A reader asks the following question:
In Sanskrit they use "So Hum" which means 'I Am' (In Vedic philosophy meaning identifying oneself with the universe or ultimate reality), and since I have been reading your stuff I am hearing it differently yet the same in reference to Jesus stating I Am.
But this also brings to mind a question regarding Jesus. Is Jesus to be seen as God or the Son of God?
This is an exhilarating question on so many levels; the number of different angles from which one might approach a response makes it a dizzying prospect to make a choice. It is this very fact – that there are multiple options for approach – that I will use as my starting point.
For starters, soham is itself a word that belongs to multiple traditions within the very diverse religious and philosophical streams of Hinduism. (The difficulty of categorizing yoga either as a religious practice or a philosophical exercise demonstrates just how varied the terrain is that we're venturing into.) Even a cursory look at the word's range of meaning and usage suggests that, like so many of the world's most multi-dimensional terms, it cannot be easily translated such that it will retain its full meaning in a new language. To further complicate things, one of the uses of soham puts it less in the category of communication, and more into the category of a 'speech act' – a word whose function is performative, a word that makes something happen in the saying of it, rather than one that describes or defines something that is or was or will be.
To illustrate the challenges of importing words from the East, take the word, ‘karma’. When John Lennon unleashed the word 'karma' on Western culture, he lifted it out of the environment that provided its meaning, and gave the English-speaking world a comparatively one-dimensional concept in its place. Further, he put a new spin of his own on it, by introducing the idea of 'instant karma' (through his song by the same name). 'Instant karma' isn't a concept that even exists in Buddhism, which makes it a perfect 'Exhibit A' for the perils of translation; not only do complex words lose meaning when they traverse the culture gap, they take on new and (literally) foreign meanings in their new cultural home.) For the record, karma is not proof that all religions say the same thing; it is not another way of putting the Biblical principle of sowing and reaping. There is no such thing as ‘good karma’. Some karma is better, but all karma is bad. The goal of Buddhism isn’t to end life with as much good karma as possible, but to end life with no karma at all.
That the limitations of translation are amplified as temporal and cultural distance increase is well known, and the cultural distance between East and West is not easy to exaggerate. I have heard it said that it is impossible for a Westerner to truly understand Hinduism (or Buddhism, Taoism, etc.), because its conceptual architecture and basic orientation toward the world are so distinct that a mind shaped in and by Western culture simply cannot adapt to it, become at home or fluent within it. I can personally attest to this (in an admittedly limited way), out of my experience of having traveled to 8 distinct cultural zones in 10 countries on 4 continents (Europe not being among them), and only having experienced culture shock once – in Thailand. The following are generalizations, but Eastern engagement with the world tends to be concrete, whereas Western thought deals more in abstractions. Western thought is logical, linear – and Eastern thought is more holistic, gestalt. Knowledge, from an Eastern perspective, could be symbolized by a spoked wheel, where in the West a numbered list of propositions or principles is more representative. In the East, the process of accumulating wisdom could be depicted by walking a path, whereas in the West, bricklaying would provide a better image. (As a side note, it is important to remember that, at its birth, Christianity was an Eastern religion.)
The word dukkha gave me my first taste of non-translatable Eastern words whose English counterparts have entered the Western language and imagination. Some of the earliest Buddhist writings in English simply leave the word untranslated because of the authors' reticence to sever the word from the constellation of associations that contribute to its meaning. In his book, What the Buddha Taught, Walpola Sri Rahula attempts to provide as comprehensive a definition as possible of dukkha for an English-speaking readership. The book was published in 1959, which is significant because it pre-dates the surge of popularity that Buddhism would soon enjoy in the West; it represents a snapshot of Buddhism before its concepts were coopted by and absorbed into mainstream American culture. In the foreword, Rahula insists that with respect to the central tenets of Buddhist belief and practice as he presents them, the Theravāda and Mahayana (the two main branches of classical Buddhism) would be "unanimously agreed."
I don't intend to embark on a full engagement with Rahula's work, but dukkha's journey into English provides another helpful point of reference while considering the ramifications of Jesus' having referred to Himself as “I Am”. In the English translation of the first tenet of Buddhism’s four noble truths, dukkha gets translated ‘suffering.’ To a native English speaker, ‘suffering’ is a word that instantly conjures multiple memories and mental images: physical pain and emotional trauma, the devastation left in the wake of a natural disaster or war, people who experience oppression, poverty, and famine for generations at a time. The meaning of dukkha, on the other hand, has more to do with the impermanence of things, the fleeting nature of all experience. The expression, “The more you try to grasp at it, the more it slips through your fingers” gets close to one aspect of characteristic of reality that dukkha describes.
Unlike karma, dukkha is a word that overlaps significantly with some Biblical descriptions of reality. When Solomon says that “life is meaningless, like chasing after the wind” (Ecc 1:14) he is speaking the language, so to say, of dukkha (how apropos it is that without explaining this verse as it relates to the whole book of Ecclesiastes, quoting Solomon on this point ends up rendering the scope of his thought just as one-dimensional as Lennon’s appropriation of karma.) When Paul talks about this world being subject to decay (Rom 8:21), or about how that the present order of things is passing away (2 Cor 7:31), he is much nearer to the meaning of dukkha than the word ‘suffering’ will ever get us.
Jesus could not and would not have been ignorant to the way the words “I Am” would have resonated within the Bible-soaked ears and minds of his listeners. The Greek Gospels read "Eγο ειμι", an echo of the Hebrew Tetragrammaton, YHWH, which was itself a derivation of God's ultimate self-revelation to Moses: “אֶהְיֶה אֲשֶׁר אֶהְיֶה” – Eyeh Esher Eyeh (Ex 3:14). The precise meaning of Eyeh Esher Eyeh has been a matter of intense speculation for millennia. But I probably stand safely within the overlap of all of the main strands of interpretation when I say that the Divine Name refers to pure existence – to ultimate reality, or to the ground and source of all being.
Here is where the distinctions between philosophy, philology (the study of words), and religion/spirituality start to blur considerably, and where Christianity emerges as an entirely unique view of the world at the same time. Philosophically, it is possible to posit the existence of pure reality, pure consciousness and will, residing within a being who belongs to a category by itself, that knows everything, transcends the limits of time, and has limitless power. This idea is called philosophical monotheism. It is more of an admission of the possibility of this kind of god than a commitment to this god's existence. Broadly speaking, the world's religions are all relatively compatible with philosophical monotheism. They may disagree on the nature of this ground of all being: whether it is a personal consciousness bearing meaningful resemblance to human nature, or closer to an energy-stream that fills everything, or whether ultimate reality is simply the sum total of everything that exists – such that if you were to negate any part of existence you would thereby be shrinking god in the process.
What makes any religion distinct from philosophical monotheism is its claims about what is really real – about what this reality is like (this is the sub-discipline of philosophy called ontology.) One religion says that this world is an illusion and that the ultimate goal of this life is to escape the illusion and be reabsorbed into the real. Another says that this world is all there is, and that everything that is, taken together, is what constitutes the divine. What makes Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (and, to a lesser degree, deism) distinct is their shared belief in a personal god who belongs within an ontological category that no other being or created thing shares. The faiths that claim Abraham as their forefather are, in Rahala's words, "unanimously agreed" on this point. It is when Jesus says the words "I Am" in reference to Himself where Christianity parts ways with every other monotheistic belief system.
Following C.S. Lewis' famous formula: a human being who says "I Am" within the thought-world of ancient Israel is either spouting insanity, engaging in a deception of the most detestable kind, or speaking the absolute truth. I suppose one could make a historical judgment that Jesus never said such a thing. (What credentials would qualify a person to conclude that such a historical construction is more plausible than the one presented in the Gospels?) But if He did say “I Am”, then His words require that a decision be made. If He never uttered the words (whether He did or not is almost irrelevant, because of the number of other things that He said and did that convey the same message by other means), then an unbelievable amount of effort went into creating the fictional and literary detail around the historical event of his crucifixion (a point that no serious historian that I'm aware of has ever called into question). The best explanation for the spread of the Christian Church (in its original form as a persecuted minority movement), is that a sizable group of people actually saw Jesus alive after He was unquestionably dead and entombed for three days. The two events are actually mutually interpreting: if Jesus said, “I Am,” and was speaking truthfully when He did, then the thought that He could actually be killed is ludicrous. When a person who says, “I Am” is killed and then returns from the dead, it will definitely lend credibility to His previous claim to be “I Am”, in light of the fact that YHWH is the One who says He is the Creator, the Beginning and the End, and the Ever-Living God.
If the goal of Hinduism is to be reunited with ultimate existence, consciousness, or energy – the way that water in a stream comes closer to reuniting with all waters when that stream flows into larger and larger rivers and then finally the ocean – then saying soham is a reasonable thing to do for any and every Hindu. Reminding yourself as frequently as possible that you want to reach your intended destination increases your chances of getting there. In this case, using soham as a mantra is a practice appropriate to this goal as well. The desire to reach a destination does not in itself guarantee that you will arrive there. But practicing one's hoped for destination in the present (using the syllables so and ham to regulate breathing in an effort to align oneself with the ground of existence), is a discipline - the practice of which amounts to taking steps toward the desired goal (as opposed to merely saying, "I want to get there someday.")
The goal of Christianity, however, is not to be reabsorbed into God. The Christian faith stands on the conviction that humans were created with and for the capacity to have intimate relationship with God – and above all, to worship Him. At the same time, the Bible teaches that the intended goal of humanity is to experience the privilege of sharing with God, as conscious individuals, in the divine rule over the creation, to re-image Him by loving, blessing, and organizing creation in order to guide it toward its highest possible potential. With respect to categories (ontology), God remains alone; humans are granted the privilege of functioning as mediators of God, acting in godlike capacities as we care for His creation – but it is not our purpose or destiny to become God. The desire to be God rather than to live in gratitude over being made god-like is the Bible's explanation for everything that is wrong with the world. So whereas for a Hindu, saying soham might indicate a commitment to surrendering one's individuality to the divine consciousness, for a Christian to say 'I Am' is to repeat the same mistake that brought a cataclysmic subversion to the created order of things in the first place.
...unless of course, the person who says 'I Am' is speaking truthfully – that is, in an accordance with Ultimate Reality, the way things really are. Christians believe that Jesus is the only human being who has ever lived who is I AM, that Ultimate Reality is relationally constructed rather than consisting of a singularity of consciousness or energy. To start in at this point on the Christian belief in God as Triune would make for too long a post. But hopefully, what has been said thus far at least points to the significance of the difference implicated in the uttering of soham by a Vedic philosopher, a sage in the Upanishads, or practitioner of hot-yoga, as compared to any human being immersed in the worldview expressed in and prescribed by the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures declaring, “I AM”.
To tie it all together: From a Christian perspective, for a non-divine human to utter the word ‘soham’ is to become an accomplice after-the-fact in the original offense against God that resulted in a world characterized by dukkha. …which is why it is so significant that the name of the one who said, “I Am”, was Yeshua, which means: YHWH Saves, YHWH Rescues, YHWH Heals. Ultimate Reality isn’t just out there somewhere. Existence Itself is not impersonal energy, coursing through everything, oblivious to the suffering (and decaying) of the world. The I AM is relational, YHWH has made humans in His image, and He is coming to save, heal, and rescue humanity from all of its brokenness. Rather, He has come already in the man Jesus of Nazareth: Yeshua, the Saving One.