Wednesday, April 03, 2002

I've been rereading W. Somerset Maugham's The Razor's Edge, and I was struck by the similarity between the Hinduism described and my own views of Christianity. Allow me to quote from a conversation between the narrator and Larry Darrell:

"I should have thought it would interest you. Can there be anything more stupendous than the conception that the universe has no beginning and no end, but passes everlastingly from growth to equilibrium, from equilibrium to decline, from decline to dissolution, from dissolution to growth, and so on to all eternity?"
"And what do the Hindus think is the object of this endless recurrence?"
"I think they'd say that such is the nature of the Absolute. You see, they believe that the purpose of creation is to serve as a stage for the punishment or reward of the deeds of the soul's earlier existences."
"Which presupposes belief in the transmigration of souls."
"Has it occurred to you that the transmigration is at once an explanation and a justification of the evil of the world? If the evils we suffer are the result of sins committed in our past lives we can bear them with resignation and hope that if in this one we strive towards virtue our future lives will be less afflicted. But it's easy enough to bear our own evils, all we need for that is a little manliness; what's intolerable is the evil, often so unmerited in appearance, that befalls others. If you can persuade yourself that it is the inevitable result of the past you may pity, you may do what you can to alleviate, and you should, but you have no cause to be indignant."
"But why didn't God create a world free from suffering and misery at the beginning when there was neither merit nor demerit in the individual to determine his actions?"
"The Hindus would say that there was no beginning. The indidual soul, co-existant with the universe, has existed from all eternity and owes its nature to some prior existence."

I'm sure my atheist readers will think me an idiot for not seeing this as a sign that religion is a fraud, but the faithful may see what I'm getting at. Other than a few details, this is actually very similar to Christianity. Oh, there are differences, to be sure. Christians believe in only one life, and that since you can't actually achieve perfection in this life, you should do your honest best, and perfection will be given to you. Hindus believe that you are constantly reborn until you get it right. It seems to me in both cases, though, that you eventually achieve perfection through dogged persistance. In both religions, sin comes from a previous existence and is endemic to life on earth. We can't destroy it until the world is destroyed, but we can do our best to dampen it.

Sometimes it's good to look at the world through other lenses. I honestly believe that most religions have at least a strain of the Truth in them, and that they can be woven together to form a true ladder to God. I won't say that God doesn't intend for us all to follow Christ's example, but I will say that it's possible that he may have spread the foundations for this differently among different cultures. If you were to tell a Hindu that to get to heaven he had to love God and love his neighbor, I think he'd agree with you. Western religions focus on faith with learning leading to salvation; Eastern religions focus on learning with faith leading to salvation. I don't think we're as different as we seem.

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