Teaching Hinduism, Resistance to Change, and Misperceiving the Religious ‘Other’
by Judson B. Trapnell
In the previous essay in this three-part series for the website of the Infinity Foundation, we began by discussing how diversely census data from India is perceived, raising issues of interpretation that usefully inform contemporary Hindu-Christian tensions there. In part to explain such diversity, we turned to theories of perception and knowledge propounded by Western and Indian philosophers, one important possible implication of which is the relativization of any point of view, whether that of an individual or of a religion. Thus whenever we encounter someone from another religion (“the religious ‘other'”), we inevitably perceive them through a mind to varying degrees conditioned by our cultural and religious background. Unlike many modern Western philosophies, however, Indian systems are almost unanimous in proposing that there is a more stable foundation for relativized perception and knowledge, i.e., jnana or knowledge of the unchanging Self of the knower (Atman) who is at once the Self of all reality (Brahman).
To illustrate the above points regarding perception of the religious ‘other’ we introduced Henri Le Saux or Abhishiktananda (1910-73), a French Catholic priest, monk, and author who emigrated to India in 1948 to pursue a contemplative path in dialogue with Hinduism. Aware of the limitations imposed by his Christian formation, Abhishiktananda immersed himself in the Hindu tradition at both its surface and its depths while still remaining faithful to his Christian vocation. His motivation for such an experiment, while not inattentive to the Gospel call to “make disciples of all nations,” was different than that of the traditional missionary; he wished to foster an “Indianized” church and a contemplative renewal that drew from both Hinduism and Christianity. Learning about this religious ‘other’ was more than an aid to missions or even to his efforts to found a Christian ashram; it was, for Abhishiktananda, a spiritual quest. Nevertheless, not surprisingly, his initial reactions to Hinduism, both before and after his emigration, are ambiguous; he is both profoundly attracted and deeply skeptical. The previous essay suggested that this early response is characteristic of the first stages of immersion, the first steps in “passing over” to another religious point of view and the subsequent relativization of one’s own.
We concluded by drawing out some of the implications of the philosophers and of Abhishiktananda’s experiment for Hindu-Christian relations, both in India and here in the West. Abhishiktananda illustrates both the resilience of cultural and religious assumptions, beliefs, and commitments in shaping our experience of another religion, and the value of a method of immersion in the other’s point of view by means of interreligious relationships and mystical praxis.
In this second essay, we turn from a general discussion of perception to consider mis-perception. As the term suggests, psychologists and well as philosophers concur that we do not always (if ever) see things as they are. We will inquire why this is so and how it affects our interactions with other traditions, again using Abhishiktananda as the primary illustration. He will exemplify how changes in one’s current standpoint, demanded by the need to integrate new experience into a coherent worldview, necessitate reconsideration of one’s basic assumptions, beliefs, and commitments, including those relating to the religious ‘other’. First, however, it will be useful to examine a contemporary example of mutual misperception.
Teaching Hinduism in a Liberal Arts College
For the past seven years I have taught Hinduism either by itself or in the context of a world religions course in three American colleges and universities, each of which was founded by a Christian denomination. Not surprisingly, most of the students who enroll in such courses are Christian or have Christian roots. With this background, they, perhaps like most Americans, find Hinduism quite foreign. Especially puzzling is home and temple worship, portrayed for them in the Sackler Gallery of the Smithsonian’s 20-minute introduction, “Puja,” in a visit to a local Hindu center, and/or in Hindu visitors to class. Even those who grasp intellectually the relationship between the many gods and Brahman or Isvara find themselves personally uncomfortable or simply bewildered when confronted with actual Hindu worship. Nevertheless, students who make the effort to speak to the priest or participants almost always sense a devotion and openness that impresses them. Yet, such brief exposure cannot reduce significantly the feeling of foreignness.
This sense of the ‘other-ness’ of Hinduism for young Americans of Christian background is to be expected and is resistant to change. One handful of young men from my world religions class at an all-male liberal arts college in southern Virginia experienced this ‘other-ness’ not only because the celebration of puja grated against their assumptions, beliefs, and commitments, but also because of recent local and foreign events.
It was the Fall of 1999. Earlier in the year, the murder of an Australian missionary and his two young sons in Orissa had been reported worldwide, opening the eyes of many to the darker side of Hindu-Christian tensions there. In November, just as the class was commencing our section on Hinduism, Pope John Paul II visited India where he called for the new millenium to bring “a great harvest of faith” in Asia (Ecclesia in Asia). Also timed to connect with the celebration of Diwali, the International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Church had recently issued its controversial pamphlet, “Prayer for Hindus,” in which most of India is portrayed as “lost in the hopeless darkness of Hinduism.” We had discussed these sources and events in class to set the usual treatment of scriptures, beliefs, and practices in a contemporary context. In response, most students were either too embarrassed or too reticent in their Christian faith to state their agreement with the Pope and the Baptist pamphlet. A few expressed misgivings about the motives and methods of Christian missions in India.
To fulfill a requirement to visit one non-Christian setting during the semester, a handful of students ventured to the Hindu Center of Virginia in Richmond to witness the celebration of the Festival of Lights. (Appropriately, we were just finishing R.K. Narayan’s translation of the Ramayana.) In response to concerns about being outsiders in such settings, I have always reassured students that members of non-Christian religions in this country are almost always very grateful for the opportunity to teach visitors about their tradition and to dispel misconceptions. This visit, however, proved to be an exception.
According to the students, they were greeted and shown where to sit in the hall that functions as a temple. Soon, however, they heard one woman, apparently angered by their visit, loudly ask a temple official what they were doing there. Some worshippers looked at them with suspicion; most simply ignored them. Someone eventually confided that there had been a widespread rumor that Baptist fundamentalists, perhaps inspired by the pamphlet just quoted, were planning to come and disrupt the celebration of Diwali. You can imagine the students’ confusion and self-consciousness; but you can also empathize with the Hindus for whom the rumor was possibly true. When two policemen entered the hall, the students were not suprisingly anxious. After witnessing some chanting and talking to a few participants, they quietly left. (According to the priest whom I telephoned a few days later, policemen always come to celebrations to help control traffic! He also reassured me that students in the future would be most welcome–as I had always found myself to be at this center.)
I could not have asked for a clearer illustration of mutual misperception for the students as we then considered the Hindu view of the relationship between the religions. As five of them had just discovered, theoretical reflection on such questions may be useful, but direct encounters with the religious ‘other’ can be unpredictably challenging. Even after the priest’s comments had been shared with the class, some remained troubled by the experience. If nothing else, the students sensed firsthand not only the foreignness of Hinduism but also what it was like to be a religious ‘other’ in the eyes of a non-Christian. Here was an example of how difficult dialogue can be when encumbered by mutual suspicions and misconceptions, on top of the general differences between points of view that can lead to shared misperception.
How do may we make sense of our not seeing things as they are, of our frequent misperceiving of others, including adherents to faiths other than our own? For some conceptual guidance we turn, as in the previous article, to philosophers from India and the West.
Misperceiving the Religious ‘Other’
A naive conception of the perceptual process assumes that our senses transmit an accurate and complete image of the object that the mind then conceptualizes with equal reliability in the terms of thought and language. The task of Western epistemologies has, in large part, been to undercut this naivete and articulate an awareness of the subjective factors that shape perception and thus most types of knowledge. In his classic and influential Critique of Pure Reason, Immanuel Kant distinguishes between the phenomenon (how an object appears to us) and the noumenon or “thing-in-itself,” and argues that while we may know something about the object on the basis of the former, we can never know the latter: “It remains completely unknown to us what objects may be by themselves and apart from the receptivity of our senses. We know nothing but our manner of perceiving them, that manner being peculiar to us, and not necessarily shared in by every being, though, no doubt, by every human being” (New York: Macmillan [Anchor Books], 1966, p. 36). What humans share, he further observed, are certain a priori categories like space, time, and moral principle that we bring to all experience and thus are “transcendental.” Point of view is thus relativized to the human; we cannot know how other beings experience, but we can be assured of basic, unchanging similarities among humans.
Much Western philosophy (as well as psychology, sociology, and religious studies) after Kant has devoted itself to responding to the German philosopher’s epistemological program, elucidating the diverse and pervasive ways in which the subject participates in the processes of perceiving and knowing, and calling into question whether Kant’s a priori categories (especially moral principle) exist as a foundation. What remains as a stable basis for knowledge if the knower’s point of view is thereby further relativized and its objectivity called into question? Some rely upon revelation, construed as an extra-human source that is thereby not subject to the vagaries of the mind. Others, however, and some would argue Western culture in general, slip into a skepticism that undermines certainty coming from any source except perhaps science with its reassuring claims to control for subjective factors. As critics of modernity have noted, discovery of the relativity of each person’s viewpoint (none is absolute) has led some to strident fundamentalisms (not only religious) and others to an unconscious relativism (there is no absolute) that fosters the privatization of faith or no faith at all. One encounters both of these stances in American students, especially in larger universities. A third option involves charting a middle path or a both/and approach, consciously holding on to the authority of revealed truths, while acknowledging the relativity of any one person’s point of view upon them. Here community or tradition serves as the stabilizing force, the foundation for perceiving and knowing and the corrective for individual distortions (though the possibility of collective error may also be accepted).
What are the implications of the above analysis for how we understand misperception of the religious ‘other’? Members of other religions, as well as the religions themselves, remain, finally, mysteries that we inevitably reduce through the limitations of the perceptual process. In other words, we cannot help but misperceive the other, in the sense that our point of view upon that other is shaped by assumptions, beliefs, and commitments that for all but the naive and the fundamentalist cannot be universalized. For me to call another person a Hindu or myself a Christian is to collapse the intricate patterning that is an individual to a rough outline, violating mystery by identifying it with a concept or image. Misperception is, then, by this analysis an inevitable byproduct of our human limitations, corrected, but never fully, by consistently bringing these limitations and their consequences to mindful awareness or by submitting them to a religious authority or community.
If we turn again to the six systems of Indian philosophy in comparison to the West, we find both similarities and differences. As in Western philosophy, one finds in the six systems diverse analyses of the nature of error in perceiving and knowing. An oft-used illustration is the mis-taking of a particular type of shell for silver, both of which appear to glimmer in sunlight. While there is disagreement among the philosophers regarding the reality-status of the impression that silver is present, there is consensus that the apparent misperception corresponds to a confused synthesis of pre-existing concepts (shell-ness and silver-ness) that is then superimposed upon the actual perceived object. (Here as well is a possible explanation for the mutual misperception that occurred when my students visited the temple on Diwali.) Most of the systems also concur that, while there is a subjective element in such errors (e.g., defects in the perceptual process), the result is best understood not as wrong knowledge but as incomplete or partial knowledge–meaning that such conclusions (that it is silver I perceive) are good as long as they stand up to scrutiny but will eventually be proven false by further experience.
These general points about misperception or error are especially foundational to Advaita Vedanta with its analysis of maya, and to Yoga with its explanation of vritti or mental fluctuations. First, maya in the Bhagavad Gita is that divine power by which the Lord takes form and by which this phenomenal world endures. Yet this and other texts use the same term to denote the partial and thus flawed perception of this world as ultimately real or self-sufficient (cf. 4.6-8 and 7.14-15). Maya is either divine manifestation or obstructing veil, depending upon the purity of the perceiver. Thus maya is usually translated as ‘appearance’, or, with more negative coloring, ‘illusion’, in that for the spiritual aspirant this alluring maze of appearances is often the cause of not seeing the essential relation between this world and Brahman.
Here is the broader implication of Shankara’s famous rope-snake analogy (8th c. CE). In the dark forest path, what we misperceive as a snake we discover in the light of morning is a rope; in the path of life, what we mis-take as a world of diverse independent realities we realize in the light of true knowledge (jnana) is in fact one Reality, Brahman. The cause of such misperception according to this school is avidya or ignorance (or, a not-seeing) because of which we superimpose one reality upon another. Is the appearance we mistake for reality real? Shankara is very practical here. The misperception (the snake, an independent world of appearances) is real until such time as further knowledge (the rope, unity of Brahman) or vidya is gained. (I am indebted to colleague Balaji Hebbar for much in the above descriptions of the six systems.)
Patanjali’s Yoga (ca. 4th c. CE) presents a similar account of misperception but using terms closer to what we would call a spiritual psychology and based upon a dualistic system in contrast to Shankara’s philosophical and nondualistic approach. Patanjali begins his Yogasutras by defining yoga as a state of union (as opposed to a method) in which mental fluctuations are restrained (citta vritti nirodhah). If one remains in this state, one will know the Purusa (functionally equivalent to the Atman of Vedanta), one’s true Self underlying mind; if one does not remain here, one is likely to identify falsely with the everchanging modifications of mind. Here is the basis of misperception or what Patanjali calls viparyaya, translated usually as misapprehension or error, or as “the knowing of the unreal, possessing a form not its own” (quoted in A Sourcebook in Indian Philosophy, ed. S. Radhakrishnan and C.A. Moore [Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1957], p. 455). As a pond on a windy day distorts the surrounding countryside in its reflection, so the knower identified with mental fluctuations misperceives the world. As the same pond when the wind is still purely mirrors trees and sky, so the knower in whom mental fluctuations are silent perceives clearly both the Self and the world. How does one achieve this foundation for clear perception? Patanjali recommends practice and detachment, employing various psychophysiological methods (i.e., postures, breathing exercises, meditation), as well as moral restraints and observances that promote non-attachment to the objects we desire.
Both the Western and Indian philosophical accounts of misperception or error are based upon analysis of the perceiver or knower. Both attempt to heighten awareness of how subjective factors play a definitive role in the perceptual process and thereby yield a knowledge that is partial, even illusory. As discussed above, modern Western philosophy differs from both traditional Indian and Christian approaches, in its tendency toward an agnostic attitude concerning any firmer foundation for knowledge than the methods and standards of science. As S. Radhakrishnan argues, Indian philosophy has tended to sustain intellectual and existential connection to an unchanging Reality (Brahman or Isvara) and to the possiblity of knowing That (jnana) as the stable ground for all other knowledge.
The specific case of misperceiving the religious ‘other’ is thus explained by both worldviews as reflecting limitations or defects in the perceiver. Whether the philosopher focuses upon mental conditioning or mental fluctuations, he or she comes to a similar conclusion: How one perceives another religion and its members is based upon partial knowledge and so is not clear, objective, or absolute. As Indian philosophers have recognized, this partial knowledge is true and thus compelling for the knower as long as it lasts, that is, as long as further experience does not contradict such convictions.
It was, in part, to test his perception of Hinduism by broadening his knowledge of it that Abhishiktananda emigrated to India and then immersed himself within its traditions. However, he was also seeking the experiential basis for India’s claim that the relativity of an individual’s point of view on the religious ‘other’ or any other object of perception is ultimately grounded in an unchanging source, upon the existence of which as mystery both Christianity and Hinduism must agree, in spite of modern Western skepticism. Hence, he not only studied Advaita Vedanta with its teaching on maya through Ramana Maharshi and Swami Gnanananda, he also engaged in extensive meditation and practiced sannyasa to experience the restraint of mental fluctuations. Not surprisingly, these new experiences did indeed call into question some of his basic assumptions, beliefs, and commitments and caused a gradual shift of his point of view upon the religious ‘other’. He also illustrates, however, how resistant to change the viewpoint of even the most open-minded person can be.
Continuity and Change in Abhishiktananda’s Perception of Hinduism
In the previous article, we characterized the French priest’s early perception of Hinduism, both before and just after his arrival in India in 1948, as ambiguous. He was in awe of the spiritual riches of this tradition as well as critical of its inability to accept the necessity of faith in Christ for salvation. Nevertheless, particularly in the period between 1952 and 1956, he tested this early perception through in-depth encounters with Ramana Maharshi’s holy mountain, Arunachala; with Swami Gnanananda, a guru and strict advaitin; and with other Hindu sannyasis, philosophers, priests, and villagers. How did this early immersion in Hindu thought and practice affect his perception of Hinduism in relation to Christianity?
In a lengthy journal entry written in 1952 at the beginning of his first stay in a cave on Ramana’s Arunachala, Abhishiktananda attempted to express his complex views on the topics of conversion, his role as a Christian monk in India, and the relation of Hinduism and Christianity.
I would not be a genuine Christian, if I did not wish with all my heart for my people to receive the full enlightenment of the Gospel. But I have no desire for individual conversions….
My dream is to christianize my race. For me there is no question of using all kinds of methods to get hold of weaker or defenceless souls. It is a question of preparing for a Christian India, of preparing for it not by using various ways and means, but by myself being among the first fruits; by opening a path. Not just for the sake of opening it, but entering it without an ulterior motive, simply because I feel myself profoundly Christian and profoundly Hindu at the same time.
I dream of a Christian India because I think that then only will India find its spiritual fulfillment. Hinduism “will merge into Christianity” without losing the least of its positive values; there its contradictions will be resolved, its symbols will attain to truth, and perhaps they will even remain with a deeper meaning (quoted in R. Panikkar, ed., Ascent to the Depth of the Heart: The Spiritual Diary [1948-1973] of Swami Abhishiktananda [Dom H. Le Saux], trans. by D. Fleming and J. Stuart [Delhi: ISPCK, 1998], p. 28.)
Some key points are made here:
First, we find Abhishiktananda in agreement with Christians of all times in believing that the effort to convert non-Christians is an inescapable implication of Jesus’ teachings as recorded in the Gospels (e.g., Matthew, 9.35-38, 24.14, 28.18-20). It is equally clear that Abhishiktananda does not conclude from such teachings that he himself should be engaged in active missionary work to convert Hindus. His vocation or calling is different: to be “among the first fruits” of what God’s Spirit is sowing in India through Christianity and in Christianity through India. The above passage also implies a criticism of existing missionary methods for encouraging conversions. In particular, Abhishiktananda, like Gandhi and today’s Hindu critics of Christian missions in India, rejected the value of “mass initiations [baptisms]…which correspond to nothing deep in the souls of those intiated” (quoted in Panikkar, p. 63). Abhishiktananda’s method and motivation clearly distinguish him from most missionaries in the 1950s and perhaps from many Christian evangelists in India today.
Second, while he dreams that the human race will some day be “christianized,” after four years in India he identifies, as a result of his experiment in immersion, not only with Christianity but also with Hinduism. Just a year later he would ask the more radical question: “And what does it matter [to the Self] to be Christian, what does it matter to be Hindu? Is it not karma and circumstances that have placed each one in his way?” (quoted in Panikkar, p. 75; see also pp. 88-89). As one reads the spiritual diary he kept during these years, one is struck by the spiritual “agony” caused by his inability to reconcile definitively in language the conflict between the two religions, as if they were two sides of his own person.
Finally, in the passage quoted above, a “Christian India” does not entail a break with Hinduism but rather its fulfillment; Hindu values and symbols will remain, but as parts of a transformed Christianity. Thus his “dream” of a Christianized race is based in a distinction between an idealized future Christian community and the Church that he often criticizes in his writings, a “dream” whose realization is dependent upon Christianity’s renewal of its contemplative depths through dialogue with Hinduism. Illustrating how resilient one’s viewpoint often is, even in the face of new experience, near the end of this period of immersion Abhishiktananda was still capable of making assessments of Christianity and Hinduism that sound contradictory. In 1955, he states:
The Christian religion is, without question, the best religion and the basic religion. Because it is essentially a religion of charity and love. Love is the ground of being. Then, too, it is the only one that accepts humanity as a whole and makes love of one’s
fellows simply another aspect of the love of God (quoted in Panikkar, p. 104; see also p. 132).
As doctrinally or theologically accurate as such statements on the primacy of Christianity are for Abhishiktananda, he also knew they did not do justice to his experience both of Hindus such as Ramana Maharshi and Swami Gnanananda and of Hindu spirituality. In 1956, he could claim that Hinduism was “inspired” – an expression that disturbed his colleague Monchanin. The younger French priest’s elaboration upon this point is revealing:
It is in Hinduism that I have found this incredible increase of santi and ananda [peace and joy], which I never knew before, and to which the only obstacle is my psychological and sociological attachment to the Church….
But if one day the supreme advaitin experience takes place, then the question no longer arises. Until then I must remain in the Church (ibid., pp. 138-39; see also 87).
Abhishiktananda thus resolved to continue his vocation as a Catholic priest, even if the compelling commitment to pursue “Truth” through the paths of sannyasa and advaita bore him beyond dogmas and rites and thereby raised agonizing conflicts with this vocation as a Christian.
In response to the question of how these years of immersion affected his ambiguous perception of Hinduism, one may say that the tension between the two traditions was heightened but not resolved. What was an intellectual conflict before and just after his emigration now became an existential and spiritual crisis as well. His worldview as a European Catholic with all its dualisms (God/soul, human/nature, West/East) was in danger of disintegration the more deeply he experienced the nondualistic viewpoint of Advaita.
The intensity of the anguish gradually diminished over the next decade as he experienced “coming back” to his tradition after a demanding period of “passing over.” His response to the experiment in immersion is expressed in several books written in the following ten years, the most important and comprehensive of which was published in 1965 as Sagesse hindoue mystique chretienne: du Vedanta a la Trinite (lit. Wisdom Hindu Mystical Christian: From Vedanta to the Trinity). As the subtitle suggests, the gradual return to spiritual equilibrium that Abhishiktananda experienced was in part based upon a theological synthesis that he developed in his writings, informed by the theology of religions that was emerging out of the Catholic Church’s Second Vatican Council during the same years he wrote and edited this manuscript (1962-65). Abhishiktananda’s name for this synthesis or model was “a theology of fulfillment.”
In general, the theology of fulfillment fosters a perception of the religious ‘other’ (including Hinduism) as rich in its wisdom and spirituality but ultimately in need of the crowning gift of the Christian revelation. In the later English translation of Sagesse Abhishiktananda still expresses this theological model clearly:
From the point of view of Christian faith all the spiritual paths followed by men are integrated and fulfilled in Christ who is the Way. In the experience of Christ all spiritual experiences are taken up and transfigured; and in Christian worship all forms of cosmic worship [including Hindu] find their fulfillment (Saccidananda: A Christian Approach to Advaitic Experience [Delhi: ISPCK, 1974, 1984], p. 60).
As clearly as this fulfillment model is portrayed here, one must ask to what degree Abhishiktananda still identified with “the point of view of Christian faith,” given his frequent discussion of its limitations (cf. Panikkar, pp. 221, 259).
That Abhishiktananda would eventually question the validity of the perception of Hinduism underlying the 1965 edition of Sagesse is evinced in the changed title of the English edition revised and published in 1974 (A Christian Approach to Advaitic Experience), muting the fulfillment theology that nonetheless remains apparent in the revised text. (Compare the original introduction [ibid., pp. 223-28] with that of the revised edition [pp. xi-xv] in which he acknowledges the provisional quality of this model.) Clearly further experience and reflection had altered the worldview that underlay his perception of Hinduism in the 1965 edition–a point to which we shall return in the final article. (For a more thorough and scholarly chronological treatment of Abhishiktananda’s years in India, see Edward Theodore Ulrich’s unpublished dissertation, “Swami Abhishiktananda’s Interreligious Hermeneutics of the Upanishads,” Catholic University of America, 2001.)
We have suggested that the gradual development of Abhishiktananda’s perception of Hinduism from the time of his emigration through an intense period of immersion to his acceptance of a theology of fulfillment illustrates both change and continuity, i.e., both the ability to adapt one’s viewpoint to further experience of the religious ‘other’ and the resistance of one’s viewpoint to change in response to that experience. Abhishiktananda’s own later reconsideration of this theological model suggests as well that one may eventually come to recognize that one has misperceived the religious ‘other’ or at least inadequately imposed a theoretical model upon the realities of one’s experience. This self-critique is echoed in much stronger language by one of Abhishiktananda’s harshest critics, Sita Ram Goel.
Some of the passages from Abhishiktananda’s writings shared in this essay will likely have offended some Hindu readers by suggesting the superiority of Christianity and his “dream” of Christianity one day fulfilling Hinduism in a “Christian India.” It is such statements that have prompted Hindu critics like Goel, once Treasurer of the Abhishiktananda Society in Delhi, to conclude that his friend remained consciously or unconsciously deceitful in his motivations and his so-called contemplative agenda. A pernicious resonance could indeed be discerned between the French priest’s “dream” and the Christian program for assuming increased political power discussed in the preceding essay. (See Sita Ram Goel, History of Hindu-Christian Encounters [AD 304 to 1996], 2nd ed., [New Delhi: Voice of India, 1996]; and idem, Catholic Ashrams: Sannyasins or Swindlers?, 2nd ed., [New Delhi: Voice of India, 1994].)
Underlying Goel’s criticisms is the conviction that Abhishiktananda, like Christianity as a whole, has misperceived and thus misrepresented Hinduism due to pre-existing Christian assumptions, beliefs, and commitments that are highly resistant to alteration. Goel’s response suggests the validity of an oft-cited criterion for successful interreligious dialogue, that the religious ‘other’ be able to recognize him/herself in our interpretation of his/her tradition (Raimundo Panikkar, The Intrareligious Dialogue [New York: Paulist Press, 1978], p. 30). Of course, one might ask in response whether Goel’s own viewpoint has skewed his perception of Abhishiktananda, especially in light of later changes in the French priest’s writings on Hinduism to be discussed in the next essay that Goel apparently dismissed. Nevertheless, the language of Goel’s critique offers a relevant conclusion to our reflections upon continuity and change in Abhishiktananda’s point of view upon one religious ‘other’:
His obstinate obsession with Jesus and the Church prevented him from breaking the barrier [to a more accurate understanding of Advaita and thus of Hinduism]…. He remained chained to the Church to the end of his days. He never learnt the elementary truth that Advaita must remain a mere word for those who refuse to rise above their mental fixations (Catholic Ashrams, p. 64).
Given Abhishiktananda’s sincerity in attempting to grasp the essence of the Hindu tradition, one that has been praised by other Hindus, the imagery in Goel’s criticisms implies a highly pessimistic attitude toward whether it is possible to set aside one’s own conditioning in order to see the religious ‘other’ clearly. It is to this difficult question that we shall turn in the final essay of this series.
–save last sentence and quote and commentary for next article?
This merging, however, ultimately points beyond itself to a deeper mystery that is perhaps beyond even the common contemplative ground he suggested in his earlier writings:
So there is no question, in my life any more than in my dream, of an impossible reconciliation of contradictory elements [within Christianity and Hinduism], or of a mystical transcendence of these divergent elements. The reality is much deeper and more beautiful (quoted in Panikkar, p. 28).
Is he pointing beyond a dichotomous relationship between Hinduism and Christianity and toward a Christianity that somehow integrates rather than reduces the differences between them? More radically, is he stretching beyond religion here, even beyond the model of religions being diversified at the surface and unified at their depth? We will explore this perception further in the next article.
–key quote from ADH 88 would fit here
use ADH 89 on “I remain Chr. so long….” here or in later article, deals with two levels of
more to be done with mystical praxis as prompting a re-visioning of the other
cite Goel’s skepticism about A undergoing significant change: mutual misperception?
–save the following paragraphs for next article or scholarly article
An important early catalyst in Abhishiktananda’s interreligious encounter with Hinduism was Ramana Maharshi (1879-1950) and his ashram community at Tiruvannamalai. Sometimes with Monchanin, more often by himself, he visited the ashram frequently, especially between 1949 and 1955. While he saw Ramana only twice before the latter’s death, Abhishiktananda continued to experience a profound attraction to the sacred mountain upon which the ashram was built, spending weeks at a time in caves in different degrees of solitude, often observing silence. (See Abhishiktananda, The Secret of Arunachala: A Christian Hermit on Shiva’s Holy Mountain [Delhi: ISPCK, 1979]). That Ramana Maharshi and his holy mountain were significant early influences upon Abhishiktananda is revealing. As a sannyasi, Ramana lived largely outside the world of Hindu ritual and temple worship. As an advaitin, he primarily taught the path of jnana rather than bhakti and emphasized a non-dual awakening to the Self.
The extent to which Abhishiktananda was influenced by Ramana’s teachings, and their impact upon his early perception of Hinduism and religion in general, are apparent in the following excerpt from a 1953 letter:
Last year I wanted to enter the Hindu temple…but this year I have the impression that I have interiorly transcended Hinduism itself, like a true Hindu sannyasi who little by little would be set free from his need for externals. It is not because I am a Christian that I have lost interest in the outward aspect of Hinduism…but as being “the guest of the Within,” as having penetrated within (quoted in Stuart, 70).
This shift in his attitudes toward Hinduism corresponds to a similar movement in his attitudes toward the ritual practices of Christianity – a tension that endures and is informed by his encounter with Hinduism. This attraction to going beyond religion as ritual, whether Hinduism or Christianity, remains an enduring theme in his vocation as a sannyasi, exemplified for him by Ramana Maharshi and advaitin philosophy, even while he simultaneously wrestled with and ultimately held onto his vocation as a Christian priest. – does this quote follow directly enough? is the flow of the next paragr. a more direct step? is there repetition here to be cut out?
And what does it matter to be Christian, what does it matter to be Hindu? Is it not karma and circumstances that have placed each one in his way? Faiths and ways of worship concern the mind [manas] and the body: a mind to think God, a tongue to sing of him, a body to adore him. As the Shaivite catechism says so marvellously (quoted in Panikkar, p. 75; see also pp. 88-89).
These quotations disclose a way to resolve Abhishiktananda’s apparent conflict in his perception of these two religions and religion in general.
First, Abhishiktananda perceives religion as a matter of externals (ritual, symbols, doctrines) which the sannyasi (whether raised as Christian or Hindu) eventually transcends, at least interiorly. He also recognizes that one’s religion is a result of “karma and circumstances,” suggesting that such commitments are rarely the result of conscious interreligious deliberation. Nevertheless, he further suggests that because humans are comprised of body and mind, we need the externals and the commitments to particular traditions to relate ourselves to God, as well as the ideal of sannyasa that prompts the spirit (of admittedly only a few) to reach beyond toward union with God.
Thus, one way to make sense of Abhishiktananda’s ambiguous perception of Hinduism is to distinguish these different perspectives. From the human point of view (body and mind), the two traditions remain distinct; and even though he identifies himself as both Christian and Hindu, he nonetheless affirms in his early writings the superiority of Christianity. Would not most Hindus make a similar claim on the basis of both rational explanation and love for their traditions? – next sentence is key; too much for one? From the point of view of his initial experiences of advaita, particularly at Arunachala, his spirit is pointing him to a level of realization where all externals and commitments are relativized – as though there is a state of consciousness in which the normal machinery of perception is changed, disclosing a different level of unity that, once expressed, conflicts with the conclusions of reason and doctrine derived from conventional perception (cf. Panikkar, p. 89). – connect to two types of knowledge in Hinduism: its influence here? that is, conventional kndg and jnana
This theory of different levels of experience will be explored further in the next article in the context of an analysis of misperception.