ISKCON Scholar’s Tour Could Spark Change in Indian Educational System

By Madhava Smullen on 14 Mar 2010
A recent lecture tour of India by ISKCON scholar Radhika Ramana Dasa (Dr. Ravi Gupta) could have sparked the impetus to introduce religious studies into Indian university level education—something the country has always shied away from—while at the same time inspiring Indian students to take a deeper look at their ancient spiritual culture. 

During the whirlwind three week lecture tour—from December 20th through January 14th—Radhika Ramana visited forty-two educational institutions, governmental organizations and private corporations in nine cities, speaking to over 5,000 people.

The tour was part of an initiative by the late industrialist and philanthropist Dr. S.K. Somaiya, who unfortunately passed away in January even as it was in full swing. An ISKCON supporter who had assisted Srila Prabhupada’s movement during its early days in Mumbai, Somaiya was disturbed that the only academics actively presenting Hinduism were Western scholars who gave a skewed perspective complete with Freudian psychoanalysis of deities such as Shiva and Vishnu.

“He wanted to impress upon his fellow Indians that their tradition was not just a collection of outdated ideas and myths, but had something to contribute to today’s world and the lives of even contemporary engineers or computer programmers,” says Radhika Ramana, who was accepted into Boise State University at thirteen years old after following a homeschooling curriculum based primarily on the Srimad-Bhagavatam and other books of ancient Vedic wisdom. “And he wanted to show them that whether or not they were interested in their own tradition, people all over the world were fascinated by it and studying it seriously.”

This resulted in Somaiya’s Sweta (White) Hindu Program, under which he invited ISKCON scholars such as Srinandanandana Dasa (Stephen Knapp) and Kavindra Rishi Dasa (Jeffrey Armstrong) to speak at his own Somaiya Vidyavihar in Mumbai, a group of thirty-three educational institutions with over 27,000 students.

For Radhika Ramana, the first Indian American participant in his program, Somaiya used his contacts and finances to launch a nationwide tour that traveled to Mumbai, Pune, Goa, Jaipur, Bangalore, Kolkata, Kharagpur, Jamshedpur, and Delhi, ensuring a more widespread inspiration amongst Indian students in their ancient culture.

But Radhika Ramana says that once the tour, organized by ISKCON Chowpatty devotees, was underway, he realized that such inspiration could go as far as sparking a change in the Indian educational system.

“The same debate that’s going on in the Western World about introducing religious education in schools is going on at all levels, including the University level, in India,” he explains. “Although historically it’s one of the most religiously diverse countries in the world—and has a fairly good history of religious tolerance—the fear is that such academic study might in some way compromise India’s secularism, which it holds very dear as a way to protect itself from conflict, misunderstanding, and oppression of minority religious groups.”

Thus religious education in India so far has meant simply hearing from a priest or Imam at the temple or mosque. “There’s still very little concept of what it means to study religion academically,” says Radhika Ramana, who has worked as a religious studies teacher since graduating from Oxford with a PhD at only twenty-one. “And as a result, there’s a great need amongst students to learn about their own religious traditions as well as those of others. But for now, there’s no facility in their country for such study, and no opportunity for jobs if there was.”

Radhika Ramana learned of this need from his audience while touring three lectures that presented Vedic culture and philosophy in a universally appreciable and practically applicable way.

Organizations could select which one of these they felt would be most relevant to their staff or students’ needs. Radhika Ramana’s first talk, 6 ½ Traits of Effective Leadership, for example, was a popular choice amongst corporations, such as Indofil Chemicals and Pepsi India; as well as amongst the high profile government organizations he spoke at, such as India’s main nuclear research facility the Bhava Atomic Research Centre, and its premier defense research organization, DRDO.

“In 6 ½ Traits of Effective Leadership, I took the different qualities that help or hinder good leadership from various verses of Rupa Goswami’s Nectar of Instruction—and combined them in the form of paradoxes,” Radhika Ramana says. “For example, a leader is enthusiastic, but at the same time patient; a leader is determined, but at the same time not foolhardy; a leader is confident, but at the same time humble. Then, to give them contemporary relevance, I added plenty of statistics and studies from the management world.”

6 ½ Traits of Effective Leadership concluded with an explanation of the mysterious ½. “I said that although we all try to be the perfect 7, there is a part of leadership which is beyond our control,” Radhika Ramana smiles. “A part beyond the human being. Some call it luck, some call it faith, others karma. In the Bhagavad-gita Krishna Himself, I explained, calls it “daivam,” or God’s grace.”

Radhika’s second talk, Head, Heart and Hands: Finding the Right Balance in Life, was preferred by Universities who were experiencing a high level of stress and time management issues with their students. In it, he described three essential components to our lives: what the Bhagavad-gita calls Karma (action), Jnana (knowledge), and Bhakti (devotion). All are important, Radhika Ramana explained, but if we emphasise one at the expense of the others, then this can lead to stress and an imbalanced life.

Institutions that were more comfortable with broaching the topic of religion chose Radhika’s third talk, God and Google: Human Relationships in the Internet Age. This took a humorous approach at first, citing the website, wherein “proofs” that Google is God are given: for instance that the search engine is the closest thing to a scientifically verifiable omniscient entity, or that people can ask it for an answer about any question or problem that plagues them and their prayers will be answered.

“This, however, leads to a serious question very relevant in India, one of the most technologically savvy countries in the world,” Radhika Ramana says. “What is the role of technology in our lives today?”

To answer this question, Radhika first discussed the nature of God as defined in the Upanishads, and then the role of science, suggesting that we cannot replace one with the other. “The most popular Google searches and websites—all social networking sites—show that people are not looking for knowledge, but for relationships,” he says. “Technology and science cannot directly give that to us, but God can. In fact, the whole definition of God from the Vedic tradition is centered on relationships.”

Interestingly, it was this religious part of Radhika’s talks that people wanted to hear more about. “The way you drew leadership from the Nectar of Instruction was amazing!” students wrote in their evaluation forms. “I learned so much, and I want to learn more!” Yet due to the taboo associated with religious discourse in any public sphere in India, they were afraid to express this in front of their peers and colleagues.

These kind of reactions were enlightening for Radhika Ramana. “Although I’d been to India many times before, have family there and have lectured at devotee communities there,” he says, “This time I really got a feel for the pulse of India. I met so many different sectors of society and different types of audiences, and gained an understanding of their concerns, needs, hopes and aspirations—especially in the area of education.”

The tour was also exhausting for Radhika Ramana. “In my work as a speaker for the past decade, it was the most intense experience I’ve ever had,” he says. “India is intense to begin with, and traveling constantly from place to place, giving two or three lectures every day at different locations, made it far more intense. Thank God for Krishna Chaitanya and Braj Mohan Prabhus, the devotees from ISKCON Chowpatty who accompanied me and organized everything with incredible efficiency.”

Radhika Ramana feels that the tour’s success, however, has made his effort more than worth it. His talks have opened doors for further academic outreach by local devotees, who will continue cultivating relationships with professors, administrators and students, and have created opportunities for follow-up speakers.

“We hope that the relationships we’ve built this time around and will continue to cultivate will lead to the creation of a religious studies program in the Indian educational system,” he says. “Or at least the introduction of a few seminal courses at some institutions.”

A major positive move in this direction was Radhika Ramana’s meeting with Kapil Sabal, India’s Human Resources minister for education, in which Radhika made the case for religious studies in India. “We met at the end of the tour, when I had gotten an understanding of what Indian students are looking for,” he says. “And although Sabal was understandably very hesitant about anything below university level, he was favorable to the idea of university level religious study.”

Braj Mohan Dasa, one of the organizers of Radhika Ramana’s tour, is excited about the possibilities. “Sabal is very brave in introducing change, so his support means a lot,” he says. “He would like to set International standards for the Indian system, with electives so that students can choose to study world religions if they would like to. He even asked Radhika Ramana for some information on Oxford education to help with informed change.”

It is now up to Radhika and ISKCON devotees around India to see where such courses, and even a department of religion, could be introduced. “I’m hopeful that something will emerge in the next few years,” says Radhika Ramana.

Meanwhile, in his tour’s aftermath, ISKCON Chowpatty devotees have been invited to teach a Gita and Ethics course in four colleges at Somaiya Vidyavihar in Mumbai. The Bhagavad-gita As It Is is being distributed as a textbook for the course, while this April 1,000 students will write an exam on the Bhagavad-gita.

“It is not yet a credited course, so it does not count towards students’ credits,” says Braj Mohan. “But if further talks with Kapil Sabal and others inspire a change in the educational system, then our course will be credited and can be given on a mass scale.”

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