Appreciation for the Bhagavad-gita
"I understand something about the deep spiritual concepts which are upheld in India and I appreciate them," said Pope John Paul II. "I’ve heard about Krishna. Krishna is great." Srila Prabhupada was pleased when Southern Cross wrote a very favorable article about the Hare Krishna movement. He wanted Christians and Vaishnavas to cooperate and respect and appreciate each other’s faith.
"The Hare Krishna movement should be a source of inspiration and move us Christians on to give closer attention to the very spiritual teachings of Jesus," says Father Kenneth L. Robertson, a Roman Catholic priest in Nova Scotia, Canada. "My prayer is that this good work prosper and be appreciated by all men and women of good will for the greater good of mankind."
Father Robert Stephens, a Catholic priest in Australia, considers Krishna "one of the many names of God." He writes that he is "saddened at the narrowness and arrogance of many Christian fundamentalists;" "those who claim a monopoly on all truth or goodness;" "those who desperately cling only to external forms under the pretense of faith in God," and "those who have turned their Sacred Scriptures into mere weaponry against those who differ from themselves."
According to Father Stephens, we who engage in interreligious discussion "have firm support from the Catholic Church, especially the Second Vatican Council, and from such official bodies as the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, and the Dialogue Commission of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India."
Father Stephens observes that "Because spiritual riches belong to all, dialogue and sharing are not an optional extra in a pluralistic society. We cannot live in a fortress of one-eyed people." Father Gerald O’Collins S.J., similarly, is of the opinion that the Bible does not necessarily provide authoritative answers to new questions which arise in the life of the Church, and that the Bible is not that kind of "norm for every problem and every situation."
Father Bede Griffiths says of Bhagavad-gita, "For a Christian, this is a wonderful confirmation of God’s love contained in the Gospel." Meister Eckhart wrote: "When we say God is ‘eternal,’ we mean God is eternally young." This is Krishna Consciousness. God is an eternal youth. Matthew Fox’s statement that "God and God’s Son are ultimately attractive and alluring because of their beauty" is also consistent with Vaishnavaism. The name "Krishna" means "the all attractive one."
World Religions: From Ancient History to the Present, edited by Geoffrey Parrinder, states that one conclusion of Bhagavad-gita is:
"...there is no rebirth when a man devotes his whole heart to the Lord. The wicked man who adores the Lord becomes holy; even women, vaishyas and shudras (are saved)." The Vaishnava tradition is described as a warm, devotional religion, drawing women and members of the low castes to itself...first announced in the Gita...destined for a long and fruitful career through Indian history."
World Religions explains: "The Vaishnava saints...wrote ecstatic poetry in praise of the Lord in the vernacular..." A key Vaishnavaite doctrine is that of prapatti, or throwing oneself completely on God’s mercy; feeling oneself completely dependent upon the Lord. One school of thought teaches that receiving salvation is comparable to the monkey, which carries its young clinging to its belly—the individual must properly use his free will for grace to assent. Another school of thought uses the analogy of the cat which carries its kitten by the neck—God’s grace requires no human effort.
In Bhagavad-gita ("The Lord’s Song"), Lord Krishna reveals Himself as an incarnation of God to His disciple Arjuna. According to the Gita (11:48), one cannot come to know God personally by study of the scriptures, nor by performing sacrifices, nor by charity, nor by good deeds, nor by penances.
The Gita (11:54-55) teaches that God can only be known through love and devotion. The Brahma-Samhita (34) says the ascetics and deep thinkers who try to understand God through their own abilities merely touch the outskirts of His lotus feet, and do not know Him intimately. The Gita (Ch. 12) explains one must lead a life of devotion to a personal God. Those completely devoted to God are not affected by worldly conflicts, concerns, and entanglements, and are very, very dear to Him.
The Lord’s devotees are lifted by the Lord into a state of spiritual grace; free from the entanglements of the world and the flesh, because—by His mercy—they are able to serve Him personally. (Gita 14:26-27) One can understand God only by devotion. (Gita 18:55) Only through devotion can one enter into the kingdom of God. One must surrender oneself completely to God.
By His grace ("tat-prasadat") one receives everlasting peace and the spiritual Kingdom. (Gita 18:58-66)
The understanding of grace versus works in the Vaishnava tradition is somewhat different compared to that of Christianity. Dr. William Deadwyler (Ravindra Svarupa dasa), a leader in Krishna Consciousness, noted the similarities and differences between the two theologies when giving an account of his own religious upbringing and his observations of the Christian devotional life:
"I was nominally a Methodist, but the Baptists had a strong influence on me. In my childhood I was rather heavily evangelized. But I never made a full commitment. And I think it was because well, I just never met anyone who sufficiently inspired me by his personal example to make that commitment...
"As I grew older, I still looked for something more, something deeper than that benign wholesomeness, that always-smiling friendliness and that relentless cheerfulness. It all seemed so superficial, and so many of them were, as my father put it, ‘on the quietus,’ doing in secret what the unsaved did in the open.
"Having spent many years in their spiritual milieu, I had formed my own judgement of them. I felt that their religious practice was severely crippled by a lack of disciplined, progressive cultivation under expert guidance. Spiritual advancement depends upon such cultivation, just as athletic success requires a rigorous program of training under an expert coach.
"But they had little sense of that. Their belief (correct enough) that salvation comes from God’s grace became transmogrified in practice into a curious sort of spiritual passivity. They depended upon sudden emotional outpourings and flashes of inspiration (whose impact seemed to dissipate swiftly). Thus their spirituality had a haphazard, hit-or-miss character; it suffered from a lack of direction. It was immature.
"As a result, they stagnated in a sort of bland, superficial wholesomeness. In the end, their religiosity simply gave a cachet to a kind of constrained, genteel materialism—to prayers in the locker room after football or golf, and to church barbecues where the girls from the choir managed to seem both sexy and pure at the same time. And even all this was mostly for appearance. Since niceness is not enough, deviance was rampant, if covert. Yet their belief in inherent sinfulness led to a passive acceptance of that, too.
"On the other hand, I knew (these Christians) would view me as espousing the error of Pelagius, the heresy that man can save himself by his own efforts. Enough evangelicals had approached me in the streets to announce, ‘I don’t have to work formy salvation,’ to let me know that the party line on us was out. This charge had two sources. First of all, they saw any sort of regimen as smacking of works. Second of all, they believed that every religion but Christianity, no matter what its particular practices, was Pelagian.
"To be more precise, all religions were Pelagian, but Christianity, strictly speaking, was not a religion. Religion they defined as the vain attempts of man to reach God on his own; all such attempts are tainted by man’s inherent sinfulness and so inevitably fail. Christianity, on the other hand, is God’s own reaching out to man. It is not, of course, tainted by sinfulness."
Some Christian theologians, nonetheless, have acknowledged the Vaishnava tradition as a religion of grace. One of the most renowned thinkers of the early 20th century was a German scholar named Rudolf Otto (1869-1937), recognized for his bookThe Idea of the Holy. Otto was especially concerned with the Vaishnava faith as a competitor to Christianity. A competitor, Otto explained, would make a claim to be equal or even superior to Christianity, and would have a well-founded basis on which to make that claim. According to Otto, a religious competitor is "whatever may seek a place in our hearts or control over our lives that is not our faith but in rivalry with it."
Otto wrote of "India’s religion of grace," or "bhakti-religion," as the principal competitor to Christianity. He discussed this at length in his book India’s Religion of Grace and Christianity Compared and Contrasted. He wrote: "In this Indian bhakti-religion there is presented, without doubt, a real, saving God, believed, received, and—can we doubt it?--experienced. And this is just why this religion appears to me to have been, and to be today, the most astonishing ‘competitor’ to be taken most seriously.
"Here we are dealing with a genuine religion and religion of experience," Otto explained. "Religion here is no mere fringe sentiment furnishing a border to the rest of our life, but is conceived as the true meaning of life itself." Otto devoted a good portion of this book to demonstrating and appreciating the numerous similarities between Vaishnavaism and Christianity.
According to Otto, "The similarities present here are so important that it is tempting to consider this religion, viewed from the outside, as a sort of duplicate on Indian soil of that religion which emerged from Palestine and which we call Christianity."
In his book, The Living God: Basal Forms of Personal Religion, Nathan Soderblom similarly observed: "Warren Hastings was right in writing that of all known religions this comes nearest to Christianity."
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