Deep Winter, Deep Text, Expecting 2014

Cape Cod, MA. It’s December 30. All of us, I am sure, are pondering the year past and looking ahead, with varying degrees of apprehension, to 2014. For me there is the added feature – fact, apprehension – that January 1 marks the half-way point of my sabbatical. Technically, at least, I started sabbatical on July 1, 2013, and return to full-time work at Harvard on July 1, 2014. The clock is always ticking, but the arrival of the new year catches my attention.

As you may recall, I have been spending a lot of time on Cape Cod, far enough from Cambridge that I think twice or thrice before returning there, yet close enough that I can stop back for a school or community event, or to use the library and see my students. Even if each day had been a little darker than the one before, chillier, quieter as the Cape empties out, it has been a wonderful time for reflection, pondering sky and sea, and getting started on my new book, on a 14th century text of Hindu ritual theory. Not that I have been here all the time. In fact, since late November I have been away more than not, for the holidays, for Harvard events, a convention in Baltimore, and a week’s trip to the Jesuit Curia in Rome (to discuss the future of the Jesuit intellectual life). But on the whole, it has been a wonderful and quiet and productive time.

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So, you may be wondering – particularly if you are not a professor at a university that affords its faculty good opportunities for sabbatical leave – what exactly the point of all this is supposed to be. It is clearly, surely, a luxury, to retreat to a lovely place like Cape Cod. It is obviously, definitely, a rare phenomenon to have 12 months off, during which the professor is not really accountable to anyone for how she or he spends the time; and for a Jesuit to hide out in this fashion, when there is so much to be done for so many people in need, requires justification. I can of course explain my “retreat” by assuring you that I have been working hard, up early in the morning, working through the day on my Sanskrit texts and secondary sources, all the way up to nighttime. And I can impress– or dismay — you by sharing the fruits of my labors; here for instance are the opening three cases in the Hindu teacher Madhava’s Garland of Jaimini’s Ritual Reasons, the text I have been studying and in part translating:

1 There is a scriptural command, “Personal study must be undertaken,”  | But regarding it there is a doubt: should the study that follows be undertaken or not? ||

Study is the cause of understanding something, just as threshing grain has a purpose in ordinary life. | So there is no need for a rule here. It is not possible to command study. ||

Like what is new at the new moon sacrifice, this command is regulatory regarding something new in a sacrificial context. | It is communicative of purpose and meaning. Something new is to be understood here, prompted by the command. ||

2 But surely: the notion that dharma (ritual and religious righteousness) might be the topic of study is ruled out by definition, due to the limits of the means of knowledge. | Or perhaps studying dharma is achieved by such means. This must be thought through. ||

But what could be a definition of dharma, lacking as it does any worldly form? | It is doubtful whether there are any sure means of knowledge regarding it, since the senses do not work regarding what is distant from them. ||

Rather: “Dharma is a Reality presented to us by the command to study it.” This is its definition, and it is the object of that command. | For this reason, the command itself causes our knowledge. There is indubitable. ||

3 Does such a command make something known or not? Surely it does not, | Because its power functions only regarding the extra-ordinary dharma, and that is too difficult to comprehend. ||

But one can comprehend the dharma put into words. | So the authority of the command is established, regardless of the difficulty. ||

This is not the place to explain these verses – the first few of 1300 – a text so very different from the Song of Songs and Hindu mystical poetry I worked on in my recent book, His Hiding Place Is Darkness. But I give the verses here to give you a feel for the density and particularity of what I am working on. Eventually, I will be bringing into the discussion Christian parallels, such as medieval summaries of theology and even catechisms of the Reformation period, all for the sake of understanding what it is that we know when we begin to know, truly and deeply, a religious tradition other than our own by the path of study. (Don’t hold your breath, this will take a while.)

I could defend and lament the difficulty of this new project for pages. But the simpler point is that if religious and interreligious understanding is to go deep and stand firm on the ground whence religions arise, there is a lot of very hard work to be done. There is no other way. It is in stuff like this that a better book of Hindu-Christian understanding begins. Certainly, collaboration on today’s challenges, sharing our lives, praying across religious boundaries — all matter a great deal, more than the work of the scholar. But if we are all busy and active and not-reading the texts, then traditions of learning will get lost and we will suffer That Gospel danger of casting good seed on shallow soil. So, I suggest, those who have the opportunity need to take the time to sit down quietly and read, study, and write. And so here I have been, on the Cape, puttering with my texts and making lots of notes.

But 2014 is new in another way. I am about to do something totally different, spending ten weeks in South Asia. I will visit a number of places in India (Chennai, Kolkata, Pune), and Sri Lanka (Colombo, Jaffna), meeting old friends and making new acquaintances. I will occasionally have opportunities to share my (old and new) projects, but this is not a business trip, nor is it a research trip. (Though I will have a few books with me, to read in the quiet times.) Entirely different from the quiet days on the Cape, these coming days in some of the world’s largest and most complex cities will give me an opportunity to see what is happening right now, observing and experiencing lived Hinduism and lived Christianity on the ground today. At the end of the trip, I will be delighted to spend some days in Kathmandu, Nepal, where I first encountered Hinduism and made Hindu friends, forty years ago. I hope to blog on all of this, now and then.

Then, as spring (hopefully) comes to the Cape, I will come back and intensify my work on the Garland of Jaimini’s Ritual Reasons. And so, the end of 2013 and arrival of 2014 opens for me a new vista, a tour and journey and pilgrimage back to some of my oldest starting points. And I wish you a Happy New Year too, whatever your work and play and journey might be in the days to come.

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