Jesuits and Interreligious Dialogue
Not either this or that, but always this and that
Fifteen years ago, as a young graduate student focusing on the study of Hinduism, I went to Varanasi , North India , to spend the academic year studying Sanskrit and Hindi. I no longer remember clearly very much of what I did and experienced during that formative year. A few vivid scenes remain, however, etched deeply in my memory.
I recall with absolute clarity the day of my arrival in this new and strange country to which I had promised, sight unseen, a lifetime of loyal dedication. For months before arriving I daydreamed about encounters with serene meditators and radiant devotees; my senses reveled in the imagined sweet fragrance of sandalwood perfume and tranquil beauty of the Indian countryside.
My actual arrival in Varansi, however, was quite unlike anything I had imagined: sweltering heat, children defecating at the side of the road, a crush of vehicles enveloped in dust and noise, an unscrupulous taxi driver who threatened to drop me in the middle of nowhere unless I paid him a great deal more than we had agreed upon.
I arrived at the guesthouse early in the morning, sweaty, overwhelmed, disbelieving: what kind of terrible mistake had I made? How could I possibly spend the next nine months here ?
About two months later, I was on a boat at night, looking up at a lush moon, savoring the whispery sounds of water lapping gently at the side of the boat. Varanasi is located on the banks of the Ganges River , and I had been to the other bank for a night of Ram- lila , the theatrical reenactment of the story of the life of Ram, an important Hindu deity.
The boatman who picked me up had a gentle air about him. About a third of the way across, he started to sing, quietly, a song extolling the greatness of Ram and his wife, Sita. The soft light of the moon shone on the river's surface, and suddenly I felt very happy and peaceful.
Here was the deep spiritual beauty I had imagined and longed for, just not in the form I had expected; it took me by surprise, crept up on me unexpectedly in the river's midst.
I have been a faculty member in the theology department at Loyola University Chicago since 1992. I've returned to India several times since that first year to conduct academic research. For the last nine years I have been studying and writing about Hindu women's ritual worship of the deity Krishna . That project brought me back to Varanasi for extended periods during 1995, 1997, and 1998.
Working with women has given me a perspective on Hinduism that I did not get as a student absorbed in the study of Hindu scripture. I have come to know and appreciate women's folk traditions in ways I could not have done without immersing myself in the field. And I have come to know and love women with whom I never imagined I would share common ground.
My encounters with Hindu India exemplify both the challenges and rewards that may accompany serious engagement with religions to which one does not profess.
Encounters with the “Other” can sometimes be jolting or disturbing, sometimes overwhelmingly beautiful, sometimes surprising. No matter what else they may be, however, at their best such encounters are transformative.
I am Jewish by both heritage and choice; I do not consider myself Hindu, but I no longer consider myself to be entirely an outsider to the Hindu tradition either. Years of study and immersion in Hindu religious and cultural worlds have changed how I think about the universe I inhabit and have compelled me to reflect deeply on the interpretive frames with which I was raised.
I guess I would identify myself now as a Hinduized Jew, for my ways of thinking about the world and my place in it have come to be infused with Hindu categories in inalienable ways.
In her memoir “A Border Passage,” Leila Ahmed writes of her struggles to understand her family and formulate her own identity as an Egyptian Muslim raised in a wealthy, Westernized milieu and educated in English medium schools and then British universities. She arrives at the conclusion that “the truth is ... we are always plural. Not either this or that, but this and that. And we always embody in our multiple shifting consciousnesses a convergence of traditions, cultures, histories coming together in this time and this place and moving like rivers through us.”
Ahmed reminds us that human identity is always, to a greater or lesser extent, shaped by multiple currents ebbing and flowing and merging finally into our own person and story. Religions other than the ones to which we profess may transform us in ways that do not threaten, dilute, or confuse, but rather enrich our notions of who we are and what we believe to be true.
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