The Divine Quest, East and West (Part II)

This post continues a series of reflections on Jay Ford’s The Divine Quest, East and West.

As part of The Divine Quest, East and West’s turn toward the East in Acts 4 and 5, this reflection deals with the Classical and Colonial periods of Hindu theology. In reviewing the schools of classical Hindu theology, Ford usefully highlights the central theme found in each major school: the attempt to reconcile the one with the many, demonstrating the importance that conceptions of the ultimate Brahman played in the development of the Hindu traditions (125). Effectively, only two major options existed: the Brahman was either impersonal and absolute or personal and theistic (128). The perspectives of Shankara (hierarchical monism) and Ramanuja (quasi-dualistic theism) mirror our earlier interaction with Taylor, again underscoring the similar ways in which even vastly different traditions conceive of the ultimate. I do not wish to argue that the Hindu traditions (or all other major religious perspectives) remains trapped within the dichotomy of monism and dualism, only to note that classical Hinduism appears to revisit some of the same concerns with which the monotheistic traditions have wrestled.

Representation of Brahma

Representation of Brahma

Shifting to the colonial era of Indian religions, Ford notes Raja Ram Mohan Roy and his quest to create a “pure form of Hinduism, free of idolatrous beliefs and superstitious practices accrued over the centuries.” (130) This striving for pure Hinduism, however, did not prevent Roy from drawing upon his encounters with other faith traditions. Mining a strict monotheism from Islam, congregational worship and social ethics from Christianity, and the rights movement of Unitarianism, Roy blended the principles and practices of these external sources with his re-reading of classical Hinduism. On one level, I think this underscores the composite nature of Hindu traditions and more broadly suggests the need to consider all religious traditions within their socio-historic contexts. Brahmo Samaj Hinduism, like every other religious tradition, exists in a world of competing ideas which can be adopted by movements and applied to different context or applied to similar contexts differently. Understanding the rich context of a religious tradition only helps us understand the reason behind these connections more fully.

However on another level, I believe Roy’s adoption of various non-Hindu principles and practices demonstrates a problem within the academic study of religion, namely the problem of monolithic labels (which Ford helpfully notes in the introduction to Part III) and questions concerning the origins and interplay of religious ideas, including conceptions of the ultimate. In many ways, this seems to be a problem with classification. If Roy inherited a “strict monotheism” from Islam, what is to keep us from saying he was a Muslim who read Hindu texts? While obviously something of an overstatement, the blend between religious conceptions leads me to ask, how do we best engage conceptions of the ultimate where there are examples of interactions between traditions? That is, how important is the relationship between native conceptions of an “Indian” or “Hindu” the Ultimate and new conceptions of the Ultimate introduced by outside perspectives, such as Islam? Should new perspectives be viewed primarily as additions to a tradition or as new paradigms through which a tradition makes sense of existing sources?

Arjuna encountering Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita

Arjuna encountering Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita

Of course, such a question applies to a tradition as varied as Hinduism as well, where different schools of thought and textual traditions introduce different conceptions of the ultimate among each other as well. In the colonial context the interaction and co-option of these ideas may have been pragmatic, though understanding the possibly unifying implications that shared conceptions of the ultimate seems especially important in our current context as well. One wonders about the apologetic and inter-religious implications of understanding ‘adoption’ between religious traditions, especially in a context like India and Pakistan today.

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