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In the year 1373 A.D., thirty-year-old Lady Julian lay on her deathbed in Norwich, England, after suffering for weeks from an unknown illness (Julian VII). Around the year 3100 B.C., the war of Mahabharata broke out in India, leaving villages in devastation and the people of India in despair (Gita IX). These two events, separated by thousands of years, seemingly have little in common. However both events led to deep, theological texts that have been read for centuries: Lady Julian’s Revelation of Love and the Hindi Mahabharata. These texts seem to be as different as the events that produced them. Lady Julian shaped her work as a devout Christian in the Middle Ages; her ideas would seemingly never be comparable to the holiest text of a Middle Eastern religion. However, Julian’s views on the transcendence of God’s love and the drive beyond human suffering continually parallel the ideas and values expressed in the Mahabharata’s most famous book, The Bhagavad Gita.
Both Revelation of Love and The Bhagavad Gita deal with human suffering and the necessity of God in moments of despair. Julian focuses on God while she is in great pain: “… I felt my body was dead… [but] I thought to myself that I was well, for my eyes were set [to God and] heaven, where I trusted to come…” (Julian 6). She expresses, however, that “…left to myself with all the heaviness and weariness of life- I was burdened with myself so that I barely had patience to live” (34). Without God, she clearly states, her despair would have defeated her. In The Bhagavad Gita, a warrior named Arjuna turns to Krishna, a human manifestation of the Hindu God Vishnu (essentially the Hindi equivalent to Christ), seeking help through his desolation in life and in his metaphorical war between soul and despair:
Arjuna was overcome with great compassion and sorrowfully spoke these words: O Krishna… my limbs fail and my mouth becomes dry. The bow slips from my hand, and my skin intensely burns, O Krishna… It would be far better for me if my cousin brothers kill me with their weapons in battle while I am unarmed and unresisting. Having said this in the battlefield and casting aside his bow and arrow, Arjuna sat down on the seat of the chariot with his mind overwhelmed with sorrow and despair. (Gita 1:30-47)
By throwing down his bow, Arjuna is not just giving up his mortal life, but is giving up his faith for despair. Neither Julian nor Arjuna, however, is truly overcome. Both are granted visions from God, Julian in the form of Jesus, Arjuna in the form of Krishna. To Arjuna’s grief, Krishna responds, notably by laughing, “You grieve for what is not worthy of grief. The wise one grieves neither for the living nor for the dead. There was never a time when these monarchs, you, or I did not exist; nor shall we ever cease to exist in the future… therefore, why grieve, Arjuna?” (Gita 2:11-15). Krishna continues to state what is now a characteristic Buddhist and Hindu saying: “Life is dukkha [a Hindi word that is loosely translated as despair or sorrow]” (Gita 4). It is said in both of these Eastern traditions that our great goal in life is to rise above this sorrow. However, the term is really more than simply a type of grief. Many translators have defined this as a deep angst in life, which is usually associated with mortality or a separation from the Lord, an idea that is reflected many times in Julian’s revelations.
In one of Julian’s visions of Jesus, he says to her, “Where now is there any point in the pain or your grief?”- “[w]hatever you do, you will have sorrow. Therefore I want you to understand… that all this life is a penance that is for your benefit…” (Julian 45; 168). Besides the troubles of despair being comparable in the texts, both Krishna and Jesus point to love as being the key to the end of their disciples’ suffering.
Both Julian’s revelations and Krishna’s teachings focus on the theme of universal love between God and His creations. Julian states: “For before he made us, he loved us; and when we were made, we loved him… and thus the human soul is made of God and in the same point knit to God. All the souls… without end are knit in this knot and oned in this oneing, and made holy in his holiness” (Julian 118-19). This absolute love is equally expressed in The Bhagavad Gita, as Krishna states: “Brahman [the Ultimate Spirit] is equally present in all beings. There is no one [that is] hateful to me. But those who love me with love and devotion are very close to me and I am close to them” (Gita 9:29). This idea, while common in Eastern religions, is rarely mentioned in Western Christianity. Usually, God is separated as “other,” and not in connection with oneself. However, this conception of God or the Spirit (Brahman) being present in all is wholly expounded on in both The Bhagavad Gita and in Julian’s revelations.
Moreover, there is the theme that God/Brahman is in every action and is, in fact, the “true doer” of that action: “One beholds one and the same Lord exiting equally in every being… The one who perceives that all works are done by the powers of such a Nature truly understands, and thus does not consider oneself as the doer” (Gita 13:28-29). In fact, according to the Krishna’s verses: “The wise one who knows the truth thinks: ‘I do nothing at all.’ In seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, eating, walking, sleeping, breathing; and speaking, giving, taking, opening and closing the eyes, the wise know… this is all Brahman” (Gita 5:08-9). Likewise, Julian says: “…I saw that [God] is in all things… I saw clearly that God does all things, even the very least…It is easy to understand that the best things are well done: yet as equally well as the best and highest deed is done, so too is the least thing well done; and all because it belongs to the order God ordained… for he is the only doer” (Julian 26-7). Seeing this highly Eastern concept in a Western text is unexpected and rather astonishing. Julian expresses a highly intuitive and open mind and soul, accepting this highly foreign ideology and putting it to her own beliefs. Julian continues with this idea, stating: “…I saw no difference between God and our substance, but as it were all God… We are enclosed in the Father, and we are enclosed in the Son, and we are enclosed in the Holy Spirit. And the Father is enclosed in us, and the Son is enclosed in us, and the Holy Spirit is enclosed in us…” (120). God being present in all things is important to the idea of love in both The Bhagavad Gita and Julian’s Revelations. For instance, whenever there is love between people, there is love of God, because God is in those people. Therefore, for the love of God, we love all of His people. This idea is the link to a universal peace and also makes the love of God much more personal. By worshipping God as a person, The Bhagavad Gita explains: “…the wise are able to assume human-like relationships with Brahman” (Gita 9). D. Platt, in his introduction to The Bhagavad Gita, expounds on this belief, saying that there are : “[many roles of] God as parent, devotee as child; God as Lord, devotee as servant. It is also much easier for many people to develop love toward God when He is regarded as a person. Such love is capable of triggering a spiritual awakening once it is a pure, selfless love” (Gita VI). Julian expresses this as well, in her mention of Jesus as Brother, Mother, Savior, lover, both Lord and Servant, and dear friend (Julian 121-29). This personal love makes one’s devotion to God much more natural and open. It is this sense of love that pulls both Julian and Arjuna out of despair and pain, and it is the point of the Revelation of Love and The Bhagavad Gita.
The amazing similarities between Julian of Norwich’s spiritual revelations and the text of The Bhagavad Gita still amaze me. It is hard to comprehend that centuries have passed since these texts were written, and that the division between the ideas of Christianity and Hinduism has grown to such an extent. Now there is barely any semblance between the two, even though both of the fundamental ideals are so similar. Though I saw merit in the ideal before, I now more than ever believe in the transcendental unity of all religions. It is just as Julian stated in her final revelation: “Would you know your Lord’s meaning in this thing? Know it well: love was his meaning. Who showed it you? Love. What did he show you? Love. Wherefore did he show it you? For love. Hold yourself therein and you shall know and learn more in the same; but you shall never know nor learn another thing therein without end” (Julian 181). While these two texts are far from the same, their messages are corresponding. Their message is Love. Their message is to turn to that Love in times of despair, and to believe in that Love of God.
Julian of Norwich. Revelation of Love. Trans. Skinner, John. New York: Doubleday. 1996.
The Bhagavad Gita. Trans. The American and International Gita Society. Khapara Mohal: Bhavan Books. 1992.
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