“In the beginning, human beings created a God who was the First Cause of all things and Ruler of heaven and earth” is the opening line of Karen Armstrong’s A History of God: The 4,000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
I first picked up the book several years ago, just as a crisis of faith began brewing. I wanted religion, specifically, the nuances of my faith, picked apart by a scholar so I could make an informed, educated decision about the future direction of my life.
I grabbed the book, paying little attention to the Judaism, Christianity, and Islam part of the subtitle. After all, the title said the book will be about the world’s 4,000 year history with God and Karen Armstrong is a serious religious scholar, not just of Western faiths, but of Eastern as well.
I’m a Hindu. But I ought to be specific, since Hinduism is a big term that encompasses many metaphysical systems. Specifically I’m a Vaishnava, a Sanskrit name which means “a follower of Vishnu, or Krishna.”
I anxiously read through Ms. Armstrong’s exhaustive study of the Western world religions with mentions of Buddhism, Sikhism, Sufism, Taoism, Hinduism, and other religious and spiritual views. But in 400 pages, she never got around to Vaishnavism.
Ms. Armstrong calls the Abrahamic faiths the world’s three major monotheistic traditions. The statement implies, to me, that these three represent the core of the world’s monotheism so in studying them we have a fair understanding of the God of the world, thus the whole of serious theism. I assume Hinduism, though a major world religion, didn’t qualify for the monotheistic appellation because of the Western world’s ignorance of Vaishnavism, and how it contrasts to Hinduism’s other brands: polytheism and nondualism.
I enjoyed A History of God, but as I set down the book I was dismayed that Vaishnavism didn’t receive the same rigorous treatment as the Western monotheisms because my faith problem was left squarely on my shoulders. And I’m not a scholar. (I came to see that personal responsibility as a powerful part of my journey.)
Recently I began questioning why Westerners, even scholars whose duty it is to educate us, are so completely unaware of the world’s fourth monotheistic tradition. How can Vaishnavism, more ancient than the Abrahamic faiths, with 560 million followers–the largest following in Hinduism, which is the tradition that boasts the third largest number of followers in the world–be so well hidden?
I asked Burke Rochford, professor of sociology and religion at Middlebury College in Vermont if Vaishnavism was 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. Any scholar should be starting at the point that the term ‘Hinduism’ obscures the differences in the tradition.”
I don’t know why the profound knowledge in Vaishnavism should be held from seekers around the world, so I’m going to throw my voice into the world-community discussion about spirituality and religion. My credentials: a 40-year spiritual quest with 35 years of practicing the orthodox Vaishnava tradition. As a white woman raised in our Judeo-Christian Western society in a brown woman’s faith, I’m confident I can translate the deep mysteries of the ancient East into my mother tongue and idiom for a Western audience. (Note: I didn’t say I was going to solve or prove the mysteries.) Having read Karen Armstrong’s The Case for God, I know she’d approve of my credentials — perhaps as the truly worthy ones for a dialogue about spiritual matters — personal life practice.
There is fascinating ground to cover, especially the universal principles borne of Vaishnavism that can be applied to any spiritual journey. Those essential elements are what I’ll focus on here.