From Darkness to Light: A Hindu Mantra during the Easter Vigil

Cambridge, Mass.—At the Vigil tonight, in my neighborhood church (I go to my regular parish in the morning), I enjoyed as always the first hour in particular, the actual Vigil: the lighting of the new fire, the lighting of the candle, the Exultet chant, and the meditative hearing of several of our great founding stories in Genesis and Exodus, Isaiah and Ezechiel. It is indeed a holy night, when Christ passed over, taking us with him, from darkness unto light, and death to immortality.

It is not surprising then—for me at least—that I would think of the Brhadaranyaka Upanisad, which I am teaching this semester, and on which I posted a reflection just two days ago. How could I not think in particular of the famous mantra chant that occurs near its beginning:

asato ma sad gamaya | tamaso ma jyotir gamaya | mrtyor ma amrtam gamaya  ||

From what is not, lead me to what is; from darkness, lead me to light; from death, lead me to what is undying. (Brhadaranyaka Upanisad I.3.28)

In the Upanisad, this is a mantra that the patron of the sacrifice—the lay person who causes it to be performed by his benefaction—is to chant softly to himself while the priests are singing aloud a set of seven purification chants. You can listen to the mantra in many places, including here and here.

The context is rather complex, but in brief: this chant comes at the end of the chapter (I.3) which is a meditation on life, the life’s breath, and the transformative power of sacred utterance, as an expression of the deep life force within us. The chant is termed an “ascent” (abhyaroha) that leads the person chanting from this world—what is not, what is dark, what is mortal—to the divine world, what is, what is light, what is immortal. Sankara, the great commentator, explains at some length the process of assimilation to the gods that occurs here, as the person chanting comes, for a moment at least, to share their higher way of being. It is a prayer for passing over, to a new way of life.

So, I ended up repeating to myself the Sanskrit words (in this case, quite clear and easy) during the Exultet and during the readings in the still darkened church, as we all held our small candles in the dark.

Surely not what the Upanisadic authors could possibly have imagined, and yet something of a similar counterpoint, a soft inner chant by an individual, amidst the singing by the soloist and then the choir. (Everyone heard the choir; no one heard me.) And, of course, the prayer appears all the more appropriate if we think of what this holiest of nights is all about: in creation, what is not comes to be; from the darkness of sin, we enter the light of God’s love; and as Christ is raised from the dead, we too pass over, passover, from death to what is undying. Or, as the Exultet puts it,

This is the night, when once you led our forebears, Israel's children, from slavery in Egypt and made them pass dry-shod through the Red Sea. This is the night that with a pillar of fire banished the darkness of sin. This is the night that even now throughout the world, sets Christian believers apart from worldly vices and from the gloom of sin, leading them to grace and joining them to his holy ones. This is the night when Christ broke the prison-bars of death and rose victorious from the underworld…

You can hear the Exultet in many versions on the web, but here is a clear and simple version. 

OK, you may say, one could imagine softly repeating the ancient mantra, during the Vigil, during the Exultet. But do not very many questions and objections arise? To whom is one addressing this chant, for passage from what is not to what is, from darkness to light, from death to immortality? The Brhadaranyaka does not say. But if the mantra is respected as part of its own ancient religious culture, is it not at least a bit disrespectful to bring it to church? I suppose it could be disrespectful—but need not be; it is good and not an evil that we hear, learn from, and drawn into our own prayer what we learn from another tradition. The mantra itself seems to have been placed in the Brhadaranyaka Upanisad, drawn from a still older source. To be religious is to borrow, with humility and gratitude.

Nor am I the first Catholic to take up this mantra. Most famously, Paul VI prayed with this mantra over 50 years ago, at a public gathering in India. On December 3, 1964, addressing an interfaith gathering, he said:

This visit to India is the fulfillment of a long cherished desire. Yours is a land of ancient culture, the cradle of great religions, the home of a nation that has sought God with a relentless desire, in deep meditation and silence, and in hymns of fervent prayer. Rarely has this longing for God been expressed with words so full of the spirit of Advent as in the words written in your sacred books many centuries before Christ: “From the unreal lead me to the real; from darkness lead me to light; from death lead me to immortality.”

Pope Paul went on to make clear that he knew what he was doing. He says that in a time of historic change, both globally and in India, this is a prayer “which belongs also to our time.” It is a prayer that “should rise from every human heart.” Given the crises facing all human beings, “we must come closer together, not only through the modern means of communication, through press and radio, through steamships and jet planes—we must come together with our hearts, in mutual understanding, esteem and love. We must meet not merely as tourists, but as pilgrims who set out to find God—not in buildings of stone but in human hearts.” This was surely a case when a pope is leading the way, even before "Nostra Aetate" was written. Pope Paul would be happy, I think, to see his words echoing down through the decades, even until tonight. Surprised, but also happy.

But what would happen if a Hindu softly sung the Exultet in a Hindu temple, let us say, on the holy night of Lord Shiva? Personally, I would think this a great step forward, a gift generously given and received across religious borders. We need borders, but borders that are open, not barred with high walls of hostility. In Advent, I encouraged my readers to study the Qur’an; I am delighted when I hear of Muslims who study the New Testament with care. Several years ago, I urged readers to learn from the practice of yoga in Lent; I would be happy to hear of Hindus adapting the Spiritual Exercises to their own spiritual needs. And so on.

I admit that theological questions remain, about the finality of such prayers, or how there can be space, at the Easter Vigil on this most holy night, for a priest in the pews recollecting the words of a Hindu mantra. Most parishes do not anticipate this. But it is not a bad thing to leave aside the harder questions when in church. Pray, act, then later on inquire theologically. If the prayer takes place, and if there is some benefit to it—and I found it right and holy tonight—then, later on, we can find ways to face up to the difficult theological questions.

Moreover, it is terribly urgent in today’s world that we take steps to bring our traditions together in deeper, more intimate, personal ways. Too many of our politicians, would-be political leaders, are rushing to ape Donald Trump and Ted Cruz in their calculated ignorance, fear-mongering, and wall-building and the militarization of our culture; and too many Americans—who should know better even in times of real economic hardship and amidst fears of terrorism—are voting for Trump and Cruz. We must move in the other direction, crossing religious borders as witnesses to openness and peace, building sisterhood and brotherhood such as will be the real antidote to violence, fear and ignorance. In a world of denial, the lie, what is not, we must move toward what is, what is true; from our individual and cultural darknesses, we must move into a light that can only be shared; and from the shadow of death, into a light that is no one’s private possession.

At least try listening to the mantras, at the links suggested above, alongside the Exultet. It really will not hurt, to try this for a time: Christ our Light is risen; from what is not, lead me to what is; from darkness, lead me to light; from death, lead me to what is undying.