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What Is Man That You Remember Him?

by Br. John Martin

Inner Light

The biblical tradition teaches us that “God created humanity in his own image and likeness.” (Gen 1:27)

In Psalm 8:4-6 we read, "What is man that you should be mindful of him, and the son of man that you should care for him? Yet you have made him little less than God and have crowned him with glory and honor. You have given him dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under his feet."

This was applied to Jesus: "But we see Jesus, who for a little while was made lower than the angels, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone." (Heb 2:6-9)

There are two important things that the spiritual tradition of India has taught me: one is an infinite liberty in the search for truth. The second is that this search must begin with the question, ‘Who am I?’, and that we must not be satisfied by the answers given by the others.

The spiritual tradition of India does not put the question, ‘Who is God?’or ‘Where is God?’ or ‘Does God exist?’ but puts the question, ‘Who am I?’ This is the question of my true reality or true self. We can say that the predominant (though not exclusive) tendency of the Indian spiritual tradition is this search of a human being for its truth.

The sages retired into the forest to know their true self. This search of a human person for his or her self came to an end in the spiritual experience of the Upanishads.

The Upanishads are called ‘Vedanta’. Veda means knowledge, anta means the end. So Vedanta means the end of knowledge. The Upanishadic experience gives us the ultimate experience of man’s search for the truth. This discovery was a spiritual revolution.

This experience is very simple. I would like to quote from the Mandukya, shortest of the Upanishads.

The syllable OM is the whole Universe. This is the explanation: the past, the present and the future, all is this syllable OM. And also that which is beyond time is the syllable OM. Everything is Brahman; Atman is Brahman. This Atman has four levels of consciousness.

The first level of consciousness is called waking consciousness; the second level is called dreaming consciousness; the third level is called deep sleep consciousness; and the fourth state is called the state of Atman which is invisible, unreachable, imperceptible, unnamable, undefinable, unthinkable, indescribable. It is serenity and benevolence and absolutely non-dual; this is Atman, this must be known.

The language of the Upanishads is symbolic language, poetic language. One has to decode the symbolic language in order to find the message. Jesus used the symbolic language of parables. Symbolic language is not a definition but a description.

A definition is like a tomb or a cage. To define the truth is to kill the truth and put into a tomb like a dead body. But a description is like a nest which has no door, which protects one from the immensity of the sky but at the same time always points to the sky as one’s destiny -- rather than to remain in the nest until one’s death.

The syllable OM is God, who has two aspects: the immanent aspect, the manifestation which is the whole creation, and the transcendent aspect which is beyond time and space. The relation between the Transcendent and the Immanent is not explained, as in our Judaeo-Christian tradition, by saying that God created the universe from nothing and created humanity in his own image and likeness.

This latter theory appears to be a solution to the origin of creation and the relationship between God and creation; it is not liberating, however, but oppressive. It creates a gulf between God and humanity so that humanity and creatures always remain outside God without the possibility of uniting with God in a non-dualistic experience.

Human beings can come only to the level of having a beatific vision of God, or union with God, in such a way that God is in the person and the person is in God but always remains outside God. The theory of creation only shows the mysterious act of God in relation to the creation and the incapacity of the human mind to understand this act of God.

Cosmic Cross Shantivanam

In the photo, you can see a symbolic cosmic cross at our Saccidananda Ashram (Monastery of the Holy Trinity) in South India. It's made of stone and mounted on an inverted lotus, a Hindu symbol of purity and divine love.

In the center of this cosmic cross and circle is the Sanskrit inscription "OM" in this case representing Christ as the Divine Word, as Logos, or Shabda Brahman -- the soundless sound that echoes in all of creation.

This syllable OM is identified with Brahman. Brahman is God who is the foundation of the universe and also the universe as its manifestation.

Brahman is also identified with Atman. Atman is the foundation of human consciousness at the microcosmic level just as Brahman is the foundation of the universe at the macrocosmic level. But ultimately Brahman is Atman and Atman is Brahman. They are one and the same.

Thus the three words: OM, the eternal word, Brahman, the foundation of the universe, and Atman, the foundation of human consciousness, are identical.

When an Indian Christian reads this Upanishad he or she immediately remembers the Prologue of St. John, “In the beginning was the Word (OM?) and the Word was with God...”

To be with God means to be outside God, to be separate from God. It is a state of differentiation, of duality. “And the Word was God”, identical with God. The Word is identical with God and at the same time different from God.

The nature of Reality is nonduality and duality. Nonduality belongs to the ontological state of Reality while duality belongs to the functional or manifested state of Reality. This is the mystery of the relationship between God and creation: identical and different.

For our question, “Who is man?”, the upanishadic tradition put the question in this way: Which is my real ‘I’ where I can repose, where I can be at rest? The answer is clear and direct. My real ‘I’ is God, Brahman, Atman or OM.

This experience is communicated with the famous declaration, “I am Brahman,” “I am God.” To us Christians this expression appears to be a proud and presumptious one.

For the Upanishadic sage, however, this is a statement of great humility, in which a person dies within himself to all that is not God so that finally God only remains.

To affirm one’s existence is to create a reality outside God, and thus to create a duality. One recalls the words of Jesus, “He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life (for my sake) will find it.” (Mt 10:39) In order to find our true self who is God, we have to renounce our unreal self.

But to realize one’s true self, one must pass through various levels of experience. This Upanishad speaks of four levels.

The first level is the waking consciousness in which a person identifies with his or her body and lives in satisfying the physical desires and personal desires and the personal projects related to the external world.

The second level, dreaming consciousness, is not the physical dreaming that occurs during sleep, but dreams as ideas, as an ideal to which the person dedicates his life.

This ideal can be a material ideal, a political ideal, a scientific ideal, a philosophical or theological or religious ideal, or it may be a person. This state is called ‘luminous’ because within it one is attracted by an ideal or a charismatic person.

All of us have some ideals or models for our life. But from where did one choose these ideals or dreams? Naturally from the past, from the memory. We adopt an ideal which someone has left in the past, someone who has inspired people in the past.

Thus in the waking consciousness one is conditioned by the personal memory and personal ideals, and in the dreaming consciousness one is conditioned by the collective memory.

The third level of consciousness is called deep sleep consciousness. Again this is not physical sleep but psychological and spiritual. Here a person, realizing that his life is conditioned by the personal and collective memory, that he is not living his own life but trying to reproduce the memory that someone has left in the past, stops this movement of dreams.

In this deep sleep consciousness one is without dreams, without ideal, without visions, without any movement of the memory, only a profound silence. On this level, the human consciousness becomes a pure mirror where Brahman or Atman or OM, the eternal Word, reflects with all its splendor.

In this experience the human consciousness discovers its true foundation which is Brahman or Atman, and declares joyously that “I am Brahman, I am Atman, I am OM” or “My real ‘I’ is Brahman, Atman or OM.”

This realization is described as Samdhya which means ‘dawn’, where the darkness disappears and the sun rises. This is the movement of illumination, where the God of the past, the God of memory, is renounced and the God of eternity is encountered face to face for the first time in one’s life.

With the background of this Indian experience, when I read the experience of Jesus, I found a very profound and liberating message.

In the life of Jesus, as a human being, we can see various important moments. We can say that there are four important moments in his life.

The first is his conception in the womb of his physical mother, where Jesus receives his physical body. This physical mother conceives and gives birth.

The second moment of Jesus is his conception by his spiritual mother, which is his Hebrew spiritual tradition. This mother nourishes Jesus with her experience of the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob, the God of Moses and the God of David. In this way Jesus is not only a man but also a Hebrew, a Jew.

The predominant tendency of Hebrew tradition is the search of God for human beings. The Hebrew tradition did not search for God. It was God who called them and created them as his people. The predominant tendency of the Upanishadic tradition is the search of humanity for God. In the Upanishads God does not speak as he does in the Old Testament.

The experience of Jesus at his baptism, in my understanding, is the moment where these two experiences of God are united: where not only humanity finds God but also God finds humanity.

The baptismal experience of Jesus at the river Jordan is the third important moment in the life of Jesus, where his spiritual mother gives birth and the Eternal Mother, God, conceives.

For Jesus the moment of baptism is the moment when he leaves the dreaming consciousness, the God of memory, and enters into the deep sleep consciousness, and discovers his true foundation who is the Father and thus enters into the eternal womb of his Father or Mother, where he affirms that “I and the Father are one.”

But this eternal womb is not like the physical womb or the spiritual womb which need time between conception and delivery; it is an eternal womb which conceives and gives birth at the same time. But where does God deliver his Son? God delivers in the temple of this world. “You are my beloved Son, today I have begotten you -- or today I have given birth to you.”

To enter into the womb of God is to enter into the state of non-duality: “I and the Father are one.” But Jesus does not remain in the womb of God; he returns into the world of duality and establishes a relationship with the Father in which appears a relationship of duality: “I am in the Father and the Father in me;” “The Father is greater than I.”

This duality does not belong to the ontological level but only to the functional level. The ontological identity does not abolish the functional duality and the functional duality does not abolish the ontological nonduality. To be identical with God at the ontological level and to act dualistically at the phenomenological level in the world is the miracle of life.

In the Upanishadic tradition there appear to be some schools of thought an obsession with the ontological identity to the extent of denying any reality to the world and considering the creation as an illusion, Maya.

In the biblical tradition there seems to be an obsession with the functional duality to the extent of denying any place for the experience of ontological identity with God.

The theory of creation itself prohibits this possibility. In the experience of Jesus there appears to be a place for ontological identity (I and the Father are one) and for functional duality (I am in the Father and the Father is in me ... The Father is greater than I).

Jesus opens human consciousness from the level of being a creature to the level of entering into the womb of God and realizing oneself as identical with God.

This experience of Jesus, of being identical with God, is revolutionary in the Jewish tradition which has come to understand humanity as being created in the image and likeness of God.

For a Hebrew God is the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob. For Jesus, God is no longer the God of Abraham; God is his Father. This passage from the God of Abraham to God as his Father is a quantum jump.

Who is a human being according to the Indian tradition? The human being has two aspects: the transcendent aspect, where he or she is identical with God, and the immanent aspect where he or she is the manifestation of God, limited in time and space.

It may be better to put the question in another way: who is God? God has two aspects: one is transcendent and the other is immanent. To say who man is is also to say who God is. To ask “Who am I?” is also to ask “Who is God?”.

When an Indian Christian confronts the profound Indian tradition there arise very important and radical questions. In our Christian tradition we have limited the human person to being a creature of God, but created in the image and likeness of God. Human beings can have a beatific vision of God, they can participate in the nature of God, but they can never realize that they are one with God.

The Upanishadic tradition says: the human being is not a creature of God but a manifestation of God. To say that humanity is a manifestation of God is not to formulate a theory of creation but only to say that God and creation are inseparable. Humanity is not condemned for all eternity to be a creature but has the possibility of realizing its identity with God.

This does not mean that a human being becomes God. No human being can ever become God, but he or she realizes that there is only one God, only one Reality, and that in the foundation of his or her being he or she is identical with God. Who is a human being according to the experience of Jesus? According to Jesus’ experience, a human being is one with God (I and the Father are one).

In the Christian tradition this experience of identity with God is limited to Jesus, and the door to this experience of identity is closed to every Christian.

Thus a Christian remains always not only outside God but outside Christ. In the Christian tradition one speaks of ecclesiocentrism, christocentrism, theocentrism or the centrality of reality, but poor ‘anthropos’, man, takes second place. Anthropos or the human being is reduced to being at the service of the Church, at the service of Christ, at the service of God or at the service of Reality.

In reality, the Church is called to be at the service of ‘Anthropos’; in this way human being becomes ecclesio-anthropocentrism. Christocentrism must be at the service of humanity, helping human beings to reach God as the way, the truth and the life, so that it becomes Christo-anthropocentrism. We must remember the words of Jesus, who said: “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve.”

Finally, theocentrism should be at the service of humanity, to help humanity discover its Divinity. In this way it becomes theoanthropocentrism. When the upanishadic tradition speaks of theocentrism it also speaks of anthropocentrism, so we can call it theo-anthropocentrism.

The dignity of ‘Anthropos’ consists in realizing that in the foundation of his or her and Anthropos is Theos. This is the liberating message of the Upanishads.

We began by asking the question, “What is man that you care for him?” The response of the Hebrew and Christian tradition would be: God remembers man because he or she is the image and likeness of God (Gen 1:27).

The response of Jesus would be: God remembers me because in the foundation of my being I am identical with God. I and the Father are one. The response of the upanishadic tradition would be: God remembers me because in the foundation of my being I am identical with God. I am Brahman.

What response can a Christian give? A Christian is prohibited from giving the second or third answer, but is allowed only to give the first. What response can an Indian Christian give? I do not want to give an answer; let me conclude by saying that the heart of an Indian Christian suffers the conflict between the first and the second responses.


This article originally appeared in The Golden String (Bulletin of the Bede Griffiths Trust) Vol. 5 No. 2 Winter 1998-99 and Vol. 6 No. 1 Summer 1999.

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