Dr. Catherine Cornille, Chair of the Department of Theology and Professor of Comparative Theology in Boston College, and author of numerous books on inter-religious dialogue, phoned ISKCON Boston with a request: Could she bring a large group of theologians to the temple on a site visit to experience a non-Western religious tradition?
As part of the "Teaching Interfaith Understanding" seminar she was co-directing at Lesley University in Cambridge, Massachusetts in mid-June, Dr. Cornille had an interest in inviting the conference participants, nominated to attend the five-day seminar by their host universities, to attend a program at the ISKCON Boston temple. Not only would they be exposed to a potentially new religious experience, but devotees, as the hosts, would be providing a setting for inter-faith outreach and dialogue with these scholars from diverse spiritual and religious backgrounds.
The answer was a strong "Yes!"
The devotees were also thrilled to know that Prof. Diana L. Eck, a long-time friend of ISKCON and co-director of the conference, would be among the visiting scholars.
Dr. Eck is a leading scholar specializing in religious diversity and inter-faith relations, serves as Professor of Comparative Religions at Harvard University, and is author of several texts exploring India and its bhakti traditions. She is well-known in ISKCON as an early supporter of Krishna consciousness and championed the authenticity of the "Hare Krishnas" during the mid-to late-1970s, when we were frequently labeled a cult by the public and mass media. She famously described Krishna consciousness as a "tradition that commands a respected place in the religious life of humankind." Today Dr. Eck is also Director of The Pluralism Project at Harvard University, which studies and documents America's changing religious landscape.
Advaita Chandra das, a frequent lecturer at ISKCON Boston, skillfully constructed a slideshow presentation, designed by his wife Krishna Priya devi dasi, that provided the attendees with a concise overview of Krishna consciousness, while weaving in the elements of a typical ISKCON program and weekly feast.
On a comfortable June afternoon, Dr. Cornille, Dr. Eck and twenty-five seminar participants appeared at the door of the temple. After greetings and ushering them through the lobby and into the temple room, they settled themselves in and waited for the program to begin. Once the students were comfortable, Advaita Chandra das thanked the attendees for coming, then employed a bit of self-deprecating humor to break the ice and commence the program.
He stated his aims with the slideshow presentation: to introduce the visitors to ISKCON's Founder-Acharya, His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, proceed into a snapshot of ISKCON philosophy, and lastly, share quotes from Srila Prabhupada that set the foundation for how Krishna conscious devotees view religious pluralism and engage in inter-religious dialogue.
Advaita Chandra das began by leading a rendition of "Jaya Radha Madhava", during which he invited the visitors to "either meditate during the song, or if you know the song, you can join us." Devotees and other visitors ably added their voices to the kirtan. In the meantime, the attendees had the opportunity to bask in the sights, smells and sounds of a typical ISKCON program.
Lights were lowered and the slideshow began, capably narrated by Advaita Chandra. He progressed quickly through the milestones of Srila Prabhupada's life on this planet through to his founding of the Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, the world's largest publisher of Vedic texts, and his massive efforts at translation in the span of eleven years, resulting in more than 500 million books distributed to date, in scores of languages!
Next, he explained how Srila Prabhupada, in complete fidelity to the original Vedic tradition, tore down the rigid barriers of medieval India's "infamous" caste system by giving Brahmin initiation to Westerners and shook the world of Hindu orthodoxy by allowing women to become priests in ISKCON temples and accommodating single women in brahmacharini ashrams.
He also pointed out that Srila Prabhupada did not just confine his activity to religious circles, but actively challenged materialistic and atheistic notions of life and the universe, going beyond Charles Darwin's theory of evolution, to introduce "a theory of everything that is based on a scientific understanding of God", founding the Bhaktivedanta Institute to answer fundamental questions about the origin and nature of consciousness.
Other Prabhupada-inspired projects were described, such as the much-anticipated Temple of the Vedic Planetarium. Srila Prabhupada was also given due credit for the major social accomplishment of promoting vegetarianism in the Western society, ultimately inspiring the ISKCON food relief program Food for Life. His early insistence on the wisdom of "green" economics, expressed as the ideal of "simple living, high thinking", led to the establishment of ISKCON farm communities, practical (not just theoretical) examples of sustainable models.
Advaita Chandra das touched upon some of the most important of ISKCON's principles and practices. Diversity, he asserted, is a strength of ISKCON. Looking around the room at the assembly, he declared that "regardless of gender, culture, race, or any other material designation" the commonality between devotees he identified as being from the United States, Africa, Russia and India is understanding that we are all servants of God meant to serve together with Krishna in the center.
Wrapping up his presentation, additional foundational concepts were described, such as the distinctions between temple residents and householders, an explanation of the four regulative principles of ISKCON, dietary restrictions, the relationship between the body and the spirit soul, and practice of the ultimate “panacea for all ills…the best means for achieving God consciousness in this day and age", chanting of the Hare Krishna Maha Mantra.
The lecture came full circle to conclude with a discussion of inter-religious dialogue, comparing the fact that the Bhagavad-gita is also a dialogue between Lord Krishna and Arjuna, and that dialogue is at the heart of the Krishna consciousness philosophy and Vedic tradition. Advaita Chandra das shared several quotes illustrating Srila Prabhupada's openness to other religious paths, for example: "The purpose of this Krishna consciousness movement is not to make Christians into Hindus or Hindus into Christians but to inform everyone that the duty of a human being is to understand his relationship with God. One must learn this, otherwise he is simply wasting his time by engaging in animalistic propensities. We must all try to love Krishna or God. If one has a process, he should practice it, or he can come and learn this process."
After a lively question and answer session on diverse topics such as the origin of caste system, the influence of impersonalism on Vedic thought, non-violence and vegetarianism, and commonality and differences between religions, the evening ended with arotik (Deity worship) in honor of Sri Sri Radha Gopivallabha and a rousing kirtan led by Chaitanya Nitai das, followed by a prasadam (sanctified food) meal. Seating for the seminar attendees was arranged in a large circle so that devotees could sit amidst the guests during mealtime to talk, answer questions, and exchange ideas about how to foster greater understanding and mutual exchange between diverse religious communities.
Upon leaving, each guest was presented with a gift bag thoughtfully prepared by Bhakta Nitin Puri containing copies of "Bhagavad Gita As It Is", "The Perfection of Yoga", a back issue of "The Journal of Vaishnava Studies" focused on Vaishnava-Christianity dialogue, one of the temple's beautifully rendered mantra cards to use as a bookmark, and a packet containing temple resident Krishna Lila das' extraordinary ginger-and-oatmeal prasadam cookies! Grateful attendees expressed their thanks in many ways, from folded palms to heartfelt "Thank you for having me here", in response to the hospitality as well as the unexpected parting gifts.
As Temple President Pyari Mohan das commented after the gathering, "Srila Prabhupada would be pleased, everyone left with a very positive impression of Krishna Consciousness. Hare Krishna! "
The morning after we received the following note from Dr. Cornille:
“Thank you so much for your kind hospitality last night. Our group really enjoyed the visit and learned a lot from it. I was touched by the care you took in receiving us. I wish you and all the devotees who greeted us and spoke with us the very best.”
Acknowledgements: ISKCON Boston devotees are grateful to Prof. Graham Schweig (Garuda das), Director of Asian Studies Program at Christopher Newport University, Virginia, for his valuable support and guidance and for providing copies of "The Journal of Vaishnava Studies".[ boston ] [ harvard ]