It is a humbling experience to sit in a room (or a Zoom call) full of devout Christian scholar-practitioners who have studied and read Vaishnava texts with the same ferocity and sincere devotion as their own. This was my experience as a novice attendee at the annual Vaishnava-Christian Dialogue event held from September 25-26th.
More than 30 Christians and Vaishnavas of different ages and backgrounds from across the USA joined an online dialogue to network and enjoy their faith in unity. The event has been going on (in person) in Washington DC for more than twenty-three years and has led to sustained partnerships across the country.
Participants included scholars, professors, chaplains, and professionals from the Protestant and Catholic traditions as well as ISKCON and other Vaishnava traditions. Notable ISKCON participants were Ravindra Svarupa Das, Jayadvaita Swami, Anuttama Das, Rukmini Dasi, and Gopal Hari Das amongst others.
Peacebuilding and tolerance are the foundations of the dialogue but the real point of the discussion is connection and the experience of joy through faith.
Some of the key themes of discussion were: the guidance of mystics and saints are essential for both the Vaishnavas and Christian traditions, love of God is a process and not an easy one, the experience of love and joy requires a relationship (not monism), and the experience of the pain, and longing, of separation from God exists for both traditions.
The event consisted of introductions, topical presentations, an open forum and question and answer sessions. The first presentation was entitled Contemplation to Attain Love. It was led by Father James Redington, a Jesuit priest, professor at the University of Scranton, and a strong advocate of interfaith dialogue for more than 40 years. He explained that there are three steps in the path to attaining God in the Jesuit tradition: the Purgative Way (clearing of the sins/obstacles), the Illuminative Way (beginning to receive light from God), and the Unitive Way (constant connection with God). An example was given from Saint Ignatius of Loyola, with a passage presented of a meditative discussion with God in the unitive stage. Comparisons between the traditions were made including the mystic concepts of lila (God’s play) and rasa (emotions for God) of the Vaishnava tradition. Christian passages of devotion to God were shared such as Mother Teresa’s writing that “pain, sorrow and suffering are but the kiss of Jesus.”
The second presentation was Union with God, Separation from God by Rukmini Dasi. Rukmini is a disciple of Srila Prabhupada, a women’s activist, and founder of the New York based collective Urban Devi. She spoke about the rasa of separation in the bhakti-yoga tradition and the variety of relationships that exist within that mood. The highest realm of loving emotion is love in separation, which is rooted in humility and longing. Quoting from the writings of Vaishnava acaryas, she explained that love in union and love in separation are two banks of a river; love in separation is considered superior, because in union there is an anticipation of separation, whereas in separation there is the anticipation of the meeting. Rukmini Dasi quoted the historic Vaishnava poet Nanda das: “There is more love in separation than in union for in union the Beloved is found in one place only, while in separation the Beloved is found everywhere.”
Participants were sincere representatives of their various faith traditions as seen in the depth of emotional prayers, songs and readings shared with the group. Interestingly, many of the Christian participants are scholars or immersive participants of Vaishnava culture over the years; some having gurus of their own and others having visited Indian sacred places. The Vaishnavas present also shared their appreciation of the Christian teachings presented, noting both the similarities and differences of understanding.
“This dialogue is a chance to talk about the deeper meanings of our two traditions, to talk about Krsna, or God. Its not only inspiring, I find it leads me to deeper understanding of my own Vaishnava faith,” says host Anuttama Das, “It’s one of my favorite events of the year.”
Notably, this year there was a strong presence of women and people of color amongst the participants, bringing a variety to the discussion and paving the way for years to come. The next event will take place in April 2021, hopefully in person.
Rukmini Dasi’s full presentation is available here:[ christian ] [ interfaith-dialogue ] [ vaishnava ] [ vaishnava-christian-dialogue ]