Religious Progressives - Rabbi Rami Shapiro"The religion of a religious progressive is the religion of radical humility, hospitality, and holiness: admitting to not knowing the nature and mind of God; welcoming all to God's feast regardless of gender, race, religion, ethnicity, etc.; and using justice and compassion toward all beings as the standard by which to measure the value of any creed or system of belief. Religious progressives can be Jewish, Christian, Moslem, Hindu, Buddhist, New Age, etc. What matters is not the label but the ability to hold it lightly, and to transcend it in the greater reality of the One Who is all."
Monday, May 01, 2006
"What is a religious progressive? That was the topic at a conference I attended this weekend in Nashville, TN. Most of the participants drew their insights from Jim Wallis ("God's Politics") and Michael Lerner ("Left Hand of God"), two wonderful thinkers who find in their respective faiths (Christianity and Judaism) a politics of compassion that surpasses the fear-based religions of the Religious Right.
I could and did nod in agreement. There is little if anything that either Jim or Michael says that I cannot support. But I have a contrarian streak; I need to stand out; to say something different. This is a psychological disorder, I am sure, but it is mine nonetheless. So when asked to define"religious progressive"I suggested that a religious progressive is someone who has progressed beyond religion.
At the heart of religion, or at least at the heart of the three Abrahamic religions, is the illusion of scarcity. God chooses Jews not Christians or Moslems; saves Christians not Jews or Moslems; and gives the one uncorrupted revelation to Moslems not Christians or Jews. Because God's love is scarce, the religions that compete for that love share a zero-sum theology: for one to win, the others must lose.
Of course there are liberals in all three faiths who have outgrown this, but that isn't enough. We have to name it and openly reject it. We have to own the fact that scarcity infects all three Abrahamic faiths in a way that makes them intrinsically fear-based and violent, and then we have to reinvent our respective faiths from a position of God's infinite and timeless love (ahavah rabbah/ahavat olam, to use Jewish terms).
A true religious progressive is one whose faith is not in religion, but in God; not in the known but in the Unknowable; not in this or that belief but in the realization that belief is simply the projection of ones own ego.
The religion of a religious progressive is the religion of radical humility, hospitality, and holiness: admitting to not knowing the nature and mind of God; welcoming all to God's feast regardless of gender, race, religion, ethnicity, etc.; and using justice and compassion toward all beings as the standard by which to measure the value of any creed or system of belief. Religious progressives can be Jewish, Christian, Moslem, Hindu, Buddhist, New Age, etc. What matters is not the label but the ability to hold it lightly, and to transcend it in the greater reality of the One Who is all.
Let us religious progressives stand for that, and we will stand for something invaluable."
Rabbi Rami Shapiro
Offer such a religion and all the nations will follow you.
"This, brethren, is a short sketch of the religious ideas of the Hindus. The Hindu may have failed to carry out all his plans, but if there is ever to be a universal religion, it must be one which will have no location in place or time; which will be infinite like the God it will preach, and whose sun will shine upon the followers of Krishna and of Christ, on saints and sinners alike; which will not be Brahminic or Buddhistic, Christian or Mohammedan, but the sum total of all these. and still have infinite space for development; which in its catholicity will embrace in infinite arms, and find a place for, every human being from the lowest grovelling savage, not far removed from the brute, to the highest man towering by the virtues of his head and heart almost above humanity, making society stand in awe of him and doubt his human nature. It will be a religion which will have no place for persecution or intolerance in its polity, which will recognize divinity in every man and woman, and whose whole scope, whose whole force, will be centered in aiding humanity to realize its own true, divine nature.
Offer such a religion and all the nations will follow you."
- Swami Vivekananda
"The masses were caught between the Hindu Puraanas and Buddhist Jataka stories, or gorgeous ceremonies before the image of Buddha or the elaboration of the Vedic sacrifice"
Every human person is a seeker of that which makes him happy and accomplishes in him a sense of fulfillment. But he could make an error in recognizing what makes him happy and the means of attaining it. That is the reason we find different people go after different things, thinking that they would find fulfillment in them. Some seek money; others fame and power; yet others find joy in going into the forest leaving all worldly pleasures to find meaning in life. Often people walk through their life like blind men trying to find their way. So there is need for true teachers, who not only would point out the goal of life, but also provide the means of attaining it. Of the many teachers India has produced, the most significant Guru is Shankaraachaariya. He taught people that the goal of human existence is self-realization, which is the same as Brahman-realization, and the means of reaching this goal. In the first section of the introduction we attempt to look into Shankara's background and life, while the second section of the introduction lays out the plan by which we would unfold Shankara's ideal of self-realization.
1. SHANKARA'S BACKGROUND AND LIFE
In this section, we will outline the spiritual, intellectual and social situation before and during Shankara's time. We will look also into Shankara as an ascetic, a missionary and an interpreter of the Hindu scriptures. This section will also highlight the many-sided personality of Shankara and the importance of his Advaitic school of thought.
1.1. The Age of Shankara
Shankara lived at a time when society faced serious spiritual emptiness, intellectual crisis and social decadence. Historically it was more than ten centuries after the emergence of Buddhism. The spiritual situation was deplorable. Both Jainism and Buddhism had lost their original glory. The message of ahimsa and compassion preached by the Lord Buddha had fallen onto deaf ears. The original teaching of Buddha stressed the importance of moral life, in the process sidelining theistic worship. Over the centuries that followed, there emerged a number of Buddhist schools, the adherents of which used strict logic and reason to defend the rationalism and atheism inherent in Buddha's teachings, while totally forgetting the importance he gave to the supremacy of an ethical life of love and compassion. Thus, the common people were left neither with an ethical way of life nor with a religion to practice, as they could not come to terms with the rationalism and atheism propagated by the Buddhist schools. This, in turn, led to the worship of Buddha as God, the emergence of elaborate rituals of worship, and the Buddhist monks transforming themselves into priests of these new ceremonies and exponents of popular stories about Buddha. The spiritual life, therefore, among the Buddhists was at a low point, as what were left of Buddhism were mere logical schools and corrupt ritual practices. Thus, Buddhism had completed a full circle, in that the very ritualism which Buddha combatted in founding Buddhism had infected it; in the process, the vitality and purity of Buddhism taught by Lord Buddha had ceased to exist. Madhava-Vidhyaranya in his Shankara-Dig-Vijaya portrays the spiritual degeneration of Buddhism as follows:
In days of yore, ... Lord Vishnu incarnated Himself as the Buddha and diverted unrighteous men from contaminating the Vedic Path by preaching a new religion for them. But today, the country is filled with the heterodox followers of that religion [Buddhism], as night is by darkness. They are indulging in carping criticism of the Veda, declaring it to be just a fraudulent means of livelihood for a few, and condemning its teachings of duties of varnas and ashramaas as mere superstitions. As people have given up the orthodox Vedic path and become heretics, there is none to do the daily devotional acts like sandhya or to take the life of renunciation.
Thus, Buddhism had, by then, degenerated and deteriorated into innumerable philosophical schools that propagated atheism and rationalism, while popular Buddhism consisted of many corrupt religious and ritual practices. Religious practice, therefore, was left without any spiritual content.
Nor was the spiritual situation of Hinduism acceptable either. The decline of Buddhism provided an opportunity for the revival of Hinduism, but the aim of Hindu scholars at this time was not to bring genuine reform in Hinduism, but to attack and defile Buddhism. Elaborate attempts were made by Jaimini and Kumarila Bhatta to defend the teaching of Puurva Miimamsa, which contained details about Vedic rituals and sacrifices by way of logic and dialectics. The ordinary masses, who did not understand logic and rational approach, were prescribed rituals and sacrifices, often exaggerating their importance and the manner of their performance. Thus, the whole practice of rituals and performances of sacrifices in the Hinduism of the time were bereft of genuine spiritual fervor and the deep inner experience of the Divine. The lack of inner spirit in the practice of Hindu religion did, in no way, provide any positive guidance to the people, as these elaborate rituals were without any purposive direction. Without any inner spirit and genuine purpose, the practice of Hinduism gave way to various sects, which attempted to expound their own beliefs rather than the truth contained in the Vedas. Such sectarianism and varied interests of different sects turned the"benign gods and goddesses ... into blood-thirsty ones, groveling in the mire of sensuality and lust, and demanding awesome, cruel and barbaric homage from their misguided devotees."
Thus, both Buddhism and Hinduism, prior to and during Shankara's age were without any spiritual content and dynamism. Swami Atmananda summarizes the spiritual state of both the religions as follows: The people able to think were caught between Buddhist logic and atheism on the one hand and the subtle interpretation of Miimamsa on the other; the masses were caught between the Hindu Puraanas and Buddhist Jataka stories, or gorgeous ceremonies before the image of Buddha or the elaboration of the Vedic sacrifice. Spiritual insight was conspicuous by its absence. Such was the atmosphere in India that called forth a Shankara.
At the intellectual level there was a serious crisis. Genuine interest for true knowledge was lacking. Since this period was given to religious sectarianism, each school of thought was only concerned about proving what it considered as true, rather than looking for true and objective knowledge about reality. As a result, on the one hand there were literalists and ritualists, who attempted to be faithful to the letter of the scriptures, in the process totally oblivious to the spiritual message contained in them; on the other hand there were nihilists, rationalists and atheists, who were totally opposed to the sacred teachings of the Vedas. There was a fanaticism that swayed the minds of most scholars, which led to attacks and belittlement other schools of thought, rather than really seeking the truth with an open mind. Swami Chinmayananda depicts the intellectual situation of the age of Shankara as follows: Hinduism had been almost smothered within the enticing entanglements of the Buddhist philosophy, and consequently the decadent Hindu society came to be disunited and broken up into numberless sects and denominations, each championing a different viewpoint and engaged in mutual quarrels and endless argumentations. Each pundit, as it were, had his own followers, his own philosophy, his own interpretation; each one was a vehement and powerful opponent of all other views. This intellectual disintegration, especially in the scriptural field, was never before so serious and so dangerously calamitous as in the time of Shankara.
The spiritual and intellectual degeneration had its effects in the social life of the times. The divisive mentality that marked the intellectual and spiritual spheres also was carried over to the social life. Hindu society was weighed down by the yoke of caste system. The lower castes were treated with contempt by the higher classes, especially by the priestly class. The suudras were often considered untouchables. They could never have a life on par with the other classes, in any sphere of social life. This led to the exploitation of the members of the lowest caste, who were ignorant and without any education. Priests used religion and rituals as a means of aggression, subordination and control over the lower castes, as it was more a means of intimidation rather than a means of solace for the people. Such religious practices led to social corruption and exploitation of the lower castes by the higher castes. Thus, the social life was not impacted by moral values. A utilitarian attitude dominated and controlled social relationships. Society was moving without any sense of direction and orientation.
Thus, the Indian heritage Shankara received to transform was like a ship without the navigator. There was an all-round degeneration. Every sphere of existence revolved around the superficial and the external, lacking true inner spirit. The following quotation truly depicts the state of India before Shankara was born.
India was going through great intellectual, spiritual and social turmoil. Vedic religion had become a mere performance of elaborate rituals as advocated by Puurva Miimamsa, which took into consideration only the Brahmana portion of the Vedic lore. Buddhism was past its heyday of freshness and purity and had degenerated into innumerable philosophical schools and as many corrupt religious practices... .Hinduism had developed into a number of intolerant sects. Squabbles, dissensions and corruption prevailed in the name of religion. It was into such an age of fuming confusion, chaotic intellectual anarchy and social decadence that ... Shankara was born to destroy the wicked and crooked ways of thinking, establish Sanaatana Dharma, and to impart to it the life-giving philosophy of non-dual Brahman."
Vensus A. George, Self-realization (Brahmaanubhava)
Council for Research in Values & (January 2001), pp. 1-5
1. Cf. Swami Atmananda, Sri Shankara's Teaching in His Own Words, in Bhavan's Book Library, ed. K.M. Munshi and R.R. Diwakar, vol. 52, (Bombay: Baratiya Vidya Bhawan, 1960), p. 38.
2. Madhava-Vidhyaranya, Shankara-Dig-Vijaya, trans. Swami Tapasyananda, 3rd ed., (Madras: Sri Ramakrishna Math, 1986), p. 4 (Hereafter: SDV).
3. Cf. Swami Atmananda, p. 39.
4. Cf. Central Chinmaya Mission Trust, Shankara: The Missionary, (Bombay: 1990), p. 7 (Hereafter: SM).
6. Swami Atmananda, p. 39.
7. SM, p. 1.
8. There are four castes in the Hindu society. They are the Brahmins (the priestly class),the Kshatriyas (the rulers), the Vaisyas (the artisans) and the Suudras (the slaves).
9. SM, p. 18.
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