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ISKCON Keeps a Finger on the Pulse of Religious Studies at AAR Meeting
By Madhava Smullen   |  Ноя 30, 2018

IISKCON Communications Director Anuttama Das attended the Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Religion (AAR) in Denver, Colorado from November 17thto 20th, as a representative of the Hare Krishna Movement. 

Representatives of the Bhaktivedanta Book Trust also participated with a booth at the event, which promotes the study of religion from an academic perspective.

Both ISKCON Communications and the BBT have attended the AAR Annual Meeting for the past quarter of a century, while over the years noted ISKCON scholars such as Ravindra Svarupa Das, Tamal Krishna Goswami, and Radhika Ramana Das (Dr. Ravi Gupta) have also attended.

This year, over a dozen of both Vaishnava scholars and scholars of Vaishnavism were present.

The Meeting took place at the Colorado Convention Center and multiple hotels in downtown Denver, and drew nearly 10,000 scholars from the whole gamut of religious traditions, including Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Sikhism and Islam. In addition the event included the meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature, which drew scholars from various Christian theological colleges and universities.

The AAR Annual Meeting featured plenary sessions as well as a host of concurrent unit sessions on topics from Religion and Ecology, to Quaker Studies, to Theology and Martin Luther King.

Several topics of interest to the Vaishnava community were discussed. One was a book discussion on Harvard Professor Francis Clooney’s most recent book, which looks at the future of comparative theology and specifically Hindu Christian studies. A panel of both Christian theologians and Vaishnava Hindu scholars talked about the benefits of learning deeply from another tradition, as well as the challenges to such comparative theology.

Another panel looked at the ways in which the Bhagavata Purana, or Srimad-Bhagavatam, has influenced various aspects of Indian culture and history. It also looked at several other sacred texts connected to the Bhagavatam.

One particularly interesting discussion among the Hindu/Vaishnava topics tackled the question “How do we negotiate theology with culture?”

Jayadvaita Swami with an AAR conference attendee in 2016

“We asked, when is it crucial to maintain a certain kind of culture that has been historically part of our tradition?” says Dr. Ravi Gupta, Charles Redd Chair of Religious Studies at Utah State University. “And when is it okay to innovate in a global context, since Krishna really does belong to the world, and He enjoys all various kinds of services from many devotees coming from different cultures.”

The larger question was analyzed through a discussion about the role of Deity clothing, specifically in ISKCON. Panel members talked about how ISKCON’s Mayapur headquarters, both a local Bengali Indian community, and an international community, sets the standard for ISKCON worldwide. They discussed the cultural aspects of Deity clothing, and asked, can Krishna be dressed in non-Indian styles of clothing? And if so, what kind of standard does that set?

Some sessions were not directly related to Vaishnavism, but were relevant to Vaishnava practitioners nonetheless.

There was a panel of media experts from national newspapers on the state of religion journalism; several panels on how religions are responding to the environmental crisis and climate change; and a plenary address by Christian social activist Jim Wallace on religious people’s calling to try to make a positive impact on the world.

Meanwhile DHANAM (The Dharma Academy of North America) held a parallel conference on November 16thand 17th, which has long been held alongside the AAR Meeting.

It also included several panels on topics of interest to Vaishnavas, such as Regional Bhakti Traditions, Dharma and Animals, and Love and Compassion – Insights from Dharma Traditions.

In the latter, Princeton University’s Vineet Chander spoke on Ma Sucah: Sri Krishna’s Expression of Love and Compassion in the Bhagavad-gita.

Also during the AAR Meeting, many BBT representatives and friends of ISKCON enjoyed a reunion dinner together at Radha Govinda’s Buffet, just five miles from the convention site.

“The AAR Annual Meeting allows ISKCON devotees to keep a pulse on the academic and intellectual issues surrounding religion and religious communities today,” Anuttama Das comments. “By attending over the years we maintain positive and mutually beneficial relationships with scholars, many of whom study ISKCON and are friendly to ISKCON.”

He adds, “They’re also our best critics, helping us gain valuable insight on how we can do better in our organization, and how we present ourselves to the world.” 

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