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