Wisdom from the East

This dialogue engages two Christian women, one from India and the other a North American visitor/tourist—in India for an international conference on ecology.

Indian: Welcome! I’m glad you’ve come to India.
American: Thanks. There’s so much to observe here; I must miss a lot.
Indian: No doubt. You’ll alert me to common details that I overlook. From your note, you wonder how the strong interreligious context shapes Indian Christianity, a minor faith here.
American: Or, what are some ‘givens’ for faith, in light of multi-faiths?
Indian: Might I first ask you: How often do you meet Muslims? I read that the number of Muslims in the United States about equals the number of Jews.
American: Muslims and Jews: I rarely connect with either, though mosques, temples, and synagogues dot bigger cities. And Christians share Jewish scripture.
Indian: More U.S. people are Muslims than either Episcopalian or Presbyterian.
American: Really? You likely have Muslims neighbors?
Indian: Of course. The imam’s first of five calls to daily prayer wakes me up each morning. I rather like that. More than my alarm, the call from the minaret leads me to talk with the One God too.
American: I suppose it could. That’s profound, that one faith prompts others to pray.
Indian: All the time. Yesterday, a small Hindu procession stopped traffic in my section of town. Hearing the drums and seeing the adorned, mini-deity carried on a platform, I paused from gardening to thank God for energy. Just last week I had sprained my ankle when my scooter jammed up in traffic.
American: Now that’s another twist. My first thought on seeing those Hindus might be to wish they’d see the light of Christianity.
Indian: Light? Do you have any idea of the meaning of light for Hindus?
American: No. Should I?
Indian: Think about it this way. If your first response to people of another living faith discredits or wishes them to change, without knowing their depth of wisdom about symbols like light, is that fair? Might you bear false witness, when telling your church friends, about Hindu rituals?
American: A fair concern, in light of the Ten Commandments.
Indian: Light! Are you aware of India’s wisdom-based religious heritage? What you’ll absorb on a short visit barely “scratches the surface.” What you see when Hindus light candles or offer milk or remove their shoes on entering a temple may overlook deeper wisdom.
American: I’m sure. How Christians nurture their faith, in light of other religions, interests me.
Indian: Good. Have you heard of the Vedas?
American: They’re ancient Hindu scriptures.
Indian: The religious or reflective tradition of the Vedas shapes India’s wisdom. Vedas means wisdom or science. Any serious thinker pursues Truth.
American: How about the common believer?
Indian: Have Luther and Calvin’s reforms or views of Aquinas or Augustine shaped your faith?
American: Likely so, but I can’t explain how in detail.
Indian: In somewhat related ways, the Vedas permeate sacred experience here in India, known or not. The Vedas expect people to discover Truth for themselves, to pursue ultimate questions: What gives meaning to my existence? Who am I or who are we? Why was I born and what re-birth will follow death? To learn through such sweeping questions helps one to meet or transcend suffering. The Vedic approach also prompts meditation. Here, to practice yoga means to develop the mind so that higher realities appear.
American: Christians in the west may ignore such depth when practicing yoga.
Indian: Patanjali, a sage from north India, noted eight principles of yogic practice, all of which help reunite a person with the divine.
American: Principles like breath control and body posture?
Indian: Yes, but also ethical behavior or discipline, plus withdrawing senses.
American: Meditation must be a principle. I read Rita Gross, a Buddhist. She distinguishes meditation from contemplation. For her, meditation is about resting the mind, while contemplation is a way to work with ideas to foster genuine meaning.
Indian: That’s useful. . . Patanjali follows concentration with ecstatic absorption. The goal is to let go of the ego.
American: Buddhists also use the term mindfulness to express spirituality. Intent to slow down, they attend to the present.
Indian: Varied paths or ways move toward union with God. While the path of good works and compassion in action is called “karma yoga,” the path of wisdom or “jnana yoga” pursues honesty, truth, and self-realization. And a way focused on devotional love is called “bhakti yoga,” while the path of sacred sound or “mantra yoga” highlights reciting or chanting.
American: Eastern worship includes a lot of repetition, right?
Indian: Part of the goal is to remember. The Hindu scripture known as The Upanishads is full of rhythm, accent, sequence, and knowledge of letters. Restated, the point is to resonate, to become intimate with sound, with voice. The truth of texts, prayers, and words of power, repeated, imbibes one’s self.
American: We in the west tire of repetition.
Indian: You value what is fresh or novel, more than what comes through deep penetration?
American: Perhaps. Earlier you mentioned that the Vedas permeate Indian culture. Do Indian Christians combine your scripture with eastern culture and religious wisdom?
Indian: Of course. Multi-issues shape the process and outcomes. Westerners often transplanted beliefs here without knowing the Vedas heritage. A strange mix followed. Now, informed Indian Christians, aware of that implant and steeped in experience with diverse faiths, honor the wisdom of India’s religious heritage. Practices and views that they might earlier have been told to denounce.
American: What else strongly shapes your faith?
Indian: Certainly, the other major Asian reality—economic hardship. Poverty impacts most Asian religions.
American: It shapes your spiritual being, your relationship with God?
Indian: Of course. Not first an inward piety, Asian spirituality prompts openness to other religious traditions and engagement with social struggles. Zen Buddhism, for example, states: “Show me.” Compassion for those who suffer enables noble kindness, empathy, or joy in a Buddhist.
American: Eastern Christians celebrate the plural?
Indian: Not isolated from another’s life, spirituality is germane to justice and liberation. To struggle provides meaning.
American: Even the prophet Jeremiah knew that “To do justice is to ‘know’ God.”
Indian: Someone called it the “Godwardness of life . . . seeing God in all things and all things in God.” . . . But you wanted to focus interaction between living faiths, right?
American: Whatever wisdom you propose.
Indian: Knowing your interest, I began a list of ideas. First: Here in India religious plurality is a fact of life. Bishop S. K. Parmar defines plurality as a “gift from God.” Believers enrich their commitment through relationships across faiths, through dialogue.
American: In the process, your inner truth is tested?
Indian: The process enriches a believer. Pluralism credits the richness of Truth. No one or group has a monopoly on it. Each religious community is obliged or freed to live out its central beliefs with integrity, as it serves humanity.
Second: Each religion claims unique or distinct features.
American: Like Jesus’ uniqueness? Does any other faith claim a redeemer figure who died and rose again?
Indian: Not that I know of. But, as we Christians hold that distinct claim, we with grace expect other faiths to value and explain what is unique for them. S. J. Samartha reminds us that, “In the core of every religion, something belongs to it alone.” Buddhists pursue nirvana; Sikhs and Muslims honor their scriptures in most profound ways.
American: But is one group’s uniqueness “better than” another’s?
Indian: Why ask that? Who but God decides quality? Why debate? Whereas debate causes opposition, dialogue calls people to work together. Dialogue invites understanding while debate competes. Debate first critiques the other’s position while dialogue first looks inward, to discover further ways to reveal God’s Way of love. Having heard another’s wisdom, each ponders whether or how to enlarge personal insight.
American: Useful—dialogue and debate stem from and meet different goals.
Indian: People here observe that religions ‘fit’ the distinct, spiritual competence of those who practice them. While Hindus strive to relate the self (Atman) with the foundation of creation (Brahman), Christians hope to unite with God through “being in Christ.” Hindus might choose paths of selfless devotion to God through work, control of the mind, or absolute knowledge. Samartha advised the church to stress “distinct, not exclusive or only.”
American: You’re stretching my thoughts; give me time!
Indian: How about during your flight home? Third: Differences will remain and that’s good. Consider Christian Trinity, a concept that offends Muslims because it denies Allah’s oneness. Rather than debate the point, why not agree to differ? Share convictions on the personal meaning of faith or discuss questions like: “How do you understand integrity in relationships?” Christians can learn from Muslim almsgiving and faithful prayer life, instead of argue over holy difference.
American: Accept difference without using it to drive wedges, to estrange people?
Indian: You can’t be an effective neighbor while ever seeing difference as negative. Here in India, with Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, or Buddhist neighbors, we live faith by granting others space to be loyal to a religion meaningful to them.
Since I’ve jotted down numerous points, I’d better move on to the Fourth: Prayer and scripture matter in religions. Muslim obedience involves response to five daily calls to prayer.
American: Might some Christians say, “But, we’re called to pray without ceasing”?
Indian: What motivates that comment? Thinking that we’re more pious? Do most Christians pray constantly? Can we welcome public reminders to halt actions to meet God? How informed of impromptu Muslim prayer are Christians who judge?
American: My comment was hostile.
Indian: Living among people loyal to other religions calls us to common ground, not first to being over-against. Hindus reveal a strong desire to merge the human spirit with the Divine. With sacred rites, some repeat the Gayatri, a call to contemplation. Christians repeat the Lord’s Prayer. And Jews communicate with Yahweh, the God of covenant.
American: All connect with one-and-the-same Mystery?
Indian: What do you think? I see prayer as common ground. Scriptures vary more. Earlier, Christians brought the Bible to India, this country replete with sacred stories. R. S. Sugirtharajah faults those who used Christian scripture to “denigrate Asian peoples’ sacred texts.” Padmasani Gallup values those who “put the people and their needs at the centre of biblical interpretation.” For her, the Bible is one among resources for searching the Truth. You value comments from Indian Christians?
American: Sure. I only wish I knew more of their writings.
Indian: My Fifth observation: No one religion will be decisive for all peoples. “To know one is to know none,” Max Mueller said. “For Christians, to be in Christ is the only way to be in God. But in a religiously plural world, to be in Christ is not the only way to be in God.” Always expect solid insight from Stanley Samartha or Wesley Ariarajah—who said that “Asia will never become Christian,” for example.
American: You support that idea?
Indian: I see that fact as part of divine Wisdom.
American: As if God has multiple ways to offer salvation?
Indian: Together, finite people of faith face the Infinite. We work toward harmony and peace. We learn through religious “cross reference.”
American: “Cross reference”?
Indian: Kenneth Cragg, who lived with and wrote about connecting with Muslims, coined the term. People of faith glean from multi-faiths to perceive and express the spiritual.
American: Needing each other, a hybrid quality takes root?
Indian: For example, through a term vital to Hindu thought, Samartha notes how God provides darshana, “a view of life or insight into the Mystery of the Divine.” Further, God provides dharma, “a way of life or motivation to live in obedience.” Do we have time for more on the list?
American: Sure; I could interrupt less.
Indian: “No problem.” Sixth: Christians see God at the center of the religious universe; most faiths resonate. Christians pattern Jesus in worshiping God. Motivated by Jesus’ example, we serve others. Salvation in Christ means being reconciled with God and neighbor. Again, I value Samartha’s word: “Commitment is to God, not to Christianity or the church.” Such confession neither insults nor excludes. It welcomes. It witnesses to gospel faith without denying another’s dream, without undermining another’s integrity of faith in the One God.
American: You seem convinced. But not all western Christians would trust your sixth point. To support diverse approaches to God may cause conflict.
Indian: Could well be. What I endorse is keeping God central. Was that not Jesus’ main motive? Promoting the kin-dom of God? Courage to you as you explore and explain Truth based on hearing adherents of other living faiths.
American: A ‘high Christology’—with Jesus at the religious center—might overstate his role?
Indian: For Indian Christians, he is vital, yes essential. But when we locate God at the center of the religious universe, we expect other pilgrims also to witness to God, to tell their special stories.
American: I heard about an imam who guided a missionary orientation group through a mosque. He repeatedly said, “If you don’t believe as we do, you’re going to hell.” That judgment offended the group, until they ‘held the mirror.’
Indian: Lessons can be tough to learn, so we need lots of grace—toward all.
American: Would you see God in a healer loyal to another religion?
Indian: Need I limit God? I recall the research of an American woman who grew up in India, Joyce Burkhalter Flueckiger, with a Muslim female healer who uses storytelling to heal. Located in Hyderabad, Amma exchanges stories. She tells some and expects all patients to bring and tell theirs. She prays with patients, recites verses known for healing power from the Qur’an, and uses Arabic script and a scheme of numbers to diagnose and explain treatments. Do I need to doubt if Allah invades those stories?
Seven: Indian Christians value their indigenous heritage. Christian converts were often told to denounce features from their religious past. Some denial and confusion followed. Yet, religions have always borrowed. For example, a classic verse from ancient Shaivite (Hindu) writing states: “God is love, and who so loveth not, the same knoweth not God.”
American: You mean that isn’t just a Christian concept?
Indian: Will you value the universal in Truth? Today, Indian Christian voices plead for understanding. For example, V. C. Chakkarai: “The religious genius of India must form the background of Indian Christianity.”
American: Such as?
Indian: Believing with Wesley Ariarajah that: “God has always been present, active in a saving way, in Asia.” Aruna Gnanadason believes that radical spirituality demands “indigenization of the church’s music and liturgy and patterns of ministry.” Some Christians wish to ritually include the Hindu lamp—symbol of the presence of God—in their worship settings. Rather than endorse alien cultural expression with some hymns, Satish Gyan encourages worship in India to include chants or bhajans and kirtans led by a Cantor. He welcomes the use of bells; prasad (eucharist) for all; offerings of fruits, flowers, and cash along with praising God through bhakti (devotion).
American: Sounds like wisdom. I’ll ponder these points and your conviction when back home. Could I hear the rest of your list tomorrow? I see that my driver just arrived.
Indian: See you at 9:30. I must go write chapter headings for a new manuscript.
American: Bahut-hi-dhanyawad!
Indian: And thanks to you too.

Reflection (Christian Speaker)
God of many Faces, Forms, Names, and Nuances,
embolden us,
and free us to free others to know You in your breadth.
God of every Tribe and Nation,
awaken us,
and broaden our world to include underprivileged before kings.
God of all people of diverse Faiths,
surprise us,
and reassure Muslim, Hindu, or Sikh neighbors to trust us.
God of Heaven and Earth,
expand us,
and curb our neglect of sea or pollution of land.
God of Risk and Reconciliation,
engage us,
and walk with us to confront wrong or negotiate peace.
God of Debate and Dialogue,
alert us,
and prod us toward openness to Truth, less bent on being right.
[Add verses to this prayer.] In God we mutually trust.


Aleaz, K. P. “Church in the Indian Pluralistic Context: Challenges and Opportunities,” NCC Review, cxv/8, 1995, 659-68.

Ariarajah, Wesley S. “Asian Christian Theological Task in the Midst of Other Religious Traditions,” CTC Bulletin, xviii/1, April 2002, 14-30.

Berman, Shelley. “Comparison of Dialogue and Debate,” Adapted from discussions of the Dialogue Group of the Boston Chapter of Educators for Social Responsibility, Winter 1993, 1 p. Xeroxed.

Chatterji, J. C. The Wisdom of the Vedas. Wheaton: Quest Books, 1992.

Das, Lama Surya. Awakening to the Sacred Creating a Spiritual Life from Scratch. NY: Broadway Books, 1999.

Eck, Diana L. “Neighboring Faiths—How will Americans Cope with Increasing Religious Diversity?” Harvard Magazine, Sept.-Oct. 1996, 38-44.

Flueckiger, Joyce Burkhalter. “Storytelling in the Rhetoric of a Muslim Female Healer in South India” in Spiritual Traditions Essential Visions for Living, David Emmanuel Singh, ed. Bangalore, India: United Theological College, 1998, 226-52. Also, see her book In Amma’s Healing Room Gender and Vernacular Islam in South India. Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Pr., 2006.

Francis, T. Dayanandan & Franklyn J. Balasundaram, eds. Asian Expressions of Christian Commitment. (See V. Chakkarai, P. D. Devanandan, S. J. Samartha), Madras: CLS, 1992.

Gnanadason, Aruna, ed. Future of the Church in India. Articles by P.C. Alexander and Padmasani Gallup, Nagpur: NCCI, 1990, 29-35, 42-49.

_____. “Living in Harmony with Each Other: A Feminist Perspective,” The Conrad Grebel Review, Winter 1996, 91-98.

Gross, Rita M. & Rosemary Radford Ruether. Religious Feminism and the Future of the Planet A Buddhist-Christian Conversation. NY: Continuum, 2001.

Gyan, Satish C. “Gospel and Culture: Reflections on Worship and Liturgy,” NCC Review, cxvi/2, Feb. 1996, 109-19.

Indian Preparatory Group. “An Indian Search for a Spirituality of Liberation,” in Asian Christian Spirituality Reclaiming Traditions, Virginia Fabella, Peter K. H. Lee & David Kwang-sun Suh, eds. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1992, 64-84.

Personal interviews: Roelph Kuitse, November 2, 1993; David Lindell, November 4, 1993; Raj Biyani, January 8, 1994; Rita PaulRaj, June 12, 1996, and Eve Ricketts (multiple times).

Samartha, S. J. “Christian Community in a Pluralist Society—Towards a Revised Self-Understanding,” NCC Review, cxvi/3, March 1996, 153-64.

_____. One Christ—Many Religions, Toward a Revised Christology. Bangalore: SATRI, 1992.

Scott, David C. New Relationships in Religious Pluralism. Manganam: TMAMOC, 1991.

Schiffman, Richard. “The Wisdom Teachings of India,” in Living Wisdom Vedanta in a World Community. Pravrajika Vrajaprana, ed. Madras: Sri Ramakrishna Math, 1995, 63-70.

Sugirtharajah, R. S. “The Bible and its Asian Readers,” Biblical Interpretation, 1/1, 1993, 54-66.