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A response to Daniel Acharuparambil,
Hinduism in interreligious Dialogue, ICJ Vol. 4, No. 1


Ravindra Svarupa Dasa

Prof. Acharuparambil attempts "to uncover some of the rather difficult problems that a Christian encounters in his effort to undertake serious dialogue with a Hindu", and he sets out to do this in an admirably dialogic fashion. Sympathetically entering into the Hindu world-view, he has envisioned how his own Christian position appears from the perspective of the other.

I am afraid that in doing this, however, Prof. Acharuparambil has inadvertently transgressed his own dictum regarding interreligious dialogue: "Religious systems do not meet, but religious people...do." He notes that in dialogue the participants try to "witness to what is specific and personal in their religious convictions and experiences...", yet he has taken what ought to be seen as the specific and personal witness of a certain group of Hindus-Swami Vivekananda, S. Radhakrishnan, Rabindranath Tagore and Mahatma Gandhi-as in fact the normative Hindu religious system itself.

He is certainly not the first to fall-or be lured-into this particular trap. It happened to me, too. When I began graduate work in religion studies during the late sixties, my first teachers of Hinduism-three-fourths of them Hindus by birth and one of those a scholarly sannyasin in the Ramakrishna Mission-led me to believe that "Hinduism" denoted precisely the monistic Advaita Vedanta of Shankaracarya. While the existence of other communities-like that of the devotional, monotheistic Vaishnava community to which I now belong-was of course recognised, the practices of such communities were explicated entirely within the framework of Advaitic theology. Their own self-understanding or interpretation was either not presented, or dismissed out-of-hand. Thus, my first Hinduism teacher, Swami Nikhilananda (a direct disciple of Swami Vivekananda), presented what was in fact the teachings of a particular community-the Rämakrishna Mission-as the normative and universal belief of all Hindus, without telling us he was doing so. Prof. Acharuparambil is only one of a great many people to have been misled by this practice.

Let me continue with my own story, for it will speak to other points raised by Prof. Acharuparambil. While I was still in graduate school, I encountered devotees from ISKCON-a contemporary continuation of the Gaudiya Vaishnava tradition. It was only through them and the writings of their teacher, Shrila Prabhupada, that I heard the theistic Vedanta expounded with skill and conviction. By that time, I had become pretty much of a Shankarite myself, at least on the level of thought. As a typical product of modernity, I had come of age steeped in a relativistic notion of truth. As a result, for me any absolute could be characterised only as "nothing" (the profane void) or-alternately-as "Nothing" (the sacred void). You can see here the appeal of Shankaracarya: his "unqualified Brahman" was cognitively the same as my "Nothing", and his "religious relativism" (to use Prof. Acharuparambil's term) comfortably congruent with my modern relativism.

However, through Prabhupada's writings I became convinced that the theistic Vedanta of Ramanujacarya and others was true and correct1 and that Shankaracarya's exposition was systematically misleading. I became convinced about the Personality of the Absolute-that is, of a transcendent Personality of Godhead, a personage- pace Shankaracarya-not a product of the relative, illusory world. When I found myself forced to confess the truth of a universal individual, I realised that in certain respects I was now disconcertingly close to the Christianity I thought I had long ago "outgrown". The return of long dormant Christian recollections brought in its train a kind of panic or paranoia: In becoming a devotee of Krishna, was I perhaps being mislead by Satan (the founder-according to the evangelists of my childhood-of all "other religions")?

To resolve this doubt, I reread the four gospels, half-expecting-even half- hoping-to be dissuaded from my course. Unexpectedly, this reading of the Gospels evoked the faith to surrender to Krishna. With astonishment and increasing elation, I found the gospels had become alive and relevant to me in a way that they had never been before. I recognised that Jesus Christ was a perfect Vaishnava and His message exactingly faithful to that of Bhagavad-gita and Shrimad Bhagavatam. For the first time, the meaning became clear to me of Jesus' example and command to His followers to fully surrender to God: "Take up the cross and follow Me." It is unfortunate that in my younger days this summons had become subverted by a certain understanding of the doctrine of "vicarious atonement", in which Jesus' paying the penalty for our sins was somehow taken as exempting us from having to follow Him, rather than as enabling us to do so.

I recount my story not only to respond to Prof. Acharuparambil's call to "witness what is specific and personal", but also because the story sheds light on my own orientation-as an individual Gaudiya Vaishnava-toward some of the major concerns in Prof. Acharuparambil's reflections. Let me elaborate on some of them.

We should recognise that Advaita Vedanta is not "Hinduism." In fact, I would argue that nothing is "Hinduism"; that there is no such -ism. "Hinduism" refers to a many-branched family of related religious traditions. They posses a "family resemblance", but that resemblance-in the form of persisting or reoccurring patterns of common material-does not constitute an "-ism". Indeed, if you group all the Jewish, Islamic, and Christian traditions under a single "-ism"-call it "Semitism" or "Abrahamism" 2 -you would have something approaching "Hinduism". In fact, "Hindu" is not a Sanskrit word; it does not occur in the Vedas. It comes, apparently, from Muslim conquers, who used it to name the people living beyond the Sindhu River. Only over against the Islamic culture of the Arabic and Turkish occupiers of India did the word "Hindu" call into being the group it names.

In the form of theistic commentaries on the Vedanta-Sutra, the major scholars of the Vaishnava, or theistic, communities-such as Ramanujacarya, Madhvacarya, Nimbarka, Baladeva Vidyabhushana-articulated their theology of the transcendent personality of Godhead in opposition to the monism of Shankaracarya. For these Vaishnava thinkers, divine revelation is quite definite and specific. On the other hand, the quest for the formless, featureless absolute; the legitimisation of worshipping many gods as equally valid practices; the reduction of the world to mere illusion with neither substance nor connection to the absolute; the ultimate devalorization of devotional acts and practices-all these features, which for Prof. Acharuparambil are defining characteristics of Hinduism, are rejected by thinkers whose "orthodox Hindu" credentials are as impeccable as Shankaracarya's.

The actual situation is this: Within the Hindu family of traditions, the dialectic between what Christians call "positive theology" and "negative theology" has run a long and profound course. The Vaishnavas are those who have concluded that there is a positive theology (and associated spirituality) that transcends the negative, even while including the truths of the later within itself.

Christianity is based on a positive revelation-or a series of them-while its vital inheritance from Greek metaphysics and spirituality has brought in a potent and enduring strain of negative theology. The history of Christian spirituality and reflection also discloses a dialectic between the positive and negative modes of theology and spirituality. Christians and Vaishnavas who can affirm a transcendent personality as the outcome of such a dialectic might have much they can productively share with each other.

To put it another way, Christian and Hindu theists may have more in common with each other than they do with the more impersonalistically inclined members of their own religions. After all, the faithful Christian really does not encounter the relativising, unique-authority-denying, institution-minimising, "it's-all-one-anyway"-amorphousizing, syncretizing, impersonalist only in the person of the Hindu. He meets him-much more frequently and more disturbingly-in his own church, kneeling next to him in the same pew.

For example, Prof. Acharuparambil singles out a statement by Gandhi because it illustrates "with extreme clarity the typical Hindu mentality: 'I must say that I was never interested in an historical Jesus. I should not care if it was proved by someone that the man called Jesus never lived, and that what was narrated in the Gospel was a figment of the writer's imagination. For the Sermon on the Mount would still be true to me.'" I cannot count the number of times I have heard similar statements from practising Christians-Protestant and Roman Catholics alike, many of them, indeed, ministers and priests. I am sure Prof. Acharuparambil is keenly aware of their presence, and I suspect he is implicitly as much engaged with them as he is with the Hindu impersonalists when he reflects upon the obstacles to dialogue.

The apparent steady increase in the number of such people should not be attributed to some inherent potency of monistic Hinduism. The cause will rather be found in certain aspects of Western modernity, aspects which then converge upon features of impersonalistic Hinduism.

Prof. Acharuparambil asserts that "religious relativism" is as "old as Hinduism itself", but he notes that "in modern times Hindu leaders have seriously deepened it". What Prof. Acharuparambil calls "deepening" (a misnomer, I believe) is really a revisioning of the traditional Advaita Vedanta on the part of certain Westernised Hindu intellectuals-like Tagore, Vivekananda, Gandhi and Radhakrishnan-to accommodate their received faith to modernity. These modernising Hindus all tend to accept central tenents and features of modernism. They believe in the ability of modern science to attain "objective" knowledge, and consequently they are inclined to accept scientific accounts of the origin and history of the world and its creatures. They also tend to accede to the conclusions of modern critical-historical investigations into religious foundations and sacred texts, and the consequent view of religion itself as a subjective human cultural product. This goes along with a general acceptance of the relativity of cultures, life-styles and world-views, of values and systems of values, and sometimes even of truth itself.

The result of all this, of course, in the West has often been a loss of the sense of meaning, value and purpose to life-nihilism, in one form or another. As my own story shows, this modern nihilism is an adjoining apartment to the unqualified monism of Shankaracarya.3 Both the modern nihilist and the traditional Advaitin reduce the creation to an illusion but the latter at least ;aims to transcend it by renouncing it, while the modern nihilist wants to go on exploiting and enjoying it.

It is no wonder then that "modern man" in search of transcendence has turned to the impersonalistic systems of the East, especially when retooled by thinkers like Vivekananda and Radhakrishnan. There are, however, indigenous systems that would serve nearly as well, for the spiritual platform that gives expression to these systems forms a part of generic human experience, one that appears at a certain critical stage of spiritual development, when colossal world-weariness, disgust and material exhaustion may precipitate a crisis.4

Those who have adopted traditional Advaita Vedänta to modern sorts of relativism have introduced a change that we should note carefully. In the traditional Vedanta the world was illusory and all discursive thought conditioned by limiting adjuncts, yet there was, so to speak, an established system of illusion. Shankaracarya based everything, after all, upon the authority of the Vedic texts. Even if, as the fruit of his own dialectic, those texts themselves should end up being seen as illusory, in the meantime and for all practical purposes their authority establishes, as it were, an objective illusion, a regular world-order.

The thinkers who have "deepened" Shankaracarya's relativism have done away with an established illusion. No specific revelation carries universal authority, even provisionally. As I once heard a college girl say, expressing the popular rendition of this "deepening": "If you believe it's true, its true for you." Thus the modern, deracinated individual becomes the author of reality, of creation. He is now set free to believe in everything whatsoever precisely because he believes in nothing at all.

As a Gaudiya Vaishnava, I believe in the definite and distinctive revelation of the Personality of Godhead, who most fully and openly disclosed Himself when He made known His eternal form in Vrindavan as Krishna, in which He conducts His most intimate and sweet pastimes of spiritual love with His devotees. The self-same Krishna also manifests other aspects of His unlimited divine features in descents such as Rama, Narasimha, Vamana. I do not believe that various other sort of powerful beings such as the devas (demigods like Brahma, Shiva, Indra, Candra and so on) are equal to or independent of Krishna; they are creatures, His servants as much as we are.

Neither do I believe that no matter whom or what you worship, the destination will be the same-for Krishna says in Bhagavad-gita 9.25, "Those who worship the devas go to the devas; those who worship the ancestors (pitris ) go to the ancestors. The worshipers of ghosts and spirits (bhutas) attain those beings. But those who worship Me come to Me."5

At the same time, I am able to recognise that God does His own work among many nations. Commenting on the same Bhagavad-gita verse that Prof. Acharuparambil quotes (4.7), Shrila Prabhupada writes:

    It is not a fact that the Lord appears only on Indian soil. He can manifest Himself anywhere and everywhere, and whenever He desires to appear. In each and every incarnation, He speaks as much about religion as can be understood by the particular people under their particular circumstances. But the mission is the same-to lead people to God consciousness and obedience to the principles of religion. Sometimes He descends personally, and sometimes He sends His bona fide representative in the form of His son, or servant, or Himself in some disguised form.

In my personal case, I was able to acknowledge the divinity and authority of Jesus Christ, not because I accepted indiscriminately the divinity and authority of anyone with claims or pretensions to them. On the contrary, from Vaishnava teachings, I learned the general principles which enabled me to discriminate among all purported manifestations of divinity, recognising some as genuine, some as not-and among the genuine, recognising differences in degrees and kinds. Applying such principles, I could recognise in Jesus the unmistakable signs of a pure Vaishnava. And I believe I can tell the difference between Simon Peter and Simon Magus.

It should be clear, by the way, that I do not regard the term "Vaishnava" as a material designation, a sectarian name, but rather the intrinsic characteristic, the inherent or constitutional quality, of every soul as such: namely, a servant of God. I recognise that the true-the spiritual-community of Vaishnavas may exclude many who profess membership to that community visible on earth and include many ostensibly outside it.

As a Gaudiya Vaishnava, my own attitude toward "other religions" perhaps resembles that of a Christian personalist like Prof. Acharuparambil more than it does that of the Hindu impersonalist. I believe in a revelation of God in Krishna that is definite, unique and most complete; but I believe that in principle the same revelation in varying degrees of completeness and clarity has been communicated by God in other times and places.

As a Roman Catholic, Prof. Acharuparambil acknowledges the working of "the Spirit who blows wherever He wills", and acknowledges in the other the possibility of "the seed of the Word, a ray of the Truth". Now, he may think that I am enlightened by a mere ray while he is enlighten by the sun entire, and I may presuppose it is more or less the other way around, but at least we have a starting point for discussion, providing both of us are generously disposed and open to whatever we may discover-or rather what the Spirit illuminates-through our association together.

Like Prof. Acharuparambil, I belong to a community charged with a mission and, like him, I feel an obligation to bring the benefits of what I have received to others. At the same time, I-like Prof. Acharuparambil-can recognise and respect "the prodigiousness and variety of God's work in human history". Working within our respective traditions, each of us feels the need to discover and perfect a style of witness in which the seemingly conflicting imperatives of dialogue and mission are reconciled in a creative and fruitful dynamic that enriches and enlivens both. Given that we are working on practically the same problem, working together would promise to be a productive-and perhaps even a necessary step-toward success.

It may not be too bold to suggest that we might also find our way together to a platform on which we can join in a common mission. I believe Prof. Acharuparambil and I might find ourselves occupying a middle-ground between two exceedingly dangerous extremes-a middle ground much in need of enlargement and strengthening. Both of the dangerous extremes have been generated by the reaction of traditional religions and cultures to the assault of modernity. The Irish poet W.B. Yeats described the two extremes succinctly in his poem "The Second Coming": "The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity."

On the one side, many who are educated, liberal, and broadminded profess sympathy and appreciation for a wide variety of religions and cultures, but they can do so because they lack convictions of their own. Therefore, when fragmentation, misunderstanding and conflict increase, they tend to have no tangible vision to articulate and are impotent to act effectively. On the other side, those who correctly perceive the immense threat of modernity and yet lack the spiritual and intellectual resources to confront it, retreat in fear and denial to take shelter in one of the various sorts of fundamentalisms now prospering all over the world. The fundamentalist can only secure his all-too-insecure faith by bringing about the destruction-often physical-of the other.

Finding a way between these extremes, between the centripetal forces of nihilism and fanaticism, has become an increasingly urgent need. Such a middle way would unite genuine commitment and openness, harmonising the imperatives of mission and dialogue. By its very nature, the effort of forging that middle way must be conducted across conventional divisions of faith-communities. My hope is that by providing another look into some of the things denoted by "Hinduism", I will be of some service to Prof. Acharuparambil in this effort.

  1. "True", in the philosophical and theological context, indicates corresponding to reality; "correct", in the exegetical context, indicates corresponding to the real meaning of texts like the Vedanta-Sutra, Upanishads and Bhagavad-gita.

  2. I have heard a Muslim scholar refer to the three great religions of Mid-East origin as "the Abrahamic faiths". "People of the Book" is another, more common, Islamic term to express the family resemblance.

  3. Or, more precisely, with the "voidism" ( sunyavada) of Nararjuna and Madhyamika Buddhist as the connecting passageway.

  4.  I have elaborated on this point in the paper "The Contribution of Bhagavata-dharma Toward a 'Scientific Religion' and a 'Religious Science' for The Modern Age." In T.D. Singh and Rabi Gomatam, eds. Synthesis of Science and Religion: Critical Essays and Dialogues. San Francisco and Bombay: The Bhaktivedänta Institute, 1987.

  5. Here, as in other places in the Bhagavad-gita, Krishna makes statements that require the Advaitic commentators to deploy their exegetical skill so that texts are not so much explained as explained away.

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