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Francis Xavier Clooney

Q&A: Harvard Divinity School professor Francis Xavier Clooney to speak about Hinduism

Professor Francis Xavier Clooney from Harvard Divinity School will speak about Hinduism and the holy book Bhagavad Gita.

Francis Xavier Clooney, professor and director of the Center for the Study of World Religions at the Harvard Divinity School, will be the featured speaker for Spring Semester’s Gawande Lecture Series hosted by Ohio University.

This year, the lecture will focus on the Bhagavad Gita, which is a holy book for Hindus. The Bhagavad Gita, or what is often referred to as the Gita, is an ancient text. It’s a dialogue between the warrior Arjuna and his charioteer and guide Krishna.

The Gawande Lecture Series was created by Brian Collins, an OU professor of Classics and World Religion. It is supported by OU friends Sushila and the late Ram Gawande.

The Series invites renowned scholars of Indian philosophy and religion to the university. It features a lecture every fall and spring semester. This semester it will be held at Ellis Hall 106 on Thursday.

Clooney sat down with The Post in a phone interview to discuss the purpose and importance of inter-religious discourse in daily life.

The Post: First and foremost, I understand you had the liberty to pick the topic (of the lecture). Why did you pick The Gita out of all the numerous Hindu holy books?

Francis Xavier Clooney: It’s a double thing that on one hand (I was) given the invitation by Dr. Collins to come and give the lecture that it should be something recognizable, within the mainstream Hindu tradition. … So, I thought Gita would be an appropriate text. Secondly, it needed to be a theme that is relevant to contemporary life. I think the theme of faith and doubt will be relevant to many of the students and the audience.

TP: What aspect of the Gita, in particular, will you be talking about OU students?

FC: As I said earlier, I wanted to take this very important text and not simply talk about it in general terms but talk about it in terms of relevant issues. In some ways the warrior Arjuna (the protagonist) looks at the world around him. He has doubts about what his duty is. He is a man with a crisis of faith. He is in an existential situation like many people today … Gita takes up the issues of grief, doubt and confusion and offers teachings that put (Arjuna’s) his life together. By Krishna’s instructions, he learns how to do better and find his goal in life.

TP: What prompted you to learn about Hinduism in the first place?

FC: Back when I graduated from college in the 1970s, I had the opportunity to go and do some volunteer teaching in Kathmandu, Nepal, up in the Himalayas. In Nepal all the boys I taught were either Hindu or Buddhist, and so in that context, I started reading some of the great Hindu and Buddhist texts in order to relate better with the boys I was teaching. … Therefore, for the last 40 plus years, I have been very happy to learn about Hinduism and the wisdom of Hindu tradition.

TP: Apart from being a professor, you are a revered Roman Catholic priest and an active member of the Society of Jesus. Does it then become difficult to continue practicing your own religion when you have so much knowledge about the vitality of others?

FC: No, not really. First of all, anything that is true, anything that is wise and compassionate should be able to help a religious person, shouldn’t confuse us. Secondly, there is no point in being a religious person who is close-minded and who says, “because I have my space, I have nothing to learn from anyone else.” That doesn’t make any sense. And I think at a deeper level the Hindu tradition and Catholic tradition actually go together well, there are many values and virtues that reinforce one another. There are differences too of course.

TP: In the second article of your Gita in Lent series from your blog, In All Things, America Magazine, you particularly drew parallels between Abraham attempting to sacrifice his son to Arjuna fighting his relatives. Why do you think Krishna encourages Arjuna to fight? How do you interpret it?

FC: It can be surprising first of all to imagine that the “fighting” is even there. We tend to think that the best thing about religion is it is peaceful, it is true. But, one can’t just pick up the Gita by itself and say fighting and war is good but rather (one has to) understand the epic (the Mahabharata), in which there are many long discussions about the role of kshatriyas (warrior class) and Kings to maintain the right order in the world. There is a concept of duty that may be difficult at times but nonetheless important.

Therefore, for someone like Arjuna (who is a warrior), his duty is to participate in the world (in terms of his commitment) as a soldier. Ancient scholars like Ramanujan, Aurobindo have said that this (the story line) shouldn’t be taken literally. But rather do your duty and participate in life. 

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TP: Why do you think interreligious dialogue is important in the 21st century? How does it affect an individual and a society at large?

FC: If we read the newspaper we can see tragic events. Even this week with what happened at Belgium. We can see how some of the presidential candidates in our country are reacting to it. They want to close the borders and so on. … I think there is a great danger of doing it in an ignorant and hateful way. Therefore, we should interact knowledgeably and be open to listening and learn from one another.

TP: Is there anything that you hope the students of Ohio University will take from attending this lecture?

FC: In this great text (Bhagavad Gita), whether the students are familiar with it, there are some great life lessons. Careful reading, intelligent listening and conversations with a visitor such as myself can be useful in terms of exploring faith. But I’d like to think … it can be helpful to students whether they are Hindu, Muslim, Christian or any other religion.



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