Compassion – Through the Lens of Religious Genius

Question for consideration

Each cluster of texts is comprised of contributions from authors of different religious tradition. Each text has a brief commentary by a scholar and one or two questions to assist you in focusing on its particular approach to the theme under discussion.

It is recommended for those not so familiar with text study that each of the texts is read guided by the accompanying question or questions. However, advanced readers may not need the guidance and may prefer to encounter the texts without the mediation of the questions.

After reading the individual texts, consider the following general questions in relation to the theme.

For each cluster of texts on a particular theme ask the following questions:

1. In what way do each of the texts reflect a unique cultural/ socio-religious setting and to what extent are they reflective of a universal human quest for meaning?

2. What unique contribution to our understanding of the theme does each text make? Can the unique contributions resonate with followers of another religious tradition?

3. Identify any understandings of the theme that are common to all the selected texts. Do these understandings appear more prominent in one tradition than in another or are they likely to resonate equally across all traditions?

4. How do these texts enhance your appreciation of their authors as ‘religious geniuses’?

Love of one’s Fellow – Service and Compassion

Sources 14, 78, 9, 53, 39

As mentioned below, every religion has a place for ‘service’ to others as a religious obligation. Similarly, every religion calls on followers to be compassionate. But perhaps the terms mean different things in different contexts. Can these texts be read interchangeably, regardless of the religious context in which they were authored, or does each of them carry the marks of its particular context? If it is conditioned by context, does the context limit our ability to be inspired by the particular text?

Each of the texts below deals with the theme of the responsibility of one person towards another, ideas of compassion and service. Read the texts and the commentaries, if you desire, guided by the accompanying questions.

After reading the texts, refer to the question above, a synthesis of the four questions on the previous page with respect to the themes of ‘Compassion’ and ‘Service’.

Guiding questions: What is wrong, according to this source, with pitying creatures? How does showing pity contradict the ideals to be cultivated?

Source 14 (Hindu):
Ramakrishna, Sayings of Sri Ramakrishna, 225

“Sri Ramakrishna was one day expounding the gist of Sri Gauranga’s cult in the following words: ‘This faith insists we should at all times try to cultivate three things—delight in the name of the Lord, loving sympathy for all beings, and service to devotees. God and his name are identical. Knowing this, one should take the name of the Lord with great love and fervor. The devotees of God should be respected and adored in the conviction that there is no difference between Krishna and the Vaishnavas. With the knowledge that the whole universe is the household of the Lord, one should show pity to all creatures …” Uttering the last words, ‘pity to all creatures,’ in a rather abrupt fashion, the Master went into Samadhi. Sometime after returning to semi-conscious state, the Master exclaimed, ‘Pity to creatures! Pity to creatures! Sir, you who are lower than a worm, how dare you speak of showing to pity to creatures! Who are you to show pity to them? No, no, it is not pity to creatures, but service to them in the consciousness that they are verily God himself.”

Commentary by Swami Tyagananda: Every religious tradition has a place for “service” in its theological framework. Ramakrishna taught that, if God is everywhere and if God is all that exists (a central teaching in Hinduism), then all work is God’s work and every person we deal with is none other than God. Which transforms every work into worship. Done with that awareness, every work purifies the heart and makes it fit for spiritual awakening. Ramakrishna imparted this teaching during a gathering with devotees one day.

Inspired by these words, the Ramakrishna Order today does enormous work in the fields of education, health and rehabilitation in times of natural disasters. While these are seen as “philanthropic” activities by some, to devotees and students of Ramakrishna’s life and teachings, participating in these activities is an act of worship, a spiritual practice.

Ramakrishna’s insightful contributions have helped spiritual seekers all over the world deepen their spiritual lives and advance their understanding and practice of religious life.

Source 9 (Christian): St Gregory, Philanthropic Works

Oration 14 The Oration was delivered at a market festival in Cappadocia in c. 362

My brothers and fellow indigents (we are each one of us, after all, poor folk in so far as we stand in need of God’s grace, even if some of us seem to have more than others) … do not receive this oration on love for the poor in any pinched or tight-fisted way, but with great magnanimity, so that you may lay up treasure in heaven….. Love for our fellows is such a good thing. And here we take our example from Jesus who was ready to be called our brother, and even to suffer for our sake. There are many virtues and each is a pathway to salvation… but the love of the poor, compassion and pity for our fellows, is the most excellent of them all, for nothing serves God so faithfully as compassion. All the many wretched around us look towards our hands for help, just as we ourselves look to God; but the most wretched of all are the lepers who have been betrayed even by their own bodies. Who is there even among the most gracious and humane of men who does not habitually show himself hostile and inhumane to the leper? This is the only case where we forget this is someone who is flesh like us, and must bear the same fragile body we have. We even feel pity when we come across a stinking corpse, and will carry it off for burial. And yet we all run away from a leper: what hardness of heart. Imagine the sorrow that the mother of such a one has to bear? What lamentation will she not raise when she sees her son before her very eyes like a living corpse. ‘O wretched son,’ she will say, ‘Of a tragic mother; stolen away from me by this disease. O pitiful child; son I can no longer recognise. You who must now live among wild animals in deserts and craggy mountains, with only rocks as your shelter; nevermore to see mankind except for the most holy among them…’ With cries such as this she pours out fountains of tears. How have we come to accept inhumanity as fit behaviour for a free society; while we scorn compassion as something to be ashamed of?

And yet if we place any reliance on Paul, or on Christ himself, then we should take love as the first and greatest of the commandments, the summation of the Law and Prophets and, accordingly, we must take love for the poor as the highest pinnacle of charity …. for ‘Mercy and truth walk before our God’ (Ps. 88.15) and nothing more than this befits a God who prefers mercy to justice. The kindest person, as the leper thinks, is not the one who supplies their needs, rather the one who turns them away without a torrent of sharp words. They live out their wretched lives under the open sky, while we live in splendid houses adorned with mosaics; glittering with gold and silver. Can you not see how strangely moving it is, that when someone shows a leper a small kindness they receive it with gratitude, rather than with outrage for all the neglect they have unjustly suffered. They have come to that state where they can only give thanks through their eyes, since their lips are no longer visible.

… Why do we not rush to help while we still have time? … Why do we sit and glut ourselves while our brothers and sisters are in such distress? God forbid I should enjoy such superabundance, when the likes of these have nothing at all.   Would we not be ashamed to receive so much from God if we did not give back this one single thing: kindness towards our fellow human beings? So I ask you today: dedicate a little to God, from whom you received so much. Let the fear of God conquer the inertia of your desire for ease. Even, give everything back to God, for He first gave you everything that you now possess, because you will never be able to surpass God’s generosity to you; not if you gave away every single thing you owned, even selling yourself into the bargain. And therefore, I say to you: ‘Know Thyself !’ Know from what source comes all that you own; all your breathing, your knowing and your wisdom. And this is the greatest of all – to know God, to hope for the Kingdom of Heaven, the same honour as the angels, and the vision of glory. For now we see that we are all the children of God, and co-heirs of Christ, but only as if in a mirror, or in dark reflections, but then we shall see more clearly and more purely. And, if I may put it a little more daringly, we shall see that we have even been deified. A human being has no more godlike quality than that of doing good. Let us take care of Christ in the person of the poor while we still have time. let us serve Christ’s needs; feed him and clothe him. The Lord of all things has said: ‘ I desire mercy not sacrifice;’[1] and again: ‘A heart full of mercy is worth more than thousands of fattened rams.’ [2] Let us give our gifts to Christ in the persons of the poor who are today cast down upon the ground; and one day when we are set free from this world, it is they who will come out to welcome us into the tents of heaven, in Christ Our Lord himself, to whom be glory for all the ages. Amen.

Commentary by John A McGuckin: The influence of St Gregory is monumentally significant for the development of Christian ideas. He lived a personally frugal and celibate lifestyle, advocating that the single (monastic) life is well suited for someone who wishes to approach divine mysteries in a radical way. He held a general thesis that in culture and broad intellectual understanding of one another the human mind might learn compassion and tolerance, and discern the greater truths lying hidden beneath appearances.

His Oration 14 ‘On the Love of the Poor’, is historically a turning point in Greek Letters. It is the first time a philosopher in the classical tradition took the image of the suffering person (the leper) and elevated it as an icon of divine justice and mercy. In this piece he argued that the suffering person is a sign for society that calls for help as a matter of justice, yet stands as a challenging icon of God’s blessing of the virtue of philanthropic pity. Compassion is elevated as the supreme mimesis of the divine. Before Gregory, the Hellenic sophistical tradition classified extreme suffering as a divinely attributed punishment for hidden sins (which would have been inappropriately addressed by social philanthropic intervention). Oration 14 is thus a watershed in the history of social thought. It was the birth of Christian schemes of philanthropy, and Gregory used this Oration to spear-head a major fund-raising project that eventually constructed a large Leprosarium in his Church of Cappadocia.

Source 78 (Christian): Thomas Merton, Letter to Pope John XXIII, November 10, 1958, HGL 482

Guiding comment: The title of Merton’s book (No Man is an Island) indicates the central idea of this extract. Merton sees involvement with the world as a religious obligation.

It is true, political problems are not solved by love and mercy. But the world of politics is not the only world, and unless political decisions rest on a foundation of something better and higher than politics, they can never do any real good for men. When a country has to be rebuilt after war, the passions and energies of war are no longer enough. There must be a new force, the power of love, the power of understanding and human compassion, the strength of selflessness and cooperation, and the creative dynamism of the will to live and to build, and the will to forgive. The will for reconciliation.

The principles given in this book [No Man Is an Island] are simple, and more or less traditional. They are the principles derived from religious wisdom, which, in the present case, is Christian. But many of these principles run parallel to the ancient teachings of Buddhism. They are in fact in large part universal truths. They are truths with which, for centuries, man has slowly and with difficulty built a civilized world in the effort to make happiness possible, not merely by making life materially better, but by helping men to understand and live their life more fruitfully.

It seems to me that, as a contemplative, I do not need to lock myself into solitude and lose all contact with the rest of the world; rather this poor world has a right to a place in my solitude.

Source 53 (Hindu): Mata Amritanandamayi, God is Love

Parliament of World’s Religions, Chicago, 1993.

“Love for humanity arises in one who has experienced the Truth. In that fullness of Divine Love blossoms the beautiful, fragrant flower of compassion. Compassion does not see the faults of others. It does not see the weaknesses of people. It makes no distinction between good and bad people. Compassion cannot draw a line between two countries, two faiths or two religions. Compassion has no ego. Thus there is no fear, lust or passion. Compassion simply forgives and forgets. Compassion is like a passage; everything passes through it, nothing can stay there. Compassion is love expressed in all its fullness.

God is love, the life-force behind the entire creation. It is indeed rare to find a religion which does not consider love for all beings as the supreme factor. If religions adhered to this principle of Love, the differences seen today would become insignificant. God expects love, fraternity and cooperation from His children. Clinging to their superficial differences, human beings are paving the way for their own destruction.

Religion is supposed to spread the light of Love and Truth to humanity. Religion should not encourage separateness. There is only one Supreme Truth shining through all religions. Viewing religion with this attitude brings us closer to the Supreme Truth, it helps us to understand each other, and it leads humanity toward peace.”

Commentary by Dr. Amanda J. (Huffer) Lucia: Amma’s theology attempts to draw together diverse religious ideologies by locating their core as the universalizing essences of love and compassion. In so doing, she demonstrates her allegiance to Advaita Vedanta, a Hindu philosophical tradition drawing primarily on Upanisadic texts that centralizes the non-duality of all existence. But Amma’s focus on love and compassion also demonstrates her profound roots in the bhakti tradition, a devotional movement that radically upset religious hierarchies by demanding unmediated access to God and celebrating the ecstatic experience of union with divinity.

Amma centralizes love as the core of her message, even constructing the popular theological universalism, “God is Love.” Her identity statement “Love and Serve” constructs the central ethos of her movement. Amma situates herself as a loving mother caring for her devotees as children, a relationship she performatively enacts though her global darshan programs wherein she physically hugs all attendees as a mother would embrace her children. Amma has embraced more than 32 million people and she keeps an incessant schedule criss-crossing the globe to hug more people in more locations. During darshan programs, Amma invites her devotees to witness her constant aura of love and compassion that she exhibits by hugging strangers of all castes, genders, religions, and dispositions without rest for 8-26 hours at one sitting. Amma situates love as a universalistic language that should be at the nexus of all human activity.

Source 39 (Jewish): Rav Kook

Shemoneh Kevatzim 2:14 [vol. 1, p. 289]

Question for consideration: In this text, acting compassionately has risks. Explain the metaphor of saving those drowning in the sea.

Additionally, all the souls that seem to be drowning in the depths of the tempestuous sea, all the souls of the basest sinners of Israel, all, without exception, strive, swim, and flow, cry out from the depths of the sea to those mighty in strength [see Psalms 103:20], the righteous of the world, to come to their aid, to throw them a life buoy, a rope to grasp. The righteous, the mighty ones of the world, the servants of the Lord, who fulfill His word with love, mercy, and great courage, are filled with compassion, and in their great compassion throw them the means of rescue and protection, and food to sustain them alive, as long as they struggle with the waves in the darkest places, in the depths [see Psalms 88:7].

Commentary by Dov Schwartz: This text illustrates the role of the Tsaddik as acting with compassion for others. The metaphor that he employs is reminiscent of that provided by Rabbi Saadiah Gaon in the beginning of his philosophical work Beliefs and Opinions. Rabbi Saadiah compared himself, as the author of a book on matters of faith, to one who extricates those who are drowning in a sea of doubts. Both infinite love and fixed and unyielding strict judgment are bound up in the act of rescue. Occupation with strict judgment is a fall for the righteous one; the saint pays a price for saving the drowning. As Rabbi Kook writes elsewhere, the saint’s “slightly leaving” lovingkindness suffices for him to experience “filth,” “bitterness,” “darkness,” and a fall.

[1] Hoseah. 6.6. Mt.9.13.
[2] Daniel. 3.40.