Opening Convocation address delivered by Anantanand Rambachan at St. Olaf College in August, 2020.
As we begin a new academic year, I want to offer a vision, a way of seeing each other, in Sanskrit, a darshan. I do so with the hope that this vision offers us some truth, some light, in these times of daunting challenges, fear and despair. This vision comes from the heart of the Hindu tradition, the tradition that I came to St. Olaf College, almost 35 years ago, to share with my students and my colleagues. (The story of my journey from a small rural village in Trinidad to Saint Olaf is one for another occasion).
The Upanishads, which are a part of the authoritative collection known as the Vedas, and in which we find the most ancient Hindu theological teachings, speak of the origin of the universe from the one divine being. The emergence of a universe of many from one is described as proceeding from a wish on the part of the one to bring forth many; a desire for self-multiplication. The Upanishads delight in detailing the rich and inexhaustible diversity that proceeds from the one. One text, for example, lists breath, mind, space, air, fire, earth, divine beings, human beings, animals, birds, rice, barley, oceans, mountains, rivers, and corn! Another text speaks of the dark blue butterfly, the green parrot with red eyes, the thundercloud pregnant with lightning, and the revolving seasons.
Diversity is not here problematized. Diversity is an expression of the intentionality of the one; it is a celebrative outpouring of the joyous fullness of the divine. God’s capacity for bringing forth difference as self-expression is inexhaustible. The Upanishads, however, do not stop here. They tell us more. They teach that after bringing forth this wondrous diversity out of itself, the divine is present equally in every being; everyone and everything is enfolded most intimately in God. Nothing exists outside of God and nothing exists but for the fact that it receives the gift of moment to moment sustenance from God. In the words of the sacred Bhagavadgita, everything rests in the divine like radiant jewels strung on a single thread.
This truth of divinity abiding in all hearts is the most fundamental source and ground of the intrinsic dignity and equal worth of every human being. It is our theological antibody to the instrumentalization of human beings and the denial of their personhood. We cannot claim, as so many across traditions and institutions do today, to acknowledge and to honor the divine while dishonoring and demeaning human beings. We cannot be indifferent towards or give support to historical structures that oppress, exploit and impede the ability of human beings to flourish and to joyfully celebrate existence.
Shiva as lord of dance from which creation proceeds.
Divine inclusivity is indeed the source of human dignity, but this truth invites us to an even deeper way of seeing human beings. It summons us to encounter each other with reverence and an awareness of the sacred. The logic of teaching that the divine is intimately present in us all leads to the awe-filled recognition that every human encounter is, in fact, an encounter with the divine. Every human relationship is a relationship with God. In the face of every being we behold the divine.
For good historical reasons, our contemporary discourse about the significance of human beings is dominated by the language of rights. The contribution of this language, especially in pioneering United Nations conventions, must never be underestimated. Such language, however, has its limits. It legally binds us to tolerance and to specified freedoms. It does not arouse delight in our differences or inspire relationships that flow from an awakening to the sacred in the other. It does not remove the veils from our eyes necessary for darshan, for sacred seeing.
I started with texts that celebrate the richness of diversity as divine expression. The divine desire is a desire for multiplicity. Every form is precious; every form is the outcome of divine intentionality. This may be enough for a theology of human dignity, equality and justice. This insight becomes more profound and challenging when it is united with the affirmation that the divine is embodied in everyone.
Arjuna’s vision in the Bhagavadgita of everything existing in God.
These two fundamental claims, however, require some critical clarifications. The first may be obvious but deserves explication. My argument here is not a version of speciesism that instrumentalizes nature solely for human wants. The exuberant forms of nature are also divine expressions, imbued with divinity. They also call forth our reverence and wonder and are deserving of our care and protection. The Bhagavadgita calls us to experience the divine in the taste of water, the fragrance of the earth, and the light of the sun and the moon. Second, my emphasis on the manyness of difference as divine manifestation must be heard as an assertion against arguments for human dignity and equality that presuppose likeness and similarity. Such arguments negativize and exploit differences as grounds for racism and human hierarchies of superiority and inferiority. When we are unable to welcome and rejoice in differences, we defer to powerful groups asserting their supremacy and holding themselves as the norm by which the worth of everyone else is measured. The history of the United States is replete with examples of this hierarchical normativity.
What are the challenges and implications of this radical affirmation of the value for difference and of reverence for each other? How does it become a practice for us as a community of students, faculty and staff? Does it have any pedagogical significance? Allow me to speak personally. In preparing for my classes, like all of my colleagues, I give a lot of thought to the content of my lectures, to methods for drawing my students into the material, and to the questions that I wish them to consider. My preparation, however, also includes a quiet moment of mindful recollection of the sacred that is present in each one of them. This awakens in me an attitude of reverence. I enter the classroom as a sacred space, conscious of and delighting in the uniqueness of each student. My value for my students requires me to engage them respectfully, and to be attentive to their words, and to their silence. A vision of the sacred opens my heart to each student, and I am a better teacher for this fact. Pedagogically, it requires me to ensure that my students engage not only the voices of the powerful in the traditions that I teach but, even more importantly, the voices of excluded, the disempowered, the devalued. Like the sacred that excludes no one, our classrooms and our college community must celebrate the diversity that is divine outpouring. We do so by hospitable openness to diverse persons, and by our heedfulness to all that impedes their joyful flourishing in our community.
Our responsibility, however, does not end there. Commitment to what I call a theology of darshan, a theology of diversity as divine celebration and divine presence, requires that we teach for the common good. We teach and advocate for public policies in education, gender, health care, economics, and immigration that enable all who share our planetary home to prosper. This is the work that begins again today in our classrooms. This work is urgent. Let us together begin our sacred work.
To watch the convocation address, click here. (The introduction of Anant as the speaker followed by his address begins at 11:40).
Anantanand Rambachan is Professor of Religion, Philosophy and Asian Studies at Saint Olaf College, where he has been teaching since 1985. He is the author of several scholarly articles as well as full-length monographs, including most recently, Hindu Theology (Fortress Press, 2019), A Hindu Theology of Liberation: Not-Two is Not One (SUNY Press, 2015) and The Advaita Worldview: God, World, and Humanity (SUNY Press, 2012). His essay “Renunciation of Vocation and Renunciation within Vocation: Contributions from the Bhagavadgita,” appeared in the NetVUE collection titled Hearing Vocation Differently: Meaning, Purpose, and Identity in the Multi-Faith Academy, ed. David Cunningham (Oxford UP, 2019).