Cambridge, MA. I have just returned from four weeks in India. I love going to India, have done so for nearly 40 years now, and still, always, find Indians to be among the kindest and most gracious people on earth. Visiting India is always a joy, and it is hard to return to the USA after some weeks there.
It would be nice were I able to blog – or have blogged – on my insights on the streets of the cities I visited on this trip – Delhi, Chennai, Bangalore – with my finger on the pulse of India today. I did get around, but in a selective way. In Delhi, spent time visiting Asha (Hope), an organization dedicated to helping the poor of today’s slums, and lectured at our national theology center, Vidya Jyoti; in Chennai, I was quite busy – after 30 years I know many people – but mainly gave some lectures at Hindu and Christian sites – e.g., MOP Vaisnava College for Women, and the historical Madras Christian College, and my home away from home, Satya Nilayam, one of the national Jesuit schools of philosophy for young Jesuits - and taught some classes; in Bangalore, I gave a lecture series at Dharmaram College – one of India’s most prestigious Christian centers of learning, with philosophical and theological education grounded in Kerala’s Syro-Malabar churches – and taught some classes on campus, while still finding time to catch up on work due at Harvard (today there is no escape, even globally) and also visit a few ashrams - such as that of Sri Sri Ravi Shankar and the Christian ashram of Fr. Francis Veneeth - and meet with very interesting Hindu intellectuals – some new to me, and some friends over many years.
But still, as readers of America know, I am deep into texts and ideas, so no one should expect me to say that I catch everything going on in contemporary India. Better to read the New York Times or The Hindu for such information. But what I can offer is a few insights into my trip — all four weeks of it, not nearly enough time to be expert on anything — and what I have learned from my time in three big cities. In this blog, I offer some observations on Hindu and Christian India today; in the next, on where it leaves us in the West.
First, despite all expectations, India is not all that different from the West religiously. As here, Indians today are tired both of traditionalism, as if ancient beliefs and customs solved all problems, and of the revolutionary fervor that would substitute a radical commitment to social change for respect for tradition. People seem also skeptical about politicians and politicized swamis who use religion for political ends. I found that Indians, Hindu and Christian alike, know that the traditional answers are insufficient if merely repeated, yet many of those I talked to also realize that a wholesale abandonment of tradition does not work either.
Second, I found a mix of views on dialogue, its past and modest future. On the one hand, many were disillusioned. The great age of dialogue, accommodation and ashrams, is over. The hopes of 30 years ago have not materialized, and both church and temple are nudging people back into traditional stances, aimed more at the recovery of tradition than real change due to encounter with people of other faiths. (Thus: for years, I have had limited success in sharing my work with Indians — Christian or Hindu — while making the argument that traditional, loyal, even conservative Hindus and Christians still have much to gain from listening to the other. There is both a caution and a lethargy in the air…) In my classes and lectures in Bangalore, I had a hard time persuading young priests and nuns at Dharmaram, for instance, that as leaders of the future Church they need to learn from Hinduism and Islam, and not allow narrow-minded and ignorant politicians to decide how religion is to count, mine against yours. The ignorant radicalism of others is no excuse for us to be close-minded. This idea – study the other, learn from others – seemed to many of my students more radical than I meant it to be, as if study of the texts of another religion were a daring venture, like worshiping another deity. (What is the difference between the careful study of texts of another religion, and worship in a Hindu temple?) On the other hand, as I have already suggested, people also seem aware that the world is changing around us: no one who knows youth today can imagine that we can merely stipulate that people should mind their own business and stay safely within the bounds of their own religion. Younger people who are paying attention seemed to me to be ready to learn more widely, even if troubled in conscience regarding whether it is right, and even if doubtful that their own traditions can really rise to the occasion.
Third, then, I was happy to meet both Hindus and Christians, the former in particular, who seem ready to reimagine how religious work today. One young Hindu businessman, for instance, is convinced that it is time for his community – a Hindu tradition with a very impressive history and a rather stuffy, unimaginative leadership today – to look again and freshly at their heritage of scripture and tradition and face up to the twenty-first century. He and other younger intellectuals, with academic degrees or not, seem convinced that mere traditionalism does not work, just as a conservative, politically drive reaction leads nowhere. I couldn’t put it better myself: we – Christians and Hindus and Vaisnavas – need to look to our tradition to find resources that enable us to move beyond the strictures of our current impasse on society and religion. Both professors and students at Dharmaram too seemed to know this, even though constrained by the piety and cautions of Catholic south India, where the roots of the faith are deep, while little is admitted to have changed in any given century.
Fourth, the first stop on my trip was in New Delhi, to visit Asha and see the amazing work of Dr. Kiran Martin (see her Harvard lecture) and her husband and many associates, in bringing improvement to the slums of the city: healthcare, housing, education. I have known all along of the shockingly narrow circumstances in which many Indians live in these slums; what was particularly inspiring was the fact that Asha is able to change for the better lives that others would see as hopelessly bogged down in poverty. After a number of visits to the slums, I was happy to be a guest at Asha’s celebration of the fact of 30 or so slum-dwellers being admitted to Delhi University and other educational institutions. I sat next to P. Chidambaram, India’s home minister – secretary of state – and heard his moving words on the real and simple ways in which we can — and therefore must —help India’s poor. As I said in my brief remarks at the public event, Asha seems to have succeeded in manifesting a very Christian, very Christ-like love in a way that sheds light without provoking odious comparisons or raising fears about conversions. Asha’s is the Christ who healed the sick, fed the hungry, stood by those in most need.
All of this is India today – not at all the mystic orient of the past, some world so different from our own. But where does this leave us in the West, who may still fantasize either our difference from India or our role in leading them into our future? Surely, the Hindu-Christian dialogue of the future will be more comprehensive and engaging than any we have known up to now, since we can no longer give without receiving. More in my next blog.