Contemplating the Mystery is as old as humanity itself. People cannot help but wonder at the miracle of life, and have found and developed myriad paths to meaning. Shrouded in deepest antiquity, the oldest religious traditions share many similar ideas, and may even share common roots. Contemporary people seek ways to express their spirituality that are freed from the baggage of the past, but the authority of antiquity lends an undeniable richness. Like a fine wine, spirituality needs some aging and “gravity” to be convincing. . .
Living traditions are growing traditions, enriched by their relationships with other paths, and “cross-pollination” has engendered a network of commonalities across the religious spectrum. There is a sense of recognition when a familiar practice or concept is seen expressed in a different language or style. Religious traditions have influenced each other in many ways, for better or worse.
Judaism and Vedanta have much in common, and we will explore here some of similarities and differences they share. The idea of “proving” or “disproving” a connection between Judaism and Vedanta can be someone else’s project.
The idea that Judaism and Vedanta have common roots raises some eyebrows. The antiquity of possible commonalities may make definitive proof, one way or the other, impossible. Outwardly, in many ways, the two traditions are quite different – iconoclastic Judaism’s rejection of deist imagery contrasts sharply with Hinduism’s polytheism and rich panoply of God-forms and their images. These surface characteristics conceal similarities in the underlying core concepts.
Both terms, “Judaism” and “Hinduism,” are blanket words that describe huge collections of varying “dialects” within each religion. Comprehensive parallels may be impossible to draw, so prominent, selected threads will be compared, leaving final conclusions as an open choice.
ABRAHAM AND THE BRAHMINS
“And to the concubine children who were Abraham’s, Abraham gave gifts; then he sent them away from Isaac his son, while he was still alive, eastward, to the land of the east.”
These were the children of Hagar, Sarah’s handmaiden with whom Abraham fathered Ishmael, the progenitor of the Islamic strand of Abraham’s ethical monotheism. Hagar was also called Ketura, which means “incense.” Did these journeyers-to-the-east children of Abraham’s become the Brahmins? The timing would be right, Abraham lived around 2100 B.C.E., and the Upanishads and Rig Veda emerged in India in about 1500 B.C.E. The similarity of “Abraham” and “Brahmin” may be purely coincidental. Like the fact that the Nordic version of Adam and Eve, the primordial couple, were called in the Eddas “Ask and Embla” [ash and elm trees].
SACRED LANGUAGE – SACRED TEXT
A hieratic language. The Greek word “hieratic” means “priestly,” and was originally used to describe Eqyptian hieroglyphics, a lanquage reserved for spiritual purposes. Hieratic languages like Hebrew and Sanskrit are seen as “vessels” that protect spiritual concepts. Each letter, each glyphic symbol contains and transmits “God-force.” Each shape, and what it imparts, connects the immanent world to the transcendant world, and is a path along which humans can share in that connection. This idea evolves in some thought into the idea that simply scanning the letters with the eyes opens the soul to the divine, regardless of comprehension of the meanings.
Sacred Texts. The term “Veda,” in its narrow sense, refers to the four primary brahmanic “Samhitas,” the Rig Veda, Yajur Veda, Sama Veda, and Atharva Veda. Subsequent writings have been assimilated into the tradition, and “Veda” has become a broader term including a body of literature much larger than the core texts. Similarly, in Judaism, the Sefer Torah [Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy], form the primary written law, with later works like the Talmud and Zohar forming a vast body of thought that is sometimes referred to broadly as “Torah.”
The Vedic texts were ‘recieved’ by teachers who had acheived rarefied heights of spiritual insight. These people were called ‘Rishis.’ The ‘Rishonim,’ the compilers of the Talmud and the Siddur of Judaism, were sages, students and communicators of the deepest mysteries. Though ‘rishi’ [seer, ecstatic] and ‘rishonim’ [first ones] have different etymological roots and meanings, the similarity of the words is provocative.
In both traditions, the primary texts, Torah and Veda, are thought of as entities much greater than simple collections of words. Both are seen as “living bodies” of the Spiritual manifested in the physical world. Both are seen as containing the sum of all knowledge, and capable of infinite exploration and permutation. Both are seen as cosmological principles, as essential, primary components of reality itself. Both are closed canons, while still being seen as filled with endless meaning and sustenance. The import of these texts is often seen to transcend the literal meanings of the words, and where human interpretation begins is where endless questions of authority begin.
HASHEM – BRAHMAN
“Definitions” of “God” are very similar in Judaic and Vedic philosopy. According to the monotheistic and panentheistic theologies of Hinduism, God (the Supreme Being) is, in the highest sense, One: beyond form, infinite, and eternal. God is changeless and is the very source of consciousness. God is beyond time, space, and causation and yet permeates everything and every being. God is beyond gender. When God is thought of as this infinite principle, God is called Brahman. Brahman is the indescribable, omnipresent, original, inexhaustible, omniscient, first, eternal and absolute principle—the Supreme Cosmic Spirit—who is without a beginning, without an end, who is hidden in all and who is the source, cause, material and effect of all creation known, unknown and yet to happen in the entire universe. Brahman is the Absolute Truth: it is pure existence, consciousness and knowledge. According to the Hindu philosophical school of Advaita Vedanta, nothing in the universe truly exists except Brahman.
In Judaism, many of the exact same ideas are invoked in the daily prayer service: God is One, without form, without beginning or end, beyond time and space, the source of life and consciousness, indescribable, inexhaustible, omniscient, omnipresent, original, first, eternal and absolute principle—the ultimate transcendant reality, who is hidden in all and who is the cause, source, material and effect of all creation known, unknown and yet to happen in the entire universe. The Creator is described as: incomparable, without equal, unbounded by time, One but not in the sense of counting, preceding everything, and knowing of all secrets.
The idea of God’s permeation of every aspect of life is summed up in both religious traditions with a similar saying or mantra: in Sanskrit, “Tat twam asi” means “and that, too” – with the idea of mentally acknowledging every thought and event as being part of God. The corollary in Judaism is a saying attributed to “Rabbi Ish Gam Zu”: “Gam Zu la Tov” – “and that, too, is for the good.”
Some threads of Vedantic thought posit many “sub-forms” of God, giving them names and powers, with whole cults arising around these various personalities, whereas Judaism rigidly avoids this, and doesn’t indulge in any of these subdivisions. Another difference is the Jewish importance attached to the “names” used to describe the Creator, with levels of sanctity attributed to these names, including a name that cannot be pronounced – that was only pronounced in ancient times by the Kohen Gadol [High Priest] on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Modern Jews use a variety of euphemisms for the Master of the Universe, and carefully avoid using sacred names in non-prayer situations. One example is “HaShem,” meaning literally: “The Name.”
Devekut – Samadhi. Vedic and Chassidic thought share the ideal of “joining” with the Divine, and myriad approaches to this goal have been described, named, and practiced. The Hebrew: “bittul ha yesh,” means “nullification of what I have,” and is part of “Devekut,” or “cleaving” to the creator. This can be compared to the Sanskrit “moksha” meaning “liberation,” dissolution of the sense of self as an egoistic personality, which is a precursor to “Samadhi,” also called “Nirvana” – total absorption in Cosmic Consciousness. Both traditions prescribe comprehensive systems of blessings, meditations and rituals for keeping the mind in constant focus on the Spiritual World. Both systems also have varying schools of thought concerning “levels” of absorption, the purpose thereof, and ways to achieve it.
Another aspect of this unification with the divine is that there is no ulterior motive, not even the motive of some reward at a future time, like the Christian or Islamic ideas of “heaven.” In Jewish thought this is called “le shem shamayim,” “for the sake of heaven,” and in Vedic thought it’s called “surrendering the fruits of your actions,” or “karma yoga” – the yoga of works.
FOUR WORLDS — FOUR YOGAS
“Yoga” means “union,” or “yoke,” referring to the idea of a system of practices intended to bring samadhi or devekut – union with the Source of Creation. The oxen’s yoke is a primordial symbol, and is also prominent in Judaism. The “Ohl Malchut Shamayim,” the “Yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven,” is the system of “Halacha,” or “path,” which organizes Jewish life into a constant meditation on Holiness. “Raja Yoga – Kingly Yoke,” and the “Ohl Malchut – Yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven” are almost identical twins – a spiritual ox-team.
Brahmanic philosophy has defined four “branches” of yoga, acknowledging the various personality types and levels of dedication in aspirants. [This is one way in which Vedic and Jewish thought differ, in that Judaism doesn’t explicitly describe any “types.” There are the distinctions of “Kohanim,” “Leviim,” and “Yisrael,” and it might be interesting to explore using the 12 Tribes as a model for this type of taxonomy.] The four types or “margas” of yoga are: Karma, Bhakti, Jnana, Raja yogas. Each type has numerous traditions and schools of thought that flow from them, and they are often intertwined. They can easily be compared to the four levels in the Kabalistic Tree of Life.
Karma Yoga, mentioned above, is the yoga of work, the physical world, and human interaction. In Hebrew, spiritual work is “avoda,” the work of the Priests in the Tabernacle. It’s earthy, material associations correspond to the foundational Kabalistic world, “Assiah,” the world of making, and the “Birchat ha shachar,” or Morning Blessings, the beginning of the prayer service and the “lowest” level. This section of the Jewish service includes meditations on the physical body – and “Karma Yoga” includes “Hatha Yoga,” whose purpose is the exercise and “tuning” of the flesh-and-blood vehicle. This section concludes with the “korbanos,” the daily sacrificial prodecures. The primary Brahmanic texts, the “Vedas,” are a series of “mantras,” “p’sukim,” or “verses,” that are sacrificial instruction manuals.
Bhakti Yoga is the Yoga of praise, song, and dance. “Kirtan” is the Sanskrit term for the countless tunes, hymns, singing styles and dance rituals applied to the mantras of praise and gratitude contained in the tradition. Judaism is also a singing religion, with “niggunim,” “wordless tunes,” at the top of the list of ways to find devekut, and a huge variety of psalms, Biblical songs, and tunes collected from 3,000 years of Jewish travels. Singing and bits of melody are woven through every moment of the day in Judaism. The P’sukei d’Zimra, the singing part of the prayer service, corresponds in Kabalistic thought to the second world, the world of “Yetzirah,” or “formation,” and includes Psalms of David, The Song at the Sea [from Exodus], excerpts from Chronicles, and more. In both traditions, song and movement are recognized as important and effective ways to soften the ego, open the heart, and engender love and welcoming of the Source of Life.
Jnana Yoga is the Yoga of meditation, concentration, and union. In Hinduism “Jnana – knowing” means true knowledge, the knowledge that one’s self is identical with Ultimate Reality, Brahman. In Buddhism, Jnana refers to pure awareness that is free of conceptual encumbrances, and is contrasted with vijnana, which is a moment of ‘divided knowing’. These two states are comparable to “mochin gadlut,” “big mind,” and “mochin katlut” small mind, in Chasidic thought. This corresponds to the “Kriyas Shema” level of the prayer service, Briah, or “creation,” and is said sitting, and focusing the mind and heart on Deuteronomy 6:4, the “Shema:” “Listen-hear, O Israel, G-d is One,” and on the Omnipresent Unity of the Creator.
Raja Yoga is the culmination of the other Yogas – “raja” meaning “king.” This is total absorption and immersion, connecting the transcendant and immanent worlds. Here is where all of the preparation comes to fruition, and the aspirant merges with the spiritual realm. In the Jewish prayer service, this could be compared to the “Amidah,” the standing prayer that is said in silence. Chasidut connects the Amidah to Atzilut, the highest world in the Kabalistic Tree of Life, the world of intimacy, and emanation.
STREAMS OF THOUGHT
“Ivri,” root of the word “Hebrew,” means to cross over; and it first appears at Genesis 14:13, referring to Abraham, after he has crossed the Euphrates River. This “crossing over” is seen as the advance of moving into a spiritual life from a worldly life. In Buddhism, distantly related to Brahmanism, “crossing the river” is a metaphor for the long process of acheiving enlightenment. The two main strands of Buddhism take their names from this powerful symbol, Mahayana [big vessel] and Hinayana [small vessel] are the broader and narrower approaches. Key symbols in Judaism are the Hebrews crossing the Red Sea on dry land, and Moses “surrendering the fruits of his labors” by not crossing the River Jordan at the end of the 40 years in the desert.
IMPERMANENCE – HEVEL
In Buddhism, a “Dharmic Religion” that grew out of Brahmanic philosophy, a key concept is anitya, a Sanskrit word meaning impermanence, the only end of which is Nirvana, dissolution of self and unification with the Divine. The Jewish prayer service includes a dramatic section culminating with the concept that all human accomplishment and even “superioriity of man over beast” is called “hevel,” or “futile – impermanent,” and that the only remedy is in the acknowledgement that “God is One.” “Hevel” also means “breath,” which provides an opening to another set of shared ideas between the two traditions.
BREATH AND GOD
An entire branch of Yoga is dedicated to the purification and care of the body with the purpose of deepening the connection with the Divine. Hatha Yoga [ha – sun / tha – moon] recognizes that the physical vehicle, the body, is a rare opportunity, and our only chance for spiritual development. Health problems are an impediment to meditation. Prana is the Sanskrit word for “breath.” Prana is the “life force,” the vital energy that supports the entire natural process of the universe, and a complex science has grown around it in Vedic practice, called “Pranayama.”
There are important references to breath in the Jewish texts, but there have been fewer developments in the area. As mentioned above, “hevel” means “breath,” or “vanity.” The book of Kohelet [Ecclesiastes], begins with the words:
“Havel, havalim, ha khol, hevel” – “vanity, vanity, all is vanity.” Since “vanity” also means “breath,” this could be seen as an exact corraboration of the Vedic idea of prana’s permeation of the universe. The last verse of Psalms [Ps. 150:6] says “Khol ha neshama t’halel Ya,” “Every soul will praise God.” “Neshama,” or “soul,” also means “breath,” – so here King David is saying “every breath should praise God” – exactly what Pranayama does by connecting breathing exercises with sacred mantras. In the twice daily readings of the “Shema” passage of Deuteronomy, in the two paragraphs that follow [Deut 6:5-9, and Deut 11:13-21], both contain verses exhorting the Jew to “love God with all your soul – breath,” another suggestion that breath is part of Devekut.
In modern terms, we know that the brain uses more oxygen than any other organ in the body, and that efficient brain function is vitally dependant on an adequate supply. The deep, rhythmic breathing of Yoga systematically oxygenates the entire body, especially the brain, sharpening focus, concentration, and enthusiasm. Passing references in the Jewish literature mention breathing as a valuable practice, and certain early Kabalists are said to have employed breathing techniques with their prayer to achieve deeper kavanah, but until recently there have been few explicitly developed routines for including breathing with Jewish prayer.
Lunar – Solar Calendars
The Sanctification of the Moon is the first commandment given to the Jews in the Torah. The annual cycle of Festivals, Torah readings, fasts and other holidays in the Jewish calendar are determined by the moon. This is a shared characteristic among almost all religions – only the Gregorian calendar is exclusively solar. Vedic science has created a complex lunar system of Astrology that parallels an equally complex solar system. Judaism, especially in its more Conservative or Orthodox strains, is skeptical of astrology and avoids it, limiting the issue to the monthly Kiddush Levanah – Blessing of the New Moon.
Brahmanic, or “Dharmic” religions frequently tend to asceticism, in the forms of celibacy, fasting, and other physical privations. Seen as ways to reduce the influence of the physical and make way for the spiritual, these practices are often carried to the extreme. Jewish law, halacha, also curbs or channels the physical, with some key differences.
Circumcision is the primary physical covenant every Jewish male undergoes, and there is no evidence of this on any formal level in the Dharmic religions. While many elaborate forms of alterations to the physical body occur in Hinduism especially, Jewish law firmly forbids any mutiliation of the body, including tattoos and piercings. Removal of the foreskin at the age of 8 days is the only exception.
Fasting is practiced across the spectrum of religions, and the Dharmic paths include many prescribed and self imposed periods of food deprivation. The Jewish fasts are fewer, and prescribed for specific days. Self-imposed fasting is less common, and cases of extended fasts are almost unheard of, with the exception of Moses. There are even allowances to eat on the prescribed fasts for pregnant women, older people and the infirm.
While sexual abstinence and / or withdrawal from social life for extended meditation is celebrated in the Vedic world, it is rare and not encouraged in Judaism. While there are famous and revered cave-dwelling holy men in the Jewish past, Jewry in general is enjoined to participate in the material world, to work for a living, to have sex (within a sanctified marriage), to drink (in controlled and prescribed ways), and to dance. Jewish prayer is said to be more effective when done with the community, and the tradition of “Minyan,” ten adult (male) Jews required for the recitation of Kaddish and certain other parts of the service is a foundation of Judaism. This challenging prescription of maintaining Holiness while fully participating in the world is distinctly Jewish, and helps to curtail more fantastic manifestions like the Indian fakirs with their nail beds and hot coal walking.
Dietary traditions between Judaic and Dharmic worlds have various differences and similarities. While Vedic philosophy has an extended science of diet, it frequently eliminates meat from the menu entirely, in the interest of ahimsa or “nonviolence.” Judaism has a complex dietary regimen, called “Kashrut,” which does allow meat, but with serious controls, both in the slaughtering and consumption. Similar to the rejection of hermitism and celibacy, this forces the Jew to face the harsh realities of life while sanctifying them at the same time.
The Brahmanic traditions have a rich variety of festive and holy days throughout each year, many religious, and others peculiar to local customs. Judaism differs in that its primary Holy Day, the Sabbath, happens weekly, and that all of the various special days are fairly consistent throughout the Jewish world, as opposed to the wide variety existing in Hinduism, Buddhism, etc. In both traditions, complex associations and rituals impart spiritual lessons while also serving the purpose of bringing people together.
Both traditions feature daily rituals, and as with the larger cycle of holidays, Judaism is much more codified and consistent across the Jewish spectrum. The wide variety of practices in Dharmic religions share the common underlying urge to unification with God, as do the less varied Jewish liturgies. Vedic and Judaic systems both have detailed systems of blessing, or sanctifying virtually every part of the day’s activities, even the most mundane. Thus, waking, washing, excretion, and the first words of the day are sanctified with God-consciousness by accompanying these activities with “Brachot,” “Mantras,” or “Blessings.” An important difference is that in many strands of the Dharmic tradition, “God Images” are used to focus meditation, whereas in Judaism, such images are strictly avoided. The only “images” in Jewish practice, are the Hebrew letters themselves, which are, as indicated above, seen as physical manifestations of Holiness.
In both the Torah and Vedic traditions, emphasis is placed on life in this world, with the afterlife receiving passing or sketchy attention. Over attention to life-after-death is seen as a morbid “ego trip.” Both traditions posit forms of reincarnation, with some strands of the Vedic tradition creating detailed taxonomies of incarnational structure, and even assertions of “lineage” extending into the past for certain exalted individuals. Midrash, Jewish oral tradition, refers to the souls of prominent Biblical personalities as resurfacing over time, but specific, hard cast claims are avoided.
Funerary rituals vary widely in the Vedic world, with cremation being a common form of disposal of the body, which sharply contrasts with the Jewish insistence on leaving the body in its natural state, with no chemicals, and a coffin with holes in it that permits rapid deterioration and assimilation-into-the-earth of the body. Tibetan Buddhists accompany the dead with readings from the Bardo Thodal [lit. “liberation through hearing in the intermediate state”], which are mantras designed to guide the departing soul towards a positive outcome: either ultimate release, or rebirth into a favorable incarnation. Similarly, Jewish tradition has the deceased accompanied by the reading of Tehillim [Psalms of David], ideally from the moments before death until the burial is complete. Varieties of “ancestor worship” or commemorations of the deceased are common among Vedic traditions. In Judaism, a special “Kaddish” is said for the dead by close relatives for 11 months after the death, and yearly death-anniversaries are also commemorated. It is often said in Judaism that the after-death rituals are done for the benefit of the survivors, not the dead, whereas in Vedic thought there is more possibility to “influence” the fate of the departed.
TRIBES AND CASTES
Brahmanic tradition has taken the idea of classes of holiness and racial purity to great lengths, creating complex social stratification referred to as the “caste system.” Judaism’s version of this is first of all, the concept of a “Holy Nation;” that is, the “Children of the Covenant,” or the “Chosen – or Singled Out People.” Stratum exist within Judaism itself, namely the Kohanim, Leviim, and Israel. These Biblical divisions are much less restrictive, especially in modern times, than the Indian caste system. Today, there are definite “levels” of authority, credentials based on family history or modern criteria of educational achievement. A strong Jewish distaste for charlatanism creates a reliable barrier against false claims of “holiness,” and hard-won spiritual authority is maintained through reputation and works in the community.
Another distinguishing feature of Judaism is the sense of national loyalty and group cohesion. Though there are several “strands” of Judaism, there is still a strong sense of community – family connection, borne of generations of group life. The Hebrew of the Torah also provides a common language that holds the community together. Vedic religions share Sanskrit in the same way, but have had no desert-dweller rigor of system. The spiritual imaginations of the yogis proliferated like the jungles they lived in, while the Avot [fathers], “built a fence around the Torah,” whose edifice of liturgy and ritual has kept the original prophetic vision consistent and pure. The difference between Zen Buddhism and Kali-cult Hinduism, though they both grew from the Vedas, is vast. Though there is a wide spectrum of Jewish levels of observance, details of the basic cosmology and practice remain fairly consistent. The Torah concept of an entire nation of slaves being liberated, and then experiencing prophecy simultaneously at Mount Sinai, is unique.
Becoming a Hindu, Buddhist, or member of any of the other Dharmic religions is not difficult, and simply requires study, ritual, and purity of intention. The Dharmic religions are distinctly non-evangelical, and rarely proselytize, much like Judaism. Conversion to Judaism, on the other hand, is a daunting task. Midrash enjoins a Rabbi approached by a potential convert to refuse the seeker three times. Partly because of social problems arising from the surrounding community in reaction to conversion to Judaism, and the difficulty of maintaining a Jewish life after conversion, Judaism has substantially smaller numbers than most other world religions. Serious converts are held in great respect, and despite the difficulty, more people are converting to Judaism today than at any time since the time of Greek ascendency.
BIBLIOGRAPHY / READING LIST
Most of the information on this page is patent knowledge within each tradition, and widely communicated, though parallel comparisons like this are rare and tend to be scholarly, voluminous, impenetrable. This page a only a “nutshell” analysis of an incredibly vast and deep reservoir of knowledge and practice, and an invitation to deeper study. Commonalities or sharp contrasts were the focus of this abbreviated overview, and both traditions include volumes of activity not discussed here.
Veda and Torah: Transcending the Textuality of Scripture by Barbara A. Holdrege State University of New York Press (December 1995)
Encyclopedia Judaica Volume 10 :: 1972 Keter Publishing House Jerusalem Ltd.
Sefer Yetzirah – The Book of Creation :: Aryeh Kaplan : 1990 Samuel Weiser Inc. :: York Beach, Maine
The Yoga Aphorisms of Patanjali :: Translated by Swami Prabhavananda and Christopher Isherwood 1953 Vedanta Society of Southern California :: Hollywood, California
On The Possibility of Jewish Mysticism in Our Time :: by Gershom Scholem Translated by Jonathan Chipman 1997 The Jewish Publication Society :: Philadelphia, Jerusalem
The Myth of Freedom- and the Way of Meditation :: By Chogyam Trungpa :: 1976 Sambhala Publications :: Berkeley, California.
The Path of Blessing :: By Rabbi Marcia Prager :: Bell Tower :: New York :: 1998
And of course, WIKIPEDIA.
About the Author:
Rafi Metz is an ambidextrous polymathic autodidact piano player, Yoga-Kabalah-dreamwork practitioner. He is an historic photo-curator at the Denver Public Library and he also does graphic arts and web development. His current most exciting project is crafting alternative-beginner services at his congregation. We focus on deeper penetration into specific Hebrew words and concepts, meditation, and kirtan type chants.” For more information, please visit: rafimetz.com and torahveda.org