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The most profound experiences of God, or of absolute Truth, in human history


"It cannot be doubted that this mystical experience to which the Upanishads bear witness is one of the most profound experiences of God, or of absolute Truth, in human history, and any theology in India which is worthy of the name has to take account of this experience and integrate it in the total experience of Christian faith. It is clear that if we accept the view that the created world is an image or reflection of the uncreated being or brahman, and that the human soul by a free gift of grace—"he whom the atman chooses, he knows the atman"—is able to know brahman by an intuitive knowledge of its inner self, and that even this knowledge cannot be attained, as the Katha Upanishad again says," unless evil ways are abandoned, and there is rest in the senses, concentration in the mind, and peace in the heart," [49] it is then clear that there is nothing contrary to Christian faith in such a conception. Translating it into Christian terms we can say that the Spirit illumines the mind by its own free action and the soul comes to know itself as the image of God made in the likeness of Christ, in whom the Father, the original source of being, reveals himself."

[Bruno Barnhart]: Writing of Hindu mysticism in another 'Monastic Studies' essay ten years later, Bede describes the same experience once again. Here he focuses upon the meaning of the language of nonduality or identity used for this unitive realization in the Upanishadic literature. The experience of the Absolute through the Self—by the way of interiorization—is an experience beyond every duality. How can this undoubtedly genuine experience be rendered in terms acceptable to a Christian, for whom the ontological distinctness of God and the creature cannot be violated? Bede finds a solution in the biblical conception of the human person as created in the image of God: a conception which remained central to Christian mystical theologians, from early centuries through the middle ages. Meister Eckhart or Abhishiktananda would probably have taken the riskier path, asserting the union in bold language, accenting the magnificent paradox.

[Bede Griffiths]: The Hindu approach to this mystery is by way of the exploration of consciousness. The brahman, which is the source of all, the beginning and end of creation, is present in the heart of man as the source of consciousness. It is"The great Being, infinite, limitless, consisting of nothing but knowledge ('vijnana-ghana')," or in a still more striking phrase, "The Person of light, consisting of knowledge ('vijnana-maya') within the heart."[41] But this presence cannot be known by the senses or by the rational mind."It is unseen but seeing; unheard but hearing; unperceived but perceiving, unknown but knowing."The disciple has to be taught to go beyond the outer senses and the inner mind, the physical and psychic worlds, in order to know the true self within. As the Mandukya Upanishad puts it, it is beyond the waking state and the dream state, beyond even the state of deep sleep, where both sense and mind are at rest. It is the"fourth"state, turiya, the state beyond our present mode of consciousness.[42] In the Katha Upanishad it is shown how the disciple must go through death and be instructed by Yama, the god of death, if he is to know that which lies beyond. Only then can he awake to the supreme reality and"recognize the Ancient, who is difficult to be seen, who has entered into the dark, who is hidden in the cave, who dwells in the abyss as God."[43] This is the supreme knowledge, which cannot be attained by argument, or by learning, or by the Scriptures, but which is given to him whom the Self chooses.[44] This conception of the supreme knowledge as a gift of grace is found both in the Katha and in the Mundaka Upanishad and is undoubtedly an authentic part of the Upanishadic tradition, though Sankara was unable to accept it.

This knowledge of the Supreme is expressed in the Upanishads by the great 'mahavakyas'—"I am brahman"—"Thou art That."How are we to understand these expressions? It is clear that they are the expression of a mystical experience which cannot be properly expressed. Sankara, at least as he is generally understood, interprets them in terms of identity. But it seems that even in Sankara it is possible that his understanding was deeper than it appears, and the words are certainly capable of a more profound interpretation. In the Katha Upanishad we have the image of the"two who have entered into the cave, the seat of the Supreme."[45] In the Svetasvatara Upanishad this is elaborated in the following terms: "Two birds, inseparable friends, cling to the same tree. One eats the sweet fruit, the other looks on without eating."This is then interpreted: "On the same tree man sits grieving, immersed, bewildered by his impotence. But when he sees the Other, the Lord (Isa), and knows his glory, his grief passes away."[46] The two birds are, of course, the 'jivatman' and the 'paramatman', the individual and the supreme self. What is the relation between them? It seems possible to interpret this relation in terms of an image in a mirror. The image in the mirror is not different from the original in that it is one and the same reality which is present in the reflection and in the original. But the image in the mirror has not the same kind of reality as the original. It has a wholly relative reality. In this sense the image and the original are"not two."Sankara himself uses the image of the sun reflected in different pools of water. It is one and the same sun which is reflected in each pool; there is only one being, but it is reflected in a multitude of different forms. In each pool it is one and the same sun which is reflected and yet each is different. It would seem that this conception would come as near as possible to a true interpretation of the intuition of the 'Upanishads.' In the Upanishads it is not suggested that the world is unreal. In the Svetasvatara Upanishad, where the word 'maya' is used, it signifies no more than that which is"made," while the maker is the mayin.[47]

If this explanation is accepted, then the sayings," I am brahman," "Thou art that," can be interpreted in the sense that there is one reality, one being, which when conceived as the source or ground of consciousness is called atman. Each created thing and each individual soul is an image or reflection as in a mirror of this one reality. The image has its own relative reality. It is not unreal, but neither is it wholly real, since its whole being is from another. In our present mode of consciousness we see this one reality reflected in the mirror of this created world. But when we wake to the 'paravidya', to the supreme knowledge, then we see that one reality alone, in which all the images are contained. When this awakening takes place then there is no more duality.[48] Then the person knows himself not as reflected through his senses or his mental consciousness but in his original state, in the ground of his eternal being and consciousness, and in this knowledge he experiences absolute bliss. This is the supreme knowledge; the soul comes to know its self in its original being ('sat'), and this knowledge ('cit') brings absolute bliss ('nanda'). Thus as far as it can be named this state of being is called Saccidananda. But the word is only a pointer to a reality which has to be experienced. The Jnani (knower) is one who has experienced this state of being and is able to communicate his knowledge to another, when he is ready to receive it. In other words this is a mystical experience in which the soul knows itself in its original ground of being, beyond sense and reason, where all differences as conceived by the mind disappear and the one reality is experienced without duality in a unitive vision, which communicates absolute bliss.

It cannot be doubted that this mystical experience to which the Upanishads bear witness is one of the most profound experiences of God, or of absolute Truth, in human history, and any theology in India which is worthy of the name has to take account of this experience and integrate it in the total experience of Christian faith. It is clear that if we accept the view that the created world is an image or reflection of the uncreated being or brahman, and that the human soul by a free gift of grace—"he whom the atman chooses, he knows the atman"—is able to know brahman by an intuitive knowledge of its inner self, and that even this knowledge cannot be attained, as the Katha Upanishad again says," unless evil ways are abandoned, and there is rest in the senses, concentration in the mind, and peace in the heart," [49] it is then clear that there is nothing contrary to Christian faith in such a conception. Translating it into Christian terms we can say that the Spirit illumines the mind by its own free action and the soul comes to know itself as the image of God made in the likeness of Christ, in whom the Father, the original source of being, reveals himself.

Once we reach this inner point where we seem to be isolated, we suddenly discover ourselves to be in communion with everyone and everything. Zaehner goes on," This is brahman's saving touch which brings unbounded infinite joy. It is the touch of which the Buddhists know nothing. Yet it is the most real of all, the 'union of opposites'—that of the point without magnitude, the human self, and of the utterly unmeasured and unmeasurable, the inconceivably great." It is the paradox of the Self, which is more minute than the minute, and yet greater than the great, vaster than the vast. It is that point where one expands into infinity. So Zaehner says," by the maximum concentration of all that is in us into the infinitely small, the timeless Self, one finds that this nothing is, nevertheless, conformed to infinity."Although Zaehner doubts that this is a Buddhist experience, this emptiness which is total fulfillment is, as I understand it, very much the Buddhist experience of nirvana in the Mahayana tradition. Zaehner continues," It can almost be said that when this process of integration reaches its goal, there is an explosion. The self bursts asunder and finds itself utterly available to brahman's saving touch. One seems to be concentrating one's self, separating from everybody and getting more and more isolated, and then on reaching that point, one suddenly explodes and realizes: 'I am at one with the whole of creation, with all humanity.'"This interconnection and interpenetration of all things, which is now revealed, is not what the classical Sankhya had conceived. This is something new, although it was already present in the 'Upanishads'. There is a beautiful passage in the 'Chandogya Upanishad', which speaks of this experience of brahman, how"He is myself within the heart, smaller than the grain of rice, a barley-corn or a mustard seed or a grain of millet or the kernel of a grain of millet." Likewise in the Gospel, the Kingdom of Heaven is compared to a grain of mustard seed. It is the tiniest thing in the world. It has no dimension at all. Yet it is"greater than the earth, greater than the air, greater than the sky, greater than all these worlds."Then the Upanishad concludes: 'll works, all desires, all sense, all tastes belong to it. It encompasses all the universe, does not speak and has no care. This my Self within the heart, is that brahman. When I depart from hence I shall merge into it. He who believes this will never doubt."When one goes beyond the senses and the mind, at that point the whole world is rediscovered but in a new dimension. One is no longer subject to the senses; one is completely free but can use and enjoy them to the full. So all senses, all tastes, all desires, all works, are found there but in a totally new way.

The One Light - Bede Griffiths' Principal Writings
Chapter IV, East, Part One - The Wisdom of India p.207-212
Edited and with Commentary by Bruno Barnhart
Templegate Publishers, Springfield, Illinois


Note: Note:
[40]"The Mystical Tradition in Indian Theology," 'Monastic Studies' 13 (1982), 162-165.
[41] Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 4.3.7 and 3.8.11.
[42] Mandukya Upanishad 7.
[43] Katha Upanishad 2.12.
[44] Katha Upanishad 2.23.
[45] Katha Upanishad 3.1.
[46] Svetasvatara Upanishad 4.16 and 4.17.
[47] Svetasvatara Upanishad 4.10.
[48] See Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 2.4.13.
[49] Katha Upanishad 2.24.
[50] 'River of Compassion', 123-124.
[51] See Part V, n. 67, 68, 69, 70.




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