The Prodigal Son and the Self-Forgetting God

I have spent my life studying the religions. But I am not a religious person. My interest in the religions has more to do with the fascinating stories they tell, which I take metaphorically, not literally. I take these stories as myths — sacred stories which are rich with spiritual meaning and insights. Of the world religions, I am most familiar with Christianity, Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism. I grew up in a Christian family in Hong Kong. Being Chinese, Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism form my cultural environment. I learned about them mostly through osmosis. I also have some understanding of Hinduism, Judaism and Islam. With Hinduism and Islam, in particular, I had to actually make an effort to learn about them through reading. One way to learn about a religion is to see how it answers certain essential questions about human life. All religions address the following questions in one way or another:

1. Why does the cosmos exist?

2. Why am I here?

3. Why is there evil in the world?

4. Why is there so much suffering?

5. How should I live?

6. What happens when I die?

7. Is there a point to it all?

Hinduism (or Brahmanism) is the oldest religion of humankind. Since I attended an Anglican school, I was required to take religion classes. When I was in high school, my religion teacher, Mr. Sherard, told me that out of the many world religions, Hinduism is the one which can best answer the mysteries of existence. I will soon be 65. Having spent a lifetime learning about the world religions and pondering on their meaning, I now realize that Mr. Sherard is right. Hinduism provides excellent answers to the seven questions mentioned above. More interestingly, the Hindu myth about why and how the world was created allow me to tie together three important sacred stories — (1) the Hindu story about the self-forgetting God, (2) the Genesis story about the “Fall” of man and (3) the story of the Prodigal Son, which can be found in both Christian and Buddhist scriptures.

In Christianity and in the other Abrahamic religions, the “Problem of Evil” is a tough problem. This theological problem is perhaps best articulated by the Greek philosopher, Epicurus, in 300 BCE, in what is called the Epicurus trilemma. Let me restate it as follows:

Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent.
Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent.
Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil?
Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?

— The Epicurean paradox

These are intriguing questions. If God is all good, then why is there evil in the world? And if God is all powerful, then why couldn’t God prevent evil from arising, or annihilate it once it came to existence? These questions have bugged Christian theologians for a long time. Christian theology portrays God as omnipotent and omnibenevolent. Christian apologists have spent a long time defending their faith against these probing questions. But the truth is that there are no satisfactory answers. It just dawned on me that Hindu theology can answer Epicurus’s questions perfectly.

First, some background. Hinduism’s answers to the seven essential questions of existence I stated earlier are very different from those of the Abrahamic religions. According to the Hindu story, world exists because God was bored. It is endearing that in Hindu myth, God does not have the usual image of an old man on a throne. Rather, God, the Creator, is like a child who wants to play. But God being God, he had no one to play with. Because he felt lonely and bored, God created the world and everything in it to entertain Himself — but splitting up Himself into the myriad things. Thus, everything originates from God and has a part of God’s consciousness. But in order for the cosmic drama (or lila) to happen, God also has to perform an act of self-forgetting. This is no different from the performance of any play. Each actor or actress has to assume a certain role and forget about his or her original identity. Thus, even though each of us is an offspring of God and has God’s consciousness, we are not aware of the fact that we are an integral part of God. The divine play is not possible without this fundamental “ignorance.” In Hinduism, this is called Mara, which means some kind of illusion. But it is not just any kind of illusion. This illusion exists because of God’s deliberate will to forget Himself so that the divine play is possible. This is the Hindu creation story in a nutshell.

In both Buddhism and Christianity, there is a parable of the Prodigal Son. The Buddhist version is found in the Lotus Sutra. The Christian version is found in the Gospel of Luke. The two versions are very similar. Essentially, it is the story of a young man who leaves home, taking his share of his inheritance, to see the world and have an adventure. After he has squandered his inheritance, he feels remorse and wants to go home. However, by that time, he is in such a confused and sorry state. In the Buddhist version, it is said that the son is so deranged that he cannot even recognize his own father. The connection with the Hindu story of the self-forgetting God should be noted here. The Christian version is a little milder. It is said that the son is embarrassed to face his own father. He is no sure that his father will forgive him and let him resume his sonship. He only wishes to return to his father as his servant. But the father, upon knowing the son’s repentance and his wish to return home, runs to embrace him. There is a big celebration upon the prodigal son’s return. His “sin” is forgiven and there is much rejoicing.

The connection of this Prodigal Son story and the Hindu story of the self-forgetting God should be obvious. If the son were to never leave home, there would have been no story and no drama. How boring would be the story of a stay-home son? From the perspective of storytelling, there will be no conflict, no climax and no resolution. It is only because the son has ventured out of his home that there is a colorful story to tell.

In a way, the Genesis story too is another Prodigal Son story. Originally, Adam and Eve lived in some kind of primordial bliss in the Garden of Eden. God told the first couple that they could eat anything in the garden except for the fruits from the Tree of Knowledge. But Adam and Eve eventually ate the fruits of this tree, at the suggestion of the snake. Because of Adam and Eve’s disobedience, they were chased out of the garden and had to say goodbye to the original abundance. They had to somehow make their own living in the outside world. The Church authorities have always portrayed this story as the story of the Fall of Man. Yet, such interpretation can be disputed. If Adam and Eve were to never eat from the Tree of Knowledge, they would probably still be living in the Garden. It might be blissful but boring. The colorful story of humanity would not have a chance to unfold then. (In fact, the name of the tree is telling — it is called “The Tree of Knowledge.” Prior to the Fall, Adam and Even were living in blissful ignorance.) But because the first couple disobeyed God, they lost their innocence, gained knowledge and had a chance to experience the outside world. Isn’t this a story of growing up, of entering adulthood? Isn’t it typical for teenagers to defy their parents sometimes, make their own decisions and become more and more independent? Can we see the Genesis story in a positive light and regard the “Fall” as part of God’s plan? After all, don’t forbidden things become irresistible? Rabbi Lawrence Kushner has opined that the Garden of Eden story is a set-up and that the snake is actually God’s helper. As parents, do we wish our children to stay home forever?

Thus, according to the Hindu story, the unfolding of human history, with both joy and suffering, is a part of the divine play. It is all “lila.” It is God’s way of entertaining Himself. Now, we can understand Epicurus’s challenging questions. The Problem of Evil does not exist, since it is all God forgetting Himself and playing with Himself. There are no victims here. We are all part of God without realizing it. The purpose of our lives is just to play our respective assigned role. God is indeed all powerful and all knowing, and he can choose to forget Himself for the purpose of play. At the end of our lives, it is as if we have finished playing our assigned role in a play, we just return to the Source.

This is Hindu theology. I find it exquisitely beautiful. It makes lots of sense and it can serve to reconcile the theology of the other religions. The Hindu story of creation, the Genesis story and the story of the Prodigal Son are essentially the same story told a little differently. The meaning of life is to be an enthusiastic player in God’s play.

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Published author, Zen teacher, professor, scientist, philosopher, social commentator, socially-engaged human

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