Again this January, if any students sign up, I’ll be teaching a course on Hinduism. The theme this year is about the Bhagavad-Gita, India’s favorite scripture, as understood by four twentieth-century commentators.
Here is the summary from the course syllabus:
In the West, Hinduism has usually been characterized as the religion grounded in the Vedas and related texts, based on a cyclic/cosmic world-view, and aimed at the liberation of the human spirit from these cycles. This understanding of the vast religious and spiritual culture of India is more superficial than untrue. Both “religion” and the name “Hinduism” are terms invented in the ethnocentric context of Europe and Christianity and in the historical phase of European colonialism. The great vitality of India’s many ways of worshiping the Absolute and understanding/remedying the human condition can be seen in the presence and influence of the most beloved sacred text of India, the Bhagavad-Gita, in the spiritual self-understanding and practice of Westerners during the last two centuries. This intensive course will give students the opportunity to read the 18 chapters of the Gita, examine some scholarly reflection on its historical roots and influence, and reflect on four modern commentaries: those of Mahatma Gandhi, Paramahansa Yogananda, Swami Prabhupada, and the Christian monk Bede Griffiths.
One principle I wish to emphasize (as I did in my course last year) is the dialogical nature of the Church’s relationship with other religions. For the Second Vatican Council, the Church indeed relates to the religions as socio-cultural realities, and not only as individuals, either to be evangelized or to be tolerated as ‘invincibly ignorant’ of the truth of the Church’s teachings. Some Catholic thinkers seem to have returned to this conceptual isolation of other-faith persons from their socio-cultural context, but this concept contradicts a theological principle: the inseparability of an individual’s faith from her/his faith community. It is not true, as I once heard a cardinal affirm, that only Muslims, as individuals, are part of God’s plan for humanity, and not Islam itself. It should be obvious that there would be no Muslims without Islam and no Hindus without Hinduism, etc. Hence Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam and all the rest are in a certain sense positively willed by God.
Another part of the ‘reform of the reform’ in act today is the return to a diplomatic paradigm in the Church’s approach to other faiths. Since (as a certain esteemed theologian has repeatedly affirmed) there can be no inter-religious dialogue in a theological sense, the chief use for our conversations with Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims et al. is to protect Catholic interests in those countries where the others are the majority and the Church represents a minority (often in single-digit percentages). My objection to this reduction of dialogue to diplomacy is that it ultimately secularizes the inter-faith relations of Christians with others; it also implies that the goal of the conversations is to reach some sort of compromise amenable to the interests of all concerned. The risk I see here is to hide the authentically spiritual dimensions of our own faith and the support that our faith itself (faith as spirituality) offers to our dialogic relationship with others. My question is this: do persons of other faiths want to meet with us as diplomats? And: do they not rather have every right to expect us to engage in the conversation as spiritual persons, that is, as persons who practice and intimately experience what they believe in?