Connecting Faith and Life

A Call to Go Beyond Bhakti…

It is a well known fact that Hinduism recognises three paths to moksha, namely, the Karma marga, the Jnana marga and the Bhakti marga. Which path a person chooses is purely a matter of one’s preference. Interestingly, even though all the three margas are considered valid paths to salvation, most Hindus follow the Bhakti way. So, we see the worship of hundreds of gods and goddesses all over India irrespective of caste, creed, sex, age, status, education, or level of enlightenment. Hindus believe that their devotion to deities, expressed in a myriad ways, will help them attain eternal spiritual bliss. Only a few choose the other two margas. The Karma marga is the path of selfless action or good works. In other words, a person who chooses this path to salvation is expected to invest his or her life for the betterment of society and service of mankind. Whereas, the Jnana marga involves intellectual pursuit of spiritual realities. It requires years of mental concentration and systematic contemplative training (yoga) to gain a supra-intellectual insight into one’s identity with God. Obviously, most Hindus find Bhakti marga more convenient and less demanding than the other two paths.

Christian view of salvation is radically different from Hinduism. The Bible proclaims that salvation cannot be attained by any human margas .Instead, it is a gift from God (Eph.2:8-9) which is freely given to all those who believe in Jesus Christ (Jn.3:16-18, Acts 16:31). There cannot be any other opinion about this foundational evangelical truth! Nonetheless, I find a striking resemblance in the way most Hindus and Evangelical Christians practice their spirituality. Like majority Hindus, Evangelical Christians are strong adherents of the Bhakti tradition. Consider this – for most evangelicals today – spirituality is all about devotion to the Triune God which is expressed in many ways – early morning prayers, daily Bible reading, weekly Bible studies, Praise and Worship, Church attendance, regular tithing, so on and so forth. As long as someone is active in all these, such a person is considered truly spiritual. Bhakti is seen as the ultimate expression of one’s spirituality and the surest way to please God!

Undoubtedly, the Bible teaches the importance of loving God and showing our utmost devotion to Him (Deut.6:5, Rev.2:4). An on-going devotional relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ is not just imperative but indispensable (Jn.15:5-6). The vertical dimension of spirituality is the basis of authentic Christianity. Any activity that helps a Christian to build his or her devotion to God is praise worthy. Nevertheless, Christian Bhakti which is devoid of Karma and Jnana is lop-sided. Unfortunately, many Christians today are so content with their devotional life. Concern for the practical side of Christianity is either nil or marginal. I’m afraid there are not many takers for the Karma marga kind of spirituality among Christians too. Conversely, the Bible places a high value on good works or actions. We are not saved by good Karma but we are saved for good Karma (Eph.2:10, Titus 2:1-3:15). James shows the futility of karma-less Bhakti, “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food.  If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” (Jam.2:14-20). According to James, true Bhakti always results in good karma (Jam.1:27).

Social action and social service is not alien to Biblical Christianity. Rather, it is right at the centre of God’s concern for the fallen world. Throughout the Scripture, we see God reminding his people of this (Exo.23:6-8, Deut.15:7-8). In the book of Amos, God reveals his heart for the poor and his concern for those who are being mistreated unfairly in the world. The empty Bhakti of the Israelites was despised by the LORD and He refused to accept their burnt offerings and grain offerings (Amos 5:22). We live in a nation where poverty, social oppression and injustices are rampant. India still accounts for one-third of the world’s 1.4 billion poor people. 43% of Indian children are malnourished, a third of the world’s total. Over 35% of Indians are illiterate, and more than 20 million children are out of school. Add to these the atrocities against Dalits, abuse of women and children, corruption, rural unemployment and many more evils. Can we turn a blind eye to people’s needs and claim to be devoted to God? We cannot afford to remain merely as Bhaktas (devotees). As individuals and communities, we need to pray and act so that justice will roll on like a river and righteousness like a never failing stream in our nation (Amos 5:23).

Bhakti without Jnana is blind spirituality. God never expects his children to blindly show their devotion and love to Him. Jesus said, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” Apostle Paul stressed the importance of Jnana more than anyone else in the Scripture. He taught the Thessalonians to use their minds to test every teaching and hold on to the good (I Thess. 5:21). Likewise, whenever he prayed for the believers of various churches, prayer for knowledge and wisdom topped his list (Eph.1:16-18, Col.1:9-10). We live at a time when emotions are given prime space in religious life. On Sunday mornings, believers throng to those churches where emotions are kindled through powerful music and star cast preachers. While there, many attain Bhakti Paravasam (spiritually excited state) and return home with the satisfaction, “Oh I had a blessed worship time today.” Sadly, Jnana has taken beat seat in many of our churches today. Time set apart for imparting knowledge from the Scripture has declined. And people are encouraged to blindly follow whatever the preachers/pastors say. In general, believers are not encouraged to use their minds to think and test the teachings like the Bereans. Perhaps, God’s lament for today’s Church would be, “My people are ruined for lack of knowledge.” (Hos.4:6).

Jnana marga must not remain as the choice of a few selected Christians called the apologists. Every professing Christian must be a thinking Christian! We in India live amidst people of diverse religious beliefs. Faith claims and truth claims are plenty in our pluralistic society. In such a context, we have a great responsibility to make our faith reasonable to others (I Pet.3:15). We need to show to the world that Christian faith is not a leap in the dark!

Finally, Christian spirituality is essentially holistic. It involves a person’s emotions, will and intellect; soul, spirit and body; Bhakti, Karma and Jnana. Jesus epitomised this in his earthly life and ministry. He did not choose one entity over the other. He held Bhakti, Karma and Jnana in perfect spiritual unison. Jesus’ Bhakti towards God the father was nothing short of a love-saga (Jn.4:31, 6:36, 8:29, 14:30-31).  And his Karma remains unmatched in history until this day (Lk.4:18, Acts 10:38, Jn.10:10), while His Jnana amazed even those who hated him (Matt.13:53-55, Mk.6:2). May God give us the grace to emulate Jesus in our spiritual pursuits!

By Sam K John

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