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Hindu Monk Talks ‘Modern Monasticism’ at Divinity School

By Truelian Lee and Jingyao Zhao, Contributing Writers

Sitting in the common room of Harvard’s Center for the Study of World Religions, Hindu monk Swami Tyagananda compared “modern monasticism” to standing on a threshold.

“If you’re inside the room, you know exactly what is happening in the room, but…you may not know what’s happening outside,” he said. “But if you’re standing right at the threshold, near the door perhaps, you can look at what’s happening inside and what’s outside, even though you are not part of either.”

Tyagananda has been a Hindu monk for 41 years. During his talk, called “Encountering Modernity — Being ‘In,’ Being ‘Out’,” which was part of a Divinity School series on modern monasticism, he explained the central tenets and current trends of a contemporary commitment to the monastic life.

Traditionally, Tyagananda said, monasticism has focused on “not being a part of society at all.” Modern monastics, by contrast, maintain some societal engagement, according to Tyagananda.

“That’s where I locate myself, and also where other modern monatisticists who are more or less in the same situation that I’m in,” said Tyagananda. “I’m still a part of society — I drove to come here, I use a computer.”

Hal Edmonson, host of the talk and a student at the Harvard Divinity School, said the monasticism series aims “to show the diversity of contemplative practices that exists in Boston and around the world, and what that wisdom has to offer to a very complex moment in our history.”

Tyagananda spoke of the Hindu concept of karma, arguing that though some have called karma “controversial,” it is not a disempowering idea.

“We reap what we sow. If we have done something good, well, we have done something to deserve it, and if we experience something bad, we have contributed in some way to the feeling and suffering we have to see,” he said. “But karma is not fatalism or just depending on our destiny, karma is taking our lives in our own hands.”

Tyagananda also talked about interfaith dialogues, criticizing a hesitance to address difficult topics.

“Everybody is so careful to be politically correct and not to offend other people...But when we all go home, we do so with all of our biases and prejudices intact,” he said.

K.C. Mcconnell, also a Harvard Divinity School student, said that she found Tyagananda’s talk illuminating.

“I think it's really important we have these events at Harvard Divinity School, because we talk about interfaith, and yet we don't always see that played out,” McConnell said. “We see certain groups of people not getting as much representation in an academic sense. So, I think it is really important to have someone come and talk about it, because there are so many questions and misconceptions.”

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