What Catholics can learn from a Hindu saint on his 1,000th anniversary

Cambridge, Ma. I am the kind of person who remembers anniversaries, and 2016 and 2017 offer a few worth remembering. This academic year marks the 200th anniversary of Harvard Divinity School. And, in 2017, it is the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, culminating on Oct. 31, 2017, the date when by tradition Martin Luther posted his 95 theses on the door of All Saints’ Church in Germany. And one even greater number is before us: the 1000th anniversary of the great theistic Hindu theologian, Ramanuja (1017-1137). His anniversary year is 2017, but since this blog series itself will be ending this month, I want to call him to your attention now.

The remarkable Ramanuja was born in Sriperumbudur, a town not far from today’s great city of Chennai (Madras). He was a Sri Vaishnava Hindu, for whom Vishnu is the supreme Deity, ever accompanied by his eternal consort, the Goddess Shri Lakshmi. All other deities lead to him alone.

Ramanuja is respected even today, in the small but vital Sri Vaishnava community, as a reformer of temple ritual at the great Srirangam temple in deep south India (where his body is preserved in iconic form), as a proponent of the study of the Tamil devotional tradition of the alvars (saint poets immersed in the reality of God) and a leader in showing that this Tamil tradition is not at odds with the great Sanskrit tradition of the Vedas, Upanishads and Bhagavad Gita. Though a leader and codifier of a very orthodox set of traditions, he was also something of a radical. By one famous story, having received from his guru, after much penance and repeated requests, the holy mantra (Tirumantra) sacred to his faith, he risked his own spiritual well-being by ignoring his teacher’s command that he share the mantra with no one. Instead, he went up onto the temple balcony and proclaimed it to one and all, saying that he could not bear to withhold so great a gift from all people: om namo Narayanaya (“OM, obeisance to Narayana”). This mantra is said to express simply the truth that we exist entirely and only for God—Narayana, the ground (ayana) of all beings (nara). By reciting it, one confesses that fact as one’s own truth.

Ramanuja by tradition wrote nine works, including two great commentaries, on the Bhagavad Gita, and on the Brahma Sutras (which was, in turn, a systematic organization of the teachings of the Upanishads). In both cases, he argued that the true meaning of the scriptures was an affirmation of the view of the world as real, dependent on God but not the same as God: neither a monism nor a dualism but rather a kind of panentheism (“all in God, God in all”). The tradition also lists as his three long prose prayers: “Taking Refuge with the Lord,” “Taking Refuge in Srirangam” and “Taking Refuge in Heaven,” which intensely express love of God and heartfelt surrender—something like the Ignatian “Take and Receive.”

To study Ramanuja and his writings is to gain a glimpse of a Hindu tradition that is old and deep, learned and pious. Indeed, Christian theologians have written about Ramanuja for many years. Jesuits in early 20th-century Calcutta included a careful study of him in the “To Christ through the Vedanta” series. In the 1970s, my predecessor at the Center for the Study of World Religions, John Carman, wrote The Theology of Ramanuja, a landmark study, while Julius Lipner wrote with great insight and acumen, The Face of Truth, on Ramanuja’s epistemology and theology of language. Recently, Martin Rabindra Ganeri, O.P., an Oxford scholar who was prior of the Dominicans in Cambridge and Oxford before becoming the prior provincial of the English province, wrote a splendid comparative study of Ramanuja, Indian Thought and Western Theism: The Vedanta of Ramanuja.

Conversely, a scholar of Hindu origins, Chakravarthi Ram-Prasad, a professor at the University of Lancaster and himself descended from the family of Ramanuja, recently wrote a fine comparative study of Ramanuja and Sankara (the more well-known radical non-dualist Vedantin), Divine Self, Human Self: The Philosophy of Being in Two Gita Commentaries.

As for me, I have studied him on and off for 35 years or so, though he has never been at the center of my research. But for a conference in India next month, I have been studying his smallest work, the “Daily Ritual” (the Nityam, more literally, the “Always Book” of rites). This is a little ritual book that prescribes the intense and focused prayer and practice of the single-minded and single-hearted devotee, whose dedication is to be reflected in a mix of ritual acts, meditations and visualizations, and remembrances of God’s nature, graciousness and central place in one’s life. To my knowledge, it has never been translated into English, so here are some excerpts to give you a feel for it (alternating gender from paragraph to paragraph, to avoid translation contortions in a blog):

After thoroughly washing his hands and feet and rinsing his mouth, and after choosing space in a pure and very lovely place free of noise, let him purify it too. Then, by remembering the whole succession of teachers, let him approach the highest of teachers, the Lord, and meditate on him as the goal and the means, the remover of all that is undesirable and the acquirer of all that is desirable. Let him meditate on the whole array of the Lord’s regalia, his proper form and external forms, his perfections, his glorious states and his play in this world. And then let him approach this Lord as his only refuge, with the words that begin, “His proper form is one and endless, knowledge and bliss, different from all things, his own and other; he is the abode of all that is auspicious and opposed to all that is to be avoided…”

After coming near to this Lord for refuge, with the energies of her mind enhanced by the Lord’s grace, and after meditating on that Lord alone, as the Lord of all lords, the Lord of her own self, then let her meditate on his most clear and perceptible form without interruption. For it is exceedingly pleasing. Let her sit in this meditation for some time, and then begin the worship that takes the form of complete service, carried out with an extreme pleasure born of experience of the Lord…

Let him meditate on the Lord, Narayana, who is served by the assembly of guardians, with his royal insignia, with his ornaments and weapons, and who is accompanied by his retinue and his Goddess; on the Lord who holds together and yet distinct the steadfastness and movement and proper form of all the conscious and non-conscious beings depending on him; on the Lord who is untouched by any faults at all, by no afflictions, demerits, etc., who is a great ocean in which streams a host of innumerable auspicious qualities, beginning with knowledge, strength, lordly power, courage, brightness, etc., all innate, flawless, and abundant. Let him then worship the Lord by offering his own self to the Lord, with the holy mantra. Let him prostrate himself, and with permission begin the full worship of the Lord…

With her whole mind and understanding and sense of self, let her prostrate herself flat on the ground like a tortoise—her arms and legs and head too—paying reverence at all eight points of the body, always in that form making proper worship, paying respect over and over. Let her then sit before the Lord, and make her act of total surrender, and after that, with the Lord’s permission, complete her daily worship.

To my tastes, this is wonderful and intense theology, the love of God and surrender to God elegantly—and demandingly—expressed in what is daily worship. Perhaps he inspires me to pray more and better; perhaps he reminds me how often I fall short of simple commands that come to us in the Pauline tradition: “Pray in the Spirit at all times, in every prayer and supplication” (Eph 6:18); “Devote yourselves to prayer, keeping alert in it with thanksgiving” (Col 4:2); “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thess 5:16-18). Ramanuja would, I think, perfectly understand these (impossible) exhortations, even the last.
But does it really matter? A little more than a week ago, I posted a reflection on Edmund Campion, S.J., a saint of the Catholic Church, together with the Blessed Nicholas Ferrar, who is venerated in the Anglican liturgical calendar; two figures, just a generation or so apart, remembered in the United States on Dec. 1. Some readers were puzzled by this juxtaposition, the Catholic saint and the Anglican figure of piety. By reflecting on such figures of holiness, we can strengthen our faith, not weaken it. “If they are not against us, they are for us,” Jesus said.
So it should not be surprising—at least to anyone who has read my blogs over the last eight years—that I feel it also good that we mark the anniversary year of Ramanuja. Indeed, Ramanuja himself would be the last to wish for a confused mixing together of traditions; he was no syncretist. We must be careful, but we must also be bold. In an age of divisions and forgetting and denial, we must insist on learning from the lives and ideas and prayers of saints and theologians of all traditions, as we move back and forth across borders where no walls can be built. Are not all the saints witnesses to the glory of God?