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Archbishop Hosts Annual Inter Faith Lecture

Friday 11th April 2008

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams hosted the annual Lambeth Inter Faith lecture.

Archbishop with Professor RambachanThe Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams invited Professor Anantanand Rambachan to give the 2008 Lambeth Inter Faith lecture (full text below) which was entitled "Hindus and Christians: Celebrating Friendship and Facing Challenges with Hope".

Professor Rambachan introduced himself saying, "I want to begin by expressing my gratitude to the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams, for his invitation to give the 2008 Lambeth Interfaith Lecture. It is a special honor to be afforded the opportunity to contribute to this distinguished series of reflections focused on our relationships as members of different faith traditions. I wish to acknowledge the guidance and assistance of the Archbishop's Secretary for Interfaith Relations, Canon Guy Wilkinson. I am grateful for the presence of each one of you. It is a privilege to be with you and I look forward to learning from our dialogue".

Archbishop at Inter Faith Meeting

Archbishop in Inter Faith meeting

Archbishop with Hindu guests at Inter Faith lecture

Archbishop with Hindu guests at Inter Faith lecture

Click download on right to listen to Professor Rambachan's lecture with the Archbishop's response [42Mb], or read the transcript below.

Hindus and Christians: Celebrating Friendship and Facing Challenges with Hope

Professor Anantanand Rambachan

A History of Friendship

I have given my lecture the title, "Hindus and Christians: Celebrating Friendship and Facing Challenges With Hope." The order of words is significant. Although the differences between our traditions, doctrinal and otherwise, must not be minimized or overlooked and our challenges identified and confronted, we ought not to forget the long history of friendship between Hindus and Christians and the relationships of mutual enrichment and learning that deserve to be noted and celebrated. Friendship and not hostility is still the norm of our narrative. To ignore or forget this is to be unfaithful to our relationship and to deprive us of a precious memory that inspires and offers hope for our common future. The fact is that Hindus and Christians have lived as friends and neighbors on the Indian sub-continent for centuries. Hindus also live peacefully as minorities among Christians in many parts of our world, including Asia, Africa, Europe, North America, the Caribbean and Australia.

A Mutual Affection for Jesus

At the heart of this friendship on the Hindu side, I venture to say, is a profound attraction for Jesus of Nazareth and for those who follow his path through discipleship. Quite early, many Hindus made the difficult and problematic effort to distinguish Jesus from the institution of the Church and its doctrines. This is an effort, if I may add, with which many Christians are not unfamiliar. Hindus felt that the meaning of Jesus could not be limited to the historical institutions that claimed to represent him or the doctrines that sought to explain his significance. Ram Mohan Roy (1772-1833), the first Hindu to attempt a systematic study of Christianity, confessed his immense difficulty, "amidst the various doctrines, I found insisted upon in the writings of Christian authors, and in the conversation of those teachers of Christianity with whom I had the honor of holding communication." [i] In 1820, Roy published a small work entitled, The Precepts of Jesus, The Guide to Peace and Happiness. It was a compilation of Roy's choice of the essential teaching of Jesus. He omitted the historical narratives and references to the miraculous. The historical material, Roy felt. was subject to doubt and the miraculous unlikely to capture Hindu attention. His selection, he hoped, would have the "desirable effect of improving the hearts and minds of men of different religious persuasions and degrees of understanding."[ii]

Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902), one of the most influential Hindu teachers in recent times and the first to teach in the West, made a special appeal for attentiveness to the teachings of Jesus. In his introduction to the Bengali translation of The Imitation of Christ, Vivekananda cautioned his fellow Hindus not to belittle the text because the author is Christian. This medieval Christian work, popularly attributed to Thomas a Kempis, fascinated Vivekananda and it was the only text, along with the Bhagavadgita, that he kept with him during his years of traveling around India after the death of his beloved teacher, Ramakrishna. Vivekananda read the story of Jesus for inspiration on the occasion of the inauguration of the Ramakrishna Mission, one of modern Hinduism's most important service missions. Years later, Gandhi also sought the heart of the Christianity and found it in Jesus' Sermon on the Mount. These words, wrote Gandhi, "went straight to my heart."[iii]

Roy, Vivekananda, Gandhi and others, we must note, were commending Jesus and his teachings in a historical context where Christianity was virtually inseparable from colonialism and in which missionaries denounced Hinduism as superstitious, idolatrous and polytheistic. The negative institutionalized Christian response to Hinduism, in other words, did not elicit a similar Hindu rejoinder to Jesus. All three interpreters were speaking from a Hindu perspective in which commitment to a specific understanding of God did not rule out openness to and learning from other ways of understanding or, as we say in the Hindu tradition, other darshanas (ways of seeing). They were faithful Hindus in not limiting God's revelation and experience to Hindu sacred texts, places of worship and community. There is a deeply held Hindu insight that divine self-disclosure adapts itself to the diversity of human understanding. As Krishna states it in Bhagavadgita (4:11), "the paths people take from every side are Mine (mama vartmanuvartante manusyah partha sarvasah)."

Hindus have noted the similarity with Hinduism in the symbols and images, examples and parables used by Jesus in speaking about the religious life. They commend his freedom from greed, his transparent non-possessiveness and generous self-giving. Hindus have always understood renunciation as a fundamental expression of the genuine religious life and the Hindu respect for Jesus does not surprise. Vivekananda advised his Christian listeners in the United States that they should be "ready to live in rags with Christ, than to live in palaces without him." I venture to say that the Hindu response to Jesus is exceptional historically; no central figure in one religion has been commended with such enthusiasm by seminal figures in another.

Acknowledging and Respecting Differences

The Hindu understanding and enthusiasm for Jesus as a teacher and exemplar of the religious life differ in significant ways from the mainstream Christian theological claims about Jesus' significance. Hindus must acknowledge and not reduce these differences to semantics. Christians are often frustrated by the scant regard, common among Hindus, for differences of doctrine. The famous Rg Veda text (I.164.46) "The One Being the wise call by many names –Ekam sat vipraha bahuda vadanti" articulates an important Hindu teaching that the oneness of God is not compromised by the many human ways of speaking. Its purpose is to help know persons of other traditions, not as strangers with alien, false or rival deities, but as fellow beings whose God is our God. This powerful text, however, is used too often in interreligious dialogue to minimize the significance of differences within and among religions and to explain away these as entirely inconsequential or relegate differences to the non-essential aspects of religion.

Having said this, I must add also that a theocentric tradition, like Hinduism, is too often cursorily dismissed by those advocating the necessity for faith in Jesus as an exclusive savior. Jesus is used to minimize the value of the understanding and experience of God in Hinduism. Jesus-centeredness is made the litmus test of religious authenticity. Representing Jesus in a manner that is dismissive of Hinduism, not only overlooks the unique Hindu embrace of Jesus, but makes it more difficult for us to be challenged and enriched by what his life and death teaches about the nature of God and the meaning of human existence. The face of Jesus will be identified with those who triumphantly denounce Hinduism in his name. This face will not be attractive or inviting. The time has come for us to acknowledge our differences in understanding Jesus' identity, take note of distinctive Hindu Christologies, learn in humility from each other, and deepen the friendship that our mutual interest in him and our appreciation of his significance make possible. Good relationships do not require sameness of vision or the abandonment of distinctive self-understanding. The beauty of a good relationship is often found in the creative encounter of difference. Our relationship, as Hindus and Christians, requires, like any good human relationship, attentive nurturing and nourishment. We must not be indifferent to or take our friendship for granted.

The Controversy Over Conversion

I want to turn now to one of the principal sources of contemporary tension and contention in our relationship. This is the debate in India and elsewhere centered on the issue of conversion and evangelization. On the Hindu side we hear repeated calls for the enactment of laws to prohibit conversion from one religion to another and, in some cases, we have seen the implementation of legislation. In 2006, for example, the Rajasthan Assembly passed the Rajasthan Dharma Swantantraya Bill, stating that, "No person shall convert or attempt to convert directly or otherwise any person from one religion to another by the use of force, or by allurement or by any fraudulent means nor shall any person abet such conversion." Although this Bill, and others like it do not make the act of converting from one religion to another illegal, consensus on the meaning of terms like "force," "allurement," and "fraudulent," is problematic, if not nearly impossible. Many of the responses, on the Christian side, present the issue as one of religious freedom and argue for the liberty of religious choice and the right to convert. Like proverbial ships in the night, passing each other without engagement, these representative arguments seem to provide no common basis from which the issue of conversion may be satisfactorily addressed. Conversion is a prime example of a challenge that we can face together with hope.

Despising the Convert

Although conversion from one religion to another is a complex phenomenon and often inseparable from the socio-political realities of the local context, the despising of the convert is widespread. The reasons for the depth of hostility directed to convert are many and include the convert's attitude to the religious community that is left behind in the embrace of a new one. At a fundamental level, the convert disturbs and unsettles us and our discomfort finds expression in antipathy. The act of embracing a different religious tradition sharply challenges our settled assumptions about the adequacy of our religious worldview. Conversion disturbs by holding out the possibility that our answers are not the only ones or the only satisfactory ones. We see the act of conversion as one of primal rejection and, because our traditions so deeply define our identities, as one of disloyalty to us and to our community.

Our response is accusatory. We characterize the convert as a childlike and immature individual who is incapable of exercising choice and judgment. We prefer to think that the convert does not cross religious boundaries because of any legitimate dissatisfaction with inherited tradition or anything of intrinsic worth in the other. It is less challenging for us to think of conversion as the consequence of coercion or material inducement and not as suggesting anything problematic in our tradition or attractive in the other. Many of us who are hostile to the convert do so from positions of power and privilege within our traditions. Since we experience our religious traditions as good for us, we assume that it is similarly good for all who are born into it. Through circumstances of birth and opportunity, we live in our traditions without ever experiencing oppression and violence that demean and negate our dignity and self worth. We do not see how what may be good for us may not be good for others whose experiences within our faith may be quite different. It is instructive, for example, that the largest number of converts from the Hindu traditions to Buddhism and to Christianity comes from the so-called untouchable castes. Yet, Hindu responses to conversion rarely demonstrate any self-critical reflection on the significance of this fact.

On the other side of the picture, the convert is welcomed and celebrated in his adopted religion. The winning of converts is represented as confirmation of religious claims to superiority and justification of arguments for the false or incomplete teachings of other traditions. The convert is championed as the insider who reveals authoritatively the unworthiness of the religious tradition that he has abandoned. He is used as an "expert" witness in the case made against his community and, in doing so, reinforces his ostracism and alienation. The convert too often becomes a pawn in a power struggle between our traditions.

Sharing Our Traditions

Most of the religious traditions of our world share the conviction that their teachings and practices are beneficial to human beings. This conviction expresses itself in a desire and willingness to share these with others, even though traditions have adopted historically different methods for such dissemination of their teachings. Hindu traditions are not unfamiliar with the religious motive of sharing one's conviction and persuading others about its validity. To claim otherwise is not to be faithful to important strands of Hinduism. In the Bhagavadgita (18: 68-69), for example, Shri Krishna speaks of sharing his teachings with others as a priceless service (na ca tasman manusyesu kascin me priyakrttamah). At the same time, the traditions of India evolved a certain ethos that guided the nature of their relationships. The absence of institutionalization and centralization meant that there were no organized and systematic efforts to supplant different viewpoints. Discussions among the traditions were, on the whole, dialogical and would even result in conversion to the other's viewpoint. Persons with different religious commitments belonged to the same larger religio/cultural community where boundaries were flexible and permeable. There was and is no negativization of the fact of religious diversity in Hinduism. This was seen as a natural reflection of the diversity of human nature and experience. A widely shared understanding of the limits of human reason and symbols resulted in the understanding that truth always exceeded the comprehension and description of any one tradition and justified relationships of theological humility.

As we reflect on the historical entry of Christianity into this religious ethos, we must be cognizant of both the antiquity and diversity of Christianity. The Christian tradition in India has a long history. The Eastern Orthodox churches, for example, trace their arrival to the first century and have a history that is not connected with any colonial enterprise. We must also be careful not to causally equate colonialism and Christianity. Christian friends remind me that their encounter with the tradition was through fellow Indians and not western missionaries. Yet it is also true that Christianity made an impact on Hinduism as a carriage in the train of Western colonialism. It became associated, in reality and in the minds of Hindus, with imperialism and with the arrogance and disdain of the colonizer for Hinduism. This association lingers and continues to inform and influence Hindu attitudes to Christianity. Imperialist political claims were seen as finding echo in exclusive theological claims to revelation and salvation. Christian theology in relation to Hinduism was mission oriented.

The identification, during the colonial period, between the Christianity and the culture of the west, resulted in the experience of these as inseparable. This identity between religion and culture, along with the fear that converts may revert to ancestral practices, led to systematic efforts to define a Christian identity over and against the prevailing Hindu ones. Christian converts took on new names from the Biblical texts, renamed villages to reflect their new faith, constructed churches following the architectural models of Europe and adopted new musical forms. In many cases, converts also adopted new forms of dress and cuisine. Such forms of self-definition help a community, especially a minority one, to maintain its new identity. At the same time, such deliberately sharp distinctions between self and other are a source of tension and resentment. This is especially so when the basis of such distinction is the claim also to religious superiority and when the other (Hindu) is seen as fallen and in need of religious rescue. The nature of the Christian church as a voluntary association with membership implied and necessitated boundaries and also a sharp distinction from Hindus. This significant dimension of identity was absent entirely from Hinduism and engendered also a sharp sense of difference between self and other. Colonialism, exclusive theology, identification with and adoption of missionary culture, and voluntary membership in a new religious community separated the convert from the larger community and intensified fear, resentment and suspicion. It is important that Christians take seriously the legitimate Hindu concerns about conversion and especially the suspicions about a Christian program for world religious conquest.

Although some of the long-established Christian churches in India have made theological and cultural efforts to address some of the tensions between our two traditions, the fruits of these efforts are not well known among both Hindus and Christians. It is also true that many of the newer Christian missions are militant in orientation and aggressive towards Hinduism. The consequence is that Hindus continue to imagine and experience Christianity as an exclusive religion that is not open to the religious claims and experiences of others and which is concerned primarily with increasing its institutional power and domination through conversion. Such perceptions induce uneasiness, resentment, and defensiveness. We must admit the difficulty of building relationships when one assumes that, in the eyes of the other, one's convictions are false and without salvific value. Hindus have the perception that mission is the most important concern of Christianity and they are not generally aware of the internal theological diversity of the Christian tradition and current debates about mission. They will be surprised to discover voices of support within Christianity for their own struggles with proselytization.

The Necessity for Dialogue

Clearly, Hindus and Christians need to come together in dialogue on this divisive issue. Such dialogue will help us to discover the areas of our mutual agreement and clarify our concerns. We will agree immediately that religious faith is meaningful only when freely chosen. No tradition is served if converts are gained through unethical methods of coercion, through the promise of economic or political rewards or through misrepresentation of oneself or other. Human vulnerability in times of material and emotional need must not be exploited for the purpose of gaining converts. Our two traditions commend generosity as an end in itself, and as an outpouring of love and compassion that is free from the expectation of reward. The highest gifts in the Hindu tradition are those given for the sake of giving and without expectation of return (datavyam iti yad danam diyate 'nupakarine).[iv]

We Hindus must also recognize that conversion is not always the consequence of aggressive proselytization or inducement. Converts may be attracted to the worldview of another tradition. Some may be seeking an affirmation of their dignity and worth as human beings that they find promised and articulated in other traditions. The freedom to engage in religious inquiry and choice, honored in Hinduism, must not be compromised. The dependence on the state as the arbiter among religions in the matter of conversion is a sad concession of our own failure to find a mutually acceptable way forward. The empowerment of the state to intervene in matters of religious relationships will, I believe, work to the detriment of all religions.

Dialogue and Caste

Our dialogue of hope must include also a conversation on the caste system. There are many Christians who see the Hindu concern with conversion as a disguised effort to preserve the privileges and power relationships inherent in the caste system. Such a perception, like the equation of Christianity with conversion, reflects a monolithic view of the Hindu tradition, ignores the controversial nature of the caste structure in Hinduism and the continuing history of challenge to the system by reform-minded Hindus and movements. It ignores also the fact that even the Christian Church in India has not been able to free itself from the social inequities and expressions of caste. There is a theological vision at the heart of both Hinduism and Christianity that invalidates assumptions of inequality, impurity, and indignity that are at the foundations of caste belief and practice. This must be recognized and affirmed by us both. The foundation of this vision is the Hindu teaching that God exists equally in all beings (samam sarveshu bhuteshu tishtantam parameshvaram).[v] When the implications for human relationships are enunciated, they are done so in terms of equality. Hindu teachers throughout the ages like, Tiruvalluvar (2nd Century BCE), Tirumular (6th Century CE), Basaveshwara (12th Century CE), Ramananda (15th Century CE), Kabir (16th Century CE), and Eknath (16th Century CE) were inspired by this vision and spoke of human brotherhood and equality before God.

While some are able to escape the oppression of caste through conversion, greater good and change for many more may be achieved by the mutual support and transforming influence that the example of one religion may have on another. Such influence depends on developing a relationship of trust. Trust provides the secure ground on which we can stand to be self-critical in the presence of people of our own and other traditions. It is the soil in which truth can flourish and where difficult questions that we want to ask of each other can be raised. It is our best hope for mutual understanding and transformation. Christians must understand the complexity of Hinduism and, in particular, the contested nature of caste and the chorus of voices, ancient and modern, protesting the practice of caste as a betrayal of Hinduism's highest teachings about human existence.

Dialogue on the Meaning of Liberation

Hope and trust enable us to be challenged and enriched by each other's understanding of the meaning of liberation. Traditionally, the Hindu quest for liberation (moksha) occurred after a life of success in the world. The path to liberation was associated with renunciation and disinterest in the world. In those forms of Christianity, on the other hand, that emphasize the role of Jesus as social prophet and his criticism of systems of domination, liberation is construed, not only as the overcoming of estrangement from God, but also as liberation from systems of domination and the creation of a just and inclusive social order. Activity directed to this end, such as the provision of education, health care, housing, food and clothing, are seen from the Hindu viewpoint as inducements to conversion and, by many Christians, as an expression of the meaning of their religious commitment. Hindus and Christians, however, agree on the necessity for working to overcome human suffering and this controversial matter offers us a wonderful opportunity for joining together in bringing relief to the poor and dispossessed and in overcoming injustice. We both need a more comprehensive understanding of the sources of human suffering and of our joint roles in the midst of injustice and oppression.

Religion, Nationalism and Culture

I have highlighted some of the salient issues of concern that underline the necessity for continuing dialogue and action between our traditions. Some of these issues have greater significance in particular geographical locations. Today, one of the very important historical developments in the Hindu tradition is the establishment of communities in various parts of our world. In these societies, Hindus wish to participate fully in the lives of their new homelands while preserving a distinctive religious identity. Although our interconnected world makes it difficult and dangerous to ignore what happens elsewhere, we need also to ensure, as Hindus and Christians, that our relations in our own communities are not dictated and controlled by what transpires in India or elsewhere. As Hindus, we need to be alert to the implications and dangers of popular movements and ideologies that narrowly equate the Hindu tradition with the nation- state or with a single culture. Ideologies of this kind undermine the ability of a tradition to make truth claims that are universal in nature and relevance. Our status as minorities in many parts of the world has sensitized us to the problems of defining national identity in ways that do not accommodate diverse religious and cultural identities and we must always be careful that we do not uncritically give our support to any form of majority rule that does not accommodate diverse religious identities. We serve our traditions best not only through support, but also by offering constructive criticism derived from our distinctive Hindu experiences.

Looking to the Future With Hope.

Hindus and Christians can look to the future and to our challenges with hope. Violence and animosity toward each other in the name of our respective traditions are rare and can be averted by preventative measures at the local level. I referred, at the beginning of my lecture to the historical friendship between our traditions. We must not overlook or take for granted the precious theological insights that we share and affirm. At the heart of these is our understanding that the meaning of our lives is inseparable from the belief that our universe has its origin in the intentional creative act of a loving God, referred to as Ishvara or Bhagavan. The Taittiriya Upanishad (3.1.1) defines God as, "That from which all have come, in which all exist, by which all are sustained and to which all return (yato va imani bhutani jayante/yenajatani jivanti/yat prayanti abhisamvishanti)." We agree that in the light of God's infinite reality our finite human theologies and symbols must be incomplete. Taittirya Upanishad (2.9.1) reminds us again that God is the one "from which all words, along with the mind, turn back having failed to grasp (yatho vaco nivartante aprapya manasa saha)." A God whose nature and essence could be fully revealed in our words or who could be contained within the boundaries of our minds would not be the one proclaimed in our traditions. Our confession of the limits of our human understanding before God is a powerful justification for a relationship of humility, respect, mutual learning and sharing. We share also a value for the dignity and equal worth of every human being derived from life having its source in God who is both immanent and transcendent. The Bhagavadgita (18:61) describes God as abiding in the heart of all beings (ishvarah sarvabhutanam hrddeshe arjuna tishtati). The value of the human being is derived from embodying God who has ultimate value. We agree that our knowledge of God is not meaningful unless it finds expression in a compassionate way of being and in labor to overcome suffering. We profess and express our value and commitment to God by our love and value for all in which God entered and is present. Our reverence for life that has its origin in God is the source of our loyalty to non-injury (ahimsa) as a cardinal ethical principle.

As a Hindu theologian, I confess to you my own sadness at the absence of sustained theological engagement between our two traditions. The reasons are complex and many and beyond the scope of my presentation today. But, I must make a plea for such theological dialogue. In the popular imagination, theology is unfortunately associated with a form of intellectual activity that is irrelevant to the religious life and there are anti-intellectual currents in both of our traditions that lead to disinterest in theology and distinguish it from spirituality. In many contemporary Hindu movements, there is greater interest in the political and less in religious reflection. In calling for renewed theological engagement between our traditions, however, I have in mind the rich history of rational reflection by persons of deep religious commitment as exemplified in the works of saintly scholars such as Shankara and Ramanuja in Hinduism and Aquinas and Augustine in Christianity. We need the mutual learning and enrichment that certainly comes from sharing the profound reflections of our traditions on the nature of God, the problem of human suffering, and liberation. At heart, our traditions provide us with an understanding of the meaning of our existence and our value for each other must be reflected in our effort to understand the others' meaning and share our own.

Theological sharing will help us to go beyond tolerance and towards active efforts at understanding. We need relationships that enable us to listen and to share, to ask questions and to be questioned. We need relationships that inspire cooperative action to overcome unjust and oppressive structures of all kinds and that work to heal and transform our communities through the practice of justice. In a world that yearns and longs for peace among religions, may Hindus and Christians, friends for centuries, lead the way.

© Professor Anantanand Rambachan


We've been very privileged indeed to hear a lecture of great depth and great scope and a lecture which has not shied away from some of the most difficult questions that are among us and between us, and for that alone I think we should be grateful. This has been a lecture of great honesty and great perception; challenging quite rightly everybody in the room – Christians and Hindus and others alike – and that's been a great privilege.

[i] Cited in Cromwell Crawford, Ram Mohan Roy (NY: Paragon House Publishers, 1987), p.47.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] M.K. Gandhi, An Autobiography (Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1982), p.77.

[iv] Bhagavadgita 17:20.

[v] Bhagavadgita 13:28

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