Letter to Ms. Karen Armstrong
April 24, 2011 Easter Sunday
Dear Ms. Armstrong,
I offer my deepest respect to you. Over the past years I have cheered you from afar as your contributions have extended beyond your superb writing and scholarship to your “Charter for Compassion.” I am awed by your mediation attempts with the Islamic world during these times of strained relationships. Certainly you are uniquely qualified for the significant position you hold on the world stage. Thank you for all that you do to educate others and thus draw out compassion and tolerance among our global kin.
Your Introduction to A Case for God opens with the powerful sentence “We are talking far too much about God these days, and what we say is often facile.” Facile speech can create bigotry, hatred, and other little (and large) explosions around our interrelated world. A few days after Pastor Terry Jones oversaw the burning of a Qur’an in Gainesville, Florida, last month (a few miles from my home), Muslims in Afghanistan responded by killing twelve people, and in Mayapur, India, where I have spent many of the most precious days of my life, Muslims attacked a sacred site and burned Bhagavad Gitas. I can’t imagine all the ripple effects of Pastor Jones’ actions.
But ignorance breeds intolerance and is not bliss. I’d like to share with you my experience with your books and pose some questions to you. For if there is one thing you have taught me, it is the importance of female representation in spiritual circles. We both know first-hand that much is lost, and much harm created, by male-dominated religious regimes. After a lifetime of spiritual study and practice, I’m working hard to find my voice. I would be most grateful if you could be generous with me as I discuss in particular one concept of God that you might have dealt with too facilely in your books.
I first picked up A History of God in 2003 to address a mounting crisis of faith that led me to consider giving up my chosen path. I took initiation into Vaishnavism (Bhakti yoga) in 1975 and lived in a monastic setting for more than ten years. I was born in San Francisco, California, in 1958 and have traveled the world, spending much time in India. Though raised Catholic, I found my monotheistic home outside the Abrahamic trilogy.
My spiritual teacher, A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami (Prabhupada), was an accomplished Sanskrit scholar and consummate Bhakti practitioner coming in the disciplic line of Sri Chaitanya. Harvey Cox, whom you know is a pre-eminent theologian, met Prabhupada and studied his worldwide organization and his translations. Prabhupada translated Bhagavad Gita, Bhagavat Purana (considered the Bhakti commentary on Vedanta Sutra), Chaitanya-charitamrita (the life and teachings of Shri Chaitanya), as well as Brahma Samhita and Sri Ishopanishad, to name his major works. Dr. Cox said of Prabhupada, “[He] is only one of thousands of teachers. But in another sense, he is one in a thousand, maybe one in a million.” I understand that this statement was made in the context of Prabhupada’s being not just a teacher, but a teacher who brought a major monotheistic tradition from India to the West for the first time: He started the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, an orthodox Vaishnava group commonly referred to as Hare Krishnas.
As Prabhupada’s follower I was taught how to practice Bhakti, devotional service to God in daily life, and was encouraged to study philosophy rigorously and daily. For more than forty years I have been immersed in an intensive study of the religions of India: Vaishnavism, polytheism, Shankara’s monism, as well as Buddhism. I have also read from Christian and Judaic traditions throughout the years.
It was with this background that I began reading A History of God. I picked up the book with a deep personal hope that you would carefully dissect Vaishnavism within a historical context and compare it to the West’s monotheistic traditions. I needed to sort through my spiritual crisis by hearing from a scholar with an objective perspective, a scholar well versed in the nuances of all the traditions. I didn’t pay attention to your subtitle: “The 4,000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam,” perhaps because I needed your book to be man’s 4,000-year-quest for God. I finished A History of God a bit dejected. When writing about Indian religions, you dealt nearly exclusively with monism, with no discussion of Vaishnava theology. In a couple of paragraphs, you make passing reference to Vishnu, Krishna, and Bhakti, but the reference is so obscure the words don’t even appear in the book’s index.
In The Spiral Staircase I felt kinship with you as you described how the traditional regime of your religious practice wounded you, and how your growing critical intellect conflicted too mightily with it. Your experience spoke for me about my own story. You wrote that your life no longer looks nunnish, but is filled with “writing, thinking, and talking almost all day and every day about God, religion, and spirituality”—even though that wasn’t your intention when you left the convent. I have had a similar experience.
Your writings encouraged me to find my own identity and voice. I resonated with your “process of spiritual recovery,” which reminded me of my deep wish that A History of God would have helped with the intellectual aspect of my journey. When you were turned out of the convent in 1969, you lacked the benefit of a scholar’s rigorous thinking about religious life, as one may find today in your History of God. So too I faced my spiritual crisis without a healing intellectual perspective, for A History of God deals only with the three Western monotheisms.
I was so moved by your personal narrative in The Spiral Staircase that I also read The Case for God, The Battle for God, and Visions of God, and was immersed in your intellectual pursuit of God. I no longer expected Bhakti to be explored in your books. But in recent months a question has consumed my interest:
How is it that many (though not all) renowned religious scholars continually state that the world has only three dominant monotheistic traditions—when there are four?
I consulted Burke Rochford, Ph.D., professor of sociology and religion at Middlebury College in Vermont. I asked him whether Vaishnavism is one of the world’s major monotheistic religions. “Yes,” he answered, “Hinduism is a major world religion, and Vaishnavism is its monotheistic tradition.” When I asked how Western scholars miss this, he said, “I don’t know. It’s bewildering.”
Before I discuss theology and philosophy to determine whether Vaishnavism deserves the title “monotheism” in the characteristic way the Abrahamic traditions have defined it, I’d like to point to the world’s population and Hindu holy days as indicators of the prevalence of Bhakti in the world.
According to ReligionFacts there are 1.9 billion Christians, 1.3 billion Muslims, 1 billion Hindus, and 14 million Jews. Between the Hindus and Jews in the number of adherents, Buddhism’s number fluctuates wildly between 500 million and 1 billion, but since it is not a monotheism, I have not included the number above.
Would it be fair to say that if the number of people claiming to be Vaishnavas is higher than the number of Jews and half as many as Muslims, we would be dealing with a major world monotheism?
As Christmas is a meaningful, renowned holiday in all parts of the Abrahamic world, Janmashtami, Krishna’s birthday, is equally meaningful in India (and elsewhere) and widely celebrated by believers and nonbelievers alike, including Muslims in India. Indeed, Janmashtami remains largely unfettered by commercialism, and people spend the day worshiping and talking about Krishna. Some say Janmashtami is the most widely celebrated holy day in Hinduism.
Three Philosophical Traditions of Hinduism
As you know, there are many sects in Hinduism. We can boil them down to three main philosophical traditions based on their mode of approach and their perceived goal, which I describe below this list:
- Monism (advaita, nondualistic philosophy; jnana-yoga)
- Monotheism (dvaita, dualistic philosophy; bhakti-yoga)
- Polytheism (worship of many gods; karma-yoga)
Advaita (a: not; dvaita: two) philosophy states that divinity is one, without name, form, and qualities, for these are manifestations of matter. Conceptions of “God” and “soul” are temporary illusions. Adherents seek to merge into one cosmic consciousness (Brahman). Shankara (788–820 CE) was the chief proponent. Its main practices are asceticism and the cultivation of knowledge. (jnana-yoga, often ashtanga-yoga).
India’s dvaita philosophy, underpinning Vaishnavism, is monotheistic. It states that divinity is two—the finite souls and the infinite Godhead—and they have an eternal relationship. God has transcendental names, forms, qualities, and activities. Adherents desire to please God and reunite with him in their eternal loving relationship. Ramanuja (1017–1137 CE), Nimbarka (1130-1200 CE), Vishnuswami (1479-1531 CE), Madhva (1238–1317 CE), and Shri Chaitanya (1486–1534 CE) are the main proponents. The path is tread through single-minded devotion (Bhakti yoga backed by knowledge and renunciation, sometimes ashtanga- and karma-yoga).
Polytheism states that universal administrators can fulfill personal desires in this world when honored and petitioned. Though generally called gods, many Vaishnavas prefer to call them demigods to avoid suggesting there’s more than one God. Worship is usually of many demigods, not a single one, and they are often considered manifestations of the impersonal One. India’s polytheists often share with followers of advaita philosophers the goal of merging into or becoming “God.” Work and worship (karma-yoga) constitute the path.
The Millennia-Long Duel Between India’s Monists and Monotheists
Indian philosophy lives or dies based on shruti, or the original four Vedas and 108 Upanishads. Scholars have an established notion that later texts, such as the Puranas and the Mahabharata (where the Bhagavad Gita is found), are less valid: the oldest texts hold the true teachings. Most scholars, Eastern or Western, acknowledge that shruti (original Vedas and Upanishads) are among the oldest spiritual literature in the world and are extremely sophisticated.
Some current scholars propose that monotheism is a new outgrowth of ancient Indian wisdom because its texts are smriti, or literature written after shruti. They claim there is no systematic monotheism of a personal God in the original Vedas proving that an ultimate reality did not begin as a personalized God.
However, one pertinent problem is that the original four Vedas and 108 Upanishads no longer exist in their entirety, so no one is in a position to say whether, as a whole, they point to an impersonal or personal divinity, or both. All of Hinduism, and the world, is left to turn to India’s theological giants of past centuries, like Shankara, Ramanuja, Nimbarka, Vishnusvami, and Madhva (Shri Chaitanya is a major teacher in Madhva’s line). Looking carefully at their philosophical and religious systems gives us insight into the original Vedas, and these five Vaishnava theologians cited the Vedas to support their monotheistic view.
Central to Indian philosophy is the practice of debating the meaning of the ancient sutras (highly condensed statements) that constitute much of the Vedic literature. These sutras are like codes and are often obscure, requiring elaboration and contextualization. Students in the oral tradition were taught the nuances of all the codes and could thus speak about the extensive knowledge base from the sutra’s cues. Debates were the check-and-balance system to thwart time’s ability to change the understanding of transcendent reality and keep the understanding of the curt aphorisms accurate. The place of debate in India’s theology system, therefore, is substantial.
The five Vaishnava teachers established the veracity of Vaishnavism and its monotheistic faith in a singular, personal Godhead. They accomplished this by citing sutras from shruti texts dating back to between the tenth and seventh century BCE, through rigorous scholarship and debate, and in the exhaustive tomes they wrote.
In The Case for God you have stated that the Rig Veda is a most important scripture, and you present a case that the text, along with the Upanishads, establishes an impersonal understanding of reality. For your consideration, I include this reference: “Devas are always looking to the supreme abode of Vishnu.” (Rig Veda 1.22.20: tad visnoh paramam padam sada pashyanti surayah)
Devas are demigods, and Vishnu is one of Godhead’s names. It specifically means God in a personal form. So the verse states that the universal administrators are always looking toward God in his spiritual home. Why do they look in that direction? Shall we not assume they look because they are not supreme themselves? Does the statement conjure a looking that is a supreme vision for everyone, since even trusted, exalted souls deputed with the most responsibility in creation are looking in that direction?
Confusing India’s Monotheism and Polytheism
The Western mind has merged India’s great monotheism into its polytheism: India’s personal God becomes not transcendent Godhead, but human, his acts the fictive activities of an imagined Godhead. Sadly, even some Western scholars believe that the total of Hinduism is monism and polytheism, as do many practicing Hindus who lack deep theological understanding of the Vedic literature. It is essential to understand the distinction between the personalities of polytheism (demigods) and those of Vaishnavism (Godhead’s direct manifestations, or avatars).
According to Vaishnava theology, the finite souls (jivas) have an eternal relationship with God (Bhagavan). That relationship is one of love, or Bhakti. Transcendent Godhead, the source the jivas (bhaktas), is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent. Godhead can choose to come to the world in different forms, at different times, and with full manifestation of his transcendental nature. These forms are known as avatars. Just as one original candle has the power to light other candles without diminishing or extinguishing itself, Godhead can manifest other forms identical to him while remaining unchanged. These avatars are God himself. As we don various clothing for different events or activities, and as we have a unique variety of relationships in our capacity as a mother, grandmother, aunt, wife, sister, professional, and so on, so too God has a variety of “personas” and “looks.” The concept of the divine as simultaneously plural and singular is not foreign to the Judeo-Christian tradition, with its Trinity.
Vaishnavism might be called “polymorphic monotheism,” as it recognizes the potential for Godhead to appear in any way he pleases, drawing on his unlimited transcendental power and desires. The polymorphic nature of this monotheism can be confusing, as we see in discussions about whether Vishnu, Shiva, or Krishna is the original Godhead.
Demigods, though exalted, are finite souls. Avatars are God himself coming for a specific purpose. Demigods are not avatars.
Does this view qualify Vaishnavism as a monotheism?
Here are a few scholars who say yes. Kenneth Cracknell, whom you may know as a specialist in the Christian theology of religions; Thomas J. Hopkins, Professor of Religious Studies (Emeritus), Franklin & Marshall College, Lancaster, Pennsylvania; Klaus Klostermaier, a researcher on Hinduism and Indian history and culture. He obtained a Ph.D. in philosophy from the Gregorian University in Rome in 1961, and another in “Ancient Indian History and Culture” from the University of Bombay in 1969. There are many more, and I’d be happy to provide further information should you like.
Another area of confusion regarding India’s monotheism and polytheism lies in the usage of the word Bhakti.
Misconceptions about Bhakti
Hindus often mistakenly use the word Bhakti when referring to their devotion to the demigod or demigods of their choice. Vaishnavas, however, noting the derivation of the Sanskrit word, insist that Bhakti should be reserved for the jivas‘ relationship with God. That relationship is eternal, whereas any relationship with a demigod is temporary, since every demigod is a jiva holding an exalted position for a limited time.
What happens when we use “bhakti” to refer to worship of demigods and devotion to the original Godhead? Bhakti becomes the stand-in reference for polytheism and monotheism, and since there can be no monotheism if polytheism exists, Bhakti becomes polytheism.
There’s another interesting phenomenon. Some people propose that India’s various yogas are structured for our diverse psycho-physical natures: jnana-yoga for the intellectual; bhakti-yoga for the sentimental; karma-yoga for the active. This new take is inaccurate and incomplete, but I won’t take your time on the matter here.
In A History of God you describe that Bhakti made “faith accessible to more people . . . Yet again, popular devotion proved stronger than the philosophical austerity of the Upanishads.”
When Bhakti is not understood as the relationship between Godhead (Bhagavan) and finite souls (jivas, or more specifically, Bhaktas) and the Bhakti texts are not studied, the prevailing conception becomes that Bhakti is not for the intellectually astute.
Vaishnava texts and scholars disagree. Bhakti is a spiritual state, which when practiced in the material realm must be supported by knowledge and renunciation. Knowledge and science sundered from religion is blind, unable to guide life to ultimate ends; religion removed from knowledge and science is lame, incapable of conveying its vision into the thick of our actual commerce with the world.
According to the Bhaktas (Vaishnavas), Bhakti is the quest to fulfill the heart’s deepest yearning in love of God (bhakti-yoga), and it is supported by practical action (karma-yoga) and by knowledge (jnana-yoga). For love is manifest in practical action, and one can only love a person one knows.
Final Thoughts About Vaishnavism (Bhakti-yoga) as Monotheism
Vaishnavism is grounded in complex logical, aesthetic, and ethical foundations. The vast Bhakti literature comprises sophisticated theories of cosmology, creation, theodicy, afterlife, liberation, metaphysics, reality, human nature, and so on. In fact, the same sophistication you call “remarkable” about Indian sages’ view on Brahman and their insight into human psyche is present in Bhakti literature.
Before I take your leave, I want to share two interesting theological concepts, one inherent in all Bhakti texts, the other taught by Shri Chaitanya.
The Trinity of Vaishnavism
Vaishnavism speaks of a trinity different from the standard “Hindu trinity” you reference in your books: Brahma, Shiva, and Vishnu. The trinity of Vaishnavism comprises the three aspects of God’s inherent nature: divinity is one (Brahman); divinity is everywhere (Paramatma), divinity is personal (Bhagavan). For God, by definition, should embrace all reality.
You are well versed in topics about Brahman, or the ground of being, which many people refer to as the collective cosmic consciousness.
Paramatma, or Supersoul, is the form of God who exists in every atom, accompanies each finite soul during its stay in the material world, and is the knower of everything in creation. Paramatma is the source of wisdom and intuition and, as the knower of every action and thought, the Presence who enables justice to prevail, if not in this lifetime, then in another.
Bhagavan is the singular, independent, loving Godhead who eternally enjoys exalted ecstasies in his own abode with limitless finite souls. He is the source of Brahman and Paramatma. As Bhagavan’s energies, they are considered simultaneously one with and different from him.
Shri Chaitanya’s Doctrine
The Vaishnava acharyas speak of three major categories of reality and their relationships. Their philosophies elaborate on the relationships between God and the soul, God and the material world, and the soul and the material world.
Achintya Bheda Abhedais the Vaishnava concept–Shri Chaitanya’s doctrine–of the inconceivable (achintya) simultaneous oneness and difference (bheda abheda) between God and his countless energies: the spiritual and material creation, souls, avatars, devas, etc. Avatars are one and different from Godhead; we souls are one and different from Godhead; oneness (Brahman) and all-pervasiveness (Paramatma) are one and different from Godhead.
This oneness and difference of God and his energies is achintya, or inconceivable, because, as Prabhupada writes in his Gita commentary, “Nothing is different from the Supreme, but the Supreme is always different from everything. As the transcendental origin and coordinator of his energies, God is ever the inconceivable factor.”
Vaishnava literature explores the uniting principle of Achintya Bheda Abheda by examining God’s relationships to his energies comprehensively. The details and implications of this are beyond the scope of this letter. Achintya Bheda Abheda is a valuable contribution to religious discourse, for it acknowledges, embraces, and clarifies the seemingly conflicting and often confounding nature of God as impersonal oneness, all-pervading, and unique individual person. Additionally, Achintya Bheda Abheda explains how the soul is a god and not God simultaneously.
On the matter of God’s personhood, I leave you with a question: If divinity lacked form, wouldn’t it be deficient?
In the Svetashvatara Upanishad (3.19), a sage hints at God’s transcendental form: “The Supreme Lord has no material hands and feet but accepts whatever is offered to him and moves very quickly. The Supreme Person has no material ears and eyes but sees and hears everything. He is the knower of everything, and he is all that is to be known. He is the best and the greatest of all persons.”
Bhakti and the Charter for Compassion
In the practice of Bhakti, compassion in relation to all beings is about more than moral development or refining human character or social conscience. Rather, since Vaishnavism posits that both the finite souls and God are individuals eternally—with their own feelings and desires—expression of individuality through loving relationships in this world is not an aberration of the nature of reality. Rather, the material world is a carefully constructed venue for finite souls to practice behaviors characteristic of their natural transcendent self: exchanges between individuals. Those behaviors constitute Bhakti. They are more than good actions—they are the currency of spiritual existence. In this world we know the greatest happiness when we unite with another in shared, selfless love (a rare occurrence). In the spiritual sphere, exchanges shine into love of God which is pure ananda, or unlimited bliss. After all, what greater ecstasy could there be than an intense union with God in shared, selfless, flawless love?
For Vaishnavas, Bhakti—love for God demonstrated through acts of devotion—is the path and the goal. Understanding Bhakti can augment the practice of followers of all the world’s monotheistic traditions.
In the future, would you kindly consider the millions of Vaishnava monotheists when you reference the world’s monotheistic traditions?
Whether this letter provokes an affirmation or an argument, it would be my great joy to hear from you. Alternatively, I can introduce you to some Vaishnava scholars with the formal academic credentials I lack, if further consideration intrigues you.
Thank you kindly for reading this long letter. Writing you has served to nourish my ongoing quest to grapple with the richness of my faith. Please accept my profound gratitude to you for sharing your personal and scholarly journey through your books.
^ Interestingly, Shankara himself is attributed to composing the popular 8th century Hindu devotional composition Bhaja Govindam (Govinda is another name for Krishna and the title translates as “Worship Govinda”). This work highlights Shankara’s view of Bhakti’s importance. His concluding verse: “Worship Govinda, worship Govinda, worship Govinda, Oh fool! Other than chanting the Lord’s names, there is no other way to cross the life’s ocean.”
^ Brahma, Shiva, and Vishnu are, respectively, the creator of the material world (a finite soul); the destroyer of creation (not a finite soul, nearly identical to God) and the maintainer of the material and spiritual creations (God). This trinity pertains to God’s functions in the material world, not God in his spiritual sphere or original nature.
From Karen Armstrong
I am writing to you on behalf of Karen Armstrong. Because she is abroad more often than she is at home and because she receives so many letters I am now responding to some of them on her behalf. She is travelling again but before she left we discussed the various letters she had received and how she would like me to respond.
She asked me to thank you very much indeed for such a thoughtful and interesting letter and for your kind words about her writings. She left me a statement to send to you explaining why she has not included Hinduism. This is what she said:
“I began my studies with the three Abrahamic religions and only very recently began to explore the richness of the Eastern religions. You are, of course, quite right that Bhakti is indeed monotheistic. The reason it was not mentioned in the presentation of the Charter was because it was felt that Judaism, Christianity and Islam were the religions that had problems with one another and needed the message of compassion more than other faiths. I hope this provides you with a satisfactory answer.”
Once again thank you for taking the time to write such a long and interesting letter,
Reply to Karen Armstrong
July 6, 2011
Dear Ms. Armstrong,
Thank you for reading the long letter I sent and for acknowledging that the ancient Bhakti tradition is monotheistic. Based on this and the number of Bhakti followers worldwide, I trust you also acknowledge that Bhakti is a major world monotheism.
Your reason not to include Bhakti in your Charter for Compassion is appreciated. Though I did not inquire why, your explanation brought up a thought. As you’ve noted, the Abrahamic faiths, as exclusive traditions, need compassion for followers of their sister religions. To take your reasoning further: if the adherents of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity recognized their co-existent monotheism, Vaishnavism (the proper term for the Bhakti religion), it would strengthen their compassion. And perhaps because Bhakti (devotional acts) is at the core of Vaishnavism in a unique way, Vaishnavism has wisdom to offer, too.
Your response made me wonder if you understood the thrust of my letter; it was so long, after all. So in closing, allow me to encapsulate the reason for my letter more concisely: I entreated you, one of our most prominent, well-respected religious scholars, to acknowledge Vaishnavism’s existence in the future. Your books imply they are definitive research on all the world’s monotheisms, and you regularly say that the world “has only three major monotheisms.”
I remain hopeful that as you continue your valuable scholarly and humanitarian work, you will be comfortable proclaiming the existence of four major monotheistic traditions. I know millions of Vaishnava adherents would appreciate acknowledgement from scholars such as your good self for Bhakti’s dominant, loving presence in the spiritual weave of the world.
All the best to you and for your work.
With deepest respect and regards,