A Christian Interpretation of the Mahāvākyas

A Christian Interpretation of the Mahāvākyas September 19, 2008

Hinduism is a complex religious faith which cannot be simplified into one theological school of thought. There are too many different forms of Hinduism for one to generalize as to what Hinduism teaches (it’s far more diverse than even Christianity). And what is striking to the non-Hindu is that while they are not all consistent with each other, there is some sort of acceptance of this fact and an ability for those from one tradition to learn, engage, and even accept (to some degree) those of another. These traditions represent anything from outright polytheism to pure monism. Nonetheless, one might assume that the scriptural tradition in Hinduism is agreed upon, and it’s only the interpretations of those scriptures which are in dispute. That’s not really the case, either. To be sure, most consider the Four Vedas (Rg, Sama, Yajur and Artha) to be authoritative scripture. We could limit ourselves to these texts and those traditions which accept them. But, as one engages Hinduism, one will note that this is not good enough. The Four Vedas can be broken down and examined according to their individual parts, and when they do, they won’t present a systematic, unified, non-contradictory theological position. This leads many, Hindus and non-Hindus alike, to question how they are to understand these texts; what do we find in them that is important and what do we find in them to be secondary in value? 

Vedanta suggests that we should examine the Upanishads and later, Smriti texts (such as the Puranas, Itihasa or “historical” texts like the Bhagavad Gita, and systematic treatises like the Brahama-Sutras) if we want to understand who and what we are. But, when we examines Vedanta teaching, we quickly note that is incapable of presenting itself in one systematic approach as well. Rather, we find three main Vedantan traditions: advaita (non-dualistic, or “monistic” Vedanta as found in Shankara),  vishishtadvaita (qualified non-dualism, or unitive theism of Ramanuja), and dvaita (dualistic, or non-unitive theism of Madhva). Shankara (advaita)  believed that the only true existent is Brahman (God), and everything else is illusionary; the world is established by “maya” and is “maya” (illusion); the goal for us is to find that our self (atman) is non-other than Brahman and there is no true distinction between the two. Ramanuja (viśiṣṭādvaita)  believed that there is some distinction between Brahman and atman;  he suggested that the way we see their relationship is that of body (creation — atman) and soul (God– Brahman), so that Brahman (God) is the “soul” of creation. Ramanuja also suggested that God is the efficient and material cause of creation, so that all that exists is from and in God (panentheism). Madhva (dvaita), appreciative of the “theism” of Ramanuja, nonethless took exception to the idea that God is the material cause of creation, and would rather suggest creation (and all those within it) is separate from, though sustained by, God. For Ramanuja and Madhva, God is also knowns “Vishnu,” while Shankara understands this God as “Shiva.” 

Interestingly enough, these positions can all be read out of the so-called “great sayings” (Mahāvākyas) that are believed by many to present the central treachings of the Upanishads:

  1. Prajnanam Brahma – “Consciousness is Brahman” (Aitareya Upanishad 3.3 of the Rig Veda)
  2. Ayam Atma Brahma – “This self (atman) is Brahman” (Mandukya Upanishad 1.2 of the Atharva Veda)
  3. Tat Tvam Asi – “Thou art That” (Chandogya Upanishad 6.8.7 of the Sama Veda)
  4. Aham Brahmasmi“I am Brahman” (Brhadaranyaka Upanishad 1.4.10 of the Yajur Veda)

For a Christian looking at these texts, it is interesting to note that the four Mahāvākyas, if placed within, and interpreted by, a Christian context, can be accepted as orthodox. Of course it must be noted, these sayings are “vague,” and could readily be read in an heterodox manner. This should not concern us: Chalcedon is equally vague, and equally could be read in an orthodox or heterodox fashion. If we take the time to examine what the Chalcedonian declaration says about Christ, we will find it is apophatic and tells us who and what Christ is not (neither this, nor that – neither division, nor mixture) instead of telling us specifically how we are to understand who and what Christ is.[1] Yet, that is not enough; we need to know not only who Christ is, but Christ’s relationship with us, and when we try to determine this, we can come to appreciate the wisdom behind the  Mahāvākyas.  Before trying to address them from Christian perspective, I am going to lay out four specific texts which will serve as the lens by which I will interpret them: 

  1. For it was for this end that the Word of God was made man, and He Who was the Son of God became the Son of man, that man, having been taken into the Word, and receiving adoption, might become the son of God.[2]
  2. For He was made man that we might be made God; and He manifested Himself by a body that we might receive the idea of the unseen Father; and He endured the insolence of men that we might inherit immortality.[3]
  3. With us and through us he encompasses the whole creation through its intermediaries and extremities through their own parts. He binds himself each with the other, tightly and indissolubly, paradise and the inhabited world, heaven and earth, things sensible and things intelligible, since he possesses like us sense and soul and mind, by which, as parts, he assimilates himself by each of the extremities to what is universally akin to each in the previously mentioned manner. Thus he divinely recapitulates the universe in himself, showing that the whole creation exists as one, like another human being, completed by the gathering together of its parts one with another in itself, and inclined toward itself by the whole of its existence, in accordance with the one, simple, undifferentiated and indifferent idea of production from nothing, in accordance with which the whole of creation admits of one and the same undiscriminated logos, as having not been before it is.[4]
  4. God is light (1 John 1:5), and to those who have entered into union with Him He imparts of His own brightness to the extent that they have been purified. When the lamp of the soul, that is, the mind, has been kindled, then it knows that a divine fire has taken hold of it and inflamed it.[5]

These four quotes, when put together as one, can be seen as being similar in theme to the Mahāvākyas. Because of Christian revelation, one can say that the Christian texts are not as vague as what we find in the Hindu texts (although they contain within them many mysteries of their own). Perhaps the vagueness of the Mahāvākyas are, in part, their strength: they can be interpreted in many different fashions, allowing different schools of thought to use them. This is not to say they can be made to mean anything anyone wants them to mean. Specific, technical terms are employed and brought together, inviting us to try to understand the relationship between our very self (atman) with God (Brahman). In other words, when brought together, they serve as the fundamental riddle which we must unravel if we want to understand our proper place in the cosmos. As has been said above, the three ways this riddle has been worked out within the Vedanta tradition has been to suggest either: 1) only God is real and everything else is “maya” or “illusion,” and one who understands themselves will see their complete unity with God (non-dualism/monism),[6] 2) God is real and serves as both the efficient and material cause of creation, so that those in creation are united with God in a qualified sense: like the relationship between body and soul; creation is in an interdependent, personal relationship with God (qualified non-dualism),[7]or 3) God and creation are distinct and all that exists is one with God by being sustained by God’s power (dualism).[8]

As a result of the incarnation, humanity and divinity are united in one person, Jesus Christ, what is suggested by the Mahāvākyas is actually true. But we must read the texts carefully to understand how the riddle is answered by Christian theology (and in doing so, we will see that the Christian responses lies somewhere between viśiṣṭādvaita vedanta and dvaita vedanta): 

1) Prajnanam Brahma – “Consciousness is Brahman“.

  • Starting with the first Mahāvākya, we bring to it the last of the Christian texts provided above, and see that Christians believe that God is the light of truth, and therefore, God forms and enlightens our intellect. In this way, as Evagrius suggests, our mind is to be the seat of God, making it one with God. It must be made clear, however, that God’s transcendence is not diminished by his intimate contact with our mind.

2) Ayam Atma Brahma – “This self (atman) is Brahman

  • This ties in with what St Maximus the Confessor has said, “he [the Logos] divinely recapitulates the universe in himself, showing that the whole creation exists as one, like another human being.” The universe is to be seen as one universal self which is tied together by the Logos, and through the Logos, finds itself participating in the divine life, making it united with, and therefore one with, Brahman (God).

3) Tat Tvam Asi – “Thou art That”

  • Here, Christian theology will provide a different answer than Hinduism, because it explains the literal relationship between the “Thou” (person) with the “That” (God) within the context of the hypostatic union of the Godman. Nonetheless, the incarnation establishes an onotological bridge between us and God, allowing us to also find a relative truth in this statement for ourselves: we can be said to be a “thou” (self, person) who is also “That” (God), because, “He was made man that we might be made God.”

4) Aham Brahmasmi“I am Brahman

  • According to the Upanishad from which this statement is taken from, there was one original universal I who created all things from himself; He knew himself as the “I” and therefore as the creator, Brahman. Because we came from him, we too can understand that we share in that “I” in such a way that we can also say, in participation with that universal I, “I am Brahman.” As long as we understand “I am Brahman” in this sense, “receiving adoption” into the Godhead so to speak, there is no conflict between its intent and Christian theology. However, this is also a very provocative statement for another reason. It was said by the universal I, who was also the universal purusha, the universal “man.” And in Christian theology we understand that universal man to be Jesus Christ. In a theophany before the incarnation, that person, the Logos, revealed himself to Moses as the great “I Am” (Ex. 3:14)” and, in the incarnation, he revealed himself to be that I am to his opponents: “Jesus said to them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am'” (John 8:58). This remarkable similarity between the two traditions must leave us in awe. The “rays of truth” which Vatican Council II suggested would be found in non-Christian religions is clearly discernable here (Nosta Aetate 2). What is speculated and discussed in the creation myth of the Brhadaranyaka Upanishad is established as a concrete fact in the incarnation of Jesus Christ.[9]

What are we to make out of this appreciation and selective assimilation of Hindu thought with Christian theology? First, it makes it clear that the human condition leaves us riddled with the same existential and ontological questions throughout the world. Christians and non-Christians share the same questions, and Christians and non-Christians alike can come, reason together, and find some commonality in how they answer them. Second, this means for us Christians that we can also recognize, at least to a limited degree, that non-Christians historically have had some sort of ray of light which has helped motivate their religious traditions; discovering it for ourselves can enrich our own religious faith. Since truth does not contradict truth, wherever truth is found has home in the Church, the pillar and ground of the truth. Finally, what we discovered here highlights not only the common questions shared between Christians and Hindus, but also the common understanding that humanity is, at least in some sense, one. This should motivate us to work for the betterment of humanity as a whole, to realize our place in the world, to know that we are interdependent with one another. If one of us suffers, we all suffer, for, in that relational sense, we are one with the sufferer. Since Christian social doctrine is given its primary theological support from this kind of reasoning, the more we are able to explore the common unity of humanity, the more we will be able to live out the words of Jesus: “that they may all be one” (John 17:21). It is a truth which demands action and not mere belief. 

Footnotes

[1] “The dogma is silent, however, on the positive interrelation of the two natures. What does this silence mean? Should it be dogmatically interpreted as a way of refusing to understand, of prohibiting definition? Or should it be understood only historically, as a de facto absence of definition? We have no doubt that only the second hypothesis provides the right answer. First of all, this second hypothesis is supported by the history of the Council, as well as by the entire set of circumstances in which this definition was worked out,” Sergius Bulgakov, The Lamb of God. trans. Boris Jakim (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing Company, 2008), 195.
[2] St Irenaeus, Against Heresies III:19.1 (ANF 1: 448).
[3] St Athanasius, On the Incarnation 54.3 (NPNF (2) 4:65).

[4] St Maximus the Confessor, “Difficulty 41” pgs. 155 – 162 in Maximus the Confessor. Trans. and ed. Andrew Louth (London: Routledge, 1996): 160.
[5] St Symeon the New Theologian, The Discourses. trans. George Maloney, S.J. (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1980), 195.  A fifth text could be added, which connects to what St Symeon has said:  “Another: the words ‘taking bread’ shape the mind, and again, ‘he broke [it]’ imprint the mind [cf. Mt. 26.26]; and the verse ‘I saw the Lord seated upon an lofty and exalted throne’ [Is 6.1] imprints the mind – apart from the words ‘I saw the Lord.’ Even if the saying seems to imprint the mind, the meaning in fact does not. With a prophetic eye, he saw the rational nature elevated through ascetic struggle an receiving in itself the knowledge of God, since God is said to be ‘seated’ where he is known and therefore the pure mind is called ‘God’s throne,'” Evagius Pontinus, “On Thoughts,” pgs. 89 – 116 in Evagrius Ponticus. trans. and ed. A.M. Casiday (London: Routledge, 2006): 115.
[6] Shankara, advaita vedanta.
[7] Ramanuja, viśiṣṭādvaita vedanta.
[8] Madhva, dvaita vedanta.
[9] C.S. Lewis saw a similar coincidence between the pagan myths of the dying God with the death and resurrection of Christ. Lewis was not disturbed by this; he saw Christ as the fulfillment of those myths, raising them up as representations of truth even as Christ was raised from death in his resurrection. “By becoming fact it does not cease to be myth; that is the miracle. I suspect that men have sometimes derived more spiritual sustenance from myths they did not believe than from the religion they professed. To be truly Christian we must both assent to the historical fact and also receive the myth (fact though it has become) with the same imaginative embrace which we accord to all myths,” C.S. Lewis, “Myth Became Fact,” pgs. 39 -43 in Undeceptions  (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1971):42.

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  • Mark DeFrancisis

    Excellent post, Henry (as usual)!

  • Thanks, Mark.

    I know this post will not be for everyone, but every so often, I’ve got to do some comparative theology. This semester I am teaching a course about Hinduism, and as I do so, I keep having ideas come up that I want to talk about (but can’t, since it is about Hinduism, not Christian theology). So I wouldn’t be surprised if I do one or two more posts like this before the semester is done.

  • “Christians and non-Christians share the same questions, and Christians and non-Christians alike can come, reason together, and find some commonality in how they answer them.” I totally agree. To some people, trying to find any kind of commonality is syncretism or indifferentism,

  • Melody

    Yes, some people think that would be the case. When I talk to them, and they are willing to listen to what I have to say, I try to show how they engage such practices every day. They are interacting with people from all kinds of faith (or lack of faith) evolving their world view each day in relation to those contacts.