Some Modern Hindu Approaches to Judaism

Judaism as a religion does not fit into the Indian worldview. Jews are just thought of as another separate dharma like Parsees or in this case dharma yahud. We are not usually in their thinking about religion but when we are it is usually as a mis- characterization or a discussion of something else. So here are four Hindu leader to help us understand how they see us.

When you read these texts my question is: which of these statements are just like the opinions of Christians who did not know Jews used to have eighty years ago and will be self-correcting, which are linked to a modernist moment, which are self-defense from Christians in which Jews are safe target to defend themselves, and which need correcting. I am starting with this post before any post on Indian religions because I want my Jewish readers to get a sense that their knowledge of Hinduism is as well informed as the Hindu knowledge of Judaism. This is what non-academic Jews who discuss Hinduism sound like. So read these and help me process them. This post is not to criticize Hinduism but to gauge the initial gap between faiths.Bear in mind that Jews in India have never experience any iota of persecution or prejudice.

(1) Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan thought Judaism had been superseded by Christianity, (2) Surendranath Dasgupta- Judaism is primitive compared to Hinduism (3) Swami Vivekanda -Judaism does not see its own idolatry (4) Sai Baba- went from ignoring to synthesizing random thoughts.

The first author we will look at Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan (1888 –1975) was an Indian philosopher and statesman who was the first Vice President of India (1952–1962) and the second President of India from 1962 to 1967.He was one of India’s most influential scholars of comparative religion and philosophy, Radhakrishnan built a bridge between the East and the West by showing how the philosophical systems of each tradition are comprehensible within the terms of the other. He wrote authoritative exegeses of India’s religious and philosophical literature for the English-speaking world. His academic appointments included University of Oxford (1936–1952).

Radhakrishnan was influenced by the Protestant thought of his time, painting Judaism as legalistic and primitive compared to Christainity.

The Hindu religion is marked by an eminently rational character…The Bramanical civilization is so called since it is directed by the Brahmin thinkers trained to judge issues without emotion and base their conclusions on the fundamentals of experience.

Jesus tolerated the inferior Mosaic law which was far less than the highest ideals.

Yahweh of the Old Testament was essentially a national deity. Israel remained God’s chosen race and the heathen nations who would submit to his authority and come to worship at Zion would occupy a position of subjection.

Jesus was much hampered by his Jewish heritage. Jesus already understood God’s immanence. Jesus’s message was to overcome the false [Jewish] antithesis between man and God. Man and God are akin “That art Thou”

Why did Hinduism not eradicate the idols? Answer: Because India is a immense country unlike the small area of Dan to Beer Sheva

The Hindu thinkers, while they themselves practiced a very high ideal, understood the un-readiness of the people for it and so took to careful tending instead of wild forcing. They admitted the lower gods, whom the masses ignorantly worshipped and urged that they were all subordinate to the One Supreme”
The extent of the country 2000 miles long and 1500 miles broad is not similar to that from Dan to Beersheva.

The second author Surendranath Dasgupta (1887 –1952) was a scholar of Sanskrit and philosophy who produced the basic first reference works on Indian philosophy still used in 2013. Like Joseph Klausner in Israel, people know Dasguta’s opinions even if many times indirectly. Dasguta is also know as the author who turned Eliade onto Indian religion. Eliade studied in India under Dasgupta at the University of Calcutta, but his relationship with Dasgupta became strained when he fell in love with Dasgupta’s daughter Maitreya.

Dasgupta’s approach is to show the primitive nature of Judaism and that it does not have any alleged superiority over Hinduism.

The Jewish God is always anxious that the sons of Israel do not worship other gods than himself and like a king who wishes to keep their subjects loyal to himself imposes the cruelest punishment on the disloyal and the rebel, and is ready to bestow His favor on those who are loyal to him and observe His laws and commands. He…demonstrates His miracles to stun them with awe and fear. But this only shows that the people at this stage were not capable of realizing the force of anything but fear. The God here is almost a materialistic god, the wind, the fire, the volcano and the sea, which would not for a moment forgive our transgression.

Thus among the Jews we find Abraham and Moses entering into a covenant with God, who acted as their ally, showed them the majesty of his power by His miracles, punished men with fire and brim stone for their misdeeds….
In the Jewish religion we find God entering into a covenant with Moses that He and His people should not worship stones, trees, and images but should worship only God and obey his commands. Most of these commands seen to have evolved from a due regard for man’s place among the members of a society… [meaning that it was social and not based a theology of the Divine.]

Judaism’s revelation was of prohibition and not revelations of God’s nature or any kind of spiritual experience

Dasguta continues the passage below demonstrating that the Upanishads were already superior to this primitive Jewish position. He also shows how Jewish ritual is as primitive as Hindu ritual.

Often in the scripture of older people such as that of the Hindus, the Parsees, and the Jews regulations regarding food and drink and defilement appear to have the same moral force as those regarding social offences of a moral nature. It seems that from an original sense of mischief accruing in consequence… gradually the idea of sin grew… The primitive idea was that it was some sort of material that corrupts a person, produces sickness, makes one amenable to bad fortunes, and may also stick to the person and produce misery even after death in the ghostly conditions of the soul or in Hell.

Durkheim explained that on the feast of Tabernacles the Jews do ritual in which the motion in the air causes the rain to fall based on correct performance.

And to show that Biblical culture is anti-science compared to the rational Indian culture.

The theory of evolution thus strongly repudiates the idea that the old testament is the word of God who is an omniscient being, for, the doctrine of creation as found in the old testament, is definitely false by modern scientific investigations. Now if the Bible is not regarded as a Holy Book revealed by God, the validity of most of the teachings of the bible and the promises contained therein as reward and punishment to the obedience and transgressions of the commands of God, would fail. Modern man of science is not shaken before Jehovah the god
Galileo was put in a cage and Bruno was burnt alive” “people believed in all kinds of superstitions and regarded them as parts of the Christian faith. Many today don’t believe in evolution.

The third thinker is Swami Vivekanda (1863 – 1902), the Indian Hindu monk and chief disciple of the 19th-century saint Ramakrishna, and is responsible for bringing Hinduism to the West. He was a key figure in the introduction of the Indian philosophies of Vedanta and Yoga to the Western world and is credited with raising interfaith awareness, bringing Hinduism to the status of a major world religion during the late 19th century. He was a major force in the revival of Hinduism in India. He is perhaps best known for his inspiring speech in which he introduced Hinduism at the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago in 1893.

If one pursues history of the religion of the Jew, it becomes quite clear that actually the Jews were idolatries in the beginning.
By degrees, circumcision took place of human sacrifice; and prostitution and image worship etc gradually disappeared.

Among the Jews, Idol worship is condemned but they had a temple in which was kept a chest which they called an ark, in which the Tables of the Law were preserved and above the chest were two figures of angels with wings outstretched between which the Divine presence was supposed to manifest itself as a cloud.

The religion of all the Semitic races, with slight minor variations was almost always the same…Almost every God was called Moloch… [ He relates the concept of kingship and ruler with child sacrifice]

Vivekanda’s main message was that mystics in every religion speak the same tongue and teach the same truth. He asks in several places the question that Indian may have not solved its primitive religion but the Biblical faiths have not produced advanced religion. We may have idols but you don’t produce great spiritual swamis. It is worth tolerating idols if we produce such great mystics

The fourth position we will look at is Śri Sai Baba (1926 –2011) an Indian guru who was also considered by his followers to be an avatar, spiritual saint and miracle worker. Sathya Sai Baba claimed he could materialize small objects such as rings, necklaces, and watches, along with reports of miraculous healings, resurrections, and clairvoyance, which sceptics viewed them as simple conjuring tricks.

Sai Baba attached many Jewish followers including Rabbi Dovid Zeller, and Sai Baba brought Rabbis Shlomo Carlebach and Zalman Schachter for an guru conference. Sai Baba sought to help the individual be aware of the Divinity that is inherent in him and to conduct himself accordingly; To translate this awareness into practice in daily life, divine love and perfection; and to fill one’s life with joy, harmony, beauty, grace, human excellence and lasting happiness.

Sai Baba includes the oneness of all religions as part of his teachings and several of his Temples have a museum display teaching about the world faiths. Originally , Sai Baba could not understand no matter how many times it was explained to him that Judaism and Christianity are not the same religion, and they do not share the worship of Jesus and the symbol of the Cross. Eventually, he understood and wrote a 33 page booklet about Judaism. (feel free to read the whole thing)

He used the following sources
1. Religions of the World – Judaism by Kenneth Atkinson.
2. Judaism, Third Edition, World Religions by Martha A. Morrison, Stephen F. Brown.
3. The Everything Judaism Book – by Richard D. Bank
4. Judaism for Dummies Rabbi Ted Falcon, Ph.D., David Blatner
5. History of the Jews by Paul Johnson
6. The Oxford dictionary of the Jewish religion, Oxford University Press, 1997
But what went wrong in his summary? What needs to be corrected in this thought pattern that can produce these paragraphs that would not be written by Jews? What is he missing that creates these summaries? where is his tonal quality off?

Orthodox Judaism: As a response to the growth of Reform Judaism in Europe, Moses Sofer (1762-1839), a rabbi from Bratislava, in the area now known as Slovakia, called on all traditional Jews to make no compromise with modernity. He summoned them to keep themselves separate from reform-dominated communities if they did not want to lose their Jewish identity. Orthodox Judaism is the traditional form of Judaism. Although Orthodox Judaism has changed over time to adapt to historical events and new circumstances, it has always remained firmly rooted in tradition. It attempts to follow many of the ancient laws that were preserved in written form in the Jewish Scriptures, as well as other laws that were passed down orally through successive generations of Jewish religious leaders called rabbis. Orthodox Jews rest on the Sabbath, the seventh day of the week, as commanded in the Jewish Scriptures. Hebrew, the language of the Jews, is still used in worship. Women in Orthodox Judaism must cover their heads and sit apart from men during worship. Men are required to keep their heads covered at all times to remind them that God is above everything. Orthodox Jewish men traditionally leave their beards and the hair in front of their ears uncut, in accordance with the Jewish Scriptures (Leviticus 19:27).
Many Orthodox Jewish communities use Yiddish in daily life, and speak Hebrew during worship services. Because Orthodox Jews follow strict dietary laws (Kashrut), they have traditionally lived apart from other people.

One Jewish mystical tradition teaches that Elohim is the One, manifesting as the many. In this sense, YHVH refers to the Totality (the transcendent, which contains everything), and Elohim refers to the Immanent, that Spark of Divinity which awakens within each and every expression of the One Being. It’s another way of reminding people that what they see as lots of individual forms (people, animals, plants, rocks and so on) is, behind the scenes, all part of the One.

In addition to the Ten Commandments, God gave Moses many other rules and regulations. For example the Hebrews were forbidden to eat certain kinds of foods, such as pork, which God declared unclean. The biblical books of Exodus and Leviticus contain extensive commentaries Unity of Faiths – Judaism on each of the Ten Commandments and how to fulfill them in daily life. The extensive code of laws was designated to remind Jews of God and to help them behave properly. Because all religions have beliefs, rules and regulations that set them apart from other religions, many scholars say that the religion of Judaism begins with Moses and the Torah. This is because Moses is the traditional source of Judaism’s unique lifestyle.

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17 responses to “Some Modern Hindu Approaches to Judaism

  1. Fascinating. Rabbi Brill, if you would want to teach Judaism where would you start? They don’t know the basics and I could only ponder how they would understand Zohar or Habad for instance. Honestly what do you plan to teach? Would you think they would be more akin to mystic Judaism than legalistic or academic writing? Do you think our mysticism can be understood without being warped if they don’t have a monotheistic basis?

    • I know Alan’s not asking for help with syllabi, but I would begin at the beginning –with Buber’s early addresses collected in On Judaism.

  2. To what extent does gender play a role in Hindu gods?

    We seem to understand that yud-keh-vav-keh incorporates Abba and Ima, does Hindu have an equivalent concept?

    Specific gender in a god seems to imply reliance on the existence of opposite (if like) gender to comprise an entire thought system.

  3. Pingback: Hinduism and Judaism (Alan Brill Blogs from India) | jewish philosophy place

  4. It sounds as though they got most of their information from Christian missionaries (although I do actually agree in part with Dasguta).

    Interestingly, the Tibetans have a more modern view of Judaism as they didn’t encounter Jews widely until the late 20th century.

  5. It’s hard for me to see how the early Vedic traditions could be considered, rationally, any less primitive than the early strata of biblical Judaism. And of course before that much of the history is simply lost, beyond people with a warring horse culture moves south and settles into part of the Indian peninsula and wages war against their neighbors. Even the Bhagavad Gita, on the level of pshat, is about cousins waging war to maintain the divine right.

    In addition, some of what you summarized above was Judaism mediated by Christianity and then mediated again through the eyes of Hindu scholars. And the first scholars you mentioned have a very static notion of Judaism — from these words, limited to the biblical era, not a living religion with an oral tradition that re-interprets early, primitive scripture.

    Given that evolution is such a key aspect of the development of Hindu thought and the breadth of Vedantic philosophy, taking a similar line in describing Judaism with your interlocutors makes sense to me. Not to mention, the levels of textual analysis. Also, I wonder if the book, Halakhic Man might appeal to some of the scholars there — not the historical specifics, but more in the sense of the enumeration of the permutations that halakhic identity can take on. And Brahmanism remains highly ritualized to this day.

    One big difference is that thanks to the early rabbis, post destruction, the Judaism that remained became much more centralized than Hinduism. A canon and texts reinterpreting, over and over, the canon. Hinduism becomes, over time, much more disparate.

    Anyway — just some thoughts that struck me. Enjoy the adventure.

  6. Mara- They all see their tradition as rational- think Leo Baeck or Soloveitchik. That is a basic tenet of modern Hinduism. However you bring up a good point that I did not include. They think they have a God of living words with a developing religion and we have a static religion of the past. I will definitely stress the dynamism in Judaism.
    They understand the vedas though the commentaries and the 5 schools of Indian philosophy. They dont approach the text cold.

  7. Fascinating post! Any future post to discuss Hinduism and Kabbalah ought to make mention of the Zohar’s (1:15a, p.110, fn.19 in the Pritzker edition) silkworm simile to the spider simile in the Upanishads. In addition, Tamil love poetry and the Song of Songs bear resemblance.

  8. “The people of the book are divided into many groups. As for the Barahimah [Hindus], they claim that they belong to the religion of Abraham and that they are of his progeny and possess special acts of worship… and say that they possess a book written for them by Abraham – upon whom be peace – himself, except that they say it came from his Lord. In it the truth of things is mentioned and it has five parts” (Abd al-Karim al-Jili, al-Insan al-Kamil quoted in Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Sufi Essays p.139-40).

    • Hindus do not derive their heritage from Abraham but from earlier than that.They are called Sapta rishis…

      The Saptarishi (from saptarṣi, a Sanskrit dvigu meaning “seven sages”) are the seven rishis who are extolled at many places in the Vedas and Hindu literature. The Vedic Samhitas never actually enumerate these rishis by name, though later Vedic texts such as the Brahmanas and Upanisads do so. They are regarded in the Vedas as the patriarchs of the Vedic religion. The Big Dipper asterism is also called Saptarshi.
      The earliest list of the Seven Rishis is given by Jaiminiya Brahmana 2.218-221: Vashista, Bharadvaja, Jamadagni, Gautama, Atri, Visvamitra, and Agastya, followed by Brihadaranyaka Upanisad 2.2.6 with a slightly different list: Gautama and Bharadvāja, Viśvāmitra and Jamadagni, Vashiṣṭa and Kaśyapa, and Atri. The late Gopatha Brāhmana 1.2.8 has Vashiṣṭa, Viśvāmitra, Jamadagni, Gautama, Bharadvāja, Gungu, Agastya, and Kaśyapa.
      In post-Vedic texts, different lists appear; some of these rishis were recognized as the ‘mind born sons’ (Sanskrit: manasa putra) of Brahma, the representation of the Supreme Being as Creator. Other representations are Mahesha or Shiva as the Destroyer and Vishnu as the Preserver. Since these seven rishis were also among the primary eight rishis, who were considered to be the ancestors of the Gotras of Brahmins, the birth of these rishis was mythicized.

  9. “The similarities between the names Abraham and Brahma have not gone unnoticed. Abraham is said to be the father of the Jews, and Brahma, as the first created being, is often seen as the father of mankind. Abraham’s name is derived from the two Semitic words ab meaning ‘father’ and raam/raham meaning ‘of the exalted…’ We might also note that the name of Brahma’s consort Sarasvati seems to resonate with that of Abraham’s wife, Sarah [also note the confusion surrounding each one's identity as a wife and/or sister]. Also, in India, the Sarasvati River includes a tributary known as the Ghaggar. Another tributary of the same river is called Hakra. According to Jewish tradition, Hagar was Sarah’s maidservant. There are other connections. Both Brahmins (a word that is connected with ‘Brahma’) and the Jews see themselves as the ‘chosen people of God.’ The Hebrews began their sojourn through history as a ‘kingdom of priests’ (Exodus 19:6). Likewise, Brahmins are also a community of priests” (Steven Rosen, Essential Hinduism, p.12).

  10. n@Vpder (@kroswnnbl)

    the grandfather of abraham came from the east from a town beside eupgrates and his forefathers came east to that.. this is before moses! it settles hindus are origin source for jewish blood

  11. Please establish that ‘blood’ is the determinate in religion which Judaism is not. Judaism is a ‘peoplehood’ which has some so-called racial similarities and characteristics which are diff from other ‘tribes’ but all under the genus of the human species.
    Why is it that people are always claiming they are the source, the first etc when if we look a the present day situation we might come to some very bizarre conclusions observing what this world has come to.

  12. Your account of Sai Baba shows that it is well worth it to clarify and teach what our beliefs are. Over time, he begins to have a more well developed understanding of what we really are about. He still only bases himself on very general, very brief texts, but then again, most of us don’t know more about most other major religions, either.

    I find the following blurb particularly fascinating:

    The Hindu thinkers, while they themselves practiced a very high ideal, understood the un-readiness of the people for it and so took to careful tending instead of wild forcing. They admitted the lower gods, whom the masses ignorantly worshipped and urged that they were all subordinate to the One Supreme”

    May we deduce that those Hindus who see themselves as ultimately monotheists really are just the elite, while the popular understanding of Hinduism, perhaps even with parts of the elite, are still on that level of “un-readiness” for the “high ideal” of monotheism?

    • No, you may not deduce. They give a number of about 90% or higher as already monotheists. And some of that exception is specifically those those are elite but hold other views.Those holding an elite non-monotheist position tend to push the numbers lower. Shall I open the Hamodia and find passages of superstition and imply that most Orthodox Jews are still un-ready for monotheism? You are falling back into the trap of the golden calf as proving contemporary statistics of Jewish worshipers of the golden calf.
      Here read the standard introductory work
      Klaus K. Klostermaier, A Survey of Hinduism (3rd ed. 2007);

  13. alon goshen-gottstein

    A few observations on a very interesting post:
    1. Sai Baba did not author this piece. Let’s not imagine for a moment that he read through these intros to Judaism and synthesized them. Someone did it. This is what a reasonable outsider’s view of Judaism would be, based on reading introductory works. I see little ideology or misunderstanding. It’s a kind of cut and paste job that is meaningless in and of itself. Its real meaning lies in the question of who is behind it. I did not succeed in getting deeper into this website. My question is not whether Sai authored this. Rather, was it done under his instruction at all. This is taken from a US site of his organization. It is likely that once Sai makes a pronouncement on the unity of religions, his disciples will go out and produce this kind of document, especially as there is criticism that Judaism has been left out. And it may well have been composed by a Jewish person. So, I would love to know more about this document and specifically if there is any meaningful link to Sai himself.
    2. What this post shows us is how little contact with real Judaism there is and how Judaism is known only from books. So there are two tracks for leaning about Judaism – Christian refractions of it and various intro works that reflect it in one way or the other through the tools of comparative religion. So I would ask if we could classify these approaches in light of this distinction.
    Clearly Radhakrishnan is beholden to a Christian view.
    It is hard to know whether Dasgupta is just giving us an intelligent man’s impression of the bible or if it has protestant overtones. His reference to Durkheim does suggest influence of seconeary reading. With Vivekananda also hard to know. Also seems like a mixture of both. But whatever it is, reading is always limited to the Hebrew bible. there is no trace of any other text that informs the 3 earlier authors. Only the recent (American) depiction of Judaism has better information, but has no direction or substance. Its meaning is provided only by being part of a series of unity of religions, not by the actual substance of the survey.

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