“JOHN BRITTO CHETHIMATTAM CMI MEMORIAL AND SYMPOSIUM”
Dialogue in Indian Tradition (1969)
Saju Chackalackal cmi
Dialogue in Indian Tradition, the second book of John Britto Chethimattam in English, originally published by Dharmaram College, Bangalore in 1969 and, later, by Orbis Books, Maryknoll, New York in 1971 under the series “Indian Religions and Philosophies,” is an “invaluable introductory handbook” that tries to capture the millennia old cultural and religious tradition of the people of India, whose dynamic and diversified life poses a unique pattern of thought in human history. The two titles of this text are indicative of two world views, eastern and western, from which they were subsequently issued. The unfolding of Indian tradition, seen from the Indian perspective, is an ongoing encounter involving dialogue among different cultural and religious traditions. Hence, published from Bangalore, it is given the title Dialogue in Indian Tradition. However, the publication of the same text from New York assumed the title Patterns of Indian Thought. This is indicative of the western mindset that looks for patterns and systems. While the first retains the dynamic nature of the vibrant Indian reality, the second affirms a definitive pattern of thought that evolved over a long period within the pluralistic thought matrix of the Indian tradition.
A well-researched and organized work, as it is, DIT provides a lucid and scholarly introduction to the cultural matrix and the religious ethos of the ‘major’ traditions and patterns that had made India what it is today. In fact, the author innovatively and realistically conceives the development of Indian thought in terms of an ongoing dialogue among all the concerned systems and religions that had finally climaxed in the “Indian Tradition,” as it is christened to be known. As JBC puts it, “the scope of this short study is to provide a sort of introduction to this millennia-long dialogue in the Indian subcontinent” (DIT iii/PIT viii).
In and through the fourteen chapters, spread over in 155 pages, JBC succeeds in painting a panoramic view of the religious traditions born/flourished in India. Without losing sight of the political and commercial undercurrents that had vitiated the dialogue among these religions at one time or the other, DIT concentrates more on identifying the unitive current that was passing through and enlivening the religious and cultural ethos of India. This is the intentional motive of this book, which was already cited in the preface itself: “My intention here is to show that no single tradition can claim a monopoly of truth, and none can pretend to be a perennial philosophy all by itself. Each tradition had its own particular mode of approach, its own specific problems to handle and peculiar solutions to propose. All these become meaningful only in complementarity with other traditions” (DIT iii/PIT vii-viii).
With a view to identify the patterns evolved during this long encounter, carried out through a conscious/unconscious dialogue, various traditions are arranged in a logical and chronological sequence. As the story of this encounter unfolds, JBC is more interested in identifying the laws that governed its different participants and the nature of the dynamic “single Indian tradition” that had emerged from the realities of conflict and co-existence among these religious traditions. In this attempt, I should say, JBC has succeeded to a great extent, and the fact that this work continues to be a reference volume – equally accessible to a specialist in Indian philosophy as well as a general reader – attests to the fact that it had been a success in the scholarly world.
2. Patterns of an “Indian Dialogue” (A Synopsis)
A pattern is an intelligent structure identified by human mind within thing/s and/or event/s that form part of our lives. Patterns are evolved based on the perspectives adopted by individuals or groups. A perspective reflects an outlook, which in turn is the outpouring of an abiding philosophy. Philosophy is an integral and intellectual discipline that is all-pervasive as far as intelligent human beings are concerned. It enables us to make any unconscious and unintelligent thing or event in this world to be intelligible, to be consciously integrated into the web of human existence.
DIT is an attempt to identify a pattern, especially among the myriads of events that had taken place in the millennia-long history of a people in the Indian subcontinent. JBC, a philosopher-theologian, unveils this history from the perspective of an integrally united whole – though with its own ups and downs – that had facilitated a series of encounters among various strands of cultural, religious, and political reality.
The first chapter of DIT, “India in the Context of History,” provides us with an understanding of India as a confluence of various religious cultures. Despite the geographical, linguistic, ethnic, and religious variations, JBC identifies this setting as the ideal ground for a variety of cultural patterns which are “held together by a long and consistent tradition” (DIT 2/PIT 2). Further, against the background of the historical fluxes that India had witnessed, JBC asserts that Indian’s unity is not a mere fiction: “India’s unity is the product of her long history by the integration into her life-stream of all the cultural elements that flowed into her, Dravidian and Aryan, Greek and Munghol, Turk and Pathan alike” (DIT 4/PIT 4).
JBC seems to have learned a great lesson from Nehru, who is quoted in the first chapter itself. While attempting to highlight India’s strengths, the author adopts a cautionary move by citing Nehru: “When a culture goes on singing the glories of its past, and, throwing aside all originality, merely imitates past productions, it is nearing its death. When little is done to relieve the suffering of the people as a whole, it is ‘the evening of a civilization’” (DIT 5/PIT 5). Taking cue from this Nehruvian caution, the author does not become lethargic in presenting the glories of the past uncritically, but, with the thoroughness of a seasoned scholar, he presents various epochs of Indian civilization to paint a realistic picture. His balanced orientation comes to the forefront when we find him quoting, once again, Nehru to highlight India’s strengths. He quotes: “India’s strength has been twofold; her own innate culture which flowered through the ages, and her capacity to draw from other sources and thus add to her own” (DIT 5/PIT 5).
As proposed at the end of the first chapter, the outstanding characteristics of Indian tradition and India’s contribution towards the formation of a world culture, as highlighted by the author, are “synthesis and tolerance,” both culminating in a “harmonizing function” (DIT 7/PIT 7). It is from this angle that the rest of the text seems to take its shape: by presenting various dynamic moments and movements that had shaped the Indian ethos, a harmonious movement to a great extent. Without annihilating any one, however, it mastered to create a new world of plurality and unity in terms of its philosophic, cultural, linguistic, and religious diversities.
Next three chapters shall be taken together, as they deal with the “Indus Valley Religious Culture,” “The Spirit of the Vedas,” and “Formation of Indian Religious Culture.” While asserting the fact of a people and a thriving culture in India much before the Aryans entered Indian territories, JBC claims that “the basic tone of Indian religiosity is already set” here in terms of “a concrete experience of nature, a positive approach to sex and fertility, and an approach to power and salvation through interiority” (DIT 12/PIT 12). Following this, it is stated that the synthesis of various religious cultures that happened in the early ages of Indian civilization is epitomized in the Vedas. According to JBC, the Vedas are especially significant as they became the cornerstone of subsequent attempts for “continuity and consistency of the tradition” (DIT 13/PIT 13). Though the Vedic texts abound in ritual details and descriptions of gods, central importance is given to two key concepts such as Rta and Brahman. If Rta stands for the cosmic pattern identified in terms of an order or law, the concept of Brahman is presented as providing us with a synthesis of all forces, personal or impersonal, Aryan or non-Aryan. JBC writes insightfully: “Even though the Aryans recognized a multitude of gods, they all became unified in Brahman, as his forms and functions. All worship came to be centred in sacrifice consumed by fire. This Brahman was also the culminating point of the philosophical thought of India in its attempt to define reality; Brahman is the supreme reality, infinite being, pure consciousness, beside whom there is not a second” (DIT 19/PIT 18). However, as the Aryan invasion of the Indus Valley took place, and a lot of forced and spontaneous changes were introduced, over a long stretch of time, there emerged a new religio-cultural ethos, which is later identified as the “Indian Religious Culture.” JBC writes: “The encounter between Aryans and Dasyus brought the two cultural approaches and religious attitudes face to face. There are clear evidences of a fusion between the two in the Hindu culture that evolved in the Indo-Gangetic plain” (DIT 23/PIT 22). Although the contributions of the non-Aryans are recalled and recognized, the sad plight of this encounter stands as a testimony of the high-handedness of the Aryans. Yet, we find the fusion of two cultures and many religions, and the gradual evolution of a rather unified pattern. JBC claims that “a real dialogue took place between them in the Indo-Gangetic plain, and the outcome saved and integrated the positive elements of both the religious cultures” (DIT 27-28/PIT 26).
“Religion and Society,” the fifth chapter discusses about the emergence of a social pattern in terms of stratification and organized religious community from the mutual interaction between religion and society. The integration of diverse groups into one unified society called for a stratification, though not necessarily, into classes and castes. As JBC puts it, “diversity of functions, occupations and modes of life became the immediate and decisive factor in the formation of different classes and castes” (DIT 30/PIT 29). Citing and interpreting the earliest scriptural text, the Purusa Sukta in the Rgveda (X, 90) that had sanctioned the caste system and its functional stratification, it is claimed that it is primarily based on occupation. It is surprising to find that DIT narrating the primacy enjoyed by the Brahmins and Kshatriyas in almost all areas of life, at the expense of the other two strata, i.e., the Vaisyas and the Sudras.
A stratified society, under the so-called divinely assured leadership of the Brahmins was challenged by a new pattern of philosophical and religious practices of Jainism and Buddhism. These religions, assuming the importance of the individuals in the realization of their ultimate goal, challenged and rejected the priest-dominated Vedic authority. A new pattern of life and religious practice was promoted, and it was based on ethical systems developed by each religion. There is a clear shift from a ritual-based religion to a religion of personal asceticism and detachment. This is the theme of the sixth chapter, “Jainism and Buddhism: Their Contribution to Indian Religious Culture.” Emphasizing the incomprehensibility of reality, Jaina philosophy placed accent on the individual’s own spiritual perfection, passing through fourteen stages. Jainism, therefore, “tried to emphasize the centrality of the individual in religion, and the importance of personal sanctification” (DIT 45/PIT 43). Taking the spiritual aspirations of the common man, Buddhism charted a new course of religious realization. Indeed, it brought about a “shift of emphasis from conformity to caste rules and from social propriety to personal righteousness and quietude of the heart,” that ultimately resulted in “the liberation of the common people, the low castes and the outcastes from the hegemony of the Brahmins” (DIT 47/PIT 45). Situating human beings amidst anatman, anitya, and dukkha, and attributing them to ignorance, Buddhism insisted on purifying the consciousness – including the psychic, rational, and behavioural spheres – that can be attained through faith, knowledge, and concentration. Summarizing the lasting impact of Buddhism on the Indian religious consciousness, JBC writes: “Buddhism … deeply influenced the life of the common man. It made a lasting impression on the religious tradition of India. The values brought to the forefront by Buddhism could neither be ignored nor wiped out by the later Hindu revival. They have remained an integral part of Indian tradition” (DIT 53/PIT 51).
We club together “Philosophical Hinduism,” “Systematic Development of Hindu Philosophy,” “Psychology and Personality,” and “Intuition: Basis of Vedantic Metaphysics” for the present review. Against the onslaught of Jainism and Buddhism on its philosophy and practice, a resurgence of Hindu thought occurs in and through the reinterpretation of the Upanisads. It was the intellectual acumen of later scholars, including Gaudapada and Sankaracarya, that enabled the Hindu tradition to assume the positive elements of Buddhist philosophy, and resurrect itself from neglect and oblivion. The Upanisadic understanding of human existential situation as corrupt by ignorance, and the possibility of overcoming the same through the acquisition of true wisdom (jnana) takes the central stage in attaining the true reality. Reality, according to the Upanisads, is not away from us, but certainly within (antaryamin): “This uncompromising transcendence of the Supreme Consciousness is brought down to the level of practical life by an equal emphasis on its immanence in finite beings” (DIT 56/PIT 54). So, “the ideal proposed for man is to realize the Supreme Atman as his own self” (DIT 58/PIT 56). The tensions, complexities and compromises that were part of the ongoing development of Indian thought find a diversified expression during the evolution of systematic schools, as they represented one or the other trend of thought. Listing the Sad-darsanas, namely, Nyaya-Vaisesika, Samkhya-Yoga, and Mimamsa-Vedanta, JBC delves into the development of their pluralistic philosophical outlooks in order to present a diversified or multi-layered view of reality. According to him, even when all these six systems are preoccupied with logical analysis, methodological systems, psychology, or intuition, their primary orientation is always the attainment of the ultimate and ineffable reality. In this way, both the Upanisads and the later systems, though adopting differing methods, do finally come together providing life orientations on the One Reality and its realization as the ultimate goal of human existence.
Chapter eleven deals with “Islam and the Religious Culture of India.” For JBC, “Hinduism to a great extent owes what it is today to what Islam was. Islam, too, in spite of all its open protestations to the contrary, was deeply influenced by the stance of Hinduism…” (DIT 106/PIT 104). After providing a short description about the historical development and theological standpoints of Islam, in general, JBC discusses about the way Islam had been established in the Indian subcontinent. Later, the political might and the establishment of this religion in the North India resulted in a new era in Indian religious history itself. However, according to JBC, “the upholding of Islamic law was more a political phenomenon than the expression of a living faith” ((DIT 112/PIT 110), and it finally resulted in mutual alienation and rivalry, detrimental to both parties. At the same time, the author identifies a synthesizing character as the characteristic mark of the ‘Indian thought’ even within such an antagonistic milieu. Despite the conflicts and competitions among members of various religious affinities, we can identify a strong and abiding sense of mutual enhancement in the interactions that happened among these different communities. While discussing about the expansion adventures of the Islamic community in India – both on the religious and political fronts – JBC takes us to the inspiring patterns of unity that became the fabric of the new Indian civilization. He writes:
Islam was a liberation for the lower ranks of the caste-ridden Hindu society. The Chishtya school especially, with its liberal and tolerant outlook, and emphasis on music as a means for attaining spiritual ecstasy, had a great fascination for the masses. It is difficult to assess what influence these Sufi groups exercised on the Hindu Bhakti movement in South India. Even if all direct influence be denied, it cannot be denied that there was a certain kindred spirit between the spirituality of the Oriental Christians, who had a strong community in South India from the early centuries of the Christian era, the mysticism of the Sufis, and the devotionalism of the Alvars and Saivites of the Tamil Nadu (DIT 111-112/PIT 110).
Chapter twelve deals with Sikhism, a religion that emerged from a movement that attempted to reconcile two major religions of India, Hinduism and Islam. Sikh means sishya, or disciple, and the Sikh religion is the community of disciples. Guru Nanak, who is acclaimed to be the founder of this religion, conceived its main goal as “to fight the evils of caste and class and build up a community open to all men. So, at an early stage in his religious movement, he instituted the sangat and the pangat, the mixed community of disciples gathered at the feet of the Guru, and the community kitchen, where all sat in the same row (pangat) for meals, regardless of class distinctions. Participation in the common meal was made the condition for hearing the words of the Guru” (DIT 126/PIT 124). It is interesting to note that Sikhism parted ways both with Hinduism and Islam: “He rejected both the Muslim Prophet and the Hindu gods. He avoided the Arabic language of the Muslims and the Sanskrit of the Hindus…” (DIT 127/PIT 125). A new pattern of religious ideology emerged in the formation of Sikhism. They accepted from Hinduism “the idea of God as the all-embracing reality with a ‘million eyes, a million forms and a million feet’, and yet formless; he also accepted the practice of reciting Divine Names, followed by the Hindu Bhaktas…” At the same time, they also had a “conception of God as father, lover, master, Great Giver, and above all, True Creator,” which came closer to the Judeo-Christian and Islamic modes of thought.
“Christianity and the Hindu-Christian Encounter” is the next chapter in which JBC captures the origin and theological development of Christianity in a nutshell, and presents the interaction that had taken place in India between Christianity and Hinduism, especially, in the first few centuries of Christian era and, later, during the colonial rule. As the Christians were readily accepted by the rest of the society into the caste structure, especially in Kerala, there existed “close collaboration between church and temple on the popular level” in various issues of practical life. A change of attitude took place after the arrival of the European merchants and missionaries, who, to a great extent, failed to recognize and value the faith and religious customs of the native Hindus. Of course, the later colonial powers (all under the tag of Christianity) had initiated educational endeavours and social uplift programmes, but mostly aimed at furthering their own political aspirations. Along with and apart from the affinity to western customs and ways of living, there emerged a group of educated Indians – mostly educated either directly or indirectly by the missionaries – who initiated a welcome move to purify and reform Hindu customs and traditions. The encounter that took place between the open minded Christian missionaries and the scholarly Hindus made room for a healthy exchange and dialogue, which, in turn, provided the ambience for mutual understanding and appreciation. Thus, “contemporary Hinduism has moved away from its traditional stance to a position where all dominant values of modern society, both eastern and western, are emphatically affirmed” (DIT 144/PIT 142). This encounter received an impetus from the Christian camp, especially through the doctrinal and perspectival changes initiated by the Vatican Council II. Given the openness of the Indian religious mind, JBC calls for continuing this dialogue by presenting Jesus Christ in a way that “appeals to the Indian mentality” and answering “to the yearnings of the Indian heart” (DIT 151/PIT 149). By and large, the pattern emerging from the Hindu-Christian encounter is heartening, though there were initial misunderstandings and unfortunate developments.
The final chapter is a short epilogue that deals with “The Future of Dialogue.” Apart from presenting an excellent but very brief summary of the patterns emerging in and through a long-lasting dialogue in the Indian subcontinent among various cultural and religious entities, JBC expresses his hopes and aspirations for a continuous dialoguing at a deeper level with wider and open horizons. He invites Christianity and Hinduism in particular to move closer to each other; his invitation is realistic and to the point: “An active and productive dialogue between the two traditions has yet to begin, and what exists at present are, at best, two monologues which pass each other at a tangent” (DIT 154/PIT 152). To effectively initiate a proper dialogue, therefore, JBC comes out with an interesting proposal: as Christianity has been stuck up with the Graeco-Judaic thought pattern for centuries, there is very little familiarity on the part of the church “with the soul of Asia.” Hence the relevance of his invitation: “Only when Christianity has fully expressed its religious message in an eastern religious idiom and imagery can it start a meaningful conversation with the East” (DIT 154/PIT 152).
3. “Conditions of Dialogue” and Emergence of a Dialoguing Pattern
Human beings are born and bred, grow and flourish in a social environment. However, as every one is aware of the lack of fullness in oneself, there is always scope for inter-subjectivity and inter-dependence, both of which are exercised in the human milieu through dialogue. Indeed, human society has existed all along in the context of communitarian dynamics. We can, therefore, say that human existence is a dialogical existence. Only a dialogical existence can be qualified as the human mode of existence, meaning that every aspect of human life, whether material, cultural, or religious, involves dynamic relationships. JBC, taking cue from this fact, tries to identify the same dynamics running through the fabric of Indian tradition. It becomes his policy statement in connection with this work. According to him,
Only in an intimate interaction or transaction can a real dialogue take place. Information gathered by scientific study may create an academic interest in other traditions. Only an interpretation as if from within the traditions, by a sort of empathy through contact with persons belonging to the respective traditions, will provide an insight into the inner dynamism of the faith behind the traditions. Only when the convergence of these various approaches to man and his life’s problems is taken into account will a true dialogue emerge. To keep up the dialogue, the identity and uniqueness of each tradition also have to be kept intact. With regard to India, this authentic dialogue among the various cultural traditions, philosophical thought-patterns and world religions is a historical fact (DIT iii/PIT vii).
So, as I have already stated in the introduction, in DIT, JBC makes a thorough attempt to narrate the “authentic dialogue” that has taken place among different cultural and religious traditions and thought patterns. The conditions he has put across in the above passage are said to guide his move.
These conditions, implied in the text of his preface, are more clearly articulated in an article published in 1975. The article is titled “Man’s Dialogical Nature and the Dialogue of Religions.” With the intention of drawing different individuals closer to each other in understanding and appreciation we involve in mutual relationships, where all the involved partners are open to each other. It is a common search for truth, a search for self-discovery, in which both the partners are enabled to understand, emphasize, and further their identity as well as respect for the other. With a view to promote this dialogue, JBC has delineated in the above said article six necessary conditions. They can be summarised as follows:
1. Concreteness of the Partners: Primarily, the partners in dialogue must be situated in their historical and existential contexts. Their understanding of historical responsibility will enable them to involve in discovering their identity, weakness, and strength, not in idealistic fantasies but in realistic and real-time existence.
2. Self-identity and Self-appreciation: “Dialogical attitude demands a certain sense of one’s own identity, and firmness in one’s own faith.” Without being obstinate, there is an intrinsic need for openness whereby each party will be ready to adopt a spirit of ‘give and take’ for mutual understanding and growth.
3. Non-academic and Non-conceptual: As the partners involved are existential entities, dialogue “should not be restricted to the academic or conceptual level.” More central are human experiences and the lively ambience of social intercourse.
4. Repudiating Self-interest, Negativism, and Aggression: As the partners involved may not be familiar with the frameworks of the others, there is a possible danger of adopting one’s own semantic framework. It may “obstruct inter-subjective communion between persons of different traditions,” and end up in “one or several monologues,” but without serving the very purpose of dialogue.
5. Part-truth and Wholeness: Openness in one’s own framework is called for, as any culturally and historically situated faith or tradition has its own inbuilt limitation. So, true dialogue calls for an acceptance of the fact that both parties’ frameworks contain only partial truths and, hence, the need for accepting the other as contributing to the integral whole.
6. Willingness to be Critical of Oneself: Without taking one’s own authentic identity for granted, one has to cultivate “a constant willingness to view one’s own existence critically” so that he or she will be able to “break open” any “restrictive barriers.” This is a call for creating a broader horizon within which the other will provide “a brilliant beam of light” into one’s own identity.
Apart from these conditions, JBC proposes that any act of dialogue between religions “can be exercised only in the presence of the Eternal Thou.” In fact, the reason is the fact that any human framework is a limited one; any amount of openness, without openness to the transcendental dimension – a reference to the trans-human levels of existence – may not finally succeed. So, with the six conditions mentioned above and the inner openness to God, according to JBC, a dialogue of religions will definitely surge ahead in creating understanding and furthering openness, thus to the success of humanity itself.
The story unfolded in DIT is a testimony to the conditions of dialogue that JBC has delineated. Although Indian history need not be seen as a conscious attempt to dialoguing among religions, their historical settings and various attempts in interacting with each other indicate that the whole history is a dialogical move, a move that has made a culturally vibrant and religiously fervent India. According to JBC, “Man’s realization of the divine, and his creative response to it in faith, trust and self-surrender, is worked out in the concrete situations of mundane life, in which man meets with a multitude of interests” (DIT 118/PIT 116). As this dialogue has taken place in the existential situations of the partners involved, it was not an abstract rhetoric or dry arm-chair discourse, but encounter of concrete human beings who came from different cultural settings and faith orientations. One major advantage of the concreteness of partners is that the resulting understanding and relationship are more abiding and long-lasting than any doctored situation of dialogue.
Dialogue in its real sense can be effective only when the partners involved are clear about their own self-identity and have self-appreciation. These aspects in due proportion will naturally facilitate the dynamics of dialogue. As dialogue does not aim at annihilating the other, but in retaining the identities of each other intact, with a more enhanced self-consciousness and appreciation, all the involved parties need to be thoroughly conscious of ‘who they are’ and ‘what their tradition or religion has to offer’, and should also have admiration for its own practices and doctrines. Of course, a positive attitude to oneself is the foundation for appreciating and accepting the patterns and positions of others. So, self-appreciation and self-acceptance, finally, do not preclude, but make better room for the other. To put it differently, a dialogical pattern that begins with an assured self-identity provides wider and inclusive horizons for human and religious existence.
There could arise a tendency among those who are involved in dialogue to move to more abstract and conceptual formulations of cultural and religious traditions. Though this move has its advantages, it involves the danger of removing dialogue to non-existential plains. Therefore, JBC cautions that dialogue, if it should be productive, shall remain non-academic and non-conceptual. In a way, this is also an invitation for all to get involved in the process, and not to restrict itself to the intelligentsia. Though an academician himself, JBC is aware of the need to retain dialogue at the existential levels where all would be creatively engaged; otherwise, it will be reduced to mere intellectual gymnastics, and will ultimately be non-productive as far as the real human existence and encounters are concerned. The ingenuity of JBC along this line can be seen even when he involves in more subtle philosophical issues. One of the concluding remarks on the systematic development of ‘Hindu’ philosophy (referring mainly to the sad-darsana), for example, has a clear message for the existential encounters. He writes: “… these different Hindu religious systems did not constitute complete or exclusive religions. They were mostly schools of thought which provided life orientations” (DIT 104/PIT 102). The same idea reverberates in an earlier passage: “The dominant feature of the Vedas is this unending quest for the ultimate meaning of life and of the world…” (DIT 16/PIT 16).
Life enhancing patterns can emerge only when we approach life with a creative spirit. Creativity – whether on the part of an individual or a group – calls for a repudiation of self-interest, negativism, and aggression at all levels. All these three are mutually related: when there is disproportionate self-interest, it will tend to produce negative attitude towards others, which, in turn, will produce aggressive tendencies. If these three are present, there is no scope for any positive encounter, but only for destructive confrontations. Interestingly, then, there would take place only monologues, and would provide no chance for any dialogue. For example, JBC himself has noted this while discussing about the encounters between Hinduism and Islam. He laments the end product of self-interest, negativism, and aggression as follows: “… two major religious traditions – worlds apart in their approach, methodology and thought pattern – faced each other without understanding each other… The great amount of confusion and misunderstanding brought about by the head-on confrontation of these two radically different systems of thought did not remain purely on the theoretical level, but affected every detail of popular religion” (DIT 119-120/PIT 118). At the same time, JBC locates a positive move in the new edicts of King Akbar. In these edicts, the religious destiny of India was once again brought back to the liberal pattern, as Akbar had freed himself from negativism and aggressive tendencies:
The study of Arabic was discouraged, and the curriculum of studies in schools was made more liberal and comprehensive than it was permitted by the earlier Muslim rulers. Mosques were destroyed in centres of rebellion and new ones were prohibited to be built. The jizya, or special religious tax, and the pilgrim tax imposed on non-Muslims, were done away with and the special Government allowance for Muslim pilgrims to Mecca was stopped. Brahmins were allowed to decide and settle the litigations of Hindus. Christian missionaries were allowed to build churches, preach their religion and make converts (DIT 115/PIT 112).
Thus, a control over self-interest, negativism, and aggression facilitates better dialogue, as different parties would be accepted more or less on the same equation. This principle is not only applicable in the case of Hindu-Muslim encounter, but is extendable to any human situation and, hence, to all religious encounters.
One of the major quests of humanity is to attain fullness or wholeness, though many a time it apparently remains an unattainable ideal. At the same time, human tendency is to assure itself that whatever we have attained, especially within the religious domain, is what is ultimately possible. Such a tendency, when coupled with authoritarianism and dogmatism, tends to insulate itself and claim the tag of wholeness as its exclusive right. This, however, leads to a difficult situation where dialogue becomes almost impossible. Once the claim for wholeness is made, mostly as an exclusive property, there is no chance for openness. Realistically what happens is, each group wrongly assuring wholeness, tends to take the partial truth at their disposal for the whole truth, and thus is mislead in the whole process. The sad plight is that they not only have no access to the whole truth, but also are kept away from any chance of getting closer to whatever is available to others. In this context, dialogue would mean that each one has something meaningful to say and something special to offer. Here we find JBC quoting Gandhi approvingly, who spoke to the Christian missionaries in 1927: “To you who have come to teach India, I therefore say, you cannot give without taking. If you have come to give rich treasures of experiences, open your hearts out to receive the treasures of this land, and you will not be disappointed; neither will you have misread the message of the Bible” (DIT 141-142/PIT 139-140). As each tradition is capable of appropriating only a part of the whole, dialogue must make room for different insights and perspectives, which would enrich and complement each other, thus leading all towards wholeness. It is an invitation to all concerned to attend carefully to the insights of other traditions, and to remain open in our search for the ultimate truth.
Awareness of one’s own identity coupled with openness to the other generates a willingness on the part of dialoguing parties to be self-critical. Self-knowledge has to go hand in hand with self-criticism; it is not a pessimistic tendency, but a realistic and creative one. Readiness on the part of a person or a system to be critical of oneself/itself provides ample scope for improvement and cooperation. JBC, as belonging to both Indian and Christian traditions, approaches these two realities with an open and critical mind. He takes his fellow Christians in India to task: “To be communicated appropriately, this Gospel of Christ has, in a way, to become incarnate in every country according to its idioms and thought patterns” (DIT 149/PIT 147). Being self-critical, he affirms: “… no one evaluation is exhaustive of the case or exclusive of other evaluations. Man’s religious response is deeply bound up with these various facets of his life” (DIT 119/PIT 117). It is an invitation to everyone to be critical of internal as well as external affirmations, positive or negative, that ultimately turn out to create self and the other affirming bridges or the all negating gulfs.
The affirmative standpoint adopted by JBC all through DIT climaxes in his enduring interest to identify the presence and working of the transcendental or divine reality all through the unfolding of Indian tradition. India, for JBC, is the land of “spiritual insights” and a culture inspired by abiding search for the divine. Probably, it is this abiding sense of the divine and the spiritual that has kept the tracks clear for a single Indian tradition to emerge, despite the presence of distinctive and overarching religious cultures and catastrophic turn of events. Despite the political upheavals that this country had witnessed, the possible change of affinities from one to another religion, and the manipulative strategies adopted by the subsequent religious or political heads, the ekagrata of the soul of India, its one-pointedness in the divine continues without any flux, and makes the continuing dialogue a reality, and the emergence of an abiding pattern of thought a possibility.
4. A Critique on the ‘Dialogical Pattern’
The ambitious plan JBC has undertaken in DIT is to present the whole Indian history as evolving into a single tradition. According to him, “all the major world cultures, philosophies and religions met together, interacted and converged to form a single tradition” (DIT iii/PIT vii). Although it may not be possible for us to locate a unified single layered tradition with a uniform mode of religious and cultural expressions, we do find all the multi-layered religious and cultural streams that have made the present India falling in place to form dynamic and vibrant patterns of thought, which all merge together in a dialogical relationship within the Indian ethos.
The capacity of the author to grasp different dimensions of the case in point, and his creative response in arranging them in a coherent manner, and his diligence in critically analysing their impact in drawing the patterns of Indian thought are praiseworthy. The diverse strands that are brought together in each chapter of this book pose a difficult task, but a task that has been completed with painstaking thoroughness, meticulous clarity, and ingenuity in interpretation. For example, after having highlighted the nature of religion and religious practices in the Indus Valley civilization that centred around the fertility cult and mythologies, the author concludes that the basic tone of Indian religiosity is already set in the following: “a concrete experience of nature, a positive approach to sex and fertility, and an approach to power and salvation through interiority” (DIT 12/PIT 12). Thus, his insightful interpretation of the early history of Indian civilization makes room for a continuity of the tradition; the philosophic and theological deliberations we find later in the Vedic and Upanisadic periods are already – though rudimentarily – present there, and they set the trend for the entire tradition to evolve slowly but consistently.
Moreover, the ability of the author to describe various philosophical nuances of the “Indian thought” without losing its depth and elegance is praiseworthy. For example, let us note a passage that tries to capture the dynamism of human consciousness according to Samkhya-Yoga: “Knowledge of anything is also simultaneously self-knowledge. The deeper it goes into the nature of things, the deeper it also penetrates into the nature of the knowing subject. Hence, the centrifugal tendency of knowledge is also centripetal. Already constituted and oriented towards an end, it is at the same time also self-discovering, and therefore personalizing” (DIT 82/PIT 80). Further, it is heartening to find JBC’s attempt not merely to recall the historical events, but in recapturing and retelling them with a purpose of identifying various philosophical perspectives that are inlaid in them. In fact, what we find in the forefront is the outlook that JBC himself has adopted in seeing and interpreting a series of events that culminates in the ‘Indian’ thought.
Although, by and large, DIT is a successful accomplishment, there are a few issues that need to be squarely addressed. To begin with, while presenting “The Spirit of the Vedas” (chapter 3) the author deliberates upon the Purusa Sukta (Rgveda X, 90). Indeed, he captures the essence of the theory, and understands the synthesis that was carried out by the theory in the Vedic period, a synthesis that had set the all-integrating Indian ethos for the generations to come. He writes: “There is also a certain attempt at synthesis of the various theories. Thus, the Purusa Sukta, the Hymn of the Primeval Person, weaves all these different theories into a single myth, and places the Person at the centre and head of everything… This Purusa-centred world view was to become India’s special way of looking at reality. It emphasises the interiority of the spirit, the Atman, the self of man, as the focal point of all reality. Around this centre, there revolve concentric circles of interpretation which are, on the one hand, personalistic and even anthropomorphic and, on the other, impersonal and theoretical” (DIT 16-17/PIT 16-17). Though ennobling is this presentation on the Purusa Sukta, a critical reader finds it amiss as the author does not seem to be aware of the unjust social practices and structural adjustments that were put in place by the same Sukta. Although the Vedic sources cannot be blamed, we find that, in the later Indian history, scores of unjust religious and socio-political practices were unleashed to uphold the supremacy of the priestly class, but at the cost of the rest of the society. The author seems to miss a balanced view, as he simply captures only the poetic and religio-synthetic mood of this hymn, which was to later become one of the most destructive and enslaving religious tools against the largest section of humanity in the Indian subcontinent. Though critical of the invasion of the Aryans that had finally destroyed the Indus Valley civilization and had destabilised the original inhabitants of the Indus plane, he appears to be once again approving of the social stratification that came about in the Indian society, though it was an unjust move from the very start. He writes concluding his discussion on the interaction between Pre-Aryan and Aryan races: “a certain friendship between the races was achieved when everyone was integrated into a sacral community with definite places of identity and assigned distinctive roles in the comprehensive organization of the caste” (DIT 28/PIT 27).
In his presentation of a deified caste system, a pattern that had unleashed catastrophic social destabilisation, a question must be posed: “Should dialogue be totally uncritical?” JBC seems to provide the version of the upper classes in presenting the dynamics of the caste system, though most of it in practice was so abominable. Though aware of the later deviations in the practice of the caste system, JBC mentions couple of western scholars who have praised it in terms of the high ideals (DIT 37-38/PIT 36). He considers the caste system as “one important factor that maintained the cultural unity of India through the vicissitudes of politics.” He continues: “It provided India with the spiritual outlook that has been its characteristic feature in facing every social, economic and political problem.” It is true if the whole issue of caste is looked upon from the angle of the Brahmins, and Brahmins alone; indeed, it provided them with a spirituality that was instrumental in safeguarding their undue privileged status in the society; also, it succeeded in maintaining the same structure for the political stability and security of both the Brahmins and Kshatriyas. Although we admit along with JBC that “equality and hierarchy are primary realities of social order” (DIT 40/PIT 39), we shall not forget the fact that all these did materialize at the cost of the humanity of the people belonging to the lower strata of the same society: they were reduced to the status of slaves, who could be mastered and manipulated for the furtherance of the whims and fancies of the upper castes. Is this the reflection of a healthy and integral spirituality, or the symbol of a power-mongering people/system that did not bother to trample a section of the people without any prick of conscience?
JBC seems to be the child of the era within which he lived and philosophized. There was a tendency among the twentieth century experts in Indian philosophies to restrict the expression “Indian philosophy” to mere Upanisadic philosophy, that too to the Advaitic interpretation of Sankara alone. Though the whole attempt in the DIT is to provide a rather broad spectrum of Indian thought, when it comes to a discussion of “Philosophic Hinduism,” JBC has a section title, “Specific Characteristics of Hindu Philosophy,” to list the salient features of the world vision present in the Upanisads. The sweeping claim that he makes in the introductory paragraph of this section asserts that these Upanisadic characteristics “constitute the identity of Indian tradition itself” (DIT 63/PIT 60). I am not contesting the fact that the Upanisadic world view had had a great impact on the Indian society; at the same time, it must also be said that this impact was by and large restricted to a minority elite, mostly dominated by the Brahmins. On the other side of the spectrum, we find the majority of Indians, who follow different patterns of thought, worship, and moral and legal codes, but brought under the overarching umbrella of Hinduism. It may be embarrassing to highlight the fact that the entire DIT does not even show any awareness of this; then, much less is the scope for any discussion. Probably, this approach of JBC, who is considered to be one of the pioneers in the post-Vatican II Indian Church’s attempt to broaden the vision and to initiate a dialogue of religions, and to dare to introduce more positive but critical instructions on other religions in Indian seminary curriculum, had brought about long lasting repercussions on the plains of ecclesiastical education. Till ‘liberation theology’ had made its way in and exit from the Catholic seminaries and institutes in its original form, our awareness of the Indian religious reality was very much limited to the doctrines subscribed by the elite and their practices; however, though late, a new outlook has emerged among the experts on Indian thought that an exclusive focus on the Vedic and Upanisadic thoughts is a quite one-sided approach, and is to be corrected and necessarily supplemented by many other religious traditions, whether their ‘philosophic’ appeal is not as obvious as in the case of the former. These traditions were also essential ingredients in the development of the Indian religious and cultural ethos and, therefore, should not be left out from any attempt to identify the characteristics of Indian tradition. In fact, JBC admits this fact very generously in another location, though his intent is, once again, only to call the readers’ attention to the divergent schools of thought that emerged from varied interpretations of the Vedic and Upanisadic sources. He says: “Hindu philosophy is not the development of a single line of thought. It shows the tensions, complexities and compromises of a number of thought-currents which came eventually to form a single unified tradition” (DIT 65/PIT 63).
A related minor issue is JBC’s choice for the Advaita of Sankara. His discussion about the Vedanta school of thought, though mentions various interpreters, such as Sankara, Ramanuja, Vallabha, Nimbarka, etc., when it comes to a detailed description, JBC, once again, falls back to the dominant trend. This indicates a preferential option on the part of the author for Advaita Vedanta, dominated by a minority elite. Although a personal preference on the part of JBC cannot be questioned, I do not find it easy to accept his claim that Sankara is “the undisputed leader of the school” (DIT 93/PIT 91) relegating the others to a secondary status. Of course, Sankara’s contributions are unparallel, but so too are the contributions of others like Ramanuja.
The attempt of the politically mighty (though numerically minority) mainstream Hindus to entice every other possible group into the Hindu-fold is just brushed aside in the DIT as an exercise of the catholic mentality. JBC identifies the absorption of the lower or animistic forms of religious cults into Hinduism as a modern phenomenon; though many Hindu authors present it as an ecumenical move within Hinduism, the motives of those who initiated the process are dubious, as it had more political undercurrents and advantages than anything strictly religious. D. S. Sarma is quoted as saying that “Hinduism is a league of religions” (DIT 142/PIT 140). JBC comments:
The innumerable sects and groups differ vastly from place to place in their beliefs and practices, though they may all be grouped loosely under the main sectarian forms of Vaishnavism, Saivism and Saktism. In the fight for independence, Indian leaders like Mahatma Gandhi, Aurobindo Ghosh and others realized that any revival of political consciousness should have a strong religious tone, which was the main strength of India’s tradition. They also realized that any revival of popular Hinduism would mean the resurgence of local cults and the breaking up of the Hindu community into innumerable warring factions. So, at the same time as preaching a religious revival, they tried to steer it away from traditional popular lines, from caste and untouchability, sectarianism and bigotry. A number of legislative measures taken, especially after the independence of India in 1947, like the opening of Hindu temples to Harijans or low castes and the strict prohibition of caste discriminations, were all aimed at ‘catholicizing’ Hinduism (DIT 142/PIT 140).
The catholicizing move within Hinduism should have been a welcome one, if not for their vicious designs and political motives. JBC is silent about these nuances probably because the political assertion of the Hindus and communal alienation of non-Hindus in India was not strongly felt at the time of his writing, although the undercurrents were painfully felt by any informed and concerned Indian even before Indian Independence. Therefore, the issue I raise here is this: a divergent pattern – probably characterised by a strong self-assertion of the Hindus at the exclusion of the others – had been emerging in the renascent movements of Hinduism, starting even with thinkers like Gandhi and Vivekananda. DIT has kept silent about it altogether. The motives remain unknown.
Finally, due to the general nature of the discussion undertaken in DIT, JBC had made a promise in his preface. That is, he wanted to come out with more specific works to deal with the same issues in detail (DIT iii/PIT vii). However, a cursory look at the later writings of JBC does not indicate any chance for the fulfilment of this promise. The pressing needs of his academic career, the ever dynamic and widening horizons of his scholarly interests, and the ease with which he could move from one realm to another, probably, might have made him forget a promise he himself had made to his readers. Had he invested his time and produced the promised series of detailed works, perhaps it would have been easier for us to understand the intricate dimensions of the ongoing dialogue in the Indian traditions, and the deepening understanding of the patterns within the ever progressive and divergent thought patterns in India.
Dialogue can happen only among effervescent cultures, vibrant traditions, and living faiths. It is a matter of pride for us all to see that JBC did not attempt to write a book on the history of Indian philosophy, nor a book on Indian history, but to depict the living saga of a dialogue among cultural traditions and religions within which all partners have been active partners, whose play was staged by a constant ‘giving and taking’. It is to the credit and ingenuity of JBC that, within the pages of DIT, we have a novel and meaningful way of looking at the emergence of India with her diverse traditions, religions, and thought patterns. Although some important strands have been left out and some have been given undue importance, overall DIT has maintained the thoroughness of a scholarly work. Its systematic development, both in terms of chronological and thematic development, incisive analysis, and insightful comments all makes it a work that continues to have relevance for the contemporary readers, though written almost four decades ago.
The dialogical patterns that have been identified in DIT, later, shaped the pattern of JBC’s further philosophizing and theologizing. The dialogical approach that he has found in the Indian tradition became an indispensable theme that runs through all his further writings, as it would be acknowledged by the forthcoming reviews and systematic studies on JBC’s works. Human dialogical existence and the ongoing dialogue that has been shaping India’s destiny became the locus of the intellectual strivings of JBC.
Although JBC-initiated dialogue can no more continue, as his mortal life has come to an end, we all know that the dialogue of cultures and religions continues. In fact, it must continue so that humanity can meaningfully exist. If meaningful human existence must continue within a dialogical mode, with qualitatively enhanced methods, every human person has to consciously get involved in the process. Indeed, now the baton is in our hands; it is our turn and our task to continue JBC’s legacy, a legacy that is thoroughly immersed in dialogue, a legacy that is capable of identifying and building up significant patterns for a better grasp of reality, and an enhanced response to it. The road of dialogue has not come to an end with what JBC has accomplished; it is an unfinished and ongoing pilgrimage, a pilgrimage in which every human being has to take part in order to further meaningful and humane existence.
This book was later published under the title Patterns of Indian Thought (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1971). As there are two different versions of this book, though without any difference in the content, for all subsequent references, I shall adopt the following pattern: John Britto Chethimattam will be abbreviated into “JBC,” Dialogue in Indian Tradition will be abbreviated into “DIT,” and Patterns of Indian Thought will be abbreviated into “PIT.” Page numbers of both versions are given immediately after their abbreviations.
Nehru, Glimpses of World History, condensed by Saul K. Padover, xii and 46-47.
Nehru, Speech at Aligarh Muslim University on January 24, 1948.
These three words stand for the following: “There is no permanent individual soul; everything is fleeting and non-eternal; life itself is beset with suffering” (DIT 49/PIT 47).
John Britto Chethimattam, “Man’s Dialogical Nature and the Dialogue of Religions,” Journal of Dharma 1, 1 (July 1975), 10-29. Incidentally, this is the first issue of the Journal of Dharma, and the very first article that appeared in this issue is authored by JBC. Indeed, it is a fact that we can recall with pride that the international journal, Journal of Dharma, started under the auspices of the Centre for the Study of World Religions (CSWR, DVK, Bangalore) in 1975, with the opening article of JBC, has come a long way in promoting understanding among various religious traditions and philosophies through inter-religious studies and dialogue. In fact, the dialogue identified by JBC in the Indian tradition continues to inspire the Journal of Dharma, and it continues to be instrumental in promoting and enhancing the same dialogue in the new millennium.
Chethimattam, “Man’s Dialogical Nature and the Dialogue of Religions,” 21-22.
Chethimattam, “Man’s Dialogical Nature and the Dialogue of Religions,” 22.
Chethimattam has affirmed elsewhere as follows: “… the different religions cannot be looked upon as closed systems to be compared with each other, but rather as ongoing movements that endeavour to arrive at a deeper understanding of the divine reality disclosed to man in human form, efforts to attain a better realization of the authentic human nature, and strands of human history which under the guiding hand of God converge towards an eschatological unity of experience and understanding. It is wrong, therefore, to conceive Christ, Vishnu or Buddha as rivals or mere partial expressions of the one divine Logos, in the sense that Christ is good only for Christians, Vishnu for the Hindus and Buddha for Buddhists.” “Atman and Visnu: Hindu Insights for Inter-faith Dialogue,” in Meeting of Religions: New Orientations and Perspectives, ed. Thomas A. Aykara, Bangalore: Dharmaram Publications, 1978, 153.
M. K. Gandhi, Young India, 11-8-1927, cited in Christian Mission, 159
In one of his later writings, JBC affirms: “Sticking exclusively to any one tradition, even the Christian one, without paying attention to the aspects presented by other traditions in the consideration of any one of the above religious mysteries is a failure in truth, failure to be truly catholic… Even though divine Revelation is the direct self-disclosure of God to man the words, deeds and their narratives are so much restricted in linguistic contexts and cultural parameters that their original experience cannot be arrived at without proper interpretation. But since the interpretations themselves are beset with the same limitations the more interpretations and commentaries are added upon one another the more remote we get from the original experience. The benefit of religious pluralism in this matter is the reflective process by which experience in different linguistic and cultural situations converge on the ineffable Reality indicated by them.” Chethimattam, “Meaning and Scope of Inter-religious Dialogue,” Jeevadhara 11, 66 (November-December 1981), 326.
The same tendency can be located at different locations in DIT. For example, while discussing various aspects of the Samkhya-Yoga philosophy, especially the uninvolved role of the Purusa in the process of evolution, the author writes as follows: “a point emphasized by Indian tradition is that the controlling spiritual principle, Purusa, is not itself involved in the movement” (DIT 87/PIT 85; emphasis added). In this passage also we find the tendency to generalize a characteristic of one particular school as that of the entire Indian thought. There is another instance from the same section on Samkhya-Yoga: “From what we have said so far, it has been sufficiently hinted that Hindu tradition does not approach the problem of reality with the pattern of pure phenomenon, nor with that of action. Its pattern of approach is that of concentric levels or state of reality” (DIT 88-89/PIT 86-87; emphasis added). Again, the same happens when he discusses about the Vedanta of Sankara. He writes referring to the Vedanta: “The negative categories of Hindu thought discussed earlier…” (DIT 100/PIT 98). “The Hindu concern is with concrete human life, and Hindu religion is the acknowledgement of the non-finality of the individual human self” (DIT 104/ PIT 102; emphasis added).
D. S. Sarma, Renascent Hinduism, Bombay: Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, 1966, 3.