Swami Dayananda – A Jewish Appreciation

Alon Goshen-Gottstein [1]

India has just lost [in 9/2015] one of its most important Hindu leaders, Swami Dayananda Saraswati…Dayananda was the driving force behind the most important Jewish-Hindu encounter ever. Swami Dayananda, through the council of Hindu leaders, held two high profile summits with the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, the American Jewish Committee and other Jewish leaders and scholars. These summits are seen by many as a breakthrough in Hindu-Jewish relations, in a sense establishing “spiritual-diplomatic” relations between them. What drove Dayanandaji to invite the Chief Rabbi of Israel to Delhi and to come himself to Jerusalem, with a significant delegation of Hindu religious leaders? Vision, concern and pain.

Let me begin with the pain. I would like to share two different conversations I had with Dayananda, both of which are relevant to the Jewish-Hindu summits he initiated. The first took place in Montreal, in advance of the first summit of Hindu-Jewish leaders. Dayananda was in Montreal for a large conference where he shared his pain about how Christians are converting Hindus. Conversion is a nation-wide problem in India, and a very much unresolved one, as it continues to feed violence on the ground. Dayananda carried the pain and concern for Hindu identity that he felt is being undermined by missionaries using inappropriate missionary tactics. His unitive vision and his recognition of the validity of all faiths did not detract from the problem and the enormous pain with which I was confronted. As a Jew I was sympathetic. And as a savvy international leader, Dayananda knew he needed allies, and he recognized Jews share his sentiment. He therefore sought to cultivate relations with Jewish leadership in combating Christian missionaries. The declaration issued during the first summit includes this as one of its messages:

“Neither [Hindus nor Jews] seek to proselytize, nor undermine or replace in any way the religious identities of other faith communities. They expect other communities to respect their religious identities and commitments, and condemn all activities that go against the sanctity of this mutual respect.”

Dayananda carried a second pain, that of being misunderstood…Dayananda was beside himself at the accusation that he was an idol worshipper. “Me an idol worshipper?” He addressed to me his frustration at Jewish authorities who could not see beyond the externals of Hindu worship to the spiritual reality that he of all people, as India’s foremost teacher of Vedanta, was well aware of and that informed his spiritual horizons. Dayananda had a deep need to clear up what he considered a fundamental misperception of Hinduism, on the part of Jews. This was the second most important goal of the summits. Reading the transcripts of the summits one realizes that assembled rabbis heard for the first time that Hinduism was not primitive idolatry and that Hindus worship the one Supreme Being, the same one worshipped by Jews. This recognition stood at the top of the both declarations and was considered by Dayananda as their greatest achievement…

Swami Dayananda passed away on the eve of the Sukkot festival [2015], a time imagined by the Prophet Zacharaiah as one of a pilgrimage of all nations to Jerusalem. Passing away on the eve of Sukkot allows us to consider Dayananda, and all the Hindus he represents, as models for what the gentiles’ visit to Jerusalem might be all about. It is certainly not missionary. But nor is it simply coming to Jerusalem to recognize the God or the truth of Judaism. Dayananda came to Jerusalem to increase understanding and the procedure he undertook was that of dialogue. When we think of the seventy nations this Sukkot, we are invited to consider not only what they will receive by coming to Jerusalem, but also what we might receive by their presence. Our experience of Sukkot may be deepened when we realize that receiving guests in our Sukka is an invitation to dialogue. [2


[1] Rabbi Goshen-Gottstein is the director of Elijah-interfaith.org
[2] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/alon-goshengottstein/swami-dayananda-a-jewish-_b_8194504.html?ir=India