I’ve been interested in comparative religion ever since my university days, when I used to spend hours listening to recordings of talks given by the philosopher Alan Watts. Watts, with his knack for communicating Zen paradoxes, has these days become somewhat of a cult figure in spiritual circles.
After joining a central London library a few weeks ago I felt eager to explore the Religion section, and was delighted to find a couple of shelves dedicated entirely to works of comparative religion. I’m sure the contents of these books could keep me entertained for years, but in this post I just want to talk briefly about one book which has been a delight to read, and which I would highly recommend.
The book is entitled Upanishads, Gita, and Bible and was written in 1962 by an English philosopher named Geoffrey Parrinder. I was unable to find out much about the author, except that he was a Methodist minister for some time, published around 30 books in his lifetime, and was active as a professor at Kings College London until 1977. He also undertook extensive missionary work in West Africa.
It was interesting that when reading this book, I had no idea whether Parrinder was writing from a Christian, Hindu, or other standpoint, such was the impressive impartiality of his writing. It was only after finishing the book that I discovered he had been a Christian minister.
The book’s structure is clear and intuitive. It begins with a comparison of the creation stories of the Bible and the Indian religions, before proceeding to tackle many of the key topics of fruitful interfaith dialogue, including ‘The One and the Many’, ‘What is Man?’, ‘Immortality’, ‘Mysticism’, ‘Conduct and Suffering’, and a few others. The subject matter is tackled with a great depth of knowledge, and as I read the book I felt as though each paragraph had been carefully and thoughtfully constructed, with no words wasted.
There were a few insights in the book that really struck me, and which I believe will stay with me for years to come. By way of example, I will share three insights that really stood out for me.
1. Parrinder points out that the Bible, and in particular the Old Testament, is very sketchy when it comes to the idea of souls. This is something that has occurred to me in the past, and I once wrote an essay on the subject. It is very difficult to discern what a soul might be from what is written in the Torah.
2. The author used a phrase that really struck me. He described the human experience as being a journey ‘from the alone to the Alone’. This captures something very beautiful about Eastern spirituality; the idea that the individual, upon death, is absorbed into the being of God. This short phrase expresses the relationship between the Atman (the human soul) and Brahman (the universal soul).
3. Another beautiful concept from the book is that the Eastern religions have an ‘I-it’ relationship with God, whereas the Abrahamic religions have an ‘I-Thou’ relationship with the divine. The difference, of course, is that in the first example God is not personal, whereas He is in the second. This is an important distinction between Hinduism and the Abrahamic religions, and a fascinating point for interfaith discussion.
I know that among the readers of this blog there are many Christians who are very sceptical of non-Christian religious traditions. I do understand and respect that, having been an evangelical Christian myself in the past. But I would suggest that to open one’s mind to the beliefs of billions of people who have lived and died outside of the Christian faith is a wonderfully enriching thing to do.
I would love to read more of Parrinder’s works, and I note from a quick search that he has written books on the Qur’an, African Mythology, the Wisdom of Jesus, as well as many other interesting topics. If you’re looking for a book that contrasts Eastern and Western traditions in a clear and intelligent way, Upanishads, Gita and Bible will serve you well.