[Advaita-l] Inter Religious Dialogue - Part 1

Omkar Deshpande omkar_deshpande at yahoo.com
Fri Nov 11 09:24:26 CST 2011

<<<True to their masters, they see Vedas as a historical development of religiousconcepts. I have not seen anyone daring to take a strong position in favour
of apauresyatva or even revelation while they dont have problem in taking
position of revelation in the case of  the Bible or the Quran.>>>

Dear Sri Rajaram, 

 I'm not sure what sort of contrast you're referring to above. I have taken academic classes in both Religions of India and the History of the Bible, and if anything, I found the latter to be more critical of the Bible's authority than the former was critical of the Vedas. I have a feeling that your opinions are not coming from firsthand sources in academia. A few points I would like to make are:

1. Academic courses in Hinduism do refer to the Vedas as apauruSheya, as much as they would refer to the Bible/Quran as revealed texts or words of God. I quote here from the introductory undergraduate textbook on 'The Hindu Traditions' written by Mark Muesse, also educated from the Harvard Divinity School:

"The Vedas are the oldest and most sacred of Hindu scriptures. According to traditional belief, the Vedas have no author and existed prior to the world's creation. They were revealed by Reality itself to certain ancient rishis, or seers, who were extraordinarily skilled in the practice of meditation and the use of language."

Now, you may object that the above quote does not imply that the author personally believes the Vedas to be apauruSheya. He is just describing what the traditional belief is. Well, the same can be said about those who say the Quran or Bible are revealed texts. In academic writing, one cannot pass off their revelation as an undisputed truth, even if one mentions (to be descriptively accurate) their revelation as "traditional belief". There is plenty of work done on the historical criticism of the Bible and the very diverse early Christian sects. I would recommend the works of Prof Bart Ehrman or the Open Yale courses on the Old and New Testament if you want to experience firsthand a historical analysis of the Bible. 

2. Naturally, academics (even those outside of Indology) will in general not accept apauruSheyatva of Vedas insofar as it goes completely against the scientific accounts of the origin of the universe, the evolution of species (including humans), and the origin of civilizaton. I, for one, am quite sceptical of a literal stand on apauruSheyatva for this reason, not because some Vatican-sponsored Christian academic is studying the Vedas and trying to prove the Bible as superior. This still does leave room for one to consider the Vedas as revealed texts from a few thousand years ago. But a conflict with academics on this issue is inevitable, as much as a conflict with those Christians who say the world was created 6000 yrs ago is inevitable. 

3. One cannot become the Director of the Centre for Study of World Religions at Harvard unless one's views are extremely tolerant. It is a very diverse place, and any intolerance from there would tarnish the reputation of Harvard. Globally speaking, the political conflicts of Christianity today and in the past have been much more intense with Islam than with Hinduism. Yet I have never come across a criticism of Islam among academics at Harvard Divinity School, and if anything, I found them overly anxious to promote goodwill with Muslims. If this is how they treat Islam, what then to speak about Hinduism and Buddhism?

4. Someone said that Prof. Clooney "may be eating beef". Please see his article titled "Vegetarianism and Religion" in the book "Religious Vegetarianism: From Hesiod to the Dalai Lama" where he positively advocates vegetarianism if one wants to lead a life of spirituality even as a Christian. Furthermore, even if someone is not a vegetarian, in what way would that undermine a philosophical analysis by the person? You may say that such an analysis can at best be theoretical, but are there concrete examples of realized individuals who are offering the same knowledge in English? If not, then theoretical knowledge is still a better option than no knowledge at all.

5. As Sri Vidyashankar said, it's best to take each person on a case-by-case basis. Prof. Clooney and Prof. Witzel are two different people. The former is part of the Harvard Divinity School, the latter is not (he's a linguist in a separate school at Harvard). About Prof. Witzel, whatever be the drawbacks you find in his approach, do you have evidence that he is "well-funded by the church to achieve a specific agenda"? As far as I have read his works and posts on online forums, he has no greater tendency to believe (religiously) in the Bible than in the Vedas. His approach, to the extent it is hostile to a traditional understanding of the Vedas, would be hostile to any religious scripture in general. I see no evidence that he objects to a historical criticism of the Bible. In that sense, calling him an agent of the Church would have no more validity than calling Bart Ehrman an agent of the Hindus. Both use historical analysis, with a focus on two
 different religions. Neither is selectively criticizing tradition from one religion with a motive to proselytize some other in its place. 

I understand that there may be a lot of politics behind missionary work in India, but when it comes to academia in the US, gone are the days when one can use it to actively proselytize for one religion and undermine another. To the extent that any historical criticism from there undermines the authority of one religion's texts, the same principles would make it apply to every other religious text as well. The ground reality in India may be different, and considering the strongly negative feelings towards Christians one comes across among Hindu traditionalists, I suspect it must be vice versa as well. I'm not referring to Christians who may be involved in that kind of politics, nor do I think such people would produce any academic works of substance. At the same time, I don't find any evidence about the allegations from the other side made about Prof. Clooney (or even Witzel's being funded by the Church). I would appreciate if you can back up your claims
 with some direct evidence, 



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