Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Sitting at the Feet of Indian Masters

The journey through sacred writings of various religions takes the reader across many types of terrain.  He finds stories and parables, prayers and dialogs, visions and moral advice, instruction in piety, and teaching about the ultimate nature of existence.  He finds the miraculous and the mundane, the promising and the perplexing, the insipid and the inspiring.

Earlier in 2010, I read two Penguin collections of Hindu scripture: the first containing 108 passages of the Rig Veda, and the second passages from the earliest and most revered of the Upanishads.  I found all of it fascinating, most of it beautiful, and some of it quite inspiring indeed.

The Rig Veda, written approximately 3,000 years ago, contains hymns to the gods and songs to be sung during rituals.  Its circular metaphors (which is the meaning, and which is the message?) link the world and an egg, milk and rain, the sun and cows, and move the reader to see patterns and connections everywhere.  Its inclusion of so many gods and rituals urge the reader to treat every moment as sacred.  I was reminded of a passage from Walden in which Thoreau takes a dead branch from the woods and puts it in his fire in the cabin because, he said, it had served the god Terminus long enough and must now serve Vulcan.  Whether worshiping many gods or only One, we should all learn to wonder more regularly at the miracles of wood, fire, rain, breath, perception, memory, and life.

While the Rig Veda points to the sacred in the many, the Upanishads (written about 500 B.C.) show the many subsumed in the sacred, teaching that the panoply of the world is created and guided by one holy spirit, Brahman:

  • "God upholds the oneness of this universe: the seen and the unseen, the transient and the eternal.  The soul of man is bound by pleasure and pain; but when she sees God she is free from all fetters."
  • "Matter in time passes away, but God is for ever in Eternity, and he rules both matter and soul."
  • "When a man knows God, he is free."
  • "He rules over the sources of creation.  From him comes the universe and unto him it returns.  He is the Lord, the giver of blessings, the one God of our adoration, in whom there is perfect peace."
The Christian can sing all of these verses sincerely, so devoted are they to the one all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving Creator.  Of course, the Christian must give up singing (or give up sincerity, or his Christianity) when he gets to verses teaching him that his true self, his Atman, is God, that Brahman is in all things and is all things.

Reading these two books of Hindu scripture has added depth to my view of the Hebrew Psalms.  It is so easy to get used to the Psalms and fly the eyes or lips over their words thinking something like, "Bible language, Bible language, good things, happiness, Bible language, war, tears, Bible language, God, Bible language."  The last few months, the Psalms have appeared to me not only as the Word of God given to people, but as the words of people seeing God in the storm, in the battle, in the sea, in the stars, and in the feeling of guilt after a sin, and trying to convey the mystery.

Reading these books has also given me new appreciation for the miracle of creation as taught in the Bible.  God gave to his thoughts existence -- existence depending on but separate from his own existence.  How marvelous to contemplate thankfully the knowledge that all things were made by Him, that all things are sustained by Him, that all things exist for his pleasure, that all things point to Him, and that all these things are not Him.

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