Religions are complex realities. They are constituted by systems of beliefs and rituals. They are embedded in particular cultures. They involve communities and they are mediated to a large extent through teachers and living spiritual exemplars.
In what follows I describe a process of encountering Hinduism that has been in the making for nearly forty years. It has gone through the various stages described below, a high-point of which is certainly the encounter with living spiritual masters, one in particular.
My own initial fascination with Hinduism owes to street encounters with one brand of Hinduism, popularly known as Hare Krishna, that was visible on street corners of major cities in the 1980s and ’90s. One cannot consider this a real encounter, even if it engaged my fascination, and led me to visits to temples and to conversations with faithful. Of course, it was an encounter of sorts. It involved curiosity, learning, dialogue and contact with practitioners. But this early teenage kind of engagement did not really affect me. The contact remained external, even if fascinating.
Academic study of Hinduism in a university context and reading multiple introductions and textual sources allowed me to understand, or to develop tools for understanding, a particular system, world-view. Once again, it was engaging, interesting and mind-opening. But can one consider the study of another faith in a purely academic context an encounter with that faith? I would argue that the value of such study is in preparing the way for a deeper encounter that requires something other than academic study. If devotional street dances piqued my teenage interests, texts and ideas captured my young adult mind.
It is fair to argue that there was some radiance, a kind of halo, of a different spiritual reality than the one I was familiar with from my native Judaism, which I did and still practice with intensity. This radiance made the study something more than say the study of Chinese or African religion, to which I have never had any attraction. Study provides a window into the “soul of a religion,” a suggestive term that deserves further contemplation. Of necessity, it exposes one to the great ideas, ideals and personalities of that religion. Something of the soul of the religion certainly comes through study, and thereby nourishes the study with a quality of inspiration, or attraction, or quest, that singles such study out from other academic enterprises. But study is carried out from the safety of our homes, libraries and class-rooms. It is transformative inasmuch as ideas carry with them the power of transformation. But it still lacks the exposure and contact with the fullness of the spiritual reality of another religion, what I would call a genuine encounter.
Taking up transcendental meditation (TM) in my early twenties might be considered a step toward a fuller encounter, especially as it was accompanied by many hours of study of the teachings of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, either through books or recorded videos. Certainly, meditation is a means of going deeper into a tradition. It forces one to make one’s own whatever experience is being attained through meditation, and if that experience is related to another faith tradition, then it could be a way of interiorizing, possibly owning, something of that tradition. There is, however, a counter-argument, and one that applies particularly to the case of TM. This form of meditation was offered as a universal approach that was not religious and essentially not particularly Hindu. Even if the initiation ceremony followed Hindu conventions, and even if Maharishi wrote a commentary on Hinduism’s most popular text, the Bhagavad Gita, the practice, and ultimately message and mindset, had so abstracted what was offered from its Hindu particularity, that in terms of encounter with Hinduism proper one had again only the sense of a halo, a radiance of another tradition. It was a teaching that taught a path to oneself, not to another tradition. If nothing else, I was introduced to TM by a group of mostly secularized Israelis, for many of whom this functioned as a substitute religious identity, but who lacked the depth of the fullness of a religious tradition that they could represent to others.
In reviewing my engagement with Hinduism I would suggest two qualitative leaps occurred, taking me beyond what was available through academic study, imported meditation practices, and the odd street-side encounter. As my own spiritual vocation matured, drawing together my academic knowledge, spiritual quest, and multiple networks of relationships formed among teachers and leaders of different faith traditions, I founded an institute devoted to the encounter between religions. Its original name—The Elijah School for the Study of Wisdom in World Religions—says much about its mission. It was a mission of study, teaching and identifying a wisdom that can be communicated across faith traditions, through their teachers and practitioners.
Twenty years ago, in Jerusalem, I began importing Hindu teachers and academics to various summer school and other programs, along with teachers of Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, and other persuasions. It was a qualitatively different experience to learn with and from teachers who lived the tradition and belonged to it. The context for appreciating their contribution was provided by my earlier studies. But somehow studying with insiders had a different ring than following broad surveys or reading Hindu myths with teachers who were not insiders to the tradition. In part, this was because here I could ask the question of what the teachings meant in the lives of the teachers, how they applied them and what they might mean to others. Spirituality and prayer were not off-limits, but rather part of what we sought to incorporate into the teaching experience. As the Elijah Institute evolved, the opportunities for deepening the encounter with Hinduism opened up. In 2003 we brought together about 50 leaders of all faith traditions to Seville to form the Elijah Board of World Religious Leaders. Some notable Hindu religious leaders were brought there, headed by Sri Sri Ravi Sankar. New possibilities were created for engagement.
I recall sitting in a hotel room in Cordoba with Sri Sri and one of the leaders of the Madhva stream of Hinduism, Sugunendra Theerta Swami, and discussing what idols and images meant to them. For a Jew, this was a cardinal question and one that had to be explored in dialogue with authoritative practitioners, not by reading books. This question has been the Jewish mantra of my journey in Hinduism, posed to teachers and practitioners, and eventually led to the publication of Same God, Other god: Judaism, Hinduism and the Problem of Idolatry. Engaging religious leaders has been a gateway to exploring issues that a Jew might have with Hinduism, but no less important also an opening to what is most meaningful to those leaders in Hinduism, the heart of their faith, their practice and their message for others.
No less important, the process shifted to India. I had been invited there by Sri Sri Ravi Sankar, following the founding of the Elijah Board, and this invitation led to a series of annual visits (sometimes biannual) to ashrams and to different religious communities, some associated with my work at Elijah, most not. Familiarity can lead to a sense of closeness, intimacy and sharing, as has been the case. But these, in my experience, rely on relationships, often on sustained and significant relationships. In my view, a true encounter with another religion requires long-term relationships of study and friendship. Study nurtures the mind; friendship opens the heart, creates the trust and provides the context for study becoming personal engagement.
It was therefore only through my travels to India that the process of engagement with Hinduism reached its maturation. And it was only in the combination of engagement of heart and mind that the receptivity for a deeper grasp, an intuitive feeling, a sense of deeper understanding and even belonging (still as an outsider) was developed.
All this took hundreds of hours of study, dialogue and also meditation and eventually added up to a point of comfort, a sense of understanding “how it works,” a respectful familiarity and appreciation for the Hindu mindset. It was only then that I accepted the challenge of writing about the Jewish encounter with Hinduism, combining my personal observations and reflections with a variety of historical and descriptive analyses of the Jewish encounter with Hinduism, past and present. What eventually came out as The Jewish Encounter with Hinduism: Wisdom, Spirituality, Identitycould not have been written without the different stages I underwent in deepening my understanding, and moving increasingly from the outsider’s to the insider’s perspective, though the divide will always remain.
But the picture would be incomplete if I simply presented my journey as one of intellectual study, enriched by friendship and encounter with communities and teachers in their home context. One more important ingredient is still missing, in relation to what I would call a genuine encounter, or an encounter in its fullness. To mind and heart must be added a third component – spirit. Perhaps something of that spirit was present in the halo that inspired my earliest attempts to get to know Hinduism. Perhaps it was this spirit that I referred to above as the soul of Hinduism, and perhaps, like the soul of any religion, it has a way of radiating through the different activities and teachings undertaken in the name of the religion. But spirit has a further dimension. Spirit is a deep intuitive capacity within us that opens us up to the spiritual reality. It is more than mind, and even more than heart. It integrates these and points them to a higher dimension of knowledge, concrete and intuitive at the same time. A fullness of encounter requires, then, the engagement of heart, mind and spirit.
What allowed me access to this spirit, or rather what touched and engaged my own spirit, was the encounter with certain living spiritual masters who represent the tradition. They provide it with a voice of authority that is grounded in their spiritual person, not only in the received knowledge they transmit. These individuals have the capacity to touch others because they themselves have touched a plane of existence that gives meaning to their religion, while also making something of it available to others. It is such individuals who not only represent the spirit of a religion; they also have the capacity to awaken the power of spirit in those who are in contact with them and are exposed to their person and their teachings.
I would like to share with you some small testimony of one particular Hindu teacher who played an important role for me. While I have benefited from the enrichment of heart and mind of dozens of teachers, he belongs to the class of people who engage the spirit, and therefore bring to fullness the encounter with another religion. The person I refer to is Swami Chidananda Saraswati, the leading disciple and successor of Swami Sivananda, of the Divine Life Society in Rishikesh. He is one of the teachers to whom I have dedicated The Jewish Encounter with Hinduism, not necessarily because I could be considered his devotee (whatever that may mean to different people), but because the contact with him was, and remains, a contact of spirit, that brings to fullness my own sense of encounter with Hinduism.
I only met Swamiji a couple of times. By the time I visited Rishikesh and the Sivananda Ashram, Swamiji was away from the ashram, in a different town, and access to him was limited. As the story goes, a western swami in the ashram, Swami Muktananda, saw me with my kipa, bellowed out a deep shalom, followed by a Shema Yisrael, and from there our friendship evolved. One of its main gifts was getting past the “Swami Chidananda is no longer receiving visitors” wall, that I had been presented with. The door was opened and I was invited to his home with a group of other visitors. We were about a dozen. He engaged the group and he serially engaged each of the visitors. Several hours passed before it was my turn. I was, I suppose, saved for last.
I wish I could communicate in words the feeling of being in this man’s presence. The intensity of energy and feeling, the uplifting of one’s internal orientation and internal quest, that occurred simply by being in his presence, are the stuff of which stories of tzaddikim and masters of faith in all traditions are made. One knows the presence when one is in it and someone who has not experienced being in the presence of a great soul or spiritual teacher will simply not understand the overwhelming energizing and transformation one undergoes simply by being in the presence of some individuals. Is this not in itself already a powerful and transformative encounter with the spiritual reality that comes from another tradition?
The story continues. When it came time to talk to me, Swamiji did something startling. We had all been sitting on the floor, and he was seated on a chair. Before talking to me, he descended from his chair, and positioned himself on a level with me for our conversation. Here I was, a rabbi of another tradition. He would not talk to me from a position of greater height.
The impression this gesture made was tremendous. It was a gesture that captured the essence of this man, something I came to appreciate later through the reading of many of his books and watching dozens of hours of his teaching. The hallmark of this contemporary teacher was humility, the kind of humility that grows from the fullness of knowledge of divine presence and that translates itself into a meticulous care taken in human relations. I do not think I ever saw or felt the depth of humility in practice as during that brief moment when Swami Chidananda descended to sit facing me.
The conversation was characterized by profound understanding. He understood my path. He understood my interreligious work. He understood what this rabbi was doing journeying into Hinduism. And he also understood why he could not nominate other members of his community to represent him on the Elijah Board of World Religious Leaders. Throughout my exchange with him, and earlier as well—I was struck by his wisdom, understanding and breadth. As I came to learn, here was a master of teaching, knowledge and a high perspective that extended to his tradition and far beyond. This combination of wisdom and deep humility was possibly unique, among all the many religious teachers I have personally known.
Even though the meeting did not accomplish one of its stated purposes, it actually accomplished a lot more than I could have asked for. Looking back, this was perhaps my most important meeting with a Hindu religious figure. Here was encounter at its highest. It not only transformed by the magic of the presence he radiated. It also provided a model of spiritual being that one could take away and return to time and again as part of my own quest for attaining the spiritual qualities so fully represented in his person. Such moments have informed my thinking of what an encounter is and how we can meet across religious traditions.
I would be remiss to end the story there. Its continuation is not only another visit, or the study of his works. Its continuation lies in the realm of spirit. Swamiji died in 2008, but the connection with him remains alive. It is kept alive by visits to the different homes in which he lived, worked and meditated, at different periods of his life. These are charged spiritual spaces. In the same way that being in Swamiji’s presence opened me up to an intensity of spiritual reality, the spaces he inhabited continue to carry the energy and intensity that makes such opening possible. Something of this I have experienced in visiting in Rav Kook’s study in Jerusalem. This intensity of presence is what makes the visits to tombs of tzaddikim part of the practice of Hassidic groups, where I have learned to cultivate it.
For me, the encounter with Swami Chidananda is not over. It is alive when I visit him. But it is also alive inside me. To touch the spirit and to be a model means that his example of humility and wisdom in action and his approach to the spiritual life can inform my internal horizons, together with the testimony of the great Jewish teachers. His presence remains real, and so he remains a teacher.
My encounter with individuals like Swami Chidananda, in Hinduism and in other faiths – certainly within Judaism as well, has informed my view of what religion is. It has led me to consider how to present what I consider the finest aspects of the religious life, as these come to expression in the lives of great individuals, and how to make these speak to the world at large, even beyond the boundaries of their native tradition. This has led to the thinking expressed in my recently published Religious Genius: Appreciating Exemplary Individuals Across Religious Traditions. Individuals such as Swami Chidananda have the capacity to touch others because they themselves have touched a plane of existence that gives meaning to their religion, while also transcending it and making something of it available to others. It is such individuals who not only represent the spirit of a religion; they also have the capacity to awaken the power of spirit in those who are in contact with them and are exposed to their person and teachings.
Two questions require addressing in conclusion. If I can receive all this within Judaism, what need is there for me to have found something in another tradition? It is as hard to answer this question as it would be to make sense of all the particularities of any life. In theory, there is no need. In reality, all too often we do not encounter the right people and sadly there is a dearth of great spiritual teachers in Judaism, living manifestations of a breadth of wisdom and a depth of humility. I have described this crisis in The Jewish Encounter with Hinduism as a crisis that has led seekers to seek God in Hinduism. I was not in crisis. But I have been internally propelled on a journey that led me to remarkable discoveries. I cannot argue with what I know internally to be true.
The second and related question is how much is this really an encounter with Hinduism. What I describe in my journey is increasingly a movement away from rituals, ideas and symbols into the realm of spirituality that transcends religions, and perhaps should therefore not be presented as Hindu at all. This may be so. But then at the very least it would be a recognition that there is a spiritual reality that transcends religious particularity and that can communicate across religions. Such an understanding allows us to cultivate respect, appreciation and admiration for figures of another religion, where affirmation of existing boundaries would have the opposite effect. This in itself is no small feat.
Religious teachers speak the language of the tradition and bring its particularity to light, in light of their own experience and person. Therefore, Hinduism as taught by a Chidananda has a very different valence not only from classroom Hinduism but also from what other academic and religious teachers could offer. It is a full reading of the tradition, supported by a high point of spiritual and existential fulfillment. It allows a full encounter with the tradition itself, enhancing respect and understanding, even as it is a force for the transformation of spirit for the outsider who is lucky enough to be invited in.
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Alon Goshen-Gottstein, Executive Director of the Elijah Interfaith Institute, Israel, is the author of The Jewish Encounter with Hinduism: History, Spirituality, Identity.