Dialogue with Hindus is something which has grown up only very recently in India. It began, apart from pioneer efforts by some Individuals, scarcely ten years ago with some meetings of a group of Christians–Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant–under the direction of the then Swiss ambassador to India Dr Cuttat. This group met in a spirit of prayer to prepare themselves for dialogue by meditating together on passages of the Bible and the Upanishads, which for many are a revelation of the depths of wisdom and experience of God to be found in the Upanishads. The aim of this group was always to seek to meet the Hindu in the depth of his mystical experience and to se how a Christian can come to share in this experience. The result of these meetings was a conviction that in the Upanishads Bhagavad Gita there is an experience of God of a depth and significance which can only be compared with that of the contemporary Hebrew prophets.
But perhaps the two greatest pioneers in dialogue with Hindus were Fr Monchanin Fr le Saux, two French priests who founded the ashram of Shantivanam in 1950 in South India on the banks of the Cavery river. Fr Monchanin who took the name of Swami Paramarubi Anandam, the Bliss of the Supreme spirit was both a scholar and a very holy man, who conceived his vision of a meeting with Hindus on the level of contemplative experience in the thirties when even the ecumenical movement among Christians was only just beginning, but unhappily he died in 1957. Yet he left behind a legacy, not only in the ashram which he founded but also in the principles which guided him in the dialogue with Hindus which are of permanent value. Fr. le Saux, a Benedictine Monk, who took the name of Swami Abhishiktananda, the Bliss of Christ, continued his work at Shantivanam but finally retired to a hermitage in the Himalayas, where he wrote several books of extraordinary insight and through his own experience of God gave an inspiration to the whole Church in India.
Fr le Saux himself died only two months ago, but his work is being continued at Shantivanam, and last month a Hindu Christian dialogue meeting was held at Shantivanam, which may be considered as the fulfilment of much which both he and Fr Monchanin had sought. The meeting was organised by the Commission for Dialogue in India, and was attended not only by two bishops on the Dialogue Commission, but also by Mgr Rossano from the Secretariat for non-Christians in Rome, who gave a key-note address of outstanding importance, as showing the principles of dialogue which are now accepted officially by the Church. There were over 50 people, Catholic and Protestant, Christian and Hindu, present each day for three days. There was throughout an atmosphere of extreme openness and friendliness, which when one considers the atmosphere of fear and suspicion which prevailed until recently on both sides–and which still prevails in many–was itself an achievement.
But the discussions themselves were of great interest. The tone of the meeting was deliberately made personal and existential. Each one was asked to answer the question; What does my religion mean to me and how do I relate the partner in the dialogue?” This meant that it was not an academic discussion of religious differences which leads nowhere but a sharing of religious experience which leads to a real communion in the experience of God. This became very clear in the prayer services which were held in common in the chapel, which is built in the style of a Hindu temple. The Hindus felt perfectly at home and the service was composed of readings, prayers and chants from both Hindus and Christian sources. It is a deeply moving experience to listen to Hindu prayers and songs expressing sorrow for sin and longing for grace. the call for self-surrender and the bliss of union with God. At this level Hindu and Christian meet in a shared experience of communion with one another and with God.
The basic principle of this meeting, said Mgr Rossano, was one of mutual enrichment by sharing experience. In every religious tradition not only Hindu and Christian, but Buddhist and Muslim, African and American Indian, there is an immeasurable depth of religious experience, each people experiencing the divine mystery through its own language and symbols and patterns of thoughts In the dialogue it is understood that each one remains true to his own tradition of life and thought, but seeks to open himself to the experience of the reality of God in a different mode of thought and expression. The comparison was made of the white light which is broken up into different colours–red, blue green, yellow–which appear different and even opposed, but which when traced back to their source are found to be one. The origin and goal of all religion is the same the one inexpressible Mystery, in which the ultimate meaning of human existence is to be found. This was expressed in the declaration of a group of theologians from east and west at a seminar on Evangelisation. which was recently held at Nagpur in north India. “An ineffable mystery they declared, “the centre and ground of reality and human life, is in different forms and manners active among all peoples of the world and gives ultimate meaning to human existence and aspirations. This mystery which is called by different names but which no name can adequately represent is definitively disclosed and communicates in Jesus of Nazareth.”
This, of course, expresses the Christian point of view. For a Christian the disclosure of the mystery is to be found in Christ, for a Buddhist in the Buddha, for a Hindu in the Vedas, for a Muslim in the Koran. Each has his own unique insight into the mystery and we have to learn to share these insights with one another. To relate these insights to one another, to see the relationship of each to the whole, is the function of theology today. In this task the Christian theologian cannot work apart from the Hindu, the Buddhist and the Muslim, who are all engaged in the same work, just as the Catholic theologian cannot work apart from the Protestant. In this process we have to make sure that nothing of the essential truth of each religious tradition is lost. We are not seeking a syncretism in which each religion will lose its own individuality, but an organic growth in which each religion has to purify itself and discover its own inmost depth and significance and then relate itself to the inner depth of the other traditions. Perhaps it will never be finally achieved in this world. but it is the one way in which we can advance today towards that unity in truth, which is the ultimate goal of mankind.
This article was first published in The Tablet, Vol. CCXXVIII, (1974)