Islam, as a historical tradition, began in early seventh century Arabia. The formative canons of Islamic thought – the Qur’an as well as the voluminous literature describing the early community of Muslims – contain a series of teachings regarding the religious Other. The Qur’an speaks at length about Jews and Christians, and Islamic law has always contained substantive discussions of the proper relations between Muslims and the “The People of the Book (Ahl al-Kitāb).” At the same time, there is no discussion in this early Arabic literature of the Dharma traditions of South Asia, whether in regards to text, ritual, or communal interaction. Perceptions of the Hindu or Buddhist Other had to be constructed by fallible scholars of later generations, and perhaps the most famous scholar to do so was al-Bīrūnī (d. 1050), who wrote a study of South Asian culture known as Kitāb al-Hind (The Book of India), as well as an Arabic version of the Yoga Sūtra of Patañjali.
“Contemporary Muslim engagement with the Hindu tradition must take into account the Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇava tradition, and such an engagement does not have the luxury of reliance on authoritative Muslim texts from the past. Rather, a new discursive tradition must emerge from a contemporary engagement with Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavas.“
In a similar way, there is no mention of Christians or Muslims in the formative Sanskrit texts of the Hindu tradition. However, the Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇava school of thought, which draws on many of those texts, emerged in the context of Muslim political domination in sixteenth-century Bengal . As such, there are numerous refences to Muslims in Gauḍīya sacred literature, and particular figures in Gauḍīya sacred history were from a Muslim background. Therefore, the canons of the Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇava tradition contain an engagement with Muslims that is not reciprocated by Muslims at the scholarly level. Contemporary Muslim engagement with the Hindu tradition must take into account the Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇava tradition, and such an engagement does not have the luxury of reliance on authoritative Muslim texts from the past. Rather, a new discursive tradition must emerge from a contemporary engagement with Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavas. Al-Bīrūnī is often praised for learning directly from those who were masters of their own tradition, and contemporary Muslims should follow his lead.
Engagement with the Other is rooted in an awareness that the Other is part of the same world. In the Islamic tradition, the fundamental belief in tawḥīd means, among other things, that nothing has a reality independent of the Source of Reality. As such, all worldviews represent an aspect of reality that is constantly unfolding, from the human perspective, in time and space. There are many proof-texts that are often used in this regard, but two Qur’anic verses that are directly relevant to the topic under discussion are:
And among Allah’s signs is the creation of the Heavens and Earth, as well as the diversity of your languages and colors. Surely, in that, are signs for the knowledgeable. (30.22, author’s translation)
O humanity, surely we created you from a man and a woman, and We made you into peoples and tribes so that you would know one another… (49:13)
The existence of Sanskrit texts for thousands of years, and the interpretive communities which live their meanings in the contemporary era, are part and parcel of the purpose of creation. The interaction between the Arabic-based Islamic tradition and the Sanskrit-based Hindu tradition is over 1000 years old, and continues today around the world.
Historical Background: The Inclusivity of Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavism
In the year 1486 A.D., a young man named Viśvambhara was born in the Bengal region of South Asia, and he would eventually become known as Caitanya (d. 1533). He preached the centrality of bhakti yoga, a devotional approach within the Hindu tradition that exists alongside other schools of thought. The religious tradition that stems from Caitanya is often known as Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavism. Due to the preaching efforts of a traditional guru named A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupāda (d. 1977, hereafter Prabhupāda), Caitanya’s teachings have spread around the world.
Caitanya did not restrict his message to Brahmins, or even to Hindus. As Paul Sherbow writes,
As the only qualification for entering this process [i.e. bhakti] is genuine faith, the Gaudiya Vaishnava path is universally available to Indian and non-Indians, Hindus and non-Hindus, Christians, Muslims – anyone irrespective of background. From the beginning of Chaitanya’s movement in Bengal, Haridas Thakur and others of Muslim birth were participants.
In this light, it is appropriate to note that Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavism is focused on spreading bhakti to all individuals, regardless of religious identity, and that it presents itself as a universal model for human spirituality. This has created some challenging situations in India, where certain temples do not allow non-Indian Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavas to enter.
Caitanya did not write books. Rather it was the experience of being “in his presence,” according to Prof. Jonathan Edelmann, that initially won devotees. As the literature of the tradition developed, it was left to others to elaborate on the theology of bhakti. It was primarily due to spontaneous encounters with “saintly people (sadhu)” that led to the conviction that the path they are following is valuable, which then led to more association with saintly people. It is an eminently social phenomenon, and is predicated on the compassion that these saintly people feel due to their familiarity with suffering.
Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavism’s socially liberal approach to spreading bhakti is related to how it became global. Prabhupāda personally transformed the lives of at least tens of thousands of people around the world, and those people went on to transform the lives of millions.
“Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavism’s socially liberal approach to spreading bhakti is related to how it became global. Prabhupāda personally transformed the lives of at least tens of thousands of people around the world, and those people went on to transform the lives of millions.”This connection between theology and history is brought out powerfully by the story of Radhanath Swami, who is currently one of the most well-known of Prabhupāda’s disciples. According to his spiritual autobiography, the Swami hitchhiked from Europe to India in search of answers to his spiritual questions. While traveling around India, he eventually came to reside in the village of Vrindavan, the most sacred town in the world for Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavas. Yet, it was not until he actually encountered Prabhupāda that he became committed to the tradition. He states that, “while walking with him, I saw the same places I had seen many times, but in his company I experienced realizations like never before, as if a deeper level of reality was being revealed.”
According to Prof. Edwin Bryant, Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavas teach that, “the seed of bhakti is attained by associating with those who already have that seed.” Tamal Krishna Goswami, another disciple of Prabhupāda, contends that his guru widened the definition of saintly people to create a supportive culture conducive to spreading and living the tradition globally. Prabhupāda recognized that the experience of living the tradition outside of South Asia required the creation of a new support system. The experience of Radhanath Swami in an Indian village filled with temples and holy men would not be paradigmatic for most. Instead, the disciples of Prabhupāda were expected to transmit their guru’s teachings as best they could in a global world. Instead of meeting a dignified master of the tradition in a holy place, the new paradigm would most likely involve encountering a Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇava chanting and/or distributing books on the streets of a large urban center.
Contemporary Context and The Importance of the Guru
Gauḍīya Vaisnvas have a particular approach to epistemology (pramāṇa) that emphasizes the proper transmission and application of sacred texts by a guru. A purely empirical approach to the tradition does violence to its internal logic. The guru cannot be self-taught, but must have learned himself from a guru. The guru is thus able to properly contextualize sacred text because, from the viewpoint of the tradition, he stands in the disciplic succession (paramparā) that connects him to his guru, to his guru before him, all the way back to the source of revelation.
In this regard, it is important to highlight that Radhanath Swami has also authored a primer on the Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇava tradition for a contemporary audience, and exploring aspects of it helps us to understand the way the tradition is understood in a contemporary context. The text begins with a chapter entitled “What is True Wealth?,” and the final long chapter also contains the phrase “true wealth,” which is described as “love for the Supreme.” This concept frames everything that comes in-between. True wealth is available to all, and is directly dichotomous to the usual understanding of wealth as material gain. But it must be understood and cultivated, and that is the purpose of the book. In the opening chapter, he describes an American woman who has lost much in her life, but is still relatively privileged. She is filled with anxiety, but through a fortunate exchange at an airport, she begins to understand her spiritual identity. This helps her to put her struggles in perspective. In contrast, the final long chapter contains a lengthy story about an Indian woman who is so poor that the greatest material gift she can offer her guru is a pile of dirt-covered peanuts. Despite her lot in life, she is content, and everything in her life is in order. Her small mud hut is so sparse that all she has to adorn her altar is a single photograph. Radhanath Swami wants the reader to look past the material difference of social conditions to explore something deeper.
In the vignette in the airport, Radhanath Swami takes the American lady through some exercises, as opposed to just talking at her. As such, it is not enough for the reader to simply enjoy the stories as a set of theoretical propositions. Rather, there are practical steps to be taken. Technically speaking, this is vaidhi bhakti, the various practices required to grow in bhakti. Only through this process can the impurities (kleśa-s) that impede bhakti be removed, revealing the spontaneous love for God within. Radhanath Swami’s text could be described as a pathway into a consistent and purposeful commitment to vaidhi bhakti. The structure of the text is divided into two sections. The first section is primarily philosophical in nature, and is aptly titled “The Big Questions.” The second section of the text, however, is primarily concerned with a series of practical recommendations. For example, giving up meat was a central part of Prabhupāda’s preaching, as part of the “four regulative principles” that he expected his disciples to follow. Radhanath Swami builds on that foundation for a contemporary audience and highlights how a diet truly grounded in love should be based, as much as possible, on the principle of non-violence (ahiṃsā). As such, considering the ways in which the dairy and meat industries are intertwined, he encourages veganism. One may still consume dairy products from a dairy where cows are treated properly from cradle to grave, but that will be the exception when and where available.
This is no small matter. For Gauḍīyas in general, and for disciples of Prabhupāda in particular, eating is an absolutely central spiritual exercise. The core of the practice of preparing sanctified food (prasāda) involves cooking for God and offering it before enjoying it oneself. It is not simply about intent, but the food itself has to be pleasing to God. In this respect, God does not want meat to be offered. Radhanath Swami is only taking the tradition a step further in an era of factory farming and global trade. This, as one practical example, is a stark difference between the Islamic and Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇava traditions. Most Muslim cultures include meat in their cuisine, and in a particular verse of the Qur’an, ritual slaughter is even used to describe how God appreciates the intentions of our hearts: “neither their meat nor their blood reaches God, but rather your taqwā” (22:37, author’s translation). The significance of this verse is underscored by the fact that the annual Ḥajj pilgrimage in Makkah includes ritual slaughter as an integral rite.
“While abstention from alcohol is also a Gauḍīya practice that will resonate with many Muslims, veganism holds no inherent value to most Muslims. For a Muslim, the highest stages of loving God are without a doubt accessible to a meat-eater. “
While abstention from alcohol is also a Gauḍīya practice that will resonate with many Muslims, veganism holds no inherent value to most Muslims. For a Muslim, the highest stages of loving God are without a doubt accessible to a meat-eater. For the Gauḍīya, it is perhaps inconceivable. Radhanath Swami’s choice of chapter titles in this regard, “The Dharma of Bhakti,” is striking given that early Gauḍīya texts did not use the word Islam, but instead spoke of “The Dharma of mlecchas (foreigners).” From this simple example we can understand that the praxis of these two traditions diverge in fundamental ways, a fact that makes careful understanding between them all the more crucial.
Conclusion: Building on al-Bīrūnī
While giving all due credit to al-Bīrūnī, his historical legacy is only one small part of contemporary Muslim engagement with the Hindu tradition. Not only did the Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇava tradition not exist in al-Bīrūnī’s era, it is also now global in nature and offers a distinctive universal theology that competes with Islam and Christianity in numerous locales.
“Interreligious scholarship can avoid some of the mistakes of the European colonial past by centering texts, places, and people that are considered authoritative within a tradition, as well as by making one’s presentation of those traditions vulnerable to those who hold it sacred. Just as Muslims would not want Hindu scholars to distort their tradition, so too should Muslims present the Hindu tradition in ways which are recognizable to those who hold it sacred.“As such it is important to understand it as part of a comprehensive Muslim interpretation of human cultural diversity. Study of the Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇava tradition should also be complemented by studies of other contemporary Hindu traditions, such as BAPS Swaminarayan Sanstha, which is currently building a temple in UAE. Muslim scholarship should be careful not to recreate the European colonial mistake of making sweeping generalizations about others without having even begun to explore the complexity of their traditions. The words of Frantz Fanon should be heeded: “colonialism is not simply content to impose its rule upon the present and the future of a dominated country…By a kind of perverted logic, it turns to the past of the oppressed people, and distorts, disfigures, and destroys it.” Interreligious scholarship can avoid some of the mistakes of the European colonial past by centering texts, places, and people that are considered authoritative within a tradition, as well as by making one’s presentation of those traditions vulnerable to those who hold it sacred. Just as Muslims would not want Hindu scholars to distort their tradition, so too should Muslims present the Hindu tradition in ways which are recognizable to those who hold it sacred. In doing so, it will be possible to articulate more clearly how and why different perspectives or areas of true convergence actually exist, and what the implications of that may be. This approach is rooted in an appreciation for the richness and complexity of the shared reality we humans inhabit, a reality that is always and everywhere rooted in tawḥīd.
R. David Coolidge is currently a PhD student at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, CA. From 2008-2013 he worked as a Muslim chaplain, first at Dartmouth College and then at Brown University. From 2014-2017 he taught an undergraduate course on Islamic law and ethics at New York University.