I am posting, with his permission, a guest article by Steve Scott a staff member of Warehouse Ministries. A musician and artist, Scott is also the author of several books including, Like a House on Fire: Renewal of the Arts in a Postmodern Culture and Crying for a Vision and Other Essays: The Collected Steve Scott Vol. One. I intend this article as an answer to some of the questions asked in the comment section of my posting The Bhagavad-Gita, the Bible: grief and being human. This is a long posting but should be read as a whole piece. Please read and enjoy.
Jesus and the Gurus
While recently traveling in India, I had an opportunity to begin studying some of the religious and philosophical systems prevalent there. I was able to participate in discussions with many Indians, Hindu, Buddhists and Christians. As a result I had to face climbing down from many of my “Western” presuppositions about Eastern religions. The Indian Christians were fond of reminding me that Christianity itself was an Eastern religion and, furthermore, that Christianity had been in India far longer than it had been in the USA.
It was with these thoughts in mind that I set about trying to understand both the similarities and differences between Christianity and other Eastern religions. I began my study in the area of the “guru” or “living master.” As I examined the concept of the guru and the guru tradition, my eyes were opened to some of the mistakes that we in the West are prone to make. We tend to regard the guru as merely a teacher or a channel of a particular spiritual tradition, whereas my studies reveal that the guru properly understood is seen as an embodiment of the very tradition he teaches. (I'll provide some quotes from their own literature that suggests this a little later on.) We also make the mistake of assuming that the guru merely teaches us the way of getting free from our accumulated sin (karma) or free from inordinate attachment to this realm of illusion (maya) and free from such pain such attachment produces (samsara). Deeper study, however, reveals that it is the guru himself who frees us from this threefold bondage. If we devote ourselves totally and wholeheartedly to guru bhakti, or devotion, then he will free us through instruction and possibly through the administration of a massive jolt of spiritual power known in the guru tradition as “shaktipat.”
As I learned more and more of the central role that the guru plays in this tradition, I saw its similarity to the Christian message. Jesus died and rose again to free us from the effects and power of sin. When we are truly following Christ, then we are no longer “bound” by the world. As I studied, I began to see that Jesus and the gurus were both claiming to fulfill almost identical functions. I wanted to see how far the comparison could be taken, so I began to make comparisons between some Indian literature on the guru (notably The Guru Tattwa of Swami Sivananda)* and some of the stories and sayings about Jesus recorded in the literature of the Early Church.
The “Guru Gita” contained in Silananda's text leaves little doubt as to who the guru is and what he claims to be:
Guru is Brahma. Guru is Vishnu. Guru is Siva. Guru is the Supreme Brahman itself. Prostration to that Guru. (v:4)
The guru alone is the whole world, including Brahman Vishnu and Siva. Nothing greater than Guru exists. Therefore Guru is to be worshiped. (v:18)
The form of Guru is the root of meditation. The feet of Guru are the root of worship. The teaching of the Guru is the root of all mantras. The grace of Guru is the root of salvation. (v:12)
By identifying the Guru as being identical to the Hindu trinity and also the source of salvation, the image of the guru as both the embodiment and even the source of the spiritual tradition he espouses become clear. The Christian tradition has some similar ideas about Jesus.
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things were created, in Heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or authorities - all things were created through Him and for Him. He is before all things and in Him all things hold together. (Col. 1:15-18)
In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through Him and without Him was not made anything that was made. (John 1:1-4)
In this the love of God was made manifest among us that God sent His only Son into the world, so that we might live through Him. (1 John 4:9)
Here we can see that the Christians thought of Jesus much in the same way, although their use of a term like “only begotten” is a little alarming. Perhaps they had never heard of the gurus. The absolute necessity of the guru for salvation is also stressed in the Gita.
Prostration to that Guru, due to whose existence the world exists, due to whose effulgence the world is illumined, due to whose bliss all are happy. (v:10)
There is no reality beyond Guru. There is no penance beyond Guru. There is no knowledge beyond Guru. Prostration to that Guru. (v:11)
When God is angry, Guru is the savior. When Guru gets angry, none is the savior. (v:21)
“Gu” is darkness. “Ru” is its remover. Because one removes darkness, he is called a “Guru.” (v:40)
Similarly the Christians stressed the necessity and centrality of Jesus in establishing salvation.
For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whosoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent His Son into the world, not to condemn the world but that the world might be saved through Him. (John 3:16-17)
All this is from God who through Christ reconciled us to Himself. (11 Cor. 5:18)
That is God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself. (11 Cor. 5:19)
Here some differences start to emerge. The cited guru texts seem to place the guru almost at a higher level than God when it comes to forgiving the disciple, whereas Jesus worked “in concert” with God, as it were, to achieve the purposes of reconciliation and redemption. There is no hint of some kind of competitive rivalry between God the Father and God the Son. And again there is the disturbing use of “only begotten” by the early Christian writers. It will be interesting to see if Jesus Himself was as “exclusive” in His statements as His followers. One certainly cannot fault their enthusiasm and devotion.The Guru Gita also counsels wholehearted devotion to the guru as being of spiritual benefit.
The water with which the feet of the Guru are washed is the sacred drink. The remains after Guru's meal are the proper food. Right meditation is on the form of Guru. Constant Japa [repetition] is of Guru's name. For the purpose of acquiring knowledge and dispassion, one should drink the water with which Guru's feet are washed, which cuts at the root of ignorance, which overcomes birth and the bondage of Karma. (v:13-14)
Without any feeling of shame one should fall in full prostration before the Guru and adore the Guru through action, mind and speech at all times. The baths taken in pilgrimages to the seven oceans bring only a thousandth part of the effect produced by drinking a drop of the water that is used for washing Guru's feet. (v.19-20)
The statements of Jesus Himself reveals what He expected from His followers.
And He who does not take up his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. He who finds his life shall lose it and he who loses his life for my sake will find it. (Matt 10:38-39)
On the last day of the feast, the great day, Jesus stood up and proclaimed, if anyone thirst let him come to me and drink. He who believes in me, as the Scripture has said “out of his heart shall flow rivers of living water.” (John 7:37-38)
Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into His hands, and that He had come from God and was going to God, rose from supper, laid aside His garments, and girded Himself with a towel. Then He poured water into a basin, and began to wash the disciples' feet, and to wipe them with the towel with which He was girded. (John 13:3-5)
This is where some of the real differences start to show. Jesus calls His disciples to carry a cross in their devotion to Him. He also points out that all who are thirsty should come to Him to drink the “living water” that He can provide. He says nothing about washing His feet in it first. In fact, in order to set an example of the kind of spiritual devotion he wants his followers to participate in, He knelt and washed the feet of His followers. Also, one can see in the fellowship of the last supper in which Jesus shares a common cup and a common loaf, a far different picture than the one painted by the Guru Gita which insists that eating the guru's leftovers will somehow enhance your spirituality. The most disturbing aspect of Jesus' statements deals with His own claims concerning the exclusivity of salvation through Him.
Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me. (John 14:6)
So Jesus again said to them, “Truly truly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and robbers; but the sheep did not heed them. I am the door; if any one enters by me, he will be saved, and will go in and out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy, I came that they might have life and have it abundantly. I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down His life for the sheep. (John 10:7-11)
When I asked a current “perfect master” about this in Beas, India, he told me that Jesus was the only way for his particular age and people. I was, of course, confused by this - surely the concept behind the guru and the master hadn't changed so radically as seemed to be indicated in the stark differences between what Jesus said and did and some of the things contained in the Guru Gita. Also, Jesus seemed to be unaware that any had come before Him or would come after Him who could achieve the spiritual results that He had achieved. The Gurus, of course, would point back to their gurus, (i.e., the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi would point to Guru Dev, etc.) and the guru tradition. Jesus did no such thing. He didn't seem to think His message was limited by its historical location or only applicable to a certain period of history.
A final difference I noticed is this: some of the gurus were prone to establish their credentials by talking about their austerities - prolonged isolation in (for example) the Himalayas where after extensive yogic exercise and bodily mortification they realized their divine nature: that they were identical with the divine principle of the universe. It struck me that in order to establish Jesus' credentials as a spiritual master that it would be strategically viable to include a similar “testimony” concerning His prolonged meditation and “God realization.” I searched the New Testament in vain. I did, however, find this in Philippians 2:5-11:
Christ Jesus, who through He was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form He humbled Himself and became obedient unto death, even death on the cross. Therefore God has highly exalted Him and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
*Guru Tattwa. Sri Swami Sivananda. The Divine Life Society, Himalayas, India (1976)
All Bible quotes are from the Revised Standard Version.