K. R. Sundararajan
Professor of Theology, St. Bonaventure University, New York
My purpose here is to examine Hindu tradition with the intention of finding its resources for a meaningful and constructive inter- religious dialogue. Since inter-religious dialogue is a rather recent phenomenon in history, the question to be dealt with here is the possible contribution of the Hindu tradition toward the process of inter-religious dialogue. Such an effort requires one to look at some of the broader perspectives and issues that have dominated the Hindu
tradition when dealing with diversity within and without. Though no religious tradition is strictly monolithic in structure, by comparison with other religions, Hinduism shows itself to be particularly amorphous. There are enormously divergent doctrinal and ritualistic groups under the broad canopy of Hinduism. Though this could be advantageous to our study of dialogue, which necessarily operates in the context of diversity and plurality, the lack of cohesiveness in the Hindu tradition is a disadvantage when we attempt to speak of the Hindu models. I feel, however, that the Brahmanical tradition of Hinduism (though internally divergent) has some kind of cohesive structure in terms of its broader perspectives. Therefore, I shall focus on the resources of the Brahmanical tradition in the following explorations. The study of Hinduism through its Brahmanical tradition alone is not comprehensive, but it may prove adequate for our purposes.
There are two preliminary questions I intend to examine before formulating the Hindu models of religious dialogue. First, how has the Brahmanical tradition dealt with the fact of diversity within its own fold? Second, how has this tradition dealt with outside groups, such as Zoroastrians, Jews, Christians, and Muslims who have been on the Indian scene for a long time.
First, regarding the question of treatment of internal diversity, I wish to claim that the Hindu society has generally been permissive and tolerant. This is not to deny occasional conflicts, intolerance, and even religious persecution, but based on the frequency of such occurrences these instances could be described accurately as marginal. I would like to suggest that the tolerance of diversity is in some way natural to the Hindu tradition since: it is an extension of the Hindu epistemological formulations of truth and error; and the Hindu social system, based on the principle of dharma, is built on the reality of diverse social groups, and, therefore, for Hinduism diversity/plurality is not a serious problem to be resolved. In addition, I want to claim that the Hindu tradition has some kind
of transcendental, metaphysical orientation, which makes the task of handling serious social problems, including those that could arise due to religious diversity within, somewhat secondary in importance. These are the contributing factors towards the Hindu attitude of tolerance toward religious diversity within.
All standard theological and metaphysical works of Hinduism begin with a section refuting the viewpoints of the opponents (purvapaksin) before expounding their own viewpoints and establishing their validity on the principles of reasoning and on the testimony of the scripture. However, the opponent’s error is generally viewed as a consequence of partial or incomplete comprehension of truth and rarely as one of total falsehood. This is because the Hindu tradition dominantly holds on to a ‘coherence theory of truth’. Such a coherence view of truth repudiates on principle any viewpoint’s being totally false. A survey of the various theories of error in the Hindu philosophical system is illuminating. With the exception of Madhva’s Dvaita Vedanta, the major Hindu philosophical systems, such as Nyaya, Vaishesika, Samkhya, Yoga, Mimamsa, Advaita Vedanta and Vishistadvaita Vedanta,espouse coherence theory of truth, according to which error is due to apprehension of partial truth. In the Advaita Vedanta epistemology, error is caused by ignorance (avidya); ignorance is “neither real nor unreal” but a mystery, something which is ‘inexplicable’. Such an attitude toward truth and error, in my view, is conducive to sustaining an atmosphere of tolerance, since no group could be labelled as purely demonic, or as totally lacking an element of truth.
There is another reason that the Hindu tradition has been under relatively less ideological pressure to eradicate false doctrines. It stems from the secrecy tradition, especially in the area of ‘teaching’. In the Hindu tradition the relation between the teacher (guru) and the disciple is personal. Hinduism generally prohibits open and public teaching of religious doctrines. The teacher should make sure that the student is intellectually and emotionally competent to receive and appropriate fully what has been taught, and the teacher should present the materials at a level commensurate with the intellectual and emotional achievements of the students. Consequently, one who has the fuller grasp of truth does not feel impelled to correct erroneous views of the other, unless and until asked to do so, and the latter is also qualified to receive proper instructions. Thus, there is a clear lack of missionary zeal in the above situation, with no desire to preach or to correct the false views of outside groups.
The contrast drawn between moksha state and samsaric state in the Hindu tradition is essential in order to understand the transcendental orientation of the Hindu tradition. The samsaric life is our day-to-day life in the world, which is dominated by pain and suffering. It is a consequence of the state of ignorance (avidya). In the samsaric state, we are caught in the cycle births and deaths determined by the quality of our actions (karma). In contrast, the
moksha state (the liberated state) is characterised by bliss, absence of pain and suffering, and freedom from the law of karma. Freedom from samsara is to be gained not by changing the given world, but by developing an attitude of detachment whereby we are not affected by the world that we live in. The sharp contrast between samsara and moksha is a common theme in the Indian religious traditions. The joy of the ‘worldly life’ is more a prominent theme in the early Vedic writings; it is not an important theme in the later Vedic, particularly in the Upanishadic thought. However, in the dharma shastras, seeking pleasure (kama)and wealth (artha) find their place among the four aims of life. With moksha as the focus of Hindu life, the relationship betweendharma, under which both kama and artha are included, and moksha as the final goal of life, become a major issue for the Hindu philosophical systems (darshanas). In the Brahmanical philosophical systems excepting Mimamsa, proper and right conduct by themselves cannot bring forth the final state of freedom. To gain moksha one should do more than merely observe dharma. At best, behaviour contrary to the principles of dharma could impede one’s progress toward moksha, but conformity to the principles of dharma cannot by itself guarantee liberation from cycle of birth-death-rebirth. One has to practice the disciplines of knowledge (jnana yoga), devotion (bhakti yoga), and self-surrender (prapatti) additionally, and even the dharmic duties included under the discipline of action (karma yoga) had to be performed in the spirit of detachment, if these actions are to become spiritually efficacious in strengthening one’s pursuit of moksha. This lack of direct link between dharma and moksha is also reflected in the tensional relationship between two important stages of life in the Hindu tradition, namely, the married householder (gruhastha) and the mendicant (sannyasi). In the householder stage, one’s life is governed by the laws of dharma, expressed in the form of proper conduct and duties and obligations both to the family and to the society at large. The householder stage is important to Hindu society, since it is the householder who supports and provides sustenance for other members of the society who are at different stages of life, such as student and mendicant.”As all rivers, both great and small, find resting place in the ocean, even so men of all orders find protection with the house-holder”. In the tradition of sankara, while the mendicant may give up the sacred thread, and thus totally renounce all dharmic and ritual responsibilities, in the Vaishnava tradition of Ramanuja, the mendicant has still certain dharmic and ritual responsibilities and therefore required to keep the sacred thread. However, in the mendicant stage of life, one’s life is not governed by those rules and responsibilities central to the life of a householder. At the fourth stage of life, the sole concern for a mendicant is moksha.
Though traditionally the completion of duties and obligations of the householder stage is required before one may move into the fourth stage of life, it has remained an option open for those who want to skip the householder stage altogether, or an option for a householder who wants to give up his householder responsibilities for any reason. For instance, Sankara did not go through the householder stage, nor many of the Vaishnava heads of religious orders (matas) in a tradition that expects the mendicants to exponents of Vishitadvaita Vedanta, decided to quit his life as a married householder, when he found that
his wife, for certain reasons of caste purity governed by the principles of dharma, would not treat ‘respectfully’ Ramanuja’s teacher from a lower caste. Before he put on the robe of a mendicant, Ramanuja is said to have declared: “When housekeeping suits not, enter the monastery.” Interestingly enough, in South Indian brahmin wedding ceremonies, the bridegroom at one stage reminds his father-in- law of his option of abandoning the wedding and renouncing life (become a sannyasi). This ritual is called Kasi yatra. Then he is ‘persuaded’ by his father-in-law to marry his daughter and become a householder!
The Social Implications of Dharma
It is interesting to see that the principles of dharma which govern the life of a Hindu, presuppose a situation of diversity. From the perspective of dharma, diversity is integral to the worldly situation, and it is important to know how to live in this world of diversity without causing undue friction and tension. From the perspective of dharma, the best way of avoiding conflict with others is to stick to one’s own station in society (in traditional Hindu society, one’s
varna) and perform the tasks related to it, and not to step out of it. This is implied in the notions of svadharmaand paradharma. Svadharma is doing one’s own dharma, fulfilling the duties and obligations defined by one’s station in life (varna)and one’s stage of life (asrama). Paradharma is stepping out of these defined boundaries and being engaged in actions that are outside of one’s own boundaries. Gita warns us about paradharma thus: “Another’s duty
brings danger; better is one’s own law (svadharma) though imperfectlycarried out than the law of another (paradharma) carried out perfectly”. The tolerance of religious diversity within the tradition should be appreciated in the light of the svadharma and paradharma approaches of the Hindu tradition. Our sole concern ought to be with our given dharma and not with the dharma of others. We should not attempt to change the dharma of others in accordance with the norms and regulations that govern our own lives, since any interference may bring forth conflict. However, historically this tolerance is also marked by some kind of isolation where the different social groups in the Hindu community have been functioning with at best marginal interaction with one another.
Interaction with outside Groups
We now turn to the question of the interaction of Hinduism with the other (‘non-Hindu’) religious groups. I believe that isolation and to some degree an attitude of indifference have been the prime Hindu modes of dealing with other religious traditions in India, such as the Zoroastrian, Jewish, Christian, and Muslim. However, a healthy interaction did take place at the level of popular piety, in contrast to the Brahmanical tradition itself. At the level of popular piety, shrines of powerful spirits/deities are often frequented by those in need of help physical, material or otherwise, from these spirits, irrespective of their religious labels. For instance, Nagore, a small town in South India, is frequented by Muslims, Hindus, and Christians, who pray at some of the ‘Muslim shrines’ and seek favour of ‘Muslim saints’ in times of need. Such is the case with regard to the Velangani Catholic Church in South India. We should also note in this connection, the efforts of the great Mogul Emperor, Akbar, who initiated a process of religious dialogue during his reign by gathering scholars from different religions at his court. One could see the flowering of the Sikh tradition as consequence of meaningful interaction between the Hindu and Muslim traditions.
Within the Brahmanical tradition itself, however, it is very hard to find evidence of positive interaction with other religious groups. To cite an example: Vedanta Desika, an important fourteenth-century Vaishnava theologian, wrote a book called Paramatabhangam (Condemnation of Other Viewpoints). This book ‘condemns’ the viewpoints of other Vedantic systems, other philosophical schools (darshanas), and ‘heretical’ (nastika) schools of Buddhism, Jainism, and Carvaka materialism. These were indeed the traditional enemies for any theological/philosophical system in the Brahmanical tradition, and the ‘condemnations’ are in accordance the norms of scholarly writings. But there is one other religion, ‘non-Indian’ in origin, which had perhaps affected the life of Vedanta Desika more intensely than all these traditional opponents of Vaishnavism! Vedanta Desika lived in the South Indian city of Srirangam which is one of the important Vaishnava centres in South India. Vedanta Desika was forced to flee Srirangam when it was invaded by a Muslim army and according to the Vaishnava sources the most famous temple to Vishnu in this city was ransacked. One might expect Vedanta Desika to say something about the Muslims, especially in his book condemning other religious and philosophical viewpoints or to mention the above incidence in any of his other writings. Except for one passing indirect reference in one of his works, there is nothing at all to this event or those people who had affected vitally the lives of the Vaishnavas in that area.
Again, some of the biographies of Ramanuja, possibly known to Vedanta Desika, maintain that the temple at Tirunarayanapuram in South India was rebuilt by Ramanuja, after it was destroyed during some of the early Muslim incursions into Tamil country. In this process of rebuilding, Ramanuja is said to have gone to Delhi to retrieve the icon of Vishnu used in the temple from the Muslim ruler (sultan) whose daughter had developed intense emotional and ‘spiritual’
attachment to the icon of Vishnu, which Ramanuja was seeking to reinstall in the temple. This episode has in fact brought out the story of Tuluka Nachiyar (a Muslim female devotee of Vishnu) in the popular tradition. It appears that she followed Ramanuja to the Tamil country when he brought back the icon. There is a shrine to Tuluka Nachiyar near the South Indian city of Madurai. While the historicity of these events is questionable, these narrative relating to the lives of Ramanuja and Vedanta Desika underline that the lives of South Indian Vaishnavas in the twelfth to fourteenth centuries were in some ways affected by the early incursions of Muslim forces. We do not expect Vedanta Desika to write a detailed critique of Islam, as he does for instance, of Buddhism in his Condemnation. Yet the very fact that he chose to ignore these ‘outsiders’, who affected his religious life, critically at times, is enough to show that the main stream Brahmanical tradition tended to ignore the presence of ‘outside religious groups’.
If one reconstructs the religious history of India from the works of Brahmanical theologians alone one would hardly detect the presence of Christians, Muslims, Jews, and Zoroastrians in the Indian scene. One would, however, gain the impression that the Buddhists, and Carvaka school of materialism were theologically active even in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, when as a matter of fact their influence had declined considerably in India since the ninth and tenth centuries. It was ‘fashionable’ for Hindu theologians to write detailed critiques of these ‘traditional opponents’ in their major theological works, whether these opponents mattered at all, theologically or otherwise, at the time of their writings.
It is also interesting to note that a Jesuit missionary from Italy, Robert de Nobili (1577-1656), succeeded in gaining converts among the brahmins in South India, convincing them by his simple life style and the knowledge of many Indian languages, that he was indeed a “brahmin from the West”! Though de Nobili was criticised in his lifetime by the Church hierarchy for “Brahmanization of Christianity”, the same method was also used by such Jesuits as Constant Breschi who came to Madurai in South India 100 years later and continued de Nobili’s missionary work of conversion. These episodes show that the Brahmanical Hinduism did remain isolated from other religious groups, and in order to gain its attention and communicate with it meaningfully, one has to be an insider or make convincing claims to be such!
The Hindu Models of Dialogue
The Hindu response to diversity which has been outlined thus far may be brought for our purpose into one category and labelled as ‘the closed-border model’. In terms of religious interaction, the model implies that one should stick to one’s own religion and seek neither to convert nor be converted by others. The model, structured after the svadharma principle, requires us to respect the territorial rights of others and at the same time warns us to be vigilant about
our own borders. Hence a Christian finds salvation by being Christian and a Hindu by being Hindu. However, this model when applied to the situation of inter-religious dialogue has the following drawback: If I am guaranteed salvation through my way, and you through your way, there is no reason for me to be interested in you religiously, as your way is of no personal consequence to me. Religious dialogue could at best be sustained by curiosity, but curiosity alone is a somewhat superficial ground for serious religious dialogue. Here the ‘conversation’ would last as long as the participants’ curiosity about one another is alive, and the content of ‘religious dialogue’ would largely be an exchange of information about each other’s traditions.
Fortunately we find in the Hindu tradition another model of response to diversity which could provide us with a useful technique to enhance inter-religious dialogue. It is a more active and open model in contrast to the dominant feature of isolation that we find in the closed-border model. This model may be described as a ‘border- crossing model’ for our purposes. The instances of border-crossing can be seen in the process of indigenization by which the Brahmanical tradition absorbed into its fold some of the tension-causing aspects of the ‘heretical’ (nastika) traditions. This we could find in the post-Buddha period, especially in the puranic and epic writings, and in the rise of devotional (bhakti) movements. Buddhist philosophical writings were indigenized through the efforts of Gaudapada and Sankara, who were in fact suspected by the rival Vedantins as ‘Buddhists in disguise’ for their supposed Buddhist overtones in their philosophical formulations. In the puranas,Buddha himself became one of the incarnations (avatara) of Vishnu, though initially considered as a divine manifestation in order to mislead some people (Buddhists)!. However, in the latter bhakti period the Buddha’s role came to be seen in a positive light. For instance, Jayadeva in his Gita Govinda described the purpose of the Buddha-incarnation as teaching humankind how to be compassionate toward animals. The process of indigenization can also be seen in the manner in which Indus valley religious elements were sought to be integrated with the mainstream of the Brahmanical tradition. The rising importance of Siva in the Vedic period and the notion of the divine consort in the later devotional writings are examples of the Brahmanical efforts to accommodate some of the major thrusts of non-Brahmanical indigenous spirituality.
From one point of view this process of indigenization represents a spirit of compromise and accommodation. Instead of being indifferent to outside groups there is an attempt to find a place for them within the Brahmanical tradition itself. There is a process of ‘appropriation’ here, not a simple rejection of outside traditions. However, the drawback of the border-crossing model is that, in the process of crossing, efforts are made to erase the boundary lines, to
eradicate the distinctness and identity of the area thus appropriated. It is similar to a situation in which one claims a territory that has belonged to somebody else as one’s own, and one refuses even to acknowledge the previous ownership of the territory. We can see an example of this from the writings of Gaudapada, the grand-preceptor of Sankara. Gaudapada was perhaps the pioneer, to be followed by Sankara, to initiate a process of ‘Brahmanization’ or in
broader terms, ‘Hinduization’ of Buddhism. Generally, modern Hindu scholars recognise the fact that Gaudapada was influenced in his thinking and philosophical formulations by Buddhist thought. However, for Gaudapada himself his formulations are all ‘Hindu’, if we may say so. After discussing the concept of ‘levels of reality’, an area which probably led many rival theologians to call him a ‘Buddhist in disguise’, Gaudapada denied explicitly any Buddhist elements in his formulations by saying, “This was not spoken by the Buddha”. As Surindranath Dasgupta suggests, what he probably meant was that “the teachings of the Upanisads tallied with those of the Buddha, and hence there was no need to acknowledge the Buddhist influence on him”. But there is also another claim here: “If it is mine, it is not yours” (this was not spoken by the Buddha).
Another example could be given from modern Hinduism: this is in the process of indigenization of Jesus Christ by some of the modern Hindu thinkers. Some like Keshubchandra Sen have attempted to ‘orientalize’ Christ by claiming him to be an Asiatic. Having made this claim, he goes on to say that since Jesus an Asiatic, the Asians could understand and interpret his sayings and actions better than the Europeans could! Modern Hindu scholars in their study of Christianity also draw a distinction between essential/true Christianity and historical Christianity. While the former is based on the sayings and actions of Jesus from the Gospel sources, the latter is said to be based on “the misunderstandings and distortions” of the Christian Church. Here the comments of Radhakrishnan are interesting: The simple story of the life and activity of Jesus was transformed into an epiphany of a heavenly being who has descended on earth and concealed himself in the robe of flesh. The picture of later Christology blurs the contours of spiritual God. The risen Lord takes the place of God and the Church replaces his Kingdom, even as the Supreme is identified with concrete empirical structure with its own specific forms and organisation.
Radhakrishnan would even claim that essential Christianity is in fact compatible with what he sees as essential Hindu spirituality. Commenting on the doctrine of Incarnation, Radhakrishnan writes: The Christian revelation is not something different from all others. The epigram of St. Athanasius that “God became man in order that we might become divine” suggests the community of spirit between God and man. The Incarnation is an act which goes on continually. God generously participates in the history of the world.
The Bhagavad Gita puts the case of the continuous activity of the Divine. “Whenever there is a decline of unrighteousness, then I send forth [incarnate] myself. This activity of the Divine will go on until the whole world becomes one divine incarnation. For the purpose of indigenizing Christ, modern Hindu scholars have found the doctrine of avatara very handy. Though Radhakrishnan was sometimes reluctant to give divine status to Jesus, many modern
Hindus would readily grant such a status. However, the Christian claims that go with such a status, such as uniqueness, are rejected by them, since in the Hindu tradition avataras are considered to be many. For instance, Swami Akhilananda writes in his Hindu View of Christ: “In closing we may say that it is evident that the Hindu view is closer to Christian orthodoxy than liberalism. The Hindu agrees with the orthodox in regarding Christ as unique in comparison with ordinary man. Yet he will differ in holding that there have been and will be numerous incarnations of God”. As we can see, the reverse
side of appropriation is rejection. For a modern Hindu thinker, perhaps those claims of the Christian tradition that could not be fitted into Hindu categories are to be rejected as having no real value or, at best, that they are based on misunderstandings and misinterpretations. It is true that a Hindu could appropriate Jesus only through Hindu categories. But the process of indigenization claims more than this. It seems to say that the Hindu understanding is the true understanding, that the Hindu placement of a religious figure is indeed the proper one; all other claims or formulations different from theirs are falsifications based on deliberate distortion or, atbest, on misunderstanding. It is this direction of the border- crossing model that makes it inadequate and inappropriate for inter- religious dialogue. The dialogue situation presupposes a sense of ‘equality’ among the participants so that one could learn and be
truly ‘affected’ by one another. A religious dialogue truly should effect some changes in our understanding of others, and also a deeper understanding who we are.
Possible Contributions of the Hindu Models of Interaction
Despite the shortcomings of these two traditional Hindu models, I believe that a fruitful integration of their positive elements could provide a meaningful ground for inter-religious dialogue from the side of the Hindu tradition. Let us first examine the closed-border model for its positive contents. The contributions of this model to inter-religious dialogue could be seen as follows: It is valuable since it affirms the need to follow one’s own path and perform the duties and obligations integral to its fulfilment. The svadharma principle, translated into our context, could be taken to imply the need for one’s rootedness in a tradition in order to be a participant in a multi- religious dialogue. However, religious dialogues are not simply forums for the exchange of ideas – theological, moral, and epistemological – but also places of personal encounter between people at the level of faith, and hence, encounter between ‘persons’ instead of simply ‘ideas’.
The positive contributions of the border-crossing model may be seen as follows: The process of understanding, whether it is of a religious tradition or of persons in a dialogue, necessarily involves stepping out of one’s own territory. We step out of our borders and into the territory of someone else. Integral to this situation is the process of indigenization or appropriation. In some way Hindus cannot avoid ‘Hinduizing’ Jesus if they want to understand/appropriate him. Similarly, Christians cannot avoid ‘Christianizing’ Yoga or Zen if they find either religiously attractive. However, we should note that even in this process of understanding, which is essentially ‘seeing the other through one’s own eyes’ or understanding the ‘other’ in terms of ‘one’s own categories’, there is a potential for the expansion of and a deepening of one’s own understanding of ‘being religious’. This could be considered an authentic conversion
experience since one makes fresh discoveries about others and, in the same process, possibly finds out something more or new about oneself. Thus, instead of narrowing the ‘outside material’ to the limits of the available resources of the indigenous tradition, one may end with a broader perspective by discovering potential resources of one’s own tradition, which has thus far remained unnoticed. Though a properly structured religious dialogue would prove conducive for such ‘internal expansion’, even unstructured casual border- crossing sometimes could bring out those results.
In a dialogue situation, the border-crossing model teaches us something important: unless we step out of our own defined territory and be in some sense ‘converted’ or at least ‘affected’ by the ‘other’, we cannot have a meaningful religious dialogue, since religious dialogues are more serious endeavours than simply forums for exchange of ideas. Being open to the other theologically and religiously (or spiritually) is important. In the dialoguing mode,
however, such ‘crossings of border’ happens through mutual consent. One could then become a ‘welcome explorer’ rather than an ‘unwanted intruder’. For this type of healthy exploration one needs sound scholarship in one’s own tradition and at least some familiarity with the tradition of the other dialoguing partner, in order to communicate with one another, and be sensitive to the theological and spiritual dimensions of the ‘other’. The increased knowledge of one another in the modern world, made possible by scientific and technological innovations, places a great deal of responsibility on the dialogue partners. For instance, the dialogue between Hindus and Buddhists has to be at a different level from their somewhat hostile encounters in the past. After reading the Hindu critique of Buddhism especially indarshanas (philosophical schools), one is often led to wonder whether the Hindu philosophers ever cared to look into primary Buddhist sources before writing their critiques of them. A few exceptions to this situation include Kumarila Bhatta of the Mimamsa school and Gaudapada and Sankara in the Advaita school. In modern times ignorance can no longer be an excuse for inadequate dealings with the people of other traditions, since their primary and secondary sources are readily available to scholars.
To conclude: In a dialoguing situation there are two basic requirements for the participants ‘openness’ through which one could expand the dimension of faith and rootedness in a tradition. The closed-border model of the Hindu tradition lays stress on the first requirement, which, in light of the Gita could be seen as the quality of life reflective of the tradition. The border-crossing model stresses the need for ‘openness’. It is openness on the part of the dialoguing partners that makes an inter-religious dialogue an exciting task, allowing the possibility of ‘conversion’ as the result of the deepening of one’s faith and the expansion of its dimensions. Therefore, it is in the active interaction of these two models that I see the preparedness of Hindus for inter-religious dialogue.