Cambridge, MA. Lent is upon us, our Sunday readings from the Sermon on the Mount come to an end on March 6, and so we must take leave of our series on Swami Prabhavananda’s Sermon on the Mount according to Vedanta. Three passages from his commentary on Chapter 7 of Matthew (of which we hear only part in church) beg for special notice.
First, he comments on Jesus’ admonition, “Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.” (7.13-14) As throughout, this confirms for Swami that Jesus’ teaching is not for the idly curious or beginners: “Jesus warns us that realization of God is not easy. Purity of heart can only be achieved after great struggle. In the Katha Upanisad we read, ‘Like the sharp edge of a razor, the sages say, is the path. Narrow it is, and difficult to tread!’”
To confirm this admonition, Prabhavananda moves in an unexpected direction, explaining the “narrow gate” by appealing to spiritual advancement charted in accord with the seven yogic/tantric “centers,” the chakras: “At the base of the spine a reserve of latent spiritual energy is situated which, awakened by spiritual practices and devotion to God, flows upward through the narrow channel of the sushumna [nerve].” The narrow gate is marked physically and psychologically by the narrow channel up the spinal chord, along which one advances by transformation on all levels. What are we to think of this? While the language is unfamiliar, it gives a substantive meaning to our belief that Jesus manifest in his physical form the truth of his spiritual reality, experiencing to the limit possibilities latent in every human's physical and spiritual being.
Swami then surprises us by adding that Jesus himself manifest the highest ascent up that channel, in realizing his true identity, unity with the Father. To confirm this striking idea, he appeals to Jacob Boehme in the Christian mystical tradition: “When the flash [of the Spirit] is caught in the fountain of the heart, then the Holy Spirit rises up, in the seven unfolding fountain spirits, into the brain, like the dawning of the day, the morning redness.” At that point, Boehme adds, “From this God I take my knowledge and from no other thing; neither will I know any other thing than that same God.” [Oh readers, can you identify the quote?!]
More quickly, Prabhavananda takes the occasion of Jesus’ next admonition — “On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?’ Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.’” (7.22-23) — for another unexpected teaching. True religion does not lie in good deeds. Yes, work for our fellow humans, but no, that is not the essence of religion: “We must do this [service], not as philanthropy or service to mankind, but as service to God out of love for God.” He adds, following his teacher Swami Vivekananda, that it is absurd to think, in helping others, that they need our help in particular, as if we are saviors. Rather, give all into God’s hands, and be a channel of God’s grace whether you succeed or fail in your acts of service: “Do what good you can, some evil will inhere in it; but do all without regard to personal result. Give up all results to the Lord, then neither good nor evil will affect you.” Or, simply as Jesus says, it is the doing of the will of God that enables one to enter the kingdom of heaven.
And finally, skipping other fascinating insights (read the book!), I note the Swami’s comments on the end of the Sermon, “Now when Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes.” (7.28-29) Jesus was not passing along others' insights or second-hand reports. Rather, in Swami’s view, he is like the Buddha and Ramakrishna in simply witnessing to what he himself has seen. So too, listening to Jesus reaches fruition only if we, settled on that Rock, see what Jesus has seen: “Religion is something we ourselves have to do, and be, and live — or else it is nothing.”
This reading of the Sermon is not an easy one, for many reasons, but it is a word from a Hindu brother encouraging us to take the Sermon to heart as serious, powerful, transformative. Here is a particular form of dialogue, less newsworthy and more enduring than formal, staged events: being taught from outside, as it were, about the core of our faith, learning to hear Jesus anew because of what a Hindu swami (or a rabbi or an Imam or a Santeria priestess, perhaps) tells us about this Jesus whom we follow.
I will close with a passage from Vivekananda that Prabhavananda ends with — as if to startle us once more, right at the end: “Jesus had no other occupation in life, no other thought except that one, that he was Spirit. He was disembodied, unfettered, unbound Spirit. And not only so, but he, with his marvelous vision, had found that every man and woman, whether Jew or Gentile, whether rich or poor, whether saint or sinner, was the embodiment of the same undying Spirit as himself. Therefore, the one work his whole life showed was calling them to realize their own spiritual nature.”
Ready for Lent?