Saturday, January 02, 2010

Review of ' River of God ', Indian and eastern contribution to the growth of Christianity ..

Review of Gregory Riley's book, River of God from an Indian perspective.

Riley's, "The River of God" is no doubt an excellent read. But, its subtitle, "A new History of Christian Origins" is misleading since it conveniently omits any consideration of the Judeo-Christian River receiving any waters from any of the "rivulets" of eastern philosophical traditions of Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Taoism etc.

In my humble opinion, the Christian River of God has indeed received some water from the tributaries of many of the "rivers" of Asia and the Far East. This book also suffers from the same deficiencies which exist in Robert Wright's, "The Evolution of God"., viz., the obsessive compulsive fixation with Eurocentric parochialism which systematically excludes the influences of eastern philosophers on the Judeo-Christian religious traditions.. In that sense, it is worse than Wright's contribution to the study of evolution of religious thought in the west.

Riley credits everything to the Hebrew, Greco-Roman and Zoroastrian belief systems, for the evolution of the Trinitarian God of Chrisitanity. He does not even consider the possibilities of any of the Judeo-Christian belief systems having anything to do with the influence of the apophatic concept of Brahman, the exaltations of ascetism in Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism, the atman or soul posited in the eastern religions etc.

Eusebius in his biography of Socrates writes about a Brahmin in the agora or the market place asking Socrates what he was doing. The latter said that he was interrogating men to understand MAN. The Brahmin is reported as having laughed at this and challenging Socrates, as to how he plans to understand a human without knowing God!

Professor Flinders Patrie (British Archeologist (1853-1942 CE) wrote: " The presence of a large body of Indian troops in the Persian army in Greece in 480 B.C. shows how far west the Indian connections were carried; and the discovery of modeled heads of Indians at Memphis in 5th Century BCE, shows that Indians were living there for trade. Hence there is no difficulty in regarding India as the source of the entirely new ideal of asceticism in the West."

Riley asserts (page 222) that Galilee being the home of Jesus, "it was the region most open to major confluences…. ideas brought and forced upon it by invading empires", viz., Persian, Greek and Roman. It is inconceivable to me that this Professor is ignorant of the role of trade in feeding into the "confluences" of the River of God! Tertullian's (200 CE) conceptualization of the pre-Trinitarian Jesus as an incarnation of God clearly is in the Hindu tradition of the appearance of an "avatar" (incarnate). We also know that Pyrrho (365-270 BCE) and Anaxarchus of Abdera accompanied Alexander the Great to India and interacted with Jain philosphers (gymnophistai- naked wise men) and later founded a school of ascetic philosophy in Athens which attracted many followers.

Riley also asserts that "Greeks were the first to develop a system of mathematics sophisticated enough to calculate the vast distances and circumferences that the geocentric universe required"… Among many western astronmers, it is now generally accepted that Indian astronomy was far more advanced than the Greek's.

Here is an excerpt from the writings of the late Carl Sagan: "Hindu cosmology which first of all gives a time-scale for the Earth and the universe -- a time-scale which is consonant with that of modern scientific cosmology. We know that the Earth is about 4.6 billion years old, and the cosmos, or at least its present incarnation, is something like 10 or 20 billion years old. The Hindu tradition has a day and night of Brahma in this range, somewhere in the region of 8.4 billion years. As far as I know. It is the only ancient religious tradition on the Earth, which talks about the right time-scale… The Hindu concept is very clear. Here is a great world culture which has always talked about billions of years." Aryabhata the Elder (476-550 AD) was the first great Indian astronomer to calculate the Lunar month to be 27.3964693572 days, the oldest astronomical constant calculated to such accuracy.

Riley also credits Pythagoras for contributing to the "confluence" of the Judeo-Christian River of God. But, we know that Pythagoras (582-500 BCE) spent time in India studying both mathematics and philosophy. We also know that "in spite of its name, the Pythagorean theorem was not discovered by Pythagoras. The earliest known formulation of the theorem was written down by the Indian mathematician Baudhâyana in 800BCE. The principle was also known to the earlier Egyptian and the Babylonian master builders. However, Pythagoras may have proved the theorem and popularised it in the Greek world."

Riley observes that Pythogoras believed in reincarnation, became a vegetarian and argued vehemently for the abolition of animal sacrifices to Greek Gods. But, Riley never mentions the reported visit of Pythogoras to India!

Riley credits Plato and other Greek followers for the evolution of the concept of soul, being released from the body after death, and becoming "enlightened enough to dwell among the Gods". The atman (soul) fusing with paramatman (God) is a very ancient and basic tenet of Hinduism. That notion predates Plato's discovery!

Riley also makes the most incredible assertion, viz., "there had never been in the past a savior of the whole world, and no prophets of any culture had envisioned such a savior". The Avatars of Hinduism are referenced in Bhagavat Gita, such as "whenever there is decay of dharma and rise of adharma, then I embody myself"….."for the protection of the Good, for the destruction of the wicked and for the establishment of dharma, I am born age after age". The "I" here is a reference to the Brahman, the nameless, formless, immutable, transcendent God!

Riley states that "every human society has faith. It is given to everyone by God. Beliefs are given by one's culture and century…beliefs evolve". I submit that even one's "faith" undergoes evolution with time and experience. Even Christian faith is no exception to this, despite the Nicene Creed.

While this book can enlighten a western Christian a great deal about the evolution of his or her own Christian faith, for someone like me with roots in Orthodox Christianity and exposures to the tenets of eastern religions and the writings of Christian theologians and scholars like Mar Gregorios, Abhishekatananda and Bede Griffiths, this book left me bemused at the continuing temerity of western theologians to ignore and disregard the stellar contributions of non-Abrahamic faiths to religious thought in general and to Christianity in particular.

C. Alex Alexander

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