Nostra Aetate and Hinduism
Felix A. Machado
An Examination of Catholic-Hindu Relations on the Occasion of the Hindu Feast of 'Diwali': Getting to know the world's third largest religion
Hinduism is the first religious tradition which is mentioned by Nostra Aetate. The term "Hinduism" is a collective denomination for the ancient religious tradition which consists of diverse socio-religio-ethno-cultural groups. Hindus themselves call their religious tradition Sanatana dharma.
Nostra Aetate affirms: "In Hinduism men contemplate the divine mystery and express it through the unspent fruitfulness of myths and through searching philosophical inquiry. They seek release from the anguish of our condition through ascetical practices and deep meditation or a loving, trusting flight towards God" (n. 2).
The Declaration selects certain key elements of Hinduism without attempting the impossible task of describing in short space its complex nature. The key elements of Hinduism, mentioned by Nostra Aetate, are: contemplation of the divine mystery; its expression through myths; its search through philosophical inquiry; seeking release from anguish through ascetical practices; trust in and love of God.
It is good to remember also that in this brief text, Nostra Aetate speaks exclusively of fundamental differences and does not directly mention any possible similarity between Christianity and Hinduism.
Moreover, the key elements stress what stands out in classical Hinduism. This is perhaps because popular Hinduism often comes across as idolatry, error and superstition, while philosophical Hinduism seems attractive, containing ideas on a level with Western philosophical concepts.
Efforts at understanding Hindus
Every religion must be approached, not as a monolithic structure but as it is lived by its adherents in different parts of the world, namely, as a complex and diversified reality. It is necessary to take into account the historical, sociocultural context and the actual day-to-day life of people of every religion.
Hinduism, for example, is a generic name which is used to describe many sampradayas (religio-socio-ethno-cultural traditions) of the Indic origin. These sampradayas have evolved through centuries and each has its own specific identity.
A question has often been asked: "Who is really a Hindu?". On 2 July 1995, the Supreme Court of India quoted B.G. Tilak's definition of what makes one a Hindu, referring to it as an adequate and satisfactory formula. The Supreme Court affirmed: "Acceptance of the Vedas with reverence; recognition of the fact that the means or ways to salvation are diverse; and the realization of the truth that the number of gods to be worshipped is large, that indeed is the distinguishing feature of the Hindu religion".
Hindus boastfully admit that their religious tradition has neither a founder, nor a central authority, nor a common creed, nor a dogmatic teaching which has to be accepted by every Hindu believer. Developed during a span of 4,000 years, Hinduism has gone through internal as well as external evolutions.
Motivations to dialogue
A sense of the spiritual, the sacred and the divine pervades the life of any Hindu believer. Hindus manifest curiosity to learn from those who declare to have had an experience (anubhava) of the divine.
Hindu tradition speaks of God who is intimately close to persons (ista devata), transcendent and absolute (brahman), deus absconditus or hidden one whose divinity lies obscured by the distorting veils of mundane existence only to burst forth on occasion in all splendour and power (ishvara), personal friend (Sri Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita), omniscient, omnipotent, eternal, benevolent, blissful, imperishable, self-revelatory, self-illuminating, greater than whatever is predicated of him (neti-neti), without form (nirvishesha) and without limitation (nirupadhita).
The honest and sincere search for the Absolute on the part of the Hindu can be a starting point for Hindu-Christian dialogue.
Many Hindus seem to be ready to pay any cost to achieve an experience of union with the divine. On the part of a number of Hindus a desire to come closer to the divine mystery — in whatever way the individual finds best — is evident when they willingly undertake practices of mortification and asceticism.
There are not only sages (rishis) and renouncers (swamis) but there are also common and ordinary people who, to some degree, practice rigorous self-discipline in view of spiritual satisfaction.
The Hindu sadhana (spiritual discipline) is centred on the quest for the real "I" or the "self" (atman). It is a discovery by every seeker of the inner self which often remains obscured by the illusory ego.
By descending to the depths of one's inner self one is said to live authentic life because the true self, in contrast with the illusory ego (which is elevated and glorified), is distinct from that which is identified with one's ego (body, colour, weight, height, shape, name, form, etc.).
The "I" of each person has no independent existence. It is entirely dependent on the "I" of the "satyasa satyam" (the Absolute). The mystics conclude that the "I" of each person, when awakened, and the Absolute are but a single "I". In order to achieve this experience in practical life the Hindu tradition has, in the course of time, made available to its followers different methods and techniques.
In Hindu-Christian encounter the dialogue of truth is difficult because of a different understanding of truth. Hindus tend to judge a religion (for example, the Christian faith) by using the measure of practice (experience of the divine mystery, as well as moral virtues) of its followers. Christians may have difficulty with that approach. What must be avoided is a polemical spirit, attacking Hinduism rather than giving a witness to Christianity.
As mentioned above, Hinduism, in general, admits the necessity of the Supreme Being. What is emphasized is the interior experience of the Supreme Being.
Hindus hold that the human person may know something of the nature of this Supreme Being; but it vehemently argues that human intelligence, by reason of its finitude, cannot arrive at a precise notion of the Supreme Being.
It is therefore concluded a priori that all efforts to know God are inadequate. As mentioned above, in their tradition Hindus make a sharp distinction between the empirical and transcendental order of truth.
An attempt is made by some Christians, mainly Protestants, to dialogue with Hindus concerning the person and function of Christ as commented on by some prominent Hindus in recent years. This dialogue started more than a century and a half ago but it raises certain fundamental questions: for example, the validity of a purely personal experience of Christ; the missing affinity with the more metaphysical doctrine of Chalcedon concerning the nature and person of Christ.
It is imperative that Hindus understand the true nature of the person of Christ as taught by the Church.
Christians engaged in dialogue with Hindus should not ignore their religious sensitivity. The presentation of Christian identity should be simple and approachable without any overtones of superiority, and should take into account the values of the surroundings in which Hinduism has been born and has grown — so inclined to ritual, to mysticism, to prayer and to communion with the Divine.
By common conviction, the monastic life also deserves particular attention in Hindu-Christian dialogue.
The Catholic Church, through Nostra Aetate has been encouraging its faithful to prudently enter into dialogue with Hindus. A two-fold approach has been suggested: 1) to prepare Catholics to meet their neighbours who are followers of other religions, to appreciate their values, to offer collaboration, to give and receive and join hands together to promote peace in the world; 2) to make contact with Hindu leaders in order to inform them of the exact nature of the Christian faith and, consequently,to strike out suspicion. prejudice and hatred, and promote social unity, harmony and peace.
It will be good for competent theologians to articulate a Christian appreciation and evaluation of Hinduism in order to continue the evangelizing mission of the Church. While it is important to root out relativism it is also opportune to address the tendency on the part of some Christians towards exclusivism, polemics or towards "having nothing to do with Hindus".
What do Hindus do?
The Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan. the K.J. Somaiya Bharatiya Sanskriti Peetham and Mani Bhavan of Mahatma Gandhi in Mumbai, and other interreligious and Hindu groups have been taking initiatives to promote frank discussions around themes of common concerns. These groups have so far organized Hindu-Christian seminars on themes of conversion, secularity, peace, love of God, etc.
Various Hindu-Christian colloquia have taken place in the U.S.A. and the United Kingdom, where a sizable number of practising Hindus now live.
Difficulties that surface
The resurgence of Brahminism and the higher castes, through various new religious movements and political groups often with the "Hindutva ideology", is evident in India. Systematic attacks on Christians, sometimes fatal, and a hate campaign against the Church in recent years by some extremist Hindus have created difficulties for Hindu-Christian dialogue.
However, the Church, both Catholic (Episcopal Conferences) and Protestant (National Council of Churches), in India has shown its readiness to dialogue also with the extremist groups of Hindus. It cannot be denied that some extremist groups of Christian origin often provoke tension among Hindus by their aggressive preaching, distribution of anti-Hindu literature and unkind remarks about Hinduism in general.
In Hindu-Christian dialogue, in particular, there is a tendency to dwell on apparent analogies, the result of which is often facile irenicism. Some protagonists of dialogue, unfortunately, search for the least common denominator in order to arrive at a common agreement at any cost.
There are fundamental differences between the Christian faith and Hindu beliefs. Differences. however, need not be perceived as a threat; they can. in fact, become occasions for mutual understanding.
It is important therefore, in dialogue to clarify, understand and articulate differences in order to respect the integrity of the other and have our own integrity respected by the other. The teachings of each religion need to be understood according to its own conformity.
Followers of Hinduism. under its various forms, comprise the third largest population in the religious world (about 800 million). Over the years efforts have been made to get it organized. Hinduism has been thriving through many organized movements which are spread throughout the world.
Discernment is needed to see which of these movements affirm the genuine identity of Hinduism in order for Christians to engage in dialogue with their leaders.
Weekly Edition in English
14 November, page 6
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