“I am the light” and matters of “immanent” importance in Hinduism, Judaism and Christianity

Religions share many common features such as faith, hope and love, and many other features. For example, certain parts of the Bhagavad Gita, a core Hindu text, resonate well with other religions, as well as with all philosophies, even materialist ones. Here is a verse from the Gita: “One cannot remain without engaging in activity at any time, even for a moment; certainly all living entities are helplessly compelled to action by the qualities endowed by the material nature.” (Chapter 3, verse 5).

You don’t have to be religious to appreciate that living creatures can’t help it: they always have to be doing something. But the Gita is saying more than this. It is this frenzied compulsion to action that is the cause of much human misery. All religions agree on this. The first chapter of the King Solomon’s book “Ecclesiastes” (1:1-3) begins: 

The words of Koheleth son of David, king in Jerusalem. Vanity of vanities, said Koheleth; vanity of vanities, all is vanity. What profit has man in all his toil that he toils under the sun?”

(Koheleth is Hebrew for “gatherer”, “assembler”. Koheleth is the Hebrew name of the book of Ecclesiastes).

There are other verses in the Gita that resonate with the Bible. 

From the Gita: “But if a man will meditate on Me and Me alone, and will worship Me always and everywhere, I will take upon Myself the fulfilment of his aspiration, and I will safeguard whatsoever he shall attain. (Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 17). 

From the Bible: “Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself unless it remains in the vine, so neither can you unless you abide in Me….. If you keep My commandments, you shall abide in My love, even as I have kept My Father’s commandments and abide in His love. I have spoken these things to you so that My joy might remain in you and your joy might be full” (John 15:4-11).

The Gita says: “I am the source of all; from Me everything flows,” and “Of all the creative Powers I am the Creator…” (Ch. 10, The Divine Manifestations). The Hebrew Bible and the Christian Gospel say similar things to the Gita. There is, however, much chalk in the Gita that clashes with the cheese of the Bible. One overarching difference is the nature of the divine being. Here is just one verse that shows the difference:

Know that among horses I am Pegasus, the heaven-born; among the lordly elephants I am the White one, and I am the Ruler among men.” (Ch. 10 “Divine Manifestations”). Who is this “I am”, this individual consciousness? It is my Self, THE Self, Ultimate Consciousness. The “divine manifestations” pervade everything; including the “Wondering Jew”: the story of one of the infinite manifestations of THE Self. (See my “Thomas Merton’s “I intend to become as good a Buddhist as I can”: All roads, including to Rome, lead Home.”

Thomas Merton

In the Gita, Krishna says he’s the light; and in the Gospel of John, Jesus says the same. Is the Hindu (or opponent of Christianity) justified, therefore, in arguing (based on this aforementioned similarity or other similarities between Hinduism and Christianity) that owing to the fact that Hinduism is much older than Christianity, Christianity must be a pastiche of Hinduism? Of course not. All beings who claim divine attributes claim similar attributes, because these attributes are common knowledge to homo religiosus. Besides, what is more natural that an aspirant god or God Himself should call himself “the light,” “the way,” “the life.” It is true that the Hebrew or Christian divine being would not, as the Hindu divine being does, say that he is the light of the moon and stars as well. Compare:

Psalm 36:9b – “In your light we see light.”

Jesus – “I am the light of the world, he who follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12).

Krishna – “I am the light in the sun and the moon, far, far beyond the darkness. I am the brilliancy in flame, the radiance in all that’s radiant, and the light of lights.”

Say that Krishna really did say this above (as recorded in the Bhagavad Gita) centuries before Jesus’ similar saying, the difference is that Jesus is talking metaphorically, namely, He is talking about spiritual light not physical light. Hindu divinity inhabits moon, stars, and elephants in a pantheistic way, that is, the divine spirit is not distinct from his creation. In Hinduism, “Lord Brahma is the first member of the Brahmanical triad, Vishnu being the second and Shiva, the third. Brahma is the god of creation and he is traditionally accepted as the Creator of the entire universe.…Man’s subtle body is responsible for the creation of his gross body and also the world that he experiences.”

In Judaism and Islam, God both transcends his creation (he created something out of nothing, ex nihilo, and is also immanent in creation in the sense that he sustains it as well(equivalent to the Hindu Shiva):

  Who can hide in secret places
so that I cannot see them?”
declares the LORD.
“Do not I fill heaven and earth?”
declares the LORD.

(Jeremiah, 23:24)

Let us now consider briefly the matter of “immanence” (God immersed in his creation) in the three relifgions of our discussio:

The Jew argues that the Christian God is unlike the Jewish God. In that regard, he quotes Numbers 23:19:

God is not man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should change his mind. Has he said, and will he not do it? Or has he spoken, and will he not fulfil it?

From “God is not a man,” or/and “God is not a son of man,” Jewish critics derive the following conclusion:

Major premise: God is not a man.

Minor premise: Jesus is a man/a son of man

Conclusion: Therefore Jesus is not God.

There is logic and there is truth. Logic has to do with how we think (reasoning), not with what we think (about truth/reality), where what deals with truth The conclusion to the above syllogism, therefore, is valid because if the major premise were true (we know that the minor premise is true, namely that Jesus was a man), then it logically follows that the conclusion must be valid, namely that Jesus is not God.

The second Jewish objection is that God does not lie. The Jew accuses the Christian of saying God lied to Jews when He said that His commandments to them were eternally binding (ex.: Ex. 31:17, Lev. 10:9, Deut. 5:29). The Jew argues that if Jesus “fulfilled” or “completed” the Law, God would had to have been lying “through His teeth (as another biting Jew – Frank – put it) when He wrote the Jewish Bible.”

God is not man” and “God does not lie” are, of course, two snippets from Numbers 23:19. Here is the unmutilated verse again:

God is not a man, that he should lie,

or a son of man, that he should change his mind.

Has he said, and will he not do it?

Or has he spoken, and will he not fulfil it?

On several occasions, I’ve responded to my Jewish kith that the conjunction which connects 1. “God is not man,” to 2. “he should lie” in such away that all God is saying is that whereas man is (by nature) a liar, God is not. Numbers 23;19 has nothing to do with the nature of God’s being, namely, whether he has a divine or a human nature, or both. (Later, of course, the New Testament does describe Jesus as fully God and fully man). Therefore, it’s illegitimate to chop the verse into two chunks and present them as two separate arguments. (See my Raphael and Picasso pay attention: God is not a man that he should lie (Numbers 23:19) and Milking the teats off the text: the rabbinical interpretation of Numbers 23:19).

The grammar and the historical context make it clear that God is not trying to prove that He does not have a body, that no “part” of Him is matter. God is merely saying –  contra Judaeorum – that men (all men) and women (all women) lie and go back on their commitments, which is why human beings are not like God – why they need a Saviour. The New Testament reveals that the Saviour , the Son of God, took on flesh (John 1). THIS is where the Christian God differs from the Jewish God. What is important is that God incarnate is both fully God and fully man. Well, some may ask – and this is where Hinduism comes into the picture again – what’s the difference between the pantheistic Hindu divine being and the Christian divine being, for both are identified with their creation? Biblical theology teaches that Christ has two natures – human and divine – in one person. It is Christ’s human nature – his flesh – that is part of creation. This dual-nature doctrine is naturally preposterous to the Jew, the Muslim as well as many Christians. I leave this supernatural matter there for now.