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.