Raja Vedamariasusai, University of Madras

An Open Sharing of Ideas

The Institute for Advanced Study in Asian Cultures and Theologies (IASACT), a four-week residential program, gives scholars time to deepen their understanding of religious traditions and practices in Asia. The Divinity School of Chung Chi College, at The Chinese University of Hong Kong, convened the 2015 program from May 31 to June 27. United Board Program Officer Kevin Henderson resided with the 16 IASACT scholars, enabling him to pursue both his staff assignments and his own research interests in service-learning in Southeast Asia. His reflections follow.

IASACT.Raja Vedamariasusai

Raja Vedamariasusai (left) and Kevin Henderson (right) at IASACT 2015.

“I just want to know,” Raja said, during our first extended conversation outside of the IASACT program. We had walked through Chung Chi College’s campus on a humid Hong Kong evening last June, searching for an open canteen, and we now sat discussing sociological theory and pilgrimage while awaiting our food at Ebeneezer’s Kebabs Restaurant.

Each scholar develops a working paper during IASACT, and Raja Vedamariasusai, a PhD candidate in comparative religion at the University of Madras, was focusing on the concept of pilgrimage in the Asian context. Earlier, our IASACT mentors had talked about the methodology of research; now, over dinner, Raja asked me to help him sort out ideas about his research topic.  As he shared information about the shrines and temples encompassed within his study (Our Lady of Good Health, Vailankanni and Adhiparasakhti Siddhar Peetam, Melmaruvathur), our conversation jumped from one question to another: What role does pilgrimage play in the Indian context? How does pilgrimage contribute to spiritual life? What are its lasting impacts on individual lives?

Raja and I had many such conversations during our time at IASACT, and I believe that this organic interaction, this open sharing of ideas, is part of what makes IASACT both exciting and relevant.  In other informal conversations – over meals, on sightseeing excursions, or during free evenings – IASACT scholars exchanged perspectives on subjects as far-ranging as the perception of Jesus in Asian cultures, the ways in which language can constrain expressing the idea of God, and how ASEAN integration may shape higher education in Southeast Asia.

Raja truly embraced IASCAT’s goal of enabling scholars of different nationalities to work together toward an intra-Asian theological dialogue. It’s an understanding that IASACT helps to build through seminar presentations, one-on-one meetings with mentors, library research, and sometimes, a simple meal of kebabs.

(First published in Horizons, December 2016)