Christmas is just a day. After a season marked by the giving of material gifts, it is important to reflect on our God-given skills and talents, the greatest gifts of all for us to use in service of the Lord.
Diversity remains humanity’s greatest asset, and the various methods of worship, philosophy, and religious practices that promote love and surrender to the Divine all beautifully serve that very Divinity.
A great teacher of mine, now a dear friend and spiritual supporter, recommended the following passage from I Corinthians 12:4–11. In Paul’s letter, the various “gifts” he describes represent the core practices of various faith traditions. All of these qualities are of the Spirit and all bring us to God.
“There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them.” (4)
Everybody’s gifts — assets, skills, specialties — are sourced from the Holy Spirit. This central tenet of the Christian trinity has a parallel in Vedic teaching, where this entity is known as Paramatma, defined by Sríla Prabhupada as “the localized aspect of the Supreme Lord within the heart of all living entities.” Paul goes on to name specific gifts endowed to us by the Holy Spirit, all means to serve the end of bringing ourselves and others to God consciousness.
“There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord.” (5)
These different kinds of service are reminiscent of the Vedic practice of yoga, literally “path to God.” The best known in the West is hatha yoga, the practice of bringing mindful awareness to the body through various postures. However, despite hatha yoga’s popularity worldwide, Vedic teaching describes four primary yogic paths:
Raja yoga is the path of meditation, outlined in Chapter 6 of the Bhagavad Gita, Jesus Christ’s teaching of the Lord’s Prayer, and a central practice of Buddhist, Sikh, and Jain traditions. The most psychologically involving practice, the wisest teachers encourage their students to not overdo it.
Jnana yoga is the practice of philosophical speculation. Western mainstream philosophy attempted to “kill” God when Nietszche wrongly declared Him to be dead. Modern atheist philosophers like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins showcase the mistaken direction jnana practice can take when it is channeled by the misguided and the self-serving. Much of their arguments are based on sociology, not theology. As for Nietzsche and his peers, at the same time Hinduism was experiencing a full blown revival in India, with gurus seeking to end the caste system, become liberated from British colonial rule, and for the first time on any scale the translations of Vedic scriptures into English. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Mark Twain — among others — had their minds blown.
Karma yoga is the path of faith through good works, both service and charity. The spiritual discipline required of this path is high, as one engaged in karma yoga can easily fall into egoism, attachment to results, and questionable motivations.
Bhakti yoga is the path of devotional service to the Lord, commonly called worship. This can be solitary, done in congregation or a small group — “For where two or three gather in my name, there I am with them.” (Matthew 18:20) Bhakti includes any act of service: singing, following the tenets of a religious tradition (such as the pillars of Islam), tithing, or, as Krishna says in the Bhagavad Gita:
“If one offers Me with love and devotion a leaf, a flower, fruit or water, I will accept it.” (9:26)
“There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work.” (6)
In all good works, God is present. Sai Baba of Shirdi would often say, “Sabka Malik Ek,” or “God is our One Master.” Everything in Creation is part of a higher order. God exists in everyone as the Holy Spirit, taught by Jesus Christ that “the Kingdom of God is in your midst” (Luke 17:21). This teaching is considered proof by Paramahansa Yogananda and many others that Jesus of Nazareth completed His spiritual education in India, under the instruction of a guru.
“Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.” (7)
The Spirit manifests itself in all people. Christianity teaches that God came in the flesh as Jesus Christ, promised by John 3:16 to deliver humanity from damnation. The Vedic teaching of the Avatar — an incarnation of the Lord who comes into Creation to fulfill a specific mission — reinforces this concept:
“Whenever and wherever there is a decline in religious practice, O descendant of Bharata, and a predominant rise of irreligion — at that time I descend Myself.” (BG 4:7)
The Spirit blesses us each with the gift to be an avatar on a localized level, using our skills and talents to restore dharma (good will driven by religiosity).
“To one there is given through the Spirit a message of wisdom, to another a message of knowledge by means of the same Spirit,” (8)
It is important to differentiate wisdom from knowledge, especially as it relates to our understanding of religious teachings. Wisdom is inborn, sourced from Spirit. Knowledge is acquired, usually through man-made means. Consider the innate wisdom present in newborns to stay afloat when placed in water. The natural instincts that “kick in” for most people who enter parenthood. This is wisdom. Knowledge is obtained from books. Knowledge is the realm of facts, where Wisdom is the domain of truth.
In the Hindu tradition, teachings are separated into two categories: teachings revealed directly by God to sages or prophets, passed on through oral tradition long before they were ever documented in writing (shruti) and teachings written by authors (smriti). Hindu scripture such as the Vedas and Upanishads fall into the shruti category, as does the Revelation of St. John of Patmos. The Bhagavad Gita and St. Paul’s Epistles are smriti literature.
Some of us are gifted with Wisdom, others with Knowledge. This represents faith traditions from both the Eastern and Western hemispheres, the former a collective of animistic, pantheistic, inwardly focused religious traditions that often include elements such as ancestor worship; the latter represents religions that can be called “People of the Book,” whether that Book of Law be the Torah/Tanakh, the Bible, or the Qur’an.
Ideally, these two methods — Wisdom and Knowledge — can coexist in harmony, both equally valid with neither put above the other. Rather, both approaches suits two very different sensibilities: that of creativity (Wisdom) and that of logic (Knowledge). This balance represents the idyllic spiritual harmony that should define our spiritual practices, splitting the difference between rationalism and sentimentalism.
“To another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by that one Spirit,” (9)
Faith is a gift — perhaps the greatest of all! Although many Evangelical Christians have embraced the damnable idea of a modern holy war against Islam and most non-Christians in general, one cannot deny their faith in Jesus Christ, if not God, as a unifying force in their community. Let us consider other more positive elements of public demonstrations of faith.
Austerities and penances, such as vows of silence or of poverty or the performance of miraculous acts, undertaken by monks, nuns, sadhus, and ascetics serve to inspire laypeople in their own everyday pursuit of faith. Reading the life stories of saints and religious reformers offers a glimpse into the struggles, successes, and teachings of truly great people. Along with scripture, seekers should read the stories of those who have lived “holy” lives. One of my most beloved teachers, Eknath Easwaran, considers this as fundamental a cornerstone in one’s practice as prayer and meditation.
Whether it is a noble reformer motivated by faith (Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz aka Malcolm X), miracle workers (Jesus Christ, Sai Baba of Shirdi, Meher Baba, Anandamayi Ma), or teachers (Guru Nanak, Baba Dick Gregory, Fred Rogers), these tales inspire and motivate us in ways we had never thought possible. Even the human struggles of those on a holy path — such as the English musicians turned spiritualists, George Harrison and Pete Townshend — can provide encouragement for those who are on their way, or who need light during times of personal darkness.
Faith can even be strong enough to induce healing qualities, including mental and psychic healing, but such instances are very rare. Only the money-changers will tell you otherwise.
“To another miraculous powers, to another prophecy, to another distinguishing between spirits, to another speaking in different kinds of tongues, and to still another the interpretation of tongues.” (10)
Miraculous powers — consider the mother who can lift the car off of her baby. Science offers the explanation of “adrenaline,” but the mechanics of superhuman strength to preserve life ultimately has no worldly explanation. These are the helpers and the healers.
Prophecy is another well-documented occurrence around the world, from scriptural writings to messaging in popular music. The ability to distinguish between spirits is the ability to separate the Real from the Unreal, to use the wording of the Upanishads. Regarding “tongues,” perhaps you have seen the practice in charismatic religious communities where practitioners are seemingly yelling gibberish. Tongues here refers instead to the gift of communication — Buddha would call it “right speech.” It’s the ability to both listen and speak mindfully, to understand and interpret accurately the desires and needs of others.
Perhaps the most obvious instance of tongues: the gift of creative expression, be it art, poetry, literature, music, or teaching.
“All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he distributes them to each one, just as he determines.” (11)
The Spirit gives us the skills we need so we can fulfill our purpose (dharma), which is to realize God and to do our best to share the gift of God-consciousness with others, through the promotion of recognizing the existence of our individual Souls, which exist both separate from and part of God. It is up to us to recognize our strengths so we can best serve God.
Think about your skills — how can you use them to serve God?