Reid Locklin, author of Liturgy of Liberation. Photo by Michael Swan

Understanding Hinduism

  • December 26, 2011

“Libera nos a malo” is usually translated “Deliver us from evil,” but the Latin word “libera” can also mean liberation.

The fundamental Christian desire to be free comes from the Lord’s Prayer. But a Toronto university professor claims it’s also a good way for a Catholic to understand Hindu theology.

At the University of St. Michael’s College, Reid Locklin has just published Liturgy of Liberation: A Christian Commentary on Shankara’s Upadeśasāhasrī. It is an academic look at the small but influential Advaita tradition in Hinduism.

Locklin, a University of Toronto associate professor of Christianity and the intellectual tradition, compares Advaita’s most important teacher, Shankara, with St. Paul.

Though the book presumes an audience of experts with extensive knowledge of both Hinduism and Christianity, Locklin insists Christian-Hindu dialogue is not an obscure, purely academic exercise.

“Once the Church is committed to dialogue at all, the Hindu tradition is the tradition that has arguably the oldest scriptural texts,” he said. “It has a long history.”

It also has around one billion adherents and increasing global significance as Hindus move to North America, Europe and elsewhere.

Understanding Hinduism is no easy task.

“If you want to understand Hinduism as a religion you have to imagine that Christianity, Judaism, Islam and Marxism were all one religion,” he said.

Christian engagement with Hindus began very early. Before 200, St. Clement of Alexandria wrote about Hindu religious practices.

“It’s one of the first religious traditions other than Judaism that Christianity has some sense that it exists,” said Locklin.

Hinduism in interfaith dialogue seems to be growing in importance as the Vatican becomes more concerned with issues of religious freedom and religious persecution. The Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue used its annual message to Hindus during the feast of Diwali in October to urge acceptance of everyone’s right to “profess, practise and propagate” their faith.

Religious freedom “is the answer to religiously motivated conflicts in many parts of the world,” wrote Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue.

Rather than the inter-communal violence that plagues the lives of many Christians, especially lower-caste Christians, in India today, Locklin’s book engages the better angels of Hinduism, particularly its intellectual tradition.

“The reason I called this book Liturgy of Liberation was because this text on the one hand has this vision of liberation that is radically individual. But it’s also radically communal,” said Locklin.

For Shankara, liberation means freedom from ignorance, therefore an individual path toward enlightenment. But modern Advaitanism has also embraced a necessity for Advaitan Hindus to share their enlightenment, and many members of the sect now engage in social justice work, particularly encouraging and aiding poor women in the state of Bihar to rise to leadership in their communities.

Locklin finds a parallel to the Advaitan sense of liberation with St. Paul’s many arguments about the spirit and the flesh. Just as Shankara’s philosophy poses human existence as caught between ignorance and knowledge, St. Paul sees us caught between the flesh and the spirit.

While St. Paul’s teaching is often interpreted in solely moral terms, studying Advaitan philosophy helps reveal other levels in St. Paul.

“For Paul, it’s never just moral. Moral striving can only get you so far anyway. It’s always the work of God’s grace,” said Locklin.

Locklin’s own religious journey from a kind of vague, non-committal Protestantism to Catholic faith began with his teenage encounter with Hindu thought.

“Having been impressed by Krishna and impressed by Rama, I went looking for my dharma. Over a period of time I found that my dharma was to be Catholic,” he said.

Locklin was baptized at 21 and went on to a PhD in theology from Boston College.

“Hinduism opened a door for me to the Catholic Church.”

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