Ten representatives of Vaishnavism, and ten of the Christian faith will meet in Potomac, Maryland, just outside of Washington D.C., this April 13th and 14th for the fifteenth annual Vaishnava Christian Dialogue, on the topic of “The Hidden God.”
The event originated far from the United States: the very first formal Vaishnava Christian Dialogue was organized by the then European ISKCON Communications Director Shaunaka Rishi Dasa, in Wales, U.K. The dialogue then moved to Boston, U.S.A. for one year, and then on to Washington D.C., where it has been organized ever since by the International Director of Communications Anuttama Dasa.
Over the years, the dialogue has grown into a deeply commited group of regular participants who thoroughly enjoy each other’s presence. Some have commented that it’s the spiritual highlight of their year.
“Interfaith dialogues have many different flavors,” says Anuttama Dasa. “What’s unique about this one is that the people who participate are both scholars and devout practioners of their respective faiths. So we come together in the mood of fellow seekers—persons who are very serious about understanding their relationship with God. And the whole dialogue is focused on trying to share what we know, and seeing what we can learn about God from each other’s traditions.”
Christian representatives attending this year’s dialogue include Kenneth Cracknell, a British specialist in interfaith dialogue and former head of the Interfaith Committee for the British Council of Churches; Ed Shirley, a Catholic Scholar and the Professor of Religious Studies at St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas; members of the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops (USCCB); and other noteable Christian scholars and practitioners, particularly leaders from the D.C. area.
Vaishnava representatives will include ISKCON scholar Ravindra Svarupa Dasa (William H. Deadwyler III); Garuda Dasa (Graham Schweig), Professor of Religious Studies at Christopher Newport University in Virginia; Radhika Ramana Dasa (Ravi Gupta), Professor of Hinduism at The College of William and Mary, Virginia; Venkata Bhatta (Vineet Chander), Hindu Chaplain at Princeton University; and Rukmini Dasi, senior Srila Prabhupada disciple and active leader in Washington D.C. women’s interfaith functions.
This year’s Dialogue, like most of those preceding it, will be held at Rockwood Manor, an elegant retreat center nestled in thirty acres of woodland, and located about a mile and a half from the Potomac ISKCON temple. Most attendees will stay overnight at the Manor, a perfect place for such deep religious exploration.
The event will begin at 1pm on Friday afternoon, with Christian Ed Shirley and Vaishnava Graham Schweig each presenting papers on this year’s theme, The Hidden God, from their own tradition’s perspective.
“We choose a differen theme every year,” Anuttama explains. “One year, our theme was Spirit in the World: Affirmation, Renunciation. One year it was The Nature of the Soul. And another, we compared the writings of St. Bonaventure with those of Visvanatha Chakravarti Thakur in the Madhurya Kadambini.”
This year, Anuttama explains, the Dialogue will look at the understanding, within both Christian and Vaishnava traditions, that God is all present and omniscient, but that He remains invisible to the conditioned soul whose heart is not yet pure enough to see Him.
“At the same time, for those souls who do purely desire only Him, God is ever hankering to reveal Himself,” says Anuttama. “It’s a fascinating topic, and we’re excited about looking into how each of our traditions understands it.”
After the papers from each tradition are presented, the group will discuss the topic in depth throughout the afternoon. They’ll then wrap up the evening with a meal catered by the Potomac ISKCON temple, followed by spiritual music from both traditions.
On Saturday morning, after breakfast, one of the Christian participants will lead a half-hour Christian worship service, including readings from the Bible, hymns related to the Dialogue’s theme, and an explanation of worship in the Christian tradition.
One of the senior Vaishnava participants will then lead a half-hour Vaishnava worship service, with chanting, sastric readings, and a brief philosophical commentary.
This spirit of sharing each other’s worship is inspired by the writings of Bhaktivinoda Thakura, a 19th century Vaisnava saint. Bhaktinoda observed that interfaith involvement strengthens one’s faith in one’s own tradition, while helping develop a greater sense of respect for the sanctity of other faiths. He wrote:
“When we have occasion to be present at the place of worship of other religionists at the time of their worship, we should stay there in a respectful mood, contemplating thus: 'Here is being worshiped my adorable highest entity God, in a different form than that of mine. Due to a different practice of a different kind, I cannot thoroughly comprehend this system of theirs. But seeing it, I am feeling a greater attachment for my own system. God is one. I bow down before His emblem as I see here and offer my prayer to my Lord who has adopted this different emblem so that He may increase my love toward Him in the form that is acceptable for me.”
After observing and participating in each other’s worship practices, the Vaishnavas and Christians will continue their dialogue throughout the day until about 4pm on Saturday, when the event will conclude.
“I hope that through these dialogues, we can demonstrate a process of in-depth exchange between two great monotheistic traditions that might set a pattern of peace-building for the future,” says Anuttama. “Because in the world today, we see that the great religious traditions are often engaged in conflict. And that lack of understanding about religious practices and beliefs of others often leads to prejudice, fanaticism and exclusivity that runs contrary to core religious principles.”
Later this year, a special volume of the Journal of Vaishnava Studies, edited by Vaishnava scholar Satyaraja Dasa (Steven Rosen), will feature ten articles from both Vaishnavas and Christians looking back at fifteen years of Dialogue between their traditions.
“Our hope is that this will open the door for many Vaishnavas to understand the depth of devotion and revelation that’s present within Christianity; and for more Christians to understand the authenticity and the depth of revalation that’s provided through the Vaishnava tradition,” Anuttama concludes.