Book Reviews

The Hero with an African Face: Mythic Wisdom of Traditional Africa by Clyde W. Ford, Bantam Doubleday Dell, 2000; 256 pages, ISBN 0553378686, paperback, $15.95.

Among the wealth of extant mythic history, there is a marked dearth of African mythology available to the general reader. This is not for lack of material, for sacred traditions abound in many African countries and languages. The deficit has been reduced by the present volume, which relates legends of the Dogon, Soninke, Yoruba, Fang, Kongo, Nyanga, San, Ronga, and other sub-Saharan African peoples, concentrating on tales with universal themes and symbols — myths rather than folktales. As a chiropractic doctor, somatic psychologist, and scholar of African and African-American history, Ford's interest in mythology was sparked by his therapeutic work, as he sought a framework in which the African-American experience could be understood, and "answers to how individuals and groups, particularly African-Americans, might heal from long-standing trauma and pain." He found a key in viewing "the African-American experience . . . in the heroic terms of mythology" (pp. vii-viii), and this outlook colors his presentation, which focuses on the symbolic and personal interpretation of the stories he sets forth.

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The tales in this book date from before Christian and Muslim contact, and depict the progress of human evolution and its ultimate triumph over evil and ignorance. They embrace such themes as the hero, death and resurrection, the sacred warrior, master animals, the goddess, the divine self, and the soul's adventures. Ford emphasizes the profound religiosity of the many different groups who occupy this vast continent, and at least one of the epics closes with an immensely compassionate forgiveness as a culmination of the human adventure. Considering the African branch of mankind's sacred wisdom, we are reminded that the ultimate of human maturation is the communion of the species in a familial — indeed, a universal — brotherhood. — ELSA-BRITA TITCHENELL


The Sermon on the Mount according to Vedanta by Swami Prabhavananda, Vedanta Press, Hollywood, CA, 1992; 110 pages, ISBN 08874810507, paperback, $9.95.

Swami Prabhavananda lived in the United States from 1923 until his death in 1976, and acquired a deep understanding of both the Bible and the western approach to religion. He had the highest respect for Jesus as a spiritual teacher and often used his words to elaborate and exemplify the themes he was explaining. This short book, originally published in 1964, is a thorough analysis of several chapters from Matthew from a principally Hindu viewpoint, with frequent references to Buddhism. Lucid and inspiring, it provides many valuable insights for daily living and the spiritual quest, as well as understanding of key issues in comparative religious studies.

Each of the book's seven chapters addresses an aspect of the personal qualities and processes inherent in achieving spiritual realization. It stresses ``the basic principle that religion is something we ourselves have to do, and be, and live — or else it is nothing'' (p. 109). In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus speaks of the need to be humble and to mourn for a return to the world of spirit. He emphasizes the need for meekness, mercy, purity of heart, and pacifism. Arguing that the Sermon was an esoteric rather than an exoteric teaching, Prabhavananda points out the same distinctions in Hinduism and Buddhism and gives examples from the Bhagavad-Gita which stress the need for personal humility before embarking upon the spiritual journey.

Matthew 5:13-37 speaks of the responsibility of spiritually aware people to make their beliefs available to others. Christ called his followers the "salt of the earth" and required them to go out and minister his word to the world. The author suggests that a great spiritual teacher should convey his beliefs intellectually, but more importantly by the actual transmission of his spirituality to his pupils. These two requirements are spelled out in the Vedanta, and the author gives examples of Indian holy men who have experienced God and returned to teach from actual experience. Considering the idea of Spirit (the Father) incarnating as flesh (the Son) to spread the Word amongst mankind, he quotes both John and a passage from the Vedas directly analogous to John's remarks: "In the beginning there was the Lord of Creatures; second to him was the Word''; ``The Word was verily Brahman.'' A main difference between Christianity and Hinduism, however, is that the former advocates Jesus as the only missionary ever sent out by God, whereas the latter holds that God has descended at many different times in many forms. Using Hinduism and Buddhism to elaborate and extend Christian teachings, Prabhavananda acknowledges Jesus' status as an avatar — "Ye are from beneath, I am from above" — and describes why the cyclical reappearance of the divine is necessary to the continued spiritual awareness of those on earth.

The central theme of the Sermon on the Mount is that the whole purpose of one's life is to seek perfection and realize God. But what is perfection? Christ taught that it is union with the Father and must be sought within. It can never be found in the external world of things, for as Jesus proclaimed, "The Kingdom of God is within you." The author compares this idea with that of sat-chit-ananda (immortal life-infinite knowledge-eternal love and bliss) as expressed in the Vedas. Developing the theme of sin and maya (illusion) in Christianity and the Vedas, Prabhavananda advises that an obsession with worldly things masks the perception of our fundamental element, the unifying essence within us all. All religions have as their ultimate objective a union with the Absolute, however this may be described. This goal has been called samadhi (Hinduism), nirvana (Buddhism), and mystical union (Christianity), and all faiths emphasize the need to be purposive about realizing it. The four main paths in the Vedanta are karma yoga (selfless work); jnana yoga (discrimination between the ephemeral and the eternal); bhakti yoga (devotion to God, the path followed by the majority of religious believers); and raja yoga (meditation on the supreme reality). This last path may be said to include the other three, and ``a balanced spiritual life demands a harmonious combination of all four yogas, [although] one or another usually predominates, depending on the temperament of the aspirant.'' Christ's teachings can easily be assimilated into these four paths, with devotion emphasized most strongly.

The use of the Lord's Prayer can help us approach God because it is theocentric rather than egocentric. It is actually an invitation to think of God, rather than a request to him to fulfill our needs. Each part of the Prayer is considered, and Hindu and Buddhist analogies discussed. The esoteric interpretation of God as within us, rather than separate from and above us, is found in both Vedanta and Christianity, as is the practice of hallowing God's name. The phrase "give us this day our daily bread" relates to the revelation of divine grace: we are asking the Lord to reveal himself to us, and we must continue this request until he is ready to do so. But as the Katha Upanishad puts it, we cannot simply call upon the Self to reveal itself; it will only reveal itself to those who are worthy of its choice. At face value the final phrase, "and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil," may seem difficult. However, equating temptation with the Hindu concept of maya makes clear that this is a request not to allow us to become enmeshed in the allurements of the material world, but to keep us on the path towards spiritual realization.

Throughout the book the author draws upon the high religious ideals of both Christianity and the Eastern religions to show how they help us cope with everyday problems, emphasizing a God-centered viewpoint. Commitment to theocentrism allows us to tolerate diversity of opinion more easily and rise above worldly temptations and conflict, bringing about a closer union with divinity. Such a view ultimately eliminates the role of the ego and causes us to live for the fulfillment of God's will. Prabhavananda stresses forgiveness as a precondition to assimilating a theocentric value system into the demands of daily life. The conflict between the worldly temptation to strike back and the spiritual ideal to forgive and turn the other cheek appears in Christianity, Vedanta, and Buddhism. He speaks of pacifism as the highest expression of universal love; in Buddha's words, "To abide in compassion and goodwill with no hate in your hearts." Total forgiveness is an ideal to which we aspire to the best of our ability, and we must recognize that some people will achieve it more readily than others.

Living for God rather than for the things of this earth brings incalculable joy, despite apparent tribulations, and can be achieved by correct discrimination between the eternal and the ephemeral. Unless we fix our eyes on the divine and keep them there unswervingly, we will not achieve spiritual realization, for we cannot serve two masters. Spiritual life involves renunciation, which means giving up selfishness rather than withdrawing entirely from the world and its duties. Varying degrees of nonattachment and faith in God apply to monks on the one hand, and householders on the other. But ultimately, in order to live for God one must surrender oneself to the divine presence.

The final chapter gives requirements for entering the Kingdom of Heaven, and concerns judgment from two points of view. Firstly, there is our temptation to judge others and, secondly, there is God's right to judge us. To avoid hypocrisy, we must always try to see the good in people, no matter how bad they may seem. At the same time we must nurture an intense longing to discover God and seek to purify ourself of all worldly lusts and passions. We must live according to two commandments of the New Testament: that we love God with all our heart and soul, and we do unto others as we would have them do unto us. Similarly, the Mahabharata urges us to "treat others as thou would'st be treated," and the Buddhist eightfold path is also relevant here. The "strait gate" Christ speaks of is the inner life of spiritual awareness, as contrasted with the outer life of worldly things. The spiritual path may be narrow and difficult to find and follow, but it will ultimately lead to a conscious union with Divinity. — PAUL ROOKE


The Search for the Panchen Lama by Isabel Hilton, W. W. Norton & Co., New York, 2001; 352 pages, ISBN 0393321673, paperback, $14.95.

This real-life adventure of a renowned English journalist is also a well-researched history of Tibet, the Panchen and Dalai Lamas, and Chinese treatment of the Tibetan people. The Wall Street Journal has called it "An excellent primer on Tibetan history and . . . a chilling picture of the brutality of Chinese repression in Tibet."

The author's assignment was to discover which of two Tibetan candidates would be named eleventh Panchen Lama: the boy chosen by the Dalai Lama or the one selected by the Chinese government. The reader feels as though he has accompanied her on her travels and discoveries. Going first to India, she met with the Dalai Lama in his home at Dharamsala. Armed with his letter of introduction to the abbot of the new Indian branch of the main Tashilhunpo monastery, she visited Shigatse, Tibet, and listened to the abbot and his monks, learning a good deal about the intricacies of the Tibetan hierarchy. She next flew to the ancient city of Xining in northwest China, near the birthplace of the tenth Panchen Lama. The book sketches his tragic life, before and after his imprisonment by the Chinese government, and his death in January 1989 under suspicious circumstances. Finally she examines the current situation in Lhasa.

When matters regarding the two young Panchen Lamas seemed to reach a standstill, the author returned to England. One morning at two o'clock, however, a secretary of the Dalai Lama telephoned, urging her immediate return. When she met him a few days later, he said he was worried about his chosen boy because his whereabouts, and that of his parents, was unknown. He explained his sadness further by saying he felt any dire events in the future would be his responsibility.

The author's interviews with monks and other Tibetan Buddhists, and her adventurous experiences, are fascinating and, surprisingly, often humorous reading. This book skillfully reveals a rarely understood but vital aspect of Tibetan history, while highlighting the current conditions of the Tibetan people and raising questions about their future. — JEAN B. CRABBENDAM

(From Sunrise magazine, August/September 2001; copyright © 2001 Theosophical University Press)


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