Reading the Fourth Gospel in India

The Spirituality Reflected in John’s Gospel Has Much in Common with the Mystical Traditions of the Indian Religions

By Johnson Thomaskutty
Dean of Biblical Studies
Union Biblical Seminary
Pune, India
January 2021

 

The Fourth Gospel begins with a well-known poetical rhythm as follows: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (1:1). There are parallels between the Fourth Gospel and the Chandogya Upanishad. In the Chandogya Upanishad, the sage begins his teaching with the words, “In the beginning, Being (sat) alone existed, one without a second” (6.2.1).[1] The Word becoming flesh and dwelling among humanity is one of the incarnational aspects of the Fourth Gospel (1:14). While Jesus is portrayed as the incarnation of God in the Gospel, a similar concept like Avatāra is used in Hinduism. The word avatāra comes from the root meaning “to descend,” and Rama and Krishna are considered avatārs of Vishnu (see Gita 4.7.8).[2] Thus, the prologue of the Gospel (1:1-18) can be set within the Indian thought-world.

         There are similarities between the Johannine Logos and the Hindu concept Om/Aum. The divine sound Om is derived from three sounds A, U, M, that represent three Vedas and the trimurti of Brahman (”A”), Vishnu (“U”), and Shiva (“M”). In the Upanishads, Om is considered as the primordial sound or Adisabda and a symbol of true existence.[3] It is reckoned as the totality of the manifested world: ekaksara (“the one syllable” or “the imperishable one”), praṇava (signifying a droning utterance), symbolism of a sacred syllable, and a prayer or mantra of all other mantras.[4] This understanding of Hinduism attunes well with the pre-incarnate (1:1-5) and incarnate (1:14) forms of Jesus in John’s Gospel.

        Keshub Chandra Sen considered Brahman as Sat, Cit, and Ananda (“being,” “intelligence,” and “bliss”). For Sen, in the words of Boyd: “The Logos, then, who in eternity lay as it were asleep in God, is the Word of Creation, Cit (intelligence, wisdom), ever at work in the development of the created world, and in the fullness of time being born as [hu]man in Jesus of Nazareth.”[5] Similarly, Brahmabandhav Upādhyāya (1861-1907) considered the Hindu concept of Saccidānanda Brahman on par with the Christian Trinity.[6] In his Sanskrit hymn, the Hymn of the Incarnation, Upādhyāya describes Christ as the God-Man and the Logos. Boyd puts it as follows: “Christ is the Image of God (Brahman) and in him the eternal Word (Intelligence, Cit), the fullness of the Godhead, dwells. In the refrain, victory (jai) or glory is ascribed to him who is the true Nara-Hari (‘Man-God’).”[7] Jesus the Logos can resonate with the Sat since he is one with the Brahman, Cit since he is the divine wisdom from above, the Avatāra since he came to establish righteousness and justice in the world, and the Adisabda since he is God’s eternal voice in the universe.

        The Bhagavad Gita describes three paths to salvation: first, the Jnana Marga (a path that emphasizes thoughts and introspection);[8] second, the Karma Marga (a path of ritual action or duties); and third, the Bhakti Marga (a path of devotion).[9] Though John has exclusive claims like “I am the Way and the Truth and the Life” (14:6), its soteriology has much scope to connect with the Jnana, Karma, and Bhakti traditions of Hinduism. In John’s Gospel, “knowing” (Greek, Ginōskein; Sanskrit, Jnana) and “believing” (pisteuein) occur together, and in several passages, they function in relation to other cognates (see 4:53; 6:69; 10:38; 17:8).[10] Similarly, the aspect of karma is emphasized in several passages (4:34-38; 5:17; 9:3-5; and 13:14). Alongside of “knowing” and “working,” the aspect of devoting (Bhakti) oneself in discipleship (1:43; 21:19, 22), worship (4:21-24; 9:38), and belief (1:7; 3:15-17; 4:39-42; 6:29-34; 7:38-39; 11:25-28; 16:27-30) are also demonstrated. Thus, John emphasizes the “knowing,” “working,” and “devoting” aspects of Christian living in a dynamic and interlocking manner.

        The call of the first disciples in John (1:19-51) provides a brief understanding of the Johannine discipleship. The disciples are those who believe, follow, and worship Jesus. The entire Gospel is placed in an inclusio between Jesus’ commands to follow him in 1:43 and 21:19/22. The Guru-Shishya traditions of India are old and take us back to the Upanishadic period.[11] Just as Jesus was a walking teacher and the disciples followed him in a peripatetic style,[12] the Asian religious teachers like Dronacharya, Buddha, Mahavira, and the Sikh Gurus imparted knowledge to the disciples while they walked together. Guru Dronacharya was a legendary and illustrious teacher in the Drona Parva of the Mahabharata.[13] He taught royal princes of both the clans like Pandavas and Kauravas. The Guru-Shishya relationship is also emphasized in the Sikh religion. After a succession of ten gurus beginning from Guru Nanak, the Guru Granth Sahib became the final Guru.[14] Similarly, Mahavira and Buddha had a large number of followers. In that sense, the Guru-Shishya traditions in John is more understandable for Indian readers. 

        The signs recorded in the Fourth Gospel function in a dynamic way as they contribute semantically to its narrative framework. While the synoptic evangelists present “faith” (pistis) on the part of the suppliants (or their representatives) as a prerequisite for receiving miraculous help (Mark 2:5; 6:5-6), in John, the signs ideally result in pistis.[15] As John’s Jesus is open-ended and unconditional in performing miraculous signs, the multi-cultural and pluralistic Indian communities can embrace him wholeheartedly. The Indian context is known for the large numbers of the sick and poor who seek a healer and a provider like Jesus. While Jesus engages in the mission of God, he uses signs as a means of revealing his glory and to build a holistic community.[16] In a context of pandemic Covid-19, social isolation, quarantine, global shut down, and death and bereavement, the Johannine Jesus can be introduced as a paradigmatic healer to the Indian communities.[17] 

        In his ministry, the speeches and the actions of Jesus develop simultaneously within the Johannine narrative framework.[18] In the Indian context, people highly value those who walk their talk. In religion, politics, and culture, such people are given heroic images in the society. Politicians who make promises but remain unable to fulfill them are not considered respectable figures. Asian figures like Pandita Ramabhai,[19] Mahatma Gandhi,[20] Mother Teresa,[21] and Malala Yousafzai[22] are known not only for their rhetoric but also for their actions for community development. In this context, the Johannine Jesus is an ideal model for human transformation in the pluralistic context of India/Asia.

        In John, the various characters are memorably presented with the help of a wide range of literary devices and narrative techniques.[23] Nathanael, a person who sits under the fig tree (1:48b) and is enlightened to recognize Jesus as the “Son of God” and the “King of Israel,” (1:49) resembles Buddha, who also sat under the Bodhi tree in Bodh Gaya and was enlightened.[24] Jesus, who comes to the Samaritan village and asks a woman for water, corresponds to Ananda, a famous disciple of Buddha, who asked a Matanga Caste woman for water at a well.[25] The social distancing between communities is seen in her question: “How do you ask water of me, an outcaste who may not touch thee without contamination?” (cf. John 4:9).[26] Ananda replied: “My sister, I ask not of thee thy caste, I ask for water to drink” (cf. John 4:10, 13-14). He breaks the socio-cultural and religious barriers in drinking the water.[27] Encounters near wells are usual in Indian village contexts since women are expected to fetch water for the whole day from the village well. This peculiar feature of the Fourth Gospel makes it both local and universal in the interpretative endeavors.[28]

        The spirituality reflected in John’s Gospel has much in common with the mystical traditions of the Indian religions. The following aspects are significant in that regard: first, at the heart of Johannine theology, we witness a union between God/Jesus and human beings (6:56; 15:1-17);[29] second, Jesus’ vertical and horizontal relationships are reflected through his mystical expressions like “All that is mine is yours; all that is yours is mine” (17:10; also see 17:21-23; cf. 14:7-12);[30] third, as a gospel of belief and love, the aspects of believing in and loving God are emphasized to sustain the union between God and believers (3:16; 6:47; chaps. 14-16); fourth, the language John uses like “‘having fellowship’ (koinōnia) with the Father and the Son,” “to be born of God” or to be “children of God” (1:13), and “I know mine and mine know me” (10:14; 17:3) reveal an integral relationship;[31] fifth, the “knowing,” “seeing,” and “believing” aspects of the Gospel make it more contemplative because it demands a deeper level of reflection on the meaning of Christ for our lives;[32] sixth, the imageries like “light” (1:9; 8:12; 9:5), “vine and the branches” (15:1-15), and others express the intimacy of communion with Christ forcefully;[33] and seventh, the binding communion between the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit, and the believer and the inseparable unity is emphasized through the formula of immanence.[34] These aspects of the Fourth Gospel resonate with the Indian thought-world on many levels. John teaches that human personality can either accept or reject God, but a union is possible between God and human beings through the initiative of knowing God, doing his work, and devoting oneself to faith.[35]

        The Fourth Gospel is well-known for its dualistic framework. In John, this trend begins with the pair of light and darkness placed at the outset (1:5).[36] Among the Asian religions, Zoroastrianism reflects a complete separation of good and evil at the cosmic and the moral levels. Cosmic dualism refers to the ongoing battle between Good (Ahura Mazda) and Evil (Andra Mainyu) within the universe. Moral dualism refers to the opposition of good and evil in the mind of humankind. In Zoroastrianism, good and evil appear as equal and opposite realities.[37] John interprets God as the absolute reality and suggests a union between God and the human beings as it is in Advaita philosophy of Sankara. However, he considers neither a non-dualistic existence of God nor that God is nirguna or without attributes.[38] John proposes a personal relationship between God and human beings and suggests a Bhakti Marga as in Ramanuja, but the narrator goes beyond the qualified non-dualism of Vishishtadvaita.[39] In his propositions, John is closer in many ways to the principles of Madhava, a 12th-century CE interpreter of Vedanta, who suggested a Dvaita philosophy.[40] Madhava considered the supremacy of Brahman and the separate existence of human beings/the world. His dualism was not true dualism in the sense of two equal powers.[41] Here, we see a connection between the qualified dualism of John (1:5) with the qualified dual existence suggested by Madhava. This comparison of various religious and philosophical traditions helps us understand John’s accommodation of ideas and his distinctive emphasis in relation to the Indian thought-world.

        Alongside the above mentioned observations, some of the following aspects also need to be considered: first, while the Johannine community was treated as a minority sect and were expelled from the Synagogue (9:22, 34; 16:2), Indian Christian communities suffered discrimination and rigorous persecution due to their minority status;[42] second, in Roman Palestine, Jesus worked among the masses, especially those who were poor, marginalized, and ostracized (4:1-26; 5:1-18; 9:1-41). In India, the church’s mission focuses on the poor sections of the society;[43] third, as John portrayed women with respect and on par with men characters (2:1-11; 4:1-42; 12:1-8; 20:1-18), the Indian churches have started to adopt a hermeneutics of suspicion to make the voice of women heard in the church and in the society;[44] fourth, as dialogue is the preferable literary genre within John,[45] Indian Christians are dialogical and interactional in the public arena;[46] fifth, as in the case of the Johannine community situation, the Dalit communities in India, the Minjung in Korea, and other poor sections across Asia endure economic deprivation, social vulnerability, and religious dehumanization;[47] sixth, while Mary Magdalene exemplified her devotion through superabundant generosity (12:1-8), the Indian communities are benevolent in hospitality and care even towards strangers; and seventh, as the Johannine Jesus expresses mission concerns both at the public level (1:19-12:50) and private sectors (13:1-17:26), Indian communities can be approached in those same sectors.

        This is an interpretative dynamism that can help us read the Gospel of John in particular and the Bible in general in the Indian context. A dialogical reading of both the Johannine and the Indian traditions enables us to see the message of the scripture in new lights. A reading without interlocking the biblical context and its message with that of the Indian will remain irrelevant to the demands of the contemporary audience. Since the New Testament communities considered the contextual, symbolical and metaphorical aspects of the Ancient Near Eastern and the Greco-Roman world, an interpreter of the text in the contemporary Indian context can adopt the available contextual aspects for efficacious and dynamic interpretations. An interpreter of the scripture should bridge the gulf between the sitz-im-leben of the early Christian communities and the siz-im-leben of the Indian masses.

 

 

[1] Jey J. Kanagaraj, The Gospel of John: A Commentary (Secunderabad: OM Books, 2005), 35.

[2] Robin Boyd, An Introduction to Indian Christian Theology (Madras: Christian Literature Society, 1969), 81.

[3] Kanagaraj, Gospel of John, 39-41.

[4] Martin Owens, “OṂ,” Encyclopaedia of Hinduism, eds. Denise Cush, Catherine Robinson, and Michael York (London/New York: Routledge, 2008), 573.

[5] See Boyd, An Introduction to Indian Christian Theology, 28.

[6] Ibid, An Introduction to Indian Christian Theology, 63-74.

[7] Ibid, 78.

[8] See Anantanand Rambachan, “To Recognize and Love God in All: An Introduction to Hinduism,” Five Voices, Five Faiths: An Interfaith Primer (Cambridge: Cowley, 2005), 7.

[10] See more details here: J. Gaffney, “Believing and Knowing in the Fourth Gospel,” Theological Studies 26/2 (1 May 1965), 215-241.

[11] Surinder Singh Kohli, The Sikh and Sikhism (New Delhi: Atlantic Publishers, 1993), 18.

[12] Peripatetic School is “the school founded by Aristotle in Athens in 336 BCE, supposedly named after the peripatos or covered walk in the garden of the Lyceum, where he lectured. Apart from Aristotle, its important members were Theophrastus, Eudemus of Rhodes, and Strato of Lampsacus.” See https://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/oi/authority.20110803100317855, accessed on 2 May 2020.

[13] See Krishna-Dwaipayana Vyasa, The Mahabharata of Krishna-Dwaipayana Vyasa Book 7 Drona Parva (Bottom of the Hill Publishing, 2013).

[15] B. L. Blackburn, “Miracles and Miracle Stories,” Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, eds. Joel B. Green, Scott McKnight, and I. Howard Marshall (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 1992), 550.

[16] Johnson Thomaskutty, “Reading John’s Gospel in the Bangladeshi Context,” Journal of Asian Evangelical Theology, Vol. 21/2 (March-September 2017), 67-68.

[17] See Johnson Thomaskutty, “Reading John’s Gospel in the Context of Pandemic Covid-19,” https://www.academia.edu/42734341/Reading_Johns_Gospel_in_the_Context_of_Pandemic_Covid-19, accessed on 2 May 2020.

[18] Gary M. Burge, “‘I Am’ Sayings,” Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, 354-356.

[20] B. R. Nanda, “Mahatma Gandhi,” https://www.britannica.com/biography/Mahatma-Gandhi, accessed on 3 April 2020.

[23] See Thomaskutty, “Reading John’s Gospel in the Nepali Context,” 17.

[24] See Craig Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of John’s Gospel (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 2001), 83.

[25] See Kumaranasan, Chandalabhikshuki. Also see Biju Chacko, “Samaritan Woman, Chandalabhikshuki and a Third Space of Hermeneutics: Reading the ‘Well-Encounter’ in John 4 from an Intercultural Perspective,” an unpublished academic paper, 3.

[26] P. Lakshmi Narasu, The Essence of Buddhism (New Delhi: Gautam Printers, 2009), 84.

[27] This story is described in the Matangi Sutra of Buddhist Sources. This encounter gave birth to Shurangana Sutra.

[28] See Johnson Thomaskutty, The Gospel of John: A Universalistic Reading (New Delhi: Christian World Imprints, 2020), 3-14.

[29] James McPolin, “Johannine Mysticism,” 26-27, https://www.theway.org.uk/back/18McPolin.pdf, accessed on 3 May 2020.

[30] Ibid, 27-30.

[31] McPolin, “Johannine Mysticism,” 31-32.

[32] Ibid, 32-33.

[33] McPolin, “Johannine Mysticism,” 33-34.

[34] Rudolf Schnackenburg, The Gospel according to Saint John, Vol. 2 (New York: Seabury Press, 1980), 63.

[35] Roshen Dalal, Hinduism: An Alphabetical Guide (Gurugram: Penguin, 2014), 457-458.

[36] Jan G. van der Watt, An Introduction to the Johannine Gospel and Letters (London: T&T Clark, 2007), 30-32.

[38] In Sankara’s Advaita philosophy, God is the single reality without a second, and God is nirguna Brahman for him.

[39] Ramanuja proposes a qualified non-dualism that is distinct from the qualified dualism of John.

[40] Dalal, Hinduism, 227-228.

[41] Ibid, 128.

[42] See Johnson Thomaskutty, “Reading John’s Gospel in the Nepali Context,” Journal of Asian Evangelical Theology, Vol. 20/1 (March 2016), 9-10.

[43] See Thomaskutty, “Reading John’s Gospel in the Nepali Context,” 11-12.

[44] Ibid, “Reading John’s Gospel in the Nepali Context,” 12-13.

[45] See Johnson Thomaskutty, Dialogue in the Book of Signs: A Polyvalent Analysis of John 1:19-12:50, BINS 136 (Leiden/Boston: E. J. Brill, 2015), 1-20.

[46] See Thomaskutty, “Reading John’s Gospel in the Nepali Context,” 16-17.

[47] See Gregory Thomas Basker, Interpreting Biblical Texts: John and his Tamil Readers (New Delhi: ISPCK, 2016), 124-143.

Article Comments

Submitted by Paul N. Anderson on Wed, 01/06/2021 - 11:03

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Thanks, Johnson, John's universalistic spirituality appeals existentially to people from all traditions--an inclusive transformation of the Abrahamic blessing--rooted in Palestine-based historical memory of Jesus and delivered in the cosmopolitan setting of the Anatolia Province.

Good work!

Paul N. Anderson, author of The Christology of the Fourth Gospel; The Fourth Gospel and the Quest for Jesus; and The Riddles of the Fourth Gospel: An Introduction to John

Submitted by A.Shirly Jones on Thu, 01/14/2021 - 08:07

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Respected Sir,
Though I am not worthy, to comment, taking much liberty I put my views and they can be 100%wrong.
It's an excellent reflection of mystical traditions in Indian religions especially Hinduism. With Avatar,Om,the margas,the Guru, similarities, it doesn't lead the reader to know Jesus is the only way to eternal life through Salvation..The various avatars and the principles like advitha,guru-shisya are in different avatars but all in Jesus should be focused, otherwise I fear there would be another temple for Jesus or the saying that "All roads lead to Rome" may be practiced.

Thank you so much for your reflection. My intention here is not to claim that the present interpretation is "the [absolute] reading." There are different lenses through which we can brainstorm the content and theology of the Fourth Gospel in India. The way you suggest to look at John is another interpretative framework. As John's Gospel has exclusive claims like "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life" (14:6), it is difficult to interpret the text in multi-religious contexts like India. What I suggest is a kind of looking at John from a higher theological and philosophical level. If I read the Gospel from missional and ministerial point of view, I may read it in a different way. Please look at another essay of mine for more clarity: https://fullerstudio.fuller.edu/biblical-interpretation-global-indian-c…

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