A Life of thinking globally, acting locally, and seeking peace internally.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

What I am learning as a Hindu Seminarian - part 1

I have read the wonderful work of the theologian Raimon Panikkar, and never knew his background until I took a course on God and Humanity at Ecumenical Theological Seminary. The assignment began as something I had to do, because of my discomfort with current Hindu-Christian relations in India, and the context of proselytizing that seems to be part of the landscape here in my own neighborhood. The chapter I discuss below is from a book published decades ago, before the Hindu-Christian clashes of recent times colored my world dark, and it makes for an illuminating read.

The Emergent Gospel: Theology from the Underside of History

Edited by Sergio Torres & Virginia Fabella, M.M.

Chapter 13: Development of Christian Theology in India by J.R. Chandran (India)

The author, the Principal of United Theological College in Bangalore, examines reformation theology in India, as part of this report from the Ecumencial Dialogue of Third World Theologians, held in Tanzania in 1976, with a view to “understanding how…Christian theology can serve the renewal of the church for its mission.” He believes that theology must interpret the Gospel to both deepen understanding of the faith and to communicate the faith in a way that calls for response, and says there is no “perennial theology.” In discussing the contribution of missionary theologians, he says that many Western missionaries realized that they needed to change the totally negative approach to other faiths and cultures with which they had started.

The historical review of theologians starts with the early 17th century Roman Catholic Jesuit Robert de Nobili, who said that “it was unjust to require people to change their national customs, to give up caste and other forms of social and cultural life,” and even sought to replace Latin with Sanskrit (the language of the Hindu scriptures), but whose approach was focused on getting the natives to accept the external forms of Christianity. Bartholomeus Ziegenbalg, the first Protestant missionary who arrived in India in 1706, who changed his attitude of prejudice after studying Hindu scriptures, and wrote, “I do not reject everything they teach, rather rejoice,” that there was a light in their teachings also. He even said that they put to shame many Christians “by their upright life.” However A.H. Francke (1663-1727) said “The missionaries were sent out to exterminate heathenism in India, not to spread heathen nonsense all over Europe,” echoing the sentiments of the general population. Rethinking of this sentiment came with the discovery and interpretation of the Hindu, Buddhist and other scriptures by great Orientalists like Max Miller, Paul Deussen, Berridale Keith and others.

Then, the article turns to Indian theologians, both those within and without the church. The theological doctrines of two followers of the Brahmo Samaj movement, which stood for a radical reform of the Hindu religion and society, Ram Mohan Roy and Keshab Chandra Sen, are presented first. Others like Swami Vivekananda and Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan responded to Christ from the context of their advaita Vedanta theology, interpreted Jesus as one form of the universal reality. The author states that Mahatma Gandhi “approached the person of Jesus Christ from the ethic of love” which he found to parallel the Hindu concept of ahimsa, and that Gandhi believed all religions had love as their common goal. The first Indian Christian theologian mentioned – who tried to reformulate theology for an Indian context – is Brahmabandhav Upadhyaya (1861-1907), who combined the nationalist hopes of his times with a commitment to the gospel of Jesus Christ, in a “manner indigenous to India.” He felt the Vedas should be recognized as part of the Old Testament for the Indian church, and felt that the Thomistic idea of God as pure being was the same as the Vedantic absolute, the Brahman. Another Indian Christian theologian, AJ Appasamy, respected the Bhakti [faith/devotion] tradition, and wrote Christianity as Bhakti Marga, particularly as the union of the human and divine in Christ. Appasamy reflected on visishtadvaita, (qualified non-dualism) where Brahmabandhav’s frame of understanding came from Shankara’s advaita philosophy. P Chenchiah (1886-1959) felt that loyalty to Christ did “not involve the surrender of a reverential attitude towards the Hindu heritage,” and wanted to free Indian Christian doctrine from Greek philosophical language and western categorization and thought.

In the next section, the author issues a call to dialogue, saying that displacement of indigenous faiths by Christianity has proved inadequate and superficial, and that there should be a realization that there is a presence of reality in other faiths. He speaks of PD Devanandam, who was influenced by Barth and part of the Rethinking Group, which gave importance to understanding contemporary religious and cultural movements and those of other faiths. Another great theologian profiled is Raimundo Panikkar (1918-), who was born of a Hindu father and Catholic mother, understands Hindusim from within and says that Christ is already present in Hinduism, although not known as Christ. His focus is on “common ground of the interiority of the religious experience.” Finally, in discussing the theology of liberation and humanization, MM Thomas (1916-) whose role in the ecumenical movement shaped his focus on the gospel as a tool for justice and liberation. Thomas spoke to three aspects of dialogue: 1) studying the contribution of each faith to man and society; 2) seeking to understand the central theological issues in each faith; and 3) the dialogue “in the cave of the heart” of which Abhishiktananda [the French Benedictine monk who served as a bridge to Hindu and Christian theology]. Thomas focused on the first, where Hindus and Christians could come together in the context of modernity and secularism, and take action for the good of the nation as a whole. In conclusion, the survey reiterates that there is no pattern or model for Indian Christian theology, and that it is not important to concentrate only on doctrinal formulation. It is important to take “a stand for righteousness, peace and justice in human affairs” that would not lead to polarization, and not create an abstract theology. It is when the process of doing – grappling with the suffering of the oppressed and the totality of the Indian religious, social and cultural situation – becomes the real basis of Indian Christian theology, that it will become part of universal Christian theology.

When I began to read this chapter, I was absolutely floored as I read about so many theologians to whom I could relate. I felt a sense of enlightenment at how many other people have preceded me in the understanding of the issues central to being an Indian American, since I had heard mostly of the work of Ram Mohan Roy and Swami Vivekananda and not of many of the others. Although I had read Raimundo Panikkar’s and Abhishiktananda’s work, I didn’t know how critical they are to the development of Indian Christian theology. However, knowing the reality of human nature and the contemporary situation in India, I felt that there is still a long way to go – that people are still grappling with the suffering of the oppressed and the totality of the Indian religious, social and cultural situation, and am glad that my journey has led me to ETS.

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