Colbert: Try Hinduism for Lent

On Ash Wednesday, you announced that you were giving up Catholicism for Lent and would try out other religions during the season. May I suggest Hinduism?
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Dear Stephen:

On Ash Wednesday, you announced that you were giving up Catholicism for Lent and would try out other religions during the season. May I suggest Hinduism? I think it's a perfect fit: only with Hinduism can you give up Christianity for Lent and still worship Jesus.

Seriously, you can. I know it sounds strange, but one of the unique merits of the Indian spiritual heritage that colonial powers labeled Hinduism is that it's so multifaceted it makes Christianity, Judaism and Islam seem uniform by comparison. You know all those deities -- the gods and goddesses that cause outsiders to think Hinduism is polytheistic? To Hindus, they're just different forms of the one ultimate reality called Brahman. Same with avatars like Krishna and Rama. So there's plenty of room for Jesus. Most Hindus are happy to include him -- along with Buddha -- in the pantheon of incarnations, saints, gurus and holy ones they regard as worthy of reverence.

In fact, if you visit any number of organizations created by Indian teachers in America, such as Swami Vivekananda's Vedanta Society or Paramahansa Yogananda's Self-Realization Fellowship, you will see portraits of Jesus in places of honor. And in some of those institutions, Christians who want to be initiated with a sacred mantra are invited to choose one associated with Jesus -- or with Mary, if they're inclined toward the Divine Feminine. It's part of a concept known as ishta devata, or cherished deity.

For thousands of years, India has understood that the divine can be imagined and experienced in all kinds of ways, as in the oft-quoted verse from the Rig Veda, Ekam sat vipraha bahudha vadanti -- typically translated as, "Truth is one, the wise call it by many names." Hence, individuals are free to use their preferred form in their spiritual practices.

The point is, Stephen, you'll feel right at home in most Hindu-derived teaching lineages, or even in a more traditional Hindu temple. Some Christians have trouble getting past that one-and-only-savior-of-all-mankind thing, but you'll be fine since that's part of what you've given up for Lent.

You might know that there is a long and honorable history of Christians who draw from Eastern spiritual traditions, usually deepening their connection to their own religion as a result. (The same is true of a great number of Jews, by the way, so you can approach this as either the Catholic you've always been or the temporary Jew you became when you gave up Catholicism for Lent.) Hundreds of years ago some Jesuit missionaries in India had a change of heart when they delved into the religion of the people they were sent to convert. Seems it had something to teach the would-be converters.

Closer to our time, you may have heard of Bede Griffiths, the late British monk whose monastery in South India, Shantivanam ("forest of peace"), is still a revered destination for pilgrims. Father Bede's Christian soul was deepened by Hindu ideas and practices, inspiring him to teach that each religion is "a face of the one Truth, which manifests itself under different signs and symbols." And I'm sure you know about Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk whose 1948 memoir, The Seven Storey Mountain, made him a worldwide spiritual celebrity. "I believe that by openness to Buddhism, to Hinduism ... we stand a wonderful chance of learning more about the potentiality of our own traditions," he wrote.

You'll be in good company during your time as a Hindu. While researching my book, American Veda, I interviewed dozens of Christians and Jews -- among them ministers and rabbis -- who returned to their ancestral faith after a lengthy period of alienation or indifference, because the teachings that were birthed in India gave them a new perspective on what it means to be spiritual. And you don't have to wear a dhoti, put a mark on your forehead (you've already done that for Ash Wednesday anyway) or declare your allegiance to anything. There is no Hindu equivalent of what we call conversion. You don't even have to call yourself a Hindu for that matter. I know it seems weird, but the tradition is so adaptable and welcoming that tens of millions of Americans orient their spiritual lives around meditation, yoga and other practices from India but don't think of themselves as Hindus. Even some Indians prefer the older, pre-colonial term, Sanatana Dharma, which means, essentially, "eternal path."

So try it on for Lent, and let the Colbert nation know how it goes. If you have any questions, I'll be happy to come on your show and help you out, in return for the Colbert Bump.

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