“People grow like their gods,” warns C.S. Lewis. That is a sobering thought, applied to the low-profile but widely entertained philosophy of Advaita Vedanta.
I met a writer once who confided that she was a Vedantist. “Worship is good for you!” she exclaimed. “Whether of Kali, Jesus, or your bicycle!” Kali, the man-hating evil goddess in Hinduism: Jesus, the self-sacrificing Son of God “in Whom is no darkness at all”: your bicycle, an inanimate object. All led, for her, to the same goal of enlightenment.
Advaita Vedanta, though rarely named, is nothing new. A core strand of Hinduism with a philosophical emphasis, it was brought to the first Chicago Parliament of Religions in 1893 by Swami Vivekenanda, in a deliberate push to proselytise the West. ‘Advaita’ literally means “all is one”. Man and God are one. Vedanta is normally thought to be a combination of two words: veda and anta, meaning ‘end’. The upanishads (philosophical writings) are sometimes called Vedanta since they are seen as the end and the fulfilment of the Veda. The Vedanta Viewpoint is a family of philosophical schools which take up the issues discussed in the Upanishads
The creed mingled easily with the esoteric soup of theosophy, spiritualism and assorted rarefied beliefs which steamed busily away in the years before the eruption of World War 1. Vedanta Societies for high-minded exclusives were established in major cities. Moving Vedanta into the current of popular thought, however, proved to be most effective of all in anonymity. Keeping your head down became the order of the day. “There are so many of us in BBC Radio!” enthused my writer acquaintance, “Always trying to spread our ideas, without naming them!”
Vedanta, though not publicly identified as such, is the philosophy taught by the School of Economic Science and its associated schools for children. “All is one” has anonymously become the theme of a hundred New Age beliefs, and the notion that “there is no difference between good and evil” is soothingly promulgated by High Street relaxation therapists and float centres up and down the land.
Vedanta has takers in influential quarters, too. Kathleen Raine, poet , founder of the Temenos Academy, based by Prince Charles at his Institute of Architecture, and invited to teach there, is highly regarded in esoteric circles for a selection of eclectic spiritual pronouncements. These are rarely specific, but in Issue Number 9 of her Temenos Review she writes:
“I believe that it is to advaita Vedanta, perhaps, that we must look.”
Which gods does Raine personally favour? “In the Destroyer From world’s destruction I seek refuge” says her ‘Poem to the Lord Shiva’. Shiva is the Hindu god of death the Lord of Destruction – a quixotic choice of hiding-place.
If the sum of Vedanta’s pick ‘n mix enlightenment is a cosmos where good and evil are one, and ‘God’ has a ‘dark side’ just like us, humanity is worshipping its own reflection in a distorting mirror. ‘God’ has grown like ourselves, not we like God.
“You shall be as gods”(Genesis 3:5)…This was the lie told to Eve in the Biblical account of creation. It was the first, last, and most insidious of all delusions and led to expulsion from God’s presence, the very opposite of what Vedanta seems to promise.
Advaita Vedanta, in short, enshrines the simple old human hankering to have life every which way. “Must it always be ‘or’? Is there never an ‘and’?” asks Sondheim succinctly in Into the Woods. There can be no ‘and’ in any valid answer to the crucial question “Who is your God?”
85% of people in our culture are said to believe in “some kind of a God”. But which? If He is not the Holy God in whom is no darkness at all, the effects of worshipping a Vedantist’s, “any kind of god”, will quickly become apparent. “People grow like their gods”.
On 27 March 1995 Japanese police searching the inner sanctum of the Aum Shin Rikyo cult, while investigating the nerve gas attack on Tokyo’s subway, found at the grotto’s heart, beyond its outer images of Buddha stood an idol five metres high, of Shiva, god of destruction.