Saturday, October 10, 2009

Hindu Dharma for the 21st century Seminar overview

Hindu Dharma For the 21st Century
October 1-4, 2009
Sambodh Centre for Human Excellence
Kalamazoo, MI


There were several Dharma Seminars, but no Hindu Dharma Seminar with focus on American Hindu Youth ever taken place in the United States.

The first 'Hindu Dharma for the 21st Century' Seminar organized by Sambodh Society Inc. at Sambodh Center for Human Excellence, Kalamazoo MI, was an eye opener for many participants. The presentations and discussions were objective, rigorous and useful. The fusion of Western and Indian thought processes and perspectives was a delightful experience. In their mutual proximity East-West perspectives revealed thought dimensions that were unknown before.

The purpose of the Seminar was to deliberate on the salient features of Hindu Dharma and then to create pedagogic strategies to disseminate that corpus of wisdom among the Hindu youth growing up in the United States. Eight themes were identified for special attention and discussion (Please see notes below).

The main speakers, Prof. Nancy Falk, Cybelle Shattuck, Pof. Arvind Sharma, Dr. Gopal Sigh, Renu Malhotra and Shashi Karve, brought a rare analytical rigor to the whole project. The other prominent speakers were Dr. Sunder Hattangadi, Dr. C.A Reddy, Dr. Sudhakar Kulkarni and Dr. Sripada Raju who brought scholarship, wisdom and authenticity to the deliberations. As chair persons Vivek Subramanian was sheer delight and fun; Lakshmi Subramanian was a cool, calm graceful presence, Dr. Ruth Harring was deep and thorough; Dr. Chitra Akkoor and Ravi Akkoor dazzled in their roles as panelists. Prof. Nancy Falk's valedictory address was a rare display of scholarship, incisive logic, objectivity and wisdom born of lifelong teaching experience. Dr. Arvind Sharma was mind boggling in his sweep and subtlety.

The phrases from the Seminar that ring in my mind are: ' green puja'; ' ritam-ic capitalism' and ' what is is God'; ' that 'Interfaith = spiritualism' and that interfaith will be the ‘faith of 21 Century'. Hats off to Gopal Singh for coining those prophetic concepts!

Nancy Falk saw three red flags rising (during the four day deliberations) and then disappearing to her great relief. Those red flags were: (1) the tendency for essentialism -- to distill the essential Hinduism, ignoring the particularities that make Hinduism unique and vibrant (2) the impulse to convert Unity (in Diversity) into uniformity and homogeneity, ignoring the irreducible diversity of Hinduism (3) the tendency to take partial shots of the humongous behemoth that Hinduism is and to claim that that particular shot is all what Hinduism is about. Prof. Falk warned the participants to keep clear of such temptations and easy solutions.

Arvind Sharma defined Hinduism an all inclusive universal vision beyond the danger of sublation by alternate, competing and contradicting visions and world views. The inclusive Hindu vision includes its own contradictions and negations. Prof. Sharma painted a picture of Hinduism that can absorb differing world views while retaining its character. Prof. Sharma's presentation was like a soaring symphony.

Cybelle Shattuck's was a presentation that attracted attention for its simplicity, clarity and directness. Ashrams and temples complement each other. The second generation Hindus considers knowledge of Hindu Dharma more important than simply worshipping in temples. In her chair speech for the session on 'Hindu Frame Work for Interfaith and Inter Disciplinary Dialogue', Cybelle hinted about four motives that bring people to interfaith sessions. They are (1) to convince the other about the superiority of one's Faith and seek converts (2) Appropriate others’ faiths and accept them as one among many lesser paths that will eventually lead to the protagonist's superior faith. (3) appreciate others faiths and learn from them to broaden the appeal of one's faith (4) to understand each other's faith, to share, learn and enhance one's overall spiritual experience.

A quick overview of the discussions

1) Sanatana Dharma is the core of Hindu faith. Dharma is the principle that holds things and beings together in a dynamic web and connects them to the eternal source of everything. Dharma is also called Isvara.

2) Varnashrama dharma is the duty of an individual determined by his/her guna or varna (combination of satva, rajas and tamas in the psychic make up) and chronological age. People are categorized into four varnas (brahmana, kshatriya, vaisya and sudra), in four ashramas (brahmacharya, garhastya, vanaprasta and sanyasa) and pursues four goals ( knowledge, power, wealth and pleasures).

3) Karma Siddhanta and Rebirth: Individuals are responsible for their choices and all their actions are moral choices producing painful or pleasurable results that they will reap in several births. By gaining self knowledge souls get out of this cycle of birth and death.

4) Murti Puja and Temple Worship: This is an integral part of Hindu Dharma and Practice -- Worshipping Gods in their images with elaborate courtesies. Houses for Gods where worship takes place are known as temples.

5) Gurus Ashrams and Teaching: Another central pillar of Hinduism. Whereas temples are for mass worship, Ashrams are for pursuing knowledge of Gods, relaxation and meditation. Persons dedicated to knowledge and self-discipline live in Ashrams with Gurus who are repositories of wisdom and of exemplary character.

6) Scriptures and their Interpretation: Scriptures define the fundamentals of faith and culture and contain revealed wisdom. They are eternal, but require periodic interpretations to suit the needs of the time and temperaments of people. This task is done by scholarly sages.

7) Caste system and the problem of Conversion: The institution of caste though helped Hindu society withstand successive foreign rule, it has outlived its usefulness in an egalitarian, democratic society that Hindus are developing now. Social stratification based on birth is harmful to social cohesion and denies equal opportunities to citizens and hence outlawed in the Republican constitution of India. Another bane of caste discrimination is the disaffection it creates among the Dalits forcing them to seek self respect in other proselytizing religions like Christianity. The evil of conversion finds its soul mate in the evil of caste discrimination.

8) Interfaith and Science-Spirituality Dialogues: Faith in the global context is interfaith and science is trying to find its ethical mooring in spirituality. Interfaith, peaceful dialogues and co-existence are the heart of spirituality.

Savita and Ramesh Garg from Freemont, CA; Savita and Sharat Joshi with their little daughter from Santa Clara, CA; Savita Wilder from Santa Rosa, CA: Margaret Kumar from Troy MI were among the 50 plus delegates who attended the seminar unfailingly all the four days. Attendees also came from Grand Rapids, Detroit and Indiana.

This Seminar owes a lot for its success to Anil Patel who cheerfully and silently managed the logistics and flow of programs; and his adorable wife Kumud Behan who was the wish-fulfilling annapurna for the participants. The food was warm, tasty, simple and healthy. My salutations to this ideal couple! No seminar could fly without the long hours put in by back room volunteers. Dr. Pradeep Sagdeo, Anil Patel and Aradhana Gupta were great help working quietly on the sidelines in putting together the data base for the seminar.

Sri Vivek Subramanian and Smt Lakshmi Subramanian, Prof. Sangeetha Menon (NIAS, Bangalore), Dr. Gopal Singh, Dr. Ruth Harring and Sri Anil Patel constituted the firm foundation on which the success of the Seminar was built. Dr. Rajiv Rangaras brought in a new vigor and freshness not only to the seminar deliberations, but also in taking the seminar message to the community. Sri Loknath Verma, as always, wholeheartedly blessed our work and stood with us through thick and thin. Balaji Somasundaram was a vital helping hand in the Detroit area.

Brij and Deepti Bhargava, and Ramesh and Mati Patel hosted our guests from California and East Lancing, true to the Indian hospitality tradition. This is one way of creating a pan-American Hindu community. In future seminars too we will try to accommodate maximum delegates in local Hindu homes, instead of in hotels.

Frank Jaimson, Paul Janson and Mark were our state-of-the art, dream electronic team who managed the audio, video and photography work. We expect to bring out a DVD and CD of the entire Seminar proceedings followed by two books: (1) 'Hindu Dharma for the 21st Century' -- collection of all main presentations and (2) Hindu Dharma--Q&A-Samvada.

I must also mention names of Doctors Suresh and Sarala Puri and Girish and Rashmi Juneja along with Sobha and Prasad Reddy from Grand Rapids for their unstinted support and encouragement. Girish lifted a huge burden off my chest when he told, as he, Rashmi and their lovely teen daughter were taking leave after the Seminar, that he will be there to chip in if need arises.

Nigol Koulajian, NY, an abiding well-wisher of Sambodh, in his uniquely unselfish way contributed to the grand success of the Seminar.

When the curtain came down on this unique Hindu Dharma Seminar on the evening of Sunday 4th October, there was only one question in the blissful minds of the participants: ‘when will the next Hindu Dharma Seminar be’?

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