I grew up within Christianity—one of the faiths that many religious scholars label as a Western tradition. It can be difficult at times to wrap my head around religious concepts and symbols labeled by those same religious scholars as Eastern traditions. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam come under the rubric of Western traditions while Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, and Jainism are categorized as Eastern traditions.
Years ago I came across Diana Eck’s book, Encountering God A Spiritual Journey from Bozeman to Banaras. In the Preface, Eck writes: “I am a student, scholar, and teacher of the comparative study of religion. My academic specialization is the Hindu tradition….” Throughout her work, she explores the meaning of “God.” “What if,” she asks, “the names and forms of…God are many, limited only by our human capacity to recognize them?”
Within Hindu tradition, the Divine (or God) is conceptualized in a variety of ways, however, an ancient Hindu text (Rig Veda) expresses this idea: “God is one, but wise people know it by many names.” Hindus believe in one God, Brahman, the eternal origin who is the cause and foundation of all existence. There is a Trinity (of sorts) within the tradition—Brahma, the Creator; Vishnu, the Preserver; and Shiva, the Destroyer.
Krishna is a widely-revered Hindu divinity. He is understood to be an avatar (incarnation) of Vishnu. (An avatar within Hindu thought is someone who comes to help humanity in a time of need.)
Eck recounts one story of Krishna (depicted as a cowherd) beckoning the milkmaids, who risk their lives as well as their reputations, to come to the forest in the middle of the night to dance the great circle dance. When they arrived, “Krishna miraculously multiplied himself to dance with each and every one of them…there was plenty of Krishna to go around.” However, “the moment the milkmaids became possessive, each thinking that Krishna was dancing with her alone, Krishna disappeared.”
The theological take-away from this story is the recognition that God does not belong exclusively to any one person or group. As Eck writes: “The moment we human beings grasp God with jealousy and possessiveness, we lose hold of God.”
The story of Krishna and the milkmaids reflects our (human) proclivity to want to possess God for ourselves. We like to believe our own conceptualization of the Divine is the “right” way to understand the Mystery we call God. That possessiveness manifests itself in our everyday lives with our relationships—both with one another (attempting to control how others believe and act) and Earth Herself (greedily ravaging and pillaging Her resources).
Our insatiable appetites demand that we possess, yet we suffer, remaining hungry and dissatisfied in spite of our grasping. So for the following few paragraphs, I want to explore how/if we can find a way out of the suffering (grief, anger, tribalism, and war are examples) our seemingly limitless appetites can spark as we cling tenaciously to what we think we must have.
This then takes me into Buddhist thought—a religion that emerged out of Hinduism. Siddhartha Gautama—the Buddha—preached what we call “the four noble truths,” giving us a diagnosis, prognosis, and prescription for our symptom—suffering.
- Life is “out of kilter.” We suffer. (Symptom.)
- The cause of our suffering is craving—we MUST have things or things MUST conform to our specifications. (Diagnosis.)
- Stop craving. (Prognosis is good if you follow advice.)
- Follow the 8-fold path—right understanding, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. (Prescription.)
Perhaps the Buddha was on to something. Suffering is inescapable. It’s just the way things are–all of us seem to have this niggling sense that “things” are just not right somehow. When we suffer loss such as the death of a loved one, a job, a house, or our trust in someone, a belief system, etc., we grieve. We become sad, often distressed.
I do not call myself a Buddhist. I do not know experientially how Buddhists handle suffering. Buddhism asserts that everything is impermanent–nothing stays the same from moment to moment, let alone year to year and century to century. Is accepting (even embracing) the impermanence (changeability) of life—not pinning one’s hopes on having a specific outcome to anything—a way to eradicate our suffering? We (humans) seem to continuously struggle here. Suffering comes from our craving. We MUST possess like the milkmaids had to possess Krishna for themselves. Craving is like fire. The more one feeds it, the more it wants. Cut off its fuel supply and the fire dies. In the earthly realm as we know it, all sentient beings and things fade away. Attaching our hope and dreams to impermanence sets us up for misery. Is meditation (I’ve little concept experientially of what this entails) a way to come to terms with impermanence and thus ease our suffering?
I’m struggling these days, grieving the loss of health, loss of friendship, and loss of family relationship. If the Buddha is right, these things (health, friendship, and family) were never ultimately mine to begin with. How can one own that which is impermanent? Wouldn’t it behoove me to give up what I don’t have and can never possess? When the milkmaids tried to take hold of Lord Krishna for themselves, Krishna disappeared. When we try to make the impermanent permanent, we lose touch with reality and set ourselves up for disappointment.
The Buddha never claimed to be a God, but perhaps his prescription to ameliorate (end?) suffering holds the possibility of opening up space for us to actively take part in the Mystery many people DO call God.
What I’m attempting to do right now is sew together wisdom from “Eastern” religious tradition with my own experience, try the frock on for size and see how it fits. No doubt the garment will need alterations and adjustments. Nothing is permanent.
Esther Nelson is an adjunct professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Va. She has taught courses on Human Spirituality, Global Ethics, Christian-Muslim Relations, and Religions of the World, but focuses on her favorite course, Women in Islam. She is the co-author (with Nasr Abu Zaid) of Voice of an Exile: Reflections on Islam and the co-author (with Kristen Swenson) of What is Religious Studies? : A Journey of Inquiry.