Interesting conference of “Spirituality and the Science of Consciousness” in Kolkata at the Ramakrishna Mission Institute of Culture. This is the second time I have come here, both times in the somewhat awkward position of being Swami Veda Bharati’s representative and thus more or less as an observer and student.
Last year I was somewhat aware of the rather odd cultural disconnect that I felt in the surroundings of an ersatz Western institution, reproducing in me memories of aspects of my old Jesuit-run high school, like the auditorium and refectory. The use of English language and European dress in a milieu that was 95% Bengali also seemed somewhat strange. Also, the aging and somewhat eccentric nature of much of the audience was particularly evident.
This year, however, I was more conscious of other aspects of the Ramakrishna Mission. First of all, the institution seems to be very well run. Things are clean, on-time; staff is polite and helpful, etc. But more particularly I was thinking about the very nature of the conference itself. Over the past 8 years, the mission has held five such “international conferences” on the subject of consciousness, with slightly differing themes. International because a number of the speakers do come from outside India or from non-Bengali speaking parts of India, and use the English medium to write or communicate their findings.
This year’s two-day conference had a grand total of 23 speakers, from a number of different fields, including a few very skeptical scientists, presenting a rather wide range of views. Swami Atmapriyananda, who I believe is the rector of the Belur Math’s “deemed” university, gave a rather eloquent summing up at the end by refering to the passages of the Upanishads that talk about the “dearness of the self.” He said that though the scientists and different spiritual seekers from different schools may have differing points of view, and though we may come to no conclusions, still there is great joy to be had by inquiring into the nature of the self, or consciousness itself.
Roughly speaking, the speakers at the conference could be divided into three categories. There were the scientists who were involved in studying consciousness from some point of view or another. Then there were spiritual practitioners and philosphers who were interacting with the scientific research in some way, and finally those who simply summarized the point of view of a particular school of thought.
Both last year and this, I remarked on the absence of any representative from any Vaishnava school, what to speak of Chaitanya Vaishnavism, which seemed to be an oversight. I went and spoke to Swami Sarvabhutananda, the director of the RMIC, and he simply said he could not find anybody. I told him that I would supply him with a list of people so that the oversight would not take place again.
But then I had to think about whom I could recommend. What representative of Gaudiya Vaishnavism could speak to the subject? Satya Narayan Dasji is really the only one I could think of, though there are probably some within and without Iskcon who could do so.
A cursory look at the Ramakrishna Mission bookstore shows a rather wide variety of books from translations and commentaries of Sruti and Smriti texts, to historical texts discussing the founders of the RKM as well as scholarly studies of various aspects of community, society and spirituality. Overall, the scope is much wider than one would expect to find in a typical Gaudiya Math or Iskcon bookstore.
The value given to education and a Western approach to study, or at least an interaction with Western rationalism, is a feature that has to be admired. Though the RKM sannyasis who spoke—Swami Prabhananda, Swami Sarvabhutananda, Swami Bhajanananda, Swami Atmapriyananda and Swami Sarvapriyananda all showed remarkable erudition, and all defended the Advaita position, they were all quite competent in dealing with the issues under examination in the conference. And it must be remembered that whatever the Vaishnavas’ disagreements with them, as Vedantists we are allied with the Mayavadis in our acceptance of the irreducibility of consciousness.
I think it would be worthwhile sharing some of the material that was discussed and will try to find time over the next couple of days to summarize some of it.