This sidebar review first appeared in the Christian Research Journal, volume 33, number 04 (2010). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal go to: http://www.equip.org
Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert’s first autobiographical book, is engaging, thought-provoking, and a great tribute to the resiliency of the human spirit. The book chronicles her early prayers and search for God, as well as her quest for understanding and wholeness—longings fundamental to the human experience.
Her views on traditional Christianity are clear: “While I do love that great teacher of peace who was called Jesus, and while I do reserve the right to ask myself in certain trying situations what indeed He would do, I can’t swallow that one fixed rule of Christianity insisting that Christ is the only path to God” (p. 14). At the core of her beliefs is a mystical understanding and experience of the Divine as pure love: “I have always responded with breathless excitement to anyone who has ever said that God…abides very close to us indeed—much closer than we can imagine, breathing right through our own hearts. I respond with gratitude to anyone who has ever voyaged to the center of that heart, and who has then returned to the world with a report for the rest of us that God is an experience of supreme love” (14, emphasis in original).
During her travels, Gilbert spends four months living a strict monastic life in her guru’s ashram in India, practicing deep yogic meditation techniques with resulting significant spiritual experiences. Her framework for understanding her experiences is her guru’s Hinduism. Gilbert believes that “human discontentment is a simple case of mistaken identity….We have failed to recognize our deeper divine character….Yoga is the effort to experience one’s divinity personally and then to hold onto that experience forever” (122). Again, “You come to your Guru, then, not only to receive lessons, as from any teacher, but to actually receive the Guru’s state of grace….with the hope that the merits of your master will reveal to you your own hidden greatness” (124).
Gilbert writes with deep reverence about her guru, Swami Chidvilasananda, who is the current guru of the Siddha Yoga branch of Hinduism taught by her master, Swami Muktananda. Gilbert relates meeting the deceased Muktananda frequently in her dreams and meditations. While she deliberately never mentions the name of her guru or her guru’s master, what she does say about them (intentionally or not) makes it easy for one to discover who they are.1
Gilbert is honest about her naïveté in her books, but I do not think she grasps how uncritically she has swallowed the gospel of her beloved guru and her brand of yoga. Gilbert struggles with guilt over her divorce, insecurity, loneliness, deep depression, and a sense of inadequacy that tilts toward self-loathing, until the yoga experiences give her some relief. She describes experiencing pure love in her meditations (“Whatever this feeling is—this is what I have been praying for. And this is what I have been praying to” [203, emphasis in original]). Yet she does not describe these experiences in terms of her “own hidden greatness,” or her own “divinity.” I think this is because she knows herself too well.
She describes the history of religion as “the history of mankind’s search for holiness” (208). In her own search, I pray she will look much more closely at Jesus. Putting aside the serious issue of abuse in institutional religions (all religions can become abusive, especially as their institutions become more entrenched and powerful), look at Jesus. Read the four gospels. He is like no one else in history.
In His last meal with His disciples, Jesus takes a piece of bread, gives thanks, and breaks it in pieces for His disciples, saying, “Take and eat; this is my body.” Then He takes the cup of wine, gives thanks, and offers it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you. This is the blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matt. 26:26–28 NIV). Most of the world’s earliest religions—including ancient Hinduism—recognized the human need for cleansing from sin, and provided for it through animal sacrifices. However, Jesus comes as “the lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29 NIV). In Jesus, our sins are not glossed over or reframed, they are forgiven and removed: “For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.…We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:14–15, 20–21 NIV). —Carole Ryan
- For example, she states that her guru is a woman who inherited the work of a well-known guru who died in 1982. Plus, many of Gilbert’s “spiritual insights” are worded very similarly to sayings by her gurus. Visit the Web site, www.leavingsiddhayoga.net for interesting articles about some of the abuse of authority issues with this group. See especially the exposé by Lis Harris, “O Guru, Guru, Guru,” The New Yorker (November 14, 1994).