About five years ago, the notice board at Ayodhya Mandapam, West Mambalam, Chennai, said, “Lectures on Bhagavad Gita by Dr. Vasudevacharya (Australia) in English.” And Vasudevacharya turned out to be an Australian. Ayodhya Mandapam has seen scholars such as Sengalipuram Anantarama Dikshitar, Kripananda Vaariar, Somadeva Sarma, T.S. Balakrishna Sastrigal, Thoopil, Manjakkudi, Mukkur and Keeran. English lectures by an Australian? Curious enthusiasts attended only to become regular listeners. An interview was in order and Dr. Vasudevacharya obliged. Excerpts:
Coming from an orthodox Christian family, how did you get exposed to Hinduism, the only recourse being books those days. (The web had not come into being then)?
My earliest memory of exposure to the Hindu religion was from an encyclopaedia in the library at our house back in Sydney, Australia. The pages on Hinduism and Buddhism attracted me and I kept reading them repeatedly. I was about 10 or 11 years old then. On my way to school, I had to pass a Church. One day I knelt and prayed there and while coming out noticed many books and pamphlets kept for sale and there was a book on Hinduism too. I went to school and returned during the recess to pick up that book by dropping money in a box kept there. Eagerly waiting for the weekend I took off to the hill side in Sydney, sat on top of a rock surrounded by thick foliage and read the book from cover to cover, but could not comprehend what was said. Yet my effort continued.
You were too young and with none to guide did your interest wane?
My parents had no connection with India. When my father gave me the choice of a gift for my birthday, I chose a book on India. Although it had everything in it, right from making chappatis, etc., I would impatiently flip the pages to arrive at temples and Brahman.
As a teenager, I practised meditation. I would find a quiet place in a hut near the beach and stay there for a week reading whatever books I could grab on Hinduism and Iskcon literature. None of these made an impact and my search for a guru began.
Swami Dayananda Saraswathi was in Australia. Thanks to the relentless efforts of a Brahmacharini of the Chinmaya Order, he agreed to take me as his student. By then I had graduated in Arts. During the 1980s, I spent two-and-a-half years at an ashram in the U.S. We were taught meditation and the Upanishads along with Sankara Bhashyam, Sutras, Gita and Sanskrit. Swamiji gave me this name and also blessed me with upaveedha. All this I firmly believe is due to Samaskara. After a brief stint at Rishikesh, I returned to Australia.
Although I wanted to study at the University of Madras, I could not leave Australia because of my ageing parents. Instead I joined a Ph.D programme at the Australian National University on Advaita and Vishistadvaita and my professor was a Dutchman. The course took me to Pune. Later, I came under the tutelage of Srinivasa Sastry of the Deccan College and then Krishnamurthy Sastrigal of the Madras Sanskrit College. Both were scholars, willing to teach me everything they knew.
And after that?
I worked for sometime at the University's department but quit, realising that it was not my cup of tea. Now I conduct classes on the Gita and the Upanishads. The students are a young bunch, both Australian and Indian. Currently I am reading the Bhagavatham for its beautiful Sanskrit all on my own but I do refer Sridhara's commentary. I have been lecturing at Singapore and Malaysia and in India at Hyderabad, Bangalore and Chennai.
What is it that is still driving you?
Somewhere deep in my heart I feel I have something to share about Iswara which I find in the Gita. Everything else is secondary. This I feel may be due to my guru's prasada or my own Samaskara. Some Divine force or Shakti is pushing me – the reason for my sitting on this platform, adorned by doyens.