Common Ground for Luther and an 11th Century Hindu Leader

Rakesh Peter Dass, Th.D. | Assistant Professor of Religion

The year 2017: It marked the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses. It also marked the 1,000th year, tradition holds, since the birth of Ramanuja, one of the most influential Hindu thinkers. To Dr. Rakesh Peter Dass, these coinciding mile-markers presented an opportunity to explore one of his favorite topics — the interaction of religions.

A portrait painted of Martin Luther, by Lucas Cranach der Ältere in 1529 appears in the top left, connected by triangles of dark turquoise to a painted portrait of Ramanuja by Debanjon shown in the bottom right.

“Talking across religious traditions has always been easy and familiar territory for me,” says Peter Dass, who grew up in an interfaith family and surrounded by friends with various religious identities. “This led into my broader interest in studying Hinduism and Christianity together.”

Peter Dass is quick to identify the parallels between Luther and Ramanuja. “These individuals were both theologians, both philosophers, and had a massive influence on their respective religious traditions,” he says. “In a way, they both proposed their own forms of reformation.”

The similarities between Ramanuja and Luther begin with their common theological question: What is the role of human works in the process of salvation? Both theologians wrestled with the issue and concluded that proper works are vital to salvation — but what makes a work “proper”? While cross-reading Luther’s Treatise on Good Works and Ramanuja’s writings, particularly his Gita Bhasya, Peter Dass realized that the theologians converge in their determination that proper works are those done not to earn salvation, but rather out of devotion to God and in light of scriptural instructions.

“In the end, Ramanuja and Luther come up with a similar answer: Act well and good, and act in ways informed by scripture,” he says.

Peter Dass presented this research in November 2017 in Boston at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion. He’s working on a book on the topic, which will be published by Fortress Press.

“My work generally covers religion and society,” Peter Dass says, “but this project in comparative theology is a deep dive into a few key texts by two specific religious authors. It’s very exciting. Comparative projects remind us that multiple religious traditions ask similar questions — and sometimes they even reach similar answers.”