Christian. The Sermon on the Mount is the core message that God chose to give us when he humbled himself to become one of us. It is a message that does not lead to a life but to death - but "in dying we are born to eternal life."
6 years 8 months ago
The Sermon on the Mount will always be a challenge for all of us to aspire....... broken and flawed as we are, but we keep on the journey, because  through our faith in Jesus of Nazareth, we know that Almighty God is always there cheering us on to come to Him. 

Jesus showed/shows us the way to the Father: Pray, service to others, stay focus on God's kingdom (God's world order), have fun too (he attended parties,,wedding at Cana....inviting himself to Zachaeus house for a drink maybe!), accept suffering, but do something to alleviate it too,  even reaching out/yelling out for help.  He did!  He reached out to his disciples to sit with him in the garden, also questioned Almighty God!   My God, my God why have you forsaken me!?  I guess suffering can be redemptive too. 
6 years 8 months ago
Like Swami Prabhavananda, I, too, have found my life profoundly enriched by the life and teachings of Jesus, and like Father Clooney

That is great, Sister. He is our salvation.
PJ Johnston
6 years 8 months ago
I don't think there are many brahmins who would deny that a dalit bhakta can reach the pinnacle of devotion, possibly more readily than those of higher castes.
PJ Johnston
6 years 8 months ago
Forgot to provide a link!

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nandanar

Imperious brahmins who mock those of low status get drubbed routinely in devotional Hinduism.
John Raymer
6 years 8 months ago
The Hinduism we see in America is not the Hinduism of India. What we see in America is upper caste Hinduism repackaged for western sensibilities - at least this is how my dear friend Isaac Baroi describes things. Isaac is well-known Christian writer from Bangladesh - the product of a Christian marriage between a Brahmin mother and a ''low caste'' father. Issac Baroi is author of his first English-language book ''Wall of Mirrors.'' He has authored 37 books in Bangla.

The question is not whether a person of low caste can aspire to God, but whether a person of low-caste would even be allowed approach Jesus, to even hear the Sermon on the Mount, to even witness the mass let alone drink from the same cup as the Brahmin. While mocking and imperiousness is universally regarded as sinful, exclusion is not.

The Sermon on the Mount is a goal to which all Christians should aspire. It tells us what the Kingdom of Heaven looks like and how to bring it about. As Christians, we believe it is the duty of all of us, not just the priests, to bring about the Kingdom of Heaven in the world in which we live.

This is the danger of uncritical interfaith dialog - we all want to think that everyone else is really like us except for a few outdated, religious trappings. But this is the opposite of the truth - our differences are fundamental in how we see and respond to the world. 

PJ Johnston
6 years 8 months ago
Even though I honestly can't think of any at the moment, I suppose there may possibly be dangers to interfaith dialogue, whether critically or uncritically conducted.  But there are much more immediate and serious dangers with selectively reading other religious traditions in order to bolster claims of the superiority of one's own tradition, and that serious problem is one for which interreligious dialogue is the only real antidote.  (It's also very questionable to use people who have converted out of one religion and into another one as unbiased sources of information about the original tradition).

As you yourself observe (by invoking a distinction between "upper caste Hinduism repackaged for Western sensibilities" and "brahmin Hinduism"), religions are not unified and unchanging quantities in which everyone believes and practices the same thing.  They're umbrella labels for different people who believe and do very different things, and they change over time.  There's no "essence" that lets you finally determine what they're all about, because the labels are contested and on the move.  This is as true of Catholicism as it is of anything else.  In extreme instances (and Hinduism is one of the most extreme:  this religion presents so much heterogeneity that scholars cannot even agree that it is a single religion rather than an artificial label covering several), it's a challenging feat of analytical acumen to even present a plausible candidate for what they all might have in common.  So it makes no sense to find one particular group of Hindus who are doing good things and have good values and say that they are "fake" (ie, Westernized) Hindus and another group of Hindus who do bad things and have bad values and say that they are the "real" (ie, Indian) Hindus.  Both groups tell you just as much about what "Hinduism" is supposed to be.  If you want to make comparisons about which religion is "better," fairness certainly dictates that you compare the elements of Hinduism you think are best with the elements of Christianity you think are best - otherwise one is cheating and simply using the exercise to score political points.

I've been to India a few times now and I don't like purity or caste.  I even have a problem with one of the acharyas I'm studying having the idea that different groups of people have different adhikaras (qualifications) which mean that some people can achieve the highest fruits of religious practice and other people cannot ever do so.  But one would be pretty naive to take anything for "the" definitive Hindu view of caste, purity, karma, adhikara, or anything else.  Even within a single tradition (for instance, pushti-marga, the one I'm referring to), the founder of the sect and its authoritative texts may say one thing (that people have different adhikaras and some people can never attain nirodha), but most of its living teachers and practitioners maintain something quite different (I'm told that the idea of some people being permanently ineligible for the highest religious states is so rejected and disliked that practitioners resist the forthright translation of texts which emphasize this idea).

When it comes right down to it, it is anything but clear that for all its theoretical egalitarianism and responsiveness to liberation theology, "Catholicism" does any better than "Hinduism" in terms of promoting social and economic equality.  It depends on the groups you compare (Jesuit liberation theologians would trump most village brahmins).  But the pushti-marga sect wins hands down over the Vatican Catholicism of the JPII and Benedict pontificates.
John Raymer
6 years 8 months ago
To be clear, I do belive that interfaith dialog is an excellent thing. It is the only way that people can come together and understand one another. But it must be done truthfully, which means people must share some depth of their faith, not just superficial things that are pleasing to hear.

"The the idea of some people being permanently ineligible for the highest religious states is so rejected and disliked that practitioners resist the forthright translation of texts which emphasize this idea." This is exactly what I was trying to say. Yet these ideas are widely held by the people, and some would say central to practical Hinduism.

All religions are full of people with smooth words to comfort those with money. Just look at so many of our TV preachers. How many Christians living comfortable lives like to talk about how we were will willing to crucify our God in order to preserve our own postions of power and authority? How many Christians in comfortable positions are willing to admit that the more vigorously we follow Christ the more likely we are to lose everything and end up humiliated and bloody on the cross? These are the central truths of Christianity that no one wants to talk about. Yet these truths, which people understand in their hearts, determines how Christians act in the world. I suspect the same might be true for Hinduism. But no one want's to talk about the central truths in polite company.
PJ Johnston
6 years 8 months ago
What intellectual purpose does practicality serve?

If that seems like a silly question because practicality can be considered valuable for its own sake, then I ask you to recognize that it is equally silly to require intellectual investigation to be evaluated on practical (rather than intellectual) grounds, as intellectual investigation is likewise valuable for its own sake.
PJ Johnston
6 years 8 months ago
http://earthymysticism.com/william-mcnamara/the-importance-of-doing-nothing/
PJ Johnston
6 years 8 months ago
And thus the soul of America died, because there was nothing left to care about.
Sunil Korah
6 years 8 months ago
I am a Catholic living in India (in the South Indian state of Kerala) and I would take issue with Jack Raymer's understanding of Hinduism. Of course there are extremists and fundamentalists among the Hindus, but they don't define Hinduism. I probably have more Hindu friends than Christian ones and in my opinion many of them are better 'Christians' than the Christians. As P J Johnston remarked, there is muchheterogeneity, a wide spectrum of beliefs and rituals. But if you look for the essential, you see that basically the Hindu approach is charitable and tolerant. It assumes your good faith, rather than otherwise. Like I read somewhere, to a Hindu, a good Christian is a good Hindu.

Hindu extremists and fundamentalists have caused and are causing problems in some parts of India, mostly in the north. In the state I live, we are about 20% Christian, 20% Muslim and the rest Hindu. There are really no inter religious troubles here and the communities mix quite freely.
John Raymer
6 years 8 months ago
This discussion has been quite helpful to me and has caused to me to think much over the past day. I agree with Sunil Korah that there are fundamentalists and bad theology in all religions. Possibly the best example is right in the triduum liturgy in the Tridentine Mass - the prayers for the "perfidious Jews." One could argue convincingly that 500 years of these prayers was a direct contributor to the Holocaust. This is why the Church now specifically forbids the use of the Tridentine mass during the triduum, even though it is now allowed for everything else.

Jesus drew in the sand and said "Let him who is without sin cast the first stone."
6 years 8 months ago
# 14

I am with you.  Unless theology is marinated in the heart, it remains abstract, detached, cold and is just  an intellectual gymnastic! 
PJ Johnston
6 years 8 months ago
The impulse to bring order and elegance to disconnected doctrinal statements and adjust and tweak systematic logical structures so that they are more adequate for expressing the Gospel is an act of prayer, an offering of the intellect to God and the Church - which is why theology need not necessarily be practical in order to be valuable.  Prayer is because prayer is.

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