The Oxford Center for Hindu Studies (OCHS) is a non-profit education center started by a devotee in 1997 and is a Recognized Independent Centre of the Oxford University. As per OCHS’s website, OCHS is “an academy for the study of Hindu cultures, societies, philosophies, religions, and languages, in all periods and in all parts of the world, maintaining the highest standards of academic integrity, originality, and excellence.” For ISKCON devotees who want to study Hinduism (including Vaishnavism) as an academic discipline, this is the leading institution to enroll in.
Originally, OCHS was named Oxford Centre for Vaishnava and Hindu Studies but soon dropped “Vaishnava” from its name. While this is only a change of name, a presentation made five years ago at the centre gives rise to a doubt as to whether “Vaishnava” has disappeared from the heart of the centre’s mission as well. (URL: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tlmdRFz1DVs)
The presenter is introduced as a tutor and lecturer at OCHS who is also completing a D. Phil on “yoga psychology” at Oxford University’s faculty of theology; a trustee of the Shri Chinmaya Mission and teaches Vedanta on a weekly basis; is also involved in many high-level interfaith initiatives; and, as one might expect, a prominent member of the Hindu community in Britain.
He starts by giving a very basic introduction to the different orthodox and heterodox Indian philosophical systems, in order to give some context for the three major schools of Vedanta.
Then he begins his description of Sankaracarya, Ramanujacharya and Madhvacarya’s darshanas by saying that since Ramanujacharya’s and Madhvacarya’s darshanas are responses to Sankaracarya’s, that he will spend more time describing Sankaracarya’s Advaita, which he indeed does. He also includes in his talk some crowd-pleasing stories from Shankaracarya’s life
At about 30 minutes left in the lecture, he is still talking about Advaita, and I am wondering when he is going to start getting around to Ramanujacharya’s and Madhvacarya’s systems. And I start wondering if maybe this video is just part one. I check, and this is the full presentation.
After a few more minutes he introduces Ramanujacharya, starting with some biographical stories of his life. And while it is apparent he is trying to be even-handed in praising Ramanujacharya with similarly popular pastimes about him, he is just not as enthusiastic in relating these pastimes as he was for Shankara.
With regard to the differences of Ramanujacharya with Sankaracarya, he briefly summarizes some of the important differences, but because he is giving so little time to it that one does not get to appreciate the depth of Ramanujacharya’s disagreements much more beyond Ramanujacharya just being a contrarian naysayer.
For example, the lecturer spent a good bit of time explaining Sankaracarya’s doctrine of superimposition. And knowing that Ramanujacharya in particular rejects this doctrine of Sankaracarya’s (it is one of his main differences with Sankaracarya), I was hoping to hear a somewhat substantial (even if concise) comparison of Ramanujacharya’s response to Sankaracarya on this point, but no such comparison was made. That might have somewhat redeemed the lecture had he done so.
The lecturer’s treatment of Madhvacarya was similarly hurried and inadequate. In cultivating intimacy with God, in enumerating the ways he attributes to Madhvacharya, he included serving people and serving the world as “how one can actually serve God.”
1:12:13: “So how does one go about attaining this intimacy with God? That is what it is all about. You cannot become one with God, but you can attain a very high level of intimacy with God, by hearing of God’s majesty, by singing His prayers, chanting His name, worshipping of images, [giving] salutation to His presence in all beings, cultivating the attitude of servant of God, serving people, serving the world is how one can actually serve God, and cultivating this intimacy with him, and whole-hearted offering of one’s self to God.”
Also notable is his repeated use of “God” instead of Vishnu or Krishna.
There was also about 7 minutes of questions and answers, which was’t really a Q&A but true believers from the audience standing up and gushing about Advaita Vedanta and lavishing the speaker with encomiums. One person who a Youtube commenter affectionately dubbed “fat uncle” took much of the Q&A to air his passionate enthusiasm for Advaitavad and his appreciation for the speaker. “Fat uncle nailed it!” And I was thinking, “Where are our supporters?”
So, just after “fat uncle” debuted, our “supporters” stepped forward. There were two or three older, white men with close-cropped hair, arrow shirts, and no tilak, and who raised their hands and asked some questions that did not seem to have much to do with the lecture itself. One of them asked if he thought that “Islam had affected the later dualist Vedanta.” The presenter gave some sort of non-answer, saying something about needing to collect the evidence to answer such a question. But to be fair, the question really had nothing to do with the presentation.
In some of the Youtbe comments, Indian commentators noted the speaker’s recurring misspelling and mispronunciation of Madhvacarya as Madhavacarya (though some disputed he mispronounced it — he did in fact misspell it in his slide deck). Others also found fault with the presentation, not being happy with the short shrift the speaker gave to Ramanuja and Madhva.
One non-Indian devotee criticized the presentation in the comments, quoting Bhagavad-gita extensively, to which another commentator, probably Indian, replied, “ISKCON bu****it alert.”
Another Indian made this complaint:
“The speaker is a trustee of Chinmaya Mission which is popularly known to spread Advaita philosophy. Any such person will never be able to provide an objective & unbiased study or presentation of the topic being presented here in this video. If at all one will clearly see through biases in responses to questions pertaining to the interlock of the three schools of though. Rather what is feasible is to hear about the respective theories from their mother schools and then arrive at your insights!”
Keep in mind that the lecturer is not just a visiting guest but at the time of the recording was also a teacher at OCHS.
But aside from some of these complaints, the overwhelming number of comments unequivocally praised the speaker and his presentation.
I am certain that if Srila Prabhupada had witnessed this spectacle, he would have been absolutely furious. He would have shut the entire program down immediately, denounced the guest as a rascal, and would not have held back any chastisement on the devotees responsible for this.