On Friday, April 20th, Radhanath Swami joined Francis X. Clooney S.J. at Columbia Universities’ Earl Hall Auditorium for a program entitled “Encountering God – Hindu & Christian Perspectives on Going Deeper Into Spiritual Experience”. Francis Clooney is a Parkman Professor of Divinity and Professor of Comparative Theology at Harvard Divinity, as well as a Catholic, Jesuit priest. The evening was hosted by the Gadadhara Pandit Das, the Hindu Chaplin of Columbia University, and sponsored by the Columbia University Bhakti Club. The discussion was moderated by professor Edwin Bryant, Rutgers universities’ professor of Hinduism. Professor Bryant introduced the speakers and presented questions from the audience. Below are excerpts of the discussion.
1. How do you encounter God in each others traditions?
Professor Clooney: I think the Catholic tradition to which I belong sees itself as having been always in the position of learning from outside itself. In 1542 the first Jesuit, Francis Xavier, went to India and began this long process – that the Gospel cannot be preached unless you learn from the people to whom you have been sent. Literally learning Chinese, learning Tamil, learning the languages of North and South America - there has to be this mutual learning process if anything is going to be communicated. And I think when I went to Katmandu in 1973 it was kind of that last way of the West going out to the world that I went out there as part of a mission, part of it was a Jesuit school in Katmandu but it was an education institution in which, of course learning would take place and most important, questions would always be asked. In that context I first encountered Hindu tradition.
Somehow every boundary can be crossed every question can be asked. You are a far better Catholic if you can understand an entirely different intellectual system. And then within that, gradually finally finding my way by reading the Gita, by teaching the Gita in Katmandu, to the stories of Krsna, to the great intellectual traditions around the Gita, and then to the beautiful poetry of South India – the Tamil poetry, the Bhakti tradition of the Alwars – and realizing here too was one hundred percent love, for no one other than Narayana or Krsna, or Laxmi Narayana. And that you give yourself entirely in that love and that you see the entire world around it and that it seemed to me as a Catholic theologian, which I really consider myself to be, being an Indologist, being a small part of that, is that somehow you have to open the doors and ask the questions. You have to learn far more than you can digest from the other tradition and then fall in love with it. Then, as I fell in love with and remained in some way in love with my own tradition learning the other and making a part of my own and then the very difficult and unpredictable chemistry of bringing that together and making sense of it, particularly through the Vaishnava tradition for me.
Radhanth Swami: When I was 19, on my journey, the greatest spiritual transformation I had experienced up till that time was in a beautiful cathedral of the Catholic church in Florence, Italy. While I was praying and meditating before Lord Jesus, before the altar, I had a life changing experience. It was at that moment that I decided that I would dedicate my life exclusively to the spiritual search. A grace came upon me in that beautiful cathedral that has nourished and empowered me in certain ways till today.
When I was living in Vrindavana living along the banks of the Yamuna, it was late morning and I was chanting Radha and Krsna’s names, a very traditional and learned baba or saintly person sat next to me. For about an hour we were discussing the intimate lila’s of Radha and Krishna and was so enlightening as he was so deep with love. Then before he left he handed me a folded up piece of paper and said “This has helped me to go so deeply into my love for Radha and Krsna. Please keep it with you and read it,” and he left. I opened it up and it was prayers of Saint Francis of Assisi. I read through it and I remember that I cried.
People who are deep in their own tradition can not only tolerate other religious beliefs, but appreciate and actually dive deeply to enhance our own spiritual experience through the realizations of other religions.
2. Why do missionaries want to convert different traditions to theirs?
Radhanth Swami: That same question was asked to my guru, Srila Prabhupada right here in NYC. I think it was around 1966. They said “Why have you come to America? We have our own religion.” He replied, “I have not come to convert I have come to enlighten - to help remind you of what we have within us, the great treasure of love of God. My success is not only to transform people to love Krishna according to my tradition, but if I can help a Jew, Muslim, Jain or Sikh to actually be a deeper lover of God in their own tradition then I will accept that I have done my service”.
So it is natural that we want to expand our own families but at the same time it is crucial that it is done with honor and respect. It is a Vaishnava principle, amanena manadena, to not expect honor for ourself but to be very eager to offer all honor to all others. I think when there is that balance, then our missionary activities can have a very powerful impact and access a very powerful form of God’s grace to us and the world.
Professor Clooney: This is a difficult question as it has troubled relations amongst religions especially the Christian missionaries going out into the world. And lets admit to that it is tied in with politics, colonialism, imperialism, that kind of sorting out purely and saying it is just a spiritual thing in the Christian context is implausible and it is tied in so many other factors.
Today as missionaries go forth, some are clearly intrusive and offensive to the cultures they go to and others are wanting to share something that is so beautiful to them. As long as that is not connected, as Swami said, with any compulsion or necessity for getting you to join my community, being able to share with others that which you care about so deeply can actually be a beautiful thing even if it goes under the category of mission.
3. So how important is a literal understanding of the scriptures of your respective traditions?
Professor Clooney: I think on one level, one has to admit that if one just sticks with the Biblical tradition that there are very large number of images of what God is like. If you start reading the books of the Bible, the Old Testament, New Testament, Hebrew Bible, there are many different images and I think the reason for the large repertoire of images is that some worked better with some people. God the King, God the beloved, God the brother, God the Savior, God the one who feeds the poor. The images are different images for different people. And not to become monolithic and say well if you don’t like this image you can’t be one of us. Rather to see that the door is open.
Radhanth Swami: Whether it was the old or new testament, Srimad Bhagavatam or Mahabharata, there are many fantastic things that go on. Are these to be taken as historical or are they just symbolic to teach us some lesson? I found, among not only the people who I was meeting who were such deep embodiments of love and devotion and compassion, but also entire histories of such persons who took these stories as history – as something that really happened and through associating with these people, in the present and the past, I gradually developed more insight into who God is and what the possibility is of what God can do. There are inconceivable miraculous events taking place all around us, all the time but because it is happening all the time we just take it for granted. So if that same personality who can do all this in creation wants to descend into this world, He can do incredible things. That is why he comes - to reveal His opulence to attract us back.
At the same time these narrations do have very symbolic lessons to learn, and according to our particular level of realization I think we should be very happy if a person is even taking it to be symbolic to learn to sacred lessons. And if the result of that is learning how to live with integrity, high character, devotion and gradually learning to love God, then by God’s grace we can understand that God can do and has done these wonderful things.
4. You both represent religious traditions. Today many people see hypocrisy in religion and consider themselves spiritual but not religious. Can you talk about this tension between religion and spirituality or do you not see a tension?
Radhanth Swami: I see so many tensions (laughter). In Sanskrit there is a phrase, saragrahi – that a truly religious person is one who seeks the essence in all the various institutional laws and rituals which differ according to religious time and places and people. They are all meant to connect us to that divinity, – that grace that is within our hearts, and help us to be instruments of that grace. Yoga means to re-unite, religion comes from the Greek word religio which means to bind back. To reconnect us to our own essence, to the Ishwara, to the Lord who is within, beyond and everywhere ultimately. So sometimes religion is defined as the institutional ritualistic practices which have a tendency to divide us, and spirituality is a more internal experience. But actually true religion, true spirituality is to practice our ritual and meditation while seeking the essence, and if we do this we can experience the unifying harmonious truth that is really what brings us all together like a string which binds together the flowers of a garland.
Professor Clooney: We obviously live in an age when belonging to something is a hard thing to do. We are children of the 60’s but from the 60’s on there has been this enormous sense that the institutions have failed us – not just churches and temples, but congress and government, and the papers are bringing out all the hidden scandals, all the corruption. Every week you can find some scandal of the Catholic church somewhere in the world, some terribly tragic and inexcusable, and people at the top are responsible. There is a tendency in young people to ask why should they bother with that and put it aside and go off on their own. And these institutions need to be called out and be accountable. People in the institution have to give the institution a hard time because they love it.
Why bother? As Swamiji already said, we can romanticize our own spiritual journeys and romanticize the fact I will do it better on my own. But in the Catholic tradition original sin is not just out there but in here and I will mess it up. I will fall by the wayside I will be the same arrogant blind person as the leaders of the tradition. And the other side of the tradition of a church or temple is the institution that forces us to be honest, forces us out of ourselves. That jostling shoulders at church and temple on the weekend can somehow save me. By myself I’ll just be worse than all of them. Somehow when I am in dialogue and conversation with people around me who are also imperfect Catholics, somehow we end up being better off than we would have been if each of us becomes our own Pope. So its a tricky thing and I think some kind of prophetic questioning of the institution is absolutely necessary. But the other extreme of “I will be better off without” is in rare case true, but most of the time it is not a good idea, I would say.
5. Who am I?
Professor Clooney: In the Catholic tradition I am a child of God. I am person who God loves intensely. God has called nothing into being. God has given a sense of direction in life. You are the one and I am the one who God cares for and I am not abandoned. I am one who God has given a community, brothers and sisters of mine and other traditions around me. But the ultimate question of “who am I” – I think you have to be alone and stand and you look in the mirror without any illusions. Look at your life and all this stuff I say about myself and to others. If I strip it all away and to not be afraid of that, at one point we have to ask this very frightening question – “who am I”, and then say I affirm it. I am good, I am not going to run away from whom I am because the only person who I’ll be is who I am and its a gift I received. It may not be the gift I wanted but its God’s gift to the world. It may be a question I need to ask when I’m 20 or 30, but at 40, 50, 60, 70, 80 – its a ruthless question again. And we never just ask it once but keep coming back to it because we have to keep stripping away all the ways that we have made it comfortable to allow the mystery again to be open.
Radhanth Swami: The Gita begins especially on this subject, the question “who am I”. Dehino smin yatha dehe – that the conscious force, the living force that is within us and see through the eyes, tastes through the tongue, thinks through the brain, loves through the heart – that living force passes through many transitions. At one time we were little babies, then we were young children, then teenagers and then middle age to old age and eventually the body dies. So who is it who is witnessing all of these changes. The body is compared to a vehicle, or like a set of clothes. And the mind is like a subtle set of clothes – like our underclothes. But we are the person underneath it. The body changes and the mind is always changing, but who is that witness? That is the atma, the living force, the soul. The Gita explains that the nature of that atma – it is unborn, undying, eternal. Every living being is part and parcel of God. The nature of the soul is that we are part of God. Within us is the greatest potential – the inner fulfillment of love for God and love for all beings and to see that all life is a sacred part of God. We can change our religion, nationality, these days you can even change your sex, but who am I? I am the divine spark of God. Our eternal identity, that which is inseparable of our true self is to love God. To be an instrument of compassion in whatever we do. That is our nature. Unfortunately, all of the conflicts in the world are due to this ego of misidentifying who we really are. If I think I am Hindu or Christian then we are divided from so many people. Beyond all this we are all united if we understand the spiritual essence of who I really am – an eternal loving servant of the Lord, beyond birth, beyond death.
Closing question: How can we continued to be inspired and why is that important?
Professor Clooney: In my tradition, the Jesuit tradition, our founder spoke of how you find your vocation in life. There are three different ways. A few people are like Saint Paul. In the acts of the Apostles, Paul is going to Damascus to persecute the Christians. He gets knocked down, the blinding light, he is no longer Paul. Some people have it that way. Their life changes all at once. Some people, Ignatius says, basically have to get out their pen and paper or their ipad or something like that and sort it out – pros and cons. What are the pros and cons of becoming a monk or joining a religious order, or being a social worker or being a teacher. Because everything we do in life is pros and cons. And that God, who may in sense be with us is not giving any advice, there are no lights, no voices. Figure it out for yourself and when you look back forty years later you say, “Ok I could of done something else. I didn’t need to be a teacher, or a social worker, but I think I did the best I could with my paper of pros and cons”. The third category, and this finally relates to the guru or the director, Ignatius says, that between the blinding light on the road that Paul had and rationally thinking it out for yourself as best you can are the fact that God is constantly communicating in our lives all kinds of feelings that are hard to sort out – lights and darknesses, consolations, desolations, moments of inspiration, moments of despair, fears and longings. And you have somebody to talk to about that – to voice it and have somebody feed it back to you. Not because the other person in almost all cases is going to be in a superior position of wisdom by which he or she will say now this is what you are going to do with your life, but because we are human beings and we learn by talking. We learn by hearing from others. And if you spill out what is inside your soul, in all its ambiguities, to another person, that person can feed back to you and say “Do you see these tendencies? Do you see these trends?” And often the spiritual director is one who doesn’t tell you what to do with your life, but rather says “Given what’s going on in your life it seems that God is drawing you this way or that way.”
Radhanth Swami: The word today is really in a very crucial state – nuclear bombs, so much hatred and conflict within religions, nations and races. The ecology is being exploited in so many ways which endangers so much of the life we know. There is a need for real change. As we explained in the beginning, unless we change ourselves we can’t really be a part of real solution. If we want to clean the ecology of the world we really have to concentrate on cleaning the ecology of our own mind - greed. Real spirituality, religion, dharma is transformation. Transformation of arrogance into humility, greed to generosity, hate into love, vengeance into forgiveness, agitation into peace, darkness into light. Within the world, whatever knowledge we have, whatever money we have, whatever skills we have – they could potentially be of great benefit or they could be very destructive – depending on our motives, wisdom and our character. So as our beloved Father Clooney has been describing, there requires a serious balance. This is a magnificent hall but what holds it up is its foundation. As we are trying to build our lives through our education, occupation and different relationships, we should also be very much focused on having a strong foundation within our lives, wherein we can maintain character, integrity and spiritual wisdom and love even when there are temptations that we can get so much more if we just compromise. Even if there is fear that I could lose so much if i just compromise, my value, ideals. For this we need a strong spiritual foundation. Spirituality or religion is not necessarily about becoming a swami or a priest – its about balancing our lives with this foundation, being an instrument of compassion. Whether we are engineers, doctors or teachers or mothers, swamis or priests – if we perform our duties in a spirit of devotion, with wisdom, then we can make a real change in the world and that cleanses the ecology of the heart. In my tradition the powerful recommendation is chanting God’s names. Mantra means to free the mind of the ecological pollutions of greed, envy and anger. And the sound vibration of the maha-mantra serves that purpose. And in the Christian, Jewish etc, traditions there are transcendental sounds, prayers and ways in which we endeavor to cleanse the heart – to come in contact with the spiritual power, with this grace that gives us the foundation that whatever we do in our life, we can build something wonderful and make some real changes in the world that we live in. We all have that opportunity and this is so exciting. Life really is an adventure if we see it from this prospective. There are infinite possibilities of how we can do something wonderful in this world, because God’s grace is infinite. It is beyond us if we just tune in and connect. I would just like to close by thanking Father Clooney for your words of wisdom and your friendship. Wonderful to be able to share this time with you. Thank you very much.