Friday, February 10, 2017


 Part 1.

Bandhu Ishanand Vempeny, S. J.

          One of the most attractive “Jumbo Movies” often shown in the History Channel is ‘St. Peter.’ In this movie the old Peter gets a message through St. Mark from the Pauline Roman Christians. Mark tells Peter that the Christians in Rome are eagerly waiting to hear the precious teachings of Jesus from the mouth of the very leader of the Apostles. Peter in meditation gets the same message from Jesus Himself that he should go to Rome. Peter, the totally dedicated and generous disciple of Christ that he is, still remains the same old impulsive man. Walking rather nervously with his swollen feet Peter shouts at the top of his voice, albeit reverently and prayerfully: “Jesus, you do not seem to know the problems of an old man like me. Remember, Rome is not in our neighbourhood.” Peter must have thought that Jesus, crucified at the peak of his youth, could not know from his own experience, the problems of the aged people.

When we look into Christian spirituality we hardly find anything serious about the spirituality for the ageing or the old. Both the Latin and the Cappadochian Fathers experienced the problems of old age. But their spiritual treatises were written mostly during their middle age or pre-old age situation. Hence, we see very little in their writings something specially valuable for the old. Of course, it is unrealistic to expect inspiring spiritual writings for posterity from the pens of senile, doting, cranky, weak, and sick old people. But the great medieval and post-medieval spiritual writers like Bernard, Aquinas, Bonaventure, Catherine of Sienna, Ignatius of Loyola, John of the Cross, Theresa of Avila and Francis de Sales handed down their precious spiritual legacy in their late adulthood, middle age or pre-old age. With my limited knowledge of the teachings of these great saints and so, at the risk of being accused of presumptuousness, I venture to state, in terms of random sampling, that the massive writings of these saintly & learned persons do not seem to offer much materials for a spirituality for the aging clerics and religious. I was, however, pleasantly surprised recently to see some enlightening articles for the eldering religious in the Jesuit news magazine Jivan (May-June 2008) and in the Malayalam Theological magazine Karunikan (May 2008).

In the first part of this paper we shall have a close look at the reality of old age and the elderly. We shall do this first in a general way through some facts and figures. Looking at the eldering people from the points of view of physiology and psychology will follow. Then we shall get into the ashrama system of Hindu tradition that can make valuable contributions to the spirituality of old age. These views, especially the psychological ones emphasizing the “self-realization” or similar ideals and the ideals of the ashrama, system help us to focus on the final destiny of our ‘life-journey.’ It is on the background of these facts and data about the old that we are going to articulate our views on the Christian spirituality of the elderly religious. At the beginning of the second part some descriptive statements will be made about our concept of spirituality. We shall spell out the this-worldly (historical) and the other-worldly (eschatological) dimensions of Christian spirituality. I will make a few practical points when we deal with its this-worldly dimension. In the final part I will give a few exercises hoping that these or similar ones would help one to grow into healthy old age.



A. Some General Considerations with Facts and Figures

          When we speak of old people we are tempted to think of them as a small minority. Four or five decades ago in a village of hundreds or even thousands of people we could point out just a handful of village-elders. Due to various factors like improved socio-economic structures, welfare systems and up-to-date medicines, life expectancy has been growing by leaps and bounds. Let us have a look at the statistical data on the growing population of the aged.


According to the statistics given by the UNO, by the year 2050 there will be 200 crores of people who are above sixty.[i] An article by N. Suresh in the Nursing Journal of India (Octobet 2002) states: “It is estimated that there are 416 million old people (aged 60 years and above) around the globe and by 2020, 11.9% of the world’s population will be above 60 years. In India also the trend is the same: 7.5% of the total population is above 60 years and the life expectancy is increasing gradually.”[ii]


Dr. Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, concentrating on USA gives some other interesting data about the growing number of old people: “In 1776, a child born in the United States had an average life expectancy of thirty-five. In a little more than two centuries, thanks to medical breakthroughs, public health campaigns and lifestyle changes, Americans have more than doubled that figure to seventy-five. By the middle of the next century, the National Institute of Aging projects that life expectancy will be eighty-six years for men and nearly ninety-two years for women. One hundred years ago, only 2.4 million Americans were over sixty-five, making up less than 4 percent of the population…. Throughout most of recorded history, only one in ten people could expect to live to the age of sixty-five…. Today, nearly 80 percent of Americans will live to be past that age.”[iii]

According to these data, old people constitute a large portion of the population today. As children deserve special care and consideration in welfare planning, the same could be said about the old, especially when it is guided by a value system, which respects human rights and dignity. This consideration has to be on the micro level of the family or of the Religious houses and on the macro level of the states and Religious Congregations as well.

In Gujarati there are two words to express old age: Ghadpan and Vrudhhavastha. The first comes from the word ghatavum which means to get diminished, to become smaller, to shrink, etc. This term expresses that in old age, man’s physical abilities and psychological aspirations, adventurism and dare-devilry, intellectual depth and achievements get diminished and become less and less. The latter word comes from vruddhi which means growth, expansion, etc. These two terms bring out the positive and negative approaches to old age.


          Today we live in a youth-centred culture very much influenced by Americanism. About this culture Zalman writes: “Everywhere you look, old age suffers from a bad reputation. Because of negative images and expectations shared by our culture, people enter the country called ‘old age’ with fear and trembling. Feeling betrayed by their bodies and defeated by life, they believe they’re condemned to lives of decreasing self-esteem and respect. As citizens of this oppressed nation, they expect to suffer from reduced vigor, enjoyment and social usefulness.”[iv]


Influenced by this youth-centred culture, many elderly people refuse to acknowledge their age and disabilities. Often elderly and even old people try to disguise their age and pretend to be young in their style of speech, dress and various other behavioural patterns. These people often look really ridiculous, or shall I say, old wine in ‘new’ wine-skins.


According to the positive point of view, an elder stood for self-control, impartiality and wisdom. Dr. Zalman writes: “Throughout most of history, elders occupied honored roles in society as sages and seers, leaders and judges, guardians of the traditions and instructors of the young. They were revered as gurus, shamans, wise old men and women who helped guide the social order and who initiated spiritual seekers into the mysteries of inner space. Beginning with the Industrial Revolution, with its emphasis on technological knowledge that often was beyond their ken, elders lost their esteemed place in society and fell into the disempowered state that we now ascribe to a ‘normal’ old age. Today, as the Age Wave crests all about us and we confront existential questions about the purpose of our extended longevity, we are searching for new myths and models to ennoble the experience of old age.”[v]


In the ancient civilizations, the Greeks and the Romans could be contrasted to highlight the negative and positive attitudes towards old age. Dr. Zalman writes about the Greeks: “Since the Greeks valued youthful heroism, physical perfection and beauty, it’s not surprising that they looked upon aging as a catastrophe, a form of divine punishment. ‘The gods hate old age,’ says Aphrodite in the Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite…. Greek literature reveals how pessimistic people felt about growing old. The poets Homer and Hesiod describe old age using epithets such as ‘hateful,’ ‘accursed,’ and ‘sorrowful.’ In general, poets and playwrights lampooned the elderly as ugly, feeble and worthy of social rejection…. In fact, in the Rhetoric, Aristotle rails against old people, accusing them of being cowardly, selfish, suspicious, talkative, avaricious and ill-honoured.”[vi]

          Now look at the Roman culture in contrast to the Greek. One of the most respected ancient Roman institutions was the Roman Senate. The words ‘senate’ and ‘senator’ come from the Latin word ‘senex’ which means old man, elder. In the senate, elders actively guided public policy following Cicero’s maxim, ‘Young men for action, old men for counsel.’ Indeed, it was this Roman statesman and philosopher Cicero who wrote the well-known book De Senectute glorifying old-age, perhaps one of the first and finest books on old-age from the ancient West.

[i] cf. Karunikan, May 2008, p. 24.
[iii] Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, From Age-ing to Sage-ing, New York: Warner Books, 1995, p. 4.
[iv] Z. Schachter-Shalomi, From Age-ing to Sage-ing, p. 12.
[v] Z. Schachter-Shalomi, From Age-ing to Sage-ing, p. 6.
[vi] Z. Schachter-Shalomi, From Age-ing to Sage-ing, p. 61.

Thursday, September 8, 2016


Dr. Ishanand Vempeny
I congratulate P. V. Sindhu for her silver medal and Sakshi Malik for the bronze. It is not because I am averse to gold but rather because we were far from getting one in Rio. True, the 10th rank Sindhu defeated Carolina Marin in the first game. But the Spanish girl won the following two games to win the match rather decisively both in the physical and psychic aspects of the games.
Certainly Sindhu and Sakshi deserve our congratulations. Indeed, Dipa Karmakar too has to be appreciated for her medal-less 4th place since she was the first Indian to dare to compete in the Olympic Gymnastics with reasonable success. One might wonder why the land of Yoga with many of the asanas (postures) resembling some of the wonder-postures of gymnastics, could not get even a bronze medal.
There is however a hitch. Many of the sports persons and sports loving nations began pointing out insulting fingers at India. One of the English TV channelists, twittered: “Stop India celebrating your bronze medal. Is it not a matter of shame for you, with your 1.3 billion people and the seventh largest economy, to celebrate this small victory? It is high time for you to find out what ails your sports-sector.” If the English look down on our poor performance in Rio one might find some justification for their insults. UK is smaller in geographical area and in population than a number of states in India; but it stood second in the number of medals surpassing even a sporting China. Neither the American social media were sparing in their contemptuous expressions against the corrupt and incompetent sports federations of India. In the Rio Olympics too the Americans kept up their number one status as the most sporting nation in the world. The Americans celebrated their Rio victory by bringing back their medal winners in a costly decorated plane with the giant caption, VICTO (r) – RIO – US (Victorious).
Many days of celebrations in India of a single bronze medal has this advantage: the youth of India begin to realize the great appreciation, admiration and adulation even for small victories in sports other than cricket. Such a realization can help the youth to take seriously sports and to struggle against all sorts of odds to get national and international recognition. It has however a disadvantage. As the past Olympics fiascos prove, we Indians are tempted to live on the laurels of a couple of medal-winners. Besides, the prolonged celebrations of a bronze and a silver medals can make the Indian youth minimalistic in their ambition in sports and can lead them to the ‘conclusion in the unconscious’ that Olympic gold medals are beyond their reach. The triple three gold of Usain Bolt would be reduced to the heroics of the mythical heroes. Similarly Michael Phelps with his total 23 gold medals in various Olympics would be lost to an Indian ‘Joseph Schooling’ to dream, like the Singaporean Joseph to beat the American at least in the 100m Butterfly.
Our Stakes in continuous Sporting Fiascos
i. National and Personal Prestige
Ayaz Memon wrote: “Nothing raises the prestige of a nation as excellence in sport. It reflects a country’s health, state of mind, sense of purpose. At the Olympics, particularly, this gets a tangible definition in number of medals won.” (TOI, “Scrap the Sports Ministry”, August 22, 2016, p.12).
The prestige and good name of a nation affects all its citizens. It is said that the victory of England in the world cup (football) in 1966 and of France in 1998 had worked as catalysts in their economic performance, not to speak of other fields. After the 1966 world cup victory when an English man changed his plan to migrate to Australia, somebody asked the reason for this change. He said in reply: “We damn English men can still do something great. So let me stay on in this country which has the stuff to make its citizens great.” The Chinese know this. They could not get a single medal in 1962. From then on they abstained from taking part in the Olympics while taking intense measures to improve the state of sports in their country. In the 1980s they came back with a bang. In 2008 in the Beijing Olympics, they stood first in the number of medals.
ii. The constructive use of youth-energy in India
            The young people posses incalculably great energy which can be used constructively or destructively. Sports (not ISIS membership or Naxalite activities) can channelize the energy of youth for nation building. Struggling for achievements in sports with sportsmanship can bring out the very best in the youth. Such a struggling person in the field of sports usually posses the basic character structures for nation building like focusing on objectives and ideals, wholehearted commitment with do-or-die attitudes for achieving the ideals, nationalism without chauvinism and the like.    
iii. The contribution of sports for physical and mental health
            There is no point in elaborating this fact well-known in the underdeveloped and developed nations. 
iv. Discipline and Sports
            It is through uncompromising discipline that the youth energy is channelized for constructive purposes. Achievements in sports pre-suppose discipline in various fields. If we ask Sindhu about her training with Gopichand in his Hyderabad Centre she would say that it was a life of unsparing discipline. Food, drink, rest, physical exercises, etc. are regularized with great discipline.
v. Infra-structure for constructive and creative citizens for the future
Let us take the example of football. A good Centre Back like Iniesta of Barcelona, with his ability to concentrate his attention on all the players and pass the ball to the players at the right time for the team, with enormous intensity, can be trained as a great statesman. A footballer or a hockey player with team spirit can be trained to be a citizen with extraordinary social consciousness.
Indian Sports towards Tokyo and Beyond
            Soon after the Indian fiasco in the Rio Olympics numerous suggestions have been made by experts for improving the pathetic situation of sports in India. One can write a booklet or even a book comprising the ideas for improving sports in India, proposed by the written and visual media. The ideas were meant for short term and long term implementation. Here we shall present very briefly just a few of them.
i. Sporting Culture
Mani Shankar Aiyar wrote about the need of a sporting culture as the main objective for sports policies: “It is the inevitable consequence of our never having had a comprehensive sports policy aimed at developing a sporting culture to make ours a sporting nation.” (Indian Express, “Olympic letdown”, August 19, 2016, p.8). This sporting culture can be achieved when sports become part of the regular curriculum in schools and colleges making performance in sports as one of the conditions for promotion. Besides, there should be preference for sportsmen in getting appointed for jobs. To this we may add the need for a nationwide search for budding sports talents by promoting sports centres in the rural and the urban areas. The khelmahakumbh initiated by the then Chief Minister N. D. Modi can contribute much to the establishment of sports culture. His recent plan to constitute a “Task Force” for improving sports could go very well with khelmahakumbh for the spread of “Sports Culture” all over India.
ii. If the Sports Federations fail to deliver goods, the leaders and at least some of the non-performing members should be sacked. One of the most obvious examples for carelessness in sports officials, is the case of the Indian Marathoner in Rio who got dehydrated and fell unconscious.
iii. The sports federations must be constituted primarily of sports persons and the know-hows in sports. In the Indian delegation to Rio, quite a few officials were ignorant of most of the sports events. If anything worse than this, is the fact of our sending a dentist for the Para-Olympics to take care of the overall health of the sports persons.
iv. Parental patronage: Sindhu, Saina, Krishanans, Amrutraj, Leander Paes, Sania and many other Indian sports persons climbed the heights in sports chiefly because of their parental patronage. Therefore the sports federations and the coaches should be in touch with the parents of their wards.
v. Let the government officials and the coaches say an uncompromising ‘NO’ to forbidden drugs. Taking drugs is diametrically opposed to sportsman’s spirit. This type of cheating takes away all the benefits and values of sports enumerated above.      
To Conclude
The question of sports in India is not merely a matter of ‘CHILD’S PLAY’ (ramat ni vat – Gujarati). It is a question of the healthy growth of the Indian youth, indeed, a question of the very future of India. ‘Sportsmanship’ is a central value for nation-building. As we have pointed out earlier, sports, especially team games like football can lay the foundation for civil values. Politicians, public figures, educationists, social activists and the like lament for the lack of basic values in the modern generation. But very few of them seem to think that sports and games can lay the infrastructure for these values.

After doing many years of research in the Western and in the Eastern philosophies I venture to say that only in the Indian philosophy there is the assertion that the Ultimate Reality created the world by an act of Leela (Play – Sports). But the strange truth is that many-sports-experts in India affirm that India has no SPORTS – CULTURE

Thursday, August 18, 2016

ISLAMOPHOBIA AND ISLAMIC TERRORISM - Conclusion - Dr. Ishanand Vempeny


Dr. Ishanand Vempeny

(Published in Jeevadhara, Vol.XLVI, No.273, May 2016, pp.66-85)

To Conclude

We began writing this article in the context of the contagious disease of Islamophobia spreading far and wide and of the ever increasing number of Islamic terrorist attacks like the sporadic invasions of a powerful enemy as though a premonition to a Third World War. Our article is a wake-up call to all and sundry and the powers to be.

In the first part we have described rather extensively the disease of Islamophobia which is victimizing thousands of innocent Muslims and which has the potential to victimize millions more all over the world. The fact that the Muslim refugees are flooding the Western countries and the rumors that this flood contains large number of Islamic terrorists make the host nations overcome with anger and fear. While the Western nations show their unwillingness to welcome any more of the stranded refugees the rich Muslim Arab nations refuse to accept them. The continued Islamic terrorism is not helping to arrest this world wide tension and fear.

In the third and fourth parts of this article our effort has been to analyze this deteriorating situation. As in other religions, in Islam too there are seeds of fundamentalism, exclusivism and terrorism. We have seen also the numerous seeds in the Quran that promote inter-religious openness and dialogue. We have been critical of the Western liberal and Islamic self-righteous attitudes which put blame on individuals or group of individuals rather than on some of the Islamic teachings and structures. We do agree with Thomas Friedman that we have to call this phenomenon with its right name rather than ignoring the challenging reality.

We have pointed out how this situation especially of fundamentalism and exclusivism existed in Christianity and to some extent in Hinduism. We gave these two religions as samples. Though Islam had a tradition of interpretation and re-interpretation of the Quran until quite recently, influenced by petrol rich Wahhabis and other fundamentalists, this re-reading of the texts are neglected.

To respond to the crying need of reform in Islam, a hermeneutical re-interpretation of the Holy Quran is the need of the day. The Islamic tradition has many examples of re-interpretation and reform as in the cases of Avicenna and Al-Ghazālī who were real Mujaddids. Such a reform should not be left to the fundamentalistic groups like the Wahhabis, supported by Saudi Arabian petro-dollars. It needs a council of scholars both in religious and secular matters. Today’s Islam does not lack Mujaddids, Imams of the like of the Imam of Egypt’s al-Azhar Mosque connected with the university. It could be somewhat like the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council which saved to a great extent Christianity from fundamentalism and exclusivism. For reform the principle that the context changes the text has to be studied deeply in the Islamic context. The principle of re-reading the scriptures have to be followed taking seriously the contextual challenges of universally growing Islamophobia and irrepressibly growing Islamic terrorism. Bismillah-ir-Rahman-ir-Rahim. - - - Om Shanti Shanti Shantihi.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016



Dr. Ishanand Vempeny

(Published in Jeevadhara, Vol.XLVI, No.273, May 2016, pp.66-85)


a.       Islam and Inter-religious Dialogue

In inter-religious gatherings, the Hindus and Christians often ask whether the Muslims are interested in the welfare of people outside Umma, outside the Islamic fold. The works of Aga Khan Trust for universal welfare is looked upon as an exception rather than the rule. Of course nobody called into question the universal love of the Sufis. But the truth is that the Quranic Justice includes all, including one’s enemies.

“O ye who believe  stand out firmly for God as witnesses to fair dealing, and let not the hatred of others to you make you swerve to wrong and depart from justice. Be just - that is next to piety - and fear God.” (Quran 5:8).

“It is part of the mercy of God that thou dost deal gently with them. Wert thou severe or harsh-hearted, they would have broken away from about thee: so pass over (their faults), and ask for (God’s) forgiveness for them; and consult them in affairs (of moment).” (Quran 3:159)       

“Nor can goodness and evil be equal. Repel (Evil) with what is better: then will he between whom and thee was hatred become as it were thy friend and intimate!” (Quran 41:34)

At the beginning of Islam, it came in contact with the Jews and the Christians whom the Quran calls the “People of the Books”. Since these two religions are monotheistic the Muslims found it easy to be open and collaborative towards them. The Quran says in the context of the Jews and Christians: “Our God and your God is One; and it is to whom we bow (in Islam)” (Quran 29:46). We read in the Rigveda, Ekam Sat vipra bahudha vadanti” (=Truth is one but sages interpret diversely (Rg. 1:164:46) and “Ekam santam bahudha kalpayanti” (=though truth is one, it is diversely imagined (Rg. 10:1l4:5). The Vedic Hinduism is basically monotheistic though the Ultimate Reality is imagined diversely during the different stages of its evolution. With this understanding of Hinduism Muslims may find easy to cooperate with the Hindus also. The tolerant attitude towards other religions is pretty much obvious in the following texts: 

“O ye that reject faith. I worship not that which ye worship. Nor will ye worship that which I worship.” (Quran 109:1-3)

“To you be your way and to me mine.” (Quran 109:6)

“There shall be no compulsion in religion: Truth stands our clear from error.” (Quran 2:256)

“If it had been thy Lord’s will, they would all have believed, - all who are on earth! Wilt thou then compel mankind, against their will, to believe!” (Quran 10:99)

To each among you have prescribed a Law and an open way. If God had so willed, He would have made you a single people, but (His plan is) to test you in what He hath given you: so strive as in a race in all virtues. The goal of you all is to God; it is He that will show you the truth of the matters in which ye dispute (Quran 5:48).

O mankind! We created you from a single (pair), of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that ye may know each other. (Not that ye may despise each other). Verily the most honored of you in the sight of God is (he who is) the most righteous of you. And God has full knowledge and is well acquainted (with all these things) (Quran 49:13). (Cfr. Also 2:213; 10:19; 30:21)

The Persian mystic Sa’di (AD.1292) gives the following mystical interpretation of this universalistic spirit of the Quran:

“Adam’s posterity is like the members of a body, since they are all made of the same matter. If fate gives pain to one, all the others get to feel it too. You who do not feel sympathy for the pain of another, you cannot be called human.”[1] 

The Muslim call for prayer is for falah (welfare): “Come ye unto the salat. Come ye unto the falah”. Kenneth Cragg in his well-known book The Call of the Minaret Explains falah thus: “Falah is not then, some pietistic abstraction, nor the indulgence of a private sanctity. It is the true state of welfare, the prosperity of the people of God, fulfilled in communal existence and realized in social life.”[2]
In the context of Inter-religious dialogue these concepts for universal welfare are rightly interpreted to include not only the ‘People of the Books’ but also all the children of Adam and Eve, created in God’s own image. In Islam there is the prescription of legal almsgiving (zakat), one of the five pillars of Islam, and of ribaa (prohibition of interest), an invitation to practice the values of the Universal Family. Asghar Ali Engineer says:

“However, many radical thinkers among Muslims rightly feel that ribaa should not be taken to mean interest only but exploitation in general. Any practice which leads to exploitation of man by man including unjust profit (industrial as well as commercial) should be treated as ribaa.[3]
It is obvious that there are a number of texts in the Quran which give universal openness and concern beyond the Umma, though we cited just a few texts.[4] The Prophet himself and the early Caliphs like Umar Ibn-al-Khattab and Harun al-Rashid were concerned about the welfare not only of the Muslims but also of that of the conquered people. Here we have not given the true interpretation of jihad which is an injunction to fight against evil as perpetrated by certain tyrants who chase out poor and helpless people from their homes (Quran 2:39-40). Even in such jihads too there should be justice. “And fight in the way of God with those who fight with you, and do not exceed, for God does not love those who exceed the limits (Quran 2:190).

b. Two Basic Principles for openness to Other Religions

1. The Axiom ‘The Context Changes the Text’

One of the chief assumptions of contextual theology, especially of Liberation Theology is the saying that context changes the text. This assumption is today accepted almost as an axiom. The context of a person is not just his mind-set but some sort of mental category, a la Kantian Categories, through which the subject tries to reach the Noumenon. Let us take the example of a film like The Bandit Queen. In this film what would strike the high-caste Hindus and what would strike the oppressed caste of Phoolan Devi herself must have been very different. The high-caste Hindus might not have found anything abominable or even strange in the approving looks of the wives of the men who were raping her or parading her naked through the length and breadth of the village. How different must have been the perception, both in details and in substance, of the women of the caste of Phoolan Devi! One might say that in films people would perceive what they are interested in, on the conscious or the unconscious level. This is the psychological aspect of the influence of the context. 

Oxford Companion to Mind says: “…the direct realism of immediate experience of the object world has been abandoned. It is now, however, fairly, generally accepted that stored knowledge and assumptions actively affect even the simplest perceptions.” There is a hymn in the NT sung by Mary, the Mother of Jesus. After citing a few verses we shall point out the problem:

        ‘My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord
        and my spirit exults in God my saviour;
        because he has taken upon his lowly handmaid.
        He has shown the power of his arm,
        he has routed the proud of heart.
        He has pulled down princes from their thrones and exalted the lowly.
        The hungry he has filled with good things, the rich sent empty away. (Lk. 1:46,47,51,52)

According to the Liberation Theologians, a poor and downtrodden person would see in the above well-known Biblical hymn called Magnificat, the challenging cry for justice by an oppressed and unjustly treated woman rather than the lyrical song of praise by a leisurely, rich lady thanking God for her abundance. In the past it was the elite of society who interpreted this hymn and sung solemnly in five voices. But for persons who suffer oppression and injustice it is a revolutionary song, which needs completely a new revolutionary tune and a thoroughly new interpretation. But there are other epistemological aspects too in the above-said axiom that context changes the text. 

From the time of Heisenburg even scientists began to take for granted the subjective elements even in the most ‘objective’ physio-chemical sciences. It is much more so in human sciences like history and sociology. William James used to say that in Love, Politics, and in Religion people prove what they want to prove because they have to prove it. The same thing happens to the terrorists. They interpret the Quranic texts according to the needs of their terroristic activities.

2. Re-reading the Scriptures according to the Contextual Challenges

Some time back, I had the privilege of attending an international seminar organized by a group of secular persons from different parts of the world. One of the main topics of this seminar was The Humane Face of Socially Engaged Hinduism. The participants including those from the West, were well aware of the common and uncritical understanding of Hinduism, as a world-denying religion with no concern for the sufferings and miseries of fellow human beings, be it poverty, disease or caste-discrimination.

They were also aware of another uncritical assumption about Hinduism. It is that because of the Hindu belief in Sanchit Karma (accumulated evil effects of the actions of the previous birth) the victims of contagious diseases, social marginalization, economic injustice etc. suffer in the present birth as a just punishment for their sinful deeds in the previous birth. Hence, others would have no serious responsibility of trying to alleviate their sufferings since they suffer what they deserve. Some would go so far as to say that Hinduism does not consider society or evil social structures having anything to do with man’s present miseries. 

        Not only the Hindu participants but also the Non-Hindus felt that such views are downright exaggerations. All the same, most were aware that there is a grain of truth in these assumptions. It is precisely the awareness of this grain of truth, which made some Hindu and Non-Hindu scholars come together and organize this seminar for discovering and exposing the compassionate and socially engaged face of Hinduism.

During the reading of a number of scholarly papers and during the discussions that followed, we could come across a number of traditions, rituals, festivals etc. which showed the deeply compassionate face of Hinduism. There were scholars who could parade numerous scriptural statements from the Vedas to the mediaeval and modern bhakti literature (sacred writings of the saints and mystics like Jnaneshvar, Manickvasagar and Kabir), which teach compassion and concern for fellow human beings. Here we had the experience of what the Liberation Theologians call “hermeneutical suspicion and re-reading the scriptures from the context”. This was followed by an action plan highlighting these traditions and scriptural injunctions, which promote compassion and socio-economic justice.

A Word more on this concept of re-reading the scriptures in a situation of religious pluralism is in order. The ISIS and other terrorist groups pick up a few Quranic verses which are challenges to other religions. But they ignore many other texts which are open to other religions. But to be open to such texts we should have desire for peace and unity. If we are approaching other religions with hatred and revengefulness and carrying AK-47, we can never find the friendly texts in the Quran or the similar texts in other religions. When the Christians and the Muslims begin their inter-religious dialogue, both groups should develop openness towards each other and desire to be a true “child of God”/to be a “true witness to Allah”.

[1] Quoted by Dr Sebastian Vempeny, Minorities in Contemporary India, New Delhi: Kanishka Publishers and Distributors, 2003, p.361
[2] New York: OUP, 1956, p.140
[3] Justice, Women and Communal Harmony in Islam, New Delhi: 1989, p.20
[4] For a more extensive study, Cfr. Sebastian Vempeny, Op. Cit., pp.354-67

Tuesday, July 5, 2016



Dr. Ishanand Vempeny

(Published in Jeevadhara, Vol.XLVI, No.273, May 2016, pp.66-85)


a.       Fundamentalism:

‘Rootedness without Openness’: This could be a brief description of fundamentalism, accurate as far as it goes. The word comes from the Latin word fundamentum which means, base, foundation, root and the like. Fundamentalism can be not only in Religion but also in history socio-political theories, chemico-physical sciences, etc.

The word fundamentalism began to be applied to religion primarily in the context of American Protestantism at the turn of the 20th century. The Random House Dictionary of the English Language gives the following description of Religious Fundamentalism: “A movement in American Protestantism that arose in the early part of the 20th century and that stresses the infallibility of the Bible, in all matters of faith and doctrine, accepting it as a literal historical record.” A little more satisfactory description of this concept is given by Collins Concise Encyclopedia: “Conservative, mainly Protestant, religious movement of 20th century upholds traditional interpretations of Bible against modern textual criticism and scientific theory (e.g. Darwinism). Movement organized in 1909, esp. influential in US.”  

b.      Fundamentalist and Scientific Interpretations of the Bible

A brief note:

          For a man of science and modern thinking, the first two chapters of the first book of the Old Testament known as Genesis can be dynamite to his brain. The first question one would ask is the division of God’s action of creation into seven days. Let us read verses 1:3-5 from the book of Genesis: “God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light. God saw that light was good, and God divided light from darkness. God called light ‘day’, and darkness he called ‘night’. Evening came and morning came; the first day.” (Gen. 1:3-5)

In this verse we read about light and darkness and day and night. After this God creates the sky, the waters, the earth, vegetation, etc. And in verses 14-16 we read: “God said, ‘Let there be lights in the vault of heaven to divide day from night, and let them indicate festivals, days and years. Let them be light in the vault of heaven to shine on the earth.’ And so it was, ‘God made the two great lights, the greater light to govern the day, the smaller light to govern the night, and the stars.” (Gen. 1:14-16)

The above descriptions are just a part of the creation story consisting just 6 of 56 verses of the first two chapters. In these 6 versus a critical mind can see a number of inconsistencies. We shall just pay attention to a couple of the obvious ones. The Bible says about the division of day & night and of the first day of creation. How were the day & night recognized without the sun, moon and the stars? How were the days of the week reckoned without the heavenly bodies?

An orthodox and critical Christian would consider the narrations of the creation in the Bible are stories said thousands of years ago to communicate an important message. At that time people from different religions worshipped sun, moon and stars and some people worshipped certain animals and trees. Here the author wants to teach that these have been created by the Supreme Being, Yahweh, and they all depend on Him as creatures.

A fundamentalist, however, would not like to look at the Biblical passages with the critical mind of a scientist. They would find answers to the critical questions in very farfetched ways. They do not like to think that light has to depend on the heavenly bodies. They try to understand the descriptions literally. A man of science can remain faithful to his religious teachings and at the same time he may postulate the scientific theory of the ‘Big Bang’ and the theory of evolution.

In Christianity one of the typical examples of the conflict between science and religion was the Galileo Controversy. Galileo with his own telescope proved Heliocentric (sun-centered) while the fundamentalist Christians, quoting some Biblical passages insisted on Egocentrism (earth-centered) as the normal eye-cite warrants. On the other hand if Christ had said 2000 years ago that the earth is round and the sun moves around the earth, he would have been crucified in the first year itself of his public life.

The critically orthodox Christian scholars have developed various scientific methods (Historical Criticism, Form Criticism, Redaction Criticism, etc.) which help one to find out the meanings which the sacred authors had intended. These methods to understand the real meaning of a text in the modern context are generally known as ‘hermeneutical methods’. The truth of the Bible or any scripture can be found out through these hermeneutical methods. Dr. Sukthankar of the Bhandarkar Institute, Pune, used these methods to prepare the critical edition of the Mahabharata.

c.       The Holy Quran interpreted by the Medieval Holy Men

          In the history of Islam too there were many commentators who interpreted the Holy Quran according to the contextual challenges. Al-Ghazālī was one of the most revered commentators of the Holy Quran. This is what the Wikipedia writes about the status of Al-Ghazālī in early Islam:

“Al-Ghazālī has been referred to by some historians as the single most influential Muslim after the Islamic prophet Muhammad within Islamic civilization he is considered to be a Mujaddid or renewer of the faith, who, according to tradition, appears once every century to restore the faith of the community. His works were so highly acclaimed by his contemporaries that Al-Ghazālī was awarded the honorific title ‘Proof of Islam’ (Hujjat al-Islam). Others have cited his opposition to certain strands of Islamic philosophy as a detriment to Islamic scientific progress. Besides his work that successfully changed the course of Islamic philosophy – the early Islamic Neo-Platonism that developed on the grounds of Hellenistic philosophy, for example, was so successfully criticized by Al-Ghazālī that it never recovered – he also brought the orthodox Islam of his time in close contact with Sufism.”[1]

There was in the middle ages another famous Islamic interpreter called Avicenna:
“Avicenna (Latinized form of Ibn-Sīnā, c. 980–June 1037) was a Persian polymath who is regarded as one of the most significant thinkers and writers of the Islamic Golden Age. Of the 450 works he is known to have written, around 240 have survived, including 150 on philosophy and 40 on medicine.”[2]
He was an orthodox Muslim very much loyal to the Islamic tradition. He was struggling to reconcile Islam with the contextual philosophies and religious trends. He was somewhat influenced by Neo-Platonism. Avicenna memorized by the age of ten, and as an adult, he wrote five treatises commenting the various on suras from the Quran. One of these texts included the Proof of Prophecies, in which he comments on several Quranic verses and holds the Quran in high esteem. Avicenna argued that the Islamic prophets should be considered higher than philosophers.
The Wikipedia writes about his theological interests:
“His aim was to prove the existence of God and His creation of the world scientifically and through reason and logic. Avicenna's views on Islamic theology (and philosophy) were enormously influential, forming part of the core of the curriculum at Islamic religious schools until the 19thcentury. Avicenna wrote a number of short treatises dealing with Islamic theology. These included treatises on the prophets (whom he viewed as "inspired philosophers"), and also on various scientific and philosophical interpretations of the Quran, such as how Quranic cosmology corresponds to his own philosophical system. In general these treatises linked his philosophical writings to Islamic religious ideas; for example, the body's afterlife… Avicenna considered philosophy as the only sensible way to distinguish real prophecy from illusion.”[3]  

Apart from these two great and orthodox Islamic thinkers of the Medieval Golden age of Islam, there have been many other Islamic theologians in different parts of the world. Our purpose in citing the examples of these two stalwarts is to point out that Islam was open to reinterpretations and renewal from its origin till the recent times. But due to the lack of recognized Mujaddids, fundamentalism like Wahhabism began to dominate modern Islam.

d.      The Semitic Religions and the Fundamentalist Exclusivism

Exclusivism is another aspect of fundamentalism. This exclusivism is expressed by the belief that the members of a particular religion belong to a “Chosen People”. All the three Semitic Religions believe that they had been specially chosen by the Creator God (Yahweh-Allah).  Because of this belief they consider themselves specially privileged and other religions secondary. The Jews called the members of other religions “Gentiles”, the Christians “Pagans” and the Muslims “Kaffirs”. This leads to ‘exclusivism’ which is another face of fundamentalism. This exclusivism leads to intolerance and paves the way for terrorism.

1.      Christian Ways of getting out of Exclusivism

There are a number of exclusivist passages in the Bible especially in the Old Testament (OT). These passages led the Christians consider the non-Christians not chosen by God. Yahweh tells his chosen people (Israel) to exterminate the people of Canaan. This is precisely what Joshua did. Here we shall cite a few exclusivist verses:  
“The same day Joshua captured Makkedah, putting it and its king to the sword; he delivered them over to the curse of destruction, with every living creature there, and let no one escape, and he treated the king of Makkedah as he had treated the king of Jericho. Joshua, and all Israel with him, went on from Makkedah to Libnah and attacked it and Yahweh put this, too, and its king at Israel’s mercy; and Israel put every living creature there to the sword, and left none alive, and treated its king like the king of Jericho. Joshua, and all Israel with him, went on from Libnah to Lachish and besieged it and attacked it. Yahweh put Lachish at Israel’s mercy, and Israel took it on the second day and put it and every living creature in it to the sword, as they had treated Libnah. Horam king of Gezer then marched up to help Lachish, but Joshua beat him and his people until not one was left alive.” (Joshua 10:28-33)

After the Vatican II (11 October 1962 – 8 December 1965) Christianity in general and Roman Catholicism in particular began to be open to other religions and consider other religions as ways of Salvation. Vat. II declared: “The Church, therefore, exhorts her sons, that through dialogue and collaboration with the followers of other religions carried out with prudence and love and in witness to the Christian faith and life, they recognize, preserve and promote the good things, spiritual and moral, as well as the socio-cultural values found among these men.” (Nostra Aetate, The Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions, No.2). Here the Church takes almost a U-turn from the previous exclusivistic thinking to this inclusivistic one.

A few years ago I attended a panel discussion with five Christian fundamentalists in Manila. According to them, only baptized Christians could be saved. Even in this matter they limited salvation possibilities to only those who have been baptized by the Spirit, with the implication that the members of the main-line Churches who do not claim such a baptism would be excluded. When I asked them whether they believed in a God of love, they insisted that God is love and that His love is unconditional. I told them: “In spite of your parroting about God’s love, in practice your God is unjust, unwise and cruel. Your God fits in pretty well with my definition of the devil. He seems to watch with cruel pleasure a 1250 million Chinese, a 1500 million Muslims, some 800 million Hindus, some 500 million Buddhists and a 1750 million Christians of the mainline Churches moving towards eternal damnation. He does not seem to be willing to do anything effective to change this situation except appointing some fanatic preachers whose message is often philosophically illogical, psychologically unhealthy and ethically immoral.” Though they went on shouting “blasphemy, blasphemy!” I managed to put across the above thoughts.

Christian faith is rooted in the belief that God is love as taught by the New Testament (1 John 4:8 & 16, Rom. 3:24-25, 5:8, 8:31-39, Lk 15, et passim). How can a God of love can send millions of his children into hell with no fault of their own? The Holy Quran too teaches that God is merciful and loving.

In my books Krishna and Christ, Conversion, Inspiration in Non-Biblical Scriptures, I have enumerated a number of texts both from the Old Testament and New Testament, which are open to other religions. If however Christianity begins to be inclusive and open to other religions it is not only because of the Biblical texts but also because of other fundamental Christian beliefs. One of such beliefs is that God is an unconditionally loving ‘Father’. (Lk 6:36, 10:29-37, Mt. 25:31-46, et passim)

2.      Islamic Exclusivism and Opposition to Other Religions

Dr. Samir Kahlil Samir, an Egyptian scholar on Islam point out that the scriptures of the Semitic religions exhorted their followers to oppose the other hostile religions even with violence. As a typical example he gives the anti-gentile statements in the OT. He says: “In the OT, we have a lot of violence: When Jews entered the so-called Holy Land, they used violence – not because they were fanatics, but because they believed God ordered it. They had to use it, and when they refused, they were sinners.”[4]
Opposition to Other Religions in the Quran

As in the OT of the Bible, in the Quran too there are verses which are opposed to other religions demanding violence towards them. These texts have to be read in relation with the ones which are friendly towards other religions. After giving a few hostile texts we shall get into the friendly ones. 

The Google gives a number of Quranic verses which admonish people for war against those who do not believe in Islam. It gives 109 verses which teach to oppose the enemies especially those who do not believe in Allah. We shall cite just 3 or 4 verses for samples after verifying them from the Holy Book itself[5]:

Quran (2:191-193) - "And kill them wherever you find them, and turn them out from where they have turned you out. And Al-Fitnah [disbelief or unrest] is worse than killing... but if they desist, then lo! Allah is forgiving and merciful. And fight them until there is no more Fitnah [disbelief and worshipping of others along with Allah] and worship is for Allah alone. But if they cease, let there be no transgression except against Az-Zalimun (the polytheists, and wrong-doers, etc.)". 

Quran (4:95) - "Not equal are those of the believers who sit (at home), except those who are disabled (by injury or are blind or lame, etc.), and those who strive hard and fight in the Cause of Allah with their wealth and their lives. Allah has preferred in grades those who strive hard and fight with their wealth and their lives above those who sit (at home). Unto each, Allah has promised good (Paradise), but Allah has preferred those who strive hard and fight, above those who sit (at home) by a huge reward." This passage criticizes "peaceful" Muslims who do not join in the violence, letting them know that they are less worthy in Allah's eyes.”

Quran (5:33) - "The punishment of those who wage war against Allah and His messenger and strive to make mischief in the land is only this, that they should be murdered or crucified or their hands and their feet should be cut off on opposite sides or they should be imprisoned; this shall be as a disgrace for them in this world, and in the hereafter they shall have a grievous chastisement."

            The fundamentalistic and exclusivistic Muslims quote verses like the above independently of those which are friendly and open to other religions. We shall first give some of the texts friendly towards and inclusive of all other religions. Below we shall see the meaning and method of re-reading the scriptures in situations of Religious Pluralism.