The Hindu Jewish Dialogue [Part 1/4]
#Date: Sun Mar 06, 1994 7:06 pm PST
#To: Sadhunathan Nadesan
#From: Saiva Siddhanta Church
#Subject: Jewish-Hindu Dialog
Aum Namasivaya! Sadhunathan:
Nice to be with you this lovely morning. I was reminded after
our chat that we have a wonderful paper received from a
long-time reader and academic. It is about the relationship of
the two great faiths, with some insights, some anecdotes, some
reflections on the special nature of the Jewish-Hindu interface.
No doubt there will be many Hindus and even more Jewish people
on the net who will benefit from Dr. Katz's paper.
In addition to our Hindu addresses, can we post it to a Jewish
Dr. Katz has given us exclusive, pre-published permission to
share this. His only request is to tell readers that it is
preliminary and that he welcomes, encourages and hopes for
corrections, criticisms, opinions, additions, anything that will
make it more effective and useful to members of both
communities. Here is where readers may reach him:
Nathan Katz email: NKATZ%CFRVM.BITNET@uga.cc.uga.edu
Perhaps when it is posted you can send him a note saying so, and
also thanking him for his good work in bringing understanding to
this important area. You will see what he has done when you
Jewish Text Part 1
HOW THE HINDU-JEWISH ENCOUNTER RECONFIGURES INTERRELIGIOUS
by Nathan Katz
A letter from Temple University, my graduate school alma mater,
arrived at my office at Peradeniya University, near Kandy in Sri
Lanka, where I was spending my 1983/84 sabbatical. Leonard
Swidler, a Catholic specialist in interreligious dialogue, was
to visit Sri Lanka, and I was asked to organize a dialogue
session for him with interested Buddhist monks. I had not
studied with Swidler at Temple, but I knew him to be a man of
integrity who represents the very best in interreligious
dialogue, and since my research put me into daily contact with
many monks, I agreed to help.
I was disappointed by the monks' lack of enthusiasm.
Interreligious dialogue, monk after monk told me, is a Christian
trick, a ploy used to convert the unsuspecting. I argued with
the monks. My exposure to interreligious dialogue was limited,
but I had studied Martin Buber, and his concept of dialogue
precluded any such ulterior motive like conversion. Swidler
himself had written that the first commandment of interreligious
dialogue is: "The primary purpose of dialogue is to learn. . .
We enter into dialogue so that we can learn, change, and grow,
not so we can force change on the other, as one hopes to do in
debate. . . " (Swidler, 1984:1).
A number of the monks relented, and a productive dialogue
session was held. But the monks would not concede my point that
the concepts of dialogue and conversion are in principle
contradictory. In my understanding, dialogue requires an
openness which is antithetical to the close-minded certainty of
the missionary. So I believed, but I was being naive.
Dialogian or Missionary?
Some time later I read how according to Church doctrine,
dialogue is a tool for conversion. According to Hinduism Today,
admittedly not always a dispassionate source: "Vatican II's new
Code of Canon Law offers this definition of dialogue: 'By
witness of their lives and their message, let the missionaries
enter into a sincere dialogue with those who do not yet believe
in Christ. Accommodating their approach to the mentality and
culture of their audience, they will open up the way for them to
reach the point where they are ready to accept the Good News.'"
("Catholic Ashrams", 1986:25). Similarly, I was shocked to
read in the Vatican's encyclical on missionary activity that
"Interreligious dialogue is a part of the church's evangelizing
mission." ("Redemptoris Missio",1991:557) Even the liberal World
Council of Churches viewed dialogue as a tool for missionizing:
"to member churches of the WCC we feel able with integrity to
commend the way of dialogue as one in which Jesus Christ can be
confessed in the world today. . . we come. . . as genuine
fellow-pilgrims, to speak with them of what we believe God to
have done in Jesus Christ . . ."(Guidelines on Dialogue with
People of Living Faiths and Ideologies, 1979:3, cited by
Ariarajah, 1991:153). The monks had been right!
I read about saintly Catholics who live simply and humbly as
self-styled sauny sins. I could not have imagined that their
saintly personae masked missionary zeal, but according to Fr.
Bede Griffiths, the best-known of India's "Christian sauny
sins," the greatest missionaries in Asia posed as sauny sins for
the purpose of winning converts: "In China there is the example
of Ricci and his fellow Jesuits who, by studying the Chinese
classics and living as mandarins, was able to win a sympathetic
hearing among the most learned and religious of the Chinese; and
in India there is the wonderful example of de Nobili, who by
living as a sanyasi. . . and making a deep study of Hindu
scriptures was able to win even Brahmins to his faith."
(Griffiths, 1966:59. Emphasis added).
Reading Griffiths, I learned that the ideology underlying such
deception was rooted in the Church's triumphalist stance towards
Judaism. Just as Judaism was trivialized as a preparation for
Christianity, so this compliment was extended to include all
non-Christian religions, including Hinduism. As Griffiths wrote
(1966:92): "Christ did not come to destroy these religions
[Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam]; he came to correct, complete and
fulfill them. It can even be asserted that these other
religions are a providential preparation for Christianity, by
which the people of the East have been led through the course of
their history towards their fulfillment in Christ." In what to a
Jew is a chilling metaphor, Griffiths continued (1966:220):
"From a christian [sic.] point of view there is no difficulty in
seeing in Christ the fulfillment of all religion. We can say
that the mystery of Christ is 'hidden' in all religion as it was
hidden in Judaism, and that Christ comes to reveal this hidden
. . At the same time we have to say that in this process every
religion has to undergo a kind of death. Just as Judaism had to
die that it might be born again in Christ, so also with every
other religion." Griffiths's metaphor is chilling to a Jew who
knows all too well the "kind of death" which Jews and Judaism
has been forced to undergo under the Christian dispensation!
The 'Absolute' and Interreligious Dialogue
When Hindu-Christian dialogue is at its best, which is when it
is neither a "tool for evangelization" nor a debate, it
generally revolves around two interrelated issues: the
"absolute" and "mysticism", which is experiencing the absolute.
This is because of a Christian understanding of what "religion"
is: doctrines about the "absolute" and practices which lead to
this "absolute". In other words, interreligious dialogue, like
the western understanding of what religion is, are rooted in the
Christian model. The contention of this paper is that there are
alternate models, and that Christianity need no longer serve as
the conceptual intermediary among non-Christian religions, that
non-Christian religions would do better to meet on their own
terms, unmediated by Christian categories, and that
interreligious dialogue needs to evolve new, more appropriate
'ground rules' to describe and shape dialogue among
non-Christian traditions. Our example is the Hindu-Jewish
dialogue in the contemporary era.
For years, western--which is to say
Christian-influenced--scholars of religion have debated whether
on not Buddhism is a religion. They have been reluctant to
apply the term "religion" to Buddhism because it has no role for
a Creator God or sustained cosmogonic interests. In their
minds, as in many western dictionaries, "religion" is about God.
If some system is not about God, then it could not be a
A colleague at Villanova University, Gustavo Benavides, tells a
joke to illustrate this point. For years, Christian scholars
and theologians have wondered whether Buddhism is a religion
because it is not concerned about God. However all religions
except for Christianity (and indigenous Chinese religions) are
concerned about dietary taboos. The joke is that a Hindu, upon
first encountering Christianity, asks about its dietary code.
Learning that it has no dietary code, the Hindu concludes that
Christianity must not be a religion, but "a way of life".
Another problem associated with this overemphasis on the
'absolute' has been a tendency among some dialogians to submerge
very real disagreements in a miasma of absolutism. Although he
eschews the terms 'absolute' and 'mysticism', preferring
'worldview' and 'way', Swidler understands the task of the
dialogian to identify and characterize "a common ground between
Hinduism and Christianity," this 'ground' being understood
theologically or metaphysically. (Swidler, 1990:131-138) Our
contention is that precisely this theological or metaphysical
basis for Hindu-Christian dialogue distorts Hinduism.
For example, in discussing Christian-Buddhist dialogue, Swidler
looks for agreement in the religions' origins, in the teachings
of their founders. He is so ardent to find agreement that he is
willing to distort the Buddha's anatta teaching: "What is blown
out? All the false selves that most men and women mistake for
their true, deep self--so deep is this true self according to
Gautama that he refers to it as a 'nonself', anatta, a nonself
in the sense of what we have normally mistaken for our self."
(Swidler, 1990:144-45) Just as Swidler seems to believe he
understands the Buddha's teaching better than does the (Therav
da) Buddhist tradition itself, so he reinterprets the cardinal
Mah y na principal of B+nyat : "Since. . . there has been a
growing tendency among both Buddhist and Western scholars either
to claim that Gautama's original meaning was ultimately
positive. . ., or to give a positive meaning to terms like
sunyata, the question arises as to whether even in this bedrock
difference there might not be common ground for a fruitful
dialogue." (Swidler, 1990:146). Our point in citing these two
distortions of Buddhism is not to show that a sincere scholar
sometimes makes mistakes. Our point is that excessive concern
with the metaphysical in interreligious dialogue tends to lead
to "conversion by definition", an attitude which robs the
dialogue partner of his/her right to dissent, even to speak, in
fact of his/her very identity. It also violates Swidler's own,
well-grounded fifth commandment: "Each participant must define
himself. Only the Jew, for example, can define what it means to
be a Jew. The rest can only describe what it looks like from
the outside. . . Thus it is mandatory that each dialogue
partner define what it means to be an authentic member of his
own tradition." (Swidler, 1984:2) In an attempt to identify an
'absolute' shared by the dialogue partners, there is the danger
of identifying the other's absolute (if that be the correct
term) with one's own; in other words, the danger is of
'conversion by definition'.
One final example of this trap which ensnares so many
absolute-oriented dialogues is Swidler's misappropriation of a
Buddhist understanding of nature. He writes that "whom
Christians and many others call God. . . Nontheists, like
Theravada Buddhists, may prefer to use terms such as universe or
nature--perhaps not unlike that school of Western thought that
spoke of 'God, that is, Nature', Deus sive Natura." (Swidler,
1990:200) This is another instance of conversion by definition,
of a Christian unwillingness or inability to abide a religion
which does not base itself upon a notion of God. According to a
Therav da Buddhist understanding in particular, nature is in no
sense divine, or the ground of being, or anything of the sort.
'Nature' is understood as very much within the domain of sa~s
ra, a point articulately argued recently by Jorgen Ostergard
Andersen. (Andersen, 1992) The Christian dialogian's search for
an absolute resembling his own is once again misdirected.