Religious pluralism is a reality in the world. With globalization, the exchange of information and cultural issues makes religious identity more fluid. However, this pluralism context is new for the West, where Christianity is still the majority religion, as opposed to the East where religious pluralism is a part of life and the foundation of religious experiences. There are many faiths in Asia. There are many faiths in India. This essay has the aim to reflect on the religious pluralism in India and how it can be a tool for a building a theology of liberation in context.
Poverty and Religious Discourses
As people living in this ambiguous world we must deal with the beauty and the ugliness of humanity. Poverty is one of the faces of our reality. In Asia, the rate of poverty is alarming: besides Japan, South Korea, and India which have more capital, other countries are poor, like Afghanistan which is the poorest country in Asia. India’s poverty is something the development discourses want to hide. The strong economic growth that put India in the list of emerging countries has increased social inequality, especially in rural areas. The rich class is richer, the poor class is poorer. Many religious discourses including Christianity have denounced that capitalism is taking advantage of the present situation.
I am a Latin American woman, I was born in a poor Christian family in Brazil. In my childhood and teenage years, I used to hear in church that the poor are poor because this is God’s will, because they “asked” for it; maybe could be a sin, and the only thing that we can do is preach “God’s love”. This is not the gospel of Jesus, the gospel which seeks the liberation of humanity from oppression and to give a new life. Religious discourses like this make true a famous sentence of Karl Marx: “Religion is the opiate of the masses”, opium that can blind our eyes from reality and make us non-action persons. Yet the same Bible, Bhagavad-Gita, and Vedas that are abused as tools of oppression can also be tools of liberation.
When Mahatma Gandhi read the Bhagavad-Gita he founded the principles of his struggle against British colonization, like satyagraha (loyalty to the truth) and ahimsa(non-violence). In Latin-America the liberation theologians like Gustavo Gutiérrez, Leonardo Boff, Ivone Gebara read the Bible with the lenses of liberation of the oppressed. In Asia Kwok Pui Lan, and Chung Hyun Kyung worked with the Bible in a post-colonial perspective.
Theology is a narrative of how our different bodies feel the Mystery of Life. Theology must go out of the office and dwell with the people, must walk barefoot to feel the earth, to smell the people, to feel hungry and thirsty, to cry and laugh, to dance, to touch others. If theology is not born among the poor people then it will be only a discourse of God’s love that is not love at all.
Hinduism and Christianity
The term “Hinduism” is too wide and generic to relate the religious experience in India. This word has never been mentioned in the Vedas or used by Indians. Max Weber said that Hinduism was a word that Islam created to describe the faith of non-believers (WEBER, 1987). There are two kinds of religious books in India, Sruti – revealed, inspired, “what is heard” and Smriti – “What is remembered”, which are a supplementary books. Most of religious expressions in India (sampradaya – religious system) are inspired by on the Vedas. The word Veda means knowledge, revelation. The Vedas are Sruti literature and there are different Vedas: Rig Veda, Yagur Veda, Sama Veda and Atharva Veda. All the rituals, chants, mantras and directions to offer sacrifice are in the Vedas. The Bhagavad-Gita is Smriti literature, and has a great significance in India and religious thought abroad. To understand the Indian culture it is very important to know the principles of the Vedas and how religious thought is built.
In my graduation in Theology in Brazil I spent 3 years studying the sampradaya called Bhakti-Yoga. Bhakti-Yoga is one of a thousand traditions in India that has as objective to achieve moksha (liberation) from samsara (cycle of reincarnation). For this tradition, the way to get moksha is the path of devotion (bhakti).
Bhakti is proposed both as a means of liberation and as the supreme goal of liberation itself. Bhakti as a means of release denotes the love of God shown by the devotee with the view of attaining final liberation and bhakti as the liberated state signifies union with and surrender to God; it is the felt participation of the soul in the total being of God (DHAVAMONY, 1982).
Bhakti-Yoga believes, as Christianity, that it is relationship with God that can make us free from our own ego (or sin). And then finding moksha we achieve complete union with God. Both traditions can make a mistake building “a kind of spirituality which so detaches itself from the world that it is not concerned with this world at all and only seeks the kingdom of God above.” (GRIFFITHS, 1987). But this “above” distances itself from the here and now, from the people who are suffering and hopeless in this world; “…but the concern of the Gita, as of deeper tradition in Christianity, is precisely to be detached from the world in the first place, in order to guide and to direct the world, which means bringing everything under the control of the Spirit.” (1987) said Fr. Bede Griffiths, who lived “in-between” Christianity and Hinduism.
All traditions have the conflict of seeking to escape from this world, seeking his/her own salvation, or working for others and helping them achieve liberation. In the Bhagavad-Gita period there was a bhakta movement, vaishnavas, spreading the mahamantra(important to obtain moksha) to all castes in India. In Buddhism, there was the bodhisattva movement, those who, in reaching enlightenment, make a vow not to enter nirvana until all beings also attain liberation. Fr. Bede Grittiths wrote about this question: “…the deeper one goes in the vertical direction towards God the more one should be able to go out in every horizontal direction towards humanity” (1987). Mahatma Gandhi said once:
My one object in life is to obtain moksha, liberation, and if I thought I could attain it by going to a cave in the Himalayas, I would go there straight away, but I believe that I can find God in my neighbour, particularly in my suffering fellow countrymen, therefore I devote my life to them in order that I may find God. (GANDHI apud GRIFFITHS, 1987)
As religious people, our dharma is bringing and building the Kingdom of God, Nirvana, Moksha here and now. In Sanskrit there is a concept called Jivanmukta that means finding liberation in this life and helping others to reach this liberation with the end goal of unification with the God. Jivanmukta-ideal is an “ideology for a movement of social transformation” (IRUDAYARAJ, 2010). Xavier Irudayaraj, talking about the concept of Jivanmukta with Liberation Theology, understands that liberation theology is very important to build a theology that incarnates a social-political context committed to world community.
Kwok Pui-Lan, Chinese theologian, in her book called “Globalization, Gender, and Peacebuilding: The Future of Interfaith Dialogue” said that interfaith dialogue is a better concept than interreligious dialogue. Interreligious dialogue is dialogue between Christianity and other religions, but Interfaith dialogue is a meeting between people living in a living faith. “The interfaith dialogue would benefit from the insights of post-colonial studies, which question how the self and the other, the center and the periphery, the cultural dominator and the marginalized have been constructed” (PUI-LAN, 2012). Not only religious leaders can dialogue about their faith, but all kinds of people who have a faith can dialogue, can build a new perspective of world. That is why postcolonial studies are very important in interfaith dialogue.
Pui-Lan works in the postcolonial perspective and questions where are the multiplicity of voices in the discourse of liberation theology and interreligious dialogue. This postcolonial theology provides a more nuanced articulation of the meaning of liberation for marginalized groups.
Marginalization no longer becomes exclusive to socio-economic categories, race, or cultural appropriation of difference. The disenfranchisement of other groups has in many ways been a result of colonization. Imperial forces have not only subjugated individuals physically, but perhaps more ominous intellectually. The totalizing effect of both the physical and the intellectual colonization has necessitated a liberation hermeneutic that accounts for these facets. Liberation theology through a postcolonial perspective has provided an apparatus for such a task, starting with redefining the meaning of poverty in the midst of imperial forces (THOMAS, 2015)
Where are the poor in interreligious dialogue? Where are the women? Where are the LGBT people? Colonialist thinking can still be present in our discourse about interreligious/interfaith dialogue. Our discourses can be oppressive even when we are acting for freedom. Christianity is a hegemonic power in the world, so, interfaith dialogue can only happen when Christians understand that power of discourses and then give others the opportunity to speak and create their own narrative.
All religions have their own liberation theology. Interfaith dialogue is about building bridges between religious people so they build new horizons of peace and justice. I hope that our practice and discourse of interfaith dialogue will be anchored in the concept of jivanmukta, which is “liberated from selfishness, permeated with the presence of the God and, spends their life both loving and serving others” (THOMAS, 2016).
DHAVAMONY, M. Love of God according to Saiva Siddanta: a study in the mysticism and theology of Savism. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971.
GRIFFITHS, Bede. “River of Compassion: A Christian Commentary on the Bhagavad … Warwick, N.Y.: Amity House, 1987
KWOK, Pui-Lan. Globalization, Gender, and Peacebuilding: The Future of Interfaith Dialogue. Paulist Press, 2012.
THOMAS, Nicolas. Black Liberation Hermeneutics: A Postcoloinal Perspective. As part of coursework for The Bible and Empire in Texas Christian University, 2016.
WEBER, MAX. Ensayos Sobre Sociología de la Religión. Versión Castellana de Julio Carabaña. 1ª edição, Tomo II, Madrid: Taurus, 1987.
IRUDAYARAJ, Xavier. The Jivanmukta Model of Interiority and Service. In WILFRED, Felix. Leave the temple: Indian paths to human liberation. Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2010.