By Swami Prabhavananda
Swami Prabhavananda was the founder and head of the Vedanta Society of Southern California from 1930 until his death in 1976. He was the author of The Sermon on the Mount According to Vedanta, The Eternal Companion, Religion in Practice, and the Spiritual Heritage of India. In addition, he translated the Bhagavad Gita, the Upanishads, Shankara’s Crest-Jewel of Discrimination and How to Know God: The Yoga Aphorisms of Patanjali.
“What Christ Means to Me” appeared in the Nov-Dec, 1967 “Vedanta and the West” magazine.
In the Vedas, the earliest scriptures of India, we find this truth: “Truth is one, though sages call it by various names.” Later in the Upanishads, we come across a similar statement: “As different streams coming from various sources ultimately flow into one ocean, so do the many religions of the world, emerging from innumerable sources, at long last mingle in the great ocean of love.” In this present age, we have again been taught: As many religions, so many paths. All reach one and the same goal. Thus, from the earliest Vedic times up to our modern age this ideal of harmony and universality has been taught to every Hindu.
A Hindu learns to respect every faith and every prophet; but it is impossible for him or her to understand any religion that claims to be unique. This does not mean that Hindus are actively interested in other religions. Rather, it means that they respect them. They respect the beliefs of others and their saints and prophets, though they may not obey their dogmas. For in India, each individual has, as it were, his or her own path to follow. Strange as it may seem to an Occidental, parents and children may live together collectively, yet individually worship God in different ways. The husband may be ignorant of how the wife worships, and the wife totally unaware of her husband’s beliefs. Every member of the family is given the freedom to approach God in a manner which each finds most suitable to his or her temperament or inclination. It is this sort of freedom that has inspired the Hindu’s respect for Christ. Now let me tell you how I personally became attracted to Christ and Christianity and the teachings of the Bible.
When I was sixteen years old I left the village where I lived and came to nearby Calcutta to enter the university. At that time, I received a present from the YMCA—a Bible. I tried to read it, but, having the impatience of a typical teenager, I never seemed able to get beyond the “begats”! So I did not look at the Bible again for a long time. Then, several years later, when I joined the Ramakrishna Order, I had an interesting experience. A few days after my admission we held a Christmas celebration at our monastery; Christmas is celebrated at all the monasteries of the Order (though not in Hindu homes). In one of the large halls the monks had built an altar, upon which was a picture of the Madonna and Child. Seated around the altar were many of the direct disciples of Sri Ramakrishna. Imagine, if you will, the physical presence of Peter, James, John, Mathew, and so on. This is how we felt, as though the counterparts of Christ’s disciples were present before us.
A disciple of Swami Vivekananda, who had dressed himself up as a Christian padre, performed the worship. He offered candles, flowers, and, strange as it may seem, a fruitcake—the kind you buy in a Western market. It was unusual because I don’t believe fruitcake existed when Christ was alive! We also offered a cigar to him. You see, this again was our idea of what a Westerner might like. As the worship proceeded, all of us remained silent. Then my master, Swami Brahmananda, told us: “Meditate on the Christ within and feel his living presence.” We all felt—suddenly—that a spiritual atmosphere had been created.
Later, after the worship, my master made us all laugh with his jesting and playful humor. This is one of the characteristics, I am told, he shared with Sri Ramakrishna—this ability to make others literally roll on the ground with laughter. Yes, he would tell such witty remarks, and then the next moment create an atmosphere of serenity and holiness. It was in that atmosphere that everyone of us felt that Christ was as much our own as Krishna or Ramakrishna.
There is also another reason why Christ is offered worship at our monasteries. As you might know, Sri Ramakrishna was interested in every religion, actively interested; for he followed their particular paths to discover the truth of them. And he found that all of them, like streams, mingled in the great ocean of love. A disciple of his would occasionally read the Bible to him, and then explain it in Bengali. In this way Ramakrishna came to know something of Christianity. One day, while visiting a devotee, he chanced to see a picture of the Madonna and Child. As he was looking at the picture, it suddenly became living to him. His heart was filled with love for Christ. For a period of three days and three nights he stayed in his room, filled with the presence of Jesus. He even refused to go to the Hindu temple or worship any of the Hindu gods or goddesses. Curious to know how the followers of Christ worshipped their Lord, he was granted a vision of devotees kneeling before Jesus and praying to him. On the third day, as he was seated outside his room, Ramakrishna noticed a luminous figure approaching him. At once he knew that this was Christ the Savior. The figure approached and embraced him and entered into his body. And so Ramakrishna came to understand that Jesus was an avatar, a divine incarnation.
Christ has another significance for the Ramakrishna Order. After Ramakrishna passed away in 1886, his disciples took their final vows of sannyasa on Christmas Eve. So you can understand why Christmas Eve is particularly sacred to us, for the Order was really founded on that day. But now let me try to explain the significance of Christ and his teachings.
It is not possible to have an intellectual understanding of anything unless we relate it back to some other thing. In other words, it is impossible to understand a religion or a prophet of a religion without comparing them to some other teaching or teacher. If something is unique or has no parallel in history, it cannot be understood on an intellectual level. Therefore, I must try to explain Jesus in relation to other great teachers.
Anyone who has sincerely made a comparative study of the world’s great teachers will find that they speak the same truth, though they might express themselves differently. In this country it is a bit different. Here religions are often studied with the idea that “Well, my religion is best, but let us see what the others have to say.” This is not the way to examine comparative religion. First of all we must go to the source. For instance, if I were to consider Christianity on the evidence presented to me by the theologians, I think I might have to reject it—totally! Instead, the scriptures must be consulted to appreciate and understand any religion. Read the “Sermon on the Mount” or the Bhagavad Gita or the teachings of Buddha, not the interpretations of a Buddhist monk or Hindu priest. If you go to the source, you will find that the same truth lies beneath all religions.
Who was Christ? The Gospel according to St. John gives us some indication of his role as an avatar. It begins: “In the beginning was the word and the word was with God and the word was God . . . And the word became flesh and dwelt among us and we beheld his glory, the glory of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.” Without involving ourselves in a lengthy discussion of Logos—the Word—we should mention that there is a parallelism here with the Vedic scriptures. As you know, it is the Logos that is considered the only begotten of God, and it is the Logos which is one with God and became flesh in Jesus. Now in the Vedas, we find this statement: “In the beginning was God; with him was the Word, and this word is Brahman.”
Of course, I am not of the opinion that John borrowed from the Vedas! But it indicates that universality of truth. This truth is in the very atmosphere; it exists eternally, in every human heart. It only waits to be unfolded. For instance, let us take the discovery of a scientific truth. How did Isaac Newton arrive at his theory of gravity? He saw an apple fall to the ground. This thought came to him: “I am seeing a law of nature in operation.” He realized its existence. It is the same way with spiritual truths; they too exist as eternal verities of life. When we read the “Sermon on the Mount” or the Bhagavad Gita are we not simply seeing the same truth dressed in different garbs?
How often we find this truth directly before us, yet even then refuse to accept it. Such has been the case with the greatest of men. Sri Ramakrishna, for instance, was regarded, while living, as an avatar by many of his disciples and devotees; but Swami Vivekananda steadfastly refused to accept this. He didn’t believe that God incarnated himself in the form of a human being. Of course, he accepted the presence of God in all human beings (and in that sense we are all incarnations of God), but he did not believe in any special manifestation of God in a human being.
When Sri Ramakrishna lay on his death bed, Vivekananda was seated next to him. He knew that his teacher would not be with them long. “If you now say you are God incarnate,” Vivekananda thought to himself, “I’ll believe you.”
Suddenly Ramakrishna looked at him and whispered, “I see you still have disbelief. He who was Rama and he who was Krishna was born again as Ramakrishna, but not in your Vedantic sense.” By this phrase “not in your Vedantic sense” he meant not in the sense that the Atman or Self of all beings is identical with Brahman or the all-pervading God. What he conveyed to his disciple was that he was God himself, descended as a human being.
What is so special, so extraordinary about a divine incarnation? About his own birth, Jesus said: “Ye are from beneath, I am from above. Ye are of this world, I am not of this world.” This Jesus told his disciples, and it is a peculiar feature of incarnations to reveal their unique status first to their disciples.
Sri Krishna, speaking in the Bhagavad Gita, replies to his disciple Arjuna: “I am the birthless, the deathless, Lord of all that breathes. I seem to be born; but it is only seeming, only my maya. I am still master of my prakriti, the power that makes me.” This statement of Krishna’s adds support to Christ’s declaration that “I am not of this world.” We must understand that we are born in ignorance, as a result of our past karmas. We are bound to the world by these karmas; indeed, we are of this world. But God comes through his own choice. God chooses to be born within this maya, the world of relativity. However, he is master of this maya, and we are slaves to it. That is the difference.
Why does God come? Because of his grace and in the cause of truth. We also read in the Gita why avatars enter this maya: “When goodness grows weak, when evil increases, I make myself a body. In every age I come back to deliver the holy, to destroy the sin of the sinner and to establish righteousness.”
A study of world history reveals a most interesting fact—that every culture develops and degenerates in accordance with laws of cyclic change. Like ocean waves, the cultures of the world rise and fall. Once so grand, where is the Roman Empire today? And the British Empire? Religion, as well, is subject to these same oscillating patterns. Great religious movements spring up and inspire millions; saints are born and carry the banner of truth. Then all becomes forgotten. Certainly we still have the Bible, the scriptures; and we still know the name of Jesus and Buddha. But where are the exemplars, the saints? Sadduccees and Pharisees abound who can quote the scriptures to us; but how many are there that can live the scriptures?
It is during such a time that an avatar is born. And how beautifully it is brought out in the Gita that by worshipping the avatar, truth is easily reached. The disciple Arjuna asks Sri Krishna: “Some worship you with steadfast love, others worship God the unmanifest and changeless. What kind of devotee has the greater understanding of yoga?”
“Those whose minds are fixed on me in steadfast love,” Krishna answers,
worshipping me with absolute faith, I consider them to have the greater understanding of yoga. As for those others, the devotees of God the unmanifest, indefinable and changeless, they worship that which is omnipresent, constant, eternal, beyond thought’s compass, never to be moved. They hold all the senses in check. They are tranquil-minded, and devoted to the welfare of humanity. They see the Atman in every creature. They also will certainly come to me.
But the devotees of the unmanifest have a harder task, because the unmanifest is very difficult for embodied souls to realize.
How have the other avatars expressed their love for humanity and their assurance that they are the way and the truth? Christ said: “I am the light of the world. He that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life.” And again, “Come unto me all ye that labor and are heavy laden and I shall give you rest.”
Sri Krishna promised: “Those who know the nature of my task and my holy birth are not reborn when they leave the body. They come to me. Flying from fear, from lust and anger, they hide in me, their refuge and safety. Burnt clean in the blaze of my being, in me many find rest.” And again, “Lay down all duties in me, your refuge. Fear no longer. I will save you from sin and bondage.”
From Sri Ramakrishna we hear: “Take refuge in me. I am the sanctuary.”
As we read these passages, it appears as though one is quoting the truth of the other, so close are they in spirit. But is there any reason why we should doubt this? For is it not the same God, the same spirit speaking, only clothed in different garments?
Let us now try to understand what Krishna meant when he said, “Come unto me…” or Ramakrishna’s statement, “Take refuge in me.” First we must understand that the essence of the religious struggle is to be absorbed in the consciousness of God. When Christ wants us to “abide in me, and I in you,” he is asking us to feel that constant presence of God, through constant recollectedness. Sri Krishna also says: “Be absorbed in me. Lodge your mind in me. Thus you shall dwell in me. Do not doubt it, here and hereafter.” But absorption in God is only possible when we have that complete and total love for him.
In this same connection, let me quote a Christian mystic, Angelus Silesius: “Christ may be born a thousand times in Bethlehem, but if he is not born anew within your own heart you will remain eternally forlorn.” That is what it means, expressed in a negative way, to take refuge in Christ or Krishna or Ramakrishna—for you to see him in the shrine of your own heart. You must talk with him. You must be completely united with him.
At one time a disciple of Sri Ramakrishna, Swami Turiyananda, was approached by a woman in America, who asked him: “Swami, I wish I could read your thoughts.” The Swami smiled and said, “Well, on the surface you will find many of them. But go deeper and there is nothing but Ramakrishna.” In other words, our entire lives must be molded in His life, the life of Christ, Krishna, or Ramakrishna.
Sri Ramakrishna used to say there are three classes of devotees. The lowest class conceives of God in heaven; the second class of devotee sees God within; and the highest class sees God both within and without himself or herself. Such a devotee sees nothing but God. My master, Swami Brahmananda, taught me this truth: as long as you think the Lord is somewhere outside of yourself, you will be restless. “But when you feel he is here,” he added, pointing to his own heart, “then only will you find peace.”
As we pray, as we meditate, as we learn to live our lives in God, this peace will come to us. My master would often say that if you take only one step toward God, he will come a hundred steps toward you. Only a little struggle, a little striving—strengthened by his grace—will lead you to the realization that, truly, He is. The Upanishads tell us that first one must realize his presence within. Then when you go to pray or to meditate you feel his presence, very near to you, nearer than your hands or your feet; for he is the mind of the mind, the eye of the eye, and the ear of the ear. You feel that truth tangibly. And then he becomes manifest, and it is then you give your whole heart to him, and you know him to be pure consciousness itself and infinite love.
That eternal Christ is not to be found in churches, nor in temples; not in books, nor in scriptures—but within your own heart. Find him there.