God is Not in a Hurry
Process Hinduism and Jesus the Avatar
by Jay McDaniel
Jesus the Carpenter's Son
"Jesus the carpenter's son did not sit peacefully on a lotus, but walked the roads of Galilee and challenged the powers of Jerusalem with such boldness that he ended up crucified with two thieves. And that intersection of life with death is at the heart of the Christian message. He did not transcend the body. He did not grow to giant proportions and crush his enemies beneath his feet. He did not have the magical weapons of Lord Rama, nor did he have Rama's helper, the valiant Hanuman, who came flying in with a mountain of medicinal herbs from the Himalayas to bring the decimated armies of his master back to life. He really died -- no miracles and no magical herbs -- a fully human death, as we all die."
Diana Eck: Encountering God: A Spiritual Pilgrimage from Bozeman to Banaras (Boston, Beacon Press, 2003).
Recently a friend asked me to explain Hinduism from a process perspective. She said she didn't have a lot of time and asked me to put it on a single web page.
I told her I'd really rather she read a book by the leading process Hindu, Jeffery Long, because he explains Process Hinduism much more thoroughly and persuasively. I recommended A Vision for Hinduism: Beyond Hindu Nationalism.
I also wished she would read Encountering God: A Spiritual Pilgrimage from Bozeman to Banaras by Diana Eck, because my friend is a Christian and Eck shows how a Christian can learn from Hinduism. It's the best book I know for Christians drawn to Hinduism.
Nevertheless, my friend insisted that she didn't have time to read these books and she pressed me to write a short piece. Here's a try, with help from two analogies: God as Sunlight and God as Water. I don't mention process theology much, but everything I say can make good sense to Whiteheadian thinkers.
Imagine a large and spacious sun, located anywhere and everywhere, from which multiple rays of light emerge. From a Hindu perspective God can be imagined on the analogy of the sun and the universe can be imagined on the analogy of its ray.
The rays include the gods and the goddess, the stars and galaxies, the hills and river, the plants and animals, and, of course, we ourselves. Any reality of any kind that has form or definition is an outreach of the sunlight even as the rays also have their own creativity once they emerge. This includes the gods and the goddesses.
The gods and goddesses may or may not have agency of their own; a process Hinduism can go either way. There are multiple planes of existence, and there may well dwell actualities in other planes of existence who have the character of gods and goddesses. There is no need to deny them.
What is important is that, as objects in our individual and collective imaginations, the gods and goddesses are windows to the Sun and its sunlight, prisms revealing one or another of its aspects.
Or, to shft the metaphor for a moment, they are light bulbs illuminated by a divine generator. Each light bulb reveals a unique feature of the power of the generator: Shiva reveals its fearsome power, Vishnu its preservative power, and Brahma its creative power. But these are only three of the light bulbs; there are many, many lightbulbs.
This multiplicity -- this manyness -- is part of the greatness of the ultimate reality. It does not hide itself from the world, it makes itself visible in countless ways, as objects of the imagination and objects in the physical world. Diana Eck speaks of it as God's Manyness.
Back, then, to the Sun and its sunlight. From a Hindu point of view, our aim in life is to live out our destinies as rays among rays, respecting the other rays, helping them out as best we can, and then, when our journey is complete, return to the source from which the rays emerge: the ultimate reality of the Sun. It will take many lifetimes for us to do this; we will be reborn again and again, either in this plane of existence or in others, until the return is complete. Always we are process, always we are becoming, on this continuing journey. The key is to keep our eyes on the Sun.
The Sun itself can be imagined in personal terms, as something endowed with feeling and intention, in which case the gods and goddesses are truly windows to the divine. Or the Sun can be imagined as something devoid of form altogether, like a deep energy filled with being and awareness and joy. There is wisdom in both approaches.
Amid all this we are not alone. In times of need beings appear -- avatars -- who have a special mission, namely to help us awaken to the reality of the sunlight. If we are Christian, for example, Jesus is our avatar. He is not the only avatar; there are many, and we can take heed of as many as we need. All avatars are unique and none are jealous.
One of the special qualities Jesus was to function as a mirror in which we could see, not simply ourselves, but the poor and powerless of the world. He helps us find God in the forgotten and forsaken and realize that, if we don't find ourselves in them, we can't find ourselves at all. He was -- he is -- an avatar for the untouchables, and he tells us that we cannot be fully human until we break out of purity codes and join them. "Whosoever serves the least of these serves me."
Jesus had awakened to the divinity within himself -- he knew he was a son of the Sun -- but we all contain divinity within ourselves.
Of course our "selves" are complex and deep. At one level we are finite beings among finite beings, with identities of class and caste, ethnicity and vocation. But deeper than this we contain within our own depths the sunlight from which we emerge. This is our true self: Atman. Within each of us there is an image of God, a burst of sunlight, a spark of the divine. Our task on earth it to awaken to the spark and live from it.
Awakening to the spark always requires a psychological dynamic that is also found in Christianity: living by letting go. To explain this, another analogy is needed.
There is a story in India of a goddess, Ganga, who so loved the world that she became incarnate in the waters of a river, the Ganges river, such that whosoever might bathe in her might experience eternal life.
Some Hindus expand the analogy to say that all rivers are this goddess, and that if we get to know rivers in deep ways, sensitive to their fluidity and adaptive nature, we understand the very heart of the divine reality.
Imagine a great river filled with ice cubes. The great river is God in her maternal form; God the Mother. We are within her waters like embryos within a womb, nourished by her grace, sometimes fearsome and sometimes kindly.
But sometimes -- perhaps even oftentimes -- we do not know this grace. The problem is that our hearts are frozen like ice cubes. The problem is not that we are solidified; it is that we do not know we are water. We think we are cut off from the Mother.
To be sure, there is a joy in being solidified; we get to enjoy the experience of being human. We can experience pleasure and pain, joy and suffering, wonder and fear, love and loss. Always with the good comes the bad. There is no such thing as an always-happy life; that would be miserable.
Occasionally things are terribly bad, even horrible, and they should be remedied. It is hardest when these horrible things happen to those we love, our children and loved ones for example. We would take their place in a second. And sometimes they happen to us, too.
In some instances we are the source of our own suffering. Our karma has gotten the best of us. But often the bad things that happen are not our fault at all; they are the result of bad karma in our society -- its greed and hatred -- or of nature's own creative powers, as evidence in disease and natural disasters. What is clear is that bad things happen.
When bad things happen we rightly wish they had not occured, but we can also learn from them. Our learning is animated by a lure toward wholeness within the Mother. Always she offers fresh possibilities for healing and wholeness, relative to the situation at hand; these are her initial and primary aims for us.
These aims -- these lures -- are the Mother's prayer for us. Sometimes, when we are praying, She is actually praying in us and through us, with sighs too deep for words,
The Mother's prayer for us, and ours for ourselves, is that we follow our dharma, our calling. In this life time our primary calling is to do the right thing by others and follow the truth of our life, given the needs of others and the nature of the cosmos in which we live. This calling is nested within an ultimate calling which is to let go of the illusion of separateness and melt back into the water from which we have never really been separate.
For some among us, particularly people in power, what must melt is our arrogance, our self-elevation. We think we are one-over-many: the best ice cube around. But for others what must melt is our self-denigration, our inability to stand up to others and to claim our own humanity. We feel that we one-under-many: the least of the ice cubes.
The truth is we are all one-among-many, not better and not worse. Spiritual growth - a melting away of the ego -- involves learning this truth. It requires learning to love ourselves if we hate ourselves, and becoming more humble if we love ourselves too much. The learning is deepened by acts of lovingkindness and service, by doing the right thing by others. Gandhi was right. There is no better way to serve truth than to serve the poor and powerless.
Jesus the Avatar
Back, then, to Jesus. He was an avatar for the homeless and forsaken, for the woman burned with acid. His aim was not to point toward himself and be placed on a pedestal, but to be a mirror for the ordinary people and especially those who are otherwise forgotten and forsaken. He incarnated a special side of the Mother whose love is for the least of these.
This does not mean that he, and only he, was an avatar. Nor does it mean that he or only he was an incarnation of the Sun. There are many incarnations, perhaps as many as there are beings. For those who have eyes to see, all things reveal something of the Sun.
And even if we cannot be avatars for a lifetime, we can be avatars for a moment. Consider the grandfather taking care of his son below. His very care-taking is a divine incarnation. He is the word of the Mother become flesh.
His kindly action is not simply the will of God done on earth as it is in heaven, it is the very presence of God on earth as it is in heaven. In the grandfather's consoling touch, God is enfleshed.
He is very close to the Sun.
Two Visions of Hinduism
"Two radically different ideologies are currently competing for the loyalties of the Hindu community. One of these ideologies, Hindu nationalism, conceives of Hinduness as co-extensive with Indianness. The other ideology, which has been articulated by such figures as Sri Ramakrishna and Mahatma Gandhi, repesents Hinduism as the 'eternal' or 'universal' religion. This is an idea of Hinduism that is pluralistic and all-inclusive. Arguing that Hindu nationalism is not only destructive of communal relations, but that it also prevents Hinduism from emerging as a world religion in the true sense of the term, Jeffery Long explores a reconfigured version of the second of these two ideologies. He presents a vision of Hinduism as a tradition capable of pointing the way towards a future in which all the world's religions manifest complementary visions of a larger reality - and in which they all, in various ways, participate. This radical religious agenda puts a new and exciting perspective on Hindu and South Asian studies alike."
The comments above come from a description of Jeffery Long's A Vision for Hinduism: Beyond Hindu Nationalism, published in 2007 by I.B. Tauris in 2007. He develops a systematic Hindu Process Theology which is nuanced, evocative, and hopeful. The reflections in this essay offer a simplified version of a Process Hinduism for the spiritually-interested general reader and for a Christian interested in Hinduism. For the serious student, it is best supplemented by Long's important work.