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Pure or Impure?


What is the relationship between the soul and the world it encounters? Are we born bad or good? Various religions have their own answers to these questions. Let’s begin with the Abrahamic ones.


Saint Augustine taught original sin. Most pagans and philosophers at his time, save for the Cynics, had no qualms about enjoying the world and all that it offers.


A few Greeks were highly metaphysical and favored the transcendental over the mundane, dividing real from unreal (it wasn't until Middle Platonism that some started considered matter as not only inferior in relation to abstraction truth, but evil). The real is the realm of ideas, the ideal forms. Plotinus, who inherited Orphic, Pythagorean, and Platonic frameworks, believed that the universe incarnated from Intellect (psyche), but our true essence is Over-soul (nous), and beyond that, the pure One (hen) that is ultimate reality. This is very close to Indian metaphysics. 


St. Augustine must have experienced religious doubt and inner conflict since childhood, as his mother was Christian but his father was not. He started out living an indulgent, sensuous life, but later felt guilty and renounced his former pleasures. First he became a Manichaen, which taught a strict dualism between good and evil, and then a Christian. He also lived during the fall of Rome, which no doubt colored his outlook. His thought can be characterized as a sort of highly personalized, almost desparate, version of Stoicism and Philoism (i.e. Hellenized Judaism).


St. Augustine taught that humans are ruled by the passions of the flesh. The soul can be drawn towards the desires of the flesh or towards God, but not both. It is irrational to desire sex, to lust, or seek earthly love, because it reflects indulgence in mere creatures instead of the Creator of all creatures.


Jesus was the ultimate example of the human condition, stuck between the pure and impure. Everyone else besides Jesus is born into original sin. What does this mean?


For one, sex is an earthly desire, so our birth is a result of this impurity. Jesus was different, as he born from a virgin, Mary, who herself was born in a state of innocence (the Immaculate Conception). The problem doesn’t begin there, however.

Original sin goes all the way back to the beginning of humanity, during Adam and Eve’s fall from grace. They once lived in innocence in the Garden of Eden, but they disobeyed God and ruined the relationship humans have with Him. As Adam and Eve’s offspring, we all inherited this curse. Eden was a paradise, there was no knowledge of good or bad, no fear of the future, and everything they could ever need was all around them. Now we are in a post-Eden world, where everything that we want is in limited supply, and we are dominated by our physical needs. We are born weak and easily corrupted, just as Adam and Eve became so after yielding to temptation. 


The original Adam and Eve story was a Jewish origin myth that explained why life was so hard for the Jews and how they could gain back God’s favor. You could say that the snake represents our animal nature at conflict with higher commandments.


In Christianity God has an evil antagonist, a former angel who tried to lead a rebellion and was kicked out of the heavenly kingdom. To get revenge he has tried to corrupt God’s creation ever since. Satan came to Adam and Eve in the form of a serpent to deceive them into disobeying God. That was bad enough, but it gets worse. Satan still tries to control us by offering earthly rewards, giving us the illusion that we have more control than God, in return for allegience to him. If we give in to this temptation, we lose our soul to Satan, who will torture us for all eternity in hell (which God allows, if He judges our soul as worthy of punishment after we die).


The Old Testament Satan wasn’t evil per se, he worked for God, but he seemed bad to people because he functioned as an accuser who put believing Hebrews through hardships to test their faith (e.g. the trials of Job). But in Christianity, there is an eternal hell that is the flip-side to eternal heaven, and many, perhaps even most of us, are inevitably heading toward it. 


No doubt, Christianity was influenced by Persian ideas. However, there are clear theological differences. Zoroastrianism does not emphasize human weakness in the face of sin, for the forces of good and evil are equal in strength. One sect even taught that there is a higher God – Zurvan – who created the twin gods of good and evil, which implies an original unity of creation and a reality higher than dualistic conflict. In Christianity, as in Judaism, the Creator God is all good and all powerful. For some reason, He allows evil, but the power of evil is not quite equal to God.


Both Jews and Christians believe that redemption requires a messiah. Jews are still waiting for the messiah because according to their prophecies, he will reestablish the Jewish kingdom that brings about a worldly utopia. The dead sleeping in the grave of earth (sheol) will be physically resurrected in the world-to-come and enjoy eternal life. The worst that could happen is that the unrighteous remain dead forever and will not get to enjoy it. 

Christianity is explicit about heaven in the afterlife, which is the throne of God in heaven (literally, God resides in the realm above the sky, hence heavens = sky). Jesus is the redeemer who already came to save us from the curse of original sin and show us how to live, love, obey God, and witness his majesty in person. As the Logos (the divine word/reason/plan of God) Jesus will come again to judge the living and the dead. During this final judgment, the New Testament of the Bible, just as in the Old Testament (the Jewish Bible or Tanakh) states that the dead will be physically resurrected, so it's not just the soul that goes to heaven. Jesus, for Christians, is not just the savior of Jews, but of all humanity, whether they know it or not.


Clearly, Jews and Christians have a different interpretation of Jesus’ message and mission. At best, Jews view him as a misunderstood rabbi (wise religious teacher) who tried to get Jews away from their formal ritualism (the original purpose of the Pharisees was not strict adherence to rules and rituals, but to actually manifest the holiness of the Temple in daily life). Jesus was not particularly original in this regard, as his teachings find a parallel with the Rabbi Hillel. Jesus emphasized the mercy of Yahweh in a time when He was noted for being strict and punishing. Basically, it was an ethical revolution.


I don’t know of any notion in Judaism of being born pure or impure. Children are instructed to follow the commandments revealed by G-d to Moses and to learn the essentials of Jewish life. From adulthood on – bar mitzvah for boys, bat mitzvah for girls – Jews must keep tradition, and they can have a good life if they do.


Jews believe the messiah will redeem the world when Jews live righteously according to the Torah (law). But Christians think Jesus fulfilled Jewish prophecy. Christians believe Jesus did this through a transformation of evil in his passion on the cross. Christians do believe in the importance ethics, primarily the ones that Jesus taught his followers on earth (love God and love others), and also the Ten Commandments given to Moses. But Christians don’t need to follow all of the 613 mitzvot (do's and don'ts of Judaism) of the Old Testament. Protestants went further and admonished Catholic saints and monks/nuns for trying to win God’s favor by trying to live like Jesus, when all the while they are just as corrupt as the rest of us. Protestantism tends to emphasize pure faith in Jesus, a conversion of the heart, the importance of scripture, and grace (from which good works follow) rather than deeds to earn one's place in heaven.


Neither Jews nor Christians believe that the world itself is bad. While Christians believe that the world contains dangers because of Satan and his minions, we can choose to follow Jesus and not let evil deceive our minds and hearts.


It would seem that St. Augustine was in the same camp as the Gnostics, who taught that this is a fallen, impure world. But gnostic teachings were deemed heresy by Orthodox Christianity. First, they did not consider the world of matter good at all, only a debased realm of suffering (as in some Indian religions). Thus, they knocked the Old Testament Yahweh off His pedestal. In fact, they taught that Yahweh is actually a false god. Gnostics taught that the real God did not create this world, and that our soul can achieve higher knowledge (gnosis) by renouncing the physical world.


In Islam there is no notion of original sin. In fact, it’s the opposite. Allah (God) made all beings in the world perfect. He also made all the angels and djinn, and they are all under His control. There is nothing that rivals the power of Allah. The Islamic view of the Adam and Eve story has a different emphasis. All beings were made to serve God. Humans were given the power of thought and reason, so we can consciously follow Allah in ways other beings cannot. Everything has a place in creation. To look for miracles, one need look no further than the evidence Allah’s will all around us - the orbit of the planets and stars, the flowing of rivers, the singing of birds. After Adam and Eve were created, one angel was jealous. Angels are only servants of Allah, but cannot live on earth with the power that humans have (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all agree that humans have a certain dominion on earth). The angels had to prostrate before Adam, a superior creature, but one angel refused. He is known as Iblis, the Islamic devil, or Shaitan.


As humans grow up and get used to the world, we lose touch with the pure nature that Allah gave to us. Like Judaism, Islam stresses ethical rules to keep a right relationship to God. Like Christianity, humans have a soul that can either spend the afterlife in God’s abode or in hell. But even shaitan is ultimately a slave to Allah’s will. 


That pretty much sums up the theology and eschatology of the Abrahamic faiths. Religions further east have their own wisdom, and to save time and space I’ll focus on Hinduism.


For Hindus, the land of India is central to their identity, history, and dramas. This land holds all the enchantment for Hindus that Israel holds for Jews and Christians, and the Hejaz for Muslims. One big difference from the Abrahamic religions is that Hindus, unlike the ancient Hebrews, were not all enslaved nor were they kicked out of their land. There was no fall from grace. While India has experienced the same troubles as other lands, Indians as a whole were not exiled.


In fact the opposite is true, travelers and invaders have long been absorbed into this cradle between the Indus and Ganga rivers. As the glory of Egypt centered on the Nile, and Mesopotamia on the Tigris and Euphrates, Hindu civilization has depended on India’s life-giving waters. There is no sense of heading towards an imminent climax that determines the fate of everything forever after. Rather, events occur like the cycles of nature through immense spans of time.


Hinduism’s sacred texts stem from the insights of countless spiritual geniuses. There are heavens and there are hells, but the soul’s journey continues on and is never bound to one realm forever (unless it leaves the stream of time altogether and realizes the Eternal). True freedom is an escape from the cycle of creation and destruction. The key is to discover the true reality hidden in the heart of the cosmos, or Brahman. This reality is deathless.


The manifest world emanates out of Godhead, but Godhead does not direct it. Brahman is not an individual and has no will. Instead, there are supernatural beings with various abilities, performing salvific roles, some having the ability to create, preserve, or destroy creation. Hindus believe that enlightened sages are able to directly realize their unity with Brahman. There is a macrocosm (the universe) that is connected to the microcosm (the self). Brahman as the physical universe is equivalent to the body; as life it is manifest in sentient beings and in our minds; in its ultimate transcendent aspect it is equivalent to the pure self (Atman) that is the incorporeal witness of all manifestation, including our own body-mind.


Unlike Christian belief, we can all be like Jesus and link our human nature to the divinity of God. But it takes many lifetimes of work. There are a series of exercises – physical, emotional, mental – called Yoga (yoking) to help us realize this end. 


Hindu Vedanta is compatible with the concept of evolution. Every billion billion years or so, Brahman plays a game – lets have an illusion in which I’m not a unity. So Brahman plays hide and seek with itself, splitting off into different pieces. In modern terminology - the big bang happens, and life-forms develop. And some life-forms start being conscious. And some can even become conscious of being conscious, or self-conscious, which leads to self-power but also fear and estrangement. Enlightenment is realizing the true nature of consciousness.


Kaballah masters in esoteric Judaism had something similar in mind when they proposed the mythological “tree of life.” Yahweh is limitlessness (Ein). From this came limitless light (Ein Sof). This light is so powerful that vessels were created to contain it, called “sephiroth.” But the vessels were not strong enough to contain this light, and they shattered, so some of the light spilled out, filtered down into lower vibrations, from spiritual to mental to physical. Our task as humans is to repair this world, to raise it to higher vibrations of divine light.


The difference between Vedanta and Kaballah is that Brahman is passive, whereas Yahweh is involved in creation. Shekhinah is God’s presence, or power, in the world (the Holy Spirit of Christianity). This is a female quality, in keeping with a standard religious notion that female values represent the compassionate and embodied aspects of the universe.


Where Hinduism shares an affinity with Abrahamic worldliness is in Tantricism. Here Brahman is both passive and active. Wisdom is represented by Shiva, an ascetic god who holds a trident, usually portrayed in meditation. But Shiva is also the king of the dancers (Nataraja). He removes our illusion of stability. Shiva’s wife, Shakti, empowers us. She gives us strength, and is the creative force. Her other aspect is Devi. Devi cares for the world like a mother cares for all her children (like Shekhinah, or Holy Mary).


There really isn’t a single devil in Hindu thought. There are power-seeking gods called “asuras.” They are in conflict with devas, the gods of nature. Like the Old Testament Satan, the asuras are the ones who punish us for our actions. The closest thing to a devil is in Hinduism is Mara, the tempter. Mara tried to abort the Buddha’s quest for enlightenment by offering him sense pleasures to distract him from his greater goal. In this sense Mara is similar to the serpent in the Genesis myth. This element of deception is also reminiscent of Angra Mainyu in Zoroastrianism.




Purity and impurity have meaning in so far as we can imagine perfection. If we can realize the glory of the Divine, we can also realize that this physical word is also divine, its pleasures and pains are God’s play (Leela in Sanskrit). The world is not unreal, but the forms that parade by are just a show to entertain us, not the Ultimate Reality beyond cause and effect.


In my estimation, we are not born good or bad. We are born as pure potential, what happens later in life depends on many factors. 


Pagans were right to celebrate the world; they no need for unhealthy repression. The Jews are right to try to elevate the world; they see the need for moral living and the transformation of the status quo (i.e. selfishness and power politics). Christians are right to seek salvation; they understand that there is something higher than what we see in this world. Muslims are right to work with the world; they realize that the will of the Divine is fused with the workings of creation. And Hindus are right to be inclusive of these different ideas, for they understand that, in their own broad way, they all have wisdom.