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Saturday, December 1, 2018

Sermon on the Mount – Three Points of View: Part 1

Sermon on the Mount is one of the most well-known sections in the New Testament. It is from Chapters 5,6 and 7 of the Gospel of Matthew. It includes the most important moral teachings of Jesus Christ and therefore, forms the central tenets of Christianity. Recently, I read three different interpretations of the Sermon on the Mount. They are Sermon on the Mount according to Vedanta by Swami Prabhavananda, Tolstoy’s interpretation and The Imitation of Christ by Thomas Kempis (German-Dutch Christian theologian of the 14th century). Here are some of my thoughts on reading these three versions and the original. 


The Sermon on the Mount, which is the essence of the Gospel, as given by Jesus was meant for non-Christians, because there were no Christians at that time in history. It starts with the words “AND seeing the multitudes, he went up into the mountain:  and when he had sat down, his disciples came unto him”. This is interpreted by a scholar as an indication that whereas Jesus taught many “tribes”, he reserved his highest teachings for those who were spiritually ready.

One idea that comes out of Vedic, Buddhist and Christian teachings is that enlightened spiritual leaders usually gave two sets of talks, one for the common folks to be applied to their daily lives and another to those who are serious about spiritual life and are more disciplined. Buddha was explicit. He gave just five precepts to follow for the lay-followers and more elaborate ones such as celibacy for the monastics.

In the Hindu tradition, the more ascetic practices are suggested for those who want to become sannyasins (ascetics) and to those at the end of one’s family life in preparation for liberation. The Upanishads repeatedly point out that a good teacher will tailor his lessons to the readiness of his pupil. In his interpretation of Rg Veda, Sri Aurobindo points out that the rk verses contain two meanings, one referring to physical world and worldly life and another to mental life at a higher plane. Sanskrit words make this possible by their very structure.

It is amazing - it should not be – that several passages in the Sermon and the Vedic teachings (Upanishads) are literal translations of each other.

One of the early statements (5:5) in the sermon is “Blessed are the meek; for they inherit the earth”. The word “meek” suggests an attitude of surrender, freedom from ego. The idea of surrender and humility are recurring themes in Hindu tradition also. Separation from the divine accentuates the ego. The ideas of me and mine come in. Both Buddha and Ramana ask us to find out who the “I” is. “Nothing belongs to us. We just borrow for our life time” says Swami Prabhavananda.

“Blessed are the merciful; for they shall obtain mercy” says the Sermon. This is same as, or similar to, the teachings of Loving Kindness by Buddha. Patanjali says (The Yoga Philosophy Book 1 Sloka 33) that for peace of mind one need to develop benevolence, mercy, detachment and equanimity transcending vice and virtue.

“Blessed are the pure at heart for they shall see God” are the words of the Sermon. The Vedic system teaches observances to purify one’s mind. They include ten virtues (yama)based on abstaining from something, such as forgiveness, truthfulness, non-injury to all life forms. There are also ten other steps (Niyama) which require active participation such as charity, control of the mind, silence and fasting.  These are meant for the purification of the body and the mind. Letting go of the ego leads to purity of the mind according to Bhagavat Gita (2:61-64) and Buddha’s teachings.

Jesus said: “whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it” (Matthew 16:25 and Mark 8:35)

Once we can see ourselves in others and others in ourselves, the teachings on “love thy neighbor”, “do not kill”, “make peace with your brother” (reconciliation) become easy to practice. Isa Upanishad (6) says: “He who sees all beings in one self and one’s Self in all beings feels no hatred”.

“Blessed are the peacemakers; for they shall be called sons of God” says the Sermon. To send this kind of message of loving kindness to others, one must learn to forgive. Jesus said: “Forgive them for they know not what they do”. Buddha said the same thing before Jesus. There are some scholars who think that Jesus was aware of the teachings of Buddha.

There is a section on adultery and divorce in the Sermon which has been interpreted in various ways. They are contradictory to the basic teachings of Jesus about forgiveness and compassion. Therefore, Tolstoy made a deep study of this issue including verifications of the meanings of the words in the original texts and their translations in different languages and came to the following conclusions. The main point is that sexual passion can easily lead one to what Tolstoy calls “debauchery” or corruption of the mind and lewdness. Therefore, this advice in the Sermon is to help a man and a woman to live as pair, husband and wife and avoid chances for the corruption of the mind.

In summary, Tolstoy’s opinion is that it is best for a man and woman to be in stable relationship with an avenue for sexual satisfaction within moral and legal boundaries. If the wife is divorced by man for whatever reason, he is responsible since a woman then is exposed to sexual advances and she cannot protect herself.

After consulting several version of the Bible in several languages, Tolstoy states: “And thus once more I found a confirmation of the terrible fact that the meaning of the doctrine of Jesus is simple and clear, that its affirmations are emphatic and precise, but that commentaries upon the doctrine, inspired by a desire to sanction existing evil, have so obscured it that determined effort is demanded of him who would know the truth”. The same can be said of sacred texts from all religions.

What are the teachings in the other systems? In the Vedic system, adultery is discussed under self-control, self-mastery and control of passions. Buddha talks about control of passions also and in sexual matters is part of non-injury to a woman.

The sermon also points out, as do Hindu and Buddhist texts, that control of actions of lust alone is not adequate. Lustful thoughts must also be checked.

There have been many erudite discussions on the passage in the Sermon which says: “Neither shalt thou swear by thy head, for thou canst not make one hair white or black”. This comes soon after Jesus asks us “Swear not at all”, neither by Heaven which is His nor by the land which is “His footstool”. In his book on Confessions, St. Augustine spends several pages on this passage. According to Swami Prabhavananda,  this passage only means that we are full of ego and think we own this world and we can make what we want and explain everything. In fact, we do not own ever our own body and cannot fully control what happens to it. We must realize that He is the owner and the doer. In other words, this passage is to teach humility.

In the subsequent passage Jesus does not favor the custom of revenge of the Old Testament (eye for an eye) but asks his disciples to resist evil by not striking back but “turn to him the other cheek”. He asks his disciples to forgive, love the neighbor and, also the enemy. He says “what is the use of being nice to your kith and kin only. Anyone can do that. It requires special character to be nice to an enemy”.

This is exactly the teaching of Buddha 500 years earlier. This is the principle of non-resistance towards people who hurt you and who are unjust. It is not to be interpreted as bending to evil. It is offering resistance to injustice and cruelty without striking back. Buddha did this to Angulimala. Jesus did.  Mahatma Gandhi did. Nelson Mandela did. Martin Luther King did. Only those who have mastered themselves and are compassionate can do this.

In later passages Jesus asks his disciples to do charitable things, help the poor, pray in a humble way, in private, quietly and not with pomp and show for the world to see. There is a similar passage in Vidura Niti of Maha Bharata in which eight virtues are listed. (Chapter 3, sloka 69). They are sacrifice, charity, study, penance, truthfulness, forgiveness, mercy and non-covetousness. You can practice the first four for pomp and show, to look good in the eyes of others. The latter set of four are inherent only in the virtuous.

In interpreting Matthew 5:48 which states: “Therefore, ye shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect”, Swami Prabhavananda says that it is to encourage the disciples to seek inner perfection, a Divine perfection by realizing God within. It is to indicate that all the perfections we seek in this world are imperfect and impermanent.

Jesus teaches us to seek the Kingdom of God within each one of us, here and now. Vedas teaches us the same thing. The original source, the Father, the Divine is called Brahman; the individual soul is called Atman. Brahman is inherent in Atman. In other words, in us. “The Spirit of God dwelleth in you” says St.Luke.  Aham Brahmasmi (I am Brahman, the Primordial) says the Upanishad. The true nature of the Spirit is not in the body or in the mind. It is that which illuminates, energizes both. “You shall know the truth and the truth will make you true” says the Bible.

Therefore, the goal is seeking perfection or realizing the divine within us. That is the teachings of these Sermons and those of the Vedas. When the Bible speaks of rebirth, it need not be interpreted as the rebirth of Jesus or of us individuals. It is the spiritual rebirth by each one of us by merging with the source. The same can be said about the concept of rebirth in the Hindu philosophy.

This perfection of god-realization is called Samadhi in Hinduism, Nirvana in Buddhism and the Kingdom of God in Christianity. This state can be sought in different ways. Hinduism says that we are all made of different personalities and a method which works for one may not work for another. Therefore, Hinduism suggests four different paths, namely Karma marga or Path of Actions, Gnana Marga or the Intellectual Path, Bhakti Marga or the Path of Devotion and Raja Marga or the Path of Meditation.

 Most branches of Christianity emphasize faith and piety as the preferred mode and some as the exclusive mode. However, there are passages in the Bible which seem to support the path of action, and path of intellectual discrimination. For example, karma yoga or the path of action is nothing but offering all our actions to God as a sacrament. When Jesus said “In as much as ye have done it unto the least of these brethren, ye have done unto me” he suggested that serving others is worship of God.

In Gnana yoga the emphasis is on discrimination between the eternal and ephemeral. Both the Upanishads and Buddha ask the aspirants to reach for virtue and eternal bliss (Shreyas) and not for worldly rewards (preyas). Jesus said the same thing in: “..lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, whither neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through to steal……..Ye cannot serve God and mammon”.            

In Raja marga, the aspirant stays focused like a laser on the Supreme until he attains complete absorption with that One. This is called Dharana in Yoga sastra and St. Paul calls this “prayer to be offered without ceasing”. In recent times, Thomas Merton speaks of this approach as Contemplative Prayer. He calls it “a wordless total surrender of the heart in silence”. Jesus is also reported to have gone into the mountains for meditations in solitude.

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