The Holy Spirit Is Not the Same as Shakti

Cambridge, MA. It is quite common, and has been for many centuries, for Christians to comment on aspects of other religions, comparing them, often unfavorably, with aspects of Christian tradition: our God is better than theirs, our spirituality deeper, our history more humane. Sometimes the comparisons we Christians have made are quite insightful, sometimes polemical and even violent. It is hard to make comparisons without seeing the other at a disadvantage. In any case, most often it seems that Christians are talking to other Christians about other religions, and few have been in a position to notice carefully the small errors that creep into our monologues about our religious others.

Certainly, members of other traditions have over the centuries also had things to say about Christians and Christianity, and even in this space I have invited several members of Hindu traditions to guest-blog: Mr. Murali Manohar a couple of years ago, and more recently Swami Tyagananda and Pravrajika Vrajaprana. But writing about the Christian from another tradition’s perspective is still a much less frequent phenomenon, particularly in the American media. So Beliefnet is all the more welcome, precisely because its blog site does invite a wide variety of religious voices into the conversation.


In this light, and so close to Pentecost, I therefore am happy to call your attention to an essay (partly) about the Holy Spirit, posted just this week at Beliefnet by Rajiv Malhotra, a learned Hindu layman living here in the United States and with a background in business, who in the past decade has often written on issues of interfaith relations. His mission, so to speak, is to bring a strong Hindu voice into conversations on religion, and to be on the watch for misrepresentations of Hinduism in the media, the academic study of Hinduism by Western scholars, and Christian theological uses of Hinduism in Christian theology. In some circles he is a great champion, in others a gadfly perhaps like Socrates of Athens. I have known Mr. Malhotra for over a decade, and it is fair to say that while we disagree on a number of issues, and often enough will say similar things rather differently, we are good conversation partners who do learn from one another.

His current piece, appropriate enough for these days after Pentecost, is "'Spirit' is not the same as 'Shakti' or 'Kundalini.'" It argues that it is a mistake, rooted in superficial understanding, to equate the Holy Spirit with the Divine Energy or Power (Shakti) that vibrates even within the human person as the Divine Energy within (the Kundalini). “Holy Spirit,” “Shakti,” and “Kundalini” have different histories, and even theologically arise in the context of different understandings of what it means to be human and how the divine relates to the human. People who equate them are either ill-informed or ill-intentioned.

While Mr. Malhotra’s insistence on difference may please many a reader, particularly those who fear Hindu-Christian syncretism, if you read his column carefully – please do – many might also be surprised to hear Christianity described in less than flattering terms on a number of issues, ranging from the human relationship to God, the Christian attitude toward diversity, and the dubious motives behind Christian learning of other religions. I myself disagree with a number of points Mr. Malhotra made. But we do not read a reflection by an articulate, thoughtful member of another religion simply to be flattered, and neither should we expect to hear ourselves described in terms precisely familiar to us. Learning, critique, reinterpretation, cut both ways, and even history looks different depending on where you stand. See what you think.

And finally, I would like to think – ever the hopeful Christian – that he has done us, Hindu and Christian alike, the good service of clearing the air, and moving beyond generalities on the points he discussed. The next step, perhaps a bit easier now, is a conversation on Spirit and Shakti that is not a monologue, and not entirely on the terms set by one tradition. For me - ever the professor - the best way forward would be the careful study of some of the relevant texts on the Spirit and Shakti, though of course others might choose to carry the conversation forward in other ways.


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Rajiv Malhotra
6 years 8 months ago
I welcome Francis' call for an open discussion/debate on the similarities and dissimilarities between Holy Spirit and Shakti/Kundalini.

Because he refers to my article on , I am available any time/place to engage him and others on this in a fair, level playing field. I shall look forward to hearing from Francis on where we can have such an engagement. It must be equal and not a forum where one party must speak from the floor while the other is on the podium, or where one writes the blog and the other can simply write comments.

To open the conversation, I wish to draw his attention to a number of Christian thinkers who DO equate shakti/kundalini with Holy Spirit.

Just google ''kundalini + Holy Spirit'' and you will discover for yourself. I have personally attended talks by gurus who say this to western audiences much to their delight. It is good business.
PJ Johnston
6 years 8 months ago
Hi Rajiv!

I found myself reading about the differences between Christianity and Hinduism that you articulated in your essay and wanting to say that I know Christians who don't believe any of the things you attributed to "Christianity," having a more "Hindu" interpretation and practice.  To me this brought up concerns about essentialism, where we say that a single form of a religious tradition is the "real" or "authentic" form of the religion, and any forms of religion that depart from that form aren't really "Christian" or "Hindu" or whatever they might claim to be.  I was made uncomfortable by the worry that a lot of your claims about the deep differences between Hinduism and Christianity were based on a kind of essentialism where forms of the faiths that were more similar than you allow would be dismissed as not "really" Hindu or Christian, even if people who call themselves "Hindu" or "Christian" actually practice them.

I see that you began to address this concern toward the end of your essay, but I'd like to know a little more:

"Many Westerners have appropriated aspects of the Hindu Goddess to address issues within Christianity, in particular its patriarchy, institutions, weak ecological base and absence of yoga. While this is laudable, great care must be taken that core Hindu notions such as Shakti are not imported as mere "add-ons." Dissecting the tradition into separate parts and digesting them selectively distorts the source. Shakti cannot be domesticated."

"The authentic acceptance of Shakti and kundalini by Christians is much more daunting and would entail rejecting centuries of Church inquisition against pluralistic manifestations of the divine. It would involve reinventing Christianity with the Goddess accessible directly as the Supreme Being. This would rekindle memories of paganism, polytheism and chaos."

The program of reinvention you describe in these paragraphs sounds just fine to me.  What I'm still curious about is how you would evaluate the result.  Would you consider it some weird new religion that was neither authentically Christian or Hindu, both Christian and Hindu, or what exactly?  And why?

I'd also be interested in Fr. Clooney's answers to these questions.  (I read "Divine Mother, Blessed Mother" only to persistently ask myself "Why is Mary someone we must NOT think of as a goddess?")
6 years 8 months ago
Hmm ... if there is such a debate, we may end up with a ''blind men around an elephant'' situation. The requirement for such a debate is for the participants to have had some experience of ''Holy Spirit''/Kundalini from within the Christian and Sanatan Dharma traditions.

It is not too difficult, with a little effort, to experience Kundalini in the spine, but I am not aware of any way to objectively define that experience in medical or scientific terms.
Katherine Jordan
6 years 8 months ago
Thank you for the essay. I am often conflicted because I have studied both Christianity and Hinduism/Yoga and I find so much wisdom from both traditions/cultures. On the one hand I see the incompatibility of the two traditions and how the only way to sync them together would be to essentially water them down or change them completely. On the other hand, the intricacies of theology help us to understand and experience our faith and spirituality but sometimes isn't the Truth, the heart of the matter, really something we are not yet able to comprehend (we are lacking enlightenment or not yet seeing the face of God) and perhaps when at last we do, we will realize that they were both in a sense pointing towards the Truth? I know that's cliche. The last thing I want to do is to encourage that we go through life thinking that all religions are the same, because they are not. Ultimately I believe in the Truth of the Catholic Church. But I also do believe that perfection can be reached if one follows the path of yoga. It is puzzling to me and I enjoy learning, discovering, and seeking Truth. What are other people's thoughts on this? 
Katherine Jordan
6 years 8 months ago
I just noticed the comment on the "Blind Elephant" realizing that is what I'm bringing up. Forgive me I know that idea has been said over and over. I'm curious though about why some people may see this as a problem, unless the problem is simply that it encourages people to experience religions only on the surface - sort of skimming lots of traditions trying to get a big picture when really one is missing out on the depth of just one. That's something I do understand.
Brian Volck
6 years 8 months ago
One should be careful (Westerners, perhaps, especially so) in any application of the fable of the blind men and the elephant. It appears in Jain, Buddhist, Hindu and Sufi sources, and was famously appropriated by the nineteenth century American poet John Godfrey Saxe, whose poem "The Blind Men and the Elephant" ends with this rather dismissive moral:

So oft in theologic wars,
The disputants, I ween,
Rail on in utter ignorance
Of what each other mean,
And prate about an Elephant
Not one of them has seen!

The reason for care in applying the fable is this: we know how foolish the blind men are because we know - or assume we know - what an elephant is. In Saxe's poem, for example, the implication is that we, the enlightened, understand the stupidity of theological arguments because we who see already know more than those blind theological disputants. I, for one, find Saxe's conclusion fatally flawed, since the mysteries under consideration are unavailable to us in the same way the elephant's appearance is to a sighted person who has, by chance, actually encountered an elephant. And as for what an elephant actually is...well, that's more than this sighted person is willing to say.  

I suppose one could argue that, after a few turns on the wheel of samsara, one might have a pretty good idea of what kundalini or shakti is, but analogous claims are unavailable to Christians this side of the grave. We walk by faith and not by sight. And that should caution Christians toward even greater pause before blithely equating Christian theological understanding with the language of other traditions. 
6 years 8 months ago
It is a nice poem, deserves to be quoted in entirety:



IT was six men of Indostan
 To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant
 (Though all of them were blind),
That each by observation
 Might satisfy his mind.


The First approached the Elephant,
 And happening to fall
Against his broad and sturdy side,
 At once began to bawl:
'God bless me!—but the Elephant
 Is very like a wall!'


The Second, feeling of the tusk,
 Cried:'Ho!—what have we here
So very round and smooth and sharp?
 To me 't is mighty clear
This wonder of an Elephant
 Is very like a spear!'


The Third approached the animal,
 And happening to take
The squirming trunk within his hands,
 Thus boldly up and spake:

'I see,' quoth he, 'the Elephant
 Is very like a snake!'


The Fourth reached out his eager hand,
 And felt about the knee.
'What most this wondrous beast is like
 Is mighty plain,' quoth he;
''T is clear enough the Elephant
 Is very like a tree!'


The Fifth, who chanced to touch the ear,
 Said: 'E'en the blindest man
Can tell what this resembles most;
 Deny the fact who can,
This marvel of an Elephant
 Is very like a fan!'


The Sixth no sooner had begun
 About the beast to grope,
Than, seizing on the swinging tail
 That fell within his scope,
'I see,' quoth he, 'the Elephant
 Is very like a rope!'


And so these men of Indostan
 Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
 Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right,
 And all were in the wrong!


So, oft in theologic wars
 The disputants, I ween,
Rail on in utter ignorance
 Of what each other mean,
And prate about an Elephant
 Not one of them has seen!
PJ Johnston
6 years 8 months ago
If your epistemological limitations preclude you from knowing that two things are the same in essence, the same epistemological limitations preclude you from knowing that two things are different in essence.
6 years 8 months ago
As a Hindu, let me add some non-western/non-christian perspective here, if I may.  Rajiv's points, while definitely engaging the theological/philosophical aspects, go a little beyond, in my opinion. They touch upon what the de-facto reality is, when there is attemps at blending Christianity with non-Christian practices. It is somewhat of a one-way street to the disadvantage of the ''donor'' tradition.

The presumption by most westerners here is that each one of us is an atomized individual in the market place capable of loading up on the ''salad bowl of spirituality / religion'', and so one gets to pick & choose, mix 'n match, etc etc.

While this may be the de-facto reality for the westerner, it is not so for the non-westerner. The rest uf us cannot hold on to the presumption that spirituality/religion comes context free, even if we'd like to emulate our western brothers & sisters. The impact of Christianity (& Islam, for that matter) on other organic religions/cultures has been, and is rather gratuitous (unsolicited for the most part). The non-westerner hasn't been afforded the opportunity to pick & choose from these religions due to (a) their strong institutional base, and (b) their entry frequently linked with economic & political forces (colonialism, neo-colonialism, etc)

So while Christians who seek from (say) Hinduism are a self-selected group, for Hindus Christianity looms large as something intertwined with geopolitics, more as an attempt to force a social choice on us (via organized conversions & other mechanisms) than as just another available avenue of spiritual/religious expression. The Christian is not obligated to reflect on the effect his/her appropriation of Hindu practices (Yoga Vedanta Tantra, etc) whereas the Hindu just doesn't have the freedom.

This I have found verified to me in my various dialogues with Church groups etc that visit our temple, in interfaith dialogues (especially when the microphones are turned off & people can be frank, one-on-one)

So in my opinion, we will have to wait for the day when religion/spirituality comes free (if ever) of deeply institutionalized sociopolitical associations before these exchanges can be considered on purely theological/philosophical grounds.
Rajiv Malhotra
6 years 8 months ago
Hello P.J. Johnson,

I am glad to hear your candid position, that many Christians DO espouse the kind of sameness I refer to. You go further and ask, in effect, whats wrong with doing that?

My first goal is to get Christians to come out as in your case and admit this appropriation. There is nothing wrong with the cross-fertilization of cultures and faiths. But why hide this? It might surprise you how many Christian who DO approrpiate shakti into Christianity are in denial mode and like to camouflage this. Why, I ask?

Why is it that Greek influences on Christianity since St. Augustine are so explicity acknowledged and the Greek sources honored, but the same is not true of Hindu sources that have been so influential in modern re-interpretations of Christianity?

In a book planned for 2012, I show that Hindu influences on Christian theology far exceed the Greek influences but that Hindu sources have to be erased as something embarassing to Christianity, or as somehow making the appropriated element suspicious.

The Greeks were also heathens and infidels, hence that should not be the basis for hiding Hindu influences. My analysis goes deeper and locates the REASON for Christians wanting to distance themselves from Hindu sources after learning so much from them.

I welcome voices such as yours that have no problem with Hindu-Christian cross borrowings (in both directions). I wrote to America Magazine and to Francis Cloonet suggesting that he and I have an online discussion on the theological issues concerning this matter. I hope they will accept. I am waiting for a response.

alex alexander
6 years 8 months ago
"On the one hand I see the incompatibility of the two traditions and how the only way to sync them together would be to essentially water them down or change them completely" Katherine Jordan

Devout Christians both of Roman Catholic and Protestant faiths (Fr Bede Griffiths& Fr. Henri La Saux, Fr. Raimundo Panikkar. Prof Diana Eck et al) did not find any need to "water down or change" the Christian traditions in order to sync them to the core concepts in Vedanta. Griffiths particularly uses the analogy of all religions seeming to be apart as the tips of palm are when the fingers are stretched out. On the other hand, Griffith said that if one digs deep down into one's own faith, he or she will be surprised to see that all faiths in some fashion or other meet at the center of the palm! Griffiths had an interesting way of interpreting the Holy Trinity in Vedantic terms: Father being the absplute truth (sat), Son being the expression of that truth in human form (Jesus) or thought (chit in vedanta) and Holy Sspirit being the transcendent love of God (ananda). Thus he equated the Holy Trinity of Sat-chit-ananda of Hinduism.

As an aside to Father Clooney's essay, I hope that a dialog between Rajiv and Francis takes place. I would like to hear from Father Clooney as to why the New Testament and much of western Christianity assigns male gender to the Holy Spirit when the original Eastern Churches continue to use the feminine form of Shekhinah in their Peshitta and religious teachings. One explanation that I have heard from the orthodox cchristians is that the expression of  "unconditional love" is more innate to the feminine than to the masculine.  I would like to hear from Father Clooney and or others who are theologians. I am just a lay syrian orthodox Christian who delights in the attempts of people of all faiths to come together by finding commonalities among their respective faiths than dwell on their differences. I find much of vedanta to be  very consistent with many of the teachings of Jesus. Having been born and raised in India, but having lived in the US for nealry 50 yrs, I am very sympathetic to the arguments such as those made by Rajiv when the western theologians misappropriate eastern religious practices without any credit being given to the source(s) from where they are borrowing the various religious concepts and practices. LET THE DEBATE BEGIN!
PJ Johnston
6 years 8 months ago
Thank you everybody for such an interesting conversation!

Rajiv Malhotra:

I'd love to read your book (I might be a little skeptical by nature, but I want you to be right!), and I look forward to its release with enthusiasm.  I would also be most interested in the debate you and Fr. Clooney propose when/if it is conducted.

Speaking entirely from personal experience, I think there are a lot of reasons why individual Christians who borrow from Hinduism or other religions might avoid publicizing the fact.  Before I started my current academic program, I was studying to become an Anglican priest and I didn't make any secret when I applied that I was training to engage in interfaith dialogue and ministry.  I was already the organizer of a small interfaith prayer group, and we had a Yahoo group and a website that documented our projects.  Someone associated with the community discovered the website, was deeply scandalized by the fact that we borrowed from other religions and admitted doing so, and printed a thick file of material from the website and circulated it to several bishops on the seminary Board of Trustees, which began a heresy investigation and put pressure on the seminary dean to remove me as a student (there were political reasons why this was impossible:  the head of the alumni association was the former parish priest of my academic advisor at the University of Chicago, which would have meant that the seminary would have sacrificed a significant amount of money in lost donations).  When it became obvious that I would not leave and could not be compelled to leave without repercussions, someone leaked the contents of our group's website to the seminary community, after which I received anonymous death threats, had Indian iconography stolen out of my prayer stall, and became an absolute pariah.  I was ordained to the priesthood by a liberal Anglo-Catholic group at the completion of my studies, but this effectively destroyed my hope of livelihood as a mainstream Anglican priest and forced me to go back into Ph.D. studies. The financial, spiritual, and psychological costs associated with being open about interfaith borrowing were more than one could expect a rational person to accept, and if I were a rational person at all (instead of an unreasonably stubborn survivor of childhood bullying with a serious problem with giving into injustice) I would not have been willing to pay them.

I suppose that there may be some respects in which this experience would not be typical (it was an unusually conservative seminary, for instance), but there are a lot of conservative Christians out there who believe it is perfectly acceptable to use every means at their disposal (harassment, intimidation, anonymous accusation, ecclesiastical discipline, career destruction, threats of violence) to neutralize other Christians who express ideas they do not agree with because they think that in so doing, they are serving God's will.  This is especially true in the conservative Christian blogging community, which was more than incidentally involved in this incident.  The motto most liberal Christians seem to take away from the pressure they experience in their own lives is "do what you have to do, but keep very quiet about it".  I expect that there is much less intention to slight Hinduism by not acknowledging borrowing than there is fear of what can happen if Hinduism is openly acknowledged.

My apologies to everyone else for not addressing the very good and interesting points you raised, but this message is already far too long.  Keep up the good work, Alexander, Karigar, etc.!
Rajiv Malhotra
6 years 8 months ago
Dear PJ Johnson,

I would very much enjoy interacting with you in depth if you would be interested. I have researched several dozen similar cases where any Hindu links are suspect in the eyes of Christian peers/authorities, and this leads to various kinds of shifts that I am researching. I have developed something I call the U-Turn Theory that will be published in 2010 after my forthcoming book comes out in fall of 2011. U-Turn refers to the shifts westerners undergo when they devote years in Hinduism/Buddhism and then there are other forces pulling them back.

My interest is to explore why Hindu/Buddhism variety of paganism is seen as a greater threat by Christianity than Greek sources that are equally un-Christian. I have developed a thesis which I would like to shape in private with you (or anyone else with a serious interest).

Kindly contact me directly at:

PJ Johnston
6 years 8 months ago
I suppose I'm also interested in what you both think about the opposite question - what if a Hindu or a group of Hindus decided to borrow the cosmology/views Rajiv Malhotra's BeliefNet article attributes to "Christianity" in order to incorporate them into "Hinduism"?  Is this a problem?  Why or why not?  (As I am sure you both realize, this question isn't so theoretical, since the Westernized versions of Indian ideas are often reimported into India for Indian consumption in a process sometimes called the "pizza effect").
Rocco Cappeto
6 years 8 months ago
Is someone playing a joke on us?  Has no one else noticed the graphic male and female images presented with this article?  I mean one doesn't have to be a Freudian analyst to see it.  Why choose them?  Do they offer an insight into the hidden perceptions of the author about the qualities of each religion?  Talk about blind men not seeing the elephant.
Denise Yarbrough
6 years 8 months ago
Mr. Malhotra I find your article very interesting.  I'm an Episcopal priest engaged in interfaith dialogue, particularly in Hindu Christian dialogue.  I appreciate your comparison of shakti and Holy Spirit and the points you make distinguishing them.  I think in practice in the US today, many Christians have absorbed beliefs and practices that are vaguely Hindu and so they actually find more similarity between the two traditions than I think actually exists theologically, at least when one looks at the Western Christian theological tradition.  I appreciate your naming some of the distinctions, because they are real.  I am interested in your work regarding Hinduism/Buddhism and Christianity as opposed to the Greek influences that certainly became embedded in our Western theological tradition in the early centuries.  Regarding the blind men and the elephant metaphor, I find myself moving away from that understanding of the many different religious traditions of the world and more to what is being called now ''parallelism'' or ''acceptance model'' which means that while I find a lot of similarities between and amongst world religions, particularly in the area of spirituality and mysticism, there are also real differences and each religion is leading its adherents to a different religious end, all of which are perfectly fine religious ends, but they are different.  I don't think ''salvation'' as a Christian understands it is the same as ''moksha'' for a Hindu or Buddhist.  I'm interested to follow your work more closely.
Rajiv Malhotra
6 years 8 months ago
I am disappointed that Clooney has run away after posting this blog in response to mine. My letter to the magazine editor got no response. Clooney wrote back declining my offer to publicly discuss the issues concerning false comparisons of Holy Spirit and Shakti. I persisted, and he has written back praising me, saying that calling me a gadfly was in the same vein as Socrates was a gadfly.

Clooney is a very controversial figure among Hindus, but despite that I have always enjoyed our frank discussions over many years. To many Hindus, he is a Vatican spy and subversive, wanting to befriend Hindus in the same manner as the infamous Robert de Nobili, and for similar motives. This is Catholic inculturation at its greatest heights. To others he is a gadfly on Hinduism who has used naive Hindus to boost his reputation, and thus get himself a prestitious post at Harvard, where, ironically, he is seen as an expert on Hinduism. He now mentors many other scholars on Hinduism.

All I want to do is to set aside personalities and discuss metaphysics and theology. While his blog says that I describe Christianity in "less than flattering terms", he gives no specific evidence; does not refute my statements. He simply makes an assertion and then wants to run away.

I dont think this hit-and-run  is in the interest of advancing our mutual learning or that of readers. i have requested that he return to the table. Let us celebrate the differences between our respective faiths with mutual respect.

mary hicks
6 years 7 months ago
Since a debate on the topic will not be occurring between Francis Clooney and Rajiv Malhotra in the forseeable future, perhaps another venue for a full discussion could be a panel held at the annual convention of the American Academy of Religion. There is a Hindu-Christian group as well as the concurrent DANAM (Dharma Association of North America) panels.

In such a forum no one person could be held accountable for the entire weight of the differences between Catholic views and history, Protestant views and history, and evangelical beliefs and practices. There are great differences between them.

Perhaps a panel discussion could be collegial rather than combative and confrontational.


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