My surname gives the game away. Varughese unambiguously testifies to my Keralite Syrian Christian identity. And yet, you will find me listening to Sanskrit chants and mantras, Sikh shabads, Sufi songs, and all forms of sacred music including, of course, hymns and carols.
I am also deeply attracted to Vedanta, particularly the Upanishads, and my ishta devta (favorite deity) is the Hindu god, Lord Shiva.
So how did I make my way from the rather narrow confines of Christianity to the wide open spaces of spirituality with a special soft corner for Hindu philosophy?
Many things conspired to bring about this shift. To begin with, my own nature. I was never a conformist when it came to thought. At 14, I decided that I could no longer believe in God, because Darwin’s theory seemed to have poked a huge hole in the Biblical version of how the world began. How naïve and quaint appeared the notion that God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh, when compared to Darwin’s painstaking research that mapped the slow ascent of Evolution over many millennia.
So, I leapt out of Christianity even though I trembled for days at the retribution my act may draw from a wrathful God. Well, lightning did not strike me dead, and I continued along my Godless path. Not quite happily because I missed God, but irrevocably, because once having disbelieved, I found I could no longer return to blind belief. Besides, I had a broad mind. I was never content with narrow beliefs or ideologies. I certainly could not accept the Christian belief that it alone was the valid path to God. As far as I could see, there was only one Creator who seemed to have created Muslims, Hindus, Christians, and Jews. There was no separate Hindu world or Muslim world, was there? So, if he had created them as well as me and my fellow religionists, why would their faiths not be equally valid?
Thirdly, I had a huge spiritual awakening that had its origin in as secular an event as the end of a love affair. I certainly could not credit my Christian background for it. And that awakening cemented into a completely secular realization that true happiness could only be found by focusing on the happiness of the other. Happiness was not a direct path. It did not wing its way to you no matter how many pleasures you indulged in or how many possessions you bought. Happiness comes only when you make others happy.
This realization transformed my life. Amazingly enough, it also brought me back to God. I recognized that if we can only be happy through the happiness of the other, then that had to be the design of life. And if there was a design, there had to be a designer. Ergo God. This God, though, had little in common with the Christian God. This God’s design applied to all of humankind, and indeed to the Universe itself. I also decided that I was not going to limit this God with a name and a form. My God was nameless and formless. To my delight, I later found that it conformed with the Vedic Brahman, the ultimate Godhead.
Once I understood that we had been designed to be happy only through making others happy, I recognized that we were interconnected as a species. And that brought me to the Vedantic understanding of Oneness. The Creator and Creation, say the Vedas, is one.
All this threw me into the embrace of Hindu philosophy. I found myself enormously drawn to it. The breadth and depth of its thinking took my breath away. No other religion has stated the audacious truth as clearly as Hinduism has. Man is God, it declares unambiguously, Aham Brahmasmi. Moreover, the recognition that everything in nature bears the imprint of God has enabled practitioners to honor the divinity of all creation. Here in this land, we see mountains, rivers, animals, trees and in fact all living things as essentially sacred. What a wonderful way to approach life and living!
Because of its powerful recognition of the interconnection of life, all of its systems are holistic, from the healing science of ayurveda, the science of divination – astrology, the science of construction — Vastu Shastra, to its many dance and art forms. Moreover, the central plank of Hindu thought was that man was potentially God, and the reason he has taken birth is to realize that potential. Thus, every science and system has individual enlightenment as its aim.
How could I not love such a lofty philosophy?
All its concepts made sense to me. The idea that God, and by extension, mankind, was a combination of sat (existence or being) chit (consciousness) and ananda (bliss) made sense to me. Whereas the Christian trinity of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost had seemed arbitrary. Why not Mother and Daughter for that matter?
So, have I turned my back on Christianity altogether? Why would I be foolish enough to do that? I love and revere Christ. I consider him to be my role model. I am deeply moved and inspired by his love for the poor and the rejected, by his sturdy condemnation of the hypocrisy of the priestly class, and by the profound wisdom of his teachings. I do not see eye to eye with Christianity only because there is not enough Christ in it. Instead, it absorbed some of the perspectives of his less enlightened followers, and allowed its pursuit for power to corrupt the core philosophy. I may not call myself a Christian, but am happy to call myself a follower of Christ. As I would also call myself a lover of Vedanta, and a follower of the Buddha.
Ultimately, I no longer identify with a particular religion or school of thought. I love the idea of sipping from all of them as I make my way through life, enriched by all, but limited by none.