This is the complete version of my Open Letter posted on Facebook on January 20, 2012, originally titled “My Conversion to Vaishnava Vedanta.”
Knowing me as the enjoyer
of all worship, the Lord of all worlds,
the dearest friend of all beings,
that man gains perfect peace.
(Bhagavad Gita 5:29)
Since summer 2011 I have received a number of emails from Christian friends who have inquired about a perceived shift in my theological beliefs. I think it’s been relatively clear in my various status updates and comments to respondents on Facebook that I have developed a very positive appraisal of eastern religion, specifically the bhakti tradition of Vaishnavism. For a number of years I have had a growing interest in and appreciation for the insights of Vedanta philosophy and the various Vaishnava traditions. I wish now to disclose to my Facebook friends that I have come to personally embrace many of the fundamental beliefs and practices of Gaudiya Vaishnavism (GV). While I still retain many of my former Christian beliefs, the move in the direction of GV marks a decisive break with my long-standing adherence to traditional Christianity. I feel it’s important at this time to explain the nature, grounds, and evolution of this substantial and dramatic change in my theological perspective and spiritual practice.
I. From Christianity to Vaishnavism: The Move Eastwards
I have spent twenty-five years as a Protestant Christian, a tradition that I came to through my reading of the Bible and personal experience of the Lord Jesus Christ in my early 20’s. For most of these twenty-five years I have been an adherent of the Reformed theological tradition, though with an appreciation for both Catholicism and Protestant traditions other than my own. As a professional philosopher of religion since the mid 1990’s, I have devoted much of my work to bringing as much clarity as possible to important questions concerning the nature of religious knowledge, the concept of God, and the project of natural theology (i.e., rational arguments for God’s existence). I have regularly streamlined these interests in the philosophy of religion with their relevance to and development in the context of Reformed philosophical theology.
Despite my long-standing adherence to the Christian tradition, my spiritual journey has now moved me eastward and outside the framework of Christian theism. For the past few years I have been increasingly drawn to the Indian philosophy of Vedanta, specifically the bhakti tradition of Vaishnavism. By being “drawn” to Vedanta I mean both a philosophical attraction to the ideas of Vaishnava Vedanta (and GV in particular) and an experiential attraction to the person of Lord Krishna in my spiritual/devotional life. This began with my readings in the Bhagavad Gita over the past several years (including a reading of Ramanuja’s Gita Bhasya), dramatically intensified in 2011, and culminated in a powerful religious experience of Krishna in the fall of 2011. It was this personal experience of Krishna that inspired me to visit Audarya, a Gaudiya Vaishnava ashram in northern California, during Thanksgiving of last year. There I discovered what I had in a sense known for quite some time: the depth of my love for Lord Krishna as the person who now reveals God to me in a way essential to my spiritual life.
I would like to share the details of my conversion process, as well as briefly explain how I see my new perspective in relation to my former religious identity as a Protestant Christian.
II. The Bhagavad Gita and Spiritual Transformation
I started teaching the Bhagavad Gita in my world religions classes several years ago. It was a time of great transition in my personal life, and, as is often the case with times of transition, it was also a time of intense spiritual struggle. While I was drawing wonderful support and guidance from the Bible during this time, as I began my systematic and in-depth exploration of the Bhagavad Gita, I found myself profoundly affected by this text. Krishna’s words would stay with me, often arising spontaneously in my mind at times of crisis. They not only instilled a wonderful serenity in me, gradually they began illuminating many aspects of my life and relationship to God. I will discuss some of these insights below. Most importantly, though, I sometimes found myself overwhelmed with a powerful sense of the presence of God while reading from the Bhagavad Gita, in much the same way that I had often experienced God through reading the Bible.
Many of my Facebook friends are aware of the many past references to my “jetted tub,” which I know many of you found humorous. But I tell you now that I liked that tub most because I spent countless nights there reading from the Gita, with tears of joy running down my face as I read the words of Lord Krishna and felt the presence of God.
The man who sees me in everything
and everything within me
will not be lost to me, nor
will I ever be lost to him.
He who is rooted in oneness
realizes that I am
in every being; wherever
he goes, he remains in me.
(Bhagavad Gita, 6:30-31)
This dynamic engagement with the Bhagavad Gita intensified in early 2011, shortly after my near fatal car accident on March 28, 2011. The accident was in itself a catalyst for profound personal and spiritual transformation, and it’s fair to say that my relationship with the Bhagavad Gita would never be the same after this. It’s difficult even at this time to adequately express the decisive break I experienced with my former life in the aftermath of the accident. At the moment of impact I accepted the inevitability and imminence of my own death for the first time in my life. In that moment I let go of everything, every attachment (e.g., family, friends, career, belongings, projects, future plans), even the attachment to life itself. In a sense, I actually died in that moment. When the vehicle came to a stop and the shattering glass had settled, I was conscious, but I was not the same. In letting go of my attachments, I had shed the harder layers of my self, or more precisely the self I had become through my various attachments to non-enduring aspects of my life. In the aftermath of the accident, which miraculously my then five-year old son and I survived, I found myself with the most beautiful gratitude for life. I found myself with a bliss and enjoyment of God that I had not known for many years in my life, and perhaps had never known at all. I had the most profound sense of God’s presence in the sight of the sky, clouds and mountains, and in the fragrance of the air and each breath I took, and ultimately a sense of the divine presence within my own heart. If I died on that day in March 2011, clearly I was reborn.
Abandoning all desires,
acting without craving, free
from all thoughts of ‘I’ and ‘Mine’
that man finds utter peace.
This is the divine state, Arjuna.
Absorbed in it, everywhere, always,
Even at the moment of death,
he vanishes into God’s bliss.
(Bhagavad Gita, 2:71-72)
Many of Krishna’s identity claims would spontaneously arise in my mind in the days following the accident.
There is nothing more fundamental
than I, Arjuna; all worlds;
all beings, are strung upon me
like pearls on a single thread.
I am the taste in water,
the light in the moon and sun,
the sacred syllable Om
in the Vedas, the sound in air.
I am the fragrance in the earth. . .
I am the primal seed
within all beings, Arjuna.
(Bhagavad Gita, 7:7-10)
I am the heat of the sun.
I hold back the rain and release it;
I am death, and the deathless,
And all that is and is not.
(Bhagavad Gita, 9:19)
As before, words such as these illuminated my life, comforted me, and guided me, but this time I began to feel the presence of God through Lord Krishna himself, not merely his words. Better put, I was beginning to experience Krishna himself through his words. Krishna and his words were becoming one. And I found God directly present to me in such experiences, but present to me in such a way that I experienced both tremendous awe and reverence for God and a deep intimacy with God through my consciousness of Lord Krishna. And I began to see my former “God conceptions” as limited expressions of a fuller, richer, and more experientially meaningful view of God that was now present in Lord Krishna himself.
In summer 2011 I began listening to lectures on the Bhagavad Gita by Swami B.V. Tripurari, a Vaishnava sannyasi (renunciate) and the guru of one of my former students. Under the guidance of Swami Tripurari I began digging deeper into the Gita and acquired a wonderful understanding of the GV tradition’s understanding of the Gita, which interestingly corresponded in many ways to my own.
Feeling more deeply drawn to Krishna, throughout summer 2011 I had regularly devoted time to meditating on the lilas of Krishna, that is, his activities on earth as described in the Bhagavad Gita and the Shrimad Bhagavatam. It was at this time that I began regularly reciting the maha “Hare Krishna” mantra as part of my daily routine as well as listening to and singing bhajans, often on my iPhone while driving.
Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna
Hare Rama, Hare Rama
I experienced a wonderful sense of God’s presence in the chanting and singing of this mantra.
III. My Religious Experience of Sri Krishna
Having spent the entire summer deeply engaged in readings in the Gita and the lectures of Swami Tripurari, I began the fall semester with a wonderful enthusiasm for teaching the Gita once again. But I did not anticipate what would happen to me on September 16, 2011: a profoundly moving religious experience of Krishna himself, of even greater intensity than I had felt before in my readings of the Gita.
On Thursday, September 15th I spent time in the afternoon meditating on Krishna’s lilas while listening to singer and musician Deva Premal’s “Homeage to Krishna.” Later in the evening I spent some time working on my final lecture on the Bhagavad Gita, to be given the next day, and then I went to bed. I meditated for a few moments on the later part of Gita chapter 18, on which I had spent some time earlier in the evening. These passages in particular:
If you focus your mind on me
and revere me with all your heart,
you will surely come to me; this
I promise, because I love you.
(Bhagavad Gita, 18:65)
Krishna, I see the truth now
By your immeasurable kindness.
I have no more doubts; I will act
according to your command.
(Bhagavad Gita, 18:73)
Around 4:20am (Friday morning) September 16th, I woke suddenly from a deep sleep to the sound of the name of “Krishna” being uttered in some way, as if someone was present in my room and had spoken his name out loud. Upon waking I immediately had a most profound sense of Krishna’s actual presence in my bedroom, a presence no less real than the presence of another living person in the room, though I was alone at the time. I responded to this felt presence, first through my thoughts that repeated Krishna’s name (and inquired of his presence), and then verbally out loud by uttering Krishna’s name twice: Krishna, Krishna. I was seized at this moment with a most sweet feeling of completeness and joy. I felt as if Krishna was there with me in my room and actually heard my voice, and that my response had completed a process that began with his name within my mind. I pondered this experience for several minutes, while at the same time continuing to experience a most blissful serenity and feeling of oneness with God, not unlike I had experienced on many occasions in the past in my relationship with the Lord Jesus. It was a most profound sense of both awe and intimacy with God in the form of Lord Krishna.
I should add, and I think this is very important, that I felt I was experiencing the same God that I had experienced on many occasions throughout my Christian life. However, I felt like this being was showing me a different face, side, or aspect to Himself, or – better yet – a different mode of my relationship to Him. I felt a certain validation of my spiritual journey, both past and present. I had gone so far in my Christian faith, but it was now necessary for me to relate to God as Lord Krishna.
After my journey to Audarya in November 2011 (See my facebook note Reflections on Audarya), I had further confirmation that my heart had taken root in the soil of the eastern bhakti traditions. I can only describe my experience as one of being irresistibly drawn to Sri Krishna, overwhelmed with His power and beauty, convinced of his Godhead – in short overflowing with love for Him as the Supreme Personality of the Godhead, and through him love for all beings, as He resides in the hearts of all beings.
Since this time I have experienced Krishna’s presence in the air, mountains, ocean, trees, cows, and equally within myself. I experience Him in the outer and inner worlds, and my heart is regularly filled with serenity and bliss. In short, I have learned the essence of the Gita. As Ramakrishna once said, repeat the name “Gita” ten times and you will know the essence of the Bhagavad Gita: GITA GITA GITA GITA GITA GITA GITA GITA GITA GITA. The name “Gita” will transform verbally into the word “Tagi.” “Gita” means “song” (Bhagavad Gita – song of the Lord) and “tagi” means “absolute surrender.” Having surrendered to God, the Gita has become the actual song that passes through my lips in every moment of awe and intimacy with the creator as He manifests himself through his shaktis (energies) in the world. And the love is returned: flowing from Him to me. And I have the strongest of conviction that love arose in me by virtue of his own love, drawing me to Himself.
Concentrate your mind on me
fill your heart with my presence,
love me, serve me, worship me,
and you will attain me at last.
(Bhagavad Gita, 9:34)
Now listen to my final words,
the deepest secret of all;
I am speaking to you for your own welfare,
since you are precious to me.
If you focus your mind on me
and revere me with all your heart
you will surely come to me; this
I promise, because I love you.
(Bhagavad Gita, 18:64-65)
IV. Exploring Gaudiya Vaishnavism (GV)
Although my movement towards Vaishnavism has been largely experiential in its genesis, as indicated above over the past few years I have increasingly found different aspects of Vedanta theologically and philosophically appealing to me. Here are some of the points of intellectual attraction in connection with GV in particular.
(1) GV articulates a model of love of God (bhakti) in which “intimacy” and “separation” are both acknowledged as essential and dynamically coordinated elements in the human-divine love relation. Moreover, there is not only a detailed model of bhakti itself in GV but a set of spiritual practices that are efficacious in cultivating it.
(2) In connection with (1), Krishna as the Supreme personality of the Godhead embodies both aishvarya (lordship) and madhurya (sweetness) qualities, which make Him the most perfect object of bhakti (under the separation-intimacy assumption embedded in (1) above). Krishna’s aishvarya qualities are His majestic qualities (e.g., omnipotent, omniscient creator and controller of the cosmos), which give rise to feelings of awe and reverence for the Lord. The aishvarya elements induce in us a profound sense of the distinction or separation between the self and God. This is essential to bhakti since love of the other presupposes the actual otherness of the other and therefore a certain degree of separation between lover and beloved. This idea of separation is half of the Gaudiya Vaishnava philosophical equation and works to intensify one’s love for God when properly cultivated. Krishna’s madhurya qualities are His human qualities that engender a deep sense of closeness and intimacy with Him (e.g., his playfulness as a child in Vrindavan, His friendship with Arjuna, flute playing cowherd, youthful dancer, His relationships with the gopis, His physical beauty, etc). This is the second part of the equation and equally essential in the bhakti tradition because one’s love for God manifests in varying degrees/modes of union with God.
(3) Related to (1) and (2), the GV tradition specifically views the relationship between God and the self as an inconceivable and simultaneous difference and non-difference (achintya bheda abheda tattva). This strikes a wonderful balance between the monism of Advaita Vedanta and the strong dualism of the Dvaita schools originating from Madhva (and also reflected in most streams of the Christian tradition). As I see it, the ways of unqualified oneness and unqualified separateness (between self and God) each tends ultimately to dissolve the love relationship between the self and God. Love requires a merging of two beings into one, yet without a loss of their individuality. This is inconceivable, but its truth is the precondition for the possibility of real love between the self and God. Consequently, I now accept a panentheistic metaphysics in which the universe and human souls are, to put it roughly, in the being of God.
(4) GV has the intellectual resources for a reasonable inclusivist understanding of religion. By this I mean a few things.
- A sensible way of acknowledging religious truth found across different religious traditions.
- A sensible account of the efficacy of different religious traditions to guide their adherents to salvation, whilst
- retaining the truth of a particular, robust, and historically grounded religious tradition.
True to its conception of God as infinite or absolute being, GV acknowledges that God is manifested in diverse ways and that God-realization (or salvation) takes on diverse forms. God is one, but we do not relate to Him in one way. Krishna means the “all attractive one.” He draws all people to himself, but in accordance with their own dispositions and tendencies. “However men try to reach me, I return their love with my love; whatever path they travel, it leads to me in the end” (Bhagavad Gita, 4:11).
Krishna is the all-attractive Absolute who is manifested in the different religious traditions of the world. There is merging into impersonal Brahman. There are also distinctly theistic experiences in which the self encounters a personal God. Some experience the personal God under the name “Yahweh,” others “Allah;” and others “Jesus.” The names are many; God is one. Of these experiences, some are awe and reverence experiences; some are more unitive experiences with varying degrees of sensed intimacy between the self and God. Some are combinations of separation and intimacy. GV acknowledges that transcendental consciousness (the aim of nearly all religious traditions) is in fact variegated in nature. There are different modes or degrees of penetration into transcendence. For Gaudiya Vaishnavas, the transcendental experience of impersonal Brahman is not the ultimate religious experience, however, it is a legitimate one and need not be discredited. It occurs when the individual spirit soul, the jiva, merges into the brahma-jyoti, (something akin to the aura or effulgence radiating from the body of Krishna himself). Similarly, those who worship Lord Jesus experience a mode of transcendence through a particular divine incarnation.
As Swami Tripurari has stated:
Thoughtful, objective analysis reveals that all Gods are but partial manifestations of the same purusa, Sri Krsna, and all Goddesses partial expressions of the primal sakti, Sri Radha. Krsna possesses all attributes of divinity found in other incarnations as well as aspects found in him alone. There can be only one God, yet . . . he has many expressions of himself. ~ Swami Tripurari (Rasa: Love Relationships in Transcendence, p. 71)
Just as there are different practices that produce these different experiences of God realization, GV acknowledges that how we experience God depends on different aspects of our own personalities. This seems supported by a substantial body of literature in western psychology extending back to William James. The religious impulse is deep in human nature, part of the imago dei (according to the Christian tradition), but it takes on various forms (not merely because of sin – as Christians would say), but because of features of our individual psychology and local culture. God doesn’t override this in the scheme of salvation, but works through it. Otherwise put, given human nature, it is not surprising that God should manifest Himself to human persons in diverse ways.
(5) GV maintains that Chaitanya Mahaprabhu (the fons et origo of GV) is the combined manifestation of Krishna and Radharani. In the lila of the Srimad Bhagavatam, Radharani was Krishna’s consort and the highest caliber devotee. She demonstrated unparalleled, pure love for Krishna. It is said that Krishna could not begin to fathom the depths of her love for Him so he appeared in this special combined incarnation to taste the highest levels of devotion to Himself. I find this a wonderful image that complements the Christian idea of God taking on human nature to achieve righteousness for the sinner and to pay the penalty for sin for the sinner. It is most fitting that God would seek to experience the love of the devotee in much the same way that he would seek to experience the suffering of the devotee (in the person of Jesus). In Christ God suffers with us. In Chaitanya, God loves with us. In each case, there is an important identification between God and us. God tastes the suffering that distances us from Him and the love that brings us near to Him.
I think it’s important to underscore, mainly for the sake of my Christian friends, two points relevant to the relationship between my adherence to the principles outlined above and Christian theism. I do not perceive myself as worshipping a different God than I did as a Christian. It’s the same God under a different (and for me fuller) manifestation. Krishna reveals himself in diverse ways across culture and time, personality and life circumstance. Christians and Muslims are also bhaktas, though they cultivate love of God in a different way.
Secondly, the basic principles of Gaudiya Vaishnavism are logically compatible with a number of fundamental Christian beliefs: the deity of Christ, virgin birth, his resurrection, and the soteriological importance (even necessity of) his incarnation, life, death, and resurrection. In converting to Vaishnavism I do not relinquish these beliefs but simply situate them in a different philosophical and theological context. That being said, I intend in the future to write on the subject of the relationship between the above aspects of GV and Christian theism.
For those who are interested in learning about the different Vaishnava traditions, I would recommend reading the online historical account here:
V. The Road Ahead
My conversion to Vaishnava Vedanta will not alter my continuing interest in the areas of philosophy of religion that have interested me for many years, but it will signal a shift in emphasis to working on these issues now in the context of Gaudiya Vaishnavism and its relationship to western theism. While there have been many books written on the relationship between Vaishnavism and Christian theism, there’s still a lot of work that needs to be done in this area. At an earlier time I announced that I had started working on a book on Yoga and Christianity. While I still think that popular Christian criticisms of yoga are pretty silly and riddled with misrepresentations and over simplifications of so-called “Hinduism,” I have decided to focus rather on a book on theism and modes of transcendence for my philosophy classes.
I wish to express my appreciation for those Christian friends who have expressed patience and openness regarding my spiritual journey and theological changes. I wish to especially thank my Christian friends who – due to their love for me and passion for truth – will continue to be gracious interlocutors with me on matters that we equally deem of ultimate importance, even if we should approach this truth from different paths. Since two eyes are better than one, I hope they will benefit as I have from the broadening of vision that comes from dialogue across traditions. I have no interest in converting any of my Christian friends to Vaishnavism, but I do hope that we shall each help make each other better devotees in our respective faiths.
Hare Krishna, Jai Krishna, Jai Radhe