A Letter to Sri Lankans
by Dr. Parviz Dehghani
A letter to Sri Lankans,
Your land has been the host of great Religions throughout the centuries. Indigenous people have been living there for thousands of years with their own particular faith and values. Then Buddhists arrived, with their own magnificent solution to the depth of human suffering and misery in this world, from the bosom of Hinduism. Christianity and Islam, as Abrahamic Religions, manifested their presence on the stage of this beautiful theater of world Religions. The Tamils, with their respectable ancient Religion, namely, Hinduism became part of this astonishing tapestry of diversity.
This tear drop of India was known to the world as the shell of beautiful gems. This was the tear of joy and happiness, not sadness. The word ‘Serendipity’ reminds us of Horace Walpole (c. 1754), who coined this term after, “The Three Princes of Serendip” (i.e., Ceylon). This was a Persian fairy tale in which the princes made such discoveries by accident when it was least expected. (New world Dictionary).
The variety of different gems and precious stones are mentioned by Sinbad the sailor, who was a merchant in ‘The Arabian Nights’ known to have made seven adventurous voyages. (New world). In the past, this was thought to be only a story. Years ago, however, some adventurous and curious individuals decided to navigate the sea and follow Sinbad’s accounts of his travels to far east. Amazingly they ended up in Sri Lanka and other countries and found out that whatever they had read was almost based on a true story and it was not a fiction. Their adventure was shown on PBS a few years later.
The land of many beautiful gems became a paradise for many Religions to exist side by side for centuries. Diversity, as Persian kings had always thought, was the key to the strength and stability of a great nation. This was even adopted by the Roman Empire and other great nations. Different Religions in Sri Lanka are like those beautiful gems on the body of this wonderful island. This reminds us of an elegant piece of jewelry, in the shape of a necklace, around the neck of mother India.
The Ultimate Reality in Hinduism is called ‘Brahman’. Whereas Brahman, the Universal Soul, is One, ‘Atman’ is the individual Soul. One and Many are One, just as the sun the its rays are one, according to Sankara, the ancient Hindu philosopher. Once the sunlight reaches a hanging prism, we can see a spectrum on the wall. We can sometimes watch these colors formed in the sky during the refraction of the sun’s rays in falling rain or in mist. (Webster’s New World Dictionary). The mystery of one and many have been with us for thousands of years and still is difficult to understand how one and many are one at the end. Some scholars might think, once we totally comprehended this fact, we could then know what the church fathers meant in 300 A.D. by the holy Trinity.
Even though, Brahman itself is a name, it is beyond any name and definition. These would limit this Reality in our mind. It is also beyond being and non-being, rest and motion, and any other form of duality. The word ‘Brahman’ would limit it too. Does it exist? Its concept exists in our mind. Some believe its existence is necessary, that is, it cannot not be, therefore, it must be. We don’t have to be. We could or we could not be. We’re contingent beings, namely, we’re possible beings. However, we ought to move away from our logical structures for a moment and deal with this issue with super logic, even though it is still logic. This Ultimate Reality does not exist. It does not have to be, even necessarily. What if we tried to play with grammar a bit? Let us say, we turned the whole statement of, ‘Brahman exists’ around and came up with, ‘Existence is Brahman’. So the Ultimate Reality is ‘Existence’ or Being, pure and simple.
If I were to make such a statement that ‘God exists’, you might tell me this is an analytic statement, which means existence does not add anything to God here. This is like saying, ‘All triangles have three angles’ or ‘All bachelors are unmarried people’. This is what Immanuel Kant, the 18th century German philosopher presented us with. From one point of view, he did us a service. Why? Because we don’t have to prove God’s existence any more. Besides, God is only a title here anyway. What if I turned this around and came up with ‘Existence is God’ or ‘Being is God’? Do we need to prove anything here? I guess we don’t have to. We changed the role of subject and object in grammar here. We don’t have to worry about dealing with an analytic statement. Do we? There’re languages in which there is no such a verb as ‘to be’. But this does not mean it is not there. The definition of the word ‘existence’ also does not help us either. This term simply means standing out there. Is this what we mean by the Ultimate reality? Finally, where are we going with this acrobatic demonstration of our logical skills?
Nevertheless, we have come to understand the non-dualistic nature of what Brahman is. Since it is beyond even existence and non-existence, rest and motion, it cannot give us a helping hand in explaining why things are in constant process of change and becoming. After all, if there is no constant, there is no motion. The movement of a passing train makes no sense, unless there is a station. Given the fact that Brahman is beyond permanence and impermanence, we have no choice but come to the conclusion that this imperfect world is at the end nothing but ‘Maya’ or an illusion. An ancient Chinese sage once woke up and asked: Was I dreaming of a butterfly or I was in the butterfly’s dream?
Buddha didn’t accept the authority of the Vedas. The reason being, they had been interpreted and misinterpreted many times over in the centuries passed. He thought perhaps their true meanings had been lost with the passage of time. However, he never denied the existence of these ancient sacred scriptures.
When it came to the caste system, he felt it had become a hereditary rather than being based on meritocracy. Again the question of interpretation and misinterpretation enters in and makes someone like Buddha wonder whether people were following the real essence of this system. He also rejected Atman (The individual Soul within us) and Brahman (The Ultimate Reality) as well as all the gods worshipped by the Hindus. Let us not forget that he was a Hindu himself and not a Buddhist to begin with. Nevertheless, being an enlightened person, he must have known the reality of what Hinduism was all about. Just as when Jesus said I have not come to break the laws, but fulfill them, Buddha wanted to show his people the true nature of what they had been practicing. Christ didn’t have the intention to do away with the Jewish laws, but to make them transparent so they would reveal their real meanings to those who had been following them. But, unless you’re qualified, you’ll not know their true messages. Jesus restored what Judaism was all about for a short time he lived in this world. Their methods might have been different and yet both Buddha and Christ tried to bring back the reality of the Religions they had come from.
Buddha, unlike popular beliefs, didn’t really dismiss what his people had faith in for thousands of years. What he really repudiated was people’s ideas and opinions about them. He was not happy the way those great ancient and universal principles had become construed by those who didn’t have the required knowledge to do so. And they were not qualified to preserve the essence of what this beautiful Religion originally was.
Ironically Buddhism itself went through a similar treatment and misinterpretation by those who didn’t have enough power of discernment to tell the difference between true Buddhism and consequently they misunderstood what Buddha himself had taught centuries ago. Buddha knew very well that the same thing that had happened to Hinduism was bound to take place when he was dead and gone. He must have known something regarding human nature.
Human suffering was the hallmark his philosophy. We are miserable because we’re attached to the changing world. There is nothing in the universe that is not subject to change and becoming. Our attachment to the world that is constantly in motion, creates pain, agony, distress, and discomfort and the only way to stop it was Nibbana (Pali) or Nirvana (Sanskrit).
However, Buddha can be challenged concerning the problem of change. Because, unless there is a permanent reality, impermanence has no meaning. For us to see a train passing, we need to be standing or sitting on a bench at the station platform. The station is stationary, while trains are moving to right and left on both sides. If this were the case, how could Buddha maintain his philosophical position?
As you can see, it is hard for him to hold on to his argument. On the other hand, since he stated that everything was subject to change, this would also include his statement. If his statement were subject to change too, then its opposite should also be true, which means nothing is subject to change and becoming.
Hinduism didn’t have to go through all these logical commotions. For them the whole universe is an illusion. Thus, the question of change and becoming, motion and movement,wouldn’t have been even brought up. Long before Parmenides, the pre-Socratic philosopher, the Hindus believed in the fact that motion was an illusion.
In 200 A.D. or C.E., a Mahayana Buddhist thinker reflecting on Buddha’s original position on change, argued that there is no river to step in to begin with. He was not the only philosopher who actually held this position. Cratylus of Athens, was a Heraclitean and Plato’s first teacher, who argued for the doctrine of irreconcilability of opposites. (Runes, Dictionary of philosophy). Heraclitus had maintained that we can never step into the same river twice or this is what we think he said. As we just mentioned, Cratylus argued that only being comes from being and non-being from non-being. Therefore, being cannot come from non-being because it is illogical. In motion we have such a scenario. There is a chain of beings and non-beings in this river. Being and non-being are opposite of each other as well as being the basis of contradiction. Being and non-being are not reconcilable. We cannot have a river of change and becoming, if beings are coming out of non-beings. Another logical demonstration is: Either something is or is not. If it is, then it is. If it is not, then it is becoming. If it is becoming, then it is not. It sounds like Cratylus’ argument is closer to Parmenides’.
It is very much possible that Nagarjuna had reached the same logical conclusion. And it is also possible that Buddha’s answer to his closest followers was that in fact this whole universe is nothing. So we don’t have to worry about needing a permanent reality in order to prove that motion is real. As we can easily see, Buddha’s answer brings us closer to what the Hindus had been believing for thousands of years, namely, this world is an illusion. However, a question remains as to why I’m still suffering, if there is nothing to be attached to? Buddha’s answer was very simple: We still have to pay for bad karmas of our passed life as well as this life. On the other hand, we’re attached to the world as it appears to us. Even if we knew about the void and vacuum of this world, we still would suffer because we only know it intellectually and logically, not factually. There is a difference between what goes on in the mind, and the world outside of our mind. There is difference between what is rationally true and what is empirically or experientially the fact.
Finally, if the Ultimate Reality is Sunya or Shunyata, meaning Voidness or Emptiness for Buddha, provided it was independent of people’s misinterpretations of Brahman, for the Hindus it is non-dualistic Reality, which is unique and the like of which never exists. However, when it comes to Buddhism, the word ‘Emptiness’ has its own opposite, that is, ‘Fullness’. So Buddha would have to avoid dualism and accept ‘Advaita’, which means non-dualism, non-duality, not two but one.
As we can see, there is an undeniable resemblance between the mother and the child, that is, these two beautiful Religions, which have enhanced this land of precious gems for centuries.
Christianity and Islam have contributed a great deal to the formation of this spectacular culture along the other ancient Religions. The former emerged out of the body of Judaism as an esoteric aspect of this exoteric ancient faith. ‘Exoteric’ is about the utter aspect of a Religion, which is shared with the faithful mass. Esoteric, however, deals with the inner aspect of a Religion. On the exoteric level, Religions are separate from each other. This is very much like the bottom of a pyramid in which angles, though connected, are not together as one. On the esoteric level, all those angles converge at the apex, which is the pick of the pyramid. Buddhism and Christianity, however, are two Religions, which happen to be the esoteric realities of the mother Religions they came from, namely, Hinduism and Judaism.
The person of Jesus Christ was very much like Krishna and other incarnations of Vishnu. Avatars appear when there is a moral and spiritual chaos in this world. According to the gospel of John, in the beginning was the word, the word was with God, and the word was God, who became flesh and came to us. As we can see, there is a great similarity between the two beliefs on this point. Nevertheless, there’re scholars who speculate as to the fact that Christianity was deeply influenced by Hinduism through Egypt in north Africa and the Greek philosophers. After all, both Pythagoras, who was a pre-Socratic mathematician and philosopher, and Plato believed in reincarnation. So it is not impossible that such an influence on the Greek thinkers existed. Of course, we know it was through St. Augustine that Plato’s ideas in turn left its influence on Christianity. Nevertheless, either way, we notice the closeness of Hinduism and what happened to the life Jesus of Nazareth. There’re scholars, who go even as far as alarming us about Christ’s resurrection, which occurred three days after he was crucified. They think the connection between the Hindu philosophy of reincarnation and resurrection is also a possibility. However, this kind of historical zigzagging is not the purpose of this humble article. What we’re trying to show is not the influences on Christianity, however. We’re objectively making an attempt to demonstrate how close these Religions are in spite of the fact that on the exoteric level, that is, the bottom of the pyramid, they are separate from each other. Because in the final analysis, they all must meet at one point on the esoteric level. After all, there is one absolute. This drawn map of the two levels, namely, exoteric and esoteric, was done by the late professor Huston Smith, one of the top authorities on world Religions, in his introduction to Frithjof Schuon’s ‘The Transcendent Unity of Religions’.
About 600 years after Jesus’ crucifixion, another Abrahamic Religion came to be in the limelight of the Religions of the past. Abraham had two sons by the names of Ishmael and Isaac. Ishmael was his first son from Hagar, Sara’s slave, who was possibly an Egyptian woman. Islam can be traced back to his older son Ishmael. Judeo-Christian tradition is known to have come from the line of his younger son Isaac.
Prophet Muhammad declared his message of Oneness of the Ultimate Reality less than 1400 years ago in Mecca. His main mission was to revive the tradition of Abraham. His message of unity under one God united all tribes of Arabia. He pulled away from the many gods worshipped by those who had come before him, and proclaimed the fact that we should not have partner for Allah. This is where Islam and Judaism share a common goal in the oneness of God who cannot accept partnership. As we can see, the unity of God is very much emphasized in Islam. In Christianity, on the contrary, the Ultimate Reality is manifested in God the father, God the son, and God the holy spirit. This is where a similarity between Christianity and Hinduism becomes visible. Now whether this was another Hindu influence on Christianity, it does not matter at this time. What matters more than anything else is the fact that the question of so called ‘many’ is very much shared and emphasized by both Religions. In this geometric shape called tetrahedron, we can see the Ultimate Reality at the pick of the pyramid, while the other three are at its base. This has been the CITGO gas station sign.
Both Judaism and Islam reject the ideas of the holy Trinity, Jesus being fully man and fully God, and the original sin. let us not forget that St. Augustine was very much responsible for the belief in the original sin. He is also the one who brought up the fact that God must have created everything out of nothing. This is logically absurd. Because only something comes out of something and nothing out of nothing. We cannot have something out of nothing. I guess he wanted to make God an exception here. This is also absent in the genesis.
In Islam, the person who was crucified had a great resemblance to Christ but was not him. In fact, there was a likeness between Elijah and Jesus. Just as Elijah ascended to heaven on the chariot of fire, Jesus was also lifted to God. He only appeared to people to have been crucified. In other words, some other person sacrificed himself for Christ, namely, he suffered vicariously on the cross. The same thing happened to the prophet of Islam during the battle. To save his life when they were surrendered by the enemy, some of his followers shielded him and consequently some got killed in his place.
Concerning the holy Trinity, one could, for example, think about snow, ice, and steam. Although they’re different in forms, and yet they are one in essence, which is water. There is, however, no such a belief in either Christianity, or Hinduism in three or many gods. This is called polytheism, which has nothing to do with these Religions what so ever.
When it comes to Hindu/Buddhist ideas of ‘reincarnation’, none of the Abrahamic Religions could possibly agree with them. This is an accepted fact and it is fine. Just because we’re involved with comparisons among different Religions here does not mean we have to fall into reductionism. In other words, we should not try to reduce one Religion to another. Sometimes one or two of these Religions become more popular in one culture than others. For instance, reincarnation seems to have become accepted norm in the West as to what happens to us after death. It sounds as if it is favored more compared with Islam, which comes with clear message regarding after life events.
Because after all, Hebrews didn’t have an afterlife idea, which made a lot of scholars wonder why such an idea ever emerged in the beginning of Christianity. Some, in answer to this question, refer to the resurrection of Jesus. This response, obviously, cannot be taken seriously. However, when it comes to Islam, there was never an ambiguity as to what happens to us after we die.
Although Islam is the fastest growing Religion in the world, still has to compete with Hinduism and Buddhism, which had never played a major role in the formation of the Western world as Islam did, especially in the early days of the Islamic empire. The popularity of the belief in reincarnation has become so significant that it is beautifully demonstrated in the movie, which just came out, called ‘A dog’s purpose’. Nevertheless, creating such a contest and competition among Religions should not be the goal of the transcendent unity of all Religions.
Given the rise of secularism, materialism, atheism, the collapse of family structures, and morality, I believe, Religions ought to become more united than ever in order to preserve the inner core of their respectable messages. As the late professor Smith suggested, we should emphasize and stress the similarities more than the differences. We should have each other’s back when some Religions are attacked and their followers have been persecuted and tortured. We must have a united front in the face of such an onslaught on our brothers and sister in faith rather than race to see which side would convert more. We should not be at war with one another. Because this would eventually weaken us and would bring about an opportunity for the enemy to strike us with ease. That is the very reason why we ought to be united rather than divided.
The gems are so different from each other. However, they’re all beautiful and make Sri Lanka the land of a great tapestry in paradise.
Parviz Dehghani, Ph.D.