This essay is a partly autobiographical story of how I discovered the beautiful combination of Advaita Vedanta and Christianity, along with an attempt to work out a Cosmopolitan Christian-Vedantic Spirituality inspired by the wonderful wisdom of Swami Vivekananda and his still-unrealized vision for a religion of the future. I believe any modern spirituality worth its salt must take into account the question of religious diversity and seek an integral harmony that both includes and transcends your own cultural-religious background while recognizing our own inner divinity.
My Spiritual Journey
I have long been on a spiritual search. If any label is accurate to me, it has been “Seeker.” Even when I considered myself a strong atheist and physicalist I was still searching for transcendence within the confines of my own conscious experience of Nature, which I considered the deepest of mysteries.
Then I went through a phase of Western Esoteric Occultism. I explored gnostic and esoteric branches of Christianity. I learned about the contemplative and mystical branches of Christianity. I explored Jungian approaches to spirituality and mysticism. Then I rediscovered my love for Eastern philosophy and began exploring yoga, Hinduism, and Buddhism.
But through the discovery of Swami Sarvapriyananda on YouTube I have really taken a strong liking to Traditional Advaita Vedanta and radical nondualism. Through his eminent erudition and luminous wisdom, Swami Sarvapriyananda has taught me everything I know about Advaita Vedanta, which is very little compared to his awe-inspiring knowledge. As a mere humble beginner student of Vedanta, any misunderstanding of his teachings is my own fault.
But why write at all if I am but a humble student? If I am not qualified as a teacher, why try to articulate the wisdom of Advaita Vedanta? For one, I cannot help but write philosophy. It is my nature. It is as natural to me as flying is to a bird. Second, it helps me internalize what I am learning by articulating my thoughts in written language. So do not take my writings as me attempting to “teach you anything,” but rather, it is me making public my internal process of learning and philosophical assimilation in an attempt to search for internal clarity and philosophical consistency.
The Role of Devotion in Advaita Vedanta
Traditional Advaita Vedanta recognizes that at the Ultimate level of reality, all the trappings of religion, symbolism, scripture, worship, iconography, etc., etc., are illusory manifestations of the Absolute One Reality which is Existence-Consciousness-Bliss.
Nevertheless, the lineage of the Ramakrishna Order, which Swami Sarvapriyananda comes from, does not recommend simply throwing away the trappings of Bhakti devotion or worship, even if it is only “real” at the relative level.
The most famous disciple of Sri Ramakrishna, Swami Vivekananda, argued that Karma Yoga (service to humanity), Bhakti Yoga (devotion and worship of God), Raja Yoga (meditation), and Jnana Yoga (philosophical knowledge) are all equally valid paths to Self-Realization or God-realization, which leads to the ultimate goal of religion: recognition of our inner divinity and its total manifestation in our everyday lived reality.
Karma Yoga, Raja Yoga, and Jnana yoga come to me easily, but it is Bhakti Yoga (worship of God) that always trips me up. As a Westerner who grew up in a deeply Christian culture, it does not feel so easy to throw myself with full authenticity into the devotional religion of Eastern religion, as attractive as they are in their manifest glory and beauty.
Swami Vivekananda said,
“I do not come to convert you to a new belief. I want you to keep your own belief; I want to make the Methodist a better Methodist; the Presbyterian a better Presbyterian; the Unitarian a better Unitarian. I want to teach you to live the truth, to reveal the light within your own soul.”
But how can I be a better Christian when I rejected the fundamentalist, evangelical, Young Earth Creationist, Biblical literalist Southern Baptist Christianity of my upbringing? I do not want to become a better Southern Baptist.
But perhaps I can be a better contemplative Christian, inspired by the philosophical superstructure of Advaita Vedanta and its ontological purity and towering, systematic philosophical reasoning, which I am utterly convinced represents the highest spiritual-philosophical truth knowable by humanity.
Supreme Devotion to God
But how do I become a Vedantic Christian? Or perhaps a Christian Vedantin? In some of his essays about Bhakti Yoga, Vivekananda argues that devotion to God comes in two phases. In the first phase, you utterly focus on the trappings of the particular religious symbolism unique to your cultural background. This would involve devotion and heartfelt worship of the personal Christ, Krishna, Buddha, God, etc., etc.
But then, once you are overwhelmed by your devotion at this personal, relative level, the second phase is what he calls “Supreme Devotion,” which involves seeing the entire manifest plurality of the world as your holy Church. All of nature becomes your holy sanctuary of worship. At this higher phase of Supreme Devotion, every church, every mosque, every temple, every synagogue, etc., becomes your place of worship. Vivekananda writes,
“That love of God grows and assumes a form which is called Para-Bhakti or supreme devotion. Forms vanish, rituals fly away, books are superseded; images, temples, churches, religions and sects, countries and nationalities — all these little limitations and bondages fall off by their own nature from him who knows this love of God.”
As Vivekananda says, I was born in the Christian church but I should not want to spiritually die under the confines of the Christian church. The Christian Church is my spiritual “home base,” it is my religio-cultural foundation, but Vivekenanda’s spiritual cosmopolitanism inspires me to go much further.
“Temples or churches, books or forms, are simply the kindergarten of religion, to make the spiritual child strong enough to take higher steps; and these first steps are necessary if he wants religion. With the thirst, the longing for God, comes real devotion, real Bhakti. Who has the longing? That is the question. Religion is not in doctrines, in dogmas, nor in intellectual argumentation; it is being and becoming, it is realisation.”
But temples and churches, books and forms, these are not bad in and of themselves, so long as we recognize their purpose: stepping stones to the greater spiritual goal of self-realization, God-realization, or as Jesus of Nazareth put it, finding the Kingdom of God “within.” Vivekananda wrote,
“There is no reason why man should not use symbols. They have them in order to represent the ideas signified behind them. This universe is a symbol, in and through which we are trying to grasp the thing signified, which is beyond and behind.”
When I read the sacred scriptures of the Christian Bible, when I meditate on my burning Christ candle, when I hold sacred my little statues of Buddha and Krishna, when I utter the mantra of the Jesus Prayer, when I visualize the loving-kindness of Christ incarnated as Jesus of Nazareth, when I hold in reverence my precious rosary, all these are methods to help my mind form a symbolic representation of the Atman, The Self, Brahman, Absolute Reality.
The Holy Wreckage of Infinity
Since by its very nature, the Absolute instantly slips from any possible grasp of the human mind to capture it in words or images, all such devotional worship will ultimately fail to fully capture the meaning and spiritual significance of the Pure Absolute Self. As the Chinese sages said, they are but fingers pointing at the Moon. The Moon is the Absolute, the finger is the symbolic accoutrements of religion.
The point of the accoutrements is not to worship them for their own sake, but as a means to the greater end of self-realization that we ourselves are this Absolute Reality, that we ourselves are divine, and so is everything around us, subtly vibrating with the holy resonance of Brahman: Existence-Consciousness-Bliss.
And when we realize this, the entire manifest cosmos is open to us as a sacred place of worship, blessed by the Grace of the Absolute, utterly holy and divine in every nook and cranny of Nature and Mind.
This is the great Truth of Advaita Vedanta. It is inherently a cosmopolitan spiritual system for when you grasp its Truth all religions of the world become seen as holy manifestations of the power of the Impersonal Nondual Brahman radiating out from an Infinite Center of Oneness and spiraling into a localization of causality and finitude. As Swami Vivekananda said so poetically, “This universe is the wreckage of the infinite on the shores of the finite.”
Jesus of Nazareth, the Buddha, Krishna, and even Sri Ramakrishna himself—they are all “wreckage” of the Infinite crashing into the shores of finitude and causality. But what’s important is that this wreckage is not dead, lifeless, and barren of Grace and Mercy. It is a holy, sacred wreckage. All of it. Even the suffering and misery and darkness of the world are illuminated by the same Light of Existence-Consciousness that brings it into the warm embrace of Eternal Oneness.
And ultimately, that wreckage is itself not set apart from the Infinite Absolute; it is but a manifestation of its power, just as waves are a manifestation of the power of the ocean.
How Does Maya Work?
Our materialist-objectifying minds immediately cry out for an explanation or causal mechanism for “how” exactly this Infinite Absolute One manifests into the Many. We want a scientific “theory” or mechanism that explains in terms conceivable to the finite human mind how this process of the One manifesting as the Many works.
But no such “theory” will ever be forthcoming. The best we can do is use poetic metaphors and analogies to liken this process of manifestation to the ocean manifesting waves, etc. But this is not a real explanation. It is not a real theory or mechanism. It is the feeble operation of the human mind to grasp what ultimately is a transcendental mystery.
Sure, we might string together a series of word-forms or draw some pictures in an attempt to explain how the One becomes the Many. Some theologians might even delude themselves into thinking this is a kind of analytic science capable of rational, objective rigor.
But ultimately we must let go of the need to reduce such mysteries to rational objectivity and let go into the dark cloud of unknowing, allowing ourselves to gently sink into the great dark abyss of unknowing where all theories and mechanisms melt away in the gentle embrace of Absolute Pure Being-Consciousness-Bliss, resting content in a contemplative quietism that simply beholds the manifest Universe as a holy ontological fact.
The human mind is itself composed of linguistic symbols, images, and analogies and thus it naturally seeks to explain reality in terms of these things. But the sharp sword of Advaita Vedanta cuts through this morass of symbolism by pointing beyond the limitations of language to a transcendental reality of Pure Oneness, a reality that is both absolutely beyond the finite limitations of the human mind but also simultaneously undergirds and sustains the ontological existence of the human mind, illuminating its existence with the Subtle Light of Consciousness, making it transcendentally possible to partake in the glorious mystery and bliss of Pure Being-Consciousness itself.
Spiritual but not Religious
For me, this is all the spirituality I need. I do not need a religion. I do not need dogmas or creeds or irrational loyalty to the incidental particularities of the culture where I happen to be born. On the other hand, these cultural symbols are not to be simply tossed aside as mere garbage, for like everything else, they themselves are manifestations of the beauty and glory of the Absolute as a paradoxically Personal-Impersonal God and to some extent necessary for the human mind to hold onto as psychological anchors in the blooming, buzzing confusion of empirical reality and the bondage of our causal-historical limitations.
But Advaita Vedanta teaches me I am not my mind. I am not my body. I am the Pure Consciousness that beholds all the manifest holiness of the Mental-Physical Cosmos as an eternal, unattached, Witness. And as Pure Eternal Witness, I am ultimately not subject to the limitations of finitude. My body will die. My mind will die. But I am not those things. For “I” am not a “thing” at all but Pure Subjectivity itself, Pure Consciousness itself, which undergirds and illuminates all of reality with its Eternal Illuminating Existence.
As Vivekananda so keenly saw, this is the true function of spirituality. It is not to prostrate ourselves before icons and symbols and bicker and fight about which theological doctrine is correct but, rather, to deeply internalize the realization that all symbols, physical or mental, are infused with Holy Divinity borrowed from the ontological substrate that is Pure Existence-Consciousness-Bliss, an Absolute Reality that is complete, whole, holy, perfect, Eternal, and absolutely One, nondual, and underlying every possible experience we as finite beings can ever have.
Advaita Vedanta Explained Simply
Yoga and Christianity: A Path of Liberation
Advaita Vedanta and Christian Love
Soul or No-Soul: Advaita Vedanta and the Metaphysics of Self