The Manual of Daily Worship (Nityagrantham) of Rāmānuja (1017–1137) is a work of applied, liturgical theology, in a major Hindu tradition. It describes the daily worship of an advanced devotee, melding together purifications, ritual offerings, recitation of mantras, meditations, and acts of surrender to God. As such, it richly fills out the spiritual and intellectual profile of Rāmānuja as an exemplar of integral spiritual, intellectual, and practical religion. This essay argues that he thus has much to offer to our reflection on religions and religions across Asia, and more particularly, offers fruitful insights and challenges regarding how to understand, study, and practice religion even now. The author is an American Roman Catholic priest and a Jesuit, who himself has learned deeply from Hinduism and from Rāmānuja’s tradition over the decades.
It is commonplace good sense to admit that all the traditions studied in comparative theological work have their own histories, deep resources, problems and potential. Each proceeds in accord with its own inner dynamics in encounter with other traditions near and far, and the chemistry of each encounter will have its own distinguishing features. The Hindu-Catholic encounter, one among many pairings that might be made for the purpose of theological exchange, has its own distinctive character that needs to be neither neglected nor overgeneralized. It is an encounter that is a particularly rich ground for comparative theology, given the rich resources in each tradition for a range of imaginative yet deep interreligious encounters: although Hindus and Catholics now share a difficult history with its own problems, these two very large communities possess nearly endless possibilities for intellectual and spiritual exchange in relation to one another. Hindus and Catholics share a certain freedom in relation to one another, since they do not have a common origin nor an overly determined shared history. Nor is the Hindu-Catholic encounter easily narrowed to a set of doctrines that must be adjudicated if a positive intellectual rapprochement is to be achieved. Historical encounters between Hindus and Catholics over the past 500 years do matter, of course, but this history remains relatively slender compared with the history of encounters between Christianity and Islam, for instance, or Hindu traditions and Buddhist traditions in South Asia. Yet shared features give evidence of a rich complementarity between Hindu and Catholic traditions: a commitment to rationality; canons of scripture, schools of exegesis, and venerable habits of study; contemplation rooted in intellectual inquiry yet reaching beyond the limits of reason; a conviction that beliefs have universal import, but also a cherishing of particular instances, times and places of what is holy and enacted sacramentally; an inclusive religiosity, the intellectual and spiritual heights of scholasticism and mystical depths alongside popular religion, very local beliefs and customs; hierarchical structures, burdened with the privileging of some and exclusion of others, that nevertheless never entirely stifle creativity and growth. It is not surprising, then, that some of the most enlightening examples of comparative theology have arisen in the Hindu-Catholic context. While these need not be thought to serve normatively as the model for all manner of comparative theological learning, they do showcase the field in a clear and fruitful manner.
Comparative theology is a growing field within Christian theology and there are analogues to it in other theological traditions as well. As such, it is indebted to multiple sources and belongs to none exclusively. But in its currently form it is notably and richly rooted in the Roman Catholic tradition which, despite its limitations, has always balanced being-Catholic with a wider catholicity, ever finding a home for the faith in new languages and cultures. Catholic engagement with other religions proceeds with confidence in rationality, in adherence to the principle of the presence of God in all things, and by way of a sacramental imagination and skill in intuitive rapprochement, even when engaging traditions which, at first glance, are very different from the Catholic. This grounded catholicity serves as roots for comparative theology, not just at the beginnings of Catholic interreligious encounters, but as a key dimension of its current interreligious engagements. The great innovators of the missionary era after 1500 CE are famed for their energetic engagement with cultures across the world, an engagement that manifested Catholic adaptive practices operative since the beginnings of Christianity. In the twentieth century and particularly after Vatican II, Catholic engagement with other religions has been marked even more vigorously by a disposition toward inclusion, the affirmation of whatever is good and holy in other traditions, attention to the particular and, despite prudent doctrinal hesitations, a willingness to experiment and discover incrementally the meeting points among traditions. Such dispositions, old and now new, form a particular and distinctive lineage for today’s comparative theology.