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Vaishnava Scholars a Strong Presence at American Academy of Religion
By Madhava Smullen   |  Dec 17, 2011

There was a strong attendance by Vaishnava scholars at this year’s Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Religion, held from November 19th to 22nd in San Francisco.

The American Academy of Religion (AAR) is the primary professional society for scholars and professors of religion in North America, and its annual meetings are the main gathering place for professionals in the field of religious studies to exchange ideas and present their latest work.

Thirty to forty parallel sessions are held throughout a hectic day that runs all the way from 7am until 10pm, while panels are held on every religious tradition imaginable, including Christianity—most prominently—as well as Islam, Hinduism and many indigenous religions.

The Meeting also features an employment center, the largest religious studies book exhibit in the country, and networking opportunities for publishers and potential authors.

Held at the Moscone convention center as well as at six or seven surrounding hotels, this year’s Meeting was attended by nearly 8,000 scholars and professors.

Amongst them were a host of Vaishnava scholars. As well as senior scholar Graham Schweig, who is Professor of Religious Studies at Christopher Newport University in Virginia—and organizes several panels at the AAR Meeting every year—there were many younger scholars, mostly holding PhDs from the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies in the UK.

These included Dr. Ithamar Theodor from Israel; Krishna Sharana Dasa, who holds a prestigious postdoctoral position at the University of Kyoto in Japan; and Radhika Ramana Das (Ravi Gupta), who is the Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the College of William and Mary in Virginia.

Other scholars who are regular attendees to the AAR Meeting, but who were absent this year include ISKCON guru and Deity worship minister Krishna Ksetra Dasa (Kenneth Valpey), who is currently a visiting Professor of Indic Studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, and Belgian scholar Gopinath Acharya Dasa.

“There’s a growing number of Vaishnava members in the AAR today—perhaps two dozen—following in the wake of the late Tamal Krishna Goswami and ISKCON Communications Director Anuttama Dasa, who blazed the trail in the late 1990s,” explains Radhika Ramana. “Tamal Krishna Goswami created a very visible Vaishnava presence at the Annual Meeting by making it a point to attend every year in full sannyasa dress. He developed quite a reputation at the Meeting, where he networked with scholars, presented at a panel on contemporary gurus in America, and was honored with a memorial session when he passed away.”

Vaishnavas continue to have a strong presence at the AAR Meeting today. Garuda Dasa’s Monday morning panel What’s Wrong with Hindu Theology?, for instance, was one of the most well-attended. With its provocative title, it explored the possibility of creating an AAR group dedicated to Hindu theology with annual sessions on the topic.

“The study of Hinduism has been going on for a long time, but Hindu theology is somewhat different,” explains Radhika Ramana. “Religious studies come from a place of methodological agnosticism, focusing on human religious behavior and not really addressing the question of God. Theology, however, is a study by people of faith of God, doctrine and practices in their own tradition. So far, this has largely been a Christian pursuit.”

The panel, and ensuing discussion, however—led by top scholars of Hinduism such as Harvard Professor Francis Clooney—asked whether Hinduism could be fruitfully pursued by Hindus, whatever their stripe, as a systematic, rigorous academic study.

In the course of the conversation, the question was raised as to whether this was already happening somewhere in the world.

At this point, Professor Emeritus Joseph O’Connell, one of the most senior scholars of Gaudiya Vaishnavism in North America, who met Srila Prabhupada on several occasions, stood up.

“I would like to draw attention to the fine example that the International Society for Krishna Consciousness has been offering us in this regard,” he announced to the large room full of some of the best scholars of Hinduism in the country. “ISKCON has produced some very fine young scholars in recent years, both men and women, who have started producing some excellent theology.”

O’Connell cited their efforts as a model for other Hindu groups, and also mentioned that many of them had been trained at the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies, where many of the scholars present had served at one point—including himself, the Centre’s current academic director Gavin Flood, and former academic director Francis Clooney.

“It was a wonderful thing to see a very respected scholar of Gaudiya Vaishnavism offering a tribute to ISKCON devotee scholars and putting them forward as a model for the wider frame of Hindu theology,” Radhika Ramana says.

Besides this highlight, Garuda Dasa also led a second panel at the AAR Meeting, and participated in a third. One, entitled “Bhakti and Yoga,” explored the connection between the path of Bhakti and the practice of Yoga. The other, organized by the society for Hindu / Christian Studies, was entitled “Yoga and Christianity” and discussed the current controversial nexus of the two.

“Recently there’s been a lot of media interest in conservative Christian groups saying that Christians shouldn’t practice yoga, because yoga is inherently Hindu,” explains Radhika Ramana. “And, oddly enough, conservative Hindu groups agreeing. Meanwhile the majority opinion is that there’s no harm in borrowing from other traditions. So this panel debated on that topic—is yoga only for Hindus, or can Christianity allow yoga too?”

Another panel with Vaishnava involvement was “Authorizing Theologies,” presented by Krishna Sharana Dasa. Tackling the question of how a particular theology or doctrine becomes authoritiative, it focused on the relationship between ISKCON and the Madhva tradition—how ISKCON claims affiliation with the Madhva line, and how some Madhvas appreciate this, while others reject it.

“Overall, I’ve noticed that as our participation increases, Gaudiya Vaishnavas are really having an impact on the AAR Meeting,” Radhika Ramana comments.

“Vaishnava angles on a particular theme are presented a lot more often, while perspectives that may have been ignored in the past, such as Vaishnava or monotheistic Hindu perspectives, are being listened to and changing the discourse in a significant way. Joseph O’Connell’s comment, for instance, was a very clear indication that people are noticing and appreciation the contribution that devotees make.”

Radhika Ramana also believes that the presence of ISKCON scholars in the American Academy of Religion is changing the academic scholar/practioner relationship.

“Half a century ago, the study of Hinduism in America was almost exclusively done by non-Hindus, and being a practioner and a scholar of the same tradition was often perceived by the AAR as suspicious,” he says. “How could a scholar see their own tradition objectively and critically? Yet today, there’s a growing acceptance in the Academy of practioner scholars, which Tamal Krishna Goswami played an important role in.”

Last, but not least, Radhika Ramana feels that the Meeting was a wonderful opportunity to meet socially with the relatively small community of devotee scholars around the world.

“In the type of service that we do, we often work on our own, hundreds of miles away from each other,” he says. “So the Meeting provided us with an opportunity to recharge with some really wonderful and personal association, full of encouragement and support. And that, I know, is what we all look forward to the most.”

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