A Calling – Hindu, Buddhist and Christian perspectives

A few posts ago, I wrote that caste is akin to a calling. It is the specific way in which the Absolute manifests through us. As time passes, I grow more certain that caste is based on the ancient Indian perception of the entire psychological and physical world being made of a combination of the three qualities – sattva (clarity), rajas (action) and tamas (darkness). Sattva is dominant in the brahmana, rajas in the kshatriya and the vaishya, and tamas in the shudra. However, as the universe moves from simplicity to complexity, or in other words, from sattva to rajas, our own nature is not clear to us.

The Hindu tradition envisages four epochs or yugas that come one after the other – sat, dwapara, treta and kali. Sat yuga, being closest to the instance of creation, is dominated by sattva. As creation progresses, there is much action and material development, which is characteristic of an age dominated by rajas. However, this domination of rajas reaches such an extent that the understanding of reality that was once intuitive and natural to all human beings is now to be attained after hard spiritual work. This is the kali yuga, where tamas dominates.

In the dominance of rajas or tamas, sattva is eclipsed. Hence, an understanding of how we emerge from our source is lost. Amid the attractions of the outer world that pull us here and there, self-exploration is required to understand who we really are. The Bhagavadgita talks of doing our duty – entrusted to us by the Lord, or in other words, by the Absolute in a personal form – and not giving in to aversion or pleasure. Our duty, entrusted to us by the Lord, is our caste. In more non-personal terms, to repeat, it is the manner in which the Absolute manifests within us. The Bhagavadgita is addressing the man whose inner life consists of two levels – the deeper self, as determined by one’s share of sattva, rajas, or tamas and the superficial self, as moulded by the anxieties and sorrows of our personal history. Before one’s own spiritual destiny or calling is understood, one requires to work through this superficial self. A certain amount of psychological work is necessary before one understands the deeper aspects of one’s life.

The Buddhists did away with the caste system, seeing how corrupt it had become already circa 500 BCE. However, with the full flowering of Buddhist thought came the notion of the Bodhisattva, perhaps one of the foundations of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. A Bodhisattva, in conventional terms, is a person who has reached nirvana but continues to be part of the world to convey his understanding to those enmeshed in samsara. The Dalai Lama, as is well known, is a reincarnation of the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara.

However, contrary to the common perception, the Dalai Lama is not the same personality as his predecessor. The continuity from the 1st to the 14th Dalai Lama is not one of personality, but of the fact that a certain individual, owing to his psycho-physical structure, is able to serve as a receptacle for a higher power, which in this case is personified as Avalokiteshvara. The Dalai Lamas have been very different from each other in personality as well as individual capability. But as long as there has been the Dalai Lama, the opening from a higher state of reality down to everyday reality, made possible through the receptacle, has been present.

The Dalai Lama too has two levels in his inner world. As a child, the current Dalai Lama was treated very strictly by his tutors who often hit him to keep him disciplined. Till he was in his late teens, the Dalai Lama had little interest in or inclination to study Buddhism. Clearly this was the superficial level at work. With proper training, the superficial level becomes subservient to the deeper level, opening up the individual to his calling. This is true not just for the Dalai Lama, but for the several tulku lamas that abound the landscape of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. The calling here is not a classification of human natures, as it is in the Hindu tradition, but the similarity lies in the way in which one is chosen to be the receptacle for something higher than oneself. In this world view, the calling exists for the chosen receptacles while the rest of the population can aspire to become a Bodhisattva which would be incarnated in the body of tulkus for the ages to come.

Finally, we come to the Christian tradition. Some are called to be teachers, others are called to be healers and helpers, while yet others are called to be hermits. A calling is the manner in which Jesus manifests within oneself and it may be discerned through sincere introspection and attending to the word of Jesus in the Gospels. Once again, the spiritual seeker perceives two levels in the inner world. The deeper level is that which spontaneously manifests itself when one is open to inspiration from Jesus. The superficial level is that which we listen to when we are enveloped in sin, that is, in self-concern. The Christian prayer: “Thy will, not mine, be done” is an example of how the devout Christian seeks to discern between the calling (Thy will, or God’s will) and sinfulness (my will). This prayer is also a close counterpart of the Bhagavadgita’s message – Perform your duty, do not care for the fruits of your duty. The duty is God’s will, the concern for the fruits of the duty are our own superficial will.

In this brief comparison, we see some interesting similarities when we put the notion of a calling in a comparative perspective. First, the calling is how the higher reality, or the Absolute, manifests itself through us – through one of the three gunas that make caste, or through the nature of the Bodhisattva that one is a vehicle for, or through how we find Jesus in our own selves and follow his will. Second, there must be the ability to discern between the deeper self, which carries the calling, and the superficial self, which is created by one’s historical conditioning, aversions and attachments. Finally, following the calling always leads to the good of others. It is compassion in action. To follow one’s caste helps one contribute in one’s unique way to society and to keep the balance of society intact. To uncover one’s Bodhisattva nature helps convey the dharma to others, which is the purpose of the Bodhisattva in the first place. Finally, to follow one’s calling, as a teacher or a hermit, leads to the good of the world, either through direct action or through living a life of prayer and holiness.

Finally, a word on the differences. Caste is not the same as the Bodhisattva nature which is not the same as a calling in the Christian sense. A basic rule of Comparative Religion seems to be that there will always be differences which cannot be erased. The differences are a testament to how each religious tradition and sub-tradition is a prototype that is actualised in a certain historical setting. However, between the differences lie elements of similarity, which hint at some of the essential themes in the human condition, and these are what I have pointed to above.

For as long as space endures

And for as long as sentient beings exist

Until then, may I too remain

To dispel the sufferings of the world

Shantideva’s vows of the bodhisattva, repeated by the Dalai Lama everyday


~ by tdcatss on September 28, 2010.

4 Responses to “A Calling – Hindu, Buddhist and Christian perspectives”

  1. Most of this is way beyond my understanding, but I really appreciated the way you understood and spoke from each perspective. :) Great job!

  2. thanks debbie :)

    i feel sorry that you find most of the post beyond your understanding. usually i try to write so that if a lay person reads what i have written, something is conveyed to them, if not all of it. but this time i felt that although i wanted to write about this topic, making it more understandable would make the post at least twice as big, which is not nice either.

    the perspective that i understand the least is probably the christian one. i hope it doesn’t clash too much with the way you look at it as an insider.

    i look forward to reading more of your posts!

  3. Don’t feel bad! You did very well! I just have a limited experience and knowledge. :) No worries about clashing. This wasn’t about that; you were discussing the perspective of callings which you did in a respectful and neutral way. I once heard someone pray to not be offended . . .the more I’ve thought about that, the more I understand its importance. Thank you for taking the time to respond to me. :)

  4. Dear friend, i have not made any idea about these all so i just read your opinion and keeping that in my mind.

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