What Can a Hindu Learn from Christianity?


[music playing]>>DR. CATHERINE CORNILLE:
Good evening, everyone. It’s wonderful to see you here
with such a nice and big crowd. My name is Catherine
Cornille, and in name of the Department of Theology
here at Boston College and my colleagues in the School
of Theology and Ministry, I want to welcome you to this
year’s Brien O’Brien and Mary Hasten Lecture on
Interreligious Dialogue. Thanks to a generous gift
of alumnus Brien O’Brien and his wife Mary
Hasten, every year we are able to invite
a prominent figure who has done very important
work in the area of interreligious dialogue. And we are very,
very happy this year to welcome Professor Anantanand
Rambachan to Boston College to deliver the lecture for us. Professor Rambachan is one of
the main experts in Hinduism in the United States. His specialty, for
those of you who have some background
in Hinduism, is in the area of
Advaita Vedanta, where he has made major contributions. But he is really one of
the expert representatives of Hinduism, who
is always invited to participate in dialogue
and to represent Hinduism, that big tradition,
in dialogue settings, here in the United States. He was born in Trinidad,
and both of his parents were Hindu priests. He came to the United States. He obtained his PhD from
the University of Leeds. Also obtained a degree in
Mumbai, as well as in Trinidad. But since 1985, he has been
professor at St. Olaf College. He was chair for quite
a long time, also at the University– in fact, the
first non-Christian professor to hold the position of chair
at the Christian university. His publications are
numerous, and I will just name a few of his important books. One is called The
Advaita Worldview: God, World, and Humanity; A
Hindu Theology of Liberation: Not-two Is Not One;
Wisdom Teachings from the Hindu Ramayana
are just a few of the books he has published. And he has published
many, many articles and contributed
to many dialogues. He’s a regular contributor
to dialogues of the World Council of Churches. He’s been invited to participate
in dialogues at the Pontifical Council for Interreligious
Dialogue in Rome. He delivered the Lambeth
Lectures, also in London, on the invitation of the
Archbishop of Canterbury. So he is really our
favorite Hindu theologian, for those of you who are
Christian theologians. And this evening, he
will speak on the topic of what a Hindu can
learn from Christianity. And this is really a topic
that is of great interest to many of us,
because in the area of interreligious dialogue,
the focus is often, at least on the part of
Christian theologians who are involved in
dialogue, what Christianity can learn from other
religious traditions. And we’re very interested to
hear ones from the other side to hear what a Hindu can
learn from Christianity. So please join me in
welcoming Professor Rambachan to this evening. [applause]>>PROFESSOR ANANTANAND
RAMBACHAN: Greetings, everyone. Good evening. It is a very special honor to be
invited to deliver this year’s Brian O’Brien and
Mary Hasten lecture in interreligious dialogue. I am grateful for the
invitation extended to me by Boston College,
and personally, by my friend for many years,
Professor Catherine Cornille. And as some of you may
know, Catherine’s own work in this field of
interreligious dialogue is well-known and
appreciated and respected. So thank you very much. I’m very happy to be here. This invitation to address
you on “What Can A Hindu Learn From Christianity?” is very meaningful to me,
since the Christian tradition has been an early and a
constant presence in my life. This presence took a
formal expression later in the mode of
interreligious dialogue. But it was there, early,
in childhood friendships, on the island of Trinidad
and Tobago where I was born. In the Sunday school
classes that we occasionally visited for stories and
for treats, not necessarily in that order. In a high school
that I attended, which was founded by Canadian
Christian Presbyterian missionaries. In public festivals at
Easter and Christmas. And for the past 34
years, as Catherine said, in work at a Lutheran
Christian institution of higher education, St. Olaf College. Since 1981, my engagement
in interreligious dialogue has focused, in a special way,
on Hindu-Christian dialogue. I’ve had the privilege of
a continuing relationship with the World
Council of Churches, the world’s broadest
Christian ecumenical body, and the Pontifical
Council for Interreligious Dialogue at the Vatican. As part of this
work, I’ve have had the honor of meeting Pope John
Paul, Pope Benedict, and most recently, Pope Francis. It is especially
difficult to identify the impact and significance
of human relationships. Some of my friendships
with Christians have lasted for more
than four decades. I encounter the
Christian tradition in a very special way, through
its embodiment in persons who express that faith
in their way of life, and the impact on me
is inevitably profound, but very difficult to describe. I remain grateful, and
I express this gratitude with the words of
India’s Nobel Prize poet, Rabindranath Tagore. And he wrote from
Gitanhali, “Thou hast made me known to
friends whom I knew not. Now has given me seats
in homes not my own. Thou has brought
the distant near, and made a brother
of the stranger. I am uneasy at heart when I have
to leave my accustomed shelter. I forget that there abides
the old and the new, and there also thou abidest.” I want to approach my topic,
with you this evening, in a two-fold manner. From the earliest
historical encounters, Hindus have been learning
from Christianity. So I’ll begin with some of
the significant Hindu leaders and teachers who
acknowledge this learning from the Christian
tradition, and also try to identify the
learning that they describe. The history of
Hindu-Christian engagement on the Indian subcontinent
is long and complex, and so I will be selective. But secondly, I will speak
in more personal terms about my own journey on learning
from the Christian tradition. I did not want to deliver
to you an abstract lecture about possibilities
for learning. I wanted to describe and
share with you the reality of learning, both historically,
and in my own journey as a Hindu scholar
and practitioner. It was in the
Northeastern region of Bengal in the 18th
and 19th centuries, with the nearby
Port of Calcutta, where the Christian tradition
made its early impact in India, coinciding with
the establishment of British control
in the same area. Ram Mohan Roy was the founder of
a Hindu reform group the Brahmo Samaj, translated as
The Society of God, and the first Hindu to
undertake a systematic study of Christianity. In fact, he trained himself
in the biblical languages to read Christian texts. In 1820, Roy published
a small work, which was probably
the first by a Hindu on the Christian tradition
called The Precepts of Jesus: The Guide to Peace
and Happiness, a collection of what Ram
Mohan Roy considered to be Jesus’s ethical teachings. And he clarified his
intention in these words. “I feel persuaded
that by separating from other matters contained
in the New Testament, the moral precepts
found in that book, these will be more likely to
produce the desirable effect of improving the
hearts and minds of men of different persuasions and
degrees of understanding. This simple code of religion
and morality is so admirably calculated to elevate men’s
ideas to high and liberal notions of God, and it’s also
so well-fitted to regulate the conduct of a human race in
the discharge of their various duties to themselves
and to society, that I cannot but hope the best
effects from its promulgation in the present form.” They did write very long
sentences in those days. Roy, who was working, as I
said, to reform Hindu society, found support for this work
in the ethics of Jesus. And this is where he
focused his learning and tried to distill
from the New Testament what he saw as the
principal, ethical teachings. In fact, he opened up his
collection, not surprisingly, with Matthew, chapters 5 to
7, which includes, of course, the Sermon on the Mount. Krishnachandra then
succeeded Ram Mohan Roy as leader of the Brahmo Samaj,
and he spoke extensively about Christianity and
about Jesus Christ. But in a famous lecture, “Jesus
Christ, Europe and Asia,” delivered in Calcutta
on May 5th, 1886, Sen chastised Europeans
for what he called their “muscular Christianity.” It’s an expression. Which caused Hindus to identify
Christianity with power, privilege, and violence. And Sen claimed
Jesus as an Asiatic. This was one of the very
big movements in his talk. He spoke of the
Asiatic Jesus, spoke of the congeniality of the
imagery’s and analogies, the flora, the fauna of the
Gospels to the people of Asia. But he gave prominence
in his learning that Jesus’ teachings about
forgiveness and self-sacrifice. As he wrote, “It is these
two cardinal principles of Christian ethics — so utterly opposed to
the wisdom of the world, and so far exalted above
its highest conceptions of rectitude, which
require to be impressed upon the European
and native races as a point of proper
appreciation of these, I believe, depends
the reformation of their character.” Swami Vivekananda, one of the
most influential Hindu teachers in recent times, and the
first to teach in the West, made a special appeal
for attentiveness to the teachings of Jesus. In his introduction to
the Bengali translation of a small work, The
Imitation of Christ, which he, himself, translated
into Bengali, a work that is attributed to a
medieval Christian monk, Thomas Kempis. Vivekananda cautioned
his fellow Hindus not to belittle the texts
because the author is a Christian. Take it seriously. This medieval Christian work
fascinated this Hindu monk. And it was the only
text, in fact, along with the Bhagavadgita,
that he kept with him during his years of
traveling around India, after the death of his beloved
teacher, Sri Ramakrishna. Vivekananda founded a new
monastic order, the Ramakrishna Mutt and a new mission, the
Ramakrishna Mission, dedicated to renounciation and service,
and I am very honored to have one of the monks
of the Ramakrishina Mutt here, Swami
Sarvapriyananda, welcome. Active service in the world
was not a traditional goal of Hindu monasticism. Vivekananda coined a new motto,
which I have posted there, Atmano mokshartham
jagat hitaya cha, not to be taken for granted. It means “for
one’s own salvation and for the welfare
of the world.” But movingly, under night, when
some of the young disciples of his teacher, of his guru,
Sri Ramakrishna, took monastic vows. Vivekananda turned to this
life of Jesus for inspiration. As described in one account– and I am quoting now– “He told a story
of Jesus, beginning with the wondrous mystery of
his birth, through his death, onto the Resurrection. Through the eloquence
of Narendra,” which was his pre-monastic
name, “the boys were admitted into that
apostolic world wherein Paul had preached the Gospel of
their risen Christ, and spread Christianity far and wide. Naren made his plea to them
to become Christ themselves, to aid in the
redemption of the world, to realize God and
deny themselves, as Lord Jesus had done.” End of quote. So at the moment
of establishing one of the most important
and successful orders of modern Hinduism, the
founder, Swami Vivekananda, turned to the life of
Jesus for inspiration. Attracted no doubt by the
ideas of renounciation, but just as important, by the
ideal of service to the world, exemplified in
the life of Jesus. And finally, Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi turned to Jesus
throughout his life for inspiration
and never hesitated to acknowledge this fact. As he wrote, “Though I cannot
claim to be a Christian in the sectarian sense, the
example of Jesus’s suffering is a factor in the composition
of my underlying faith in nonviolence, which
rules over my actions, worldly and temporal. Jesus lived and died
in vain if he did not teach us to regulate
the whole of life by the eternal law of Love.” Gandhi’s grandson, Rajmohan
Roy, described the cross, and I quote, as a
“magnet” for Gandhi. In working to bring peace
between Muslims and Hindus, Gandhi often faced the
wrath of fellow Hindus. The example of Jesus was
a source of inspiration, as he faced the anger
of his own community, and eventually his own death. I quote, “Jesus Christ
prayed to God from the cross to forgive those who
had crucified him. It is my constant
prayer to God that he may give me the strength
to intercede, even for my assassin. And it should be
your prayer, too, that your faithful servant
may be given that strength to forgive.” I can multiply
examples like these. It is remarkable when you
step aside and think about it. That Hindus, like Ram Mohan
Roy, Swami Vivekananda and Mahatma Gandhi
and Krishnachandra, among others, were
commending learning from Jesus and his teachings
in a historical context, where Christianity was virtually
inseparable from colonialism. And in which missionaries were
denouncing the Hindu tradition as superstitious,
idolatrous, and polytheistic. All of the Hindu leaders
that I mention here were inspired and
learned from Jesus, and this learning was reflected
in the work that they did. They drank deeply from his
teachings and his embodiment of the meaning of
an awakening to God for our life in this world,
and our human relationships. They had considerable
difficulties with institutionalized
Christianity. And a significant
part of the problem here is the alliance,
the experience, between the institution of
the church and colonial rule. Many, in fact, used their
teachings and the example of Jesus to chastise
the church, and what they saw as the gap
between the ideas of Jesus and Christian practice. They commended and they
contrasted Jesus’s freedom from greed, his
non-possessiveness, and his generous self-giving
with the affluence of the church, and the
materialism of many Christians. Swami Vivekananda implored
his Christian audience to return to Jesus. So very interesting. “Yours is a religion preached
in the name of luxury,” said Vivekananda. “What an irony of fate. Reverse this if
you want to live. Reverse this. It is all hypocrisy that I
have heard in this country. If this nation is going to
live, let it go back to Him.” He’s speaking about
the United States. “You cannot serve God and
Mammon at the same time. All this prosperity,
all this from Christ? Christ would have
denied such heresies. All prosperity which comes
from this Mammon is transient. It’s only for a moment. Real permanence is in Him. If you can join these two,
this wonderful prosperity, with the ideal of
Christ, it is well. But if you cannot, better go
back to Him and give this up. Better be ready to live
in rags with Christ than to live in
palaces without Him.” This is a Hindu monk speaking
to a Christian audience in the United States. Vivekananda’s words are
interesting for many reasons, but not the least for the fact
that we find here a great Hindu teacher chastising
and commending the teachings of Jesus to
his Christian audience. He’s not asking them
to become Hindus, but to become better
Christians by returning to the source of
their tradition. In a similar way, Gandhi’s
understanding of nonviolence noted by Jain and Hindu
sources, was deepened and enriched by his encounter
with the teachings of Jesus, especially the
Sermon on the Mount. And his reading of Christian
writers, like Tolstoy. Gandhi then became one of
the most important teachers for Martin Luther King, Jr.,
who made an extraordinary claim about the significance
of Gandhi’s understanding of Jesus. And this is what King wrote. “Gandhi was probably the
first person in history to lift the love ethic of
Jesus above mere interactions between individuals to
a powerful and effective social force on a large scale. Love for Gandhi was
a potent instrument for social and collective
transformation.” I wish to turn now, in the
second part of my lecture, and to reflect on some
salient, significant, aspects of my own journey,
my own learning as a Hindu from the Christian tradition
and from Christian friends. Although the roots
of my own learning, as I said at the beginning,
are much earlier, I will begin with an
event in the year 1981– most of you were not born then. When I was in the
first year of my PhD program in the United Kingdom,
and I got an invitation from the World
Council of Churches to attend a Hindu-Christian
dialogue meeting. The topic was Religious
Resources for a Just Society, in a small, north Indian,
Himalayan town of Rajpur. 32 participants from
various parts of the world were brought together for a
week of intense, and often very difficult, conversation
on religion and justice. Before I went to
the United Kingdom for my graduate studies, I
had spent three years as, Catherine said, in
a Hindu monastery in India in seminary-type study. We studied Sanskrit, read
sacred texts with commentaries, and practiced meditation. While immersed in traditional
study and practice, I did not critically question
the content of the curriculum. The focus was exclusively
on self-inquiry, on knowledge for the
attainment of liberation that is referred to
in Sanskrit as moksha. Since liberation is the
highest goal of human life, this attention was appropriate. Its absence would
be similar to a, let’s say, a ministry curriculum
in a Christian seminary that didn’t talk about
sin and salvation. The problem, as I saw
much clearer later, was the focus on
liberation in a manner that excluded everything else. The core claims of
the tradition were expounded through ancient
texts and commentaries, with no attempt to
connect and to explore the significance of these
teachings for social realities. It was a very
a-historical curricula. Our teachers were not
equipped, or perhaps did not think it important,
to make these connections. We never discussed or
critically interrogated texts and interpretations that
justified the oppressive social hierarchies of caste
and patriarchy, or read the writings
from marginalized groups. All monastic teachers
did not build bridges between the
wisdom of the tradition and social justice. The Rajpur meeting in 1981 was
my first intense participation in a discussion
that brought justice to the center of
religious concern. I was challenged
for the first time, as a young graduate student,
to think self-critically about my tradition,
the exploits, resources for a just society, and to
grapple with interpretations that justify injustice. I had to look at my
traditional learning through the lens of justice. This challenge, and my
learning from this meeting I must confess, came more from
listening to an engagement with the Christian participants
who exemplified a deeper willingness to interrogate
religious teaching and practice that
perpetuated justice. I was able to find some
of my notes from 1981– 38 years ago. I just want to share what
I wrote at that time. “On the subject of religious
resources for a just society, the trend of Hindu
participation, with notable exceptions, was an
echo of the British Orientalism in the 19th century. There was a constant
harking back to the past and
its glorification. We did not seem to be addressing
the urgent task of critically and creatively
exploring tradition in the light of
present realities, for there are undoubtedly,
vast resources of symbols and ideas in the Hindu tradition
which can become a fertile source of inspiration
for action directed towards the creation
of a just society. It is not enough to proffer
yoga as a panacea for all forms of human injustice without
being aware of the highly individualistic basis on which
its philosophy and values have been traditionally understood. Certainly if systems
like yoga are to play any part in
combating injustice, your values will
have to be radically extended and reinterpreted.” Although I cannot recall if the
terms liberation theology were used by the Christian
participants, I recognized later that a lot
of what I heard from them was central elements
of this theology. And I assume many of you
are familiar with liberation theology, and for
liberation theologians, religion and justice
are inseparable. The interior life must
find outward expression in a passion for justice. And justice is not
the same as charity. Charity seeks to offer
relief and to care for those who are victims of injustice. Justice seeks to
change and transform the structures that
cause suffering. So compassion and
generosity were known to me as core
Hindu teachings, but as personal virtues. What was new for me
at Rajpur was the call that I heard from
Christian participants to interrogate and transform
structures of injustice that cause suffering. The necessity to historically
connect religious teaching with life in community,
and especially to address injustice and
oppression within my tradition, have engaged me since then as a
Hindu scholar and practitioner. Since Rajpur, I
have participated in numerous
interreligious discussions from which I continue to
learn, and these significantly influence my work. Dialogue with Christian
partners and friends, grappling with structures
of systemic injustice in Christian
communities, have helped me to become aware
of such structures within my own
tradition, and to hear the voices of the marginalized,
who experience the Hindu tradition as oppressive. On the constructive side,
they help me to discern the theological resources within
the Hindu tradition that I retrieve to show why we cannot
be indifferent to injustice, and to argue for relationship
that affirm the equal dignity of every human being, and
that exemplify compassion and justice. So through the eyes of
my Christian friends, I see better, both the
interpretations and practices within my tradition
that are oppressive, and those that
have the potential to liberate from oppression. As someone said, if you know one
tradition, you don’t know any. Let me give you just an
example to make clear how this learning
works for me with one of my favorite Christian texts. I’m sure most of you are
familiar with this one, the famous parable of the sheep
and the goats from Matthew. So in this parable,
Jesus commends virtuous human
beings as those who engage in acts of care and
service towards the suffering. These are the ones who
will be richly rewarded. His words, however,
intrigue his listeners, since he uses the
personal pronoun. As you know, “For I was hungry
and you gave me something to eat. I was thirsty and you gave
me something to drink. I was a stranger and
you invited me in. I needed clothes
and you clothed me. I was sick and you
looked after me. I was in prison and
you came to visit me.” And puzzled, they ask, “Lord,
when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and
give you something to drink? When did we see you a
stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes
and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in
prison and go to visit you?” And then he comes to the
heart of his teaching. “Truly, I tell you,
whatever you did for one of the least of these
brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” This is one of my
favorite Christian texts, and one from which I
continue to learn deeply. I understand this parable to
affirm the divine presence in every human being. This is a teaching that
is also very powerfully present in the Hindu tradition. It’s only one example
from the 13th chapter of the Bhagavadgita. “One who sees a
Supreme God existing equally in all beings, the
imperishable in the perishable, truly sees.” But what Jesus makes
powerfully clear are the implications of this
truth for human relationships. The truth of divine
immanence is meant to promote certain
kinds of actions– feeding the hungry,
sheltering the homeless, offering hospitality to the
stranger, visiting the lonely. The love of God
present equally in all is not meaningful
unless it moves us to care for those
who live on the margins. The extraordinary,
and explicit way in which Jesus spells
out this connection inspires me to ponder deeply
the connection between the Hindu emphasis on divine eminence
and social justice. I have also taught more about
religious ritual and justice, inspired by this Matthew text. The most common form of Hindu
worship in temples and homes, spoken often in
Sanskrit as puja, involves a series of
hospitality offerings to God in the form of an
icon, or in Sanskrit, Murti. These offerings include many
of the necessities mentioned by Jesus in this
Matthew parable, welcoming into one’s home– food, water, clothing. Jesus’ teaching intensifies the
necessity for us to be mindful that the worship of God through
ritual cannot be divorced from human relationships, and
especially our relationship with the least among us. If offering the necessities
of life to a divine icon constitutes worship,
so also is the caring for the least among us
in whom God is present. In fact, the latter is
even more preferable. My learning about theology and
social justice is continuous. But for me it reached
a milestone in 2015 with the publication of my book,
A Hindu Theology of Liberation, in which I attempted, perhaps
for the first time in the Hindu tradition, to articulate
a systematic Hindu theology of liberation. In the first half of
this book I outline the theological building
blocks for social justice. In subsequent chapters, I
apply these building blocks to a variety of
contemporary issues that include patriarchy,
homophobia, anthropicentrism, casteism, and the
treatment of children. For each of these
chapters, I can easily identify the dialogue
meetings, some bi-religious between Hindus and Christians,
and others multi-religious that inspired my learning,
my thinking, and my writing. More recently, during
the years 2016 to 2018, I have had the privilege of
being a Hindu participant in a series of ethics
and action meetings at the Vatican’s Academy
for Sciences in Rome. In the course of two years,
we covered a wide variety of topics that included
poverty, peace, migration, corporate responsibility,
education, climate justice, modern slavery and human
trafficking, corruption, and the future of work. And although I
give presentations on each of these themes, I
had no heritage of reflection within the Hindu
tradition to draw from. But I benefited deeply
from the history of Christian social
teaching to which I was introduced in a very
special way, at the Vatican. The rich history of
Catholic reflection on human dignity,
subsidiarity, the common good, and the dignity of work
taught me, provoked me, opened windows into
my own tradition. Catholic social
teaching is concerned with applying
fundamental teachings to the challenges of
life and communities, and I continue to learn from
that tradition, as I think and write more about the topics
that we addressed in ethics– for ethics and action. My principal
conversation partners today are my friends
from the Christian, and other traditions, who
engage in the theology and praxis of liberation. I am also learning
from the experiences of oppressed persons
within the Hindu tradition, many who have converted
to Christianity, and who do theology
from the margins. They are also my teachers. And so I want to come now to the
final part of my presentation this evening. I spoke earlier of the
Hindu mode of worship that involves hospitality
offerings made to God, an icon of
Multi-form And these forms can be anthropomorphic,
representing the divine in the likeness of a
human male or female. Theriomorphic, like
the divine Ganesha, or abstract like
the Shiva linga. Each of the major
god representations– Vishnu, Shiva, and the
divine feminine Durga, has numerous forms, as
well as numerous names. In addition, many Hindu
traditions, especially those of center on the
worship of God as Vishnu, affirm the teaching that God
periodically assumes a form and enters into a human
world as an avatar. And two of the well-known
avataras are Krishna and Rama. One of the key texts speaking
on the nature and purpose of such a divine
dissenters, Bhagavadgita, Chapter 4, verses 7 and 10. “Whenever there is a
decline of righteousness and a rise of unrighteousness,
then I manifest myself. For the protection
of the virtuous, for the destruction
of evil-doers, and for the establishment
of righteousness, I am born from age to age.” So there are three purposes
there of divine descent, protection of virtuous,
destruction of evil-doers, the establishment
of righteousness. The many forms and names of God
in the Hindu tradition testify to an infinite divine who cannot
be limited to a single form or name. These forms and names speak also
of the multiple ways in which we encounter the divine. Each form opens a window
to see and experience some dimension of the
inexhaustible divine. Each one, as we say in
Sanskrit, is a darshana, a way of seeing, a way of
understanding the divine. In the midst of this astonishing
multiplicity of windows to God that reveal the
nature of the divine, I believe that Jesus offers
us a unique way of seeing. In its challenging
difference, it is one from which we, as
Hindus, must learn deeply. To put it simply, we do not
have a divine embodiment of God in Hindu tradition
who is executed in pain and humiliation on a cross. And who, in anguish,
cries out to God, why have you abandoned me? We do not have a god
figure who is whipped, made to wear a crown of
thorns, carrying his cross, stripped to his
undergarment, who thirsts, and is put to death
with two thieves at his side. We do not have a divine
embodiment whose life does not end in victory. These radical differences
led to Hindu doubts about the crucifixion itself. Swami Vivekananda, who I cited
earlier, denied its reality. He said Christ
was God incarnate. They could not kill him. That which was crucified was
only a semblance, a mirage. The life narratives
of Rama and Krishna end in victory over
tyrannical rulers. Jesus’s end was in humiliation. There is no divine intervention,
no visible victory. To say the least,
it is different. What can we learn here? The Christian
tradition as a whole agrees that Jesus reveals
to us the nature of God and the meaning of our humanity. At the heart of this two-fold
revelation is love, agape. He reveals the nature
of God as love, and the fullness of
our humanity in love. I think John puts it very
beautifully and succinctly. Anyone who does
not love does not know God, because God is love. This love of God is not
unknown in the Hindu tradition. The Bhagavadgita repeatedly
uses the word dear, priya, to describe human beings
in relation to God. Jesus’s suffering. However, like a human
being, and for human beings, and his willingness
to offer his life is an intense and
powerful testimony of the passionate and
personal depth and meaning of divine love
that has no limits. He experienced God, the ground
and source of all existence, as infinite love. And he responded
with an obedient love that similarly
had no boundaries, and for which no
sacrifice was too great. His suffering was not
joyfully embraced. He prayed that he may be
spared the cup of suffering. And did so with an intensity
that made his sweat fall like drops of blood. He experienced the anguish
of feeling abandoned by God. His was an example,
and this is a point that I want to really underline,
not just of nonviolence, traditionally known as
ahimsa in my tradition, the cardinal ethical principle
of the Hindu tradition. His was an example not just of
ahimsa, but positively of love. In fact, we may see that
in the case of Jesus, ahimsa is an outcome of love. Without love, ahimsa is only
the abstention from violence. It is a virtue
that is articulated in a negative sense. And I think it is this
revelation of love that led Gandhi, a Hindu,
to say to all Hindus, “Yet, your lives
will be incomplete unless you reverently study
the teachings of Jesus.” So we can continue to learn from
Jesus’s distinctive embodiment, his prioritizing of
love, and its meaning for human relationships. Well, the Hindu tradition
prioritizes ahimsa as its cardinal virtue. Jesus prioritizes love. And I think that
these two can be really mutually and enriching. Finally, some of the major
traditions of Hinduism– I know some of you have
been studying this tradition with Professor Cornille, and
I can only touch on this part very briefly, so pardon me. Some of the major
traditions of Hinduism characterize a human problem
in the language of ignorance, or in Sanskrit, avidya. It is primarily an
epistemological problem since we are not separate
from the infinite being, that is God, by space or time. This epistemological
gap, as it were, is bridged by right
knowledge, or jnana, through which we discover our
inseparability from the divine. The emphasis, therefore,
is on knowledge as a process
occurring in the mind. Jesus reminds us that this
infinite being from whom we cannot be separate is also
a being of infinite love. That our overcoming
of ignorance, therefore, is also an
awakening, not only to the unity of all
things in the divine, but also to the unity
of all things in love. Agape and jnana. To awaken to love is to
be transformed by love, and to express love in all
relationships, even when it hurts. This is what we must learn. I want to conclude
with one comment that I think unites the
different dimensions of learning from
Christianity that I sought to identify in this lecture. The Hindu tradition,
as I noted earlier, shares an understanding
with Christianity of the love of God, or at
least the presence of God, embracing all beings. In the case of Jesus,
however, this love is expressed in a
very special concern. In Jesus we see the
preferential concern for those in our communities who
suffer from inadequate access to life’s necessities, from the
abuse of power and privilege, or from social hierarchies
that are exploitative and deny their dignity. These are our
fellow human beings who suffer because
of choices we make and structures created by us. Love requires that we strive
to overcome suffering that has its roots in injustice. And I believe that this
preferential concern for the marginalized, the
outcasts, the powerless, is uniquely expressed
in the teachings, and even more in the
example of Jesus. In Jesus, this
becomes the measure of our religious commitment. Unfortunately, there are
prominent interpretations of Hindu teachings
that are summoned to justify hierarchical
ordering of human beings that has stripped millions of
their dignity and of our access to life’s necessities. Jesus’s teaching
that divine love has this particular concern,
while it embraces all. It has a special focus, a focus
for the victims of injustice, and that our love
for each other must reflect this divine commitment. This is a message from which
Hindus can and must learn. It is, indeed, I
think, the place of all the greatest learning. Thank you very much. [applause]>>DR. CORNILLE: Thank you. Thank you, Professor
Rambachan for this very moving and personal testimony. I think you are really in the
tradition of your great Hindu ancestors to also
call Christians to live up to those ideals
that you think Hindus can learn from Christianity. So thank you so much for that. We do have time for
discussion and questions. I understand that
some students may need to leave because
of other activities, but please stay and participate
in the conversation. I have a microphone for you, if
you have thoughts or questions that you want to engage. OK, the floor is open now.>>PARTICIPANT:
Thanks, Catherine. You listed a phenomenal
set of topics when you were at the
Vatican in your dialogues, and I’m sure most of
the people in the room here would like to
know what happened when you engaged in those
dialogues with your Catholic counterparts? In other words, what did
they learn from you– turning the equation
back around– and what has resulted from those
dialogues in a concrete way? For example, have we had Hindus
in India today who have said, we should replicate some of
the things that Catholics do for social justice,
especially when it comes to care for
our common home, the environment, our planet. Thank you.>>PROFESSOR RAMBACHAN: Thanks. Thank you very much
for this question. So well, we spoke
to these topics, as I said, from the perspectives
of our different religious traditions. So I tried to address the
topics from a Hindu tradition, bringing both
self-critical, but also a constructive approach to it. And then all of the discussions
were summarized and published. They are available at a
site that you can access. I can get the details for you. In terms of the
practical outcome, or the pragmatic
outcome, I think that’s a much slower process. But I do know that
all of the summaries and personal
representations from some of those who were present
at this meeting, the fruits of our discussions were
taken in a very special way to the United Nations. Because at the
back of our minds, throughout these
meetings, were– and our topics were very much
related to the sustainable development goals. 2030, we are supposed
to achieve these goals. So these were taken
to the United Nations and to the Secretary
General as mandates from the religious communities
around these issues, including the issue
of climate justice. I can’t give you a very
specific answer into the ways in which this might inform. We just only finished the
final meeting about a year ago. And I think the
challenge right now is the challenge of really
disseminating properly the fruits of those
very unique meetings. Of course, they were
interreligious dialogues, but I think the
topics had not been discussed before in that kind
of interreligious setting. So what was also important
about those meetings, if I might just add, is that
it was a gathering not only of theologians from the
different traditions, but depending on the topic,
the Vatican’s Academy also brought people with particular
expertise in the various areas. So we had people who– I mean, scientists who are
working on climate justice. People who were working on
human trafficking, and so on. So this helped us to keep
that dialogue underground, especially with the involvement
of people from the field who were part of organization.>>PARTICIPANT: Perhaps just a
very quick follow-up on that. Because you,
yourself, have engaged in so many of these
dialogues, and you’ve covered such a wide
range of topics, many of the students
here in the room will be aware that India is
undergoing a really devastating air pollution crisis. We’ve seen the
photos in New Delhi. Even worse, we’ve seen the smog
that begins to obliterate even the Taj Mahal, so that it’s
hard, even at a short distance, to make out that
magnificent building. Because of your
dialogues, perhaps you, yourself, could pick
up on Laudato Si–>>PROFESSOR RAMBACHAN: Yes.>>PARTICIPANT:–and
you could say, here is what we Hindus could
learn from Catholics about care for our common home. It doesn’t seem that it has
been tried before in India, so you could be setting an
extraordinary precedent.>>PROFESSOR RAMBACHAN: I welcome
that suggestion, and I do try– you know, whenever I
have the opportunity to speak to a Hindu
community, to bring the fruits of these deliberations. There is a very good
possibility next year for me to travel and
to teach in India. And I have already
signaled that I would like to speak about
Hindu liberation theology, as part of these teachings. What you have articulated is
exactly what I am hoping to do, as a single Hindu theologian.>>PARTICIPANT: So I’m in
Professor Cornille’s class, and one thing we talked about
at the beginning of the semester was how if you acknowledge– I mean, there are people who
acknowledge multiple religions, but sometimes that may
weaken one’s own religion by acknowledging
other religions. So since you do acknowledge
Jesus and Christianity, has that de-legitimized
your Hindu faith, or weakened your faith at all? Or are you able
to both recognize other parts of
different religions, while also holding
your own beliefs true?>>PROFESSOR RAMBACHAN: Yeah. Excellent question. Clearly, given my
own personal history that I described briefly in
this lecture, I have learned, and I continue to learn
deeply, from other traditions, in this very special way
from the Christian tradition. But I do so as a
Hindu, as someone who is rooted in this
tradition that has nourished me and continues also to
nourish me very deeply. But I acknowledge with utmost
humility that my tradition, and I think most traditions
because we are dealing with the divine, the
infinite divine, that to claim fullness of
understanding about the divine is really idolatry. It is arrogance. And so I come with deep humility
to the Christian tradition and to my Christian friends– deep humility and
openness to learning. But I think that my work,
if I would use that, is to use this learning,
both to be self-critical of the oppressive structures
that my own tradition has been responsible for. And at the same
time, to be the lens that helps me to discern
the deliberative dimensions of this tradition. So to retrieve its liberative
dimensions, and to speak out, self-critically, about
its oppressive features. So I think there is a more
technical way of describing someone who professes
multiple religious identity, but I don’t regard myself as
professing such an identity. I’m a Hindu with a commitment
to the non-dual Hindu tradition, but with a deep
openness to learning from the wealth of
other religious, especially in a special way
from the Christian tradition. As Gandhi said, I want
to live in my home, but I don’t want
to live with all of the windows of
my house closed. I want to live in a home
where the windows are open and let the winds
blow into my home. Let me draw from the air that
blows from every direction into my home.>>DR. CORNILLE: Can I maybe
ask a follow-up question that is, how have other Hindus
reacted to your openness to Christianity? Of course, it’s a big
question, and Hinduism is a large tradition. But would you say
that your openness towards Christianity
is generally welcomed among Hindus, or
is there some resistance?>>PROFESSOR RAMBACHAN:
I think, unfortunately, I would have really welcomed
the engagement, Swami– the Ramakrishan
Swami who was here, hopefully I will
engage with him. But I think that in the
contemporary Hindu world, which with the rise of Hindu
nationalism, as we speak of it as Hindtva. And part of that
Hindu nationalism is, in fact, I will say it’s
a rejection of the openness of the Hindu tradition. It’s historical openness–
historical disposition to plurality. Because Hindutva is a
ideology of nationalism, Hindu nationalism,
that marginalizes, especially Christians and
Muslims of Hindu origin. And I think it has become a very
strong and dominant voice, not only politically, but as
far as the interpretation of the tradition is concerned. Which makes it more difficult,
I will say, Catherine, for Hindus to be open, and also
to acknowledge such learning. And this is why in this
lecture, it was not only– I didn’t do it because I
thought it would be politically strategic or anything. It is so important to
acknowledge a history. And all of the figures
that I have mentioned at the beginning of my
lecture are not minor figures in the Hindu tradition. Vivekananda is not
a minor figure. And the fact that on
the day that he launched this new monastic order, he
turned to the life of Jesus for inspiration is no small– is no small act on his part. And of course, Mahatma
Gandhi, but then he was assassinated by a Hindu
nationalist because of his– what they saw as
his very pro-Muslim. Because I think,
unfortunately, it’s not a– this is a bit of a
quick answer for your question. I think we live in times
when it is much more difficult to speak of
interreligious learning as a Hindu, and to acknowledge
indebtedness in this way. And that, unfortunately,
is present not only in the Indian subcontinent,
but it has now become diffused in
the Indian Diaspora, in North America, and Europe.>>DR. CORNILLE: Thank
you for your courage and continuing to
speak up, though.>>PARTICIPANT: Hello. I think that today
people, especially in today’s political
climate, there’s a lot of resistance
to have conversations with others from different
religious and political backgrounds. But obviously, those
conversations are necessary. What do you think
is the best way to engage in conversation
with others who might not be super willing
to hear, or respect your own political
or religious view, and to break down
those barriers and have proactive conversations?>>PROFESSOR RAMBACHAN: I don’t
deny the great challenges of what you are describing. I think we all recognize it,
and we all experience it. But I will come back again
to two of the lessons that I spoke about this evening. Gandhi, and of course, Gandhi
saw Jesus as a great teacher. And what Gandhi,
I think, learned from Jesus’s Sermon
on the Mount, as well as drawing from his
own deep Hindu, and also the Jain tradition,
is that in love, there is no space for hate. That seems to be fairly obvious,
but it’s not always so obvious. And we have to learn to
communicate our value of love for those with whom we
profoundly disagree. And I think very often, our
disagreements gets translated, or reaches the other, as
denigration of the other. And when that happens, I think
it definitely closes the doors to communication. I’ll tell you a little
story about Gandhi. When he was in South Africa
leading some protests, he was sent to prison by
General Smuts, the South African leader. In prison, he spent
some of his time learning to work with leather
and to make leather slippers. And so he made a pair
of leather slippers and sent it to General
Smuts as a gift. And General Smuts received
it, and he used it, as he said, once every year,
he would wear these slippers. When Gandhi turns 70 years
old– it was back in India, and Smuts was still alive– he sent him these slippers as a
birthday gift, but with a note. And he said, you know, I
never said this to you, but I appreciated the fact
that even as you oppose me, I knew that you never hated me. And I think that
we have to overcome what the Hindu tradition speaks
of as the knots of the heart. The heart is knotted. And when the heart is
knotted, these knots also open the channels
of communication. So how can we resist– I think both Jesus and Gandhi
present us with this challenge. How can we resist vigorously
without bending, but to do so with love. And that love means the
openness to communicate. It’s not easy, but I
think that’s the direction that I hope we can go to. But our rhetoric has
degenerated so much that now we denigrate each
other without thought, without thinking. It’s become a habit
of speaking, where we can’t separate a disagreement
and view of political theology from the denigration and
the stripping of the other of dignity and self-worth. It’s frightening. This culture of personal
denigration, how far it has gone, and how much– the leadership of
our nation, how much it is erasing our humanity. So discovering our oneness
with the other, even the one that we oppose,
is a prerequisite for the kind of communication
I think I hear you speaking of.>>DR. CORNILLE:
One last question.>>PARTICIPANT: So you spoke
about liberation theology, and you spoke about
the preferential option for the poor, which
is clearly Christian, and I assume, part of the
Hindu liberation theology that you discussed. But I’m wondering if there
are any concrete ways that you see contradictions
between Hindu liberation theology and Christian
liberation theology, and how you work those out, or
how you work between those two?>>PROFESSOR RAMBACHAN:
Contradictions between these two. I think that I’m not sure
that I could point to– that I would respond by
speaking of contradictions. Because I think that
liberation theology addresses itself in a very
special and significant way to identifying and transforming
social structures, structures of oppression. So let me put it in this way. And this is where
the learning is, and perhaps where the Hindu
movement has to take place. So we, as I said
briefly in my lecture, we speak of the primary human
problem in the Hindu tradition as a problem of
avidya, ignorance. We’re ignorant of our
connectedness with the divine. That’s a very brief summary. But that this ignorance
also creates structures, that ignorance leads to greed. And greed becomes
embedded in the fabric of social structures. The solution cannot only
be in terms of personal transformation. In the Hindu tradition,
the focus of Hindu spirituality has been
almost exclusively on personal transformation,
but without addressing the social structures, social
ignorance, social avidya. Not only individual
karma, but social karma– how we create these structures. You can have–
sort of very often, the discourse has
been upon harmony. Harmony among human
beings, but you can speak of harmony within
the larger context or very hierarchical or unjust
social structure. It’s harmony within larger
structures of injustice. So this is where I think the
radical challenge of liberation theology for the
Hindu tradition is. And this is what I
think the response. And sadly– you can look
into this for yourselves, but when we think of
some of the major issues of patriarchy, for
example, or caste, most of those who are the
forefront of the activism on these problems are
not, with rare exceptions, are not grounding
themselves or working from a Hindu place of meaning. They don’t, perhaps,
think that there is a place of meaning,
a liberated space within the Hindu tradition, to
speak about climate injustice, to speak about patriarchy,
to speak about caste. So they have
disconnected themselves from religion and the activism. And that space I
am trying to fill, to offer the theological ground
for those who want to locate themselves in the tradition. And that’s also a space
that we need each other. That is a space for dialogue. That is a space for
interreligious living. That is a space for
interreligious activism, also. That’s where we need
to meet each other, and to give our hands to
each other in common work. And I have– Laudato Si is a beautiful–
it’s a very profound– I have read it. We discussed it at the Vatican. It’s a charter for the
Earth and for its future. And I wish it could
be more at the center of interreligious dialogue. Thank you. [applause] [music playing]




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