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Synthesizing the Vedanta

The Theology of Pierre Johanns S. J.


Sean Doyle

Fr Pierre Johanns is a key figure in the history of Christian intellectual engagement with Hindu philosophy. He was the most articulate figure in a group of Belgian Jesuits in Calcutta who sought to develop the theological project initiated by Brahmabandhab Upadhyay, a convert to Catholicism whose theology conveyed a positive appreciation of aspects of Hindu advaitic philosophy. Johanns began to publish a steady stream of articles in the monthly Light of the East that analysed pertinent features of Vedantic thought from the perspective of his neo-Thomistic presuppositions. Johanns engaged in a thorough explication and analysis of the thinking of the Hindu teachers Sankara, Ramanuja, and Vallabha. He attempted to fashion a creative synthesis of their views, constructing a new, holistic metaphysic from the raw material of their respective philosophical theologies.
This book examines the theological writings of Pierre Johanns by situating him within his historical context, by discussing how Johanns interacted with Vedantic philosophy, and by assessing the success of his project.


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Section Two


Chapter Three Johanns on Ìaœkara Introduction The first Vednntic philosopher with whom Johanns chose to interact was Ìaœkara, the proponent of advaita non-dualism. Johanns faced several challenges when attempting this engagement. Ìaœkara’s philosophy is esoteric and is difficult to grasp. The expositor of ad- vaita must be skilled in communicating abstract concepts and in des- cribing a type of religious experience unfamiliar to most. In addition, the advaitic view of God and of the world does not immediately appear to be compatible with a Christian understanding of reality. How should a Christian theologian assess Ìaœkara’s notions of an unqualified Absolute who is completely unrelated to a world of mnyn? Yet, Johanns was convinced that Ìaœkara’s philosophy should be the cornerstone of a proper understanding of metaphysics. Ìaœkara is the great eighth-century Vednntic philosopher and exponent of non-dualism (advaita). According to tradition, Ìaœkara was born of Brahmin descent in Kaladi in Kerala in 788 and died in 820 A.D.1 Most scholars of the systems of Indian philosophy acknowledge that Ìaœkara is one of the key figures in the intellectual and spiritual history of Hinduism. Not much biographical infor- mation handed down by tradition regarding Ìaœkara’s life can be verified. After entering the stage of sa—nynsa, it is believed that Ìaœkara travels throughout India, debating in Benares and esta- blishing four prominent matha monasteries in each corner of the subcontinent. Despite the fact that over three hundred literary works are attributed...

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