A Conversation with Brahmachari Vrajvihari Sharan, Director for Hindu Life, Georgetown University, Washington, D.C.
March 1, 2018
Background: In March 2018, undergraduate student Shilpa Rao interviewed Brahmachari Vrajvihari Sharan as part of the Doyle Undergraduate Fellows Program. Sharan is the Director for Hindu Life at Georgetown University. In this interview, Sharan shares his perspectives on Hinduism and interfaith work and discusses why he decided to come to Georgetown.
Can you talk about your background?
I was born and raised in London, United Kingdom. Having done studies there, just after college (what one would call grade 12 or 13 in the United States), I went to India. There, I did traditional studies and a certificate in Sanskrit at the University of Delhi. I did well enough to get into the master’s program at the University of Edinburgh, following which I did a pre-doctoral year of study at Oxford and then my Ph.D. at Edinburgh. I subsequently worked as a lecturer of Sanskrit and Asian religions at Cardiff University and the University of London before I came here.
On the faith side of things, though raised as a "cultural" Hindu, I was a very good atheist for a long while. It was my interest in physics—specifically quantum physics—and Vedanta that pushed me to think more critically about the spiritual path. I continued down that road to where I am today.
How did physics inspire your faith journey?
The various Hindu religions (Vaishnavism, Shaivism, Shaktism, and Smartism) are definitely monotheist, though people often lose sight of the fact that this theism is a stepping stone to something beyond empirical comprehension. Theism itself is not the be-all and end-all. When you’re young, theism is presented to you as such. I had problems with that as theodicy (the question of suffering--why there is suffering if there is an all-benevolent God) pokes quite a big hole in the theory. I thought that Hinduism did not have an answer to that because of how it was presented to me when I was young. So I bought into the dichotomy: if you weren’t theist, you had to be atheist or agnostic. I did not know that there was another way.
At that time, I was still reading Vedanta because I had an interest in Sanskrit and the Sanskrit texts that I had were Vedantic. Vedanta spoke about energy that was never destroyed and that transformed into matter and antimatter. That transformation happened as an emanation from one singular source, and the matter was described as "atomic, sub-atomic, and sub-atomic again" in the Vedanta. The "sub-sub-atomic" particles were colored and they spun. Quantum physics talks about these using different terminology. Atoms are composed of protons, neutrons, and electrons, which are comprised of smaller particles, quarks. Quarks have color and they spin. I thought that this coincidence between Vedanta and quantum physics was interesting, so I read more, and both the Vedanta and science started to make sense.
Why did you decide to come to Georgetown?
I decided to come to Georgetown because I knew that this university was one that is receptive to faith and spirituality. I’ve worked in secular universities before, and they are wonderful in terms of academics. However, a fair number of those graduates often found difficulty in translating academic knowledge into real life skills—especially interpersonal skills that enable communities to build relations. Georgetown, however, being a Catholic university, encourages at least a cursory understanding of the five major Jesuit values—caring for the whole person, men and women for others, etc. These are positive values that we also have in Hinduism, and they feature in all other world religions. Making sure that these values at Georgetown are in the minds of students, are factored into the curriculum, and feature throughout all the student life activities means that people graduating Georgetown have a better understanding and experience of holistic approaches to careers and the world.
Can you talk about your work at Georgetown?
Aside from the teaching I do (in the fall, I’ll be teaching Hindu Religious Traditions and Sanskrit), the Hindu Life program has its weekly spiritual service, which focuses on ancient methods of meditation and philosophy, followed by dinner for all who attend. There is also a small “Decoding Dharma” group of students who meet regularly and think about how to innovate within their dharma. The Undergraduate Hindu Students Association does an amazing job of developing the undergraduate student experience. This year, Hindu Life has begun connecting more with the Law Center, business school, and other graduate schools at the university. The festival celebrations have also grown. It’s good for the Hindus here to see that members of the wider university are attending to show their support for our way of life and the meaningfulness of the friendships we develop. Some of my most delightful tasks are the interfaith activities that happen in the student life arena but also behind the scenes with staff. These moments give me an opportunity to understand the depths of other religions, but also allow me to share reliable critical scholarship and lived experience of the Hindu religions.
What does social justice mean to you?
That was actually a big stumbling block for me when I came here. During the interview process at Georgetown, I was asked about my opinions on social justice. It was interesting to me that social justice had to be carved out as a separate entity that needed underlining from within a faith framework. For Hindus, the central philosophy of seva (selfless service) is predicated on our ability to understand it both in our spiritual life but also in our daily interactions with the world. Having faith or an understanding of Vedantic spirituality means living social justice. It was never demarcated as a separate enterprise. You cannot have a belief in God or something greater than yourself and let people who are less privileged in society continue to suffer, or do things that would make other living beings suffer. So, whether you’re a theist/spiritual Hindu or a cultural Hindu, you still subscribe to all of the charity and open-mindedness that dharma prescribes across the board.
What are some examples from Hindu scripture that support these ideas?
One example from within the theories on humility, prescribed by dharma, talks about how you will always be part of a wider network, no matter your status in life or how hard you work on your own. In general, if we do not work to uplift the social fabric, we will fail at truly succeeding. For example, there have never been innovative people that have succeeded on their own without interacting with anyone else. Those who have been successful have done so in collaboration with others. There is mutual benefit in helping those people to become successful. Helping one’s community and society to progress, therefore, should lead to success for everyone.
In terms of other examples, the Bhagavad Gita also talks about how one who is wise sees the intrinsic value in every being, no matter their situation. Additionally, there are several more theistic statements about uplifting the poor, because the divine is clearly manifested in walking with those who are suffering. So, whether theist or questioning, by helping those who are suffering, we are helping and uplifting our own understanding of the universe.
What challenges have you seen in the Hindu community?
Hindus are divided in many ways. People often focus on regional differences, and then philosophical differences, and then personal differences, and then create some more for good measure. A feeling of fraternity among Hindus is there, but it needs more work. It will take your generation some focused, selfless action to build up that unity. Historically speaking, when us humans become arbitrarily divided, there are many jackals in the wings waiting to pick us off, one by one, due to our own blindness—whether overtly or covertly.
However, your generation has seen what it means to be Hindu in the United States (here, I’m referring to the culture and the philosophy, not the religion). Being American Hindus gives us a little bit of a wider perspective than just the nationalist patriotism that is touted as American culture—for we can appreciate that American culture is indeed much deeper than this. It also, tangentially, gives us the ability to be bilingual and trilingual. It gives us thousands and thousands of years of continuity in terms of philosophy and worldviews. That foundation speaks across regional, denominational, and traditional divides. This is the beauty of America. It is comprised of myriad peoples who have similar experiences to ours based on their own historical backgrounds. If used wisely, we can all contribute towards building an exemplary society.
What is the role of Hinduism in interfaith work?
Hinduism has one of the most robust methodologies to deal with interfaith work, because the interfaith model was ingrained in the Vedas over 3,500 years ago. This idea has played out in India. Throughout India’s history, it has accepted those who were persecuted and those who have been chased out of their countries for their beliefs. All of them not only found homes in India, but they were given land and money to develop their own places of worship, theological schools, and businesses. Communities such as the exiled Zoroastrians, Indian Jews, St. Thomas Christians, Malabar Catholics, Sufis, Baha’is, and Tibetan Buddhists have all been able to exist in India with Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, and Jains in relative peace.
The theory of interfaith was reiterated in the Bhagavad Gita. The theory is that the one essence of the universe is called by different names by different peoples, but that all these paths are moral and encourage people to think of something greater than themselves. A common example given is that we are like one family living together with different interests, different likes and dislikes amongst us children, but nevertheless in the same global house. That allows us to do good interfaith work in the United States. Now that Hindus with stronger theological and philosophical backgrounds are becoming more involved in this work, good things are happening. Interfaith work is very vibrant now.
What are some of the challenges in interfaith work?
With interfaith work, one has to let go of the atrocities of the past—people now did not commit them and certainly do not condone them. Yet, this is very difficult for people whose pasts have not been adequately reconciled. This concern is heightened for Hindus, as no one has ever dealt with what has happened to us in India and the United States. For a while, interfaith work from the Hindu side floundered. It only started again when a movement of academics and swamis (Hindu monks and nuns) together decided that we need to learn how to exist and give up the expectation that anybody would ever apologize for what was perpetrated against us. So, Hindus made that sacrifice. Overcoming that issue is a challenge that still persists, but the majority of us have realized that it is better to look forward, not to the past.
What is the connection between the American Hindu experience and the experience of Hindus living in other parts of the world?
It’s imperative that American Hindus meet Hindus from other places, especially India. Currently, religion is being used as a political tool in many places across the world, and India is no exception. There are violent episodes every day attributed to religious conflict, but teaching about and critical analysis of religion is not allowed in the classroom. There is no religious education component to anybody’s education in India per the national curriculum. There are very few universities that have theology departments. There is such a dearth of good religious scholarship that there is religious representation from people without an iota of proper philosophical and theological training and experience. Here in the United States, people who are starting to represent Hinduism have good theological or philosophical and academic backgrounds. When Hindus in America and Europe meet Hindus from India, there is a slight disconnect, because of this difference. So, I think there is a lot of mutual understanding about critical approaches to religion and experiences of lived realities that can be exchanged.
However, Hindus in India who think about these issues have an element of pride in their religious tradition that is lost sometimes in the West, largely due to the problem of mediation of religion (those who represent religion to us). For the most part, the young Hindus of India who are more open-minded do not have that issue because they have often been able to find people who knew more about their spiritual traditions and were open and honest. That kind of pride would be good in the United States. Over here, that pride is being hijacked by people with agendas. The Hindus in India who have learned to stay away from those who would hijack that pride, that way of thinking about one’s heritage, culture, and tradition, whilst retaining one’s spirituality and connection to the authentic lineages, have much to teach us here in America.
What can Hinduism bring to young people?
We have, in the peripheries of our society, people with no connections with Hinduism, taking up parts of our philosophies that have an immediate impact—think of the vegan movement, the yoga movement, the mindfulness and meditation movements, and the kirtan movement (a type of meditation). These are all very big in the United States and are now multi-billion dollar industries. Many young people, seeing other people take value from bits and pieces of the Hindu tradition, are getting the idea that there must be something that has kept this heritage alive for at least 7,000 years. When they realize this, they go reading and start exploring. Hinduism is a tradition that does not want to force itself upon people. Rather, Hindus are interested in experiencing Hinduism in conversations with people—discovering what Hinduism can give people to help them with their needs. When our young people understand this, they realize that there is value in Hinduism that goes beyond simple identity and culture.
What are the strengths of Hinduism?
Hindus are innovators, making positive contributions in every field. As such, there are numerous strengths of Hinduism. But, there is a foundational element that we need to pay attention to—we need to reemphasize humility. Humility plays out differently for different people, but in general, it means that we should know to say that we need guidance when we don’t know something. When we seek guidance, we will become part of a network of people that are discussing the same questions. In this way, we are saving time in not having to reinvent the wheel. Thus, we are able to concentrate on bringing the best of our individual selves and talents to the rest of the world.
This humility also allows for differences in identity, opinion, and worldview. One of the greatest strengths of Hindu philosophy is that it welcomes difference. Hindus throughout history have hosted various persecuted groups from across the world. Refocusing on humility will allow us to check if we are being led astray from this central tenet. The moment that we make certain people "others" and people like ourselves "us," we will have lost sight of our greatest strength: humbly accepting the variegations of the world as part and parcel of the beauty of existence.