Prof. Matushka Cincy Mariyamma Thomas – Research Editor @COS – 09/01/2018
From my last writing on a small attempt to understand God and Christ in an Indian terminology and philosophy namely “Nirguna” and “neti – neti” made many (who are less aware of Indian philosophy and terminologies) to compare it with the popular Hinduism. The attempt was and never is to bring to the conclusion that the religious beliefs of both religions and its doctrines to be same. It is never the same. It was, in fact, a humble attempt to understand Orthodoxy in its context. It may be thought as syncretism or speculations or whatever philosophical terms one can use synonymously as many of the readers had commented. In the words of Fr. Maximos “When Orthodox spiritual tradition enters a society it is important that it eventually adjusts to that culture by adopting the local language and customs assuming that they do not conflict with the core teachings of the Ecclesia. Otherwise, it will not take root”.
In Swami Vivekananda’s words “Many a time you forget that the Nazarene himself was an oriental…..And thus as it is very important to translate not only the bible into the oriental languages which have been done since far back but also the translations of the theology of our ancient Orthodox Church fathers has to be done. One must not forget the Eastern identity of Christianity. In India where Christianity was brought by St. Thomas the Apostle of Christ in the first century itself, Christianity had adapted in here.
Due to many historical events that took place in the land of India, many of the early Indian Church fathers’ contributions were erased from the history of Indian ecclesia. Thus, for the true translations of theology to the land and people (where the Orthodox Church grows), importance is given to the classical languages of the land (like Greek, Syriac, Russian, Coptic etc). Here too the contextual necessity was seen. Sanskrit is the classic and ancient language of India other than few Dravidian languages). However, very less attempt is made to understand and translate the theology and doctrines of our Ecclesia into the context of Indian philosophy. It is to be noted that in India the liturgical languages used by Orthodox Christians are Syriac and Malayalam (one of the Dravidian language). Many attempts are of course made by a lot of Protestant and Roman Catholic theologians like Keshab Chandra Sen, A.J.Appasamy, Sundar Singh, V. Chenchiah, M.M.Thomas, Jacob Kattackal, Dr. Kuncheria Pathil, CMI to use other classical philosophies and languages, especially Sanskrit. While among Indian Orthodox theologians very few like Dr. Paulos Mar Gregorious, Fr. Dr. V.C.Samuel, Dr. Geevarghese Mar Yulios, Fr. Dr. K.M.George, Fr. Dr. Jacob Kurien, have made their contributions in the area. More must be built upon their efforts.
As soon as one sees a Sanskrit theological term or speculation to adapt its counterpart of another Orthodox theological world (mostly Eastern or Greek or Syriac) one unaware of the Oriental philosophical term which differs in each land (like the Indian philosophy), feels tempted to conclude it to be a comparison with the religion of the land, (here Hinduism: which in itself is a subject of controversies among their own religion). We all believe that Orthodoxy is mystical but is also a way of life; it is transcendental, yet corporately and objectively experiential. It is in and through the Church that we receive Christ, follow Christ, and mystically and objectively experience Christ now and unto eternity. So, to understand this way of life in the land of India it is very important to experience it in the life of Indian mystical and philosophical terms too, but it is important to keep an open eye to be alert and an open heart to be adaptable.
With such a background was an attempt to the apophatic theological approach, and an attempt on the nirguna concept studied. With these introductory words, I humbly prostrate my mortal logic before Holy Mystery. I trust and follow the Teachings and Traditions of the Church, which guide us in our understanding of Scripture and doctrine. It’s a struggle, to think and to reason, to “know;” the “Truth” in our context but ultimately, we humble ourselves before divine Truth and accept it by faith. That is why we refer to the Sacraments as “Mysteries.” We cannot fully understand them. But we receive these Mysteries, and through their sacramental grace we enter into the experience of God, in the context, we live and strive, here it’s the context of India which is known for its religious plurality.
Arundhati Interpretation Principle – “pointing to the star”
One more interesting principle while going through the readings of apophatic quality in Indian philosophy was the related principle of Indian interpretative principles known as Arundhati Nyaya. Arundhati is the Indian name of a very dim star (Alcor) in The Great Bear (Big Dipper) constellation. Arundhati star is very dim and scarcely visible, one shows the brighter stars nearby and then gradually directs their eyes to the real Arundhatī. So, traditionally, any ancient Indian will help you to locate a dim star by first showing you a brighter star in the vicinity of Arundhati. Bright stars within the close, however not precise, the section of the obscure star is used as “pointers” to the right star. This is known as the Proximity Principle or idea of Arundhati Nyaya (the law of Arundhati). The easiest way to show someone the small star Arundhati is to first show them the big brilliant star nearest to it – and then slowly shift their sight to the smaller star, which is small because of its distance from the earth. This is known as ‘Arundhati Darśana Nyāya’ or simply as ‘Arundhatī Nyāya.’ It signifies the method of leading from the gross to the subtle, from the known to the unknown, in logic and philosophy. Let’s see a similar analogy to St. John Chrysostom’s considering the Star seen during Christ birth as one of many miracles occurring at the Birth of the Savior: “How then, tell me, did the Star point out a spot so confined, just the space of a manger and shed, unless it left that height and came down, and stood over the very head of the Young Child? And at this, the Evangelist was hinting when he said, ‘Lo, the Star went before them, till it came and stood over where the young Child was.” A bright star shining to show a star born but on reaching to the far star following the bright star did the magi came to know the child born to be the Brightest Star –the Light of the world.
Arundhati the interpretative principle also allows making what seems like direct – even propositional – statements about God and the world – while still clinging to their commitment to “neti neti” when it comes to truth statements about God. This principle, known as Arundhati, is more popularly referred simply as, “pointing to the star.”
For example: when we begin to read the scripture we first understand and “believe” God as someone who is the Creator of the Universe and its Preserver. He is one to be worshipped, the Ruler, the Guide of nature, external and internal, yet appear as if He were outside of world and external. He became incarnate into the world, lived in this world being human and God at the same time being “the pointing star.”
Thus, if an attempt is made to think in an Indian theological speculation, it appears to say, “I believe,” it does not actually mean by that a propositional truth statement which contains absolute truth, as human intellect cannot fully comprehend God, but in fact it’s merely an indicator of a truth or pointer in the direction of a truth which, by definition, remains shrouded in mystery. This observation seen in the context of any theistic affirmations is there also in the Orthodox theology of apophatism.
Saguna pointing to Nirguna: An Indian Orthodox Christian Perspective –
No quality or attribute can properly be spoken of God at the highest, (ontological level). We can only speak of our experience of God at the observed, experienced, and phenomenological level. This notion suggests that God is Nirguna, “beyond attributes” of human intellect. A prayer in the Divine Liturgy expresses it as follows: “… for you are God ineffable, beyond comprehension, invisible, beyond understanding, existing forever and always the same … “A Nirguna God as being is the origin of the world of experience”, and can also be described as silence; this is a state of experience in mystery, in which the individual is at peace, and still. There is not anything that needs to be changed. The difficulty with assigning God as Nirguna is that even trying to describe God is saying that God has qualities that can be “described”, and therefore one is describing a Saguna God. These are some of the thoughts brought forward in the Indian philosophies. The Orthodox teaching on the attributes of God essentially constitutes a reliable evolvement of the New Testament witness regarding the reality of the God who is revealed in Jesus Christ. This God does not manifest Himself only as a trinity of hypostases – that is, as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. He also manifests Himself as the One who has (the congenital and not acquired) fullness of all good things – of “power, glory, wisdom, philanthropy” etc. which cannot be described completely but can be seen manifested, in other words, “all the good things that the Son has are the Father’s, and everything that the Father has, is made visible in the Son” Thus, Christ the Light manifesting the Father, the Saguna pointing the Nirguna and thus a glimpse of again the Arundhati Nyaya.
In today’s pluralistic society which involves numerous and ongoing contacts among people of different faiths, especially in India, significant difficulties arise that each religion holds to its own truth claim. A major challenge for Orthodox Christians is to articulate theologically correct, respectable and humble approaches to people of other religions. Our exploration of an Orthodox attitude toward non-Christian religions begin with our own (the Christian understanding of God). Emphasis should be mainly on the mystery of divine reality – the essence of God – which exceeds human capabilities. Since ancient times the basic faith of Orthodox Christianity is that God’s essence is incomprehensible and inaccessible to the human person; it is “beyond” all creaturely approach. God’s essence is total “beyond” – beyond the choice of words, beyond comprehension, beyond vision, beyond understanding. So let us try to be open in understanding our fellow human who was also created in the image and likeness of God, but who may or may not have come to the full Truth or maybe somewhere in the middle of knowing the truth through their own culture and philosophies. As the true followers of Christ, it is our responsibility to fill the gaps and connect the entire creation to the Ultimate Truth about our Triune God. The revealed glory of God, his energies, penetrates all creation and is the starting point for every life and hope. This central truth of Christianity can be seen communicated Doxologically to Isaiah (6:3), and is articulated in the angelic hymn of the Divine Liturgy which accompanies the prayer: “Holy, Holy, Holy are You the Lord of Hosts, Heaven and Earth are filled with Your glory.” This hymn which expresses the total mystery of God also expresses that His divine glory and love encompass all forms of life, His entire creation and we are part of this Divine mystery.
in India we have more than 22 major languages, written in 13 different scripts, with over 720 dialects. The official Indian language at present is Hindi (with approximately 420 million speakers.
 It is explained by Sri. Sankara in Brahmasutrabhasya (1.1.8)- arundhatim didarsayisustatsamipastham sthulam taramamukhyam prathamamarundhatiti grahayitva tam pratyakhyaya pasadarundhatimeva grahayati’.
 Arundhati is the wife of sage Vasistha, one of the seven celebrated sages of Indian mythologies. They are known as Sapta Rishis. She was distinguished for her chastity. Chaste women are compared to Arundhati. She is said to exist in the form of a nakṣatra or a star. The ‘Arundhatī- nakṣatra’ is identified as the star Alcor, belonging to the Great Bear group.
Gregory of Nyssa, “Against Eunomius”, A’ I’ 126.
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Papademetriou, George C. An Orthodox Christian View of Non-Christian Religions, https://www.goarch.org/-/an-orthodox-christian-view-of-non-christian-religions
St. John Chrysostom. The Gospel of St. Matthew, Homily VI. 3, 4, pp. 37-38
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