Sunday, March 21, 2010

Quaroya and Heupdiakona, Rishikesh

An interesting experience today. There is a seminary of Saint Thomas Christians (Syrian Malabar Nasrani) here in Rishikesh. The name of their ashram is Samanvaya Vidya Dham which indicates a bit about their approach. You can get an idea of the purpose of this institution by scrolling down to page 74 of this document.

They invited Swami Veda and his disciples to their church near Laxman Jhula to participate in a mass which initiated 17 young men into the minor orders of the priesthood, namely lectorate and subdeaconate. These students have spent the last year in Rishikesh and they will be working in North India. Though they are all Keralans, they speak fluent English and Hindi. In fact, they all look extremely sattvik and they are trained to a very high educational level. If Hindu sannyasis were put through the same kind of training requirements that this sect puts its priests through, it would be of greatest benefit to everyone, both within Hinduism and without.

The priest who invited us, Davis Varayilan CMI, started his introductory discourse by saying that the police had visited the ashram a few days before asking about their conversion activities. There is a lot of sensitivity about that around here obviously, and they are feeling the heat. They had to explain that St.Thomas came to India in 52 AD, so their church is nothing new in this country. Most, of course, think of the Christian church in relationship to the aggressive missionary tactics used by American Protestant churches.

Fr. Varayilan said that the position of the Thomian Catholics is "Indian in culture, Christian in faith, and Oriental in its rites." But as I heard in the JNU conference last week, with the coming of the Catholics into India, especially in the 18th century, the Keralan Christians became more and more closely aligned with Roman Catholicism and the mass we saw today was a classic post-Vatican II celebration, only transposed into Hindi, with the hymns, etc., sung in North Indian bhajan style. It was a bit interesting to hear the Sanctus or Agnus Dei presented in that way, but on the whole, a very nice adaptation.

In fact, Fr. Varayilan said that the purpose of having the seminary in Rishikesh was to compensate a bit for the overly European influence and to reconnect with the Indian roots of the religion. It was meant to familiarize the seminarians with Hindu religious practices, yoga and meditation, and it was precisely for this reason that the group was invited to SRSG for a week last year, going through a meditation retreat and getting classes from Swami Veda Bharati.

On the ceiling of the church, they had six symbols of the major Indian religions: Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism, Islam, Christianity and Zoroastrianism (if I got them right). This is a clear indication of the direction that an "Indian" Christianity would take, a rather more salutary approach.

Interestingly, they specifically, as Keralans, spoke of themselves as descendants of Shankaracharya.

Listening to the mass, which concluded with a rousing Jai Jagadish Hare arati, I was wondering about the relation of form to content. At any rate, it is very welcome to see a Christian group so warmly embracing Hindu-style pluralism. Indeed, when speaking of the experience at SRSG, one of the priests recited the old adage, "Religion divides and spiritualism unites."

I hesitated a moment before taking communion (parama-prasada, but showing solidarity with the cause of interfaith brotherhood, I did so. I usually felt the same kind of hesitation when at church during my son's career as a choirist, perhaps as a result of the childhood training that there was no communion without confession. You have to be in a state of grace. But left to my own subjectivity, I would never be in a state of grace, so I just went ahead.

Strange feeling. I guess that all that interfaith conferencing in Patiala had its effect.

Paramadvaiti Maharaja visits SRSG

Paramadvaiti Swami, founding father of the Vaishnava Vrinda Mission came to visit SRSG yesterday. He had come to the Kumbha Mela and wanted to visit Swami Veda.

You can find his biography on the Vrinda website. He has so many interesting projects going on around the world, of which I will only mention two: the World Vaishnava Association, and the Eco Truly Ashram in Peru. A five minute video in Spanish here.

He is a humanitarian bursting with ideas and nearly always tries to get them transposed into reality. He said to me, "I consider it my job to give work to others." So literally thousands of people are engaging in these projects, mostly in South America, but also in Europe and India. There are several hundred Vrinda Mission centers around the world. And too many websites to list here, but if you know Spanish, you will find surfing through all those given above interesting.

He came with a group of 15 devotees, mostly a group from Colombia that was touring India.

Swamiji singing on his patented ukelele in the meditation hall. I think the devotees here would have gladly listened to him for an hour. He surprised me as I did not know he was that good.

He spoke on spiritual education in the modern materialistic world, in accordance with his latest project, the Oida therapy program, which he freely admits is related to the 12-step AA project, but is intended to cultivate faith and a sense of meaning in life.

Afterwards we went up and had a very enjoyable dinner conversation with Swami Veda. Here is the de rigueur group photo.

Radhe Radhe.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Vijaya Ramaswamy and Sethu Ramaswamy

I met Vijaya Ramaswamy, professor of history at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) a couple of months ago, through Joseph O'Connell. She asked me to present a paper at a conference on devotion and dissent in Indian history. So that is where I was last week, March 11-13.

She was very hospitable and I especially enjoyed meeting her mother, Sethu, and so I thought I would just write a short blog about them.

Vijaya's mother, Sethu Ramaswamy, seen here with her nine-year-old grandson, Vijay Krishna, is a pretty amazing woman. She wrote a memoir called Bride at Ten, Mother at Fifteen which I just finished reading this morning.

What I like about Sethu Ramaswamy is her energy. At the age of 86, she has just published her third book in the last ten years, on the life of Raman Maharshi. In fact, she got her M.A. in history when she was 80.

She was born into an elite Tamil brahmin family with royal connections in the Travancore kingdom, spent the first part of her life in Ceylon, then in Trivandrum and finally the major part of it after marriage in Delhi. Despite being a member of the privileged elite, education was not a part of a woman’s destiny in those times, and when she was married at the age of ten, her formal schooling was stopped. Her memoir, though I wish at times that it were a little more detailed, gives a fair account of the changing face of India in the 20th century, both the good and the bad, particularly where attitudes to women, etc., were concerned.

One interesting anecdote, which she told me in person, was that at one point, she decided to open a bank account to deposit the money that came from selling all the newspapers that accumulated in their house. Her husband was a journalist and received six different papers each day. When he found out that his wife had opened a bank account, he was furious and made her close it immediately.

The turning point comes when, upon reading Pearl Buck’s Pavilion of Women at the age of 40, she decided to strike out independently. She stood up on her birthday and announced to her husband and six daughters that she had decided to take control of her own life. And it was then that she began her education in earnest, even while she continued to carry out her responsibilities as a wife and mother.

Vijaya Ramaswamy has also written several books of a very high standard of scholarship. As her mother writes, “Vijaya, my youngest, is the scholar of the family. Apart from being a university teacher, she has authored three books. Though by profession a historian, she has, because of her deep religious faith, done her research on spiritual movements, especially women saints. She is also into Women’s Studies. Her marriage to Krishnan, who like my husband is a freelance journalist and research consultant, has given me the greatest happiness in my life.” There is, a big story behind that, as they were married when she was 44, and they still were able to have this marvelous son.

Vijaya’s book on south Indian women saints, Walking Naked, is an impressive piece of scholarship with a great deal of analysis about the expectations of women in society and the renunciation of these roles by these brave sadhvis.

Her book is a delight to read. She is a good story teller, but the real value of her narration lies in the fact that she is sharing a remarkable personal insight into the subject, and not simply a scholarly one. It reminds me of Karen Armstrong's style in The Case for God, simultaneously a scholarly and devotional approach, which is somewhat controversial in academic circles, in that she does not simply accept the kind of feminist critique that sees religion itself as a patriarchal institution, without admitting of a true transcendence beyond gender.

In almost every one of Vijaya's observations I found confirmation of my own view that women's saintliness has always been coupled with dissent, a protest against prevalent gender roles. Like Elizabeth Abbott in A History of Celibacy, she shows that the female experience of spirituality is different from that of men, and that this is directly related to their differing attitudes to and experiences of gender roles and sexuality.

This is a picture of me talking to her. She was very busy organizing the conference and playing the host. I will try to give a short summary of the papers and presenters, if I get a chance. That is a big job and doubtful. I will publish my own paper on the other blog.

Vijaya Ramaswamy with her husband Krishnan.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Conference at Panjabi University, Patiala

As already intimated on the Jagat blog, I have been in Patiala at the Punjabi University for the past few days, participating in a conference. Here are a few pictures of the place and the participants.

Punjabi University has a beautiful modern campus, with well-laid out roads, many parks and gardens, including a botanical garden. I did not include many of my pictures of the campus as they do not show much that is really unique, but this photo of the Guru Gobind Singh research library gives a general impression of the way that it has been designed. This library has 40,000 books on religion and philosophy and houses the Encyclopedia of Sikhism project, which is headed by Prof. Jodh Singh. This is the department that hosted the conference, along with Swami Veda's Institute of Meditation and Interfaith Studies.

Since I represented one of the hosting organizations, I got top billing! I did not realize it until I saw this on one of my walks around the campus. If you are interested in what I had to say, look here and here.

I don't have photos of everyone who participated. This photo shows, left to right, Sirajul Islam, professor of philosophy and Sufism at Rabindra Bharati University, Shantiniketan. I had the fortune of meeting him at the Kolkata conference a couple of months ago, so it was a bit of a surprise to meet him again.

To his right is Balkar Singh, head of department for Sri Guru Granth Sahib Studies, who was president of the last session in Punjabi. I could not understand him except for the English and Hindi words he used, but like many of the senior Sikh scholars, he showed a great deal of gravitas and learning, equally adept in using Western and Eastern concepts.

Kazi Nurul Islam is the head of one of the most liberal educational institutes in Bangladesh, the Department of World Religions and Culture at Dhaka University. This is the only institution teaching comparative religion in Bangladesh, he told me. Interestingly, my old friend and mentor Joseph O'Connell from the University of Toronto has been affiliated with this department for several years, and from what I gather is making an incredibly valuable contribution to the school, and by extension, to Bangladesh. He has been participating there more actively since his retirement at UofT. Prof. Islam has a Ph.D. in Vedanta from Benares Hindu University, which is where he first met Jodh Singh, which shows a bit how these things work.

After me, there is Gurnam Singh Sanghera, who lives in Burnaby, B.C. Missed the winter Olympics to come to this, I guess. He spoke on "Religion for Peace, a Sikh Perspective." Unfortunately, he tried to condense too much into a short time frame and so many of his very interesting ideas on the causes of bigotry, etc., were not developed.

Dr. D.N. Gangadhar from the Philosophy and Religions Department of BHU is a scholar of philosophy and has done a lot of work on Radhakrishnan, specifically.

Last is Hardev Singh from Jammu University. He spoke in Punjabi, so I did not fully understand it, but we had some good talks together.

This is D.A. Gangadhar with Paramvir Singh, one of our hosts. He is a contributor to the Encyclopedia of Sikhism and had just come out with a book, Sri Guru Granth Sahib: Chintan ate Vichara-dhara.

Dr. Bhuvan Chandel, Secretary of the Center for Studies in Civilization, Science and Culture, New Delhi. She gave the keynote address, mostly speaking on Islamic philosophy.

Dr. Charanjit Kaur, from Bhopal, who spoke on the essence of all religions, and Dr. Deepali Bhanot. Dr. Bhanot is a Sanskrit professor at Delhi University, but is an activist with wide interests, working with the Interfaith Coalition for Peace, and against child sexual exploitation, and in women's issues. Moreover, she has been involved for some time with Unifem in helping widows in the Braj area, helping to open a successful hostel for them there in recent years. See Spirituality, Poverty, Charity Bring Widows to Vrindavan. She is contributor to a recent volume, Gender Concerns in South Asia (University of Delhi, 2008)

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Fatihgarh Gurudwar

On the last day of the conference, we went to Fatehgarh Sahib, a major pilgrimage center for Sikhs about 35 kilometers from Patiala.

Once again, I am only showing a few photos, but let it be said that this a very beautifully maintained house of worship.

This photo is taking in the basement of the building. This gurudwara commemorates the assassination of Guru Gobind Singh's two young sons who were walled in alive while being told to convert to Islam or die. On either side of the sanctum sanctorum one can see there is akhanda path of Guru Granth Sahib. In the entire complex, there are a total of six such constant readings of the Sikh holy book. There was also a very mellow kirtan going on upstairs, with the names of Govinda and Gopal being sung. Sikhs don't think of Govinda and Gopala quite in the way we do, but it is nice to hear them sing these names.

This is the altar on the main floor of the building. Spotless white marble and the entire building and grounds are kept impeccably clean.

I was wondering whether I was allowed to be taking photographs--a lot of places don't like it so much--but as I was wondering, the manager of the Gurudwara pointed to the ornately decorated ceiling and told me to take a picture of it. "Gold," he said.

Here is an iconographical poster being sold. Bhai Satiram Ji. I don't know the story, but clearly arising from the the Muslim-Sikh wars period.

Another image of Sikh martyrdom. This one says Bhai Mani Singh Ji. Looks like he is about to lose a hand or a finger.

This is a martyr from more recent days. This is Jarnail Singh Bhindrenwale. He died in 1984, which was a very eventful year for Sikhs--the Air India bombing, the attack on the Golden Temple and the assassination of Indira Gandhi, followed by the pogroms in Delhi, when Sikhs were massacred by angry Hindus. It seems that the resentments that led to the Khalistan demands are still simmering, and that was the elephant in the room at the Interfaith Dialogue and Peace conference. I talked to one of the participants about it in the train on the way to Delhi and he immediately became very passionate. "How can you forget this history?" he asked.

This colorful gentleman posed for us quite happily. This is not a separate subgroup of Sikhism, but the traditional warrior dress. I only saw elderly men in this garb, though. My Sikh friend said, in defense of Bhindrenwale, that people do not understand how weapons can be considered sacred and this is at least part of the source of the problem...

This is our group (left to right) Dr. Jaspreet Kaur Sandhu, Prof. D.A. Gangadhar, Prof. Kazi Nurul Islam, Dr. Jagat Ram Bhattacharyya, Dr. Deepali Bhanot, Prof. Jodh Singh, Dr. Hardev Singh. The orange siropas were given as a gesture of greeting by the head of the gurudwara, Amrit Singh.