"The national ideals of India are Renunciation and Service. Intensify her in those channels, and the rest will take care of itself." - Swami Vivekananda













PRABUDDHA BHARATAContemplative Dialog| Swami Satyaswarupananda  








            Contemplative Dialog


          Swami Satyaswarupananda


     At the north-east corner of the crossing of Chittaranjan Avenue and Mahatma Gandhi Road in Kolkata stands an old mosque, the Kasim Ismail Madan Wakf Masjid, popularly called the Geratala Masjid. One evening, over a hundred and twenty years ago, Manmathanath Ghosh, a petty employee of Messrs Rally Brothers & Co., was passing by the mosque on his way back from work. He had to walk a long distance and the day's hard work had tired him out. But the scene that met his weary eyes at the mosque left him transfixed: A mussalman fakir, standing in front of the mosque, was calling out in a touching voice with tears streaming profusely from his eyes, 'Come, my Beloved, come!' Manmatha stood there watching his divine fervour when a hackney carriage came rattling down and pulled up beside the fakir. Sri Ramakrishna alighted from the carriage and rushed to the fakir. Before Manmatha could make out what was happening, Sri Ramakrishna and the fakir were locked in tight embrace, their faces beaming with heavenly joy. (1)

     This episode provides an apt imagery for the three essays on inter-religious dialogue that appear in this issue of Prabuddha Bharata. Prof. Arvind Sharma's paper initiated this dialogue and the responses from Father Clooney and Swami Nityasthananda highlight some aspects of religious practice and experience that cut across denominational barriers. In this context it may be worthwhile reviewing the status of inter-religious dialogue with special reference to Hindus and Christians.


     The Nature of Dialogue


     The term 'dialogue' invariably evokes the Socratic connection. The dialogues of Plato are discursive in nature and pedagogical in function. In the inter-religious context, however, the focus needs to be elsewhere if dialogue is to be fruitful. Inter-religious dialogue presupposes an 'encounter', but the latter does not necessarily lead to the former. This is because, in the interfaith context, an element of conflict is taken for granted, as pointed out by Prof. Sharma. This, according to the Jewish religious philosopher Martin Buber, creates an 'I-It' relationship that treats the 'other' only as an object of thought, or as a convenience that can be manipulated. In contrast, a genuinely mature relationship is of the 'I-Thou' variety, into which both parties enter in the fullness of their being. In the words of R L Howe, this involves 'a reciprocal relationship in which every party "experiences the other side" so that their communication becomes a true address and response in which each informs and learns.' (2) The actual process of a genuine dialogue may then be categorized as vada in the traditional Hindu context; for vada, in contradistinction to jalpa (polemic) and vitanda (cavil), refers to an open-minded discussion amongst seekers of truth (tattva-bubhutsavah).


     The Christian Contribution


     A significant proportion of the literature on inter-religious dialogue is from Christian sources. This is understandable given the extensity of its following - temporally, numerically as well as geographically - the elaborateness of its organizational structure, and its unbroken tradition of theological formulations and responses to pragmatic issues and temporal debates.

     The Secretariat for Non-Christians at the Vatican, in its document 'Dialogue and Mission' published in 1984, identifies the following types of dialogue: 1) the dialogue of life, open and accessible to all; 2) the dialogue of a common commitment to the works of justice and human liberation; 3) the intellectual dialogue in which scholars engage in an exchange at the level of their respective religious legacies, with the goal of promoting communion and fellowship; and 4) on the most profound level, the sharing of the religious experiences of prayer and contemplation in a common search for the Absolute. (3)

     The 'dialogue of life' is well illustrated by the example of the Kerala Christians prior to the arrival of the Portuguese missionaries. Having arrived in Kerala in the fourth century CE, if not earlier, the St Thomas Christians were accorded a generous reception that helped them get socially integrated while maintaining their distinct faith. They married and converted several high-caste Hindus, and found a place for themselves in the upper ranks of society. This process of inculturation was helped by a non-exclusivist thinking (they believed that everyone can be saved in his or her own religion - a belief that was condemned as heretic in 1599 by the Synod of Diamper when Arcbishop Menzias compelled the Syrian Christians to make public profession and written adherence to the Catholic faith), a respect for the religious figures and the cultus of the Hindus (the latter was, in fact, shared and appropriated), and their refusal to disturb the social structure of their new homeland through active proselytization.

     The 'dialogue of common commitment' is essentially a social approach that was persuasively advanced within the Catholic Church by the South American Liberation Theologians in the 1960s and 70s. It stressed both heightened awareness of the socio-economic structures that caused social inequities and active participation in changing those structures. Its founding father, Gustavo Gutierrez, insisted on the priority of liberative praxis over theological discourse. As this approach involves participation in issues of general humanitarian concern, it provides an existential platform for dialogue and, when divested of exclusivist theological trappings, the possibility of a vocabulary that can be shared with other religious groups.

     The intellectual-theological approach has been the traditional method of interfaith dialogue, and it also happens to be the most contentious. The traditional Christian position had been defined by the exclusivist doctrine 'extra ecclesium nulla salus; outside the church no salvation', traditionally associated with the name of St Cyprian and officially reiterated by the Council of Florence in 1442 CE. The Church as the mystical body of Christ had its precedent in the Buddhist placement of the Sangha at par with Buddha and Dharma, and has its counterpart in Swami Vivekananda's identification of the Ramakrishna Sangha with the body of Sri Ramakrishna. But when this concept got equated with the administrative structure of the Church, spiritual concerns got undermined by the temporal.

     This attitude was carried down right up to the early decades of the last century when the robust realities of other religions encountered in the Mission fields led to a rethinking and evolution of an inclusivist Christian theology. This involved a shift of focus from the Church to the person of Christ, from ecclesiocentrism to Christocentrism. This position took two forms: 1) the 'fulfilment theory' that regards Christianity as the fulfilment of other religions by virtue of the unique revelation in Christ, and 2) the 'presence of the mystery of Christ in other religions' view that considers the good seen in non-Christian traditions as marks of the presence of an unknown Christ, and non-Christians leading genuinely holy lives as 'anonymous Christians', to use a Karl Rahner phrase.

     This inclusivist position can hardly be termed realistic in a manifestly plural world, and contemporary Christian scholars (like John Hick and Paul Knitter) have tried to evolve fresh approaches to address this problem. This calls for a shift of axis from Christ to God, a theocentric perspective 'that substitutes many "ways" or saving figures leading to God-the-Centre, in place of the one, universal, constitutive mediation of Jesus Christ'. This viewpoint is presently considered too radical to be officially acceptable to the Catholic Church.

     Two other Christian theological perspectives that have been evoked in the context of dialogue are logocentrism and pneumocentrism. The former refers to Logos, the divine reason, the 'true Light that enlightens every human being', (4) and the latter to the Spirit that knows no bounds of time and space, that, free of all constraints, 'blows where it wills'. (5) These are clearly universal categories that account for the universality of the religious impulse and intuition, but, in the discourse of Christian apologists, they get inseparably identified with the person of Christ. Consequently, both logo- and pneumocentric models are reduced to Christocentrism, thus falling short of a genuine theology of religious pluralism.

     Although there has been a broadening of the Christian understanding of other religions in recent times (the post-Vatican II period), and even the Catholic Church has officially avowed its commitment to dialogue, concomitant theological moorings rob such avowals of much of their efficacy. For instance, the Vatican document 'Dialogue and Proclamation' explicitly identifies the proclamation of the Christian gospel as the aim of dialogue; dialogue, in other words, is evangelization. To more liberal dialogists such a stance is eminently anti-dialogue.


     The Hindu Response


     The popular Hindu view is that, God being one, all religions are, in essence, the same. Religious differences are therefore unimportant, and although religion itself is of paramount importance, it does not really matter what religion one professes. This view has been termed 'indifferentism' by religious scholars because it is not based on a genuine knowledge of religions other than one's own. This attitude, though engendering tolerance, does not help promote dialogue.

     A more nuanced Hindu approach sees spiritual and theological elements of universal value, that are accorded prime importance in the Hindu world view, as important constituents of other religions too. (6) It therefore considers other religions as expressions of one eternal religion, sanatana dharma, and this helps it to identify with those religions and even integrate many of their elements into itself. This stance, however, is not acceptable to conservative Christians, for they see in it a surreptitious antidote to their own exclusivist stand. In fact, most Christian dialogists are wary of anything that is suggestive of syncretism.

     A more formal pronouncement of the inclusivist Hindu doctrine is found in the Bhagavadgita, where Sri Krishna announces that all men are following His path alone. (7)

     The experiential insights of Sri Ramakrishna not only articulate the pluralist Hindu viewpoint but also highlight elements indispensable to a genuine theology of religious pluralism. Following his spiritual encounter with various religions Sri Ramakrishna came to the conclusion that 1) the ultimate Reality is one; it manifests itself in different forms in various religions, which in turn address it by different names; 2) each of these religions is a valid means to the realization of this ultimate Reality; 3) God realization being the primary purpose of human life, the validity of all religions lies primarily in their ability to subserve this purpose; and 4) in interacting with other religions one must look forward to assimilating their best elements while remaining steadfast in one's faith (ishta nishtha).

     Two practical corollaries of the above principles were pointed out by Swami Vivekananda: 1) Religions of the world are mutually supplementary and not contradictory. 2) A change of one's religion or proselytization can hardly be justified on spiritual grounds.


     The Spiritual-Contemplative Approach


     The Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Vedanta tradition has consistently pointed to the spiritual dimension as the core of religion, and it is on this core that dialogue must be based for it to be genuinely deep. Sri Ramakrishna points out that in the non-dual nirvikalpa plane 'all jackals howl alike', thereby meaning that all those with the Advaitic experience of the Godhead describe it in similar terms. While this unitary experience does not hold in the dualistic plane of our daily experiences-and the diversity in religious revelation is a testimony to this fact - yet it is genuine spiritual experience alone that makes one perceptive to the category of the 'spiritual'. Swami Vivekananda points out that 'mystics in every religion speak the same tongue' and William Hocking has observed that 'the true mystic will recognize the true mystic across all boundaries and will learn from him'.

     William James has identified ineffability, noetic quality, transiency, and passivity as the four marks of genuine mystical experience. Of these, ineffability and passivity are especially pertinent to interfaith dialogue. Robert Baird has noted that 'not only does dialogue take place at a level other than theology, but it is an experience of truth in distinction from the truth of propositions. And since it is an experience of truth in distinction from the truth of propositions, it is an experience that breaks the "barrier of words", for it speaks of "the possibility of a communion and exchange of experience that go beyond and behind the words." (8)

     Raimundo Panikkar identifies another feature of dialogue that is analogous to the mystic's experience of passivity:


     I would like to stress here a not-so-insignificant result of the Hindu-Christian dialogue. In spite of misunderstandings, difficulties, and drawbacks, it has an unavoidable effect: It changes not only our opinion of the religion we study and dialogue with; it also changes our stand and interpretation of our own religion. It undermines, as it were, the very basis on which one stood when beginning the dialogue. The dialogue, even if imperfectly undertaken, backfires. We may not convince the partners; we may get irritated at others; they may be impervious to our opinions. Nevertheless, we ourselves imperceptibly change our stance. The inter-religious dialogue triggers the intra-religious dialogue in our minds and hearts. (xiv)


     Murray Rogers, the Christian evangelist who had occasion to live and deeply interact with Thakkar Bapa and other Gandhians, noted that the spiritual phenomena that these people shared with him could not be approached and understood with the equipment with which he had arrived in India: 'If I were to understand more deeply the heart of this experience I began to sense in our Hindu friends, I had to free myself from my own mental and spiritual conditionings; I had to resist judging from my theological or philosophical positions. Rather, it was a matter of throwing myself into the stream, entrusting myself to it, allowing it to do what it would with me.' (200)

     This epoche, suspension of judgement, is indispensable to any successful interfaith dialogue just as it (along with Einfuhlung, or empathy) is a prime prerequisite for any phenomenological study. But to conservative eyes this amounts to a dangerous 'bracketing of faith' that can prove disastrous to the integrity of one's personal faith.

Murray Rogers writes of his own experience:

     There were some sincere Christian people who saw great danger in this; we might easily lose our Christian faith and bearings and become, if not outwardly then inwardly, Hindu. We ourselves knew what it meant to tremble before such a venture of the spirit, but we believed then, as we do now, that if the Lord were not able to hold us himself and in himself, no matter how deeply we plunge into this "other" spiritual way, then it would be clear that he is not the Lord we believe him to be. (200)

     Sri Ramakrishna once likened the supreme Satchidananda to an ocean of nectar in which one could safely plunge without fear of drowning, for this was the ocean of immortality. But he also pointed to the need of protecting and nurturing one's faith in the early stages of spiritual life (just as a sapling needs to be fenced till it grows into a tree). One must, therefore, needs be secure in one's faith before one can hope to engage in meaningful dialogue. This security is an essential concomitant of valid faith, for faith as distinct from belief is 'not an opinion, nor any number of opinions put together, be they ever so true. It is the vision of the soul, that power by which spiritual things are apprehended, just as material things are apprehended by the physical senses.'9 This dynamic faith is what is termed shraddha, and has been likened to 'a mother, always protecting the spiritual aspirant'. (10)

     It is this shraddha that powers contemplative life and is, in turn, strengthened by it. Not only do meditation and contemplation (dhyana) engage the deepest dimensions of one's being, they also involve internal transformations that are singularly conducive to dialogue. Beatrice Bruteau's observations in her book Radical Optimism (a review of which appears in this issue) are singularly apt:

     Contemplation is not just an intellectual activity. It is also a moral and a devotional matter. Unless we have freed ourselves of violence, anger, vengefulness and vindictiveness, we will not be able to retire within. Unless we have detached from lust, greed, envy and covetousness, we will not be able to refocus on the transcendent level. Unless we are energized by yearning for the divine as the Real and are willing to be embedded in it rather than making use of it, we will never find it.

     People who are long-term practitioners of contemplation characteristically drop one local self-identification after another. They no longer see their personal reality limited to membership in this group rather than that. … They experience themselves as being more real at a level that transcends all these classifications, and they simultaneously see other people at the same level of commonality. This view invariably makes for peaceful and supportive relationships. (11)

     By exposing our unconscious assumptions, and by making us more perceptive as well as receptive, meditation and contemplation pave the path for dialogue. But dhyana is a skill, as much as is dialogue, and it calls for practice. It is in seeking the Divine in the depths of our hearts, and in perceiving the inflow of grace therein, that we become authentically spiritual. It is this authenticity that is a precondition for dialogue. ~





     1. Kumud Bandhu Sen, 'Two Episodes' in Prabuddha Bharata, September 1955, 361.

     2. Hindu-Christian Dialogue, ed. Harold Coward (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1993), 13.

     3. Cited in Jacques Dupuis, SJ, Toward a Christian Theology of Religious Pluralism (Anand: Gujarat Sahitya Prakash, 2001), 363-4.

     4. St John, 1.9.

     5. Ibid., 3.8.

     6. An instance of this is the Advaita concept of sat-chit-ananda, Being-Consciousness-Bliss and the Christian concept of the Trinity: Father, Son and Spirit (Holy Ghost). Christian theologians agree that the triads developed by St Augustine - of mens, notitia, amor and memoria, intelligentia, voluntas, the three members of which correspond respectively to the Father as being, Son as consciousness, and the Spirit as love - provide one of the deepest theological and psychological insights into the 'divine mystery' of the Trinity.

     7. Bhagavadgita, 4.11.

     8. Hindu-Christian Dialogue, 225.

     9. Wesley, cited in S Radhakrishnan, The Hindu View of Life (New Delhi: HarperCollins, 1998), 5.

     10. Vyasa's commentary on Patanjali's Yoga Sutras, 1.20.

     11. Beatrice Bruteau, Radical Optimism (New York: Sentient Publications, 1996), 4.



International Yoga Day 21 June 2015
International Yoga Day 21 June 2015









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