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Michael Amaladoss SJ

Jesuits in Inter-religious Dialogue in India

 

From:Stimmen der Zeit, special 2 - 2006, P. 57-67

 

The Jesuit involvement in inter-religious dialogue in India goes back to the 16th century. At the request of the Moghul emperor Akbar two Jesuits went from Goa to Agra to take part in the inter-religious conversations animated by him (1579-1580). Their presence in the Moghul court is witnessed to in a number of miniature paintings of the time {1}. Roberto de Nobili, who arrived in Madurai in 1606, was positive to Indian culture, but negative to Indian religion. But he did not simply reject it and ignore it. He argued with the Hindus and sought to show rationally that they were wrong. This means that he took them seriously and 'dialogued' with them, though polemically.

The next serious involvement starts in early 20th century. A group of young Belgian Jesuits in Bengal acknowledged what was good in Hinduism and saw it as a preparation for the Gospel. They saw Christianity as a fulfilment of Hinduism. They launched a journal The Light of the East. Pierre Johanns (1882-1955) wrote a series of booklets with the title To Christ Through the Vedanta, showing how the philosophies of the Vedanta find their accomplishment in the Christian philosophy of Thomas Aquinas {2}. They were certainly inspired by Brahmabandab Upadyaya (1861-1907) who was a convert from Hinduism, but called himself a Hindu-Christian and Hindus like Keshub Chandra Sen (1838-1884) who considered Jesus as their guru, though they did not like the Church as an institution. Hindu culture and religion were learnt seriously and comparative studies were undertaken by such pioneers like Julien Bayart, Henri De Smet, and Josef Neuner (1908-) {3}. A special supplement to The Clergy Monthly (edited by the Jesuits) was started to publish such studies. It was later integrated into the main journal, which itself was rechristened later in 1974 as Vidyajyoti Journal of Theological Reflection. The broad paradigm that oriented them was the "preparation-fulfilment" one, which included a positive appreciation of Hinduism. Their approach to Hinduism was not only academic, but also personal.

 


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Pierre Fallon and Robert Antoine in Kolkatha and Guy Deleury and Matthew Lederle in Pune mastered Sanskrit and other local languages, lived among the Hindus and dialogued with them in various ways. Some Jesuit scholars banded together and launched a correspondence course as an initiation to Hinduism. These lessons were later collected into a book {4}.

The Second Vatican Council only confirmed and encouraged this orientation. It is significant that one of these pioneers, Josef Neuner, was in the committee that drafted the Document on Other Religions: Nostra Aetate. A serious interest in Hinduism continued and many young Jesuits undertook to study its philosophy/theology and spirituality. Let me now focus on what the Jesuits have been and are doing in this field after the Second Vatican Council. Given the great number of people involved in it today I shall speak more about the different types of dialogue than people, mentioning names only where it is necessary. The documents of the Church speak about four types of dialogue: of life, of action, of intellectual exchange and of experience. To these I would add three more: intra-personal dialogue, dialogue as reconciliation and theological reflection to prepare and support dialogue. We could use this framework to group the various activities of the Jesuits in the field of inter-religious dialogue. Under contemporary conditions dialogue would include not merely religions, but also secular ideologies {5}.

 

The Dialogue of Life

The Jesuits in India have had a strong presence in the field of education. This continues and grows. Given the demographic conditions of India most of the students in these institutions and some of the teachers are members of other religions. Unlike the Protestant institutions where every one was obliged to study the Bible, the Jesuit (Catholic) institutions respected the religions of the others. They were taught "Moral Instruction", while the Catholics were instructed in their faith. Many of the students looked on and respected the Jesuits as their "gurus". The Jesuits too had a good knowledge of their religious beliefs and practice. There were no attempts to proselytize. An experienced missionary once told me that if a few educated Hindus did become Christian, it was never a direct passage from Hinduism to Christianity. The Hindu often lost his/her faith due to rationalism, then rediscovered faith in Christianity. It was indeed a dialogue of life.

 


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In the 1980s the Jesuit Educational Association of India had organized a series of regional consultations leading to a national one, also involving other Catholic educators, to explore the theme: Educating in the Faith {6}. There was a consensus that an integral education also included religious education; that for the young people it can only be in their own religion; that we are responsible to educate our students in their own faith (religion). A distinction was made between faith as commitment, celebration and reflection. The responsibility of the school concerned only faith as reflection, leaving commitment and celebration to the concerned religious community. I do not think that any Jesuit institution has tried to implement this orientation systematically. But passages and prayers from the scriptures of other religions are regularly used during the common morning prayer. All the students are also introduced to the doctrines and practices of all the religions as part of their educational programme. Special text books in English and Indian languages have also been prepared for this purpose {7}.

 

The Dialogue of Action

The Jesuits are involved in social and liberative action with many social centres and projects. Much of the activity in this area is inter-religious. The Jesuits seek the collaboration, not only of people of all faiths, but also of secular groups. The beneficiaries of their action also belong to different religions. As a matter of fact, religion is not a prominent element in their programmes. On the contrary one can say that they tend to be critical of all religions for their tendency to legitimize and support unequal and unjust social practices like the caste system and the oppression of women. At the same time, efforts have also been made to highlight the liberation potential of other 'world' and popular religions.

Recent examples could be given. When Tsunami struck the Indian coast, the Jesuit involvement in relief and rehabilitation in one area - Nagapattinam district - was under the banner of a secular (multi-religious-ideological) NGO, actually animated by the Jesuits. Volunteers of all religions were involved in it. The same NGO has also been leading delegates to the World Social Forum in Mumbai (2004) and Porto Alegre (2005). At the level of reflection and discussion, the Indian Social Institute, New Delhi is collaborating with many governmental and non-governmental organizations as a consultant. Similarly the Indian Social Institute in Bangalore welcomes to its training programmes social activists of all religions and ideologies.

 


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The Jesuits in the tribal areas of Bihar and Madhya Pradesh are involved in movements to protect the tribal lands and their ecological wholeness. These movements include all tribes, transcending religious identities. A similar fellowship can also be noticed when Dalits of different religions join together to struggle for their liberation, at least in the South India.

 

The Dialogue of Intellectual Exchange

Jesuits have taken up the study of Hinduism and Islam, not merely out of an academic interest, but with the aim of reaching out to them. The orientation, however, has been varying. Roberto de Nobili, for instance, studied Hinduism to show the Hindus why it is wrong. In the early part of the 20th century the interest was much more comparative. There was a certain appreciation of Hinduism. But there was an underlying desire to show that Hinduism will find fulfilment in Christianity. A good knowledge of Hinduism was also considered necessary to proclaim the gospel meaningfully to the Hindus. The mood however changes around the time of the Second Vatican Council. Hinduism is then appreciated for its own sake, though it is always set in dialogue with Christianity. But the dialogue is much more equal and mutual, with great respect for each other.

In this field of intellectual exchange, apart from individual efforts, we have now three centres that promote the study of different religions. In Pune we have an Institute for the Study of Religion, animated by Fr. Francis D'Sa {8}. He has been focusing particularly on the study of the Vedas and the Bhagavad Gita. In Chennai, Satya Nilayam, the Jesuit Philosophate has a research institute recognized by the University of Madras. It has promoted seminars and publications on Inter-cultural philosophy. It publishes also the Hindu-Christian Studies Bulletin, carries scholarly articles both by Hindus and Christians. This is done in collaboration with an association of scholars in the United States of America. Fr. Anand Amaladass is animating this centre now {9}. The third centre is the Institute of Dialogue with Cultures and Religions, started four years ago, also in Chennai. It is also affiliated to the University of Madras and offers a doctoral programme in inter-cultural and inter-religious studies. The first seven PhD students have been admitted this year. This Institute also has its own research projects. Just now it is engaged in a three-year research on Religions and Violence. It is focused on a South Indian city called Coimbatore where there had been Hindu-Muslim conflicts in 1998. It has been collecting data through interviews and reports.

 


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Its aim is to find out the reasons for the conflict and search for ways to promote reconciliation and peace. This will be done through collective inter-religious reflection in seminars. This Institute also organizes inter-religious seminars for the students and the general public in collaboration with other similar organizations of other religions {10}.

I should perhaps mention in passing that even an academic interest in Hinduism is looked on with suspicion and hostility by Hindu fundamentalist groups. At the moment they are focusing on American and European scholars. Any one who is interested in the study of Hinduism, who is not a Hindu, is suspected of wanting to denigrate Hinduism and to spread Christianity, even if the scholar in question is not a Christian or does not believe in Christianity. This is a very recent phenomenon, still largely confined to web sites. These people are not open to dialogue at all at any level. This shows that dialogue is not an easy thing to do these days. There is a lot of suspicion of motives in the air. There was a time when Indians would be flattered that foreigners were interested in studying their religion. They were even more ready to dialogue with foreign scholars of Hinduism than with Indian Christian students of Hinduism. But the situation is subtly changing and the suspicion of fundamentalist groups is becoming more general.

Dialogue is often limited to the representatives of the World Religions like Hinduism and Islam. But these religions have a popular side. The poor and the Tribals practice various cosmic religions, though they may be classified officially as Hindu. Struggling for their economic and social liberation these groups today project their identity as non-Hindu and rediscover their cosmic religions, subordinated in various ways in the past. Some of the Jesuits who are working with these groups have engaged in the study of these religions and have highlighted their liberative potentials.

Efforts have also been made to focus on dialogue with the Muslims. India has the third largest group of Muslims in the world with about 125 millions of them. Fr. Christian Troll has established a special Department of Islamic Studies at Vidyajyoti College of Theology in Delhi. It has a good library. He also founded The Islamic Studies Association {11}. There are a few Jesuits - 3 or 4 - who are interested in this dialogue with the Muslims. These seem open to dialogue with Christians on the platform of minorities in a largely Hindu country (80%). But it is not making much progress.

 


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Dialogue of Experience

One common expression of the dialogue of spiritual experience is praying together. This has been happening in India for many years. In October 1986, when John Paul II invited the leaders of other religions to come to Assisi and pray for world peace>, it was explained very carefully that they were coming together to pray, not to pray together. The Indians have no such inhibitions. Of course, it is not the question of participating in the official ritual of another religion. For instance, Christians have no problem in sitting in meditation concentrating on one's breathing, following the methods of Buddhist Zen or Vipassana. Similarly, Yoga is now increasingly recognized as a psycho-physical method of relaxation and concentration that can be used by any religion. Some yogic masters claim that it is natural and non-religious. People of different religions have no problem either in being present respectfully when one particular religious group is praying. Hindus and Christians also find it easy to pray when the attention is focused on God as such and not on any particular religious manifestation like Jesus or Krishna. Passages from the wisdom tradition of the Scriptures like the Upanishads or the teaching of Jesus, avoiding 'historical' references are more easily shared. The living together of multi-religious groups for two or three days has been promoted in India and many Jesuits have organized them or participated in them.

Ashrams are places where such inter-religious, intellectual and spiritual encounters are taken for granted. There have been some Jesuits who have spent some time in Hindu or Buddhist ashrams. In recent years there have been four Jesuit ashrams. One of them closed down when the animator (guru) passed away after about 25 years. Another ashram is in suspended animation while the animator is looking for one or two Jesuit companions. A third is still alive and active in Kaladi, Kerala with Fr. Sebastian Painadath leading it {12}. The fourth is Bodhi Zendo, a Zen centre, in the Kodaikanal hills, with Fr. Ama Samy, who is probably the only authorized Zen master in the whole of India. Most of the Indians who come to the Zendo are members of other religions {13}.

 

Dialogue Groups

Jesuits of different parts of India have organized groups of dialogue that meet on a regular basis. These are often active as long as the Jesuits who organize them are alive. Such groups have been active at various times in Kolkata, Tiruchirapalli, Varanasi, Mumbai, Pune, Bangalore, Kanyakumari and Chennai. Some are still active. The ones in Bangalore and Chennai have been going on for over 25 years. At a typical meeting, people of different religions come together to explore a particular theme.

 


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One or more people offer a brief exposition or reflection followed by a general sharing of ideas and reflections. Some times they may pray together or celebrate together the important festivals of different religions. The group in Bangalore goes on a pilgrimage to different religious shrines once a year. Some groups also meet occasionally for a day or two to live together, praying and sharing. The focus of the discussions can be spirituality, theology or some current issue of public interest. The group in Bangalore has started this year a series of meetings on the mystics of different religions, the first one on the list being Meister Echkart. Such groups combine intellectual and experiential dialogue, the one nourishing and deepening the other.

In the North of India, in the Tribal belt, a small group of Jesuits are engaged in proclaiming the gospel in a dialogical way. The life and teaching of Jesus are conveyed in musical discourses. People are encouraged to become devotees and follower of Jesus. Sociologically they are allowed to remain as they are. Leading this movement is a 'foreign missionary'. There is a similar movement in Varanasi, animated by a small group that belongs to the Indian Missionary Society. These movements are worth watching and may reinvent inter-religious dialogue in new ways.

 

Intra-personal Dialogue

There are however many Jesuits who are searching for an Indian (Hindu) Christian spirituality. While not running an ashram, they are integrating elements of yoga like breathing, posture and meditation and other aids to concentration like music, the prayer of the Name, etc. Many Jesuits have also followed sessions of Vipassana, which is a Buddhist system of concentration, belonging to the Hinayana tradition. (Zen belongs to the Mahayana tradition.) Anthony de Mello is internationally known among these {14}. He was helping Christians, mostly priests and sisters. But he had integrated many points of Asian wisdom through the use of their stories and methods of prayer. He did not run a formal ashram. But he was certainly considered a guru by many of those who profited by his spiritual inspiration and guidance.

Some years ago there was an international seminar in Bruxelles on multiple religious belonging {15}. Many people claimed to be Hindu-Christians and Buddhist-Christians. Perhaps, multiple-religious belonging is not the appropriate term. There was no one there who belonged simultaneously to two religious traditions sociologically and culturally.

 


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Each one was rooted in one religion - Christianity. But they felt free to adopt the spiritual practices of another religion. It is one thing for a Christian to use some breathing and meditation techniques that s/he has borrowed from Yoga or Zen. It is another to practice Zen or Yoga seriously under a Zen or Yoga master, taking seriously much of the theological perspectives that underlie such practice.

I can name a few such Hindu-Christian Jesuits in India in recent years. When we speak about dialogue, we think of reaching out to a believer of another religion. Actually we are dialoguing, not with another religion but with another person belonging to another religion. But an Indian Christian, long taught to look on Hinduism as evil, false and devilish, may discover through experience that it has many good theological and spiritual elements. S/he may also discover that Hinduism is not simply the religion of an-other, but the religion of one's own ancestors. Through society, culture and language one is still influenced by it in various ways. One may like to integrate it in some harmonious way, remaining loyal to one's two-fold roots, namely Hindu and Christian. One feels that one is Hindu-Christian. People who are able to carry on such an intra-personal dialogue are also the best in inter-personal dialogue.

 

Dialogue of Reconciliation

Talk about inter-religious religious dialogue had its origin and development in the context of mission. Dialogue itself was seen as something one does where the direct proclamation of the gospel is not possible. One also hoped that dialogue will be a preparation or eventual proclamation. But for people who are living in multi-religious societies like India people who belong to different religions have to live together as one socio-political community, respecting the religious freedom of each other. This was insisted on by the document on Religious Liberty (Dignitatis Humanae) of the Second Vatican Council. Such living together already supposes some mutual knowledge, understanding and respect.

But violence between religious communities seems to be increasing in recent decades. Religious persecutions, crusades and jihads were not unknown in history. Religious fundamentalism and communalism were existing in various forms always. But inter-religious violence is becoming both a local and a global phenomenon today. Thanks to large-scale migrations, societies are becoming multi-religious every where. The media of communications make inter-religious confrontations quickly global. Recently, when some Danish cartoonists offended Muslim sensibilities Christian churches were attacked in Pakistan and Nigeria. Muslims organized large scale demonstrations against the American president Bush

 


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because of his policies in the Middle East, particularly Iraq. Attack against a Muslim mosque in the north of India triggered Muslim riots and Hindu reprisals in many parts of India. In such tense situations a few people of good will belonging to all religions can come together to speak of peace. But even in such a group people cannot and will not ignore the causes of the violence and the personal and social damages and hurts that the violence has produced. Dialogue then has to start as conflict resolution, healing of memories and reconciliation between different religious groups.

Christians in India used to stand apart when Hindus and Muslims were fighting. In recent they have been involved in the defence of basic human rights. The approach has been the same when Hindu fundamental groups began targeting Christians. Today we are becoming slowly aware of promoting dialogue as conflict resolution and peace making. As a matter of fact the other kinds of dialogue are not possible in a situation of conflict, except in some symbolic manner. As far as the Jesuits are concerned, the Institute of Dialogue with Cultures and Religions at Chennai is starting to focus on conflict resolution and promoting harmony in situations of inter-religious violence, based on field surveys.

 

Theological Reflection

Two sorts of theological reflection have been triggered by the activity of inter-religious dialogue. First of all, there has been a development in the theology of religions and dialogue in relation to the mission of the Church. Secondly, the dialogue with other religions, particularly Hinduism, has given rise to a contextual method leading to Indian Christian theology.

As I had said earlier, the paradigm of 'preparation - fulfilment' has been present in India much before the Second Vatican Council. The Council encouraged and supported this attitude to the other religions. However, living contact with the members of other religions, serious in their commitment and practice, leads to an appreciation of other religions. This leads to a growing conviction that God's saving grace reaches out to the believers of other religions, not only in spite of them, but in and through them. The others are then seen as co-pilgrims towards God and God's Kingdom. Karl Rahner affirmed this a priori in his usual way. The Indian theologians explain it a posteriori. This leads the Indian theologians to suggest that the Scriptures of other religions may be inspired by God in an analogical manner and that they can be used in our prayer and liturgy. Jesuit theologians took a leading part in these deliberations. Dialogue is no longer seen merely a preparation for proclamation,

 


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but as having a value in itself. Theologians now speak in terms of collaboration in the defence and promotion of common human and spiritual values in a multi-religious society. Dialogue between religions can be mutual challenge. The goal of mission then becomes wider and is specified as two-fold: the building up of the Kingdom of God and of the Church as its symbol and servant. Such an approach to mission has consequences on how one looks at other issues like the role of the Church in salvation, the uniqueness of Christ as Saviour, the action of the Spirit of God in the world and in the human beings and its articulation with the action of Jesus Christ. These questions are being actively discussed today in theological circles in India, Asia and the world {16}. The Jesuits from India certainly played an important role in the preparation of the document on inter-religious dialogue of the 34th General Congregation of the Society of Jesus. Jesuit liberation theologians have also suggested the formation of Basic Human (multi-religious) Communities, side by side with Basic Christian Communities, to engage in the struggle for liberation.

 

Contextual Theology

Theology is a reflection on our faith in the context of our living experience. Faith itself is a response to God speaking to us and calling us. If God has spoken also to our ancestors, in whatever limited ways, our response to God cannot ignore this. Theological reflection then becomes dialogical and inter-religious. In the past, the philosophico-theological perspectives of other religions were introduced as oppositions in contrast to which we clarified out own faith. Today the relationship is one of dialogue. There is a conviction that just as Christian theology has grown in dialogue with various cultures and religions in Europe, it can grow today in dialogue with the cultures and religions of India (Asia). Every treatise in theology is being touched and transformed by this approach, though the fruits are not yet systematized as such {17}.

About 25 years ago, the Jesuits decided to regionalize theological formation in the pursuit of inculturation. A serious attempt is being made to reflect on one's Christian faith in particular contexts, which are many in a big sub-continent like India, and as far as possible in the local language, rather than in English. Such contextual reflection has to take into account, not only the cultures, but also the religions of India at all levels. At the moment the dialogue seems to be more with the popular religions since the people we relate to in preference are the poor and the marginalized like the Dalits and Tribals. The fruits of such dialogue and reflection are once again slowly emerging. Some more time may be needed for them to mature.

 


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Conclusion

At a structural level, each one of the Society's 17 provinces and one region in India has a coordinator for inter-religious dialogue. They are animated by a national secretary. Regional and national meetings are held periodically for reflection, planning and animation. The coordinators are more or less active according to their abilities and circumstances. Of course the Jesuits are not alone in the field. They work with many other religious Congregations and the Laity. For example, while the Jesuits have two 'ashrams', there are more than sixty of them in India, big and small, with an association of their own. For the Jesuits in India dialogue has become a way of life. They are not agitated by theological questions like Jesuits elsewhere, though practical problems abound in a situation of increasing religious fundamentalism and violence, especially in some regions of India like Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh. Though India has a millennial tradition of religious tolerance, today our dialogue partners tend to be sensitive and aggressive. A global awareness in a post-colonial world is responsible for this. But the Jesuits with their educational and social institutions and their deep involvement in theological reflection and spirituality are trying to meet the contemporary challenges of inter-religious dialogue creatively.

Michael Amaladoss, S.J.,
Institute of Dialogue with Cultures and Religions,
Loyola College, Chennai - 600 034, India

 

NOTES

{1} Cf. John Correia-Afonso, Letters from the Mughal Court. Anand: Gujarat Sahitya Prakash, 1980.

{2} Cf. P. Johanns, To Christ through the Vedanta. 2 vols. Bangalore: United Theological College, 1996.

{3} The doctoral thesis of Josef Neuner was titled: "The Meaning of Sacrifice in the Bhagavad Gita and in Christian Faith."

{4} Cf. J. Neuner and J. Dupuis (eds), Religious Hinduism. 4th Edition. Mumbai: St. Paul's, 1996.

{5} Cf. Michael Amaladoss, Walking Together. The Practice of Inter-religious Dialogue. Anand: Gujarat Sahitya Prakash, 1992.

{6} Gregory Naik (ed), An Agonizing Faith. Delhi: JEA, 1989.

{7} E.g. Vincent Sekhar, S.J., Religions in Public Life. Bangalore: Claretian, 2004.

{8} Cf. Francis D'Sa, Gott, der Dreieine und der All-Ganze: Vorwort zur Begegnung zwishen Christentum und Hinduismus. Düsseldorf: Patmos, 1987.

{9} Cf. Anand Amaladass (ed), Christian Contribution to Indian Philosophy. Chennai: Christian Literature Society, 1995.

{10} Cf. One of its publications: Michael Amaladoss, Making Harmony. Living in a Pluralist World. Chennai: IDCR, 2003.

{11} Cf. Christian Troll (ed), Islam in India. New Delhi: Vikas, 1982.

{12} Cf. S. Painadath, We are Co-Pilgrims. Delhi: ISPCK, 2005.

{13} Cf. Ama Samy, Zen. Awakening to Your Original Face. Chennai: Cre-A, 2005.

{14} Cf. Anthony De Mello, The Song of the Bird. Anand: Gujarat Sahitya Prakash, 1982.

{15} Cf. Dennis Gira and Jacques Scheuer (eds), Vivre de plusieurs religions. Promesse ou illusion? Paris: L' Atelier, 2000.

{16} Cf. Michael Amaladoss, Making All Things New. Mission in Dialogue. Anand: Gujarat Sahitya Prakash, 1990; Jacques Dupuis, Towards a Christian Theology of Religious Pluralism. Anand: Gujarat Sahitya Prakash, 2001. Dupuis spent 35 years of his life in India and his experience marks his writing.

{17} Some examples: George Soares-Prabhu, Biblical Themes for a Contextual Theology Today. Collected Writings. Vol 1. Pune: Jnana Deepa Vidyapeeth, 1999; Samuel Rayan, Renew the Face of the Earth. Delhi: Media House, 1998; Sebastian Kappen, Jesus and Cultural Revolution: An Asian Perspective. Mumbai: BUILD, 1983; Michael Amaladoss, The Asian Jesus. Chennai: IDCR, 2005.

 

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