Religious Studies

-An exerpt from an interview with Ramananda John E. Welshons

NILS MONTAN: What was your undergraduate education in Religious Studies like?

RAMANANDA JOHN WELSHONS: While I was at the University of South Florida, I studied with a wonderful professor named Dr. Daniel E. Bassuk. Dan had a very colorful history: He was born a Hasidic Jew, and later become a Zen priest, and then a Quaker. He had quite a rich and diverse background. He had spent time with Alan Watts and was very fond of Huston Smith. Dan’s classes in the early Seventies were like a satsang – a spiritual community. We met two or three evenings a week in a classroom on the campus of U.S.F., and explored everything from Watts’ teaching, to Ram Dass, Huston Smith, Suzuki Roshi, Lao Tzu, Yogananda, Ramakrishna, Roy Eugene Davis . . . William James’ work, and Rudolf Otto’s work. We read things like Aldous Huxley’s Doors of Perception, and Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. We chanted and did kirtan with a group from the local Hare Krishna temple. We took hatha yoga instruction from an Indian woman who was a professor at USF. It was a very eclectic approach, and a very unique form of teaching. Amazingly enough, we got college credit for those classes! Dan’s classes were legendary at U.S.F. He would allow anyone who could fit into the classroom to sit in, so there were always rows and rows of people sitting on the floor and propped against the wall. Dan was a truly remarkable teacher. He was like a great roshi masquerading – in jacket and tie – as a college professor. He died a few years ago. We stayed in close touch over the years, and I had the opportunity to spend some very precious time with him and his family as he was dying.

My other favorite professor was Dr. James F. Strange – who is one of the foremost Biblical archaeologists in the world, a prominent Biblical scholar, and a general all-around genius. He has one of the most encyclopedic minds I’ve ever encountered. One moment he’d be talking in great depth about the Talmud, and the next moment he could give an incredible dissertation on John Coltrane’s saxophone solos. I did a fascinating research project under his guidance in which I compared St. Francis of Assisi and Ramakrishna. I still keep in touch with Jim. I think he is the only professor now on the faculty at USF who was there when I was a student. He is a wonderful, wonderful man.

It was during those years that I first encountered the Bhagavad Gita, the Upanishads, and Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras – three primary texts from the Hindu tradition, that have continued to guide me ever since. I re-read them all, year after year. Whenever I am asked what my favorite book is, I can say – without hesitation – The Bhagavad Gita. It is just SO beautiful!  So clear, so concise, and so comprehensive. It is such an amazing book! You can read in two hours, and then spend fifty lifetimes endeavoring to digest it!

NILS MONTAN: Is there a particular translation of The Bhagavad Gita you prefer?

RAMANANDA JOHN WELSHONS: I really like the one by Juan Mascaro. It’s very simple, straightforward, and clear. That’s the one that Ram Dass used for his famous Bhagavad Gita course at Naropa Institute in Colorado in 1974. The translation by Swami Prabhavananda and Christopher Isherwood is also a beauty. Some of the other translations are a little dry. And there are some that get a bit ponderous. Many contain a lot of unnecessary commentary – or they just don’t seem to resonate with the spirit of the Gita. They are obviously written by people who are either approaching the text from an intellectual, academic perspective, or have a big ax to grind – some specific path they are endeavoring to persuade the reader to adopt. But the Gita doesn’t require any of that. Just the pure teaching is enough – just the simple, clear Light of Krishna’s Love that pours through every page. It’s just so sweet. And so profound.

-Nils Montan is a writer and social commentator who lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico and Southern Brazil

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