Hindus and Catholics: Reasons for Mutual Respect and Reverence

Hindus and Catholics have a long history of co-existence in communities across our world. Catholics and Hindus have lived as neighbors on the Indian subcontinent for centuries. Hindus also live among Catholics in many other parts of our world, including Africa, the Caribbean, Europe, Fiji, Mauritius, North America and Australia. While our history together is not free from controversy and dispute, we must not overlook the friendship and mutual learning that also characterize our encounters. These are precious resources that can be too easily ignored in times of conflict and contention.

Our relationship, however, has a complex history. It is a history influenced by religious factors, but also by social, political and cultural considerations. These considerations are important and will inevitably enter into our dialogue. We cannot ignore their significance, but we must ensure that our focus on what has ultimate meaning is not displaced. We must resist reducing the significance of our traditions only to their socio-political dimensions, or allow our relationships to be determined solely by these factors. The theological depths of our tradition must, in fact, inform our response to the social and political. To be religious means to think about all dimensions of life from centeredness in God. Dharma is all-inclusive; there is no human activity or core value that is without religious meaning and significance. For a Hindu, therefore, to think about the meaning of respect and reverence for persons of other religions is to do so from the most profound insights of the tradition.

Mutual respect and reverence in relationships between Hindus and Catholics do not require that we overlook our differences or that we ignore difficult issues. Relationships that disregard differences and are silent on contentious matters will be superficial and risky. Respectful relationships do not insist on sameness of vision or the relinquishing of our distinctive theological commitments. In fact, our differences may be the places of our deepest learning from each other.

Mutual respect and reverence, however, do require humility, a virtue closely associated with religious wisdom in the Hindu tradition. A fundamental theological ground for humility is the Hindu teaching that God is always more than we can describe or understand with our finite minds and languages.

Taittirīya Upaniṣad speaks of God as the one "from whom all words, along with the mind, turn back having failed to grasp (yato vāco nivartante aprāpya manasā saha)." The implication is that we can only profess our traditions with humility and be open always to the possibility of learning from and being enriched by the wisdom of others. Ṛg Veda entreats us to welcome wisdom from all sources (ā no bhadrāh krtavo yantu vishvatah). One of the sources of disrespect and arrogance is the belief that religious truth is limited to one way of speaking or to one tradition.

Mutual respect and humility must deeply inform and guide our dialogue over what is, today, the most contentious issue between our two traditions. I speak of the phenomena of religious conversion. Let me state, at the outset, that the Hindu tradition values and affirms teachings that Hindus regard as true and worth sharing with others. The motivation for such sharing is the conviction that these teachings are universally relevant and conducive to human wellbeing. Generally speaking, however, such sharing of religious teachings took place in response to a request from the receiver. This practice minimized aggression, and encouraged sharing that was characterized by dialogical exchange between teacher and student.

Hindus and Catholics need to come together in dialogue on this divisive issue. Such dialogue will help us to clarify our concerns and to discover the areas of our mutual agreement. We will agree, I believe, that religious commitment 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 self 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. We need also to control our tendency to speak of the ideals of our own tradition and flawed realities of the other tradition.

Mutual respect and reverence must also be grounded in a value for the dignity and sacred worth of the human being. The Hindu tradition teaches that God exists equally in all beings. There is no life outside of God and there is nothing that exists which is not sustained by God. No being is excluded. Every human encounter is an encounter also with God. This is the source of our reverence for the human person and our affirmation of her and his dignity and equal worth.

Although our theological grounds for reverence towards human beings differ, our shared affirmation of the dignity and worth of human beings is significant and consequential. For both of our traditions, the value of human beings is not derived from the state and is not reducible to economic or political considerations. For the Hindu tradition, it is a value that comes from embodying the One (Ekam Sat) who is of ultimate value. We can stand together against any ideology and political or social structure that denies the personhood, and dignity of human beings and that condones injustice and irreverence. We can speak together for justice and do so for reasons that include but go beyond the political and economic - we can speak of the divine present in the heart of the human. Today, the discernment of this divine presence calls us with urgency to reverence for our common home, the earth, to united efforts to halt its degradation and to promote ecological responsibility in our nations, communities and corporations.

Our reverence for human life calls us also to something that is just as important as standing together for human dignity. It calls us to lives of compassion (karuṇa), and generous and joyful self-giving (seva). The Bhagavadgītā (12:13), speaks of the one dear to God as compassionate, forgiving, friendly, and without hate and selfishness. In both of our traditions, the self-centered religious life is a contradiction. The highest teachings of our tradition do not turn us away from our neighbors in need or deafen us to their cries. Our understanding of God is not true unless it finds active expression in lives of loving compassion and in work that aims to alleviate suffering.

Our traditions, in their distinctive insights, enable us to stand together for the dignity and equal worth of human beings. Our traditions enable us to stand together against injustice and the commodification of human life. Our traditions inspire us, in special ways, to lives of compassion and service for the overcoming of suffering in our world. In a world that longs for peace among religions, these are among the finest places, even in the midst of our difference, where Hindus and Catholics can and should stand together.

(The above is a synopsis of an address delivered at the Hindu-Catholic Dialogue, Durga Temple of Virgina, 23 May 2015).