December 20, 2011

Happy Birthday, Guru Jesus.

How One Hinjew Came to Love Christmas

Growing up in the 1950s, I was familiar with three kinds of Jesus.

There was the one-and-only begotten son of God, Savior of all Mankind, who was known to the Irish and Italian Catholics in the neighborhood. And, among the Jews, there were two versions: the laudable ethical teacher—a nice Jewish boy, essentially, who met with a terrible fate—and the Jesus that never existed, a creature of mythology, like Apollo or Zeus. In my atheistic home, where religion was the opium of the people, Jesus was largely irrelevant, except as a proponent of the Golden Rule and for the horrors that had been perpetrated in his name.

Then came the Sixties, and I was introduced to a different Jesus, by way of India. Like millions of my contemporaries, my hot pursuit of truth and personal fulfillment led me to spiritual legacy of the East.  I read the sacred texts of Hinduism and Buddhism, and modern interpreters such as Aldous Huxley, Alan Watts and Huston Smith.  I was drawn to what was called mysticism because I found it, ironically, non-mysterious and eminently rational. I found a yoga class—not easy to do back then, believe it or not—and learned to meditate.  Throughout my explorations, the name of Jesus kept coming up in a respectful context, a trend that peaked with Paramahansa Yogananda’s seminal memoir, Autobiography of a Yogi, which treats the rabbi of Nazareth with such reverence that I thought I must be missing something.

So I bought a New Testament, and it blew my mind.  Because my spiritual reference point was more Hindu than Judeo-Christian, the Gospels came off the page more like the Upanishads or the Bhagavad Gita than churchy dogma. The main character was a master teacher—a guru—who led his disciples not just to better behavior but to union with the divine.  His term for the Ground of Being was “Father,” but it was easy to evoke the language of the Vedic seers and substitute Brahman or the Self. When he tells the crowd at the Sermon on the Mount not to pray conspicuously like the hypocrites, but to “go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret,” I saw a guru directing his disciples to meditate in silence. This was a Jesus I could live with: exalted in a way befits someone whose impact on history is unparalleled, but without the cosmos-shaking agenda or the triumphalism that relegates non-believers to either irrelevance or damnation.

I soon learned that Hindus in general, and the gurus and yoga masters who came to the West in particular, saw Jesus in much the same way, as a sadguru (true teacher) and an enlightened yogi of the highest order. Some afforded him the status of avatar, placing him on the same level as Krishna, Rama, and others in their pantheon of divine incarnations. To them, the teaching of Christ, followed properly, is a legitimate pathway to the unified awareness that is yoga’s true aim.  That is why, in many spiritual institutions with Indian roots, you will find images of Jesus alongside the masters of their own lineages.

This way of seeing Jesus has been filtering into America’s bloodstream ever since Thoreau equated Jesus and Buddha and called himself a yogi. It gathered steam as a stately parade of gurus arrived on our shores, and it exploded after the Beatles’ 1968 sojourn in India, and by now it has affected millions.  For a great many angry or alienated Christians, it has been the key to reconnecting with their religious heritage on terms they can live with.  Even those whose religious orientation is, for all practical purposes, Hindu have been encouraged by their gurus to honor their Christian roots, often by thinking of Jesus as their ishta devata (preferred form of God).  These prodigal sons and daughters may identify more with the transcendent mysticism of Meister Eckhart or John of the Cross or Thomas Merton than with mainstream Christianity, but they found their way back to the Jesus they love by way of India.  Similarly, thousands of Jews who studied Hinduism or Buddhism came to see Jesus as a mystical rabbi and a passionate reformer, not as the founder of a hostile cult.

The image of Jesus as a sage and sadguru may not sit well with clerics for whom Christ can only be the one true messiah and the great hinge of history. They ought to be glad that millions of people who might otherwise view this season as merely a respite from work, or as nothing but humbug, will instead celebrate it as a birthday bash for a great yogi.



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