"My mission is academic: scholarly writing on topics of religious importance, and doing comparative study. It is also spiritual, in the sense that I believe that inter-religious truths and understanding are valuable to one and all," says Prof. Francis X. Clooney, a researcher on certain traditions of classical Hinduism, including Mimamsa Vedanta and Srivaishnavism.

Srivaishnavism is an interesting tradition, philosophically and theologically.

The coming together of any two religions for most of us could mean raised voices and bloodshed… quite paradoxical to what all religions preach. But Prof. Francis X. Clooney, S.J., Harvard University, and author of several books, has a different perspective.

Prof. Clooney spoke about his book ‘Beyond Compare: St. Francis and Sri Vedanta Desika on Loving Surrender to God’, during a talk organised by Prakriti Foundation at Madras Terrace House recently. In his work, he compares the two preceptors who were from different times and countries, and practised different religions, but who were united in their approached the concept of surrender to God.

Prof. Clooney pointed out that since his work was like the interpretative work of a dancer or a musician, there was a great deal of practice and hard work that went into it right from the choice of subject. “It took me several years to narrow down on whom to compare”, he said. He added that “the minute you compare to celebrate one over the other, or compare to just get common quotes, it is not comparison in the real term.”

So what does Vedanta Desika, the 13/14th century preceptor for Vaishnavites, have in common with St. Francis, a 17th century Catholic priest from Geneva? Both valued writing and in their written work, they hoped to pursue the devotee to perform a religious act itself. Both sought to transform the reader and used older texts to reinforce their message. Most important, both urged the reader to introspect and find out what it takes for him to surrender unconditionally to God. The book has several interesting passage on these topics. The audience was treated to a few enthralling readings. Catching up with Prof. Clooney after the session for a short interview, helped put the book in a greater context. Excerpts:

Tell us a little about your research.

I work in certain traditions of classical Hinduism, including Mimamsa Vedanta and Srivaishnavism. Of course, my work as a professor leads me to write on other topics and themes at times, but these are my areas of focus in the study of Hinduism. Beyond these, I am also a comparative theologian, and so, I reflect on what I learn from Indian traditions alongside my understanding of my Christian bearings. And, to understand comparative study, I am also a bit of a historian, studying how Western Jesuits over the centuries have understood Hinduism.

What got you interested in Srivaishnavism?

It is a very interesting tradition, philosophically and theologically, and it shows us a complete religious way of life. The fact that Srivaishnavism flourishes in both Tamil and Sanskrit makes it all the more beautiful. The poetry of Divya Prabandham in particular is very lovely. I also appreciate the Vaishnava temples, their architecture, imagery, and the worship that takes place there. In many ways, I have found Srivaishnavism to be parallel to Roman Catholicism, with a similar depth, breadth, and wholeness.

What is your mission on comparative religious studies and what forces do you see helping/hindering it?

I am a professor at one of the oldest and best universities in the U.S., and also a Catholic priest and Jesuit. So my mission is academic — scholarly writing on topics of religious importance, and doing comparative study. It is also spiritual, in the sense that I believe that inter-religious truths and understanding are valuable to one and all. If my work helps people appreciate and learn from other religions, then I think I would have succeeded and will be very happy. If people become more convinced of the truth of their own tradition, with deep faith, that too is very good. Since there is a lot of religious misunderstanding and intolerance today, my hope is that my work will probably show a way for people to relate to other religions more constructively and positively.

Your future plans and interests…

I have several book projects in mind, including more work on the Srivaishnava Bhagavatha Visaya, certain songs and commentaries compared with medieval Christian commentary on the Biblical Song of Songs. I have also been doing research on the Jesuit tradition of inter-religious learning in India, and may soon have something more to write on that.

Written word

Some of the books written by Prof. Clooney are:

• Hindu God, Christian God: How Reason Helps to Break Down the Boundaries between Religions (2001),

• Divine Mother, Blessed Mother: Hindu Goddesses and the Virgin Mary (2005),

• Beyond Compare: St Francis de Sales and Sri Vedanta Desika on Loving Surrender to God (2008).

More In: Faith | Friday Review