for ISKCON News on Dec. 18, 2010
Director of the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies Shaunaka Rishi Dasa, also an ISKCON devotee, has recently been appointed Hindu Chaplain to Oxford University, the first to take on such a role in the history of the famous 900-year-old school.
“It’s a sign of the times,” says Shaunaka Rishi, who hastens to add that the appointment was an organic process, and, in the tradition of the huge, corporation-like Oxford, rather complicated.
“There are no official Hindu Chaplains for the University, yet there are thirty-six college chaplains, attached to Oxford’s thirty-eight colleges,” he explains. “I was asked by the Hindu Students’ Society of Oxford University to become their chaplain. This request was then recognized by the Student Ministry Forum, a group comprising of all the different College chaplains, who asked me to join them and gave me the title, ‘Hindu Chaplain to Oxford University.’”
Shaunaka says that the appointment is simply official recognition for the pastoral care that he has been providing young Hindus of all traditions since the inception of the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies in 1997.
“Students, usually in their first two years of university life, come with different difficulties, and I try to help them,” he elaborates. “Sometimes it’s a spiritual dilemma; maybe they’ve just heard their first atheistic argument or met their first Evangelical Christian. At other times, it’s to do with the fact that Indian students tend to be very result-oriented, and are just pushing themselves too hard because of pressure from their family, which in its own way is religious to them. And then there are those that are developing interest in their own tradition and have very specific philosophical questions.”
Shaunaka, who has been working more closely with students since his official appointment, is one of several ISKCON members serving as chaplains at major universities today, alongside others in London and Venkata Bhatta Dasa at Princeton in the USA.
When asked what this means about how the broader society’s perception of ISKCON devotees has improved, he suggests that it’s the fact that he and these other devotees don’t consider themselves separate from the broader society that has opened doors for them.
“I am a member of society, and it’s my choice whether I want to function as a contributor or a detractor,” he says. “And I find that once I’m willing to make a contribution to society, if I declare myself fully and honestly—in other words, if I don’t separate my Krishna consciousness from my everyday life—I find that people accept me fully.”
For Shaunaka, this means bringing his Krishna conscious principles and philosophy of life—all part of himself—to the table as he does his job.
“As devotees we have to confidently, boldly go into society and be willing to work with society, rather than trying to force society to work with us,” he says. “Our method of respiritualizing the world, taught by Lord Krishna in the Bhagavad-gita and Sri Chaitanya in the Chaitanya Charitamrita, is to teach by example, not just by precept. We have to actually stand beside people and let them see an example of someone who’s trying to make a difference from a spiritual perspective.
“And we treat them with respect, which allows them to treat us with respect, and allows trust to develop. Once that trust is there, there’s the solid bond of a relationship, and that’s what Vaishnavism is all about. Then all the barriers, all the ‘differences’ that we may have seen, just fall away before our eyes.”
It’s this philosophy which drove Shaunaka to establish The Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies in 1997.
While working as a Communications Director in ISKCON, it become obvious to him that many of the problems ISKCON faced were due to a lack of education, thoughtfulness, and culture.
As a result, Shaunaka and other “concerned citizens” in ISKCON banded together to start various educational initiatives. He met many scholars, including Keith Ward, the Regius Professor of Divinity at Oxford University, who suggested having a Centre for Hindu Studies. After consulting others, the idea began to seem feasible, and the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies was born.
Its mission—the academic study of Hindu culture in all its varieities.
“One might ask the question, why would a Hare Krishna devotee be interested in such a project?” Shaunaka Rishi says. “Well, the fact that is that there has been very little work done in the academic field of Hindu studies, and many people don’t know much about it, what to speak of ISKCON or Vaishnavism. So it was clear when I began working in education that we first had to develop the field of Hindu studies. Establishing a centre where anyone could come and study the subject would bring it academic credibility, allowing Vaishnavas to then come and study their own tradition.”
And the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies did indeed gain academic credibility. It has gained official recognition from Oxford University, started its own Journal with Oxford Univeristy Press and a book series with Rutledge, and has graduated many Master’s Degree and Undergraduate students.
It provides online education through its continuing education department, delivers hundreds of lectures, has worked with the BBC’s website to rewrite its
Hinduism section, and gives back to society with projects such as the environmental Bhumi Project, supported by the UN and the Alliance of Religion and Conservation (ARC).
The Centre is also, of course, an “intellectual hothouse” for not only Hindu, but also Vaishnava scholars. Many practicing Vaishnavas are getting degrees in their
own tradition for the first time, and doing it in the “sanga” or “association” of fellow devotees.
Upon graduating from Oxford, many of these devotees return to establish research projects with the Centre for Hindu Studies.
This year, for instance, two major Vaishnava research projects have been launched: the Bhagavat Purana project, headed up by Krishna Ksetra Dasa and Radhika Ramana Dasa, and the Modern Bengal Vaishnavism project, headed up by Pranava Dasa, Abhisekh, and Lalita Madhava.
The Modern Bengal Vaishnavas project will include studies of previous Vaishnava preceptors Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura and Bhaktivinode Thakura, while
the Bhagavat Purana project is the first concentrated effort to develop an academic program to study the Srimad-Bhagavatam in a multi-disciplinary way.
“Both projects will help to engage Vaishnava scholars, and to promote Vaishnava scholarship to a wider audience,” Shaunaka Rishi says. “They will also include book releases. There are two books due from the Bhagavat Purana project in 2012; one a Bhagavatam reader, and the other an edited volume of scholars discussing the Bhagavat Purana from different perspectives.”
Meanwhile, three books are being developed by the Modern Bengal Vaishnavas project—one which will look at Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura as a personalist theologian, another which will present excerpts from his diary, and a third which will present Bhaktivinode Thakura’s autobiography.
“We hope that by facilitating academic excellence amongst young Vaishnava scholars, they will graduate and go on to contribute to ISKCON through research projects like this as well as through our organization the ISKCON Studies Institute—in which they organize conferences, publish a journal, and do archival work,” says Shaunaka.
“This will give ISKCON a pool of Oxford graduate scholars, who will positively contribute to ISKCON’s mature and thoughtful development in the future.”
Shaunaka’s long-term vision is that in fifty years time, every gurukula headmaster in ISKCON will be an Oxford graduate; every educational initiative will have a curriculum developed by Oxford graduates; and ISKCON’s Governing Body Commission will regularly consult with Oxford graduates.
“We envision ISKCON as a place of learning, thoughtfulness, and spiritual culture that is respected as such around the world not only spiritually, but also materially,” he concludes.