Heretical as it might seem, I entertain an evolutionary idea of spirituality. This is because I believe in the teachings of Jesus.
First, a preliminary question that needs to be addressed – was there, or was there not, a progression in spiritual vision from the Old Testament to the New Testament? Why did Jesus say, “You have been told this…, but I say unto you…”? If there were to be no progress in spiritual history, Jesus had no need to supersede the Mosaic law of ‘an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.”
It is customary for human beings to rationalize the spiritual on the analogy of the physical, much like presuming the nature of God on the basis of our own nature. We relish flattery, so we flatter God. We value physical power; we attribute the same, in an inflated form, to God. Human nature is inherently partial; so, we imagine that God is necessarily partial in our favour. And so on. The fact that there are explicit biblical teachings contrary to each of these assumptions does not bother us.
The hallmark of holism is that the part resides in the whole; and the whole, in the part. Secondly, all parts of the whole are of equal worth. That is because the whole is predicated on organic completeness. A body from which even a small part is missing misses the mark of the body.
We misunderstand revelation, if we assume that revelation is a radical break with the past. Not so, to Jesus. Else, he would not have introduced the goal of ‘fulfilment’ as the shaping purpose of revelation. Jesus is a revelation of God’s love for all humankind. Revelation, in the biblical vision, is necessarily creative; and vice versa. When God created, as in the first two chapters of Genesis, He was inaugurating revelation as well. Each step of creation is also a revelation. The last stage of creation – the creation of man – did not invalidate any of the preceding steps of creation. On the contrary, it ‘fulfilled it’ in the given context. Fulfilment, not passivity, is God’s rest. Even in a human sense, there is rest only in fulfilment. Or, unfulfilment generates chronic restlessness; of which Cain – the wanderer on the face of the earth – is the earliest exemplar.
From a spiritual point of view there can be only one conclusion: all of humankind is one extended family, as Blaise Pascal insisted. If so, all of the spiritual experiences – the combined spiritual heritage of humankind – comprise one, indivisible whole. Spiritually humankind is one. If that weren’t the truth, Jesus would not have effected the paradigm shift from Jews alone as the chosen race to the trans-national community of faith comprising the Kingdom of God.
Whenever I read the account in the Gospel according to St John of Jesus washing the feet of His disciples, I cannot help recalling the Purusha Sukta explaining the etiology of the varnas. Whether the text is authentic or is a later interpolation need not bother us here. The fact is that a rigidly stratified society of caste-based fragmentation came into being, claiming its sanction from this scriptural text. While the origin of the text may be in debate, what is beyond all debate is that the text, even as it stands now, is misunderstood.
The Sukta could be interpreted from either a holistic or a casteist perspective. If by Purusha is meant the Divine, then it has to be interpreted as harmonious with the ideal of ‘unity in diversity’ which is holistic. From the perspective of ‘homogenization’ diversity is an offence. The problem is not so much with the text as with the mind-set from which it is appropriated.
Jesus was addressing this fundamental issue in the feet-washing He incorporated into the Fellowship Meal. To Him, the meal can accommodate the ideal of ‘fellowship’ only if it is situated in the spiritual mode. A meal is nothing in itself. It has the potential, however, to be appropriated either as belly-cheer or as a nourishment for the whole person. For that, it is imperative that the ‘whole person’ exist!
That is where the phenomenon of the ‘feet’ comes in. Jesus, the instinctive and quintessential teacher, is raising a fundamental question: what is the status of feet in your scheme of things? The feet are the shudras of your body? If so, think again! Your stomach may be touched via your mouth. But to touch your souls, I may have to take the route of your feet. In other words, you cannot be spiritual and continue to think the way the world does.
It is indeed very odd that the feet can continue to be thought of as though they don’t belong with the rest of the body! If there is even a small blister in a foot, this silly notion will change. Pain if the best, perhaps the only, teacher. Pain will teach you that the feet are not alien, ignoble accessories but integral parts of a living and dynamic body. In contexts, the feet could become more crucial than other ‘honourable’ members of the body.
This holds an insight of great relevance. The legitimization of a social structure of inequality and discrimination implies the loss of social dynamism. So long as we are walking, and value our mobility, we will not despise our feet. If we are paralytics, or parasites, then it need not matter if we mind our feet or not.
So, in the feet-washing ceremony, at the heart of the Fellowship Meal, Jesus takes the Purush Sukta forward by liberating it from its casteist distortion and relocates it in the holistic universe. Progress is always from a comparatively imperfect stage. Else, there would have been no need to transcend it. But the fact that it is now revealed to have been imperfect then does not mean that it has no significance in the spiritual history of humankind.
I have been intrigued by the teaching of Narayana Guru that there is only one religion. Increasingly, I cannot help feeling that he was right in this emphasis. Is Christianity one religion or an anthology of many? Do Catholics and Protestants belong to the same religion? Do Protestants accept Pentecostals? Did priests ever accept prophets? (Jesus has answered that question for us). If all the thousands of diverse denominational expressions of the biblical faith can be bracketed together as one religion, why not regard all religions as diverse and disparate expressions of religion? There is only one religion – that which addresses – in diverse ways – humankind’s thirst for God in its quest for meaning and fulfilment.
The Christian community has failed in witnessing radically to the Indian context. We haven’t yet devised a strategy for touching the soul of India. We continue to be casteist in our understanding of life and society. We deem, like all else,‘feet’ as ignoble, if not untouchable. So, we come nowhere near touching the soul. The church will begin to be a spiritual force in India when it learns to connect the soul and the feet of India. Not till then.