Melbourne. As my first "diary" indicated, I am enjoying my first visit to Australia, and this week expanded my horizons beyond Melbourne. I spent last weekend in Sydney, a city with a truly beautiful harbor, and famed for the Opera House and Harbor Bridge. It was cold too, and rainy. But such was just the background for two events. First, I was at the Third Australasian Sanskrit Conference, where I gave the keynote address. It was on the use of Sanskrit in Srivaisnava Hindu commentaries on Tamil devotional poetry — a phenomenon something like writing in Greek while reading the Hebrew of the Torah, or in Persian on the Arabic suras of the Qur’an.) This conference, with participants from all over the country and some from abroad, was very interesting – with a number of fine papers, to be sure, and in part because it mirrored situation of a realm of classical literary and religious studies in Australia today: the economics of higher education today constrains and constricts the Humanities in particular, and the “luxury” of having professors teaching classical languages such as Sanskrit (or Greek, or Latin) seems increasingly hard to defend. So the conference was in a sense a support for those who love Sanskrit, for the range of intellectual and spiritual reasons. But it was also interesting to note how individuals in the wider community, often for religious reasons connected with Hinduism or yoga, are keeping Sanskrit learning (oral, written) alive. Perhaps, as the Indian population of Australia continues to grow, more opportunities for this study will arise, even at the thriving temples in the area.
Why would I care about this? I read and care about Sanskrit as a scholar and theologian, for one thing. But I also believe that interreligious harmony and understanding will flourish insofar as there are learned practitioners and believers in each tradition, and that this means that some at least need to be learned in the classical traditions of their religions. So it is important for some of us to know and read Latin – and likewise, for there to be learned readers of Sanskrit and Hebrew, Chinese and Arabic, etc. This is another reason for dialogical cooperation, that we might help each other in making sure that the best of our traditional learning is remembered and heard in today’s world.
I also had occasion while in Sydney to do a radio interview on comparative and interreligious studies, and participate in an afternoon seminar at the Australian Catholic University’s Sydney campus. It was about comparative theology — as theology, and as a form of dialogue - with a range of scholars and teachers and diocesan leaders in the work of dialogue. Several members of the Hindu and Buddhist communities were also in attendance. The session, though only two hours long, was to me very interesting, in part because the issues were not new: how to balance commitment to tradition with openness to other traditions? what is the reason for interreligious study, and where does it lead? how do different traditions look at what might be offered by other traditions? how can comparative learning escape being the special work of experts, and be relevant in parishes and schools? Such issues do not go away, and the conversation on such matters will continue for years to come. My experiences in Sydney and Melbourne reassure me that the issues are being taken very seriously in Australia, and I will return home all the wiser...
And finally, I was honored on July 25 to give a public lecture at the Melbourne campus of ACU, and receive an honorary degree from the University. It was a wonderful event and lovely ceremony, and possessed too of some intellectual energy, with perceptive questions and great discussion after my lecture. The audience seemed quite diverse, with Catholics from many sectors of the Melbourne community, Christians of other Churches, and a range of people of other faith traditions as well.
I have about 10 days left here, and a couple of smaller trips and events coming up - more on those the next time I write.
As before, I welcome further reader comments from those who know Australia better than I!