god - CONSCIOUSNESS: chopra’s Discovery of Jesus the “buddha”
(Fr. Dr. K. M. George)
Deepak Chopra’s latest book The Third Jesus (Harmony Books, 2008, New York) will certainly be read by millions like his earlier popular writings. Chopra appears to many Americans with the halo of a modern guru who prescribes spiritual remedies for a world-weary generation. He is generously sustained by the formidable marketing and media machinery of the US. (Just look at the gold-embossed opulent cover of his book on Jesus. There is a hidden message). It is the first time that the Indian-born, American-settled Hindu physician writes about Jesus. The book challenges some of the age-old assumptions of Western Christianity. He says many people are intrigued by his new venture to foray into the domain of Christianity.
Chopra says he has a personal attachment to Jesus ever since the Irish Christian Brothers who taught him at school in India introduced Jesus to him. The present book is dedicated to them. Obviously his familiarity is with Western Catholic and Protestant traditions. Eastern Orthodox Christian tradition is not apparently known to him. Chopra distinguishes 3 Jesuses.
The first is the historical figure, a Jewish rabbi called ‘Yeshua’ (the Hebrew name of Jesus), who lived in Palestine some 2000 years ago. The man Jesus is lost to history.
The second Jesus is the Christ of the institutional Church whom doctrinal theology made God and the unique saviour of humankind. He was created by the Church to fulfil its agenda.
The third Jesus, according to Chopra, is a saviour, essentially an Eastern guru who enlightens the self, and redeems you.
Chopra wants to offer the possibility that “Jesus was truly a saviour, but not the saviour, not the one and only Son of God.”
Interpreting Jesus in terms of the Indian tradition of great gurus like the Buddha, Chopra says that “Jesus intended to save the world by showing others the path to God-consciousness.”
Chopra begins the first chapter with the title “Redeeming the Redeemer”. He says “Jesus is in trouble”, because the legacy of love that he left in the New Testament has been tainted with the worst kind of intolerance and prejudices in the Christian religion. So Jesus has to be liberated from the clutches of the institutional religion like Catholicism. Chopra wants to project our wish for a perfectly humble and perfectly human and perfectly enlightened person to Jesus. ‘His name might be Buddha in the East’, says Chopra.
According to Chopra, Jesus is the enlightener, and enlightenment is what is needed most for our contemporaries. So he sets out to show us in a selective way how the words and actions of Jesus can lead us to the true spiritual enlightenment, which as he conceives is salvation. The essence of enlightenment is God-consciousness. Jesus realized it to a very great degree, and the path is now open to all. The Church has postponed redemption until some far-off Judgment Day. But we can realize the shift in awareness right now, and Chopra provides some 15 steps to God-consciousness: Lessons and Exercises.”
Every step begins with a saying of Jesus like, for example, “the Kingdom of God is within you”, “My yoke is easy and my burden is light”, “Resist not evil” and “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”. However, the 6th step starts with a verse from the Psalms “Be still and know that I am God”.
Every step is essentially a meditation exercise with the aim of removing all negative energies within you, and helping you advance in God-consciousness.
I would like to make the following comments.
1. Some Western theologians and biblical scholars in the 19th and 20th centuries made big attempts to distinguish historical Jesus from the Christ of faith. But they did not succeed as they wished. It was the same Jesus of Nazareth who was proclaimed by the Apostolic community as the Christ (Messiah) of faith. On this point the Christian tradition will not compromise. Chopra’s attempt to distinguish the Jesus of history from the Jesus of the institutionalized Church may provide a critique of how the institution of the Church has ignored or distorted the true message of Jesus. Concerned Christians have always made this criticism from within the Church. But a distinction between first Jesus and second Jesus as Chopra makes looks rather simplistic. If one says that there is a radical separation between Gautama and the Buddha it is imposing an artificial chasm within the person of the Buddha. It is Gautama who becomes the Buddha, the Enlightened. Christianity is even more assertive. It is Jesus of Nazareth who is the incarnate Son of God and the Anointed of God (Christ from Greek, Messiah from Hebrew).
2. Obviously, Chopra’s book is not an academic, theological work. In fact, he rejects the conventional Christian theology as the source of all distortion of the person of Jesus and the redemption promised by him. So there is probably no point in saying that he either totally ignores or is not aware of all the tremendous interpretative attempts of Christian theologians and spiritual figures in the 2000 year history to bring out the many spiritual dimensions of Christ. Chopra selects Gnostic texts like the gospel of Thomas as well on a par with Christian canonical gospels in order to make his point about Jesus as enlightener.
3. Chopra says Jesus was advocating the tenets of Karma theory though the word is not used in the gospels. He simply bases his argument on the ‘sowing-reaping’ image by Jesus in his teaching. Of course, Chopra knows that Karma theory in India is integrally connected to the cycle of rebirth which he does not attribute to Jesus. His interpretation here is too naïve and superficial.
Chopra hardly says anything about repentance – a theme central to the teaching of Christ, and an essential prelude to the Christian understanding of enlightenment.
4. The major positive aspect of Chopra’s book is his reminder to traditional Christianity, especially in the West and its Roman Catholic and Protestant offspring in the East, that they have almost totally forgotten about the theme of ‘enlightenment’ in early Christianity. One should recall to mind that a prominent synonym of ‘baptism’ in the early Church was photisma or enlightenment. (This, however, cannot be equated with the enlightenment the Buddha received). Photisma meant a complete conversion of mind, a turning to God, a radical shift of awareness and becoming a new creation in Christ. It included as essential elements repentance, forgiveness, reconciliation and above all, love. This conversion of mind and change of consciousness were to be accompanied by the quality of compassion, integrity, holiness and truthfulness in inter-personal relations and ethical social conduct. The gospel message was to transfigure the world of injustice and falsehood, hatred and violence, despair and death into a realm of life and light, of justice, truth, love, peace and joy. This realm was symbolized by the metaphor of the Kingdom of God. So Christian enlightenment did not advocate an other-worldliness at the expense of our human responsibility and the mandate to love. Still the passing and ephemeral character of this world was very important in authentic Christian spirituality.
Having said this, one can appreciate the attempts to discover the hidden dimensions of Jesus the Christ in our contemporary world. Christianity seems to have forgotten the many methods of meditation practiced by its own monks and ascetics. Meditation techniques are not alien to Christianity. Christ himself spent 40 days in total silence and contemplation in the desert just before his public ministry, and as the gospels tell us, he spent most of his night time alone in deserted places in prayer and meditation during the public ministry.
We need to revive the meditation practices still used in Orthodox monastic settlements. The mantra of ‘Jesus prayer’ for example has become very popular in Kerala, the home of ancient apostolic Christianity in India, with the publication in Malayalam of the Russian Orthodox spiritual classic the Way of a Pilgrim and the recent monumental publication of 4 volumes of Philokalia. Orthodox Christianity can very well explore the enlightenment dimension of Jesus on the basis of its own venerable spiritual heritage of Hesychasm and other contemplative practices and in view of the spiritual thirst of our contemporaries. The flourishing of many Indian “gurus” in response to the spiritual quest of many rather well off middle class western people has probably made many Christians suspicious. Their suspicions are not without ground. But that should not deter us from seeking the infinite openness of the gospel of Christ to the wisdom of the Spirit of God in many reliably sound ways.
Deepak Chopra’s book, in spite of its evident commercial aura and simplistic interpretation of Christianity, is a reminder to Christians who rigidly confine themselves to verbal-conceptual definitions of faith, sterile creedal statements, aggressive missionary strategies, and imperial triumphalism. We need to return to the compassionate and prophetic Jesus who invites us to the infinitely multi-dimensional reality of his “many mansions”, a Jesus who would probably give the “grand inquisitor” of the ecclesiastical super-structure a kindly kiss on his cheek and simply walk away.