My Travels in India: Part II

  Pune, India. At the end of my first report on my 10-week trip to India, I mentioned that I was on my way to Kolkata (= Calcutta), and although I was there for only a brief four days, it was a most interesting visit. Kolkata, as you will know, was the capital of the British Raj in its early years, and honored as a true “jewel in the crown.” We think inevitably of the “city of joy,” the “black hole of Calcutta,” the work of Mother Teresa with the poorest of the poor, and the numinous Kali temple at the heart of the city. But there is always more. One of the largest cities in India and in the world, it suffered greatly during famines and war, including having to support a great influx of refugees during the war in the early 1970s that led to East Pakistan’s emancipation from West Pakistan and establishment as Bangladesh. Kolkata, like all of Bengal, had and still has a rich artistic and linguistic heritage, and is one of the great cultures of India.

Kolkata remains a center of learning, and I had little time to sample its riches. The very fine Goethals Indian Library and Research Center at St Xavier’s College – itself a venerable institution, founded in 1860 and one of the most respected and sought after colleges in India – houses the books and papers of some of the great scholars of Hindu-Christian exchange in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, including Brahmobandhav Upadhyaya, a convert to Catholicism who struggled to hold together his Bengali and Christian identities and Jesuit scholars of Hinduism such as William Wallace (who found his way to Catholicism from the Anglican Church by way of his study of Hinduism) and Pierre Johanns, primary author of the famous “To Christ through the Vedanta” articles of the 1920s. One might say that their learning and experimentation was an overflow of the great “Bengali Renaissance" - of culture, political concsciousness, and religion - of the nineteenth century. I was honored to be invited to give a lecture at St. Xavier’s one evening, and had an hour beforehand to just begin sampling this fascinating library. I must come back.

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I also had time to visit two other venerable Christian institutions in the city, first of all the Anglican (Church of North India) Bishop’s College, founded in 1820. Once in a surely rural area, Bishop’s now finds itself in a congested downtown area, and the beautiful campus is a bit cramped, but it remains, along with the venerable Serampore Seminary, a hub for a large network of Christian seminaries and houses of study across India. I will be happy to visit again next year to give some lectures there. I also visited and gave a lecture at Morning Star Regional Seminary (founded in 1968), the archdiocesan Catholic seminary and likewise a hub for many smaller dioceses, located in the old British cantonment known as Barrackpore just outside the city (but a 2.5 hour drive in the evening rush hour). It is impressive to see these centers of learning, along with St. Xavier’s, flourishing despite having but a fraction of the resources that so many of our American universities take for granted.

But the main purpose of my visit to Kolkata was in conjunction with the conclusion of the 150th birth anniversary celebrations for Swami Vivekananda, the greatest of the disciples of the 19th century mystic saint, Sri Ramakrishna; the Swami is as it were the “St Paul” of this modern Vedanta movement, who spread word of this universal perspective on the harmony of religions to all the world (including, famously, Chicago in 1893) and also established the Ramakrishna Order of monks and the Vedanta Society which now have centers all over the world. I stayed as their guest at their Cultural Institute in the Gol Park section of the city – a very nice facility, if you thinking of spending some time in the city – and two days traveled with other visited out to the world headquarters of the Order, Belur Math, a site on the banks of the Ganges purchased by Swami Vivekananda himself, not long before his death at age 39. The ancient mango tree under which he meditated still stands, not far from the riverbank. I was there for the second of three 2-day events, the academic seminar on the intellectual contributions and lasting contribution of the Swami (the other events being a general, popular weekend festivity that drew over 10,000 people, and a final two days aimed at youth). I spoke on the second day, which featured in particular interfaith perspectives on the Swami, how his contributions and vision of the harmony of religions look more than 100 years after his death. The day began with prayer performances – song, chant, drumming – by young representatives of six religious traditions.

My own little speech that opened the formal proceedings of the day marked my effort to see from a Christian perspective the depths and breadth of real religious harmony. I used as my text a speech the Swami gave in New York in 1896, which drew heavily on the story of Ramakrishna, and recounted also his own life-changing encounter with the saint; it was from that encounter, one might say, that Vivekananda found the energy and vision to travel the world. My point, to put it very briefly, was that such are the foundations of harmony: each of us goes deep in her or his own tradition, toward its very core, and from that graced center we find our way to one another. It seemed to be well-received, and I felt it was the right place to be: a Jesuit amidst a very large gathering of Hindus from Kolkata and around the world, speaking of Ramakrishna and Vivekananda and their encounter – one of the great moments of the 19th century, to be sure – and able, in that context, to remind the audience and myself of the many life-changing encounters of Jesus with men and women of all kinds in the Gospels. I was happy to be able to read Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “As Kingfishers Catch Fire,” mainly for its last lines, “Acts in God's eye what in God's eye he is — Chríst — for Christ plays in ten thousand places, / Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his / To the Fatherthrough the features of men's faces,” and then to close with some lines of Rabindranath Tagore, “Through birth and death, in this world and others, wherever thou leadest me it is thou, the same, the one companion of my endless life who ever linkest my heart with bonds of joy to the unfamiliar. When one knows thee, then alien there is none, then no door is shut. Oh, grant me my prayer that I may never lose the bliss of the touch of the One in the play of the many.” (Gitanjali 1)

Again, as I said in my previous entry, my sense is that India, despite innumerable problems, is alive and well, a country that can be proud of its achievements in the past and right now, and still a place that can teach us so much about intellectual and spiritual energy in our times.

I write these words in Pune, over towards the western part of the country in Maharashtra (closer to Mumbai), and after a few days will offer some reflections on this portion of my visit. 

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