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Hindu Theology

C. Gopinath

On 11 December 2011, Professor Francis X. Clooney, Harvard Divinity School, gave a thought-provoking talk on how one may analyze Hinduism with the twenty first century perspective particularly in a pluralistic society with a growing population. The lecture was a part of a series on the theme “Indian Society through the Ages”, organized by the Outreach Committee of the Department of South Asian Studies, Harvard University.  
The theme of Prof. Clooney’s talk was about the need to combine religiosity with intellectual inquiry. He said that this was important because there was a danger of anti-intellectualism among religious people who for the sake of truth and values, and simply the next generation, need to think about the meaning of ancient teachings in a new societal setting. This is particularly challenging in the US where religion is often considered a private matter that is not allowed to be relevant in the public sphere.

Speaking as one who was not a Hindu but a close observer and scholar of Hinduism, Prof. Clooney raised several questions for the audience to consider. He drew a parallel to the Christian tradition which treated ‘faith seeking understanding’ as the definition of theology. He argued that it should be possible to give an intellectual explanation for our beliefs, and for how we understand the nature of reality from a faith perspective.  Religious sources of knowledge should also be openly discussed: how do we know what we know religiously? Thinking and resolving such questions leads to a perspective of Hindu theology.

Hinduism is comprised of different traditions. Prof. Clooney explained how people often adopted their religious beliefs and traditions, such as Vaishanvism,  Saivism, Tantric or Yoga because of family or being born into it. A responsible religious person should draw on the classic religious texts to examine one’s tradition and beliefs, and understand the framework for life that it sets. He argued that believers should go into the texts of the tradition, inquire into the reasons for the beliefs, and reflect on how to follow them in today’s society. This framework could then be used in seeking guidance on important issues such as nature of marriage, food habits, abortion, birth and death rituals etc.

He reminded the audience that the Hindu religious tradition was rich in debates and intellectual inquiry, for example the Brhdaranyaka Upanishad and the Chandogya Upanisad, and likewise the practice of scholars writing commentaries on texts, with other scholars writing commentaries on the original commentary, and so on. This had, however, been given up in more recent times. He felt that intellectual inquiry must take place in universities and in philosophy departments and not just in maths or monasteries. He comes across young people who are interested in these issues but are not able to pursue them for want of adequate opportunities to make a living doing it.   

Noting particularly the role of the diaspora in the US, he observed that when temples were built in the US, the combination of gods representing different traditions and their location together within a single temple might be rather different from how things are in temples in India. He felt that this should raise questions in the minds of the believers, so as to understand how, what and why the changes to the tradition were made, and what they represented to the individual. He urged the diaspora to take responsibility for passing on the intellectual approach to religion to their children.

The talk was followed by several questions and comments from the audience. Some of the attendees drew a connection between the state of intellectual pursuit on theological questions to the level of economic prosperity and others connected it to the effects of colonization. Yet others questioned the speaker if he was applying Jesuit concepts of inquiry and debate to Hinduism which may be approaching theology from a very different perspective of belief and inquiry.
Prof. Clooney, who is an ordained priest of the Jesuit Catholic Order drew several examples from Christian theology to illustrate the talk and explained how the need to question and debate issues is relevant in any religious tradition.

This lecture was the eleventh event in the series that began in November, 2009 and the second this year.  In his welcome, Prof. Bijoy Misra, Convener of the Outreach Committee, introduced the speaker as a recognized scholar of Hinduism whose interest in Hinduism and South Asia began when he taught in a school in Nepal about 40 years ago.  The Outreach lectures over the past 16 years have covered several aspects of Indian Studies, in culture, arts, history, religion, architecture, philosophy, languages and literature.     

The next lecture in the series will be by Dr. Kevin McGrath of Harvard University on the “Concept and Methods in the Epic Mahabharata.”  It’s scheduled for January 8 in Hall A of the Harvard University Science Center at 1 Oxford Street, Cambridge.  Outreach lectures are free and designed as a forum for the community participation in the matters of scholarly research in understanding the history, traditions and culture of South Asia.  All are cordially invited.   Further information on the lectures can be obtained from Bijoy Misra bmisra@fas.harvard.edu,  C Gopinath cgopinath2000@yahoo.com, Chandrakanta Shah chandu420@gmail.com, or Thomas Burke  thomasburke@aol.com.

(Feature sponsored by S4, Inc. )

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