Saturday, January 16, 2010

abhishiktnanda seminar III

Friday, 15 january

I hope that you have enjoyed these recounts of the proceedings of this seminar. It's almost over now and we are heading for Tiruvanamalai tomorrow morning. From there things should lighten up a bit and I'll get back to writing about my mosquito bites.

Thursday morning was another highlight. We heard from Fr. Anthony Kalliath who is a professor of theology in Bangalore and the secretary of the Indian Theological Association, having written his doctoral dissertation on Abhishiktananda. He gave a fiery presentation entitled "The Christic Wheel: Theological Reflections on Abhishiktananda's Pilgrimage." He had attended the Parliament of World Religions this past December in Australia, as had many of the participants, and he spoke about the phenomenon in this day and age of people becoming more religious on their own initiative. He thinks that this is a sign of the evolution of humanity to a new higher form of consciousness, and he talked basically about how we need to respond to this again with a new articulation of Christianity with a specific eye toward the ethos of dialogue with other religions and multiculturalism. He feels that Christianity has lost its imagination and creativity, and that we need to learn "the art of dialogue in the public space" so that we can share in the excitement and joy that he saw emanating from the other traditions at the Parliament. I was writing madly in my little notebook trying to keep up with his points and again can't wait to read his article.

Then my old friend Tureeya Mataji (formerly Sr. Thelma, of Rishikesh) gave a presentation on Abhishiktananda's influence on the ashram movement in India. It was nice to hear that spoken of in the present tense; I have heard from more than one source that the ashram movement is dead, or at least dying, in India. But what really came out of her presentation was a discussion about sannyasa, of all things, and whether or not a sannyasi can be a Christian, or vice versa. I whispered to Naveen, a young Tamilian who sat next to me throughout the entire proceedings, "This discussion has been going on for 40 years!" I was surpised to see it come up again but fascinated to listen to it on native soil among Indians Hindu and Christian.

Friday morning two very dense presenters started us off. Dr. Susan Visvanathan, who is an anthropologist from Delhi, gave a very scholarly paper on Abhishiktananda's contribution to Hindu-Christian dialogue, and then Dr. Shail Maryam responded. Both were using very much the language of anthorpology and sociology, quite often using terms in ways that were foreign to me, but their dual presentation led to a good discussion again about what Dr. Shail called "multiple belonging," what I have come to think about as, using Ewert Cousins' borrowing from Teilhard de Chardin, "complexified consciousnesses." Then Paolo Trianni presented. He is a professor both at San Anselmo, the Benedictine College, and the Gregorian Institute, the Jesuit Seminary, both in Rome. He is an affable guy who much prefers speaking Italian over English, and also a friend of Stefano and Marco Vannini, so we had had some wonderful exchanges already. The main thing I retained from his talk was the influence of Jules Monchanin on Abhishiktananda (Abhishiktananda's predecessor and partner in the early days of Shantivanam), and through Monchanin, the influence of Aurobindo and Teilhard de Chardin. He referred to a "tantric turn" that happened in Abhishiktananda's thought, how at some point he stopped considering maya as simply illusion and started referring to "maya shakti," the energy of maya. He related this to the idea of uncreated energies in the 13th century Christian mystic Gregory of Palamas (that we can't know God directly but we can know God by his uncreated energies at work). One of the things that I was going to briefly mention in my paper was that one of the differences between Bede and Abhishiktananda was that Abhishiktananda was more a disciple of Ramanamaharshi and Gnanananda, who were both strict advaitins who considered the world as maya--illusion, whereas Bede was more a student of Aurobindo who emphasized rather that creation is lila--God's "play." I mentally scratched that line from my text.

Saturday, 16 january, 2010, early morning, packing to leave

By some fluke in the universe, I wound up delivering the final presentation of the symposium on Friday afternoon. I had orginally wanted to summarize my series of talks on Bede and Abhishiktananda into a paper called "Union by Communion, Union by Identity," a phrase my friends will recognize. But instead I summarized all of that in one paragraph, believe it or not. Here it is:

A helpful category I have found for speaking abou the two of them is this: Abhishiktananda often leans on the idea of "union by identity"; whereas Fr. Bede tends to speak of "union by communion." This is evidenced in Abhishiktananda’s great love for the Upanishads and his introduction to them that accompanies The Further Shore, for instance. On the other hand, Fr. Bede had a great love for the Bhagavad Gita, so much so that he produced a Christian commentary on it, The River of Compassion. When speaking of Jesus, to show another example, for Abhishiktananda the pivotal moment is Jesus’ Baptism when Jesus discovered that the I AM of God belonged to himself, or put it the other way around, “in the brilliant light of his own I AM he discovered the true meaning, total and unimaginable, of the name of [God].” This is how Abhishiktananda interprets Jesus’ saying, “The Father and I are one.” Bede instead laid more stress on recognizing that there are distinctions in the Godhead and distinctions between God and creation that do not negate the underlying unity of all reality. The example that he used very often is from the very same saying of Jesus, that Jesus says “the Father and I are one,” but he never says, “I am the Father.” In terms of advaita, Abhishiktananda was a faithful disciple of Ramana Maharshi and Gnanananda, strict advaitins both who tended to consider of all created reality as maya–illusion. Bede on the other hand was a great admirer of the contemporary philosopher Sri Aurbindo, who had a far greater appreciation of created reality as lila–the play of God and therefore as a itself being a means of salvation; and Bede, following Aurobindo, always liked to point out that advaita was not the only interpretation of the Vedic revelation. There is also visist-advaita, the qualified non-duality of the 11th century philosopher-theologian Ramanuja that drew its language from the philosophical school of samkhya.

Of course I didn't stop there. What I have been working on for weeks now is a talk on two other concepts, the purusha and the guru. The original inspiration for this was the two chants "Vedahametam" and "Tvameva Mata" that I learned on my trip here in 2006-2007 that became the guitar instrumental and song "Vedahametam" on the CD Echo of Your Peace. I had come across both of those chants through my studies of Fr. Bede and Abhishiktananda. And these two concepts also carry within them this dynamic tension between union by communion and union by identity: for the first, purusha has multiple layers of meaning, from referring to the godhead to the sign over the men's room (seriously!); and the guru means only initially the outer person but ultimately refers to the inner guide who winds up being God again anyway, but this time in the cave of the heart. In the original communication about this gathering Bettina had said that this was to be a retreat as much as an academic conference, but the talks have pretty much fallen on one side or the other, personal sharing or heavy academics. I decided, and was more and more sure of it as the week went on, to aim right in between and was thinking of my talk more as a long homily than a research paper; or else a homily with lots of footnotes. I'm rarely nervous in front of a crowd but many of the folks here are Indologists and Sankrit scholars, not to mention theology professors and people who have spent their entire likes immersed in Indian spirituality. So I just wanted to make sure I didn't say anything stupid. Really, that was my main thought. I wanted to make sure I wasn't misunderstanding something about the Indian tradition. I also was quite nervous about my Sanskrit pronunciation. (There are a number of people here who have been pointing out errors all week in the brothers' chanting, in the song book, in my pronunciation, etc.) So I had my eye on two people as I began my presentation, Dr. Bettina herself who was sitting to my right, and Fr. George Gispert, the Jesuit theologian from Delhi to my left. But I ploughed ahead fearlessly. Unfortunately or fortunately, having a week to listen to everyone else's talks also gave me the opportunity to revise and rehearse and obsess over mine, so I had all twleve pages practically memorized. I played the guitar as folks gathered, chanted the two pieces as part of the talk, and then sang the full version of the song with them at the end. There were only a couple of questions (mercifully, since the time was short), but afterward both Bettina and Fr George came up to me. I was preparing myself to be corrected or to defend something I had said with a footnote, but Bettina only wanted to clarify something she had said which I had quoted, and Fr. George gave me a nice compliment and a suggestion for something else to add to the paper.

As soon as my session was done we attended the blessing of the cows that is part of the second day of the Pongal festival, and then there was a closing session, with some sharing, a closing remarks by Bettina, Fr. George and Sr. Mary Louise. There was also a little surprise. Bettina had shown us a photo that she took in the late 60s of Abhishiktananda with his cook. There is also another photo taken in 1968 as Abhishiktananda is leaving Shantivanam for the last time to head north handing the keys for Shantivanam over to this same man. While Mary Louise was speaking, a very frail old man came in accompanied by the man who has been doing our catering all week and a small boy. You guessed it: it was that same cook, now a very sickly old man; our cook this whole week has been his very son; and the little boy was third generation whose name was "Lesaux." That's Abhishiktananda's surname, though I have no idea how they actually spelled it. I know this is not important history to everybody, but to me this was the living record of my lineage.

Speaking of all that, we have eaten so well all week. Usually even breakfast has contained two or three different items plus a fruit creme and curd and coffee. By the end of the week some of us were actually complaining about too much food and having eaten too much, an odd thing to complain about when we are surrounded by so much poverty.

Now I am packing my bags and getting ready to leave with the group for Tiruvanamalai. Will post these from there and try to catch up to date.