How Catholic Clooney became a Vaishnavite researcher!

How Catholic Clooney became a Vaishnavite researcher!


As the interview given by Clooney to “Frontline” and the write-up appeared in 2006, the following interview of Clooney appeared in Kumudham dated 05-11-1992 has also been revealing. Therefore, I have decoded to translate and post for the benefit of all:

What is Saranagathi? The debate between Catholic priest Clooney and Agnihotram Ramanujachariyar!

Agnihotram Ramanujachariyar, an expert in the Tamil associated with Vaishnavism and Sanskrit literature and Francis Clomney, an American Christian priest, who had come to India to research into Vaishnavism had met and debated. Cloooney had already come to him few years ago (1990-91?) and learned Mimamsam from him. The dialogue had been as followsd:

Clooney: The Vaishnavite scripture has emphasized only the “Saranagathi tatva”, which I would like to know from you.

Agni: It is very simple, the “Saranagathi tatva” means total surrender and it is common to all. Instead of sacrificing body, physical entity and soul separately, the total and complete surrender of all has been the real “Saranagathi tatva”. “Namaha” means the total surrender. “ma” means, “mine”; “na” means “not”; thus, that is nothing to me and thus surrendering totally has been the real meaning.

Clooney: I have read in Pasurams, “I have entered below your feet”. Does this status resembles exactly the Sanskrit word “Saranagathi” or not?

Agni: “Saranagathi” means not exactly “falling at the feet” or as described. Without any way or path, (when man) “falling at feet” only has been the “Saranagathi”.

What Vedas have taught has been a kind of Bakti. The popular Bakti has been that of what is followed Nammazhgvar. This has been the category of approaching God with right.

Clooney: You have explained very nicely (about the “Saranagathi tatva”). I am very happy to have met you today.

Bama Gopalan’s interview with Clooney:

“My native place is New York. I was born in 1950 and my father, mother, sisters (elder and younger) are there. I have no (younger) brother. My father has been a retired Police Officer after serving for thirty years.

“I got B. A. degree in Fordham University. Completed  Master’s degree thereafter. Did Ph.D in Sanskrit.

“I desired to become a priest at the age of 15 itself. Every week, when I used to go to church, I used to ask myself, “Should I become doctor, lawyer or engineer?”, addressing to God. The voice of God told him, “You should become a priest”!

“I learned Tamil at the University of Chicago from the alphabet stage. I learned both reading and writing of Tamil. I had understood the Tamil grammar well. I started reading small stories in Tamil – At my 29th age, I read many village-stories (folk-tales) and stories of spirituality, then, Sangam literature, Periya Puranam, Kamba Ramayanam, Tiruvacakam – and like this I read many.  I got interest in literature. The liking that I could not explain.

“I lost my mind in the Pasurams / poems of Tirumazhiyisai Azhwar, Peyazhwar and Andal. I like Nammazhwar most, as his Pasurams are simple, sweet, beautiful and attracting my mind Thus, I developed interest to read more and more of Nammazhwar’s Pasurams.

“I came to India only for the purpose of researching into Nalayira Divya Prabhantham. I went to the house of Tiruverngadam, the Vaishnava College Professor at Nepal and learned Nammazhwar’s Pasurams daily.

“Prof. Sampathkumar, Head of Logic department of Vivekananda College has been from the tradition of Manavalsa Mamunigal.  Prof. S. Ramanujachariyar, editor of “Tirumal” and Prof. Sampathkumar taught me Tiruvazhmozi Vyakyanam every Sunday. For this, I used to come to Madras for months together and even years together.

“As I have been Associate Professor of Theology at the Boston University, I am coming here on vocations to learn and then return (to attend to my duties).

“I used to get up at 5.30 in the morning; do Puja; go to Church and do Puja (prayer) in Tamil; after doing japam and dyanam, I used to listen to Tiriuvazhmozhi on cassettes for 10-15 minutes. Then, I take food.

“We should not see movies in the months of August, September and October. So, I see in other months. When I used to watch for Tamil movies, I used to take anyone as company, because, when somebody explains in Tamil only, I am able to understand (the movie).

“Generally, Sangam style (pani) – Nalayira Divya Prabhantham has been very nice. Though, the Pasurams have been with complications, thery have been with the usage of beautiful Tamil expressions. Particularly, I like the following two Pasuras of Nammazhawar:

[A free translation of the cited poems is given as follows (I just translate freely so as to test myself about my understanding):

  1. You helped this slave, when I am ignorant; because of such ignorance – without knowing your “ma-mayai” (the Great Secret), Mavali (Mahabali) donated the three-feet land to you; you thus cheated him demanding but measuring (the three Worlds) merging in my soul.
  1. I cannot give anything in gratitude back as it has been merged with my spirit; I gave my spirit into you and disappeared and there is no way to escape; as you drink the seven oceans, my spirit merged with you; what / where is my spirit? And who am I? You give and take away this body”]

Bama Gopalan: Can you write in Tamil? Why can’t you write 10 sentences in Tamil?

Clooney: Yes, I write (he writes with his left-hand. Clooney has been left-hand practicing person. What he wrote appeared on the front page of Kumudhamn dated 05-11-1992).

The translation has been as follows:

I read Divya Prabhandam, here in Chennai this year, because they attracted me most. Daily, I read Tiruvazhmozhi – in original and commentary. I would be very much happy, when I read these Pasurams or think about them. To know my Christanity, Nammazhar has been helping me a lot.                   Francis Clooney, S.J

This was published with the following comments: “The American Christian priest has come in search of Azwar”

Bama Gopalan describes the room where Clooney was staying:

“An American has been researching into Nalayira Divya Prabhantham composed by Azhwars.

“He is a Roman Catholic priest.

“Dialogue Centre” board is there on the building at “Ikkiya Alayam” situated on the Santhome High Road. Foreigners have been coming here staying and researching into many subjects.

“Francis Clooney has been one of them. He is about 5 feet 6 inches; his hair is reddish;  his beard has also been of the same (colour); lean body structure with spectacle; wearing dhoti

“His room, where he is staying has been rectangular. On the table at corner, there is a novel written by “Lakshmi”. Dinamani of the day and a copy of “Tirumal” magazine (are also there).

“There is another steel almirah without doors; Andal picture was on the top panel; then there are Dasavatara dolls (purchased at Mada veedhi, Mylapore during Navarathri).

“On the top panel, there is a cross made of palm-leaf”.

Clooney’s Father (name not mentioned)– : My father worked in the Police department for 27 years and retired now. He is 73 and has been giving counselling to youth of both sexes for their problems. However, he is not a trained psychologist. He would not talk in high pitch. He does not smoke and drink.

Clooney’s Mother – Zareen: She has immaculate and kind mind. She does not talk much. But raises her voice, when required. I became a priest, when I completed 18 years and 5 days. My mother blessed me and sent for priesthood.



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2 Responses to “How Catholic Clooney became a Vaishnavite researcher!”

  1. The Christian-Vaishnavite dialogue continues: Clooney’s 2011 visit to Chennai! « inculturation Says:

    […]… […]

  2. Jeet Bhargava Says:

    Amazing blog. In depth study & analysis. Keep it up dear. Need to spread in other languages too, specially in Hindi.

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