An Amazing and Perfectly Ordinary Trip to India

Swamis and MeCambridge, MA. I drafted this reflection yesterday, while on a 14 hour flight from Dubai to Boston, returning home after a brief three week trip to India. Despite the jet lag, I thought it best ot finish it today.

I had traveled to south India in the first place for a conference in Hyderabad on Ramanuja, the great theologian of the Shrivaishnava Hindu community that worships Vishnu with the Goddess Sri as the divine couple. 2017 marked his 1000th birth anniversary. The host of the conference was the venerable Chinna Jeeyar Swami, the leader of a religious community inside the Shrivaishnava Hindu community that worships Vishnu with the Goddess Shri as the divine couple. The Swami’s theme is — worship your own, honor the others — which is a very good response in an age when disinformation and fake views of the religious other gain the headlines. This conference took place almost literally in the shadow of a 216 feet tall statue of the saint. I spoke on the importance of his small and least-studied work, a text of daily worship called the Manual of Daily Worship (Nitya Grantham). I’ve translated the text for the first time, and presented it as a key to his corpus of more familiar commentarial works, and revelatory of the religious practice at the heart of his entire theology. I had occasion (as one of just two Christians present) to indicate how Ramanuja’s worship resonates with my own Christian practice: quite different in the details, but still instances of integral and loving worship of God. Very orthodox and committed to their own faith, the swamis and lay participants seemed to like the fact that I too had a lineage and was a practitioner of my faith.

After the conference, I traveled down to Madurai, where I lectured at Arul Anandar College in Karmathur. I spoke to the seminarians there at the invitation of Fr Vincent Sekhar, one of the foremost Jesuit proponents of interreligious dialogue in India today and a friend since 1982. My theme was the enduring importance of intellectual commitment and study precisely in a world of increasing violence and misunderstanding. Particularly when disinformation and ignorance are on the rise, even a small group of religious people who know their own faith and the faiths of others is all the more essential.

Still in the Madurai area, I spent a few days in a very rural area near the small town of Singampunari, at St. Joseph’s College, a new institution run by the Franciscan Sisters of St. Joseph. Sister Margaret Bastin FSJ, the Principal, is another old friend. She is a very talented singer of Indian classical music, and also the author of a recent edition of the remarkable Tempavani (The Unfading Garland), a Tamil epic poem by Constantine Joseph Beschi, SJ (1680-1742). We read together the Tamil of chapter 4 of Beschi’s epic, a remarkable chapter in which the young Joseph discerns his vocation, opting finally for detachment in the world, a celibate entirely at God’s service. Very Jesuit indeed, and the prequel to God’s all the more surprising plan that he marry Mary, a drama taken up in chapter 5.

On the last leg of my trip, in Chennai (which was spared the terrible floods that afflicted Kerala just to the west), I gave a lecture on Joseph’s discernment at Rev. Professor Felix Wilfred’s Asian Centre for Cross Cultural Studies, where we had a most lively discussion on the way in which Beschi made the Christian story seem very thoroughly — too much so? — south Indian and accessible to Hindu readers. In Chennai I was staying at Satya Nilayam (“Abode of Truth”), one of the Indian Jesuits’ two national houses for the study of philosophy by young Jesuits. While there I taught some classes on Purva Mimamsa — ancient Indian scriptural and sacrificial reasoning – with the theme, “Can ritual/legal reasoning count as philosophy?” While a number of the faculty I knew there over the decades have retired, I was warmly welcomed by the current Dean, Fr. E. P. Mathew, SJ and the other Jesuits on the staff.

Just a few hours before flying away, I gave a lecture at the Vishnu Mohan Foundation, led now by Shrihariprasad, a genial and respected local swami who cultivates interfaith learning. He had asked me to speak on Vedanta Deshika, who is arguably the greatest theologian in that tradition after Ramanuja, and whose 750th birth anniversary is celebrated this year. In his Yatiraja Saptati (74 Verses for the Lord of Ascetics) Deshika praises Ramanuja for the integral intellectual and spiritual nature of his learned writing, and for how his theological and philosophical writings, though robustly intellectual, also protect, nourish, and enlighten the whole community. To be a creative theologian is to be part of a tradition; to write well is to write for an expert audience, but in a way that can also nourish the faith and daily life of the wider community. Which Christian could disagree with that?

So it was a good if exhausting trip, and it was good to be able to prepare a few new lectures, travel a bit, and renew old friendships, all in the very vibrant and sometimes overwhelming India of 2018.

Key though was that this was also a perfectly ordinary trip, my 17th or 18th to India, and in a way as familiar as taking a walk to Harvard Square. I entered the Society of Jesus in 1968, and by 1971 was beginning to think of getting myself to India. So many years later, I am long past the romanticism and the disillusionment that beset us when the India of our imaginations meets the realities of 21st century India. Insofar as a foreigner and occasional visitor is able, I have a fairly realistic (and deep down very positive) view of India. I still do not think that Hinduism and Christianity are the same. Nor do I think the great questions of truth and God’s intentions for the world no longer matter or are reduced to a matter of taste. But the things I understand and those I do not are still all woven into the fabric of my life: the mysteries are inside me, familiar paradoxes I’ve lived with most of my life. I am at home in India too.

May interreligious diversity become as natural to us as breathing in and breathing out! Let us give up on crises and dramas, and let our multiplcity of religious neighbors become a perfectly ordinary part of all our lives today — whether we travel or not, whether are liberals or conservatives, whether we look outward or inward for spiritual nourishment. I found the world to come alive religiously through Hinduism, while some of you —and just to speak of Christians for the moment — find it come alive in some other tradition. The astonishing diversity around us will not disappear, nor even diminish, certainly not in this century. Scandals and tragedies sadly beset us again and again, but the religious complexity of being human remains very much alive, nourishing us beyond our limited resources if only we would take and eat. If we pay attention and in the long run, in faith, then our ordinary lives take on a new dimension that is part of who we are. In the end, in a matter of fact and every day way, we learn to see Christ in all of it, alive there, yeast in the loaf.