How to Know God (c. 400; 1953)

Lots to digest in How to Know God, but here are some of the points that have really stuck with me on this first read through. The first involves the notion of sin vs. obstacle.

The word “obstacle” is worth considering, because it suggests a difference in emphasis which distinguishes Hindu from Christian thought on this subject. When a Christian speaks of a “sin” he means, generally, a positive act of disobedience and ingratitude toward God—and by “God” he means God the Father, the Reality as it appears within time and space in the aspect of Parent and Creator of the universe, whom Hindus call Ishwara. (See chapter I, aphorism 23) When Patanjali speaks of an “obstacle” he refers, rather, to the negative effect which follows such an act—the whirling dust cloud of ignorance which then arises and obscures the light of the Atman within us. That is to say. Christian thought emphasizes the offence against Ishwara, who is other than ourselves; while Hindu thought emphasizes the offence against our own true nature, which is the Atman.

The difference is not fundamental, but it is important. The value of the Christian approach is that it heightens our sense of the significance and enormity of sin by relating it to a Being whom we have every reason to love and obey, our Creator and Father. The value of the Hindu approach is that it presents the consequences of sin in their ultimate aspect, which is simply alienation from the Reality within us (103–104).

Next, I was struck by Patanjali’s reasoning for tolerance.

One of the most attractive characteristics of Patanjali’s philosophy is its breath of vision, its universality. There is no attempt here to impose any particular cult upon the light of his presence no matter how dimly it shines through the layers of our ignorance that we fashion our own pictures and symbols of goodness and project them upon the outside world. Every such picture, symbol, or idea is holy, if it is conceived in sincerity. It may be crude and childish, it may not appeal to others; that is unimportant. All-important is our attitude toward it. Whatever we truly and purely worship, we make sacred.

Therefore, we should always feel reverence for the religions of others, and beware of bigotry. At the same time, however,…we must limit ourselves to one way of seeking and keep to that; otherwise we shall waste all our energies in mere spiritual “window-shopping.” We can find nothing in a shrine or a place of pilgrimage if we bring nothing into it, and we must never forget, in the external practice of a cult, that, though the Reality is everywhere, we can only make contact with it in our own hearts.

As the great Hindu saint Kabir says in one of his most famous poems,

I laugh when I hear that the fish
in the water is thirsty.
You wander restlessly from forest
to forest while the Reality
is within your own dwelling.
The truth is here! Go where you will
to Benares or to Mathura;
until you have found God
in your own soul, the whole world
will seem meaningless to you (76–77).

I was also struck by the Hindu practice of meditating on OM, the name of God, and I was interested to see how the commentators on Patanjali’s text likened it to the Christian practice of repetition of the Jesus Prayer.

In the Hindu scriptures we often find the phrase: “To take refuge in His name.” (See also the Book of Proverbs, xviii, 10: “The name of the Lord is a strong tower: the righteous runneth into it and is safe.”) This phrase—which at first may sound rather too poetical—comes to have a very real and literal significance in our spiritual life. When the mind is so violently disturbed by pain or fear or the necessities of some physical emergency that it cannot possibly be.. used for meditation or even rational thought, there is still one thing that you can always do; you can repeat His name, over and over. You can hold fast to that, throughout all the tumult. Once you have really tested and proved the power of the holy Word, you will rely upon it increasingly. Through constant practice, the repetition becomes automatic. It no longer has to be consciously willed. It is rather like the thermostat on a water heater or a refrigerator. Whenever the mind reaches an undesirable “temperature” you will find that the repetition begins of itself and continues as long as it is necessary (60).

I found this book very helpful for thinking about how God resides inside me and for expanding my understanding of many Eastern ideas. I’ll be returning to it.

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