How to be rigorous theologians of Sanatana Dharma

  • By Dr. Subhasis Chattopadhyay
  • May 29, 2022
  • Here is a roadmap for followers of Sanatana Dharma who wish to become rigorous theologians. Simply put, study, train yourself in Sanatana Dharma and Semitic religions before responding to Western scholars on theology.  

Bryan Van Norden points out the disdain with which Western philosophers in the past and even now look on Indian philosophy. Here are some excerpts from his interview given to Nigel Warburton:


there is no such thing as Indian philosophy [Van Norden quotes Jay Garfield who along with Van Norden believe to the contrary]…We then typically ask our colleagues which Indian or Chinese thinkers they’ve read, and you would be absolutely stunned by how many times they respond with something like, ‘Oh, I’ve never actually read any of it, but isn’t it all just about fortune cookies or sitting around staring at a wall?


…Does anyone want to fly in a plane built with non-Western math? [Van Norden’s colleague’s rebuttal to his position that non-Western philosophy matters]


…[Another colleague said] Someone else said: ‘There’s a reason that Europe leaped ahead of the rest of the world. I do not believe that we should sacrifice that merely because of an ooshy gooshy need to pretend that all cultures are equally advanced.’


(Five Books Interview by Nigel Warburton, n.p., accessed on 28th May, 2022 at 10.47 am IST)


In this same interview Van Norden points out that Immanuel Kant believed that non-whites could hardly be expected to philosophise. It is keeping in mind Van Norden’s honest admissions about Indian thought systems and his efforts to rectify these prejudices, that we must construct a pedagogy for theologising within the Sanatana Dharma. 


Also read Shad Darshana or 6 Systems of Hindu Philosophy and Characteristics of Indian Philosophy


It is well known within religious studies’ circles that structuralist critiques are inadequate to address issues engaging with all religious discourses. More so when it comes to Sanatana Dharma since our Shastras derive from no human person. They are direct revelations of the unqualified non-dual Supreme Godhead to various seers through millennia. In the case of the Sanatana Dharma, these revelations sometimes are from other aeons or yugas. The challenge is to prove the truths of these revelations without taking recourse to our Faith.


In other words, instead of saying that we need to first fulfil certain conditions in our own lives to know the foundational claims of our Dharma, we have to theologise in such a way that anyone at anywhere can logically understand these foundational claims. To do so we need to define theology within the context of the non-Abrahamic religions.


And, it has to be an uncertain theology since anything which is certain and yet not revealed, can only at best be a fallible theology. It is using this fallible theology that we must negate the claims of there being nothing i.e. worthy of study. That is, we should be able to disprove the assumptions of logical positivism. We must use tools from other academic disciplines like established norms within literary studies, established techniques of studying other religions and discourses inherent within our Faith and start theologising on our Faith.


This theology should be rooted in our Shastras. We are not to reinvent our Shastras or claim that we are sages. We are to quicken our Faith to be signs against the times. Our Faith is a revolutionary act in itself in so far it calls for a personal change and poses challenges to the status quo within the larger world.


How do we enact this theological turn within our Dharma?


1. We should spend at least two to three years studying philosophy. Both Western and Indian. It is best to get an MA in philosophy. Without formally studying philosophy we will not be able to hold our own in the midst of other scholars. This is crucial since otherwise we will never know what the existing objections to the theory of Karma in academic circles are. We will neither know of the strong arguments of logical positivists or about the principle of the excluded middle.


Without knowing these and other philosophical positions we will not be able to theologise. Theology and philosophy blur into each other, therefore, this stress on studying philosophy.


2. For another two to three years, we need to study other religions. Not with preconceived malice that other religious scholars are fools. Only fools think others are fools. We must give the benefit of the doubt to other faith-traditions and study them thoroughly.


If we do not know other faiths, how will we be aware of say, the Mysteries of Faith within certain branches of Christianity? We will not know what Karl Rahner has to say of anonymous Christians and by extrapolation, anonymous Hindus, and all our good intentions to sort out the outsider-insider problems plaguing Sanatana Dharma will be reduced to petty bickering.


3. Finally, before jumping in to berate others when they engage with our Dharma, we have to be sure whether we have the academic training of those we berate? For instance, do I know enough Sanskrit to comment on an Indologist who has dedicated her life to studying Sanskrit? It is easy to be out on the streets shouting slogans but very difficult to sit at the study table for years learning and taking examination after examination. 


Without knowing the scientific method used in religious studies, it is inappropriate to attack anyone.


These studies should not be done from home, nor by oneself. One should get into rigorous academic programmes and take relevant examinations. Autodidacts face the danger of not being thorough. And, before one embarks on this tough academic journey, one must have a degree in the sciences or humanities and then slowly proceed. If one does not have a Ph.D., how is it expected that a scholar will shine in theology without knowing basic ethics regarding plagiarism?


Many have the feeling they know what constitutes plagiarism without actually knowing that not citing an idea heard in a podcast is plagiarism. 


Ph.Ds. teach a person to think out of the box after completing literature reviews. Let me illustrate: in this blogpost I have mentioned Karl Rahner without giving his dates or the names of his relevant books, forget the pages; this is shoddy scholarship. Notice I spoke of fallible theology, this is not my phrase. Had I not added this line, this is potential plagiarism. I still remain a bad scholar but at least I have acknowledged it is not my invention. For the sake of popular outreach, I have written an essay which is an illustration of how scholarly works are not to be written.


In a certain sense this disregard for scholarship has been the bane of Sanatana Dharma. As engineering and medicine cannot be studied on one’s own, neither can one become a theologian by reading a few random books. 


How is it possible to be missionaries without using missiological techniques?


Without adequate studies, one is just another shrill online voice seeking attention just because it is shrill. Our seers were rigorous, but are we rigorous? We are too eager to be social activists and reformers without knowing much. These might gain us our fifteen minutes of fame but will eventually be forgotten.


Most importantly, one has to be rooted in the practices of our Faith while studying. Otherwise, these studies will bear no fruit.


Author Subhasis Chattopadhyay has a Ph.D. in American Literature from the University of Calcutta. His reviews from 2010 to 2021 in Prabuddha Bharata have been showcased by Ivy League Presses. He has qualifications in Christian Theology and Hindu Studies and currently teaches English Literature in the PG and UG Department of a College affiliated to the University of Calcutta. He also has qualifications in Behavioural Sciences.

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