Virtual assaults

Published : Feb 24, 2006 00:00 IST

Francis X. Clooney. - V. GANESAN

Francis X. Clooney. - V. GANESAN

IN July 2005, when Jesuit Fr. Francis X. Clooney was preparing to travel to India, someone forwarded him a mail circulating on the Internet. It was about "stopping the evangelist Clooney" when he comes to India the next time, probably his tenth trip to the country since the early 1970s. The world-renowned expert on Purva Mimamsa, Vedanta, Sri Vaishnavism and comparative theology had just been appointed Parkman Professor of Divinity and Professor of Comparative Theology at Harvard University. The source of the mail was not clear, but the message was.

In Chennai in August 2005, Clooney met with a group of six people who wanted to "express our concerns about his mission in India". The August 4 meeting at the Jesuit residence on the Loyola College campus was held at the American scholar's insistence. He told Frontline: "We talked for nearly two hours. It was both heated and cordial. They were smiling and courteous when leaving, whatever the reason."

On August 10, a message appeared in the online forum of the South Asia Analysis Group (SAAG). Titled "The futility of inter-faith dialogue - A meeting with Francis X. Clooney", it was meant to be a summary of the six-member group's meeting with him. It alleged that he, the representative of an "alien" faith, was studying Hinduism "with a view to destroying and destablising our societies, to rewriting our history through distortion and falsification". The Harvard Professor is compared to "foreign Christian missionaries like [Roberto] de Nobili and Christian zealots like Max Mller" who studied "Hindu religion with destructive intent". De Nobili was a 16th century Italian Jesuit missionary to India and his life and work - adopting the lifestyle of a Hindu sanyasi, sticking to a vegetarian diet, learning and writing in Sanskrit and Tamil, engaging Hindu scholars in philosophical and religious dialogues - is of considerable interest in contemporary debates in the Catholic Church about "inculturation" (roughly, indigenising Christianity) and inter-religious dialogue. The 19th century German scholar Max Mller, one of the pioneers of Indic studies, is the author of the multi-volume Sacred Books of the East.

It was alleged that Clooney had claimed that "five important Vaishnava temples in Tamil Nadu were formerly churches" and demanded that "they be returned to the Christians". The posting warned: "Christians cannot lay claim to any territory in this country. Such demands will ultimately boomerang upon the Christian community and disturb the peace." Clooney denied the allegation. Terming the Internet reports as "biased", he said that he was not aware of any "Catholic effort" to "reclaim" temples in Tamil Nadu, and personally would have nothing to do with any such plan.

The posting said that after the meeting, the group went with a local Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) leader to meet some "mathathipathis" and Vaishnava scholars to apprise them of the "dangers of sharing our knowledge with foreigners whose motives for learning may not be wholly benign". It ended with the decision to start "awareness campaigns" about the "duplicitous nature of activities of Ratzinger [Pope Benedict XVI]... [and] Clooney which was intended to promote religious conversion" and, of course, "Catholic Sonia Gandhi".

The paper defines "inculturation" as "the plan of Christians being within the folds of culture, tradition and heritage of any people, posing as faithful devotees and declare the `hidden Christ' at right moment, so that they [dubbed as heathens, infidels, unbelievers] become `Christians'". Clooney is identified by the author as one who has been "carrying out his activities among the Srivaishnavas for around 30 years".

Jesuits such as "[the late] Ignatitius [sic] Hrudhayam, Francis X. Clooney, Amaladas and others" have adopted De Nobili as their "role model" and "the mushrooming Catholic ashrams and increasing ochre rob-clad Christian priests and preachers amply prove their game-plan". "Gullible Hindus," the paper adds, have helped "Christians involved in such `inculturation' activities". But Clooney's book Divine Mother, Blessed Mother: Hindu Goddesses and the Virgin Mary (Oxford University Press, 2005), has "awakened" them to Clooney the "Karna" and a "storm is brewing among the involved faithful believers". Clooney said about the book: "My book... compares the goddesses with the Virgin Mary in the Catholic tradition. It does not say that Mary is the goddess or the goddesses are Mary, but rather that there are interesting ways in which Mary has a place of reverence just like one of the goddesses" (Frontline, September 23, 2005).

The paper says that the book "reveals his real intention to elevate Mary and degrade Hindu goddesses". "Vaishnavites [have] condemn[ed] his prejudiced convictions, professional bias and unethical professional handling of `Comparative Theology' coupled with religious superiority, theological arrogance, holy imperialism, all definitely leading to fundamentalism and terrorism". Clooney is described as a "mischievous religious fundamentalist and communalist" and his work a "theological fraud, religious deceit and (un)faithful sham inflicted on Hindus under the guise of inter-religious dialogue... ".

The attacks on Clooney and the Indian Jesuits have come at a juncture when certain sections within the Catholic Church itself have raised "concerns" about their work. Ironically, these sections hold the Jesuits guilty of not doing what their Hindutva-inspired critics accuse them of doing. For instance, George Weigel, the author of a famous hagiography, Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II, and a conservative Catholic commentator, observes: "Of far more concern... is the condition of the Society in India, now one of the largest communities of Jesuits in the world - many of whom, according to knowledgeable observers, are unpersuaded of, or are unprepared to defend, the uniqueness of Jesus Christ as saviour of the world, and who are thus committed to downplaying the Church's missionary mandate" (God's Choice: Pope Benedict XVI and the Future of the Catholic Church; Harper Collins, 2005; page 69; emphasis added). In the footnote to the quoted passage, Weigel observes that according to 2004 figures, "4,003 (20.2 per cent) of the world's 19,850 Jesuits live in... India" and laments the "impending influence of the Indian Jesuits" (ibid., 276).

THE attack on Clooney is only the latest in a series of attacks directed at Western scholars studying Indian religions. Broadly coinciding with the rise of the Hindu Right in Indian politics, the majority of the attacks have their provenance on the Internet. Since the late 1990s, the targets have included some of the most respected names in religious studies in the U.S. academy - Wendy Doniger, who holds multiple appointments in the University of Chicago; Paul B. Courtright, Professor, Department of Religion, Emory University; Jeffrey J. Kripal, J. Newton Rayzor Chair in Religious Studies, Professor and Chair of Religious Studies, Rice University; Sarah Caldwell, formerly Assistant Professor of Religious Studies, California State University, Chico, and Visiting Professor at Harvard Divinity School; and David Gordon White, who teaches at the Religious Studies Department of the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Their work was held responsible for "the negative stereotyping of Indic traditions" abroad. The after-effects of such assaults were felt by the scholars in the form of death threats and web petitions demanding a ban on their books. Although most of them tried to engage their attackers in debates about their work, it only led to more outrageous ad hominem attacks. For Sarah Caldwell the experience was so traumatic that she left the academy.

Wendy Doniger told Frontline: "The unfairness of the attacks has inspired me to write a book about the history of Hinduism, which I would never otherwise have done, stating clearly things that I had assumed were too obviously true to merit being stated in print, but which have been grotesquely distorted by the Hindutva faction and by the non-academic attacks on American academics who study Hinduism."

Kripal, probably the most meticulous and systematic in responding to his "critics", said: "[T]he whole experience has taught me how precious, rare and beautiful intellectual freedom is, particularly with respect to the intellectual study of religion. Personally speaking, I can think of no more important task ahead of us now... than a robust critique of religion in our lives and cultures."

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