The unknown Christ of Hinduism – a review by a Vedantin

“Hinduism is the starting point of a religion that culminates in Christianity.” This is the theme of Dr. Panikkar’s book, and he sets out to show how the conception of Christ as the Living Word, which ever was, and will be, is the same concept as Ishvara within the Vedantic framework; though he claims that the time has now come to recognize that it is indeed Christ working in and through Vedanta, and that the catholicity of Vedanta must be transformed into the Catholicism of Christianity.

The whole argument of the book rests on the Roman Catholic assumption that only in Christ is the fullness of Truth revealed; that all religion prior to the birth of Christ has been a preparation for this unique revelation, and that only in so far as a religion has been Christianized can it claim to be universal.

The author is well aware that to the Hindu this is an impertinence, and that he, the Hindu, is content to let others follow their traditions, he himself being ready to absorb any authentic truth from another system into the framework of Vedanta—he has no wish to proselytise. Dr. Panikkar purposely uses the word ‘absorb’ in this context, while using ‘embrace’ for the Christian attitude. Vedanta, he fears, is in danger of stagnation, the result of a somewhat negative, almost feminine philosophy of reception and withdrawal, while he envisages Christianity as positive and dynamic, possessed by (not in possession of) the ultimate gift of God to men, Himself in the form of His son.

The author sees Christ at work in Hinduism in the form of Ishvara, the Lord, creating, sustaining and destroying the world. To Dr. Panikkar this conception of Ishvara and His creation is an admission of duality, and Advaita claims to be a philosophy of non-duality. Ishvara, the creator, he sees as being essentially different from Brahman, the unconditioned and attributeless Reality or God. Therefore for him the ideas of Brahman and Ishvara are contradictory. The nearest he gets to identifying them is when he considers Brahman to be saguna (conditioned) whilst pretending to be nirguna (unconditioned). But in the end he separates them, making of Brahman one God, and of Ishvara another. To a Vedantin this is quite unacceptable.

This seeming division within the concept of Brahman is the basis of Dr. Panikkar’s argument. He regards such an idea as irreconcilable to mortals, because for him there appears no connecting link between Brahman and Ishvara; so it is not surprising that he sees in Christ a fuller expression of the Divine. To the Christian, the Holy Trinity, the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are equal and undivided; Christ could be seen as Ishvara, yet still the very God of Gods, undivided and infinitely approachable by men through His humanity.

To the Vedantin, on the other hand, no such division between Brahman and Ishvara has ever taken place. The cornerstone of the Vedanta philosophy is that Brahman and His manifestation are one; any seeming difference is due to the illusion of Maya. The unconditioned Brahman is only approachable to mortals through His conditioned aspect, His saguna aspect, Ishvara. Limited himself, man can only recognise God with attributes. But God with attributes is God with His self-imposed limitations, His Maya, however sublime; not until man has purified himself sufficiently to go beyond all the concepts of personality, both in himself and in God, can he recognise his identity with Brahman, nirguna Brahman. Just as we cannot gaze on the sun without the atmosphere to protect us, so we cannot gaze on the unconditioned without the mercy and the love of the Lord, Ishvara, to protect, us. It is man’s limitations, not those of Brahman and Ishvara which produce the illusion.

This book is really written for the Christian reader, and Dr. Panikkar has rather the same warmth and attraction in presenting Catholicism as Thomas Merton. He rightly shows it as a dynamic, rich, overflowing religion, yet the basis of his argument is a misunderstanding, so however convincing to the Christian, it remains unsatisfactory to the Vedantist. The real purpose of the book can be seen in the foreword. The author is convinced that the catholocity of Hindu thought must be transformed into the Catholicism of Christianity—Roman Catholicism, to fill out its own truths of Vedanta with the reality of the Living Christ. He is not content to let the two religions run parallel to one another; contact between them is essential for each to be enriched, but he claims, very graphically, that contact can only be achieved by the two lines crossing, not running parallel, and that this crossing must be the Cross of Christ.

This is where Vedanta claims to include Christianity within the great sweep of its philosophical thought. To the Christian the ultimate step is the fusion of the personality with that of Christ, yet still remaining a personality. The Vedantin says that this is indeed the right and proper way for Christians, but yet there is another step to go, and that is the step beyond all personality, the step to identity.

 

This was a review of “The unknown Christ of Hinduism” by Raymond Panikkar, published by Dartman, Longman and Todd.

 

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