With Christmas coming up in just a few days, I thought you might find it interesting to hear a report about our recent Vaisnava Christian Dialogue that was held online last week with Catholic, Protestant, Sri Vaisnava and Gaudiya Vaisnava participants in India, the US and the UK.
My husband, Anuttama and I have been hosting two such dialogues each year. Our dialogue in the DC area where we live, which has continued for over twenty-five years, in person until Covid. Last April we met again in person for the first time in two years at our ISKCON of DC temple.
Our dialogue in India has been going on for about ten years. In person before Covid, and now online for the last few years.
The participants are all practitioners, and many of them scholars and professors. Some are Jesuit priests, one is a Catholic nun, and one is an archbishop as well. We have no audience. It has been a meeting of authentic hearts across religious and cultural boundaries.
Our format is that each previous year, we conjointly choose a topic. Four members agree to write papers-from the perspective of their own tradition- one from the outlook of a Protestant Christian, one from a Catholic perspective, one sharing as a Sri Vaisnava, and one from a Gaudiya Vaisnava perspective.
Culturally, this dialogue is interesting and different in that many of the participants are practitioners of a minority religion (Christians in India, Vaisnavas in the US) in a country where the majority of the population follows another religious tradition.
In this dialogue we also have some Indian born Vaisnavas (men, women, and sannyasis) who grew up attending Catholic schools, and feel grateful for the foundational moral education they received there.
One of our participants, Parijata Devi from Mumbai was happily surprised to be reunited with her dear high school teacher, Sister Teresa, at our dialogue after many years.
Dr. Gifta Angilene is a Protestant Christian originally from Odissa, and who now lives and teaches in Kolkata. She was awarded her doctorate degree this past April. And you will never guess what the topic of her thesis was!
Amazingly, as a Protestant, she argued that the writings and teachings of Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada can uplift the condition of women in India. Her PhD advisers at her university requested documentation of her idea.
Many women who are disciples and followers of Srila Prabhupada wrote papers, each from their own experience, confirming Srila Prabhupada’s egalitarian vision for engaging women equally along with the men in the activities of devotion.
Congratulations, Dr. Gifta!
This year our topic was entitled Karma, Grace, and Free Will: Perspectives for Integral Transformation.
In India, sometimes the philosophy of karma has been misinterpreted and weaponized by sectarian people in order to discriminate and deny social mobility to so-called lower class people.
Our Sri Vaisnava participant, Dr. Jagannivas said that in the eyes of God, no one is untouchable. And that this misunderstanding of the varnasram system has created havoc in India.
Dr. Israel (an Indian Protestant minister living in Leicester, in the UK) said that millions of the poor are reeling under this system and that we must challenge this travesty.
Dr. Ravi Gupta (Radhika Raman Prabhu) described his vision of an Engaged Vaisnavism. He told the story of how the sage, Narada, out of compassion, stepped off his own path to ask the hunter, Mrgrari why he was so cruelly half-killing the animals.
Narada expressed the idea of karma in a forward-facing way: You have the capacity to change and to better your future. Seeing karma as a tool to effect positive change in someone’s heart.
A suffering condition may be someone’s karma, but it is the dharma of a Vaisnava devotee to assist and uplift whomever he or she meets. The philosophy of karma is not a kind of fatalism.
With the blessings of holy company, as we experience in this Vaisnava Christian Dialogue each year, each of us has the capacity to transform our hearts and discover the diamonds of our true identity.
This reminds me of a famous quote: “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of one of these brothers and sisters of Mine, you did for Me.”” — Matthew 20:40
Wishing you all a very happy Christmas, Hanukah, and many blessings to you all in the coming year!
All the best,