How Christianity Prepared Me for Hinduism (My Journey to Hindu Dharma, Part Two)
The Journey Begins: An Inquiring Childhood
I was not born Hindu, unless one accepts the proposition that all of us are born within the Sanatana Dharma, the perennial and universal truth at the basis of all philosophies and religions, only gradually coming to identify with a particular culture and belief system as we grow up in a particular time and place.
I was born to a Christian family, of the Roman Catholic faith, and grew up in a very small town in Missouri. I had the privilege to be raised in a very loving family, free from abuse and full of encouragement for the intellectual interests that I displayed from an early age. It was not a wealthy family, but we never wanted for anything. My family was religious, but not fanatically so. What they valued most was a good moral life and hard work. As I was taught the basic worldview of Christianity, as understood by the Catholic Church, I was also deeply interested in science. My parents indulged my desire for books on outer space and dinosaurs. I was also an avid fan of science fiction, and it is probably fair to say that Star Trek and Star Wars had as much to do with developing my worldview as the teachings of Christianity.
I had an inquiring mind. My impulse was to believe that what I was taught was basically true, but also to make sense of it in terms that I found logical and compelling. I believed, for example, that God had created the universe and the life forms within it, as taught in the Bible. But I also understood the theory of evolution as explained in my books about science. I therefore concluded that God created the universe and its life forms by means of the natural processes revealed by science. Why should religion and science conflict? Could they not simply be different means of knowledge, illuminating different aspects of the problem? I did not yet know the Sanskrit philosophical term pramana, but this was, in its essence, what I had in mind.
We did not have a Catholic school in our town when I was growing up, so a group of nuns from near St. Louis came to us every summer for two weeks to give us instruction in the faith. At that point, I saw two very different faces of Christianity. One of the nuns was a very severe and strict lady. When she taught us in a question and answer format, it was expected that we would answer word-for-word from the text. Once, when I was called upon, rather than repeating the text word-for-word, I paraphrased it. I believed my answer was essentially correct. I was saying the same thing, just using slightly different words. She said, “That is incorrect.” Puzzled, I began to reply, “But I thought…” She cut me off before I could finish my sentence. “We are not teaching you to think!” True indeed!
Another one of the nuns, however, was extremely warm, kind, and grandmotherly. I felt comfortable asking her anything. One day, I took a question to her that had bothered me for some time. “Sister,” I asked, “Why is that when we pray to God, and talk to God, we do all of the talking? Why doesn’t God talk back to us?” I expected her to say that it was a test of our faith, or that it was a mystery and that we simply had to believe and keep on praying.
What I did not expect was the reply that she gave. After I asked her, “Why doesn’t God talk to us?” she said, “If you listen very carefully, He does!”
This answer moved me deeply, and excited my curiosity. It was a wonderful answer. It did not call for blind faith, but for experimentation. This was something that I could test. This was something I could try for myself and see if it worked! And that is what I did.
I began to develop the habit, after saying my prayers, of sitting and listening quietly. I would clear my mind of distractions and just listen. I did not know it at the time, but this was the beginning of my practice of meditation; for meditation is essentially an attentive state, not sleeping or daydreaming, and a state in which one calms one’s mind and clears it from distractions. It is, in the words of Patañjali’s Yoga Sutra, chitta-vritti-nirodha, the calming of the modifications of the mind.
The result, to paraphrase Gandhi, of this ‘experiment with truth,’ was that I began to have a strong sense of an indwelling presence, accompanying me at all times, watching over me in a kind, benevolent, and protective fashion, and observing my every thought, word, and deed with a kind of amused compassion. I was not sure if it was God or if it was what I would come to call my ‘higher self.’ Perhaps, I began to think, these were one and the same. A few years later, when I would read the Upanishads, I found this very insight to be confirmed.
When I would have a particular problem or question or concern that was troubling me, I would take it to God in prayer. I would phrase the prayer as a question, and then I would do my listening exercise. I never heard a booming voice from the sky, but what did begin to happen was that, sometimes immediately, sometimes later that day, and sometimes a few days later, the answer to the question would come. The mark of these answers that I have received through meditation, as opposed to answers that I come up with using my conscious mind and thought process, is that they always seem to be obvious when they arise, as if I had really already known the answer and had forgotten it. But paradoxically, they also do not have the feel of something that I could come up with on my own. They also have a particular tone that is distinctive to them: kindly but firm–a firmness rooted not in anger or a desire to have one’s authority respected, but in absolute certainty of the truth of what they state. More than firmness, this tone could perhaps be better described as supreme confidence. Finally, I will say that following the directions that have been given in these answers, whenever they have involved directions, has never led me astray and has always led to good results, and that ignoring them has been counterproductive. I generally do not ignore them!
At the point at which the kindly nun gave me what I now regard as my first lesson in meditation, I was nine years old. I knew nothing at that point of Hindu Dharma, or even of any other religion outside of Christianity. One can see, however, that the foundation for my journey to Hindu Dharma was already being laid: a basic moral framework, belief in a higher reality that can be accessed through meditation, an intuition of the oneness of that higher reality and one’s own deepest self, and an inquiring mind, open to the spiritual realm, but not dogmatic in its approach to this realm.
People will often ask me how my family reacted to my eventual embrace of a Hindu path, and I am grateful to be able to say that, though they had their questions and doubts, my family has always been deeply supportive of my life choices.
How, then, did I actually encounter Hindu traditions? How did I first become aware of the teachings and practice of Hinduism? That will be the topic of the next installment in this series of autobiographical reflections.