Image used by permission. harmanvisions.com
by Rev. Jim Fuller
Originally published in the August 2012 Unity Church in Albany Newsletter.
In the forward to Phillip Goldberg’s book “American Veda”, author and teacher Houston Smith comments on the connection between Jesus’ reply to the question “Which commandment is first of all?” and the four branches of Yoga (bhakti, raja, jnana, and karma). In Mark 12:29-30 Jesus as answers the question by replying, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart (bhakti), and with all your soul (raja), and with all your mind (jnana), and with all your strength (karma).” According to Yogic/Vedic teachings each of these paths to God is suited to a particular temperament or type of individual: bhakti for the emotional/devotional, raja for the contemplative/meditative, jnana for the intellectual/reasoning, and karma for the physical/industrious. Jesus appears to be encouraging us to work with all four pathways.
Trying to make a connection between Jesus’ teachings and Yogic/Vedic traditions would seem like a big stretch to most Christians. We typically assume that the Jesus’ teachings were built on his Hebrew traditions alone, isolated from Vedic or other influences. But what if we are actually encountering here is an interweaving of two traditions? Judea was located on a major trade route and people of many cultures traveled through that land at the time of Jesus. Still sound a bit far-fetched? Read on.
Jesus’ reply to the scribe’s question, “Which commandment if first of all?” is based on the words of the second telling of the commandments in Deuteronomy (6:4-8) “Hear, O Israel: The LORD is our God is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength.” This text is central to Judaism and is known as the shema. It goes on the say recite these words to your children, talk about them at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Notice that the verse in Deuteronomy contains only three elements: heart, soul and strength. However in Mark, our earliest gospel, Jesus expands the original to include four words: heart, soul, mind and strength. Jesus would have known the original wording as would Mark, so this is more than a misprint. When Luke retells the story he retains all four words, only Matthew edits Mark shortening it to the traditional three.
Throughout the gospels Jesus was constantly reinterpreting and expanding traditional teachings. In his reply to the question about which commandment is first he also expands it by attaching a verse from Leviticus (19:18), “And you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” He revises the Commandments with comments like, “you have heard it said that you shall not commit adultery, but I say to you that whoever looks at a woman with lust…” (Matthew 5:27-8) Here he adds the element of mind or thought to a teaching that originally only addressed actions. Clearly Jesus was comfortable incorporating new interpretations and even new ideas into his understanding of Judaism. Could he have encountered the teaching of the four pathways to God and decided to incorporate them into his message?
My point here is not to say that Jesus was teaching or advocating Vedic ideas. And I am not one of the people that believes Jesus spent time in India (or Egypt) during the “missing years”; the part of his life that is not accounted for in the gospels. And I don’t think that he owned a yoga mat. I do find it quite believable that during his life he encountered ideas from other religious traditions. And I believe that he would feel quite comfortable incorporating those “new ideas”, which were of course actually quite ancient, into his spiritual teaching. The willingness to notice, examine and incorporate new or divergent ideas is, in my eyes, the mark of a mature teacher or student.
Jesus’ teaching to learn to love God with heart (bhakti), soul (raja), mind (jnana), and strength (karma) has been helpful in encouraging me to examine my spiritual paths. I was born into Christian Science, a decidedly mind/jnana (intellectual) tradition. This path however does not always feel particularly easy or natural for me. Later I discovered the soul/raja practice of meditation. This pathway feels more natural and I continue working to further develop it. The practice of strength/karma which includes service, is another path I continue to work on integrating. And within the last twelve years I connected with what I consider to be my primary path, the practice of bhakti/devotion (love).
What motivated Jesus to rephrase the shema? That we can only guess for now. But his message is very clear. We have been given of four pathways to connect with God, with the One. We are encouraged to follow the paths of the heart (bhakti), soul (raja), mind (jnana), and strength (karma) as we move Godward. I invite you to notice which pathways to God you have explored and which come most naturally for you. Can you identify a primary pathway? How might you create opportunities to explore other paths?
May all your paths be gentle and your journey filled with wonder and awe. Amen.