A Hindu's Perspective on Christ and Christianity

Times Staff Writer

The Three Wise Men who came to worship the Christ child hailed from India and named him Isa, or "Lord," in Sanskrit -- a name that became Jesus in the Bible.

The star they followed to find the infant Jesus was not a physical celestial body. It was the omniscient "wisdom star of infinite perception" in the spiritual eye, located between the eyebrows, which the wise men accessed through deep meditation.

Later, Jesus traveled to India, where he practiced yoga meditation with the great sages there some time during his "lost years" from age 13 to 30, a time of his life scarcely mentioned in the New Testament.

As Christians immerse themselves in the Advent season to prepare for Christmas, such assertions might sound like blasphemy or pure fantasy. But they come from a renowned Indian guru, the late Paramahansa Yogananda, in a newly published work that is being praised as the first detailed interpretation of the four Gospels by a Hindu.

Compiled from decades of Yogananda's speeches and writings, the book is being published by his Los Angeles-based Self-Realization Fellowship 52 years after his death.

"The Second Coming of Christ: The Resurrection of Christ Within You," offers startling ideas about the deeper meaning of Jesus' teachings and their essential unity with yoga, one of the world's oldest and most systematic religious paths to achieving oneness with God.

According to fellowship senior editor Brother Chidananda, the book aims to recover what Yogananda believed were major teachings lost to institutional Christianity. Among them was the idea that every seeker can know God not through mere belief but by direct experience via yoga meditation.

"This gives a way to enter the kingdom of heaven within through the science of meditation and gives a vision of the oneness of religion," he said in an interview at the fellowship's headquarters in the Mount Washington neighborhood. "I can't think of anything more timely, with all that's happening in the Mideast and other places."

At two volumes and 1,642 pages of intricate discourse on various Gospel passages, the book (listed at $58 and available for about $41 at some major bookstores) is not expected to be a bestseller. But it has been praised as a groundbreaking work by comparative religion scholars.

Robert Ellwood, a USC professor emeritus and specialist in world religions, called it a "rare bridge-building book" that could change the way people see Jesus. Arvind Sharma, a professor of comparative religion at McGill University in Montreal, said the book represented a "path-breaking" effort of a Hindu in claiming the right to interpret the Christian Gospels.

"More and more people will draw understandings from religious texts that are not their own," Sharma said. "We have to let go of the attitude that only Christians have the right to interpret the Bible, that a religion belongs only to its followers. What Yogananda was saying is that Jesus did not preach to Christians; he preached to humanity."

Christopher Chappel, a professor of theological studies and an expert on the religious traditions of India at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, said many of Yogananda's assertions would enhance Christian faith, because they affirm the resurrection and other accounts of Jesus' experiences.

But other assertions, such as Jesus' purported sojourn in India, are impossible to judge, Chappel said, because they have not been thoroughly researched in the West, even though a minority of people in certain Hindu and Muslim traditions have long claimed that Jesus traveled to India, Kashmir, Tibet and elsewhere.

Yogananda came to the United States in 1920 and, five years later, moved to Los Angeles to establish an international headquarters for his Self-Realization Fellowship. The organization, which disseminates his teachings on yoga and meditation, now has more than 500 temples and meditation centers, with members in 178 countries.

Followers say Yogananda's mission, bequeathed to him by his gurus, was to present to the West actual techniques to commune with God and show the underlying harmony between the original teachings of yoga and Christianity. The new book, Chidananda says, represents a milestone in that mission.

Believers in the Bible's literal truth, however, are certain to reject Yogananda's explanations that many biblical stories are metaphorical and metaphysical, rather than actual fact -- beginning with the book's title, "The Second Coming of Christ."

The guru did not focus on a literal return of Jesus. Rather, he said, the significant Second Coming involved a return of the "Christ consciousness" of divine intelligence, wisdom and perception that was incarnate in Jesus and other masters, such as Krishna of India. As it spreads among seekers, it will bring peace and harmony, he said.

Yogananda also says that John's puzzling Book of Revelation is not a treatise on Armageddon and the final days before Christ's Second Coming, as perceived by many Christians. He says John, whom he described as the most deeply mystical of Jesus' disciples, was providing a road map to divine union using yoga techniques.

Hank Hanegraaff, president of the Christian Research Institute International in Rancho Santa Margarita, criticized Yogananda's belief in a unity between yoga and Christianity. He said the fellowship belief that God is present in all creation was pantheistic, while Christians were monotheists. "The idea that a unifying theme underlies all religions is nice to say, but it makes little sense," he said.

If the book confounds or offends traditionalists, however, Chappel and Sharma say it might not surprise mystics. The path to God or enlightenment through meditation is found in Sufism of Islam and cabala of Judaism, monastic Buddhism and contemplative Christianity.

Chidananda says such Christian mystics as Teresa of Avila, Meister Eckhart and John of the Cross have described experiences of divine union that uncannily resemble the yoga experience. In many accounts, Chidananda says, deep meditators report hearing a "cosmic hum," then perceiving a light in their brains' frontal lobe and experiencing a blissful, expanded sense of self.

Yogananda draws parallels between the Christian trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit and the yoga concept of Sat, Tat and Aum. Both traditions use the trinity to distinguish among the transcendent, divine reality; its immanence in creation; and a sacred, cosmic vibration that sustains the universe, he says.

And he asserts that Bible passages used to exclude non-Christians from salvation have been misconstrued.

Some Christians believe, for instance, that Jesus' saying that "no one comes to the Father except through me" requires a belief in Jesus the man as God and personal savior. Yogananda, however, asserts that Jesus was referring to the need to achieve the same "Christ consciousness" he personified as a way to achieve oneness with God.

"Christ has been much misinterpreted by the world," Yogananda wrote. "Even the most elementary principles of his teachings have been desecrated, and their esoteric depths have been forgotten."

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