The Power of Participation and the Gita Study Group

The Power of Participation and the Gita Study Group

(Chinmaya Mission Richmond Annual Day Celebration, November 22, 2015)

Niraj Verma

Two years ago I was asked to give an invocation at the Initiatives of Change/ Hope in the Cities national conference held in downtown Richmond.1 Not being a clergyman of any persuasion, I invoked my learning in the Gita study group and used it to speak about “tolerance.” Like many other scriptures, the Gita venerates tolerance but it also teaches that tolerance is the floor not the ceiling. To stop at tolerance is to build walls around ourselves that create schisms between those who tolerate – the tolerant– and those who are tolerated. So, tolerance can still lead to outcomes such as segregation, ghettoization, and other distinctions between us and them. The goal in the Gita extends far beyond tolerance. The ultimate goal is to become one with the Supreme Self and even to start on this path demands not just toleration but the ability to see oneself in every other self.

For the past five years, Namita and I have been fairly regular participants in the Gita study group. As a theorist and an academic I have a deep interest in philosophical ideas. But, it wasn’t until we came to Richmond and got in contact with Neil Bhatt and the Chinmaya Mission chapter, did I understand just how powerful and profound the Bhagawad Gita is and how it helps to transcend polarizations and divisions, such as those between science and religion, material and spiritual, mind and body. So, allow me to publically thank Neil for being my teacher and the teacher of so many participants in the Gita study group throughout the years. Indeed, in recent months spurred by Sonali Shetty’s technical expertise, Neil has been putting his discussions on podcast and now people from all continents are deriving the benefit of his expositions on the Gita. This is wonderful but I am sure that the podcasts are only the next best thing to being in the study group.

This is because the participatory format of the study group that Neil has forged allows each person an opportunity to reflect on the day’s conversations and occasionally to volunteer and lead a session. There is something for everyone. For the ritualist there is enjoyment in the chanting of verses. For the thinker there is joy in pondering over such challenges as giving up on the fruits of action while living in a material world. Still others relish the many fables and anecdotes that emerge from the conversation. And most of us can find glimpses of each of these: ritual, thought, and story in a delicious mix to be debated and digested. I have learned so much from each one of you. With your comments, smiles, stories, laughter, experiences, and excitement you have encouraged and influenced my thinking and well-being and I take this opportunity to thank you. And now, I invite members of the study group to share one idea that they have taken away from the class that has brought them even a bit closer to the ideals of the Gita. Thank you for participating and sharing…

Like tolerance, participation can be the floor or it can reach for the sky. Its power is in the good-will that is palpable in this room that makes us come that much closer to seeing the connectedness of each self with other selves. We come from a variety of backgrounds and represent many different professions: accountants, corporate leaders, medical doctors, scientists, engineers, social workers, IT experts, and, of course, teachers and professors. Where else will one find such diversity in backgrounds and perspectives knit together with the common goal of thinking, learning, teaching, and improving? If you are not yet part of the Gita group and if this describes you in any way, come join the Gita study group!

1For a brief report on the event go to: