Kirtida and I drove out of Newcastle on a sunny afternoon in mid-October, down the UK’s primary tarmac trail in the southerly direction of Manchester, where we sheltered in the friendly hospitality of Gaura Nataraja, Lalita Priti and their lively son and daughter, Sumedha and Bhakti Devi. Early the next morning, we boarded our budget flight with “Na-Ryan” Air and, by Krishna’s grace, touched down an hour or so later at Brusells Charleroi, from where Damakartu Prabhu conveyed us to the Chateau de Petite Somme, latterly known as ISKCON Radhadesh.
By some good fortune we were again amidst the Radhadesh community, having attended in May the ISKCON Educational Conference there, during which Krishna Kshetra Prabhu suggested we return for this 4th ISKCON Studies Institute (ISI) Conference, from 19th-21st October.
The fact that my 2-meter-plus frame was now accommodated in a comfortable, en-suite, first-floor guesthouse room and not an attic room with awkward low slanted ceilings I accepted as evidence that the devotees charged with conference hospitality do read the feedback forms and are keenly responsive to guests’ needs. This observation was reaffirmed on many occasions during this ISI conference by friendly facilitation and first-class cuisine and catering, all experienced in the stimulating company of wonderful fellow delegates.
ISI was formed from the milieu of graduates generated by the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies (OCHS), who became inspired to combine their accumulated academic acumen by thinking about, researching, presenting, and publishing in subject areas relevant for and related to ISKCON. The first three conferences served to broaden the range of delegates in ISI’s network, an impressive sample of whom participated in this fourth conference.
The third ISI conference was held at Villa Vrindavana, Italy. For this one, Radhadesh was chosen as the enue to facilitate the attendance and participation of a potential future generation of academics from among the current Bhaktivedanta College students and alumni like me. This attempt succeeded, based on the old “study buddies” I spotted (who seemed to mirror my own enlivenment) and the conference hall’s being graced by numerous fresher-faced persons looking similarly captivated by the proceedings.
“Person and Community in Vashnava Thought and Practice” was the over-arching conference theme, to which was added the theme “Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura and his Legacy,” since 2014 will mark the 100th anniversary of the Thakura’s disappearance.
Day one was largely dedicated to the topic of “The Person,” day two to “Bhaktivinoda,” and day three to “Community.” The eagerness with which Kirtida and I anticipated this experience was well requited by the delegates’ presentations and discussions, which generated much food for thought.
The keynote presentation was read out by Lucian Wong of OCHS, on behalf of Paul Sherbow, a lecturer at Rutgers University. Drawing on Srila Bhaktivinoda’s Tattva Sutra and Tattva Vivek, this paper resented the Vaishnava perspective on learning, which is focused in the Gaudiya conclusion of the Absolute Truth as Krishna, the Supreme Person.
Aside from his role in expertly organising the conference, Dr. Kenneth Valpey read a paper that drew from three sections of the Caitanya-caritamrita in presenting evidence for the dynamics of the person and the community.
By inviting and including various insider and outsider academicians, ISI conferences serve as a valuable interface between the non-ISKCON academic community and ISKCON scholars. Dr. Jessica Frazier, an OCHS associate, proposed a comprehensive understanding of Rupa Goswami’s writings as “Dramatic Vedanta,” elucidating the divine person Krishna as the dramatic elements of Protagonist, Place, Plot and Pleasure.
Jessica was followed by Dr. Jan Olof Bengtsson from the University of Lund, Sweden, who convincingly spoke on the need to develop and employ a definitive range of terminologies to facilitate the eaningful comparison of notions of the person from the West and East.
Dr. Ricardo Sousa Silvestre traveled from Brazil to present his paper, “Perfect-Being Theology in the Vedanta Tradition”.
At the close of each day there was an informal opportunity for delegates to share news of their current academic projects. The conference co-organiser, Dr. Ferdinando Sardella, gave a fascinating account of his role as the academic advisor for Calcutta’s Bhaktivedanta Research Centre.
Dr. Mans Broo from Finland’s Abo Akademi, began day two by reading “In Search of a Modern but Authentic Spiritual Personna.” Lucian Wong and Abhiseka Gosh, who is working toward a doctorate at the University of Chicago, both addressed misconceptions surrounding the legacy of Bhaktivinoda.
Dr. Ferdinando Sardella then presented a paper on Srila Bhaktisiddhanta’s concept of person. Saunaka Rsi Dasa, as the founding-father figure of OCHS, spoke about its past, present and future.
Dr. Kiyokazu Okita of Japan’s Kyoto University closed day two by presenting a historiography of the Gaudiya acaryas’ apologetic polemics regarding the marital statuses of Krishna’s Vrindavana Gopis.
Kavikarnapura’s “Gaura Ganodesh Dipika” covers the dual ontological identities of Caitanya’s companions, and it provided the material for OCHS’s Dr. Rembert Lutjeharms to explore and reflect on the formation of nascent Gaudiya devotional communities.
Alysia Radder posed the culinary question ‘Is Spaghetti Vedic’? Janne Kontala revealed a research tool in development for “Assessing the Commonality and Individuality of World Views within Krishna Consciousness.” Yadunandana Swami concluded the conference with his paper “Sannyasa in ISKCON,” based on his MA research dissertation.
Such an ebullient gathering evinced for me the personal and collective vision and strength of spirit impelling the cause of education in Chaitanya Vaisnavism, from Bhaktivinoda Thakura through to the present day. The question remaining for Kirtida and me as we trailed home was how we’d hold out for two whole years until the next conference.
Written by Bhakti Rasa (Newcastle, UK)