A Christian Yogi Comes to Grips with Hindu Deities.

Via Scott Robinson
on Feb 6, 2012
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You shall have no other gods before Me.  –Exodus 20:3

There are different ways of understanding the panoply of Hindu gods and goddesses. Millions believe that each divinity has an independent, objective existence, that their physical appearance is as depicted in Indian devotional art, and that everything the Puranas say about the gods is literally true.
Swami Vivekananda, in his book Jnana Yoga, maintains that the gods have a real existence, but that they are roles rather than persons­–positions filled by a succession of human souls who are not yet ready for full liberation and who exercise divine functions until they burn through their good karma and are reborn to give it one more shot.


Shankara, the father figure of Advaita (Non-Dualist) Vedanta, said that the gods have a “provisional” existence, to be left behind when the devotee attains to knowledge of the Absolute, which is beyond all concepts and attributes.

Ramanuja and the other Bhakti-Vedanta teachers, on the other hand, insisted that the personal God was not a stop-gap and was never to be dispensed with.[i] “For them the Supreme Being is Person with attributes and there is no Absolute beyond Him.”[ii]


One modern approach is to regard the various deities as projections; I heard Bhagavan Das say that “all the gods and goddesses of India are externalizations of the internal process”–an approach similar to the one Jung took toward the Greek pantheon. My own position lies somewhere between that and the classic monotheistic understanding that God, while a unity, is beyond human conceptualization, and that the myriad deities all represent different aspects of the Universal Absolute.

The “false gods” of the Hebrew Bible were local and tribal divinities, whose devotees were caught up in an ongoing game of “My deity can kick your deity’s ass.” At the time that the Torah was written, no other near-eastern people but the Jews could even conceive of a single, universal god. So the way I see it, the “gods of the nations” were false because of their limitedness and particularity, not because they spoke other languages than Hebrew and went by other names than “I AM.” 
The Hindu deities, on the other hand, have long been understood by philosophers to represent various manifestations of the one God who is beyond all human conceptions. In the temple complex at Dakshineswar, Sri Ramakrishna used to tell people that “in this temple, God is worshipped as Kali; in that temple, God is worshipped as Shiva; in that temple, as Radhakanta.”  When you stand at the south pole, every direction is north.
(If you want to see the real “idols” of American life, look no further than reality TV, a showcase of the hunger for fame, greed for money and wanton sexual indulgence­–“the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life”[i], in Biblical terms–that stand between human beings and God more effectively than any golden calf ever could.)
Moreover, the various names of the deities have literal meanings that can serve as descriptors as well as proper names. For instance, I found a listing of “108 Names of the Lord Jesus Christ in Sanskrit,” and was startled to see that one of them was “Mahavishnu”­–“Great Vishnu,” one of the so-called “Hindu trinity” of Shiva, Bramha and Vishnu. When I learned that “Vishnu” literally means “all-seeing,” it made sense.Similarly, I love to chant Om namo Bhagavate Vasudevaya because, in addition to being one of the names of Krishna, “Vasudeva” also means “shining one who dwells in all beings”­–which reminds me of the Prayerbook baptismal vow to “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself.”It is for these reasons that I am able to chant mantras addressed to Shiva and Kali without feeling that I am betraying the Judeo-Christian conception of God with which I was reared. But the question that plagued me was: what does it mean to invoke a deity with no independent personal existence?For a long time, my Christian scruples prompted me to compose music only for chant texts addressed to nirguna Brahman–the impersonal, non-specific Ground of Being: literally, “God without personal attributes.”  Sachidananda, or “Being-Knowledge-Bliss,” is one such nirgunadesignation. Only when I began to see the various deities as different aspects of God, as “father,” “husband,” “teacher,” “writer” and “musician” are different aspects of myself, did I feel freed to chant to Krishna, Durga and Ganesha–that is, to saguna Brahman, or “God with personal attributes.” After all, you cannot even see all of a human being at once, let alone all of God.


And however much we may parse and analyze them, we cannot denude these divine images of their power to speak to our souls. When I began to really hunger for the female image of God to which my upbringing did only lip-service, I made the mistake of “going to get one,” as Rabbit might have, rather than waiting, Pooh-like, for one to “come to me.” 


Knowing myself to be an artist-scholar, I assumed that Saraswati–the goddess of learning, music and the arts–would speak to me. But contemplating this symbol of my old life left me unmoved. In fact, as I discovered once I stopped trying to impose an idea on my inner landscape and began to attend to my real responses, it is Kali, with her necklace of severed heads and her skirt of lopped-off arms, who really speaks to me. Devourer of the ego, destroyer of pretension, Kali is the one who calls bullshit on my habitual patterns of thought and action. In Jungian terms, she is the Dark One, the bearer of the “shadow” wherein creativity and power lie ready to be tapped into. Finally, in Kali is an image of a God to be meaningfully feared.
“It is a terrible thing to fall into the hand of the living God,”(Hebrews 10:31) because it is God who tears out the heart of stone and gives the heart of flesh (Ezekiel 36:26). Or as C.S. Lewis put it, “What do people mean when they say, ‘I am not afraid of God because I know He is good’? Have they never even been to a dentist?”[iv]
Jesus and Krishna
[i] Christian theology geeks may discern parallels between the Shankara/Ramanuja dispute and the Paul Tillich/Karl Barth dispute.[ii] Swami Tapasyananda, Bhakti Schools of Vedanta[iii] 1 John 2:16[iv] C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed


About Scott Robinson

Scott Robinson taught college music at a Christian university for ten years before leaving to pursue creative work and fatherhood.  He has written for Sojourners Magazine, PRISM, Cross Currents, Minnesota Parent, the Philadelphia Inquirer and the St. Paul Pioneer Press.  He currently composes, records and performs original kirtan with his band Mandala mandalaband.net. Scott is a professed member of the Third Order of St. Francis,  and lives in Philadelphia with his wife, two children, and two incessantly shedding dogs. 


17 Responses to “A Christian Yogi Comes to Grips with Hindu Deities.”

  1. Roger Wolsey says:

    … then again, contemporary yoga is hardly related to Hinduism at all except for a few token namastes and fancy words for asanas in Sanskrit. This self-avowed practicing Christian and yogi doesn't feel that worship of YHWH God is in any way threatened by my partaking in yoga.

    I see that you engage in some chanting too however and your treatment of the Hindu gods as being manifestations/symbols for aspects of YHWH God works for me. I can imagine that your approach might be upsetting to certain (mostly American) Christians and (mostly American) Hindus as being, respectively: "too polytheistic" and "insensitive to the integrity of the Hindu deities." However, imo, your approach is both a very Christian and very Hindu.

    Namaste and Peace bro.


  2. Sonyata says:

    Thank you, Scott, for your wonderful explanation of this great mystery.

    I myself was raised Christian, and when young, committed my heart in true faith in Jesus. Over the years, His promises and words rang true in my life, time and time again. Still, I was confused. At many times I was marginalized and held "in sin" by various churches, and shuffled to the outside by those on staff who hadn't even read the entire bible.

    Finally, Jesus led me through a series of dreams, visions, and prophecies, to a new understanding. I became a Bahai, which can explain the nature of the Abrahamic religions. In fact, Baha' u'llah also explained Krishna and the Buddha pretty well, and that they are all "religions". Eventually this led me to yoga, my reunion with Buddhism from my early years, and the beginning of an understanding of the Hindu pantheon of deities.

    And so it is that slowly, in God's time, I can remain faithful and hold on to my first faith in God and venture into these strange worlds. "Autobiography of a Yogi" should be essential reading for Christians who are transitioning into the yoga community. Yogananda does such a good job explaining Jesus in the light of yoga, and his stories echoed and resonated deeply with some of my very own.

    I am currently working on some yoga writings which include the chakras. Along with the chakras are their presiding deities, Lords, Goddesses, and their accoutrements. Understanding that these are "reflections of the Divine", or "Understandings of the Divine", or even "Channels of the Divine" are the only way I can proceed forward. I believe that we should keep our first faith in God, and accept ourselves as we were created. But from there, if we are faithful, God will grant us the necessary understanding to accomplish many things. God is the One Truth, of whom all are manifest.

    All creatures great and small serve the Lord. The rest, then, is their usefulness.


  3. YesuDas says:

    Thanks, Roger.

  4. Kiwi Yogi says:

    Ramana Maharshi said that deities are as real as you and me.

  5. YesuDas says:

    I am behind in my Ramana Maharshi reading, KY; but Ramakrishna told Vivekananda that he could see God more clearly than he could see V. standing right before him.

  6. Peggie says:

    You and I have a very similar relationship with Kali – one of the many reasons I cherish having you as a friend.

  7. YesuDas says:

    Hold on, Peg–I thought you *were* Kali!

  8. Peggie says:

    That depends entirely on what kind of day I'm having!

  9. Thank you, though I feel it would have been much better if there had been more in depth detailing (extrapolation) of the hindu deities and what they represent and how they have made an effect in your life, rather than the use of a singular deity to make that point, while mentioning the trinity at the same time.
    Vishnu is mentioned, but not much else besides his "all seeing" similarity to the judeo-christian God.
    Shiva is mentioned, but nothing else, such as the fact he crushes the imp or ignorance (wich also represents ego) beneath is foot.
    This is relevant, and I feel it should have also been touched upon.

    As a resolution of explaining how someone of different belief can also accept the other gods, this is a good effort (though really not relevant to yoga, as Roger stated….) and much appreciated. 🙂

  10. Tanya Lee Markul says:

    Just posted to "Featured Today" on the Elephant Yoga homepage.

    Posting to Elephant Yoga on Facebook and Twitter.

    Tanya Lee Markul, Yoga Editor
    Like Elephant Yoga on Facebook
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  11. YesuDas says:

    That's an interesting point, HQ; maybe that will need to be my next piece.

  12. Robin Turner says:

    Good point about Hindu deities' names generally being adjectives (Kali = dark; Shiva = auspicious; Lalita = playful; Parameshvari = supremely beloved etc.). I'm reminded of the 99 names of God in Islam, that most resolutely monotheist of religions.

  13. YesuDas says:

    Absolutely, Robin, yes!

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  15. […] A Christian Yogi Comes to Grips with the Hindu Deities. (elephantjournal.com) […]

  16. Chip Rohlke says:

    Sorry as a former New Ager and yoga instructor I'm not buying that Christianity & Hinduism are compatable. The revelation of the Bible is unique and without parallel in any other faith. Issues like karma, reincarnation, reality of sin, Christ as God Himself in the flesh…everything is contrary to hinduism or any other religion on the earth. If any other way could lead to God then Christ was a fool to die on the cross..and I guarantee you that He was no fool. Liar, lunatic or God the Son are the only choices we have for Him as CS Lewis said.
    However only God's Holy Spirit can reveal Himself to us..as He did to me 30 years ago and can do to anyone open to His Truth and amazing Love.