The Bhagavad Gita and the New Testament

By Frank F. Ellinwood

No other portion of Hindu literature has made so great an impression on Western minds as the Bhagavad Gita, “The Lord’s Lay,” or the “Song of the Adorable.” It has derived its special importance from its supposed resemblance to the New Testament. And as it claims to be much older than the oldest of the Gospels or the Epistles, it carries the inference that the latter may have borrowed something from it.

A plausible translation has been published in Boston by Mr. Mohini M.  Chatterji, who devoutly believes this to be the revealed word of the Supreme Creator and Upholder of the universe.[74] He admits that at a later day “the same God, worshipped alike by Hindus and Christians, appeared again in the person of Jesus Christ,” and that “in the Bible He revealed Himself to Western nations, as the Bhagavad Gita had proclaimed Him to the people of the East.” And he draws the inference that “If the Scriptures of the Brahmans and the Scriptures of the Jews and Christians, widely separated as they are by age and nationality, are but different names for one and the same truth, who can then say that the Scriptures contradict each other? A careful and reverent collation of the two sets of Scriptures will show forth the conscious and intelligent design of revelation.” The fact that the Bhagavad Gita is thoroughly pantheistic, while the Bible emphasizes the personality of God in fellowship with the distinct personality of human souls, seems to interpose no serious difficulty in Mr. Chatterji’s view, since he says “’The Lord’s Lay’ is for philosophic minds, and therefore deals more at length with the mysteries of the being of God.” “In the Bhagavad Gita,” he says, “consisting of seven hundred and seventy verses, the principal topic is the being of God, while scarcely the same amount of exposition is given to it in the whole Bible;” and he adds, “The explanation of this remarkable fact is found in the difference between the genius of the Hebrew and the Brahman race, and also in the fact that the teachings of Jesus Christ were addressed to ‘the common people.’”[75]

The air of intellectual superiority which is couched in these words is conspicuous. Mr. Chatterji also finds an inner satisfaction in what he considers the broad charity of the Brahmanical Scriptures. He quotes a passage from the Narada Pancharata which speaks of the Buddha as “the preserver of revelation for those outside of the Vedic authority.” And he concludes that when one such revealer is admitted there can be no reason for excluding others; therefore Christianity also should be allowed a place. He declares on Vedic authority that whosoever receives the true knowledge of God, however revealed, attains eternal life. And for a parallel to this he quotes the saying of Christ, that “this is eternal life that they might know Thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom Thou hast sent.” “The Brahmanical Scriptures,” he says, “are of one accord in teaching that when the heart is purified God is seen; so also Jesus Christ declares that the pure in heart are blessed, for they shall see God.”

Our translator discards the often-repeated theory that the Christian Scriptures have copied the wise sayings of Krishna; and it is very significant that an argument to which superficial apologists constantly resort is discarded by someone who is actually a Hindu, as he supports the theory that as both were direct revelations from Vishnu, there was in his view no need of borrowing. His contention is that God, who “at sundry times and in divers manners” has spoken to men in different ages, made known his truth, and essentially the same truth, both on the plains of India and in Judea. And he reminds Hindus and Christians alike, that this knowledge of truth carries with itself an increased responsibility. He says: “The man who sees the wonderful workings of the Spirit among the nations of the earth, bringing each people to God by ways unknown to others, is thereby charged with a duty. To him with terrible precision applies the warning given by Gamaliel to the Pharisees, ‘Take heed to yourselves what ye intend to do ... lest ye be found to fight even against God.’ If one be a Brahman, let him reflect when opposing the religion of Jesus what it is that he fights. The truths of Christianity are the same as those on which his own salvation depends. How can he be a lover of truth, which is God, if he knows not his beloved under such a disguise? And if he penetrates behind the veil, which should tend only to increase the ardor of his love, he cannot hate those who in obedience to the same truth are preaching the Gospel of Christ to all nations.  Indeed he ought to rejoice at his brothers’ devotion to the self-same God, and to see that he is rendering service to Him by helping others to carry out the behests given to them by the Divine Master. If, on the other hand, he be a Christian, let him remember that while he is commanded to preach repentance and remission of sins in the Saviour Jesus, he is also warned against ‘teaching for doctrines the commandments of men.’” All this seems like charity, but really it is laxity.

And here is the very essence of Hinduism. Its chief characteristic, that which renders it so hard to combat, is its easy indifference to all distinctions. To reason with it is like grasping a jelly-fish. Its pantheism, which embraces all things, covers all sides of all questions.  It sees no difficulties even between things which are morally opposites.  Contradictions are not obstacles, and both sides of a dilemma may be harmonized. And to a great extent this same vagueness of conviction characterizes all the heathen systems of the East. The Buddhists and the Shintoists in Japan justify their easy-going partnership by the favorite maxim that, while “there are many paths by which men climb the sides of Fusyama, yet upon reaching the summit they all behold the same glorious moon.” The question whether all do in fact reach the summit is one which does not occur to an Oriental to ask.

This same pantheistic charity is seen in the well-known appeal of the late Chunder Sen, which as an illustration is worth repeating here:

“Cheshub Chunder Sen, servant of God, called to be an apostle of the Church of the New Dispensation, which is in the holy city of Calcutta; to all the great nations of the world and to the chief religious sects in the East and West, to the followers of Moses and of Jesus, of Buddha, Confucius, Zoroaster, Mohammed, Nanak, and of the various Hindu sects; grace be to you and peace everlasting. Whereas sects, discords, and strange schisms prevail in our father’s family; and whereas this setting of brother against brother has proved the prolific source of evil, it has pleased God to send into the world a message of peace and reconciliation. This New Dispensation He has vouchsafed to us in the East, and we have been commanded to bear witness to the nations of the earth ... Thus saith the Lord: ‘I abominate sects and desire love and concord ... I have at sundry times spoken through my prophets and my many dispensations. There is unity. There is one music but many instruments, one body but many members, one spirit but many gifts, one blood but many nations, one Church but many churches. Let Asia and Europe and America and all nations prove this New Dispensation and the true fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of men.’”

This remarkable production—so Pauline in style and so far from Paul in doctrine—seems to possess everything except definite and robust conviction. And its limp philosophy was not sufficient to withhold even Chunder Sen himself from the abandonment of his principles not long afterward. This sweet perfume of false charity, with which he thus gently sprayed the sects and nations of mankind, lost its flavor ere the ink of his message was fairly dry; while he who in similar language announced his call to an Apostleship eighteen centuries ago, is still turning the world upside down.

“Charity” is the watchword of indifferentism in the West as well as in the East; and the East and the West are joining hands in their effort to soothe the world into slumber with all its sins and woes unhealed. Some months ago an advanced Unitarian from Boston delivered a farewell address to the Buddhists of Japan, in which he presented three great Unitarians of New England—Channing, Emerson, and Parker—in a sort of transfiguration of gentleness and charity. He maintained that the lives of these men had been an unconscious prophecy of that mild and gentle Buddhism which he had found in Japan, but of which they had died without the sight.[76]

Thus the transcendentalism of New England joins hands with the Buddhism and the Shintoism of Japan, and the Brahmanism of Calcutta, and all are in accord with Mr. Chatterji and the Bhagavad Gita. Even the Theosophists profess their sympathy with the Sermon on the Mount, and claim Christ as an earlier prophet. The one refrain of all is “Charity.” All great teachers are avatars of Vishnu. The globe is belted with this multiform indifferentism, and I am sorry to say that it is largely the gospel of the current literature and of the daily press. In it all there is no Saviour and no salvation. Religions are all ethnic and local, while the ignis fatuus of a mystic pantheism pervades the world.

Mr. Chatterji’s preface closes with a prayer to the “merciful Father of humanity to remove from all races of men every unbrotherly feeling in the sacred name of religion, which is but one.” The prayer were touching and beautiful on the assumption that there were no differences between truth and error. And there are thousands, even among us, who are asking, “Why may not Christians respond to this broad charity, and admit this Hindu eclectic poem to an equal place with the New Testament?” More or less indifferent to all religions, and failing to understand the real principles on which they severally rest, they are ready to applaud a challenge like that which we are considering, and to contrast it with the alleged narrowness and intolerance of Christian Theism.

I have dwelt thus at length upon Mr. Chatterji’s introduction, and have illustrated it by references to similar specious claims of other faiths, in order that I might bring into clearer view the main issue which this book now presents to the American public. It is the softest, sweetest voice yet given to that gospel of false charity which is the fashion of our times. Emerson and others caught it from afar and discoursed to a generation now mostly gone of the gentle maxims of Confucius, Krishna, and Gautama. But now Krishna is among us in the person of his most devout apostle, and a strange hand of fellowship is stretched out toward us from the land of the Vedas.

It behooves us to inquire, first, into the pantheistic philosophy which underlies these sayings, and to ask for their meaning as applied in real life; and second, we shall need to know something of Krishna, and whether he speaks as one having authority. It should be borne in mind that pantheism sacrifices nothing whatever by embracing all religions, since even false religions are a worship of Vishnu in their way, while Christianity by its very nature would sacrifice everything. According to pantheism all things that exist, and all events that transpire, are expressions of the Divine will. The one only existent Being embraces all causes and all effects, all truth and all falsehood. He is no more the source of good than of evil. “I am immortality,” says Krishna. “I am also death.” Man with all his thoughts and acts is but the shadow of God, and moves as he is moved upon. Arjuna’s divine counsellor says to him: “The soul, existing from eternity, devoid of qualities, imperishable, abiding in the body, yet supreme, acts not nor is by any act polluted. He who perceives that actions are performed by Prakriti alone, and that the soul is not an actor, sees the truth aright.”

Now, if this reasoning be correct, it is not we that sin; not we that worship; and in the last analysis all religions are alike; they are only the varied expressions of the thought of God. As He manifests his power in nature in a thousand forms, producing some objects that are beautiful to the eye and others that are repulsive, so in his spiritual manifestations He displays a like variety. The ignorance and degradation of fetichism are His, as well as the highest revelations of spiritual truth. A certain class of evolutionists tell us that God contrived the serpent’s poison-fang and the mother’s tender instinct with “the same creative indifference.” And the broad pantheism which overrides the distinctions of eternal right and wrong, and divests God of all moral discriminations, puts Vedantism and Fetichism, Christianity and Witchcraft, upon the same basis. The Bhagavad Gita and the Gospel both enjoin the brotherhood of men, but what are the meanings which they give to this term? What are their aims, respectively? One is endeavoring to enforce the rigid and insurmountable barriers of caste; the other commends a mission of love which shall regard neither Jew nor Greek, Barbarian, Scythian, bond nor free. It will become apparent, I think, that there may be parallels or similarities which relate to mere phrases while their meanings are wide apart.

Judging from Mr. Chatterji’s own stand-point, his work has been well done. He has shown a careful study not only of his own literatures and philosophies, but also of the scriptures of the Old and New Testament—in this respect setting us an example worthy to be followed by Christian scholars. Such a man has in the outset an immense advantage over those who know nothing of the enemies’ positions, but regard them only with disdain. Before the high court of public opinion, as represented by our current literature, mere ex-parte assumption will go to the wall, even though it has the better cause, while adroit error, intelligently put and courteously commended, will win the day. This is a lesson which the Christian Church greatly needs to learn. Mr.  Chatterji’s work is the more formidable for its charming graces of style. He has that same facility and elegance in the use of the English language for which so many of his countrymen, Sheshadri, Bose, Banergea, Chunder Sen, Mozoomdar, and others have been distinguished. He is a model of courtesy, and he seems sincere.

But turning from the translator to the book itself, we shall now inquire who was Krishna, Arjuna’s friend, what was the origin of the “Lord’s Lay,” and what are its real merits as compared with the New Testament?  Krishna and Arjuna—like Rama Chandra—were real human heroes who distinguished themselves in the wars of the Indo-Aryans with rival tribes who contested the dominion of Northern India. They did not live three thousand years before Christ, as our translator declares, for they belonged to the soldier caste, and according to the consensus of Oriental scholarship the system of caste did not exist till about the beginning of the Brahmanic period—say eight hundred years before Christ. Krishna was born in the Punjab, near Merut, and it was near there that his chief exploits were performed. The legends represent him as a genial but a reckless forester, brave on the battle-field, but leading a life of low indulgence. The secret of his power lay in his sympathy. His worship, even as a heroic demi-god, brought a new and welcome element into Hinduism as contrasted with the remorselessness of Siva or the cold indifference of Brahma. It was the dawn of a doctrine of faith, and in this character it was probably of later date than the rise of Buddhism. Indeed, the Brahmans learned this lesson of the value of Divine sympathy from the Buddha. The supernatural element ascribed to Krishna, as well as to Rama, was a growth, and had its origin in the jealousy of the Brahmans toward the warrior caste. His exaltation as the Supreme was an after-thought of the inventive Brahmans. As stated in a former lecture, these heroes had acquired great renown; and their exploits were the glory and delight of the dazzled populace. In raising them to the rank of deities, and as such appropriating them as kindred to the divine Brahmans, the shrewd priesthood saved the prestige of their caste and aggrandized their system by a fully developed doctrine of incarnations. Thus, by a growth of centuries, the Krishna cult finally crowned the Hindu system.

The Mahabharata, in which the Bhagavad Gita was incorporated by some author whose name is unknown, is an immense literary mosaic of two hundred and twenty thousand lines. It is heterogeneous, grotesque, inconsistent, and often contradictory—qualities which are scarcely considered blemishes in Hindu literature.

The Bhagavad Gita was incorporated as a part of this great epic probably as late as the second or third century of our era, and by that time Krishna had come to be regarded as divine, though his full and extravagant deification as the “Adorable One” probably did not appear till the author of “Narada Pancharata” of the eighth century had added whatever he thought the original author should have said five centuries before. As it now stands the poem very cleverly weaves into one fabric many lofty aphorisms borrowed from the Upanishads and the later philosophic schools, upon the groundwork of a popular story of which Arjuna is the hero. Arjuna and his four brothers are about to engage in a great battle with their cousins for the possession of an hereditary throne. The divine Krishna, once himself a hero, becomes Arjuna’s charioteer, that in that capacity he may act as his counsellor. As the battle array is formed, Arjuna is seized with misgivings at the thought of slaughtering his kindred for the glory of a sceptre. “I cannot—will not fight,” he says; “I seek not victory, I seek no kingdom; what shall we do with regal pomp and power? what with enjoyments, or with life itself, when we have slaughtered all our kindred here?”

Krishna then enters upon a long discourse upon the duties of caste and the indwelling of the Infinite, showing that the soul, which is a part of deity, cannot be slain though the body may be hewn to pieces. “The wise,” he says, “grieve not for the departed nor for those who yet survive. Never was the time when I was not, nor thou, nor yonder chiefs, and never shall be the time when all of us shall not be. As the embodied soul in this corporeal frame moves swiftly on through boyhood, youth, and age, so will it pass through other forms hereafter; be not grieved thereat.... As men abandon old and threadbare clothes to put on others new, so casts the embodied soul its worn-out frame to enter other forms.  No dart can pierce it; flame cannot consume it, water wet it not, nor scorching breezes dry it—indestructible, eternal, all-pervading, deathless.”[77]

It may seem absurd to Western minds that a long discourse, which constitutes a volume of intricate pantheistic philosophy, should be given to a great commander just at the moment when he is planning his attack and is absorbed with the most momentous responsibilities; it seems to us strangely inconsistent also to expatiate elaborately upon the merits of the Yoga philosophy, with its asceticism and its holy torpor, when the real aim is to arouse the soul to ardor for the hour of battle. But these infelicities are no obstacle to the Hindu mind, and the consistency of the plot is entirely secondary to the doctrine of caste and of philosophy which the author makes Krishna proclaim. Gentle as many of its precepts are, the Bhagavad Gita, or the “Lord’s Lay,” is a battle-song uttered by the Supreme Being while the contending hosts awaited the signal for fratricidal carnage.

The grotesqueness which characterizes all Hindu literature is not wanting in this story of Krishna and Arjuna, as given in the great poem of which the Bhagavad Gita forms a part. The five sons of Pandu are representatives of the principle of righteousness, while the hundred brothers of the rival branch are embodiments of evil. Yet, when the victory had been gained and the sceptre was given to the sons of Pandu, they despised it and courted death, though the “Adorable One” had urged them on to strife.

Bishma, the leader of the hostile force, in a personal encounter with Arjuna, had been filled so full of darts that he could neither stand nor lie down. Every part of his body was bristling with arrows, and for fifty-eight days he lingered, leaning on their sharp points. Meanwhile the eldest of the victors, finding his throne only a “delusion and a snare,” and being filled with remorse, was urged by Krishna to visit his unfortunate adversary and receive instruction and comfort. Bishma, lying upon his bed of spikes, edified him with a series of long and tedious discourses on pantheistic philosophy, after which he asked the tender-hearted Krishna for permission to depart. He is no longer the embodiment of evil: the cruel arrows with which the ideal of goodness had pierced him fall away, the top of his head opens, and his spirit soars to heaven shining like a meteor. How strange a reversal is here!  How strange that he who had been the representative of all evil should have been transformed by his suffering, and should have been made to instruct and comfort the man of success.

Mr. Chatterji falls into a fatal inconsistency when, in spite of his assumption that this poem is the very word of Krishna spoken at a particular time, in a particular place, he informs us that “all Indian authorities agree in pronouncing it to be the essence of all sacred writings. They call it an Upanishad—a term applied to the wisdom, as distinguished from the ceremonial, part of the Vedas, and to no book less sacred.” More accurately he might have said that it is a compend of all Hindu literatures, the traditional as well as the inspired, and with a much larger share of the former than of the latter. Pantheism, which is its quintessence, did not exist in the early Vedic times. Krishna was not known as a god even in the period of the Buddha.[78] And the Epics, which are so largely drawn upon, are later still. And it is upon the basis of the Epics, and the still later Puranas, that the common people of India still worship him as the god of good-fellowship and of lust.  The masses longed for a god of human sympathies, even though he were a Bacchus.

In the Bhagavad Gita as we now have it, with its many changes, Krishna has become the supreme God, though according to Lassen his actual worship as such was not rendered earlier than the sixth century; and Professor Banergea claims that it “was not at its zenith till the eighth century, and that it then borrowed much from Christian, or at least Hebrew, sources.” Webber and Lorinser have maintained a similar view. Krishna as the Supreme and Adorable One has never found favor except with the pantheists, and to this day the worship of the real Krishna as a Bacchus is the most popular of all Hindu festivals, and naturally it is the most demoralizing.

We are now prepared to assume that the pantheistic groundwork of the poem on the one hand, and its borrowed Christian conceptions and Christian nomenclature on the other, will explain its principal alleged parallels with the New Testament. With his great familiarity with our Bible, and his rare ability in adjusting shades of thought and expression, Mr. Chatterji has presented no less than two hundred and fourteen passages which he matches with texts from the Bible. Many of these are so adroitly worded that one not familiar with the peculiarities of Hindu philosophy might be stumbled by the comparisons.  Mr. R.C. Bose tells us that this poem has wrought much evil among the foreign population of India; and in this country there are thousands of even cultivated people with whom this new translation will have great influence. Men with unsettled minds who have turned away with contempt from the crudities of spiritualism, who are disgusted with the rough assailments of Ingersoll, and who find only homesickness and desolation on the bleak and wintry moor of agnostic science, may yet be attracted by a book which is so elevated and often sublime in its philosophy, and so chaste in its ethical precepts, and which, like Christianity, has bridged the awful chasm between unapproachable deity and our human conditions and wants by giving to the world a God-man.

If the original author and the various expositors of the Bhagavad Gita have not borrowed from the Christian revelation, they have rendered an undesigned tribute to the great Christian doctrine of a divine and human mediator: they have given striking evidence of a felt want in all humanity of a God with men. If it was a deeply conscious want of the human heart which led the heathen of distant India to grope their way from the cheerless service of remorseless deities to one who could be touched with a feeling of their infirmities, and could walk these earthly paths as a counsellor by their side, how striking is the analogy to essential Christian truth!

Let us examine some of the alleged parallels. They may be divided into three classes:

1. Those which are merely fanciful. Nine-tenths of the whole number are of this class. They are such as would never occur to a Hindu on hearing the gospel truth. Only one who had examined the two records in the keen search for parallels, and whose wish had been the father of his thought, would have seen any resemblance. I shall not occupy much time with these.

2. Those resemblances which are only accidental. It may be an accident of similar circumstances or similar causes; it may be a chance resemblance in the words employed, while there is no resemblance in the thoughts expressed.

3. Those coincidences which spring from natural causes. For an example of these, the closing chapter of the Apocalypse speaks of Christ as “the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End.” It is a natural expression to indicate his supreme power and glory as Creator and final Judge of all things. In a similar manner Krishna is made to say, “I am Beginning, Middle, End, Eternal Time, the Birth and the Death of all. I am the symbol A among the characters. I have created all things out of one portion of myself.” There are two meanings in Krishna’s words. He is in all things pantheistically, and he is the first and best of all things. In the tenth chapter he names with great particularity sixty-six classes of things in which he is always the first: the first of elephants, horses, trees, kings, heroes, etc. “Among letters I am the vowel A.” “Among seasons I am spring.” “Of the deceitful I am the dice.”

The late Dr. Mullens calls attention to the fact that the Orphic Hymns declare “Zeus to be the first and Zeus the last. Zeus is the head and Zeus the centre.” In these three similar forms of description one common principle of supremacy rules. The difference is that in the Christian revelation and in the Orphic Hymns there is dignity, while in Krishna’s discourse there is frivolous and vulgar particularity. Let us notice a few examples of the alleged parallels more particularly.

In Chapter IX. Krishna says: “Whatever thou doest, whatever thou eatest, whatever thou offerest in sacrifice, etc., commit that to me.” This is compared with 1 Corinthians x. 31: “Whether therefore ye eat or drink, or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God.” Also to Colossians x. 17: “Whatsoever ye do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus.”

Even if there were no pantheistic differential at the foundation of these utterances, it would not be at all strange if exhortations to an all-embracing devotion should thus in each case be made to cover all the daily acts of life. But aside from this there is a wide difference in the fundamental ideas which these passages express. Paul’s thought is that of loving devotion to an infinite Friend and Saviour; it is such an offering of loyalty and love as one conscious being can make to another and a higher. But Krishna identifies the giver with the receiver, and Arjuna is taught to regard the gift itself as an act of God. The phrase “commit that to me” is equivalent to “ascribe that to me.” In the context we read: “Of those men, who thinking of me in identity (with themselves), worship me, for them always resting in me, I bear the burden of acquisition and preservation of possessions. Even those the devotees of other gods, who worship in faith, they worship me in ignorance.” In other words, the worshipper is to make no difference between himself and the Infinite. He is to refer all his daily acts to the Infinite as the real actor, his own personal ego being ignored. This is not Paul’s idea; it is the very reverse of it. It could give comfort only to the evil-doer who desired to shift his personal responsibility.

Let us consider another alleged resemblance. In the fifth chapter Krishna declares that whoever knows him “attains rest.” This is presented as a parallel to the words in Christ’s prayer: “This is life eternal that they might know Thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom Thou hast sent.”

In both passages the knowledge of God is made the chief blessing to be sought, but in the one case knowledge means only a recognition of the Infinite Ego as existing in one’s personal ego: it is a mere acceptance of that philosophic theory of life. Thus one of the Upanishads declares that “whoever sees all things in God, and God in all things, sees the truth aright;” his philosophy is correct. On the other hand, what Christ meant was not the recognition of a pantheistic theory, but a real heart-knowledge of the Father’s character, a loving experience of his divine mercy, his fatherly love, his ineffable glory. The one was cold philosophy, the other was experience, fellowship, gratitude, filial love.

What pantheism taught was that God cannot be known practically—that He is without limitations or conditions that we can distinguish Him from our finiteness only by divesting our conception of Him of all that we are wont to predicate of ourselves. He is subject to no such limitations as good or evil. In Chapter IX., Krishna says: “As air existing in space goes everywhere and is unlimited, so are all things in me.... I am the Vedic rite, I am the sacrifice, I am food, I am sacred formula, I am immortality, I am also death; also the latent cause and the manifest effect.” To know the God of the Bhagavad Gita is to know that he cannot be known. “God is infinite in attributes,” says Mr. Chatterji, “and yet devoid of attributes. This is the God whom the Bhagavad Gita proclaims.”

By a similar contradiction the more the devout worshipper knows of God the less he knows, because the process of knowledge is a process of “effacement;” the closer the gradual union becomes the fainter is the self-personality, till at length it fades away entirely, and is merged and lost as a drop in the illimitable sea. This is the so-called “rest” which Krishna promises as the reward of knowing him. It is rest in the sense of extinction; it is death; while that which Christ promises is eternal Life with unending and rapturous activity, with ever-growing powers of fellowship and of love.

Take another alleged parallel. Chapter VI. commends the man who has reached such a measure of indifference that “his heart is even in regard to friends and to foes, to the righteous and to evil-doers;” and this is held up as a parallel to the Sermon on the Mount, which commends love to enemies that we may be children of the heavenly Father who sendeth rain upon the just and upon the unjust. In the one case the apathy of the ascetic, the extinction of susceptibility, the ignoring of moral distinctions, the crippling and deadening of our noblest powers; in the other the use of these powers in all ways of beneficence toward those who injure us, even as God, though his heart is by no means “even” as between the righteous and the wicked, stills shows kindness to both.  Now, in view of the great plausibility of the parallels which are thus presented to the public—parallels whose subtle fallacy the mass of readers are almost sure to overlook—one can hardly exaggerate the importance of thoroughly sifting the philosophy that underlies them, and especially on the part of those who are, or are to become, the defenders of the truth.[79]

But turning from particular parallels to a broader comparison, there is a general use of expressions in the New Testament in regard to which every Christian teacher should aim at clear views and careful discriminations; for example, when we are said to be “temples of the Holy Ghost,” or when Christ is said to be “formed in us the hope of glory,” or it is “no longer we that live, but Christ that liveth in us.” It cannot be denied that defenders of the Bhagavad Gita, and of the whole Indo-pantheistic philosophy, might make out a somewhat plausible case along these lines. I recall an instance in which an honored pastor had made such extravagant use of these New Testament expressions that some of his co-presbyters raised the question of a trial for pantheism.  But it is one thing to employ strong terms of devotional feeling, as is often done, especially in prayer, and quite another to frame theories and philosophies, and present them as accurate statements of truth. The New Testament nowhere speaks of the indwelling Spirit in such a sense as implies an obliteration or absorption of the conscious individual ego, while “effacement” instead of fellowship is a favorite expression in the Bhagavad Gita. Paul in his most ecstatic language never gives any hint of extinction, but, on the contrary, he magnifies the conception of a separate, conscious, ever-growing personality, living and rejoicing in Divine fellowship for evermore.

In the New Testament the expressions of our union with Christ are often reversed: instead of speaking of Christ as abiding in the hearts and lives of his people, they are sometimes said to abide in Him, and that not in the sense of absorption. Paul speaks of the “saints in Christ,” of his own “bonds in Christ,” of being “baptized in Christ,” of becoming “a new creature in Christ,” of true Christians as being one body in Christ, of their lives being “hid with Christ in God.” Believers are spoken of as being “buried with Christ,” “dead with Christ.” Every form of expression is used to represent fellowship, intimacy, spiritual union with Him, but always in a rational and practical sense, and with full implication of our distinct and separate personality. The essential hope of the Gospel is that those who believe in Christ shall never die, that even their mortal bodies shall be raised in his image, and that they shall be like Him and shall abide in his presence. On the other hand, “The essence of this pantheistic system,” says Mr. Chatterji, “is the denial of real existence to the individual spirit, and the insistance upon its true identity with God” (Chapter IV.).

It only remains to be said that, whatever may be the similarities of expression between this Bible of pantheism and that of Christianity, however they may agree in the utterance of worthy ethical maxims, that which most broadly differentiates the Christian faith from Hindu philosophy is the salient presentation of great fundamental truths which are found in the Word of God alone.

1. The doctrine that God in Christ is “made sin” for the redemption of sinful man—that He is “the end of the law for righteousness” for them that believe; this is indeed Divine help: this is salvation. Divinity does not here become the mere charioteer of human effort, for the purpose of coaching it in the duties of caste and prompting it to fight out its destiny by its own valor. Christ is our expiation, takes our place, for our sakes becomes poor that we through his poverty may become rich. What a boon to all fakirs and merit-makers of the world if they could feel that that law of righteousness which they are striving to work out by mortifications and self-tortures had been achieved for them by the Son of God, and that salvation is a free gift! This is something that can be apprehended alike by the philosopher and by the unlettered masses of men.

2. Another great truth found in our Scriptures is that the pathway by which the human soul returns to God is not the way of knowledge in the sense of philosophy, but the way of intelligent confidence and loving trust. “With the heart man believeth unto righteousness, and with the mouth confession is made.” Man by wisdom has never known God. This has been the vain effort of Hindu speculation for ages. The author of the Nyaya philosophy assumed that all evil springs from misapprehension, and that the remedy is to be found in correct methods of investigation, guided by skilfully arranged syllogisms. This has been in all ages the chief characteristic of speculative Hinduism. And the Bhagavad Gita furnishes one of its very best illustrations. Of its eighteen chapters, fifteen are devoted to “Eight Knowledge.” And by knowledge is meant abstract speculation. It is a reaching after oneness with the deity by introspection and metaphysical analysis.

“Even if thou wert the greatest evil-doer among all the unrighteous,” says Krishna, “thou shalt cross over all sins even by the ark of knowledge.” “Oh, Arjuna, as blazing fire reduces fuel to ashes, so the fire of knowledge turns all action into ashes.” But in the first place a knowledge of the infinite within us is unattainable, and in the second place it could not avail us even if attainable. It is not practical knowledge; it is not a belief unto righteousness. Faith is not an act of the brain merely, but of the whole moral nature. The wisdom of self must be laid aside, self-righteousness cast into the dust, the pride and rebellion of the will surrendered, and the whole man become as a little child. This is the way of knowledge that can be made experimental; this is the knowledge that is unto eternal life.

3. Another great differential of the New Testament is found in its true doctrine of divine co-operation with the human will. Our personality is not destroyed that the absolute may take its place, but the two act together. “For men of renunciation,” says the Bhagavad Gita, “whose hearts are at rest from desire and anger, and knowing the only self, there is on both sides of death effacement (of the individual) in the supreme spirit.” In such a person, therefore, even on this side of death, there is a cessation of the individual in the supreme. Over against this the Gospel presents the doctrine of co-operative grace, which instead of crippling our human energies arouses them to their highest and best exertion. “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God that worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure.” The divine acts with and through the human, but does not destroy it. It imparts the greatest encouragement, the truest inspiration.

4. We notice but one more out of many points of contrast between the doctrines of the Hindu and the Christian Bibles, viz., the difference between ascetic inaction and the life of Christian activity as means of religious growth. I am aware that in the earlier chapters of the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna urges Arjuna to valiant activity on the battle-field, but that is for a special purpose, viz., the establishment of caste distinctions. It is wholly foreign to Hindu philosophy; it is even contradictory. The author of the poem, who seems to be aware of the inconsistency of arousing Arjuna to the mighty activities of the battle-field, and at the same time indoctrinating him in the spirit of a dead and nerveless asceticism, struggles hard with the awkward task of bridging the illogical chasm with three chapters of mystification.

But we take the different chapters as they stand, and in their obvious meaning. “The man of meditation is superior to the man of action,” says Chapter I., 46, “therefore, Arjuna, become a man of meditation.” How the man of meditation is to proceed is told in Chapter VI., 10-14. “Let him who has attained to meditation always strive to reduce his heart to rest in the Supreme, dwelling in a secret place alone, with body and mind under control, devoid of expectation as well as of acceptance. Having placed in a clean spot one’s seat, firm, not very high nor very low, formed of the skins of animals, placed upon cloth and cusa grass upon that, sitting on that seat, strive for meditation, for the purification of the heart, making the mind one-pointed, and reducing to rest the action of the thinking principle as well as that of the senses and organs. Holding the body, neck, and head straight and unmoved, perfectly determined, and not working in any direction, but as if beholding the end of his own nose, with his heart in supreme peace, devoid of fear, with thought controlled and heart in me as the supreme goal, he remains.”

How different from all this is that prayer of Christ, “I pray not that Thou shouldst take them out of the world, but that Thou shouldst keep them from the evil.” Or those various words spoken to his disciples:

“Let your light so shine before men that others seeing your good works shall glorify your Father which is in heaven.” “Work while the day lasts, for the night cometh in which no man can work.”

Who can imagine Paul spending all those years of opportunity in sitting on a leopard skin, watching the end of his nose instead of turning the world upside down! In that true sense in which Christ lived within him, He filled every avenue of his being with the aggressive spirit of God’s own love for dying men. The same spirit which brought Christ from heaven to earth sent Paul out over the earth. He was not even content to work on old foundations, but regarding himself as under sentence of death he longed to make the most of his votive life, to bear the torch of the truth into all realms of darkness. He was none the less a philosopher because he preferred the simple logic of God’s love, nor did he hesitate to confront the philosophy of Athens or the threatenings of Roman tyrants. He was ready for chains and imprisonment, for perils of tempests or shipwreck, or robbers, or infuriate mobs, or death itself.

No Hindu fakir was ever more conscious of the struggle with inward corruption than he, and at times he could cry out, “Oh, wretched man that I am, who shall deliver me from the body of this death?” but he did not seek relief in idleness and inanity, but in what Dr. Chalmers called “the expulsive power of new affections,” in new measures of Christlike devotion to the cause of truth and humanity. In a word, Christ and his kingdom displaced the power of evil. He could do all things through Christ who strengthened him.

Nor was the peace which he felt and which he commended to others the peace of mere negative placidity and indifference. It was loving confidence and trust. “Be careful for nothing”—we hear him saying to his friends at Philippi—“be careful for nothing; but in all things by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, make known your requests unto God: and the peace of God, which passeth understanding, shall keep your minds and hearts through Christ Jesus.” And yet to show how this consists with devout activity, he commends, in immediate connection with it, the cultivation of every active virtue known to men. Thus, “Whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report, if there be any virtue, if there be any praise, think on these things.”


[Footnote 74: Houghton, Mifflin & Co., 1889.]

[Footnote 75: The author seems to overlook the fact that the chief excellence of an evangel to lost men is that it appeals to the masses.]

[Footnote 76: Address published in the Japan Mail, 1890.]

[Footnote 77: There is scarcely another passage in all Hindu literature which is so full of half-truths as this, or which turns the sublime powers of the human soul to so unworthy a purpose.]

[Footnote 78: In an enumeration of Hindu gods made in Buddha’s time Krishna does not appear.]

[Footnote 79: Never before has there been so much danger as now that the lines of truth will be washed out by the flood-tides of sentimental and semi Christian substitutes and makeshifts. As with commodities, so with religion, dilution and adulteration are the order of the day and a little Christianity is made to flavor a thousand shams.]




Original text by Frank F. Ellinwood [1891], edited and revised by Dainial MacÀdhaimh - this text © 2005.  Please note: all applicable material on this website is protected by law and may not be copied without express written permission. 

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