Back From India V: The Thousand Names of Jesus...

Cambridge, MA. This is the last of my five planned reflections on my trip to India, this time about my research. Thanks to everyone who has contacted me through our “comments section,” and off-line.
     While I indicated at the start that this was not to be research trip, I hope that the previous entries have shown that I learned a lot on many levels in my five weeks in India. But I did make a little progress on several research projects. First, of course, just teaching some classes at our Jesuit house of philosophy study in Chennai was educational — for me as well as the students, and so too the various lectures I gave on my Beyond Compare and The Truth, the Way, the Life. If you teach with your ears open, you learn a lot from reactions, questions, follow-up discussions. Second, as indicated in my entry on caste, I gave some lectures on the 19th century French Jesuits who came to India in the 1830s and 1840s, and how they viewed caste as a predictable human and social arrangement that would eventually give way to democracy and the nation state — perhaps for the better. This topic is a historical one, to be sure, but discussing older Jesuit attitudes to caste with fellow Jesuits, in a culture where the Church is even now still figuring out its attitude toward caste, has some real pertinence and immediate implications. The past teaches us of our future.
     Third, I made a bit of progress on my longer-term project, on the drama of the divine-human relationship in Satakopan’s Tiruvaymoli and the Song of Songs, particularly texts of divine presence and absence, coming and going, interpreted respectively by classical commentators such as Nampillai and Bernard of Clairvaux. I steadfastly read ancient and modern commentaries on song IX.9 of Tiruvaymoli, from which I quoted a verse in my pre-India entry. I have much to do on this project, but this single song is powerful: the young woman waits at home in the evening, as the sun is setting and all the signs of nature and society indicate that the cows and their cowherds are coming home — and thus too, her beloved, the divine Krsna. She is awakened, entirely alert, all senses attuned to the signs — but he fails to come. It is an exquisite exploration of expectation, uncertainty, and longing, and Nampillai explores it with great subtlety and sensitivity. Here is one more verse: Even our heart is no help now: the cows return, it is evening, / but the cowherd’s heart has turned to stone, his sweet flute pierces us; / even our friend, our helpmate, is dying right before me because of him; / is there no way to protect our precious life’s breath? It is surely hard to find his grace.
     I did not bring St Bernard along with me in my travels, but some of his sermons on the Song (also cited in that earlier entry) highlight similarly the mystery of God as one who mysteriously comes and goes, who, though omnipresent, seems absent. The bit of reading I did this summer convinces me that the theme is a fruitful one — in our world where even people of faith find God sometimes present, or absent, or puzzlingly present in other places, where God ought not be found. More on this project over the next few years…
     Fourth, I worked a bit on a modern Sanskrit-language text I had with me, a composition by a modern Catholic professor: the Thousand Names of Jesus (Jesu-Sahasra-Nama). There is a whole genre of such writing in Sanskrit, even from ancient times, that voices for a chosen deity a thousand titles indicative of her or his power and glory, best attributes, gracious deeds. Thus from ancient times we have the Thousand Names of Lord Visnu or the Thousand Names of the Goddess Lalita.
     Thus, for example, here (in translation) are the opening names in the work: The Embodied Living One / The Way / Highest / Truth / Without Form / Having a Human Form / Died on the Throne of the Cross / Christ / Came to be by the Word of God’s Messenger / the Anointed / Lord of Creation / In Form Being, Consciousness, and Bliss / God without Beginning / Omniscient / Detached / Mary’s Own Son / Word of the Father / Having a Body / Mighty in the Spirit / Calming Nature / Eternal / Everlasting / Offered as Sacrifice… As with the Hindu Thousand Name texts, one could write full commentary on Dr. Chacko's text, explicating the meaning of each of these names, one after the other.
     In a way, they are like the traditional Catholic Divine Praises (Blessed be God, Blessed be His Holy Name, Blessed be Jesus Christ, true God and true man, Blessed be the name of Jesus, Blessed be His Most Sacred Heart…) and other litanies familiar in Catholic devotion, though of course the Thousand Names is much longer than any of these. The style is very simple: the names are listed, juxtaposed with one another, in lines of metered verse, seemingly in no particular order, about 4 names per line (or unit known as sloka), until all 1000 names are given in some 250 sets of lines. I spoke on the phone with Professor Chacko himself, who declined to make any claims about the theology of the names or their sequence, or about comparative religious themes. He indicated simply that there is power in this praise, the reciting of Jesus’ thousand names. It seems almost as if he drew on his great learning in Sanskrit simply to string together all that he could say in naming Jesus, up to the full number of 1000.
     These names are lovely, and wonderful to meditate on one by one or simply to hear. (There are tapes and CDs of this text.) There are many interesting issues here (which I am studying for a conference paper) related to the choice of names, names common to multiple Hindu deities (and here Jesus), the combination of Biblical claims with philosophical and Hindu theological claims. But I think Professor Chacko was right, there is power simply in the utterance of such a litany, and the hearing of it is deeply salutary. In any case, I have a lot to think about, and listen to here as well, considering these thousand names alongside other Thousand-Name texts.
    Such are the bits of my research from this trip to India, specific instances of learning within what was really five weeks of multidimensional learning on all levels. Yes, I study texts, but so too, I find the culture, the people, the place so fully educational in rich and full ways. Much more to do, indeed, but always in the context of visiting so interesting a country. But as for you, my reader, be sure to visit India when you can!

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9 years 1 month ago
I save very few magazine articles but I have saved the whole issue from November 1981 in the "Columban Mission" titled "The 99 Names of God". The whole magazine is about the beauty and story of Islam. The front and back cover list the 99 names: The Merciful The Compassionate The King The Holy The Peace The Faithful The Protector The Mighty, etc. I felt an attraction towards this listing of 99 names. So, it is interesting to hear of these thousand word litanies as well as of your many projects.
9 years 1 month ago
I appreciate your writing and research and have an interest in Indian Hindu scholarship since my daughter began her studies in Asian religions, specifically Hindu and Indian Budhism( she too was in India this summer researching texts) and now begins her second year as Associate Professor at the University of Calgary. She has encountered rejection from many priests for doing this type of scholarship.
9 years 1 month ago
Reminds me of a beautiful little short story by the late Arthur C. Clarke, ''The Nine Billion Names of God.''
9 years 1 month ago
>Thus from ancient times we have [url=http://www.trsiyengar.com/id70.shtml]the Thousand Names of Lord Visnu [/url]
For those interested, I thought of adding more details to the 'names'.
This 'Thousand Names of Lord Vishnu' is part of daily prayer for many Hindus. They are typically rendered along with a prologue & an epilogue, both very instructive.
In particular, the names of vishnu are set in an epic context, at the end of a fratricidal war between those that have embraced adharma (loosely, non virtuous life) and those that have embraced dharma, with Vishnu manifest as Krishna on the side of dharma. There are many layers of meaning and allegories here for one to discover. These sacred 'names' themselves are a response to a set of questions. Ironically and curiously, the responder is a vanquished and dying Bheeshma, a warrior, and one of the most learned and schooled on dharma, who reluctantly fought for the side that embraced a-dharma. The questioner, the victorious and equally wise and learned king Yudhishtira, is his great grand nephew (sort of). The questions he asks of Bheeshma, with Krishna standing right beside him, are:
Who is the one lord in the world,who is also also suprlatively and transcendentally the way and destination; by adoring and worhsipping whom people attain well-being. What is the one dharma among the many that you consider supreme; and who should one meditate upon so that one may attain salvation?
The rest of the 'names' are an answer to these questions, organized with an internal coherance and connection between the names, and begining with the answer to the last question first. There are two popular commentaries on this as well - one by Sankara with an advaitic(non-dual) & theistic thrust, the other by Parasara Bhatta from within the Srivaishnava tradition, the area of study of Prof. Clooney.
-MMK

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