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The Rediff Interview/ Dr Eric Lott

'Christian tradition has much to learn from Hindu tradition'

A Britisher coming to India as a Christian missionary is not news. But a Britisher teaching Vaishnavite philosophy in India is news, that too for 35 long years. A Britisher proficient in English is not news. But it is news if he is well-versed in Sanskrit, Telugu and Kannada.

Dr Eric Lott, who took his doctorate in Hindu philosophy and who uses Sanskrit words and Sanskrit slokas liberally in his conversation, was in Madras on an invitation from the Madras Book Club to present a slide-show on birds and to talk about bird-watching. Shobha Warrier caught up with him.

Was it because you were interested in Vaishnavite philosophy that you came to India?

Not quite. Originally I came to India as a missionary and I was expected to do relief work and village pastoral work in the villages. In another sense, I was expected to teach the Christian communities.

But I had already decided that I would come to India one day. That was because when I was studying at London University, I came across the writings of Ramanuja. I became attracted to his idea of looking at the whole world as the body of God. I felt Ramanuja's vision of the Universe is something that should be true for all religions and all philosophies.

Was it after you read Ramanuja's work that you began looking at the universe as the body of God, or had you been thinking in that direction earlier too?

The two went together. Yes, I had always been interested in the organic view of nature. My father was an organic farmer and I too was farming for seven years before I went back to university. I was searching for an integral relationship between religious faiths and a positive view of nature. I felt somehow that there was a certain weakness in the modern, Christian view of the universe.

So, when I came across this view, vision or darshan of Ramanuja, I felt this was something that I, as a Christian, should take seriously and make it a part of me. Since then many in America, particularly the eco-feminists, feminists who are particularly interested in understanding the whole universe and nature differently, began looking at the universe as a divine body.

You said you saw a certain weakness in the modern Christian view of the universe. Were you religious then? Were you frustrated inside in any way?

I think frustration is a good word but one shouldn't take it too strongly. I also had a certain satisfaction in my religious experience. I was very young at that time, in my early twenties, perhaps very na´ve. Yes, I was searching for something more. That indicated certain frustration. I felt the particular view (that of Ramanuja) satisfied my search, complimented what I already believed about the world and life and God.

Did you feel complete or fulfilled then?

I felt fulfilled. I must emphasise that the potential was there in me to find a more satisfying world.

You came here as a missionary and then you were learning and teaching Vaishnavite philosophy. Did your work as a missionary and what you pursued not clash?

Yes, there was a certain tension. Now I am going to the whole question of fundamentalism. It is the exclusive attitudes of people belonging to all communities. The fundamentalists say that they are right and you are wrong; theirs is the right way and they can learn nothing from you. But this is not my way. I found the need for an interacting posture as a believing person.

Although I was strongly convinced of my religious faith, I still believed that to be faithful to God, who is greater than we can ever imagine, we need also to respond to the other people's experience of God. Naturally within the Christian community, there are fundamentalists who take a very different line as within Islam and now increasingly even within the Hindu communities.

But I had the strong conviction that the Christian tradition has much to learn from the Hindu tradition. I also felt it was very much a two-way process, but very much a learning process for me.

When did you begin learning Vaishnavite philosophy seriously?

My initial reading, that is, when I was in London was very superficial. After I came here, I decided to take this up very seriously. So, after four years in India, I went back to the London University, learnt Sanskrit, and read much more widely about Indian traditions. That was how a serious foundation was laid to learn more about Vaishnavism. After nearly ten years, in 1969, I went back to London to do my first research degree on 'Ramanuja and Visisht Advaita'.

Was it to learn more about the Hindu philosophy and read the scriptures like the Vedas and the Upanishads in the original that you learnt Sanskrit?

It is a complex reason. Yes, there was that simple need to know more about the Hindu philosophy. It was also related to my Christian tradition. I felt anyone who wishes to be a part of the Indian consciousness has to learn to understand the Indian culture and its traditions. You can't live in India without getting affected by the Indian imagery, like the birds, lotus, etc etc. Yes, yes, they can become politicised too. But they are a part of the Indian consciousness. It is na´ve to talk about a single Indian consciousness, as there are many dimensions to it. In fact, there is a great diversity in the Indian ways of looking at things and that too one has to take seriously.

What I felt was, the Christian faith in India must have the ability to express authentically in response to the traditional perceptions and experiences of the Indian people down through the ages. Some continuity must be there; otherwise, it will become artificial.

So, in addition to the simple reason to know more about the Indian consciousness, there was a deeper need for completeness too.

Could you achieve that completeness by learning more about Indian consciousness?

I certainly wouldn't say that I am a realised soul. I am far from that. Frustration continues within me, to some extent. But intellectually, yes, I think there is a far greater sense of completeness and satisfaction and realisation, if you like to call it that way, but spiritually, it still is a growing process for me.

Why did you go to London to learn Sanskrit? Why didn't you learn Sanskrit here in India itself?

After every five years, we go back to England for a year, and when you go back, most people have to tell the donors about their work. The support missionaries are very ordinary people, you know. We don't get any government grant or anything like that; we get only individual donations. When I went back, they said I could do research. So, every time I went back, I did some research.

When I got back to India, due to some reason the Ramanuja Research Society in Madras sent me a letter asking me to send my thesis. They heard from somewhere that it was good. I sent it and they published it in 1970. In 1976, I went back, did a broader study, and got my doctorate. I broadened it to the whole vedantic arena and did a comparative study of the various aspects of Vedantic approach to God.

How much did Vedanta influence your thoughts and your outlook to life?

In some ways, I ended up where I began. It is like a circle. The Indian concept of the cycle has a lot of truth in it. There was already a grounding in me for a more mystical or a more participating relationship with nature. Even in infancy, I can remember lying in a grass field, looking at the blue sky and experiencing the cool and feeling that I am part of that field. So, there was this nature mysticism in me already. In that sense, what I have learnt from Indian philosophy tended to confirm my developing instinct for nature mysticism.

You taught Vaishnavite philosophy at the Theological College of Religions in Bangalore for nearly 35 years.

Yes, I did. But I taught not only Vaishnavism, I taught religions generally. I taught some aspects of Sikhism, Islam, etc. But it was understood that my main expertise was in Vaishnavite philosophy.

'This is a crisis time in the history of India' The Eric Lott Interview, continues

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