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Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan (1888-1975) – Great unifier or opinionated reductionist?

Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan (1888-1975) was an Indian scholar of religion and philosophy who taught at the University of Calcutta and Oxford. He became the first Vice President (1952) and the second President of India (1962).

More interesting to me, he was an influential interpreter of Hinduism. His translation of the Bhagavad-Gita was a standard for students of Comparative Religion back in the mid-1980s. But this wasn’t the copy I kept in my coat pocket while traveling throughout India. Instead, I preferred a small, cheap Indian paperback that lacked the intellectual varnish of the Radhakrishnan publication.

For Radhakrishnan, diverse world religions are different aspects of the same Source. So religions can be unified through a universal interpretation of Vedanta, particularly, Advaita Vedanta. Advaita Vedanta argues that the soul (atman) and ultimate reality (brahman) eventually merge as one. There is no ultimate individuality.

Radhakrishnan’s intentions were noble. I have no doubt that he wanted to sow worldwide peace and promote mutual advantage. But what we want to believe and what’s really happening are often quite different.

Accordingly, Radhakrishnan believes that the Christian message, which clearly glorifies individuality and sainthood in the service of God, fits within his non-individualistic take on Hinduism.¹

Image – Wikipedia

Radhakrishnan’s work is widely respected in India and around the world. This isn’t surprising because Hinduism, like most religious perspectives, tends to incorporate or, depending on how you look at it, reduce different world religions to agree with its own understanding of the godhead. Some find this an attractive approach while others believe it overlooks or, perhaps, trivializes important theological differences.

Consider, for instance, a fairly standard Hindu view of Christianity. For many Hindus, Jesus Christ is just another messenger—some might say avatar. Christ is one among many wise historical figures, and certainly not the most evolved messenger or avatar. For some, Christ is a well-meaning cosmic schoolboy because he doesn’t teach about the supposed “truth” of reincarnation. He’s not evolved enough to “know.”

So for many Hindu believers in reincarnation, Christ the cosmic schoolboy is not the only Son and incarnation of God as traditional Christians, themselves, believe.²

One could argue that this approach, even if well-intentioned, contributes to a condescending and divisive “we know better than them” attitude that runs through most faith groups around the world.

When individuals rigidly believe that their particular religious beliefs represent absolute or the best available truth, there’s arguably little room left for meaningful dialogue.

The agenda to ‘convince and convert’ is found among most religious people. Sometimes this agenda is masked with an agreeable persona of trying to understand. Whether or not this facade of trying to understand represents unethical deception or a wise kind of “fishing” for souls remains open to debate.³

¹ This might be due to his never having an unadulterated Christian experience. Some think he was, in part, reacting to a negative experience with Christian missionaries in India. See http://ojs.globalmissiology.org/index.php/english/article/view/244/684 . There are some schools of Indian thought that conceptually fit better with Christian cosmology.

² For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life – John 3:16. Hinduism is not the only non-Christian belief system that modifies traditional Christianity to fit within its own framework. Almost all non-Christian religions do this, old and new. Likewise, many Christians reinterpret non-Christian beliefs to fit with their own cosmology.

³ “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will send you out to fish for people.” http://biblehub.com/matthew/4-19.htm

Related » Wendy Doniger, Visistadvaita

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