Thursday, January 8, 2009

Trip to Kolkata

I am presently in Kolkata at a conference being sponsored by the Ramakrishna Mission at the Ramakrishna Institute of Culture. It is called the National Seminar, a biennial event, the topic of which this year is “Some Responses to Classical Yoga in the Modern Period.”

Swami Veda for health reasons could not come and sent me in his place to read his paper. It is a rather strange position to be in, but the circumstances are, as usual, educational. In fact, I am being rather flooded with intellectual stimuli that are already threatening to shortcircuit my almost always overloaded circuitry. Only relaxing into the Holy Name and mantra are a recourse, even though processing everything and then sharing it publicly is always in the back of my mind.

Last night was the inaugural session, prior to which all the principal participants were present and introduced to one another. I was already chuckling to myself as I was the only one in traditional Indian dress besides the swamis—everyone else was in suits and ties—and we were sitting in a very Western style drawing room sipping tea and munching on cake and cashews.

The inaugural session was held in the Vivekananda Hall, which is a large auditorium, much like what you would expect to see in a North American high school with a high stage on which a table was set up for the speakers, a podium, a screen for Powerpoint presentations, etc.

Throughout the session, I was constantly wishing that I could sit on the floor, or at least samaM kAya-ziro-grIvam as Gita tells us. It seemed most ironic that the entire event was being conducted in a way that catered to the Western intellect, with all the trappings of Western culture, and with seemingly only a nominal concession to the culture that it was presenting, i.e., the introductory prayers, which were chanted with what seemed like considerable discomfort, at least at first, by the brahmacharies of the Math.

The most interesting of the main speakers at the inaugural session was B.R. Sharma, who is the assistant director of research and head of the department of Philosophical Reasearch in Yoga at the Kaivalya Dham Yoga Research Institute in Lonavla, which I may or may not have to tell you is a very well established and prestigious institute. Founded by Swami Kuvalayananda in 1924, it has done a great deal of scientific work in studying the benefits of yoga as well as applying them in a therapeutic manner. Dr. Sharma is a Sanskritist and his main interest is in studying, preserving, and publishing the yoga texts in a scholarly fashion and some of the most reliable and authentic yoga texts are coming out of Lonavla.

We had an enjoyable talk afterward also. Sharma (I never found out what B.R. stands for) himself is from Badrinath. He is a very productive writer and has published many papers. It seems that everything you say elicits the response, “I have written a paper about that.” In particular he came to my room afterward and downloaded an article on Yoga-sutra 1.23 about the use of the word vA, arguing against the contention that worship of God (ishwara-pranidhana) is an optional and that its removal from the Yoga-sutras would have no negative impact on the work as a whole. I will read it through as soon as I get a chance.

The other two speakers of interest were Swami Prabhanandaji, the current general secretary of the RK Mission. He impressed me in the way that highly placed Catholic priests and bishops, etc., tend to. His paper was learned, but did not draw any deep lines in my consciousness. Of course, the main thrust, as is to be expected, is centered on Vivekananda’s contribution to the topic.

There is so much to digest. It will be days before it really sinks in. Mostly such a conference results in one or two impressions being made on the mind. I kind of wish that I had been there in my own name speaking about something quite different. I have to do my work. I have to do my work. I cannot be a parivrajaka all my life, flitting like a butterfly and not stinging like a bee, or rolling like a stone and not gathering any moss, to mix a metaphor.

So here I am for two more days. I went down the street yesterday . Feeling a little downward turn in consciousness after the intensity of the day. This is Ballygunge, what seems to be a high end part of town. In the dark I saw little, but I have decided to walk through town to the more central part of town and see what is to be seen. I did neti after my walk, as the nose is starting to feel smog-clogged.

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