Archbishop of Canterbury Meets with Hindu Acaryas

Archbishop of Canterbury Dr. Rowan Williams meets with Sri Sugunendra Teertha Swami of the Madhva sampradaya (left) and Sri Chinna Jeer Swami of the Sri sampradaya (right) in Bangalore last October. Home in London , he gave his reflections in February.

By Kripamoya Das

Last month, the Archbishop of Canterbury reflected on his recent dialogue with Hindu swamis in Bangalore, India. The event was held at Lambeth Palace on the south bank of the Thames, and was hosted by the Hindu-Christian Forum. I was particularly interested to hear that the head of the Anglican Communion‘s 80 million Christians had been in discussions with Vaishnava acaryas, and I was pleased to accept an invitation to the event.

As far as I know, the Archbishop’s dialogue was an historic occasion—the very first such meeting between the head of the established church of England and Indian sannyasis of ancient lineages. Indeed, although other meetings may have previously taken place with swamis of the Advaita school, his meeting with two Vaishnava acaryas at the same time must have been unique.

Last October, the Archbishop Dr. Rowan Williams met with Sripad Sugunendra Theertha Swami of the Puthige Matha, Udupi, an acarya of the lineage of Madhvacarya; Sri Chinna Jeer Swami of the Sri Vaishnava lineage; Sri Harshananda Swami of the Ramakrishna Mission; Dr. Shivamurthy Shivacarya of the Lingayats; and Sri Swami Paramananda Bharati of the Sringeri Math, a sannyasi in the line of Sankaracarya.

His first comment on Wednesday morning at Lambeth Palace to the fifty or so Hindus and Christians gathered there was that in India he witnessed reflections and echoes of the theological discussions within his own tradition. Some of the theological issues found in Hinduism concerning grace and free will, and God’s immanence and transcendence have their parallels in medieval European discussions.

Yet despite the depth of our mutual religious paths, the world seems to “systematically trivialize what human beings are capable of,”  he said, as he reflected on how much both Hindus and Christians are consequently “hemmed in” by “easy and crude versions” of their deep philosophical issues and religious practices. Indeed, this seemed to be a recurring theme: the extent to which the highest spiritual aspirations of human beings are discounted because of the observer’s unfamiliarity with the appearance or ritual behavior of “the other.”

“The other believer’s ritual, practice, tradition, and language challenge what you know about yourself.”

“The common element in both Hinduism and Christianity is being awakened,” he said, and: “We are habituated to what is false about the world; we must become habituated to what is truth.”

On identity he commented: “We must establish what notion of human dignity we are working with; it is based on something inexhaustible.”

Yet in the world today we must be aware of “the risks of allying religious language with political power, thereby imposing a certain kind of secularity.”

“When a religious person wants to declare that “we are under God” it shapes the goals of the society in which the person lives. There should be religion in society and as a principle that is robust and defensible, but if there is dominance of religion in politics and freedom of conscience is not tolerated, and certain voices are made inaudible, certain minorities repressed, then that is wrong.” The Archbishop declared that India’s lasting legacy as a politically secular nation—a choice made at the time of independence—is that ‘the state creates a space where religions can believe, but not dominate.’

Regarding the situation in the United Kingdom where, unlike the USA, the Church of England is the established church and therefore intertwined with the state, he said: “…Christianity being the established church here is not to dominate, but rather it is the state saying, “We will take faith seriously.”

Returning to an initial theme of how religions other than one’s own are explored, taught in schools, and discussed, the Archbishop explained his views: “There is comparative religion and then there is comparative theology, an attempt to go beyond mere ‘comparative-ism’ and to see what questions need to be answered, and can we do it together? This is ‘interactive pluralism,’ a respectful, lively engagement.” He added that such discussion needed to be based on philosophical ideas and ethical values rather than a discussion of externals such as clothing and so on. One issue for him was the status of women and their dress. Theology, he said, needs to be disentangled from culture to establish what practices are culturally based (or factually based on a repression of women) and which come from a perspective grounded in spiritual considerations.

“We need a greater level of religious literacy. There is ignorance in administrative circles. Religion in schools is sometimes the study of the eccentricities of foreigners, which I think is an outdated British approach. The ethical approach is deeper. We can study the devotion, not simply the festivals, but the feelings supporting them.”

“When we speak of faith we should speak of not only one tribal entity but of faith in general, and we should bring that into the public arena. We have to be truthful about the other, and give an account of their faith and practice that they would recognize, even if we don’t agree.”

“Hindu dialogue has often been conducted by the under-educated. Hindus have been spoken for by academics (instead of educated Hindus explaining it themselves). There is a tendency to project a homogenized version of Hinduism in an attempt to understand it.”

Here Dr. Rowan Williams was hinting at the problem of trying to explain Hinduism as a singular entity rather than what it actually is: a family of sampradayas or ‘schools of faith.’ Understanding this problem, a problem that has dogged Hinduism in the diaspora for decades, is the key to beginning a fresh level of understanding. So it is extremely significant that the Archbishop’s visit to India embodied the Church’s desire to dialogue with the variety of sampradayas. Indeed, only by meeting representatives from the different sampradayas can the Church begin to understand that the word ‘Hinduism’ is a convenient but highly misleading term.

Commenting on the phenomenon of interfaith dialogue, the Archbishop said that: “Because Hindu-Christian dialogue comes from colonial times, we have to go beyond a polite mutual ignorance. There are social, spiritual, and educational frameworks for interfaith.”

On the thorny question of religious conversion to Christianity in India he said: “I believe that freedom of religion means the freedom to change. Conversion is a movement of the heart, and people do change. But religious conversion should never be the result of manipulation, pressure, bullying or bribery. Where that is the case it is wrong.”

This article originally appeared on Kripamoya dasa’s blog, The Vaishnava Voice.

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28 Responses to Archbishop of Canterbury Meets with Hindu Acaryas

  1. What were his thoughts on the centuries worth of violent conversions that were committed against Indians, and that are still being committed in very shady ways?

  2. I too was at the dialogue and felt that the Archbishop’s perceptive observations regarding the huge difficulties involved in a monolithic understanding of “Hindu” and “Hinduism” were fully substantiated by the participation of the Hindu representatives of the gathering. Every Hindu that spoke up spoke for a different group, admittedly, of mainly neo-Vedantic (e.g. Ramakrishna mission) / neo-Vedic (e.g. Arya Samaj) etc. persuasion.This seems to expose – at least it did for me – the extremely problematic nature of the notion of a fruitful Hindu – Christian dialogue: the conversational partnership would appear to be rather unbalanced, if not completely skewed.The notion of Christian – Vaisnava / Saiva / Sakta etc. dialogue would seem far more tenable (though I understand still not entirely unproblematic) While I am certainly not naively suggesting that there are no problems involved in construing Christianity monolithically, I am quite sure that the Christian members of the audience could identify with at least most, if not all, of what the Archbishop had said of their tradition. This is in stark contrast to how I felt. As one who identifies himself as belonging to the Gaudiya tradition, I simply am unable to resonate with statements to the effect of: “Everyone knows that Hinduism has since the beginning upheld the equality of all religious paths…” etc, etc. Personally, I came away from the dialogue feeling like the Christianity eloquently expressed by the Archbishop had a whole lot more substance than the Hinduism disjointedly represented by what appeared to be a group of mainly aging Indian businessmen and question whether the nature and format of the dialogue could have allowed for anything but this.

  3. I remember reading something from a Srila Prabuphada dialogue where he said that his participation in such an interfaith dialogue would be pointless.

    He was right, because if they do not accept Krsna as the Supreme Personality of Godhead, then they do not get the ultimate point. We are talking about accepting who is the person of God. These conversations are like eternal tennis matches between the religions conditioned by the modes of nature.

    All I can say is :”Dear Lord Krsna, please do not let these mundane conceptions affect my mind, but let me appreciate them for what they are.”

  4. Why think such a dialogue is pointless? Look around you – there are serious conflicts everywhere, and religions play a major role in them. People die and suffer needlessly all over the world because of them. The religious leaders MUST give an example of rational behavior when it comes to religious interactions. Who cares that there is no agreement between them where it comes to religious doctrine? At least they act like civilized people and not like brainwashed savages.

    • Vikram Ramsoondur

      Amen to that. You and I have a history of (mostly) agreement that has spanned the years and straddled different fora, Kulapavanaji. May it continue for a long time to come.

    • That was some sane comment, Kula Pavana ji.

    • Well, Kula-pavana Prabhu,

      With regard to your idea that they are civilized and not brainwashed savages (good choice of words, there)……

      there have been a few Crusades, led by the Christians. And then the Muslims made a practice of tearing so-called Hindu temples to the ground.

      Of course these guys were not getting it down to that level. But I assume that the Archbishop enjoys a good steak after a conference like this. I haven’t really given this discusion much contemplation. But your comment caught my attention.

      Hare Krishna Prabhu, Ishan

      • Prabhu, in the civilized Vedic India various religions and philosophies existed side by side, without resorting to violence. Modern Western civilization has a similar understanding of what is civilization and what is savagery. That was my point and my narrow application of these terms in this context.

        • Kula-pavanaji,

          Perhaps Ishan Das should be advised to dig a bit deeper into these issues instead of blurting out all sorts of unreflective idiocies as he has been doing for some time. Were he to do that, he could perhaps get to know that the ‘Vedic’ brahmanas of the yore themselves relished maybe not steak, but certainly some other beef dish after conducting their yagnas. There is a wealth of material available that evidences the beef-eating habits prevalent in ancient India in no uncertain terms, but perhaps the article linked below, by noted scholar DN Jha, the acclaimed author of the well-known work, ‘The Myth of the Holy Cow,’ would be a good place to start.

  5. I think the biggest problem is that none of these guys have sufficient imagination. What are they going to do after they’ve spoken to eachother and how are they going to relax the tension in these conflicts? I suppose theres no harm in them putting on a show for the public, because it does actually help.

    But what is the purpose of their discussion? If they don’t agree on a conclusive conception and resultant course of action, then they are just spraypainting their division gold for the time being.

    It reminds me of that video where Srila Prabuphada goes in front of an assembly of theologists and tells them : “Here is God”. Did any of them accept his conclusion and very basic logical arguments? Will the Archbishop of Canterbury, who accepts the concept of 1 God, accept the conclusion in the Bhagavad-Gita where Krsna establishes that he is THE God entity? No ways…. If he does, will he make it public and reform the Church? “Jesus, the son of Visnu” He might offer some (maybe even patronising) respects, but this is actually quite a scientific thing.

    It is pointless because the Archbishop will say: We think 1 + 1 = 7 the Hindus will say 1 + 1 = 9, but they won’t figure out or listen that 1 + 1 = 2, then start a new cult that’ll save the world. Haha.
    They agree on “1+1”, but not the answer of course.

    I really don’t want to be critical about this, but this is like taking some water in the Atlantic Ocean and pouring it in the Pacific Ocean. To me, the differences in religions are nice, because they provide different aesthetic approaches to divinity, but thats about it.

    Maybe it is pointless, because they didn’t reach an actual point.

    If the outcome is auspicious, then there is no harm and when Jesus comes back I will be glad.

    • Robotmule:”But what is the purpose of their discussion? If they don’t agree on a conclusive conception and resultant course of action, then they are just spraypainting their division gold for the time being.”
      Every religion claims they have a patent on Truth. Expecting everybody else to agree with our claim in such interfaith discussion would be naive in the extreme.

      When respected leaders of various churches meet and have a civilized (or maybe even cordial) discussion, it is a signal to the church members that there is some merit to the other church, which in turn results in civilized behavior between members of these churches. And that alone has a tremendous value, not just to the society, but to church members as well. Tolerance is a brahminical quality, fanaticism is NOT, as it is born out of ignorance.

  6. There is a popular cliche in comparative religion, that he who understands only one religion understands no religion. Those who see flaws in other religions, and see no problems with their own religion, probably do not understand more than one religion.
    This is for Robot mule.

  7. Vikram Ramsoondur

    I’d say that those falling in the second category are arguably more benighted than anybody else, Vivek.

  8. Thanks! Personally, I only understand the Vedas and Satanism ;).

    I’m simply playing this from the angle of Bhagavad Gita and Srila Prabuphada, which is enough information for me to assess what is going on critically and humorously. I’m thinking from the angle of humanity coming together for a “common religion” for all as we enter a planetary age, namely devotion to the Supreme Person. Religious differences can harmonize towards this point, and you won’t see conflict over historic issues.

    The Vedas gives the Supreme Person, whereas the other scriptures give us White Light. That is the basic difference. Will they accept Krsna (The Eternal Blissfull Youth) in relation to their white light? Nah, even though its all a stream of divine intervention from the same source trickling down throughout the ages. Krsna appears in trillions of forms, but the form of the boy is the original, the “generic” form of God. Which, in a “Scientific” light is very interesting to me and makes complete sense.

    Like I said, the different religions are awesome for what they are. I love Islamic Writing, I love Christian Cathedrals, I love Sufi sayings etc….. I regularly read the literature. All are different divine angles. The other day, Muslim friends of ours brought us a feast! There was a lot of meat in it, which would be Rajasic/Tamasic food.
    The patriarch’s daughter wore a burqa in the midst of a western lunch party. There were no issues. Ok, so she was wearing a burqa to not instill worldly lust in other men – easy and fine – a regulation.

    So, In the light of the Absolute Entity, its easy to see the other religions for what they are and yes, there is no point to try hard and “convert” people to Krsna, because it is actually the supreme occult knowledge.

    I just find it entertaining to give friendly critique. The Religions use the word “God”, but they don’t have a system of knowledge that articulates His science. “We” have it, so we don’t necessarily have to be apologetic all the time. The Paramatma concept is a good start. God is in “moments” too. Where is the question of “religion” then?

    Many Christians talk about loving God, which is awesome. I’m just wondering whom and how they are loving. I never question them on this though, because they might have more love than me! Perhaps its the Christian Personality of Godhead, the Zeuss-like father figure (YHWH?) who gives them a nice house, money and children(I’m not generalizing).

    Out of interest, God as an old man? This is most certainly transcendentally possible, but isn’t Old Age an “Evil” from the Material Region?

    Just some creative speculation……….

    • Robotmule if you really have the courage to meet evidence head on then here are my two cents. The vedic texts themselves are not overwhelming promoting vegetarianism either. Only later puranic texts and Manu smriti etc are promoting it. The_Emergence_of_Vegetarianism_in_post-Vedic_India.pdf by Edwin Bryant talks about these issues. It is available here on his website under articles. Now, if you want to the see the complex dynamics at work, it is worthwhile to read the article to balance out your views on this issue. We can discuss this issue after that. Extensive vegetarianism in India is a very modern post-Buddhist phenomenon and there is no evidence to suggest people were vegetarian in earlier yugas. In fact, there are more vegetarians at this time of Kali Yuga than there ever have been.

      So try to examine your religion well before trying to talk about the faults in others.

  9. Robotmule, I know you won’t accept any evidence apart from Prabhupada, so I am trying to gather something on this issue.

    His disciple, Hridyanandanda das Goswami quotes,”
    Indeed, in the Mahabharata, great acaryas occasionally declare a new dharma, an example being the injunction of Sukracarya that brahmanas were no longer allowed to drink liquor (Mahabharata, 1.71.52-5), or that of Svetaketu that women must …be monogamous (Mahabharata, 1.113.15-20).”

    This indicates brahmanas used to take liquor. Otherwise being not allowed to take liquor does not make sense.

    Bhagavatam 4.22.13 Prabhupada writes:
    “Kings are … sometimes employed to kill animals in hunting because they have
    to practice the killing art, otherwise it is very difficult for them to fight their enemies.
    Such things are not auspicious. Fou…r kinds of sinful activities—associating with woman
    for illicit sex, eating meat, intoxication and gambling—are allowed for the kñatriyas. For
    political reasons, sometimes they have to take to these sinful activities…

  10. And some more things to ponder from ninth canto from SP
    in 9.7.20 from SB.
    “Thereafter, in the sixth year, after wandering in the forest, Rohita returned to the capital of his father. He purchased from Ajīgarta his second son, named Śunaḥśepha. Then he offered Śunaḥśepha to his father, Hariścandra, to be used as the sacrificial animal and offered Hariścandra his respectful obeisances.”


    It appears that in those days a man could be purchased for any purpose. Hariścandra was in need of a person to sacrifice as the animal in a yajña and thus fulfill his promise to Varuṇa, and a man was purchased from another man for this purpose. Millions of years ago, animal sacrifice and slave trade both existed. Indeed, they have existed since time immemorial.
    So bad qualities are not specific to demons of Kali yuga. 🙂

    • Vikram Ramsoondur

      Kula and Gaura-Vijaya, how about if we move a step beyond this and on to some findings of scientific textual analysis? For instance, if we were to say that the Bhagavatam was not written by Vyasa 5,000 years ago, that it was completed in more or less its present form well within the common era, and that it is the product of not one but several hands, how would that go down? I could hop on from here to saying much the same thing about the Gita, but I won’t, lest I’m accused of being too iconoclastic!

      The icing on the cake could perhaps be this then: most professional academic works on Hinduism, along with the historiographic readings of certain traditional scholars hailing from a variety of Indic schools, class traditions such as Yoga, Shaivism and Advaita as being older than Vaishnavism, which is something that of course equally resonates with what members of these specific cults themselves believe.

      The bottom line is that everyone thinks their sect to basically hold a monopoly on truth, even if most put it in more diplomatic language than that. One may believe one is correct because of what one heard from one’s guru or param-guru, and that all others are mistaken or deluded; at the end of the day, this amounts to mere faith and belief, which for all practical purposes, is utterly worthless to everybody except oneself. Hence, the safest route ought to be: cherish what works for oneself, and respect everybody else (even whilst perhaps disagreeing with them), or else one may someday wake up to find that one’s own mental cocoon is replete with holes, and that one has nowhere to hide, much less to run.

      • Religious sects explain the nature of reality differently, even while they stand on considerable common ground. The explanation that suits one best is in one sense the best. Still some explanations are objectively more comprehensive than others. This is the position Gaudiya Vaisnavism ultimately takes. We see it explicitly in relation to gopi-bhava within the tradition and by extension it plays out in a broader cross-traditional sense as well. However, in the context of establishing its own position it does for the sake of contrast sometimes cast other traditions in a dimmer light, and while that seems inevitable, the tradition should in the present day and age refrain from unnecessary sectarian criticism of other paths especially when such criticism is not well informed, as is often the case.

  11. All of this is fine. The main reason why I reference Srila Prabuphada is due to his matter of factness and simplicity. I’m also aware of changes in scriptural injunctions etc… Vegetarianism was never my issue anyways. With my Muslim story I was simply labelling the food according to the Modes of Nature as an analysis according to Transcendental Knowledge. I ATE the meat.

    In fact, in my sphere of activity, the “sinful” elements are common. I am aware of them and their implications, but luckily I’ve become indifferent to them in order to “act my part” properly, just like Arjuna killing his kinsmen. I’m the last person to preach THAT kind of righteousness.

    To get back to the topic and the essence of my argument – you’ve got a “chaotic” religious situation in the world at the moment in the mainstream at least. Obviously, the main combatants are Christianity, Judaism, Islam and Atheism. I’m talking about the general conflict now.

    1.The Christians don’t know how to properly formulate SCIENTIFIC, observable arguments in order to beat the scientific arguments of the Atheists who are expounding a purely material worldview. So, the Atheists insult “God” and turn people away from seeking transcendental realities.

    Will the Christians reference the Monotheistic Vedanta philosophy? NO, because they think the “Indians” are polytheistic pagans ! Haha, their loss.

    2. Christianity/Judaism vs. Islam. Both of them say :”God is Everywhere”, but obviously God is not in the people on the opposite side. As a side fact, many of them find it difficult to accept that animals have souls – that is pathetic knowledge. So, it comes down to the fact that they are not even on the level of Paramatma realization.

    Conclusion: If you feel strongly enough about a religious quest, how do you tackle these problems? They are, to naively quote SP, conditioned by the bodily concept. At least they are theistic, which is a good starting point. The knowledge in Bhagavad Gita can satisfy the Christians, Muslims and even Atheists, but they are conditioned by their worldly situation, their concept of history etc…..

    So please Gaura-Vijaya, I know that regulations, injunctions and culture changes over the ages. I’m working with the information the Supersoul is handing to the world at the moment. The Supersoul is giving this planet refined machine technology, intense material knowledge and great entertainment.

    With this argument, I’m not at all interested in the history leading up to this point, because this point is happening now, and what is the best knowledge to use for the benefit of all NOW? How will the concept of the Supreme Personality of Godhead carry in this time? That is the point.

    Please respond suitably to my suppositions 🙂

    Ps. None of this matters, unless you feel sorry for people who are embodied in meat machines and do not know that they are suffering.

    • Robotmule, now that I hear your complete picture I don’t object to it. So yes, go ahead (as if you needed any permission for me :)) and present to the atheist your theistic picture and hopefully it will be more compelling than the Christian presentation.

  12. Haha, at least you’re humoring me now! Maybe this situation would make a good theater piece…..

    • Dandabats all…new to this far luv it…one observation…I think their collective agreement was that 1+1=1…but much lack of knowledge of whom is that ‘ONE’.. is evident in their lack of understanding of the word Personality…
      too bad a pure devotee didn’t get up and give da picture of The Darling Of Mother Yasoda…or The Darling Of Mother Mary…or Sacinandan Darling of Mother Saci…Lord Jesus and Saint Francis are on the altar of my heart…and Lord Jesus did come back for me in the form of my Gurudeva. If we could ‘all’ accept ‘all God’s children have a place in the choir..some sing low and some sing higher” and leave our B S egos at the door with our shoes…
      and if that don’t work..well praise da Lord and pass lots of ammunition…

  13. Hare Krishna!

    This time, I didn’t even read the article. I just went through the comments, one by one. And I am somewhat stunned by the comments, the interaction, the flow of ideas from different sides. But some thoughts are beginning to gel.

    Some are concerned that people who follow different spiritual ideologies learn to get on nicely with each other. Of course that would be nice. But it does not mean that they would necessarily become qualified to enter the spiritual realm.

    Then the question of eating animals came up. Although I do not keep a pet, I know that people weep when their pet dies. So if we remove the designations of belonging to one group or another amongst humans, why not think in terms of extending that same kindness to the creatures? Afterall, they all have feelings. This will not mean that one who does so will automatically develop love for God. I understand this. But my understanding is that regardless of the colour or design of a seeker’s robes, if he comes to the platform of real spiritual realization, he will automatically see all living beings with the utmost love and respect, regardless of species. So if this is the position of those who are close to God, why not try to be godly, in our less evolved state, simply because we understand that this is such a nice thing?

    As far as this church or that church, mosque or temple, the idea is the same. We are all of us here in this temporal dimension, filled with so much pain, discord, and the like. And these different doorways are an expression of our common faith that there is something more, something beautiful and eternal that we can move towards. Regardless of our banner, or dress, certainly God knows our hearts and our individual sincerity will be reciprocated. This reciprocation will take the form of realization within our hearts. The level of sincerity required to invoke this kind of reciprocation is obviously very rarely seen amogst us. But surely our energy will be best spent individually in that direction, as opposed to taking a stand against each other’s chosen path.

    The Vedic version appears to indicate that even in the spiritual realm, where eternality is the baseline, there are different sub-realms for souls with different flavors of love for the Supreme Being. Jesus also makes some reference to this, talking about his Father’s house and all the different areas in it. So why should we not grant that freedom to each other, as the Supreme Being is granting us that freedom.

    For myself, as a neophyte devotee, I am attracted to my picture of little Krishna as he stands framed on my modest alter beside the stove, and I like to read about Him. But to me, anyone who holds some feelings of reverance or affection for God, regardless of form – I feel so grateful to them, because they help me to feel stronger in my own faith.

    I only wish to thank you all for being on the same page in this respect.

    Hare Krishna, God bless you,

    Ishan das

  14. After reading the article, I see that Rowan Williams feels that interfaith dialogue is something to shoot for. My personal feeling is that this is not really necessary as much as getting the people of the various denominations to be at peace with the fact that different people approach God in slighlty different formats. Understanding the details of each other’s format and ideology is not so much required. But if interfaith dialogue can help to bring us to the point of mutual acceptance, then it is a good thing.

    Again, if there is respect for each other’s path to God, that is not acutally the goal in itself. However, if that kind of mutual respect helps individuals of all faiths to feel a self-respect that encourages them in following their own paths with dignity and with peaceful hearts, then that certainly will have value.

    Hare Krishna! Ishan das

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