T.S. Rukmani reaches out to Montreal's Hindu community

by Brad Mackay

Dr. T.S. Rukmani has taught in sweltering Delhi and sunny Durban, but she will never forget her first year in Montreal.

"I first came here in 1995 as a visiting professor, just to test the waters, to see if I could put up with the winters, and that winter was very mild." Convinced that the rumours of Montreal's harsh winters were overblown, she accepted the university's offer to assume the Chair in Hindu Studies, and returned the following winter.

Rukmani b+wThat winter was far more harsh, and January 1998 saw the famous ice storm, which left her with some unpleasant memories, but Rukmani still considers her move to Montreal a welcome stage in her long career.

Born in 1935 in the state of Kerala, which makes up the southwest of India, she excelled academically, earning her PhD from Delhi University at the age of 23.

She nurtured an interest in Sanskrit, the classical Indian language that is key to understanding Hindu religion and philosophy. After three decades of teaching Sanskrit and a decade as principal at a college, in 1993 she moved to South Africa to become Chair of Hindu Studies and Indian Philosophy at the University of Durban, Westville.

In 1996, she was lured to Concordia's Department of Religious Studies partly due to her interest in the experiences of Indian communities abroad, also referred to as the Hindu Diaspora. It was a perfect match.

"One of the mandates I take very seriously is to interact with the community," she explained. "I hold an outreach class which meets once a week at which I lecture from an original Sanskrit text. There is a lot of desire from the students to know about their background." She teaches this class voluntarily, and it draws from 25 and 30 people from the general community.

Her students represent a broad cross-section of Montreal's growing Hindu community, from 20-somethings to seniors, all searching for a deeper understanding of the ancient Sanskrit texts that form the foundation of their religion. "Once you come out into a sea of other people, religion is one of the things that you usually cling to," she said.

Rukmani also maintains a busy schedule of research and conferences that has her flying all over the globe. She recently returned from India, where she interviewed Hindu monks to assess how their practices and rituals have changed under the increasing influence of the West.

Hinduism has managed to survive and thrive for over 3,500 years by allowing for many different interpretations and approaches.

"It fits into the 21st century because it is not dogmatic. People can learn about it in various ways," she said. "It even allows for science and Darwinism. In this way, any thinking person will find something in it."

This diversity is reflected in an upcoming panel discussion called Hinduism and the New Millennium, which will take place at the Henry F. Hall Building on May 20.

Among the guest speakers at the day-long event are theologians, authors, a musicologist and the Director-General of the Canadian Space Agency.

"Music, dance, painting -- all of these art forms are part of the tapestry of Hinduism," she said. "They all address the divine."

In the morning, the eclectic panel will discuss their visions of the future of Hinduism in a rapidly changing society. The day will end with a lecture by Professor K.L. Seshagiri Rao, from the University of Virginia, who will talk about his book Gandhi's Vision of Truth and Non-Violence.

Meanwhile, Dr. Rukmani is busy preparing an international conference for 2001 on the Mahabharata, the Sanskrit epic.

Considering the six months of ice and snow she now has to put up with, has it all been worth it? "It's been very satisfying. I'm really enjoying it," she said, adding, "I feel that I am filling a vacuum, an empty space."

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Copyright 2000 Concordia's Thursday Report.

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