Universal Wisdom

Bede Griffiths

Universal Wisdom
A Journey through the Sacred Wisdom of the World

(Excerpt)

Contents

Introduction
The Origin of Religion
The Vedic Mythology
The Wisdom of the Upanishads
The Revelation of the Personal God
The Challenge of Buddhism
The Chinese Way
The Monotheism of India
Semitic Monotheism
Islam and the Sufi Doctrine
Jewish Mysticism – The Kabbala
The Holy Trinity and the Body of Christ

Introduction

The religions of the world are meeting today in a way they have never done before. Each religion grew up in a particular cultural setting, Hinduism and Buddhism in India, Taoism and Confucianism in China, Judaism and Christianity in Palestine, Islam in Arabia. But in the course of time each religion grew and extended its influence. Hinduism remained largely confined to India, but the meeting of Aryan people from the north with the Dravidian and other indigenous people from other parts led to a continuous growth and enrichment of their religion, which gave it a universal character. Likewise the two opposite traditions of Taoism and Confucianism in China led to the growth of a profound, universal wisdom which united the whole of China. Buddhism, beginning in India, spread to Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand and Vietnam, and then with the growth of Mahayana doctrine to Tibet, Korea, China and Japan. Judaism and Christianity both began in Palestine, but Judaism spread in the “diaspora” over the Middle East and Europe and North Africa and eventually the whole world. Christianity spread first of all westwards over the Roman Empire and eastwards over Syria, Mesopotamia and Persia and as far as India and China, while in the west it became the dominant religion of Europe and America. Islam, beginning in Arabia, spread westwards to North Africa as far as Spain and eastwards over Syria, Turkey and Iraq to Iran, India and Indonesia. With this geographical extension there took place an extraordinary development of doctrine. The primitive Vedic mythology developed in Yoga, Vedanta and Tantra into an elaborate system of mystical philosophy, moral discipline and an immense ritualistic religion. The earlier Buddhist doctrine, with its limited view of individual salvation in Nirvana, evolved into the Mahayana doctrine of universal salvation, with the Bodhisattva making a vow not to enter Nirvana until every living being has been saved. Judaism developed in the Talmud an elaborate system of law and later in the Kabbala a subtle mystical doctrine. Christianity, under the influence of Greek philosophy and Roman law, developed a vast system of ritual and doctrine which shaped the history of Europe and America and extended to the European colonies in Asia and Africa. Most remarkable of all in some ways the primitive religion of the Quran, from its contact with the civilization of Syria, Egypt, Iraq and Iran, developed a sophisticated culture, and by absorbing the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle produced its own unique philosophy and theology.
But in spite of this extraordinary expansion of each religion, it is only today that these different religious traditions are beginning to mix freely all over the world and are seeking to relate to one another, not in terms of rivalry and conflict but in terms of dialogue and mutual respect. One of the greatest needs of humanity today is to transcend the cultural limitations of the great religions and to find wisdom, a philosophy, which can reconcile their differences and reveal the unity which underlies all their diversities. This has been called the “perennial philosophy”, the eternal wisdom, which has been revealed in a different way in each religion.
The perennial philosophy stems from a crucial period in human history in the middle of the first millennium before Christ. It was then that a breakthrough was made beyond the cultural limitations of ancient religion to the experience of ultimate reality. This reality which has no proper name, since it transcends the mind and cannot be expressed in words, was called Brahman and Atman (the Spirit) in Hinduism, Nirvana and Sunyata (the Void) in Buddhism, Tao (the Way) in China, Being (zoón) in Greece and Yahweh (“I am”) in Israel, but all these are but words which point to an inexpressible mystery, in which the ultimate meaning of the universe is to be found, but which no human word or thought can express. It is this which is the goal of all human striving, the truth which all science and philosophy seeks to fathom, and the bliss in which all human love is fulfilled.
It was in Hinduism, or rather in the complex religion which later became known as Hinduism, that the first great breakthrough occurred. In the Upanishads in about 6oo BC the ancient religion based on the fire-sacrifice (yajna) was transformed by the rishis (seers), who retired to the forest to meditate, and who were concerned in this way not with the ritualistic fire outside but with the inner fire of the spirit (Atman). The ancient Brahman, the hidden power in the sacrifice, was discovered to be the hidden power in the universe, and the spirit of man, the Atman, the inner self, was seen to be one with Brahman, the spirit of the universe. A little later Gautama Buddha, discarding alike the mythology and the ritual of the Vedas, pierced through with his mind beyond all phenomena, which he described as transient (anitta), sorrowful (dukka) in the sense of giving no lasting satisfaction, and insubstantial (anatta), having no basis in reality, to the infinite, eternal, unchanging reality which he called Nirvana. In China the author of the Tao Te Ching (The Book of the Power of the Way), whatever its origin may be, was able to go beyond the conventional moral philosophy of Confucius and discover the nameless mystery which he called the Tao, as the subtle source of all wisdom and morality. In Greece Socrates and Plato, going beyond all previous philosophers, who had tried to find the origin of the world in a material form, whether water, air or fire or the four elements together, awoke to the reality of the mind as the source alike of the material universe and of the human person. Finally the Hebrew prophets, rejecting the gods of the ancient world, revealed the presence of a transcendent Being, whose only name was “I am” as the supreme person, the Lord of the universe. Thus in India, China, Greece and Palestine at almost the same time the discovery of the ultimate reality, beyond all the changes of the temporal world, dawned on the human race.
In the course of time these unique insights were developed by philosophers and theologians over a period of more than a thousand years into great doctrinal systems. In India Sankara in the eighth century AD unified the system of Vedanta and set it on the course of further development in the different systems of philosophy which have gone on growing to the present day. In Buddhism, Nagarjuna, the Brahmin philosopher from South India, devised a logical system which was to provide a basis for the Mahayana doctrine of China and Tibet. In China, Taoism and Confucianism, interacting over the centuries, developed the Neo-Confucian system which dominated China until the coming of Marxism. In Greece the new vision of Socrates and Plato led to the growth of the
Neo-Platonism of Plotinus and became of decisive importance in the growth both of Christianity and of Islam. The Greek fathers, Clement, Origen and Gregory of Nyssa, building on the mystical insights of St Paul and St John, developed a profound mystical theology under the influence of Neo-Platonism, which was to flower in the great mystical tradition of the Middle Ages. Finally in Israel and in Islam the religion of the patriarchs and the prophets underwent a vital transformation, as it encountered the cultural tradition of Greece and the oriental world.
In each religion therefore we can trace the development of a comparatively simple and unsophisticated religion into a subtle and complex system of philosophy, which shows a remarkable unity underlying all the differences. This philosophy, which prevailed in almost all parts of the world until the fifteenth century, was rejected in Europe in the sixteenth century and a new system of philosophy based on the findings of western science has taken its place. But the philosophy of western science itself has now begun to disintegrate, as a result of the new scientific developments in relativity and quantum physics. As a result the world today is left with no basic philosophy which can give meaning to life, and we are in danger of losing all sense of meaning and purpose in human existence. When to this is added the devastating effect of western technology on the ecology of the planet, which threatens to destroy the world, on which we depend for our very existence, it can be seen that the need of a philosophy, a universal wisdom, which can unify humanity and enable us to face the problems created by western science and technology, has become the greatest need of humanity today. The religions of the world cannot by themselves answer this need. They are themselves today part of the problem of a divided world. The different world religions – Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam – have themselves to recover the ancient wisdom, which they have inherited, and this has now to be interpreted in the light of the knowledge of the world, which western science has given us.