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. “Reflections on Some Teachings of Christ” appeared in the Sept-Oct, 1957 Vedanta and the West magazine.
YE ARE the salt of the earth: but if the salt have lost his savor, wherewith shall it be salted? It is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out, and to be todden under foot of men.
In India, when a disciple comes to a teacher, the teacher tries first of all to give the student a firm faith in himself or herself, and a feeling that weakness and cowardice and failure have no part in their true nature. Almost the first words that Sri Krishna says to his disciple in the second book of the Bhagavad Gita are: “What is this weakness? It is beneath you. . . . Shake off this cowardice, Arjuna. Stand up!
Great teachers can see through you like through a glass case. They do not condemn you for your faults and weaknesses. They know human nature. They realize that when you feel weak and depressed you cannot achieve anything. Therefore they give you confidence in yourself, so that you may grow spiritually. That is why Christ does not tell his disciples that they are sinners. He calls them “the salt of the earth.”
The teacher sees not only what you are at present, but also the capacities you will unfold. Thirty years ago, a young swami, who was about to leave India to preach in America, went to see Swami Turiyananda. This great disciple of Sri Ramakrishna praised him highly. The young swami objected: But sir, I don’t have any of the qualities you are praising!” Then Swami Turiyananda said: “What do you know about yourself”? I see what you are going to unfold!” It is the same with all of us. All of us have the power to unfold the latent divinity within ourselves. The teacher gives us faith in our ability to struggle to manifest it.
But at the same time we must remember the Beatitude: “Blessed are the meek . . .” Meekness and faith in oneself must go together. The faith which the teacher tries to arouse in the disciple is not faith in the lower self, the ego, but faith in the higher Self, faith in God within. With that faith comes self-surrender and the strength which is gained through freedom from ego.
Sri Ramakrishna brought out this truth in an illustration from Hindu mythology. He told how Radha, the chief of the shepherdesses, whom Krishna loved best, became apparently very egotistic. The other shepherdesses complained to Krishna about her. Krishna suggested that they ask Radha what kind of ego she had. Radha told them: “Certainly I have an ego. But whose ego is it? It is not mine, for everything I have belongs to Krishna.” A person who has surrendered everything to God has no ego in the ordinary sense of the word. That person cannot be vain or proud. He or she has strong faith in the true Self within themselves, which is one with God.
This saying of Jesus, “Ye are the salt of the earth . . . ” reminds me of a saying Swami Brahmananda used to quote to us: “You have the grace of God, you have the grace of the guru, and you have the grace of God’s devotees; but for the lack of one grace you may be cast out.” What is that grace? It is the grace of our own mind, the will to struggle for perfection. If in spite of all those graces which would otherwise make us the “salt of the earth,” we lack the grace of our own mind, we may be “trodden under foot of men.” So we must strive hard to surrender ourselves wholeheartedly to God—in order that the “salt,” which is his grace, may not lose his savour.
YE ARE the light of the world. A city that is set on an hill cannot be hid. Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house.
A divine incarnation like Jesus gathers pure souls around him and teaches them, not only by word of mouth, but by actual transmission of spiritual power. He does not simply give them self-confidence; he actually illumines the hearts of his disciples and makes them the light of the world. Such is the power of a divine incarnation.
We find that Sri Ramakrishna gave the knowledge of God to all of his disciples. The highest spiritual truths were revealed to them by Sri Ramakrishna’s touch. Yet they practiced severe austerities after their illumination. A disciple once asked Swami Brahmananda: “Sri Ramakrishna give you everything—why did you have to practice austerities?” His answer was: “True, Sri Ramakrishna gave us the highest realization. But what I received I wanted to make my own. “ And why? Having received that light, his own liberation was assured; but he felt compassion for humanity. And so he did not want to hide that light under a bushel, but to share it with others. In order to gain the spiritual power to transmit that light, he practiced austere disciplines after the attainment of his enlightenment.
We can only become that light of the world if we obtain illumination by uniting ourselves with the light, which dwells in the hearts of all. Only such illumined ones are fit to be teachers of humanity; they alone can carry on the message of a divine incarnation and teach religion. When Sri Ramakrishna met anyone who wished to teach the word of God, he would ask: “Have you the divine commission?”
Only he who has seen God can receive his commission, his direct command to teach. When taught by people who are not illumined, religion degenerates. It is no good relying on your degree at a theological college: book learning cannot give you illumination. You may have studied scriptures, history, philosophy, and be versed in theology, dogmas, and doctrines, and give wonderful sermons—and yet be a baby when it comes to spiritual life. In order to transform people’s lives, you must first light your own candle.
In the Hindu scriptures, two kinds of knowledge are mentioned—the lower and the higher. The lower consists of academic knowledge, like science and philosophy. Even knowledge of the scriptures is considered lower knowledge. Higher knowledge is the immediate perception of God. Those who are illumined by this higher knowledge do not need encyclopedic information. They teach from their inner experience.
One of Sri Ramakrishna’s monastic disciples, Swami Adbhutananda, came from the servant class and had had no formal education whatsoever. He did not even know how to sign his name. Sri Ramakrishna tried to teach him the alphabet; it was in vain. Swami Adbhutananda could not manage to pronounce the first vowel correctly. But we have seen what wisdom this unlettered man had. Several young monks came across a difficult passage in the Upanishads. They could not understand it, although they referred to number o f commentaries. Finally they asked Swami Adbhutananda for an explanation. As he did not know Sanskrit, the young monks phrased the passage in his own language He thought for a moment and said: “I’ve got it!” With a simple illustration he explained the passage to them, and they found wonderful meaning it.
One who has seen God does not need to be versed in secular knowledge in order to expound the spirit of the scriptures. His or her heart as been purified and illumined, and their light shines forth and gives comfort to all. They do not have to go out and look for disciples then. As Sri Ramakrishna used to say, when the lotus blossoms, the bees come from all around, of their own accord, to gather the honey. “Make that lotus blossom!” he used to tell his disciples.
When such an illumined soul appears, and spiritual aspirants gather around him or her, they cannot help thinking of God and loving him. In the presence of such a soul they feel that God-realization is an easily attainable goal. This was my own experience at the feet of Sri Ramakrishna’s disciples. It is very easy to understand; there is no mystery about it.
When you go to see a lawyer, what kind of thoughts come into your mind? Thoughts about legal matters. With a doctor, you think about sickness and medicine. These thoughts come to us because the person we are with at the moment is living in that particular atmosphere. So, also, with a truly spiritual person. You may not know anything about them, but this is the test: When you come into their presence, the thought of God will come to you, because they have become one with that light of the world.
Of course, you have to be a seeker after the truth of God in order to be susceptible to a spiritual atmosphere. If you are not interest in God-realization, Christ himself may stand before you to teach you, and you will not appreciate him or recognize his greatness. You will turn from him as the multitude did. But if you are a spiritual aspirant and come into the presence of an illumined soul, you cannot do otherwise than glorify God, because in that person’s presence you will feel the presence of the Father. This is what Jesus was speaking of when he said: Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.
THINK NOT that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill. For verily I say unto you, till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled. Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven; but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
In this saying Jesus speaks of the mission of a divine incarnation, what the Hindus call avatar and the Christians call Son of God. But before we consider the purpose of their descent of God as a human being, let us understand what a divine incarnation is. The concept of the avatar will be clearer to us if we follow its development from the theory of Logos in both East and West.
In the West, the theory of Logos was first developed by the Greeks to bridge the gulf that separates humanity from God, the known from the unknown. In its earliest conceptions the Logos was identified with one or another of the physical elements. Plato conceived the Logos as a transcendental realm of Forms, of which the visible universe is but an imperfect shadow. The Stoics denied the validity of Plato’s supersensual archetypes. They perceived the principle of reason immanent and active in the universe.
Philo, an Alexandrian Jew and contemporary of Jesus, harmonized Stoic reason with Plato’s transcendentalism as well as Hebraism. He declared that the Logos was not only immanent in the universe but was transcendent as well, one with God. The author of the fourth Gospel accepted Philo’s conception of Logos, but gave it new expression to serve the theological needs of Christianity: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. . . . And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, “and we beheld his glory, the glory of the only begotten of the Father” full of grace and truth.” The Logos was “made flesh” in Jesus Christ and became the “only begotten of the Father.”
Almost identical with the beginning of the Gospel according to St. John is the following passage from the Vedas of the Hindus, the most ancient scripture of the world: “In the beginning was the Lord of creatures, with Him was the Word, and the Word was Brahman.” The Word, which is Brahman, is not any particular language, according the Hindus. It is the universal, unstruck sound, the sphota. The universe was created out of this sphota and is incarnated in all beings, who may realize God with the help of the Word.
In a sense, therefore, we are all incarnations of God. But like St. John, the Hindus believe that in a special sense the Word is made flesh in the avatar. The avatar is the descent of God in human form; the ordinary person ascends toward God. Christians believe that God incarnated himself in Jesus Christ once and for all time, whereas the Hindus believe that he incarnates himself in different ages to teach man again the eternal truths he has neglected and forgotten. In the Gita, Sri Krishna tells Arjuna:
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,
To establish righteousness.
When St. John identified Jesus Christ with the Word that is with God and that is God, he hereby declared that Jesus was not merely a historical person, born in Bethlehem, but that he is the eternal Christ, one with God from beginningless time. Jesus himself stated: “Before Abraham was, I am.” And Krishna says: “I seem to be born, it is only seeming, only my Maya.” To worship a Christ as a mere historical personality does not lead to salvation. The worship of a divine incarnation, be it Christ, Buddha, or Krishna, or any other, leads to salvation only when he is conceived as one with the eternal Spirit, transcendent as the Father, and immanent in the hearts of all. In other words, salvation is to realize this eternal spirit with ourselves and everywhere in the universe.
Those who insist on regarding the life and teachings of Jesus as unique are bound to have great difficulty in understanding that life and those teachings. Christ’s life can be far better understood in the light of other great lives and teachings.
No divine incarnation ever came to refute the religion taught by another, but to fulfill all religions. The truth of God is an eternal truth. If, in all the history of the world, Jesus had been the sole originator of the truth of God, then it would be no truth; for truth cannot be originated; it is an existing fact. But if Jesus simply unfolded and interpreted that truth, then it follows that many others must have done so before him, and that many will do so after him. And, in fact, as we read the teachings of Jesus, we find that he wishes all of us to unfold that truth: “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” He has come, he declares, not to destroy the eternally existing truth, but to restate it, to give it new life by presenting it in a new way.
God is one without a second. It is always the same supreme Spirit, which embodies itself in the avatar. But to suit the particular needs of successive ages he reveals a new and characteristic presentation of the eternal truth of religion.
Again and again, people forget that these presentations of the divine incarnations are meant to be unfolded in their own lives. The scribes and pharisees in every age cling devotedly to the letter of the avatar’s message and lose sight of its undying spirit. That is why Christ says: “For I say unto you, that except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven”.
The scribes and pharisees forget the first commandment, to “love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.” They are very ethical, upright people in their own way, but clinging to forms and outward observances makes them inclined to intolerance, narrowness, and dogmatism. The righteousness which exceed their righteousness is the very opposite of this. It regards observance of forms and rituals, not as an end, but as the means to enter into the kingdom of heaven.
God is beyond relative good and evil. He is the absolute Good. When we unite ourselves with God in our consciousness, we transcend relative righteousness. This truth has often been misunderstood. It does not mean that immorality is to be condoned. Ethical life is the very foundation of spirituality. At the beginning of spiritual life we must consciously abstain from harming others, from falsehood, theft, incontinence, and greed; we must observe mental and physical purity, contentment, self-control, and recollectedness of God.
The urge to live a truly ethical life and to practice inner check only comes to us if we try to live the first commandment—if we learn to love God, and to struggle to realize him. Without that ideal, morality degenerates into the external decorum of the scribes and pharisees, and the natural tendency of the mind to yield to passions easily asserts itself. But when the first commandment is observed, then the second commandment follows as a matter of course.
When we love God, we must love our neighbor, because then we have the understanding that the Godhead is within each one of us. Then we will love our neighbor as our self because our neighbor is our very Self.
Through the practice of inner check we come to a stage where we reach the absolute Good, which is God. One who has attained this state does not consciously have to discriminate between right and wrong and practice self-mastery. Holiness and purity have become that person’s very nature. He or she has transcended relative righteousness and entered into the kingdom of heaven.
YE HAVE heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment: but I say unto you, that whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment: and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire.
It is not enough to obey the old commandment: “Thou shalt not kill.” Even the mere thought of killing, of hatred, is as deadly as the act. You cannot love God and hate your neighbor. If you really love God, you will find him in everyone, so how can you hate another? If you harm anyone, you harm yourself; if you help anyone, you help yourself. All feelings of separateness, exclusiveness, and hatred are not only wrong, they are the blackest ignorance, because they deny the existence of the omnipresent Godhead.
THEREFORE if thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath ought against thee; leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift.
Until we actually reach oneness with God, it is of course quite natural that we should have misunderstandings and quarrels with one another. But we must not let our resentments stay with us, or they will eat into our hearts like cancer. Christ, like all truly spiritual teachers, was a great psychologist. That is why he tells us that we must be reconciled as soon as possible with our brother, even before we offer our gift to God. Anyone who has practiced meditation will immediately understand how sound this teaching is.
Suppose someone has wronged you and you feel irritated. When you go to meditate, what happens? Prayer and meditation concentrate the mind and intensify the emotions. The result is that the molehill of irritation becomes a mountain of anger. You begin to imagine all kinds of terrible things about the person who has wronged you. You cannot come to God with such a mind. You are not fit to pray and meditate until you are reconciled with your brother. Religion is an inner life. Unless you are sincerely reconciled in your mind, external reconciliations will not heal the rift. All depends on your inner attitude.
It is taught in Buddhism as well as in Vedanta that it is our duty to pray for others before we pray for ourselves. We are asked to send a thought of good will toward all beings before we offer ourselves to God. This teaching is applicable to every spiritual aspirant, no matter what path one follows. It is particularly practical if you have been angry with your brother. Pray for him! Pray that you as well as the other person may find true understanding and devotion to God. If you sincerely try to do that, you will find that you immediately gain something spiritually. But if you keep that anger in your heart, you will hurt that person as well as yourself.
AGREE with thine adversary quickly, whiles thou art in the way with him; lest at any time the adversary deliver thee to the judge, and the judge deliver thee to the officer, and thou be cast into prison. Verily I say unto thee, Thou shalt by no means come out thence, till thou hast paid the uttermost farthing.
What does this mean? Of course we are not to submit to a powerful adversary out of fear of the consequences of disagreement. That would be cowardice or hypocrisy. But we must discriminate between principles and opinions. There is a Hindi saying: “Say ‘yea yea,’ to everyone, but keep your own seat firm.” We must never compromise on ideals and principles. But when it comes to opinions, we should appreciate views differing from our own, and at times even yield to them.
Swami Turiyananda said: “Stubbornness is not strength. Stubbornness merely hides one’s weakness. Strong is the one who is elastic like steel and does not break. Strong is the one who can live in harmony with many people and heed opinions other than his own.” If we are intolerant of other opinions and insist on having our own way, we will suffer and must bear the consequences until we have “paid the uttermost farthing.”
YE HAVE heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery: But I say unto you, that whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart. And if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell. And if thy right hand offend thee, cut it off, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell.
Here Jesus is speaking of the necessity for inner check, for control of the passions. Merely refraining from evil actions is not enough; evil thoughts must be checked as well. Without such control it is not possible to reach spiritual illumination. The Gita describes the reward for a self-controlled mind in the following verses:
Water flows continually into the ocean
But the ocean is never disturbed:
Desire flows into the mind of the seer
But he is never disturbed.
The seer knows peace:
The man who stirs up his own lusts
Can never know peace.
He lives without craving:
Free from ego, free from pride.
This peace beyond passion is not the peace of the graveyard. It is a much fuller consciousness and bliss than we experience in our sense-life. In order to attain this peace, we must attach our mind to a chosen aspect of God. The more we move toward that ideal, the more the desire for sense-gratification will leave us.
The trouble is that most people stir up their passions. A wave of lust arises in the mind. Instead of letting it subside, they willfully excite themselves and stir it up further. Several verses from one of Shakespeare’s sonnets express this same idea:
Enjoy’d no sooner but despised straight;
Past reason hunted; and, no sooner had,
Past reason hated, as a swallow’s bait
On purpose laid to make the taker mad: . . .
A bliss in proof, and proved, a very woe;
Before, a joy proposed; behind, a dream.
All this the world well knows; yet none knows well
To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.
The vicious circle of attraction, satisfaction, aversion, and restlessness continues until the energy which man dissipates in pursuit of sense pleasures is conserved and turned toward God—in whom alone eternal peace and fulfillment are found.