Night Owl Mk. II

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prefaced by (R) are those of the respondent and are presented unedited.

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NOTE: The following is the respondent's essay that was referred to at the end of Reply #39.

The Quest for Eternity: Hinduism vs. Christianity
World Religions

[Author's Name Withheld]
May 5, 1998

(R) Every religion seeks an ultimate goal, although the goal itself and the path to attain it may vary widely in clarity and definition. In Christianity, the Bible lists very decisive commandments to live by and instruction on attaining eternal life. Hindus have a similar system of guidelines found in the Mahharata and other ancient texts. Although the path and the destination are very similar in both religions, there are fundamental differences which lead one to question which is right, and whether the discrepancies are irreconcilable.
(MB) All societies have developed rules of acceptable behavior for themselves. This also serves to define the group's identity and establish a common bond between the members of the group. A key concept in any set of rules is "authority". Gods and promises of an afterlife or a higher plane of existence were essentially invented by the rulemakers in order to provide an ultimate authority to give the rules some clout and to compel the group members to follow them. Any set of rules that has no authority to back them up or enforce them will quickly degenerate into anarchy.

(R) The Hindu concept of the afterlife is perhaps much harder to grasp than the means of attaining it. Of course this could be said of any religion since the concept of life after death is very profound and perhaps beyond our scope of comprehension.
(MB) Medical science has conclusively determined that the visions (sometimes referred to as "Near-Death Experiences" or NDEs) which have inspired tales of the Great Beyond are actually produced by the body's natural reaction to extreme stress and trauma. Certainly, no ancient shepherd or cleric knew anything about polypeptides or endorphin receptors and had no other explanation for the visions or experiences. Since all people have nervous systems that are wired up in much the same way and since stress and trauma are common to us all, it should hardly be surprising that similar NDE reports come from people of all religions (as well as from those who are not religious).

(R) Basically, the goal of any Hindu is moksa, which is liberation from Samsara (Fowler 12). Samsara is a continuous cycle of rebirth, resulting from the karma one makes for one’s self. There are two parts to each person, aside from the physical part. Atman is that part of the self which is Brahman, and therefore is eternal and unchanging, Brahman being the Absolute, the Ultimate Reality, everything (10). The other part of the self is personality, which is always changing and not eternal, and is called jivatman (10).
    Through a person actions, he creates for himself karma. Karma is a result of the jivatman and is carried on into each successive life. The goal of a Hindu is to create no karma, which stems from selfish desires, thereby eliminating the jivatman and leaving only atman (Fowler 11). When only atman remains, the being is one with Brahman, in fact is Brahman, thereby achieving moksa in the form of eternal life, peace and enlightenment.
    The path to moksa is diverse and broad in the Hindu conceptualization. Since Hindus believe that every person has a different level of enlightenment, they see it as impossible for any one path to Brahmna to be right for more than one person (Fowler 8). There are some basic methods, though, by which Hindus try to attain enlightenment. The life of a Hindu is divided into four stages, called asramas. Beginning at the age of twelve, males are celibate and study scriptures. In the second period, the men take families and focus on their roles as husbands and fathers. During the third stage of life a man becomes celibate once again and retires, and finally enters the fourth stage by practicing renunciation and detachment from the world (25). Few Hindus follow this outline of life now but it sets forth a guideline by which one can come closer to moksa.
    In a less structured Hindu lifestyle, there are certain disciplines which should be worked at. The three disciplines are of the body, speech, and mind. Discipline of the body encompasses service and faithfulness to gods and others, as does speech by learning to speak truly and kindly and to study the scriptures. The third discipline, involving the mind, is a more internalized discipline wherein the person learns self-restraint and stillness (Gita 17:14). By mastering these three disciplines, especially the third, the practitioner can free himself from his binding karma.
    Another way to view spiritual growth in the quest for moksa is to gradually work toward enlightenment in steps. The first step is practice, wherein the Hindu practices love, self-control, service and truth, thus remaining very much a part of the physical world. However, this practice leads to a higher step of knowledge, as the Hindu learns the scriptures and learns from life, preparing him for the next stage of meditation. In meditation, a Hindu seeks to transcend knowledge, achieving a state above and beyond what can be known or experienced by knowledge or practice alone. Finally the Hindu practices detachment from the world, renouncing all lesser endeavors to achieve the ultimate enlightenment (Gita 12:12).
    Of course these four methods are essential to the four stages of life for a devout Hindu, and could not be possible without the three disciplines. If a person can successfully detach himself from the world, and live a life of good out of unselfish desires, he may successfully achieve moksa and his eternal soul, atman, will be united with Brahman. However, this process usually takes a very long time and may never come to pass, thereby continuing the cycle of Samsara, of birth and rebirth, until the end of this time.

(MB) I think that it would serve most people well to practice some of the disciplines of Hinduism -- whether or not it is to try to achieve any final unity with Brahman. Some forms of Eastern philosophy teach many similar things without involving so much of the supernatural.

(R) The Christian concept of eternal life may be easier to understand, but perhaps only because people have been so bold as to construct tehir own images and ideas of Heaven as a tangible place rather than an existence or state of being. A Christian who meets few essential conditions will live eternally through God, with God in Heaven.
(MB) One wonders just why it's even necessary for Man to live a mortal life at all. Why couldn't an all-powerful God just create a bunch of perfect souls right off the bat if he wants their company in Heaven?

(R) Unlike Hinduism, the quest for eternal life for a Christian does not stem from a desire to control the perceptions of the mind. the great diversity among Christian churches, like the many paths to Brahman, there are however a few stages or events that most Christians partake of to become a child of God and have their names forever written in the book of life, assuring their eternal existence after this life. The most widespread and perhaps most important is baptism. Baptism occurs anytime from birth to death, depending on the sect of Christianity or the desires of the baptized. Baptists, for instance, hold that only adults should be baptized for only an adult can make the conscious decision to be born anew under Jesus Christ (Fisher 312). However, most churches baptize infants, with the parents accepting a role to lead the child in a Christian life.
(MB) I realize that baptism is just a ceremony, but what exactly is supposed to be the penalty for an otherwise devout Christian who, through no fault of his own, was never baptized? It would seem to be unfair to punish such a person, but if baptism is supposed to be essential to gaining eternal life, there would be no hope for him.

(R) To make sure that the child does willingly make his own choice, many denominations offer confirmation, a process of religious study at the completion of which the person professes their faith and acceptance (Fisher 313).
(MB) The problem with confirmation is that it is given to children who are still too young to be able to do anything more than accept the teachings as read. How many 11-to-13 year old children are knowledgeable enough to question or challenge what the preacher is saying? This seems to refute the claim that confirmation ensures that the child makes a willing choice. It would seem to be more of a process of formal indoctrination into the religion's dogma given to those who are still impressionable and who are largely incapable of rational skepticism.

(R) Another essential for a Christian is the taking of communion, usually in the form of bread and wine, which represents the body and blood of Jesus Christ. Again, this practice varies widely from church to church, ranging from some churches taking communion every week to others which may only perform the ritual during religious holidays.
(MB) Again, I realize that this is only a ceremony and is steeped in symbolism, but I can't help wondering if the disciples at the Last Supper weren't a bit shocked at first. They were all Jews (they were observing Passover at the time) and would presumably have followed Jewish tradition and law more or less avidly. This would include honoring the law's prohibitions about drinking blood -- not to mention eating of the body of another person.

(R) Christians have guidelines to live by that are dictated by God and preserved in the Bible. However, straying from these guidelines does not exclude a person from Heaven, for a key concept of Christianity is that people cannot be perfect and will sin.
(MB) One wonders why an all-powerful and benevolent God would create people who were even capable of sin and then threatens the spectre of eternal damnation for those who act as he made them.

(R) The Ten Commandments are probably the best-known of God’s guidelines for life. The basic message of the commandments is that people chould love one another and do right by all mankind. Also included is man’s relationship with God, who must be the only god and must be loved and respected.
(MB) Why should an all-powerful God who is supposed to be the one-and-only have to command that "thou shalt have no other Gods before me"? That sounds more like he knows that there are others lurking about and that he wants his followers to make him #1 in return for gaining his favor. But, if there are others that could challenge him, he can't be all-powerful.

(R) In this light, it seems that Christianity would be very compatible with any other religion, like Hinduism, which maintains a belief, love and respect for a Supreme Being, creator of all, and upholds basic moral and ethical standards.
(MB) The compatibility is only on a very generic level. Once one gets into the actual specifics about particular Gods, the conflicts begin to accumulate and one must eventually make a choice between the competing versions.

(R) However, their is an essential component to Christianity that tends to exclude other religions. The Bible states over and over that “whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on him” (John 3:36). By this notion, any man, no matter how pious and compassionate, who does not observe Jesus of Nazareth to be the Son of God, Lord and Savior, shall be condemned to Hell. Of course, there is much debate within the Christian community to what extent this important doctrine extends. For instance, what of people to whom the Word of God and of Jesus Christ has never been revealed? One of the most popular answers to this is that God will know what is in their hearts. But if this is true, what of a deeply spiritual Hindu who has devoted his life to service to God and to his fellow men? Would God know his pure heart and accept it even if the man did not acknowledge Jesus of Nazareth as the Savior?
(MB) If God knows what is in our hearts, why even bother to go through with all of the rituals and ceremonies. Devotion to God either is or is not already present. If it's there, then the ceremony has no real meaning. If it's not, then going through with the ceremony is either futile or hypocritical. The purpose of the ceremony is not to gain favor in God's eyes. It is to gain favor in the eyes of one's peers here on Earth.

(R) I cannot pretend to know the answer to this essentially important question, for I cannot pretend to know what is in God’s heart and mind. However, I hope as a person of this physical, sinful world, that God wouldn not condemn people to Hell without the purpose of achieving a better end.
(MB) I find this to be a very unsatisfying answer. If we don't know the answers to these questions, it reduces the meaning of the ceremonies and the faith surrounding them to insignificance. If these questions are eternally important, we *must* have some idea of what we are doing and why we are doing it. Otherwise, they can hardly be compelling.

(R) If God condemns simply for punishment, than no good would come from the condemnation (deWolf 93). Instead of gradually bringing more of His creation to the moral and spiritual way of life, people would instead be eternally condemned for failing in one lifetime, in one try at understanding the Truth of life as we know it. How can this be in a world of a merciful, loving God, God the Father, God the Infinitely Compassionate? What truly loving father, however his children had wronged him, could ever completely reject or condemn them?
(MB) These are the questions that begin to raise doubts in the minds of rational thinkers. So long as there are no compelling answers to them, one can only begin to doubt their very underpinning -- that God actually exists at all. If the idea of his existence raises nothing but paradoxes and unanswerable questions, might it not be better to look elsewhere for enlightenment?

(R) But what of the Christian who upholds the beliefs of his religion, however hard to uphold, but does not renunciate the world but strives to work within it? From the Hindu viewpoint, this person’s attachment to life binds hime to it, condemning him to the cycle of samsara. However, I must say that the downside of the Hindu life is a thousand times more appealing than the Christian counterpart. But this very fact may win Christianity more support, for when it comes down to it, fear of an eternity burning in the pits of Hell is a much more compelling reason to accept Christianity than the “threat” of reincarnation is to become a Hindu.
(MB) This is a variation of the logical fallacy (most famously expressed in what has come to be known as "Pascal's Wager") that Christians accept God because they are afraid of the awful consequences that might befall them if they don't accept him. If there were no awful consequences to be suffered, would those same Christians accept God so readily? And, if they are primarily accepting him out of fear, isn't such acceptance rather hypocritical or self-serving instead of being completely honest and willing? Would God want that sort of devotion?

(R) But conversion to Christianity or Hinduism is not the deep question here: essentially it is a question of the Ultimate Truth. Which religion is right? Are they all right in their own way? Or are they all wrong, none having figured out the Truth and the Way yet? Or is one single religion, even one sect of one religion, the only one that is right, the only one whose followers will attain the peaceful eternity we all seek? Once again, I cannot answer such a question because I have not consciously experienced the afterlife (at least not that I can remember).
(MB) Again, I must say that I am extremely unsatisfied with this answer. One does not have to have experienced the afterlife to be able to examine the issues and questions associated with a given religion or belief system. The only way to determine which (if any) is right is to examine the evidence which supports the premises and teachings of each. But, since there has never been any independent evidence produced to support any of Man's religions or any notion of a realm of the supernatural, it is most logical to conclude that none of the competing stories is anything more than just a good story. There's no reason to believe that any of them have any more than a coincidental grounding in reality. In a way, this does make them all equal.

(R) But from studying religions like Hinduism and Christianity, I have observed many vital characteristics which transcend the differences. For instance, all of the world’s major religions have a belief in an existence higher and transcending anything we can understand, and believe in a basic moral and compassionate code for the treatment of our fellow men. The conclusion I rationally draw from these fundamental similarities is that there must be a higher Truth, and that perhaps all religions are a path to it, but none singly hold the keys to the gate.
(MB) Such a conclusion presupposes that there actually is any "higher Truth" and that our religions more or less accurately describe what it is. Unfortunately, there is nothing more than emotional satisfaction to support any such conclusion. It also presupposes that one cannot achieve any sort of transcendance or moral goodness without subscribing to religious and/or supernatural beliefs -- a view that would certainly conflict with various Eastern philosophies and secular belief systems. We shouldn't forget that truth is not defined in terms of the number of people who might believe something. We also must realize that ideas do not gain validity from being described as "beyond our understanding". If something is truly beyond our current level of understanding, that does not mean that any given claim about it must be taken seriously. It is better to honestly say "I don't know" than to blindly accept a spurious explanation.

(R) Works Cited
Bhagavad Gita. trans. Eknath Easwaran. Petaluma, CA: Nilgiri Press, 1985.
deWolf, L. Harold. Eternal Life: Why We Believe. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1980.
Fisher, Mary Pat. Living Religions. 3rd ed. Hong Kong: Prentice Hall, Inc., 1997.
Fowler, Jeaneane. Hinduism: Beliefs and Practices. Portland, OR: Sussex Academic Press, 1997.

(MB) Thanks for sending me your essay! I enjoyed reading it and the results of your research have improved my knowledge of Hinduism. Please accept my comments as some discussion intended to broaden the range of possible conclusions that can be reached on this subject. I'd be among the first to acknowledge that there are few cut-and-dried answers to many of the questions you have presented. I hope you received a decent grade for your work!

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