Most of the religious conflicts and wars involving the Abrahamic religions (Christianity, Judaism, Islam) stem from disputes over what exactly God said and how he said it and what exactly it means. To ensure that order prevails, canons of “authentic” texts are formed and creeds, or condensed forms of crucial affirmations and beliefs, are debated, written down, and carefully observed as litmus tests for participation in the faith.
In Christianity, this obsession with the history of God’s intervention is best illustrated by the Nicene Creed, which makes various historical claims about the life of Jesus. It is recited in every Christian church as the basic affirmation or mission statement of Christians to which they must pledge allegiance repeatedly. For those who doubt this centrality of history in Christianity, it is instructive to read this Creed, which was first composed in the year 325 CE when Christianity was becoming the state religion of the Roman Empire. It is official doctrine in Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, most Protestant churches, as well as the Anglican Communion.
The underlying message in the Creed is that salvation can be achieved only through obedience to God’s will as understood through prophets and historical events. Salvation is necessary in order that man be saved from eternal damnation for having committed Original Sin in the Garden of Eden. The solution to the Christian problem of sin is for God to enter human history at a certain point in time. Hence, the historical record of that intervention must be carefully maintained, and its truth must be taken forward and aggressively asserted. It is a truth which is born of history and applies to history, both past and future: its goal is to make sure that humans collectively obey a specific “law.” This history, if it is to be valid, must be considered universal, however particular and fallible its agents (individual and collective) may be. I have coined the term “history-centrism” to refer to this fixation on specific and often incompatible claims to divine truth revealed in history.
There is a profound difference between the history-centrism of the Abrahamic faiths and the goal of dharma (comprising Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism) which is that the individual aspirant elevates his or her consciousness in the here-and-now and in his or her very body. Dharma is not burdened by history, nor by the problem of “sin” as it recognizes no such historical act of disobedience. This was one of the topics of a wonderful conversation I had with Joshua Stanton, Co-Editor-in-Chief of Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue.
From the dharma perspective, one does not require a historical consciousness, at least not a rigorously developed one. Instead, the aspirant is free to start afresh and tap into his potential for discovering the ultimate reality without bondage to the past. All the dharmic traditions share this a-historical and direct approach to knowing the ultimate truth. Furthermore, this potential to know the ultimate reality by direct, disciplined practice exists in all humans even those who do not believe it does.
The prevailing Abrahamic view, by contrast, is that humans are not able to achieve unity with the divine and that, besides, the spiritual goal is salvation, not “unity with God.” Salvation can be achieved only through obedience to God’s will as understood through historical events and prophets.
Such an absolute status of history weakens the authority of individual spiritual explorations (hence, mystics are regarded notoriously with suspicion in these traditions) and becomes the basis for competing claims to truth which cannot be reconciled. Moreover, the Abrahamic view is that those without access to these historical revelations must remain, by definition, in the dark, lacking the most elementary means to make contact with God. I regard this historical fixation as the major difference between a dharma path (Hinduism and Buddhism in particular) and the Abrahamic one (Christianity, Judaism, Islam).
For the individual who follows a dharma path, it is not necessary to accept a particular account of history in order to attain a higher, embodied states of consciousness. Nor is any such historical account or belief sufficient to produce the desired state. Thus, dharma traditions have flourished for long periods without undue concern about history, relying instead on the numerous lineages of spiritual masters who teach from a state of enlightenment. Meditative practices remove the layers of conditioning that obfuscate the light of one’s true self and thereby help one to realize the highest truth without depending on history. Even if all historical records were lost, historical memory erased, and every holy site desecrated, the truth could be recovered by spiritual practices.
By Rajiv Malhotra
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