"The secret of religion lies not in theories but in practice. To be good and do good - that is the whole of religion." - Swami Vivekananda














PRABUDDHA BHARATARole of Meditation in Hindu-Christian Dialogue  




            Inter-religious Dialogue



            Role of Meditation in Hindu-Christian Dialogue

            Prof. Arvind Sharma


     Dialogue among religions presupposes that there are differences among religious traditions which need to be discussed. Thus the word 'dialogue' in an interfaith context possesses a special meaning, for in its ordinary meaning a dialogue is 'a conversation between two or more persons', which may or may not involve a discussion of differences. In an interfaith context, however, the term dialogue acquires the meaning of 'a discussion between representatives of parties to conflict that is aimed at resolution', and this is how we shall understand it for the rest of this essay. Conflict, whether we take the word in a weak sense or a strong sense, involves differences and some scholars have proposed that from such a perspective 'we may distinguish three aspects of this question: differences in modes of experiencing divine reality; differences of philosophical and theological theory concerning that reality or the implications of religious experience; and differences in the key or revelatory experiences that unify a stream of religious life'. (1)

     But while it may be argued that in these areas it is the differences among religions which stand out, there are at least two areas in which the similarities among religions are relatively more striking: those of morality and spiritual practice. It has often been pointed out, for instance, that the golden rule is found in some form or another among all the religions of the world. In fact a state in the USA recently even proclaimed itself as the golden rule state.

     In terms of spiritual practice, meditation, in some form or other, seems to find a place in all religious traditions. When we then decide to focus on the role of meditation in Hindu-Christian dialogue, we move into an area where the traditions are likely to display at least some broad similarities by virtue of the fact that meditational practices are common to all religions.



     However, the fact that meditational practices may be common to all religions - including Hinduism and Christianity - does not mean that they have to be the same. They could well reflect patterns of both similarities and differences and it is often their simultaneous presence which makes the comparative study of religious traditions such an intellectual adventure.

     I have found the use of two sets of expressions in the description of Christian and Hindu meditations of particular interest in such a context. In the case of Christianity this pair consists of the words meditation and contemplation.

     The words can of course be used interchangeably and even confusedly but it has been proposed that

a working distinction between the two terms can be suggested. Meditation is considered preparatory and contributory to the achievement of contemplation. Meditation involves concentration, the narrowing of the focus of consciousness to a single theme, symbol, catechism, or doctrine, yet it remains cognitive and intellectual. Meditation is usually rumination on a particular religious subject, while contemplation is a direct intuitive seeing, using spiritual faculties beyond discursive thought and ratiocination. (2)

     In this context the statement of a Christian theologian of the twelfth century, Richard of Saint-Victor, is sometimes cited which runs as follows: 'Meditation investigates, contemplation wonders.' (Ibid.) One wonders to what degree the distinction corresponds to that between dhyana and samadhi in Hinduism.

     One notices that in the above discussion contemplation is accorded a somewhat higher place than meditation, which is confirmed by the observation made by Frederic B Underwood, that 'frequently, contemplation is itself a spiritual state, and serves as the end of an ascetic quest'. (Ibid.) He goes on to add that 'particularly in the monotheistic traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam this state is sometimes considered tantamount to the beatific vision bestowed upon the individual through the grace of God'. (Ibid.)

     A well-known distinction in Christian mysticism between the apophatic and the cataphatic, if injected into this discussion, gives it more substance. As many of you might well be aware, these expressions refer to the way we might proceed to describe a spiritual reality - by negation, that is, in the apophatic manner, and by assertion, that is, in the cataphatic manner. A broad analogy is provided by the descriptions of Brahman in the Upanishads which are sometimes couched in a negative mode as in the famous neti neti; and sometimes couched in a positive mode, as in satyam jnanam anantam brahma. But to revert to our discussion of meditation and contemplation, it is worth noting that 'meditation leading to contemplation can be apophatic. Involved here is an emptying procedure in which the individual systematically removes from consciousness any content that is not the object of his quest. In Christian mysticism, this type of path is referred to as the via negativa; it is also an important technique in Buddhism.' (325)

     If we now combine this paired distinction of apophatic-cataphatic with that other pair of meditation and contemplation, then one obtains a result such as the following: 'Apophatic forms of meditation tend to be more speculative, cognitive, and intellectual, at least in their early stages. They tend to be centred in the mind. Cataphatic forms of meditation and contemplation, on the other hand, tend to be more emotional and devotional. They tend to be centred in the heart.' (Ibid.)


     I would like to propose that a distinction may be drawn, within Hinduism, between concentration and meditation in a way which parallels the Christian distinction between meditation and contemplation. But I shall be using these English words in a somewhat special way in doing so - to make them fit the Hindu reality, as it were. To understand the basis of this distinction one must appeal to what Hinduism sees as the fundamental goal of spirituality - namely, to free the mind of all thoughts. It is true that at the end of the road we shall have to face the question: Is the mind to be emptied of all thoughts altogether, or is it to be emptied of all irrelevant thoughts? We shall cross that bridge when we come to it. It is clear that initially at least the task is to rid the mind of unwanted thoughts. In other words, we want to clean up the mind, which at the moment is like a dirty room.

     The way we actually clean a dirty room offers a good example of the point one wishes to make. In order to clean a dirty room we essentially follow a twofold procedure. We collect the dirt lying around into a pile, or in several piles. Then, once the dirt has been thus collected, we carry it out of the room. The crucial point to bear in mind here is that we do not carry the dirt out one speck of dust at a time. We first collect all of it in a heap and then carry it out.

     Similarly, when we wish to empty the mind of thoughts we do not proceed by trying to eject one thought at a time. We begin by heaping up all our thoughts, by piling them up and this process is called concentration. At the moment our mind is like a room with dust spread all over it. So first we put it all together, that is to say, we try to achieve a state of consciousness in which there is only one thought in our mind. This is concentration. Once the mind is concentrated we also try to get rid of that one thought. This process I call meditation. So concentration consists of bringing all thoughts on one point and meditation consists of finally getting rid of this point also.

     It is here that the fact that Hinduism, unlike Christianity, is both theistic and non- theistic becomes important. For in Christianity, by and large, one always retains God as a point of awareness so that getting rid of all thoughts becomes problematic. In Hinduism, however, the development of the doctrine of nirguna brahman allows the mind to be emptied of all thoughts including that of God.

     What this means is that the distinction drawn in Christian mysticism between the apophatic and the cataphatic approaches can also be applied to Hinduism, but in a manner somewhat different from Christianity. The following point might help clarify the situation. In Hinduism the category of Brahman can be subdivided into that of nirguna and saguna, and that of saguna Brahman or Ishvara can be further subdivided into nirakara and sakara. So Brahman may be without attributes (nirguna) or with attributes (saguna), and then, Brahman with attributes may be described as without form (nirakara) or with form (sakara). The expression nirguna bhakti refers to devotion to such a formless understanding of God. Thus the apophatic and the cataphatic approaches, in principle, can be applied at both the levels, that of Brahman and that of Ishvara. The identification of this double-decker possibility in the use of the apophatic and the cataphatic approaches could be seen as one hermeneutical spin-off of Hindu-Christian dialogue.


     I would now, in this final section, explore another possibility. This possibility is rooted in the fact that all religions exhort us to eschew our ego in one way or another if we are going to obtain the ultimate spiritual fruit offered by that tradition. Judaism emphasizes that life must be lived not in accordance with the whims of our ego but in accordance with divine law; Christianity emphasizes the need to dissolve our ego in the love of Christ or God; Islam by its very name calls upon us to surrender to the will of God; the various yogas of Hinduism are really various techniques of ego-transcendence; Buddhism attacks it by questioning its very existence; Confucianism wants it to be transformed from a self-regarding to an other-regarding entity; and Taoism would like to take its sting away by bringing it in harmony with the cosmos.

     So in one way or another, doing away with our mundane empirical ego in some way is on the agenda of all of the world's religions. This point becomes significant for our present discussion when it is proposed that 'the experience of ultimate reality takes different forms according to the form taken by the death of the ego'. (3) This suggestion, made by the Japanese Buddhist thinker, Professor Masao Abe, is worth examining in our context. For what we described as the getting rid of thoughts could as well as be described as getting rid of the ego - because the ego represents the primal 'I' thought. This empirical ego can be neutralized in various ways through spiritual practice; it can be put in its proper place, as it were, by aligning it with God through Christian meditation and contemplation, or its true nature could be radically tested through Hindu concentration and meditation. If one's obsession with the flickering candle of last night is coming in the way of welcoming the dawn which is breaking, then one could either just blow it out or watch the light of the candle be overwhelmed by the light of the morning sun. In the new brightness it is irrelevant whether the candle may be said to be still alight or should be deemed to have burnt itself out at any point. We would probably not even be bothered by the question in the new light which bathes the whole world. ~


     1. John H Hick, Philosophy of Religion (New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1990), 115.
     2. Frederic B Underwood, 'Meditation' in The Encyclopedia of Religion, ed. Mircea Eliade (New York: Macmillan, 1987), 9.325.
     3. See John Hick, An Autobiography (Oxford: Oneworld, 2002), 281.



International Yoga Day 21 June 2015
International Yoga Day 21 June 2015









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