This post is a short meditation on the relationship between Vedanta and Christianity as it relates to the Christian ethics of love. I am grateful to Swami Sarvapriyananda for his teachings on Advaita Vedanta. All my knowledge of Vedanta is thanks to him, but any error is mine.
“Be Grateful to the Man you help, think of Him as God. Is it not a great privilege to be allowed to worship God by helping our fellow men?” ~ Swami Vivekananda
36 “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” 37 He said to him, “ ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the greatest and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.” ~ Mark 22:36-40
When Jesus is asked by the Pharisees, out of all the numerous laws of the Old Testament, “Which is the greatest?”, they were trying to trip Jesus up and catch him in scholastic error. But Jesus deftly maneuvered around their trap by summarizing the entirety of the Jewish Law in just two commandments: Love God with all your heart, soul, and mind and also, love your neighbor as yourself.
But why? Why should we love our neighbor? What is the underlying philosophical justification? What is the ontological foundation for why we ought to be moral? Suppose I don’t believe in the God of Christianity, or I don’t care about the words of Christ, why should I be good? Why should I not just focus on maximizing my own selfish utility? Is there any metaphysical proof such a value system is ultimately wrong?
The Practical Ethics of Vedanta
From the perspective of Advaita Vedanta, we can ask the same question: If all this world of suffering and evil is but a mere appearance in the Ultimate Reality, why ought I be good? Is it not enough to simply realize my divine Nature and rest in that knowledge? Why should I be good when good and bad are both just manifestations of the same underlying reality?
According to Swami Sarvapriyananda, the ontological justification for ethics is to be found precisely in the Oneness of all reality.
If my True Self is the Absolute Reality, which is no different from the True Self of all beings, and all these Selves are equally identical with Brahman, then all living beings are partaking equally in the divinity of Brahman. So being good to myself is no different than being good to others and vice versa, for both myself and others all partake in the shared reality that is the Absolute Self.
So when Swami Vivekananda asks, “Is it not a great privilege to be allowed to worship God by helping our fellow men?” he is speaking the Truth of Advaita Vedanta. When we help ourselves we are helping the Ultimate Reality because our True Self is the Ultimate Reality.
But the same logic applies to our fellow humans and other living beings, who are just as equally identical to the Ultimate Reality as we are. So if we can justify our own selfishness towards ourselves, we have, from Advaita’s perspective, equal justification for being “Self-ish” towards others, who are all equally identical to The Self, Atman, which is identical to Brahman, the Ultimate Reality, which is Pure Consciousness, Pure Oneness.
Christian Vedantic Ethics
We can interpret the logic of Jesus in similar Vedantic lines. Loving God with all your heart, soul, and mind and loving your neighbor as yourself are two sides of the same coin for “your Self” is the same Absolute Self that is identical with the Universal, Impersonal, Unitary, Absolute Pure Consciousness that the Vedas call Brahman, what the gnostics called the God beyond “god.”
For humanity is made in the image of God, indeed, we ourselves partake in the divinity of God, for Jesus said the Kingdom of God is inside of us, meaning that our True Self is divine. Indeed the interiority of our own Pure Awareness, our Pure Witness Consciousness, is the same as the interiority which universally lights up the possibility of all awareness throughout the whole universe.
The great nondualistic Christian mystic Meister Eckhart said, “The eye through which I see God is the same eye through which God sees me; my eye and God’s eye are one eye, one seeing, one knowing, one love.”
This is pure Vedanta.
My “I” is the same as God’s “I.” God’s “I am” is ultimately the same as my “I am,” which is Pure Consciousness, the True Self, the absolute ground of being.
Thus, to Love God with all my heart means to love my own inner divinity, my own inner “I” which sees God. And to love my neighbor as myself means to see my neighbor as divine, for “my Self” is also divine, being the inner residence of the Kingdom of Heaven, the ground of all divinity being the interiority of consciousness, which is Pure Consciousness, Pure Subjectivity, Pure Existence, Pure Bliss.
The Divine Name Revealed
13 But Moses said to God, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” 14 God said to Moses, “I am who I am.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I am has sent me to you.’ “ ~ Exodus 3
In Judaism, the name of God is considered sacred and is not to be spoken and written explicitly. Terms like “Lord” are used instead. So it is only natural that Moses, when asked by God to go forth to the Israelites as a prophet, that he would ask, essentially, “How do I refer to you? Who are you? What is your name?”
Moses is asking for the Divine Name of the Lord, a terrible and holy secret. But how does God respond? He simply says, “I am who I am.” Then he says His name is “I am.”
What are we to make of this? At first glance it seems simply tautological, giving us no new information. It seems at first as if God is just being mysterious and stubborn in not wanting to reveal his Divine Name, his Divine Identity.
But in fact, from the perspective of Advaita Vedanta, God clearly and succinctly reveals to Moses his true Nature in His short but profound statement, “I am who I am.”
What does He say? He says, essentially, “I am ‘I am-ness’.”
What is “I am-ness”?
The “I” is The Self. It is Pure Subjectivity, Pure Consciousness. It is what Vedanta calls Witness Consciousness. It is the “Pure I.” It is Pure Existence. God is saying that he is not a thing or object with a name like “tree” or “rock” or even a distinct person with a name like “Bob” or “Tracy.” No, God is saying that He is “I-ness” itself. Pure Consciousness itself.
It is Pure Subjectivity independent of any object of subjective experience. In Vedanta, this is the Ultimate level of reality, for it is the grounds for the possibility of all experience of objects, akin to how the cinema screen is the ontological ground for the possibility of visual images playing across the screen.
In Vedanta, this Ultimate Reality is called Brahman, or Existence-Consciousness-Bliss. You have Pure Existence and Pure Consciousness and these are absolutely infinite and unlimited and from being unlimited there comes absolute bliss, for there is nothing lacking from the Absolute.
This “I Am” is absolutely unitary. It is the Oneness of the “I.” It is the Pure Self, or Atman, which is identical to Brahman. When Jesus said, “The Father and I are one,” from the Advaita perspective Jesus is recognizing this core Vedantic Truth: his True Self, his “I” is identical to the Ultimate “I,” Pure Consciousness, Pure Awareness, which is the Absolute Substratum for all experience of objects.
The Divinity of Humanity
Thus, Christ’s “Greatest Commandment” is fully compatible with the logic of Advaita Vedanta.
The ontological foundation of ethics in both cases can be boiled down to recognizing the inner, holy divinity of humanity.
Swami Vivekananda said,
“My ideal indeed can be put into a few words and that is: to preach unto mankind their divinity, and how to make it manifest in every movement of life.”
It is from the recognition of the divinity of humanity, our equality and perfect identity in the Absolute Oneness of the Self, that all ethics and morality flows, for if we recognize the divinity in a person or being who is suffering, we are looking at our own Self, which is perfectly divine.
And if it makes perfect intuitive sense why we might want to relieve our own suffering, and our own inner divinity is absolutely identical and unified with the inner divinity of other beings, then relieving the suffering of others is the same as relieving our own suffering, which is relieving the suffering of God as manifested into the world of appearance.