A Vedantist’s View of Mary
Just as there are places in the ocean where it remains so cold that the icebergs do not melt, Sri Ramakrishna tells us, explaining the idea of ‘spiritual archetypes,’ so are there icebergs of divinity, Forms of Deity virtually permanent, dwelling in the cosmic mind, created “by the cooling influence, so to speak, of the love of the devotees; only when the Sun of Knowledge burns fierce in the sky do these personal Forms disappear.” These Forms of God are seen, he said, by those devoted to them, heard –even touched– in the realm of mystical vision. It is in this way that God responds to the pleas and longings of the human heart.
From the viewpoint of a Vedantist (1), Western religious culture seems singularly lacking in two spiritual archetypes: the Mother Deity and the Heroine. Judaism and Christianity, the traditional religions of the Western world, suffer, it appears to some Vedantists, from a paucity of outstanding spiritual role-models of the feminine. Catholicism has ‘made do’ to some extent with the figure of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the Mother and Intercessor roles. My purpose here is to explore some of the implications of this, both for the individual and the society, and to ask whether an expanded appreciation of Mary, mother of Jesus, may, on the basis of Vedantic tradition and hermeneutics, be of any value to Christians.
Robert Johnson, author and lecturer, student of C.G. Jung, in a recent public address on the “Hero: Male and Female,” began by saying that he felt compelled to abandon the word ‘heroine’ because of what Hollywood and the rest have done to it; he would speak rather on the Hero archetype, male, then female, and would relate myths appropriate to each. When he came to the place in his address for the discussion of the female hero, he acknowledged that he had had to turn away from the West in frustration and go to the East for his stories.
He began with the Indian tale of Savitri. Johnson, in true Jungian vein, would have none of the male role-playing of Western women heroes; Jeanne d’Arc and the rest were not for him. The anima was to be illustrated by those characters which had embodied her almost nameless, indefinable qualities –the affairs of the heart, the interpersonal relationships which, he felt, are the forte, the hallmark, of all we call woman. External action did not delineate the Hero in women, but a kind of internal –what? Resilience? Catalytic power?
All of this seems quite in place to the Vedantist, at home in a tradition of Father-Mother God and the expectation that with the reappearing avatar may come the latter’s female counterpart to play out her own kind of hero role. When asked to speculate on why he had had to go for his feminine heroes to the East and in particular to India, Robert Johnson replies, “Well, they have never thrown the Goddesses out of their temples. There they all are, for all to see, adore, and emulate.”
But surely the Blessed Virgin Mary is a feminine heroic figure for the West. Can she not be taken as archetypal, both as Hero and Mother? And if so, are we limited in our discussion to what is said of her in scripture and tradition? Or are there not much wider considerations?
What is Meant by the Motherhood of God
Let us venture to do what Johnson found nearly impossible: attempt to define the anima in terms of what the Deity-as-Mother actually is. Of what is She the archetype? First, the Womb, the Source, “That from which all beings have come, by which they are sustained, and into which they enter again when they depart.” Then, Closeness: the masculine role separates the father from the child, while the feminine contains and nourishes in organic unity. Surely it is more than coincidence that many great paintings of Madonna and Child show the Babe outside her in nearly the same fetal position he was formerly inside her. Next, All-encompassing Love, impartial and unrefusing, is what we associate with motherhood (2). And with this, of course, Forbearance and Forgiveness, those twins, one passive, one active, without which mother is no mother at all. Again, she is Constant Presence and Guidance, “who, watching over Israel, slumbers not, nor sleeps.” India has a favorite word: Auspiciousness, favorableness, grace and mercy, fulfilling all our wants and needs. Healing and restorative power are associated with the maternal in nearly all cultures and in liturgy, both orthodox and unorthodox. Finally, let us not at all omit Playfulness, so essential for rounding out the portrait of a Mother, and so often piously overlooked (except by Sri Ramakrishna!) This whole world, says the Vedanta, is Her play.
In a word, God as the Mother is Integration. One can see that for the Hindu, She has never ceased to be Eve, mother of all the living, and the Great Earth Mother, home for us all. For many, ‘Mother Earth’ has never been a mere metaphor. Thinkers today propound the Gaia hypothesis, suggesting that Earth herself is alive and urging that her life be respected.
For many in the West, the Blessed Virgin already embodies many of these aspects, if not theologically, then at least psychologically. Can this image be enlarged into a fuller archetypal role? Can a Vedantist’s view of Mary be helpful?
As a first approach to how a Vedantist might regard the Blessed Virgin Mary, we need to be aware of what it means to share the life of a Divine Incarnation. Since the Incarnation of God (which many Vedantists believe Jesus to be) lives externally much as we do, his associates –family members, companions, teachers– benefit by exposure to his divine character as it manifests variously in aspects of his life. In the same measure as they themselves are spiritually developed and perceptive, to that degree are they encircled with his radiance, and in special cases express the divine glory through their own characters. Indian spiritual traditions, as we shall see, provide numerous examples. May we not use, with regard to Jesus’ Mother, a term such as co-Incarnation, when we consider how much of his life she appears to have shared and supported?
But there is more to it than that. Let us consider the framework in which Deity is conceived (or better, ‘experienced’) in the Indian tradition.
Stages of the Godhead’s Manifestation
The basic Vedantic doctrine is that Brahman, or Godhead, is, in Itself, not contained in forms and is undefinable by any quality whatsoever. Approached by the human mind, this Being appears to take on personality, response, the divine qualities, the archetypal forms –and in the case of the historical incarnation, can even dwell on earth in flesh. Sought by the various peoples of the earth, each in accordance with their own faith, traditions and expectations, it is the one Brahman which has manifested itself as Yahweh, as Shiva, Krishna, the Buddha, the Tao, the Christ. “Truth is One; people call it by various names” (Rig Veda).
With this plurality of revelation as its basis, Vedanta countenances no doctrine of exclusivity, such as God’s having ‘chosen’ one race or culture over another; nor can the supposed claim of an Incarnation to be, personally, the only manifestation of God, or a messenger’s or prophet’s assertion of ultimacy in history, be seriously entertained. In the words of Sri Ramakrishna, “The Avatara is always one and the same. Having plunged into the ocean of life, the one God rises up at one point and is known as Krishna, and when after another plunge, He rises up at another point, He is known as Christ.” (3)
Thus we see in nature, or what we call the world, a three-stage manifestation of the Infinite, Undivided and Unchanging: Its assumption of formless Personality and Presence; of archetypal and iconographic Forms (the Gods); and finally of biologic birth, passing through various evolutionary forms and ending with the human being. Although the last is alleged to have taken place several times in history, male figures have certainly predominated in God’s choice of vehicle. Yet the fact the He has come sucessively as Rama, Krishna, the Buddha, the Christ, does not preclude that She can and has come in a female body. And there are those, especially among the partisans of the Tantra philosophy (4), who explicitly proclaim such manifestations.
One Who “Goes With”
Such openness as regards the gender of manifested divinity may be supposed an attitude of recent, or at least historical, times, but that appears contradicted by the existence of an ancient Indian icon known as Ardhanarisvara, “God who is half-woman,” the conception of which dates back at least to the Manu Smriti.(5) Here we see the perfect androgyne: the left half of the body female, the right, male. But in the cases of the very widely acknowledged incarnations of Divinity, the tradition shows us an accompanying ‘consort,’ and if we use this word in an unrestricted sense (literally, one who “goes with”), the reader can see where our prospect lies: the possibility of the Blessed Virgin Mary taking her place alongside Sita (Rama), Radha (Krishna), Yashodhara (Siddartha, the Buddha), Vishnupriya (Chaitanya) and Sarada Devi (Ramakrishna).
Tantric philosophy (given expression in the early centuries of the Common Era), especially as employed by Sri Ramakrishna, places before us the concept that the Deity, as soon as it is endowed with qualities, shows itself to us as the eternal archetypal male-female: Shiva-Shakti, to use the generic term. Shiva, the Absolute, the passive witness of creation, appears as all men, everything that is masculine; Shakti, the active, creative force of the universe appears as all that is female. The two are inseparable, like fire and its power to burn. When devotees see Rama or Krishna as Shiva’s embodiment, they understand that his divine consort is right at hand. The same is true for devotees of Sita or Radha. But there is a Tantric doctrine going even further, asserting that Shakti is the more powerful –the key, or access, to oneness with Shiva.
Shiva and Shakti In Sucessive Incarnations
Now the story of Sri Ramachandra and his wife Sita was current much earlier (whatever may be the late date now assigned by scholars to the text of the Ramayana) and belong to Vaishnavism; applications of Tantrik doctrine to the advent of this divine pair come from outside, so to speak, and are by hindsight –which is not to say they are invalid. We see no objection to interpreting an ancient story in the light of the developing human understanding and continuing divine revelation; it is just such a hermeneutic which the Vedantist can offer the devotees of the Blessed Virgin Mary for their consideration.
The tale of Rama and Sita pervades Indian culture and is regarded as almost an archetype of the drama of divinity on earth. It is Sita, earliest of the consorts, who may lay claim to having the largest share in the enactment of the avatar-play, and to fulfilling the criteria of divine incarnation. “Sita,” Swami Vivekananda remarks, “is unique; that character was depicted once and for all. There may have been several Ramas, perhaps, but never more than one Sita! She is the very type of the true Indian woman, for all the Indian ideals of a perfected woman have grown out of that one life of Sita; and here she stands these thousands of years, commanding the worship of every man, woman and child throughout the length and breadth of the land… She who suffered… without a murmur, she the ever-chaste and ever-pure wife, she the ideal of the people, the ideal of the gods, the great Sita, our national God she must ever remain.” (6)
When we come to Radha and Krishna –and be it noted that on the lips of many followers, as well as in holy writ, her name most often precedes his– we have a similar female-male drama. The Gopi-Lila, or play of the Cowherdgirls with the Divine Cowherd, has, through the mythopoetic process, singled out Radha as chief of the Gopis and prototypical sweetheart of the Lord, the ‘bride of God.’ It is Radha, childhood companion of Sri Krishna and ecstatic exemplar of the modes of Divine Love, rather than his wedded wife, whom tradition has placed in the position of Shakti. The point is that the freely given love of the heart is higher, and makes a more intimate bond, than the merely legal spousal tie of an arranged marriage, and it is the former that is held up as the ideal of human union with God. So clearly is this set forth and formalized in Vaishnavism that it is said of Sri Chaitanya, the fifteenth century saint, that he was not only a second incarnation of Krishna but of Krishna and Radha together, born to enjoy within his own life-drama the divine bliss of separation and union of these two.
Without consulting the Buddhists, many Hindus would fit into this framework of the recurring avatara, Gautama Buddha, born Siddartha, prince of the Sakyas and teacher of Nirvana. Gautama’s story is a very human one. His spiritual maturation and attaining of Enlightenment is the basis of attention and not a claim to divinity, and according to his own words and the Buddhist faith, such Enlightenment is accessible to everyone. Perhaps because of this preference for the humanistic and non-supernatural in the life of the Buddha, his princess, Yasodhara, has not generally been deified. Yet there is a mythological tradition in which the Buddha relates how the soul of Yasodhara has accompanied his in life after life. In the Gautama story we see her steadfastness and total devotion, her renunciation as she also dons the yellow cloth and lives the ascetic life, from the day he left her to find a solution to the misery of the world. Is it her spiritual power which secretly sustains him? There may be good reason for Yasodhara’s occupying the place of spiritual companion and divine consort of Gautama the Buddha.
For those who accept Sri Ramakrishna’s affirmation that he was indeed another of these “huge waves” of divinity, cast this time upon the shores of our era, the case of Sri Sarada Devi, the Holy Mother, being fresh in the mind and well-documented, is unambiguous. We see her first as the little girl society has made ‘wife’ to the “madman of Dakshineswar,” in an attempt by his relatives to normalize him. When as maiden and disciple she later becomes a part of Ramakrishna’s daily life, we find that astonishing master placing her, one evening, upon the worship-dais as the image of the Divine Mother Herself. The Holy Mother’s life proceeds by stages to reinvoke in its own quiet way those of Sita and Radha. Monks and statesmen bow before her. The greatest figure in the theater of the day dares not let his worldly eyes fall upon her form. In that total equality of the sexes which India has never denied on the spiritual plane, Sarada Devi becomes Guru and Mother to hundreds. She moves with her entourage from temple to school to relief-station, dedicating, blessing. Yet through all she remains the woman, the anima complete, reticent, subtle –almost unseen. Some Vedantists find in the Holy Mother an even greater store of divine power and glory than in Sri Ramakrishna himself!
Mary, A Special Case?
This subtlety and reticence characterize also the Blessed Virgin Mary. What we know of her from scripture is more by implication than delineation. We see her before and at Jesus’ birth, at the time of his being offered to the Lord in the temple; giving a parental rebuke in his twelfth year, and receiving one, we might say, from him, at the wedding feast. Had the divine Son prepared her for that most devastating of renunciatory blows –“Who is my mother?” Then, at the crucifixion, the tenderness of his consigning her to John, and we have our last glimpse as she prays in the company of the early followers of Christ.
Some see prophecies of Mary in the Old Testament, in the promise of a woman who would, by the fruit of her womb, reverse the guilt of Eve. But according to Vedantists, other types of data besides scriptural references are needed for the estimation of the divinity of a spiritual figure, and in the case of Mary, these are available.
As Edith Dean says, “Adoration of her is ageless, classless, raceless, and timeless. Each nation where the Christian message lives thinks of both the Madonna and Child as their own. Her face may carry the features of the southern European in one great painting, the Ethiopian in another, and the Oriental in another.We find great representations of the Madonna up and down Europe, Asia, Africa, North America, South America –in fact everywhere that the New Testament has shed its light.” (7)
Yet other questions must be asked: Does she appear in the visions –and dreams– of numerous devotees and aspirants throughout the centuries? Is her representation or image put in countless places of worship, reverence, veneration or simple remembrance? Does calling upon her by name prove fruitful in spiritual terms, and to what extent –for in this last is understood the subtle difference between an incarnation and a saint. Have the accumulated prayers and devotions of loving souls gone into the making of this form an archetype of the Spiritual Collective Unconscious? If so, then Mary’s would be the unique case of the Consort as Mother of the Avatar, with all the additional subtle implications of this for the devotees’ relating themselves to God.
Vedantists, who have applied these criteria to Sri Ramakrishna and Sri Sarada Devi and found that the evidence confirms them equally as manifestations of divinity on earth, find it easy to read back into the Christ advent a similar double avatara-hood. Accepted Christian, or at least Roman Catholic, teaching is that the Blessed Virgin Mary may only be venerated, not adored. Vedantists, however, find themselves drawn to worship the Mother and Son together. This shows plainly, for instance, in the traditional Christmas Eve celebrations of the Ramakrishna Order, when the worship centers on a representation of the Virgin and Child and the liturgical prayers and hymns and offerings are made to Mary as much as to Jesus. We have here the perhaps curious circumstance of a sacred figure receiving greater honor outside the tradition which claims her than within it.
Her presence in spiritual traditions other than her own is one example of an expanded appreciation of Mary. Seeing her as archetypal Mother and Hero is another. Raising the question of accepting her as co-Incarnation is yet a third. A final suggestion from a Vedantist’s point of view is the vision of the archetypal Mother in her cosmic role: her significance and power in the integrating and nurturing of all creation.
Most Hindus understand God as the material as well as the efficient cause of creation. The Upanishads, the revealed scriptures of Vedanta, make clear that when the Creator conceived and gave birth to this creation, He –or She– entered into it and became its very substance. What would be the effect, in a world of vengeful violence, racial enmity, despoilage and wasteful consumption, if all Christendom thought of the Earth as the body of Mary?
Words like ‘holistic,’ have a modern ring. But the East has long understood, consciously or subconsciously, the universe to be the body of God. Centuries before philosophers and theologians in the West sifted these matters out, the sages of India were holding debates about the primordial trinity of God, souls, and nature. Although schools of various shades of opinion resulted and relationships were explained in various ways, the consensus was never in doubt: these three form an impartibly organic whole. And the Divine Mother is the Figure which holds them all in one.
Recently the ancient vision of the cosmic power of Christ as Pantokrator has been renewed and offered in alliance with modern science by such thinkers as Teilhard de Chardin. There is not only a divine Christ and a human Christ, but a Cosmic Christ. And shall she who is admitted to be the Mother of God, of the Divine Christ, not also be acknowledged as the Mother of the Cosmic Christ? the Cosmic Mother?
These have been some suggestions of how a Vedantist would –and in some instances does– view the Blessed Virgin Mary, and of how Vedantic conceptions of the world and of God might be of interest to Christians who feel that there is some further revelation still hidden in the mysterious figure of Mary, something important for our world and our time. Some of these ideas and values have been making timid approaches to the backdoor, where they sometimes almost slip in. Whether Christians may come in future to reassess the Blessed Virgin and eventually, opening the front door, find Her already there, is the question.
(1) ‘Vedanta’ and ‘Vedantist’ are used throughout as applicable
to the movement so named by Swami Vivekananda, spread by him
and others in India and the West.
(2) Dame Julian of Norwich: “As truly as God is our
Father, so truly is God our Mother, and he revealed that in everything,
and especially in these sweet words where he says, ‘I am he,
the power and goodness of fatherhood; I am he, the wisdom and
the lovingness of motherhood…” Showings (New
York: Paulist, 1978), pp. 295-96.
(3) Swami Abhedananda, ed., The Sayings of Ramakrishna
(New York: Vedanta Society, 1961), p. 37.
(4) Included in Vedanta as defined above.
(6)The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda (Calcutta:
Advaita Ashrama, 1979), III, 255-56.
(7) Edith Dean, All the Women of the Bible (New
York: Harper, 1955), p. 157.