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The World as God's "Body": In Pursuit of Dialogue With Rāmānuja

In this essay I propose to offer some observations in due course on how Christian thought and practice in general (though some reference will be made to the Indian context) might profit from a central theme in the theology of Ramanuja, a Tamil Vai~l}ava Brahmin whose traditional date straddles the eleventh and twelfth centuries of the Christian era. l The central theme I have in mind is expressed in Ramanuja's view that the 'world' is the 'body' of Brahman or God.2 We shall go on to explain what this means, but let me state first that my overall aim is to further inter-religious understanding, especially between Christian and Hindu points of view. In professing a concern for inter-religious dialogue I know that I reflect a longstanding interest of Professor H. D. Lewis. I shall seek to show that the Christian religion can profit both from the content and the method of Ramanuja's body-of-God theology. To this end this essay is divided into two sections. Section I is the longer: it contains an analysis of what Ramanuja did (and did not) mean by his body-of-God theme3 - doubtless unfamiliar ground for most of the readers of this essay - and serves as a propaedeutic for what follows in section 2. In section 2 I shall attempt to 'extrapolate' Ramanuja's thinking into a Christian context, with dialogue in mind. Section 2 cannot be appreciated for the promise I hope it holds out without the (sometimes involved) detail of the first section.