This year marks the 1,000th birth anniversary of Ramanuja, the great Vaishnava theologian who reinvented and revitalised Hinduism, and the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s triggering of the Protestant Reformation which fundamentally reshaped Christianity. Both events are a salutary reminder in these troubled times of how religions can evolve and reform.
Ramanuja is most often hailed for his philosophic articulation of “qualified monism” or visishtadvaita. But it is as a visionary religious leader and organiser that Ramanuja truly made his mark. When he became head of the Srirangam Mutt, Ramanuja inherited a theological tradition that had championed the Pancaratra Agamas — a set of scriptures composed outside the dominant Vedic and Brahmanic mainstream — as equally the product of divine revelation as the Vedas themselves. The Agamas, unlike the sacrifice-oriented Vedas, sanctioned image worship and inclusive temple-based rituals that women and lower caste believers, and not just Brahmin males, could participate in.
It was Ramanuja’s brilliance that gave practical effect to this theological innovation. He organised the daily pujas and annual festival cycle at the Srirangam Ranganatha temple in line with Agamic norms, thereby broadening the temple’s constituency to include rising peasant castes and women. He also made room for the emotive Tamil hymns of the Alvars in the otherwise austere Sanskrit temple liturgy. Eventually, under his leadership, these reforms took hold at other Vaishnavite temple complexes such as Tirupati and Melkote that had sprung up across South India over the preceding centuries.
Ramanuja, thus, profoundly reinvented Hinduism in response to societal conditions of the 11th century (albeit his inclusiveness did not extend to the “untouchable” community). Over time, the transformation he initiated was carried across India by the so-called “bhakti movements”. Ultimately, Ramanuja’s Agamic revolution, placing popular and dramatic temple rituals and emotional image adoration at the centre of worship and widening participation beyond Brahmin males, became mainstream to Hinduism displacing older practices rooted in the Vedic tradition.
In 1517, 500 years after Ramanuja, Martin Luther, a German monk and theologian, sparked the Reformation by posting “95 Theses” on a church door in Wittenberg, questioning portions of the Christian Church’s doctrine and specific corrupt practices — notably papal indulgences, a sort of whitewash of sins that were hawked by the Vatican for a hefty fee. Luther’s challenge set in train a seismic reshaping of Christianity and ultimately laid the foundation for the modern West. At the heart of the Lutheran revolution was the idea that Christians should themselves read the Bible, vernacular translations of which were beginning to roll off Gutenberg’s newly-invented printing presses, rather than have it presented to them by their priests.
But as soon as more and more people started to read the Bible, it became obvious that much of what is in the New and Old Testaments is ambiguous, impractical, and often contradictory — the Bible, like most scripture, does not speak with a single voice. To take one example cited by the philosopher Anthony Appiah, the same St. Paul who says women should cover their heads in church and men shouldn’t, also told the Galatians: “There is neither male nor female: For ye are all one in Christ Jesus.” Protestant communities springing up across northern Europe chose to grapple with these scriptural conundrums themselves in self-study sessions rather than take their cues from the Church in Rome. They decided, in Appiah’s words, “which passages to read into and which to read past,” to shape their faith for their day and age.
Eventually, in the wake of the Reformation, good Christians could see that other sincere, committed Christians around them — be they traditional Catholics or members of one of the new Protestant sects from Calvinists and Anabaptists to Puritans and Presbyterians — came to believe in very different things. This ultimately infused (more than a century of brutal conflict later!) a more tolerant and sceptical spirit across Europe that gave birth to the liberal, secular, and humanist values of the 18th century Enlightenment.
It is worth reminding ourselves of this history when we are faced with shrill arguments that Muslims are immutable to change — whether on how they treat women or other religions. The argument goes as follows: Committed Muslims must take their beliefs directly from the Quran. For example, the Quran clearly says women are inferior to men in passages such as Surah (4:34): “Men are in charge of women, because Allah hath made the one of them to excel the other.” Therefore, Muslim societies are bound to continue to treat men as superior to women. Indeed, this sort of scriptural determinism is mobilised by both sides — outsiders looking to indict Islam and insiders defending practices they favour.
But scriptures in other faiths also put down women — be it the Dharmashastras, the Torah, or the Bible — often in harsher terms than in the Quran. “Women have one eternal duty in this world,” says Bhishma in the Anusasana Parva of the Mahabharata, “dependence upon and obedient service to their husbands.” Thankfully, however, religious beliefs do not repose in sacred texts. Much of scripture is written in language that is poetical, metaphorical, or simply obscure. Much of it consists of narratives or fictional parables. Scripture, therefore, requires interpretation.
While fundamentalists of all stripes persist in trying to turn the clock back to what they regard as original, divinely-ordained doctrine, Jewish, Christian, and Hindu communities have been able to evolve their creeds by interpreting their scriptural dictums for the world they live in. No one would have predicted if they simply read the Manusmriti that we would have sudra archakas (shudra priests) in Hindu temples or inferred from the Torah or the King James Bible that there would be women and gay rabbis and Anglican bishops.
Islam is no different. There are very few verses in the Quran which actually lay down law. Quranic verses — like most scripture — are vague and quite general. They have to be read along with other sources such as the sayings and doings of the Prophet to determine the rules for specific situations. Islam has a hoary tradition of schools of jurisprudence that have devised sophisticated theoretical frameworks to come up with the law governing the behaviour of Muslims. But these schools diverge in their views which is why there is a great range of social practice — whether on polygamy, women being veiled, serving liquor in public places, or tolerance of other faiths — between Turkey and Morocco and Saudi Arabia, all avowedly Muslim countries.
This is why the Supreme Court case on triple talaq, on which the Quran typically offers no clear-cut direction, is so important for India’s Muslims. Whatever be the court’s final judgement, and despite the political calculus that lies behind the Sangh Parivar and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s support for abolishing triple talaq, the hearings have provided an unprecedented forum for the Indian Muslim community — ranging from petitioner Shayara Bano to the All India Muslim Personal Law Board — to have a vibrant public debate on whether this practice should prevail in this day and age.
What Ramanuja and Luther underline for us is that it is precisely this sort of reasoned debate amongst fellow believers, in dialogue with but not beholden to their scriptures, that has allowed religious communities throughout history to reform themselves — for the better.
The writer is a private equity investor and on the board of governors of the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies. Views expressed are personal