Seminary Cancels Talk By Hindu Holy Woman Her Followers Consider Her A Goddess. To Eastern Baptist, Her Beliefs Are Incompatible.

Posted: May 21, 1997

Her devotees believe she is the Hindu goddess of knowledge: a reincarnation of Divine Mother Saraswati, consort of Brahma.

But officials at Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wynnewood say Hindus have no business using their Christian campus to promote their beliefs.

Yesterday, the seminary canceled tonight's scheduled lecture by Indian holy woman Sri Karunamayi, who is in her late 30s and is nearing the end of a 13-city U.S. tour that began April 5 in Dallas.

``It is our understanding that this woman is representing Hinduism,'' said Scott Rodin, vice president for advancement at the 460-student seminary. ``If that is the case, it would clearly be incompatible with the seminary's evangelical Christian stance.''

Rodin said the seminary did not realize when it rented the lecture hall weeks ago to Karunamayi's followers that she was a Hindu teacher - or that she is revered as a goddess.

``It's very unfortunate. We certainly don't mean to disrespect them or cause any detriment to their organization,'' he said yesterday.

But Pat Taretti, a disciple of Karunamayi's and coordinator for her appearances in the Philadelphia area, called the seminary's abrupt cancellation a ``nightmare.''

``We sent out 1,500 fliers and had an announcement in the Sunday paper - which we thought was such a godsend,'' she said yesterday afternoon. Last-minute attempts yesterday to find another venue on City Avenue near Eastern Seminary proved fruitless, Taretti said.

Instead, Taretti said, tonight's lecture will likely be held at 8 p.m. at the International House at the University of Pennsylvania.

``But it's a very poor alternative for the people who drive out to Wynnewood and are then told to go into West Philadelphia. I think some people will be very upset and just not go, which is unfortunate.''

Taretti said she didn't tell the seminary Karunamayi is Hindu when she was renting the lecture hall because, she said, Karunamayi's programs are ``not about Hinduism. She tells people to follow their own beliefs.''

Rodin declined to characterize the seminary's opinion of Hinduism but said it is ``certainly very incompatible with the tenets of the Gospel, and we're committed to the whole Gospel for the whole world. That commits us to drawing the line at what we allow.''

The seminary nevertheless allows people of all faiths, including Hindus, to lecture to students ``as part of an interfaith dialogue,'' he said.

Silent in all of this fuss was Karunamayi herself. She had flown here last night from Chicago, said Taretti, and was staying with acquaintances. Taretti said Karunamayi was unaware of the change in venue.

Hinduism has about 700 million followers, most of whom live in and around India. Because of its great age (some of its earliest beliefs predate writing) and size, Hinduism is really an amalgam of teachings with several sacred texts and an array of deities.

Essentially, however, Hinduism teaches that humans are spiritual beings who, in their multiple reincarnations on Earth, must practice disciplines and pursue knowledge in order to discover their true, divine natures. This discovery is prajna, or enlightenment.

``Compassion opens the door to freedom and expands the heart,'' Karunamayi has said. ``Have consideration, respect and regard for the feelings of others. Consider the virtues of others. Weigh your words before you utter them.''

Kathirswami yesterday described Karunamayi as ``a very powerful person, very advanced in her spiritual evolution.''

The Hindu idea of a person being the incarnation of a god or a goddess is difficult for Westerners - especially Christians - to grasp, he said, and noted that the assertion of divinity is usually assigned by a guru's followers - not claimed by the guru himself.

``It usually means that a person is perceived as holy - that their divinity is shining through,'' said Kathirswami.

``If you asked someone like Karunamayi if she believes she's divine she'd probably say: `Yes - and so are you, only you don't realize it yet.' ''

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