Cambridge, MA. In my last contribution to this blog I wrote about my lecture course, God: Hindu and Christian. This time, still the comparative theologian, I would like to tell you about my seminar, a course dedicated almost entirely to one Hindu text, the Vedarthasamgraha (“The Summary of the Meaning of the Veda”) of Ramanuja (1017-1137), a great theologian of the south Indian Hindu tradition known as Srivaisnavism. I have referred a number of times to Ramanuja in this column, and readers may remember him. The idea of this seminar, and the cycle of which it is a part, is to read a Hindu carefully and in detail over the semester, taking it seriously and giving its ideas time to sink in. An added element is some cross-reading with a Christian text, and to this dimension I will return below.
Ramanuja’s Vedarthasamgraha, written in the Sanskrit language, is a treatise on the right way to read the Upanisads, and thus too on the right notion of ultimate reality (Brahman) and thus too of God (Narayana). In particular, Ramanuja is exegeting Chandogya Upanisad 6, in which the original Self is portrayed as the source for all of reality, material as well as spiritual. He is arguing against two groups of opponents: those who hold that ultimate reality is one only, with no duality or plurality in it; and those who hold that reality is somehow subdivided, that ultimate reality being divided into the many things that comprise the world. His view, a middle way, argues that everything indeed is derived directly from the one ultimate source, the Self, but that this Self does really differentiate into all conscious and non-conscious beings. His view is therefore a “differentiated non-dualism” that rejects both creation ex nihilo and pantheism. The order of the text is simple:
1. An introductory exposition of the right and wrong ways of viewing God and the world;
2. The refutation of rival views of creation;
3. The right reading of scripture;
4. Lord Narayana, God properly named, is the ultimate reality of whom scripture speaks;
5. Arguments against the view that scripture is merely about ritual and ethical matters and does not communicate the truth;
6. How God is properly taught in the scriptures;
7. The nature of God, and how scripture tells us about God;
8. The way of devotion and service that leads to God.
Its teaching is rather complex, however, given the density of its arguments and how Ramanuja insists on interweaving arguments about material and spiritual reality with arguments about how language works and whether words and concepts can really tell us something about God.
What we do, then, is read the Vedarthasamgraha, once a week for two and a half hours, using the four available translations of it; I meet separately with a few students interested in reading the Sanskrit. This slow and careful reading is a luxury of sorts, since graduate students are often pushed to read a book or more a week per course; my view has always been that less reading, more carefully done, is a better option for true learning. We also have time to look up some of Ramanuja’s opponents, such as the nondualist theologian Sankara, and to check out Ramanuja’s scriptural quotations.
While at times the text is heavy going, rich in detail and subtle argument, there is pleasure in the reading of it, and our main problem this semester will be that there is not enough time. Beyond that, there is not much more I can say here without getting into detail that may be too much for a blog; but I can indicate in four ways why such a course matters, why I teach it. First, students learn a theological system in detail, and thus begin to understand what it means to be a theologian. This is what I do, after all, as a teacher who is a theologian. That Ramanuja is a Hindu theologian is not a major difference or obstacle; rather, indeed, that he is a theologian who is not a Christian can help students to appreciate better what theology is. Second, his refined theological positions of course raise questions for the Christian theologian who takes seriously both the similarities regarding God, humans, and the world, and likewise differences, about the nature of creation and the world, the way in which God is the source even of material reality, and the way in which the Upanisads, so different from the Bible, generate different kinds of questions about the world, the meaning of life, and relationship to God.
Third, this exercise in the study of theology forces us to seek analogies — which Christian text is this like? who among Christian theologians is like Ramanuja? By a process of elimination, I decided finally that John Calvin (1509-1564), the great Reformer and Reformed theologian of Geneva, stands as an interesting close parallel to Ramanuja, and so every other week I give my class a chapter from his Institutes of the Christian Religion, to read alongside Ramanuja, drawing comparisons and contrasts. Indirectly then, reading a Hindu theologian draws fresh attention to a well-known Christian theologian and, indeed, prompts me, the Catholic, to take seriously and learn from a great Protestant thinker. Indeed, I was privileged just today to be part of a special Harvard Divinity School seminar on John Calvin in this year that marks the 500th anniversary of his birth - not because I am a Calvin scholar, but because I have found energy in his wisdom, to do my comparative theological work better.
Finally, all of this matters, I suggest to my students (and to you, my readers), because interreligious dialogue and learning are often lacking in deep roots, as if encounter is somehow an easier or necessarily more superficial exercise than theological reflection within my own tradition. But it is not so: unless we learn to listen carefully and patiently to the ideas and experiences of people of other traditions, and read their texts carefully, we may end up treating our own Christian religion, and their religions, superficially. And yes, I also believe that even in reading a Hindu theologian, I am learning about God, as my faith seeks to understand, and comes to a bit more understanding.
The course is not yet half over, and so I cannot predict how it will go for my students, though the 15 of them are thus far brightly engaged in this study. I am fortunate to be able to teach such a course, with such students!