With Christmas coming, I thought to share these thoughts 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 dasa, and I have been hosting two such dialogues each year. Our dialogue in the Washington, D.C. area where we live, has continued for over twenty-five years. For two years we met online because of Covid. Last April we met again in person for the first time at the ISKCON of DC temple.
Our dialogue in India has been going on for almost ten years. We met in person in India before Covid, and it has been online for the last few years.
The participants are all religious practitioners, and many of them are scholars and professors as well. Some are Jesuit priests, one is a Catholic nun, and one is a Catholic Archbishop. One is the President of a seminary. There is no audience or media present. 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 Christian perspective, one sharing as a Sri Vaisnava, and one from a Gaudiya Vaisnava perspective.
This dialogue is especially interesting and distinct from others, in that many of the participants are practitioners of a minority religion (Christians in India, or Vaisnavas in the US and Europe) 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.
One woman, who is a member of our dialogue, is Dr. Gifta, who is a Protestant Christian originally from Odissa, and who now lives and teaches in Kolkata. She was awarded her doctorate degree this past April. Her topic of study is quite interesting.
As a (Protestant) scholar, she argued that the writings and teachings of Srila A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada can uplift the condition of women in living India today.
Her Ph.D. advisers at the university requested her to provide documentation of her idea. Many women who are disciples and followers of Srila Prabhupada contributed papers, each from their own personal experience, confirming Srila Prabhupada’s egalitarian vision in engaging women equally along with the men in the activities of devotion.
Congratulations, Dr. Gifta!
This year the topic of our Dialogue was “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 caste 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, 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 for 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 animals.
Narada expressed the idea of karma in a forward-facing way: You have the capacity to change your actions and to better for your future. Seeing karma as a tool to effect positive change in someone’s heart and in their life.
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 meant to be a type of stigma or 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 as eternal devotees, servants and lovers of God, whom we Vaisnavas address as Lord Sri Krishna.
As Jesus Christ is quoted as saying in the Bible: “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 New Year!
Jan 09, 2023
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SABHA, The Spiritual Advisors Bhagavata Assembly
Jan 03, 2023
Anuttama Dasa, GBC and Minister of Communications