Just as the work of Christ is predicated on human incapacity to earn our redemption, the work of the Spirit is predicated on human incapacity for holy living and spiritual formation. The nature of Christian ethics is that the demands it makes on the Christian are more than what one can fulfill in one’s own strength. Christian thinkers have recognized this, John Hare writes, as “the gap between the moral demand on us and our natural capacities to live by it.” Even Kant, who had argued that “when the moral law commands that we ought now to be better men, it follows inevitably that we must be able to be better men,” and that “each must do as much as lies in his power to become a better man,” also admitted that when one’s utmost had been done, one can “hope that what is not within his power will be supplied through cooperation from above.”
Not only individuals but societies as well often do not live by their highest known ethic. This is also true of Christian societies. Throughout the history of the church, Christian influence on culture has not been by way of determining everyone’s choices in favor of a higher ethic. Rather, its influence has been moreso in the manner it plagued Christians to practice an impossible ethic, which in a strange way is also the lure of Christianity! David Bentley Hart remarks,
It is the sheer “impracticality” of Christianity itself that interests me: its extraordinary claims, its peculiar understandings of love and service, which down the centuries have not so much dominated Western civilization as haunted it, at times like a particularly engrossing dream, at others like an especially forlorn specter.
That the ethical standards of Christianity are so high that they are humanly impractical entails a certain course at least along two tracks: a theological track and a cultural track that move in quite opposite directions. Theologically, the recognition of the impracticality of Christian ethics relocates moral agency to the Holy Spirit. Particularly important is the Johannine focus on the “I am” sayings of Jesus, which explicates Christian living as enabled by Jesus—the Spirit-baptizer, who empowers a believer to live a Spirit-filled life rather than a life led by the flesh. Similarly, Pauline explications of Torah/Spirit antithesis and flesh/spirit antithesis indicate that the ethical life of a believer is a consequence of the Spirit’s function. In short, as Craig Keener says, “Just as Paul depends on Christ for being righted, he depends on God’s Spirit for being able to appropriate the cognitive moral character consonant with one who is righted.” Ethical life in this Christian theological frame would be understood as a form of divine enablement and not as a human accomplishment.
Culture tends to deal with an impractical ethical requirement by redefining the requirement to more attainable levels by lowering the moral bar to the realm of human possibilities. This is instanced especially within secular culture. Strangely, secular culture (and sometimes the church as well) tends to lower the moral bar to fit human capacities as an act of grace in that it tries to free people from a sense of guilt. However, a culture that tries to free itself from guilt does so by simultaneously abolishing sin and consequently also abolishing grace. After all, grace can be compensatively appropriated only in proportion to our guilt. Thus lowering the moral bar effectively abolishes grace.
ETHICAL REQUIREMENT IN INDIAN PHILOSOPHICAL TRADITIONS
Indian philosophical schools have used the categories of guṇas (the popular meaning of which is virtue or merit; the philosophical meaning is strand, quality, attribute, or property). The Bhagavad Gita (BG 14:5) speaks of three guṇas:
- Sattva. Purity: characterized by goodness, kindness, generosity
- Rajas. Activity: characterized by vigor, passion, ambition
- Tamas. Darkness: characterized by ignorance, laziness, hatred, resentment
These guṇas (properties) are seen as constituent of the prakriti (nature/matter). We are to think of these properties or qualities as firmly attached to the object—akin to George Berkeley’s idea of primary qualities, as in the shape of an object, and not as secondary qualities, as in the color the object. Therefore, guṇas are to the substance what strands are to the rope.
The guṇas are essentially a way we understand an individual’s temperament, depending on which of the three guṇas prevails over the others. According to one commentator,
These three guṇas are present in the material energy, and our mind is made from the same energy. Hence, all the three guṇas are present in our mind as well. They can be compared to three wrestlers competing with each other. Each keeps throwing the others down, and so, sometimes the first is on top, sometimes the second, and sometimes the third. In the same manner, the three guṇas keep gaining dominance over the individual’s temperament, which oscillates amongst the three modes. Depending upon the external environment, the internal contemplation, and the sanskārs (tendencies) of past lives, one or the other guṇa begins to dominate. There is no rule for how long it stays—one guṇa may dominate the mind and intellect for as short as a moment or for as long as an hour.
In his discourse with Arjun, Krishna says,
When all the gates of the body are illumined by knowledge, know it to be a manifestation of the mode of goodness. When the mode of passion predominates, O Arjun, the symptoms of greed, exertion for worldly gain, restlessness, and craving develop. O Arjun, nescience, inertia, negligence, and delusion—these are the dominant signs of the mode of ignorance. (BG 14:11–13)
Just as the ideals of the ancient Greek world informed its followers of the virtues toward which they should strive, the Bhagavad Gita informs Hindus what is noble and what is ignoble. It encourages them to struggle with the three guṇas through Sādhanā and strive toward the higher guṇas, moving toward sattvic qualities. Thus the commentator argues,
Sādhanā means to fight with the flow of the three guṇas in the mind, and force it to maintain the devotional feelings toward God and Guru. If our consciousness remained at the highest consciousness all day, there would be no need for sādhanā. Though the mind’s natural sentiments may be inclined toward the world, yet with the intellect, we have to force it into the spiritual realm. Initially, this may seem difficult, but with practice it becomes easy. This is just as driving a car is difficult initially, but with practice it becomes natural.
Sādhanā here may be understood as righteous acts that are pursued for the goal of earning one’s salvation. While the knowledge about sattva, rajas, and tamas belongs to a world where the fuller moral revelation of Mosaic law within the Pauline scheme is absent, the Hindu Sādhanā as the way of action, especially as articulated within the karma yoga, resembles the Mosaic law (taken in a literal sense) as a way to salvation through works. In fact, like the Mosaic law found in the Hebrew Bible, the karma mārga also contains a large number of ritual prescriptions along with its universal ethical injunctions.
The Bhagavad Gita teaches that if an individual dies (or leaves the body) primarily in the state of sattva, then that person attains moksa, or heaven (BG 14:14). Whereas, if a person dies primarily in the rajas state, then he will be reborn into a difficult condition of worldly attachment and physical labor (BG 14:15). However, if a person dies primarily in the tamas state, then such a person will be reborn as an animal, which is below the level of humans (BG 14:15). As the commentator observes,
People wonder whether having once attained the human form, it is possible to slip back into the lower species. This verse reveals that the human form does not remain permanently reserved for the soul. Those who do not put it to good use are subject to the terrible danger of moving downward into the animal forms again. Thus, all the paths are open at all times. The soul can climb upward in its spiritual evolution, remain at the same level, or even slide down, based upon the intensity and frequency of the guṇas it adopts.
Similarly, the Gita further elaborates,
It is said the fruit of actions performed in the mode of goodness bestow pure results. Actions done in the mode of passion result in pain, while those performed in the mode of ignorance result in darkness. (BG 14:16)
Also, “From the mode of goodness arises knowledge, from the mode of passion arises greed, and from the mode of ignorance arise negligence and delusion” (BG 14:17).
While Sādhanā is highlighted in other Hindu scriptures, in this section, Krishna interestingly elaborates that in human actions there are no real agents except the three guṇas and that the divine transcends the three guṇas (BG 14:19). Yet in the following verse, Krishna teaches that those who transcend the three guṇas are not affected by any of the three (BG 14:23). Thus, on the one hand, human will/agency is ineffective against the three guṇas because guṇas tend to determine what is willed, making human actions amoral. After all, an action may be deemed moral only if the actor has a moral agency to choose freely those actions that are judged to be moral or immoral. Yet, on the other, Krishna suggests that one could transcend the three guṇas.
In a sense, the Gita seems to lead the faithful Hindu to an aporia, where the combination of the three guṇas determines one’s moral frame and one is helpless against it, yet one is required to overcome it. One may find here a struggle similar to the redemption from the enslaving nature of the fallen flesh in the New Testament. Flesh, in the Pauline sense, is embedded with ignoble guṇas and requires the external agency of the Holy Spirit for transformed living.
Having considered the three guṇas explicated in the Bhagavad Gita, let me now turn to the notion of prapatti yoga within the discussion of mārgas (paths to salvation). I have elsewhere explored the understanding within Ramānujā’s Viśiṣṭādvaitic tradition of the limitation of the three mārgas:
- Karma mārga: The path of works that fulfills duties and ethical injunctions and ritual prescriptions.
- Jñānā mārga: The way of knowledge and contemplation that considers sin primarily in terms of ignorance.
- Bhakti mārga: The path of devotion that focuses on the direct experience of God (anubhava).
The problem with the normal practice of bhakti is that it essentially requires a discipline of established means (sādhanā) that has to be mastered in order to attain salvation—something that imposes a difficult, if not impossible, task on all seekers. There is, however, a fourth way called the prapatti yoga—a way of surrender.
By centering on prapatti, a seeker without exceptional capacities can simply transfer the weight of their burden (bhara-samarpana; submission of weight or burden) to God, and thereby seek refuge under God’s feet (saranagati, which literally means “to prostrate”). In the words of a leader within the Viśiṣṭādvaitic tradition, the prayer of a penitent seeker might be: “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.” Such a prayer is a total submission of the will, intellect, and body to the mercy of God. A Christian reader can hardly help but recall the contrast that Jesus drew between the prayer of the Pharisee and that of the tax collector in Luke 18:13.
Within the Hindu context, we thus find conceptual categories that capture the struggle between spirit and flesh, albeit with limitations. In the light of the above discussion, I shall highlight a few proposals for Christian engagement in the Hindu context.
A FEW PROPOSALS FOR CHRISTIAN ENGAGEMENT IN SOUTH ASIA
Bridge Concepts in the Hindu Context
While the concepts of the three guṇas of the Gita and prapatti yoga of Ramānujā’s Viśiṣṭādvaita may not sit tightly as one properly argued philosophical system, it nevertheless provides a glimpse of the conceptual categories that may be useful as bridge concepts in articulating Christianity in the Hindu context. In so doing, the three guṇas present a hierarchy of virtues within the Hindu mind. This enables us to list the catalogue sattvic guṇas as “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Gal. 5:22–23). Tamasic guṇas likewise are evident in “sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these” (Gal. 5:19–21).
Existential Aporia as a Segue for the Work of the Holy Spirit
The antidote to the calculus of karma that insists on meritorious efforts (sādhanā) is the recognition that the Holy Spirit is promised to enable a believer to obedience. The shift from John 14:15, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments,” to 14:16, “And I will ask the Father and he will give you another Counselor,” is not so much a shift but rather a flow, which indicates that we cannot keep the commandments without the Holy Spirit’s help. Rather than insisting on a rigorous way of keeping his commandments, Jesus promises the Holy Spirit.
For all the emphasis on striving (sādhanā), there is also the helplessness indicated in the Bhagavad Gita about the working of the three guṇas (BG 14:19). The New Testament teaches that the items on the catalogue of sattvic guṇas are not achievable by merely willing it. Thus one finds oneself at a point of complete helplessness (like in Romans 7) where the only human response is to prostrate (saranagati) before God as in the prapatti yoga. Individuals therefore arrive at an existential aporia—a human condition that necessitates (if not anticipates) divine intervention in the promise of the Holy Spirit.
Spirit as the Provider of the Truth and the Condition for Truth
While the self-revelation of the Trinitarian God begins with the Father in the work of creation, followed by the Son in his incarnation, which is followed by the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, human encounter of God follows the inverse order, in that it is the Holy Spirit who first encounters individuals and leads them to Jesus Christ: “No one can say Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor. 12:3), and it is in Jesus Christ we see the Father (John 14:7–9). It helps to remember that the Holy Spirit meets individuals not after their redemption but before and for it.
To Belong, Believe, and Become: Ordering in the Likeness of the Trinity
Missionally speaking, the terms “believe,” “become,” and “belong” may be understood as corresponding to a specific member of the Trinity. The call to belong to the family of faith flows from the person and work of God the Father. By virtue of both his work (as Creator) and name (as Father), the entire creation belongs to him: “The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it” (Ps. 24:1). Although the complete appropriation of our identity as God’s children is for the redeemed, “Behold what manner of love the Father has given unto us, that we should be called the children of God” (1 John 3:1), Paul in Romans 5:8 propels the church to love every sinner because “God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners.”
Similarly, the call to believe flows from the person and work of Jesus Christ. He is the One who invites us to believe and the One in whom we believe; he is the messenger and the message; he is the chief priest and the sacrifice. True belonging to the family of God in the new covenant rests on the redemptive work of Christ on the cross and is appropriated by grace through faith in him.
Finally, Christian becoming is by the enabling work of the Holy Spirit. As the indwelling Spirit, he is both the counselor and the advocate who sanctifies individuals caught within their distinct needs and oddities. In this sense, the Spirit’s coming is not as a generic human teacher but as a personal trainer of individuals situated in unique conditions. As the Spirit of Truth, he forms our inner being, by convicting both individuals and communities and leading us into truth and freedom.
To belong, believe, and become (unlike believe, become, and only then belong) is a useful rearrangement of sequence—a corrective to the overprotective tendencies within the church that hinder the mission of God. Yet, it is pivotal to understand that the rearrangement is not an order that illustrates an “essential” priority or a hierarchy of importance. Rather, the sequence illustrates a Trinitarian order that begins with the love of the Father (to whom we belong), who issues the Son (in whom we believe), who together (at least in the Western tradition) issue the Spirit (by whom we become).
SANCTIFICATION AS A CORPORATE EXERCISE
With reference particularly to the South Asian context, we may here highlight the corporate nature of sanctification. Strangely, while social arrangements in South Asia are more interconnected in the form of communities, the pursuit of holiness remains fundamentally an individual affair. Thus, after the first three stages of life in the Hindu philosophy—Brahmacharya (student), Grihastha (householder), and Vanaprastha (retirement)—the fourth stage of Sannyasa (renunciation) is undertaken individually by forsaking family, community, and other such worldly cares of life. The pursuit of God and holy living therefore draws people away from society toward an individualistic meditative contemplation.
Whatever the social arrangement, the work of sanctification involves both the individual and the corporate dimensions. From the individual dimension, we understand the Holy Spirit in us (John 14:17) as being the personal trainer for each individual. As the one who “searches our hearts” (Rom. 8:27), he knows each person’s deepest anxieties or personal struggles and works from within us to convict us and transform our dispositions, inclinations, attitudes, and our frames of mind (Rom. 8:5), regenerating and transforming it to become the “mind of the Spirit” (Rom. 8:27) and the “mind of Christ” (1 Cor. 2:16).
However, sanctification also involves a corporate dimension where the focus is on Christian unity and fellowship enabled by the Holy Spirit. The summarization of the entire law into two commandments—to love God (Deut. 6:5) and neighbor (Lev. 19:9–18, esp. 18) and the “new commandment” (John 13:34–35)—is given so that “all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
When we think of the fellowship of the believers, the nature in which South Asian communities are arranged may seem to be an advantage over against the more individualized Western cultures. Community, however, does not entail communion and South Asia comes with its own set of challenges that leave much to be desired in its communities. South Asian communities that are based on caste/tribal/language identities can often become oppressive and need to be transformed into the “mind of Christ” by the Spirit just as the autonomously arranged individuals in the West.
The presence of the Holy Spirit in South Asian communities means corporately learning to love across barriers to create a true communion of the Spirit. Sanctification is a learning together by “provoking one another to love and good works” (Heb. 10:24). True communion in South Asia would mean that: (1) those traditionally excluded from the communitarian calculus have to become part of Christian communities, and (2) the bond that holds communities together is not their tribal/caste identity but the actual presence of the Holy Spirit, who provides a vision of the kingdom of God revealed in Jesus Christ and in the Scriptures. In the Christian tradition, the Holy Spirit is considered the bond of love between the Father and Son within the Trinity. So also in his mission, the Spirit is the bond of love among the members of the local body sanctifying the church in the image of the Trinity.
Aruthuckal Varughese John (PhD) is professor and head of the Department of Theology and History and the student dean at the South Asia Institute of Advanced Christian Studies in Bangalore, India. He is married to Mary, and they have three children.