Recently, a friend sent me an astonishingly powerful study for an icon of Ss John and Prochoros. Pondering it, I recalled that a few years ago, a friend had given me a copy of Ravi Ravindra’s book Christ the Yogi. At the time, I did not read it, remembering seeing Ravindra speak in Sydney and having a fair idea of what I could expect (see below). But now that I was contemplating this extraordinary art, I began to wonder if I had not been too rash. Might that book contain any new insights? Well, having read it, I cannot pretend that I think it does, but that raises the question of what can be achieved by studies of the Gospels. To anticipate, about this book in particular, I would say that it strikes me as misguided: a product of sentimentality, not thought, lacking even in basic common sense. However, the exercise of considering it helped me come to a better understanding of the value of the ancient Semitic method of reading Scripture in accordance with what we might call typology. I return to that at the end of this piece. There are two sections, then, to this review: the critical, and the constructive. The latter is the more important, but to get there we have to begin with some ground clearing.
Part One: Critical
The idea of Christ as a yogi, or of His teaching as being universalist, referring to some sort of “Cosmic Christ” or “Christ within us,” was hackneyed before Ravindra put pen to paper for this effort. Stephen Prothero has a chapter titled “Oriental Christ” in his valuable study, American Jesus (2003). I almost made the image for this post the painting Christ the Yogi by Eugene Theodosia Oliver, painted in the 1920s (p.267). Suffice to say, it represents a step forward in the feminisation of religion also mentioned by Prothero (p.66), with an effeminate Jesus meditating in a jungle, surrounded by cute birds and animals. As Prothero states: “In the contest between the feminisers and the masculinises of Jesus, the Vedantists cast their lot with the feminisers” (276).
The roots of Christ the Yogi are traced back to the sixteenth century, and especially to Ramakrishna’s stated vision of 1874 and three books on Christ seen from a Hindu perspective, by Hindus, in 1900, 1923, and 1949 (270-271). More explicit than Ravindra, but to the same effect, they see Jesus Christ as one avatar of the divine, but not the only one (272). Indeed: “Vedantists further distinguished themselves from their Christian neighbours by arguing that all human beings can become Christs” (279). They not claimed that they could interpret Jesus, they asserted that they understood Him better than Christians (280).
Turning then to Ravindra, the thing which most surprises is me is how derivative his portrait of Christ is, how slavish he is before standard academic opinions: thus, in flat contradiction of the tradition, he says of the Gospel of St John “it is not clear who wrote this Gospel” (9), and that the so-called “Prologue” of 1:1-18 “is an independent hymn,” a matter for which there is no evidence whatsoever, although it is often asserted on the basis of certain considerations. Of course, he is meekly following academics, but he is predisposed to follow them, because if he accepted John 1:18 as the authentic words of an eye-witness to Christ’s ministry, then he cannot maintain his a-historic “Christ” shorn of the irreducible uniqueness of the historical fact of the Incarnation. And there, in a nutshell, is the central problem with this book: he is going to read St John like a good Gurdjieff-flavoured Hindu would, and no facts or logic will stop him.
Then, many of Ravindra’s assertions are inconsequential: e.g. “To believe, which is connected with the English word beloved, in John’s Gospel, is not far in meaning from to recognise and to see” (15). First, so what? Let us say the two words are connected: what follows? Second, why is a putative English connection relevant to a Greek text, probably written describing a teaching produced in Aramaic? But is there an English connection? Since Ravindra does not give his sources, it is hard to say what he bases himself on. I have consulted Chambers Dictionary of Etymology under “believe,” “believe,” and “love,” there is no entry for “beloved.” I also checked Skeat. Neither states that there is any connection. However, I can see a possibility that the two root elements “lieve” and “love” may be very anciently related, the basic meaning being to attribute value to something. But the connection is not close, and I cannot find any authority who makes the connection implicit.
This reminded me of notes I had made of a talk Ravindra gave at the Theosophical Society in Sydney on 23 May 2005. On that occasion, he said that “Nikodemos” means “ruler of men,” when in fact it means “victory of the people, and that “baptize” means to “immerse in suffering,” when in fact it means to wash or plunge in water. I have checked these with the recent Cambridge Greek Lexicon.
Taking the book as a whole, his method is to impose his theory on the material. This is the basis of the fundamental idea that when Our Lord says “I am the way,” this is a way of saying: “I am is the way,” i.e. of turning the teaching of the Gospel of St John into the Gurdjieff teaching (e.g. page 166). This, of course, goes back to at least A.R. Orage. When, however, he pontificates about “the right flow of energies,” (167) he takes a little something he has understood, possible from de Salzmann, and makes a rigid principle of it.
I continually came across passages like this: “Since all fear is connected with a certain kind of wishing and temptation …” (71). Really? What kind, one might ask? An infant fears loud noises, and drops to all fours if it is standing. Where is the wishing? Where the temptation? I do not see it at all as Ravindra does: first, I see no “fear” in the passage where he claims to see it, but then, I would distinguish different fears, e.g. instinctive from emotional fear.
The treatment of Judas is also predictable. Ravindra takes Gurdjieff’s comments about Judas quite literally, but instead of saying “Gurdjieff said this, and I think there may be something in it, this is why,” he presents his reading of Judas as if he discovered them himself. For example, he declares: “It is an insult to Jesus Christ to think that he had so little insight into human character that he did not see the quality (of Judas)” (156). The assumption, the unstated assumption here, is that if Jesus had known what Judas would do, He would not have had him amongst His apostles. After all, if I believe that, although knowing what Judas was like, Our Lord allowed him a place so that the divine plan might be fulfilled, there is no “insult.”
Part Two: Constructive
Yet, I feel a distaste in just getting stuck into Ravindra for his sentimentality, lack of logic, and projecting his own already formed conclusions onto the material, much as I think it necessary. Rather than continue in that vein, what I think we can salvage from this is that there is a great mystery in the four Gospels, and not only in the Gospel of St John, and it is pointless to try and rephrase or reinterpret them in other terms or according to other perspectives.
At the end of the day, formatory apparatus can only portray the Gospels as the results of formatory thought. Even if it uses the ideas of esotericism, the reality escapes it. There are certain things which one cannot define, but one can describe. There are other things which one cannot even describe to any great advantage. In a very real way, the study of Ss John and Prochoros better illumines the Gospel than this moderate-length book.
This is part of the attraction of typology, for me. The ancient Semitic method of assimilating scripture according to the types it portrays means not interpreting it but rather seeing it in our lives. It is to say, “when Our Lord does this, His action is a type.” Then, in my life, that type can be applied as an antitype. I start to see the ways in which I can follow Jesus. I don’t need to produce a philosophy from it, or simply spray paint the Gospel with Gurdjieff. I treat it with respect as an integral product of a saint.
Ouspensky understood this rather well: his approach was that the Gospel was written by the evangelist using higher hydrogens, and that if we read it while remembering ourselves, there is a possibility that the traces of this work can spark something in us, so that the higher blends with the lower to actualise the middle.
And that, I would say, is part of the mystery of typology: in contemplating the Gospel, the higher (the force with which the Gospel was created), blends with the lower (our initial state), to actualise a middle. But the lower has to be in lawful relation to the higher, that is, it cannot be formatory. Formatory thought is too low to blend with that energy. One must already be in a higher part of the mind for the blending to occur.