Myth as Metaphysics: The Christian Saviour and the Hindu Gods
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A distinction which is often rehearsed in some strands of Christian writing on the ‘Eastern’ religions, especially Hinduism, is that while they are full of ‘mythological’ fancies, Biblical faith is based on the solid rock of ‘historical’ truth. I argue that the sharp contours of this antithesis are softened when we consider two issues regarding the relation between ‘myth’ and ‘history’. First, the decades–long attempts to separate the ‘historical’ facts about Jesus Christ from the interpretive elements in the Biblical narrative highlight the presence of ‘mythical’ imagination in Christian thought. Second, a comparative study of the Christian understanding of Jesus Christ as the Incarnate God and the Hindu conception of avatāras reveals a highly significant set of differences and analogies, and shows how the supposed equivalences between ‘historical as real’ and ‘mythological as unreal’ need to be reformulated.
KeywordsIncarnation avatāras Mythology
The recent profusion of studies on the nature of myth from various philosophical, anthropological and sociological perspectives has highlighted the significance of metaphorical and figurative thinking in the construction of images of reality. In the decades of positivism, the products of the mythopoeic imagination were condemned to the dust heap of cognitively meaningless statements, but writers on myth have increasingly begun to emphasize the importance of mythical thinking in various cultures as their inhabitants have tried to articulate truths about the architecture of the world. This emphasis on the centrality of myth in all cultures, including the Judaeo–Christian, presents a somewhat curious problem for Christian theologians who have often positioned Christianity as the opponent of ‘mythical’ religions, especially Hinduism. Christianity has sometimes been presented as the agent of demythologization, for it is founded on the rock of the ‘historical’ Jesus and is opposed to the dreamy insubstantial images of pagan polytheism.1 However, while this antithesis is commonly repeated in Christian theological writing on the ‘Eastern’ religions, we shall argue that its apparently sharp contours can be softened when we consider two issues regarding the relation between ‘myth’ and ‘history’. First, the decades-long attempts, largely unsuccessful in the opinion of some theologians, to separate the ‘historical’ facts about Jesus Christ from the interpretive elements in the Biblical narrative highlight the presence of ‘mythical’ imagination in Christian thought. Second, a comparative study of the Christian understanding of Jesus Christ as the Incarnate God and the Hindu conception of avatāras reveals a highly significant set of differences and analogies, and shows how the supposed equivalences between ‘historical as real’ and ‘mythological as unreal’ need to be reformulated.
In the following sections, we shall outline some of the many meanings of the term ‘myth’ and discuss the implications of the endeavour to unearth the ‘historical Jesus’ for our study of the significance of ‘myth’ in Christian and Hindu theology. Viewing ‘myth’ minimally in terms of imagery which symbolically expresses truths about transcendent realities and which are paradigmatic for human existence, we shall point out some of the elements of the Christian ‘myth’ of redemption, centred in Jesus Christ, and the Hindu ‘myth’ of liberation from the cycle of rebirth through the aid of the avatāras. An investigation of the relation of these ‘myths’ with historical events leads us to the vital question of the historicity of the key figures, namely, Jesus Christ and the avatāras. While the historicity of Jesus Christ is an absolutely crucial pivot for Christianity, in the sense that the life, death and resurrection of a specific human being is salvifically efficacious, the historicity of the avatāras is a relatively minor point in Hindu thought. Now while this contrast is sometimes put forward by Christian theologians to suggest that the avatāras are unreal apparitions, it is important to note that some Vedāntic theologians such as Rāmānuja and Mādhva emphasised the reality of the avatāras. It would be more accurate to say that in these theistic traditions the avatāras are believed to be real manifestations of the divine Self in the temporal world, even though it may turn out that these avatāras cannot be historically dated in the same way as Jesus of Nazareth. However, we shall argue that this difference between the historical status of the incarnate God and the avatāras should not be associated with the claim that ‘mythical’ elements have been purged from Christian thought or the charge that an ‘anti-historical’ bias infects Hindu thought. On the one hand, Christian thinkers have emphasized that it is not the mere knowledge of the historical details of the life of Jesus that is salvifically efficacious, and they have tried to forge a type of vocabulary, in terms of the ‘myths’ of the descent of the pre-existent Son of God and his ascent after resurrection, with which to speak about divine action that is not restricted to that particular life but somehow makes it the focal point and constitutive vehicle of salvation everywhere else. On the other hand, the multiplicity of the avatāras, in contrast to the unique event of the incarnation, is based not on indifference to the historical, but on a certain metaphysics of human personhood, according to which the divine reality can be embodied in more than one human manifestation, which is essentially the spiritual self. Further, because the temporal process was conceived not in linear terms with a definite beginning and end but as moving through numerous cycles, the descents of the divine occur throughout time. Finally, these two differences between the Christian and the Hindu worldviews led up to one major issue that theologians on both sides have grappled with: precisely how does the descent of the divine reality help human beings to reach their transcendent goal? Christian and Hindu figures, in their own distinctive theological contexts, have had to grapple with the ‘mechanics’ of the divine descent: Christian theologians have sought to explain the relation of the atonement to the incarnation, and for Hindu theologians the crucial question is the relation of the Lord to the law of karma. The real distinction is therefore not so much between a ‘historical Saviour’ and a ‘mythical avatāra’ – for both Christian and Hindu thinkers can agree that there is a genuine contrast between ‘the historian and the believer’ – but between two different conceptualizations of how the divine descent is believed to transform the life of the faithful.
Thinkers who have reflected on the nature of myth have usually pointed out that this term is not equivocal, and indeed the entry under ‘myth’ in one theological compendium reads as: “This is one of the obscurest notions of comparative religion in its application to religious utterances and the interpretation of life. If we assume that every concept bearing upon a metaphysical or religious reality, remote from direct experience, must work with a sensible image …; if we further assume that this image … is not a static ‘picture’ but a dramatic representation …: then every metaphysical or religious utterance is a mythical one or can be interpreted in mythical terms” (Rahner and Vorgrimler, 1965: 303). The polysemy of the term can be further highlighted by noting that it encompasses diverse aspects such as stories about the sacred realms of the gods; narratives that articulate the sense of dependence that human beings feel regarding cosmic powers that are believed to hold sway beyond the tangible realm; expressions of the experiences of fertility, creation, death, destruction and deliverance associated with human/demi-human/divine protagonists; forms of thought in which religious concepts and beliefs are expressed metaphorically, and so on (Jaspers, 1972: 133–80). Myths have been regarded as means to make sense of a senseless world; narrative patterns for giving significance to human existence; structures that uphold worldviews or stories that empower lives (Walsh 2001). In contrast to early writers on myth such as Tylor and Frazer who, in effect, understood myth as a primitive counterpart to modern science, more recent thinkers such as Mircea Eliade have pointed out that even ‘modern man’ possesses myths, especially stories about how things came to be (Eliade 1963). Instead of regarding myth as an outdated stage left behind on the march of progress towards science, myth has been rehabilitated in various academic disciplines as a means of expressing and giving shape to the human quest for meaning (Segal 2004). In turn, the renewed interest in myth had led to a softening of the positivist opposition between myth as fiction and history as fact, and resulted in a reassessment of the role of myth in the Bible.
Contemporary Christian theologians who have written favourably about myth have followed Eliade in regarding myth as something other than a pre-scientific cosmogonic explanation of the world and as a means of developing an orientation towards a reality beyond the observable (Macquarrie, 1966: 21). In contrast to several earlier generations of theologians who, taking myth as a fanciful story opposed to ‘gospel truth’, had denied its presence in the Bible, recent commentators have pointed out that the claim that the God of Israel has no mythology is an exaggeration. According to Michael Fishbane, the reason why theologians have often denied the presence of mythical elements in the Bible, notwithstanding the clear descriptions of God in anthropomorphic and anthropopathic terms in it, is because they have operated with a specific definition of ‘myth’ that is informed by the belief that Israelite monotheism effected a radical break with pagan polytheism. Having defined myth in terms of the deities of ‘pagan polytheism’, and then noting the opposition between the monotheistic innovation of Israel and polytheism, they have concluded that myth cannot be present in the Bible. Fishbane, however, reads ‘myth’ as a sacred tale about the deeds of gods and heroes in primordial times or historical interventions that are foundational for a culture and that exercise their influence in the present times. He points out that myths such as that of the divine combat between God and the Sea at the time of creation were continuously reworked into prayers to meet the needs of changing times and communal crises. Therefore, acts of salvation, for instance, at the Exodus, were modelled on the mythic precedents of origin, and such mythic images were received and transformed over two millennia in the Hebrew Bible, the Midrash and the Zohar (Fishbane, 2005). Similarly, B. Batto, who states that it is only since the 1970s that theologians have started accepting the notion that the Biblical authors use mythopoeic speculation, argues that mythmaking, understood as a conscious application of older mythic elements to new situations, is active in various texts in the Bible (Batto 1992). The Exodus, according to Batto, is less a historical account than a mythic reinterpretation of the primordial ‘event’ of God establishing order through the slaying of the chaos dragon. The development of this myth of origins shows, in other words, how the Biblical writers use myths to express their understanding of their place in the universe by correlating mythical claims with the factual data of history or using myth to interpret history.
In short, many Christian theologians have argued that myth is in fact woven into the Biblical texts, especially in the myths of creation and redemption. While the New Testament is the product of reflection on the events centred around a historical person and the various conflicts between individuals and socio-political interests, there are also descriptions of supra-sensuous realities, expressed through mythological thought, such as the ‘descent’ of the pre-existent Son and his death and ‘ascension’. These can be regarded as instances of the work of myth in symbolising spiritual realities by referring tangible historical experiences to a transcendent plane. Indeed, the Bible has been read by many believers not as a straightforward history book but as a ‘mythical’ tale whose meaning is other than that of the narrative, and Christian theologians have often dealt with the difficult question of the precise relationship between the events that a historian can ‘dispassionately’ study as objects of research, for instance, the life of a Jew in first-century Israel, and the faith of the believer who sees this as the decisive event when the suprahistorical reality of the Word became enfleshed in the realm of visible fact. An influential Kierkegaardian position in this matter holds that Christian faith springs not from a study of the historical pictures of Christ presented by chroniclers or historians, but from the witness of Scripture, and that the ‘object’ of this faith is not, strictly speaking, a ‘fact of history’. For instance, Rudolf Bultmann makes a sharp distinction between the Jesus of Historie who is approached with the ‘objectivity’ of a detached observer in historical scholarship and the Christ of Geschichte who is known ‘subjectively’ when the historical events of the life and death of Christ are incorporated into one’s personal history and become significant for one’s interpretation of human existence. Though the Cross of Christ is an historical event, which happened once and is limited to its temporal duration, it becomes a historic saving event for the individual when it is proclaimed as the Cross that judges the world and challenges or questions her present existence (Young, 1969: 25). Consequently, an individual cannot arrive at the Christ of Geschichte simply through a study of the Christ of Historie made available through historical scholarship: ‘The saving efficacy of the Cross is not derived from the fact that it is the cross of Christ: it is the cross of Christ because it has this saving efficacy’ (Bultmann, 1972: 41). A similar point is made by Oscar Cullmann when he outlines the hermeneutic circle within which the believer moves back and forth between her faith in Christ and her historical perspective: on the one hand, it is from her Christian standpoint that she is able to ‘see’ the history of Israel as leading up to God’s revelation in Christ, and, on the other, it is precisely when she has attained a deeper understanding of this history that she is able to comprehend yet better the redemptive work of Christ within the salvific plan of God (Cullmann, 1952: 137).
In short, the patterns of divine action in history cannot be traced by the ‘external’ historian from a position of ‘neutrality’ but are perceptible, although only through a glass darkly, to the believer, and this ‘Jesus of history’ versus ‘Christ of faith’ dialectic has certain interesting parallels in some influential Hindu conceptualizations of the person of Christ. In the thought of such ‘neo-Hindu’ figures as S. Radhakrishnan, Swami Vivekananda and Sri Aurobindo, we find a contrast being elaborated between what we might call the ‘historical/individual Jesus’ who lived in Judah two millennia ago and the ‘mythical/eternal Christ’ who is an ever-present reality in the innermost core of our being. The key difference between the ways in which this dialectic emerges in the writings of Christian theologians, on the one hand, and the above-mentioned Hindu figures, on the other hand, is that it is embedded, in the latter case, in different variations on the metaphysics of Advaita Vedanta. The ‘historical Jesus’ is to be regarded as the primus inter pares in whom the consciousness of one’s own divine nature received the fullest expression, but this manifestation of the ‘mythical/eternal Christ’ is not a once-and-for-all event for it can be replicated in all human beings. In Radhakrishnan, for instance, the particular individual Jesus of Nazareth is the saviour of humanity not in the sense that he enjoyed an ontological status of consubstantiality with the divine that cannot be replicated in other human beings, but in that he awakens them to the Christ that is within all of them. Radhakrishnan therefore rejects the notion that there is no ‘continuity of revelation’ between the Christ-event and other divine operations in human history, and appeals to the Logos-doctrine of the Johannine Prologue in support of his view that human beings can be reborn into the Christ who is the eternal reality in all of them. This spiritual rebirth is for Radhakrishnan the true meaning of the incarnation, which is not an isolated act of the irruption of the divine into the temporal but a process that is always going on, and will go on ‘until the whole world becomes one divine incarnation’. Therefore, Radhakrishnan asserts that ‘[t]he Incarnation is not an historical event which occurred two thousand years ago. It is an event which is renewed in the life of everyone who is on the way to the fulfillment of his destiny’ (Radhakrishnan, 1967: 117).
The Advaitic vocabulary in which this ‘historical Jesus’–‘mythical Christ’ dialectic is couched in the writings of these Hindu figures is especially clear in the case of Swami Vivekananda who similarly argues that what separates Jesus Christ from us is not that he is God and we are not (for all are essentially divine), but that he has realised his inner divinity to the highest level of perfection. All individuals have the potentiality of becoming perfect manifestations of the ‘eternal Christ’, and the historic individual called Jesus of Nazareth was only one instance of such an expression. This is how Vivekananda puts it: ‘The Atman is pure intelligence … But the intelligence we see around us is always imperfect. When intelligence is perfect, we get the Incarnation – the Christ’ (Vivekananda, 1966–71: 128). This theme that in Christ we have a more perfect revelation than in any other human being of the eternal within us, but that this revelation can be repeated in all of us, is also found in Sri Aurobindo. He speaks of a spiritual rebirth in which we gradually become more conscious of our divine nature (which is what he refers to as the ‘eternal Avatara’), and Jesus Christ was one individual, out of many, in whom this second birth is clearly manifested. Therefore, the ‘divine manifestation of a Christ … in external humanity has for its inner truth the same manifestation of the eternal Avatar within our own inner humanity. That which has been in the outer human life of earth, may be repeated in the inner life of all human beings’ (Aurobindo, 1950: 132).
Now while Christian theologians often respond to such an understanding of the person of Christ as ‘anti-historical’ and ‘mythical’, our earlier discussion shows that these labels should be used cautiously. As John Macquarrie puts it, ‘Christianity, we often hear, is a historical religion, but precisely what is meant by this assertion is by no means obvious’ (Macquarrie, 1960: 58). In one straightforward sense, Christianity is a ‘historical’ religion for it is associated with certain events in the life of an individual named Jesus of Nazareth who was crucified under the Roman Procurator Pontius Pilate sometime around A.D. 29 in Jerusalem, and these facts constitute the ‘given’ and are fairly uncontested. As Macquarrie himself notes, there remains a minimum core of historical factuality at the heart of the Christian message: there indeed was such a person named Jesus who lived the kind of life that the gospels proclaim. However, Christian theologians down the ages have also grappled with the ‘trans-historicality’ or the ‘mythicality’ of the Christ-event: how do we make sense of the claim that a series of occurrences in Israel two millennia ago is the fulcrum around which world history turns and is constitutive of the salvation of all humanity in all times? (White, 1991) To emphasize that the Christ-event has a universal significance that is therefore not restricted to those specific occurrences but reaches out both backwards and forwards in time, they have elaborated some forms of the faith-history dialectic, as we have seen earlier in our discussion of figures such as Bultmann and Cullmann. While Christianity is indeed rooted in some historical events in the life of Israel, the precise connection between the Christian myth of salvation and historical consciousness is considerably more complicated than a straightforward cause-and-effect relationship. The faith that saves involves the acceptance of the message of salvation, but the extent to which this faith must be informed by knowledge of the life of Jesus Christ and in what sense such a quest can be regarded as ‘historical’ are extremely contested matters. Indeed, Emil Brunner goes as far as to say that ‘[i]n the ordinary sense of the word it [Christianity] is not concerned with history at all, it is what it is through its relation to that unique event, which, although it is a fact of history, does not gain its unique character from its historical connection’ (Brunner, 1934: 153). And because the believer turns to Christ not through a historical picture but through the witness of scripture in the light of the resurrection faith that, however, transcends the scrutiny of the historian, Brunner cautions the Christian not to build her faith on something as ‘unsafe as historical science’ (Brunner, 1934: 156). Our exploration of some Hindu ‘Christologies’, formulated from Advaitic perspectives, shows a distinctive way of negotiating this dialectic: the ‘eternal Christ’ is the inmost reality in all, of which the ‘historical Jesus’ was the most perfect (but not unique) manifestation. In turn, these conceptualizations of Christ are also related to the general form that a ‘Krishnalogy’ would take from within an Advaitic worldview: the divine is present in us, indeed identical with us, at all times, and Krishna is a particular individual who has attained the perfect consciousness of this essential identity.
It is clear from the preceding discussion that the differences between the Christian ‘myth’ of the Saviour in and through whose life God has acted in a decisive manner for the whole of humanity and the ‘mythical’ avatāras who are continuously manifested in different ages can be traced back to divergent conceptions of time and human embodiment. While Radhakrishnan would firmly disagree with Brunner regarding the latter’s ascription of uniqueness to Jesus Christ as the divine Son, the following lines could almost have been picked up from Brunner: ‘For me the person of Jesus is a historical fact. Christ is not a datum of history but a judgment of history’ (Radhakrishnan, 1952: 807). The fundamental difference, however, between the two thinkers emerges in the very next sentence: ‘Jesus’s insight is expressive of a timeless spiritual fact …’ We shall highlight this difference by discussing two questions: whether or not the Son of God could have become incarnate in more than one individual, and second, whether a plausible account can be given of how the Christ-event, restricted in the historical sense to a specific spatio-temporal location, has a decisive effect for all other places and times. If the divine Son could become incarnate in many individuals, not just Jesus, the Christian understanding of the incarnation would move closer in some respects to the Hindu conceptualization of the avatāras as the repeated descents of the divine. On the other hand, however, according to some strands of Christian theology, the purpose of the incarnation was the reconciliation of human beings to God through Christ’s sacrificial death. From some Hindu perspectives, it would seem difficult to incorporate into a worldview structured by the theory of karma and rebirth the implications of Christ’s ‘vicarious punishment’, which has been associated with certain ‘models’ of the Atonement. Hindu thinkers have usually rejected the notion that one individual can pay the price of the transgressions of another, and consequently the claim that Christ is the propitiator who has expiated the sins of humanity. For instance, Gandhi expresses his puzzlement regarding the supposed salvific power of the Cross in these terms: ‘His death on the Cross was a great example to the world, but that there was anything like a mysterious or miraculous virtue in it my heart would not accept’ (Gandhi, 1990: 224). Gandhi’s response highlights a crucial difference between the Hindu and the Christian understandings of the divine descents: the notion that the breach between the divine and the human has been restored through the ‘sacrificial death’ of one avatāra, a unique, non-repeatable event in the divine life, is difficult to translate into Hindu vocabulary. Thus, while both Hindu and Christian thinkers regard the descents as focal manifestations of the divine, they diverge over the crucial point of the ‘mechanics’ of the divine-human reconciliation, and these differences are ultimately rooted in the metaphysics in their respective myths of divine descents, particularly the metaphysics of human personhood.
In orthodox Christological terms, whereas we human beings are fully – and merely – human, for our human natures are not owned by a divine person, the human nature of Christ is not that of a human person distinct from the divine person. According to the Chalcedonian understanding of the incarnation, Christ’s human nature has a body and a soul, and this human nature is ‘hypostatically’ united with the divine nature, so that there is only one divine Subject, the Son of God. The doctrine of the hypostatic union rejects the notion that Jesus is merely an adopted son: rather, the human and the divine natures – without being fused or merged – are united intimately in the divine Person. Now raising the question whether the Son of God can assume two or more human natures, Oliver Crisp argues that it does not follow from the claim that the Son of God is the metaphysical owner of a particular human nature that this is a case of a unique ownership: the second Person of the Trinity ‘owns’ Jesus’ human nature and can ‘own’ some other human nature. In the incarnation, the Son of God assumes the human soul that is contingently ‘attached’ to Jesus’ body, and can consecutively be enfleshed in more than one body (Crisp, 2008). However, Crisp makes an interesting shift in his argument by noting that though the logical impossibility of multiple incarnations cannot be demonstrated, Christians can hold on Biblical grounds that the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ is indeed a unique event. Now while Crisp ultimately rejects the multiplicity of incarnations on the basis of Biblical revelation, it is readily allowed by the classical Indian metaphysics of human personhood. According to the Sāṁkhya conception of personhood, which was widely accepted in texts such as the Bhagavadgītā, the spiritual self, the puruṣa, is not truly or ‘hypostatically’ united with the physical body, made of prakṛti. However, whereas human beings, caught in the sway of saṁsāra, fail to perceive this difference between the self and the body, in the avatāras the supreme Self takes up human forms without being subject to karma. For instance, while Christian theologians have struggled with ‘models’ of the incarnation to explain how the divine consciousness of Jesus Christ had to be accommodated to his human nature, Hindu writers have unhesitatingly ascribed to the avatāras a consciousness of their own divinity. The avatāras are said to be born freely, possess memory of their previous births and be conscious of their divine mission throughout their lives (Prabhavananda, 1963: 120–1). Indeed, because human bodies are constituted of imperfect prakṛti, and such imperfections cannot be attributed to the divine, some Hindu theologians, especially from a Vaiṣṇavite background, even argued either that the bodies of the avatāras are made of ‘pure matter’ or that avatāras such as Krishna did not really undergo any suffering (Sheth, 2002). In contrast to Christ’s death on the cross, which is taken as real and having saving power, the avatāra cannot truly go through such suffering, which is regarded as a consequence of subjection to the kārmic chain.
In other words, the analysis of the differences in the metaphysics of human personhood leads us to the question of the relation of the atonement to the incarnation: in what sense was the death of Jesus Christ, the enfleshed Son of God, necessary for the forgiveness of the sins of humanity? The Christian myth of the pre-existent Son of God who becomes enfleshed, dies to atone for the sins of humanity, returns to the heavenly Father and sends the Holy Spirit to guide the faithful till the end of times includes a number of propositions about the nature of the divine, the interaction between God and the world, the status of finite reality, and so on (Blair, 1963). Now while the notion that suffering has a redemptive value is not entirely foreign to Hindu thought – for according to the theory of karma, each individual makes progress towards the divine by working out one’s kārmic effects – Hindu thinkers have usually rejected the notion of one individual ‘bearing the sins’ of another. The various metaphors that have been deployed in the Christian tradition to describe the salvation wrought by God in Christ, such as Christ paying a penalty to God, Christ reconciling humanity to God through his death, Christ bearing upon himself the punishment that human beings deserve, and so on, do not find a ready home in a worldview where an individual’s estrangement from the divine, manifested in worldly suffering, has to be worked out through the operations of the kārmic law. Consequently, much of Hindu reflection on Jesus Christ is more congenial to ‘functional’ Christologies, according to which Jesus is an exemplar of God’s love than to ‘ontological’ Christologies that hold that in the incarnation it was the being of Godself that was identified with the finitude of the world. The question that therefore lies at the heart of Christian reflection on the work of Christ is whether a purely human Jesus, a Jesus with whom God is not ontologically identical, can bring about the salvation of the world.
In recent decades, some Christian theologians have, in fact, argued for ‘non-incarnational’ Christologies according to which Jesus should be regarded not as God incarnate, but as a moral exemplar for us to follow. Against such readings of the person and work of Christ, Kenneth Surin argues that unless it is God who breaks into the sinfulness of our lives and makes us see the truth of what we are, we cannot be set on the path of salvation. Therefore, he argues for an ontological Christology according to which it was God who was working in and through Jesus Christ to interrupt the evil and death of human beings (Surin, 1989: 118). In opposition to a ‘functional’ Christology according to which Christ was not the architect of our salvation but merely a forerunner, Surin argues that only God can overcome human evil by being incarnate in the world. Surin’s reading of the human condition is that we are finite creatures who cannot totally conquer evil for it pre-exists specific cases of human evil, and indeed our attempt to overcome suffering and tragedy, which are ingrained into the universe, lead us further to more acts of evil. Therefore, we can be healed and forgiven only when the depths of our evil acts have been made clear through God’s interventionist identification with our humanity (Surin, 1989: 150). From the comparative perspective that we have been developing, an immediate issue is that of the specificity of Jesus as the individual in whom the divine was incarnated, and in this matter Surin ultimately appeals to revelation. He admits that his ‘salvation-scheme’ cannot show that Jesus is the human being in whom God chose to incarnate Godself; it shows the necessity, if evil is to be surmounted, of God’s identification with human beings, not particularly with Jesus. Therefore, faith centred in Christ cannot be based entirely on soteriological considerations that can provide a salvation-model that is broadly incarnational, and Christians will need to appeal to divine revelation for their confession that God has indeed acted in and through the life and death of Jesus Christ.
A survey of Hindu responses to Christianity shows that the element of ‘uniqueness’ in the Christian myth of redemption, centred in Christ as the sinless one who has paid ‘satisfaction’ for human sins, cannot be easily accommodated into a worldview structured by the law of kārma and rebirth. For instance, Crisp argues that the motivation for the incarnation is the reconciliation of fallen humanity, and since Christians may believe that the satisfaction offered by the God-Man is sufficient for salvation, more than one incarnation can be regarded as superfluous. The sticking point therefore remains the so-called scandal of particularity, which is rooted in two particular notions of the divine reality and the human-divine relation (Parrinder, 1982). From a Christian standpoint, the incarnation was a part of the redemptive work of God, and in and through the unique, non-repeatable Christ-event God has worked in a decisive manner for the whole of humanity. Christian theologians who have emphasized that in the incarnation it was God who acted in and through Jesus Christ have usually argued that the incarnation adds something specific beyond God’s general revelation in the world, such that the activity of God is more completely discerned in him. However, while Hindu thinkers have often been happy to consider Jesus as another avatāra, they have struggled with the ascription of exclusive divinity to him. Vivekananda, for instance, writes: ‘Let us … find God not only in Jesus of Nazareth but in all the Great Ones that have preceded him, in all that came after him, and all that are yet to come’ (Vivekananda, 1990: 214). The neo-Hindu perspectives on ‘Christ as an avatāra’ are based on the conception of the finite self as non-dualistically identical with the ultimate reality, so that it becomes possible to conceive of Jesus, as Gandhi does, as being ‘as divine as Krishna or Rama or Mohammed or Zoroaster’ (Gandhi, 1941: 113). Further, against the backdrop of the karma hypothesis, which seeks to eliminate injustice from the grand scheme of things by squaring an individual’s suffering with her own merits, the notion that Christ’s works of salvation are mediated to human beings is not readily intelligible. For instance, towards the end of the nineteenth century, H.A. Krishna Pillai wrote in his conversion narrative that after reading the New Testament in Tamil, he could understand the notions of ‘incarnation’ and ‘salvation’ but could not relate them together (Hudson, 1972). It was his friend Dhanuskoti Raju who came to Pillai’s help, trying to link together Christ’s incarnation and the salvific efficacy of his atoning death: by becoming the Mediator between sinful humanity and the God of Holiness, Christ performed an act of merit through his voluntary self-oblation, and all those who surrendered themselves wholeheartedly to Christ would be saved by the power of this merit.
Pillai’s sense of perplexity at how Christ’s act of expiation imparts salvation to human beings is one that has, in fact, been shared by many Christian theologians to the present time. In the words of Paul S. Fiddes, the fundamental question here is that of the link between the salvation of human beings today and the past event of the life and death of Jesus Christ (Fiddes, 1989). An emerging consensus among theologians who have addressed this question is an understanding of the reconciliation of humanity to God without the notion of ‘penal substitution’ according to which Jesus voluntarily takes upon himself the punishment of sins. For instance, Gordon Graham points out that punishment requires that the perpetrator and the punished are the same individual, and hence the punishment of Christ in place of human beings cannot be regarded as an affirmation of right over wrong (Graham, 2010). Instead, he asks us to consider the analogy of one individual A who has incurred a financial penalty that she cannot pay, but another B who pays it and removes A’s criminal status. If A eventually pays back the amount, B’s action restores A’s status, but A’s subsequent action makes the restoration just. Graham proposes that we regard Jesus as the individual who was able to pay the price of sin, and human beings can ‘become’ the person who has paid the price by submerging ourselves in Christ in a mystical union through baptism. Likewise, Richard Swinburne argues that a perfect life of obedience to God would be a proper reparation that human beings can offer God, but since they are incapable of doing so, God provides them, through Christ, the means of reparation. A perfect human life lived out so sacrificially that it led to the self-offering on the cross is an adequate offering for human sin. However, this sacrifice is not efficacious unless human beings associate themselves with it through repentance and incorporation in Christ in baptism (Swinburne, 1989: 153).
Graham and Swinburne are trying to avoid a ‘subjective’ theory of the Atonement according to which Christ is merely a template for others to follow, and emphasize more of the ‘objective’ elements of Christ’s work in making possible the salvation of human beings, which they must work out in their own lives. A complete analysis of these recent contributions to the understanding of the Atonement within the Christian myth of the incarnate redeemer cannot be attempted here, for it will lead us to a host of interrelated concepts such as grace, faith, charity, and so on. In the context of our comparative discussion, however, two points may be noted, one regarding the interweaving of myth and history in the Christian message, and the other regarding the role of the avatāras in the liberation of human beings from the cycle of rebirths. First, the understandings of the Atonement developed by Graham and Swinburne are more suitable to a kārmic worldview than the traditional models that speak of ‘satisfaction’ of God and ‘transfer’ of punishment. However, the emphasis on the universality of God’s reconciling work in and through Christ has led Christian theologians to grapple with a dilemma regarding human awareness of the Christ-event. On the one hand, if knowledge of the historical Jesus is necessary for salvation, this would imply that large swathes of humanity, both before and after Jesus, have been excluded from the possibility of entering into a relationship with God. On the other hand, if Christ’s work is effective for reconciliation with God even without explicit knowledge of his life and death, it would seem that salvation becomes a semi-automatic affair that is possible even without the response of faith. Pointing out that the atonement has often been regarded as a cosmic event that occurs above the heads of human beings, Colin Gunton has therefore argued that if ‘we are to establish the case for an objective, past atonement, it cannot be at the cost of denying the subjective and exemplary implications’ (Gunton, 1988: 157). The interweaving of the ‘subjective’ and the ‘objective’ elements in the conceptualizations of the Atonement shows at the same time the close relation between myth and history in the Christian understanding of redemption: salvation is effected by an historical individual who remains present through all times in a trans-historical sense.
Second, from a Hindu perspective, because restoration of the individual’s relationship with the divine is effected not by a single historical individual but by multiple avatāras, their ‘uniqueness’ is not a particularly significant theological point. However, when we raise the question of the precise sense in which the liberation of human beings depends on the occurrence of the avatāras, it would seem that Hindu thinkers too have to deal with a contextual variation of the problem of how a divine descent could constitute the possibilities of liberation. In a theological context structured by the ‘law’ of moral causation, the question can be stated in this manner: is this law, which states that an individual shall reap what that very individual (and not some other) has sown, restricted ‘merely’ to conventional human affairs or is it ingrained into the nature of things such that even the divine reality is somehow under its sway? This question became a debating point in South Indian Vaiṣṇavism, which was divided into two doctrinal camps over the question of whether the ultimate personal reality, the Lord Viṣṇu, who is sovereign over the world can liberate human beings from the world with no regard to the kārmic load that they ‘justly’ bear (Mumme, 1987). According to Rāmānuja, one of the foremost theologians of this tradition, the main purpose of the divine descents is the Lord’s wish to reveal His adorable form to His devotees. However, given the conception of the Lord as the upholder of the kārmic order, the following dilemma may be presented: either the impersonal law of karma operates independently of the Lord, in which case the Lord is not absolutely supreme, or the Lord cannot suspend the kārmic effects for individuals, in which case we cannot meaningfully speak of special divine ‘intervention’ through various avatāras. In other words, if the law of karma is inviolable, then there is no arbitrariness about the world in which every individual receives the just deserts for her prior actions, but if the Lord cannot intervene and loosen the connection between past actions and present conditions according to His will, the Lord cannot intervene in human affairs. A possible response is to view such ‘intervention’ not in terms of the Lord as the remover of the kārmic debts of a specific individual, but as the ever-present empowerer of human agency who by administering the law of karma enables individuals to move closer to Himself (Reichenbach, 1989). That is, the Lord makes possible the fruition of good kārma, and when this results in the performance of good action, the Lord responds by prompting the self to move towards bhakti or the act of surrender (prapatti). However, under this conception of the Lord’s relation to the law of kārma, the Lord becomes its ‘mere’ administrator and cannot possibly bring about the liberation of unmeritorious individuals, so that this understanding of divine ‘intervention’ pushes the Lord into the background. Consequently, any attempt to develop a theological understanding of the Lord’s relation to the kārmic order has to deal with the following dilemma. On the one hand, on a strong ‘objective’ understanding of the law of karma, the divine descents as the Lord’s personal initiative would become somewhat superfluous, for the Lord would not be able to intervene for the liberation of those who have accumulated unmeritorious kārmic residues. On the other hand, if the kārmic order is understood ‘subjectively’ as involving the Lord’s transfer of merit – a notion that is otherwise absent in the schools of Yoga and Advaita Vedānta – the kārmic law’s claim to apportion rewards or punishments according to one’s merits or demerits would be undermined.
In short, our analysis of the historicity of the divine descents has led us to two somewhat divergent metaphysical conceptions of the God-world relationship, each with its own distinctive set of problems regarding the connection between myth and history. For Christian theology, developed against a background of linear time, one of the crucial issues is that of developing an account of ‘how’ a particular set of actions, located in a narrow slice of space-time, can be constitutive of salvation of all human beings everywhere else. For Hindu traditions, on the other hand, the question of whether the avatāras can genuinely effect liberation, in the context of the kārmic law, remains a debatable point. Further, while theologians such as Rāmānuja possibly regarded the avatāras as historical individuals, the extent to which liberation, as conceived by him, depends on their historicity remains a matter to be explored. For instance, Rāmānuja holds that in the embodied ‘mediating’ form of Krishna, the supreme Lord has revealed Himself to human beings and captivated the minds and hearts of all of them through the divine actions that He has performed on earth.2 However, our earlier discussion has highlighted that the precise relationship between the descent of an avatāra and the liberation of embodied individuals remains an issue of theological controversy within the theistic traditions.
In whatever way these internal debates are settled, we have seen that the ‘mythical’ status of the avatāras should not be equated with their ‘unreality’ or a supposedly ‘anti-historical’ bias in Indian thought, for it is rooted in a specific metaphysical conception of the ultimate reality as manifesting itself through multiple aspects of the phenomenal world and of human embodiment in terms the spiritual self that can take on several physical bodies without being limited by their empirical markers of gender, caste, and so on. For instance, the reason why traditional Hindu figures have not been involved in a ‘quest of the historical Rama’ is not because this avatāra was regarded as unreal – even in Advaita Vedānta the avatāras have at least a provisional empirical reality – but because of their adherence to certain metaphysical views about the human self, rebirth, temporality and an individual’s access to the divine reality. Scholars of the Hindu worlds have long been familiar with the role of the mythical imagination in the construction of the eternal realm of the gods and goddesses, the depiction of the avatāras and the help extended by them to human beings and the elaboration of theologies based on the former. On the other hand, while the Christian faith revolves around certain events connected with the historical individual called Jesus of Nazareth, it is ultimately rooted in the acceptance of this Jesus as the Christ, the trans-historical centre and saviour of all humanity. To explain this universal salvific role, extending outwards from Golgotha to the furthest reaches of the cosmos, the historical aspect has been elevated to the mythical plane and is celebrated in rituals, art and sacrament through the symbolisms of the birth narratives, the divine victory over demoniac powers on the cross, and so on. Therefore, in place of the oft-repeated contrast between Hinduism as steeped in ‘myth’ and Christianity as based in ‘history’, we need instead to highlight a parallel between these worldviews that states that it is not ‘mere history’ that saves/liberates, and on the basis of this congruence also investigate for what ends and in what ways mythical thinking is utilized in them in their own distinctive ways. In particular, myths often embody metaphysical views about the nature of reality, and we have tried to indicate some ways in which the study of Christian and Hindu mythography can highlight the characteristic ways in which these two traditions have interpreted the relations among self, world and the divine.
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