The concept of salvation has been dealt with, in some way or the other, in almost every religion of the world. The word ‘salvation’ has been derived from the Latin salvare, which means to ‘to save’. Its equivalent words carrying the same meaning and used in some of the eastern religions are moksha or mukti (liberation) and ‘redemption’.
The Notion of Original Sin
As we venture to go deeper into the analysis of this concept, we are faced with a potent question: salvation or liberation from what? Christianity has dealt with this question most thoroughly and has come to the conclusion that it is the “original sin” of Adam and Eve that all subsequent generations have inherited from their ancestors before birth.
The Biblical story about the “original sin” runs as follows:
“God created Adam and Eve and permitted them to reside in the Garden of Eden and enjoy its produce as they pleased, assured of bountiful supplies and comfort. But they were warned not to approach a particular tree as its fruit was poisonous. Satan, in the form of a snake, convinced Eve that God had lied to her and her partner Adam concerning the Tree of knowledge of Good and Evil. It intrigued Eve to eat the fruit of the tree so that they would become as gods. Adam later followed suit. By this act sin entered the world for the first time. With it, death also entered the world. In rage, for disobedience on the part of Adam and Eve, God cursed them, the snake and even the earth itself and expelled them from the Garden.”
The sin of Adam and Eve becomes imputed to all of the descendents of the original couple i.e. the entire human race to the present day. This is often described as the ‘fall of humanity’. Christianity has historically taught that most people will spend eternity in hell after they die because of this “original sin” committed by Adam and Eve. Salvation from it can be achieved by:
(a) Having faith in Jesus as the Son of God and confession of Him as Lord Savior;
(b) Believing in Jesus’ resurrection;
(c) Undergoing Baptism.
Christianity believes that since every sin qualifying a punishment requires atonement, the “original sin” qualifying permanent punishment for the human race required the highest atonement. Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross was meant to atone for the whole humanity and its salvation from the “original sin”. One of the most cited verses in the Bible, John 3:16, states:
“For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”
Let us find out as to how this concept of “original sin” is viewed in other western religions. Interestingly, neither Judaism, which predated Christianity and served as the edifice on which the foundations of the New Testament were laid, nor Islam which followed it chronologically, subscribe to the above view of Christianity regarding the so-called “original sin”. As the modern Jewish scholars claim, the term “original sin” is unknown to the Jewish scriptures and the Church’s teachings on this doctrine are antithetical to the core principles of the Torah and its prophets. This well-known Church doctrine presumes that, as a consequence of the “original sin” of Adam and Eve, man is hopelessly lost in a state of sin in which he has been held captive since his ‘fall’. As a result, he is powerless to follow the path of obedience and righteousness by his own free will. Rather, missionaries contend, because all are born with an innate lust for sin, humanity can do nothing to merit its own salvation. In essence, man is totally depraved and true free will is far beyond his grasp. “Totally depraved” may seem to be a harsh way for a Christian doctrine to depict mankind’s dire condition, yet this is precisely the term used by the Church to describe man’s desperate, sinful predicament. It is only through faith in Jesus, Christendom concludes, that hopeless man can be saved.
Jewish view of Origin Sin
There seems to be good reason for the Church’s uncompromising stand on this cherished doctrine. The founders of Christianity understood that if man could save himself from eternal damnation through his own initiative and obedience to God, the church would have very little to offer the human race. Moreover, if righteousness can be achieved through submission to the ‘commandments’ outlined in the Torah, what possible benefit could Jesus’ death on the cross provide for the mankind. Despite the zealous positions missionaries take as they defend it, the Christian doctrine of “original sin” is profoundly hostile to the central teachings of the Jewish scriptures. Over and over again the Torah loudly dismisses the notion that man has lost his divinely endowed capacity to freely choose good over evil, life over death. There is no ambiguity about it in the Jewish scriptures. On the contrary, it is proclaimed in virtually every teaching that Moses directs to his children of Israel.
In fact, in an extraordinary sermon delivered by Moses in the last days of his life, the prophet stands before the entire nation and condemns the notion that man’s condition is utterly hopeless. Throughout this uplifting exhortation, Moses declares that it is man alone who can and must merit his own salvation. Moreover, as he unhesitatingly speaks in the name of God, the lawgiver thoroughly rejects the notion that obedience to the Almighty is “too difficult or far off” and declares to the children of Israel that righteousness, and thereby salvation, have been placed by God within their reach.
Islam has taken a unique position on the whole issue. The Qur’an states that Adam and Eve were directed by God to reside in the Garden of Eden and enjoy its fruits as they pleased but they were warned not to approach a particular tree so that they would not run into harm. Then Satan intrigued them to temptation and caused them to lose their joyful state. They were expelled from the Garden and brought down to earth to live, die and taken out again at last for the Final Judgment. Having realized what hey had done, they felt shame, guilt and remorse. They prayed for God’s mercy and were forgiven (Qur’an, 2: 35-38; 7: 19-25; 20: 117-123). Thus the idea of “original or hereditary sin” has no room in the teachings of Islam. Man, according to the Qur’an (30:30) is born in natural state of purity and not with an inborn guilt or stigma, as taught by Christianity. Whatever becomes of man after birth is the result of external forces and intruding factors. This does not, however, deny to the individual the freedom of choice. If man is imperfect he is not helpless or deserted by God to fall victim to his shortcomings. He is empowered by revelations, supported by reason and fortified by the freedom of choice. It would be a sin if he has the ways and means of relative perfection and chooses not to seek it.
The question of assurance of salvation is an important issue in Christianity as well as in Islam. For Muslims the question of salvation is definitely decided by God on the ‘Day of Judgment’. The Muslim believer hopes to die as a true Muslim and that God in His mercy shall save him from hell, supported by the intercession of Muhammad. This gives the normal Muslim a kind of certainty that he will go to paradise. There are traditions in which Muhammad stated “No one shall enter hell, who has an atom of faith in his heart.”
Sadly enough our Christian brethren find themselves as the most isolated and the most damned in the comity of religions as regards their natural ascent to the paradise. Even the Zoroastrians who have many things common with Christians concerning beliefs surrounding God and Satan, heaven and hell, resurrection and final judgment, do not subscribe to the Christian doctrine of “original sin”.
Salvation in Eastern Religions
Unlike the western religions, the eastern religions like Jainism, Buddhism and Hinduism tend to be more metaphysical than ethical in their approach to the concept of salvation. Though not unfamiliar with the concept of heaven and hell, their main concern is the bondage of the soul, from which it constantly yearns for release (mukti). Hence, in respect of these religions, ‘liberation’ (moksha) will be a more appropriate word than ‘salvation’. Ignorance is universally accepted as the cause of this bondage, which makes it finite and subject to several afflictions and sufferings. As such, liberation lies in getting to the state where ignorance vanishes and the soul shines in its infinitude. The ways and means of getting to this state have been differently dealt with by each of them.
According to Jainism, ignorance is the real cause of bondage. Karma is the link which unites the soul to the body. Ignorance of truth and four passions, viz. anger, greed, pride and delusion attract the flow of karmic matter towards the soul. In bondage, the karmic matter unites with the soul by intimate interpenetration, just as water unites with milk. By the possession and practice of right faith, knowledge and conduct, the influx of fresh karma is stopped. Then the already existing karma must be exhausted. When the last particle of karma has been exhausted, the link between soul and matter is dissolved and the soul shines in its intrinsic nature of infinite faith, knowledge, bliss and power. This state is called Moksha or liberation. Here omniscience is attained. The liberated soul transcends samsara and goes straight to siddha-shila at the top of the world and dwells there in eternal knowledge and bliss.
In Buddhism, one finds a detailed logical analysis of the cause of bondage. Lord Buddha, the Compassion Incarnate, was deeply concerned about the sufferings (dukha) of the world. This made him ponder deeply over the cause of this suffering. Since every effect has a cause, suffering, as an effect, must also have a cause. In his enlightenment, he came out with a chain of twelve causes, which in a succession produced a succession of effects, the last of which was old age and death (jara-marana). These are also called the twelve links of the Causal Wheel.
It is a marvel to see how Lord Buddha’s highly analytical mind worked towards finding out the root-cause of all our sufferings. Troubled by the sight of disease, old age and death, he would ask: Why do we suffer pain and misery? Why do we suffer old age and death? Because we are born. Why are we born? Because there is a will to be born. Why should there be a will to be born? Because we cling to the objects of the world. Why do we have this clinging? Because we crave to enjoy the objects of this world. Why do we have this craving for enjoyment? Because of sense-experience. Why do we have this sense experience? Because of sense-object contact. Why do we have this contact? Because of the six sense-organs (the sixth sense being the mind). Why do we have the six sense-organs? Because of the psycho-physical organism. Why do we have this organism? Because of the initial consciousness of the embryo. Why do we have this consciousness? Because of our predispositions or impressions of karma. Why do we have these impressions? Because of ignorance. Hence, ignorance is the root-cause of all suffering.
If the root-cause of suffering is removed, the causal chain effecting pain and suffering will be broken. This can be done by sincerely following the ‘Eight-fold path’ consisting of eight steps which are:
(1) Right faith;
(2) Right resolve;
(3) Right speech;
(4) Right action;
(5) Right living;
(6) Right effort;
(7) Right thought; and
(8) Right concentration.
Buddha’s above ‘Eight-fold path is also called the ‘middle path’ as it serves as a golden mean between the two extremes of self-indulgence and self-mortification. This will lead to ‘nirvan’ (liberation), a state of positive bliss where the seeker has simply blown himself out of existence by annihilating all desires and passions.
Last but not the least, we turn to Hinduism to find out as to what it has to offer to its followers by way of liberation. It is to be clarified at the outset that Hinduism as such, cannot be spoken of as a religion in the sense in which the foregoing religions are generally understood and practiced. It would suffice to say that it is a way of life, which encompasses within its fold multitudes of thought-currents. It would be the endeavour of the present article to touch upon the most prominent ones. Like Jainism and Buddhism, Hinduism, too, believes in ignorance (avidya) to be the root-cause of bondage of the soul. Ignorance causes delusion (moha or vibhrama) which, in consequence, breeds a false sense of ‘I’ and ‘mine’ (ahamkara). This false sense binds the individual soul (jiva) to finitude, which is the state of bondage because it is not its real nature. It is a part of the Universal Self, God, Brahman or the Absolute, by whichever name one may like to call it, and has an yearning to be one with Him. As such, liberation (moksha) consists in breaking this bondage caused by delusion and ignorance. The moment the false delusion and ignorance vanish, the individual soul begins shining in its intrinsic nature, pure and infinite existence, consciousness and bliss (sat, chit and anand).
What is the means to attain to this state of positive bliss or moksha. One school of thought suggests that knowledge alone can lead to this goal. True knowledge is that which leads one to liberation (Sa vidya ya vimuktaye). The knower (jnaani) comes face to face with the true nature of the self or soul in a yogic state of meditation (nidhiddhyaasana). Another school suggests devotion (bhakti) to be the easiest way to attaining this state of positive bliss. In it, the devotee throws himself to the mercy of God, not with any sense of guilt or remorse, but with an ardent desire to be one with Him. By doing so, the devotee realizes a rapturous union with God, a state where all delusion and ignorance vanish. Yet, another school suggests ‘karma’ to be the key to attaining liberation. As Arjuna did by the exhortation of Lord Krishna, karma done in a detached manner (nishkaam bhava) can ultimately lead him to a state where he will no longer be the agent (karta) and, as such, devoid of all desires and passions which cause delusion and ignorance.
To a casual onlooker, the above three paths may appear to be contradictory to each other but, in fact, it is not so. Hinduism as a whole presents a unique synthesis of the all three. No path is exclusive and each one is complementary to the other. Devotion without true knowledge is blind and both knowledge and devotion are empty without right conduct through karma. Hence, there is no contradiction.
Liberation-Here and Now?
One remarkable feature of the eastern religions discussed above is that they exhort their followers to strive for and attain liberation in this very life. While the western religions like Christianity and Islam, Judaism and Zoroastrianism hold a promise of salvation or after-life bliss on the ‘Day of Final Judgment’, in Jainism, Buddhism and Hinduism including Sikhism, deliverance from the state of bondage can be striven for and actually attained in this very life. The Jain Tirthankaras were born as ordinary mortals but they rose to attain the state of ‘omniscience’ (kaivalya). So was the case with Buddha who was born a prince but rose to become ‘The Enlightened One’. Hinduism is not lacking in such shining examples of liberated souls – Nanak, Kabir, Meera, Chaitanya and many more.
(1) The Concept Of Sin: All Viewpoints URL: www.religioustolerance.org/chr_sin.htm
(2) Outreach Judaism URL: www.outreachjudaism.org
(3) The Concept of Sin URL: http://www.wamy.org/Islam%20In%20Focus1/Chapter%20II/The%20concept%20of%20sin.html
(4) A critical Survey of Indian Philosophy by Dr.Chandradhar Sharma