Cambridge, MA. The Gospel for Sunday, February 20 includes two famous and most challenging teachings of Jesus: The first is “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. (5.38-41) The second is “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (5.48) In this fourth in my series on Swami Prabhavananda’s The Sermon on the Mount according to Vedanta geared to our Sunday Gospels until Lent, I will consider his view of radical nonviolence, and in a fifth (soon to follow), his view of Jesus’ call to perfection.
I mentioned at the start of this series that, contrary to how we often think about the universality of Jesus' message, Prabhavananda thinks the Sermon is for advanced disciples, not for a crowd hearing Jesus for the first time. This is why Jesus can put this “highest truth” of non-resistance (or nonviolence) before his listeners, even if it is “nearly impossible to understand and follow.” While we can see instances of great saints who live out such non-resistance, “few people struggle to achieve the lofty spiritual state which would enable them to practise this non-resistance.” Moreover, Prabhavananda adds (quoting Paul Elmer More) that the world would come apart if we applied “the laws of the spirit to the activities of this earth.” We must admit that beings are at various grades of spiritual advancement, most not ready for the nonviolence Jesus teaches: “Non-resistance is therefore recognized by Vedanta as the highest virtue, but all people under all circumstances are not expected to live up to it in its highest form.” Some are violent, or cowardly, or lazy — and must deal with these defects before they imagine living out the nonviolence Jesus teaches.
Prabhavananda illustrates this by telling the story of two disciples of his own guru, Ramakrishna. A disciple overhears people speaking ill of Ramakrishna, and reacts heatedly, threatening to upset the ferry on which they ride; Ramakrishna scolds him for his anger and his lack of detachment. A second disciple, hearing similar gossip, does nothing — and Ramakrishna scolds him for his lack of loyalty to his teacher. The point, says Prabhavananda, is that Ramakrishna was teaching each differently, in accord with where he was on his spiritual ascent. This is why, he adds, Jesus can teach nonviolence to his advanced disciples, while Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita counsels detached action, duty, and even warfare, when speaking to the warrior Arjuna - who has not yet renounced the world.
There is no value, Prabhavananda says, in allowing people to push us around, or harm our families. Resistance, free of hatred, is necessary for most of us, much of the time. But “the devotee of God who perseveres in his spiritual practices eventually reaches a state in which non-violence in thought, word, and deed is natural to him. Then, with mind absorbed in God and heart purified by devotion, he does spontaneously what Christ asks of him — he loves his enemies, blesses those that curse him, does good to those that hate him, and prays for those who persecute him.”
I know that some readers will resist the idea that Jesus taught different listeners differently, depending on their capacity. We tend to be democratic, believing Jesus had one message for all. But perhaps here at least the Swami is right. If we act as if radical nonviolence really is mandated for everyone, then when that does not happen, we are watering it down to a kind of soft inner disposition (just as we don’t seriously expect everyone to give all their possessions to the poor). But if we take Jesus’ command literally, we may judge nearly the entirety of our society drastically disordered — not just in the violence of warfare or the militarized state or the abomination of proliferating handguns, but also in the failure of individuals to turn the other cheek in all situations of violence small and large. A Gospel for all, all the time, could be rather ineffective: if not too soft, then too hard.
While reserving the command to radical nonviolence to a small group of advanced souls sounds terribly elitist and may seem to let the rest of us off the hook, Prabhavananda is suggesting that this is nonetheless the deep, concrete realism that undergirds Jesus’ most demanding teaching. It is a spiritual advance in itself to admit when you cannot in fact live up to the teachings of Jesus.