I am continuing with my use of older essays, written in a different context, as new blog posts. Longtime readers know I’m Catholic, but that I became so only after an extended period of studying the various world religions. This was originally written to a friend to give a brief explanation of my thinking on why, for me, at any rate, Catholicism was the right choice. I might not phrase everything quite the same way if I wrote this today; and the format is of an explanation to another person; but I am editing it but lightly, leaving it substantially as originally written. I should also point out that this is strictly personal–others of other faiths will have their own reasons for why they joined the traditions to which they adhere. This post is intended to be descriptive of myself, not evangelistic of others.
If your inclination upon reading the title of this post was to say, “What?!”, let me note that you would have been less likely to do so if I’d said, “Attaining Nirvana”. You still might wonder what the heck that has to do with Orientalism, Protestantism, and translation–we’ll get to all that–but at least you’d recognize the word “nirvana”. “Nirvana”, though a loanword from Sanskrit, has become sufficiently naturalized in English that we no longer need to use all the diacritical marks of proper Sanskrit transliteration (according to which it would be “nirvāṇa”), nor do we even have to italicize it (as is the proper usage for foreign words not considered to have been assimilated). Moreover, most people have at least a vague notion of what nirvana means. True, for most Americans not familiar with Buddhist thought, “nirvana” is more of a synonym for “paradise” than its correct meaning of “blowing out” or “extinction” in reference to finite, conditioned existence. Still, the point is that it’s hardly an unknown word to the average modern English speaker.
What’s interesting is that we use the Sanskrit term “nirvana”. The oldest scriptures of Buddhism are the so-called Pali Canon, which, though most closely associated with Hinayana* Buddhism, is more or less accepted in most existing branches of Buddhism. Pali is an ancient language of India (technically, a Middle Indo-Aryan language), and it is related to Sanskrit. The relationship of Pali to Sanskrit is somewhat like that of Italian to Latin–that is, a later language that has derived from an earlier, “classical” language. Whether Pali derived directly from Sanskrit or not is debated, but the analogy is good enough.
We’ve looked at universalism in the Abrahamic and Dharmic religions, and in a summary way in the other major (and minor) religions of the world. In this post I’d like to see what, if any, broad patterns we can find, and what their relevance is in general and in particular, specifically in regard to universalism as a concept.
In the case of traditional and folk religions, the very concept of an afterlife often seems murky–the dead inhabit a shady, insubstantial realm such as the Greek Hades or the Hebrew She’ol. Alternately, they may inhabit the realm of the deified or semi-deified ancestors. These two possibilities are not exclusive, it should be noted. Some such religions, such as that of the ancient Celts and some strands of the ancient Greek religion, had some sort of belief in reincarnation (or “metempsychosis”, as the Greeks referred to it). By and large, there is no consistent idea of reward and punishment–Heaven and Hell–in most of these faiths. To the extent that there is, it is either ambiguous or applicable only to a few (such as the Greek Elysian Fields and Tartarus) or it seems to have been imported from other religions (any notions of heavens and hells in Chinese and Japanese religion, for example, come from Buddhism).
In general, I think it fair to say that there is no clear evidence for reward and punishment in the afterlife in any of the religions that precede the Axial Age, with the probable exception of the religion of Ancient Egypt and the possible exception of Zoroastrianism (so many Zoroastrian writings have been lost and there are so many issues with dating the ones we have, that there is some ambiguity as to how old certain doctrines actually are). I think it is also safe to say that there is also no clear evidence of reward and punishment in the afterlife in the traditional and folk religions that have survived to modern times, except insofar as they’ve been influenced by so-called great or world religions.
Last time, we looked at universalism in the Abrahamic faiths. In this post, I want to look at universalism in the Dharmic religions. The Dharmic faiths are the great religions which originated in the Indian subcontinent, stemming ultimately from the ancient beliefs of the Indo-Aryan peoples. The oldest of these is the religion we refer to as Hinduism, traditionally known to its adherents as Sanātana Dharma, “the eternal religion”. From Hinduism gradually developed the Śramaṇa movement, which developed eventually into Buddhism and Jainism. The most recent of the Dharmic faiths, Sikhism, came into being in the 15th Century, evolving from the branch of Hinduism known as the Sant Mat movement.
All of the Dharmic religions share certain basic concepts. Chief among them are
- The idea of an eternal universe that goes through infinite cycles of creation, evolution, decline, and dissolution
- Many levels of existence beyond the earthly
- A belief in reincarnation or rebirth, in which beings take on numerous lives in numerous realms
- A belief in karma, the principle by which one’s actions are requited, for good or for ill, in the present life and/or future lives
- Finally, a belief that beings can ultimately end the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth (samsara) through proper spiritual practice
Having laid our the similarities, let’s look at the religions individually.
Better than a thousand hollow words
Is one word that brings peace.
Better than a thousand hollow verses
Is one verse that brings peace.
Better than a hundred hollow lines
Is one line of the law, bringing peace.
–Gautama Buddha in “The Thousands” from the Dhammapada as translated by Thomas Byrom; courtesy Wikiquote
Having looked at the Abrahamic faiths, let us turn our attention to the Dharmic religions.
The Dharmic Religions–Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism, as well as a few other minor ones, originated in India, as the Abrahamic faiths originated in the Middle East. Dharma, the central concept in these faiths, is a Sanskrit term notoriously difficult to translate. Most English speakers can’t even pronounce it right. The Sanskrit letter अ, typically tranliterated “a” is pronounced like the “u” in the English word “but”. The letter आ, transliterated “ā”, is pronounced like the “a” in “father” (or better, like the “a” in the Spanish “padre”). The diacritical marks of scholarly Sanskrit transcriptions are not often used in popular works; but in any case, “dharma” is the correct spelling and transcription. Each “a” represents अ, the short form of the vowel. Thus, “dharma” is correctly pronounced with the first syllable rhyming with “fur”, thus: DUHR-muh (there is also a puff of air after the “d”, which is why it is spelled “dh”; but few English speakers can get that correctly, and I can’t always do it right myself). English speakers almost universally rhyme the first syllable with “car”: DAHR-muh. This, quite simply, is wrong. Actually, the best known Sanskrit word borrowed into English, “karma”, should rhyme with “dharma”–the first syllable should sound like “cur”, not like “car”, thus: KUHR-muh. However, I learned the standard English pronunciation (KAHR-muh) before I learned Sanskrit phonology; and the word has become thoroughly naturalized in English with the “wrong” pronunciation. Therefore, I follow the masses in saying KAHR-muh. I do insist on holding the line on DUHR-muh, however, notwithstanding popular pronunciation or sitcoms!
If we can’t even pronounce the word, small wonder we have trouble translating it! Depending on context, “dharma” could mean any of the following: natural characteristic, moral law, path, doctrine, religion, property, sign, obligation, or duty, among others. Etymologically, it comes from a Sanskrit (and ultimately Indo-European) root meaning “firm” or “solid”. At its root, “dharma” means “natural law” or the natural principle that is characteristic of a particular thing. A rock’s dharma is to be hard; water’s is to flow; an animal’s is to follow the lifestyle of its species. Only for humans is it more complicated. A person’s dharma is the whole set of morals, ethics, obligations, and responsibilities for humans in general and for that individual in particular, according to his age, class, occupation, and state in life. For example, truthfulness, honesty, cleanliness, etc. are the dharma–appropriate behavior and way of living–for all people. A child’s dharma is to obey his or her parents, and a parent’s dharma is to provide for his or her children and raise them well. The dharma of a married person is to be a good spouse, and of a sannyasi (renunciate) to be celibate. The dharmas of a teacher, an engineer, a laborer, and a priest would all be different, according to the occupation of each.
The Dhammapada is probably the most popular piece of scripture among Buddhists, and the most widely translated. The name literally means “The Way of the Dharma”. Dharma, a Sanskrit word that is very complex to translate, in the Buddhist context most frequently means “the body of teachings given by the Buddha”. More broadly, it can refer to the entire Buddhist relgion (more precisely designated as Buddhadharma). As Christian contexts will sometimes refer to “the Faith” in the sense of “the Christian religion”, “the Dharma” can likewise be construed as a synonym for “Buddhism”. Thus “Dhammapada”–the Way of the Dharma–essentially means “the way of Buddhism” or “the way of the Buddhist religion”.
A slight pet peeve, by the way. Americans tend to assume, incorrectly, that “a” is pronounced as the “a” in “father”–ahhh–in all foreign languages. The letter अ in both Sanskrit and Pali is transliterated as “a”, and is pronounced not as “ahhh” but like the “u” in “but” or the last “a” in “America”. The letter आ, transliterated as “ā”, is properly pronounced “ahh”. I’m not always consistent about using all the proper diacritics, but all the a’s in “Dhammapada” are short. Thus, the proper pronunciation of it is something like “dum-muh-pud-uh”, accent on the first syllable. Likewise “dharma” and “karma” ought to be “duhr-muh” and “kuhr-muh”. I always pronounce “dharma” correctly (though very few Americans do), but “karma” is so much assimilated that I pronounce it “kahhr-muh”, since the correct pronunciation would sound odd and confuse people. Sigh.