Elijah Voices on Nostra Aetate - Anantanand Rambachan

Expanding the Meaning of Liberation: Resources and Challenges for a Hindu Theology of Liberation.

Prof. Anantanand Rambachan

Prof. Anantanand Rambachan

Nostra Aetate and the associated Vatican II declarations extended beyond Christian-Jewish relations. Hindu member of the Elijah Academy, Professor Anantanand Rambachan, was invited to present a paper in May at a seminar at Georgtown University on the theme of “Vatican II: Remembering the Future”.

Professor Rambachan’s paper was entitled “Expanding the Meaning of Liberation: Resources and Challenges for a Hindu Theology of Liberation.” Some extracts from his presentation follow:

One of the significant documents emerging from Vatican II was Gaudium et spes (Joy and Hope) (1965). While emphasizing that the Church does not identify with any particular economic system, Gaudium et spes spoke of a special concern for the poor and of the violation of justice and human dignity when there are excessive economic differences among people. Emphasizing the need to identity with all persons in joy and sorrow, Vatican II gave special importance to our identity with the poor and our obligations to those who suffer for lack of life’s necessities. Gaudium et spes was a major inspiration for the development of liberation theologies which emphasized an expansive understanding of liberation to include freedom from political, economic, religious and social oppression...

The reminder from Vatican II of our special obligations to the poor and oppressed resonates in important ways in the teachings of the Hindu tradition and in the interpretations of some of its most prominent teachers. There is no glorification of involuntary poverty in the Hindu tradition. Artha (economic well-being) is one of the four fundamental goals of human life, along with pleasure, commitment to ethical conduct and liberation. In the most popular version of the Rāmāyaṇa, the life-story of Rama, the great Hindi poet, Tulasidasa, speaks of poverty as the greatest suffering. His ideal human community is one in which no one is poor, illiterate, or diseased. One of the most famous of Hindu teachers in recent times, Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902), coined the expression daridra nārāyaṇa (God as the poor) to call attention to the special claims of the poor on our attention and resources. In ways similar to call of Vatican II to hear Christ in the suffering of the poor, Vivekananda appealed to Hindus to see Shiva in the poor and equated the service of the poor with the true worship of God. “He who sees Shiva in the poor, in the weak and in the diseased, really worships Shiva; and if he sees Shiva only in the image, his worship is but preliminary.”

Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948), spoke repeatedly of the interrelatedness of all dimensions of human life. One could not separate the social, political, economic or religious dimensions of human existence into impermeable compartments. All these fields of action are concerned with human wellbeing. Gandhi foreshadowed one of the defining orientations of liberation theology referred to as the “preferential option for the poor.” “I count no sacrifice too great for the sake of seeing God face to face. The whole of my activity whether it may be called social, political, humanitarian or ethical is directed to that end. And as I know that God is found more often in the lowliest of His creatures than in the high and mighty, I am struggling to reach the status of these. I cannot do so without their service. Hence my passion for the service of the suppressed classes. For Gandhi, ignoring the poor leads one away from God; one will not find God if one does not identify with those who suffer.

We remember Gandhi as the great advocate of non-violence (ahiṁsā). In his explanation of the meaning of ahiṁsā, however, he was always careful to clarify that its meaning was not negative. Ahiṁsā means love and compassion for all; it also meant the practice of justice and freedom from exploitation. “ No man,” wrote Gandhi, “ could be actively non-violent and not rise against social injustice no matter where it occurred.”

...Our identification with others in suffering requires that we properly inquire into the causes of their suffering with the aim of overcoming these. The traditional emphasis has been on suffering as an inward condition associated with ignorance (avidyā), but there is no reason to limit the meaning of suffering in this way. Hindu texts commending the identification with others in suffering do not suggest any such limitation. What we need then is an expansive understanding of suffering and liberation. We cannot ignore the suffering of human beings when they lack opportunities to attain the necessities for dignified and decent living or when suffering is inflicted through oppression and injustice based on gender, birth or race. It is not acceptable to affirm teachings about life’s unity while being indifferent to inequality and oppression at the social level. Working to overcome suffering means identifying those political, social and economic structures that cause and perpetuate suffering. The unmistakable call to be one with the suffering other requires nothing less...

Hindus and Christians stand on common ground in affirming a human dignity and worth that springs from the divine presence in the human. In our distinctive ways we hold the ultimately valuable One to be present in each one. This living out of this truth requires work to overcome structures of inequality, indignity and injustice. For both of our traditions, the life of generosity and compassion expresses best the meaning of liberation. Our response to human need is a response to God. Jesus’ parable in Matthew (25:31-36) of the separation of the sheep and goats speaks of him as incarnate in the needy. “Truly I tell you whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” Liberation enriches the meaning of our lives in this world.

Speaking of this theological common ground is not meant to overlook or minimize the differences between the Hindu and Christian traditions. But this common ground is not insignificant and I regard these as insights present at the heart of our traditions. It is a place that enables us to meet and speak with each other. It is place from which we can act together for lokasaṅgraha, the flourishing of all.

*Dr. Anantanand Rambachan is Chair and Professor of Religion, Philosophy and Asian Studies at Saint Olaf College, Minnesota, USA, where he has been teaching since 1985. He received his Ph.D and M.A. (Distinction) degrees from the Department of Theology and Religious Studies, University of Leeds, in the United Kingdom. Prof. Rambachan is the author of several books, book-chapters and articles in scholarly journals. Among his books are, Accomplishing the Accomplished, The Limits of Scripture, The Advaita Worldview: God, World and Humanity, The Hindu Vision and Gitamrtam: The Essential Teachings of the Bhagavadgita. Prof. Rambachan has been involved in the field of interreligious relations and dialogue for over twenty-five years, as a Hindu participant and analyst. He is very active in the dialogue programs of the World Council of Churches, and is participant in the consultations of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue at the Vatican and an educator on interfaith issues in Minnesota. He is currently an advisor to the Pluralism Project (Harvard University), a member of the International Advisory Council for the Tony Blair Faith Foundation, a trustee on the Board of the Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions and a member of the Theological Education Committee of the American Academy of Religion. The University of the West Indies recently honored Professor Rambachan with the Honorary Doctor of Laws degree.