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by Ernest Valea

The goal of this site is to investigate whether or not there is sufficient evidence to prove
that world religions are complementary and equally true,
according to the model inspired by an old Indian tale - that
of the blind men who tried to describe an elephant. It is
said that once upon a time a king gathered a few men who
were born blind. They were asked to describe an elephant,
but each one was presented with only a certain part of it.
To one was presented the head of the elephant, to another
the trunk, to another its ears, to another the leg, the body,
the tail, tuft of the tail, etc. The one who was presented
with the head said: "The elephant is like a pot!" The one
who was presented the trunk answered, "The elephant is
like a hose". The one who touched only the ears thought
that the elephant was a fan, the others said that it was a pillar, a wall, a rope, a brush, etc.
Then they quarreled among themselves, each thinking that he was the only one right and
the others were wrong. The obvious truth is that the elephant is a unity of many parts, a
unity that they could not grasp in their ignorance.

According to the pattern suggested by this tale, it is

often said that world religions form a unity, and only
this unity provides the right perspective on ultimate
truth. A similar syncretistic trend is encouraged by the
suggestion to consider the various world religions as
alternative paths to the same transcendental finality or,
using a known illustration, many paths to the same
mountain peak. Although this vision is arousing a lot
of enthusiasm in many people today, it is important to
know that it is not the only one, as Christianity and
Islam each claim to be the only right path to God.
Therefore the other option is that world religions are not pieces of the same puzzle (parts of
the same spiritual "elephant") or alternative paths to the same goal.

Judging theoretically, both possibilities exist. Therefore, a proper evaluation of such

opposite views must be done before we decide on a course of action. If the first is true (all
religions lead us to the same finality), and we choose the second (only one of them is
right), we have not lost anything. Despite our ignorance, we will arrive at the same happy
end as the other travelers who have chosen other spiritual paths. A less happy situation
would be given by the second possibility, that a single spiritual path is valid and we have
chosen the wrong one. In this case religious syncretism is only a way of misleading the
travelers to spiritual disaster, so they at least should be warned. A third possibility, that all
spiritual paths are wrong, is denied by the nature of our spiritual quest itself, which
demands a real fulfillment. Otherwise, our hunger for ultimate truth could not be justified
and all religions would be nothing but human fantasy.

The following articles are not meant merely to generate a conflict of rational proofs for
justifying one or another alternative. No matter how complex and logical the rational
proofs on behalf of one or the other cause might be, it is possible to find counterpoints of
the same nature, so that at a rational level, the dispute could fill a lot of books with no
benefit to anyone. Nobody can be persuaded or converted to one or another religious
perspective only through rational proofs. This may be possible in science, but not in
religion. However, rational proofs have to be considered because we are rational beings.
Reason should not be rejected and experience proclaimed the only way of knowing truth.
No divorce between reason and experience should be accepted, because they are
complementary and work together, so that neither can exclude the other. As a result, we do
not have to reject a priori the proofs of reason in our spiritual quest in order to abandon
ourselves to the arms of mystical experiences, whatever their nature might be.

Rather than generating sterile debates, the information presented here should help you
clarify your own stand toward comparative religion and develop a critical ability to analyze
today's spiritual market. Suggestions, comments and critiques are strongly encouraged,
with the hope that they will improve the content of this site. Please make them as specific
and clear as possible.

The comparative analysis presented here is focused on Christianity and the major Eastern
religions, especially Hinduism and Buddhism, because they play a major role in defining
today's world spirituality. This is an obvious phenomenon on the Internet too, where a lot
of spiritual movements indebted to classic Eastern doctrines and practices can be found.
Some may believe that a comparative analysis of the major world religions like this may
fuel religious hatred and intolerance, but this is wrong. Religious tolerance and freedom
cannot be built on ignorance but rather on the understanding of commonalities and
differences. Jesus Christ is the perfect example of teaching love for one's neighbor despite
religious differences (see The Parable of the Good Samaritan). Unfortunately, some of His
followers did the opposite. Loving the person is possible even if one rejects his or her
religious convictions.

The Christian approach will be done on an ecumenical basis, grounded on The Nicene-
Constantinopolitan Creed as statement of faith, which is common to all three branches of
Christianity - Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy and Protestantism. The Holy Bible
(NIV ecumenical translation) is acknowledged as the first doctrinal authority, and second
the doctrinal commentaries of the Church Fathers of the first centuries AD, as far as they
are accepted by each of the three branches of Christianity.
The analysis will survey a comparison of the following defining aspects of all world

Each world religion admits an Ultimate Reality that is eternal and unchanging. But is it the
same? If the world religions are only parts of a global and unique spirituality, it should be
the same.

There are three fundamental ways in which Ultimate Reality is defined: personal being (a
personal and loving God), impersonal being (as origin and target of all personal beings) or
an eternal truth or principle that governs the universe. Are these three possibilities mere
manifestations of the same Ultimate Reality?


The Ultimate Reality in Hinduism

Hinduism is not a unitary religion, but a multitude of religious and philosophical trends.
Three main patterns can be identified among them. First, there is henotheism, the religion
of the ancient Vedas and later Vaishnavism and Shaivism, which states that many gods
exist, but one of them is more important than the others. Second, there is pantheism, the
perspective brought by the Upanishads and later Vedanta, which considers Ultimate Reality
to be an impersonal transcendent being. Third, there are the Samkhya and the Yoga
darshana of Patanjali that admit two ultimate realities. Let's briefly describe them following
an approximate chronological order.

The Vedic gods

The oldest sacred scriptures of Hinduism are the four Vedas (Rig, Sama, Yajur, and
Atharva Veda). They are four collections of hymns (Samhita) describing deities, their
works and the praises that must be addressed to them in religious rituals. Each of the four
collections of Vedic hymns is associated with three other kinds of Vedic literature - the
Brahmanas, the Aranyakas and the Upanishads. Together they represent the most sacred
religious literature (Shruti) of Hinduism. (NB: Remember that throughout the content of
this website by “Vedas” we mean only the four collections of hymns, and not the whole
corpus of Vedic literature.)

The hymns of the oldest Veda, the Rig Veda, are almost all praises addressed to gods. The
ancient Aryans worshipped many gods, associated with the elements of nature, among
which we can discern at least two important generations. The oldest supreme god,
according to the Vedas, seems to be Varuna, the sustainer of creation and guardian of
universal order. A hymn in the Atharva Veda proclaims:
This earth belongs to Varuna, the King,
and the heavens, whose ends are far apart.
Both the oceans are the loins of Varuna,
and He is merged within the small water drop.

If one will go away beyond the heavens,

still he cannot escape King Varuna;
His envoys move about here from the heavens,
and, thousand-eyed, they look upon the earth. (Atharva Veda 4,16,3-4)

A second generation of Vedic gods has Indra as the most important representative. He takes
over all the functions of Varuna after saving mankind from demon Vritra's influence, the
embodiment of the rough aspects of nature. Vritra had locked the waters in the sky, which
caused a catastrophic drought on earth. At humans' demand, Indra consumed a large
quantity of ritual drink (soma), took the lightning (vajra) shaped by god Tvashtri and, with
the help of other gods, killed the demon and brought back the rain on earth (Rig Veda
10,113). That is why he is praised in the hymns:

Adorable Indra, our savior,

Vritra-slayer and furtherer of our highest aims,
May he be our protector from the end,
from the middle, from behind, and from in front.

Lead us to a free world, wise one,

where lie divine luster, sunlight, and security.
Valiant are the arms of thee, the powerful;
we will take to their vast shelter. (Atharva Veda 19,15,1-2)

It is important to notice that although Indra takes over the role of fertility god from Varuna,
he fulfills it with much more effort than his predecessor does. Indra depends on the ritual
drink soma, and consequently on the sacrifices done by people (which represents a
weakness), and has to fight in order to maintain the universal order. His sovereignty over
the world is not so striking as it was with Varuna. On the other hand, people appreciate him
more than Varuna. They didn't understand Varuna's ways, but can influence Indra through
the sacrifices and therefore get the earthly blessings they seek. Once proclaimed sovereign
Lord, Indra takes over the title of maker of the universe, which he doesn't create, but
rearranges after his conquest.

Two other gods of this generation, with less important roles in the Vedas, but which will
play major roles in later theistic Hinduism, are Rudra (forerunner of Shiva) and Vishnu.
Rudra has a dual aspect; on the one hand he is monstrous, murderous and savage; on the
other hand he is benevolent, divine healer and protector of cowherds. Vishnu, too, has a
minor role in the Vedas, being just one of Indra's helpers in his combat against Vritra and in
building the universe. At the same time, he is an intermediary between gods and people, a
role that will certainly develop in his later special position.
Along with praising the gods, there are passages in the Vedas that suggest another kind of
Ultimate Reality of the universe, beyond the gods we mentioned. One of the most important
Hindu cosmogonies is that of the golden egg (Hiranyagarbha), an entity that was the source
of all existing beings and worlds:

At first was neither Being nor Nonbeing.

There was not air nor yet sky beyond.
What was its wrapping? Where? In whose protection?
Was Water there, unfathomable and deep?

There was no death then, nor yet deathlessness;

Of night or day there was not any sign.
The One breathed without breath, by its own impulse.
Other than that was nothing else at all.

Darkness was there, all wrapped around by darkness,

And all was Water indiscriminate. Then
That which was hidden by the void, that One, emerging,
Stirring, through the power of ardor (tapas), came to be. (Rig Veda 10,129)

There are two important aspects to be noticed here: 1) primordial water produced the One;
and 2) the whole process was realized by the power of ardor (tapas). This idea is very
important because it opens the way towards the notion of One (a primordial matrix that
encapsulates all existence) and also toward asceticism, seen as a cosmic creative energy
through which the unmanifested becomes manifested. Another important element is the
preexistence of an impersonal reality (the One) against personal beings. Gods and men are
said to have their origin in this primordial impersonal entity.

Considering an impersonal Ultimate Reality above the gods is a pattern that will dominate
most Hindu religious elaboration. The cosmogony of the golden egg is continued in the
Brahmana texts in a similar fashion as in the Rig Veda, adding the appearance of a Creator
(Prajapati) from the golden egg (Shatapatha Br. 11,1,6). The same way as the golden egg
appears as a result of ardor, this Prajapati created the world using the power released by his
ardor. His words are fulfilled as a result of ardor and the material out of which he builds the
universe is his own body.

A similar view is presented in the Purushasukta hymn (Rig Veda 10,90), that can be found
in a similar version in the Atharva Veda (19,6) and in the Taittiriya Aranyaka (3,12).
According to this hymn, the product of the golden egg is the giant Purusha. By his
consuming himself in the fire of creation all of the worlds came into existence, including
our physical world, the four-caste system, the animals and the duality of the sexes. There is
no doubt that Purusha and Prajapati are equivalent, both being produced out of that
impersonal One of the Rig Veda 10,129. This passing from a personal Ultimate Reality
(represented by the gods) to an impersonal One is an important feature of early Hinduism
that will have major implications for later developments.
The Ultimate Reality according to the Upanishads and Vedanta philosophy
Already in the Brahmana writings (Shatapatha Brahmana 6,1,1) it is stated that the whole
universe has its origin in non-existence (asat), meaning that existence must be the product
of manifestation of some unmanifested potentialities. This topic is made clear in the
Upanishads, which claim that the origin of any manifestation is Brahman, the One of the
Vedic hymns:

As the spider moves along the thread, as small sparks come forth from the fire, even so
from this Self [Brahman] come forth all breaths, all worlds, all divinities, all beings.
(Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 2,1,20)

According to the Upanishads, the Ultimate Reality is Brahman. It (neuter gender) is at the
origin of any physical, moral or spiritual activity (see also Brihadaranyaka Up. 4, 1-2;
Chandogya Up. 3,18,1-6; Taittiriya Up. 2,6; 3,1). Paradoxically, Brahman has two aspects:
immanent, or manifested, and transcendent, or unmanifested. For a better understanding of
this concept, we can compare it to the "Big Bang" theory on the origin of the universe. The
point of infinite mass out of which all celestial bodies is said to have originated, according
to the astronomic theory, has its ideological correspondence with the unmanifested
Brahman of Hindu cosmogony. However, in the manifestation of Brahman, the product is
not only matter, but also living beings, gods and humans. The cause of the manifestation
process is Brahman's desire to be multiplied: “Let me become many, let me be born”
(Taittiriya Up. 2,6,1). (However, in a pantheistic context, this is a strange and contradictory
idea, because the impersonal being cannot have desires. Probably a more accurate term
would have been that of necessity of becoming manifested.) After the manifestation is
completed, all its products tend to return to the initial state of unmanifestation, evolving
from one level of manifestation to another. Then another manifestation will occur:

As from a blazing fire, sparks of like form issue forth by thousands, even so, O beloved,
many kinds of beings issue forth from the immutable and they return thither too. (Mundaka
Up. 2,1,1)

Similar to the day and night cycle, the transformation of Brahman between the manifested
state and the unmanifested one is everlasting (Kaushitaki Up. 3,3).

The philosophical system (darshana) that follows the pantheistic teachings of the
Upanishads is called Vedanta. The most important organizers are Badarayana (4th century
AD) and Shankara (9th century AD), the one who conferred to it a pure monistic character
as Advaita Vedanta - "the Vedanta of pure monism".

Shankara's vision of the relation of the Absolute with the phenomenal world is reflected in
an old Hindu parable, that of the rope mistakenly perceived in the dark as a snake. As the
coiled rope in the dark is thought to be a snake, the same way the empirical world is
mistakenly considered to have a distinct existence, independent to the Absolute, through the
illusion (maya) produced by ignorance (avidya). As only the rope exists, not the snake, only
Brahman has a real existence (sat) and is the true reality. The phenomenal world is real
only if perceived as Brahman, as the "reality" of the snake's existence lays in the substratum
that produced the confusion, namely the rope. The plurality of the phenomenal world is an
illusion (maya), a veil that has to be put aside in order to perceive Brahman. The universe is
not unreal, but has the same value as the snake in the parable - it produces confusion and
causes man to pursue a wrong spiritual direction. All that goes beyond this vision of the
world is illusion, produced by ignorance.

Shankara tried to settle the relation of the Absolute Brahman (Nirguna Brahman - the One
without any definable characteristics) with the origin of the world by proclaiming two
distinct points of view: the absolute (paramarthika) and the relative (vyavaharika). In an
absolute sense, Brahman is above any duality and external relation; nothing real exists
outside him. But from our empirical and relative point of view, Brahman is the cause of the
universe we know. In fact there is no real causality; the world is only an illusory sight of
Brahman, as with the rope seen as a snake. Brahman's activity in the world and among
human beings is nothing but lila, divine play. In conclusion, the Vedanta of Shankara is
somehow different from Upanishadic philosophy; the universe is only a phenomenal
appearance (vivarta-vada) of Brahman and not his transformation (parinama-vada). From a
substantial manifestation, the universe becomes only a dream (or self-forgetting) of

The gods of theistic Hinduism

According to the pantheistic view of the Upanishads and Vedanta, the gods are merely
inferior manifestations of the supreme impersonal Brahman. However, they continued to
play an important role for the average Hindu. The gods that are worshipped today are not
the same as in Vedic times. The most important ones became Vishnu and his avatars
(especially Rama and Krishna), Shiva and the goddess Kali.

Here is what is said in Vaishnavism about the relation between Brahman and Vishnu:

Just as light is diffused from a fire which is confined to one spot, so is this whole universe
the diffused energy of the supreme Brahman. And as light shows a difference, greater or
less, according to its nearness or distance from the fire, so is there a variation in the energy
of the impersonal Brahman. Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva are his chief energies. The deities
are inferior to them; the yakshas, etc. to the deities; men, cattle, wild animals, birds, and
reptiles to the yakshas, etc.; and trees and plants are the lowest of all these energies....

Vishnu is the highest and most immediate of all the energies of Brahman, the embodied
Brahman, formed of the whole Brahman. On him this entire universe is woven and
interwoven: from him is the world, and the world is in him; and he is the whole universe.
Vishnu, the Lord, consisting of what is perishable as well as what is imperishable, sustains
everything, both Spirit and Matter, in the form of his ornaments and weapons. (Vishnu
Purana 1)

Some pantheist thinkers consider that devotion is nothing but an easier path to the same
impersonal union with the impersonal Ultimate Reality. According to them, devotion can
serve to attain the extinction of personhood, the main source of illusion (maya). As the
adored god is nothing but a form of Brahman, the mystical union with him would be, in this
case, nothing more than the same impersonal fusion atman-Brahman. However, the theistic
Hindu thinkers strongly disagree with this. They see the personal creator God (Vishnu in
Vaishnavism or Shiva in Saivism) as having no preceding origin. Consequently, the One of
the Rig Veda, Purusha of the Purushasukta, and Brahman of the Upanishads are considered
nothing but the supreme personal God (Vishnu or Shiva). He is both the creator and the
substance of the world (as a result of creating the world out of himself), the One that both
creates and disintegrates the world at will, and the target of all religious rituals and

The best known piece of literature representative of Hindu theism is the Bhagavad Gita,
where the worshipped god is Krishna, the eighth avatar of Vishnu. Although in classic
Hinduism Krishna is a manifestation of Vishnu, and Vishnu himself is one of the first
manifestations of Brahman (along with Brahma and Shiva), in the Bhagavad Gita Krishna
is granted a fundamental theological importance. He claims to be eternal (4,6), “the
supreme Lord of all planets and demigods” (5,29) and the source of existence: “I am the
source of all spiritual and material worlds. Everything emanates from me” (10,8). He is not
only the creator but also the substance of the universe (9,16-19; 8,4; 10,20-42). The cycle
of permanent transformation between the manifested state and the unmanifested one is
characteristic for Krishna too, as it was with Brahman:

At the end of an era (kalpa) all creatures disintegrate into my nature and at the beginning of
another era I manifest them again. Such it is my nature (prakriti) to follow again and again
the pattern of the Infinite manifestations and disintegrations. (Bhagavad Gita 9,7-8)

Krishna has to "follow the pattern of the Infinite manifestations and disintegrations", which
implies that the process is a necessity that surpasses him. He is just a detached (but also
helpless) spectator to it. Therefore it is hard to accept his dominion over creation along with
the periodic manifestation of nature (prakriti). Rather, we should conclude that the creation
of the world is not an option for him, but a necessity at the end of each cosmic cycle, as was
the case with the manifestations of Brahman of the Upanishads. Disagreeing with this,
theistic commentators see this "necessity" rather as a divine play in which Krishna creates
and disintegrates his creation at will. (For more information on this debate on the character
of Krishna see our special file on the philosophy of the Bhagavad Gita.)

The excess of Krishna's superlatives and his identification with the whole existence grants
him a personal portrait that is difficult to grasp. A better Hindu theism will be founded later
in time by the great theistic Hindu thinkers Ramanuja (1017 - 1137 AD) and Madhva (1238
- 1317 AD). They refused the idea that the Ultimate Reality is the impersonal Brahman,
who has no attributes, no initiative and no influence on man. As it is impossible to take
Brahman as an object of worship, both thinkers accepted the god Vishnu as Ultimate
Reality. He is not limited by karma, time, space or any other factor, and has an infinite
number of attributes (unlike Nirguna Brahman), the most important being love, absolute
knowledge, and compassion. According to Madhva, Vishnu is said to be totally different
from the substance of the world. Neither nature nor the souls of the universe fuse with him
to form an impersonal primordial state. He created the world out of a primordial substance
(prakriti) and helps it to attain perfection. In fact, creation is periodic and dependent on the
karma acquired by souls in previous existences. At the moment of creation, karma works
out the fruits of the soul under divine providence. However, that means that the act of
creation is still not totally independent, as an act of God’s sovereign will. He is not free to
create the world at will, but has to create it in order that souls may work out their karma.

The Ultimate Reality in the Samkhya and Yoga darshanas

Samkhya and Yoga are two of the six Hindu orthodox schools (darshana) developed in the
post-Upanishadic period. As most of their metaphysical basis is common, in the absence of
any supplementary explanation, what is mentioned here is valid for both schools.

The origin of the Samkhya system is attributed to Kapila (7th century BC), and the real
organizer is considered to be Ishvara Krishna (5th century AD). The Yoga system was
structured by Patanjali (sometime between 2nd century BC and 3rd century AD), who only
systematized the ancient traditions preserved until his time. The writing in which Patanjali
formulated the essence of the Yoga system, which represents today the reference writing on
this topic, is the Yoga Sutra.

Considering how reality is defined, Samkhya and Yoga are dualistic philosophies, stressing
two fundamental notions: purusha (the equivalent of atman) and prakriti (the primordial
substance). More will be said about purusha in the next file, where we focus on man's
destiny in the two darshanas. Prakriti, the primordial substance, is an impersonal matrix
capable of manifestation through transformation. In some way it resembles Brahman
through its periodic manifestations. Unlike Brahman, it does not contain the spiritual
principle purusha.

As a result of the duality postulated by this system, the material world is the product of the
manifestation of prakriti and has real existence (not illusory, as in Vedanta). Its
manifestation is a result of the existence of three inner tendencies, called gunas: sattva,
rajas and tamas. They are the material which evolves into the categories of existence when
one or the other gains a dominating force. Sattva is the tendency that brings light, purity
and knowledge; rajas is responsible for activity, energy and dynamism; and tamas opposes
action, producing darkness, heaviness and ignorance.

The world and individual beings came into existence as a result of the disturbance of the
initial state of equilibrium between the three gunas. Any known form in which we see the
world is generated by the participation of a certain proportion of the three gunas. The
categories of prakriti's manifestation are, in hierarchical order, as follows:

1) mahat, the first product of manifestation, considered to be a mass of pure energy

appeared as a result of the guna sattva domination. Its psychic aspect is the intellect,

2) from mahat evolves ahamkara, the principle of individuation (the sense for the "I").

3) after producing ahamkara, the evolutionary process bifurcates. Under the influence of the
guna sattva, the psychical evolutes are produced: mind (manas), the five cognitive sense
organs (sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell) and the five conative sense organs (speech,
movement, prehension, excretion and reproduction). Under the influence of the guna tamas
the physical evolutes are produced: the five subtle essences (the essences of color, sound,
touch, taste and smell) and the five gross elements, which emerge from the essences (the
five fundamental elements in Hindu cosmology - earth, water, air, fire and ether). The guna
rajas provides the force required for this evolution.

The majority of the Yoga darshana metaphysics, at it was systematized by Patanjali, comes
from Samkhya. It only adds the existence of a divinity, Ishvara. However, this Ishvara is
not a personal god, but rather a macro-purusha that was never involved with psycho-mental
activity and the law of karma (Yoga Sutra 1,24). We will return to this subject later, in
discussing man's possible relation with Ishvara as it is stated in the Yoga darshana.

The Ultimate Reality in Tantrism and Hatha Yoga

As a distinct spiritual trend, Tantrism appeared in the 4th century AD. It is possible that it
doesn’t have Vedic origin, because its theology is grounded on two deities that did not
belong to the Vedic pantheon: Shiva and the Mother Goddess (Shakti), the goddess of land,
fertility and life. The two deities Shiva and Shakti became the fundamental terms in which
Tantrism developed a pantheistic view of life, Shiva as the transcendental aspect, the pure
existence, and Shakti as the immanent and dynamic aspect, through which the phenomenal
manifestation occurs.

Hatha Yoga is also a pantheistic school, which shares the same metaphysic with Tantrism.
Its forerunner is considered to be Goraknath (13th century AD). He and his followers used
three sources to ground the new doctrine: Tantrism, devotional Saivism and ascetic
practices of the so-called siddhas (the perfect ones). Hatha Yoga reached its full
development through Svatmarama (15th century AD), the author of the Hatha Yoga
Pradipika treatise. Other important writings are the Gheranda-Samhita and the Shiva-
Samhita. They all belong equally to Tantrism.

For both Tantrism and Hatha Yoga, the Ultimate Reality of the universe is the god Shiva.
Together with his divine consort Shakti, they form a state of primordial unity and
unmanifestation that corresponds in the Advaita Vedanta to Brahman Nirguna, the
unmanifested Brahman. The world and the human beings came into existence through the
dissociation of the primordial unity of Shiva and Shakti. In the Shiva-Samhita 1,92, it is

Out of the combining of the spirit, that is Shiva, with matter, that is Shakti, and by the
interaction of one on the another, all creatures were born.

The same manifestation of the Absolute in creation, as stated by the Upanishads, is

presented in the Shiva-Samhita 1,52;69-77.

The philosophy and ritual of Tantrism have penetrated most forms of today's Hinduism. It
can be found in Buddhism too (where it generated the Vajrayana school), and also in
Chinese Taoism, seeming to be a true panasiatiac movement.

The Ultimate Reality in Buddhism

Buddhism is another important Eastern religion that extended beyond the boundaries of
India, shortly after it was proclaimed by its founder, Siddharta Gotama - the Buddha (6th
century BC). Two main forms of Buddhism are known today: the conservative branch,
represented by the Theravada school, spread mainly in Sri Lanka and southeast Asia, and
the liberal branch - Mahayana, spread in China, Tibet, Korea and Japan.

The Theravada school, which claims to have guarded the unaltered message of its founder,
teaches that there is neither a personal god, nor a spiritual or material substance that exists
by itself as Ultimate Reality. The world as we know it does not have its origin in a
primordial being such as Brahman. What we see is only a product of transitory factors of
existence, which depend functionally upon each other. The Buddha said:

The world exists because of causal actions, all things are produced by causal actions and all
beings are governed and bound by causal actions. They are fixed like the rolling wheel of a
cart, fixed by the pin of its axle shaft. (Sutta-Nipata 654)

That gods exist is not rejected, but they are only temporary beings that attained heaven
using the same virtues as any human disciple. Gods are not worshipped, do not represent
the basis for morality, and are not the givers of happiness. The Ultimate Reality is nothing
but a transcendent truth, which governs the universe and human life. The Buddha expressed
it in the following words:

There is grief but none suffering,

There is no doer though there is action.
There is quietude but none tranquil.
There is the path but none walks upon the path.
(Majjhima Nikaya 1; Visuddhi Magga 16)

We will assess these concepts in the next article aimed at analyzing the human destiny in
Theravada Buddhism. The Buddha was concerned only with finding a way out of suffering.
Therefore he refused to speak about things considered to be irrelevant or even hindrances in
reaching nirvana, and this included a definition of Ultimate Reality.

Mahayana Buddhism emerged later, between the 1st century BC and the 1st century AD,
and was organized by Nagarjuna in the 2nd century AD. Although the texts of Mahayana
Buddhism claim to be a recollection of early speeches of the Buddha, they sometimes
contradict conservative doctrines of the Theravada school. It is said that the Mahayana
sutras were revealed many years after the master's death, because at that time the world was
not yet able to understand them. Mahayana takes a different stand on the person of
Siddharta Gotama. According to the traditional view he was a physical being, the founder
of the four noble truths and the first man that reached nirvana. In Mahayana Buddhism he is
considered to be only one of many Buddhas, the compassionate being that help other
humans to find liberation.

Reality, according to Mahayana Buddhism, has three levels of perception, known also as
the three bodies (trikaya) of Buddha: nirmanakaya, the physical body of the founder, that is
subject to change; sambhogakaya, the body of the boddhisattvas; and dharmakaya, the
ultimate nature of all things. The dharmakaya state is also called suchness or emptiness
because it is devoid of any permanent attributes. Although any resemblance to the Hindu
Vedanta is denied, there are at least two important aspects that suggest the contrary. First,
the pure state dharmakaya, the absolute body of the Buddha and, at the same time, the
fundamental nature of the universe is described in the same way as Brahman:

How should enlightened beings see the body of Buddha? (dharmakaya) They should see the
body of Buddha in infinite places. Why? They should not see Buddha in just one thing, one
phenomenon, one body, one land, one being - they should see Buddha everywhere. Just as
space is omnipresent, in all places, material or immaterial, yet without either arriving or not
arriving there, because space is incorporeal, in the same way Buddha is omnipresent, in all
places, in all beings, in all things, in all lands, yet neither arriving nor not arriving there,
because Buddha's body is incorporeal, manifesting a body for the sake of sentient beings.
(Garland Sutra 37)

This nature of the Buddha allows him to become manifested whenever people become
ignorant, have no more interest in getting spiritual wisdom, and are too concerned with
carnal lusts. The same message appears in the discourse of Krishna of theistic Hinduism
(Bhagavad Gita IV,7-8). The resemblance is even greater by the fact that the boddhisattva
beings (as the Hindu avatars) are spiritual guides towards liberation. This is the second
resemblance, the substitution of the Hindu gods with the Buddhist boddhisattvas, which
might be interpreted as a penetration of the Hindu bhakti tradition in Buddhism.


Ultimate Reality in other Eastern Religions

Like the Hindu Vedanta or Buddhist Mahayana, Taoism states an impersonal Ultimate
Reality that is both the creator principle and the eternal truth of universe. It is the Tao, the
immutable and unchanging principle that is the basis of multiplicity and the impulse that
generates all forms of life. The founder of Taoism, Lao Tse (6th century BC), stated in his
important writing, Tao-te Ching:

There was something undifferentiated and yet complete,

Which existed before heaven and earth.
Soundless and formless, it depends on nothing and does not change.
It operates everywhere and is free from danger.
It may be considered the mother of the universe.
I do not know its name; I call it Tao. (Tao-te Ching 25)

In the same way as the Hindu Brahman or Buddhist Dharmakaya, Tao is the source in
which originate and return all the manifestations of the world:

All the flourishing things

Will return to their source.
This return is peaceful;
It is the flow of nature,
An eternal decay and renewal. (Tao-te Ching 16)

Tao holds two complementary and opposite modalities that are present in all creation: Yin
and Yang (Yin - the female principle of darkness, potentiality, regression; and Yang - the
male principle of light, activity and progress). Their dynamic and the proportions in which
they become mixed at a certain moment determine any given aspect of nature or living
beings: day and night, seasons, life and death. Any personal existence, gods or humans,
receive their wisdom from Tao, being merely inferior and temporary forms of its

[Tao] is its own source, its own root. Before heaven and earth existed it was there, firm
from ancient times. It gave spirituality to the spirits and gods; it gave birth to heaven and to
earth. (Chuang Tzu 6)

The Taoist divinities are probably reminiscences of an ancient Chinese pantheon, many of
them being humans at their origin and then proclaimed gods as time passed. This is
probably the result of a late syncretism that tried to combine devotion to the ancient
Chinese gods with classic Taoism, as a way of making it more acceptable to the lay people.
Later religious developments such as deities, temples, priests, rites and symbolic images are
foreign to the spirit of Taoism. Deities like the Jade Emperor (Yu-huang) and The First
Principal (Yuan-shis Tien-Tsun) are considered in some traditions to be gods, while other
deities like the three Pure Ones (San-ch’ing) are more like Buddhist bodhisattvas, acting as
manifestations of Lao Tse.

Rather than a religion, Confucius (6th century BC) founded an ethical system in order to
harmonize social relations in the Chinese state. For this reason it is hard to say that
Confucianism, at least in its original form, is a true religion. Although Confucius respected
the religious traditions of his time, he gave them a mere ethical interpretation. The supreme
principle in the universe according to him is the moral law, a universal principle,
omnipresent, hidden and eternal:

There is no place in the highest heavens above or in the deepest waters below where the
moral law is not to be found. (Doctrine of the Mean 12)

Following the moral principles means to conform oneself to the will of heaven, but more
metaphysical speculations about heaven and afterlife are useless (Analects 7,20).


The three great monotheistic religions of the world have a personal God as Ultimate
Reality. First we will present the difference brought by Christianity among the world
religions in defining what God is, and then show the distinctive aspects of Judaism and

The personal and triune God of Christianity

Christianity presents an Ultimate Reality totally different to all we have found in the other
religions. The intuition of the wise men of the East almost never diverged from pantheism
as the determinant view of existence. Brahman of the Upanishads or of Shankara's Vedanta,
Shiva of Tantrism, the Dharmakaya of Mahayana Buddhism or the Chinese Tao, all
represent an impersonal Ultimate Reality. Most forms of theistic Hinduism are no
exception, as their gods are merely inferior manifestations of the impersonal Absolute.

Christianity holds a totally different position. The Ultimate Reality of the universe is the
personal and triune God. He exists as God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit,
without beginning and without having his origin in a primordial impersonal essence. As the
Athanasian creed states:

In this Trinity there is nothing before or after, nothing greater or less, but the whole three
Persons are co-eternal together and coequal.

There are some important things to clear up about the origin and meaning of the term
"person" (Latin persona, Greek prosopon). Initially used in the Greek ancient theater for the
actors’ mask, the term designated in Hellenistic philosophy "the masked face of the
impersonal being". The term used for the impersonal essence of reality was ousia, and its
determined, singular forms were called hypostasis. If Christian theology had been only a
form of Hellenistic philosophy, it should have said that the hypostases - Father, Son and
Holy Spirit - are mere functional aspects of the divine nature ousia. The novelty brought by
Christian theology is the fact that each person of the Holy Trinity has the fullness of divine
nature, and the ontological character of the Ultimate Reality is defined only by the reality
and relation that exists between the three hypostases, in the Holy Trinity "of one
substance". A major contribution in defining this aspect was made by the Cappadocian
fathers of the Church (Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa and Gregory of Nazianzen).

The Holy Trinity should be understood neither as a sum of three Gods (tri-theism), nor as a
mono-personal God that assumes successively three distinct forms (the modalistic heresy).
God’s being does not exist outside the three persons, but only as Father, Son and Holy
Spirit, and they are the only way for God's existence. So there cannot exist an Ultimate
Reality "beyond" or "above" the Holy Trinity, as in pantheism (Brahman as the ultimate
nature of the gods). Therefore none of the three hypostases, Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
can be considered a kind of Hindu Ishvara, a first manifestation of the impersonal Brahman.
Christian theology overthrew the values of Hellenistic metaphysics in order to adapt its
terms to the new revealed reality. In defining divinity, the accent must be transferred from
an impersonal Ultimate Reality to the personal character of the Holy Trinity and the
relation between the three hypostases. Here is the origin of the term "divine person" (from
the Latin persona), and (derived from it) the term "human person".

The triune God of Christianity exists by Himself. He proclaimed to Moses: "I am who I
am" (Exodus 3,14). He is sufficient in Himself and by Himself, not depending on any
exterior element. His existence is expressed through love, omnipotence and omniscience,
among which there is perfect unity and harmony. None is manifesting itself by infringing
on the other because the Holy Trinity is perfect in love, will and deed. Associated with
these characteristics are justice and immutability. God’s immutability is not a reminder of
Brahman Nirguna's immobility, but an absolute stability in truth and good. Likewise, when
the Apostle John proclaims that "God is love" (1 John 4,8) this should not be interpreted as
an expression of the impersonal primordial energy, but as form of expressing the supreme
unity of the tri-personal communion. It doesn't just mean that God has love, as a quality,
but that He is love, that this is His way of being in the Trinity, each person existing not just
for himself, but for the others, in a perfect communion of love.

(The following links should be helpful for understanding the concept of Holy Trinity:
Gregory of Nyssa, On the Holy Trinity, and of the Godhead of the Holy Spirit; On "Not
Three Gods";
Early Christians on the Trinity)

The God that presents Himself in the Bible cannot be equated with any god of the Hindu
pantheon. They are only aspects of an impersonal Absolute, manifestations that will finally
be absorbed by it. The triune God of Christianity is different from Krishna, who is a slave
to the cyclic manifestation and annihilation of the universe (Bhagavad Gita 9,7-9).
According to Christianity, God does not create the same world many times, but just once,
and then not out of a necessity that surpasses him. Neither can He be equated with the
"Hindu trinity" Brahma (the Creator), Vishnu (the preserver) and Shiva (the destroyer). The
three Hindu gods are reminiscences of the old Vedic polytheism, from where they have
been later assimilated as primary products of Brahman's manifestations. The "Hindu trinity"
cannot be an equivalent of the Christian Holy Trinity, but rather a kind of pagan tri-theism.

The God of the Bible has no equivalent in the other world religions. There is no deeper
Ultimate Reality above him, a kind of Brahman, as Meister Eckhart suggested. He is not an
Ishvara manifested out of Brahman (or a Deus manifested out of Deitas, according to
Eckhart), a god that comes and goes, located far beyond the impersonal absolute. The triune
God of Christianity does not admit the existence of a "deeper reality" in which He
originated, because He says:

I am the first and I am the last; apart from me there is no God (Isaiah 44,6).
As a consequence, it is absurd to define a superior and esoteric way (apara-vidya), that aims
at the impersonal Absolute, and an inferior exoteric way (para-vidya) for those who are so
limited that they are satisfied with a personal manifestation of the absolute. Christianity
cannot be assimilated as a form of bhakti-yoga, a way accessible for the inferior and weak
people to attain the impersonal Ultimate Reality of the world. We will return to this aspect
in a further file.

The nature of creation in Christianity

Directly linked to what we accept as Ultimate Reality is the significance we grant to the
physical world. Being consequent to the idea of the fundamental unity of the world in
Brahman, pantheism has to consider the physical world and man as manifestations of
Brahman, manifestations of the same primordial essence to which they are destined to
return. For this reason, it can be said that the impersonal Absolute is incomplete without his
"creation", i.e. without the manifestation of his potentiality. The manifestation of Brahman
is a necessity derived from its very nature. A similar situation is to be found in the
Samkhya-Yoga, where prakriti (the primordial substance) transforms itself into the forms of
the world. In pantheism creation is always a transformation (or manifestation) of a
primordial impersonal unity. It is not a replacement of "nothingness" with "something", but
a transformation of the Ultimate Reality from one ontological condition into another. What
once existed in unity becomes multiplicity and manifestation, an actualization of
preexistent virtualities.

Things are different with the creation presented in the Bible. An unprecedented element in
world religions, God creates the universe out of nothing (ex nihilo) and not out of his own
substance (ex Deo). This "nothing" has no ontological statute, it is not a primordial
substance, because prior to creation, nothing existed except God. Creation ex nihilo is not
an artifice of Christian philosophy, but the only possibility compatible with the existence of
a personal God as Ultimate Reality. In the Psalms we read:

In the beginning you laid the foundations of the earth, and the heavens are the work of your
hands. They will perish, but you remain; they will all wear out like a garment. Like clothing
you will change them and they will be discarded. But you remain the same, and your years
will never end. (Psalm 102,25-27)

The creation presented in the book of Genesis is an act intended and completed by the
Creator, not out of necessity, but of love. The beginning or cause of the world is not an
impersonal necessity or a blind manifestation of an undetermined nature, but the product of
the free choice of the personal and triune God.


God and creation in Judaism and Islam

The God of Judaism is the God of the Old Testament, God the Father of Christianity, so
that the Old Testament is common to the two religions. Although there are some hints
pointing to the Triune God in the Old Testament, Judaism accepts only God the Father as
the true God. The rejection of Jesus Christ as God the Son represented precisely the
appearance of Christianity as a new world religion. The God of orthodox Judaism is the
same as God the Father of Christianity, having the same attributes. In time, however, some
Judaic sects, such as the Kabbalah for instance, rejected the personal God and adopted a
pantheistic view of Ultimate Reality: “Bear in mind, that before the emanations were
emanated and the creatures were created, the upper simple light has filled entire existence”
(The Tree of Life, 1). This “simple light” or “endless light” is not the personal creator of
the Old Testament, but rather an equivalent of the Hindu Brahman.

The other great monotheistic religion of the world, Islam, also has a personal god as
Ultimate Reality. Allah is presented in the Quran as an eternal being, transcendent and
almighty. In the 112th Surra it is stated:

Say, He is God, the One!

God, the eternally Besought of all!
He neither begets nor was begotten.
And there is none comparable unto Him.

Allah seems to have the same attributes as God the Father of the Old Testament, since the
influence of the Old Testament on the Quran is beyond doubt, given the many episodes
taken over from the Bible and reinterpreted.

The following links should be helpful for understanding how the content of the Bible and
the Quran was transmitted during history:
“The Bible and the Quran” - An Historical Comparison (manuscript, documentary and
archaeological analysis)
“The Textual history of the Quran and the Bible”, by John Gilchrist.

The Triune God of Christianity is considered to be a heresy, both in Judaism and Islam, an
attempt against monotheism. Therefore, Allah cannot be the same with God the Father of
the Old Testament, because he clearly states that belief in the Trinity is one of the worst
possible heresies and sins:

Surely, unbelievers are those who said, "Allah is the third of the three [in a Trinity]". But
there is no god but One God. And if they cease not from what they say, verily, a painful
torment will befall the unbelievers among them (Quran 5,73).

However a strictly mono-personal, not tri-personal, God cannot be perfect in his personal
attributes because some of them are defined only in relation with another person (for
instance love, goodness, and compassion). Such a god is conditioned by his creation in
order to be loving, caring and good, because otherwise he has no one toward whom to
express these attributes. A god that depends on his creation (mankind) to be perfect (or
perfect since creation) in his personal attributes is less than perfect. A possible solution to
this problem would be that God and creation should always coexist, but this would mean
that God is not the creator, and that is absurd. The only possible solution is the Holy Trinity
"of one substance" in which there is an absolute communion of nature, will and deed, who
creates man not out of necessity, but out of his superabundant love.


The world's religions hold very different views on Ultimate Reality. More than different,
they are even irreconcilable one with another. Indeed, the impersonal Brahman of the
Upanishads, who balances between the manifested state and unmanifestation (the same as
Shiva in Tantrism), or the lack of any transcendental being, as stated by Theravada
Buddhism, are positions that cannot be reconciled with the personal God of the
monotheistic religions. Even among the many branches of Hinduism are stated
irreconcilable positions (see for instance the gods of the Vedas, the Brahman of Vedanta,
Vishnu of the theistic trends stated by Ramanuja and Madhva, and Ishvara of the Yoga

On the other hand, a personal God as Ultimate Reality cannot be at the same time a
manifestation of an impersonal Absolute (as in some cases of Hindu theism) and a being
above whom there is no deeper reality (as the monotheistic religions claim). Even the three
great monotheistic religions of the world state irreconcilable positions concerning the
nature of God. He must be either tri-personal (the triune God of Christianity), or mono-
personal (as in Judaism and Islam). Considering all these alternatives, we cannot accept the
claim that the world's religions are parts of a unique spirituality, or parts toward the same
transcendental finality.

Ever since he existed, man has been attracted by life's mystery: its origin, meaning, and
finality. The author of Shvetashvatara Upanishad asks: “Whence are we born? Whereby do
we live, and whither do we go?” (1,1). Consequently, not only Hinduism, but all religions
need to give an answer to the fundamental questions concerning creation, life, and death.

What is man? According to pantheist religions, a small part of the Ultimate Reality locked
up by the illusion of physical experience. According to monotheistic religions, a person
created in the image and likeness of God. According to others, like Theravada Buddhism,
nothing but an illusion, a temporary combination of five aggregates, none of which is
ultimately real. Dualistic religions, like Gnosticism and Manicheism, state that man is a
spiritual being originated in another world, a kind of angel fallen in his present miserable

What is man's present condition? Are we departed from the created status as a result of sin,
defined as a moral barrier against our Creator? Or are we rather a product of the periodical
manifestation of the Ultimate Reality, and thus ignoring our true spiritual nature? Do we
have a soul that predated our birth or not? Is our personal character illusory, or do we keep
it for a further existence? Is our destiny limited to this present existence or do we inherit an
eternal one, and if eternal, is it personal or impersonal, conformed with the character of the
Creator or absorbed into the impersonal nature out of which all things emanated? These are
some of the aspects that define human condition in the world’s religions. Closely related to
how human nature is defined are the values we pursue in life and the kind of relation we
have with our neighbors.

In the previous file, we have seen that the world religions do not agree on what they hold as
Ultimate Reality. Could it then still be possible that humans share the same condition? The
same destiny? Following the pattern used in the previous file, we will analyze the way man
is defined in relation to Ultimate Reality, his origin and present condition. Beginning with
Hinduism, we will continue with the other Eastern religions and finish with the perspective
of monotheistic religions, especially Christianity.


The human condition in Hinduism

The Vedas
According to the Vedic cosmogony of the golden egg (Hiranyagarbha), both gods and men
have their origin in an impersonal primordial entity (Rig Veda 10,129). The Brahmana texts
add the appearance of a Creator (Prajapati) from the golden egg (Shatapatha Br. 11,1,6),
who created the world and humans out of his own body, by the power of his ardor (tapas).
The Purushasukta hymn (Rig Veda 10,90) states that the product of the golden egg is the
giant Purusha, and through his sacrifice by the gods the physical world was built, the four
caste system, the animals and the duality of sexes.

Although the Vedic hymns do not clearly state what role the most worshipped gods played
in the creation of man, man is responsible to them for how he lives his life. The prayers
people address to Varuna, Indra, Agni or other gods denote a sinful human nature. Man
constantly asks for forgiveness for the sins he does, which are either errors in performing
the right religious ritual, or faults against one’s neighbor:

If we have sinned against the man who loves us,

Have wronged a brother, a dear friend, or a comrade,
The neighbor of long standing or a stranger,
Remove from us this stain, O King Varuna.
(Rig Veda 5,85,7)

To the fire god Agni, who burns away sins through the fire ritual, people ask for
forgiveness, but also for material welfare:

Shining brightly, Agni, drive away

our sin, and shine wealth on us.
Shining bright, drive away our sin.

For good fields, for good homes, for wealth,

we made our offerings to you.
Shining bright, drive away our sin.
(Rig Veda 1,97,1-2)

According to the hymns of the Rig Veda, man is a personal being dependent on the gods,
and his destiny is eternal life in a celestial world. Here is how the worshippers of Indra
express their longing for personal immortality:

Make me immortal in the realm

where the son of Vivasvat (Yama) reigns,
Where lies heaven’s secret shrine, where
are those waters that are ever young.
For Indra, flow you on, Indu!

Make me immortal in that realm

where movement is accordant to wish,
In the third region, the third heaven of heavens,
where the worlds are resplendent.
For Indra, flow you on, Indu!
(Rig Veda 9,113,8-9)

Yama, the god of death (mentioned in old Buddhist and Taoist scriptures too), is sovereign
over the souls of the dead and also the one who receives the offerings of the family for the
benefit of the departed. Divine justice was assured by the gods Yama, Soma and Indra, not
by an impersonal law such as karma. One of their functions was to cast the wicked into an
eternal dark prison from which they can never escape (Rig Veda 7,104,3; 17). It is
important to keep in mind that the Vedas do not consider man as a part of an impersonal
Absolute, with whom he should fuse after death.

According to Vedic anthropology, the components of human nature are the physical body,
asu and manas. Asu is the vital principle (different from personal attributes), and manas is
the sum of psycho-mental faculties (mind, feeling and will). The belief in the preservation
of the three components after death is proved by the fact that the family addressed the
departed relative in the burial ritual as a unitary person:

May nothing of thy manas, nothing of the asu, nothing of the limbs, nothing of thy vital
fluid, nothing of thy body here by any means be lost (Atharva Veda 18,2,24).

As was the case in ancient Chinese religion too, the departed relatives constituted a holy
hierarchy. The last one deceased was commemorated individually for a year after his
departure and then included in the mortuary offerings of the monthly shraddha ritual (Rig
Veda 10,15,1-11). This ritual was necessary because the dead could influence toward good
or bad the life of the living (Rig Veda 10,15,6). Beginning only with the Brahmana writings
(after the 9th century BC), which are the first to mention a primitive idea of karma and
reincarnation, did the tendency appear to abandon the idea of preservation of personhood
after death. However, this was not the spirit of early Hinduism.

The unity atman-Brahman in the Upanishads and Vedanta

At a macrocosmic level, the Upanishads state that there is an ultimate unity of the world in
Brahman, the impersonal matrix equivalent to the One of the Rig Veda (10,129). In their
search for a fundamental entity of human nature, something that should be the unifying
principle of all psycho-mental faculties, but above their temporal fluctuations, the Hindu
rishis defined the concept of atman. In the Chandogya Upanishad (5,1,1) it is stated that
breath (prana) is the “oldest and the best” principle that assures the functioning of all other
psycho-mental capacities (sight, speech, hearing, thought). That is why from the notion of
breath (Sanskrit “an” = “breathing”) derived the notion atman (reflexive pronoun), which
came to designate the self, man’s spiritual being. Therefore atman is not the seat of
personhood, or man’s soul, as it is sometimes mistakenly translated, but a spiritual entity
distinct to personhood and to the physical body.

Unlike all other manifestations of Brahman, atman is of the same ontological quality with
Brahman; it does not fluctuate, it is expressionless, irreducible, eternal and pure:

The self is not this, not this. He is incomprehensible for he is never comprehended. He is
indestructible for he cannot be destroyed. He is unattached for he does not attach himself.
He is unfettered, he does not suffer, he is not injured (Brihadaranyaka Up. 4,2,4).

Given his condition as a product of Brahman’s manifestation, man's purpose in life is to

join the returning process of all manifestations to the initial state of non-manifestation. This
is possible only through dissociating the self (atman) from the corporeal and psycho-mental
experience (that has an illusory value, as we’ll see later), and realizing the identity between
his self and Brahman. However, there is an important aspect to emphasize here: Man’s
return to Brahman is a concept that could raise confusion. In fact, Brahman is already
present in man, both at a transcendent and an immanent level, that is, both as the absolute
atman and the relative (gross) manifestations (body and psycho-mental faculties).
Discerning between the two conditions is possible by gaining a deep mystical knowledge of
atman: “The self is to be meditated upon for in it all these become one. This self is the foot-
trace of all this, for by it one knows all this, just as one can find again by footprints (what
was lost)” (Brihadaranyaka Up. 1,4,7). “Meditating on the self” means getting the
knowledge of his essential identity with Brahman, and this knowledge is equivalent with
attaining effectively the atman-Brahman identity, as the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad states:

This is the great unborn self who is undecaying, undying, immortal, fearless, Brahman.
Verily, Brahman is fearless. He who knows this becomes the fearless Brahman (4,4,25).

However, there is the obstacle of illusion (maya) against getting this intuitive knowledge.
Maya deceives man about the true nature of existence, channeling his wishes toward the
phenomenal world that is ever changing. At the same time, maya strengthens the confusion
of atman with the psycho-mental activity and the physical body. As a result of illusion, man
grants true spiritual value to what is unstable and changing instead of knowing his eternal
immutable self. This ignorance (avidya) is the cause of atman’s captivity in the world of
material experience:

Just as those who do not know the field walk again and again over the hidden treasure of
gold and do not find it, even so all creatures here go day after day into the Brahma-world
and yet do not find it, for they are carried away by untruth (Chandogya Up. 8,3,2).

As a result of ignorance, in the spiritual world a process develops similar to the law of
action and reaction that works in the physical world. This is karma, the law of action and
retribution according to one’s deeds. Its origin is found in the exegesis of the benefits of
sacrifice. It was thought that the same way sacrifices bring good results to the one who
performs them, all his other acts need a reward too. This prevents him from entering the
celestial world after death or limits his stay there, forcing him to come back in this life and
reap the fruits of his deeds. (For more information on the subject of reincarnation, see our
special file on this topic. As a result of karma, any action has an effect on its performer.
The practical way one reaps the fruits of his deeds is reincarnation (samsara). It teaches that
we live further lives as humans or, according to how badly we acted and how gross our
ignorance was in detaching from the material world, as animals or plants.

The first clear mention of samsara is in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (3,2,13), where it is
mentioned that “one becomes good by good action, bad by bad action”. It is also stated that
the reincarnation cycle is started by desire: “As is man’s desire so is his will; as is his will,
so is the deed he does, whatever he does, that he attains” (4,4,5). The “desire” is that of
experiencing the physical world, and consequently illusion, and “that he attains” is the fruit
reaped in a further life, as a result of karma’s retribution. Karma is the direct link between
desire and reincarnation, which builds a total inter-conditioning mechanism between the
previous, the present and the next lives. As a result of karma’s retribution, any thought,
word or deed of this life will find its reward in the next life, at the same level. In the Katha
Upanishad (2,2,7) it is stated: “Some souls enter into a womb for embodiment; others enter
stationary objects according to their deeds and according to their thoughts.”

An important aspect to emphasize here is the fact that reincarnation should not be
understood only as solution for punishing bad deeds. Reincarnation functions
independently of how good or bad actions are. It follows only the necessity imposed by
karma, an impersonal and amoral law. Between atman and moral values there is no possible
connection: “He (atman) does not become greater by good works nor smaller by evil works.
(. . .) What he has done or what he has not done does not burn him” (Brihadaranyaka Up.
4,4,22). Good deeds only provide a short reward in heaven, but then the soul has to return
to earth and continue its struggle. In the Mundaka Upanishad (1,2,10) is stated:

These deluded men, regarding sacrifices and works of merits as most important, do not
know any other good. Having enjoyed in the high place of heaven won by good deeds, they
enter again this world or a still lower one.

The Upanishads mark a transition from the point where man's condition is determined by
divine personal agents (such as the Vedic gods), to the situation of being totally controlled
by the impersonal law of karma. As we anticipated before, from the polytheistic perspective
of the Vedas, of a universe governed by a sovereign god (such as Varuna) through a law
that was subordinated to him (rita), we arrived at the pantheistic view of the Upanishads,
where the impersonal law of karma is ruling the world. In this situation man is alone facing
his destiny, having the duty to escape by his own efforts from the vicious cycle avidya-
karma-samsara, an objective that will be foundational to all Hindu religious systems.

The human condition in the Samkhya and Yoga darshanas

As we have seen in the previous file, these two darshanas are dualistic, accepting the real
status of primordial substance (prakriti) beside purusha (the equivalent of atman). None is
the manifestation of the other. Purusha and prakriti have different natures and do not aim to
reconstruct a unique essence, as was the case in pantheism.

Purusha, the self, is the spiritual entity that defines human existence from a transcendental
point of view. It is the eternal substrata of the individual being, devoid of any attributes and
relations, without beginning or end, indifferent, autonomous, immutable and perfect, above
senses, intellect, time and space. All these categories belong to prakriti. Purusha can have
relations only with itself. It can know only itself and contemplate itself. On the other hand,
prakriti, the primordial substance, is capable of manifestation and produces all the physical
and mental aspects of the world.

Not only the physical world is a product of prakriti’s manifestation, through the loss of
balance of the three gunas, but also the world of psycho-mental phenomena. Sattva
produces virtue, wisdom and goodness; rajas produces passion, contradiction, agitation and
wickedness; and tamas is responsible for generating ignorance, confusion, indifference and
depression. The psychological human states are combinations of effects produced by the
three gunas. For instance, when the sattva dominates, the soul is calm and tranquil; when
rajas dominates there is passion and nervousness; and with tamas in control man is inert,
lazy, and ignorant.

Although there is not much known about how the initial balance between the three gunas
was affected and how purusha got involved with the manifestations of prakriti, this
situation is the source of all problems, the cause of purusha’s captivity in the illusion of
psycho-mental activity. The confusion of the two opposite realities, the eternal purusha and
the sum of psycho-mental activities, is maya, illusion. Persistence in this state is a result of
ignorance (Yoga Sutra 2,24) and starts the process of karma and reincarnation. Purusha will
reincarnate as many times as needed, according to the deeds performed by the individual in
ignorance toward his true identity. All actions demand a fulfillment, or consummation, in
the present or further lives. Samsara works the same way as in pantheism, until true
knowledge about the nature of purusha is attained.

The human condition in Hindu Tantrism and Hatha Yoga

As both Hindu Tantrism and Hatha Yoga describe in a similar way man’s condition in the
world, we will analyze them together, emphasizing the differences just where it is needed.
The world and mankind appeared through the dissociation of the primordial unity of Shiva
and Shakti. In the Shiva Samhita (1,92), a text that is common to both religious schools, is

Out of the combination of spirit, which is Shiva, with matter, which is Shakti, and through
the interaction of one with the other, all creatures were born.

The self (atman) is considered to be Shakti, who lives in the human body as a spiritual
energy called kundalini. Following the pattern of other pantheist schools, the goal to be
pursued is the return of self (Shakti, corresponding to atman) in the Ultimate Reality
represented by Shiva (the equivalent of Brahman). Illusion (maya), ignorance (avidya),
karma and reincarnation are described in a similar way with other Hindu schools.
Personhood and empirical knowledge are two main categories that produce false
attachments and have to be surpassed.

The human condition in theistic Hinduism

The main Hindu theistic schools are those which worship Vishnu (including his avatars
such as Rama and Krishna), Shiva and Shakti (also in her forms as Durga or Kali). Out of
the many forms of theistic Hinduism that exist in the present, we will analyze briefly only
some aspects of Vaishnavism as it was stated by the great theistic Hindu thinkers Ramanuja
and Madhva. (There is also available a special file aimed to analyze the theism of the well-
known poem Bhagavad Gita). The works of Ramanuja and Madhva represent an
extraordinary contribution to Hindu spirituality, by the special way they understood the
relation between man and divinity and the significance of salvation. According to them,
man has a totally different nature from Vishnu, the personal god who is accepted as
Ultimate Reality, and there is no impersonal atman-Brahman fusion that has to be attained.

According to Ramanuja, God’s relation to the world is similar to that existing between soul
and body. As the body cannot exist separately from the soul, the existence of the universe
and of individual beings depends totally on God. He conducts the souls, they cannot exist
without him, but have also energies and activities of their own. The individuality of each
soul (jiva) is not an illusion that has to be discarded through knowledge, but a metaphysical
fact. Although they depend entirely on God, individual souls are real, unique, eternal, and
possess intelligence and conscience. The main causes of their present state are ignorance
(defined as the illusory idea of independence from God) and the desire for seeking material
goods. The souls enter into connection with material bodies according to the karma they
acquired in previous forms of existence. Karma is an instrument used by God to punish evil
but also to remind humans of their true status and what they should actually seek in life.
But the question of how souls first came under the power of karma is unanswered, because
the cosmic process has no beginning.

For Madhva too, matter and mankind depend totally on God. The ontological differences
between God, humans and matter are fundamental and eternal. However, the fact that God ,
souls and karma are eternal, beginningless, poses difficulties in understanding the
relationship between them. On the one hand, if God didn't create souls, he cannot have any
role in sustaining them, and they have no reason to be responsible to him. If one's soul is
beginningless, it means it isn't created by God, which further means it isn't responsible to
him. A soul can only be responsible to the one God who created it, as it is in the Western

On the other hand, how can God and karma be reconciled? It is stated that there are three
phases in the existence of a soul: 1) the dormant state; 2) the transmigration process; 3) the
liberated state. God is the one who introduces the soul into the stream of transmigration so
that it might discover its spiritual nature. It is stated that in the incarnated state, the physical
and subtle bodies produce the illusion of independence toward God and also attachment to
the physical world, perpetuating in this way the chain of samsara. As a result of their
accumulated karma, God chooses to have each soul undergo the fruits of his past labours.
But on what authority? Why should God be the controlling force, giving each soul what it
deserves? Karma is a law that can work by itself, as it does in Samkhya (which also states
that souls are beginningless), so it doesn't require a god. The soul (purusha) in Samkhya is
eternal and doesn't depend upon any god for its existence, transmigration and liberation.
Karma operates without the need or intervention of any god. Why should the situation be
different in Dvaita, as long as the souls are not created? Simply adding the fact that karma
is under the sovereignty of God is an artificial and useless theory.


The human condition in Buddhism

Following the ascetic tradition of his time, the Buddha described the human condition in
very harsh terms:

Behold this painted body, a body full of wounds, put together, diseased, and full of many
thoughts in which there is neither permanence nor stability. This body is worn out, a nest of
diseases and very frail. This heap of corruption breaks in pieces, life indeed ends in death.
What delight is there for him who sees these white bones like gourds cast away in the
autumn? Of the bones a citadel is made, plastered over with flesh and blood, and in it dwell
old age and death, pride and deceit.
(Dhammapada 147-150)

The all-pervading reality of suffering as motivation for seeking liberation is not a new
element in Hindu spirituality. The Upanishads also have exploited this topic. Following the
existent branches of Hinduism, Buddhism adopted a similar attitude towards the futility of
empirical knowledge (provided by senses and psycho-mental activity). This kind of
information is considered to be illusory, feeding the sense of individuality and the bondage
of karma. From this point the Buddha went further than the ideologies of his time,
excluding from his metaphysics even the fundamental concepts of Upanishadic philosophy:
atman and Brahman. His new doctrine was centered on two other fundamental pillars:
suffering (dukkha) and nirvana, its radical solution. In a famous text he stated:

There is grief but none suffering,

There is no doer though there is action.
There is quietude but none tranquil.
There is the path but none walks upon the path.
(Majjhima Nikaya,1)

This means that Buddhism denies the reality of atman, as the ultimate ground for human
existence. Its illusion is generated by a mere heap of five aggregates (skandha), which
suffer from constant becoming and have a functional cause-effect relation: 1) the body
(rupa) - that consists of material form and senses, 2) feeling (vedana) - the taste of any
experience, 3) cognition (sanna) - the process of classifying and labeling experiences, 4)
mental constructions (sankhara) - the states which initiate action, and 5) consciousness
(vijnana) - the awareness of a sensory or mental object. The heap of aggregates generates
the illusion of personal existence, the false notions of person (puggala), vital principle (jiva)
and atman. All the five elements, as well as human existence itself, are impermanent
(anitya), undergo constant transformation, and have no abiding principle or self. Man
usually thinks that he has a self because of consciousness. But being itself in a constant
process of becoming and change, consciousness cannot be identified with a self, which is
supposed to be permanent. Therefore, beyond the five aggregates nothing else can be found
in man.

The rejection of a self has most of all a practical significance. All discussions and
philosophical debates on the existence and definition of atman have as the only result
persistence in suffering, and are hindrances in attaining liberation. The Buddha argued that
the answers we would like to know about the character of the universe, the existence of a
soul or a transcendent Ultimate Reality, start debates that lead us astray from our real
problem, which is escaping from suffering (Majjhima Nikaya 1,426). He discouraged
speculative thinking on these issues in order to concentrate all one's efforts in reaching
nirvana, a state where they all lose any importance, not because the answers are found, but
because in nirvana there is no one left to get them.

Some immediate problems raised against Buddhism came from the way it described man as
having no abiding principle or self. If there is no self, who is actually suffering the pain of
which the Buddha was speaking so much? Other problems arise concerning the significance
of reincarnation. If there is no self, what is reincarnated from one existence to another? The
Buddha answered that only karma is passing from one life to another, using the illustration
of the light of a candle, which is derived from other candle without having a substance of
its own. In the same manner, there is rebirth without the transfer of a self from one body to
another. The only link from one life to the next one has a causal nature. (For some critical
comments concerning the way Theravada Buddhism defines its fundamental doctrines, see
our special file on this topic.)


The human condition in other Eastern religions

Confucius did not establish a new religion, and not even a new philosophical system. All
his efforts were channeled into finding an ethical system that could solve the chaos of the
Chinese society of his time (6th century BC). His main concern was man, his social life,
and the principles that should govern it in order to assure social balance and peace in the
society, family, and personal life. Although Confucius respected the existent Chinese
religious traditions, he gave them a mere ethical interpretation.

Human perfection, according to him, cannot be attained by religious rituals or meditations,

but only by using proper education and respecting moral values. Therefore, religious
traditions have value only as means of moral living. The most important ethical principles
emphasized by Confucius were reciprocity (shu) (“what you do not want others do to you,
don’t do to them”), doing good for the benefit of others (jen) and loving and respecting
your parents.

Following the moral principles means implicitly to conform oneself to the will of Heaven,
but metaphysical speculations on this topic and on life after death are futile (Analects 7,20).
The same is true with regard to worshipping gods or spirits. Confucius denied their
importance saying: “If you cannot serve people, how could you serve the spirits?”
(Analects 11,11). In conclusion, early Confucianism had no religious beliefs; it pursued
only the perfection of human character by fulfilling one’s social and familial duties,
according to what is true and morally right.

Unlike Confucianism, which understands man as a rational and moral being, with certain
moral duties toward society, Taoism states that man is a being that has to align his life to
the pulse of nature. All instincts, feelings and imagination have to be allowed to manifest
freely, imitating nature. The Confucianist morality is criticized because it is considered to
be an illusory and dangerous way of departing from the essence of Tao:

When the Tao is forgotten

Duty and justice appear;
Then knowledge and wisdom are born
Along with hypocrisy.

When harmonious relationships dissolve

Then respect and devotion arise;
When a nation falls to chaos
Then loyalty and patriotism are born. [. . .]

If we could abolish duty and justice

Then harmonious relationships would form;
(Tao-te Ching 18-19)

Man is a reflection of the universe. He is a small universe permeated by the Tao, with
which he has to be in resonance (gan ying). Like the universe itself, man has an ascending
life and a descending one, which ends in death. The ascending life is considered to be the
intrauterine one, which leads him to the climax of his existence, birth. For this reason it is
said in the Tao-te Ching that the one ”who is filled with harmony is like a newborn” (55).
Physical life, unlike the intrauterine one, is chaotic because man does not know how to
keep up his vital force. He dies as a result of his ignorance, before yin and yang can
naturally separate and his being return into the Tao. Progression and regression are constant
developments in the universe and also in the human body. Because of his ignorance, man
cannot understand this dynamic and subscribe to it. The natural result is reincarnation,
repeating physical existence until liberation is attained. (However, reincarnation is a topic
developed only later in Taoism, probably two centuries after Lao Tse.)


The human condition in the monotheistic religions

Man’s creation and condition in Christianity
As the triune God of Christianity is completely different from the Ultimate Reality of the
other world religions, the same is the situation with the nature of man and his present

According to the Christian teaching, God creates the universe out of nothing (ex nihilo) and
not out of his own substance (ex Deo). This "nothing" has no ontological statute, it is not a
primordial substance, because prior to creation, nothing existed except God. Creation ex
nihilo is not an artifice of Christian philosophy, but the only possibility compatible with the
existence of a personal God as Ultimate Reality. The creation of man follows the act of
creating the physical universe, as is mentioned in the Genesis account:

The Lord God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the
breath of life, and the man became a living being (Genesis 2,7).

There is no ontological continuity between the nature of God and that of man, as between
Brahman and atman, but a fundamental difference that excludes any pantheistic
resemblance. Unlike the physical world, man has a physical dimension (the body) and a
spiritual one (the soul). Both are created by God at the same time, so that man is not a pre-
existent celestial soul fallen into a material body as Platonism, Origenism or some dualistic
philosophies tried to speculate. The two dimensions generate the unity of human being
according to the Creator's design.

Another important aspect to be emphasized here is the fact that the creation of man was not
a necessity for God. He would not have been incomplete without man, because the
communion among the hypostasis of the Holy Trinity was sufficient and perfect. God's
only motivation for creating mankind was the over-abundance of His love. According to the
Genesis account, man was created to have communion with God and to rule “over all the
creatures that move along the ground” (Genesis 1,27). Although man was created to be a
witness of God’s glory and to enjoy it, this is not a necessity for God’s being, but the only
condition in which man can be in harmony with his Creator. In other words, God created
man not for His sake, but for man's sake, so that man may have eternal communion with the
Ruler of the universe. (The Vedic ritual suggests a different situation. Here the sacrifices
performed by the priests are necessary in order to sustain the universe and the gods.)

Image and likeness

Then God said, "Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the
fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the
creatures that move along the ground." So God created man in his own image, in the image
of God he created him; male and female he created them (Genesis 1,26-27).

The fact that man was created in the image (eikon) and likeness (omoiosis) of God does not
imply that God has a physical nature, but suggests that man received by creation an
existence resembling that of the Persons (hypostases) of the Holy Trinity. According to the
Church fathers of the first centuries, the “image” conferred to man represents the personal
character of God, as ontological fact of creation. In the same way in which God exists only
as Person, human nature, too, exists only as person. Man’s personal character is defined by
self-consciousness, ability to think, feel and will, and especially by his ability to have
communion with his Creator and other people. As the hypostases of the Holy Trinity are
defined only in relation with each other, in the same way the human hypostasis is defined
only in relation with God and other humans. This relation is a reciprocal fellowship,
accomplished by a personal unfolding of each toward the other. It is by no means a subject
- innate object relation.

If God's image is imprinted on man and remains in him as his personal character, the
“likeness” is defined as a way of being. It corresponds to a free will relation of obedience to
the Creator. While the image is an ontological fact of human nature, the likeness is an
attribute that has to be built up through exercising the relation with God. This position is
held by most Church fathers of the first centuries, Clement of Alexandria, Irenaeus of
Lyon, the Cappadocians, etc.

Man does not have the nature of God, but only qualities resembling His. Therefore, “the
breath of life” (Genesis 2,7), which God has transmitted to man, is not a small part of God’s
essence (a kind of atman), but the act of life giving, which marked the beginning of
experiencing self-consciousness or personal identity. According to Christianity, human
personhood has real and unique value. It has nothing in common with the Eastern doctrine
of illusion (maya). Both body and soul define human personhood and neither of them is
intrinsically bad or illusory. Christian soteriology does not state any need for detaching the
soul from an illusory association with the body, as was the case with purusha and prakriti in
the Samkhya and Yoga darshanas. The command says: ”Love the Lord your God with all
your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind” and
“Love your neighbor as yourself" (Luke 10,27). Nor do the elements of psycho-mental life
have anything bad in themselves, reason for which Christianity demands the renewal of
mind (Romans 12,2), discernment between good and bad feelings (Galatians 5,16-23) and
using the will for good purposes (Tit 3,8). Nowhere in the Holy Scripture is it taught that
they should be annihilated in order to grasp a higher impersonal Ultimate Reality.
On the other hand, pantheist religions all agree concerning the illusory status of the
personal character of man and the hindrance it represents in attaining liberation. The
annihilation of personhood is a necessity in most Eastern religions. Ahamkara, the principle
of individuation (the sense of the "I", of duality and separatedness from others) is
considered to be one of the most important causes of illusion and suffering in the world, as
well as abhinivesha - the will to live. Unfortunately, in Hinduism there is not stated a clear
differentiation between personhood and egoism, both terms being translated as ahamkara.
In Christianity, on the other hand, not the sense of the “I” itself is the cause of problems (as
it belongs to our created status), but the wrong usage of it generates bad products, such as
egoism. Without personhood and self-consciousness, in other words without the quality that
makes one person different from another (which should not be understood as
individualism), the idea of personal communion with God, the very reason man was
created, is absurd.

Because in the pantheistic religions Ultimate Reality is impersonal, all that belongs to
personhood has no room in the system and therefore personal communion with God cannot
be the purpose of man's existence. Except the impersonal self (atman or purusha), any other
element that may define human existence belongs to the domain of illusion (maya), is a
source of karma and by consequence has to be annihilated. (In Buddhism there is a similar
situation. Personhood is only a result of the coming together of the five skandhas, a source
of illusion and karma. In order to reject any element that may lead to attachments,
Buddhism rejects even the notion of atman in defining human nature.)

Another consequence of our personal status is that desire does not have an evil nature in
itself, as does the Hindu trishna (the desire to experience existence). It belongs to the nature
of man, with the role of being used in order to attain likeness with God. This is of
fundamental importance to man’s condition. The spiritual gifts that God has put in human
nature must awake in us the desire to live in his likeness. Desires are a product of our free
will and have to be channeled to function in obedience to God, not to be annihilated. There
is no room in Christianity for a Buddhist “no-mind” attitude or practice.

In conclusion, Christianity brings a major difference in defining human nature. Man is

created as a personal being by a personal God, but without having the same essence with
Him. Personhood holds nothing wrong in itself, but is the premise for grounding a personal
relation with the Creator. In pantheism man is a manifestation of the impersonal Absolute
and therefore his self (atman or purusha) has an impersonal nature too. All elements that
define personhood have an illusory value and have to be annihilated. Some other contrasts
will be emphasized in defining man's present condition. Before this, we should examine
some aspects that define the nature of evil in Christianity.

The origin and essence of evil in Christianity

Evil exists since before the creation of man. Its origin is to be found in the world of angels.
God created them in time immemorial, as personal and immaterial beings endowed with
free will, in order to integrate themselves in the divine harmony through obedience and
communion. They were created ex nihilo, like the material universe, and thus have a nature
different from that of God. These beings have mind (Acts 12,7-10; 1 Peter 1,12), feelings
(Luke 15,10), will (Jude 6) and are not limited by a physical body. Their number was very
large and had a hierarchy among them (Hebrews 12,22). Evil appeared in the world of
angels when Lucifer, one of God’s cherubs, rebelled against this order. In the book of the
prophet Isaiah we can read the following metaphorical description of this incident:

You said in your heart, "I will ascend to heaven; I will raise my throne above the stars of
God; I will sit enthroned on the mount of assembly, on the utmost heights of the sacred
mountain. I will ascend above the tops of the clouds; I will make myself like the Most
High." (Isaiah 14,13-14)

This angel, who is now called Satan (“adversary”), was expelled from heaven together with
all the angels who joined him in his act of rebellion. The cause of his fall was pride, the
desire to be independent of God, not submitted or inferior to Him. Lucifer wanted to be by
himself more than his created status could permit him.

As mentioned in our file on the nature of evil in Christianity, evil is not created by God, but
is a perversion of His creation, a result of using free will against the very purpose for which
it was created (obedience to God in a communion relation based on love). Evil was not
intended to exist in God's creation and is not linked to the essence of God. It is a parasite of
good, a rebelled existence against God. Having this nature, Satan and the demons do their
best to thwart God’s plan with mankind, knowing that humans are created to succeed where
they (the fallen angels) failed.

The nature of sin

By creating a new kind of beings endowed with freedom of will, God assumed again “the
risk” that they may rebel against Him. This element of risk is not a proof of God’s
incapacity to create infallible beings, because freedom of will is the most important element
that defines personhood and makes us different from robots. It also makes possible real
communion among personal beings, including communion with God, the very purpose of
man’s creation. However, freedom of will could be wrongly used and turned against the
very purpose of its creation, as happened in the realm of angels. God’s command to man

You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the
knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die" (Genesis 2,16-17).

Here must be emphasized the following important aspect: The knowledge (gnosis) of good
and evil does not have the meaning of getting some new information. It is neither a kind of
a science (episteme), nor abstract information. It is not a matter of conceptual elaboration, a
science of good and evil that would explain rationally two opposite concepts without
judging them morally. In this Biblical text, knowledge (gnosis) means experiencing and
getting mixed with another reality. It is an ontological process rather than an
epistemological one. Rather than to know (as we understand it), gnosis means to be in
communion with something and live according to it. The same way as knowing God is not
just a mental operation, but a participation and subscribing to His will, the knowledge of
good and evil is an existential experience, an accommodation to a state that is not
indifferent to human nature. In this context, God’s command is not a hindering from getting
necessary knowledge or an artificial limitation of man’s freedom, but a warning concerning
the possibility of getting involved with the nature of evil, of participating in another reality
than that intended by God. This other reality was the world of Satan and the fallen angels.

As man's source for meaning cannot be found in himself but only in his Creator, his status
in the spiritual world can better be described as a river bed rather than a spring. We are not
meant to find an inner "true spiritual nature" or a "higher self" inside us, but to adjust to the
character of God, to attain likeness with Him. Therefore we are a river bed that chooses
what spring will flow through it. This is the ultimate ability we have in attaining "a higher
spirituality". As a river bed is clean or dirty according to the water that flows through it,
man's identity (and obviously his morality) is fashioned by the spiritual source he chooses
to obey - God or the devil. As a result, neutrality is not a possible option.

Being envious of man's destiny and seeking to perpetuate his own fallen nature, Satan
tempted him, casting doubt on the justice of God’s demands:

“Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?"
The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but God did
say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must
not touch it, or you will die.’” “You will not surely die,” the serpent said to the woman.
“For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God,
knowing good and evil.” (Genesis 3,1-5)

An analysis of this text reveals that Satan suggested that any interdiction should be
excluded, that God’s command is not just and that rebellion against Him would bring total
freedom. His temptation can be summed up as “to be like God”, that is, to find all resources
in oneself and follow the same path of rebellion he had followed earlier, in order to find (an
illusory) auto-determination. His temptation was more effective by the fact that it presented
a mixture of evil and an appearance of good. Only an appearance of good, because the
Absolute Good is God himself and there cannot be anything good in separation from Him.
What good thing could man get to know from one who was totally and eternally separated
from God? Unfortunately, as it can be seen in the Genesis account and in all human history,
man has chosen rebellion against his Creator. This attitude is called sin.

The fall into sin is the breaking point in man’s relation with God, with other people, with
himself and even with the physical world. The “good” thing that Adam and Eve came to
know was the fact that they were naked (3,7), which already was a barrier between them.
They found out that they were separated from God and also from the perfect environment
where they lived (3,24). Creation itself suffered (3,17) and continues to suffer because of
sin (Romans 8,22). The biblical meaning of sin does not correspond to some pantheist
interpretations, which consider it to be the loss of a pantheist view of reality (“the
perception of the ONE”) and the subsequent appearance of duality and illusion. The human
fall is a consequence of man’s wrong decision toward independence from God; it is an act
of perverting the relation established by God in His creation.
The Bible states that mankind has fallen into a rebellious position against God and his
demands. The Apostle Paul draws a remarkable description of this situation in the Epistle to
the Romans, mentioning deeds consciously done against the standards revealed by God (see
1,18 - 3,20). In order to define sin, one of the most used terms in the New Testament is the
Greek word hamartia, literally translated “to miss the mark”. It suggests that man has
missed the mark that God has intended for him. Calling us sinners, God blames us for what
we know is wrong but still do, not for unknown mistakes done against some unknown laws
of God (see Romans 2,1-15). In his conclusion, the Apostle Paul states that “all have sinned
and fall short of the glory of God” (3,23).

Instead of finding total freedom, as the devil promised, man became slave to sin (Romans
6,17) and to Satan (John 8,44). In the spiritual world there is no possible option for
independence, but only for obeying or disobeying God. Jesus Christ said, “He who is not
with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me, scatters” (Luke 11,23).
According to God’s justice, the consequence of this situation would have been that God
should respect man’s desire to live a separate existence from Him (as a guarantee of his free
will), and to abandon man in a world where God withdraws His presence and any
intervention, where the separation from Him and any good thing He created is eternal. This
world is hell, a place where Satan and all demons will be isolated for all eternity (see
Matthew 25,41). (See some comments of the Early Church Fathers on hell, death and life
after death.)

The Eastern concept of hell is different from the Christian one. In Hinduism, Buddhism and
Jainism hell is analogous to the Catholic concept of Purgatory. It is not an eternal
damnation, but only a place to expiate bad karma, in order that the purified soul can
continue his advance toward liberation (see Markandeya Purana 13-15, Sutta Nipata 672-
76, The Tibetan Book of the Dead). The punishments man has to bear in hell are according
to his karma, and Yama, the lord of hell, acts in accordance to the demands of karma. He
cannot forgive, but only be the instrument of this impersonal law. However, the temporary
statute of hell in Eastern religions is not a result of divine love, but rather a necessity
imposed by the cyclic manifestations of Ultimate Reality.

According to Christianity, hell was not intended for humans, but for demons. However,
since man rejects God and follows the devil during his life, he will reach the same
destination as his leader. Living in that world, in total isolation and privation of any good
aspect of existence, accompanied only with the attitude of rebellion against God, is a
suffering that surpasses any imagination. It is often questioned: How can a loving God
condemn man to such a horrifying punishment? First, it has to be remembered that the
decision for independence from God belongs to man, hell being only a real chance offered
to him to spend all eternity outside His presence. Would not God be unjust if He would
force humans to live in His presence against their will? Second, God has prepared a
solution for those who want to return to communion with Him. (See our next file on
salvation in Christianity.)

Sin has thoroughly affected human nature, conferring to it a hereditary perverted status.
This is called “the sinful nature” or “original sin” (see Romans 7-8), which we all inherit. It
represents a natural tendency toward evil and manifests itself through the conscious sins we
do with our thought, speech and deeds. It is important to notice here that we neither inherit
the particular sins of our ancestors, nor sins we have done in alleged previous lives, but the
sinful nature of mankind. In other words, what we inherit is not karma. Man does not “pay”
for sins committed out of ignorance in previous lives, but for individual and conscious sins
committed here and now. In Christianity there is no room for the impersonal law of karma
and reincarnation. (There is available a special file on this topic.) Karma is a concept that
does not fit in Christianity, where the Absolute judge is God, the Creator. Man will
certainly be judged for the way he lived, but by God and not by karma, and also not by
being sent into another body, but by being sent to hell, the place deserved by those who
reject his love. Therefore the attempt to reconcile God and karma is absurd, somehow
trying to affirm that karma is the will of God. The two are mutually exclusive.

Another aspect that must be emphasized here is the fact that we are all equal before God
through our “merits”. What we all deserve is the same prize: death. The biblical meaning of
this term is not passing into nothingness, but separation. (For instance, physical death
means separation of soul and body). In the expression used by the Apostle Paul “you were
dead in your transgressions and sins” (Ephesians 2,1; Colossians 2,13), “death” means a
state of separation between man and God, determined by sin. The “death” Adam and Eve
received at the moment of their sinning was separation from God, by getting out of the
communion with Him. This is why the banishment from Eden was not a revenge of God,
but a necessity after sin has been committed. According to the Church Fathers, the new
condition of man’s being mortal is suggested by the expression “garments of skin”, with
which God clothed Adam and his wife after the fall (Genesis 3,21). Therefore, these
“garments of skin” are not the physical body, in which man was allegedly trapped after
being a purely spiritual being, according to some Gnostic interpretations. Man didn’t get his
physical body after the fall, but at the moment of creation.

Mortality was added after the fall, and therefore does not represent a constitutive element of
man, but a cure for sin. In his Great Catechism, chapter 8, Gregory of Nyssa explains:

He who is the healer of our sinfulness, of His foresight invested man subsequently with that
capacity of dying which had been the special attribute of the brute creation. Not that it was
to last for ever; for a coat is something external put on us, lending itself to the body for a
time, but not indigenous to its nature. This liability to death, then, taken from the brute
creation, was, provisionally, made to envelope the nature created for immortality.

Physical death is a result of the fall but at the same time an instrument to stop the effects of
sin. What would our world become if there would be no death to sinners? Death is added to
our fallen condition in order that we could still inherit spiritual immortality, by returning to
God, the giver of life, and be cured of sin. Although it looks more like a punishment,
physical death is the gate toward spiritual life, if man accepts God's terms for receiving it.

The notion of sin, as stated in Christianity, has no correspondent in the Eastern religions.
Although there are some Hindu terms translated as "sin" (papa - any form of wrongdoing;
adharma - acting against one's own dharma; aparadha - mistake), they do not represent a
crime against God, but an act against dharma (the moral order) and against one's own self
(leading to accumulation of karma). The origin of "sinful" conduct is spiritual ignorance
(avidya). Therefore, a “sinner” needs only instruction and not condemnation. He needs help
to reason the right way and realize that he is responsible for his actions, for which he must
pay the consequences in samsara. Being a manifestation of the Absolute, man has in
himself the divine nature (atman, purusha) and all resources to overtake his state of
ignorance. According to Christianity, this attitude is a result of spiritual pride, the very
cause of man’s (and Satan’s) fall. The Bible teaches that man does not possess an intrinsic
divine nature, and thus is incapable of saving himself from his fallen state. The situation is
like this because man has a sinful nature. This is the only “true inner nature” of man. Jesus
Christ stated:

For from within, out of men's hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder,
adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils
come from inside and make a man 'unclean.' (Mark 7,21-23)

According to the Judaic understanding of man, which was the context of Jesus’ saying, the
“heart” is the core of man’s being, the headquarters of mental, emotional and volitional life.
Consequently, in the New Testament, the heart is depicted as something that can think and
understand (Matthew 9,4; 13,15), be troubled (John 14,1; Romans 9,2), rejoice (Ephesians
5,19), make decisions (2 Corinthians 9,7) and also participate in salvation by expressing
faith (Romans 10,9-10). There is no deeper level of man’s nature that could hide a superior
spiritual self.

From a Christian point of view, the central problem of mankind is sin, which is not an
illusion or a lack of perfection, but a moral barrier between man and his Creator. The
prophet Isaiah proclaimed: “Your iniquities have separated you from your God; your sins
have hidden his face from you, so that he will not hear” (59,2). Sin has produced the
perversion of our mind (2 Corinthians 4,4; Romans 1,28), will (Romans 1,28), heart
(Ephesians 4,18), and our being as totality (Romans 1,18 - 3,20). No matter how many
efforts are made today by psychoanalysis to redefine sin as imperfection (an idea developed
by C.G. Jung from Eastern religions), man continues to be accused by his conscience for
the failures of his moral living (see Romans 2,14-15). He does not live in harmony with a
moral system that he did not create and that surpasses him.


The human condition in Judaism

As the Old Testament belongs equally to Judaism and Christianity, the Judaic view of
man’s creation and present sinful condition is similar to the Christian one. However, late
commentaries on the Old Testament, such as the Talmud, present some deviations from
Orthodox Judaism. For instance, it is stated that God created man with an evil inclination
and gave him the Mosaic Law as antidote:

The words of the Torah are like a perfect remedy. This may be compared to a man who
inflicted a big wound upon his son, and then put a plaster on his wound, saying, “My son!
As long as this plaster is on your wound you can eat and drink what you like, and bathe in
cold or warm water, and you will suffer no harm. But if you remove it, it will break out into
sores.” Even so did God say to the Israelites, “My children! I created within you the Evil
Inclination, but I created the Law as its antidote. As long as you occupy yourselves with the
Torah, the Evil Inclination will not rule over you. But if you do not occupy yourselves with
the Torah, then you will be delivered into its power, and all its activity will be against you.”
(Kiddushin 30b)

According to the mystical tradition of the Kabbalah, man is perfect from the Creator’s point
of view, but still needs improvement in order to discover his spiritual identity and feel the
spiritual worlds above him. This demand is very similar to the Eastern idea of surpassing
ignorance (avidya) in order to know his true spiritual nature (atman). Other elements that
suggest the relation with Eastern philosophy are the belief in reincarnation and the need for
mystical experiences, as necessary elements in order to reach the highest level of spiritual
development. This is why the mystical view of the Kabbalah is closer to Eastern religions
than to Orthodox Judaism in defining man and his relation with God.


The human condition in Islam

The Quran describes the creation and fall of man in a way similar to the Judeo-Christian
tradition. In fact, the doctrine of the fall is a logical teaching only in the monotheistic
religions, which state that God is the only Creator, creation was good in itself and evil has a
personal existence, being contrary to the purpose of creation.

Islam teaches that man and angels were created to worship Allah (Quran 51,56). However,
the creation of man, as described in the Quran, has a major difference from the Biblical
account. The Quran states that evil was not yet present in the world at the moment of man's
creation. God created man and commanded all angels to worship him. Satan (Iblis) opposed
this command and only then was banished from heaven:

And surely, We created you (your father Adam) and then gave you shape (the noble shape
of a human being), then We told the angels, “Prostrate to Adam”;, and they prostrated,
except Iblis (Satan), he refused to be of those who prostrate. Allah said: “What prevented
you Iblis, that you did not prostrate, when I commanded you?” Iblis said: “I am better than
him (Adam), You created me from fire, and him You created from clay. Allah said: “O,
Iblis, get down from this (Paradise), it is not for you to be arrogant here. Get out, for you
are of those humiliated and disgraced.” (Quran 7,11-13)

After this episode Iblis planned to deceive man and make him disobedient to God, which he
accomplished in a similar way to that described in the Biblical account (see Quran 7,20-21).
However, in Islam there is no such thing as original sin. Although Adam and Eve sinned,
they repented and were forgiven, so that their sin had no repercussions for the rest of
human race. In his present condition, man is exhorted not to repeat the mistake of Adam,
and also warned that the devil attempts to cheat him by all means (Quran 7,27). However,
all people sin because of the passion to which they are subjected by Satan and because they
are careless about the demands of the Quran. All sins and good deeds a man is performing
are noted by two angels, that will present the records at the final judgment:

Behold, two guardian angels appointed to learn [man’s doings] learn and note them, one
sitting on the right and one on the left. Not a word does he utter but there is a sentinel by
him, ready to note it. And the stupor of death will bring truth before his eyes, “This was the
thing which you were trying to escape!”
(Quran 50,17-19)

(In order to understand other basic differences between Christianity and Islam see the
article Six Muslim Beliefs and a Christian Response, by Jay Smith.


The way world religions state what Ultimate Reality is inherently determines their teaching
on human condition. The two elements are inseparable. An impersonal Ultimate Reality
determines that the essence of man, or his innermost nature, is also impersonal. This is the
case in the pantheistic religions. Beginning with the Upanishads, Hinduism (excepting
some theistic trends) stated that the core of human nature is the impersonal self (atman), of
the same essence with Ultimate Reality (Brahman in Vedanta, or Shiva in Tantrism). Man's
present condition is governed by karma, an impersonal law started by spiritual ignorance
that forces the self to reincarnate until true knowledge is attained.

Buddhism denies the reality of any permanent self residing in man, defining human
condition as a mere process of becoming in which are involved the five aggregates, of an
impermanent nature too. The only reality of human existence is that of suffering. Although
reincarnation is fully accepted, it deals only with the passing of karma from one life to
another, without any permanent self being involved.

The monotheistic religions state man's personal created status as a fundamental element of
their theology. Personhood has nothing bad or illusory in itself, being the major condition
for having personal communion with God. Karma and reincarnation are excluded. They
have no room in Judaism, Christianity and Islam, because the role of Supreme Judge
belongs only to God. The major problem that defines human existence is sin, understood
not as ignorance for one's "true inner nature", but as crime against the Creator. The barrier
between man and God has a moral nature, not an epistemological one, as in the Eastern
religions. The result of sin is hell, a state of definitive separation from God, according to
man's decision during this single earthly life.

In conclusion, there is no harmony among the world's religions concerning the status of
man and his present condition. Their position is too divergent for a possible reconciliation
to be stated. Therefore, the attempt to formulate a common doctrine on man would surely
contradict their major tenets.

As we have seen in the previous file on the human condition, one of the few elements that
world religions share is the fact that man doesn’t live in harmony with the Ultimate Reality.
In other words, man doesn’t manifest his purpose of existence. Life is far away from
pursuing the ideal claimed by religion, so that man needs salvation from his present

However, following how Ultimate Reality and human nature are stated, the meaning of
salvation and eternal destiny differ to a great extent from one religion to another. Three
important aspects must be analyzed here: The nature of the resources needed for attaining
salvation, the actual way of getting saved and the meaning of salvation from an eternal
perspective. Concerning the first two aspects, some religions claim that salvation can be
attained by using only inner human resources. They demand the use of meditation,
accumulation of wisdom, asceticism, performing rituals, good deeds, etc. Other religions
state man can be saved only through the grace granted by an external personal agent. This
can be God, a bodhisattva, an avatar, etc. Man’s duty is to recognize his impossibility to get
saved by his own effort, and therefore accept grace unconditionally. There are also
combinations of the two cases.

As concerning the meaning of salvation from an eternal perspective, there are also
important distinctions to mention. As emphasized in the previous file, the monotheistic
religions state that the barrier between man and God is sin. Salvation means removing this
moral barrier and restoring a personal communion with God, which will endure forever.
Pantheist religions consider the human self a part of the impersonal Ultimate Reality, and
therefore man’s problem is epistemological. Salvation means liberation from ignorance and
corresponds to the fusion of the impersonal self with the Absolute, meaning dissolution of
subject and object, knower and known. Other Eastern religions, such as Buddhism and
Taoism, take salvation as an illumination, meaning a discovery of and conformity of
oneself with an eternal law that governs existence. Dualistic religions see man’s salvation
as a return to an initial angelic state, from which he has fallen in a physical body. In this file
we will analyze closer these alternatives, trying to understand to what extent they can still
be compatible with each other.


Salvation and eternal destiny in Hinduism

The Upanishads and Vedanta philosophy
As we have seen in the file on the human condition, the Upanishads view the problem man
has to face as belonging to the domain of knowledge. The self is one with Brahman, but
illusion prevents man from grasping it. The liberation of atman from the chain of
reincarnation can be attained only during a human existence, so we are in a privileged stage
of spiritual evolution. We have a better position even than gods do. They are in a stage of
reaping one’s positive merits during a lifetime, as animals are the opposite, the stage of
reaping bad merits. That is why devotion to a god is not a valid way toward liberation, as it
perpetuates the illusion of personal existence. The following text indicates that the gods like
to encourage man’s ignorance:

Now, if a man worships another deity, thinking, “He is one and I am another,” he does not
know. He is like an animal to the gods. As many animals serve a man, so does each man
serve the gods. Even if one animal is taken away, it causes anguish to the owner; how much
more so when many are taken away! Therefore it is not pleasing to the gods that men
should know the truth. (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 1,4,10)

Atman’s liberation from samsara is called moksha and represents its return to Brahman.
This kind of liberation is actually an impersonal fusion of atman with Brahman, resembling
the fusion of a drop of rain with the ocean, thus becoming one with it: “As rivers flow into
the sea and in so doing lose name and form, so even the wise man, freed from name and
form, attains the Supreme Being, the Self-luminous, the Infinite. He who knows Brahman
becomes Brahman” (Mundaka Upanishad 3,2,8-9). At this point any element of personhood
is annihilated and the process of reincarnation ceases.

First mentioned in the Brahmanas as necessary for knowing the laws of sacrifice, intuitive
knowledge (jnana, vidya) here receives its full spiritual meaning. Vedic sacrifice (according
to Mundaka Up. 1,2,7) and the knowledge of the Vedas (Chandogya Up. 7,1,3) have no
value in attaining liberation. The cycle avidya-karma-samsara can be broken only by
knowing and destroying its primary cause, which is desire. (This trend gets special attention
in the Bhagavad Gita and also in Buddhism.) According to the Upanishads, the process of
attaining intuitive knowledge of atman and liberation from desires requires passing through
three states of consciousness, categorized as the wakeful state, the state of sleep with
dreams and the dreamless sleep (Brihadaranyaka Up. 4,3,9-19). The first state of
consciousness, the wakeful state (jagrat), represents the normal human state, in which the
phenomenal world is completely involved in one’s psycho-mental activity. In the stage
corresponding to sleep with dreams (svapna) the psycho-mental is detached from the
objective world and engaged in a virtual world, a mere projection of the real one.
Participation in the phenomenal world stops only in the dreamless state (susupti), when the
world’s illusion ceases to manifest itself (Brihadaranyaka Up. 4,3,32). Some later
developments concluded that in this stage atman is only temporarily united with Brahman,
and for this reason a fourth state (turiya) was defined, when the unity of atman-Brahman is
perfectly attained.

There is no need to mention here actual methods for attaining liberation, since they are not
yet fully developed in the Upanishads. Two important meditation formulas (mantras) are
Aham Brahma asmi (“I am Brahman” - in the Brihadaranyaka Up. 1,4,10) and Tat tvam asi
(“You are that” - in the Chandogya Up. 6,8-15). There is also to be noticed the importance
of the sacred syllable OM (AUM), which is said to exert a powerful influence on the one
who knows to use it and understands its metaphysical importance. The Mandukya
Upanishad establishes a correspondence between the three letters that compound it (A, U,
and M) and the three states of conscience mentioned above. The Mundaka Upanishad
(2,2,4) states: “The syllable aum is the bow; one’s self, indeed, is the arrow. Brahman is
spoken of as the target of that. It is to be hit without making a mistake. Thus one becomes
united with it as the arrow [becomes one with the target].”

The same finality is stated in Shankara’s Vedanta. The liberation of atman is attained
through intuitive knowledge. There are four qualifications prescribed for the one who
follows this path: 1) discrimination of the eternal from the non-eternal; 2) no attachment to
the things belonging to this or any other world; 3) possession of six virtues: calmness,
equanimity, turning away from sense-objects, forbearance, concentration and faith in the
doctrine; and 4) longing for release. The method that has to be pursued has three parts:
study of the doctrine, reflection and contemplation.

For a critique of pantheism, the way it states liberation and its significance click here and
see our special file on this topic.

The Samkhya and Yoga darshanas

Liberation in the Samkhya and Yoga darshanas represents detaching purusha from any
manifestation of prakriti, out of the domain of psycho-mental experience. The way of
attaining it, in Samkhya, is metaphysical knowledge, i.e. analyzing and understanding the
external and internal structures of nature and psycho-mental activity. It is stated that neither
through sacrifices (Samkhya Sutra 1,84), nor by doing good deeds (1,56) nor by the help of
Vedas (3,25-26), but only through getting spiritual knowledge can liberation be attained. It
involves abandoning all common values that are created by our mind and thus do not
belong to purusha. By knowing the absolute state of purusha, the confusion generated by
the physical and mental world ceases, they are absorbed into prakriti and the self finds
liberation (Samkhya Sutra 3,69). This is the way humans understand the liberation of the
self, but as thinking itself belongs to prakriti, Samkhya holds that liberation is a mere
acquaintance with purusha’s eternal freedom, unable to be normally perceived because of

The moment when discrimination (viveka) between the two categories has been fully
realized, prakriti with all its manifestations departs from purusha, “like a dancer who leaves
after satisfying her master’s wish” (Samkhya Karika 59). The self escapes from the illusory
relation with prakriti and has nothing to do with it anymore. From that moment on the
liberated purusha contemplates only itself and has no concern about the relation of other
purushas with prakriti. The finality in this darshana is a world of free and totally isolated
purushas, between which no relation can exist.

In the Yoga darshana of Patanjali there are two elements added: 1) Ishvara, an entity
improperly called God; and 2) the fact that liberation cannot be attained by spiritual
knowledge only, but that a specific ascetic technique is needed. Ishvara is not a personal
god, but rather a macro-purusha that has never been involved with psycho-mental activity
or with karma. Having no personal status, Ishvara cannot have a personal relationship with
man. It is rather a metaphysical sympathy, resembling that existing between a compass and
the magnetic field of the Earth. Ishvara can help the Yogi towards liberation only as he is
chosen as the object of meditation. The instinctual relationship between purusha and
Ishvara is possible only because of the similarity of their structures, so that in the Yoga
darshana of Patanjali, Ishvara is considered to be a “God” just of the Yogis.

The liberation of purusha has the same meaning as in Samkhya. He remains isolated
forever, contemplating himself and without any relation with other purusha or with Ishvara.
For more information on the Yoga technique as described by Patanjali see our special file
on this topic. There is also available a special file aimed at analyzing some difficulties of
the Samkhya and Yoga metaphysics.

Tantrism and Hatha Yoga

Both schools are pantheistic, viewing liberation as the return of the self to the impersonal
Ultimate Reality represented by Shiva. It is a process similar to the fusion of atman with
Brahman, as stated in the Upanishads and Vedanta. In order to get a brief description of the
actual techniques used by these two schools, and also an evaluation of the experiences they
produce, see our special file on this topic. Here we summarize just a few key elements in
order to get a global understanding of them.

The self, represented in the form of kundalini energy, has to be awakened through
complicated physical exercises (in Hatha Yoga) and also sexual practices (in Tantrism),
joined with respiratory techniques. Then kundalini traverses a spiritual channel of the subtle
body, which corresponds physically to the spine, and the moment it reaches the top of the
head it unites with Shiva, the Ultimate Reality of the universe. This goal cannot be attained
just by spiritual knowledge, as in other Hindu schools (Vedanta or Samkhya). The help of a
teacher (guru) in assisting the practitioner is absolutely necessary, as the awakening and
rising of kundalini is full of potential dangers for the Yogi.

Although both schools are pantheistic, they hold a different view than Vedanta philosophy
concerning the role of the human body. While the Upanishads and Vedanta despise the
body, considering it the primary source of illusion that holds atman captive in the
reincarnation cycle, Tantrism and Hatha Yoga take the body as the main instrument in
attaining liberation. However, the attention granted to the body has a single purpose: to
make it fit for getting control over the mind and thus liberating the self. Despite the fact that
it is sometimes believed that Hatha Yoga is only a kind of harmless physical training, the
most important writing of this school, the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, clearly states that Hatha
Yoga has to be taught only in order to reach the Raja Yoga level (1,2), which means “the
integration of mind in a state where the subject-object duality does not exist” (4,77), or in
other words, merging with the impersonal Ultimate Reality.

Hindu theism
The liberation of self (atman or purusha) through metaphysical knowledge (jnana, vidya) or
asceticism (tapas), as was the case in the previous schools of Hinduism, cannot be a valid
solution for the average Hindu. This is the reason why most people adopt a certain
devotional practice (bhakti) in order to transcend the world of suffering. The most
important gods worshipped today are Vishnu and his avatars (especially Rama and
Krishna), Shiva and the goddess Shakti (also in her forms as Kali or Durga). Consequently,
Hindu theism has three main branches: Vaishnavism, Shaivism and Shaktism. They have
the following defining characteristics: acceptance of a personal god as Ultimate Reality,
performance of a certain ritual in order to worship him, invocation of his help to attain
salvation and understanding salvation as uniting with god or attaining a perfect and eternal
relation with him.

We will not discuss here salvation according to the most famous writing of Hindu theism,
the Bhagavad Gita. There is available a special file on this topic. Out of the many schools
of theistic Hinduism existing today, we will limit this brief presentation to the Vaishnava
schools grounded by the great thinkers Ramanuja and Madhva and mention a few elements
of their understanding of man’s salvation and eternal destiny. They stated the most coherent
forms of Hindu theism known today as opposed to the traditional pantheistic schools,
especially to the Advaita Vedanta of Shankara. (Similar views have been developed in the
Shaivite tradition, but they are less important and we will not refer to them.)

According to Madhva (1238 - 1317 AD), liberation can be attained only by the grace of
Vishnu. Humans have to realize that independence from God is illusory and that material
cravings distance them from God. Vishnu uses reincarnation to punish one's evil deeds and
also to help the soul discover its true spiritual nature. The way of attaining liberation
requires devotion, moral perfection and knowledge of God. The more God is known, the
more he is loved, the more he is loved, he is known; these are two inseparable aspects. The
moment the soul attains liberation, it does not lose its individuality in order to become one
with God (as in Vedanta), but becomes perfect and shares an eternal communion and
harmony with God.

Although Madhva’s theism is genuine, there are some weak points in the way it defines free
will and the role of karma. He stated that nothing can happen in the world or to souls
without God’s will and initiative. Man can attain liberation only by God’s grace. On the
other hand, souls are subject to karma, and God reveals himself only to the ones who
deserve it. However, if all souls are entirely dependent on God for their functioning and he
is the one who causes the creation, sustenance and dissolution of the world (and
consequently of physical bodies), this implies that any spiritual progress of the soul is
nothing but God’s work. If God’s will is responsible for both bondage by karma and
liberation, how is it possible that some souls deserve liberation, while others do not? In
other words, how can a just balance be set up in this system, between God’s grace and
karma? The solution offered by Madhva to this dilemma is the idea that souls have a certain
inner inclination, according to an innate nature. There are three kinds of souls according to
these inner inclinations: those of noble inclination (sattvika), those of mixed inclination
(rajasa) and those with base inclination (tamasa). Only those of the first category will reach
liberation by God’s grace, the others being left to themselves. To avoid total predestination,
Madhva stated that they are granted a small amount of free will (dattasvatantrya) and
therefore can perform a small improvement of their nature from one existence to another.
But by giving this solution, God is no longer the one who determines the souls’ actions, and
his total control over them is abrogated. This contradiction arises out of the impossibility to
reconcile the role of karma with the grace of an omnipotent god.

According to Ramanuja (1017 - 1137 AD), man is responsible for his acts and capable of
choosing between good and evil. What we experience now as evil in the world is the result
of people’s past ignorant deeds against God. Liberation from the bondage of ignorance can
be attained only by devotion. Once liberated, the soul is not dissolved in the Ultimate
Reality, but becomes perfect through his integration into the functionality of God. Using a
proper illustration, liberation is not the union of the raindrop with the ocean (as in
Vedanta), but the adding of a new cell to a living body, without losing its individuality and
conscious existence. Through this kind of liberation neither the transcendental supremacy
of God is lost, nor the identity of the soul.

There are basically two classical viewpoints on grace in theistic Hinduism, well-illustrated
by two famous analogies, that of the monkey and that of the cat. The first view (the markata
school) states that man has to cling to God like a monkey clings to its mother, thus having
an important contribution in attaining salvation. The following elements are included:
discrimination of food, freedom from passions, longing for God and continuous meditation
on him, doing good to others, having good intentions and truthfulness, integrity,
cheerfulness and hope. So it is not only about stimulating positive feelings, but also using
the intellect and will in order to love God with both heart and mind.

Starting from this point, where man plays a certain role in his liberation (through the rituals
and moral obligations he has to fulfill), Ramanuja grounded an even more radical way
towards liberation, called prapatti, where there is no more room left for personal merit. This
is the second view on grace (the marjara school), stating that the devotee must be like a
young kitten, totally dependent on its mother’s will, picked up by her and carried here and
there. Therefore man has to give up the control of his life to Vishnu and leave to him all
responsibility for salvation. Two important notions here are the transferring of merits
(bhara-samarpana) from God to man and taking refuge under God’s feet (sharanagati). The
one engaged in prapatti acknowledges that he is not good enough to deserve liberation by
performing rituals and moral obligations. He asks God to undertake the control of his life
and use him as instrument in the world, so that the whole merit for attaining liberation
pertains to God. There is no doubt that from the laborious techniques of other Hindu
schools, that stressed the attainment of liberation through personal effort, to the prapatti
alternative, where man is humble and helpless before God, Hindu spirituality went through
radical transformations. In a few words, the whole prapatti philosophy can be summarized
in a single verse, written by Vedanta Deshika, a 14th century follower of Ramanuja:

Lord, I, who am nothing, conform to your will and desist being contrary to it, and with faith
and prayer, submit to you the burden of saving my soul (Nyasadashaka 2).


Salvation and eternal destiny in Buddhism

Theravada Buddhism
Escaping from suffering, according to the Buddha, is possible only for the one who accepts
and follows the four noble truths:

1) The nature of existence is suffering.

2) Suffering is caused by desire, or thirst (tanha) to experience existence.

3) The complete cessation of desire leads to the cessation of suffering.

4) In order to escape suffering and attain enlightenment, one has to follow the Noble
Eightfold Path, consisting of the eight practices of self-training.

The eight practices of self-training can be classified in three categories: morality (sila),
meditation (samadhi) and wisdom (panna). Morality means right speech, action and
livelihood. It has to generate a perfect state of self-control and contentment. Meditation
requires perfection in effort (right attitude of the mind), mindfulness (awareness of mental
and physical processes), and concentration (introversion and cessation of empirical
consciousness). Wisdom requires perfection in view (through understanding the
impermanent nature of the world) and intention (cultivating desirelessness, friendliness and

There are two complementary types of Buddhist meditation: calm meditation (samatha) and
insight meditation (vipassana). The first is aimed at producing deep concentration
(samadhi) by developing a capacity of the mind to rest undisturbed on a single object of
perception. The second aims at understanding the true nature of things, which is
characterized by impermanence, suffering and no-self. In other words, calm meditation is
about controlling the defilements of the mind, while insight meditation is about letting them
go completely as a result of understanding the nature of the world.

It is important to mention here that the one who engages in this path has to rely exclusively
on his own inner strength. The Buddha taught:

So, Ananda, you must be lamps unto yourselves. Rely on yourselves, and do not rely on
external help. Hold firm to the truth as a lamp and a refuge, and do not look for refuge to
anything beside yourselves. A brother becomes his own lamp and refuge by continually
looking on his body, feelings, perceptions, moods, and ideas in such a manner that he
conquers the cravings and depressions of ordinary men and is always strenuous, self-
possessed, and collected in mind. Whoever among my disciples does this, either now or
when I am dead, if he is anxious to learn, will reach the summit...(Digha Nikaya 2,99-100)

There is no grace available from a personal god, because any personal existence belongs to
the domain of illusion:

Oneself, indeed, is one’s savior, for what other savior could there be?
With oneself well-controlled one obtains a savior difficult to find.(Dhammapada 160)
Once one has attained nirvana, he becomes an arahat (“living enlightened one”). His karma
is burned out and at the time of his death he will cease to exist. Nirvana is neither a re-
absorption in an eternal Ultimate Reality, because such a thing doesn’t exist, nor an
annihilation of a self, because there is no self to annihilate. It is rather an annihilation of the
illusion of an existing self. The proper image to describe it is the flame of the candle that is
blown out. This represents the end of suffering but at the same time the end of any aspect
that may define existence. (For some critical comments on the way Theravada Buddhism
defines its fundamental doctrines, including nirvana, see the special file on this topic.)

Salvation in Mahayana Buddhism. The devotional way.

The first significant difference between Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism is a new goal
to be pursued in life. Instead of seeking nirvana just for oneself in order to become an
arahat, the disciple of Mahayana Buddhism aims to become a bodhisattva, a celestial being
that postpones his own entrance into parinirvana (final extinction) in order to help other
humans attain it. He swears not to enter nirvana until he fulfills this noble mission. Here is
a part of a bodhisattva’s vow:

I should accept all sufferings for the sake of sentient beings, and enable them to escape
from the abyss of immeasurable woes of birth and death. I should accept all suffering for
the sake of all sentient beings in all worlds, in all states of misery, for ever and ever, and
still always cultivate foundations of goodness for the sake of all beings. Why?

I would rather take all this suffering on myself than to allow sentient beings to fall into hell.
I should be a hostage to those perilous places - hells, animal realms, the nether world - as a
ransom to rescue all sentient beings in states of woe and enable them to gain liberation.

“I vow to protect all sentient beings and never abandon them. What I say is sincerely true,
without falsehood. Why? Because I have set my mind on enlightenment in order to liberate
all sentient beings; I do not seek the unexcelled Way for my own sake. (Garland Sutra 23)

For its selfish way of seeking nirvana, the Theravada school was considered by
Mahayanists an inferior spiritual path, valid only for those who cannot accept the idea of
becoming a bodhisattva (Saddharmapundarika, 2). From here derives the name given to the
two branches of Buddhism: Mahayana means “the larger/superior path” (that of becoming a
bodhisattva), while Hinayana is the “narrow/inferior path”, that reduces its goal in
becoming an arahat. The Theravadin view of nirvana is considered only an intermediary
step of becoming, a kind of incentive toward a higher becoming. The true enlightenment is
the becoming of a bodhisattva being (Saddharmapundarika, 3). Thanks to the help granted
by the bodhisattvas, it is said that all beings will eventually attain perfection:

The Dharma of the Buddhas by the constant use of a single flavor

Causes the several worlds universally to attain perfection,
By gradual practice all obtain the Fruit of the Way. (Saddharmapundarika Sutra 5)

As was the case with the Hindu avatars of Vishnu, the bodhisattva beings help humans to
work out their liberation. This new development was interpreted as a penetration of the
Hindu bhakti tradition in Buddhism. The pattern of devotion, which seems to be a natural
tendency of the human soul, works here the same way as in Hinduism. This trend will
become the religious path for lay Buddhists, for whom liberation through intuitive
knowledge is not at hand.

The most famous bodhisattva of Tibet is Avalokiteshvara, who is said to be able to help
anybody, even if one only hears his name and memorizes it. In his great compassion he
assumes as many forms as necessary in order to save all beings (including people and
demons in hell), if they simply accept the doctrine he preaches to them. Today it is
considered that the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhists, is a reincarnation
of this bodhisattva. The mantra used for his invocation is Om manipadme hum.

In Japan was founded a very influential form of devotional Buddhism known as Pure Land
Buddhism, taking Amida as "the Buddha of Infinite Light". According to its doctrine,
Amida is able to save even the most despised sinner by his grace (tariki). In his vow, he
promised to save all sentient beings that would only repeat his name ten times:

Let him utter the name, Buddha Amida. Let him do so serenely with his voice
uninterrupted; let him be continually thinking of Buddha until he has completed ten times
the thought, repeating, “Adoration to Buddha Amida.” On the strength of [his merit of]
uttering the Buddha’s name he will, during every repetition, expiate the sins which involve
him in births and deaths during eighty million kalpas. (Meditation on Buddha Amitayus

The reward for invoking Amida with sincere devotion is rebirth in his Western Paradise,
Sukhavati (known also as Pure Land or Pure Realm). It is not possible to get there using
other means as meditation or good deeds, but only by his grace.

In Tibetan Buddhism it is stated that the help of the bodhisattvas is available even after
death. According to the Tibetan Book of the Dead (8th century AD) the five bodhisattvas of
Tibetan Buddhism (the Dhyani-Buddhas, or mental Buddhas) help the dead to avoid a bad
reincarnation, trying to lead them toward happier lives in which they will be able to attain
nirvana easier.

Concerning the form in which the dead person survives in the transitory world and is
punished in the temporary hells, Tibetan Buddhism seems to accept a self that reincarnates.
However, this impersonal entity cannot really suffer, which means that the torments one
has to suffer (because of his ignorance during lifetime) are in fact all hallucinations
generated by his bad karma. According to the text, the dead is advised:

When it happens that such a vision arises, do not be afraid! Do not feel terror! You have a
mental body made of instincts; even if it is killed or dismembered, it cannot die! Since in
fact you are a natural form of voidness, anger at being injured is unnecessary! The Yama
Lords of Death are but arisen from the natural energy of your own awareness and really
lack all substantiality. Voidness cannot injure voidness! (Tibetan Book of the Dead, 12)
Although the bodhisattvas offer their help to the dead person, he is unable to accept it
because of the projection of his bad karma and the attraction of “samsaric impurities”,
which make him fall deeper and deeper into the intermediary state (bardo). For this reason
it is wrong to pretend that the bodhisattvas save the dead through their grace, as only the
merits he accumulated during lifetime make him able to accept the “rays of grace”. As was
the case in theistic Hinduism, we are again faced with the incompatibility of grace, granted
by an external agent (a bodhisattva), and the law of karma.

In conclusion, we can see that Mahayana has brought significant changes to classic
(Theravada) Buddhism. As Dr. Stcherbatsky writes: “When we see an atheistic, soul-
denying, philosophic teaching of a path to personal final deliverance, consisting in an
absolute extinction of life and a simple worship of the memory of its human founder - when
we see it superseded by a magnificent High Church with a supreme God, surrounded by
numerous pantheon and a host of saints, a religion highly devotional, highly ceremonious
and clerical, with an ideal of universal salvation of all living creatures, a salvation by the
divine grace of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, a salvation not in annihilation but in eternal life
- we are fully justified in maintaining that the history of religions has scarcely witnessed
such a break between new and old within the pale of what nevertheless continues to claim
common descent from the same religious founder” (The Conception of Buddhist Nirvana,
p. 36).

Salvation in Mahayana Buddhism. The way of intuitive knowledge.

Liberation through knowledge is the other important trend in Mahayana Buddhism. New
doctrinal developments on the theme of no-self were the basis for founding a new doctrine,
known as the doctrine of the void (shunyata). It was first stated in the Prajnaparamita Sutra
(1st century BC) and then developed by Nagarjuna (2nd century AD).

The Abhidharma tradition ("the third basket" of the Pali Canon) had already stated that the
five aggregates can further be broken down into smaller units called dharmas. According to
the Theravada school all physical and mental events have as ultimate building blocks 82
such dharmas. The Madhyamaka school of Nagarjuna pointed to the fact that these dharmas
themselves must be seen as impermanent and empty of a self. They cannot have any
inherent nature of their own, or else the principle of impermanence would be violated. As a
result, the constituents of physical and mental phenomena are to be considered like a dream
or a magical illusion. Their nature is emptiness, which means that the whole world is just a
web of interdependent baseless phenomena. Although the resemblance to Advaita Vedanta
may be striking, emptiness is not a substance (as Brahman) which composes the dharmas,
but rather an adjectival quality of the dharmas. It is neither a thing, nor nothingness, but just
a way of referring to reality as being incapable of being pinned down in concepts. Nirvana
means realizing this fact, that emptiness (shunya) is the true nature of reality (the Buddha
nature, or dharmakaya). It seems to be an actualization in the Mahayanic context of the
atman-Brahman identity, as can be observed in the following text:

Every being has the Buddha Nature. This is the self. Such a self is, since the very
beginning, under cover of innumerable illusions. That is why a man cannot see it.
O good man! There was a poor woman who had gold hidden somewhere in her house, but
no one knew where it was. But there was a stranger who, by expediency, speaks to the poor
woman, “I shall employ you to weed the lawn.” The woman answered, “I cannot do it now,
but if you show my son where the gold is hidden, I will work for you.” The man says, “I
know the way; I will show it to your son.” The woman replies, “No one in my house, big or
small, knows where the gold is hidden. How can you know?” The man then digs out the
hidden gold and shows it to the woman. She is glad, and begins to respect him. O good
man! The same is the case with a man’s Buddha Nature. No one can see it. It is like the
gold which the poor woman possessed and yet could not locate. I now let people see the
Buddha Nature which they possess, but which was hidden by illusions. The Tathagata
shows all beings the storehouse of enlightenment, which is the cask of true gold - their
Buddha Nature. (Mahaparinirvana Sutra 214-15)


Liberation and eternal destiny in Taoism

Given the human condition in Taoism, the solution for attaining perfection is not holding
Confucian morality or rituals, but controlling the inner universe by practicing the principle
of non-acting (wu-wei), a similar concept to the demand of Krishna presented in the
Bhagavad Gita (3,19). Wu-wei does not literally mean to do nothing, but to follow the
natural order of things, to be spontaneous in all actions, understand them and not strive
against nature:

The sage desires no-desire,

Values no-value,
Learns no-learning,
And returns to the places that people have forgotten (childhood). (Tao-te Ching 64)

In order to attain harmony with Tao a combination of the following different methods can
be used, according to the different Taoist schools: a special form of physical and spiritual
exercises (Thai Chi), alimentary diet, breath control (tai-yin), sexual techniques (fang-
shong shu) similar to the Tantric ones, psychedelic drugs, meditation, etc. These methods
are considered to revitalize the vital fluid of the body and assure long life. However, Lao
Tse taught neither physical immortality nor personal survival after death. There are no clues
in the Tao-te Ching indicating such things, so they have to be later additions to Taoism.

The seeking of physical immortality seems to have been added to Taoism at the time when
it became mixed with alchemy (the search for an “elixir of life”) and religious rituals. It is
foreign to the initial spirit of Taoism, which taught indifference to life and death as a
condition for one’s integration in the flow of nature. Wang Ch’ung, an important Taoist
thinker of the 1st century AD, had to correct the superstitions that invaded his religion,
stating clearly that there is no involvement of deities in peoples’ lives and man does not
become a ghost at death.
The only true spiritual knowledge is the mystical one, attained when any duality is
surpassed, when the disciple understands that life and death are only two aspects of the
same Ultimate Reality. A famous parable of Chuang Tzu says:

Once I, Chuang Tzu, dreamed I was a butterfly, and was happy as a butterfly. I was
conscious only of my happiness as a butterfly, unaware that I was Tzu. Soon I awaked, and
there I was, veritably myself again. Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming
I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man. Between a man
and a butterfly there is necessarily a distinction. The transition is called the transformation
of things.

Therefore, empirical and mystical knowledge are interchangeable. One does not know what
reality is: the state as man or as butterfly. The great awakening is a return in the primordial
state of non-being, where all transformations cease and personal existence is annihilated:

By cultivating one’s nature one will return to virtue. When virtue is perfect, one will be one
with the Beginning. Being one with the Beginning, one becomes vacuous, and being
vacuous, one becomes great. One will then be united with the sound and breath of things.
When one is united with the sound and breath of things, one is then united with the
universe. This unity is intimate and seems to be stupid and foolish. This is called profound
and secret virtue, this is complete harmony. (Chuang Tzu 12)


Salvation in the monotheistic religions

Unlike the pantheistic religions of the East, the three monotheistic religions of the world -
Judaism, Christianity and Islam - do not regard salvation as an impersonal merging with the
Absolute, but as liberation from the bondage of sin and re-establishing a personal
communion with the Creator. However, there are some basic differences between them on
how sin is to be overcome by man, on the identity of Jesus Christ, the role He plays in
salvation and what our attitude should be towards Him.

Salvation in Christianity
According to Christianity, sin did not mark an irreconcilable end of God’s relation with
man. After stating that all mankind is sinful, the next and final doctrine of the Bible is not
the judgment and eternal damnation of man. Although the triune God is perfect in His
justice and holiness, implying that sin should have kept man eternally separated from His
presence, His love for us is also perfect. Out of this balance of God’s character and
attributes, Christianity states a unique doctrine of salvation, completely foreign to any other

The remission of sins in the Old Testament vs. religious patterns of other nations
The account of man’s restoration from his fallen state begins in the first book of the Old
Testament. God called Abraham to leave his country and his father's household and follow
Him to an unknown land, promising that he would become the ancestor of a blessed nation.
Abraham trusted God against all odds, and this attitude, called faith, determined that God
would declare him righteous and the beneficiary of an overwhelming promise:

He took him outside and said, "Look up at the heavens and count the stars-- if indeed you
can count them." Then he said to him, "So shall your offspring be." Abraham believed the
Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness (Genesis 15,5-6).

The nation born out of Abraham is Israel, God’s chosen people to make Himself known in
the midst of nations and correct their wrong patterns in understanding Him. This was meant
in a time when mankind turned its back to the real God and sin became man’s “true inner
nature”. Although all nations had priests, offerings and temples - showing that communion
with God was always man’s greatest need - all ritualism was labeled as wrong and in need
of correction.

In the book of Exodus is recorded how God redeemed Israel from the Egyptian bondage
through His grace (chapters 1-19), presented the law according to which they should live
(20-24) and then indicated the way to solve any trespassing of the law, through the
tabernacle (25-40), which was later replaced by the Jerusalem temple. This given order
redemption-law-temple was not randomly chosen. God instituted the Mosaic Law as a
covenant with His people after redeeming the nation from slavery. Israel had to obey God
and to live according to the demands of the law in order to have a right relation with Him
(Exodus 19,5). The tabernacle (and later the temple) was the place where sacrifices were
brought in order to solve the trespassing of the law and to keep in mind their total
dependence on God. Obedience to the law was of first importance and the sacrifices in the
temple were second, prescribed only as solution for repairing the failures in fulfilling God’s

The other nations of that time had a different view of worship. They were attempting to
satisfy their gods and even fulfill their needs through the religious rituals performed in
temples. Following this principle, the nations that surrounded ancient Israel (and many
more) had to bring more and more substantial offerings in order to accumulate more and
more influence on the gods. Soon they came to perform even human sacrifices. In this way
their priests reached a point where they were actually manipulating the gods and considered
themselves (through the rituals performed) the keepers of universal order, providers of
fertility, wealth, victory over enemies, etc. The tendency to manipulate the gods is obvious
in Vedic ritualism and was the cause for its decline. The priests held the ropes of heaven
and soon became more important than the gods. After all, it was their sacrifices that kept
the universe properly functioning. No wonder that asceticism appeared as a revolt against
this order.

The temple and the sacrifices in the Old Testament have different meanings from the other
religions of that time. In the Old Testament, the condition for maintaining a proper relation
with God was obeying and conforming to His revealed standards, not the performance of
religious rituals that could empower Him to fulfill His divine attributes. Sacrifices are not
necessary for Him, but for the sake of sinful people, as the solution for their trespassing of
the law. If not absolved, the sins of the people would have brought God’s punishment on
the nation. Therefore, the sacrifice had to perform its work in man, not in God. This is why
the tabernacle and the sacrificial system is added to the covenant with Israel (Exodus 20-
24), as a further grace. Although Israel also had, as the other nations, a temple, priests and
sacrifices, their role was different. This perverted way of relating to God had to be
corrected through Israel. God commanded:

The Lord your God will cut off before you the nations you are about to invade and
dispossess. But when you have driven them out and settled in their land, and after they have
been destroyed before you, be careful not to be ensnared by inquiring about their gods,
saying, "How do these nations serve their gods? We will do the same." You must not
worship the Lord your God in their way, because in worshipping their gods, they do all
kinds of detestable things the Lord hates. They even burn their sons and daughters in the
fire as sacrifices to their gods. See that you do all I command you; do not add to it or take
away from it (Deuteronomy 12,29-32).

Out of the many sacrifices and religious feasts mentioned in the Old Testament, we will
emphasize the significance of the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), described in Leviticus
chapter 16. It was performed once a year, only by the high priest and for the benefit of all
God’s people. Its purpose was to remove all the sins committed during the year and mark
the rededication of the nation to God. The high priest had to offer first a bull as an atoning
sacrifice for his own sins. Only in this way was he cleansed of his sins and therefore
capable of performing the atonement ritual for the nation. Then he took two goats and
established one for the Lord and the other as scapegoat. The goat for the Lord was
slaughtered and the blood sprinkled on the atonement cover, located in the Most Holy Place
of the temple. Under the atonement cover were kept the Ten Commandments carved on
stone. As they represented the witness of the high standards of God that were transgressed
by the people, the act of the priest symbolized the covering of the transgressions with
blood, as ransom price paid for their remission. Then the high priest had to “lay both hands
on the head of the live goat and confess over it all the wickedness and rebellion of the
Israelites - all their sins - and put them on the goat's head. He shall send the goat away into
the desert in the care of a man appointed for the task” (v. 21). This symbolically
represented the fact that the sins were carried away from the people, so that their relation
with the Holy God could continue.

The Israelites thus learned that any trespassing of the Mosaic Law is a sin and any sin
demands a specific sacrifice, in order that God, the giver of the law, could forgive the
sinner. The principle pointed to the fact that the punishment for sin had to be borne by an
innocent animal, as substitute for the sinner. Through the ritual performed by the priest, it
was clearly shaped in the mind of any Israelite the fact that his sins are forgiven due to the
animal sacrifice, or more specifically, through its blood. The animal became man’s
substitute in order to fulfill God’s justice.

However, as the Old Testament indicates, the Israelites did transgress the Mosaic Law very
often and seriously, especially by worshipping other gods, an act forbidden by the very first
command. At the time the prophet Jeremiah lived (627-580 BC), the function of the Temple
itself was perverted, and those who came to worship there were condemned for performing
empty rituals aimed at gaining God’s goodwill, according to the idolatrous patterns of other
religions, without any desire to obey God’s Law (see Jeremiah 7,1-11; 22-23). As a result
of this attitude they were punished by the Babylonian captivity. It seemed that all the
sacrifices failed to produce a change of attitude in the people’s hearts. A better sacrifice
was required to solve the problem of sin once for all, one that should be perfect and unique,
and also available for all nations. This is what the New Testament speaks about.

Jesus Christ, the perfect solution for our sins

The Apostle Paul expresses God’s attitude toward sin in very straightforward terms:

The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness
of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness (Romans 1,18).

Although God is omnipotent, He could not simply erase all people’s sins by a decree, as
some people suggest. He could have thrown us all into hell instead, as He is holy and just
and we are all sinners. However, God is perfect not only in power and justice, but also in
His love for us. This is why the solution for the problem of sin could not be a simplistic
one. His love would not be perfect if not united with His justice, wisdom and power. His
wrath toward sin, on the one side, and His love for man and desire to bring him back into
communion with Him, on the other side, could have been reconciled only by His initiative,
by His power and wisdom. It is important to remember here that Satan is not the one that
had to receive satisfaction, as if he became the one in charge of man’s destiny and therefore
should have received a reasonable price in order to set him free again, but God Himself.
The Apostle Paul makes this point clear in the first chapter of his Letter to the Romans,
where he doesn’t even mention Satan. Man came under the dominion of Satan because he
deliberately rejected God, but this doesn’t mean that Satan has any rights over man at the
moment he wants to return to his rightful master.

The New Testament reveals how God took the initiative to solve the problem of sin by
using the most dramatic solution ever stated in the world religions: God the Son willingly
left His divine glory, took a human body and descended into our world through the virgin
birth, limiting Himself into space and time in order to be the perfect and unique sacrifice
for us. The Apostle Paul states:

Christ Jesus, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be
grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in
human likeness (Philippians 2,6-7).

This “making Himself nothing” performed by God the Son is called in theology “the
kenosis of Christ” (lit. = “emptying”). It does not mean a subtraction of deity, but the
addition of humanity with its consequent limitations. Although taking a human nature was a
real humbling for God the Son, it did not involve the giving up of any divine attributes. The
doctrine of the kenosis involves the veiling of His preincarnate glory (John 17,5), taking on
Himself the likeness of human sinful flesh (Romans 8,3) and the temporary nonuse of
divine attributes during His earthly ministry.
The kenosis of Christ was His free will initiative and not a necessity imposed by His nature,
as is the case with the periodical incarnations of Vishnu. According to Christianity, Jesus
Christ is the only incarnation of God, descended into our world with a unique and non-
repeatable mission in history. He is not a mere avatar, a periodical incarnation of a Hindu
god, but the unique incarnation of God the Son, become God the Man, perfect in both His
divine and human nature. This double nature of Jesus Christ is the key for understanding
His mission of reconciling man with God. In Vaishnava Hinduism none of the avatars has a
perfect union of the two natures. As they have no historical basis, it is very difficult to
speculate on how their divine nature combined with the physical one (animal or human).
Due to considering the physical body a mere garment that is put on and off (according to
Bhagavad Gita 2,22), there cannot be any real association of god with a physical body.
Christ came to redeem the physical body as well, therefore His association with it was real.
For the same reason there is so much accent laid on His physical resurrection, which for a
Hindu avatar would be completely absurd. Therefore the avatar fits best in the Docetic
understanding of Christ (the appearance of a physical body, with no intrinsic value to it),
which is considered a classic heresy in Christianity. (For more information on classic
Christian heresies click here). The double nature of the incarnated Christ, divine and
human, is of fundamental importance for His mission. Here is a fragment of the definition
of Chalcedon on this topic:

Following, then, the holy fathers, we unite in teaching all men to confess the one and only
Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. This selfsame one is perfect both in deity and in humanness;
this selfsame one is also actually God and actually man, with a rational soul <meaning
human soul> and a body. He is of the same reality as God as far as his deity is concerned
and of the same reality as we ourselves as far as his humanness is concerned; thus like us in
all respects, sin only excepted. Before time began he was begotten of the Father, in respect
of his deity, and now in these "last days," for us and behalf of our salvation, this selfsame
one was born of Mary the virgin, who is God-bearer in respect of his humanness.

We also teach that we apprehend this one and only Christ-Son, Lord, only-begotten -- in
two natures; and we do this without confusing the two natures, without transmuting one
nature into the other, without dividing them into two separate categories, without
contrasting them according to area or function. The distinctiveness of each nature is not
nullified by the union. Instead, the "properties" of each nature are conserved and both
natures concur in one "person" and in one reality <hypostasis>. They are not divided or cut
into two persons, but are together the one and only and only-begotten Word <Logos> of
God, the Lord Jesus Christ. Thus have the prophets of old testified; thus the Lord Jesus
Christ himself taught us; thus the Symbol of Fathers has handed down to us.

We do not intend to analyze here some important historical issues of Christianity. Historical
and archaeological research have proved that the New Testament is a reliable information
source on the life and teachings of Jesus Christ. There are enough reasons to accept that it
was not written later than the first century AD. You can use the following links for getting
information on this:

Dating the Oldest New Testament Manuscripts, by Peter van Minnen;

Textual Criticism and Manuscript Interpretation;
The Gospels As Historical Sources For Jesus, The Founder Of Christianity, by Prof. R. T.

Now let us turn to the significance of the life and death of Jesus Christ. He always claimed
to be divine, having the same nature with the Father. For an analysis of Jesus' sayings
concerning His divinity, see the following articles:

Jesus' Claims to be God, by Sue Bohlin;

Beyond Blind Faith; by Paul Little;
The Uniqueness of Jesus, Liar, Lunatic, or Lord?, by Pat Zukeran;
The Deity of Christ, by Don Closson;
A Response to "From Jesus to Christ", by Rick Wade.
The are also other resources available for evaluating the claims that Jesus was a remarkable
man who only became a deity in the minds of his followers.

The sayings of Jesus concerning His divinity must not be interpreted from a pantheistic
point of view, as being valid for anyone. He didn’t preach in India to some pantheist gurus,
who believe that everything is a manifestation of Brahman and the spiritual masters are
special incarnations of the divine. If He had preached there, surely He would not have been
sentenced to death. Therefore, when interpreting His sayings, we have to remember that
Jesus Christ came to Israel, to the only monotheistic culture of that time, not to the Far East.
Unlike other religions of the world, Judaism clearly stated the notion of a personal and
unique God. Anyone daring to claim divine attributes was guilty of blasphemy and had to
be sentenced to death. This means that the formula "Aham Brahma Asmi" ("I am
Brahman") and Jesus’ words "I and the Father are one" (John 10,30) have a totally different
meaning, because they are addressed to a totally different context. Jesus could not give
pantheistic teachings in a strictly monotheistic culture such as the Judaic one. Such a
schizophrenic attitude would be the last thing of which He could be accused. On the
contrary, He was always extremely explicit, using common language, so that anyone could
understand Him. As a result, the claims about His divinity were interpreted as blasphemy
by those who refused to see in Him the fulfillment of the Old Testament’s messianic

Another attempt to find Eastern connotations in the New Testament uses the prologue of
John’s Gospel, where it is stated that “the Word was God” (v. 1) and “through Him all
things were made” (v. 3). However, this “Word” was neither the sacred syllable AUM, nor
the manifestation of Brahman as Ishvara (the Hindu Logos), but the Person of Jesus Christ,
who took the initiative to descend into His own creation: “The word became flesh and
made His dwelling among us” (John 1,14). Jesus Christ was not the manifestation of an
impersonal Ultimate Reality, but the Person of God the Son. This and all other speculations
that try to prove the equivalence of His sayings with those of the East ignore the cultural
and religious context in which they were taught. The same is true of the hypothesis that He
lived in India from the age of 12 until 30. (Click here for more information on this topic.)
He never did teach as a Hindu guru, exhorting people to find their “forgotten divine
nature”. Because of this, Gnosticism and its writings present a false portrait of Jesus, totally
out of His real context.
Jesus Christ cannot merely be placed in an equal position with other spiritual leaders of the
world because He is God the Son, who came into our world to reconcile us with the
Creator. According to the syncretistic trend of our days, Jesus Christ should be considered
as one of the great spiritual masters of the world, but not the only Son of God; one to be
followed, but not to be worshipped. Gandhi, the great Indian leader, put it like this: "I
cannot ascribe exclusive divinity to Jesus. He is as divine as Krishna or Rama or
Mohammad or Zoroaster" (M. Gandhi, Christian Missions, Ahmadabad, 1941, p. 113).
However, given His identity, Jesus is more than a great teacher; He is the Master of masters
and has no equal among them. Even if there are attempts to find some similarities between
His life and that of other important religious leaders, they cover only a few aspects of His
life. The most striking differences concern His death. Here we reach the turning point of
His incarnation: Jesus had to die on the cross for our redemption from sin and
reconciliation with God. The Apostle Peter states in his epistle:

He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for
righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed (1 Peter 2,24; see also 1,18-21; 3,18).

Jesus Christ as “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1,29), is the
cornerstone of Christianity and its non-paralleled element. Toward this fulfillment pointed
the sacrifices of the Old Testament (see Hebrews 9,12-14) and the highlights of prophecies.
If man had the slightest chance to rehabilitate himself through his own power or wisdom,
such an extreme solution would have been absurd. The tragedy of the cross proves the
reality and gravity of human sin, the spiritual misery in which we are all stuck and the
impossibility of saving ourselves. Mocked and spit upon by the human race, nailed on a
cross and forsaken by the Father, Jesus Christ took our place in punishment. The prophet
Isaiah wrote about this event about seven centuries before it happened:

Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken
by God, smitten by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was
crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his
wounds we are healed (Isaiah 53,4-5).

Although man did his best, he couldn’t destroy Him. On the contrary, the most horrible
crime ever committed by mankind - the crucifixion of the incarnated God - was reversed to
become the very source of our salvation. While dying on the cross, Jesus shouted, “It is
finished” (John 19,30). In Greek, the expression used was “Tetelestai”, which means, “the
debt was paid in full”. What was meant here is the debt that man deserved to pay for his
sins in hell, through eternal torment. By His death, Jesus paid in full the price required for
the salvation of mankind from sin.

Was the suffering of Christ on the cross a mere illusion? Obviously not! His torment and
death were so real that none of those who saw it could expect a future victory over death.
This proves the full incarnation of God the Son. He did not die only in physical appearance,
as the Docetist heresy suggests, but as a poor miserable man, experiencing suffering in its
fullest sense. His death proves both the seriousness of our sin and the unfathomable love of
God, as Jesus once proclaimed:
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him
shall not perish but have eternal life (John 3,16).

His death on the cross put an end to the sacrificial system of the Old Testament. Jesus
Christ is the perfect fulfillment of the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur). He fulfilled both
the role of the goat for the Lord, by the fact that He shed His blood for us, and of the
scapegoat, as He took our sins away from the presence of God. However, death and hell
had no power over Christ and couldn’t hold Him captive, because He had no sin. The
Gospel (“The Good News”) does not end with the crucifixion. If so, Christianity would
have been a hopeless religion, bound by the impossibility of conquering suffering and
injustice. But Christianity holds a unique element: the morning of the Resurrection. Of
what use would have been a special spiritual master if he too, as all others, could not defeat
death? What meaning would His teachings and His example have for us? Without His
resurrection, the best way to confront suffering would have been Eastern pessimism.
Escape from suffering by the destruction of personhood, by the negation of life, would have
been the natural result of man’s failure in his combat against evil and suffering. Christianity
is not a pessimistic religion, demanding the abolition of life, but an optimistic one, full of
affirmation of life, according to the model represented by Jesus Christ. This is emphasized
by the fact that the Resurrection was a physical one, in the body, not only in the spirit.

According to the Eastern view, the resurrection of the body is absurd, as the liberation of
the self cannot be a return to the physical wrapping. A physical resurrection does not solve
anything from an Eastern point of view; it only brings man back to his initial unsolved
problem. For this reason the resurrection of Jesus is usually understood as a physical
resuscitation of His body (as some Yogis can do today), or as a purely spiritual
resurrection, a view which holds that the physically resurrected body was only an illusion.
Given the cruelty of the crucifixion method, the first possibility is out of the question.
Concerning the second, although the resurrected body was a transformed one, it was not an
ethereal form, as those produced in spiritualistic manifestations, but one completely
liberated from any terrestrial limitation. (Click here for an examination of the Gnostic
interpretation of Jesus' mere spiritual and mystical resurrection.) During the 40 days He
spent with His disciples after the Resurrection, Jesus appeared to “more than five hundred
of the brothers at the same time” (1 Corinthians 15,6), so that people could accept the
reality of His bodily resurrection. Despite the fact that there are legends in the mythology of
other nations telling stories of other “resurrected saviors” - as Osiris, Attis, Mithra, Adonis,
Tammuz, etc. - in comparison with the resurrection of Jesus, they are nothing but non-
historical legends.

You can use the following links for getting more information about the proofs of Jesus’
Contemporary Scholarship and the Historical Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus Christ,
The Bodily Resurrection of Jesus, The Historicity of the Empty Tomb of Jesus, The
Disciples' Inspection of the Empty Tomb, by Prof. William Lane Craig
Evidence for the Resurrection, by Josh McDowell
Not only did Jesus keep His physical body after the Resurrection, but He also ascended “at
the right hand of the Father” in this body. The reality of the resurrected body overthrows
misconceptions about the illusory state of the physical world and emphasizes the value of
life here and now. Only if we are convinced that this earthly life is important can we engage
in solving its problems. If the only victory of Jesus over death had been the survival of his
spirit, the value of this present physical life would have remained unclear and our interest
placed only on the other side of the grave. But Christianity proclaims the victory over death
to be won here and now, and this embodied victory gives us hope and strength in our
struggle with suffering and sin.

It is true that Eastern religions also claim the possibility of attaining liberation during the
physical life. There exists the concept of jivan-mukta in Hinduism (the “liberated from
rebirth while living in a human body”) and that of arahat in Buddhism. They are said to
have pierced the veil of cosmic illusion and realized their true spiritual nature. The
difference to be emphasized here is that jivan-mukta despises his body and awaits to get rid
of it at physical death, when he will survive in his true spiritual essence - of atman or
purusha. True liberation (moksha) is defined against any personal existence and must break
any bondage of the physical body. The jivan-mukta has to act in the world completely
detached, taking care not to involve himself in any association with the physical world. The
resurrection of Jesus contradicts such a perspective, indicating that the created matter has
nothing wrong or illusory in itself. The true problem of man is not his involvement in the
physical world, rather it is a moral problem called sin, which is a personal attitude toward
the Creator. According to Christianity, liberation (salvation) is not deliverance from
personal existence, but redemption out of slavery to sin and Satan, into a transformed life of
eternal communion with God.

By His atoning death, Jesus Christ crushed the power of Satan over us (1 John 3,8) and
liberated us from the curse of sin. Another crucial element of Christianity is the fact that
Jesus Christ is not one of the many ways to God, but the only way to God, as He claimed

I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me
(John 14,6).

This statement is very bold, clear and embarrassing for those who try to find other ways to
God, ignoring the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ. However, this does not mean that those
who never heard about Christ are damned to spend all their eternity in hell, simply because
they had no opportunity to hear about Him. (On this topic see our special file How can
those who never heard about Christ be saved?)

The Eastern religions are not so exclusive regarding liberation because they are not
grounded on such a dramatic solution for our salvation as the one Jesus Christ offers. These
religions emphasize the role of one's own efforts in order to reach the Ultimate Reality, by
rituals, sacrifices, morality, asceticism, meditation, etc. As most of them cultivate trust only
in the efficiency of one's own resources, they reject any possibility of accepting a Savior.
The doctrine of karma has a strong contribution to this attitude. The idea of finding
liberation through the merits of an external savior cannot be reconciled by any means with
karma without contradicting its basic demands. There can be no escape from the
consequences of karma by grace, because the personal forms of manifestation of the
impersonal Ultimate Reality cannot be above this law. Sins have to be paid for, not
forgiven. (See our file on the Parable of the Prodigal Son in Christianity and Buddhism.)

In Christianity, the situation is completely different: Man has no chance to save himself. He
cannot ascend by himself from the misery of sin, therefore God the Son had to descend to
man’s state and lift him up. Unlike the founders of other religions, Jesus Christ didn’t bring
us only wisdom and parables, but also His flesh and blood. This is the major difference,
which cannot simply be ignored.

The meaning of salvation in Christianity

According to the Bible, the sacrifice of Jesus Christ is our only chance for returning to a
communion relation with our Creator. This solution is the gift of God to mankind, an
undeserved gift, called grace in Christian theology. Without God’s grace, no one can
deserve salvation on the basis of his own resources. The Apostle Paul wrote:

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith - and this not from yourselves, it is the
gift of God - not by works, so that no one can boast (Ephesians 2,8-9).

Most Eastern religions refuse this possibility, as they consider that all resources to attain
liberation are inherent to human nature. The major spiritual paths for attaining liberation in
Hinduism are karma yoga (the way of good deeds and fulfillment of social duties), bhakti
yoga (the way of devotion toward a personal deity in order to accumulate merits), raja yoga
(the way of controlling the mind, as the ascetic technique of Patanjali requires) and jnana
yoga (the way of getting spiritual knowledge). Excepting some developments in bhakti
yoga, all are based on human effort and capacity for attaining liberation. In most Eastern
religions, man doesn’t need forgiveness, because there is no personal God as Ultimate
Reality against whom one could sin. Consequently, sin is mere ignorance, so that the
“sinner” needs only help to reason the right way and realize that he is responsible for his
actions, for which he must pay the consequences in samsara. If there is no need for
forgiveness, the need for grace cannot exist either. Although Mahayana Buddhism accepts
the help of the bodhisattva beings, it has no equivalent to the Christian idea of grace. The
bodhisattvas help people by bringing them to heavenly realms where they have the
privilege to hear the proper doctrine. Only by perseverance on this doctrine can liberation
be attained.

However, there are also trends that invoke the necessity of grace from a personal god.
Remember the theistic schools grounded by Ramanuja and Madhva in India. They stated
that grace is an absolute necessity to attain liberation, which represents a remarkable
similarity to the Christian view of grace. A similar situation is to be found in Pure Land
Buddhism. Although remarkable, these theistic trends have only secondary importance in
Eastern religions.

The Christian perspective on salvation is that no one can deserve the grace of God by
performing rituals, good deeds, asceticism or meditation, because grace is the result of His
initiative. However, this does not mean that man has no responsibility and is saved
whatever his attitude toward the Savior might be. In order to be forgiven and brought back
into a personal relation with God, it is not enough that the grace of God exists, as potential
solution. It must be accepted personally by the sinful man. Only then can the atoning death
of Christ become an actual solution for one’s sins.

The recognition of one’s sinful state, followed by personal acceptance of the atoning
sacrifice of Christ as the God-given solution for salvation, is called repentance. The Apostle
Peter used this term in his preaching on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2,38). In that given
context, repentance had a wider meaning than simply regretting the mistakes of the past.
We are all sorry for the mistakes we do, but this is not repentance as required in the Bible.
When the Holy Spirit descended at Pentecost, repentance meant to be sorry for rejecting
Jesus Christ as Savior (see Acts 2,22-37), accompanied by a subsequent change of
mentality: If until that moment the Jews considered Jesus to be only a strange guy that
pretended to be equal with God, the Scripture describes a total change of that mentality,
toward considering him God the Son, incarnated for their salvation. The same change of
attitude toward Jesus is required today. He was not a mere man, prophet, guru or something
similar, but the Savior of the world, the only “name under heaven given to men by which
we must be saved" (Acts 4,12).

The “effort” man has to do in order to be saved is to open his heart and receive the free gift
of God, through faith. Saving faith means more than to know that God exists and what He
says is true. This is a knowledge that even demons believe “and shudder” (James 2,19).
Faith requires total trust in God's promises. In the Epistle to the Hebrews faith is defined as
“being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see” (11,1). It is the proper
human response to God’s initiative, not a mere form of positive thinking. Faith has as
object the Person of God, while positive thinking requires trust in oneself. The initiative of
God to make Himself known to us, without which we couldn’t know anything about Him
by our initiative, is called in theology revelation. It was progressive in the Old Testament
and reached its climax in the incarnation of Christ, an undeniable historical event. God’s
revelation touched human history, which is why the Christian faith requires trust in a
certain line of historical events that culminate with the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus.
This historical element confers to the Christian faith enough relevance to be set apart from
both positive thinking and the parallel concept in Hinduism, that of shraddha. Hindu “faith”
has its origin in Vedic ritualism and meant trust in the efficiency of the ritual, being in fact
just a form of positive thinking. (Only in the bhakti movements it came to be oriented
toward a god or a guru, but then also mostly as an instrument to accumulate merits.)

Christianity is often criticized because its solution to man’s present condition is too simple.
“How could it be possible to attain salvation only by the merits of Christ?”; “How could
one receive it without hard perseverance, through asceticism and meditation?”; etc.
Although man’s desire to do something for his salvation seems to be justified, under this
attitude stays hidden an offended pride. In order to accept God’s free gift in Christ, man has
to constantly admit his failure to attain salvation by himself. This situation conflicts sharply
with his tendency toward self-justification, with his pride. On the other hand, pride is a bad
product of personhood, and we therefore meet another paradox: The follower of Eastern
spirituality refuses the grace of God as a result of his pride, an attitude he should have
eradicated from his life, according to his own Eastern religious teaching. Paradoxically, he
seeks to destroy his personhood, rather than a bad attachment of it (pride). This raises
important questions about the Eastern religion’s consistency within itself.

As man finds it so hard to give up his pride, preferring to attain salvation by his own
efforts, even if it would take several lives, we could ask: Which of the two alternatives is
harder to follow: the one which requires abandonment of self-justifying pride or the one of
personal hard striving? If Christianity is such a simple way, why is it refused by so many?
Is it not really harder to constantly defeat your pride and consider yourself powerless before
God, than to continue your asceticism? Looking for an answer in human nature, corrupted
by sin and full of rebellion against God, the answer is obviously positive. This means that
Christianity isn’t at all a “simple” alternative, as it demands us to abandon the very thing
we love most: our pride, the tendency to prove our independence from God.

God wishes that all people should accept His gift of salvation (see 1 Timothy 2,4; 2 Peter
3,9), but without forcing anybody to do it. Jesus Christ says:

I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in
and eat with him, and he with me (Revelation 3,20).

The responsibility for “opening the door” belongs to each of us, without exception.
However, the one who continues to ignore Christ in this life will after death spend the rest
of his eternal existence behind the closed door. Christianity does not proclaim universalism,
the doctrine of universal salvation of all souls, regardless of their spiritual option during
this earthly life. Universalism is rather a characteristic of Eastern religions, but not as a
result of divine love, but rather of the necessity imposed by the cyclic manifestations of the
Ultimate Reality.

Nor does Christianity support the idea of some people being predestined to hell while
others to paradise. Being chosen in the Bible has to do with God's sovereign will in
choosing some people for a special ministry, for instance the prophets in the Old Testament
and Jesus’ apostles in the New Testament. But this has nothing to do with others being
rejected from attaining salvation. In other words, one's salvation does not depend on if he is
chosen or not for a certain ministry appointed by God. It is possible that even chosen
people may end in eternal damnation. For instance, Balaam among the prophets (Numbers
22-24) and Judas among the apostles were both chosen for a special ministry, but because
of their disobedience were rejected from salvation. Therefore it depends solely on humans,
on how they respond to God's grace, to be saved. It is hard to imagine a loving God who
chooses to enter our world and die on a cross, who could randomly choose some people and
reject others.

Christianity proclaims man’s free will and responsibility toward God. Spiritual freedom is
the real possibility offered to man to choose one out of two eternal destinations, heaven or
hell. A third option, that of absolute independence, is impossible, as Jesus Christ himself
stated: “He who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me scatters”
(Matthew 12,30). On the other hand, in the Eastern religions, karma discredits any notion of
individual freedom. The only “freedom” left to man is the possibility to give a detached
sense to his predetermined actions (see Bhagavad Gita 18,59-60). In other words, the only
freedom left is that of “choosing” the predetermined destiny stated by karma, which means
resignation to fate. Not having available (at least) two possible destinations to express a real
choice (God or Satan), but only one (the unique impersonal Ultimate Reality), a real
freedom of will cannot be defined. Whatever man chooses, finally he has to return to the
impersonal origin of all existence.

Refusing karma and reincarnation, the Christian point of view states that we live only once
in this physical world, and then follows the judgment of God (Hebrews 9,27). (For more
information on reincarnation and its relation to Christian theology click here.) After death
man either enters into a close and eternal communion with God, or into a state of total
isolation from Him, according to the option chosen during this earthly existence. Although
the second possibility is frightening (and because of this some people accuse God of being
cruel), He doesn’t allow it without first offering us as solution the free gift of salvation
through the atoning death of Jesus Christ. Nothing can save us from this unwanted destiny
except Him. Instead of calling Him cruel, we should remember that God the Son was so
deeply concerned with mankind that He entered space and time, took a human body and
died on a cross as our substitute. What more do we expect from God as proof of His love
and concern for us? In order to accept His sacrifice, one life is enough. The Christian
solution is much better than those of the East, which leave man alone in his endless struggle
with karma.

On the other hand, if God would not isolate evil, if He would accept in His eternal presence
those who do not want it, He wouldn’t be just. If someone persists in his rebellion toward
Him, manifested through indifference or desire for independence, God does not force him
to enter into the kingdom of heaven, where this man should worship Him against his will.
This would be an abuse against man’s freedom. Hell is the result of man's choice to be
independent from God and reject His offer. There is nothing unfair or cruel in God’s
withdrawing any intervention from this alternative existence. The fact that hell is an eternal
torment (according to Matthew 25,41,46) cannot be called a cruelty on God’s part. Those
who will be there will know why, without questioning divine justice (see the parable of
Lazarus in Luke 16,19-31). (Click here for some comments of the Early Church Fathers on
hell and eternal punishment.)

In conclusion, it has to be remembered that according to Christianity, the eternal destiny of

man is not the annihilation of soul and personhood, but a state of perfect and eternal
communion with God. Belief in the survival of personhood after death is not an illusion but
is grounded on the creation of man as a person, on the promises of the Bible and the
resurrection of Christ. God does not intend to annihilate our personhood in order that we
might discover an impersonal hidden nature, but to annihilate sin and its products which
compromise His image in us. Therefore, the highest experience human beings could have is
not merging with an impersonal Ultimate Reality but entering into a perfect communion of
reciprocal love with God our Creator.

Salvation in Islam

Islam teaches that all people are sinners (Quran 16,61) and that salvation can be attained
through observing the Five Pillars of Islamic practice:

1) the belief that Allah is the only god and Muhammad his messenger;
2) performing the five daily prayers;
3) fasting throughout the month of Ramadan;
4) charity, giving to the poor;
5) the pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in a lifetime, if one can afford it.

By performing these works, the Muslim hopes that at the judgment day his good deeds will
exceed the bad ones, and so he will reach the paradise of material and sensual delights
(56,16-41). One also has to have faith in Allah and believe that salvation is by his grace and
mercy. Yet, despite all deeds, Allah reserves the absolute right to send the deceased to
wherever he pleases, paradise or hell. Those who do not conform their lives to the demands
of Islam will surely be thrown into hell, a place of extreme physical pain (56,42-45; 94-95).

Christianity is not the only religion that claims to be the only valid way to God. Islam states
the same: “Whoever seeks a religion other than Islam, it will never be accepted from him
and in the hereafter he will be one of the losers” (3,85). Jews and Christians are all said to
be misled by their religions (9,30-31), because they have deviated from monotheism.
Therefore they should convert, believe in Allah and do good deeds (2,62).

Jesus Christ has a totally different character in the Quran than in the Bible. It is said that he
was created out of clay, like Adam (3,60), that he was not God (5,17-72) but just an apostle
(4,171), was not crucified (4,157-158) and that he announced the coming of Muhammad

There are some useful sites you are invited to visit in order to get more information on a
comparison between Islam and Christianity:

The Person of Christ in the Gospel and the Quran, by Abd al-Fadi
Sin and Atonement in Islam and Christianity, by Iskander Jadeed
The Cross in the Gospel and the Qur’an, by Iskander Jadeed
Christ in Islam and Christianity, by John Gilchrist
A Question that Demands an Answer, by Abd al-Masih
The Textual History of the Qur’an and the Bible, by John Gilchrist
Six Muslim Beliefs and a Christian Response, by Jay Smith
The Bible and the Qur’an, An Historical Comparison

Considering all these views on salvation and man’s eternal destiny, it is hard to believe that
they could ever be reconciled. The world’s religions hold rather irreconcilable positions in
all of the three aspects mentioned in the beginning of this file: the nature of the resources
needed for attaining salvation, the actual way of getting saved and the meaning of salvation
from an eternal perspective.

The resources for attaining salvation belong strictly to our human nature according to most
of the Eastern religions, excepting some schools of devotional Hinduism and Buddhism.
Man needs only to know the right things in order to be saved, having the ability to pursue
the religious path by his own strength. Christianity holds the opposite view, stating that our
“true inner nature” is sin and therefore all our efforts aimed to earn God’s favor are useless.

Based on the resources human nature has, the actual way of getting saved will take two
divergent possibilities. Religions that claim we have all the resources in ourselves for
attaining salvation naturally stress personal effort, materialized as good deeds, devotional
rituals, meditation techniques, physical asceticism, accumulating wisdom, etc. This is the
case with most religions in the world. While pantheistic religions stress certain meditation
and ascetic techniques aimed at discovering man’s inner nature, most theistic religions
demand good deeds and devotional rituals in order to earn God’s grace and therefore
deserve heaven.

The situation in Christianity is again opposite, stating that we cannot do anything to deserve
salvation and eternal communion with God, but only to accept His grace revealed in Jesus
Christ. By no means can man have God indebted to him. Only God can save man, at His
initiative. Therefore the course of action in salvation has an opposite sense in Christianity
vs. most other religions. It is God who takes the initiative and descends into His own
creation in order to save man, not man accumulating merits and working out his way
toward God, by his own strength.

Concerning the meaning of salvation from an eternal perspective, the views are again
irreconcilable. In the pantheistic religions salvation means liberation from ignorance and
corresponds to the fusion of the impersonal self with the Absolute, implying dissolution of
subject and object, knower and known. Others, such as Buddhism and Taoism, take
salvation as an illumination, meaning a discovery of and conformity of oneself with an
eternal law that governs existence. For most Eastern religions liberation leads to extinction
of any personal existence, whether the self remains eternally isolated (according to the
Samkhya and Yoga darshanas), merges with the Ultimate Reality (in pantheism), or is itself
an illusion that ceases to exist (in Buddhism). Dualistic religions see man’s salvation as a
return to an initial angelic state, from which he has fallen into a physical body.

The monotheistic religions define salvation as entering a state of eternal communion with
God, which means that personhood will not be abrogated but perfected. However, they
differ greatly on the way man can be saved and on the role Jesus Christ has in it. According
to Judaism and Islam, salvation is attained by performing good deeds and following the
moral law. According to Christianity this is not enough and the role of Jesus Christ as
Savior is essential.

Given these facts, it is impossible that the world’s religions could be only aspects of the
same true spirituality, as present day syncretism suggests. The contradictions between them
are so significant that there can be no way to reconcile them.



The problem of evil is a touchstone of any religion. Evil is present everywhere: in our
society, in the environment, around us and even inside us. Out of our direct confrontation
with evil results suffering, and thus endless questions about the meaning of life. That is
why all religions have to give a proper answer regarding the origin, nature and end of evil.

There are three major religious alternatives in explaining evil, stated by the pantheistic,
dualistic and monotheistic religions. Pantheistic religions regard evil as ultimately unreal.
Human suffering is a product of spiritual ignorance gathered in previous lives and
distributed in the present one according to the dictates of karma. In the dualistic religions,
good and evil are two eternal and rival principles. Neither has created the other one and
each acts according to its own nature. In the monotheistic religions, evil has a personal
identity. It is a being that has fallen from an initial good status as a result of misusing his
freedom of will. Let us analyze these perspectives and see to what extent they are
compatible with one another.


Evil in Eastern religions

Evil in Hinduism
As mentioned in a previous article, Hinduism is a complex mixture of religious trends.
Concerning the relation between Ultimate Reality and evil, there are at least three major
perspectives, given by:

1) the Vedas;
2) the Upanishads and the whole corpus of pantheistic writings;
3) the Epics and Puranas.

Evil in the Vedas

The oldest Vedic hymns consider Varuna to be the sovereign god. As god of heaven,
omnipresent, omniscient and infallible, he has no comparable opponent in the Vedic
pantheon. Evil is a matter of not fulfilling his laws by humans or not performing the ritual
properly. Very often it has a moral significance, meaning that people are evil-minded or
commit adultery (Rig Veda 4,5; 10,10). Those who commit evil deeds repent before Varuna
(Rig Veda 5,85) and try to repair their faults through ritual sacrifices.

The next generation of Vedic gods has Indra as sovereign god. However, he doesn’t have
the same power over creation as Varuna. He has to fight with the demon Vritra in order to
save mankind. In this fight he needs to be strengthened by the sacrifices performed by
humans and also needs help from other gods. Starting with the hymns addressed to Indra,
the combat against personalized evil becomes a main feature in Hindu mythology, which
will develop in the Epics and Puranas.

Evil in the Upanishads

The Upanishads ground a pantheistic perspective on Ultimate Reality and introduce karma
as explanation of human suffering. The only true substance of the universe is Brahman, so
that evil cannot be real. Ignoring the one and only reality of Brahman launches karma into
action and therefore brings suffering to the soul in further lives. Although it is difficult to
determine the very beginning of karma’s manifestation, a text in Kausitaki Upanishad (3,8)
indicates that Brahman himself causes the good and evil done by humans, and so he must
be the one responsible for the origin of karma:

He (Brahman) causes him whom he wishes to lead up from these worlds to perform good
action. This one, indeed, also causes him whom he wishes to lead downward, to perform
bad action.

As the manifestations and dissolutions of the world are eternal, so is karma, meaning that
suffering is a part of the eternal cosmic cycle. Logically then, the ultimate origin of karma
must be in Brahman, because he is the source of any manifestation and the origin of souls.
Man cannot be considered guilty for the evil in the world, not even for his own bad deeds,
because all of them originated in past lives, of which he cannot be aware. Suffering in the
present life is the natural consequence of past lives’ ignorance and it has to be endured
without questioning. (For more details on karma and reincarnation, the way they act and
solve the problem of evil, see our article on reincarnation)

The real problem of man is to get the impersonal self (atman) out of the cycle ignorance-
karma-reincarnation and find liberation. The belief in the real statute of evil is a major
hindrance in attaining liberation, as well as granting value to human personhood. As only a
personal witness can experience evil, the solution for escaping it is getting rid of our sense
of personhood and withdrawal from this world of illusions, by taking a right view on reality
through meditation. (For more information on the nature of Eastern meditation and its
trustworthiness as source of knowing truth, click here.)

Evil in Samkhya-Yoga
Although the Samkhya and Yoga darshanas are not pantheistic, they follow a close
reasoning in defining evil. As philosophies that grant no significance to human personhood,
evil is a matter of how much one is caught in the psycho-mental illusions generated by the
primordial substance (prakriti). It contains the three gunas, and two of them (rajas and
tamas) are causing the manifestations of what we call evil in the world, both in the physical
aspect and the mental one. Evil is a part of nature and man has to get along with it from one
existence to another through his karma. The true problem is finding liberation from the
manifestations of prakriti through meditation and asceticism, and this means complete
cessation of suffering.

Evil in the Epics and Puranas

These writings adopt a middle way in explaining evil, between the dictates of karma and
the responsibility of the gods in producing it as sovereign agents in the universe. As these
two elements are irreconcilable and mutually exclusive, the solutions to the problem of evil
are themselves contradictory. The character of the gods becomes ambiguous in the Epics
and Puranas. They are responsible for producing both good and evil. Here are some

Indra, the ex-hero of the Vedas, commits adultery in the Skanda Purana (2,7,23,8-40) and
justifies himself by the effect of his past karma. In the Mahabharata (12,258,42) he is
excused for seducing Gotama’s wife by being in a process of working out a result of karma.
No wonder that in the Ramayana (7,30,20-45) he is accused of having brought adultery into
the world by his bad example. In a late Upanishad he even encourages his followers to act
immorally: “I killed the three-headed son of Tvashtri and delivered the ascetics to the
jackals; I broke a treaty and overcame the demon Prahlada and the descendants of Puloman.
Yet not a hair of my head was harmed. So he who understands me is not injured by any
deed, not even by stealing, killing an embryo, matricide or parricide. If he has committed
any evil, he does not become pale.” (Kausitaki Up. 3,1)

Although Krishna points to himself as the example for his followers in the Bhagavad Gita
(3,23), when committing adultery in the Puranas he justifies himself in reference to human
behavior, saying: “Since even the sages are uncontrolled and act as they please, how could
one possibly restrain Vishnu when he becomes voluntary incarnate?” (Bhagavata Purana

Brahma, the creator god, is often accused of being creator of both good and evil. In one
situation described in the Mahabharata, he grew jealous of people and their heavenly
destiny and planned to delude them: “Formerly, all creatures were virtuous, and by
themselves they obtained divinity. Therefore the gods became worried, so Brahma created
women in order to delude men. Then women, who had been virtuous, became wicked
witches, and Brahma filled them with wanton desires, which they in turn inspired in men.
He created anger, and henceforth all creatures were born in the power of desire and anger
(Mahabharata 13,40,5-12). According to the Vishnu Purana (1,5,1-18), evil precedes and
accompanies Brahma’s creation, this being the reason why mankind is evil: “His fourth
creation produced creatures in whom darkness and passion predominated, afflicted by
misery; these were mankind.” In the Markandeya Purana (45,40) it is said that he created
both “cruel creatures and gentle creatures, dharma and adharma, truth and falsehood”.
Not only is evil inevitable in creation, it is said to be a good thing, a necessary dynamic
factor in the universe. For instance, in the Devibhagavata (4,13), Brihaspati, the guru of the
gods says: “All creatures, even gods, are subject to passions. Otherwise the universe,
composed as it is of good and evil, could not continue to develop.” According to the Vishnu
Purana (1,5,59-65), the evil in creation is both the will of Brahma the creator and the result
of karma’s obligation: “Brahma’s power is the will to create, and he is impelled by the
powers of things to be created.” In the same situation is Vishnu (Linga Purana 2,6,1-57),
who also creates both good and evil, “good people and bad people, those who follow the
right path, but also the heretics”.

These ambiguous solutions to the problem of evil in Hindu mythology are caused by the
fact that the gods cannot be at the same time sovereign, manifestations of an impersonal
Ultimate Reality (Brahman) and also in tune with karma. As an effect of the cyclical
manifestations of Brahman, good and evil follow one after another during the four ages
(yuga) of each manifestation, so that nothing in the universe is eternal and nothing dies,
neither good nor evil. Man is not responsible for the evil in the world, but only the
impersonal karma or the gods of mythology. If the gods are responsible, they either create it
willingly (and are evil themselves) because the universe has to contain it, or are forced to
create it by the higher law of karma or fate (and then are consequently weak). There is no
significant distinction between these two variants. The universe must contain good and evil
and so it is created by a certain god.

In conclusion, in Hinduism and the other pantheistic religions in general, there is no central
concern to understand and solve the problem of evil. Good and evil are often confused. The
attempt to define them is itself a false problem that gets the treatment false problems
deserve. The major concern is spiritual ignorance, in relation to which evil and morality
have a secondary importance. Through knowledge, it is said that man reaches above good
and evil, attaining an impersonal domain that justifies this attitude.


Evil in Buddhism
Buddhism rejects the authority of the Vedas and the other writings of Hinduism, explaining
the nature of evil through the process of constant becoming. Evil is the perpetuation of
illusion by the factors that fuel the chain of dependent origination (paticca-samuppada).
Ignorance in perceiving that the world is impermanent, devoid of a self and in constant
becoming leads to suffering. The Buddha proclaimed that in fact the whole of existence is

The Noble Truth of Suffering (dukkha) is this: Birth is suffering; aging is suffering;
sickness is suffering; death is suffering; sorrow and lamentation, pain, grief, and despair are
suffering; association with the unpleasant is suffering; dissociation from the pleasant is
suffering; not to get what one wants is suffering - in brief, the five aggregates of attachment
are suffering.
(Samyutta Nikaya 56,11)
There are three fundamental defilements of the mind that combine and interact leading to
suffering: greed (raga), aversion (dvesha) and ignorance (avidya). Their origin is desire to
experience existence in personal form. As personhood is nothing but an illusory result of
the temporary gathering together of five aggregates (the body, feeling, cognition, mental
constructions and consciousness), the desire to perpetuate the illusion of personal existence
produces suffering, so its extreme solution must be the abolition of personhood. There is no
suffering if there is no person left to perceive it.

The paradox of evil and suffering in Eastern religions

The general pattern in Eastern religions is to consider evil illusory, derived from a wrong
way of understanding reality. Consequently, suffering emerges from not putting the right
view into practice. For this reason, the first noble truth proclaimed by Gotama Buddha
states that the only reality of human existence is the all-pervading reality of suffering. This
perspective is valid for most of the Eastern religious thinkers that followed the period of the
Upanishads. The only possibility to escape suffering is to know the true nature of things, or
in other words, the impersonal Ultimate Reality. Proper spiritual knowledge can be attained
by the practice of meditation, which requires withdrawing oneself from the world.

On the other hand, considering one's personal suffering to be real leads to bad attachments
(kleshas), which are hindrances on the way towards liberation. Therefore we reach a
significant inconsistency in understanding the relation between suffering and liberation, as
two contradictory principles are stated:

The all-pervading reality of suffering leads man to seek liberation.

In order to attain liberation, man has to ignore evil and suffering, which do not belong to
the realm of true existence.

In other words, according to most Eastern religions, on the one hand suffering derives from
ignoring Ultimate Reality and prompts man to seek it, and on the other hand, the way of
knowing Ultimate Reality and escaping suffering demands ignoring suffering.

The question that arises naturally from here is: What has true ontological nature, suffering
or the impersonal Ultimate Reality? If suffering is real, man's personal status has to be real
too, because suffering can be perceived only at personal level. In this case the impersonal
Ultimate Reality has to be questioned. On the other hand, if impersonal Ultimate Reality
has true ontological nature, human personhood and suffering are illusory, so that suffering
cannot be accepted as the true generator of man's quest for liberation. Paradoxically,
spiritual practice demands that suffering should be ignored in order to find the "true reality"
towards which it prompts us. Eastern religions promise to help man escape suffering, but
while on the way towards liberation they ask us to ignore human suffering. Not only is this
contradictory, but such denial of suffering can be accomplished only by denying life itself,
a situation that is the ground for the pessimistic view of Eastern religions on human
existence. The ultimate cause of this situation is the lack of a personal Creator, directly
involved in man's condition by his grace.

Evil in Taoism
As long as any aspect of the world is a manifestation of Tao, corresponding to a different
participation of the Yin and Yang principles, nothing can be considered to be truly evil in
the world. Even if Yin is considered a negative principle, it never manifests itself alone. In
the Tao-te Ching it is stated:

When beauty is abstracted

Then ugliness has been implied;
When good is abstracted
Then evil has been implied.
(Tao-te Ching 2)

Every positive factor involves its negative or opposing one. What is usually called evil,
both the physical and mental aspects, corresponds to a bigger participation of the Yin
principle, the result of a lack of balance between the two opposing principles. Evil belongs
to the nature of the world, so man has to subscribe to the universal harmony and respect the
equilibrium of the two polarities. Tao is eternal and so are the two principles Yang and Yin,
so that good and evil must be eternal, as necessary elements of our world.


Evil in dualistic religions

According to the dualistic religions there are two antagonist and (usually) coeternal deities
involved in creation and in governing the destiny of man. Zoroastrianism probably stated
the first true religious dualism. Ahura Mazda and Angra Mainyu (or, according to a later
tradition, Ohrmazd and Ahriman) are the two coeternal gods responsible for the existence
of good and evil in the world. The Yasna (30,3) states: “There are two fundamental spirits,
twins which are renowned to be in conflict.In thought and in word, in action, they are two:
the good and the bad.” In the latter tradition of Zurvanism, Ohrmazd and Ahriman are twin
brothers, each one creating according to his own nature:

The first of the good lands and countries which I, Ahura Mazda, created, was Paradise, by
the good river Araxes. Thereupon came Angra Mainyu, who is all death, and he counter-
created by his witchcraft the serpent in the river and winter, a work of the devils.

The second of the good lands and countries which I, Ahura Mazda, created, was the plains
in Samarkand. Thereupon came Angra Mainyu, who is all death, and he counter-created by
his witchcraft the fly Skaitya, which brings death to the cattle.

The third of the good lands and countries which I, Ahura Mazda, created, was the strong,
holy Merv. Thereupon came Angra Mainyu, who is all death, and he counter-created by his
witchcraft sinful lusts.... (Videvdad 1,3-5).
Man is in the center of this eternal conflict, having the duty to choose always the good and
thus help it defeat the evil.

Most dualistic religions that developed after the 1st century AD were influenced by the
Genesis account of creation but interpret it in a totally different manner. Their position is
sharply anti-Judaic and anti-Christian, being aimed at undermining their basic tenets.
Marcionism, Gnosticism, Manicheism, Bogomilism and Catharism (as well as other
dualistic religions that swept through the medieval world) all acknowledge the God of the
Old Testament as creator but deny his goodness, and see the physical world as the product
of his ignorance of higher spiritual deities (the Aeons). His creation is therefore hazardous
and generates nothing but problems. Contrary to the Bible, man is superior to his creator
due to the fact that he was endowed with a spiritual essence by the Aeons. However, his
physical body keeps him bound to a miserable condition, which perpetuates through
reincarnation. The only way out of this is the attainment of true knowledge (gnosis).

In Gnosticism the creator god (Ialdabaot) ignores the higher deities whose descendent he is
and creates a world over which he claims to be the only god. However, man is superior to
him due to the fact that he received the spirit of life from a higher Aeon (Sophia, the mother
of Ialdabaot). Satan and Jesus are the enemies of Ialdabaot and teach humans how to attain
true knowledge that may save them from ignorance. A detailed study of Gnosticism and its
contradictions and incompatibilities with Christianity can be found in Irenaeus' treatise
Against Heresies.

A similar stand was adopted by Manicheism, a new religion that appeared in Persia in the
3rd century AD. Matter and the physical body are considered intrinsically evil as they
derive from the bodies of the dead forces of evil (the Archons). As a result of his captivity
in the bodily prison, the soul is overwhelmed by ignorance and forgets his true origin.
Reincarnation occurs until the soul is released from its earthly sufferings. Manicheism was
confronted successfully by Augustine in many of his writings in the 4th century AD. See
On the Morals of the Manichaeans and Concerning the Nature of Good, Against the

In Catharism the god of the Old Testament is considered to be the ultimate representative of
evil himself. He created the physical bodies of humans and locked angels inside them.
According to radical Catharism, human souls are angels who served the good God but were
tempted by Satan to experience earthly pleasures and could not resist them. The original
bodies and spirits of these angels remained in heaven, but their souls fell into physical
bodies. Reincarnation works until one recognizes his heavenly origin and purifies himself
in order to be accepted back where he belongs.

In conclusion, according to these dualistic religions, matter in general and the physical
body in particular are evil and produce suffering to the captive soul. This reality hinders
man from knowing his true spiritual identity, that of a spiritual being fallen or imprisoned
in a physical body. Ignoring this reality leads to suffering and reincarnation into various
bodies (human or animal) until true knowledge (gnosis) is attained.

Evil in Christianity
According to Christianity, God created all things, but this doesn’t make Him the creator of
evil. The Apostle John states: “God is light; in him there is no darkness at all” (1 John 1,5).
When God finished His creation, He appreciated that “all that He had made was very good”
(Genesis 1,31). However, anyone can clearly see that evil exists in our world, in an awful
measure. From here arises one of the major accusations brought by the opponents of
Christianity: If God is all-good, He should want to stop evil; if He is omnipotent, He could
stop it; but evil exists in the world, so God lacks either all-goodness (if He can stop evil but
does not want to) or omnipotence (if He wants to stop evil, but cannot), or both. As God is
declared to be all-good (1 John 4,8) and all-powerful (Revelation 19,6), how could this
puzzle be solved?

First we have to define what evil really is, an impersonal substance (as a part or a form of
our world), a personal being or a mere illusion. According to Christian theology, only God
has in Himself and by Himself Absolute being. Only He exists by Himself, according to the
formula “I am who I am” of Exodus 3,14. He is the only personal subject that is eternal and
immutable (James 1,17; Malachi 3,6). In other words, the Absolute is the Triune God, not
an impersonal substance as in pantheism, and beside Him there is nothing else with the
same attributes. This means that evil is neither an inherent quality pertaining to God or to
His creation, nor an eternal personal being (as in polytheistic or dualistic religions).

In this case could it be true that evil does not exist, that it is merely an illusion? If we use
the terms that characterize only God’s existence, yes, it is true that evil cannot exist by
itself, claiming as God: “I am who I am” (Exodus 3,14). This is what the Church Fathers
mean in some of their writings by the fact that evil is without substance, reality, being or
existence. For instance, in his writing On the Incarnation of the Word, Ch. 1, Athanasius
says that "God alone exists, evil is non-being". This is not an affirmation of the illusory
status of evil, but an ontological perspective on the fallen state of God's creatures that lost
communion with God. The context of his words is as following:

For the transgression of the commandment was making them turn back again according to
their nature; and as they had at the beginning come into being out of non-existence, so were
they now on the way to returning, through corruption, to non-existence again. The presence
and love of the Word had called them into being; inevitably, therefore when they lost the
knowledge of God, they lost existence with it; for it is God alone Who exists, evil is non-
being, the negation and antithesis of good.

The same meaning is attached to the words of Gregory of Nyssa when mentioning that
"there is no evil other than wickedness" in his Great Catechism, Ch. 7. The context here is
his address to the heretics that claimed that man is the creation of an evil deity (in order to
explain the fallen human nature). Gregory of Nyssa states that God is not responsible for
man's turning away from Him through sin. This act separates man from His presence and
consequently from real existence, as only God is the source for it. Here is Gregory of
Nyssa's commentary on the nature of evil:

Since, if their thoughts had taken a loftier view, and, withdrawing their minds from this
disposition to regard the gratifications of the senses, they had looked at the nature of
existing things dispassionately, they would have understood that there is no evil other than
wickedness. Now all wickedness has its form and character in the deprivation of the good;
it exists not by itself, and cannot be contemplated as a subsistence. For no evil of any kind
lies outside and independent of the will; but it is the non-existence of the good that is so
denominated. Now that which is not has no substantial existence, and the Maker of that
which has no substantial existence is not the Maker of things that have substantial
existence. Therefore the God of things that are is external to the causation of things that are
evil, since He is not the Maker of things that are non-existent. He Who formed the sight did
not make blindness.

Although evil has no ontological status with reference to the nature of God, one cannot say
evil doesn't exist. Evil existed even before the creation of man. Its origin is to be found in
the world of angels. God created them in time immemorial, as personal and immaterial
beings endowed with free will, in order to integrate themselves into the divine harmony
through obedience and communion. They were created ex nihilo, the same way as the
material universe, and thus have a nature different from God’s. These beings have mind
(Acts 12,7-10; 1 Peter 1,12), feelings (Luke 15,10), will (Jude 6) and are not limited by a
physical body. Their number was very large and had a hierarchy among them (Hebrews
12,22). Evil appeared in the world of angels when Lucifer, one of God’s cherubs, rebelled
against this order. In the book of the prophet Ezekiel we can read the following
metaphorical description of this incident:

You were blameless in your ways from the day you were created till wickedness was found
in you. Through your widespread trade you were filled with violence, and you sinned. So I
drove you in disgrace from the mount of God, and I expelled you, O guardian cherub, from
among the fiery stones. Your heart became proud on account of your beauty, and you
corrupted your wisdom because of your splendor. So I threw you to the earth; I made a
spectacle of you before kings (Ezekiel 28,15-17).

This angel, who became Satan (“adversary”) out of Lucifer (“angel of light”), was expelled
from heaven together with all the other angels who joined him in his act of rebellion. The
cause of his fall was pride, the desire to be independent from God, to refuse submission and
inferiority to Him. Lucifer wanted to be by himself more than his created status could
permit him.

Satan’s fall couldn’t have occurred without a real freedom of choice. He had the ability to
choose either to obey God or a selfish way, aimed at considering himself the source of his
existence. His choice for the second alternative constitutes the origin of evil in the universe.
Evil is not created by God, but is a perversion of His creation, a result of using free will
against the very purpose it was created for (against free will obeisance to God in a
communion relation based on love). Evil was not intended by God and is not linked to the
essence of God and creation.
Was the creation of beings endowed with free will a mistake of God (as it could be used
against its very purpose)? No, because this was the only way possible for Him to have free
communion with His creatures, which means a greater good not otherwise attainable.
Without free will, angels and mankind would only have been a lifeless world of robots. In
order to have perfect communion with the Creator, a created being needs the possibility to
choose it freely. This is why God allows to exist starvation, disease, murder, war, etc, in our
world. Although such facts constitute reasons for atheism, they represent the cost of
preserving our (misused) free will.

As mentioned before, evil is a parasite of good, a diminishing of existence, a loss of what

really constitutes the support of existence. That is why Satan and the demons (the fallen
angels) do not keep in themselves any remainder of good, nothing from the good categories
with which they were created. “Pure” evil became their new nature after the fall. Jesus
Christ said to the Pharisees who didn’t believe in Him:

You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father's desire. He was
a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When
he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies (John 8,44).

Having this nature, Satan and the demons do their best to thwart God’s plan with mankind,
knowing that humans are created to succeed where they (the fallen angels) failed.
According to God’s justice (and not weakness), they will exist forever, but without the
chance to return to the spring of real existence and communion with God. Their eternity is
that of spiritual death, of irrevocable departure and closing toward the Source in which they
should have found their fulfillment. This is hell, the place where Satan and demons are
granted the liberty to eternally renew their wish to exist “by themselves” and express their
hate toward God. It is conscious loneliness, because communion is a good thing that cannot
exist there. The doctrine of hell, as horrifying as it looks to be, proves that evil has an end,
that is has no eternal existence in God’s creation.

The Eastern religions have no equivalent for Satan as evil personified. Although in
Hinduism exist devilish beings called asuras, which can cause problems in people’s lives,
they are considered to be immature souls caught temporarily in the abyss of deception.
They do evolve and are not permanently in this state. The same is the case with the “devil”
Mara, who tempted the Buddha while on his way toward nirvana. However, the temporary
status of evil and hell in Eastern religions is not a result of divine love, but rather a
necessity imposed by the cyclic manifestations of Ultimate Reality.

According to Christianity, evil entered our world as a result of Satan’s fall, so it has a
personal character. Jesus Christ spoke directly with Satan at the moment of His temptation
(Matthew 4,1-11; etc.). He cast out demons (Mark 1,21-28; etc.), and the apostles did also
(Acts 5,16; etc.), so they were not addressing illusions. The Apostle Peter warned his fellow
Christians that Satan is a real and dangerous presence: “Be self-controlled and alert. Your
enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour” (1 Peter
5,8). Likewise, the Apostle Paul emphasizes that “Satan himself is masquerading as an
angel of light” in order to deceive humans (2 Corinthians 11,14). These passages and many
more cannot be ignored in order to suggest an illusory status of evil.

Although Satan is the initiator of evil, it is man that bears the responsibility for spreading it
into our world through sin. No matter how bad Satan can be, man cannot be affected by
him as long he persists in obedience to God. By submitting himself to Satan’s temptation
and misusing the freedom of choice granted by the Creator, man became the perpetuator of
evil in our world through sin. The Apostle Paul writes: “Sin entered the world through one
man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned”
(Romans 5,12). Sin affected thoroughly our nature, compromised our relation with other
people, and also the physical world in which we live. As a result of this situation, but also
in order to defend ourselves from the consequences of other people's sin, we need laws and
police. This is the way in which we try to limit the effects of sin in our society. However,
the basic problem of sin remains unsolved, no matter how much progress could be attained
in perfecting the way democracy works. It is not enough to try to limit the effects of sin, but
we should address the problem of sin itself.

Satan is not the only one guilty for the evil in our world and we are not just victims lacking
any responsibility. God has put a limit to Satan’s power against us humans, so that he can
never overwhelm us (1 Corinthians 10,13). Therefore we have real freedom in refusing evil.
Despite the fact that the devil is doing his best to delude man, our free will can resist him; it
could resist him in Eden and it can resist him now, with the help of God. As man does not
resist evil, he distances himself from God and also closes himself toward his neighbors. Out
of the selfish relations he develops in this state, evil expands in our world.

According to Christianity, evil is neither created nor a natural or necessary element. It is a

parasite state that perpetuates itself by misusing God’s good resources and by following a
wrong direction. It is the illness of beings that are no longer in communion with God. But
since evil exists, it has to submit to the order over which God is sovereign. God has limited
Satan’s power and He permits evil to manifest itself only for the benefit of fallen man, in
order to awaken him from the spiritual lethargy produced by sin. If man can misuse God’s
good creation, why wouldn’t God be able to use for good those who perform evil?
Augustine argued that the providence of God goes so far that even Judas' betrayal, although
it is undoubtedly an evil act, can be reversed to produce good: “Satan is evil, Judas is evil;
as the doer, so his instrument. But God used both for our sake. Both tried to destroy us, but
God used their effort for our salvation.” (Sermon CCCI, ch.4).

Two aspects should be added here in order to understand properly the relation between God
and evil. First, since evil is expanding in our world primarily through people, a major
reason for not extinguishing all evil in the world in an instant is that such an act would
necessarily involve the damnation of all those who perform it. This would cancel any
possibility for them to repent and be reconciled with God. As He takes no pleasure “in the
death of the wicked”, but rather wants “that they turn from their ways and live” (Ezekiel
33,11), a sudden extinction of all evil would contradict His love for mankind. Which one of
us would pass the test of God’s holiness after all, if such extinction of all evil would be
performed apart from His love?
God’s attitude in tolerating evil in our world was perfectly expressed by Jesus in the
Parable of the Weeds (Matthew 13,24-43):

The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field. But while everyone
was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away. When
the wheat sprouted and formed heads, then the weeds also appeared. The owner's servants
came to him and said, “Sir, didn't you sow good seed in your field? Where then did the
weeds come from?” “An enemy did this,” he replied. The servants asked him, “Do you
want us to go and pull them up?” “No,” he answered, “because while you are pulling the
weeds, you may root up the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest. At
that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be
burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn” (13,24-30).

The explanation to this parable, according to Jesus, is the following:

The one who sowed the good seed is the Son of Man. The field is the world, and the good
seed stands for the sons of the kingdom. The weeds are the sons of the evil one, and the
enemy who sows them is the devil. The harvest is the end of the age, and the harvesters are
angels. As the weeds are pulled up and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of the age.
The Son of Man will send out his angels, and they will weed out of his kingdom everything
that causes sin and all who do evil. They will throw them into the fiery furnace, where there
will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the
kingdom of their Father. He who has ears, let him hear (37-43).

God tolerates “weeds” among “wheat”, until a certain moment. His purpose in doing so is
that “weeds” could be properly differentiated from “wheat” and pulled up at the right
moment. As the parable refers to humans, the people who may be called “weeds” still have
the chance of converting and becoming “wheat”. This can happen only as long as they can
benefit from God’s grace, that is during their earthly lifetime. It is God’s grace that allows
evildoers to live, not his lack of justice or power, in the hope that they may still have the
chance to meet Him, repent and return to a personal relationship with Him. The problem of
evil and suffering, often used by the opponents of Christianity to reject God’s grace, should
rather induce repentance and humble thankfulness for the prolonged chance granted in
order to escape the final extinction of all evil at God’s final judgment.

Second, God could stop any particular manifestation of evil, but this would annihilate the
freedom of personal creatures. The world in which God constantly intervened to stop any
manifestation of evil would become a world of robots. Keeping evil under control and
using it for our sake serves two purposes: it helps fulfill His plan with mankind (its return
to communion with the Creator) and also maintains the creature’s freedom. In this context,
suffering is a good tool for destroying the self-sufficient illusion of those who think they
don’t need God and His forgiveness, who consider themselves better and wiser than their
neighbor. The Apostle Paul writes to the Christians in Rome: “We know that in all things
God works for the good of those who love him” (Romans 8,28). At the same time, God
never permits that evil manifests itself overwhelmingly in our lives, as the same author
mentions in 1 Corinthians 10,13:
No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will
not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also
provide a way out so that you can stand up under it.

One of the fundamental aspects of suffering in Christian theology is its use as a tool for our
salvation, in order to awake those who are departed from God, and also for the
sanctification of those who have already restored their relation with God (see for this 1
Peter 1,6-9; 2,20-21; 3,14; 4,1-2; 4,12-19). However, this does not mean that man can be
saved through the endurance of sufferings only. Salvation is granted only by God, through
the most supreme expression of suffering that could ever be conceived, which was at the
same time its everlasting solution: the vicarious death of Jesus Christ on the cross (see 1
Peter 2,24).

As a result, man’s attitude toward evil should be neither one of resignation, as in the
Eastern religions (in order to stop the accumulation of karma), nor of rebellion against God,
but one of a conscious and responsible participation in the world. Evil has an end, as well
as human suffering. What is requested from us while waiting for it is to fight against evil
and suffering, especially against our sinful nature, which perpetuates both our suffering as
well as that of our neighbor. As the God of Christianity does not stand impassively toward
the fallen man, but meets his needs and has already descended into his problems and
misery, He urges action in imitating His compassion in daily living. Although we are not
spared from troubles and many times we do not understand their meaning, we should
always remember that Jesus promised His help and power in order to conquer them. He

I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have
trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world" (John 16,33).

Returning to the questions raised at the beginning of this article, there is no doubt that God
is omnipotent and all-good. He did not create evil in the world. Evil is the result of
misusing free will by his creatures. Evil is not everlasting. God can stop it, and He will stop
it one day forever (Revelation 20,10). But until then He allows evil to exist in our world for
our benefit, in order to preserve our freedom of will and to use it as an instrument in our
salvation. There is no contradiction in God's character; it is only sin that prevents us from
understanding what evil really is and from stopping to spread it around us.


Outside the Christian solution to the problem of evil there are possible only pantheistic or
dualistic solutions. According to the pantheistic religions, the origin of evil has its root in
the manifestation of the impersonal Ultimate Reality, which (at the immanent level of
reality) launches karma into action. Considering evil from a transcendental point of view, it
is only an illusion that has to be scattered away through the right (pantheist) understanding
of reality, acquired through meditation. In the dualistic religions, evil is coeternal with
good. The absolute good cannot be an all-good and omnipotent person, because there
cannot be two Absolutes. This is the case with Gnosticism, Manicheism and the
polytheistic religions (see also the Hindu mythology).

From a Christian point of view, both solutions are not satisfactory in explaining evil,
because they lack as fundamental elements the creation ex nihilo, the doctrine of the fall,
and redemption through God's grace. Without these, evil cannot be understood and

Are all religions heading
toward the same goal?

The following table summarizes a comparison of the major topics analyzed in the previous
files on world religions. Please do not jump in here without first reading the previous
articles. Otherwise this short abstract may be confusing.

Topic In the Eastern religions In Christianity

1. Ultimate In most cases impersonal. God is triune and

Reality personal (the Holy
Hindu pantheism proclaims the impersonal Trinity), distinct from
Brahman as the source of any existence. The gods His creation.
are mere products of its manifestation. In Tantrism
and Hatha Yoga, Shiva and Shakti are the two (In Judaism and
aspects (static and dynamic) corresponding to Islam, God is also
Brahman. personal, but not
In the Yoga-darshana of Patanjali, Ishvara is an
impersonal macro-purusha, with a symbolic role in
the system. Theistic Hinduism accepts personal
gods as Ultimate Reality, but karma and the
periodical dissolution of the universe limit them.

Theravada Buddhism is agnostic about it; no

Ultimate Reality is stated. Mahayana Buddhism
states the impersonal void (shunya) as Ultimate
In Taoism there is the Tao as impersonal principle
that rules the universe.

2. The Manifestation of the impersonal Ultimate Reality God’s creation out of

physical (in Hindu pantheism, Mahayana Buddhism, nothing (ex nihilo).
world Taoism), and generator of illusion from which man Matter is not illusory
has to detach himself. and is not bad in
Manifestation of the primordial substance (prakriti)
in the dualistic Samkhya-Yoga.

Transformation of a primordial substance by the

gods of Hindu theism.

(In Gnosticism and other dualistic philosophies

matter is the creation of an evil god.)

3. Man Manifestation of the Ultimate Reality, according Creation of God with

to the pantheistic schools, which has in itself a a personal status.
divine essence (atman, purusha) of an impersonal Personhood has
nature. Product of the five aggregates, according to nothing bad or
Theravada Buddhism, which generate the illusion illusory in itself.
of personal existence. Personhood is always However, man does
illusory and a hindrance in attaining liberation. not have the divine
nature of God.
(In Gnosticism man is a spiritual being imprisoned
in a material body.)

4. Man’s Ignorance in getting to know his true divine Fallen into a state of
present nature. Ignorance and karma are closely linked and alienation from God,
condition force man into the reincarnation cycle. called sin.

5. The According to the pantheistic religions, detachment Return to a personal

meaning of from the illusion of personal existence and relation with God,
salvation merging of the divine self with the impersonal which will endure
Ultimate Reality. In the Samkhya-Yoga forever.
darshanas purusha remains forever isolated from

In Theravada Buddhism, annihilation of any


(In Gnosticism salvation means souls' return to the

original angelic state.)
6. The way Man has all resources in himself for attaining Man cannot attain
of attaining liberation. He can choose the way of devotion salvation by his own
salvation (bhakti marga), the way of selfless living (karma efforts. God took the
marga), or the way of knowing his divine nature (or initiative and gave the
the illusion of any permanent existence - in only solution for
Buddhism) by meditation and asceticism (jnana man’s salvation
marga). through the sacrifice
of Jesus Christ on the
In most cases of theistic Hinduism and devotional cross. Man has to
Buddhism, the gods (or bodhisattvas) can help man accept this grace.
only if he deserves it, as a result of his own efforts.
Grace plays a minor role, except in a few particular (In Islam and Judaism
cases (prapatti in Hinduism and Pure Land man is not saved by
Buddhism). grace, but by the good
deeds he has to

7. The Only spiritually evolved masters can attain This is our only life
moment of liberation during one life. Most people need many (Hebrews 9:27) and is
attaining lives to live out the consequences of karma and enough in order to
salvation overcome illusion and ignorance. accept God’s grace.

8. The The present life is shaped entirely according to the Man didn’t live
meaning of dictates of one’s karma. There cannot be real previous lives and is
man’s freedom in this condition, so man has to accept his free to choose his
freedom preordained destiny. eternal destiny.
Although man inherits
a fallen nature, he can
always accept God’s

9. The Guru, avatar, enlightened master, saint, etc. He is a God the Son
identity of perfect example of what any of us can become. incarnated, one of the
Jesus Christ hypostases of The
Holy Trinity. (In
Islam just a prophet,
in Judaism a
blasphemer against

10. The Irrelevant. Man can escape from his karma and The only solution for
meaning of find liberation only by his own efforts. our salvation,
Jesus’ death sufficient for all
on the cross (According to Gnosticism it was either an illusion mankind (John 14,6).
or a historical hoax.) (In Islam it is not
accepted as true. In
Judaism it is the right
punishment Jesus got
for blasphemy.)

11. The view Absurd. Spiritual progress cannot mean a return to The proof of His
on Jesus’ the physical body. divinity and efficient
physical atonement for our
resurrection (According to Gnosticism a ghostly appearance.) salvation.
(In Islam and Judaism
not accepted as true.)

12. The Illusory, as all existence is a manifestation of the Evil is real, although
nature of Ultimate Reality. Suffering is a result of karma and not of the same
evil man’s ignorance of his true nature. ontological nature as
that of God. Its origin
is a being, Satan, who
once rebelled against
God and now acts
against Him and man.
Man’s sin is
perpetuating evil and
suffering in our

13. The Evil (as illusion) is generated by the manifestation Satan is opposed to
relation of the impersonal Ultimate Reality. Without its God, acts against
between the manifestation there would be no subject to Him, but will be
Ultimate experience evil. isolated forever in
Reality and hell at the judgment
evil day.

14. God’s None, as evil is illusory. Man has to work out his God solved the
solution for own karma and do his best to escape suffering by problem of evil
the problem transcending personhood. The Hindu avatars are through the atoning
of evil just reminders of the right spiritual path. Buddhist sacrifice of Jesus
bodhisattvas help people to attain a spiritual realm Christ. At the end of
where they can hear the proper doctrine and attain history He will judge
liberation easier. and punish all

15. Man’s Ignoring the problem, withdrawal from its reality. Man has to oppose
attitude He can only accept the misfortunes of his life and suffering, according
toward that of others as dictates of karma. Any opposition to the principle of
suffering would only worsen his future condition. loving your neighbor
(Matthew 22,39).
16. The role Mere instruments for one’s cleansing oneself of Means of expressing
of egoistic attachments. They do not seek the welfare one's new identity in
compassion of the one that is suffering, but are only means for Christ, following His
and charity escaping the world of illusion by the one who example, for the
performs them. benefit of others
(John 13,34).
Mahayana Buddhism emphasizes the role of
compassion for all beings, but also views them as
ultimately illusory and their true nature is voidness.

17. Man’s Absurd, it would be an obstacle in attaining The Christian has to

social liberation because of the attachments it produces. be an example of
involvement Only detached social involvement is possible, social involvement in
devoid of any personal motivation (as the the society (Matthew
Bhagavad Gita requires). 5,16).

18. The Morality has no value in itself, as it may produce There are positive and
meaning of false attachments. It is a mere instrument for negative moral values,
moral values defeating egoism and advance toward liberation. between which one
has to exercise
(Galatians 5,17-23).

19. The view Cyclical. Periodical dissolution of the universe Linear. Human
of history determines an endless repetition of world’s history. history has a
beginning and an end.

20. The way Christianity is, at best, a mere inferior way (a As man cannot attain
the two bhakti type) of attaining liberation. salvation by himself,
perspectives and Jesus said He is
consider the only way to God
each other (John 14,6), other
religions cannot play
the same role.


The obvious conclusion is that the meanings of the major topics in world religions are
fundamentally opposed, especially in the case of Eastern religions towards Christianity.
Out of this result two important implications:
• The teaching of the Hindu tale of the blind men (who tried to describe the
elephant) is valid only for the multitude of pantheistic religions. They are all
heading toward the same impersonal Ultimate Reality, using similar means.
However, Christianity definitely rejects this view and therefore cannot be included
in it, by any means.
• Christianity cannot be used as an ingredient in order to produce a
“homogenous mixture” with other religions, according to the demands of today’s
world syncretism, or else it would be totally compromised.

Despite these implications, there are a lot of attempts to “reconcile” Christianity with “the
big family” of world religions. At the beginning of the 2nd century AD Gnosticism
appeared and then Neoplatonism (3rd century AD) as the first syncretistic products of
pantheism and Christianity. During the Middle Ages, Gnosticism flourished and generated
several subsequent movements such as Manicheism, Catharism, Bogomilism,
Albigensianism, the Knight Templars, Hermeticism, etc. The apogee of this trend began
last century, in 1875, when Theosophy was grounded by Helena Blavatsky, and later
Anthroposophy by Rudolf Steiner. The fact that these movements are closer to Eastern
spirituality than to Christianity is obvious when examining their main tenets: Ultimate
Reality is not a personal God, but the all-pervading oneness; the world is a manifestation of
the impersonal Ultimate Reality; man has a divine inner nature which is the higher self;
karma and samsara are fully accepted; one’s true spiritual nature is to be found by
engaging in the three steps of Vedanta meditation; the chakras have to be activated by
spiritual exercises, etc. In fact, these movements are not attempts to find a middle way
between Christianity and Eastern religions, but rather to adopt Christianity in the big
family of pantheist ideologies.

Apart from Theosophy and Anthroposophy, there are many Eastern masters today who
travel all over the world in order to present their teachings in a “suitable” manner to the
Western world. As a result, we can see many worldwide cults promoting Eastern teachings
in a most attractive way for their adherents. The ultimate product of adapting pantheist
teachings in the Western culture is called New Age spirituality. The element that makes it
so attractive is the virtuosity it proves in combining the essence of Eastern pantheism with
the occult traditions and the individualistic mentality of the West. It tries to get rid of
Eastern pessimism, of its understanding of life as suffering, and replace it with an
optimistic view of eternal progression of the self towards superior levels of existence. All
occult traditions are accepted under its umbrella as various perspectives on the same
ultimate truth: The divine nature of man has to be discovered inside oneself. The
"unpopular" demands of Christianity, such as accepting we are all sinners and need
repentance, God’s grace through Jesus Christ, etc, are all rejected.

One of the major claims of the New Age syncretism is that Christianity cannot give all the
answers to our spiritual quest, so that it is necessary to accept also the teachings of Eastern
spirituality in order to get a comprehensive picture of the meaning of life. But does
Christianity really need such “completion” or “crutches”? Does it have gaps that can be
filled only by the help of Eastern spirituality? The Apostle Paul’s answer is negative.
Reading his Epistle to the Colossians, we can figure out that his readers were struggling
with the same issue, religious syncretism. He writes about the option of Christians’ finding
spiritual help in the Hellenistic philosophy of that time:

See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy,
which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather
than on Christ. For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, and
you have been given fullness in Christ, who is the head over every power and
authority (Colossians 2,8-10).

If we can have “fullness in Christ”, what other completion can the Eastern religions bring
us? Any element added to this “fullness” would only compromise its essence and
efficiency. Therefore, it is absurd to combine Christianity with the “highlights” of Eastern
spirituality. Any Eastern contribution that should “help” us better understand the Bible, can
only alter its message. In fact, Jesus Christ warned us against such attempts:

Watch out that no one deceives you. For many will come in my name, claiming, “I
am the Christ”, and will deceive many (Matthew 24,4-5).

The Apostle Paul states that this deception is organized by Satan, who “masquerades as an
angel of light” (2 Corinthians 11,14), and by the demons, who “masquerade as servants of
righteousness” (11,15). These things are happening today and we should stay alert in order
to avoid deception. Present day syncretism cannot bring spiritual progress and peace, as is
claimed by the New Age Movement, but only confusion and spiritual delusion.

The God of the Bible is totally opposed to spiritual syncretism, as the very first command
of the Mosaic Law requires no compromise in this area (Exodus 20,3-5). The people of
Israel met disaster precisely because they didn’t obey it and worshipped the gods of other
nations. The climax of this situation was reached during the reign of king Manasseh, when
God stated through the prophet Jeremiah: “I will make them abhorrent to all the kingdoms
of the earth because of what Manasseh son of Hezekiah king of Judah did in Jerusalem”
(Jeremiah 15,4). What Manasseh did was the following:

Manasseh did evil in the eyes of the Lord, following the detestable practices of the
nations the Lord had driven out before the Israelites. He rebuilt the high places his
father Hezekiah had demolished; he also erected altars to the Baals and made
Asherah poles. He bowed down to all the starry hosts and worshiped them. He built
altars in the temple of the Lord, of which the Lord had said, "My Name will remain
in Jerusalem forever." In both courts of the temple of the Lord, he built altars to all
the starry hosts. He sacrificed his sons in the fire in the Valley of Ben Hinnom,
practiced sorcery, divination and witchcraft, and consulted mediums and spiritists.
He did much evil in the eyes of the Lord, provoking him to anger. He took the
carved image he had made and put it in God's temple, of which God had said to
David and to his son Solomon, "In this temple and in Jerusalem, which I have
chosen out of all the tribes of Israel, I will put my Name forever. I will not again
make the feet of the Israelites leave the land I assigned to your forefathers, if only
they will be careful to do everything I commanded them concerning all the laws,
decrees and ordinances given through Moses." But Manasseh led Judah and the
people of Jerusalem astray, so that they did more evil than the nations the Lord had
destroyed before the Israelites. The Lord spoke to Manasseh and his people, but
they paid no attention (2 Chronicles 33,2-10).

The worst thing Manasseh could do, that no other king did before him, was to bring the
idols inside the temple, generating a double worship system in God’s temple, which
perverted the only possibility for reconciling the nation with God. Even if his deeds might
have been politically justified (in order to have peace and be accepted by the other nations),
spiritually it was against the clear command of God. Although Manasseh later repented,
religious syncretism entered people’s hearts. They reached a point where repentance was
impossible and spiritual confusion became so great that God had to punish them according
to the Mosaic covenant (see Leviticus 18,24-30). So there is no sign of encouraging
spiritual syncretism in the Old Testament.

The same situation is presented in the New Testament. Jesus Christ did not claim to be one
of the many ways to God, but the only one:

I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through
me (John 14,6).

This statement doesn’t need too many comments. It should be very embarrassing for those
who try to find alternative ways to God, or maybe even a middle way through religious
syncretism. If all religions would have been valid alternatives to God, what use would
Jesus' dramatic death on the cross have had? Why such an extreme solution for our sins, if
each of us could reach God by diligently following the already existent religious traditions
at hand? Although it is sometimes claimed that this solution for salvation was valid only
for the Israelites of his time, Jesus himself dismissed this hypothesis by commanding his

Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and
of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have
commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age
(Matthew 28,19-20).

Why would Jesus have commanded this, if the religions of all nations had been valid ways
to God? Why would so many Christian martyrs die in order to proclaim one of the many
alternative ways to God? It seems obvious that Christianity does not accept religious
syncretism. As the conclusion of our quest, we can state that spiritual truth is not a matter
of both-and (both Christianity and other religions are true), but one of either-or. World
religions cannot be all equally true. The choice for one or another belongs to you.

Its meaning and consequences

The concept of reincarnation seems to offer one of the most attractive explanations of
man’s origin and destiny. There is an increasing interest in this topic today, sustained
especially by books and magazines, TV broadcasts, movies and conferences. Most of them
are related to the world of esoterical wisdom and occult phenomena. Reincarnation is a hot
topic also on the Internet, as you may have already noticed. Not only adherents of Eastern
religions or New Age spirituality accept it currently, but also many who don’t share such
esoteric interests and convictions.

Reincarnation seems to give hope for continuing one’s existence in further lives and thus
having a better chance to attain liberation. This is a source of great comfort, especially for
those who seek liberation on the exclusive basis of their inner resources. On the other hand,
reincarnation is a way of rejecting the Christian teaching of the soul’s final judgment by a
holy God, with the possible result of being eternally condemned to suffer in hell. Another
major reason for accepting reincarnation by so many people today is the fact that it
allegedly explains the differences that exist between people. Some are healthy, others are
tormented their whole life by physical handicaps. Some are rich, others at the brink of
starvation. Some have success without being religious; others are constant losers, despite
their religious dedication. Eastern religions explain these differences as a result of previous
lives, good or bad, which bear their fruits into the present one through the action of karma.
Therefore reincarnation seems to be a perfect way of punishing or rewarding one’s deeds,
without the need of accepting a personal God as Ultimate Reality.

Given the overwhelming impact this ideology can have in the life and beliefs of any person,
let us analyze the following major topics:

A) Reincarnation in world religions;

B) Past-life recall as proof for reincarnation;
C) Reincarnation and cosmic justice;
D) Reincarnation and Christianity.


A) Reincarnation in Eastern religions

The reincarnation of an entity defined as the core of human existence (atman or purusha)
following a cycle that implies many lives and bodies, is not such an old concept as it is
pretended today. It is neither a common element for most of the oldest known religions, nor
does its origin belong to an immemorial past.

The classic form of the reincarnation doctrine was formulated in India, but certainly not
earlier than the 9th century BC, when the Brahmana writings were composed. After the
Upanishads (7th to 5th century BC) clearly defined the concept, it was adopted by the other
important Eastern religions which originated in India, Buddhism and Jainism. Due to the
spreading of Buddhism, reincarnation was later adapted in Chinese Taoism, but not earlier
than the 3rd century BC.
The ancient religions of the Mediterranean world developed quite different kinds of
reincarnationist beliefs. For instance, Greek Platonism stated the pre-existence of the soul
in a celestial world and its fall into a human body due to sin. In order to be liberated from
its bondage and return to a state of pure being, the soul needs to be purified through
reincarnation. In stating these beliefs Plato was strongly influenced by the earlier
philosophical schools of Orphism and Pythagoreanism. The first important Greek
philosophical system that adopted a similar view on reincarnation to Hinduism was Neo-
Platonism, born in the 3rd century AD, under certain Eastern influences.

In the case of ancient Egypt, The Egyptian Book of the Dead describes the travel of the soul
into a next world without coming back to earth. As it is well known, the ancient Egyptians
embalmed the dead in order that the body might be preserved and accompany the soul into
that world. This rather suggests their belief in resurrection than in reincarnation. Likewise,
in many cases of ancient tribal religions that are credited today with holding to
reincarnation, it is rather a belief in the pre-existence of the soul before birth or its
independent survival after death that is taught. This has no connection with the classic idea
of transmigration from one physical body to another, according to the demands of an
impersonal law such as karma.

Reincarnation in Hinduism
The origin of samsara has to be searched for in Hinduism and its classic writings. It cannot
have appeared earlier than the 9th century BC because the Vedic hymns, the most ancient
writings of Hinduism, do not mention it, proving that reincarnation wasn’t stated yet at the
time of their recording (13th to 10th century BC). Let us therefore analyze the development
of the concept of immortality in the major Hindu writings, beginning with the Vedas and
the Brahmanas.

Immortality in the Vedic hymns and the Brahmanas

At the time the Vedic hymns were written, the belief was that man continues to exist after
death as a whole person. Between man and gods was stated an absolute distinction, as in all
other polytheistic religions of the world. The concept of an impersonal fusion with the
source of all existence, as later stated in the Upanishads, was far away. Here are some
arguments for this thesis that result from the exegesis of the funeral ritual:

1. As was the case in other ancient religions (for instance those of Egypt and
Mesopotamia), the deceased was buried with food and clothing necessary in the afterlife.
More than that, the belief of ancient Aryans in the preservation of personal identity after
death led them to incinerate the dead husband together with his (living) wife and bow so
that they could accompany him in the afterlife. In some parts of India this ritual was
performed until the British colonization.

2. Similar to the tradition of ancient Chinese religion, the departed relatives constituted a
holy hierarchy. The last one deceased was commemorated individually for a year after his
departure and then included in the mortuary offerings of the monthly shraddha ritual (Rig
Veda 10,15,1-11). This ritual was necessary because the dead could influence negatively or
positively the life of the living (Rig Veda 10,15,6).

3. According to Vedic anthropology, the components of human nature are the physical
body, ashu and manas. Ashu represents the vital principle (different from personal
attributes), and manas the sum of psycho-mental faculties (mind, feeling and will). The
belief in the preservation of the three components after death is proved by the fact that the
family addressed the departed relative in the burial ritual as a unitary person: "May nothing
of your manas, nothing of the ashu, nothing of the limbs, nothing of your vital fluid,
nothing of your body here by any means be lost" (Atharva Veda 18,2,24).

Yama, the god of death (mentioned in old Buddhist and Taoist scriptures too) was
sovereign over the souls of the dead and also the one who received the offerings of the
family for the benefit of the departed. In the Rig Veda it is said about him: "Yama was the
first to find us our abode, a place that can never be taken away, where our ancient Fathers
have departed; all who are born go there by that path, treading their own" (Rig Veda
10,14,2). Divine justice was provided by the gods Yama, Soma and Indra, not by an
impersonal law such as karma. One of their attributes was to cast the wicked into an eternal
dark prison out of which they can never escape (Rig Veda 7,104,3-17).

The premise for reaping the reward of one’s life in a new earthly existence (instead of the
heavenly afterlife) appeared in the Brahmana writings (9th century BC). They stated a
limited heavenly immortality, depending on the deeds and the quality of the sacrifices
performed during life. After reaping the reward for them, man has to face a second death in
the heavenly realm (punarmrityu) and therefore return to an earthly existence. The proper
antidote against this situation came to be considered esoteric knowledge, attainable only
during one’s earthly existence.

Reincarnation in the Upanishads

The Upanishads were the first writings to move the place of one’s "second death" from the
heavenly realm to this earthly world, considering its proper solution the knowledge of the
atman-Brahman identity.

Ignorance of one’s true self (atman or purusha) launches karma into action, the law of cause
and effect in Eastern spirituality. Its first clear formulation can be found in the
Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (4,4,5): "According as one acts, according as one behaves, so
does he become.The doer of good becomes good. The doer of evil becomes evil. One
becomes virtuous by virtuous action, bad by bad action." Reincarnation (samsara) is the
practical way in which one reaps the fruits of his deeds. Therefore, the self is forced to
enter a new material existence until all karmic debt is paid: "By means of thought, touch,
sight and passions and by the abundance of food and drink there are birth and development
of the (embodied) self. According to his deeds, the embodied self assumes successively
various forms in various conditions" (Shvetashvatara Upanishad 5,11).

There can be observed a fundamental mutation in the meaning of afterlife in comparison

with the Vedic perspective. Abandoning the desire to have communion with the gods
(Agni, Indra, etc.), attained as a result of bringing good sacrifices, the Upanishads came to
consider man’s final destiny to be the impersonal fusion atman-Brahman, attained
exclusively by esoteric knowledge. In this new context, karma and reincarnation are key
elements that will mark from now on all particular developments in Hinduism.

Reincarnation in the Epics and Puranas

In the Bhagavad Gita, which is a part of the Mahabharata, reincarnation is clearly stated as
a natural process of life that has to be followed by any mortal. Krishna says:

Just as the self advances through childhood, youth and old age in its physical body, so it
advances to another body after death. The wise person is not confused by this change called
death (2,13). Just as the body casts off worn out clothes and puts on new ones, so the
infinite, immortal self casts off worn out bodies and enters into new ones (2,22).

In the Puranas the speculation on this subject is more substantial and therefore specific
destinies are figured for each kind of "sin" one performs:

The murderer of a brahmin becomes consumptive, the killer of a cow becomes hump-
backed and imbecile, the murderer of a virgin becomes leprous - all three born as outcastes.
The slayer of a woman and the destroyer of embryos becomes a savage full of diseases;
who commits illicit intercourse, a eunuch; who goes with his teacher’s wife, disease-
skinned. The eater of flesh becomes very red; the drinker of intoxicants, one with
discolored teeth.... Who steals food becomes a rat; who steals grain becomes a locust...
perfumes, a muskrat; honey, a gadfly; flesh, a vulture; and salt, an ant.... Who commits
unnatural vice becomes a village pig; who consorts with a Sudra woman becomes a bull;
who is passionate becomes a lustful horse.... These and other signs and births are seen to be
the karma of the embodied, made by themselves in this world. Thus the makers of bad
karma, having experienced the tortures of hell, are reborn with the residues of their sins, in
these stated forms (Garuda Purana 5).

Similar specific punishments are figured by The Laws of Manu (12, 54-69).

Who or what reincarnates in Hinduism?

According to the Upanishads and Vedanta philosophy, the entity that reincarnates is the
impersonal self (atman). Atman lacks any personal element, reason for which the use of the
reflexive pronoun "self" is not quite right. Atman can be defined only through negating any
personal attributes. Although it constitutes the existential substrata of man’s existence,
atman cannot be the carrier of one’s "spiritual progress", because it cannot record any data
produced in the illusory domain of psycho-mental existence. The spiritual progress one
accumulates toward realizing the atman-Brahman identity is recorded by karma, or rather
by a minimal quantity of karmic debt. According to one’s karma, at (re)birth the whole
physical and mental complex man consists of is reconstructed, all that pertains to the world
of illusions. At this level, the newly shaped person experiences the fruits of "his" actions
from previous lives and has to do his best to stop the vicious cycle avidya-karma-samsara.
As a necessary aid in explaining the reincarnation mechanism, Vedanta adopted the concept
of a subtle body (sukshma-sharira), attached to atman as long as its bondage lasts, which
actually records the karmic debts and transmits them from one life to another. However,
this "subtle body" cannot be a form of preserving one’s personal attributes, as it does not
offer any actual data belonging to previous lives to the present conscious psycho-mental
life. All this kind of data is erased, so that the facts recorded by the subtle body are a sum of
hidden tendencies or impressions (samskara) imprinted by karma. They will materialize
unconsciously in the life of the individual, without giving him any hint for understanding
his actual condition. There is no possible form of transmitting conscious memory from one
life to another, because its domain belongs to the world of illusions and dissolves at death.

In the Samkhya and Yoga darshanas, the entity that reincarnates is purusha, an equivalent
of atman. Given the absolute duality stated between purusha and prakriti (substance),
nothing that belongs to the psycho-mental life can pass from one life to the other because it
belongs to prakriti, which has a mere illusory relation with purusha. However, in the Yoga
Sutra (2,12) is defined a similar mechanism of transmitting the effects of karma from one
life to another, as was the case in Vedanta. The reservoir of karmas is called karmashaya. It
accompanies purusha from one life to another, representing the sum of impressions
(samskara) that could not manifest themselves during the limits of a certain life. In no way
can it be a kind of conscious memory, a sum of information that the person could
consciously use or a nucleus of personhood, because karmashaya has nothing in common
with psycho-mental abilities. This deposit of karma merely serves as a mechanism for
adjusting the effects of karma in one’s life. It dictates in an impersonal and mechanical
manner the new birth (jati), the length of life (ayu) and the experiences that must
accompany it (bhoga).

Reincarnation in Buddhism
Buddhism denies the reality of a permanent self, together with all things pertaining to the
phenomenal world. The appearance of human existence is generated by a mere heap of five
aggregates (skandha), which suffer from constant becoming and have a functional cause-
effect relation: 1) the body (rupa) - that consists of material form and senses, 2) feeling
(vedana) - the taste of any experience, 3) cognition (sanna) - the process of classifying and
labeling experiences, 4) mental constructions (sankhara) - the states which initiate action,
and 5) consciousness (vijnana) - the awareness of a sensory or mental object. The five
elements, as the whole assembly they construct, are impermanent (anitya), undergo
constant transformation and have no abiding principle or self. Man usually thinks that he
has a self because of consciousness. But being itself in a constant process of becoming and
change, consciousness cannot be identified with a self that is supposed to be permanent.
Beyond the five aggregates nothing else can be found in the human nature.

However, something has to reincarnate, following the dictates of karma. When asked about
the differences between people in the matters of life span, illnesses, wealth, etc., the
Buddha taught:
Men have, O young man, deeds as their very own, they are inheritors of deeds, deeds are
their matrix, deeds are their kith and kin, and deeds are their support. It is deeds that
classify men into high or low status (Majjhima Nikaya 3,202).

If there is no real self, who inherits the deeds and reincarnates? Buddha answered that only
karma is passing from one life to another, using the illustration of the light of a candle,
which is derived from other candle without having a substance of its own. In the same
manner there is rebirth without the transfer of a self from one body to another. The only
link from one life to the next is of a causal nature. In the Garland Sutra (10) we read:

According to what deeds are done

Do their resulting consequences come to be;
Yet the doer has no existence:
This is the Buddha’s teaching.

The Tibetan Book of the Dead describes in detail the alleged experiences one has in the
intermediary state between two incarnations, suggesting that the deceased keeps some
personal attributes. Although it is not clear what actually survives after death in this case,
there is mentioned a mental body that cannot be injured by the visions experienced by the

When it happens that such a vision arises, do not be afraid! Do not feel terror! You have a
mental body made of instincts; even if it is killed or dismembered, it cannot die! Since in
fact you are a natural form of voidness, anger at being injured is unnecessary! The Yama
Lords of Death are but arisen from the natural energy of your own awareness and really
lack all substantiality. Voidness cannot injure voidness! (Tibetan Book of the Dead, 12)

Whatever the condition of the deceased after death might be, any hypothetical personal
nucleus vanishes right before birth, so there can be no psycho-mental element transmitted
from one life to another. The newborn person doesn’t remember anything from previous
lives or trips into the realm of intermediary state (bardo).

Another important element in the Buddhist theory of reincarnation is the extreme rarity of
being reincarnated as a human person. The Buddha taught in the Chiggala Sutta (Samyutta
Nikaya 35,63):

Monks, suppose that this great earth were totally covered with water, and a man were to
toss a yoke with a single hole there. A wind from the east would push it west, a wind from
the west would push it east. A wind from the north would push it south, a wind from the
south would push it north. And suppose a blind sea-turtle were there. It would come to the
surface once every one hundred years. Now what do you think: would that blind sea-turtle,
coming to the surface once every one hundred years, stick his neck into the yoke with a
single hole?
It would be a sheer coincidence, lord, that the blind sea-turtle, coming to the surface once
every one hundred years, would stick his neck into the yoke with a single hole.
It's likewise a sheer coincidence that one obtains the human state. It's likewise a sheer
coincidence that a Tathagata, worthy and rightly self-awakened, arises in the world.
If one would try to calculate the probability of obtaining the human state according to this
text, and consider the surface of "this great earth" as being just the surface of India, the
odds would be one chance in a time span in years of 5 followed by 16 zeros. This is 5
million times the age of the universe.

Reincarnation in Taoism
Reincarnation is a teaching hard to find in the aphorisms of the Tao-te Ching (6th century
BC), so it must have appeared later in Taoism. Although it is not specified what
reincarnates, something has to pass from one life to another. An important scripture of
Taoism, the Chuang Tzu (4th century BC), states:

Birth is not a beginning; death is not an end. There is existence without limitation; there is
continuity without a starting point.
Existence without limitation is space. Continuity without a starting point is time. There is
birth, there is death, there is issuing forth, there is entering in. That through which one
passes in and out without seeing its form, that is the Portal of God (Chuang Tzu 23).

Reincarnation in modern thinking

Once the Eastern concept of reincarnation arrived in Europe, its meaning changed. During
the Middle Ages it was a doctrine reserved for the initiates of some occult traditions
(Hermetism, Catharism, etc.), who have taken it over from Neo-Platonism. A larger
acceptance of reincarnation was promoted in the Western world only beginning with the
last century, by the efforts of Theosophy, and later Anthroposophy. Their intense ministry,
combined with that of many Eastern gurus, and especially the efforts of the New Age
movement, determined a wide acceptance of reincarnation in our society today, so that this
concept became one of the most fascinating doctrines in explaining the origin and meaning
of life.

However, its modern version is substantially different from what Eastern religions stated.
Far from being a torment out of which man has to escape by any price through abolishing
personhood, New Age thinking considers reincarnation as an eternal progression of the soul
toward higher levels of spiritual existence. Influenced by the Christian cultural context but
totally opposing Eastern classic ideology, many consider today that the entity that
reincarnates is our soul, which preserves the attributes of personhood from one life to
another. This compromise obviously emerged from the desire to adopt the reincarnation
doctrine to Western thought. The concept of an impersonal atman reincarnating was too
abstract to be easily accepted, so Westerners needed a milder version of this doctrine.
Although this tendency proves the soul’s yearning for a personal destiny, it doesn’t bear too
much resemblance to classical Eastern spirituality, which rejects it as totally perverted.

The above information about the meaning of reincarnation in the Eastern religions and the
nature of the entity which is reincarnating will be helpful in examining the modern proofs
for it, which are so popular today. While analyzing them, we need to remember that
according to the Eastern concept of reincarnation there cannot be any personal element that
could wander from one life to the next.

B) Past-life recall as modern proof for reincarnation

Many people who accept reincarnation in the West today claim that it can be scientifically
proven. They usually ground their belief on so-called past life recall experiences, which
represent the ability of certain persons to recall facts of alleged previous lives. There are
two categories of this phenomenon. One is observed under hypnosis, while regressing
certain persons beyond the date of birth. The other is produced by some children who
spontaneously remember a previous life identity, amazing their neighbors with specific
details that match with the life of a deceased person. Could these experiences really be
proofs for reincarnation?

Hypnotic regression as proof for reincarnation

Hypnosis can be defined as a method of inducing an altered state of consciousness, which
causes a person to become very receptive to the hypnotist’s suggestions. The method has
been used in psychoanalysis for treating psychic diseases by evoking the painful events
which caused them in the past (especially during childhood) and then transmitting
suggestions meant to heal these wounds which still affect one’s present. Although there are
some encouraging results in using it as a psychiatric healing therapy, it is a fact that
hypnosis can mix fantasy with real memories or even create entirely fictitious episodes. In
deep states of hypnosis, some subjects have had out-of-body experiences and claimed to
have traveled in mysterious spiritual realms. Others have had a mystical experience of
oneness with the universe.

Hypnotic regression started to be used as a "past lives recall" method in 1952, when Ruth
Simmons from Colorado, USA, was regressed "back in time" beyond the date of her birth.
Suddenly she started to talk using a specific Irish accent, claiming that her name was
Bridey Murphy and she lived in Ireland in the year 1890. Her brief descriptions seemed to
describe properly the Irish society of the late 19th century. It was therefore believed that a
scientific proof for reincarnation had been found. As a result, the method was used by a
growing number of hypnotists in order to get information about alleged previous lives of
their patients. Recently the method has gained a scientific aura, being used as therapy for
releasing current fears and explaining certain personality tendencies as results of past lives
experiences. By simply being asked to go back in time beyond the date of their birth and
describe their impressions, some patients tell impressive stories in which some
characteristics match with past and distant cultures of human history. They usually adopt a
totally different personality, with a changed voice, behavior and facial expression. All the
information they produce is the result of a dialog between the hypnotist and his patient, in
which the questions have to be easy and clear in order to get a proper answer. As long as
the information they produce couldn’t have been normally learned during their life span, it
is supposed that they really recall past lives. However, this conclusion raises some
difficulties, as there are other possibilities to explain how the "novelties" are produced,
without accepting the past-life recall hypothesis.
One possible explanation, valid in a few cases, is cryptoamnesia. As hypnosis can be used
in refreshing forgotten memories of one’s past, facts that are not available anymore in the
conscious memory, in the same way can it be used for evoking information heard from
other people, read in books, or seen in movies, in which the subject of hypnosis is involving
himself as participant. His subconscious memory has kept this information stored and
hypnosis determines its use in a completely fictitious scenario. Ian Stevenson, one of the
important researchers of this phenomenon, mentions a confirming case:

There is another English case going back to the turn of the century that was studied by a
Cambridge don, in which a young woman seemed to be describing the life of one Blanche
Poynings, a person around the court of Richard II in the fourteenth century. She gave a lot
of detail about the people concerned, including proper names and the sort of life she lived.
The investigators kept on probing, and a little later they began asking her about sources of
information. In her trancelike state the girl herself came out with a reference to a book,
Countess Maud, published in the latter part of the nineteenth century, a classic Victorian
novel all about a countess at the court of Richard II. The subject had modified it a little bit,
but basically it was all in the novel, and it turned out that her aunt had a copy of the book.
She didn't remember reading it, but she remembered turning the pages (Omni Magazine
10(4):76 (1988)).

An intriguing aspect of the testimonies recorded under hypnosis is the fact that they heavily
depend on the already existing data in current historic knowledge. In many cases, although
the information corresponds to generally acknowledged historical data, further
archaeological discoveries contradict them, casting serious doubts on the veracity of "past
lives". Ian Wilson, another important researcher of this phenomenon, describes several such
cases in his book Reincarnation (p. 88-90). One of them refers to a "person" who lived
during the reign of the Egyptian pharaoh Ramses III. Instead of indicating the name No for
the capital city, he used the name Thebes, given by the Greeks much later. On the other
hand, a true ancient Egyptian could not have known the pharaoh’s name by a number, as
the numbering of pharaohs was adopted by Victorian Egyptologists during the 19th
century. Another fault was mentioning the use of the sestertius coin, which was introduced
by the Romans a thousand years later. Another case reported Vikings making a landfall in
North America during the 11th century. According to the description, they were wearing
helmets with horns, which cannot be historically true. In recent years scholars have proved
that this idea is false, as Vikings wore in fact conic, close-fitting caps. Horned helmets were
worn only in religious ceremonies by individuals of high rank. This and other cases prove
that the "past life recall" experiences depend heavily on the historical knowledge mankind
had at the time when the hypnotic regression was performed, but which are often
contradicted by later discoveries.

How could it be possible that the present personality could influence the knowledge of its
"previous lives", some predating it with hundreds or thousands of years? How could people
who lived four thousand years ago use the BC (before Christ) year numeration system?
How can it be that some hypnotists can even "recall" future lives of their patients (which
are obviously influenced by current science fiction literature)? These facts indicate that the
alleged previous lives are culturally and religiously conditioned, casting serious doubts on
their veracity. This is why the writers who are favorable to rebirth stories usually avoid
mentioning specific data which might challenge their beliefs.

Another possible explanation that could overrule the veracity of past life recall is the
influence of the hypnotist, whose suggestion ability is a sine qua non condition for the
efficiency of hypnosis. The other necessary factor is the receptivity of the patient to the
hypnotist’s suggestions. Although the two conditions determine the efficiency of hypnosis
when used as psychiatric treatment, when expecting to get information from alleged past
lives, the suggestion ability of the hypnotist becomes an important hindrance in obtaining
true information, because it can contaminate the patient’s story. Ian Stevenson states:

In my experience, nearly all so-called previous personalities evoked through hypnotism are
entirely imaginary and a result of the patient's eagerness to obey the hypnotist's suggestion.
It is no secret that we are all highly suggestible under hypnosis. This kind of investigation
can actually be dangerous. Some people have been terribly frightened by their supposed
memories, and in other cases the previous personality evoked has refused to go away for a
long time (Omni Magazine 10(4):76 (1988)).

Under hypnosis, the subject is ready to accept all kinds of distortions, having his reality
shaped according to what the hypnotist dictates. As in most cases the hypnotist expects a
confirmation of the reincarnation theory, or at least expects it subconsciously, together with
the verbal suggestions concerning relaxation and different phases of regression, he can
transmit his own convictions concerning past lives and custom scenarios of this kind. In
many cases it is easy to discern the religious convictions of the hypnotist in the stories told
by his patients, his understanding of life as eternal return into a different body.

The risk of inventing completely fictitious scenarios through hypnosis cannot be ignored. It
actually has happened many times. Remember the many cases of women who came for
hypnotic treatment for their common problems, and over the course of therapy discovered
incidents of sexual abuse by parents during childhood, which proved to be false. Even
Freud abandoned hypnosis as a treatment method when he discovered so many cases of
fake memories. More than that, it was observed that the memories "discovered" under
hypnosis can replace the true memories after the hypnotic session is over and distort
completely one’s personal life. This is called false memory syndrome. Courts of law know
these dangers and most do not accept testimonies produced under hypnosis or from
witnesses that have been previously hypnotized. The same way as alleged sexual abuses in
childhood discovered through hypnosis have been proved to be false, past lives can be also
fake scenarios (as well as the "extraterrestrial abduction" stories).

Another compromising factor in getting true "past life stories" is the preparation the patient
undergoes before hypnosis. He is informed about its purpose, which induces in him a high
expectancy state. The conscious desire to know "his previous lives" undoubtedly influences
his response under hypnosis.

A third possibility to explain testimonies from alleged previous lives belongs to psychiatry.
Multiple personality is known to it as dissociative personality disorder. It causes somebody
to exchange in a short period of time up to 20 distinct personalities, as if playing successive
roles. These contradicting personalities have different mentalities, behaviors, voices and
even sexes than the real person. Usually it happens that one of them knows and observes
the acts and thoughts of the others, and is even able to speak in the name of all.

From a psychiatrist's point of view, past lives testimonies may be the result of inducing the
dissociative personality disorder through hypnosis. This has actually happened in several
cases of schizophrenia. Used to uncover covert personalities and reintegrate them with the
main personality, most cases of hypnosis have produced new personalities that didn't
manifest previously in one's normal state. They first appeared during hypnotic treatment,
and then remained active after the session was over. So there really is possible to create
new personalities or "past life recalls" through hypnosis.

However, there still remains an enigma to which the above naturalist-scientific

interpretation doesn’t have a satisfactory answer: How are the "past live" personalities
distributed in their roles, or who decides which one will be next in the show? It cannot be a
random process. Ian Wilson writes in his book: "Somewhere, somehow, the show must
have a ‘director’. It is like watching a puppet show; we can see the puppets, see some of the
strings by which they are made to work, but cannot see the puppet master." Who could be
this hidden director of the multiple personality show? The naturalistic explanation says that
it must be in the person’s mind, where consciousness is divided into separate entities, one
of them taking the role of the director. The data supporting it is that sometimes, under
hypnosis, a certain part of the mind stays conscious, continuing to receive data from the
real surrounding area. The unsolved problem with this explanation is the motivation of such
an entity (remained conscious in the person’s mind) to act like that. Why should it fool the
people around about past lives?

Thus we come to another possible explanation of past life recall. In parapsychology it is

called channeling, representing the phenomena of transmitting information generated by
spiritual entities which are external to our world. They act through certain persons called
mediums while being in altered states of consciousness. In channeling there are always
external personal beings (spirits) involved in providing information through mediums. The
annihilation of normal consciousness through hypnosis creates optimal conditions for
contacting such external teachers, who can present themselves as personalities of one’s past
lives. The only reason for rejecting this hypothesis is the presumption that the entity which
is communicating through the medium has no reason to lie when it claims to be a
reincarnated personality and not an external spirit. Although there have been many cases
when such entities were caught lying, we will analyze in a later section their possible
identity from a Christian point of view, and also their motivation for doing so.

In conclusion, the only criteria in establishing the veracity of "past life recall" is our trust in
the hypnotist and his "past life recall" interpretation. There is no other way of relating the
scenario of an alleged past life to one’s actual person. This is why we will now examine the
other "strong evidence" for reincarnation through past life recall.

Spontaneous past life recall by children as proof for reincarnation

Another category of experiences credited as proofs for reincarnation are the cases when
certain people, almost all children under the age of 10, spontaneously recall events of
alleged past lives, insisting to be someone else who lived in the past. The details they
mention concerning places, persons and happenings of the past, about which they could not
normally know anything, prove to be true when investigations are performed in the
indicated area. The extensive research of Dr. Ian Stevenson and his books on this topic are
well known. Although the cases of spontaneous past life recall by children are much fewer
than testimonies produced under hypnosis, they seem to be more convincing. The cases of
the Indian girls Swarnlata and Shanti Devi are two of the most famous. At the ages of 3
(Swarnlata) and 4 (Shanti Devi) they both started to claim that they had lived a previous life
as wives and mothers of two children, in a distant village. The most astounding element is
that they mentioned specific facts about their alleged previous lives that have been verified
by investigators. Imagine how surprised the sons of the deceased mother were when visited
by a 4-year-old girl that claimed to be their mother (or other relatives in similar cases).
Emotional disturbances often develop in such cases. Stevenson comments: “These children
become embroiled in divided loyalties. In many cases children have rejected their parents,
saying they are not their real parents and have often started down the road toward their so-
called real homes. In other cases, they insist on being reunited with their former husbands,
wives, or children. One Indian boy was passionately attached to the woman he said had
been his former mistress and was trying to get her back, causing himself and her real
distress” (Omni Magazine 10(4):76 (1988)).

However, there are other possibilities to interpret them, overruling the reincarnation
explanation. One alternative explanation is the possibility of these children's contacting
external spirits, through channeling. In this case the medium would be the child, without
necessarily being conscious of it. However, this explanation is not too convincing,
especially because the children do not seem to be skilled in communicating with spirits.

A better explanation would be the possession of these children by external spiritual entities.
This phenomenon is related to channeling, but this time the human person is forced to
transmit the messages of a spirit without having any conscious contribution to the whole
process. In other words, possession implies that the invading spirit enters the body and
takes over entirely the control of human consciousness, acting as if a past life personality
would be manifesting itself. This explanation is more likely to be valid for the following
reason: Almost all cases of spontaneous past life recall experiences are produced by
children who manifest them between the age of two and five, when their spiritual
discernment is almost nonexistent, especially concerning spirits. This situation makes them
easier to be manipulated by external spirits. As the child grows up, the entities lose their
power of influence upon him, which could explain why the past life memories are lost after
the age of 10. Again, one argument against this explanation is the presupposition that such
external spirits have no reason to lie about their true identity. Another argument is the fact
that the child does not manifest the classic symptoms of violent possession. However,
acting violent is not the only possible form of manifesting spiritual possession.

A confirmation of the possession hypothesis is the cases when the possessing spirit enters
the child’s body a long time after he was born, and then produces the past life recall
experience interfering with the actual personality of the child. There are enough such cases
described in literature. Here is a brief description of two mentioned by Ian Stevenson, a
famous researcher of this phenomenon, in his book Twenty Cases Suggestive of

First, there is the case of an Indian boy named Jasbir, aged three and a half, who was very
ill and lapsed into a coma which his family temporarily mistook for death. He revived a few
hours later, and after several weeks displayed a completely transformed behavior, claiming
to be a Brahmin named Sobha Ram, who died in an accident while he (Jasbir) was sick. As
Sobha Ram died when Jasbir was already three and a half years old, his "past life recall"
obviously cannot be a proof of reincarnation. More than that, it is likely that the
"reincarnation" of Ram’s soul took place even before he had physically died, according to
the timing of his accident and the illness of Jasbir. For the previous 3.5 years both persons
lived physically in nearby villages. While speaking through Jasbir, the "reincarnated Mr.
Ram" said that he was advised by a saint to take cover in Jasbir’s body. So at a certain
moment there were present two personalities in Jasbir’s body: the one of the child and the
one of Mr. Ram. This suggests that it cannot be a case of reincarnation here, but rather a
possession of Jasbir’s body by the so-called spirit of Mr. Ram.

Second, there is the case of Lurancy Vennum, a one-year-old girl who began to display the
personality of Mary Roff when she (Mary Roff) died. This situation lasted several months,
while Mary Roff claimed to have occupied the vacated body of the little girl. After this
period Mary Roff departed and Lurancy Vennum resumed control. The overlapping of
personalities and messages displayed during that period are strong indications of
possession, excluding any possibility for reincarnation. Ian Stevenson admits in his book
that "other cases of the present group of 20 cases may be instances of similar ‘possessing
influences’ in which the previous personality just happened to die well before the birth of
the present personality’ body" (p. 381).

Third, there is the case of a Buddhist monk, Chaokhun Rajsuthajarn, who was born a day
before the death of Nai Leng, the personality he claimed to have been in his previous life.
Stevenson commented in an interview: “I studied this case with much care but couldn't find
an explanation for the discrepancy” (Omni Magazine 10(4):76 (1988)).

Spirit possession could also explain another “proof” for reincarnation that is becoming
increasingly popular: the correspondence between wounds that caused a person to die and
birthmarks on children that claim to be the rebirth of that particular person. Not that a spirit
influence could induce such physical abnormalities, but it could “suggest” a special origin
to those who are born naturally with birthmarks and birth defects, especially in cultures
where most physical and behavioural peculiarities are attributed to happenings in past lives
(Southern Asia, the Druze in Lebanon, or Indians in North America). Not many cases need
such an elaborate explanation as spirit possession. Most can be discarded as having no
scientific proof (a precise medical report on the wounds of the deceased) or as being
induced by the adults, who taught the children to have had a previous life as a certain
family member. An important factor that could confirm spirit possession is cases of
reincarnation prediction by people who strongly believe in it. Here is a case discovered by
Stevenson among the Tlingit tribe in Alaska:
I recall one in which a man had predicted to his niece that he would come to her and he
pointed out to her two marks on his body. They were scars of operations. One was on his
nose. He had had an operation at the corner of his eye (right) at the upper part of his nose,
and another on his back. I don't know what that was from. Anyway, he said to his niece:
"You will be able to recognize me because I will have these scars reproduced on my body
as marks." So he died and about 18 months later his niece had a baby boy who was born
with birthmarks precisely at these places. I remember seeing and photographing these
birthmarks. This boy was about 8 or 10 years old when I first saw him. The birthmark on
the back was especially clearly seen. It had small round marks at the sides that looked
exactly like the stitch marks of a surgical operation (Venture Inward Magazine,
September/October, 1995).

A further indication for understanding spontaneous past life recall experiences by children
is the fact that they are culturally dependent. Most cases are reported in India and other
South Asian countries, where reincarnation is fully accepted. The Asian cases are always
richer in details than the Western ones. Western children who have such experiences give
only poor details that could permit verification. When checking some verifiable details is
possible, they usually turn out to be past experiences of other members of the family.
Cultural conditioning certainly plays an important role in these phenomena.

For this reason Ian Stevenson, the well known researcher of this phenomena, was forced to
admit in his book Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation that the cases he studied, as
the very title of his book indicates, are only suggesting reincarnation and cannot be
considered proofs for it. Stevenson admitted: “All the cases I've investigated so far have
shortcomings. Even taken together, they do not offer anything like proof” (Omni Magazine
10(4):76 (1988)). If this is the case, they could be also suggestive of spirit possession.

Metaphysical reasons for rejecting past life recall experiences as proofs for reincarnation
Even if hypnotic regression and spontaneous recall of past life by children were free of any
contradiction, there still would be another major argument against their veracity: According
to the classic doctrine of reincarnation, the entity which reincarnates is the impersonal self
(atman or purusha), accompanied by karmic debt. Any psycho-mental element that defines
personhood does not belong to the self or to the subtle body, and therefore ceases to exist at
physical death. Memory is such an element. It acts only inside the limits of a physical life
and vanishes at death. If things were different, if memory could pass to further lives
through reincarnation, it would have the same ontological nature as the self, which is
absurd, because memory belongs to the psycho-mental realm of personhood.

Usually it is said that the vehicle that carries the psychic impressions from one life to
another is the subtle body (sukshma sharira in Vedanta) or the karmic deposit (karmashaya
in Samkhya-Yoga). Although some say that these two elements act as a kind of
unconscious memory of previous lives, they cannot represent a third ontological nature
(different to both the self and the psycho-mental realm), which could play the role of a
transmissible personal memory from one life to another. Karmashaya and sukshma sharira
are a mere expression of the way karma records the debts of the past. As karma represents
an impersonal and mechanical law which functions with mathematical precision, karma
itself cannot justify one’s state at a certain moment. In other words, man cannot
communicate with his karma. Karma is simply pushing the self into a foreordained
scenario, without communicating which debts are to be paid from previous lives.

Even though some special meditative techniques are mentioned, which could render some
limited information about past lives (for instance Yoga-Sutra 3.18 mentions the possibility
to know the previous birth through practicing samyama), they are available only for the
advanced Yogi. Even so, the veracity of the information gotten in altered states of
consciousness is doubtful. (Click here for more information.)

One’s karmic debts could at best be imagined intuitively. For instance, it is supposed that a
man who was murdered took his just reward for a murder he did himself in a previous life.
Not even the past life recall experiences give any information about the "sins" one did in
his previous life, but only figure out cases when he was a victim or a simple observer of life
around him. These kinds of experiences do not attempt to prove the justice of karma, but
only that past lives are real. In other words, the "recalled" scenarios do not indicate which
facts of the previous life produced the present incarnation, but only try to prove that we
lived previous lives, that reincarnation is true and has to be accepted in our belief.

Because of the metaphysical considerations mentioned above, most Eastern gurus do not
consider experiences of past life recall as valid proofs for reincarnation. At the time
Stevenson was carrying out his studies among Indian children that remembered previous
lives, he met an Indian swami of the Ramakrishna order. He commented on these cases:
“Yes it is true [meaning reincarnation], but it does not make any difference, because we in
India have all believed in reincarnation and have accepted it as a fact, and yet it has made
no difference. We have as many rogues and villains in India as you have in the West"
(Venture Inward Magazine, September/October, 1995). These stories are appreciated
mostly by Westerners, probably as a result of misunderstanding the original doctrine of
reincarnation and also because of their pseudo-scientific outlook. The main argument for
reincarnation in the East has another nature and will be analyzed next. C) Reincarnation
and cosmic justice

The most important argument for reincarnation is of a moral nature. It says that karma and
reincarnation provide the perfect way to realize justice in our world, by rewarding all one’s
deeds and thoughts in further lives. They will manifest as good or bad happenings and
circumstances, with mathematical exactitude, so that everything one does will be justly
punished or rewarded, at both a quantitative and a qualitative level. This would explain all
inequalities we see among people, comfort those who cannot understand their present bad
situation and also give hope for a further better life. According to karma, there is no
forgiveness for the "sins" of the past, but only accumulation of karmic debt, followed by
paying the consequences in further lives. Swami Shivananda states:

If the virtuous man who has not done any evil act in this birth suffers, this is due to some
wrong act that he may have committed in his previous birth. He will have his compensation
in his next birth. If the wicked man who daily does many evil actions apparently enjoys in
this birth, this is due to some good Karma he must have done in his previous birth. he will
have compensation in his next birth. He will suffer in the next birth. The law of
compensation is inexorable and relentless.
(Swami Shivananda, Practice of Karma Yoga, Divine Life Society, 1985, p. 102)

As the karmic debt man recorded in his past is considerably large, a single life is not
enough to consume it. Therefore, in order to attain liberation, many lives become a
necessity. In pantheism, where a personal god as Ultimate Reality is absent, man is alone in
his struggle with his past. Even the theistic branches of Eastern religions are incapable of
solving man’s loneliness in this struggle, as karma and God’s grace cannot be properly
reconciled without totally compromising one of them. Grace, granted by a god or a guru,
contradicts the basic role of karma and would render useless its action. As a result, the
claims of some gurus to be able to erase the karma of their disciples are absurd. Through
asceticism and meditation, man has to work out his salvation alone, or rather to bear alone
the dictates of karma.

Although it may seem that the mechanism of karma and reincarnation is the proper way to
realize social justice, there are two main objections which contradict it:

1) As long as suffering (or the reward for good deeds) can be experienced only at a
personal level (physical and psychical), and man ceases to exist as person at physical death,
it implies that another person, generated in another physical body, will actually bear the
consequences dictated by the karma of the deceased person. The impersonal self (atman or
purusha) which reincarnates has nothing to do with suffering; it is a simple observer of the
ongoing psycho-mental life. If, at the moment of death, there is no more karmic debt left,
the separation of the self from the illusory involvement with the physical and psycho-
mental world is permanent, and this represents liberation. If not, the self is forced to enter a
new illusory association with personhood until all fruits of past lives are consumed. In
order to realize this, a new person is born each time the self enters a new human body. The
new person will bear the karma produced by the previous persons inhabited by the same
self. This mechanism, of one person accumulating karma and another bearing the
consequences, is rather unfair, fundamentally contradicting the idea of realizing perfect
justice. This is why natural disasters, plagues and accidents that affect innocent people
cannot be explained away as being generated by karma.

For this reason, the saying "a man reaps what he sows" cannot be used as a way of
expressing one’s reincarnationist ideas. (Actually this saying is taken from the New
Testament, Galatians 6,7, but there it has a different meaning.) According to the
reincarnation mechanism one person sows and another one reaps, since no personal
characteristics can be preserved from one incarnation of the impersonal self to the next. In
Buddhism, where the very idea of a self who transmigrates is rejected, the idea of sowing
and reaping is even more absurd. See for instance the following text:

If it be that good men and good women, who receive and retain this discourse, are
downtrodden, their evil destiny is the inevitable retributive result of sins committed in their
past mortal lives. By virtue of their present misfortunes the reacting effects of their past will
be thereby worked out, and they will be in a position to attain the Consummation of
Incomparable Enlightenment (Diamond Sutra 16).

Who will actually work out the effects of his past? A new distribution of the five
aggregates? Or who will actually attain enlightenment? A certain configuration of those
impersonal five aggregates? How could this process render perfect justice? Perfect justice
for whom? For an illusory personhood that disappears at physical death?

2) A second objection concerns the actual possibility of attaining liberation from karma and
reincarnation. Normally it is supposed that the person who is living out the consequences of
his karma should do it in a spirit of resignation and submission. But this ideal is far from
reality. Instead of adopting a passive attitude concerning the hardships that have to be
endured, man almost always reacts with indignation, and so accumulates a constantly
growing karmic debt. Common human experience proves that evil almost always generates
evil and therefore a balance between good and evil cannot be reached. As a result, a vicious
cycle is generated in which karmic debt is constantly growing. This happens with most
people of our planet, as it is said that most of us live in ignorance (avidya). From one
generation to the next, the sum of karmic debt is always growing and this situation can
never be solved. What kind of a justice is that which starts more problems than it solves?

If it is most likely that one will always accumulate new karma instead of getting rid of it,
probably the best solution to attain liberation from reincarnation would be the Jain fasting
to death, as stated by Mahavira:

If this thought occurs to a monk, "I am sick and not able, at this time, to regularly mortify
the flesh," that monk should regularly reduce his food; regularly reducing his food and
diminishing his sins, he should take proper care of his body, being immovable like a beam;
exerting himself he dissolves his body....

This is the truth: speaking truth, free from passion, crossing the samsara, abating
irresoluteness, knowing all truth and not being known, leaving this frail body. Overcoming
all sorts of pains and troubles through trust in this, he accomplishes this fearful religious
death. Even thus he will in due time put an end to existence. This has been adopted by
many who were free from delusion; it is good, wholesome, proper, beatifying, meritorious.
Thus I say.
(Acaranga Sutra 1,7,6)

This should be the logical solution for anyone trying to escape his karma. However, this
radical solution is far from being accepted by most adherents of reincarnation. But even if
they would literally fast to death, it still could not guarantee the decrease of mankind’s
karmic debt, as one accumulates more karma till the moment he adopts this kind of "holy"
mortification than he could annihilate by using it.

Let’s take an example and see how the two objections actually work in the case of a real
person. If we take the case of Adolf Hitler, the results are astounding. (For a detailed study
of this case and other important aspects of reincarnation see Mark Albrecht’s book
Reincarnation - InterVarsity Press, 1982.) There is no doubt that all adherents of
reincarnation agree that many lives are needed for consuming his karmic debt. Hitler died
in 1945 and had to reincarnate as a child in order to bear the harsh consequences of his
monstrous deeds. The two objections can be stated as following:

1) The person of Hitler ceased to exist at the moment of his physical death. Only the
impersonal self will reincarnate, accompanied by its karmic deposit. However, there is no
continuity between the person of Hitler and that of the individual who has to endure the
hardships imposed by Hitler’s karma. The newborn person doesn’t know that he has to
work out Hitler’s karma. After the cruel life and death of this person, other millions of
reincarnations will succeed with the same tragic destiny. The most disgusting fact is that
the person of Hitler, the only one who should have endured at physical and psychical level
the results of his foolish deeds, was dissolved at his physical death, while other persons,
totally unaware of this situation and innocent, have to work out his bad karma.

2) As a result of the hardships that have to be endured by the new incarnations of Hitler, it
is almost certain that they will react with indignation instead of resignation to their
situation, and thus will accumulate a growing karmic debt. Each new reincarnation of Hitler
becomes a source of newly acquired karma, initiating a new chain of individuals who have
to pay the consequences. The same happened in the case of Hitler himself. Whoever he was
in a previous life, he made his karma a lot worse during the years of The Third Reich.
Therefore, instead of solving the puzzle of global justice, the problem worsened. Starting
with a single individual such as Hitler, we reach a huge number of persons who pay his
karma and accumulate a new one. This is just one case of human history. Any attempt to
imagine what happens at a larger human scale would reveal a catastrophe impossible to
ever be solved.

As a result, karma and reincarnation cannot provide any kind of justice. Reincarnation
cannot solve the problem of evil but only amplify it, leaving the original evil unpunished. If
reincarnation were true, Hitler will never be punished for his deeds because he ceased to
exist, right before any human person or circumstance of life could truly punish him.

Even if disagreement persists in accepting the growth of evil as an effect of karma and
reincarnation, at least its conservation should be admitted in human history. This results
from analyzing the links that exist between people and their karma from a global
perspective. There are two points to be made here.

First, there is a moral issue involved. As suffering is the result of one’s bad deeds
performed in previous lives, a possible way of reacting consistently with the law of karma
might lead to a total lack of compassion toward people who suffer. One might think that the
person who suffers deserves to be equitably punished, and anyone who dares to help him
interferes with the unrolling of his karma and consequently is gathering bad karma for

Second, the man who is the instrument of karma’s punishment records bad karma for
himself and therefore will have to be punished at his turn, in a next life. Then the next
person who acts as the instrument of karma will have to be punished in his turn, etc. A
possible solution to this endless cycle would be that the one who acts as the instrument of
karma in another one’s life should do it in a completely detached manner, without any
interest in the results, according to the demand of Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita (2,47; 3,19;
etc.). In this case it is considered that he doesn’t acquire new karma. However, such a
solution would be limited, at best, to the few "detached" people that actually follow this
rule, and thus has no significance on the larger scale of human society. Most people are far
from considering themselves as detached executioners of karma in their neighbor’s life.

Let’s examine these two points in the case of the millions of Jews who were killed in gas
chambers by the Nazis during World War II. First, it would seem absurd to have any
feeling of compassion towards them, because they deserved to be killed like that, as a result
of crimes done by them in previous lives. One could conclude that, after all, the Nazis did
the right thing against the Jews, according to the dictates of karma. Using this reasoning
any conceivable crime of the past or present could be justified, without bothering about
moral values. This opens a horrifying perspective on the past and future of mankind, with
implications difficult to grasp.

Second, the killing of millions of Jews requires that their executioners should be killed in
their turn, in a similar way, in further lives. But this implies that the executioners of the
reincarnated Nazis will be killed in their turn, etc., etc. The cycle would never end. The
same reasoning could be used also back in time, which would require finding in each
generation those millions of people executed and their executioners. An objection to this
could be that killers may be punished (killed) in turn by other means, not necessarily by
involving other new acquirers of karma. Natural calamities such as earthquakes could be
the instrument of karma. However, this option doesn’t work because karma is generated not
only by the actions themselves, but also by the desires that lead to the actions. The desire to
kill has to be rewarded as well, not only the killing. Therefore, if reincarnation were a
logical concept, it would imply that it has neither a beginning nor an end. This cannot be a
solution for justice, but only a kind of eternal circus.

A further analysis of karmic justice proves that the basic principle of Hindu morality, that
of non-killing (ahimsa), is absurd. According to this principle we should not participate in
the killing of any living being, otherwise we will reincarnate in order to pay the
consequences. (This is the basis of eastern religious vegetarianism.) For instance, the
butcher who slaughters a pig will have to reincarnate as a pig in order to be slaughtered in
his turn. However, the very principle of reincarnation contradicts the meaning of ahimsa
and proves it to be futile. The pig had to be slaughtered, because he probably was the
reincarnation of another butcher, who had to be punished that way. Neither in this case can
the vicious cycle be stopped by natural means (i.e. the pig dying of a disease) because the
butcher’s desire to kill the animal (for food or to earn his salary) also generates karma.
Therefore the infringement of the non-violence principle becomes a necessity in order to
fulfill karmic justice. The butcher was at the same time the instrument of working out one’s
karmic debt and the generator of a new one for himself. In a strange and contradictory way,
the fulfilling of karmic debt requires the punishment of its executioners. In other words,
karma paradoxically acts through condemning the executioners of its "justice".
In conclusion, the concept of reincarnation stands in contradiction with logic, social justice,
morality and even common sense. Looking beyond the apparent comfort it provides to this
life by promising further lives in which perfection may be attained, belief in reincarnation
cannot bring any beneficial result, but only resignation and despair in facing fate. Why then
accept it as a major spiritual belief?

D) Reincarnation and Christianity

Today’s religious syncretism not only accepts reincarnation as one of its basic doctrines but
also tries to prove that it can be found in the Bible and in the history of the Church. We will
therefore analyze the basic texts in the Bible which are claimed to imply reincarnation,
examine the position of some important Church fathers who were suspected of having
accepted it, emphasize the basic antagonism of this doctrine with Christian teaching, and
then find a proper explanation for the past life recall experiences mentioned earlier, an
explanation that should be compatible with Christian thought.


Reincarnation and the Bible

Biblical texts that seem to imply reincarnation
The most "convincing" texts of this kind are the following:

1) Matthew 11,14 and 17,12-13, concerning the identity of John the Baptist;
2) John 9,2, "Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?";
3) John 3,3, "No one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again";
4) James 3,6, "the wheel of nature";
5) Galatians 6,7, "A man reaps what he sows".
6) Matthew 26,52, ”all who draw the sword will die by the sword”.
7) Revelation 13,10, ”If anyone is to go into captivity, into captivity he will go. If anyone is
to be killed with the sword, with the sword he will be killed.”

1. The first text concerns the identity of John the Baptist, supposed to be the reincarnation
of the prophet Elijah. In Matthew 11,14 Jesus says: "And if you are willing to accept it, he
(John the Baptist) is the Elijah who was to come." In the same Gospel, while answering the
apostles about the coming of Elijah, Jesus told them: "But I tell you, Elijah has already
come, and they did not recognize him, but have done to him everything they wished. In the
same way the Son of Man is going to suffer at their hands." The commentary adds: "Then
the disciples understood that he was talking to them about John the Baptist." (Matthew
17,12-13; see also Mark 9,12-13)

At first sight, it may seem that these verses imply the reincarnation of the prophet Elijah as
John the Baptist. The prophecy of the return of Elijah was stated in the last verses of the
Old Testament, in the book of the prophet Malachi (3,1; 4,5-6): "See, I will send you the
prophet Elijah before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes." Right before this
prophecy was fulfilled, through the birth of John the Baptist, an angel announced to his
father Zechariah: "And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to
turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the
righteous-- to make ready a people prepared for the Lord" (Luke 1,17). What could be the
meaning of the words "in the spirit and power of Elijah"? According to other Biblical
passages that refer to Elijah and John the Baptist, they do not teach reincarnation.

At the time when John the Baptist began his public preaching, the priests in Jerusalem
asked him about his identity. They asked: "Are you Elijah?" (John 1,21) In such
circumstances a true "guru" wouldn’t have hesitated to state his position in the succession
of spiritual masters (the guru parampara) of the tradition he is representing. However, John
the Baptist answered simply: "I am not." His negation suggests another meaning to the
words quoted from Matthew 11,14 and 17,12-13. John the Baptist was rather a kind of
Elijah, a prophet who had to repeat the mission of Elijah in a similar context. The same as
Elijah did, John the Baptist had to suffer persecution from the royal house of Israel and
acted in the context of the spiritual degeneration of the Jewish nation, with the mission of
bringing the people back to the right worship of God. John the Baptist had the same
spiritual mission as the prophet Elijah, but not the same soul or self. For this reason the
expression "in the spirit and power of Elijah" should not be interpreted as reincarnation of a
person, but as a necessary repetition of a well-known episode in the history of Israel.
Another Biblical text that contradicts the reincarnation theory in this case is the story of
Elijah’s departure from this world. Elijah didn’t die in the proper sense of the word, but
"went up to heaven in a whirlwind" (2 Kings 2,11). According to the classic theory of
reincarnation, a person has to die physically first in order that his self may be reincarnated
in another body. In the case of Elijah this didn’t happen. So it must be considered an
exception to both the natural process of death, and to the rule of reincarnation. Finally, the
experience of the three apostles at the Mount of Transfiguration has to be remembered
(Matthew 17,1-8, Mark 9,2-8; Luke 9,28-36), when Elijah was identified by the apostles
without being confused with John the Baptist.

2. The next disputed text is the introduction to the healing of the man born blind in John
9,2. Considering the apostles' question: "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he
was born blind?", it is obvious that the first option (the man was born blind because of his
sin) implies that he could sin only in a previous life. According to the classic theory of
reincarnation, he might have been a cruel dictator who got the just reward for his bad deeds.

However, the apostles' question about the possibility of having sinned before birth should
not necessarily be judged as indicating an existing belief in reincarnation at that time in
Israel. It rather confirms that some religious factions believed that the fetus can sin in his
mother womb. If Jesus had considered reincarnation to be true, surely He would have used
this opportunity - as was His custom - to explain to them the law of karma and
reincarnation, as an immediate application to that man’s situation. Jesus never missed such
occasions to instruct his disciples on spiritual matters, and reincarnation would have been a
crucial doctrine for them to understand.

Nevertheless, by the answer Jesus gave to them, He rejected both options suggested by the
apostles. Both the idea of sinning before birth and the punishment for the parents' sins were
wrong. Jesus said: "Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but this happened so that the
work of God might be displayed in his life" (John 9,3). "The work of God" is described in
the next verses, when Jesus healed the blind man as a proof of His divinity (v. 39).

3. In the Gospel According to John Jesus said to Nicodemus: "I tell you the truth, no one
can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again" (John 3,3). Out of its context, this
verse seems to suggest that reincarnation is the only possibility for attaining spiritual
perfection and admission into the "kingdom of God". Nicodemus’ following question
indicates that he understood by these words a kind of physical rebirth in this life, and not
classic reincarnation: "How can a man be born when he is old? Surely he cannot enter a
second time into his mother's womb to be born!" (v. 4). Jesus rejected the idea of physical
rebirth and explained man’s need for spiritual rebirth, during this life, in order to be
admitted into God’s kingdom in the afterlife.

Jesus further explained the meaning of His words by referring to a well-known episode in
Israel’s history: "Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be
lifted up" (John 3,14). That episode occurred while the Israelites were travelling in the
wilderness toward the Promised Land under the command of Moses (see Numbers 21,4-9).
They spoke against God and against Moses, and then God punished them by sending
poisonous snakes against them. Grasping the gravity of the situation, they recognized their
sin and asked for a saving solution. God’s solution was that Moses had to make a bronze
copy of such a snake and put it up on a pole. Those who had been bitten by a snake had to
look at this bronze snake, believing that this symbol represented their salvation, and were
healed. Coming back to the link Jesus made between that episode and His teaching, He
said: "Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up,
that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life" (John 3,14-15). In other words, as
Moses lifted up the bronze snake 1400 years earlier, in the same way was He to be lifted up
on the cross, in order to be the only solution, the only antidote to the deadly bite of sin. As
the Jews had to believe that the bronze snake was their salvation from death, the same way
had Nicodemus, his generation and the entire world to believe that Jesus’ sacrifice on the
cross is the perfect solution provided by God for the sins of the world. Therefore the kind
of rebirth Jesus was teaching (as well as Paul – see Titus 3,5) is not the Eastern concept of
reincarnation but a spiritual rebirth that any human can experience in this life.

4. A fourth text interpreted as indicative for reincarnation is found in the Epistle of James
3,6, where some translations (such as the American Standard Version) mention "the wheel
of nature" which seems to resemble the cycle of endless reincarnation stated by the Eastern
religions. However, in this context the reference is made to the control of speech in order
not to sin. The ASV translation states: "And the tongue is a fire: the world of iniquity
among our members is the tongue, which defileth the whole body, and setteth on fire the
wheel of nature, and is set on fire by hell." The tongue out of control is compared with a
fire that affects all aspects of existence, thought and deed, in a vicious cycle. This means
that sinful speech is at the origin of many other sins, which are consequently generated, and
conduct man to hell. The NIV translation is clearer at this point: "The tongue also is a fire,
a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole
course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell."
5. A classic example of suggesting karma and samsara in the Bible is often claimed to be
represented by the words of the Apostle Paul in Galatians: "Do not be deceived: God
cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows" (Galatians 6,7). This "sowing and reaping"
process would allegedly represent someone’s acts and their consequences as dictated by
karma in further lives. However, the very next verse here indicates that the point here is
judging the effects of our deeds from the perspective of eternal life, as stated in the Bible,
without a further earthly existence being involved: "The one who sows to please his sinful
nature, from that nature will reap destruction; the one who sows to please the Spirit, from
the Spirit will reap eternal life" (6,8; see also the entire chapter). "Reaping destruction"
means eternal separation from God in hell, while "eternal life" represents eternal
communion with God in heaven. In their given context, these verses cannot suggest the
reincarnation of the soul after death. According to Christianity, the supreme judge of our
deeds is God, and not impersonal karma.

6. After Peter had cut off the ear of the high priest’s servant in his attempt to prevent Jesus’
arrest in Gethsemane, Jesus rebuked him by saying: "All who draw the sword will die by
the sword" (Matthew 26,52). Could this be the justice of karma in action?

All four gospels give account of Jesus’ rebuke to Peter’s initiative. Although heroic, it went
against God’s plan ("How then would the Scriptures be fulfilled that say it must happen in
this way?" – verse 54). Peter was in this case sinning and, according to the well-known Old
Testament law of sin retribution, the sinner must be punished consistently ("Whoever sheds
the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made
man" - Genesis 9,6; see also Exodus 21,23-25; Leviticus 24,19-20; Deuteronomy 19,21).
However, throughout the Old Testament this law was referring solely to one’s present
physical life, by no means to future lives. Otherwise Jesus’ words would lead to an absurd
implication. If He meant that killing someone in this life with a sword will require that the
doer will be killed at his turn with a sword in a future life, then His crucifixion (which
followed soon after) must have been a punishment for His sins done in previous lives and
not a solution for other people’s sins as He claimed.

7. "If anyone is to go into captivity, into captivity he will go. If anyone is to be killed with
the sword, with the sword he will be killed" (Revelation 13,10). This verse belongs to a
prophecy that speaks about the end times, when Satan and his subjects will have temporary
power on earth. Adherents of reincarnation must be aware that it is a quotation from the
Old Testament: "And if they ask you, 'Where shall we go?' tell them, 'This is what the
LORD says: "'Those destined for death, to death; those for the sword, to the sword; those
for starvation, to starvation; those for captivity, to captivity'" (Jeremiah 15,2). This sentence
was written by Jeremiah just before the fall of Jerusalem and the Babylonian exile (586
BC) and expresses God’s punishment of the sinful Jewish nation at that time, which had
rejected Him. It is not the impersonal law of karma here but the will of the personal creator
God. He chooses how to punish those who have rejected Him. (See also Jeremiah 43,11,
which uses the same words for announcing the punishment of Egypt for its sins.) The
author of Revelation used this quotation for assuring those involved in the events to come
that God will do justice again, as He did in the ancient times. Therefore they should act in
"patient endurance and faithfulness" as Revelation 13,10 adds. *

As it can be observed, in all situations where "Biblical proofs" for reincarnation are
mentioned, the context is always ignored. Other passages used as indications of
reincarnation mean, in fact, the existence of Christ prior to His human birth (John 8,58), the
continuity of the souls' existence after death (John 5,28-29; Luke 16,22-23; 2 Corinthians
5,1), or the spiritual rebirth of believers in their present life (Titus 3,5; 1 Peter 1,23),
without giving any plausible indication for reincarnation.


Did the clergy rewrite the Bible, so that the passages teaching reincarnation were removed?
Some people hold that the Bible contained many passages teaching reincarnation in an
alleged initial form, but they were erased and forbidden by the clergy at the fifth
ecumenical council, held in Constantinople in the year 533 AD. The reason for this would
have been the spiritual immaturity of the Christians, who could not grasp the doctrine at
that time, or the desire of the clergy to manipulate the masses. However, there is no proof
that such "purification" of the Biblical text has ever occurred. The existing manuscripts,
many of them older than AD 533, do not show differences from the text we use today.
There are enough reasons to accept that the New Testament was not written later than the
first century AD. In order to get more information on the accuracy of the present text of the
Bible use the following sites:

Dating the Oldest New Testament Manuscripts, by Peter van Minnen

Textual Criticism and Manuscript Interpretation
The Gospels As Historical Sources For Jesus, The Founder Of Christianity, by Prof. R. T.

At the same time, if the clergy had, as alleged, decided to erase from the Bible the
"compromising" passages about reincarnation, why did they keep the ones mentioned
above (concerning the identity of John the Baptist, etc.)? On the other hand, it is obvious
that there are many texts in the Bible that clearly contradict the idea of reincarnation,
explicitly or implicitly. (See for instance 2 Samuel 12,23; 14,14, Job 7,9-10, Psalm 78,39,
Matthew 25,31-46, Luke 23,39-43, Acts 17,31, 2 Corinthians 5,1;4;8, Revelation 20,11-
15.) Here is one verse in the New Testament which contradicts reincarnation as clearly as

Just as man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment, so Christ was sacrificed
once to take away the sins of many people; and he will appear a second time, not to bear
sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him (Hebrews 9,27-28).

The Christian teaching that we live only once is a fact beyond doubt, being as true as the
fact that Jesus had to die only once for our sins. In other words, the unique historical act of
Jesus’ crucifixion and the fact that we live only once are equally true and cannot be
separated. This text cannot possibly be interpreted otherwise. The judgment that follows
death is obviously not the judgment of the impersonal karma, but that of the personal
almighty God, after which man either enters an eternal personal relation with Him in
heaven, or an eternal separation from Him in hell.


Did the early Church fathers believe in reincarnation?

Early Christianity spread in a world dominated by Greek philosophy. Many important
figures of the early church had this spiritual background when they were converted. When
addressing their world with the Christian message, they had to do it without any syncretistic
compromise to Greek philosophy.

To what extent could they have been influenced by the doctrine of reincarnation? In order
to answer this, we first have to understand what was actually taught about reincarnation at
that time.

Reincarnation according to Platonism

The dominant form of reincarnation known by ancient Greek philosophy during the first
three Christian centuries belongs to Platonism. Unlike the Eastern spiritual masters, Plato
taught that human souls existed since eternity in a perfect celestial world as intelligent and
personal beings. They were not manifested out of a primordial impersonal essence (such as
Brahman) or created by a personal god. Although the souls lived there in a pure state,
somehow the divine love grew cold in them and, as a result, they fell in physical bodies to
this earthly, imperfect world. Plato writes in Phaedrus about this:

But when she <the celestial soul is unable to follow, and fails to behold the truth, and
through some ill-hap sinks beneath the double load of forgetfulness and vice, and her wings
fall from her and she drops to the ground, then the law ordains that this soul shall at her first
birth pass, not into any other animal, but only into man; and the soul which has seen most
of truth shall come to the birth as a philosopher, or artist, or some musical and loving

In the same work, Plato states that "ten thousand years must elapse before the soul of each
one can return to the place from whence she came". Only the soul of the philosopher or of
the lover can get back to its original state in less time (three thousand years). The souls that
fail to aspire to perfection and live in ignorance are judged after their earthly life and then
punished in "the houses of correction, which are under the earth". One lifetime is not
enough to return to the original celestial state of purity. For this reason "the soul of a man
may pass into the life of a beast, or from the beast return again into the man". This is the
Platonist idea of reincarnation. It does not represent a voyage of an impersonal essence (as
atman) toward an impersonal merging with the Absolute (Brahman), but only a temporary
punishment on the way back towards a purified personal existence (the state of pure being).
Between Platonism and Eastern religions there is a big difference concerning man’s identity
in general and reincarnation in particular. Plato’s meaning of salvation is definitely
personal, as can be understand from Phaedo:

Those also who are remarkable for having led holy lives are released from this earthly
prison, and go to their pure home which is above, and dwell in the purer earth; and those
who have duly purified themselves with philosophy live henceforth altogether without the
body, in mansions fairer far than these, which may not be described, and of which the time
would fail me to tell.

How did these ideas affect the beliefs of the early church fathers? We will now proceed to
examine the most important cases of early church fathers accused of holding
reincarnationist convictions.

Origen and Origenism

The most controversial early church father concerning his alleged beliefs on reincarnation
is undoubtedly Origen (185-254). Many adherents of reincarnation mention him today as a
classic example proving the alleged early Christian belief in reincarnation, which is
supposed to have been condemned and forbidden by the fifth ecumenical council
(Constantinople, 533 AD). Although it is a fact that Origen was strongly influenced by
Platonism prior to his conversion to Christianity, the claim that he believed in reincarnation
is absurd.

Before using any quotes from his writings, we strongly advise you to read the file Origen
and Origenism in order to get a brief description of Origen’s life, writings and teachings.
This article will give you a sound perspective on what he actually taught and what was later
condemned as Origenism. Then see the act of refuting Origenism by the fifth ecumenical
council, The 15 Anathemas Against Origen.

As it can easily be observed, there is no clear concept of reincarnation mentioned at this

council of the early church, but only the Platonist ideas concerning the pre-existence of
souls, besides universalism and a wrong form of Christology, as main heresies to be
rejected. Origenism has incorporated these Platonistic ideas and they were condemned at
the council of Constantinople, certainly not some classic form of reincarnation, as is
claimed today. For instance, the fourth anathema states:

If anyone shall say that the reasonable creatures in whom the divine love had grown cold
have been hidden in gross bodies such as ours, and have been called men, while those who
have attained the lowest degree of wickedness have shared cold and obscure bodies and are
become and called demons and evil spirits: let him be anathema.

The condemned ideas are very close related to what Plato has stated in Phaedrus. Therefore
it cannot be stated that Origenism taught a classic form of reincarnation. In fact, Origen
rejected plainly this doctrine in his Commentary on Matthew (Book XIII,1), written in the
last years of his life. He refutes the speculation of considering John the Baptist the
reincarnation of Elijah (Matthew 11,14; 17,12-13), a text we mentioned earlier. Origen
In this place it does not appear to me that by Elijah the soul is spoken of, lest I should fall
into the dogma of transmigration, which is foreign to the church of God, and not handed
down by the Apostles, nor anywhere set forth in the Scriptures; for it is also in opposition
to the saying that "things seen are temporal," and that "this age shall have a
consummation," and also to the fulfillment of the saying, "Heaven and earth shall pass
away," and "the fashion of this world passeth away," and "the heavens shall perish," and
what follows.

In the same commentary, under the title "The spirit and power of Elijah" - not the soul -
were in the Baptist, Origen adds: "For, observe, he did not say in the ‘soul’ of Elijah, in
which case the doctrine of transmigration might have some ground, but ‘in the spirit and
power of Elijah.’" Origen’s whole commentary on this text is a refutation of the
reincarnation theory. Therefore it is obvious that he cannot be considered at all an "early
Christian adherent of reincarnation".

Other early church fathers vs. Reincarnation

Here are some quotations from other early church fathers concerning their opinion on
reincarnation, which prove that it cannot have been one of their beliefs. Use the links in
order to get a larger picture on their writings.

Justin Martyr (100-165)

His opinion on reincarnation is plainly stated in the following fragment of his Dialogue
with Trypho 1,4 (155 AD), part one, chapter 4, where he discusses Platonism with Trypho
the Jew:

The old man: "What, then, is the advantage to those who have seen [God]? Or what has he
who has seen more than he who has not seen, unless he remember this fact, that he has

Justin: "I cannot tell," I answered.

The old man: "And what do those suffer who are judged to be unworthy of this spectacle?"
said he.
Justin: "[According to Plato] They are imprisoned in the bodies of certain wild beasts, and
this is their punishment."
The old man: "Do they know, then, that it is for this reason they are in such forms, and that
they have committed some sin?"
Justin: "I do not think so."
The old man: "Then these reap no advantage from their punishment, as it seems: moreover,
I would say that they are not punished unless they are conscious of the punishment."
Justin: "No indeed."
The old man: "Therefore souls neither see God nor transmigrate into other bodies; for they
would know that so they are punished, and they would be afraid to commit even the most
trivial sin afterwards. But that they can perceive that God exists, and that righteousness and
piety are honourable, I also quite agree with you," said he.
Justin: "You are right," I replied.

Irenaeus (130-200)
In his well-known treatise Against Heresies (Book II), Irenaeus entitled the 33rd chapter
"Absurdity of the Doctrine of the Transmigration of Souls". The whole chapter criticizes
this doctrine, emphasizing the futility of an alleged reincarnation devoid of any memory of
past lives:

They (the souls) must of necessity retain a remembrance of those things which have been
previously accomplished, that they might fill up those in which they were still deficient,
and not by always hovering, without intermission, round the same pursuits, spend their
labour wretchedly in vain.

Tertullian (145-220)
In his Treatise on the Soul (see ch. 28-33), Tertullian traces the origin of reincarnationist
ideas down to Pythagoras. He writes:

If, indeed, the sophist of Samos is Plato's authority for the eternally revolving migration of
souls out of a constant alternation of the dead and the living states, then no doubt did the
famous Pythagoras, however excellent in other respects, for the purpose of fabricating such
an opinion as this, rely on a falsehood, which was not only shameful, but also hazardous.

His conclusion is that "we must likewise contend against that monstrous presumption, that
in the course of the transmigration beasts pass from human beings, and human beings from

Gregory of Nyssa (335-395)

Finally, the master theologian of that time rejected in his turn any idea of predestination (as
an impersonal law like karma might impose) in his writing Against Fate, and also the
concept of reincarnation in the 28th chapter of his treatise On the Making of Man:

Those who assert that the state of souls is prior to their life in the flesh, do not seem to me
to be clear from the fabulous doctrines of the heathen which they hold on the subject of
successive incorporation: for if one should search carefully, he will find that their doctrine
is of necessity brought down to this. They tell us that one of their sages said that he, being
one and the same person, was born a man, and afterwards assumed the form of a woman,
and flew about with the birds, and grew as a bush, and obtained the life of an aquatic
creature; - and he who said these things of himself did not, so far as I can judge, go far from
the truth: for such doctrines as this of saying that one soul passed through so many changes
are really fitting for the chatter of frogs or jackdaws, or the stupidity of fishes, or the
insensibility of trees.

See also:

Reincarnation - A Catholic Viewpoint. This well-researched article refutes the notion that
the early church believed in reincarnation, using many references to support its argument;
What did early Christians believe about reincarnation)

All these early church fathers lived before the fifth ecumenical council (Constantinople,
AD 533), so it cannot be true that the doctrine of reincarnation was condemned and
forbidden only as a result of that council, as a brutal act of manipulating Christianity by the
clergy. Although reincarnation was taught by some non-Christian movements of that time,
such as the Gnostics and the Neo-Platonists, it has nothing in common with the teachings of
the early church, being always rejected as heresy by the early church fathers.


Why cannot Christianity accept reincarnation?

The idea of reincarnation was never accepted by Christianity because it undermines its
basic tenets. First, it renders futile God’s sovereignty over creation, transforming Him into
a helpless spectator of the human tragedy. Because He is sovereign and omnipotent over
creation, God can punish evil and will do it perfectly well at the end of history (see
Matthew 25,31-46; Revelation 20,10-15). There is no need for impersonal karma and
reincarnation to play this role.

Second, believing in reincarnation may affect one’s understanding of morality and

motivation for moral living. An extreme application of reincarnationist convictions could
lead to adopting a detached stand to crime, theft, lying and other such social plagues. They
could be considered nothing else but normal debts to be paid by their victims, originated in
their previous lives. Following this reasoning, social injustice should not be punished at all
in order to not complicate even more someone’s karmic debt. Therefore it is hard to believe
that accepting reincarnation would transform us into better people, pursuing moral values
with more conviction, as reincarnationists usually claim. The amorality proposed by
Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita, the demand to act totally detached from what results, is the
highest moral status that can be reached as the result of accepting karma and reincarnation.

Third, reincarnation represents a threat to the very essence of Christianity: the need for
Christ’s redemptive sacrifice for our sins. If we are to pay for the consequences of our sins
ourselves in further lives and attain salvation through our own efforts, the sacrifice of
Christ becomes useless and absurd. It wouldn’t be the only way back to God, but only a
stupid accident of history. In this case Christianity would be a mere form of Hindu Bhakti-

As a result, no matter how many attempts are made today to find texts in the Bible or in the
history of the Church that would allegedly teach reincarnation, they are all doomed to
remain pure speculations.


If reincarnation isn’t true, how can the experiences of past life recall be explained?
An answer compatible with Christian theology can be found following the attempts of
psychiatry to find an equivalence between evoking "personalities from past lives", by the
use of hypnosis, and the multiple personality phenomenon. As was previously mentioned,
there remains an unexplained element in the attempt to understand both phenomena on a
purely naturalistic basis: How are the personalities distributed in their roles, or who decides
which one is to act next in the show? It cannot be a random process. Using the words of Ian
Wilson, "the show must have a ‘director’".

Parapsychologists tend to attribute the "director’s" role to some personal external entities,
which act through the process of channeling. Hypnosis generates perfect conditions for
contacting these entities as a result of abolishing normal consciousness. Instead of
presenting their true identity, they could introduce themselves as personalities evoked from
previous lives. Until now enough cases of external spirit interference in producing
reincarnation stories have been discovered. Most people are not aware of these undesirable
parasitic attachments while recollecting alleged past lives stories. Those who are aware of
them accept them as precious aids in the recollection process. The only reason for rejecting
the hypothesis that past life recall stories are pure fiction invented by these entities is the
sheer belief in their honesty.

Now if we pass from the realm of parapsychology to Christian teaching, it appears obvious
that such "external personal entities" exist, and have sufficient reason to lie us about
spiritual reality. They are called demons and have developed most ingenious techniques to
fool mankind about spiritual reality. The Apostle Paul states:

And no wonder, for Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light. It is not surprising,
then, if his servants masquerade as servants of righteousness. Their end will be what their
actions deserve (2 Corinthians 11,14-15).

If we accept Biblical revelation, admitting that demons exist and do their best to fool us
about spiritual reality, why not accept their possible involvement in producing reincarnation
proofs, a concept that blatantly contradicts the essence of Christianity but at the same time
fits well with their purpose? If the best conditions are created to express themselves through
the person undergoing hypnosis (when self-consciousness is abolished), why should they
not act? Why should they not respond to the invitation to fulfill their purpose in such a
fascinating way for a credulous and ignorant public?

The experience of spirit possession represents full or partial takeover of a human by an

external spiritual entity (a demon). This phenomenon is known to most religions. The
parasite spirit exerts control over the behavior, mental functioning and emotions of the
person involved, being capable of producing sensations and symptoms in the physical body.
This picture is obviously very close to what is happening during hypnotic regression. Why
then reject its explanation as spirit possession and believe in past life recall? As to the
information they produce from alleged previous lives in the form of historical accounts that
correspond to some extent with reality (but always are most suited to win people’s trust), if
humans know them, how much more are they available for demons? If humans are capable
of creating historical scenarios using the facts they know, how much more could demons
prove equally creative?

In the case of "spontaneous past life recall" by children, the mechanism could be similar. At
the age when they recall the alleged past lives (generally between two and five years of
age) their spiritual discernment is not formed yet, which makes them vulnerable to demon
manipulation. In a previous section on this phenomenon we have seen that there are cases
when the alleged soul’s reincarnation overlaps with the personality of the child, presenting
typical symptoms of demonic possession.

In conclusion, there is no possible way to reconcile Christianity and reincarnation. As Ian

Stevenson, a well-known researcher of past life recall experiences, concluded in his book
Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation that they are only "suggesting" reincarnation
and not "proving" it. From a Christian perspective however, they rather suggest demon
possession and therefore should not be used as a method of getting information on spiritual

Four criteria
to evaluate any religious perspective

All religions try to formulate a unitary and comprehensive perspective on Ultimate Reality
and how man should relate to it. However, before accepting a certain religion as our own
spiritual path toward Ultimate Reality, we have to evaluate it critically, using criteria with
enough relevance to anyone. As we do not accept almost anything without first examining
it critically, whether it is food, drink or any other elementary need, we should have a
similar attitude when dealing with our quest for Ultimate Reality. Finding relevant criteria
to test a spiritual path is not an easy task, especially considering the fact that they should
cover all domains of human experience. We suggest the use of the following four:

1) internal consistency;

2) harmony between empirical knowledge and absolute (religious or mystical) knowledge;

3) viability;

4) contradiction with other religious perspectives.

Let us explain what they mean:

1) Internal consistency requires that no obvious internal contradiction should exist in the
religious or philosophical system we study. If it states that the law of non-contradiction
(and logic, in general) does not work here because logic has to be transcended in order to
grasp higher realities, our capacity to know and discern between truth and falsehood would
be dramatically affected by incoherence. However, even if a certain religious system seems
to lack any obvious inconsistencies, it does not necessarily mean that it should be accepted
on this single basis. Hypothetically, many coherent systems could exist, not just one, but
without being true spiritual paths. This criterion proves what is false, but cannot establish
by itself what must be the truth. For this we need the next criteria.
2) The criterion of harmony between empirical and absolute knowledge requires, as its
name suggests, that a certain religion should state a harmonious relation between empirical
knowledge, obtained through man’s normal knowing abilities (sensory and mental), and
what is called direct knowledge of the Ultimate Reality. In other words, a religion should
not state an insurmountable barrier between empirical and absolute knowledge, as if they
were mutually exclusive. From this requirement it does not follow that Ultimate Reality
should be known exclusively using our empirical abilities of knowledge. In this case we
would belong to an atheist system of thought. The religions we analyze admit both an
empirical and an absolute way of knowledge, so that this criterion requires a right balance
between them, harmony and complementarity. However, neither would this criterion be
enough in determining its truthfulness, if a certain religion lacked viability.

3) The criterion of viability (or pragmatism) requires that a certain religion should work in
personal and social life. As a result of the given possibility to know what Ultimate Reality
is, a religion should have relevant answers to the fundamental questions of human
existence, such as those posed by the author of the Shvetashvatara Upanishad (1,1):
“Whence are we born? Whereby do we live, and whither do we go?" or in other words,
“What is the meaning of our existence?”

In answering these questions, a religion should not demand that one ignore social life. Man
is by his very essence a social being and needs right patterns in order to live in harmony
with his neighbors. The religion that fails to regulate social life, giving no pattern to
integrate all the members of society in a viable system, may be valid only for the hermit. In
other words, we should accept as principles only those we would like to be followed by all
members of society. Anything else should be abandoned. For instance, if we were to accept
lying as a valid principle of social conduct, we should accept all lies as being valid. But
when all have the right to lie, nobody will be trusted anymore, and no liar would ever
benefit from his lies. So the principle of admitting lies turns against its very purpose
(making one’s life easier, for instance) and undermines its own use. In our situation as
socially interdependent beings, we cannot ignore the need for pragmatic principles of
conduct. Starting from here, a specific understanding of some related issues such as
freedom, morality, and compassion will necessarily develop.

4) If all religions address the same issues and there are basic contradictions between them,
the principle of external contradiction suggests that they cannot all be equally true. As we
have seen in the previous files on how the world religions define Ultimate Reality, man’s
condition, salvation and the nature of evil, there are major disagreements between them,
especially when compared to Christianity. This point should already be clear, so there is no
need to re-emphasize it over and over in the following analysis of different religious

The four above-mentioned criteria rest only on our natural abilities of testing the
truthfulness of a certain religion. However, all religious perspectives necessarily include a
supernatural dimension, which is beyond our natural abilities of investigation. Far from
trying to reduce Ultimate Reality to what our limited mind could comprehend (which
would be an atheistic approach to religion), we still need to emphasize the importance of
the second criterion mentioned above. Although all religions’ aim is to formulate a right
relation between man and Ultimate Reality and not only to give a theoretical understanding
of it, an intelligent approach to religion should still be possible. Far from being purely
rationalistic, such an approach should not be refused by stating that religion is the domain
of pure mysticism. Quoting Shankara, the well known Hindu philosopher, “that which is
accepted or believed in without sufficient inquiry is not only bad philosophy, but also
prevents one from reaching the goal of perfection and results in evil” (from T.M.P.
Mahadevan, Invitation to Indian Philosophy, p. 5).
Critical considerations regarding
pantheist religions and philosophies

We will now proceed to evaluate how the first three criteria mentioned in the previous file
are fulfilled by a pantheistic view of life. The classic example of pantheist philosophy was
stated by the Upanishads (7th to 5th century BC) and then developed by the Hindu
philosopher Shankara to become the well-known Advaita Vedanta philosophy.


1) Internal consistency of Hindu pantheism

As mentioned in a previous file on the Vedantic view on liberation, it is claimed that the
unity atman-Brahman is perfectly attained during the last level of meditation, called turiya.
The Mandukya Upanishad (12), considered by Shankara to express the quintessence of
Vedanta philosophy, ends with the following verse:

The fourth state has cognizance of neither what is inside nor what is outside, nor of both
together: it is not a mass of wisdom, it is not wise nor yet unwise. It is unseen; there can be
no commerce with it; it is impalpable, has no characteristics, unthinkable; it cannot be
designated. Its essence is its firm conviction of the oneness of itself; it causes the
phenomenal world to cease; it is tranquil and mild, devoid of duality. Such do they consider
this fourth to be. He is the Self; he it is who should be known. (Translated by R.C. Zaehner,
in Mysticism - Sacred and Profane, p. 154)
This passage emphasizes the necessity for transcending any duality in order to know
Brahman (the Self). However, there is a logical contradiction between these two elements.
When transcending any duality, nothing can be known anymore, because the elementary
duality between knower (subject) and known (object) is obliterated. Duality is essential for
any type of epistemological process. When the subject is atman and the object Brahman, no
normal knowledge can be involved, because atman and Brahman are one.

The point here is that Ultimate Reality cannot be known in a pantheist religion. Man cannot
know something with which he has to impersonally merge. Although the Hindu Vedanta
claims that Brahman is known at the moment of liberation, this has no logical basis. (The
laws of logic are the result of our dual thinking, which makes differences and operates with
them, so logic itself does not work in a system where any duality is excluded.) S.
Radhakrishnan defines liberation as “the highest experience where all intellectual activity is
transcended and even self-consciousness is obliterated” (Indian Philosophy, vol. II, p. 640).
But who actually has this experience? Who can confirm that liberation is the highest point
of one’s existence, if personhood ceases to exist? An impersonal atman, that is beyond any
duality? If any personal attribute is lost, there is nothing left to describe the liberation

As a result, the "knowledge of atman-Brahman identity" cannot be considered a real

epistemological process. S. Radhakrishnan states: “As the distinction between the highest
self and the individual is one of false knowledge, we get rid of it by true knowledge.”
(Ibid., p. 622). This “true knowledge” corresponds to experiencing a pantheistic perspective
on reality. Therefore, a better term that replaces the concept of knowing, is that of
experiencing unity with Ultimate Reality, through certain meditation techniques.
Meditation is a way of transcending duality through entering altered states of
consciousness, or, in other words, a way of deliberately perverting one’s natural cognitive
faculties (senses and mind). It doesn’t represent an actual process of knowing, but rather a
way of imposing a non-dual reality to one’s consciousness. Terms such as “direct
knowledge of truth” represent the actual experiences one has in meditation. In order to find
out more about the veracity of these experiences, click here.

On the other hand, in this given context, when there are no real distinctions between atman
and Brahman, it is not the individual knower who has the cognitive experience, but only
Brahman. If the cognitive experience belongs not to man but to Brahman, not even one’s
own experience (called “true knowledge”) can really be a valid way of knowing Brahman,
because Brahman can only know himself. We reached this strange conclusion as a result of
both denying the importance of man’s personal status distinct from Ultimate Reality, and
considering real only that which is one with Brahman. In conclusion, the pantheistic
premise of oneness generates internal inconsistencies in the system (or at least an
incoherent epistemology).

2) The requirement for harmony between empirical and absolute knowledge in Hindu
Not only knowing Ultimate Reality is impossible in a pantheist system, but also balancing
empirical and absolute knowledge. This consequent difficulty results from the doctrine of
world-illusion (maya), according to which the phenomenal world is ultimately illusory.
Therefore, the senses, through which we interact with the phenomenal world, as well as
mind, which operates with this data, are considered to provide illusory and confusing
information when trying to grasp spiritual reality. They perpetuate man’s ignorance
(avidya) of the true reality, which is Brahman, and therefore feed karma.

The problem with this way of interpreting empirical knowledge is that we can consider it
illusory only by using an objective standard as reference. As long as the knower is inside
the system, bound to its illusion, he cannot know what is wrong with his empirical way of
knowing. In other words, in a closed system where illusion works as a rule, we can prove
that empirical knowledge is true or false only by comparing it to an absolute standard,
which must not belong to the same system. Without this epistemological basis we cannot
make objective judgments on reality. What could be the standard for establishing the
illusory value of empirical knowledge? If it is a god, a being external to our system and
able to communicate with humans, we arrive at what is called revelation in a theistic
system. In this situation, which represents a totally different religious perspective, we
should accept duality and intelligible communication inside a dualistic system, but this
obviously cannot be the case. If the required standard were an internal one, such as
experience (the effect of living out “reality” in one’s personal life, or experiencing life as
suffering), we arrive at another contradiction of an epistemological nature: If we knew from
experience that phenomenological knowledge is false, then no room would be left for
reaching “absolute knowledge” because it is always introduced and mediated by empirical,
or first hand, experience. In other words, as long as all information we get about spiritual
reality is mediated by our senses (sight and hearing) and mind, and these have ultimately
illusory value, how can we know that the pantheist perspective itself is not a deceptive
illusion? (We learn about it primarily by using the same empirical knowledge, which is
false, so it should be rejected.)

Because of the impossibility of harmonizing absolute and empirical knowledge, a

supplementary difficulty arises in discerning between what is real and what is not. A
pantheist can reach the same existential doubt as Chuang Tzu, and say “I do not know
whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly,
dreaming I am a man”. Although this may seem to be too speculative, there are enough
people practicing Eastern meditation who have real problems in discerning between what
belongs to real life and what (really) is illusion. From an ontological point of view, it is
impossible to state a logical balance between absolute reality and worldly illusion. In
Advaita Vedanta the option was to consider the world either an illusion (maya), or a result
of ignorance (avidya). But as illusion and ignorance belong themselves to the phenomenal
reality, one cannot explain its existence in regard to absolute truth.

3) The viability of Hindu pantheism
Let us now examine the meaning of human life in a pantheist view of reality, and
understand to what extent it can work at personal and social level.

As long as atman, the core entity that defines human existence, has an impersonal nature,
personhood is a hindrance to attaining liberation and, consequently, has to be abolished.
This is a logical necessity given by the fact that all forms of Brahman’s manifestation
(including man) have to return to the primordial state of non-manifestation at the end of
each cosmic cycle. The oblivion of personhood does not refer only to some of its products,
such as egoism, but to the very existence of the psycho-mental faculties which define it -
intellect, will, emotions, consciousness, communion, etc. All these are said to belong to the
inferior ego, totally distinct from the self (atman). Between them no possible relation can

However, it is only personhood that makes us distinct humans and confers personal
identity, not the impersonal atman devoid of any attributes. Therefore, it is hard to accept
that liberation from personhood and merging with an impersonal Absolute (according to the
model of the raindrop that falls into the ocean and becomes one with it) could represent any
form of spiritual fulfillment or progression. The extinction of self-consciousness and
entering a state of “absolute silence” is rather a terrible perspective on human destiny. Such
a frightening end should raise serious doubts to those who become adherents of pantheist
religions. Therefore it is not surprising that discussing the meaning and consequences of
liberation is constantly avoided by turning the adherents’ attention to the practice of
meditation and the experiences which accompany it. But no matter how convincing such
experiences could be, they end in a tragic kind of liberation, which does not correspond to
our personal status. As personal beings, we tend to attain personal fulfillment in the

The result of rejecting personhood is that some important human values are thoroughly
affected. We will briefly examine some aspects concerning freedom, morality, social
involvement and compassion, trying to understand their actual meaning in pantheism.

The first of them, freedom, is discredited by the doctrine of karma. As the self is forced to
enter a new material existence until all karmic debt is paid, man’s present life is shaped
according to the dictates of karma. Whatever man chooses to do, finally he has to return to
the impersonal origin of all existence. Therefore, for the one searching for liberation, the
only freedom left is that of avoiding being trapped in new attachments (by the use of his
free will) and submitting to fate.

According to the pantheist view, real freedom is experienced only at liberation. But this
means liberation out of personhood, not becoming a free person. Pantheism does not view
freedom as being free to make your own choices but as liberation from karma, and, as a
result, from personal existence. However, the kind of freedom one experiences at the
moment of liberation cannot be called real freedom, because when the self gets merged
with Brahman, there is no conscious agent left to experience it.
Second, consequent pantheist teaching does not offer a solid ground for morality. As
emphasized in a previous file reincarnation is not a good stimulant for moral living. From
an ontological point of view, if all things are manifestations of the same unique essence,
good and evil are relative and therefore a real distinction between them cannot be stated,
nor a sound motivation for ethical action. (It would be useful here to review our file on The
nature of evil in Eastern religions.) S. Radhakrishnan states:

The moral world, which assumes the isolation and independence of its members, belongs to
the world of appearances. <...> So long as we occupy the standpoint of individualistic
moralism, we are in the world of samsara, with its hazards and hardships. <...> The end of
morality is to lift oneself up above one’s individuality and become one with the impersonal
spirit of the universe (Indian Philosophy, vol. II, p. 625-26).

But who could live consistently with the conviction that moral values are ultimately
illusory? In fact, it is that old-fashioned “individualistic moralism” that holds our society in
balance. Actually, pantheism does not demand immorality, but amorality, which represents
indifference to well-established moral values. However, in everyday life the adherents of
pantheism do not reject morality, but consider it important only for the inferior stages of
one’s quest toward liberation. In other words, morality is necessary at first, but then
becomes a hindrance in attaining liberation by the attachments it produces. But this is
nothing but another inconsistency of pantheism. How could one pursue a moral conduct if
convinced that all good or bad things ultimately belong to the world of illusion?

Third, social involvement of the individual person is not encouraged by a pantheist view of
life. In order to attain liberation, one should abandon social life because its basis is the
illusory world of duality, which produces attachments. This is a hindrance toward realizing
the truth of non-duality and should be avoided. One possible solution would be that only
those who have already attained liberation (jivan mukta) can participate in social life, as
they have gone beyond dualism and therefore cannot accumulate karma anymore. A second
possible solution is suggested in the Bhagavad Gita (selfless action as karma yoga), and
will be discussed in another file. A third possible solution for social involvement is
proposed by the Upanishadic tradition of the four ashramas, which holds that withdrawing
from social life should occur only at a certain age. According to it, a man should first be a
young disciple, then have a family, and only when his children are big enough to support
themselves is he allowed to leave them and society. However, this solution is not followed
today. (Which guru asks his disciples to first establish a family, raise their children until
they become independent, and only then dedicate their life to the quest for liberation?)
Even if it were followed, it is doubtful that one could truly get himself involved in family
affairs, knowing that all attachments are illusory and produce bad karma.

Fourth, there is a strange way of understanding compassion in pantheism. Compassion is

not recommended as being intrinsically good for the sake of the other persons in need, as in
theistic religions, but as an efficient instrument for liberating one’s own mind of the
erroneous idea of individual personality. Man cannot be helped as an individual, because it
is individuality (non-integration into oneness) which is the source of his problems.
Compassion is therapeutically good for the one who performs it, and does not primarily aim
to improve the condition of the person in need. In other words, compassion (as well as
morality) may be considered useful only as an aid for oneself’s journey towards knowledge
and union with the impersonal Absolute. Otherwise it may conflict with the manifestation
of karma in the life of the one who is suffering (and needs compassionate help), which
would be bad for him and bad for the “compassionate” helper.


Similar criticism is valid for other pantheist religious schools

The same comments can be addressed to other pantheist religious schools such as Tantrism,
Hatha Yoga and Tibetan Buddhism. In Tantrism and Hatha Yoga, instead of the Brahman-
atman impersonal fusion, we have that of Shiva-Shakti (Shakti being represented in man as
the kundalini spiritual energy). In Tibetan Buddhism it is consciousness that merges with
the impersonal essence of the world (shunya). The epistemological inconsistencies (see the
first two criteria) are the same as in Vedanta.

The viability of these schools face similar problems. Difficulties concerning morality arise
especially in Tantrism of the left-hand school, where liberation is experienced through
sexual union. In order to symbolize and overcome the duality Shiva-Shakti, man assumes
the role of Shiva and the woman that of Shakti. The preliminary ritual requirements break
many traditional taboos, by consuming fish, meat and wine. Although all elements need to
be interpreted at a purely spiritual level, there are many cases (especially in the West) in
which so-called Tantric procedures become pretexts for abandoning oneself to lustful
instincts and embracing the less spiritual path of today’s “total sexual freedom”.


Scientific pantheism
Attempts are made today to ground a so-called scientific pantheist view of life, which
should get rid of all the embarrassing religious stuff and be accepted by the scientific
community. Developments toward this new ideology were encouraged by the latest
discoveries in science, especially in the field of quantum physics. Research on elementary
particles revealed that an equivalence between matter and energy can be stated, according
to Einstein’s principle, E=mc2. Therefore it can be considered that any aspect of our
material universe is a manifestation of energy. This was believed to confirm the fact that
there is a unique reality at the basis of our universe corresponding to Brahman, the
impersonal Ultimate Reality of Hindu Vedanta. In other words, as religious pantheism
holds that our world is a manifestation of Brahman, in a similar way the so-called scientific
pantheism states that energy is the source of any given aspect of the universe.
Consequently, “scientific pantheism” replaces Brahman with energy.

This new "religion" claims to reconcile traditional religion and science. It is stated that “it
requires no faith other than common sense, no guru other than yourself” and also that it
accepts “all evidence that is either a matter of common experience, or that is scientifically
validated”. Because of its “scientific” orientation, it rejects even the basic tenets of
traditional pantheism, such as reincarnation and any form of afterlife. According to the new
way of understanding afterlife, “mind is an aspect of the body, and at death dissolves with
the body to merge into the elements from which it was formed”. Instead of worshipping any
god, scientific pantheism worships nature, which is not at all considered to be illusory.

However, the problem with “scientific pantheism” is that being so “scientifically” oriented,
it isn’t at all a religion, but only a new form of atheism. It is a new form of rejecting
anything that passes human understanding, a trend that isn’t new at all in mankind’s
history. “Scientific pantheism” and scientific atheism are synonyms, nothing but forms of
rejecting traditional religions, and therefore have nothing to do with the goal of this site.


Pantheism states that Ultimate Reality has an impersonal nature. It can be known only by
merging with it and thus by abolishing personhood. However, this can have no cognitive
meaning. It is also impossible to state a logical balance between absolute reality and
empirical experience. From a pragmatic point of view, as long as we cannot live
consistently with rejecting the reality of the phenomenal world and aiming toward the
annihilation of personhood, as long as we cannot live amorally and reject social
involvement, pantheism cannot provide a viable way of living. It is contrary to reason,
personhood, common sense and society. Anything we do in this world is based on the
premise that distinctions are real, and therefore knowledge is possible, moral values are
necessary, as well as social involvement. Abandoning these values would not lead us to a
direct experience of Ultimate Reality, but rather toward spiritual schizophrenia.

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------Critical considerations
the dualistic Samkhya-Yoga metaphysics

In order to emphasize some basic difficulties of the dualistic Samkhya and Yoga darshanas,
we will use the same criteria of internal consistency, harmony between empirical and
absolute knowledge, and viability. (Remember that it is the specific Yoga darshana of
Patanjali endorsed here, and not other of the many modern Yoga schools that exist today.)
As their metaphysical basis is mostly common, in the absence of any supplementary
explanation, what will be mentioned here is valid for both schools.

1) The internal consistency of the Samkhya-Yoga metaphysics is affected by the way it

states the plurality of souls (purushas). As purusha is devoid of any attributes that could
individualize it (which was also the case with atman), there no difference can be made
between one purusha and another, and therefore we cannot admit their plurality. S.
Radhakrishnan makes the following comment from a Vedantic point of view:
The self is without attributes or qualities, without parts, imperishable, motionless,
absolutely inactive and impassive, unaffected by pleasure or pain or any other emotion. All
change, all character belong to prakriti. There does not seem to be any basis for the
attribution of distinctness to purushas. If each purusha has the same features of
consciousness, all-pervadingness, if there is not the slightest difference between one
purusha and another, since they are free from all variety, then there is nothing to lead us to
assume a plurality of purushas. Multiplicity without distinction is impossible (Indian
Philosophy, vol. II, p. 322).

2) As a result of the way it states the relation existing between purusha and prakriti
(nature), the Samkhya-Yoga metaphysics also lacks harmony between empirical and
absolute knowledge. Here is how S. Radhakrishnan appreciates the contradictory relation
between the two elements:

When the Samkhya breaks up the concrete unity of experience into the two elements of
subject and object and makes them fictitiously absolute, it cannot account for the fact of
experience. When purusha is viewed as pure consciousness, the permanent light which
illuminates all objects of knowledge, and prakriti as something opposed to consciousness
and utterly foreign to it, the latter can never become the object of the former. The Samkhya
cannot get across the ditch which it has dug between the subject and the object. [...] Unless
the subject and object are akin to each other, how can the one reflect the other? How can
buddhi, which is non-intelligent, reflect purusha? How can the formless purusha which is
the constant seer be reflected in buddhi which is changing? The two cannot, therefore, be
absolutely opposed in nature (Indian Philosophy, vol. II, p. 303-4).

In other words, the Samkhya and Yoga darshanas dissociate knowledge into two distinct
realms (absolute and empirical) between which stands an insurmountable gap. Because they
belong to different worlds, purusha cannot know prakriti, and on the other hand, prakriti
and all its forms of manifestation cannot do anything to help liberation. Between the
domain of empirical knowledge produced by prakriti and the absolute knowledge of
purusha, no possible relationship can exist.

An attempt to solve this epistemological difficulty was done by postulating the fact that
prakriti operates instinctively for purusha’s liberation. The Samkhya-Sutra (3,47) states that
“creation (prakriti) works for the sake of purusha, so that it may attain supreme
knowledge”. The Yoga-Sutra of Patanjali (2,21) also mentions that prakriti exists only for
the sake of serving purusha's liberation. But in the absence of a personal creator god who
could “inspire” a teleological instinct to prakriti, such a postulate is absurd. The Samkhya
darshana rejects the existence of a creator god, since he could be conceived only as a
liberated self, or a self bound to karma (Samkhya-Sutra 1,93). However, neither a self
enslaved by karma can be the creator, nor a free purusha, because, being totally detached
from matter (prakriti), it could not have perception, desire for action or any means to
influence matter. To this second category belongs Ishvara of the Yoga darshana. He is not a
personal god, but rather a macro-purusha that was never involved with the psycho-mental
activity and the law of karma (Yoga-Sutra 1,24), being devoid of any creative abilities.
The teleological instinct of prakriti was explained the Samkhya and Yoga darshanas by
using the image of a horse that pulls a wagon out of his instinct, an act to which the wagon
driver is a simple spectator. In the same way, prakriti would conduct purusha toward
liberation without any external directive. It is omitted, however, in this example, that the
horse was first trained by the driver before he knew the way home. Samkhya metaphysics
does not allow such an external “coach” for prakriti to learn how to liberate purusha.
Another poor illustration used by the Samkhya followers is that of a blind man and a lame
man helping each other on their journey. Neither can this be a valid illustration to
symbolize the teleological instinct of prakriti, because both the blind man and the lame man
possess intelligence and language, and therefore can cooperate in realizing a common
purpose. Such cooperation between purusha and prakriti cannot exist, because they have
nothing in common. Therefore, the epistemological problem generated by the impossible
communication between purusha and man’s psycho-mental abilities cannot be properly
solved. How could intellect help to distance purusha from prakriti, if intellect itself is a
category of prakriti?

Another solution suggested to explain the purusha-prakriti relation was that a certain
similarity could exist between buddhi (pure intellect) and purusha, a similarity given by the
guna sattva. According to this opinion, when the guna sattva is dominating one’s psycho-
mental life, the intellect can become as pure as purusha, and therefore capable of perfectly
reflecting it, a moment which precedes their separation and, consequently, purusha’s
liberation. However, there are two major problems arising from such a hypothesis: 1) How
could the intellect possibly attain the purity of purusha? By its very essence, intellect is a
category of prakriti, different from purusha’s immutability. 2) If such purity of intellect
could be attained only at the moment of liberation, how can buddhi and purusha cooperate
all the way prior to reaching this stage? In other words, how can intellect, a category of
prakriti, be purified in order to reflect purusha while it is still dominated by the gunas rajas
and tamas?

Not even “knowing the knowledge” of buddhi by purusha, through purusha’s reflection in
the intellect, can be a solution. In order that communication might be possible between two
totally different entities (one being purusha and the other one the psycho-mental abilities,
which belong to prakriti), one's data have to be “translated” to the other one, a requirement
which is impossible to fulfill according to the Samkhya and Yoga. Although this translator
(or mediator) role was attributed to purusha’s reflection in the intellect, it was not stated to
which category this reflection belongs. If it belongs to prakriti, it brings nothing new in
solving the dilemma. It also cannot belong to purusha (as its product or attribute), because
it would institute a new category, intermediary and different to both purusha and prakriti,
which is absurd.

The epistemological dilemma we face here is similar to that encountered in pantheism. The
same illusory status of empirical knowledge makes communication impossible between the
self and the world. Therefore, empirical knowledge is of no use in attaining liberation. The
gap that exists between empirical knowledge (psycho-mental data) and absolute knowledge
(purusha’s self-knowledge) is impossible to cross.
3) As a result of the illusory status granted to personhood, the Samkhya and Yoga
darshanas face similar problems to those of pantheism concerning their viability.
Personhood is considered to be a product of prakriti’s manifestation, a sum of psycho-
mental experiences that cease to exist at the moment of liberation. Instead of the pantheist
view of liberation, consisting of an impersonal merging of the self with the Absolute, the
Samkhya and Yoga darshanas state that the liberated self (purusha) remains eternally
isolated, devoid of any relation with other purushas (or Ishvara, in Yoga) and having as the
only possibility that of knowing itself. But given the fact that purusha is devoid of any
attributes, it is hard to grasp what could that self-contemplation possibly consist of.

Due to the same attitude toward personhood, the problems faced in defining freedom,
morality, compassion and social involvement are similar to those mentioned in analyzing
pantheism, and therefore will not be repeated. The solution for passing over all the above-
mentioned inconsistencies is considered to be practice, or, in other words, having a direct
experience of Ultimate Reality. This is why we dedicate the next file to examining the
Yoga practice and appreciating to what extent it could provide the answer for man’s
spiritual quest for transcendence.

Critical considerations regarding

Yoga as spiritual path towards transcendence

In the previous files we dealt with the metaphysical basis of some important Eastern
religions, the way they define Ultimate Reality, man’s conditions and the meaning of
liberation. As it is usually taught that one cannot grasp the meaning of these important
issues without getting involved in practicing the actual path toward liberation, we will now
analyze the famous discipline of Yoga and understand to what extent it could be the answer
to one's quest toward transcendence.

The origin of Yoga as ascetic discipline is probably found in the ascetic practices of a
religious group called the Vratyas in the Atharva Veda (XV). They are the first mentioned
to practice the control of breathing and some sexual rituals, with the goal of attaining
ecstatic trance states. The term “yoga” has its root in the Sanskrit word yuj, which means
“to yoke”. In its present meaning, this term was first used in the Taittirya and Katha
Upanishads (around the 5th century B.C). In the second, the god of death (Yama) explains
to a young disciple how to attain the perfect knowledge of Brahman and thus merge with it,
through restraining the senses and concentration. The parable of the chariot states:

Know the self (atman) as the lord of the chariot and the body as, verily, the chariot,
know the intellect as the charioteer and the mind as, verily, the reins. The senses
are the horses; the objects of sense the paths; the self associated with the body, the
senses and the mind - wise men declare - is the enjoyer. He who has no
understanding, whose mind is always unrestrained, his senses are out of control, as
wicked horses are for a charioteer. He, however, who has understanding, whose
mind is always restrained, his senses are under control, as good horses are for a
charioteer (Katha Up. 1,3,3-6).

The lord of the chariot (the self) is silently enduring the foolishness of the charioteer (the
mind) and the madness of the horses (the senses). Yoga is here defined as the method
through which the mind (the charioteer) can bridle the wicked senses, in order that the self
may get off the body and be united with Brahman: “This, they consider to be Yoga, the
steady control of the senses” (Katha Up. 2,3,11).

There are two major meanings for Yoga in Hindu spirituality. The first designates the
specific darshana organized by Patanjali, while the second has a broader sense, implying
any effort undertaken in order to attain liberation, independent of its meaning. Therefore,
any spiritual discipline aimed at liberating the self can be called Yoga. As a result, the term
is used with various meanings, having more or less in common with the Yoga darshana of
Patanjali. For instance, Mantra Yoga is the method that consists of using mantras in order
to attain liberation (as in Transcendental Meditation). Kundalini Yoga follows a Tantric
view, stressing the awakening of kundalini and its final reunion with Shiva. The same goal
is to be pursued in Hatha Yoga, but following a strict physical discipline. Jnana Yoga
follows a Vedantic ideology, aiming to find liberation mostly by one's effort to achieve a
monistic view of reality, laying less emphasis on physical effort. Karma Yoga refers to a
specific mindset that has to be followed in social life, i.e. the demand to act completely
detached from personal interests and desires, which may complicate one’s karma. This
trend was best stated in the Bhagavad Gita and will be analyzed in another file. Bhakti
Yoga is the name given to the large variety of devotional practices of Hindu theism, aimed
at pleasing a god and earning eternal abode in his realm.

In this file we will refer to the Yoga technique as organized by Patanjali, usually called
Raja Yoga (“the royal Yoga”), and also to the Hatha Yoga school. Few elements will be
mentioned about the metaphysical differences between them, as this topic was already
discussed in previous files.

Brief description of the Raja Yoga path toward liberation

In the period of the late Upanishads (Yogatattva, Dhyanabindu, Nadabindu and some other
15 composed after the 5th century BC), the tendency appeared to consider that spiritual
liberation cannot be attained exclusively by the means of contemplation but has to be
accomplished experimentally, by following a certain ascetic technique. The Shvetashvatara
Up. (2,8-15) had already described some instructions for body postures, breathing control
and focusing the mind exercises for being able to perceive Brahman. In grounding the new
Yoga darshana, Patanjali used the technical elements brought by these Upanishads and
used them as a tool for achieving the goal of the Samkhya metaphysics, the liberation of
purusha from the bondage of prakriti.

The Raja Yoga of Patanjali is properly described in his treatise called Yoga Sutra. The
purpose of Yoga is clearly stated from its very beginning (1,2): “the inhibition of the
modifications of the mind” (citta vritti nirodhah). The normal states of consciousness are
the product of ignorance (avidya), which generates the sense duality and separatedness
from others (asmita) and the will to live (abhinivesha). The continuous flux of thoughts and
mental representations induced by such a mindset is called a sum of "modifications of the
mind”. They perpetuate ignorance and the captivity of purusha in the world of prakriti’s
manifestations. In order that liberation may be attained it is necessary that empirical
consciousness be extinguished and replaced by a different state of consciousness, in which
the experience gained through senses and mind (produced by prakriti) is replaced by extra-
sensory and extra-rational experience.

The above mentioned “modifications of the mind” are produced not only through
interacting with the phenomenal world, but also by a category of latent tendencies present
in our subconscious mind called vasanas. They are considered to be conglomerate results of
subconscious impressions (samskaras) created in previous lives through ignorant
experience. During the present life they tend to manifest in the mental realm, being a
further obstacle in attaining liberation.

Therefore, the control of the mental states as required in Yoga has a double focus: Both the
external illusion (the false identification of purusha with the psycho-mental fluctuations)
and the internal source of illusion produced by the vasanas have to be conquered and
burned. The Yoga technique shows the practical way in which the entire human potential,
both physical and psycho-mental, is brought under control (“yoked”) in order to attain the
liberation of purusha. According to Patanjali (Y.S. 2,29), there are eight steps to be
followed, a reason for which the method is also called Ashtanga Yoga (the Yoga of the
eight limbs):

1. Restraints (yama);
2. Observances (niyama);
3. Postures (asanas);
4. Breath control (pranayama);
5. Withdrawal of the senses (pratyahara);
6. Concentration (dharana);
7. Contemplation (dhyana);
8. Enstasis (samadhi).

Here is a brief description of what each of them involves:

1) The restraints (Y.S. 2,30) are five important moral rules that the Yogi has to observe:

a) non-violence (ahimsa) - abstinence from harming any living creature;

b) truthfulness (satya) - concordance between speech, deeds and thoughts;
c) honesty (asteya) - nonstealing;
d) continence (brahmacarya) - controlling lustful desires;
e) non-acceptance of gifts (aparigraha) - refusing attachments to any material goods;

2) The observances (Y.S. 2,32) are also five physical and psychical disciplines:
a) purity (shaucha) - avoiding impurity in body and mind;
b) contentment (samtosha) - seeking joy and serenity, independent of life’s sorrows;
c) austerity (tapas) - accepting any extreme condition in life;
d) scriptural study (svadhyaya);
e) concentration on Ishvara (Ishvara-pranidhana) - imitating Ishvara's way of being. This
is not devotion toward Ishvara, because he is nothing more than an impersonal macro-
purusha (Y.S. 1,24), and there cannot exist any personal relation between him and man.

3) Practicing the postures (Y.S. 2,46) is the first stage of physical asceticism. Its aim is to
immobilize the body, bring it under control and refuse movement, with the only goal of
helping concentration. Therefore, the purpose of performing asanas is not (as often
believed in the West) to confer harmony and health to the body, provide relaxation, etc, but
to be a physical support for concentration.

4) Breath control (Y.S. 2, 49-51) means the refusal of breath, following the refusal of
movement by performing the asanas. It is believed that just as psycho-mental tension
affects the rhythm of breath, likewise the action of stilling the breath can contribute to
stilling the “modification of the mind”. Therefore, pranayama is an important instrument in
attaining a perfect state of concentration.

However, pranayama has a deeper meaning than just controlling breath. It rather represents
the control of prana flow through the human body, which is the energy that controls any
possible process or movement. Vivekananda defined it as following:

It is the Prana that is manifesting as motion; it is the Prana that is manifesting as

gravitation, as magnetism. It is the Prana that is manifesting as the actions of the body, as
the nerve currents, as thought force. From thought down to the lowest force, everything is
but the manifestation of Prana. The sum total of all forces in the universe, mental or
physical, when resolved back to their original state, is called Prana (Vivekananda, The
Complete Works, 1931, p. 148).

As psycho-mental activity is itself generated by prana, and breathing is the main channel
for prana’s influx into the body, it has to be strictly controlled in order to attain control
over the mind. In the Hatha Yoga practice, which has strict observances for controlling
breath, the reducing of prana influx is realized by progressively retarding the rhythm of
breathing. One begins with an inhalation/exhalation ratio of 1/2, then a retention of the
inhaled air is introduced in between, attaining a ratio inhalation/retention/exhalation
(puraka/kumbhaka/rechaka) of 1/2/2, which in the advanced practitioners becomes 1/4/2.
The total amount of time for a breathing cycle can therefore attain several minutes. Theos
Bernard, the author of a famous book on Hatha Yoga (Hatha Yoga, Rider & Co., London,
1982), mentions that “until the breath suspension (kumbhaka) had been developed to at
least three minutes nothing of any significance could be done” (p. 89).

5) The withdrawal of the senses (Y.S. 2,54-55) is the result one achieves through the
previous stages of physical asceticism. At this stage the senses do not disturb the mind
anymore, so it becomes shut down against all impressions from outside. Therefore the
battle for stilling the mind is easier to win.
6) Concentration is defined by Patanjali as “confining the mind within a limited mental
area” (Y.S. 3,1). It is not a simple exercise of attention control, but a way of slowing down
mental activity by focusing it on a particular spot, i.e. on a particular object of meditation.

7) Contemplation is an “uninterrupted flow of the mind towards the object of meditation”

(Y.S. 3,2). In this stage meditation is undisturbed and the object of meditation assimilated
and penetrated to its utmost level.

8) Enstasis (Y.S. 3,3) is attained when the sense of self-identity is lost, and all products of
prakriti’s manifestation fade away. Purusha is liberated from involvement with prakriti and
remains eternally isolated.

Through the continuous practice of concentration, contemplation and enstasis (together

called samyama) some practical results for the Yogi are said to appear, the so-called
psychic powers (siddhi). In the 3rd chapter of the Yoga Sutra the following such
phenomena are mentioned: knowledge of the past and future (16), comprehension of the
meaning of sounds uttered by any living being (17), knowledge of the previous birth (18),
knowledge of the mind of others (19), invisibility of the body (20), knowledge of the time
of death (23), strength of an elephant (25), knowledge of the solar system (27), knowledge
of the arrangement of stars and their movements (28-29), knowledge of the organization of
the body (30), cessation of hunger and thirst (31), entering another’s body (39), levitation
(40), superphysical hearing (42) and passage through space (43).

Once he attains this spiritual level, the Yogi is tempted by gods and other spiritual beings to
use his powers for selfish desires, or to participate in their divine condition (Y.S. 3,52).
However, following such temptations would lead the Yogi to interrupt his spiritual journey
toward final liberation. Although he could reach the spiritual level of becoming a god, this
would be a spiritual failure. Therefore, such temptations have to be rejected. When, finally,
liberation is attained, purusha becomes free of karma and independent. Its state is called
one of total isolation (kaivalya).

Liberation techniques in Hatha Yoga

As the pantheistic metaphysics of the Hatha Yoga school was analyzed in previous files,
the emphasis will be laid here on the actual way it prescribes in order to attain the final
reunion of Shakti with Shiva. Shakti, the self, is located at the base of the spine as the
dormant spiritual energy called kundalini. The ascetic practice demanded for awakening
kundalini consists in certain physical exercises joined with respiratory techniques. After
kundalini awakens, it travels through a spiritual channel (sushumna) of the subtle body,
which corresponds physically to the spine, crossing seven important points called chakras.
Each chakra corresponds to a Hindu guardian deity and is associated with its mantra and
governing cosmogonical element. This is a supplementary reason for acknowledging the
religious character of the Hatha Yoga practice.
Chakra Guardia Mant Cosmogon
n deity ra ic element

1. Brahma lam Earth


2. Vishnu vam Water


3. Maharu ram Fire

manipura dra

4. anahata Ishvara yam Air

5. Sadashi ham Ether

vishuddha va

6. ajna Shiva AUM


Once kundalini reaches the last chakra, it returns to its primordial union with the
impersonal Ultimate Reality, represented by Shiva. The awakening and rise of kundalini
through the sushumna channel is achieved by following a precise ascetic technique in
which the body plays an important role. Given its religious background, Hatha Yoga must
not be understood as a mere harmless physical training, as it is sometimes claimed. The
most important writing of this school, the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, clearly states that Hatha
Yoga has to be taught only in order to reach the Raja Yoga level (1,2), which means “the
integration of mind in a state where the subject-object duality does not exist” (4,77), or in
other words, only for merging the self with the impersonal Ultimate Reality. Therefore, the
attention granted to the body has a single purpose: to make it fit for getting control over the
mind and thus liberating the self.

The steps to be followed in order to attain liberation are similar to the Ashtanga Yoga of
Patanjali. The Hatha Yoga Pradipika describes them as following:
1. cleansing practices (dhauti), needed for both physical and mental health;
2. body postures (asana) (H.Y.P. 1,17);
3. breath control (pranayama) (H.Y.P. 2);
4. locks (bandha, which temporarily restrict local flows of prana) and hand gestures
(mudra), which regulate the flow of prana (H.Y.P. 3). They combine body postures, breath
control and concentration;
5. samadhi (H.Y.P. 4), which combines the withdrawal of the senses (pratyahara),
concentration (dharana), contemplation (dhyana) and enstasis (samadhi) of the Ashtanga
Yoga of Patanjali (H.Y.P. 4,87-97).

The help of a teacher (guru) in assisting the practitioner is absolutely necessary, as the
awakening and rising of kundalini is full of potential dangers for the Yogi. This and other
aspects of the Yoga practice will be analyzed in the following section.

Critical evaluation of the Yoga practice

The moral demands

Although the moral demands Yama and Niyama (also called "The 10 Commandments of
the Yogi") have nothing intrinsically bad, in the larger context of the Yoga metaphysics
they demonstrate some inherent contradictions. One is regarding the very precept of non-
injury (ahimsa). Some "modern" interpretations suggest it should be viewed as mere "not
engaging in activities which go against the current of nature" or "activities that will lead to
the overall imbalance of our world". However, in its original setting, which is very clear, it
plainly means "non-killing", with reference to any living being. The demand for a strict
vegetarian diet has its root in the religious precept that meat and other animal food are
related to the slaying of animals, which are living beings endowed with spiritual essence
(atman), as well as us humans. But why should this principle be limited only to the animal
kingdom? Plants are considered living beings too. For instance, while explaining
reincarnation, the Katha Upanishad (2,2,7) states: "Some souls enter into a womb for
embodiment; others enter stationary objects according to their deeds and according to
their thoughts" (see also The Laws of Manu 12,6). As the term "stationary objects"
(sthanum) is mostly translated as "plants" (see, for instance, Swami Sharvananda,
Kathopanishad, Mylapore, 1968), the ahimsa principle should apply to them as well.
Another, even more convincing, paragraph that questions vegetarianism is the following in
the Chandogya Upanishad, which explains the mechanism of the self returning to the
physical world in the reincarnation cycle:

After having become mist they become cloud, after having become cloud they rain down.
They are born here as rice and barley, herbs and trees, as sesamum plants and beans.
From thence the release becomes extremely difficult for whoever eats the food and sows the
seed he becomes like unto him (Chandogya Up. 5,10,6).
So why are plants “killed” for preparing food? Even more, bacteria should also be spared
by not boiling water when preparing food. Although such requirements are practically
absurd, they should be respected in order to be consistent with the ahimsa principle.

A second aspect concerns the fact that the moral demands in Yoga do not have the purpose
of achieving social harmony, but only to feed the Yogi's own spiritual progress. One should
not have in mind what is good for his neighbor, but only his personal quest toward
liberation. Considering the meaning of liberation (detaching purusha from its psycho-
mental attachments), one has to surpass moral values, attain a state of total detachment
toward them, and not become attached to them. Only in this way can one act without
accumulating new karmic debt. As long as morality makes sense only in communion with
other people, and Yoga demands detaching oneself from the illusory status of such
involvement, the Yama and Niyama morality is different from what we commonly
understand by morality, i.e. following positive demands in order to seek what is good for
our neighbor.

Another paradoxical aspect is that, while advancing in practice, many Yogis (especially in
the West) forget the basic moral requirements and become arrogant, acquiring a feeling of
superiority toward the profane world. Instead of being humble and pure (shaucha), they
often behave like they feel pity for the inferior fellow-humans. Although they claim that the
ego has to disappear, as it is a primitive character feature, their pride and contempt grows.
This reveals a lack of truthfulness (satya), self-control and purity (shaucha) of mind. Far
from detaching from any egoistic attachments, the result a Yogi often reaches is weakening
or even breaking his relations with "ignorant people" (usually the family) and establishing
an idolatrous relation toward the guru, the one in charge of interpreting his experiences and
keep him moving along the right path. The relation with the guru usually becomes very
subservient, with the disciples surrendering their entire life to him and even worshiping him
as a god. Therefore, the requirement of abandoning personal attachments seems to be valid
only toward the profane world, while the strongest personal relation (attachment) becomes
that with the guru. The scriptures seem to encourage this attitude:

When the sleeping kundalini awakens by favor of a guru, then all the chakras are
pierced through (H.Y.P. 3,2).
There is no doubt that the Guru is father, mother, and even god. He has to be
served with all thoughts, words and deeds. By the favor of the guru, everything that
is bound to the self can be attained. Therefore, the guru has to be served day and
night; else nothing of great value can be attained (Shiva Samhita 3,13-14).

The postures

It is usually taught today that Yoga is nothing more than a method of maintaining body
fitness, physical vigor and mental health, etc., having nothing in common with religion.
This way of defining Yoga regards primarily the practice of asanas, well known today as
an effective way for inducing relaxation. However, as mentioned above, the purpose of the
asanas is to immobilize the body, bring it under control and refuse movement, in order to
help concentration. If the asanas are performed without following the 10 moral precepts
and not as a step on one's spiritual path toward liberation, they have nothing in common
with true Yoga. Through the symbol each posture represents (the locust, the fish, the
candle, etc.), it involves a change of personality and is prescribed by the guru according to
the spiritual needs of his disciple, so that he may easier surpass his ignorant condition.

Therefore, Yoga cannot be reduced to a mere form of psychophysical therapy. It has always
been considered a path toward transcendence, a way of surpassing the world of illusion and
reaching the Ultimate Reality. It was and will always be religious. This aspect has never
been doubted in the East. Only after it was brought in the Western world, the terms in
which it was described were changed. However, its goal has not changed. It still aims to
annihilate man's psycho-mental life and anything that can define personhood.

Breath control

Just as the asanas are not aimed at enhancing physical fitness, but the immobilization of the
body, neither is the purpose of breath control (pranayama) to enhance the respiratory flow,
but rather its refusal in order to attain a perfect state of concentration. The reason is the
"metabolism" of prana, that form of subtle energy in which any form of physical and
mental activity originates. As Yoga practice aims at “inhibiting the modifications of the
mind” (Yoga Sutra 1,2), and these modifications are sustained by the prana flow through
the organism, it is believed that psycho-mental activity can be slowed down and even
stopped by reducing the respiratory inflow of prana.

Theos Bernard, the author of a famous book on Hatha Yoga (Hatha Yoga, Rider & Co.,
London, 1982), mentions that “until the breath suspension (kumbhaka) had been developed
to at least three minutes nothing of any significance could be done” (p. 89). In the Shiva
Samhita treatise it is mentioned that one has to reach 90 minutes in the retention of the
inhaled air (kumbhaka) in order to attain the psychic powers (3,53), 180 minutes in order to
attain the withdrawal of senses (pratyahara) (3,57) and 150 minutes for each chakra in
order that dharanamay be attained (3,64-65). The Hatha Yoga Pradipika treatise (2,11)
recommends the practice of 320 breathing suspensions (kumbhaka) daily. The mudras are
important aids in attaining such performances. (For instance the khecari mudra requests a
progressive sectioning of the tongue fraenum, until the tongue is fit to get down the throat
and lock breathing.)

One possible effect of dramatically reducing the rhythm of respiration is hypoxia (the
decrease of the oxygen concentration in blood below a certain limit of safety for one's
health). The pathologic manifestations of hypoxia mentioned in medical literature are
convulsions, body shaking beyond control, itching sensations, muscles contracting
unexpectedly, headaches, and perspiration. Curiously, such manifestations appear during
the practice of pranayama. Even the sacred texts acknowledge them:

In the beginning there is perspiration, in the middle stage there is quivering, and in
the last or the third stage one obtains steadiness; and then the breath should be
made steady or motionless (Hatha Yoga Pradipika 2,12).
In the first stage of Pranayama the body of the Yogi begins to perspire. [. . .] In the
second stage there takes place the trembling of the body; in the third, the jumping
about like a frog; and when practice becomes greater, the adept walks in the air.
(Shiva Samhita 3,40-41).

Far from being considered dangerous, they are considered normal and transient. Interesting
to mention are also the known mental experiences provoked by the increase of carbon
dioxide concentration in blood as a result of hypoxia: "sensations of light and brightness, a
sense of bodily detachment, the revival of past memories, a sense of communicating
telepathically with a religious or spiritual presence, and feelings of great spiritual ecstasy
and significance" (E. Hillstrom, Testing the Spirits, IVP, 1995, p. 94). Could it be a simple
coincidence between the appearance of such manifestations and the practice of pranayama,
so that hypoxia could not be involved?

Stilling the mind through meditation and mystical experiences that

accompany it

Meditation and its experiences are considered key elements in any Eastern path toward
liberation. The last three of the eight steps prescribed by Patanjali, called together
samyama, aim at attaining the perfect control of the mind, which results in annihilating any
influence generated by prakriti. Consequently, the final liberation of purusha must follow.
It is therefore wrong to consider the practice of samyama as mere "relaxing techniques" for
eradicating one's daily stress. Relaxation may be a result of meditation exercises, but it is
only a by-product on the way toward liberating the impersonal self from reincarnation.

A paradoxical aspect to be mentioned here is the appearance of the psychic powers (the
siddhis) through the practice of samyama. From a naturalistic viewpoint, it seems that they
are nothing more than illusions induced by the practice of meditation. For instance,
although the Yoga Sutra mentions the attainment of powers such as the profound
knowledge of the solar system (3,27) and that of the organization of the body (3,30), all the
knowledge we have in this area was produced by classic scientific research, and never as a
result of meditation insights. But if such knowledge is truly available through the practice
of samyama, and as the demands for such knowledge are not egoistic at all, why has
nothing been revealed until now? Although the purpose of Yoga is not to provide such
information, there is no other way to prove that the so-called psychic abilities are real.
Therefore, the experience of having such powers must be subjective, useful only for the
spiritual advance of the Yogi but with no relation to the external world of empirical

The most intriguing aspect of these "psychic powers" is the fact that they can be attained by
using other means as well. The Yoga Sutra (4,1) mentions "drugs (aushadi), mantras and
severe austerities (tapas)". What could be the connection between them? Let us first
analyze what meditation could have in common with the use of drugs.

The Hindu tradition knows the use of hallucinogenic drugs from ancient times. The oldest
reference is to the use of the soma drink by the Vedic priest during the sacrificial ceremony
(Rig Veda 9). Similar ecstatic potions were used in other ancient religions (for instance in
shamanism, in its worldwide forms of manifestation). Although the way of attaining
mystical experience through Yoga and drugs is different, the actual experiences are similar.
The psychedelic drug users also claim to attain a superrational, superconscious level of
liberation from profane existence, a sense of fulfillment and finding a deeper meaning of
existence, etc. For instance, it is a known fact that Aldous Huxley experienced mystical
states induced by the use of mescaline and concluded this must be a valid path toward
experiencing unity with Brahman:

The beatific vision, Sat Chit Ananda, Being-Awareness-Bliss, for the first time I
understood, not on the verbal level, not by inchoate hints or at a distance, but
precisely and completely what those prodigious syllables referred to (The Doors of
Perception, 1963, p. 18).

Although the use of drugs in the practice of Yoga is forbidden, the meditation experiences
are amazingly close to those obtained by the use of hallucinogenic drugs. For more
information on this topic, see the article: Do Psychedelic Drugs Mimic Awakened
Kundalini? Hallucinogen Survey Results, by Donald J. DeGracia. It tests the hypothesis
that the effects of psychedelic drugs (e.g. LSD, mescaline, peyote, etc.) are similar to the
effects of the awakening of kundalini, or, in other words, the phenomenology of both states
overlaps to a considerable degree. This data suggests that the awakening of kundalini and
the "psychic powers" which accompany it have a physiological basis. (Also, you can get
firsthand information on the many physical, psychological, spiritual dangers associated
with the Kundalini awakening from an author that has intimate and personal knowledge of

In order to understand their effect on consciousness, we must analyze deeper the meaning
and goal of meditation exercises. They play a major role in detaching oneself from the
world of illusion. As empirical experience (that produces false attachments) is mediated by
the mind, ignorance (avidya) cannot manifest itself apart from mindful experience and
therefore can be annihilated by stopping the natural way of the mind's functioning. This
means that the normal state of consciousness has to be abolished and replaced with a new
one, which does not perpetuate illusion. On the way toward attaining such a state, the
sensorial input of the senses has to be shut down (pratyahara) and the mind forced to
ignore any normal psycho-mental experience, by performing concentration on a single
point (an exercise called ekagrata). However, by forcing the mind to work in totally
opposed conditions to what is natural, it will naturally get distorted perceptions of reality.
The practice of samyama breaks the normal sensorial input from its normal functioning in
serving consciousness. As a result, the senses come to a point where they do not process a
continuous flux of information from the outer world that varies much from one moment to
the next. Instead they stay immobilized on the same stimulus. As a result, one gets a totally
distorted view of surrounding reality and one's own body. The very sensation of unity with
the outer world can be a result of distorting the sense of perception, as Elizabeth Hillstrom
points out in her book Testing the Spirits (IVP, 1995):

In addition to the enhancement of boundaries in our visual systems, we have a

built-in, highly developed tactile sense of the boundaries of our own body. This
sense is apparently maintained by the continual flow of sensory information from
the surface of our skin (feelings of touch, pressure, stretching of skin and muscles,
and the like). If experiencers' awareness of the flow is significantly reduced, as it is
during sensory deprivation and other altered states, they could easily conclude that
their body boundaries were suddenly dissolving or that they were expanding or
merging with other objects, even with God or the entire universe. Other features of
the unity experience may be due to the fact that experiencers are in an altered state
and realize that they have just reached a highly prized and hard-won goal. Acting
together, these factors could produce profound feelings of reality, sacredness,
ultimate meaning, bliss and ecstatic sensations throughout the body (p. 126).

Scientists have been studying the psycho-physiological results of sensory deprivation for
many years. Many reports indicate that as sensory deprivation deepens, the hallucinations
experienced by the subjects of such induced experiments become more significant,
consisting in visual, auditory, tactile hallucinations, out-of-body experiences, visions of
other worlds, and even encounters with spirits (Hillstrom, p. 60-63). Similar distortions of
perception can be the result of other extreme austerities (mentioned in the Yoga Sutra 4,1 as
tapas), known long before Patanjali. These experiences seem to the one involved as very
real because of the psycho-physiological conditions in which they appear, and also because
of his expectations (usually induced by the guru). However, despite the fact that much of
what one is experiencing in the Yoga practice can be explained on a physiological basis, a
mere naturalistic theory isn't adequate to cover all its aspects. As E. Hillstrom points out:

Unusual effects, like automatically assuming difficult yoga postures, the inability to
control or stop the kundalini process, speaking in unlearned languages, temporary
manifestations of clairvoyant abilities and the like, certainly suggest that something
supernatural is afoot. There are parallels between kundalini symptoms and
symptoms that are currently associated with demonized states, including deranged
thinking, emotional extremes (deep melancholy, ecstasy), trancelike states or
periods of unconsciousness, apparent seizure activity, and unusual pain unrelated
to illness and injury (p. 128).

This leads us to consider another way of producing the psychic powers mentioned in the
Yoga Sutra (4,1), namely the repeating of mantras. More than a simple formula used as a
tool for concentrating the mind, the mantra is a name of a Hindu god and a tool for
invoking him and his powers. If the siddhis are attained as a result of invoking a god, they
are likely to originate in him, and not out of developing one's own inner potential. This
leads us to search for explanations for the psychic powers in a realm that does not belong to
physical existence.

The common element in meditation, the repeating of mantras and, to some extent, the use
of psychedelic drugs is the annihilation of critical thought and normal state of
consciousness. This is considered of primary importance for entering the appropriate state
of consciousness for liberating the self. However, shutting down the mind in order to grasp
irrational higher realities and giving up critical discernment opens the way for the
phenomenon of spiritual possession, i.e. the taking of control of one's life by an external
personal being. As during meditation such openness toward external spirit guides exists, the
experience of meeting certain spiritual beings occurs pretty often. Could they be harmless,
or even trustable? The answer depends on the authority we use in order to judge them.

Taking a Christian standpoint, such external spirits may be demons, treacherous beings that
present themselves as angels of light (2 Corinthians 11,14). A weird fact is that the same
psychic powers attained by the Yogis while practicing samyama are available to some
people involved in black magic. The knowledge of the past and future, reading one's
thoughts, dematerialization, acquiring supernatural physical powers, telekinesis,
clairvoyance, entering another person's body, levitation, etc., are abilities that such people
also claim, but acknowledging the fact that their source is the world of demons. Could this
be a simple coincidence? The Apostle Peter warns:

Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion
looking for someone to devour (1 Peter 5,8).

Knowing the fact that demons use any given opportunity to take over one's body and use it
as an instrument, why should they not use the proper mindset offered by a Yogi while
practicing meditation? Despite the fact that the mantra is associated with a Hindu protector
god, why should we reject the possibility that by calling his name, instead of a god being
the one who awakens dormant energies inside us, a demon may come instead, take over
consciousness and then manifest psychic powers which actually belong to him? Could the
intensity of the experience be a sufficient reason to be assured that there is no evil entity
involved in producing it? Why should we reject the possibility that a demon is wise enough
to avoid violent manifestations (which normally describe demonic possession) in order to
delude us?

As examples of how so-called deities are invited to enter one's body, we can look at most
forms of Eastern initiation. For instance, in Tantrism are prescribed specific rituals in order
to omologate the deities with different parts of the body. The maithuna ritual even
represents a sexual union with a woman in which Hindu spirits are residing. While
performing the mandala ritual the disciple has to locate the gods in his heart, with the
climax being the descent of the god essence into him and fusion with his consciousness.
Possession-like states are reported very often during the initiation ritual, sometimes
perceived as the entering of the guru into the disciple's body (Shakti-diksha), or the uniting
of the disciple's being with that of the guru (Anavi-yaugi-diksha). Far from being
considered dangerous, such experiences are considered useful, necessary for one's spiritual

Critical considerations
regarding the philosophy of the Bhagavad Gita

The Bhagavad Gita (henceforth referred to as the Gita) was probably composed sometime
between the 7th and the 6th centuries BC and later incorporated into the great Hindu epic
Mahabharata. It stated a new path towards liberation, a new kind of asceticism at hand for
any human, independent of social status. It requires neither withdrawal from social life as
the Upanishads do, nor performing severe austerities as the Hatha and Raja Yoga. This
probably explains its great success both in the East and the West. The new Yoga presented
in the Gita is mostly concerned with one's attitude of mind when performing normal social
duties, and could be defined as a combination of Karma, Bhakti and Buddhi Yoga. Karma
Yoga in the Gita means the performance of one's duties in a spirit of renunciation, of not
being bound to its fruits (5,1-2), Bhakti Yoga is one's effort to bring all actions as sacrifices
to Krishna (14,26), while Buddhi Yoga is a particular kind of wisdom one has to develop in
understanding life (2,49; 10,10; 18,57). Let us analyze the way this new kind of Yoga
works, as well as its natural implications.

Yoga according to the Gita

The Gita is an episode of the great epic Mahabharata (6,25-42), which narrates the dialogue
of Arjuna, one of the five sons of the Pandava family, and the Hindu god Krishna, an avatar
of Vishnu. A major battle is about to begin in which Arjuna sees himself playing a
contradictory role, that of fighting against his relatives, the Kaurava family. Caught
between his warrior duty and the ethical meaning of fighting against his cousins, between
his social duty and the threat of karma, he chooses to not fight and be killed rather than
have his conscience loaded with the killing of his relatives. At this moment Krishna reveals
himself to the distressed warrior and helps him understand the situation from a
transcendental point of view. He performs a spiritual exegesis of Arjuna's situation, stating:
"Not by abstaining from work can one achieve freedom from karma, nor by renunciation
alone can one attain perfection" (3,4). "Abstaining from work" is practically impossible
according to Krishna, as "everyone is forced to act according to the tendencies (gunas) he
has acquired from the modes of material nature (prakriti)" (3,5). As a warrior, Arjuna must
always follow his caste duties, in other words, his dharma. On this basis the Gita founds a
new element in Hindu philosophy: Spiritual perfection is not attained by asceticism or
abandoning action, but by giving a new meaning to action - that of detachment from its
fruits, an attitude that does not feed karma and reincarnation. Krishna formulates the
famous principle:

Be focused on action and not on the fruits of action. Do not become confused in attachment
to the fruit of your actions and do not become confused in the desire for inaction (2,47).

Therefore one should not withdraw from the world of social involvement but live in it
detached from the fruits of actions, as "action is better than inaction" and "renunciation of
all action is impossible" (3,8). As a result, Krishna's command to Arjuna is: "Always act
with detachment to the fruits of actions. The one who is acting without attachment attains
God" (3,19). This is Karma Yoga, the path of attaining liberation through accomplishing
one's normal duties with a totally detached attitude toward personal benefit. In his given
context, Arjuna has to fight no matter who is going to die on the battlefield.

There is also a new meaning for sacrifice and Bhakti Yoga. Written at the time when the
authority of the Vedas has heavily decreased, the Gita states a hierarchy in the value of
different kinds of sacrifice, with the lowest being the Vedic sacrifice, brought to a god in
order to get personal favors, the next being the inner sacrifice of Raja Yoga (that of
breathing - 4,29; of the mind and senses - 4,27; and that of empirical knowledge 4,33) and
the best being that of detached action. Acting like this, one brings his actions as sacrifices
to Krishna and therefore they do not generate karmic seeds anymore:

Consider all your acts as acts of devotion to me, whether eating, offering, giving away,
performing austerities. Perform them as an offering to me. In this way you will be free from
karma, you will be liberated and you will come to me (9,27).

According to this new understanding of Bhakti Yoga, there is no need for any kind of
material sacrifices, rituals or other kind of performances, but only to act in a worshipping
attitude toward Krishna, as if all acts are dedicated to him. This particular mindset in
judging particular situations in life is called Buddhi Yoga. Following it, one should attain

Krishna, karma and grace

A first inconsistency of the Gita concerns the relation between the law of karma and the
grace granted by Krishna in helping his followers attain liberation. On the one hand it
seems that Krishna is sovereign over the law of karma, using it as an instrument for
punishment or reward. He says: "Those who are envious and mischievous, who are the
lowest among men, I perpetually cast into transmigration, into various demoniac species of
life" (16,19). And also: "Those who worship me and surrender all their activities unto me,
being devoted to me without hesitation, engaged in devotional service and meditating unto
me, I deliver them quickly from the ocean of birth and death" (12,6-7).

On the other hand, karma seems to be a self-functioning rule that produces effects by its
own power. One has to struggle alone against its drive and attain better incarnations from
one existence to the next: "When the Yogi engages himself in making further progress,
being washed of all karma, he achieves liberation after many, many births" (6,45). In the
meanwhile, Krishna holds a detached position toward all humans: "I see all creatures
equally disposed and I am not partial to anyone" (9,29).

These two positions can hardly be reconciled. In trying to explain the relation between
karma and the grace of Krishna, the Hindu analysts of the Gita had to choose between
holding to the supremacy of Krishna and the ultimate power of karma in ruling the world.
Consequently, we have theistic and pantheistic interpretations (and even translations) of the
Gita, indebted to one or the other alternative. The first see Krishna as a super-personal god
using karma as an instrument for awakening humans from ignorance, and the second see
him as a mere form of Brahman's manifestation, with no real power in controlling karma.
As the two positions contradict each other and the Gita leaves enough room for both, we
wonder which could actually be the relation between karma and grace.

In order to attain liberation, Arjuna is advised to strive hard to realize a detached attitude of
mind, called Buddhi Yoga (2,49):

To those who are constantly devoted to serve me, I give them the Buddhi Yoga by which
they can come to me. I show my mercy to them by destroying their ignorance with the lamp
of knowledge (10,10-11).
Here it looks like Krishna burns karma by his grace only if one strives hard to deserve it.
Therefore the major role in salvation belongs to the individual who performs Buddhi Yoga.
The grace granted by Krishna is far away from the meaning it got later in the prapatti
devotional trend. Therefore, Krishna must be understood rather as a kind of meditation
object than a personal god who gets himself involved in one's reincarnation journey. He
resembles Ishvara of the Yoga darshana of Patanjali from this point of view (i.e. one has to
concentrate on Krishna and imitate his way of being in order to advance toward liberation).
The only grace one benefits from Hrishna is receiving his advice. The rest depends on the

Dharma and karma

In anyone's life the conditioning couple of dharma and karma is at work. The "duty" that
forces Arjuna to fight (2,33) is his dharma, i.e. his caste-duty as warrior. In turn, Arjuna's
dharma is generated by his karma. Therefore the real impetus of Arjuna's actions is his
karma, which pushes him into action independently of his present intentions. Krishna
states: "When you become confused in your false ego you say to yourself, 'I will not fight'
you are misled. By your nature you must fight" (18,59). This "nature" is prakriti or, more
specifically, the way the three gunas influence one's mind under the influence of past
karma. Therefore, Arjuna is not free to fulfill his dharma, but is compelled by his karma to
act according to it. The action that "is better than inaction" (3,8) is not a free decision of
man, it does not follow the understanding of one's social duty, but is the way of accepting a
pre-ordained scenario. Such an action is devoid of any sense of freedom, being a mere
resignation to fate. The only freedom left to Arjuna is to give a certain meaning to his
predetermined actions, that of sacrifices to Krishna: "Consider all your acts as acts of
devotion to me, whether eating, offering, giving away, performing austerities. Perform
them as an offering to me. In this way you will be free from karma, you will be liberated
and you will come to me" (9,27).

Krishna as avatar and the periodical creation of the world

Another inconsistency of the Gita is regarding the character of Krishna. According to
classic Vaishnavism, Krishna is only an incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu (which
according to Vedanta is only a form of Brahman's manifestation). In the Gita Krishna
becomes the Supreme Lord of the Universe (5,29), eternal (4,6) and the source of all
existence: "I am the source of all spiritual and material worlds. Everything emanates from
me" (10,8). Contrary to Vedanta, Krishna becomes the source of Brahman (14,27) and
contrary to Vaishnavism he is the instrument of attaining fusion with Brahman (14,26).
Although the intention of the Gita is to present Krishna as super-personal, he is rather a
heterogeneous mixture of theistic, dualistic and pantheistic kinds of Ultimate Reality. He is
not only the creator but also the substance of the universe (9,16-19; 8,4; 10,20-42). The
cycle of permanent transformation between the manifested state and the unmanifested one
is characteristic for Krishna too, as it was with Brahman:
At the end of an era (kalpa) all creatures disintegrate into my nature and at the beginning of
another era I manifest them again. Such it is my nature (prakriti) to follow again and again
the pattern of the Infinite manifestations and disintegrations (9,7-8).

Krishna has to "follow the pattern of the Infinite manifestations and disintegrations"
(avasham prakriteh vashat, lit. "automatically, under the obligation of prakriti"), which
implies that the process is a necessity that surpasses him as personal god. He is just a
detached (but also helpless) spectator to it. Therefore it is hard to accept his dominion over
creation along with the periodic manifestation of nature (prakriti). Rather, we should
conclude that the creation of the world is not an option for him, but a periodic duty at the
end of each cosmic cycle, as was the case with the manifestations of Brahman. S. Dasgupta
comments on the contradictory personal character of Krishna:

The Gita combines together different conceptions of God without feeling the necessity of
reconciling the oppositions or contradictions involved in them. It does not seem to be aware
of the philosophical difficulty of combining the concept of God as unmanifested,
differenceless entity with the notion of Him as the super-person Who incarnates Himself on
earth in the human form and behaves in the human manner. It is not aware of the difficulty
that, if all good and evil should have emanated from God, and if there be ultimately no
moral responsibility, and if everything in the world should have the same place in God,
there is no reason why God should trouble to incarnate Himself as man, when there is a
disturbance of the Vedic dharma. If God is impartial to all, and if He is absolutely
unperturbed, why should He favour the man who clings to Him, and why, for his sake,
overrule the world-order of events and in his favour suspend the law of karma? (S.
Dasgupta, Indian Philosophy, Motilal Banarsidass, 1991, vol.2, p. 533).

Acting without attachment to the fruit of actions

The very demand to act in the world without attachment to the fruits of action seems itself
contradictory. Could it actually be possible to act like this? How could one really perform
his social duties without being attached to them? Otherwise what motivation remains for
acting in the world? That of a robot, devoid of any personal input to his acts? The
philosophy of the Gita itself aims at fulfilling a very personal fruit - liberation from
reincarnation, which is useful for nobody else than oneself. Should this fruit be treated with
detachment too? Could one act detached regarding his eternal destiny? If the philosophy of
detached acting cannot be valid for the major aspect of existence, how can we know it
works in other respects?

On the other hand, how much could one know about his dharma, especially in a Western
society, where the caste system doesn't exist? At what extent can one be sure he is fulfilling
his dharma and not a personal attachment to a certain egoistic motivation? Where is the
limit between my dharma and my neighbor's? Therefore, under the cover of religiosity,
anyone can masquerade, pretending he follows his dharma, but having no altruistic
motivations at all in what he does.
The Gita and morality
When Arjuna found himself in the process of choosing between his duty as warrior and the
killing of his relatives (a severe violation of Vedic morality), Krishna explained to him that
he must give another meaning to traditional morality. Traditional ethical values should not
be a hindrance to acting detached to the fruits of action. He argued: "The wise men who
reached true knowledge see with as equally a brahman (priest), a cow, an elephant, a dog
and a dog-eater" (5,18).

As only the soul (atman) is immortal, Krishna argues that it is actually impossible to kill
anyone: "Those who think that they can kill or those that think they can be killed are
confused in the manifestations of ignorance. The infinite, immortal soul can neither kill or
be killed" (2,19). Therefore Arjuna is free to kill his relatives, considering them only
temporary abiding forms for the eternal self, mere mortal frames. S. Dasgupta states in his

The theory of the Gita that, if actions are performed with an unattached mind, then their
defects cannot touch the performer, distinctly implies that the goodness or badness of an
action does not depend upon external effects of the action, but upon the inner motive of
action. If there is no motive of pleasure or self-gain, then the action performed cannot bind
the performer; for it is only the bond of desires and self-love that really makes an action
one's own and makes one reap its good or bad fruits. Morality from this point of view
becomes wholly subjective, and the special feature of the Gita is that it tends to make all
actions non-moral by cutting away the bonds that connect an action with its performer
(Ibid, p. 507).

The contrast with traditional morality is obvious. Its representative is another important
character in the battle of Kurukshetra, Yudishthira, Arjuna's brother. He tried to expiate his
sin of killing his relatives in battle through repentance, gifts, asceticism and pilgrimages
(Mahabharata 12,7). For him a bad conscience could not be cleansed by a right attitude of
mind, but by compensatory acts.

On the other hand, the same mindset that Arjuna should have had in securing a clear
conscience (Gita 2,19) was used by the demon Kamsa in the Bhagavata Purana (10,4,22) in
order to comfort Krishna's parents and justify the killing of their other sons by him:

In the bodily conception of life one remains in darkness without self-realization, thinking "I
am being killed" or "I have killed my enemies". As long as a foolish person thus considers
the self to be the killer or the killed, he continues to be responsible for material obligations,
and consequently he suffers the reactions of happiness and distress.

If the same "detached" perspective on moral values can be used both by the demon Kamsa,
who caused the corruption of the dharma, and by Krishna as the divine avatar who came to
save it (Gita 4,6-7) and kill the demon, it is hard to accept that such an approach could
represent a true basis for morality.

A morality that acts on the sole premise that any act is good as long as it is dedicated to
God, understanding that "it is truly God who is the controller of all" and (on this basis)
rejecting a well-established set of moral commands, cannot have a good outcome in any
religion. In fact, although this has no connection at all to Hinduism, those involved in the
September 11 attacks had such an attitude. Therefore it's always dangerous to "transcend"
moral values, thinking that a person who truly thinks of God won't commit evil deeds.

Rather than a consistent philosophy, S. Dasgupta considers the Gita only a manual of

The Gita was probably written at a time when philosophical views had not definitely
crystallized into hard-and-fast systems of thought, and when the distinguishing
philosophical niceties, scholarly disputations, the dictates of argument, had not come into
fashion. The Gita, therefore, is not to be looked upon as a properly schemed system of
philosophy, but a s a manual of right conduct and right perspective of things in the light of
a mystical approach to God in self-resignation, devotion, friendship and humility. (p.534)

The Gita falls short of coherence and viability. A god that rules the world by the "help" of
karma cannot be the super-personal embodiment of perfection. One's (mostly unknown)
dharma fed by past lives' deeds cannot provide any real meaning for freedom. Acting
without attachment to its results cannot be a valid solution for fulfilling one's social duty.
And a morality that considers people temporary frames of the eternal self cannot grant
social harmony. Therefore, it as hard to accept the message of the Gita as a proper teaching
of conduct, especially in the Western world.

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------Critical considerations
regarding Buddhism
(This article has only the purpose to bring further clarifications to the points made in the
comparative religion articles on this site that have brought you here. Therefore it should not
be taken as a self-standing article criticising Buddhism.)

Although it was meant to bring a whole new perspective on what Hinduism had to say on
Ultimate Reality, man and liberation, Theravada Buddhism could not escape some basic
inconsistencies. Let us summarize the most debated:

Reincarnation without a self

One of the key elements in Theravada Buddhism is the denial of a self (atman). The illusion
of personal existence (puggala) is considered to be the product of five aggregates
(skandha), which are in a cause-effect relationship and suffer from constant becoming
(Digha Nikaya 15; Samyutta Nikaya 22,59). Therefore, human existence is characterized by
impermanence (anitya), a constant process of transformation devoid of any abiding
principle. The rejection of a self, or rather the Buddha’s refusal to give any conclusive
response regarding its nature, is considered important mostly for practical reasons. One
should not engage in philosophical debates concerning the existence of a self (as well as the
character of the universe and the nature of Ultimate Reality), because it will only generate
suffering and lead one astray from seeking liberation (Majjhima-nikaya 1,426).

But if there is no self, what reincarnates from one existence to another? Buddha stated that
only karma passes from one life to the next, determining a new configuration of the five
aggregates in the next existence. Therefore samsara works without the need of a self,
relying only on a causal chain of determination. Such a strange definition of reincarnation
has naturally raised strong objections from the opponents of Buddhism. Not only do they
contradict it, but the Buddhist scriptures themselves contain passages that are inconsistent
with the lack of a self. Some of them seem to confirm the continuity of personal existence,
or at least of an impersonal self along the reincarnation process. For instance, although the
five aggregates are supposed to break apart after death and personhood is supposed to
vanish, it is stated that the dead will be judged by Yama, the god of death, and afterwards
sent into hell and tormented for their sins (Khuddaka-nikaya 10,1,59). There are also many
verses in the Dhammapada that suggest personal post-mortem existence:

Some people are born again; evil-doers go to hell; righteous people go to heaven; those
who are free from all worldly desires attain Nirvana. (Dhammapada 9,126. See also 10,140;

If speaking of someone going to hell or heaven does not mean an identical being, what role
does this teaching play in Buddhism? If it is not an identical being going to hell, who is
actually punished there and for what? Also, if terms such as hell, gods, and self are mere
conventions of speech, as it is sometimes suggested, what is their actual meaning and role
in the Buddha's teaching? There is no doubt that this Vedic reminiscence is totally
inconsistent with the Buddhist doctrine of no-self.

On the other hand, if there is no self, on what basis could the Buddha have said, "This is my
last birth, I will have no further existence" (Majjhima-nikaya 3)? Whose last birth is it, if
there is no self to be reborn? There are also the texts in Khuddaka-nikaya 10 and the Jataka
tales, referring to the previous lives of Buddha and his friends, in which each one's identity
is always known. Also, the very existence of the supranatural power of recollecting past
lives attained in concentration (Digha Nikaya 12) suggests that a certain core of personal
identity must exist and be reincarnated from one life to the next. The text in the Digha
Nikaya says:

He recollects his manifold past lives, i.e., one birth, two births, three births, four, five, ten,
twenty, thirty, forty, fifty, one hundred, one thousand, one hundred thousand, many aeons
of cosmic contraction, many aeons of cosmic expansion, many aeons of cosmic contraction
and expansion, [recollecting], 'There I had such a name, belonged to such a clan, had such
an appearance. Such was my food, such my experience of pleasure & pain, such the end of
my life. Passing away from that state, I re-arose there. There too I had such a name,
belonged to such a clan, had such an appearance. Such was my food, such my experience of
pleasure & pain, such the end of my life. Passing away from that state, I re-arose here.'
Thus he recollects his manifold past lives in their modes and details.

The liberation of no self

The Buddhist term for liberation (nirvana) derives from the verbal root va (lit. "to blow")
and the negation nir; hence its significance corresponds to the blowing out of a candle.
Once man attains nirvana, the five aggregates are scattered forever at death without
entering a new combination again. This corresponds to a total extinction of any ontological
element that could define human existence. The scriptures state:

When a man is free from all sense pleasures and depends on nothingness he is free in the
supreme freedom from perception. He will stay there and not return again. It is like a flame
struck by a sudden gust of wind. In a flash it has gone out and nothing more can be known
about it. It is the same with a wise man freed from mental existence: in a flash he has gone
out and nothing more can be known about him. When a person has gone out, then there is
nothing by which you can measure him. That by which he can be talked about is no longer
there for him; you cannot say that he does not exist. When all ways of being, all phenomena
are removed, then all ways of description have also been removed. (Sutta Nipata 1072-76)

Here is how the Buddha illustrated the destiny of the liberated being to the wanderer
Vacchagotta, using the famous illustration of the extinguished fire:

And suppose someone were to ask you, 'This fire that has gone out in front of you, in which
direction from here has it gone? East? West? North? Or south?' Thus asked, how would you
That doesn't apply, Master Gotama. Any fire burning dependent on a sustenance of grass
and timber, being unnourished -- from having consumed that sustenance and not being
offered any other -- is classified simply as 'out' (unbound).
Even so, Vaccha, any physical form by which one describing the Tathagata would describe
him: That the Tathagata has abandoned, its root destroyed, like an uprooted palm tree,
deprived of the conditions of existence, not destined for future arising. (Aggi-Vacchagotta
Sutta, Majjhima Nikaya 72)

Therefore, nirvana is not just the cessation of hatred, infatuation, birth, old age, death,
sorrow, lamentation, misery, grief, despair, etc., as modern Buddhist writers suggest. It is
not just the cooling off and extinguishing of these things, and as a result, the ultimate peace
one experiences when all conflicts are gone, but rather the extinction of any element that
could define human existence. Unfortunately, nirvana also implies the extinction of the
agent who experiences "hatred, infatuation, birth, old age, death, sorrow, lamentation,
misery, grief, despair, etc."

Once the adherent of Theravada Buddhism has attained nirvana, he becomes an arahat
(“living enlightened one”). His karma is considered extinct and at the time of his death he
will cease to exist. However, from a Buddhist point of view, this perspective isn't horrifying
at all, because it represents the cessation of an illusion. When human existence is blown
out, nothing real disappears because life itself is an illusion. Nirvana is neither a re-
absorption in an eternal Ultimate Reality, because such a thing isn't stated in the Scriptures,
nor the annihilation of a self, because there is no self to annihilate. It is rather an
annihilation of the illusion of an existing self.
Unlike in Hindu pantheism, which defines liberation as the fusion of atman with Brahman,
no one and nothing is attaining liberation. This means that nirvana is a state of supreme
bliss and freedom without any subject left to experience it. It is a state beyond any
description, knowledge and experience, with nobody and nothing left to reach it.

True knowledge, impermanence and no self

The doctrine of no self (anatta) poses supplementary difficulties when it is correlated with
epistemology. The problem arising here is the possibility of attaining true knowledge when
rejecting a self involved in this process.

All our primary knowledge, including reading or hearing the true doctrine, is mediated by
our senses. As sensory information is subjected to impermanence and interdependence, it
cannot provide helpful information for transcending the realm of ever-changing
phenomena. Neither can our reasoning, as it is fueled by sensory information.
Consciousness, the fifth aggregate, also falls into this category of unreliable sources for
finding ultimate truth. No matter how much life experience one can have (including the one
Buddha had gathered in his six years of spiritual quest) it will never be possible to go
beyond impermanence by using it. If there is nothing in our nature that can escape
impermanence, neither will the words and notions we use do so, and as a result even the
most elaborate doctrine will suffer from it. Then how was the Buddha able to attain and
express the four noble truths? How was he able to transcend impermanence by using
impermanent tools?

If truth cannot be found by the aggregates, it must have another source, located either
outside the human person, as provided by a higher being, or inside our nature. However,
Buddhism rejects both possibilities. The Buddha didn't need any god or outer revelation to
find the truth; in fact, it is said that the gods were those learning from him. Neither did he
accept a self involved in attaining true knowledge. Vedanta gives the role of inner guide to
atman and Samkhya to purusha, but the Buddha had rejected both these traditions. He didn't
need a self for explaining the human condition; the aggregates were sufficient. However, all
of them (the body, feeling, cognition, mental constructions and consciousness) are
governed by impermanence and therefore cannot lead to ultimate truth. The Buddha's very
quest for truth started with the observation that truth must be higher than physical reality
and the current speculation of that time. So where and how did he find it? Or how can any
of his followers find (permanent) truth if humans are just momentary heaps of aggregates
and come to know his teaching by their impermanent, unreliable senses and mind?

The meaning of morality

Following other Eastern religions, Buddhism values morality as an instrument for
transcending personal existence, which is seen as the major hindrance in attaining
liberation. Moral perfection (sila), i.e. right speech, action and livelihood, aims at
annihilating one's false attachments to the world of illusion. It has no ultimate importance
but is only an instrument used for developing a detached status toward personal
attachments and interests in life. Therefore, bad habits such as envy, anger, gossip and pride
must be abandoned, but not primarily because other people may be hurt by them, but
because they feed one's false ego and the thirst (trishna) for experiencing personal

Although there are some texts that may suggest the contrary, such as the following in the

All tremble at violence; all fear death. Putting oneself in the place of another, one should
not kill nor cause another to kill.
All tremble at violence; life is dear to all. Putting oneself in the place of another, one should
not kill nor cause another to kill. (Dhammapada 129-130)

"putting oneself in the place of another" cannot represent a real interest in one's neighbor
welfare, as it cannot be consistent with the urge for obliterating personal existence. As there
are no real subjects that can share love and compassion with one another, the moral
demands serve only as an instrument for attaining liberation by the one who "puts himself
in the place of another".

Morality by itself cannot root out greed, aversion and ignorance. It only has the purpose of
stilling and calming the mind, making it fit for the practice of meditation. Ethical precepts
are a necessary part of the training, but attachment to these precepts, like all attachments,
must be given up. Adherence to moral principles for their own sake may be an expression
of rigid views, or of "clinging to precepts and views", a major hindrance in Buddhist
practice. The same can be said about expressing compassion (karuna). Although it plays a
key role in the teachings and conduct of Buddhists, compassion has a different meaning
than that commonly accepted by the Western theistic-shaped mind. Buddhist compassion
extends to all living beings, as all have the same nature and are seeking liberation. Being so
broadly defined and given the Buddhist way of defining human nature, compassion can
hardly be focused on specific individual humans and their specific human problems. In
order not to become ensnared in your neighbour’s lower views and desires and therefore get
caught in attachment (klesha), as a Buddhist you must avoid any serious personal
commitment to fellow humans. Therefore karuna is a compassion without relationship, a
kind of serene attitude of goodwill that remains undefiled by the neighbour’s misery and
needs because one never really descends to them. Rather than compassion, it would better
be called equanimity. Its purpose is to lead to fruitful mental states in the one who lives
compassionately, rather than to alleviate the neighbour’s personal, specific and down-to-
earth suffering.

The boddhisattvas and grace

Instead of seeking nirvana just for himself and becoming an arahat, as Theravada Buddhism
demands, the disciple of Mahayana Buddhism aims to become a bodhisattva, a being that
postpones his own entrance into parinirvana (final extinction) in order to help other humans
also attain it. As was the case with the Hindu avatars of Vishnu, the bodhisattvas are
mediators between man and Ultimate Reality. Through devotion and proper moral conduct
humans receive their grace and attain liberation. This new development has been
interpreted as a penetration of the Hindu bhakti tradition into Buddhism.
However, we meet here the same contradiction between karma and grace as in theistic
Hinduism. For instance, according to the Tibetan Book of the Dead, although the
bodhisattvas offer their help to the dead person in order that he may attain a better new
birth or even final liberation, he is unable to accept it because of the projection of his bad
karma and the attraction of “samsaric impurities”, which make him fall deeper and deeper
into the intermediary state (bardo). For this reason it is wrong to pretend that the
bodhisattvas save the dead through their grace, as only the merits one has accumulated
during lifetime make him able to accept the “rays of grace”. Therefore, it is either karma
that rules one's existence and journey toward liberation, or the grace of the bodhisattvas.
The two elements are hard to reconcile.

On the other hand, due to the rejection of any abiding principle that could define human
existence, the idea of grace becomes absurd. Who is suffering and who needs the
boddhisattvas' grace in order to be liberated, if personal existence is nothing but illusion? S.
Dasgupta comments on this absurd situation:

The saint (bodhisattva) is firmly determined that he will help an infinite number of souls to
attain nirvana. In reality, however, there are no beings, there is no bondage, no salvation;
and the saint knows it but too well, yet he is not afraid of this high truth, but proceeds on
his career of attaining for all illusory beings illusory emancipation from illusory bondage.
The saint is actuated with that feeling and proceeds in his work on the strength of his
paramitas, though in reality there is no one who is to attain salvation in reality and no one
who is to help him attain it (S. Dasgupta, Indian Philosophy, vol. 1, p. 127).

The divine incarnation

in Hinduism and Christianity

The only religions that admit a true incarnation of Ultimate Reality in human form and
consider it very important in their theology are Vaishnava Hinduism and Christianity. They
both assume that God descended into the world and dwelt among humans in order to save
them. Vaishnava Hinduism ascribes ten incarnations (avatars) to the god Vishnu, while
Christianity proclaims the sole incarnation of God the Son in Jesus Christ. Could they be
equivalent? In other words, could Jesus Christ be considered a mere Western avatar, come
into our world according to the Hindu pattern? On the other hand, could the avatars of
Vishnu have fulfilled the same goal as Jesus? Or are there irreconcilable differences
between them? As we witness today many claims that they express a similar theology, a
proper investigation is necessary for unveiling the mystery that surrounds this topic.

The following analysis will investigate why the incarnation of God was necessary, how the
problem arose that he came for, what the form of the divine embodiment is and how it
actually solves the problem.
The periodical manifestation and dissolution of the world

Vaishnava Hinduism states in its major writings, the Puranas, that the god Vishnu causes a
cyclic manifestation and dissolution of the world. Each cosmic cycle (mahayuga) has four
ages (Krita Yuga - 1.728.000 years, Treta Yuga - 1.296.000 years, Dvapara Yuga - 864.000
years and Kali Yuga - 432.000 years) followed by the dissolution (pralaya) of the physical
world. The whole cycle is repeated 994 times, which is a period called kalpa, and then a
dissolution (pralaya) of both the physical and subtle world follows. 36.000 kalpas and
pralayas make the lifespan of Brahma, the creator god, which is followed by a total
dissolution (mahapralaya) of the physical, subtle and causal world. Then all worlds, time
and space return into Brahman, and the whole cycle starts again in an endless process of
manifestation and dissolution.

In Christianity, on the other hand, the world was created only once, and not as a necessity
(as the cyclic manifestation of Vishnu implies) but out of God's superabundant love.
Although the world became corrupted by sin, this situation doesn't belong to a normally
repeated scenario (as in Hinduism) but is the result of a wrong human response to God's
love. Despite the fact that our world is different from what God has originally intended, it
will not follow a repeated cycle of manifestation and dissolution. The "new heaven and
new earth" presented at the end of the Revelation account (21,1) is not a new creation
similar to the one presented in Genesis. Otherwise it would indeed confirm a cyclic
manifestation of the world according to the Hindu pattern. The Bible doesn't confirm such
a mechanism. The "new heaven and new earth" is rather an everlasting world where sin is
eradicated and there will be "no more death or mourning or crying or pain" (Revelation
21,4). It will belong to those who accepted His grace through Jesus Christ (21,27) and will
never have a pralaya to end it.

The ten avatars of Vishnu

The god Vishnu is said to descend ten times into our world during each cosmic cycle
(mahayuga) in order to restore the balance between good and evil. His incarnations
(avatars) vary depending on the Hindu writing that describes them. The Mahabharata
gives three lists of Vishnu's avatars: First there are mentioned four, then six, and finally
there is a list of ten, in the form of: (1) swan, (2) tortoise, (3) fish, (4) boar, (5) man-lion,
(6) dwarf, (7) Bhargava Rama, (8) Dasaratha Rama, (9) Krishna, and (10) Kalki. The
Garuda Purana lists 19 avatars of Vishnu, while the Bhagavata Purana lists 22 in one
place and 23 in another. Since the time of the Bhagavata Purana the number of avatars has
been uniformly recognized as ten. Therefore we will use the following list in the present
analysis: (1) fish, (2) tortoise, (3) boar, (4) man-lion, (5) dwarf, (6) Parasurama, (7) Rama,
(8) Krishna, (9) Buddha and (10) Kalki. The first nine have occurred already and the last
one is still to come. Let us give a brief description of each avatar and see what its goal was
and the method used for fulfilling it.
(1) The fish (Matsya). The Vedas were stolen from Brahma by a demon, so the gods sent a
flood on the earth to drown him and thus recover the holy scriptures. Vishnu took the form
of a fish, predicted the coming deluge to the saint Manu and saved him together with his
family by leading his ship to safety.

(2) The tortoise (Kurma). During the deluge that destroyed the world the cream of the
milk ocean (amrita), by which the gods renewed their youthfulness and avoided death, was
lost. Both gods and demons together set about producing amrita by churning the ocean of
milk, using a mountain as churning stick and the incarnation of Vishnu as a pivot on which
to rest it. Their action was successful and the amrita recovered.

(3) The boar (Varaha). Brahma had been forced to grant the boon of immortality to a
demon that had performed austerities. Under the cover of this boon, the demon persecuted
both men and gods and even stole the Vedas from Brahma and dragged the earth under the
ocean, down to his dark abode. However, he forgot to mention the boar when reciting the
name of gods, men and animals from which to be immune, so Vishnu took the form of a
huge boar, descended into the ocean, killed the demon with his tusks, recovered the Vedas
and released the earth.
(4) The man-lion (Narasinha). A demon had obtained the boon of immunity through
asceticism from the attacks of men, beasts and gods. He had the assurance from Brahma
that he could not be killed either day or night, inside or outside his house. This demon grew
very powerful and forbade the worship of all gods and substituted it with worship for
himself. Vishnu took the form of half-man, half-lion (neither man nor beast) and tore the
demon into pieces in the evening (neither in the day nor in the night) in the doorway of his
palace (neither inside nor outside it).

(5) The dwarf (Vamana). The king Bali had gained too much power by his sacrifices, so
the gods were endangered of losing their heavenly position to him. Therefore Vishnu was
incarnated as a dwarf and asked the king the gift of three paces of land. Once accepted, the
dwarf suddenly grew to an enormous size and covered all the earth and the heavens by his
paces and Bali was left with only the nether regions.

(6) Parasurama (Rama with the ax). The warrior caste (kshatriya) was exercising
tyranny over all men, especially over the Brahmins, so the priestly caste was endangered.
Vishnu came to earth as Parasurama and exterminated the whole kshatriya caste with his

While he was still on earth, the next avatar (Ramachandra) came and the two had to
struggle. Ramachandra defeated him in a trial of strength and broke his bow. (Both the
Ramayana and the Mahabharata recollect this episode. In the Mahabharata Parasurama is
knocked senseless by Ramachandra.)

(7) Ramachandra (Rama), the hero of the Ramayana epic. The demon Ravana had
practiced austerities in order to propitiate Brahma, who had granted him immunity from
being killed by gods, gandharvas and demons. Under this cover, Ravana persecuted gods
and men. Vishnu took the human form of prince Rama, for Ravana was too proud to ask
immunity from men. Many adventures followed in his trip to save his wife Sita, who was
kidnapped by the demon and taken to the Lanka Island. Rama raised an army of monkeys
and bears led by the monkey-god Hanuman and a great battle was fought in front of the
gates of the city. Rama used a magic weapon infused by the power of many gods, killed
Ravana and rescued his wife.

(8) Krishna. The objective of Vishnu's incarnation as Krishna was to kill the demon
Kamsa, who had become a tyrannical king, killing children and banning the worship of
Vishnu. Krishna's mission had three phases: childhood, youth and middle age. During
childhood he performed many feats of strength, killing all demons sent against him by
Kamsa. In his youth, Krishna had many amorous adventures with married cowgirls. At last,
in his middle-age, he killed Kamsa and took part in the Bharata war (with the most famous
episode being the one recollected in the Bhagavad Gita). His mission accomplished,
Krishna retreated into the forest in meditation. A hunter mistook his foot for a deer and
shot it, thus piercing Krishna's one vulnerable spot and mortally wounding him.

(9) Buddha. The demons had stolen the sacrificial potions of the gods and performed
asceticism, so the gods could not conquer them. Vishnu incarnated as a man of delusion in
order to propagate false ideas and lead them astray from their old faith. Buddha preached
that there is no creator, that the three major gods (Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva) were just
ordinary mortals, that there is no dharma, that death is total annihilation, that there is no
heaven and hell and that the sacrifices are of no value. Obviously, Buddha as avatar of
Vishnu has no historical background. He was a kind of devil's advocate who managed to
weaken the opponents of the gods. The demons became Buddhists, abandoned the Vedas
and consequently were killed by the gods. This story was first presented in the Vishnu
Purana (5th century AD) and is obviously an attempt to subordinate Buddhism to

(10) Kalki. The last avatar, who is still to come, puts an end to the degenerated earth,
accomplishing the final destruction of the wicked and preparing the way for the renewal of
creation and the resurgence of virtue in the next mahayuga.

The following table summarizes the meaning of Vishnu's past 9 avatars:

Topic Which avatar's case fits into this scenario

A demon performed austerities and gained too much 3, 4, 5, 7, 8, 9

power over the gods

The avatar came to save the gods 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 8, 9

The avatar came to save humans 1, 3, 4, 6, 7, 8

The avatar kills a demon 3, 4, 7, 8

The avatar's form of embodiment Animal (1, 2, 3), half-beast, half-human (4), hum
7, 8, 9) according to how the demon had to be d

Now let us turn to the nature of the divine incarnation in Christianity by presenting an
excerpt from a previous file on the nature of salvation in Christianity.

God the Son incarnated as Jesus Christ

The Christian account of divine incarnation presents God the Son willingly leaving His
divine glory, taking a human body and descending into our world through the virgin birth.
The Apostle Paul states:

Christ Jesus, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God
something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a
servant, being made in human likeness (Philippians 2,6-7).
This “making Himself nothing” performed by God the Son is called in theology “the
kenosis of Christ” (lit. = “emptying”). It does not mean a subtraction of deity, but the
addition of humanity with its consequent limitations. Although taking a human nature was
a real humbling for God the Son, it did not involve the giving up of any divine attributes.
The doctrine of the kenosis involves the veiling of His preincarnate glory (John 17,5),
taking on Himself the likeness of human sinful flesh (Romans 8,3) and the temporary
nonuse of divine attributes during His earthly ministry.

The kenosis of Christ was His free will initiative and not a necessity imposed by His
nature, as is the case with the periodical incarnations of Vishnu. According to Christianity,
Jesus Christ is the only incarnation of God, descended into our world with a unique and
non-repeatable mission in history. He is not a mere avatar, a periodical incarnation of a
Hindu god, but the unique incarnation of God the Son, become God the Man, perfect in
both His divine and human nature. This double nature of Jesus Christ is the key for
understanding His mission of reconciling man with God.

In Vaishnava Hinduism none of the avatars has a perfect union of the two natures. As they
have no historical basis, it is very difficult to speculate on how their divine nature
combined with the physical one (animal or human). Due to considering the physical body a
mere garment that is put on and off (according to Bhagavad Gita 2,22), there cannot be any
real association of god with a physical body. Christ came to redeem the physical body as
well, therefore His association with it was real. For the same reason there is so much accent
laid on His physical resurrection, which for a Hindu avatar would be completely absurd.
Therefore the avatar fits best in the Docetic understanding of Christ (the appearance of a
physical body, with no intrinsic value to it), which is considered a classic heresy in

The most striking difference from Hindu avatars regards Christ's death. This was the crux
of His incarnation: He had to die on the cross for our redemption from sin and
reconciliation with God. The Apostle Peter states in his epistle:
He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and
live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed (1 Peter 2,24; see also
1,18-21; 3,18).

Jesus Christ as “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1,29) is the
cornerstone of Christianity and its non-paralleled element. Mocked and spit upon by the
human race, nailed on a cross and forsaken by the Father, Jesus Christ took our place in
punishment. While dying on the cross, Jesus shouted, “It is finished” (John 19,30). In
Greek, the expression used was Tetelestai, which means, “the debt was paid in full”. What
was meant here is the debt that man deserved to pay for his sins in hell, through eternal
torment. By His death, Jesus paid in full the price required for the salvation of mankind
from sin.

Was the suffering of Christ on the cross a mere illusion, as some esoteric interpretations
suggest? Obviously not! His torment and death were so real that none of those who saw it
could expect a future victory over death. This proves the full incarnation of God the Son.
He did not die only in physical appearance, as the Docetist heresy suggests, but as a poor
miserable man, experiencing suffering in its fullest sense. His death proves both the
seriousness of our sin and the unfathomable love of God, as Jesus once proclaimed:

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever
believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life (John 3,16).

Parallels between the Hindu avatars and Jesus Christ

What are demons?

According to Hinduism, demons are either beings that appeared through the primordial act
of manifestation, or humans that didn't follow their duty (dharma) or performed bad deeds
during their lifetime. Consequently they reincarnate as evil beings which cause much
suffering in the world. However, the evil they do is not arbitrary, as the law of karma
makes sure that the humans afflicted by demons are justly punished for their own bad
deeds performed in previous lives. Therefore, from a global point of view the demons' bad
deeds must be seen as necessary in balancing karma. On the other hand, the demon stage of
existence is limited, and eventually there is reincarnation back into human form and
henceforth a new chance given to attain liberation.

Keeping this in mind, it becomes absurd that Vishnu has to intervene in the world by
descending as an avatar to save it. Save it from what? From the consequences of karma, a
spiritual law that can never be abolished? As long as karma operates in the world, the
killing of a demon has a very limited effect. It doesn't guarantee that the demon will not
create problems in his next existence. According to the reincarnation doctrine, only one's
physical frame can be "killed" (see Bhagavad Gita 2,19), not the "infinite, immortal soul".
For this reason, demons never stop creating problems, so there are necessary periodical
incarnations of the divine, at least 10 in each mahayuga. As the periodical manifestation of
the world created by Vishnu never ends, so does the affliction of it by the demons.
Therefore, the solution of killing the demons by the avatars is only a short-term solution to
the problem of evil in the world.

On the other hand, in Christianity, demons have a different nature and destiny. They are
fallen angels who will never reincarnate, return to their initial status or attain salvation. As
the present world has a limited time span and there is no re-manifestation of it, the demons
will be eternally separated from the Kingdom of God at the judgment day. (For more
information on the nature of demons in Christianity click here.)

How did the demons attain power over the gods?

A very interesting fact in Hinduism is that anyone - god, human or demon - can attain the
same magical power through performing austerities (tapas). Once this power is attained,
nobody can break it. In fact, the 3rd, 4th, 7th, 8th and 9th avatars of Vishnu all came
because a demon performed so many austerities that the god Brahma was forced to grant
him the boon of immortality as a reward. The mechanism of attaining such power is
beyond the control of the gods, which proves their weakness in ruling the world. As a
result, the avatar has to find a way of killing the demon without breaking the promises
made to him by Brahma. The solutions are sometimes very funny (see for instance the 3rd
and the 4th avatar).

On the other hand, in Christianity demons have no possible way of blackmailing God.
They cannot attain more power than they were left with at the fall. Neither angels nor
demons could ever represent a threat for God. According to Christianity, such a power as
that attained by the Hindu demons cannot be attained by any creature in our world, by any
possible way of asceticism. Power can only be given by God, in a limited measure, and
only in order to recognize the true source of power, who is God himself.

Who did the divine incarnation came to save, gods or humans?

In Hinduism not only can demons force the gods to admit their merits, but the descent of
the divine into human form is more concerned with saving the world of the gods than that
of humans. For instance, there are 8 avatars (no. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 8 and 9) involved in saving
the world of gods from the power attained by demons, while only 6 (no. 1, 3, 4, 6, 7 and 8)
are concerned with saving humans. This proves that the gods have a very fragile position
and are more concerned about themselves than the problems of humankind.

In Christianity the idea of God becoming incarnate to save Himself is absurd. God is not
affected at all by anything demons could do. From this point of view, the coming of Christ
could never have occurred as necessary. The only purpose of God's incarnation in Jesus
Christ is the salvation of humans from the effect of sin. The problem in Christianity is not
that demons are a threat to God, but that man has chosen to disobey God. Through the act
of the divine incarnation man can gain a chance to return to personal communion with his

How does the divine incarnation save?

Usually the Hindu avatar kills the demon (no. 3, 4, 7, 8, only the demon-king Bali is spared
and sent to hell by no. 5). The killing is performed with much caution, so that the promises
made by the god Brahma should not be broken. However, due to reincarnation this
"killing" is not of much effect, being only a limited solution to the problem of evil.

On the other hand, in Christianity, Jesus Christ didn't literally kill Satan. In accordance
with the sacrificial system of the Old Testament, Jesus let Himself be crucified for our
sake. This was the "gift of God" (Romans 6,23) as ransom for our sins, a chance offered to
us to be set free from the power of Satan and sin. According to the Bible, the final
destruction of demons' power will only occur at the judgment day (Revelation 20,10).

Contradictory aspects of the Hindu avatars

A weird fact to mention here is the conflicts between two contemporary avatars of the
Treta Yuga (Parasurama and Ramachandra). How can this be? How could two incarnations
of the same god wrestle with one another? Isn't each avatar under divine control? Why
didn't the first Rama leave in time? Or why couldn't he solve the problem for which the
next avatar came, if he was present anyway in the world?

On the other hand, how could the gods cooperate with demons at the time of the second
avatar's (Kurma) coming? How is it possible to become allies and to be both threatened by
the absence of amrita? This leads us to believe that both gods and demons are of the same
nature and use the same source of power.

Could Jesus Christ be assimilated with a Hindu avatar?

Christianity is a religion that breaks into history, presenting Jesus Christ as a historical
God-man who was born, lived and died nearly 2.000 years ago. If his life were not a unique
historical event, His whole teaching would be absurd. His claims, miracles, passion and
resurrection, if taken out of history, leave nothing to Christianity. On the other hand,
Hinduism is not concerned with historicism, so it can accept any tales of the repeated
divine incarnation. The spiritual message of the avatars is the only element that matters, not
their historical presence. Having this mindset, Hindus accept Jesus Christ as an avatar (of
the Western world) with a powerful message, but being nothing more than any other

On the one hand, Hinduism is very syncretistic, including even Buddha among the avatars,
the one who rejected the basic tenets of Hinduism. On the other hand, Christianity is very
exclusivistic when it comes to characterizing the descent of the divine into human form.
Jesus Christ cannot be just another avatar, a mere variant of an eternal myth. This would
deprive Him of His true identity. His passion, death on the cross and resurrection give Him
a totally different portrait than the Hindu avatars. Rabindranath Maharaj summarized it in
his book Death of a Guru in the following words:

Jesus said he is the way, not a way; so that eliminates Krishna and everyone else.
He did not come to destroy sinners - like Krishna said of himself - but to save them.
And no one else could. Jesus is not just one of many gods. He is the only true God,
and he came to this earth as a man, not just to show us how to live but to die for
our sins. Krishna never did that. And Jesus was resurrected, which never happened
to Krishna or Rama or Shiva - in fact, they never existed.
(R. Maharaj Death of a Guru, Philadelphia, A.J. Holman Co., 1977, p. 148)

Copyright 1999, Ernest Valea. No part of this work will be used or reproduced by any
means without prior permission from the author.

Alleged Eastern equivalent sayings of Jesus Christ

Most of the examples of such sayings are analyzed in previous files, so please take a look at
the following links:

Jesus' sayings that allegedly suggest reincarnation:

1) Matthew 11:14 and 17:12-13, concerning the identity of John the Baptist as Elijah

2) John 9:2, “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

3) John 3:3, “No one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again"

4) Matthew 26,52, “All who draw the sword will die by the sword”


Jesus' sayings that allegedly imply that humans have a hidden divine nature that has to be
discovered through introspective meditation:
1) John 10:30, "I and the Father are one", regarding the unity with Ultimate Reality that any
human could eventually attain.

2) Luke 17:21, "the kingdom of God is within you". This statement is sometimes
interpreted as confirming the Eastern concept of an inner divine self (atman) that has to be
discovered in order to find liberation. Therefore, a brief commentary may be useful here.
The context of this saying is the following:

Once, having been asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus
replied, "The kingdom of God does not come with your careful observation, nor will people
say, 'Here it is,' or 'There it is,' because the kingdom of God is within you" (Luke 17:20-21).

The Kingdom of God can be defined as the sphere in which His rule is fully acknowledged.
It first comes without being in the range of the natural power of observation (as Jesus states
in this text), as an inner transformation in the heart of the individual believer under the
power and grace of Christ. There is also a further aspect of it, that refers to the time when
God will assert His universal rule, and the Kingdom will be manifest to all (Matthew 25:31-

Why had Jesus addressed these words to the Pharisees, knowing that His relation with them
was always very tense? On the one hand, the Pharisees had constantly rejected Jesus as the
Messiah and considered Him a blasphemer. Their expectations from the Messiah were
totally different from what Jesus had to offer. On the other hand, He constantly rebuked
them for their hypocrisy (in Luke, see 11:39-43; 12:1; 16:14-15; 18:10-14), so they couldn't
belong to the Kingdom Jesus was announcing. Therefore it is absurd to believe that, despite
all the antagonism between them, Jesus had acknowledged the inherent divine nature of the
Pharisees as a kind of hidden treasure to be discovered by any human. Otherwise why
didn't He teach it to his devoted disciples? Were they not fit to accept it, while the Pharisees
were? If so, He should have chosen his disciples out of the Pharisees, which is again

The phrase "within you" (gr. entos hymon) must have another meaning than an
acknowledgment of a divine human nature. It is better translated as "in your midst",
"among you" or "within your reach". Jesus, the one who was standing in the midst of the
Pharisees, was the divine representative of the Kingdom to come. This truth is what they
had to acknowledge, that the Kingdom was already present in their midst in the person of
its king, by no means an inner spiritual nature they would allegedly possess. As mentioned
in a previous file, the only “true inner nature” of man is sin.

The Parable of the Prodigal Son

in Christianity and Buddhism

Most of you know the Parable of the Prodigal Son as it appears in Luke's gospel, but
probably few are aware that it has a Buddhist parallel in one of the major writings of
Mahayana Buddhism. Although both parables seem to convey a similar message regarding
God's compassion for humans, a closer look will reveal fundamental differences in their
teaching and consequently between Christianity and Buddhism. Let us quote both parables
and then analyze them.
First, here is the text in the Gospel According to Luke:

There was a man who had two sons. The younger one said to his father, "Father, give me
my share of the estate." So he divided his property between them. Not long after that, the
younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his
wealth in wild living.
After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he
began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent
him to his fields to feed pigs. He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were
eating, but no one gave him anything. When he came to his senses, he said, "How many of
my father's hired men have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and
go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you.
I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men." So he
got up and went to his father.
But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was
filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms
around him and kissed him. The son said to him, "Father, I have
sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be
called your son." But the father said to his servants, "Quick! Bring the
best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his
feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let's have a feast and
celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was
lost and is found." So they began to celebrate.
Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the
house, he heard music and dancing. So he called one of the servants
and asked him what was going on. "Your brother has come," he
replied, "and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has
him back safe and sound." The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his
father went out and pleaded with him. But he answered his father, "Look! All these years
I've been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a
young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has
squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!"
"My son," the father said, "you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we
had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he
was lost and is found." (Luke 15:11-32)

The Buddhist parable is longer:

A young man left his father and ran away. For long he dwelt in other countries, for ten, or
twenty, or fifty years. The older he grew, the more needy he became. Wandering in all
directions to seek clothing and food, he unexpectedly approached his native country. The
father had searched for his son all those years in vain and meanwhile had settled in a
certain city. His home became very rich; his goods and treasures were fabulous.
At this time, the poor son, wandering through village after village and passing through
countries and cities, at last reached the city where his father had settled. The father had
always been thinking of his son, yet, although he had been parted from him over fifty
years, he had never spoken of the matter to anyone. He only pondered over it within
himself and cherished regret in his heart, saying, "Old and worn out I am. Although I own
much wealth - gold, silver, and jewels, granaries and treasuries overflowing - I have no
son. Some day my end will come and my wealth will be scattered and lost, for I have no
heir. If I could only get back my son and commit my wealth to him, how contented and
happy would I be, with no further anxiety!"
Meanwhile the poor son, hired for wages here and there, unexpectedly arrived at his
father's house. Standing by the gate, he saw from a distance his father seated on a lion-
couch, his feet on a jeweled footstool, and with expensive strings of pearls adorning his
body, revered and surrounded by priests, warriors, and citizens, attendants and young
slaves waiting upon him right and left. The poor son, seeing his father having such great
power, was seized with fear, regretting that he had come to this place. He reflected, "This
must be a king, or someone of royal rank, it is impossible for me to be hired here. I had
better go to some poor village in search of a job, where food and clothing are easier to get.
If I stay here long, I may suffer oppression." Reflecting thus, he rushed away.
Meanwhile the rich elder on his lion-seat had recognized his son at first glance, and with
great joy in his heart reflected, "Now I have someone to whom I may pass on my wealth. I
have always been thinking of my son, with no means of seeing him, but suddenly he
himself has come and my longing is satisfied. Though worn with years, I yearn for him."
Instantly he sent off his attendants to pursue the son quickly and fetch him back.
Immediately the messengers hasten forth to seize him. The poor son, surprised and scared,
loudly cried his complaint, "I have committed no offense against you, why should I be
arrested?" The messengers all the more hastened to lay hold of him and brought him back.
Following that, the poor son, thought that although he was innocent he would be
imprisoned, and that now he would surely die. He became all the more terrified, fainted
away and fell on the ground. The father, seeing this from a distance, sent word to the
messengers, "I have no need for this man. Do not bring him by force. Sprinkle cold water
on his face to restore him to consciousness and do not speak to him any further." Why? The
father, knowing that his son's disposition was inferior, knowing that his own lordly position
had caused distress to his son, yet convinced that he was his son, tactfully did not say to
others, "This is my son."
A messenger said to the son, "I set you free, go wherever you will." The poor son was
delighted, thus obtaining the unexpected release. He arose from the ground and went to a
poor village in search of food and clothing. Then the elder, desiring to attract his son, set
up a device. Secretly he sent two men, sorrowful and poor in appearance, saying, "Go and
visit that place and gently say to the poor man, 'There is a place for you to work here. We
will hire you for scavenging, and we both also will work along with you.'" Then the two
messengers went in search of the poor son and, having found him, presented him the above
proposal. The poor son, having received his wages in advance, joined them in removing a
refuse heap.
His father, beholding the son, was struck with compassion for him. One day he saw at a
distance, through the window, his son's figure, haggard and drawn, lean and sorrowful,
filthy with dirt and dust. He took off his strings of jewels, his soft attire, and put on a
coarse, torn and dirty garment, smeared his body with dust, took a basket in his right hand,
and with an appearance fear-inspiring said to the laborers, "Get on with your work, don't be
lazy." By such means he got near to his son, to whom he afterwards said, "Ay, my man,
you stay and work here, do not leave again. I will increase your wages, give whatever you
need, bowls, rice, wheat-flour, salt, vinegar, and so on. Have no hesitation; besides there is
an old servant whom you can get if you need him. Be at ease in your mind; I am, as it were,
your father; do not be worried again. Why? I am old and advanced in years, but you are
young and vigorous; all the time you have been working, you have never been deceitful,
lazy, angry or grumbling. I have never seen you, like the other laborers, with such vices as
these. From this time forth you will be as my own begotten son."
The elder gave him a new name and called him a son. But the poor son, although he
rejoiced at this happening, still thought of himself as a humble hireling. For this reason, for
twenty years he continued to be employed in scavenging. After this period, there grew
mutual confidence between the father and the son. He went in and out and at his ease,
though his abode was still in a small hut.
Then the father became ill and, knowing that he would die soon, said to the poor son,
"Now I possess an abundance of gold, silver, and precious things, and my granaries and
treasuries are full to overflowing. I want you to understand in detail the quantities of these
things, and the amounts that should be received and given. This is my wish, and you must
agree to it. Why? Because now we are of the same mind. Be increasingly careful so that
there be no waste." The poor son accepted his instruction and commands, and became
acquainted with all the goods. However, he still had no idea of expecting to inherit
anything, his abode was still the original place and he was still unable to abandon his sense
of inferiority.
After a short time had again passed, the father noticed that his son's ideas had gradually
been enlarged, his aspirations developed, and that he despised his previous state of mind.
Seeing that his own end was approaching, he commanded his son to come, and gathered all
his relatives, the kings, priests, warriors, and citizens. When they were all assembled, he
addressed them saying, "Now, gentlemen, this is my son, begotten by me. It is over fifty
years since, from a certain city, he left me and ran away to endure loneliness and misery.
His former name was so-and-so and my name was so-and-so. At that time in that city I
sought him sorrowfully. Suddenly I met him in this place and regained him. This is really
my son and I am really his father. Now all the wealth which I possess belongs entirely to
my son, and all my previous disbursements and receipts are known by this son." When the
poor son heard these words of his father, great was his joy at such unexpected news, and
thus he thought, "Without any mind for, or effort on my part, these treasures now come to
World-honored One! The very rich elder is the Tathagata, and we are all as the Buddha's
sons. The Buddha has always declared that we are his sons. But because of the three
sufferings, in the midst of births-and-deaths we have borne all kinds of torments, being
deluded and ignorant and enjoying our attachment to things of no value. Today the World-
honored One has caused us to ponder over and remove the dirt of all diverting discussions
of inferior things. In these we have hitherto been diligent to make progress and have got, as
it were, a day's pay for our effort to reach nirvana. Obtaining this, we greatly rejoiced and
were contented, saying to ourselves, "For our diligence and progress in the Buddha-law
what we have received is ample". The Buddha, knowing that our minds delighted in
inferior things, by his tactfulness taught according to our capacity, but still we did not
perceive that we are really Buddha's sons. Therefore we say that though we had no mind to
hope or expect it, yet now the Great Treasure of the King of the Law has of itself come to
us, and such things that Buddha-sons should obtain, we have all obtained.
(Saddharmapundarika Sutra 4)

The parable in its context

In Luke, the parable reveals the nature of God in Christianity, His expectation that all
sinners may return to a father-son relationship with Him. Jesus told this parable to a large
public consisting of both "religious experts" of the day, the Pharisees, and the people most
despised by them, the tax collectors, prostitutes and other outcasts (Luke 15,1-2). The
Pharisees considered these "sinners" to be outside the acceptable boundary of God's
kingdom and accused Jesus for enjoying their company. In contrast to their attitude, He
told the previous two parables in the same chapter (The Lost Sheep and The Lost Coin), in
order to emphasize His initiative in seeking and saving such sinners. In response, they
acknowledged their sinful life and came to Jesus for healing and forgiveness, while the
Pharisees considered themselves good enough according to God's standards (see the
Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector - Luke 18:9-14). Thus the Parable of the
Prodigal Son reveals both God's love for those who were ready to accept it (the prodigal
son who returns to his father), and His rejection of the Pharisees' hypocrisy and self-
centered righteousness (the older son in the parable). Although the contrast between the
two sons is an important point in the parable, as the Buddhist parable speaks only of a
prodigal son, the teaching about the older son in Luke will be ignored in this comparison. *
The Buddhist parable is part of the famous Saddharmapundarika Sutra (also called the
Lotus Sutra, composed at the end of the second century AD), which revealed the new
teaching of Mahayana Buddhism regarding the bodhisattva beings. The discourse of the
Buddha is said to have taken place in front of a very large public, consisting of arhats,
nuns, bodhisattvas, gods and other beings. His teaching was addressed to those who have
reached the arhat stage of becoming and are supposed to advance further by becoming a
bodhisattva. As the son in the parable shouldn't be satisfied by his lower status, the
Buddhist disciples should also aspire to a higher position, that of becoming a bodhisattva.
It will eventually be attained step by step after a long instructing and testing process.

The characters

In the gospel the father represents God, the Ultimate Reality in Christianity, while the
prodigal son is the one living in sin who finally repents and returns to a fellowship relation
with God. In the Sutra the father is Buddha (or more specifically, the Buddha nature -
Dharmakaya), while the son is the one struggling to become an enlightened bodhisattva

The son's departure and miserable condition

The prodigal son in Luke declares he has had enough of staying home in obedience to his
father and wants to be on his own. Not only does he want to leave home, but he even dares
to claim his inheritance, the fortune he is supposed to get at his father's death. Such a
demand is extremely outrageous, especially in the Middle Eastern context. However,
instead of rebuking or even denouncing his son, the father grants his request.

Soon after this, the son left for a distant country and there he squandered his entire fortune
in wild living. This probably was a quite new and interesting experience for him, but it
brought him to bankruptcy. Now he had to find a job to make a living in that country, and
the best offer he had was to feed someone's pigs. In a Jewish context, the pigs are
considered unclean animals; therefore being hired to feed them and even being hungry
enough to long for their food illustrates the worst possible situation one can reach.

The spiritual meaning of the prodigal son's leaving his home is assimilated in Christianity
with man's rebellion against God, his heavenly father. God does not oppose one's freedom
of will in choosing how to live. As the son in the parable claimed his inheritance and then
squandered it, humans use all that God has granted them (wealth, health, time and
relationships) not for serving Him in obedience, but against His will. This attitude is called
sin, and brings humans to the lowest possible stage of decadence. Although living in sin is
first very attractive and pleasant, in the end it leads to destruction, both from an existential
and a spiritual point of view.

Another important observation here is that although the father in the parable gave a large
fortune to his son, he was still rich after the son's departure. However, the father's only
concern proved to be his son's personal safety and return to the family. His wealth plays no
role for him. As the rich man in the parable didn't become poor by his son's departure, God
does not lose anything by our decision to live in rebellion to Him. The only one who is
losing everything is man. * The prodigal son of the Buddhist Sutra leaves home without
any fortune from his father. His departure looks more like running away in secrecy. He also
becomes more and more needy but is still able to make a living. The father doesn't seem to
have been rich at the moment of his son's departure. He rather became rich after this
episode, in another city than the one in which he previously lived with his son. Therefore
the son had no wealthy position to remember from home and to eventually return to. Even
if he would have, the father had left it, so there was no place for him to return. Regarding
the father's concern in this story, he seems more worried about having an heir than about
making his son happy again.

The meaning of the son's wandering in the Buddhist tale is that there is no initial position
to lose in one's spiritual becoming. As the son leaves his home poor and remains poor,
humans have no other inheritance than karma, which makes them wander from one bad
incarnation to another. The only truth that governs human existence is suffering and karma,
which leads to an endless wandering in the world, with no original position to return to.
The only spiritual fulfillment is a permanent growth toward an impersonal liberation. This
is the Buddhist treasure to be discovered by any cost.
The way back home

The prodigal son of the gospel finally "came to his senses" and acknowledged his dramatic
condition. Ashamed, he planned to return to his father, confess his sin and ask to be hired
as a servant. This position, no matter how humiliating it could be in front of his brother and
the other servants, was a much better choice than staying with the pigs.

The process of one's "coming to his senses" is called repentance in Christian theology. It
involves acknowledging the bad condition of living in sin and making the decision to leave
it. * The Buddhist prodigal son made no decision to return to his father. He continuously
wandered from town to town until he unexpectedly arrived at his father's palace. The son
didn't even recognize his father, whose situation had changed a lot since his departure.
More than this, the father's wealth inspired fear in the son and made him try to run away
again in order to not enter into more trouble. Eventually, at the father's command, the
attendants seized him and brought him to the palace against his will.

The son's wandering in the world can be interpreted as the effect of karma and
reincarnation in one's life. They constantly push man on the one-way of becoming.
However long the process of being reincarnated in different bodies may be, one has to
finally reach liberation (that's why the attendants seize the son against his will). One
constantly experiences suffering until he has to accept that the best solution for his life is
nirvana. Although reaching the status of a bodhisattva (a being that helps other humans
attain liberation) seems to confer a personal afterlife destiny, the ultimate stage of
becoming is shunya, the void, where nothing personal can remain.

What happens back home?

According to Luke's parable, the father was waiting for his prodigal son. He probably knew
that the son couldn't find true satisfaction in what the world had to offer him. Instead of
punishing him for his foolish behavior, "while he was still a long way off, his father saw
him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him
and kissed him" (v. 20). Instead of humiliating the son as a repayment for the shame he
cast on his father at departure, the father humiliates himself by running to meet him. Such a
behavior was totally indignified according to Jewish standards of the time. After the son
recited half of his prepared speech, acknowledging he was wrong, the father interrupted
him and commanded the servants to bring him the best robe, put a ring on his finger and
sandals on his feet. The fattened calf was slaughtered and a feast ordered to celebrate his
return. All these symbols prove a 100% forgiveness and rehabilitation of the son to his
prior status. The robe was a sign of great distinction, the ring the sign of authority, the
sandals a luxury (only slaves were bare-footed) and the slaughter of the fattened calf the
sign of a very important celebration in the family. Instead of becoming a hired servant as
he hoped, the son was fully restored to the position he had abandoned long before. * The
Sutra presents in a whole different way the prodigal son's return home. The father
unexpectedly recognized him standing at his gate and sent his attendants to seize him and
compel him to come to the palace. The son didn't understand the situation and became
terrified. The father initially treated him like a stranger because of his "inferior
disposition". A sudden restoration was out of the question.

Understanding his son's mindset, the father set him free and managed that he be hired as a
scavenger. Although filled with compassion, the father could not reveal his identity until
the son deserved his proper place in the family. He met his son in disguise and encouraged
him to be honest in his work in order to be promoted. He promised to increase his salary
and provide for his basic needs. The son had first to prove high qualities before being
accepted back into the family. So he lived for 20 years in a small hut while still being
employed in scavenging.

The testing process would have probably continued if the father hadn't become ill, feeling
his death to be imminent. Even at this time the son was not fully accepted into the family
but only promoted to a higher position, that of accountant over all his father's riches.
Without abandoning his sense of inferiority, the son became acquainted with all the goods.
Noticing that his son's ideas had gradually changed for the good and that he despised his
former status, only then did the father gather all his relatives and friends and declare the
former servant to be his son and heir.

The teaching of the parable in Christianity and Buddhism

The Christian meaning of the parable is clear. All humans need to return to God in
repentance and faith. He does not compel humans to do it, so it must be a personal
decision. God's forgiveness is not conditioned by attaining high spiritual performances but
only by repentance. The price for our reconciliation with God was paid by Jesus Christ,
through His death on the cross and His resurrection. There is nothing more to add and one
life is enough to accept it.

The parable depicts the amazing availability of God to forgive and restore us, His unlimited
grace to bestow upon us, His great love to accept us independently of our status and past.
This should give us courage to come to Him in repentance and faith, without fear, and
inherit His Kingdom, where personal communion with Him will be everlasting. * The
Buddhist parable has a different message. Both the process of being liberated
(acknowledged as son) and the meaning of liberation (inheriting the father's estate) have a
different meaning. One cannot simply attain liberation at once. The process is very long
and demands a progressive accumulation of wisdom until one deserves his place in the
hierarchy. Escaping from ignorance and suffering, attaining nirvana and the becoming of a
bodhisattva is a hard-to-win prize that has to be attained gradually by a day-by-day effort
in training the mind and overcoming karma. Grace, in Buddhism, cannot be shown
directly, but only as the disciple deserves it, which in fact is no grace at all.

There is also a major difference from Christianity in defining the status of the liberated
person. Personhood has no room in the system. Although the bodhisattva is a personal
being, he acts as a temporary catalyst for the sake of other humans that they may also find
nirvana. The true ultimate stage of spiritual progress is shunya, the void, where no personal
communion can ever exist. It is the final blowing out of the candle. This means that an
eternal communion with a Father in His Kingdom makes no sense in traditional Buddhism.
Ultimately, there is no Father to have communion with.

The following table summarizes the teaching of the two parables and also reveals some
basic contradictions between the two religions:

Topic in the parable Meaning in Christianity Meaning in Buddhism

The context Jesus is teaching sinners, Buddha is teaching

emphasizing their need and spiritually advanced
opportunity to be reconciled disciples (arhats) the need
with God. for attaining a higher
position, that of a

The characters God and the sinners Buddha (the ultimate

impersonal Buddha nature)
and the ones struggling to
attain it

The meaning of the son's The human attitude of Ignorance starts the wheel of
departure from home rebellion against God, karma.
called sin

The son's miserable The human condition under Karma and reincarnation
condition the power of sin, away from force one to wander from
personal communion with one physical existence to the
God next

The decision to return home A personal decision to leave Karma and reincarnation
sin, called repentance lead one to the proper level
where wisdom and spiritual
progress can be attained.

The father's attitude at the Complete forgiveness of sin Buddha's "grace" makes one
son's arrival and restoration to personal progress little by little
fellowship with God toward liberation. One has to
deserve his position by a
process of spiritual

Who pays the damage for God the Son incarnated as The disciple has to "pay
the lost fortune Jesus Christ paid the price himself" the price for
for our forgiveness through erasing his ignorance, by
His death and resurrection. constantly accumulating

The son's inheritance Eternal communion with Attaining an impersonal

God in His kingdom Ultimate Reality (shunya),
where there is no room for
personal communion

Revelation and knowledge in Christianity

A previous file mentioned the necessity of critically evaluating a certain religious path
before accepting it as a spiritual path toward Ultimate Reality. Four criteria were proposed:
1) internal consistency, 2) harmony between empirical knowledge and absolute (religious
or mystical) knowledge, 3) viability and 4) contradiction with other religious perspectives.
The moment has come to see how Christianity fulfills the first three criteria. As to the
fourth, the files on the nature of Ultimate Reality, human nature, salvation and the nature of
evil have already exposed the fact that world religions are irreconcilable on these topics, so
they cannot be all equally true. This point should already be clear, so there is no need to re-
emphasize it.

Before going on with our topic, an important clarification is needed: This file does not add
anything to the many theological debates on the nature of revelation and knowledge in
Christianity. There is a huge amount of literature available on this topic. (Have a look at the
Christian links suggested in our special file.) The goal pursued here is only to provide a
necessary answer to objections raised in previous files against Eastern pantheism, dualism
and Buddhism regarding their basic inconsistencies. This is a limited objective and
therefore the reader should not expect an exhaustive theological debate here.

Revelation as the only way of knowing God

How do we know what Ultimate Reality is? What is the adequate way of communication
between God and limited, mortal man? To what extent can we trust our empirical abilities
of knowledge (our senses and mind) in order to get the right picture about ultimate truth?
The Eastern religions state that Ultimate Reality has an impersonal nature and cannot be
grasped by empirical means. The only way of getting a glimpse of it is shutting down
normal perception and entering alterate states of consciousness, when the sense of unity
with Ultimate Reality can be experienced. The best example for this is Yoga practice,
which demands the abolition of body movement, breath, sensorial and mental activity.
However, as mentioned in a previous file, the accompanying experiences can be explained
as a mere result of forcing our senses and mind to function in a totally inadequate way, so
that "mystical" experiences can be nothing more than hallucinations or distorted
perceptions of reality. As long as such experiences can be obtained (to some extent) by the
use of drugs or hypnosis, it is doubtful that ultimate truth can be grasped by such doubtful

On the other hand, if normal human capacity of perception alone were sufficient for
grasping what Ultimate Reality is, we would fall into the trap of atheist naturalism and
consider that the physical universe is all that there is and that science is the best tool to
research it. Even if atheist naturalism may be satisfactory for some in explaining the way
our physical world functions, it can never offer a satisfying answer to the meaning of life. If
the physical world is all there is, life would have no ultimate meaning at all. As a result, the
atheist ideologies that swept through history have led only to the destruction of human

The Christian answer in solving this dilemma is given by God's initiative to make Himself
known to man. This process is called in theology revelation. It does not diminish man's
empirical abilities of knowledge, but unveils facts that are beyond these abilities. The
Apostle Paul wrote about the object of God's revelation in the Bible:

All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training
in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work
(2 Timothy 3:16-17).

Revelation is informative and personal, using the sense of logic and requiring a personal
response to it. Its ultimate purpose is to redeem man from his fallen condition and help him
experience salvation.

Mystical experiences in Christianity

God's revelation in the Scripture is enough for man to be saved. For more information on
this topic see our file on salvation in Christianity. There is no need for entering altered
states of consciousness in order to get a glimpse of Ultimate Reality, as such experiences
may be deceptive. However, there are many cases mentioned in the Bible and others
recollected by the Church, in which God allowed some people to have "a closer look" at
things that are beyond our world, or to receive direct instructions from Him. Therefore it is
important to evaluate the meaning and importance of Christian mystical experiences, and
see to what extent they are compatible with those of other religions. There are five points
here that emphasize the main differences:

1) Mystical experiences in Christianity are always initiated by God, in His grace, and never
induced by believers using special meditative techniques or asceticism. As examples see
the special revelations granted to the apostles Peter (Acts 10,9-16), Paul (2 Corinthians
12,2-4) and John (Revelation 1,10-19).

2) Those who were granted such special revelations had to remember a coherent spiritual
message in the normal state of consciousness and transmit it to their fellow believers. The
content was mostly informative and specific, not a mere "neti, neti" type of Hindu glimpse
of the impersonal Brahman that cannot be communicated.

3) Special revelations are associated with external confirmations of their truth. For instance,
the Apostle Peter was met by the men sent by Cornelius (Acts 10,21-22), Paul was forced
not to boast by "a thorn in his flesh" (2 Corinthians 12,7) and John had to transmit his
message to seven earthly churches that were confronted with earthly problems (Revelation
2-3). The same is the case with the Old Testament prophets. Although many of them had
visions of other-world realities (Isaiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, Zechariah), the message they got
was meant to correct an earthly situation, in most cases Israel's apostasy.

4) Mystical experiences in the Bible and in Church tradition always confirm previous
revelation in the Scripture. They never contradict it or make Christian doctrine depend on
them. Christianity does not proclaim mystical experience as the only way of knowing
ultimate truth, as Eastern religions do. Experience is not the primary instrument of knowing
God, but of confirming the revelation already received from Him in the Scripture and
accepted by faith. Experience always has to be subject to revelation and faith because those
experiences that contradict revelation may be of demonic origin.

5) Mystical experiences never give the feeling of atman-Brahman oneness. The Christian
mystic never unites with the being of God, but only with His will in a higher communion
relation. This is what is meant by being "transformed into His likeness with ever-increasing
glory, which comes from the Lord" (2 Corinthians 3,18). Consequently, the Christian
mystics use rather the term of the soul's "marriage" with God, than that of "absorption" or
"merging" with the essence of Ultimate Reality. In order to avoid deception by meeting a
foreign spiritual world (1 Peter 5,8), they have to obey some basic requirements to be
guarded against falling into heresy. The most important concern is abiding in Christian
doctrine and morals. The First Epistle of John in the New Testament is a wonderful
instrument for evaluating it. On the other hand, the best proof that the Christian mystic has
gotten lost in pantheism is the abandoning of fundamental concepts such as sin, evil,
reverence toward God, and considering himself to have attained a realm beyond good and
evil. This will necessarily develop into isolation from other "profane" people, which is
another indication of a wrong direction (1 John 4,7-21). Instead of attaining a special
communion relation with God, heretical mystics feel they become "one with the essence of
Therefore Eastern mysticism and Christianity hold irreconcilable positions concerning the
meaning and importance of mystical experiences. There is no meeting point between them,
not even on this ground.

Revelation and the three testing criteria

In the context given by God's revelation to man, Christianity does not encounter the basic
inconsistencies of Eastern religions in fulfilling the three above mentioned criteria because
of two basic elements: 1) both God and man are personal beings; and 2) both man and the
physical world were created by the same God. According to the Bible, man was created by
a personal God in His image and likeness (Genesis 1,27-28) and lives in the midst of His
physical creation. (There is no need to explain again the meaning of man's creation in God's
image and likeness, as it is part of a previous file.) Neither personhood nor the physical
world have anything intrinsically bad (Genesis 1,31). For this reason Christianity has
internal consistency, can state a right balance between empirical and absolute knowledge
and is also pragmatic. Let us briefly analyze these claims.

The use of logic in Christianity

Eastern religions state that there is only one reality pervading all aspects of existence and
therefore the sense of duality is ultimately illusory. As duality is the basis on which logic
operates, it is required that logic should be transcended by the use of meditation techniques
in order to attain oneness with the impersonal Ultimate Reality. This generates some
internal inconsistencies in Eastern religions (especially in the pantheist religions.)

Christianity holds a different approach to logic. The word "logic" has its etymological root
in the Greek "logos". Ancient Greek philosophy considered the Logos to be a rational
element in nature that generates and controls its order. The apostle John gave another
meaning to this term in his gospel. He chose to use it to designate God the Son, who was
incarnated as Jesus Christ (John 1,1-14). Therefore, the Christian Logos is not a mere
manifestation of an impersonal Ultimate Reality, but is personified as God Himself. As a
result, logic has its origin in God, the creator of all, who laid it at the ground of His
creation. In other words, the order in the universe is not a product of the manifestation of an
impersonal being (as Brahman), but the product of God's eternal and perfect mind. Because
the Logos (God the Son) is rational, creation is intelligible for the humans He created into
His image and likeness. This is of fundamental importance in balancing empirical and
absolute knowledge, the second criterion a spiritual path should meet.

Empirical and absolute knowledge in Christianity

By the fact that the same God created both our empirical abilities of knowledge (senses and
mind) and the physical world to be known, there is correspondence between them. The
senses give us true information about a true physical world around us, and the mind is able
to make true judgments. Even if our senses deceive us sometimes (as they make us believe
the sun rotates around the earth), we can reach the right perspective not by rejecting sense
observation, but by being more careful in observations and their logical inferences (as
Galileo Galilei did, being a Christian).

God could not give us unreliable rational powers and senses while making us think they are
reliable. He could not be capable of such a deception. As a result, absolute knowledge
(knowing God) does not contradict empirical knowledge but completes it. In other words, a
personal relationship with God is not against the mind but beyond it, and faith works
beyond what our mind can grasp but without destroying it. If there were an irreconcilable
barrier between empirical and absolute knowledge (as Eastern religions state), revelation
would be impossible.

Not only was man created in God's image, as a personal being, so that personhood has
nothing intrinsically bad, but the fullest revelation of God to man, i.e. the incarnation of
God in Jesus Christ, was also in personal form. Jesus Christ was a historical person who
lived on this earth in a physical body. As a Person of the Holy Trinity, He is the same God
that created man and the physical world, inspired the Bible, and descended in the world in
order to save it from its fallen state. What better way of bridging the gap between empirical
and absolute knowledge could we ask than the descending of Ultimate Reality to us in
human form? This element unparalleled by other religions, the historical incarnation of
God, is the key element for both defining our true nature and finding our way back to God.

Empirical knowledge and the possibility for science to exist

Our minds are capable of understanding the world we live in because we are created by a
rational God. Rationality in nature and rationality in man are therefore correlated. This
context makes science possible as a way of understanding God's creation in order to govern
it properly, according to the mandate entrusted by God in Genesis 1,28:

Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea
and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground (Genesis

On the basis of his given abilities, man can know and understand God's creation and
"subdue" it. For this reason, science has developed in Western culture, in a Christian
background, and not in the East. The Eastern concepts of researcher and researched being
ultimately one, or matter being illusory or evil, could not have given a proper context for
science. If the physical world is defined as a source of suffering, the only solution is to
withdraw from it, cut away any sensation and intellectual thought deriving from it. This
doesn't mean that the East doesn't acknowledge nowadays the importance of science, but
that science can only grow where the physical world is objective. Although science has
eventually developed during the last century in the East as well, it is obviously grounded on
a Western pattern.

Is Christianity viable?
Christianity offers the right pattern for living in our physical universe and in harmony with
our neighbors. This results from two basic commands in the Bible:
1) "Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the
sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground"
(Genesis 1,28).
2) "Love your neighbor as yourself" (Matthew 22,39; Mark 12,31; Luke 10,27).

The best moral rule for harmonious social living is the 10 commandments (Exodus 20,1-
17). Although very old, they still cannot be replaced by a better moral rule. Even if
Christian history has recorded a lot of falling short from practicing its moral rule (the often
mentioned abuses of the Inquisition, crusades, holy wars, etc.), the fault is not with the
religion, but with the people who disobey it. Christianity is only responsible for what it
teaches, not for what its so-called adherents do contrary to its teachings.

In fact, our whole educational system has its roots in Christianity. In the Middle Ages
schools and universities were first grounded around churches. The reformers emphasized
the need for education so that the believer could read his Bible. Christian missions brought
literacy to many parts of the world. J. Herbert Kane writes in his book:

There are 860 known languages and dialects in Africa. A hundred years ago fewer than 20
had a written form. Since then 500 have been reduced to writing - all the work of
missionaries (J. Herbert Kane, A Concise History of the Christian World Mission, Baker
Book House, 1978, p. 166).
The missionaries had to start from scratch - inventing scripts, writing textbooks, and
opening schools. For many decades they were the sole purveyors of education. The british
did as good a job as anyone in Africa, but in 1923 only 100 of the 6,000 schools in British
Africa were government schools. As late as 1961, 68% of all the school children in Africa
were still in mission schools (p. 141).

It had the same impact on human rights:

By precept and example they [the missionaries] inculcated the ideas and ideals of
Christianity - the sanctity of life, the worth of the individual, the dignity of labor, social
justice, personal integrity, freedom of thought and speech - which have since been
incorporated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights drawn up by the United
Nations" (Kane, p. 169).

The worldwide efforts in grounding orphanages, homes for the aged, hospitals, all kinds of
care and charity institutions are also known. These are all practical deeds in the spirit of
love for one's neighbor with which Christ has filled His followers. Mother Teresa was an
internationally known example of living out this spirit of Christianity. She didn’t only teach
compassion, but also practiced it and was eventually rewarded with the Nobel Prize for
peace in 1979. As the same prize was awarded to the Dalai Lama in 1989, it is interesting to
observe the difference between their lifestyles. Although both taught compassion, they had
a different understanding of it. The Eastern meaning of compassion (karuna) is an
impersonal mindset rather than a factual commitment to one’s neighbor. Christian
compassion (agape), on the other hand, leads to action, to the fulfillment of real needs in
one’s neighbor’s life. That is why Mother Teresa got the prize for her work with the poorest
in India (that no Hindu or Buddhist cared for), while the Dalai Lama got it for his political
stand for Tibet. This difference speaks for itself.

Kane concludes in his book:

By all odds the missionaries of the nineteenth century were a special breed of men and
women. Single-handedly and with great courage they attacked the social evils of their time;
child marriage, the immolation of widows, temple prostitution, and untouchability in India;
footbinding, opium addiction, and the abandoning of babies in China; polygamy, the slave
trade, and the destruction of twins in Africa. In all parts of the world they opened schools,
hospitals, clinics, medical colleges, orphanages, and leprosaria. They gave succor and
sustenance to the dregs of society cast off by their own communities. At great risk to
themselves and their families they fought famines, floods, pestilences, and plagues. They
were the first to rescue unwanted babies, educate girls, and liberate women" (p. 100).

No other religion has produced at least a small part of such an impact on human
civilization, so Christianity has no real competitor in changing our world for the good.
Unfortunately, critics today are used to seeing and commenting only the bad side of human
history and blame Christianity for it, ignoring the difference between genuine followers of
Christ and counterfeits. In other words, they throw out the baby with the bathwater.


"Who are you, the writer of this web site?"
This was the subject of an e-mail received by me, "the writer of this web site", some time
ago. I use it here as a title for a short confession concerning my findings on the spiritual
path toward God. Following the Eastern tradition of answering tough questions by
parables, I will use the story of a pantomime play I saw years ago on a student campus.
Although the play took only a few minutes, its message is so dense that it describes my
whole life.

Imagine the main character in the pantomime standing alone in his room, looking at
nothing, sad and disappointed with his life. Let's call him John. He seems to be too tired to
go on looking for answers to life's questions in a hostile world like ours. This dramatic
atmosphere is emphasized by the melancholic music that is accompanying the play.
Suddenly there is a knock at the door. Roused from his lethargy, John approaches the door
and looks through the peephole to see who is there. It is a friend, his drinking companion,
in a very good mood, coming to have another drink together. Before opening, John goes to
the wardrobe, opens a drawer and takes out an object that he puts on his face. It is a mask.
Suddenly his mood changes and he becomes as cheerful as his visitor is. He opens the door
and the two have a nice party together, with a lot of drinks, jokes and fun. Then John sees
his dear old pal off and closes the door. He approaches the wardrobe, takes off his mask
and puts it away. Instantly he returns to his initial icy state.
Another knock at the door follows. Again John looks through the peephole and sees his girl
friend, with earphones on and her body moving to the rhythm of the music. (However, the
only musical background in the play is the same sad and monotonous music, which makes
her even more ridiculous.) Before opening, he takes another mask and puts it on. His
transformation into her likeness occurs immediately. They dance and have a good time
together. But this episode also has to end and the mask is put back where it belongs, in the
wardrobe. Again there is loneliness and iciness, as if nothing had happened.

The next knock at the door is from a humped beggar. The mask of pity is put on and John
opens the door. Very compassionate and merciful, he gives some money and gently directs
him to other neighbors. Finally here comes a wandering ascetic to visit him, the
embodiment of false godliness, holding his hands together as if he were praying. Our man
takes a similar mask, spends some time miming the same "godliness", but gently invites
"the holy man" to go, pushing him toward the door with his prayer postured hands. (In the
context of this web page inquiry, a better illustration would have been that this visitor be a
Yogi, and the two performing some body postures (asanas) together.)

At last John is again alone, in his normal "state of consciousness", with all masks carefully
stored in the wardrobe. Unexpectedly, a new knock at the door is heard. Exhausted, John
goes to see who is next to bother him. Through the peephole he sees an unknown fellow, all
dressed in white. It is Christ. Very confused, our man doesn't know which mask to choose
and takes the first one. Failure. Instead of accepting the invitation to have a drink together,
the stranger snatches John's mask and breaks it. Getting even more confused, John takes the
next mask and puts it on. But the stranger snatches this mask as well and breaks it. The
third and the fourth masks are also tried on but with the same result. Dreadfully scared,
John searches for another mask in the wardrobe, but there is none left. In his despair, he
feels a gentle touch on his shoulder and reluctantly turns his face to the stranger, beginning
to understand who He really is. Christ makes a sign of rejection toward the broken masks
lying on the ground and draws the sign of the heart on his chest, pointing his hands toward
John in a demanding attitude. Yes, Christ is asking for his heart, the core of his true
identity, which is beyond all masks. John repeats this sign as if testing that he truly has
understood Christ's demand. He answers affirmatively and keeps waiting with his hands

After a moment of uncertainty, John puts his hands on his chest and then stretches them
toward Christ, as if offering his heart to him. Christ accepts it and then stretches his hands
horizontally, miming the Crucifixion, the price He paid for renewing John's heart. Our man
falls in his knees before Him and is transfigured. His face becomes shiny; all despair is
gone and replaced by real joy, gratitude and hope. Paradoxically, although the music is the
same in the play, it seems to produce a different feeling, as if it is accompanying the new
life that has begun.

Although my masks were slightly different, something similar has happened with me, "the
writer of this web site". I too am indebted to Christ for bringing me to light from behind
the masks and giving me a new life. He liberated me from the yoke of being a stranger to
myself, from the illusion I was administrating to myself, and then gave me true freedom:
freedom from the uncertainties of life, from pride and competition for prestige, from the
fear of not being accepted by worldly standards - in other words, freedom from the power
of sin. Although the world I live in is the same, as the musical background in the play, life
with Christ is totally different. It is a life full of hope, full of meaning and certitude. In the
midst of a world that seeks to fulfill only its own interest at all costs, regardless of the
means, Christ can give true peace, joy and fulfillment. The condition is to put your faith in
the true Christ, the historical Christ that was incarnated and crucified for our sins, not in
one created by someone's imagination and "wisdom", as there are many such New Age
productions today. More than a transformed life, He promises eternal life in His heavenly
kingdom, which is more than anyone could expect from religion.

There are probably many of you that look condescendingly on this confession. Many may
be skeptical and many may be smiling tolerantly. I would only ask them to remember the
healing of the man born blind by Jesus (John 9), so wonderfully pictured by Franco
Zeffirelli's internationally known film Jesus of Nazareth. Remember how people laughed at
him while he sought to reach the Pool of Siloam with his eyes covered with mud. However,
although it may have been quite a spectacle, the eyes of the blind opened, and the laughter
froze. It is possible that I too may be ridiculed for what I have written here, due to our post-
modern mindset but, as the healed man said once, "One thing I do know. I was blind but
now I see!" (John 9,25). This is Christ's gift for me, so precious that I cannot stop being
thankful to Him.

How can those who never heard about Christ be saved?

This question is a natural result when Christians state that Jesus Christ’s sacrifice on the
cross is the only possibility for man’s salvation. From the very beginning, we have to
emphasize an important aspect when dealing with this issue: Such a question can be raised
only by those who have heard about Jesus Christ, but in most cases do not accept Him as
Savior. Consequently, they use it as an excuse for ignoring their responsibility toward
Christ and for adhering either to atheism or to other religions.

It is obvious that none of the readers of this site belongs to the category of those who never
heard about Christ, as the entire Western history and culture has a Christian background.
However, finding a proper answer to this question is important for many people today. It
may help them understand better the fact that Christ’s sacrifice is indeed the solution for
any human in this world, including those who lived prior to his incarnation, or after this
event, in geographical areas not reached by Christian missionaries.

Two extremes should be avoided when addressing the salvation of those who have never
heard about Christ. First, if humans could be saved only by hearing about Him, the
multitudes which never had this chance during their lifetime would necessarily be damned
to eternal suffering in hell. It is obvious that this cruel kind of God cannot be the God who
died for them on the cross as absolute proof of His love. If He is all-loving, all-knowing
and all-powerful, He must have a solution for those who have never heard about His final
revelation in Jesus Christ.
Second, if all other religions were valid ways to God, the Christian claim of Christ’s
sacrifice on the cross being the only possibility for man’s salvation should be rejected. If
any human could have worked out his salvation by performing righteous deeds, rituals,
meditations, etc., as his native religion requires, God shouldn’t have adopted such a
dramatic and absurd solution for our sins as the crucifixion. The rise of Christianity as a
new world religion would have been useless, and Jesus only one savior among many.

However, Jesus Himself claimed to be the only possibility for any human’s salvation and
reconciliation with God. He said: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to
the Father except through me” (John 14,6). He commanded his disciples to go and proclaim
this truth in the entire world (Matthew 28,18-20; Mark 16,15-16) and they did it (Acts
4,12). If other religions were as good as Christianity in attaining salvation, the effort of
Christian missionaries would be absurd. Why would so many have sacrificed their lives,
only to proclaim one of the many alternatives man has to reach God?

Therefore we cannot sacrifice the importance of Jesus’ atonement on the altar of modern
syncretism. According to Christianity, salvation is provided only as a result of the specific
historical acts performed by Jesus Christ in His life, death on the cross, resurrection and
ascension. What He did is absolutely essential for the salvation of any human being who
has ever lived, whether thousands of years BC or nowadays. Without Christ, no human
could ever share eternal life with God.

As a result of the above considerations, we have to face a dilemma: Jesus Christ is the only
way to God, but it cannot be possible that only those who have heard about Him can be
saved. Salvation must be available also for those who haven't heard about Christ. The
element which solves this dilemma is the criteria according to which God will judge those
who never heard about Christ and grant them salvation. The Bible states that God is holy
and will judge humans with justice (Acts 17,31), according to the available measure of
revelation they had and their response to it, expressed through their deeds (Romans 2,6),
words (Matthew 12,36-37) and thoughts (Hebrews 4,12). The amount of revelation one has
determines a consequent measure of responsibility on his part (Luke 12,47-48). In the
Western world, anyone has elementary knowledge about Christianity, and therefore the
terms of one's salvation are clear. As to those who never had the chance to hear the
Christian message, it is obvious that their judgment will require other criteria than
responding to the historical Jesus Christ.

God’s desire for all humans to be saved cannot be questioned. The Apostle Paul states:
“God wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2,4).
The same is stated by the Apostle Peter (2 Peter 3,9). The important thing to clarify, then, is
how does God show His grace to those who die without ever having heard about Jesus

General revelation
There is no doubt that any human has been presented God’s general revelation, which is
through nature, conscience and culture. According to how they respond to it, the Apostle
Paul proves (in the first three chapters of his Epistle to the Romans) that all humans are
sinful and deserve condemnation, even in the absence of any coherent Christian message.
This is the result of consciously rejecting general revelation; both the external one, that of
creation, and the internal one, that of conscience. Creation is by itself a testimony about the
Creator available to any human, as a kind of symbolic preaching that anyone can

For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities - his eternal power and divine
nature - have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men
are without excuse (Romans 1,20).

Out of all things that have been made by Him, man is the highest of all. Man was created in
God's image and likeness, as a personal agent that is now in search of meaning and
fulfillment. If the external revelation of nature is not enough, then the internal one, that of
conscience, is even more significant. Man’s conscience knows intuitively God’s moral
standards and warns when they are trespassed:

Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law,
they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law, since they show that
the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing
witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them (Romans 2,14-15).

Anyone who performs evil is consciously acting contrary to the demands of his conscience.
(However, conscience can become perverted itself, but only after a process of constantly
rejecting its natural right demands.) The true problem of man is not the lack of revelation,
but a wrong way of responding to it (Romans 1,21-23). Therefore, God could find enough
reasons to judge and condemn those who never heard about Christ. Due to the fact that He
could condemn them on the basis of their response to general revelation, the next point is to
see how they could still be saved.

Grace attributed retroactively

If those who never heard about Christ could be saved only as a result of their response to
general revelation, we should also accept that salvation can be attained as a reward for
one’s good deeds. But the Bible states clearly that nobody can earn his salvation through
morality or good deeds (Ephesians 2,8-9). However, the Bible also speaks about people
who never heard about Christ but still are saved (Hebrews 11). Before analyzing these
cases, it should be emphasized that if salvation depended exclusively on how much
information one had about Christ, we would fall into the trap of Gnosticism (salvation
through attaining right knowledge). Knowledge doesn't save us, but only God, as we
respond in faith to His revelation, no matter how limited it might be. God does not limit His
grace to those who have enough information of Him. As the examples mentioned in The
Letter to the Hebrews (chapter 11) prove, the salvation of those who never heard about
Christ depends on two basic requirements: 1) their response to the amount of revelation
they had, which is their responsibility; 2) the retroactive conferring of Christ’s sacrifice, on
the basis of the faith they manifested through properly responding to general revelation,
which is God’s responsibility. Let us analyze how this works.

The 11th chapter of the Letter to the Hebrews gives many examples of people who lived in
the Old Testament time and were saved without hearing about Jesus Christ. Abel, Enoch,
Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Rahab, David and others, are all considered
heroes of faith, despite the fact that none of them heard about Christ. Jacob (Genesis
49,10), Moses (Deuteronomy 18,15) and David (Psalm 22) prophesied about His coming,
but didn’t understand too much about its soteriological value. Others like Rahab (Joshua
2,1-21; Hebrews 11,31), Naaman the Syrian (2 Kings 5,1-19; Luke 4,27), Melchizedek
(Genesis 14,17-20; 7,2,15-17) and Jethro, the father-in-law of Moses (Exodus 18), were
saved although they didn’t even belong to the people of Israel. They accepted the small
amount of revelation they got, responded in faith and as a result God conferred on them the
atoning sacrifice of Christ. Faith is the key element here. It means trusting in the promises
of God and responding through effective action to His initiative (Hebrews 11,1-3). Faith is
not limited to understanding the doctrine of atonement, but rather engaging in a trusting
relationship with God.

While analyzing these famous examples of the Old Testament, we can observe the various
kinds of revelation they had from God: Noah was warned about the imminent coming of
the flood; his response proved his faith in God’s promise to save him together with his
family (Genesis 6-9). Abraham trusted God’s promise that he would be blessed with a son
and become the ancestor of a big nation (Genesis 12-22; Hebrews 11,8-19). God
proclaimed him righteous because of his faith: “Abram believed the Lord, and He credited
it to him as righteousness” (Genesis 15,6). Isaac, Jacob and Joseph, the descendants of
Abraham, trusted in God and were blessed. Moses trusted that God would free the Jewish
nation from Egyptian bondage and lead them into the Promised Land (Hebrews 11,20-22).

Not only people belonging to the chosen people of Israel were saved in the Old Testament
time, but also Gentiles. Melchizedek was called “priest of the God Most High” (Genesis
14,18) without having any blood relation to Abraham. He worshipped the same God, and
Abraham even paid tithes to him. Jethro, the father-in-law of Moses, finding out what God
has done through the Jewish nation, accepted by faith that the God of Moses is the true god.
Rahab, the prostitute (!), hearing about the approaching of Israel, risked her life in order to
hide the Jewish scouts (Joshua 2,1-21; Hebrews 11,31). This was the effective way she
expressed her faith in the true God and therefore was counted among the heroes of faith.
Naaman the Syrian (2 Kings 5,1-19; Luke 4,27) banished his pride when he understood
who the true God is, showing his faith by his decision to abandon idolatry.

All these people of the Old Testament, heroes of faith, have not been saved through their
merits, but through the grace of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, retroactively attributed to
them. Their faith was the instrument through which God granted them salvation, the same
instrument He uses today for all people who accept the sacrifice of Christ as the atoning
solution for their sins (Hebrews 11,39-40). Although the type of revelation differs (today
we have available the final revelation of God, through Christ), the object of faith remains
the same - God, and the basis of His forgiveness cannot be other than Christ’s sacrifice. For
both those who lived before and after Jesus’ crucifixion, God’s forgiveness was always
granted through grace and not by one’s own merits, and the proper way of accepting grace
was and will always be faith. The sacrifice of Christ is the element that validates the faith of
humans who lived both before and after His incarnation.

Neither those who lived prior to the incarnation of Christ, nor those living after His death
but without knowing anything about it, can be saved exclusively through their religion. A
clear example is that of Naaman the Syrian, who had leprosy. The prophet Elisha didn’t
suggest that he should bring more sacrifices to the Syrian god Rimmon, didn’t encourage
him to be more honest and devoted to his native religion, but sent him to the Jordan River.
By his initial refusal, Naaman is a symbol of man’s opposition toward God’s special
revelation. The desire to earn salvation (in Naaman’s case through bathing in the holy
Syrian rivers, making offerings, etc.) is a natural product of a false religion. Very often the
adherents of Eastern religions fit into this category. They refuse God’s grace, claiming to be
able to attain salvation (liberation) by their own efforts. However, God cannot validate this
effort, as it is a product of pride, of man’s attitude of independence toward God. Following
the ancient promise “you will be like God” (Genesis 3,5), by using a great variety of
teachings and techniques, more or less sophisticated, while refusing grace, cannot be a valid
way to God.

Salvation for those who never heard about Christ but accept the importance of grace
The above considerations do not imply that all those who don’t know anything else than
their native religion are automatically condemned. There have been enough spiritual
masters who recognized the necessity of grace and the impossibility of reaching salvation
by one’s own efforts. Ramanuja and Madhva are brilliant examples in the Hindu tradition,
as is Shantideva in Mahayana Buddhism. More than that, the entire spiritual trend called
prapatti in Hinduism, or the Pure Land school of Buddhism, focuses on grace as the only
solution for attaining liberation. According to them, the whole merit for getting saved
belongs to the god (in Hinduism) or bodhisattva (in Buddhism) they worship. There are
also many cases of tribal religions in which grace plays a key role in salvation.

The God who reveals Himself in the Bible knows man’s inner attitude and his motivation
for performing certain religious duties. All efforts which point toward self-justification are
of no value, no matter how impressive they could be. However, if man’s attitude is one of
humility, recognizance of his own weakness, and acceptance of grace, which God offers
unconditionally, the situation in completely different. We have observed this attitude in the
prapatti devotional trend of Hinduism, which demands giving up the control of one's
personal life to the god Vishnu and leaving to him all responsibility for attaining salvation.
The adherent of this trend has to acknowledge that he is not good enough to deserve
liberation by performing rituals and moral obligations. As mentioned in a previous file, the
whole prapatti philosophy can be summarized in the following verse, written by Vedanta
Deshika, a 14th century follower of Ramanuja:

Lord, I, who am nothing, conform to your will and desist being contrary to it, and with faith
and prayer, submit to you the burden of saving my soul (Nyasadashaka 2).
The same is the case with the Pure Land School of Mahayana Buddhism, which flourished
in Japan. According to its doctrine, the bodhisattva Amida (the Buddha of Infinite Light) is
able to save even the most despised sinner by his grace (tariki). To reach his paradise by
human efforts (performing meditation or good deeds) is impossible. This can be attained
only through Amida’s grace.

Such spiritual trends in other religions prove that the Holy Spirit is at work in the world,
convincing people of their sin and turning their hearts toward God. According to the
character displayed by the God of Christianity, He will save such people, by the grace
available for all in Jesus Christ. They will be saved not through their native religion, but
despite of it, as a reward for their humility and recognition of the need for grace. If there are
many or few people in this category we cannot know.

A classic example of how people belonging to cultures completely foreign to the Judeo-
Christian world can still have a revelation of God and meet him is the Magi from the east
mentioned in Matthew 2,1-12. Despite the fact that they were astrologers and probably
believed that human destiny is shaped by the stars, which is contrary to biblical teaching,
they still were granted a special revelation from God regarding His major intervention on
earth to save humankind from sin. They worshipped Jesus as King of the Jews and brought
Him gifts worthy of a king. Some theological speculations see the gifts as pointing to His
divine nature (gold), His divine priesthood (incense) and sacrifice (myrrh was used for
embalming). Their coming to Judea was obviously not customary. It was not a rule for the
Magi to worship the kings there at their birth. This episode was rather a surprise for all, and
a serious reason for Herod to feel his throne threatened. This example shows that God can
use unorthodox methods to reveal Himself to those who are completely foreign to His
revelation in the Bible. He has sufficient means to do it all over the earth. The most
important factor, again, is human response to His revelation, as the Magi could have
ignored the Bethlehem star. However, their journey proves their faith and brings them to
worship the true God.

Man’s problem has never been the lack of revelation, but only pride and refusal to change
his attitude towards grace. People do not respond to the amount of revelation they already
have; they know what to do, but refuse to do it. Most of Jesus’ contemporaries rejected Him
because they refused to believe, despite all fulfilled prophecies, miracles, healings and even
His resurrection. The Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16,19-31) is extremely
relevant here. People are given everything they need in order to be saved, but if they refuse
the available revelation, they are fully responsible for it and cannot be justified at God’s
judgment. The crucifixion of Jesus Christ tells us that man lacks any chance to please God
by his own efforts, that God’s grace in Jesus was an absolute necessity and His love for us
was big enough to save us from the spiritual disaster to which our illusory independence
would have brought us.

One more aspect should be addressed here: If people can be saved without ever hearing
about Christ, does it mean that Christian missions are futile? There are two important
reasons to reject this hypothesis. Before mentioning them, it should be acknowledged that if
the salvation of tribes living in remote areas depended entirely on missionaries’ preaching,
a lot of people will suffer eternal damnation in hell only because Christian missionaries
didn’t manage to reach their part of the world in time. In many cases the disobedience of
Christians to go into remote parts of the world would be responsible for that. Even worse
would be the case of missionaries that have reached remote parts of the world but didn't
preach the "right" Jesus. Remember the way most Spanish conquistadors have proclaimed
Jesus to the people of (today's) Latin America. They haven't preached the true image of
Jesus Christ (a loving Jesus). Therefore, condemning people to hell because of the sin of
some Christians isn’t at all consistent with God’s perfect justice and love for the lost.

There are two important reasons for Christian mission in the world. First, Jesus himself
commanded it (Matthew 28,18-20). He is the final revelation of God and His message of
salvation has to be proclaimed “to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1,8). That people can be
saved without hearing about Christ is only a temporary solution, which operates only until
His message will reach all humans. Second, all people should share the fullness and
blessings of the Christian life, not only in eternity, but also during this present earthly life.
The love of God in a personal relation with Him and also in the Christian community can
be experienced starting from now, as Jesus came to redeem our earthly life as well.

In conclusion, God didn’t leave the world without a proper testimony about Him (Acts
14,17) and doesn’t condemn anybody without first revealing His grace. Although this
article on the question “How can those who never heard about Christ be saved?" may not
satisfy some of you, remember that nobody’s salvation depends on how convincing such an
answer could be. The sacrifice of Christ on the cross is and remains the only ground for
human salvation. Rejecting it (by those who heard about Him) cannot be justified by the
lack of intellectual satisfaction one gets from polemical debates foreign to our spiritual