On October 17, the Jesuits in Rome will be hosting a scholarly symposium on Tantrism (Hindu and Buddhist) and Christian meditation/contemplation. This will be my first time back in Italy since I returned permanently to our monasteries in California (Incarnation Monastery in Berkeley and, since 2014, New Camaldoli Hermitage in Big Sur). I’ll be presenting a paper in Italian, but here I’ll give a summary in English.
Title: “Hindu-Christian Dialogue as Mutual Enrichment: Themes of Male-Female Embodiment in the Tantric Tradition and in Christian Spirituality During the Last Two Centuries.” (In European academia they like long titles!)
The first Hindu sacred text translated into a Western language was the Bhagavad-Gita in English, published in 1785, the work of an English typographer and linguist, Charles Wilkins. In the early nineteenth century a young Ralph Waldo Emerson, just before he entered Harvard, received a copy from his aunt, enthusiastic about the mystical teachings it contained. Young Emerson found the translation pedantic and the content confusing, but after his freshman year he returned to the book and discovered its riches; the Gita became a primary source for the elaboration of his own understanding of life and Nature.
Some historians of American philosophical thought have down-played the influence of the Bhagavad-Gita and the Vedas on Emerson, Henry David Thoreau and others of the current called Transcendentalism. More recent writers, like Philip Goldberg, affirm that, in the entire philosophical and poetic output of Emerson, the images and ideas of India are present, not like a pinch of exotic spice in the pot but like the broth that unites the flavors of everything in the soup [cf. Goldberg 2010, pg. 33].
In 1893, a “World Parliament of Religions” was held in Chicago, where a young Hindu monk, Swami Vivekananda, gave an address on the meeting of East and West that received a standing ovation. That same year saw the birth at Gorakhpur in Bengal of Mukunda Lal Ghosh, who in his early twenties took the saffron robes of a swami with the name Yogananda. In 1920 Swami Yogananda took part in an inter-religious gathering in Boston as the representative of a lineage of yogis founded by the Bengali guru Shyama Charan Lahiri Mahasaya, a married yogi. Significant Tantric influences are found in the writings of Yogananda and his gurus, together with frequent biblical references, aimed at showing a basic affinity between Christianity and the mystical vision of the Bengali and Kashmiri yogis.
My paper will examine the themes of yoga and the male-female embodiment in the Autobiography of a Yogi by Yogananda (1946) and in some of his instructions in Kriya Yoga given to his initiates. This best-selling autobiography, still in print, finds a Christian parallel in The Seven Storey Mountain (1948) by the Trappist monk Thomas Merton. I will also study some points of contact between Yogananda’s mystical yoga and the teachings of Kashmir’s medieval sage Abhinavagupta and the twentieth-century pundit Gopi Krishna. My conclusions will suggest possible ways that their intuitions and experiences can be brought into Christian contemplative practice.