The Hindu-Christian Encounter: Challenge and Promise

Resources »Eapr »East Asian Pastoral Review 2007 »Volume 44 2007 Number 2 »The Hindu Christian Encounter Challenge And Promise

Michael Amaladoss, S.J.

Michael Amaladoss SJ is Director of the Institute of Dialogue with Cultures and Religions, Chennai. He also lectures at Vidyajyoti College of Theology, Delhi, India. A well-known international speaker and writer, he writes extensively on issues of mission, liturgy and inculturation, interreligious cooperation, contemplation and liberation. A former editor of Vidyajyoti, he has also been Consultor to the Pontifical Council for Inter-Religious Dialogue, Rome. He has been a visiting professor for many years at the East Asian Pastoral Institute, Manila, Philippines

The encounter between religions in the world today is conflictual rather than dialogical. Religions are not the main reasons or sources of the conflicts. But they are very much part of it. Interreligious dialogue, therefore, has become very much a challenge. We seem to be entering a new era and we have to discover a new way of dialogue. This concerns both our understanding of what dialogue is, our reasons for it, and the conditions of dialogue. This is especially true of the Hindu-Christian encounter in India.

There must be about a billion Hindus around the world. About 800 million of them live in India. Given this fact and my own background, I shall center my reflections around my Indian experience. We cannot grasp the newness of the situation fully without some understanding of the history that has brought it about. So, we shall have a brief look at the history of Hindu-Christian encounter before we go on to explore its challenge and promise today.

The Beginnings

Though Christianity in India dates back to the time of St. Thomas the Apostle, the Christian community must have lived apart at the religious level without much interaction with the Hindus. The real encounter began with the coming of the Portuguese. It was limited to the western and southern coasts and primarily negative. The converts, except in Goa, were mostly fisher people and they were made to become Portuguese, both culturally and religiously.

The first person who changed this approach was Roberto de Nobili. He asserted the principle that one could become a Christian without ceasing to be Indian culturally. But his positive approach to Indian culture did not extend to Hindu religion. He was very polemical against Hindu polytheism. But his criticism was based upon his reading of Hindu texts in Sanskrit and Tamil as well as his own observation and interpretation of Hindu practice.

The Colonial Period

The next stage in Hindu-Christian encounter was the British colonial period. Christian missionaries now had access to Hindus who spoke English. The Hindus looked on Christianity as the religion of their colonial masters. Colonialism, therefore, determined the context of the encounter.

We can speak of three stages in the encounter from the Hindu point of view. In the first stage Ram Mohun Roy was inspired by Christianity to try to reform Hinduism. He was critical of polytheism and superstitious practices like sati. In Christianity, he favored Unitarianism and opposed those who believed in the Trinity. At a second stage we had Keshub Chandra Sen who was very positive towards Jesus and who promoted an emotional attachment to him in the Hindu Bhakti tradition. But he interpreted Jesus from the Hindu point of view as being the best of the Avatars. Swami Vivekananda marked the third stage. He affirmed that all religions are different ways to God. At the same time he affirmed the superiority of Hindu religion and spirituality compared to the materialistic attitudes of the colonizers. He saw the Hindu advaita as the highpoint of human religious quest. This attitude of religious and spiritual superiority in the context of an openness to other religions was later reaffirmed by the philosopher-president Radhakrishnan, even after India became independent. He saw in the advaita the essence of religion itself. We can describe this attitude as one of inclusive tolerance.

Corresponding to this development on the Hindu side, we see a progressive opening up on the Christian side. A deeper study of the philosophical and devotional texts of Hinduism led the Christians to have a more positive view of Hinduism. But within their own framework they saw Christianity as the fulfillment of Hinduism. Father Johanns, a Belgian Jesuit, wrote a series of booklets with the significant title To Christ through the Vedanta. Farquahar, a British missionary, wrote a book showing Christianity as the "Crown of Hinduism." Indian Christians like Chenchiah, Chakkarai, and Appasamy sought to understand Jesus from a Hindu perspective as Guru, Avatar, etc.

Around the middle of the 20th century the Christian missionaries also came to accept that interiority, contemplation, and mysticism characterize Hinduism. Fathers Monchanin and Le Saux found the first Christian ashram to promote the way of Christian contemplation to be able to dialogue with the Hindu contemplative tradition. Other ashrams followed and there was a growing interest in Indian Christian spirituality and Indian methods of prayer.

Two further developments have transformed the way Christians look at Hinduism. After the Second Vatican Council, interreligious dialogue became an acceptable way of mission, so a number of dialogue centers were founded. Some Christians choose to live among Hindus promoting the dialogue of life. Others have regular interreligious meetings and even prayer sessions. The ashrams, too, have become centers of such dialogue. A parallel development has led to the process of inculturation. Especially in the area of prayer and liturgy, Christians have started to use texts from Hindu Scriptures and reinterpreted Hindu-Indian symbols. Christianity is integrating aspects of Hindu tradition, but on its own terms.

The high point of this Christian-Hindu encounter came with Swami Abishiktananda. He was attracted by the Hinduadvaitic tradition. He claimed to have had the advaitic experience. Giving up his effort to show that the Hindu advaiticexperience finds its fulfillment in the Christian Trinitarian experience, he accepts both traditions as different. The height of this tensive dialogue was the initiation of his disciple Marc into sannyasa jointly by himself and Swami Chidananda of the Sivananda Ashram in Rishikesh. The two traditions are affirmed, yet transcended in this journey to the "other shore."

Contemporary Tensions

We come now to the contemporary period and its tensions. The tensions come both from Hindus and Christians. Among the Hindus the ideology of Hindutva is gaining dominance. It claims to be cultural nationalism. India belongs to all those who not only consider it their motherland, but also their holy land. They are culturally Hindus, though they may practice different religions. Religious groups which have had their origin in India like Buddhism and Jainism are considered cultural Hindus. The Muslims and Christians who have their origin outside India are foreigners, unless they choose to hinduise themselves in some way and become part of the family of the Hindus. The criterion is that they have to accept India as their holy land. This is inclusivism become dominant and violent. What is demanded is religio-cultural integration. This integration is problematic within Hinduism itself, which is not an organized religion. It is a loose association of various groups that are linked by a certain similarity. There is now an effort to integrate these diverse groups around the dominant stream in the Hindu fold, namely Brahminism, represented by the Vedic and Vedantictraditions. This effort subordinates the many folk and cosmic religions. By speaking of nationalism in this context, Hindutva seeks to make Hinduism not only a cultural unity, but also a political force. This pits the religious majority against the minorities. The majority of the Hindus today are not the followers of the ideology of Hindutva in its extreme form. They are more tolerant. But still they are defensive of Hindu identity and critical of what they see as the proselytizing efforts of Christians and Muslims. The refusal of Christianity to become fully Indian culturally and administratively, in spite of all the talk about inculturation, plays into the hands of the Hindutva forces. In recent years, some Hindu groups have indulged in violence against Christians and their churches in different parts of the country. The Hindu-Christian encounter in such a context is more violent than dialogical. Dialogue becomes difficult, if not impossible.

On the side of the Christians there are confusions that make dialogue problematic. The majority of the Christians in India are Dalit (the oppressed caste) or tribal. Many of them became Christian probably to escape the financial and social oppression by the rich Hindus. They are not interested in dialoguing with them. Besides, the Christians do not seem to be very clear about whom to dialogue with. Many of them, of Dalit or tribal origin, tend to identify Hinduism with Brahminism. They even say that Dalits and tribals are not Hindus. They do not wish to speak with the "Brahmin" Hindus who are seen as oppressors and upholders of the hierarchical caste system. Where are the Hindus then with whom they can dialogue? The positive appreciation of Hinduism seems to be fast disappearing from Christian circles. Dialogue is no longer meaningful. Hindu-Christian encounter at the religious level is not desired.

When we find people who wish to dialogue with the Hindus, they do not seem to be clear about the reasons for dialogue. Sometimes, we say that dialogue is worth doing for its own sake. But more often, dialogue is seen as transitional. What we would really like to do is to proclaim Jesus Christ as the only Savior and convert people to Christianity. We are engaging in dialogue only because such proclamation is not possible under present circumstances. We Christians engaging in dialogue, therefore, have a hidden agenda. It is no wonder then, that the Hindus who suspect such a hidden agenda are not keen on dialogue. The activity of dialogue is something recent for us Christians. Therefore, there is always some suspicion about our intentions, especially when Hindus read in the media about our desire and plan to convert the whole of Asia to Christ. Only people who know us and our non-proselytizing intentions very well are ready to talk to us.

By saying that mission today is dialogical, because we are talking to people in whom we find that the Spirit has already been at work, we are not excluding the possibility that some may be attracted by Jesus and that the Spirit may call them to become his disciples and participate in his mission. To such people we proclaim Jesus in a more formal way and lead them to baptism. But the goal of our mission is not merely to increase the membership of the Church, but to be at the service of the Kingdom that God is building among the people.

Before we explore the challenge and promise of the Hindu-Christian encounter we have to prepare ourselves: We must not only be clear about why we are dialoguing, but we must also know with whom we are dialoguing.

What is Hinduism?

Hinduism is not an organized religion like Christianity. It stands for a tradition that brings together a variety of groups linked in various ways. It has succeeded in networking with most folk traditions in India so that one can speak of a sacred geography in India. The tribals are a special case; they have remained apart from this network. But the Dalits are very much part of this network. Hinduism cannot be identified with Brahminism. It is not the product of the Brahmins alone, though they have today a dominant position in it. The many peoples and cultures of India have contributed to its growth and development. The Vedas may have been the work of the Brahmins. The Kshatriyas have also contributed to the reflections in the Upanishadic period. The Bhakti and the artistic tradition come mostly from the Dravidians in the South. The Puranas incorporate many folk traditions and if today, there is an attempt to unify Hinduism, it is their concern. In any case it is more a political than a religious gesture.

People who identify Hinduism with Brahminism also equate the latter with the caste system. The conclusion is that there is no Hinduism without the caste system. The caste system is a socio-cultural structure and the Vedic Hinduism justifies it. This does not mean that we can identify Hinduism with the caste system. Religious systems change. They have reformers. Doctrines and myths are reinterpreted. The riches of the Upanishadic reflection, or of the Bhaktitradition, or of the Yogic techniques are not tied to the caste system. Dialoguing with Hinduism does not mean that we accept it uncritically; nor does it mean that we condemn the whole because of its evil parts.

At the same time we must recognize that there is a lot of diversity within Hinduism. Modern educated Hindus tend to reduce Hinduism to the advaita, or non-duality of Shankara. If our dialogue partners are the elite we may also tend to make that identification. But in actual dialogue, we will have to encounter various types of Hindus. Some may be philosophers and advaitins. Many will follow the Bhakti tradition. Among these there will be devotees of Shiva who do not believe in Avatars and followers of Vishnu who believe in many Avatars. People who listen to the politicians of Hindutva may believe that every Hindu is a devotee of Ram. Then, we have local variations like the Devi cult in Bengal. Finally, we have a host of popular traditions everywhere. Therefore, our encounter in dialogue is not with Hinduism, but with various sorts of Hindus. However, in the recent past, we have tended to dialogue mostly with the elite and believe their version of Hinduism. Let me say in passing that for a Hindu, Christianity with its many churches and sects will look just as complex. Having said this, however, in what follows I will have to limit myself to some general observations about Hinduism without always taking into account its rich internal diversity.

My final remark about Hinduism is that for me, as an Indian, whose ancestors were Hindus, I see it as a part of my historical tradition. I have my roots in it. The Word and the Spirit of God have been active among my ancestors. Their religious riches are also my heritage. I share my culture and language with people who are Hindus. Therefore, Hinduism is not a religion that is in front of me, confronting me. In a way it is part of me and I am part of it. I do not relate to it from the outside as a foreigner does. I cannot dialogue with Hindus adequately till I come to terms with its roots in myself. These roots are still visible in the popular versions of Christianity.

This may seem like a dangerous proposal in the context of aggressive Hindutva. But our response should not be to assert our foreign Christian identity as opposed to Hindutva. We have to assert first of all, that we are Indians. Secondly, we have to insist that our Indianness involves something of Hinduism. But this "something" will be reinterpreted and integrated into an Indian Christianity. In doing so, we are only asserting our ownership of the cultural and religious tradition of our ancestors. I shall speak below about what we can learn and integrate from Hinduism.

The Way of Dialogue

One of the challenges of Hindu-Christian encounter today is that in recent years it has become overtly conflictual, as I have pointed out above. The followers of Hindutva as an ideology may be a minority but they have many sympathizers. I cannot take for granted anymore the attitude of my Hindu neighbor towards me. When Hindu-Christian relations were smooth a number of groups of dialogue had emerged in various parts of India. These were often among the elite in society. But they do not seem to have had any impact outside the groups in wider society. Besides, they shy away from conflictual issues. They hardly rise above a comparative perspective like what do different religions say about salvation, revelation, suffering, peace, etc. They focus rather exclusively on religion and spirituality. Today, we need to dialogue not only about what we agree upon, but even more so about what we disagree on. We have to explore the deeper and often hidden causes of conflict. And we may have to engage in the process of conflict resolution and reconciliation and build up mutual confidence before being able to converse and work together.

Therefore, the very first challenge of dialogue today is conflict resolution. Conflict need not necessarily mean violence. But in India, we have had violence done to Christians by Hindus in more than one area in recent years. The atmosphere is one of suspicion and fear. Last year, the State of Tamil Nadu brought out a law banning religious conversions by force or inducement. But the terms "force" and "inducement" are so broadly defined that the religious minorities are afraid the law can be abused to harass them. So they organized protests against the law. Reacting to this, certain sections of Hindus organized manifestations in support of the law. The religious minorities were joined by the Dalits, since these are the people who normally convert and who may be persecuted in terms of the law. We have here a conflict situation. I do not think that Hindu-Christian dialogue can ignore these situations. Conflict resolution would involve the restoration of justice, forgiveness, reconciliation, and a healing of memories. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), headed by Bishop Desmond Tutu in South Africa is an example of an effort at reconciliation and healing of memories. Such a process will have to be animated by multi-religious groups. The government cannot solve such problems.

Secondly, there is an aspect of tolerance that we may have to learn from Hinduism. Hindus today widely believe that all religions lead to God as all rivers lead to the sea. Many repeat the Vedic statement that the Divine is one but people call it by various names. Their conclusion from this is a kind of cheap relativism, like saying "all religions are the same," but a conviction that each one must follow the religion in which one is born. They claim a special status for theadvaita, or non-dual experience. But they will try to show the Christians that they can find it in the gospels and that Jesus was an advaitin, quoting statements from John’s gospel like: "I and the Father are one." So, one can be a Christian and an advaitin. Because of this attitude they are not aggressive proselytizers. We Christians today accept that the Word and the Spirit of God are present and active in other believers. But we insist that they have to find their fulfillment as Christians. Is it possible for us to be tolerant without being relativist or aggressive? Can we recognize and accept that God may actually be relating to people in different ways? The role of religion is to facilitate divine-human relationship. No religion can be absolutized. Today, we have some groups of people in certain parts of India who cannot become Christian, for whatever reason, but who remain Christbhaktas, or devotees of Christ, helped by and in dialogue with others who are Christians.

In this context we recognize that Jesus Christ may be present to people in various ways. He is present directly and explicitly to the Christians as Jesus. He can also be present to people who are his followers even though they may not be able to become members of the (visible, institutional) Church through baptism. The Word is also present to every human being in ways unknown to us. (Gaudium et Spes, 22)

I may point out in passing that this points to the inclusive approach—both/and—of Asian traditions as opposed to the dichotomous—either/or—approach of the West.

Having somewhat clarified the context, I would like now to explore further the challenges and promises of Hindu-Christian encounter. Given the kind of approach to dialogue that I have outlined above, I think the best way of doing this is to ask what Christians and Hindus can learn from each other. My basic attitude is not that one group has something which another group does not have. It may be that one group is highlighting something which the other group has not so far stressed. The reasons for this may be historical and cultural. I shall first of all spell out what we can learn from the Hindus. Then, I shall point out tentatively what they can learn from us.

God, Immanent and Transcendent

The Christian tradition, influenced by the Judaic and Greco-Roman cultural and philosophical tradition has a strong sense of the otherness of God. God is the Creator who stands outside creation. God is the first cause, the prime mover. God is "Our Father in heaven." Sin widens this separation further. We need mediators to link us together again. Our prayers are full of this distant, powerful God, so people prefer to go rather to the mediators like Mary and the Saints. We tend to look at the world as an autonomous reality. Some Christians even claim that it is this separation of the world from God that is at the root of the development of modern science and of the phenomenon of secularization of life in the world.

By contrast, in the Indian (Hindu) tradition there is a strong realization that there is but one reality. There is nothing outside this Real. It is the ground of being and of all beings. The world is not outside God, independent of God. The world is a dependent reality. Compared to God it is nothing. Reality is not-two: a-dvaita. This vision has been interpreted both in monistic and in pantheistic terms. Some assert that the world is not real, but an illusion. The Absolute is the only reality, the rest is all illusion—maya. Others suggest that everything is divine—pantheism. Both these interpretations seem exaggerated. The Absolute is the only Real. Nothing else is real in the same way. They are only dependently real. But they are not cut off from the Absolute with a reality of their own. Ramanuja uses the symbol of the human composite to understand this relationship. The world is the body of God. The body does not exist by itself. At the same time the body is not the spirit. The world then is the symbol of the Absolute. It is in and through the world that we discover the Absolute. Sometimes one speaks of pan-en-theism: God-in-all-things. Our problem today is that we do not realize or experience this basic relationship. We live as if we were independent beings. We are called to free ourselves from this ignorance and realize our oneness with the Absolute. Then our lives will be in communion, consonant with it.

Such perspectives are not absent in Christianity. In the gospel of John we see Jesus affirming his oneness with God, the Father. Scripture scholars may insist that this is only a functional oneness. But the words do indicate a closeness that goes beyond functional unity. Jesus affirms a similar oneness between himself and the disciples when he says: "I am the vine, you are the branches." There is oneness of life. The oneness becomes deeper when he prays: "As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us" (Jn 17:21). Paul speaks of the Christians as the body of Christ. For him it is not merely an image. It is something real when, in the Eucharist, Jesus becomes our food and drink. Paul also indicates a similar union when he speaks of the Spirit praying in us. Later saints like Ignatius of Loyola speak of "finding God in all things and all things in God." Ignatius speaks of God present and working for us in the world.

These images are interpreted in functional or real terms according to one’s orientation. But if our reality is totally dependent on God, then the relationship cannot be merely functional. To think that it is only functional and that we can act independently of God is the root of the alienation of sin. Sin does not cut us off from God. But we behave as if we are independent. Such behavior can only lead to frustration. The goal of life then seems to be to recognize God in us and let God live in and through us.

Both Hindus and Christians seem to make this experience of being in God or advaita a high mystical experience, attainable only by special people after special efforts. I think, following Ignatius of Loyola, that we can live this communion in which we find God in all things and all things in God in ordinary life. Of course it involves a denial of self. But it does not involve mystical flights. Gandhi also showed that this can be the spirituality of every human person, when he summarized his own spiritual path in the words of the first verse of the Isa Upanisahd: "Behold the universe in the glory of God; and all that lives and moves on earth. Leaving the transient, find joy in the Eternal: set not your heart on another’s possession." The Upanishad goes on to say in words that sound Ignatian: "Who sees all beings in the Atman and the Atman in all beings, loses all fear."

To experience the world as the symbol of the Absolute or as the body of God does not mean that we can equate the symbol with the symbolized. The body cannot exist without the spirit, but it does not dominate the spirit. The spirit transcends the body. The Absolute transcends the world. Using the principle of analogy, we attribute many qualities to God. Christian theology sometimes speaks about the inner life of God as if we are eye-witnesses. One need only think of the treatises on the Trinity. While symbols can lead us to God, God is beyond all those symbols. As Sankara says, all we can say about the Absolute is "netineti—not this, not this." The value of the negative is infinitely more than the positive. We do have an apophatic tradition in Christianity. But it is conveniently forgotten by theologians and spiritual writers. The negative dimension does not falsify the positive one. But it points to its limits. Our dogmas never imply that their truth is limited. We seem to attribute to them the absoluteness of the Reality to which they refer. I think we can learn a lesson from the apophatic thrust of Hinduism. Taking apophatism regarding the Absolute seriously, we will also be open to other ways of knowing and experiencing the Absolute that the other religions share with us without reducing their experience to our own. Swami Abhishiktananda came to this awareness in his last years. Not to recognize the limits of our symbols is fundamentalism.

Interiority and Integration

People who speak of Indian-Hindu (oriental) spirituality often highlight its interest in interiority and contemplation. There is a stress on methods of interiorization and concentration. There is an insistence on withdrawal from the world and renunciation. Comparing this with the Christian tradition we can say that though we find a similar way in contemplative prayer traditions, the normal way of living the Christian life is centered round the sacraments. Sacraments are social rituals. The relationship to God is mediated through social symbolic action. Unfortunately, both the social and the mystic dimensions of the sacraments seem to receive little attention today. All the emphasis is on the performance of the ritual and the words, material elements and gestures that constitute it. By contrast, it is the dimension of interiority and concentration that seems to attract many Western Christians to oriental methods of prayer like yoga and zen.

It would be a mistake to equate these oriental methods with the western methods of prayer and contemplation. Because in the oriental traditions, there is an effort to integrate the world and the body with the spirit. Yoga is a good example. There is an effort to live in harmony with nature and the cosmos. Through breathing and posture, there is an attempt to integrate the body with the spirit. When the person concentrates on a visual, or aural, or verbal image, it is the whole person that is involved, not merely the intelligence. The experience looked for is one of total integration. The Absolute itself is experienced not as an "Other" but as the deepest center of oneself. Hence, the upanisadic phrase: the Atman is Brahman—the center of my self is the center of the universe. One realizes one’s rootedness in the Absolute. One loses oneself, one’s ego. It is an advaitic relationship.

In the Bhakti traditions this integration is more symbolic. One relates to the Absolute not merely as Father and Mother, but also as Spouse, Child, Servant, and Master. Thus, all types of human relationships and emotions are integrated. Similarly, one seeks to experience the various emotions—the nava rasas or the nine basic emotions—in relation to a manifestation or avatar of the Absolute. The rhythm, the melody and the meaning in music, the dynamic movement, and image in the dance are used to integrate the body with its emotions, with the spirit, and the Absolute. The Western tradition on the contrary, adopts an instrumental approach to the body, the emotions and the arts. It privileges thought, instrumentalizing even the word. Prayer and contemplation then become elite pursuits. The Indian tradition, on the other hand, offers a variety that meets various talents and needs, the final aim being integration and interiority leading to communion with the Real. One of the consequences of this approach is a positive view of the body and of the world. The One is not sought as an escape from the Many. On the contrary the Many is integrated into the One, which still transcends, while integrating the Many.

Freedom and Equality

I shall now briefly explore what Hinduism can learn from Christianity. This is obviously my view. But I do think that it can be illustrated from the way that Hindus, like the early reformers in Bengal, and more modern Hindus like Mahatma Gandhi, have reacted to the impact of Christianity on them.

Two of the basic principles that govern the practical religious life of the Hindus are karma (action) and varna (color). But the term varna stands for the hierarchical caste system. The principle of karma states that good actions will be rewarded and evil ones punished, if not in this life, then in the next. This principle is therefore used to justify the cycle of rebirth as well as the pleasures or pains one suffers at a given time. Salvation consists in the liberation from this cycle. There are various ways of escaping the cycle. One school proposes that once we realize that this whole world, including this cycle, is illusory, then one is liberated. Another school suggests that, if you are devoted to the Lord—Shiva or Vishnu—the Lord will save you. The hierarchical caste system divides people into five social grades according to a principle of purity and pollution. The most pure are the Brahmins who are priests, followed by the warriors, then, the merchants, then, the agricultural laborers and servants. The last are those engaged in cleansing operations and are outside the social order and untouchable. There are many groups within the same grade. Such groups are called castes. They are normally endogamous. More than 4,000 caste groups have been identified in India. One is born into a caste and cannot change it till death. The caste determines one’s status in society and the kind of work one is supposed to do. This social status is itself determined by one’s karma in one’s past life or lives. The result of such interaction between karma and varna is that there is no social equality and each one is born with a handicap that limits one’s freedom, though each one is technically free to do good or bad karma. Therefore, in Hindu society, from a religious point of view, one is not free and equal. Or to put it in another way inequality and unfreedom are religiously justified. At the same time there have been many saints and prophets in the Bhakti tradition who have been against the caste system, at least as far as relating to God is concerned, that is to say in the field of religion. They have also held that one is saved not by one’s good actions, but by the grace of the Lord. But these prophetic traditions have not been very strong and the influence of karma and varna in life and society continue.

Inequality and unfreedom are not absent in Christian communities. But they are not religiously justified. Paul makes it very clear that the Spirit of the Lord is the spirit of freedom, and that in the risen Christ all are equal. No one’s social status is fixed by birth. In India it is a quest for equality and freedom that has attracted many Dalits (members of the lowest caste) and tribals to Christianity. Even if they do not find in the Christian community the equality and freedom which they came looking for, they can fight for it as their right, in the name of the gospel. Many modern Hindu reformers like Gandhi have been inspired by the gospel to promote freedom and equality in society and to discover in Hinduism the principles that can justify such freedom and equality. Narayana Guru, for instance, uses the principle of the advaita to affirm the oneness of all being, and, therefore, to condemn institutionalized inequality and unfreedom.

The law of karma also justifies injustice by saying that each one is receiving what is his/her due. Therefore, people tend to accept calmly their status in life as their fate. There is no enthusiasm for revolutionary change. Today, however, the subaltern groups are no longer accepting their lot patiently and with resignation. They are revolting against those who oppress them and are fighting for their own liberation. The Christian message of social justice can certainly be a leaven to promote a new vision of a just social order. In the era of globalization the discourse on human and social rights are promoting the awareness of the poor and the oppressed people everywhere. This experience may eventually destroy the principles of karma and varna, free Hindu religion and spirituality to devote more themselves pointedly to the realization of the Absolute, who is perceived even now as being beyond the cycle of births and the social hierarchy of the caste system.

Love and Service of the Other(s)

The experience of love is not unknown in Hinduism. Bhakti is love: love of the divine in its various manifestations. But with reference to the others who are not family members relationship is governed by dharma—duty. One’s duty is determined by one’s status in society, which in turn is determined by one’s caste (which in turn is determined by one’skarma). Even Gandhi spoke of non-violence— ahimsa—rather than love. It is true that some ancient texts like the Tamil didactic poem Thirukkural speaks about loving the other. But this has not become part of the general awareness. At a time when people speak only about rights, some talk about duties is most welcome. We have, not only rights, but also responsibilities.

But both rights and duties must be transcended in love and in self-giving service in which love is expressed. Jesus can certainly play a prophetic and provocative role in inspiring Hindus to love the others. Jesus gave a new commandment to his disciples: "Love one another as I have loved you." Then he described what real love means: "No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends" (Jn 15:12-13). Then Jesus goes ahead and gives his own life for every one, thus, giving us an example. Jesus also affirms that it is through love that communion between every one is achieved. "If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love" (Jn 15:10). Here, we have a new image of the advaitic vision which I spoke of earlier. The Many become the One, not by some sort of metaphysical union in which the Many disappear. Actually, the Many become the One in a network of love and mutual self-giving. The One emerges in a collective kenosis of the Many.

Though Gandhi did not speak positively about love, but negatively about non-violence, he did insist on the need for self-sacrifice and suffering. The suffering Jesus is a popular theme among Indian (Hindu) artists. One of them explained this by saying that he is attracted to the figure of Jesus, precisely because he is a divine person who is close to the suffering poor. In the image of the suffering Jesus, suffering itself acquires a new meaning. It is no longer a punishment for sin, as the doctrine of karma and popular Christian awareness pretend. It can be made meaningful as a manifestation of love and self-gift. The example of Gandhi shows that one need not be a Christian to integrate Jesus’ practical teaching about love and service into one’s spiritual path. But it is a lesson that the Christians themselves do not seem to have learnt. Here, Gandhi has become a teacher to Christians like Helder Camara, Martin Luther King, and Nelson Mandela. In a world full of violence committed in the name of religion, the path of non-violence is one which all of us—Hindus and Christians—have to learn and learn urgently.

Dialogue in Practice

The Hindu-Christian encounter today is at a crossroads. The dialogue for which the Ashrams provided a model is perhaps still necessary and useful, but not enough. The field for dialogue today is not only spirituality in the traditional sense. The context for dialogue now is people’s struggle for freedom, equality, and justice. It is politics and social movements. The urgency is not, primarily, to "convert" others and increase the numbers of one’s own community. The challenge is for all people of good will to collaborate in building up the new humanity of the Kingdom of God. The promise is that in this process, Hindus, Christians, and others will converge through a dialectic of mutual prophecy, though communion will remain eschatological. The challenge and the promise are there. But we are not yet whole-heartedly committed to it. We are held back by a variety of factors: theological questions, official doubts, self-defensive fears, minority hesitations, practical difficulties, the bitter after-taste of conflicts. Sometimes, I am concerned about the violent and abusive nature of our language and our attitudes, our poor knowledge of history, our lack of culture, our ignorance and prejudice, and our mild form of fundamentalism.

Dialogue does not ask us to renounce our identity. We have to keep on witnessing to our experience of God in Jesus Christ. Jesus witnessed to the love and forgiveness of God. He gave the new commandment of love that serves and shares even unto death. He witnessed in humility and suffering. He called together a group of people to be the symbols and servants of the kingdom that he proclaimed and made actual in the world. Dialogue only asks us to remember that God has also manifested Godself to others in other ways. It asks us to be open to the Spirit wherever she speaks. It requires us to be sensitive to the God-experience of others.

Every crisis is an opportunity. The opposition of the Hindutva is a call to reorient ourselves. It is time to outgrow the image, and perhaps also the reality, of being a colonial Church. Until we become a local church in identity, independence, and commitment we will not be credible interlocutors in any dialogue. We will be looked at as being foreign. But we need not become culturally Hindus; we must become culturally Indians. This is our greatest challenge. There is a lot of talk about inculturation, but every serious effort is blocked by the authorities in the Church. They seem to look at it as a mere translation into local cultures and situations of Roman structures, practices, and doctrines. Inculturation is a creative response of people to the gospel. They are the agents of this response. Their culture offers the elements of this response. As I have noted above, culture in this broad sense also includes elements of the religions of our ancestors. The dogmas too are culturally conditioned and need constant reinterpretation and perhaps transformation. In any case, the criterion of orthodoxy is our God-experience in Jesus as mediated to us by the Scriptures and not the culturally conditioned expressions of it, whether the culture is Judaic, Greek, Latin, or Euro-American. Asians can reconfigure their faith experience responding to revelation in new formulae. Can they not do this without being influenced by their cultural and religious roots? Only then will they be in a better position to dialogue with other religions in the local cultural context.

We often speak of Basic Christian Communities (BCCs) to nourish the life of the Church. In the context of dialogue between religions, side by side with these, we should also promote Basic Human Communities, which will be interreligious. Committed to the joint promotion of the value of the Kingdom, the membership of these communities will be largely the poor and the oppressed. The dialogue among the elite will be meaningful only in so far as they help the peoples’ movements for social transformation. A recent study of select areas prone to Hindu-Muslim conflicts has shown that they have been less violent in places where there were Hindu-Muslim associational networks around some common economic activity. Where Hindus and Christians are fighting common enemies like economic and political global exploitation and domination, liberal capitalism, casteism, and violations of human rights, they are not fighting each other.

Even these struggles for liberation will be meaningful only in the context of the pursuit of the Absolute, not apart from the world, but in and through the world. The experience of communion and oneness with the Absolute and with each other is the goal both of Hinduism and Christianity. It will have to remain the focus, the inspiration and the ultimate goal of every Hindu-Christian dialogue. The Absolute that Hindus and Christians seek to experience is one and the same, though they may symbolize it in various ways responding to the different ways in which the Absolute has manifested itself to them.

Do we need rigid borders in a situation like this? God is the only center of everything. His self-revelation in each religion may set up secondary centers. But we do not need borders that hinder their mutual interaction. There is no criterion, except God-experience, for comparing them. There is a basic unity that is God, the Word, and the Spirit, and their action in the world. In the Hindu-Christian context, this basic unity has been experienced by seekers like Swami Abhishiktananda. We too should seek to experience this unity in work, in prayer, and in dialogue of every kind. That will be the fulfillment of Hindu-Christian dialogue.