Hindu-Christian Dialogue at Tirupati

Tirupati, India. Tirupati is a temple town out in the middle of the plains of Andhra Pradesh. From those plains seven hills arise, green and cool, all the more powerful with their craggy cliffs. At the top of the hills — the Tirumala, holy mountain — sits what is said to be the most popular temple in India, and the wealthiest religious site (“second only to the Vatican”), the site known at Tiruvenkatam, the holy place of Lord Venkateshvara. Praised in poetry for at least 1300 years as a Vaishnava Hindu site of particular importance, it is here that the chief Vaishnava mystic poet (alvar), Shatakopan (Nammalvar, our alvar) surrendered completely to his God:

   You don’t come as you came, as you didn’t come, you come;

eyes like red lotuses, lips like red fruit, four-shouldered one, ambrosia, my life,

O lord of holy Venkatam where glowing gems make night into day:

alas, this servant cannot be apart from your feet even for a moment.

   “I cannot be apart from you even for a moment,” says the Lady of the flower, residing on your chest;

you are unmatched in fame, owner of all three worlds, my ruler,

O lord of holy Venkatam where peerless immortals and crowds of sages delight:

with no place else to go, this servant has entered right beneath your feet.

(Holy Word of Mouth VI.10.9-10)

I am here for an interreligious dialogue meeting, in the temple compound of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON). The compound, which includes also a new and quite radiant golden temple, is in the town at the foot of the sacred mountain. As I write this, early one morning, a congregation stands and chants, during the early morning (4:15am) worship, the famed mantra:

Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna Hare Hare

Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama Hare Hare

This mantra, though simple and brief, is by tradition possessed of deep meanings, in praise of Krishna (Rama), his divine consort Radha (Hara), and his brother Balarama. In fact, most of the day and night somewhere in the temple area there is the murmuring — or loud chanting — of the mantra. This constant recitation practice has great psychological power, as the holy Name becomes deeply imbedded in the devotee’s consciousness. It also gives vivid meaning to St. Paul’s instruction, “Pray always.”

That ISKCON would be hosting an interreligious dialogue will seem surprising to many readers, I am sure. After all, when the founding swami, Swami Prabhupada, arrived in New York in 1965, he preached an exclusive devotion to Krishna, by whose name alone one is saved. ISKCON is in turn rooted a very old Vaishnava tradition of Bengal, such as manifests a similar theology, “Krishna alone.” It has been, at times, a quintessentially exclusivist tradition. Many members even today remained disinclined toward dialogue and yet, over the decades, some influential leaders in the community have urged dialogue, and stressed that the very universality of the Krishna faith makes dialogue not only permissible but advisable. It was refreshing then to be invited to a dialogue meeting initiated by its Hindu members, not the Christians in attendance.

This dialogue, a first in India under ISKCON sponsorship, brought together about 15 participants, Catholic and Protestant Christians, and ISKCON Hindus along with the south Indian Vaishnavas known as Shri Vaishnavas because of their conviction that Lord Vishnu is eternally accompanied by his divine Consort Shri Laksmi. In a sense, this was also an ecumenical dialogue, participants on each side needing to hear from others of another community in their own faith tradition. All the participants were Indian, excepting two of the ISKCON organizers, an Indian professor who grew up in America, and myself; the group was about two-thirds male and one-third female.

The Sunday-Tuesday meeting included four papers on “Love of God.” The papers, meant to introduce basic ideas for the sake of the participants from the other traditions, were excellent occasions for wide reaching conversations on basic ideas about love, kinds of love, God in relation to the human race. This was easier than one might expect, since Vaishnavas share with Christians devotion to a single, loving God. The papers were particularly interesting in that nothing could be taken for granted, and the basic ideas, basic scriptural texts, needed to be explained in direct terms.

Two papers were given on the second day on “Theological Foundations for Dialogue,” and these papers, received of course by a group that had gathered because its members were already open to dialogue, were well-received. Some participants, mindful of skepticism about dialogue in their home communities, pushed the question of the purpose and value of dialogue; since this meeting was initiated by its Hindu participants, usual suspicions about evangelizing did not come to the fore. In the end, there was agreement that in the India of today, so complex a society and one so fragile, it is crucial that members of different faiths be in regular contact, not simply taking one another for granted; and in a world in which passions and ambitions often coopt religions, it is important that some of us stop, listen, and learn from other another’s traditions.

On the morning of the second day, there were short Christian and Hindu prayer services. Morning Prayer for Epiphany (January 6) was appropriately the Christian instance, and the universalism of this feast was particularly apt for the occasion (although several of the Hindus present were disappointed that the prayers were in English, not Latin). A Hindu participant led us through readings and chanting offered Krishna. (In fact, since we were meeting right next to the temple, day and night we could hear, and visit whenever we wished, the ISKCON community in worship.) Neither of the shared services required or perhaps even expected the participation of those of the other tradition, but it was felt, rightly I think, that there needed to be gestures toward the foundations of our faith and theology in actual religious practice; being present too is a powerful witness.

The two days were lively, good-willed, and the start to end everyone was earnest and attentive. At the meeting’s end, there was a consensus that there need to be further meetings, in South India and perhaps in other areas of India, to cultivate, for a new generation, the habits of dialogue and interreligious learning. This was of course just one small initiative and gesture in a country that is large and religiously complicated as well. The mixing of politics and religion is all more notable in India at the moment, as the Bharatiya Janata Party government and its allies assert themselves; the dangers of religious misunderstanding are all the greater. So no one can deny that small steps such as this meeting are as important as at any time in recent history.

After the meeting was finished, three of us visited the temple area on the top of the hill to the great temple on the top of the hill, a scene of great natural beauty — and also of crowds so great and lines so long that we had no chance actually to pass through the most sacred precincts of the temple. We did, however, visit other shrines of great antiquity and palpably intense devotion; what we had discussed in our meeting was being lived out all around us.

As I finish and post this piece, I am back in the great city of Chennai, where I will give the Westcott-Teape Lectures early next week, on the “future of Hindu-Christian understanding,” before moving on to Kolkata and New Delhi, to repeat the same lectures. More on this, in another post.