By Joe Palathunkal
When Jesuit Father George Gispert Sauch died on July 29 in Bombay, India’s secular media completely ignored the fact that this 90-year old from Spain spent more than 70 years working for interreligious dialogue in the country.
While India is in a belligerent mood to correct religion-related historical wrongs, remembering Father Gispert would be a balm and catalyst to go beyond confrontations and history corrections.
He himself articulated it so well: “The relations between the followers of the many world religions and even of smaller religious traditions and Christian believers have now entered a stage beyond ‘confrontation’, ‘encounter’ and comparative ‘dialogue’ to a search for sharing spirituality.”
His obvious message was that in this century there is no place for confrontation and belligerence in the name of religion. India’s soul that Father Gispert relentlessly sought for 71 years did not go with a confrontational cry.
Father Gispert landed in India in 1949 at the age of 19. The subcontinent was reeling from the partition bloodbath that killed an estimated two million people and displaced some 14 million in the name of religions. The Hindu-Muslim violence, stage-managed by perverted politics, had resulted in the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi a year ahead of his arrival.
During his seven decades of life in India, Father Gispert witnessed numerous religion-based riots, and that was totally against the soul of India he discovered.
He spoke of dialogue between various religions. “It may also lower the walls of alienation between various denominations and consequently create greater peace and harmony among the many religious traditions.”
Father Gispert’s India had no place for alienation and confrontation, as he expressed in his famous theological work Bliss in the Upanishads: An Analytical Study of the Origin and Growth of the Vedic Concept of Ananda.
The book’s appeal was evident from the fact that it had 10 editions between 1977 and 1990. He wrote several other books, contributed articles to publications and presented papers at numerous seminars.
Like any other European Indologist, Father Gispert thought Sanskrit was the best path to find that soul of India. He, therefore, first took graduation in that language and post-graduation in Indian culture.
Following his ordination in 1962, he wanted to establish an institute of Indian culture in Bombay in collaboration with the great Jesuit Paramananda Divarkar, but by a quirk of destiny he became a theology professor in 1967 at Saint Mary’s College, Kurseong, West Bengal, and at Vidya Jyoti Delhi from 1971.
With a doctorate in Indology from the Catholic Institute of Paris, he was intellectually ready for that great search to find out what makes India what it is, and what it was, amid the cacophony of cultural nationalism and majority religion-based theocracy under the garb of democracy.
Father Gispert’s writings proved his conviction that India evolved over the centuries as a home for every ethnicity and creed. People developed a strong sense of belonging to each other despite their differences.
He insisted on sharing spiritual experiences whatever a person’s religious persuasions: “At this stage, ‘other’ religions are no longer adversaries, or fortresses to be conquered, or even simply the ‘other’, but as places where the Divine Power has manifested itself for the sake of strengthening the bonds of the human family.”
That is the crux of Father Gispert Sauch’s pursuit of India’s soul, a soul that cries out to each Indian to live as one human family belonging to each other through a strong sense of spiritualized daily life rather than a politicized religious life. Mahatma Gandhi must be the beacon for it.
Father Gispert’s understanding of India was quite different from that of other European Jesuits, who delved into Hinduism’s philosophical world. Father Gispert focused on living with Hinduism as a family and community in communion.
He brings in the example of Mahatma Gandhi for whom community prayer was a significant means of experiencing the Divine: “Experience also teaches us that at least some believers who profess different creeds live up to their own commitments to an extraordinary degree. One may think of Mahatma Gandhi or many similar models.”
However, just like many other European Indologists, Father Gispert did not go overboard to please the dominant religion’s voters, losing one’s own Catholic identity and theological stand. Some people point out that the Catholic faith is a block to shared spiritual experience and communion with other religious traditions.
Father Gispert tells such Christians to be humble because “we are never sure that our lived faith corresponds to the quality of the Word given to us” and so he continues explicating his stand: “Perhaps this is the lesson we must draw from the scene of the last judgment described for us in Mt 25: we are ultimately judged by our concrete lives, not by our creeds.”
This is indeed a radical stand for which all Asians must salute Jesuit Father Gispert. It is a pedagogy for all the religious traditions who fight for the externals, forgetting the ultimate goal of religion.
Keeping this in mind, he drafted the guidelines on dialogue and ecumenism for the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India, which is a memorable contribution. Those guidelines will serve as a permanent memory to this towering theologian.
Though his heart was very much with Hinduism’s ancient wisdom, he did not neglect other realities that had become part of the Indian Church. He clearly articulated it in 1996: “The earlier concern of Indian theology was focused on Vedanta, perceived as the most representative thing of India. Now the most representative reality in India is that of the Dalits and the tribals … Putting the poor at the center of our reflection is a right option in a good direction.”
It is evident that, for him, India’s soul is not merely Vedas and Sanskrit-centered but also centered on the Dalits, tribals, poor and marginalized.
Taking Father Gispert seriously, the Church in India has to establish within its consciousness the marginalized soul of India. Churches worldwide need to learn that the final judgment is based on action, not faith.
“This, however, does not mean that our creed is either invalid or futile. If nothing else, it reminds us that the value of the Christian faith is not measured by the quality of our response to God but by the reality of the Divine Love communicated to us through it.”
That is the message from Father Gispert, the relentless seeker of India’s soul, for the Church in India.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.