Archbishop of Canterbury meets with Vaishnava acaryas

Archbishop of Canterbury Dr. Rowan Williams meets with Sri Sugunendra Teertha Swami of the Madhva sampradaya ( left) and Sri Chinna Jeer Swami of the Shri sampradaya (right) in Bangalore last October. This week, in London, he gave his reflections

This week the Archbishop of Canterbury reflected on his recent dialogue with Hindu swamis in Bangalore, India. The event was held at Lambeth Palace on the south bank of the Thames, and was hosted by the Hindu-Christian Forum. I was particularly interested to hear that the head of the Anglican Communion‘s 80 million Christians had been in discussions with Vaishnava acaryas, and was pleased to accept an invitation to the event.

As far as I know, the Archbishop’s dialogue was an historic occasion – the very first such meeting between the head of the established church of England and Indian sannyasis of ancient lineages. Indeed, although other meetings may have previously taken place with swamis of the Adwaita school, his meeting with two Vaishnava acaryas – at the same time – must have been unique.

Last October, the Archbishop Dr. Rowan Williams met with Sripad Sugunendra Theertha Swami of the Puthige Matha, Udupi, an acarya of the lineage of Madhvacarya; with Sri Chinna Jeer Swami of the Sri Vaishnava lineage; and with Sri Harshananda Swami of the Ramakrishna Mission, Dr. Shivamurthy Shivacarya of the Lingayats, and Sri Swami Paramananda Bharati of the Sringeri Math, a sannyasi in the line of Sankaracarya.

His first comment on Wednesday morning at Lambeth Palace to the fifty or so Hindus and Christians gathered there, was that in India he witnessed reflections and echoes of the theological discussions within his own tradition. Some of the theological issues found in Hinduism concerning grace and free will, and God’s immanence and transcendence have their parallels in medieval European discussions.

Yet despite the depth of our mutual religious paths, the world seems to ‘systematically trivialize what human beings are capable of,’  he said, as he reflected on how much both Hindus and Christians are consequently ‘hemmed in’ by ‘easy and crude versions’ of their deep philosophical issues and religious practices. Indeed, this seemed to be a recurring theme: the extent to which the highest spiritual aspirations of human beings are discounted because of the observer’s unfamiliarity with the appearance or ritual behaviour of ‘the other.’

“The other believer’s ritual, practise, tradition and language challenge what you know about yourself.”

“The common element in both Hinduism and Christianity is being awakened,” he said, and: “We are habituated to what is false about the world; we must become habituated to what is truth.”

On identity he commented: “We must establish what notion of human dignity we are working with; it is based on something inexhaustible.”

Yet in the world today we must be aware of: ‘the risks of allying religious language with political power, thereby imposing a certain kind of secularity.’

“When a religious person wants to declare that ‘we are under God’ it shapes the goals of the society in which the person lives. There should be religion in society and as a principle that is robust and defensible, but if there is dominance of religion in politics and freedom of conscience is not tolerated, and certain voices are made inaudible, certain minorities repressed, then that is wrong.” The Archbishop declared that India’s lasting legacy as a politically secular nation – a choice made at the time of independence – is that ‘the state creates a space where religions can believe – but not dominate.’

Regarding the situation in the United Kingdom where, unlike the USA, the Church of England is the established church and therefore intertwined with the state, he said: “…Christianity being the established church here is not to dominate, but rather it is the state saying: ‘We will take faith seriously.’

Returning to an initial theme of how religions other than one’s own are explored, taught in schools, and discussed, he explained his views: “There is comparative religion and then there is comparative theology, an attempt to go beyond mere ‘comparative-ism’ and to see what questions need to be answered, and can we do it together? This is ‘interactive pluralism,’ a respectful, lively engagement.” He added that such discussion needed to be based on philosophical ideas and ethical values rather than a discussion of externals such as clothing and so on. One issue for him was the status of women and their dress. Theology, he said, needs to be disentangled from culture to establish what practices are culturally based – or factually based on a repression of women – and which come from a perspective grounded in spiritual considerations.

“We need a greater level of religious literacy. There is ignorance in administrative circles. Religion in schools is sometimes the study of the eccentricities of foreigners, which I think is an outdated British approach. The ethical approach is deeper. We can study the devotion – not simply the festivals but the feelings supporting them.”

“When we speak of faith we should speak of not only one tribal entity but of faith in general – and bring that into the public arena. We have to be truthful about the other, and give an account of their faith and practice that they would recognize – even if we don’t agree.”

“Hindu dialogue has often been conducted by the under-educated. Hindus have been spoken for by academics (instead of educated Hindus explaining it themselves) There is a tendency to project a homogenized version of Hinduism in an attempt to understand it.”

Here Dr. Rowan Williams was hinting at the problem of trying to explain Hinduism as a singular entity rather than what it actually is – a family of sampradayas or ‘schools of faith.’ Understanding this problem, a problem that has dogged Hinduism in the diaspora for decades, is the key to beginning a fresh level of understanding. So it is extremely significant that the Archbishop’s visit to India embodied the Church’s desire to dialogue with the variety of sampradayas. Indeed, only by meeting representatives from the different sampradayas can the Church begin to understand that the word ‘Hinduism’ is a convenient but highly misleading term.

Commenting on the phenomenon of inter-faith dialogue, the Archbishop said that: “Because Hindu-Christian dialogue comes from colonial times, we have to go beyond a polite mutual ignorance. There are social, spiritual, and educational frameworks for interfaith.”

On the thorny question of religious conversion to Christianity in India he said: “I believe that freedom of religion means the freedom to change. Conversion is a movement of the heart, and people do change. But religious conversion should never be the result of manipulation, pressure, bullying or bribery. Where that is the case it is wrong.”

Below: Talking with the Archbishop of Canterbury afterwards.



Filed under Journal

6 responses to “Archbishop of Canterbury meets with Vaishnava acaryas

  1. B.K.Panigrahi.

    Sir, The statements made over ‘conversion’ in the last paragraph are far from truth, rather it looks like imposing on some one. Is there a single person on the earth who does not love his own mother, how poor she may be? Similarly every body loves his own religion, how conservative it may be. The Christians have their hand-book ‘Bible’ which they call to be their religious book. Do the Hindus have any such book? Christians have ‘Fathers’ who guide them on religious matters. Who is there for Hindus? No; each Hindu by himself is a religion knowing person through its books. “To know God” is the religion, anything else is useless. It is the Hindu religion only which teaches in this direction through its Scriptures. It allows the disciple to question and get answers by himself only, it does not dictate.
    B. K. Panigrahi. Bhubaneswar.

    • Dear BK Panigrahi,
      Thank you for your comments. Of course, you are there in Orissa (now Odisha, I believe) which has seen some of the conflicts over conversion of Hindus to Christianity. I do not know all the facts, but I have read several reports which I am inclined to believe.

      There are some American-funded Evangelical groups that are extremely aggressive and their preaching tactics in India have been emotionally manipulative. The side benefits on offer for converting to Christianity have been such that offering them to poor people amounts to bribery or at least coercion.Other Christian missionary groups have taken a more long-term approach and have spread Christianity through opening schools and providing medical assistance.

      You write that Christians have ‘fathers’ or priests, and that they have one book – the Bible – and that by contrast Hindus do not have these. By what you write are you suggesting that Hinduism is better off without ‘fathers’ to tell people what to do, or a hand-book to give the laws of God?

      I would suggest that Hinduism does indeed have ‘fathers’ in the form of helpful, learned and compassionate brahmanas, and of course there are so many ‘hand-books.’ Bhagavad-gita is one such ‘hand-book’ which is accepted by all Hindu groups.

      The main problem is that Hinduism in India has, for at least 400 years, been in a state of decline. By that I mean that the ‘fathers’ or brahmanas who were meant to be compassionate have made no concerted effort to uplift the poor or less-educated. Absence of any teaching over an extended period of time creates a vaccuum – and nature hates a vaccuum.

      So with the absence of compassionate brahmanas – or brahmanas who merely serve the upper classes – we should not be surprised if the spiritually hungry masses become hopeful at the message of the Christians. Human beings cannot live without hope, and the message that God loves them. If the Hindu ‘fathers’ will not tell them then someone else will do it.

  2. Hare Krishna prabhu

    Please accept my humble obeisances. All glories to Srila Prabhupada

    Thank you for the nice post on interfaith dialogue. As always, your posts are enlightening and easy to read. Thank you.

    I would like to respond taking the position of a global audience seeing the passage of time with its history and myriad events that has ushered us to where we are today.

    Personally, I have always thought and I have had this opinion for sometime based on global events, that organized religion in its different suits and dhotis have caused more factions than unison. If we look back in time, it all started with God regardless of the Book we adhere to, be it the Bible, Torah, Quran, Gita etc. It all started with God in His pure spiritual form and words and today it has degraded purely to external forms with complete ignorance towards the substance or essence. Where did it go wrong? I believe it went wrong with the so called torch bearers of religion. The very same people who were looked up to uphold the highest moral and ethical values devalued it to the extent that we define religion based on the dress and language. The result of this is frustration that has eventually led to atheism and impersonal science.

    Although I speak of ignorance and simply expressing my sentiment as I have not attended any interfaith meeting, however, just seeing the world in the way it is today, I deduce that the teachers of different faiths have failed to teach the people in general on “how to love God”. These same teachers meet across boundaries as a representative or proponents of their own “sectarian version” of religion and not congregate as torchbearer of one eternal truth – that is – to Love God. I believe true interfaith dialogue should embrace the unifying substance & essence of Religion which is “love for God” and under this banner for “love for God”, interfaith dialogue should take place.

    If the Pope, the acharyas and mullahs meet on this precept or background, and then iron out the so called external conflicts and then go back preach this “love for God” (and not social reformation) to their own church or congregation, then, today surely, we would see more tolerance, knowledge and love for fellow beings including the animals and plants. Therefore, I think a true interfaith dialogue should spend majority of hours glorifying the One God and discuss on How to love Him and in this mood discuss issues of conflict or other practical dualities. Unless this takes place, every bishop, father and spiritual leader will simply project “his” version of religion and learn to cultivate superficial tolerance to others and take this message of superficial tolerance to his congregation. When a real problem arises, our superficial tolerance will evaporate instantaneously and we will go back to fighting and killing.

    Therefore if I remember correct, Srila Prabhupada many times while he talked to many spiritual leaders, his internal mood was grave and nonchalant. He knew as long as we ignore God and His laws (ex Thou shalt not Kill or the impersonal mayavad stand of Hindus) , simply talking morality and ethics to create artificial platform of unity and peace will not work.

    While even superficial interfaith conferences do bring some external unity, and perhaps may deem necessary in that sense, I still think the torchbearers of religion promote a sectarian concept of God and hence true interfaith dialogue, in my opinion, is like the will-o-wisp – an utopian reality.

    I wanted to share with you my internal thoughts on this subject. Please forgive me if I have spoken too much.

    Thank you for your post

    Your servant
    Ananda Jagannath Das

  3. Jesus Christ is the Son of God/KRSNA.
    KRSNA is the Father of Jesus.
    All the ‘competition’ is over the collection basket.

  4. Dhanvantari Dasa

    What an accurate vision Ananda Jagannath Das has. I totally agree with him. However I write to express my great admiration for Kripamoya . As I was reading and scrolled down to the photo of Kripa with the Archbishop and the next photo further down shows Kripa as a young monk at Knebworth 35 years ago. So there it is! two photographs of the same devotee and he is doing the same thing discussing and engaging with Karmis in the service of his spiritual master.

  5. Arunava Mukerji

    I think Christianity and Vaisnavism have much in common .Teachings of Jesus Christ bear testimony to this . In fact Jesus Christ manifests the qualities of a Vaisnava of highest order .

    Basil or Tulasi is honored both by Christians and the Vaisnavas .
    Basillica means the place where Basil plant is kept with honour .
    Similar to Vaisnavas ,Christ also put emphasis on chanting of Holy Name

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