Without Christianity I don’t think the oriental religions, Hinduism and Buddhism, can answer the needs of the modern world. But without the enrichment of the mystical tradition of Asia I doubt whether the Western Churches can really discover the fullness of Christ which we are seeking. ~ Bede Griffiths
Bede Griffiths, a one-time student of C S Lewis, combined the life of a monk and a yogi. On his own, apparently, he undertook Guenon’s project to reinvigorate his Catholic tradition with Oriental metaphysics. In a series of six lectures, published as The Cosmic Revelation, Griffiths provides us with a fine overview of the Vedanta and its relevance to the West. I’ll organize the following review by the chapter titles while highlighting their main points.
Due to the depth of the material, the full review will appear in multiple segments.
The Vedic Revelation
As does Rene Guenon, Griffiths accepts that the Vedas arise from a divine revelation. In them, the word (vac) is the mediator between God and man. The word veda means knowledge, the same as the Latin video, to see, to know. Hence “knowing” is like “seeing”. As Griffiths points out, the Vedas (and Sanskrit) were brought to India by the Aryans from the North in the second millennium BC. Its authors are called rishis, or see-ers. But Vedas are not a fabrication; they are also called sruti, which means they were “heard”. In sum, they are what has been heard, what is eternal, without human authorship.
After the Vedas came the Brahmanas, which were commentaries on the ritual sacrifices, the Aranyakas, written by the mystical forest dwellers, and then the Upanishads, or records of discussions between the rishis and their students. These are all the echoes of the original peoples who arrived in India from the North; that is why they may still resonate in some deep part of us.
The later epics (the Mahabharata and the Ramayana) evolved over time from the intermixtures of the Northern Aryans with the Southern Dravidians. Griffiths notes that the northern religion is “a religion of a nomadic people, of warriors, and much more dynamic”, in contrast with the earthy religion of the Mother goddess worship of the South. Next came the Darshanas, or the orthodox philosophical systems.
Hinduism, he says, is called the sanatana dharma, the “eternal religion”. Griffiths does not mention that St Augustine made the same point: there is but one tradition, which is now known as Catholic. Therefore, Griffiths needs to explain the two concepts of God. The first Veda refers to “the one being the wise called by many names.” Therefore, the gods are names and forms under which the one God manifests himself. That is, they are more or less the equivalent of “angels” or the “cosmic powers” mentioned by St Paul. The One Being is behind the powers of nature, the sky, the earth, the sea, fire, and so on. Hence, Hinduism is no more polytheistic than is Catholicism with its cult of angels and saints.
Words in sacred languages are not as univocal as modern ones. For example, the word “spirit” in most languages also means “wind or air or breath or life or soul or spirit.” That is what makes translations difficult: there is no one precise meaning, since the word contains all the meanings. Griffiths refers to Poetic Diction by the anthroposophist and inkling Owen Barfield for support.
The rishis did not have the same dualistic consciousness of most people today. For example, in the Vedas we find many prayers for material prosperity: cattle, horses, butter, wealth, and so on. Aurobindo Ghose, in the Secret of the Veda points out that these words have both a psychological and a physical meaning. So as butter comes from milk and thoughts come from mind, “butter” may also mean thought.
A better example, from our perspective, is the fire sacrifice associated with the hearth, since keeping the “home fire burning” was such an important rite to early Indo-European people. But that also means to build the fire in the heart. Tapas, which means “asceticism, self-control, discipline”, originally meant “heat”. Hence, the buildup of friction in the mind through self-discipline is the same as “heart” or the fire in the heart. So there is the exoteric religion of the rites around the physical fire, and the esoteric religion of inner fire. Yet it would be a mistake to separate them, or to claim that the esoteric meaning is the “real” meaning. That is a dualistic view. Rather, our ancestors would have experienced them as the same; the fire in the hearth and the fire in the heart are the same. The discipline of the outer rite is a reflection of the inner discipline.
The Three Worlds
The rishis recognized the three worlds of physical being, psychological being, and spiritual being as one, not separating them, as we may do. (Actually, the spiritual is now opaque to most people, and even the psychological is understood as a mere physical process.) Hence, the sun is not just an astronomical body providing light to the physical world but also the source of light to the mind as the inner sun. Hence, the sun, moon, and earth, trees, etc., understood at the level of soul and spirit, are revered because God is in the midst of them. That is, the whole creation is pervaded by God.
Two Conceptions of God
The Hebrews begin with God’s transcendence. God is infinitely high above the heavens and descends to the prophets, becomes incarnate in Jesus, and so on. That is, it is a movement of descent from above.
The Hindu starts in the opposite way. God is immanent in every created thing. Of course, Christians pay lip service to the idea of omnipresence, but have largely lost the experience of it. Hence, these two visions are complementary, not opposed.
Of course, God as transcendent to the physical cosmos is one thing, but God as transcendent spiritually is another. Hence, we should also understand transcendence in our interiority, in our “heart”, as the I that watches the flow of consciousness. Many theological conundrums can be resolved through spiritual experience and understanding.
Griffiths concludes the first lecture with a call for the Church to be enriched from the encounter with other religions, just as it absorbed European paganisms. However, I believe he is neglecting a certain fundamental point. Europeans and the people who were formed around the Vedic revelation have the same ancestors. Hence, there is a certain affinity of the Vedic revelation to the West which makes it more appropriate.
As the Church has been expanding into Africa and elsewhere, there is an encounter, as he points out, with those aboriginal religions, leading, for example, to cults like Santeria. However, as much as it may be valid for them, that is not our present concern.