The Truth, the Way, the Life: Christian Commentary on the Three Holy Mantras of the Srivaisnava Hindus.
In this third contribution to a new series developed by Peeters Publishers, the prolific comparativist Francis Clooney offers a theological exposition of three short verses round in the Srivaisnava devotional tradition of South India: (1) the Tiru Mantra ("Om, obeisance to Narayana [Vishnu]"); (2) the Dvaya Mantra ("I approach for refuge the feet of Narayana with Sri. Obeisance to Narayana with Sri"); and (3) the slightly longer Carama Sloka (Lord Krishna's invitation to Arjuna to take refuge in Him, in Bhagavad Gita 18.66). Beyond simply commenting on these verses, C. defends commentary itself as "a most effective way to learn religiously" (5). Informed by the work of Pierre Hadot and Paul Griffiths, he argues that the dedicated practice of close reading and commentary merges intellectual and spiritual pursuits, and ultimately culminates in worship. "Those who study the Mantras and begin to understand them," he writes, "are thereby also challenged to decide whether and when studying the Mantras becomes also praying with them" (17).
Though full of charts, the book is an interestingly disordered study. On the one hand, C. insists that a properly religious reading of these mantras requires thorough immersion in Srivaisnava commentarial traditions, and the bulk of the volume is taken up with summary and exposition of the prominent commentator Vedanta Desika (1268-1369). On the other hand, C. feels free to reorder Desika's scheme and to split the Carama Sloka to suit what he sees to be the primary dynamic of transformation at work therein (see 51n): (1) a fundamental recognition of the truth of one's dependence upon God (Tiru Mantra; chap. 1); (2) an opening of a way to God through a gracious, divine invitation (Carama Sloka, first hall; chap. 2), and through the human response of taking refuge (Dvaya Mantra; chap. 3); and (3) a promise of new life sustained by God's assurance of forgiveness and freedom (Carama Sloka, second half; chap. 4). Thus summarized, there seems little to prevent a Christian from affirming these verses and even using them in prayer. Indeed, C. affirms this point by scattering occasional, insightful Christian reflections somewhat haphazardly throughout the exposition, as well as by his postulation of parallel Christian "mantras," such as "Abba, Father" (Rom 8:15) or "Father, into your hands I commend my spirit" (Lk 23:46). It is only--albeit very importantly--the unavoidable specificity of addressing God as "Krishna" and "Narayana with Sri," along with the tradition's radical theology of grace and its ambivalence toward orthodox social order, that raise major difficulties for the Christian interpreter (see esp. 180-81).
Though serious students of comparative theology and theology of religions will want to read this commentary together with its companion, C.'s Beyond Compare (2008), for a fuller exploration, this volume offers its own gems. For perhaps the first time in his major, book-length studies, C. relates his work explicitly to the tradition of Hindu-Christian spirituality as represented by Henri Le Saux (1910-1973) and Bede Griffiths (1906-1993). More important, C. opens a door to a revised theology of religions in which the comparativist forms small, provisional judgments about other religions from the ground up, such that one might affirm "that, from a Christian perspective, God intends there to be the three Mantras as enduring spiritual realities that speak the truth, the way, and the life, Mantras possessed of a wisdom that does not disappear or appear as a mere shadow to the light of Christian revelation" (184-85). In place of familiar refrains of "not yet" or (for James Fredericks and others) "not at all" to the theology of religions project, C. positions the two traditions of inquiry in a relation of "cooperation and tension" with each other (183). This represents a significant, and clarifying, advance in C.'s comparative theological project.
For a broader readership, this commentary offers something more: an invitation and challenge to allow serious study to open into surrender to God and a transformed way of life--albeit one deeply changed by interreligious inquiry. Is it possible for Christians to use these three mantras in prayer? "In this new situation," C. responds, "we read and recite the Mantras as if our own prayers, the meaning of this practice neither more nor less than appears appropriate to us" (192, emphasis added). This is a simple suggestion, but also a radical one ... and one that can only be seriously considered after the kind of careful reading and reflection exemplified in this book.
REID B. LOCKLIN
Saint Michael's College, University of Toronto
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|Author:||Locklin, Reid B.|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 1, 2010|
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