Reading the Hindu and Christian Classics (Book Review)

Reading the Hindu and Christian Classics: Why and How Deep Learning Still Matters

by Francis X. Clooney | Review by Stephanie Corigliano

Reading the Hindu and Christian Classics: Why and How Deep Learning Still Matters by Francis X. Clooney, SJ, is the product of a lifetime of scholarship, reflection, and teaching. Clooney is the Parkman Professor of Divinity and Professor of Comparative Theology at Harvard Divinity. As a 50 year member of the Society of Jesus, he is also a Catholic priest who has developed a contemporary approach to interreligious learning that emphasizes “deep learning.” This includes a slow and careful process of learning to read sacred texts in context beginning with history, philology, attention to classic commentaries, and, most importantly, attentive reading of the text itself. “Comparative Theology” (CT) is not a new discipline within the study of religion, but Clooney’s approach is distinct in that it proposes that deeply learning about another tradition can strengthen and add insight to an individual’s original faith. Thus, the basic premise of CT is that a person begins with a position of faith (in Clooney’s case, Catholic) and particular questions or ideas that arise from that faith. These questions or ideas are then set alongside a similar circumstance from another, carefully engaged tradition. For example, in an earlier publication, Divine Mother, Blessed Mother: Hindu Goddesses and the Virgin Mary (2005), Clooney compared select texts that address the Virgin Mary with various texts that celebrate select Hindu Goddesses. As such, Clooney advocates for interreligious learning as a means to deepen faith and appreciation of the other.  

This 2019 book opens with a discussion of the Jaiminīyanyāyamālā (the Garland of Jaimini’s Reasons) of Mādhavācārya (1297-1388), a text that includes 1,536 verses that represent a distilled and comparatively concise summary of Mīmāṃsā reasoning. Mīmāṃsā is one of six classical Hindu darśanas, or philosophical schools, that emphasizes critical investigation and is fundamental to the Vedanta school of thought. The Garland of Jaimini’s Reasons proceeds by presenting concise questions, or cases, followed by a hypothesis (or common assumption), “Some say…”, a brief retort, “No….” Each case is then flushed out by several follow up questions, hypotheses, and corrective responses. In this way a broad question, such as “Can dharma be known?” is examined from several different angles and this diversity of perspectives is emphasized over and above a precise conclusion. This textual tradition is not one that is generally engaged by non-specialists. So, even though Clooney himself is able to read, translate, and appreciate the work he also admits that as he set out to write on this topic he questioned who would read his book apart from a select few. Thus, rather than devote an entire book to studying Mādhava’s text, he instead models an apology for deep, comparative, slow reading on the method of systematic case analysis found in the Garland of Jaimini’s Reasons. Using six comparative case studies, Clooney examines different angles of comparative learning, juxtaposing the diverse processes and insights. In addition to the Garland, Clooney engages Peter Canisius’s Catechism, Appayya Dīkṣita’s Collection of Right Perspectives on Our Position, Peter Lombard’s Sentences Articulated in Four Books, Louis Gringnion de Montfort’s Admirable Secret of the Most Holy Rosary, and Maṇavāḷamāmuni’s Tiruvāymol̲i Nūr̲r̲antāti, along with a chapter that selectively pulls from Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations

Reading the Hindu and Christian Classics provides several concise examples of comparative theology, highlighting distinct facets of the kind of insight, understanding, and interreligious learning that are possible when a reader takes the time to learn deeply.  And, while this text covers a varied terrain in a relatively brief number of pages, it also emphatically demonstrates the value of contemplative, curious, and responsible reading – a practice that might easily be lost within the barrage of information that we all have at our fingertips, but one that embodies the patient, challenging, and transformative art of the scholar-practitioner.