Sunday, May 30, 2010
Interreligious Vedanta in Japan
This afternoon (May 30, 2010), starting from 14:00, there were two significant events at Gotanda Seisen University: (1) "Golden Jubilee [of the Japan Vedanta Society (JVS)] Celebration Closing Ceremony" and (2) "Swami Vivekananda's 148th Birthday Celebration." Although I am not a member of the JVS, thanks to another professor, I received information about the celebration and was tempted by an invitation card. So although at Sophia University, there were Sophia Alumni Day celebrations, I opted to skip them and go to Gotanda. It took about 20 minutes from Yotsuya to Gotanda by train, via Yoyogi, and then about a 10-minute walk to the university. Surprisingly, there were a couple of Seisen student volunteers at Gotanda station and a few other spots, standing with a sign pointing to "Seisen University."
Thanks to the invitation, I was given a VIP tag and led into the hall before the 'ordinary' crowd and given a preferential seat in front. Very soon the hall was full (a few hundred guests) and the events began 15 minutes late... perhaps to remind all that the events are 'Indian' and will follow the "Indian timetable." :)
The MC was a Japanese lady who spoke beautiful English and Japanese. There were altogether eight 'talks' or 'discourses', one each by the following: (1) Sr. Junko Shioya (Chair of the Seisen Managing Board), (2) Swami Medhasananda (President of JVS), (3) Swami Smaranandaji (Vice President, Ramakrishna Mission), (4)Rev. Takeo Okada (Catholic Archbishop of Tokyo), (5) His Eminence H.K.Singh (Ambassador of India), (6) Rev. Ryojun Sato (Buddhist Priest of Jodo Sect & Prof. Emeritus of Taisho University), (7) Prof. Yasuji Yamaguchi (Professor of Meiji University), and (8) Prof. Tsuyoshi Nara (Vice President of JVS). Fortunately, most spoke briefly. Prof. Sato spoke longest, and Prof. Yamaguchi perhaps second longest. Being academics, they were perhaps asked to give serious lectures. The non-academic VIPs were reasonably brief.
The non-academic VIPs gave the general soft salutations--with the usual words of thanks and pleasure at being invited, etc.--mingled with a personal note of how they got involved in Vedanta Society and how they happened to be there. The two Swamijis gave a short history of the Vedanta Society's founding in Japan 50 years ago, noting the role played by Vivekananda himself, who had been in Japan and impressed everyone with his eloquence and wisdom, as he had done at the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago. The Swamijis also referred to the Japanese and Indian contributions, especially the cooperation extended by the Indian Embassy and the several Ambassadors. The Ambassador spoke briefly wishing all the best to the Society and assuring support.
The Catholic Archbishop of Tokyo, Okada Takeo, was perhaps the most misfitting among the group (for he was neither an Indian nor a Japanese engaged in Vedanta research or acquainted with India, as every other speaker sitting on stage was), but the most forthright and simple. He confessed that he knew little about India or Hinduism and was reluctant to accept the invitation, but was told to say 'anything' he wanted to say, and so accepted the invitation. As he continued speaking, however, he came across as extremely honest, spontaneous, plain, unassuming, and impressive. He did refer to the general ignorance of the Japanese about India and Indian religious thoughts--except for the great Buddha and Buddhism. Few Japanese, he said, seem familiar with Hinduism, and it was interesting to read about Hinduism in novels like Endo Shusaku's Deep River. He recalled Mother Theresa and her example of universal love, and the image of India as a poor or suffering nation, although currently undergoing changes due to economic prosperity. The Archbishop also tied up Indian poverty with the current Japanese situation asking the audience if Japan is any better, especially morally, spiritually, and psychologically--even as the population is graying and children are rare. He referred to the nearly 30,000 suicides taking place in Japan every year, and asked what contributions the Religions in Japan make to alleviate such hopelessness among the population. Confessing his faith in Christ and recalling Christ's commandments to love others as oneself, he reiterated the obligations of all religions to work in harmony for the alleviation of human suffering, which, he reminded all, was also one of the major aims of the Buddha.
Rev. Ryojun Sato gave perhaps the most academic paper, on "Buddhist Sangha and its Idea of Co-living." He bagan humorously with the three Hindi words he learned while he was in India in the early 1960s: pani 'water', kana 'food', and sona 'sleep'. He said he could get along well in India with only these three words, but today the only word he would consider necessary for survival is ... dharma. (Dharma is one of those 'magnet' words of India that can attract to itself a variety of meanings such as 'duty', 'obligation', 'commitment', 'God's will', etc., etc., depending on the exponent.) Elaborating Dharma and Buddhism, Rev. Sato stressed the need to 'co-live' or live harmoniously with all beings (humans, animals, and plants), recalling the ecological connection we all have with everything around us.
Prof. Yasuji Yamaguchi, a philosopher by profession, spoke of his beginnings in Western Philosophy and how he remained unsatisfied and unfufiflled until he encountered Eastern ideas in Sri Aurobindo's works. Since Sri Aurobindo acknowledged Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa and Sri Vivekananda as his guides, Prof. Yamaguchi's talk was the most appropriate for the occasion. Prof. Yamaguchi referred to various works of Sri Aurobindo, citing key passages from Aurobindo's Life Divine and other writings.
After the talks, i.e., around 5:30, there were light refreshments--spicy bits of crackers, a samosa with curried potato, a sweet laddu ball, etc.--thanks to Mr Chandrani, a restaureteur in Tokyo. The audience was then entertained from 6:00 by Santoor Pundit Shivkumar Sharma and various other groups. Unfortunately I had to leave the great performance around 6:30 and so I could only hear the first performance of the Pundit. That was perhaps the first time I saw and heard Santoor, a small boxlike 'portable piano' with 100 strings! The performer uses two strikers (like chopsticks or unscrewed hands of thin scissors) to tap the strings and produce sounds of three octaves!
For the benefit of those unfamiliar with Vedanta, Ramakrishna, and Vivekananda:
Vedanta: 'The end of Vedas', literally with reference to the last books of the Vedic Canon, namely, the Upanishads [coming after a series of books classified as Samhitas, Brahmanas, and the Aranyakas], and figuratively, as the definitive end and purpose of all the Vedas (the Hindu/Indian Sacred Scriptures). As the Vedas have no namable authors, the Vedanta too is authorless, but there are several major exponents, the most significant being the eminnet theologian-philosopher-mystic Sankara of 8th century. There are different versions and contradictory interpretations of Vedanta. Currently in the West, perhaps Deepak Chopra, the New Age and Hollywood Guru, is perhaps a well-known and popular exponent.
Ramakrishna Paramahamsa (1836-1886): An extrordinary Hindu sage, mystic, and teacher, who was not 'academically' learned, but whom great academics sought after to learn from. Although a Hindu, he was most notable for sponsoring religious harmony, interreligious dialog, and ecumenism, significantly much earlier than the Catholic Church (which began its journey of interreligious dialog only after the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s). Many are the minds that have been influenced by this little man, who lived a simple life, seeking neither fame nor glory.
Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902): If Ramakrishna were Jesus, Vivekananda would be St. Paul, or if Ramakrishna were St. Ignatius, Vivekananda would be St. Francis Xavier. A brash atheist and rationalist when young, he was touched by Ramakrishna's sanctity and became his ardent missionary. He is most notable for his eloquent and articulate presentation of Hinduism at the First World Parliament of Religions in Chicago (1893), where he rebutted counterarguments and impressed many with his magnanimous and rational views. His International travels took him also to other countries like Japan, UK, etc. He founded the Ramakrishna Mission on May 1, 1897 (perhaps on the model of Catholic Religious Orders?) to keep Ramakrishna's messages alive. Although at times a sharp critic of the West and Christianity, he essentially followed the lead of Ramakrishna in exhorting people of all religions to live in harmony respecting each other.
Ramakrishna Mission: While we read frequently of Hindus who hate or injure non-Hindus, most Hindus love peace with other religions, and Ramakrishna's contribution here has been significant. In India, the Ramakrishna Mission often celebrates Christmas inviting Catholic priests. In Japan, too, the Mission has among its members a Jesuit Priest and perhaps several nuns and lay Catholics.