JESUS CHRIST AND HIS MESSAGE – By S. R. DAS GUPTA, M.A., B.L.
[Address delivered on the occasion of the Christmas celebrations (1940) at the Ramakrishna Mission Ashrama, New Delhi.-Ed.]
At the present crisis in the world’s history when the materialism of the West has almost reached its climax, when the Crucified Saviour is being re-crucified with all the barbarity and brutality which human ingenuity can devise and the principles for which he lived and laid down his life on the Cross have been put into cold storage, it seems particularly appropriate that we on this side should, while celebrating his Nativity, take this opportunity of discussing his life and his message. I do not, however, claim to have studied the Christian scriptures with that thoroughness which would entitle me to speak to you with any degree of authority or to tell you anything which you do not already know. I will only try to touch briefly on a few salient points and events of his life and share my thoughts with you in order to find out what I or .anyone else not belonging, to the denominational or doctrinal Christian faith can learn from his life and his message.
The life of Jesus Christ, in order to be properly appreciated, has to be studied against a historical background. To the Hindu mind his advent is a fulfillment of the message delivered by the Lord Sri Krishna in the Gita that whenever virtue declines and vice triumphs in this world the Lord incarnates himself in human form so that there may be a rehabilitation of his kingdom on earth. A close examination of the lives of almost all prophets establishes the fundamental truth of this principle, and from this point of view the birth of Jesus may be said to have been a historical necessity. The great Roman Empire which wielded power and suzerainty over a large part of the world in those days had fallen from the highest pinnacles of glory to the lowest depths of degradation. Religion at that time was at a discount and a premium was put upon all kinds of the most abominable vice. The royal courts set an example of debauchery, cruelty and the most horrible and unspeakable orgies which have ever disfigured the pages of history. In the language of the historian Tacitus, ‘In Rome – all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world found their centre and became popular.’ The result was that the royal courts in Rome became a byword of infamy and immorality, and the common people, as usual, were only too happy to imitate the example set by the highest in the land. In Judea, Syria, Palestine were reproduced faithfully the conditions then prevailing in Roman society” Corruption, debauchery, harlotry and vices of all kinds found a ready home, and in matters of religion the hypocrisy and sham that prevailed are brought home to us in the accounts of the Pharisees and the Sadducees in the New Testament.
It was in this eventful period of the world’s history that God thought it fit to send down His beloved son in order that He might once again lead His people along the true path and deliver them from the morass into which they had fallen, and which would only have the effect of leading them on to complete destruction and annihilation. It is a remarkable fact that before coming into this world God invariably gives a warning of its arrival, a thing which we find to be true in the lives of most of the prophets from the earliest times (downwards. When he entered the womb of Mary to be born as the son of Joseph who wanted to ‘put her away privily’ because of shame, the Lord appeared unto him in a dream and apprised him of the real situation, telling him that the son who would be born to him was to be called JESUS and so it happened. The events that took place after the birth of Jesus bear an almost uncanny resemblance to those that occurred after the birth of Sri Krishna. All Hindus are aware of the troubles through which the child Krishna and his parents had to pass, how the wicked king Kamsa who had been forewarned of his impending death at the hands of Sri Krishna had determined to take his life, how the Lord appeared to Vasudeva in a dream and instructed him to’ remove the child to Brindavan, how the baby’ was then transported at dead of night to Brindavan and smuggled into the house of the cowherd Nanda, to be tended by his wife Yashoda. Substitute Herod for Kamsa and Egypt for Brindavan and you have a repetition of the incident almost to the minutest details. We read in St. Matthew of the Lord appearing before Joseph in a dream and telling him to flee to Egypt with his family in order to save the newly born child from the wrath of Herod, and of how Joseph actually fled to Egypt and Herod massacred all children below two years of age, etc. It is rather interesting to note that the other three Gospels besides St. Matthew make no mention of these events, not even St” Luke who claims to write with knowledge of contemporary events; but no great importance need be attached to that.
After this we do not hear very ‘much about the ‘activities .of Jesus except that he was found to be a very precocious child who was gifted with a fund of wisdom which could only be characterized as supernatural. The most abstruse problems of theology which defied the brains of the wisest men in those days were solved by him with an amount of clarity which left them wondering. ‘And all that heard him were astonished at his understanding and answers’ (Luke).
From the age of twelve until about the age of thirty-two when he emerged into the world we do not hear anything about him. The most diligent researches into history have failed to penetrate the veil that shrouds this period of his life. To me it seems as if this was his period of preparation, the period of Sadhana and Tapasya, the period of training for his ultimate emergence into the world like an incendiary bomb which would set the whole world on fire and in the end revolutionize it and change it out of shape. When we find him coming out we see him undergoing the last stage of his Sadhana in the shape of initiation at the hands of John the Baptist who anointed him with the holy water of the Jordan, to be followed by a message from on high, ‘This is My beloved son, in whom I am well pleased.’
Thus equipped he comes out to deliver the message of his Heavenly Father. But he was not still free from his trials and tribulations. The temptations thrown in his way by Satan and his final overcoming of those temptations remind us of similar experiences in the lives of most of the world’s teachers. The Hindu Shastras speak of similar temptations thrown in the way of Nachiketa who wanted to learn and realize the supreme truth, and in Buddhistic theology we read of an exactly similar experience in the life of Buddha, when Mara, the god of Evil, tried to make him deviate from the path which leads to ultimate Nirvana, and had to admit defeat. Even coming down to our own times we read of similar experiences in the life of Sri Ramakrishna who spurned at all temptations thrown in his way by Mathur Babu and Lakshminarayan Marwari.
This to my mind is symbolical of the great truth that no one who cannot renounce the pleasures and joys of this world can ever hope to attain the highest realization.
After this Jesus started delivering his message to the world, and the question now arises as to what that fundamental message was. To my mind the essence of his preaching resolves itself into this basic precept that the aim of all human life is to realize the divinity which is latent in every individual. ‘The kingdom of God is within you,’ he said, and the first and foremost duty of man is to enter that kingdom in order that he may enjoy everlasting peace and happiness. In Chapter 12 of St. Mark this is made clear in language which leaves no ambiguity about it:
‘And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength; this is the first commandment.’ And he goes on to say that the only way to achieve this consummation is through renunciation. So long as there is attachment to worldly things the kingdom of heaven will only remain a distant vision and a dream which can never be realized. ‘Sell all thou hast’, and distribute unto the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven.’ ‘It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.’
‘Verily I say unto you, there is no man that hath left house or parents or brethren or wife or children for the kingdom of God’s sake, who shall not receive manifold more in the present time, and in the world to come life everlasting. ‘
Therefore all forms of worldly attachment had to be renounced. It has to be noticed that Jesus. Christ was a Sannyasin who had nothing in the world to call his own and only lived in an ecstasy of communion with God Himself. ‘The foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man hath not where to lay his head.’ He was himself a shining example of the precept which he preached: ‘Take no thought of the morrow, for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself,’ an advice which can only be given by one who has shaken off the slightest vestige of attachment for the things of this earth. But then it would be wrong to suppose that Jesus wanted all men to be Sannyasins. He knew that all people cannot be put into one mould and that among his followers there would be Sannyasins like himself who renouncing all would take upon themselves the task of spreading his gospel far and wide and also householders who would realize God by following his precepts. He therefore laid down for each of these classes, at least that is how I read the Bible, a separate code of conduct so that each might progress towards God-realization in his own particular way. For the householders he lays down a code of conduct which tells them to repent for their sins, to obey their parents, warns them against stealing and against bearing false witness, against adultery even in thought, against all kinds of hypocrisy which was characteristic in those days of the Pharisees and the Sadducees. ‘Blessed are the pure in heart,’ says he, ‘for they shall see God.’ It is this purity of heart on which the greatest stress has been laid. The heart is the source and the fountain of all our actions, and if the heart is not pure our outward actions and words are of no consequence, whatever we may do. He puts no stress on external observances which to him are of no value, ‘for out of the heart proceed evil thoughts… things which defile a man.’ It is exactly the same sentiment which finds an echo in Sri Ramakrishna’s words, ‘Man mukh ek kara,’ to be sincere in word, thought and deed, which alone can confer a passport to the eternal happiness of God’s kingdom.
His second commandment was, ‘Love thy neighbour as thyself.’ ‘If a man smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the left also,’ and so on. Although the reason for this tolerance and forbearance has not been expressed by him in so many words, the Hindu mind finds it easy to follow. ‘Sarva- bhute Narayana‘ – the same divinity which dwells in me dwells in my neighbour also and – if in return for tooth or an eye I do him a greater injury it is not the other person whom. I am injuring but I harm myself because I injure the same divinity which is within both of us.
Again in another passage he gives us, some idea of his concept of the kingdom of God. ‘Suffer little children to come unto me for of such is the kingdom of God.
And Jesus called a little child unto him, and set him in the midst of them. And said, Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven. Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven.’
The greatest stress is here laid on humility like that of a little child. A child is sincere, trustful, humble, ‘and man must also possess all these qualities in order to qualify himself for God’s kingdom. As Sri Ramakrishna used to say, ‘One who realizes the divinity within him becomes like a child who has no strong attachments to anything.’ It is this faith of a child, absolute un-reserving faith which is required. And the virtue of this faith is extolled in these words: ‘Verily I say unto you, If ye have faith as grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place, and it shall remove; and nothing shall be impossible unto you.’
It is this supreme virtue of faith which enables St. Peter to walk on the sea to meet the Master. ‘But when he saw the wind boisterous, – he was afraid; and beginning to sink he cried, saying, Lord, save me. And immediately Jesus stretched forth his hand and caught him and said unto him, O Thou of little faith, wherefore didst thou doubt? And when they were come into the ship, the wind ceased.’
An exactly similar incident is related in the Buddhist Jatakas of a lay disciple of the Master when he was living in Jetavana who had to cross the river Aciravati to meet the Enlightened One and not finding a boat on the shore walked across the river meditating on the Lord Buddha. When reaching half way he saw waves, his ecstasy in meditating on the Buddha became less and his feet began to sink, but he again strengthened his ecstasy in meditating on the Buddha, -and reached Jetavana. It is this faith which moves mountains and makes dry ground of oceans and rivers that enabled the sick, the lepers and the palsied to be cured, and the dead to come to life again, at the hands of Jesus.
Another virtue which has to be cultivated for attaining the kingdom of heaven, and which has been mentioned before, is humility. ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit for their’s is the kingdom of heaven.’ He himself is a living example of this humility so much so that before the Last Supper we find him washing the feet of his own disciples with towel and water. And he extols the virtue of humility in these words, ‘Whosoever exalteth himself shall be abased, land he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.’ And he finishes up his exhortations with this final admonition: ‘Be ye therefore perfect, even as your father which is in heaven is perfect.’
Having given these injunctions to his lay disciples he also prepared his Sannyasin disciples for their great work. Jesus knew that after him this small band of people would go’ out to the four corners of the earth to spread his gospel for the ultimate redemption of mankind, 1and he prepared them accordingly. It is a remarkable fact that all the prophets on this earth have prepared a small and select band of disciples who renouncing all worldly possessions and attachments have devoted themselves to preaching the glad tidings after the departure of their beloved Masters. Buddha, Chaitanya, Ramakrishna, to name only a few, can be cited as examples of those whose monastic disciples spread the message of their Masters far and wide. In the same way Jesus Christ prepared a small and select band of men who after his departure would renounce everything and spread his gospel in all directions. They were people selected from very humble walks of life, fishermen mostly who plied their nets in the Sea of Galilee, but he prepared them to become fishers of men. To them he only preached the great virtue of renunciation and of not having any thoughts or worries about living and eating and sleeping. Everything must be sacrificed unreservedly for the sake of the Higher Life. Not for them to lay up treasures upon earth which thieves steal and moth and dust corrupt but to lay up treasures in heaven. He impresses on them the supremacy of the eternal life as compared to the transitory benefits of the world. To gain the whole world and lose one’s own soul is the height of foolishness. He tells them that no one can serve God and Mammon. He gives them an injunction not to take any thought for their life and what they shall eat or drink, nor for their body or what they shall put on. Was not the life more than meat land the body than raiment? They had only to look at the fowls of the air who never sowed nor reaped nor gathered into barns but were cared for by the Heavenly Father; and were they not better than those? What necessity had they to think of raiment? Were not the lilies of the field who did neither toil nor spin more glorious than Solomon with all his riches? And if God chose to dress in that fashion the grass of the field which would be cast into the oven the next day, would He not do very much more for them in order that they might be fed and clothed? Did He not know what their needs would be? Therefore his injunction was that without caring for these things they should first seek the kingdom of God and His righteousness and all these things would be added unto them, even without their caring for the morrow. He warns them against accumulation of property of any kind: ‘Provide neither gold, nor silver, nor brass in your purses; Nor scrip for your journey, neither two coats, neither shoes, nor yet staves; for the workman is worthy of his meat.’
It was a very hard life for which he was preparing them. When one of them wanted to go back for a short time in order to bury his father who had just died, he stopped him saying, ‘Let the dead bury the dead.’ For them there was no looking back or going half way. All worldly ties had to be cut asunder and the only tie that would remain would be with God, to whose will there must be a complete and unconditional surrender. It was only after they had passed through this school of rigorous discipline that they would be qualified to become torch-bearers of the gospel of Christ in lands and .climes which had become Godless.
It is interesting to compare these injunctions of Jesus Christ with the Noble Eightfold Path laid down by Buddha for the attainment of salvation, viz. right views, right aspiration, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right endeavour, right watchfulness and right meditation. This was the path, ‘of which the Tathagata has gained perfect knowledge, which produces insight and knowledge, and conduces to tranquility, to supernatural faculty, to complete enlightenment, to Nirvana.’
A question is commonly asked as to whether this kingdom of heaven ‘which Jesus Christ visualized refers to the present or to some future existence. Although there are passages in which he speaks of tire ‘world to come,’ it is permissible to assert that the advent of God’s kingdom even in one’s present existence is not by any means ruled out. As one Biblical writer puts it, ‘the future has become present and the present is projected into the future. The future salvation has become for us present, and yet has not ceased to be future.’ The fact that immediately before the advent of Jesus we find St. John the Baptist preaching ill the wilderness of Judea, ‘Repent ye, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand,’ a sentence which is later on repeated by Jesus himself, is a sufficient war- rant for assuming that the words ‘Thy kingdom come’ in the Lord’s prayer did not refer to anything to be realized in some incomprehensible distant future but a blessing to be gained in this life itself.
The one great quality in the character of Jesus, which also strikes us as the most prominent, is his infinite love and unbounded mercy. This love and mercy he exhibited towards all, and throughout the New Testament we find him showering his grace upon all and sundry who had faith in him. ‘Even the sinners need have no despair; if they repented and their repentance was genuine God’s mercy would be on them, as exemplified in the parable of the Prodigal Son. ‘Hate the sin but not the sinner’ was his injunction; and when a multitude which consisted even, of some of his own followers wanted to stone a sinner to death he stopped them with the admonition, ‘He that is without sin amongst you, let him cast the first stone. ‘We find him fondling little children, feeling compassion for the lowly, the diseased, the outcast and the despised, and his kindness was showered upon all equally. He feels compassion for the multitude who come to listen to him because they are hungry and he sees that they are properly fed before they leave him. This kindness of Jesus is only symbolical of the kindness of the Heavenly Father, as illustrated in the parable of the lost sheep, and this is a quality which all men have been asked to cultivate. It is not to be a passive quality but an active dynamic philanthropy like that of the Good Samaritan. And the service of God through the service of suffering humanity is also envisaged in the Bible: ‘I was hungered .and ye gave me meat; I was thirsty and ye gave me drink; I was a stranger and ye took me in: ‘In as much as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have, done it unto me.’
In spite of his unbounded love Jesus could be stern also. He had no use for hypocrisy in any form. The 23rd chapter of St. Matthew contains imprecations and curses upon the Pharisees and, the Sadducees, threatening them with hell fire and wailing and gnashing of teeth, — in language which leaves one in no doubt as to the feelings which prompted them. But to the faithful, to the sincere, to the true believer, his heart was ever open, and his benevolence unstincted. Even the sinner Mary Magdalene, out of whom he drove out seven devils, was not considered to be unworthy of his grace , an act of supreme love of which we find a parallel in Buddha’s deliverance of the fallen woman Ambapali, and of Sri Ramakrishna’s ecstatic trances at the sight of the women of the streets whom he regarded as manifestations of the Divine Mother in another form. Even in the midst of his trials and adversities his charity and benevolence towards suffering humanity, he did not wane even by a tittle. His love for his disciples and their love for him forms one of the most ennobling episodes in the New Testament; so much so that when Judas Iscariot in a fit of temptation betrayed him for thirty pieces of silver, he was seized with such overpowering repentance that he immediately went out and hanged himself. Of the sorrows and sufferings of this world he had his full share. Poverty, contempt, treachery of friends, denunciation by enemies, betrayal by a close disciple, all these and a great deal more, culminating in the trial, the crown of thorns, and the crucifixion, fell to his lot. And even he sometimes found the burden a little hard to bear’, so much so that before the great betrayal we find him in the garden of Gethsemane, praying to God in utter exhaustion of body and anguish of soul: ‘O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless not as I will but as Thou wilt.’
But in spite of all this we find him giving of his abundance of mercy to all. When on the Cross in an agony of despair he cried out: ‘Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani, My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me? We find him at the same time praying for his enemies and those who crucified him, ‘Father, forgive them for they know not what they do,’ a living and shining example of putting into actual practice his own precept: ‘Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despite fully use you .and persecute you.’
And in the plenitude of his mercy he takes the sins of the world upon his own shoulders and makes the supreme atonement on the Cross, leaving for us those words of hope which have been ringing throughout the world through the passage of centuries:
‘Come to me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden and I will give you rest.’
The Hindu hears in this an echo of the words of the Lord in the Gita, ‘Sarva dharman parityajya mamekam sharanam braja.’
The next incident, and the last, in the life of Jesus Christ which I will discuss here is the Resurrection. A good deal of controversial literature has grown up around this episode and I do not propose to indulge in any scientific and analytical reasoning in regard to this subject, although even without entering into this controversy it may be said that it has stood the test of rationalistic criticism. To me, however, it symbolizes a resurrection of the human soul from the bondages of this earth towards the life infinite. ‘I am the Resurrection and the Life’ said the Lord. As soon as man realizes his oneness with God he shakes off all mundane attachments and resurrects himself to a realm of infinite bliss and everlasting happiness. And that is the grand finale and the great consummation which should be the aim and ambition of every one of us to achieve in this life, so that it may not be said of us later: ‘I piped unto ye and ye have not danced; I mourned unto ye and ye have not lamented.’
I am afraid I have taken more time than was allotted to me or than I intended to take and I must therefore now bring my remarks to a close. Although the ministry of Jesus covered only a period of about two years, the subject is so vast and complex and withal so engrossing that it is difficult to do even the barest justice to it in a brief compass. The profoundest scholars in the world, the most learned theologians and divines have bestowed all their learning and scholarship in expositions of the life and teachings of the great Saviour; but it may be said, without meaning the slightest disparagement of their efforts, that they have only been able to touch the fringe of the subject. He is a remarkable and harmonious blend of Jnana, Karma and Bhakti, which in more recent years found such a glorious embodiment in Ramakrishna and Vivekananda. I will only conclude by saying that amid the shifting sands of time the majestic figure of’ the Prince of Peace still shines out in all its resplendent glory, beckoning to all human beings to follow the true path, but man heeds him not. The passage of two thousand years has not dimmed the effulgence of his countenance or lessened the value and universality of his teachings from which millions of weary souls still derive inspiration and consolation. May he on this day shower his choicest blessings on us all; may he usher in an era of peace on earth and good will among men; .and in the sublime language of the Vedic seers, with which I will end this short discourse, may he in his abundant mercy lead us from the unreal unto the real, from darkness unto light, and from death unto immortality. Amen.
From our Archives: Published in Prabuddha Bharata, June 1941.