(The following article was posted in the "Meditations" column of the Hindustan Times, one of India's largest English language daily newspapers, on 20 December 2003.)
THE WRITINGS of Shankara (788-820) are thought by most Christian intellectuals to be the essence of Hindu thought. Considered a incarnation of Siva, Shankara mastered the Vedas at age eight. A consummate Sanskrit writer and theologian, his works are studied throughout the world.
His explanation of obscure texts has made some of the most intricate passages of the Vedanta assimilable by Western scholars. Through his writings, Vedanta, which means 'the end of knowledge', became accessible and meaningful to Christian theologians, including those in the Vatican.
Defenders of the Christian faith, generally listed as having more adherents than any other world faith tradition, consider that the Hindu concept of God is ultimately that particular form of Brahman, which is an attributeless entity we can all merge with at the time of death.
This conception makes Hinduism, an 'other' religion, whose basic concept of the divine is conveniently 'different' and quaintly unique. It implies that Hindus don't worship the same personal God ("the Father") of Christianity; through whom Christ the Saviour showed and still shows the way.
But Keith Ward, a leading Oxford theologian, has, in his best selling book, Religion and Human Nature, recognised what he calls 'Dvaita Vedanta', the concept that God and the living beings eternally retain their individuality. This differs from the Vedanta philosophy embraced by the great Shankaracharya. And the Gita (2.12) supports Ward's findings.
Largely because of Religion and Human Nature, some of the most ardent defenders of the Roman Catholic faith, including members of the College of Cardinals, are beginning to recognise the bhakti tradition as a genuine form of Hinduism.
The meaning of all this is that Hinduism is much closer to Catholicism than many of the Catholic intelligentsia believe, while the personal element of the Hindu faith brings it much closer to Christianity than many followers of Christ would admit.
The point is, that in essence all faiths are alike, even though certain concepts (like those of karma and transmigration) are absent or presented differently. When the similarities are recognised and emphasised above the differences, cultural contrasts tend to evaporate.
Christ advocated, 'Peace on earth.' And in the Bhagavad Gita Lord Vishnu says that when God is recognised as the supreme proprietor, there will be shanti or peace (5.29).