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In Praise of the Cat Path; or, I Can’t Save Me

Heaven help me I’m
Drownin’ and I can’t save me
Send some salvation
To keep me alive
–Anna Nalick, “Satellite”

On Facebook, posts with cats get lots of traffic.  Maybe the same will be true of my blog because of this post!  😉  Even if not, cats are never out of place….

Back here, I made reference to the Hindu concept of cat paths (or religions) and monkey paths.  Though I had originally encountered the term long ago–probably sometime in the 80’s–I couldn’t remember the original source of the metaphor (though I think it was in something by Huston Smith).  I did find a worthwhile and very readable discussion of the concepts here.

The poles of my religious life are Buddhism and Christianity.  I was raised in a vague and generic cultural Protestantism, without ever belonging to a church.  When I read the Dhammapada in my freshman year of college, it was the beginning of a long flirtation with and study of Buddhism, though once more I never actually took refuge or joined a sangha.  Eventually, I moved back towards Christianity, eventually joining the Catholic Church twenty-eight years ago and change.  Throughout all this time, and up to the present day, I have periodically practiced Buddhist forms of meditation and Catholic devotions.  It has been a sort of oscillation between the two ends of the spectrum, Buddhism and Christianity.

However, when I reread the Bhagavad Gita, I discovered that I was actually more Hindu than I thought.  Why that’s so I discussed here.  The point I want to make is that in some ways Hinduism does a better job of categorizing human religious thought and response than either Buddhism or Christianity manage to do.  This is probably because of Hinduism’s long-standing and in fact dizzying pluralism, coupled with its enormous antiquity and the availability of holy men and scholars who have analyzed Hindu thought for millennia.  These sages have long realized that human temperaments are varied, and that each relates best to the Absolute–i.e. God–in different ways.  Thus, despite my tendency to ping-pong around the poles of Buddhism and Christianity, I think that using Hindu categories will be most effective for this post.  Thus, I’ll put on my sannyasi robes and adopt a Hindu perspective for what follows.  Namaste, and let’s start!

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The Bhagavad Gītā

I grew up in a small town in the Bible Belt.  There were only a few more residents in my hometown–800–than students in the high school I went to–about 700 (my high school was in the county seat, with a population of 5000, which is still equivalent only to about two big-city high schools).  Until I was in my teens, I thought the only two religions that existed were “Baptist” and “Methodist”; and I was none too sure as to what the differences between them were, aside from their names.  As with most small-town, Bible Belt kids of the 70’s, I put in my time in Sunday school and vacation Bible school, though I avoided actual church services on Sunday like the plague (I went–was dragged, actually–to church maybe two three times before I was eighteen, and went about two or three times more, all of which were funerals, between eighteen and twenty-six).

I did have an old children’s literature book that my mother had had in college, which had a few of the Jātaka Tales, as well as a Hindu myth or two, in it.  Thus I did have some exposure to other religions and cultures in my youth, though in a spotty and inchoate way.  I was very much into Greek and Norse mythology, of which I read reams, but those were not living traditions (well, not then, anyway, as far as I knew), so for the purposes of discussion here, I leave them out.

When I was eighteen, I moved off to a college of 25,000 in a city of (at that time) 100,000 that was 130 miles from my home, in a part of my home state that was very much different from my hometown, both geographically and culturally.  By this time, in the process of researching a term paper on Islam in my senior year of high school (the Iranian Hostage Crisis was still in the news then), I had read Huston Smith’s classic The Religions of Man (since renamed to the more gender-inclusive The World’s Religions).  I had resolved to learn as much as I could about all the major religions.  Between the ages of seventeen and twenty, I read the King James Bible and the New English Bible, as I have discussed elsewhere.  Meanwhile, as has been mandatory for overly intellectual middle-class white kids since the 60’s, I read books of Asian wisdom in my freshman year at college (between the ages of eighteen and nineteen).  Specifically, I read (in what order, I don’t recall) the Koran, the Dhammapada, the Dao De Jing, and the Bhagavad Gītā (henceforth I dispense with the macrons, since the book has become sufficiently well-known for its title to have become partly Anglicized).  Read the rest of this entry