Occasionally, a small group of evangelists — well-dressed and well-groomed young men and women from a local church — walks around my neighborhood ringing doorbells to spread Christianity. I always like to invite them in, offer them chai and engage in a relaxed conversation. Even though I went to a Catholic school and know the proselytizing game well, I pretend I’m the naive immigrant eager to ask basic questions. After a few minutes of small talk, one of them usually breaks open the topic by asking, “Have you been saved?”
I try to look surprised, and respond by saying, “I was never condemned to begin with!” My young, charming guests usually get thrown off. They expect me to claim that I have already been saved, and their training has equipped them with the rhetorical skills to assert that their ability to save me is superior to my present faith. I usually find them taken by surprise by my posture that I do not need to be saved in the first place.
Christian salvation is a solution to the problem of Eternal Damnation caused by Original Sin. But that problem does not exist within the dharma traditions. Imagine someone asking you if you have been pardoned from your prison sentence, and you respond by saying that you were never condemned for any crime and, hence, such a question is absurd. The implication here is that for a dharmic person to say he has been saved would imply that he accepts Christianity’s fundamental tenet that every human is born a sinner and remains so until he surrenders himself to Jesus Christ. Even when the church acknowledges other faiths as having merit, no other path can substitute for Jesus when it comes to being saved.
The closest the dharmic traditions come to salvation are the concepts of moksha in Hinduism and nirvana in Buddhism, both of which can be loosely translated as “liberation.” But there are crucial differences between dharmic liberation and Christian salvation.
Receiving assurance of salvation is the key moment in the spiritual life of most Christians. It comes as a gift of grace and its source lies outside the individual. It does not come as a result strictly of merit, spiritual practice, prayer or asceticism. Although these may be helpful in its attainment, and even necessary in many denominations, they are not sufficient in and of themselves. That’s because the potential to achieve salvation is not innate in us.
In Jewish and Christian traditions, death is the consequence of sin. The freedom of the soul in Christianity entails, in the End of Time, the freedom of the body as well: There will be a resurrection of the dead in a “glorified” physical form, and the boundary between heaven and earth will be erased or made permeable. For most people, the full realization of this salvation can come only after death.
Dharmic liberation, on the other hand, can be achieved here and now in this very body and in this very world. Moksha is similar to salvation insofar as it is concerned with freedom from human bondage; but the nature of this bondage is quite different. Moksha really refers to living in a state of freedom from ignorance, pre-conditioning and karmic “baggage.” According to the Bhagavad Gita, the state where one is desire-less, ego-less and beyond the drives of human nature is the first major milestone; it opens the door to further evolution and eventual liberation in the fullest sense.
Salvation, on the other hand, does not entail expanded awareness or consciousness, esoteric/mystical knowledge or physical practices (though these may attend it). Nor is it necessarily derived from complete renunciation, as is the case in Buddhist nirvana. It can be experienced only by surrendering to the will of God, and God here is specifically the God of the Bible.
There is yet another state described in Sanskrit which has no equivalent in Christianity. One who has attained moksha may choose to remain in the world and continue to do spiritual work — that is, free from past actions (i.e., karmic bondage) and yet active in the world. This person is called jivanmukta. He (or she) can, at will, either turn away from the world or turn toward it and deal with it without being touched or limited by it. The Buddhist equivalent of a jivanmukta is a bodhisattva.
The New Testament calls this “being in the world, but not of it.” There is an opening here for a potential development of a Christian jivanmukta, and St. Paul says several things about himself that would indicate he had at least tasted this state, as had other Christian saints. But the important thing is that there is no word for it in biblical metaphysics; that’s because the state was not examined, understood or cultivated through systematic techniques. The words “saint” and “prophet” do not suffice, nor even does “mystic.” When Christians experienced such a state, it was not as a result of following a yoga-like systematic process; neither was it seen as bringing salvation. Hence such a person would still be, according to the Vatican document Dominus Jesus, “in a gravely deficient situation in comparison with those who, in the Church, have the fullness of the means of salvation.”
As the evangelists leave my home, I always hope our conversation has challenged their assumptions about the people they are preaching to, and that perhaps they will re-examine the idea that all people outside of their church are in a state of spiritual deficiency. But until they do, I will continue to welcome them into my living room, offer them chai and share with them the good news that there is no such thing as Original Sin. We are all originally divine.
Published: April 29, 2011