Fr Noel Sheth S.J. is Professor of Indian and Asian Religions at St Xavier’s College (Autonomous), Mumbai, India. For more than 35 years he was Professor of Indian Philosophies and Religions at Jnana-Deepa Vidyapeeth, Pontifical Institute of Philosophy and Religion, Pune, India, where he was the former President (Principal). He was also a former Rector of Papal Seminary, Pune. A reputed scholar in Sanskrit and Pali, he was a Gold Medallist of the University of Pune, having secured a first class, first in his M.A. (Sanskrit-Pali) in the University of Pune and won several prizes and scholarships. He holds a doctorate in Sanskrit from Harvard University, U.S.A, where he was awarded a full scholarship. He has studied eleven languages, four of which are classical languages: Sanskrit, Pali, Latin and Greek. He has received many awards from different institutions. Father Sheth suddenly died of a heart attack on July 8 while attending a conference in Bogota, capital of the South American country of Columbia. He was 74. We condole his death and publish the interview he gave to the editor of Light of Truth in the 2nd week of February in Pune Papal Athenaeum.
You have been to different national and international universities, including Harvard in America as teacher of Hinduism, Zoroastrianism, Jainism, Buddhism, Sikhism etc. Why are you so much enamoured of them?
I like all religions, because I feel that religion is not meant for merely academic study, which I have done. It is primarily meant for transformation. I myself have learned a lot and I have become a deeper Christian and a wider Christian after encountering and even experiencing them, sometimes through meditation, other ceremonies etc. I have learned a lot, not just at the intellectual level. Something in them has touched me and moved me and has grown in me. Of course, all of it was not there in the beginning. For example, in my first years of teaching in Jnana-Deepa Vidyapeeth I was mainly giving information and later on I imparted reflection and several years later also transformation. So, I went through the three stages of growth: information, reflection and transformation. The transformation happens for both the students and the professor. Although I may be teaching the same course, something in it touches me each time as something completely new. Thereby it becomes a transformative experience for me every time.
Tertullian asked, ‘what has Athens to do with Jerusalem?’ But the answer for it came in the moulding of European Christianity, a symbiosis of Athens and Jerusalem. Why is that not happening in India?
It is happening to some extent. For example, there are many ashrams in India. Not all of them are of the same level or of the same depth, but there is something happening. There are a number of people who go for various types of Vipassana meditation or Zen meditation even in India. The Jesuits in Tamil Nadu have a Zen centre. So it is not altogether non-existent, but it has not risen to the level we would want. We have vibrant inter-religious dialogues in India. I have gathered though my travels to 80 or 90 countries that, in spite of all our short comings, India seems to have much more frequent inter-religious dialogue. I am also invited to dialogue meetings by people of other religions. I prefer the term inter-religious relations to dialogue. At the formal level, they have a number of meetings that take place in many parishes and schools, and they put up some information about feasts of other religions in our Christian institutions and so on. Even for these meetings, often people are invited to give a talk may be a couple of weeks or just a week before the meeting. At such a short notice, how can a person do sufficient research to give a solid reflective paper on the topic from the perspective of that person’s religion? It is not possible, in such a short time to bring out what we, Christians, for instance, can learn from others or what others can learn from us, because it is a two-way traffic. So, from that point of view, much more needs to be done in India. In Western countries, when they have a conference on a particular topic relating to different religions, it is much more solid. Germans call it Wissenschaft, and serious research is done by all who are involved in it, be they Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists or Christians. All of them come well prepared, but that is not the case in India. In other words, our so-called dialogue at the academic level is somewhat superficial. But there are a lot of other types of dialogue such as the dialogue of life, dialogue of social action and dialogue of spiritual sharing (notice that here it is relationship, rather than dialogue that is involved). The last one takes place rarely, but the other two are there in plenty. In a sense, it is much more important than academic dialogue, because not many people can enter into academic dialogue. They must first of all know their own religion from the academic point of view, which is not always the case. You must also have some ideas of other religions with whom you are dialoguing. In order to have a proper dialogue, at least some knowledge, not in-depth knowledge, is required. But academic dialogue can remain merely intellectual. Relationship is a much more evocative term, involving warmth and friendship.
Augustine is a great thinker who explained Christianity through the Platonic language and Aquinas did it through the Aristotelian language; do you think a similar attempt is seriously being made here? If not, why so?
It is not taking place in India in much depth. First of all, the first missionaries who came to India were naturally children of their age and so made some mistakes. Our priests and sisters who are going to other countries are repeating the same mistakes. Take for example Mother Teresa’s congregation – I have seen them in Australia and the United States – they are wearing the same habit everywhere. Where is inculturation then? We have to inculturate ourselves in the new country and culture where we are. I was told, in fact, that they had to close down a house in Harlem in the United States because they just could not somehow make a real contact with the local people, namely the African Americans, because they were not adapting to the local culture. Incidentally, nowadays we talk of interculturation, rather than inculturation. But for centuries we have been taught one fixed way of understanding things in accordance with the Latin saying Roma locuta est, causa finita est (Rome has spoken; the case is settled). We have not been trained to think independently, and so are our professors in general. You can’t simply coin a slogan or make a generalized statement. Your opinion has to be founded on some arguments or some quotations from the scripture or whatever to prove the point you are making. Simply stating something or denying something won’t do. Unfortunately, that is how things have been done through many centuries. Even now we have a kind of understanding in several seminaries that there is only one way of looking at reality or religion.
The Church has a nomenclature that is borrowed from the Greco-Roman culture, which we are not ready to compromise. Is it not happening here also?
Yes, exactly. I have written a number of articles pointing out some of the similarities and differences we have with Greco-Roman or Western culture. Terminology is only the superficial part of it. Behind that terminology there exists a whole world view and a completely different way of looking at things. So, besides being shy of terminology, we are all the more shy of embracing a different world view. I have been pointing out how in certain ways the other world view is complementary to Christianity. Just as there is much that we can learn from them, there is much they can learn from us, provided we are willing to somehow get out of our shells.
India is now in some way heading towards the Hindutva narrative. Do you think it is a serious matter? Is it fuelled by a fear of losing cultural identity?
That could be the reason. Many leaders who are wedded to Hindutva are occupying positions at present in the states and at the Centre. It is not a new phenomenon. It has been happening before. While in power, they are naturally able to express themselves more. Such a group of people has existed for a long time.
Also in pre-independent India?
Many leaders who taught the Hindutva ideology originated from Maharashtra, which, interestingly, is not so prone to Hindutva as some other areas in India.
But they were an insignificant minority then?
I don’t think they are a majority even now. Those in power speak out, but there is a vast silent majority who do not think that way. The idea that ‘India should be a Hindu nation’ is gathering momentum, and they are somehow able to put that across to many Hindus who were not thinking earlier on the same lines. I would like also point out that we should not be afraid of this particular reaction or action, whatever you may like to call it; we should rather cope with it and deal with it. There are many ways of dealing with it other than through confrontation. People say that we should write articles to defend our position. That’s of course important, but it doesn’t win people’s hearts. It only creates antagonism.
First of all, let us try to be more Indian ourselves. I have always been saying that we can learn from the Hindutva people. Not everything is bad in anything. Even a thief has got many good qualities, about which the thief’s mother can tell us. So, we cam learn from Hindutva people to love our own culture. Instead of living in our own ghetto, we should make friends with them. I know many RSS people. I maintain good friendship with some of them; some were also my professors when I was studying Sanskrit. We never could have guessed that such and such a person was an RSS member or that I was a Christian, because we had built up a good relationship. I will give you a very concrete example, about which I have already written. It took place when I was president of Jnana-Deepa Vidyapeeth. I had sent batches of students to places like Odisha and Gujarat where natural calamities like floods and earthquakes happened. When one batch of students was doing relief work in Gujarat, a truck full of RSS men arrived there. Our students apprehended trouble. But, one of our students spontaneously went up and embraced the leader of the group. From that moment onwards they became the best of friends. Nobody would have thought that they were people adhering to different ideologies. They sat together, they joked together, they ate together and they worked together. Our students narrated this to us when they came back. This was true interreligious relationship.
We can even invite them to our institutions and let them see what is happening there and also talk with us. We can go over to their place and talk with them. It is very important to develop friendship across religions, because deep down they and we are human beings. Of course, there are some people like Hitler who are absolutely incorrigible. Mahatma Gandhi wrote a letter to him asking him to refrain. There are certain types of people like ISIS with whom it is difficult to dialogue. While it is true that human nature is basically good, the fact is that some people are so pathologically warped that they are practically impervious to any wholesome influence on the mind or the heart. Therefore, in some cases the use of violence becomes unavoidable. But it seems to be that we are living in our own ghettos and not reaching out. To me the better way is not confrontation but embracing in love.
How do you find the Ghar Vapsi slogan? Perhaps it has its resonance in the Church also. There are people in the Church who want to go back to the old ways. Is it not a regressive move?
I would not exactly put it as a backward movement. If they are intending that people should come back to the Hinduism of ancient times, then, of course it is a backward movement. But every religion changes as it progresses. In the case of some people, it is a going back. For example, they will not accept some of the modern developments in Hinduism. I don’t think everybody who is talking about Ghar Vapsi wants people to come back to Vedic Hinduism. They don’t mean that. Hinduism has changed a lot. Vedic Hinduism is hardly being practised nowadays, and it is largely defunct. The Hinduism that we are practising here has been influenced by the Dravidian religions, which were existing here before the Aryans came to India. Aryans may have conquered us militarily, but India conquered the Aryans culturally and religiously, and so their religion changed because of their encounter with India. Though not consciously, they practised inculturation, including in thought, doctrine and even the deities. For example, Krishna means black, and he must have been a Dravidian deity.
You pointed out to a parallel move among Christians. Some people think that Vatican II was a work of the devil. The same people feel that Pope Francis is sent by demons to destroy Christianity. So that tendency is there in every part of the world. I don’t think the majority of Hindus think in that way. Let me put it in another way; going back is first of all not historically and scientifically correct. For example, they are insisting that the tribals are not Adivasis (original dwellers) but Vanavasis (forest dwellers). ‘Adivasi’ would imply that they are the original dwellers and were here before them. Vanavasi means forest dwellers who could have started living there nearer in time. So they have changed the nomenclature. They are asking tribals to return to Hinduism, which is not historically correct. The Adivasis were having their own religions before the Aryan Hindu religion came to this subcontinent.
Besides, the issue of going back to a former religion raises other questions. Many Christians might have been Hindus and many Hindus have accepted other religions in ancient times. For example, how did Buddhism start? Gautama Buddha himself was a Hindu. So are they asking the Buddhists to become Hindus again? I have not heard of that happening. This means they have accepted it as an Indian religion. They have not thought of the implications of Ghar-Vapsi. For example, to which caste do they return? Hinduism is not the first religion of the world. Hinduism and Zoroastrianism were more or less contemporary. They have similar names of deities, devils and so on. If Indra, for example, is a deity in Hinduism, he is a demon in Zoroastrianism. There are other practices that are the same or similar, e.g., fire. This is an additional argument to show that Aryans had come from outside India. But to go further back, there were also much older pre-historic religions in different parts of the world. Do we ask for a Ghar-Vapsi in reference to those religions?
Whitehead said that there are two Catholic religions; namely, Christianity and Buddhism. Don’t you think Buddhism is more humanistic than Hinduism?
Yes, I would say so, though not in an absolute sense, because I have studied both Hinduism and Buddhism. For example, Buddhism, in its history and in its texts, is surely much more non-violent than Hinduism. The Mahabharata is a text of violence. Mahatma Gandhi claims that the Bhagavad Gita is preaching non-violence, which is not true, because, even though it mentions non-violence as one of the virtues, Krishna tries by various means to persuade Arjuna to fight, and at its very end we hear Arjuna telling Krishna: I will carry out what you have told me to do. It is more philosophical than some of the other passages in the Mahabharata, of which it is a part. Even so, there was a lot of violence already happening in ancient India. We see in many Vedic passages that Vedic Hinduism was a religion of conquest. Buddhism has spread in many countries without violence or waging war. But it is no exaggeration to say that Buddhism has also persecuted and even burnt people alive forcing them to convert to Buddhism, as it happened in Mongolia. But those are exceptions. Buddhism fares better than Hinduism with regard to non-violence. On the point of openness to other traditions, there are many beautiful texts in Buddhism whose equivalent we don’t find in Hinduism. Buddhism has been exposed from ancient times to other religions and traditions, which was not true about Hinduism, because Hinduism remained insular, restricted mostly to India. It is not a missionary religion. Buddhism has been a missionary religion from the very beginning. So I would agree with you that Buddhism has much more to contribute to humanism, but it should be pointed out that the contribution of Hinduism is also considerable.
You have been training priests for so many years. How do you see the future of the Church in the context of the problems it faces in Europe and elsewhere?
The Church is confronting many problems. The issue is not just one of church attendance, which is one of the issues. It is something deeper than that. There are problems of secularization, erosion of values, commercialization, consumerism, etc.