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'Keep an open mind,' graduates urged

Baccalaureate speaker Arvind Sharma has written or edited more than 50 books and 500 articles in the fields of comparative religion, Hinduism, Indian philosophy and ethics, and the role of women in religion.

Scholar and author Arvind Sharma urged Lehigh students Sunday to “keep an open mind” as they graduate and embark on their life’s journey.

Before for a standing-room-only audience in Packer Memorial Church, Sharma delivered the 2014 baccalaureate address and spoke of the migration of thought that comes from learning more about people’s circumstances and from listening to other people’s opinions.

He said he was first struck by this in his first full-time teaching position in the 1970s in Australia. As he and his colleagues shared their moral and spiritual journeys, he noticed that every person, in describing their life’s course, had tended to move in a direction opposite to the one in which they had started.

“Those who believed in strict discipline had tended to become more lenient with the passage of time,” Sharma said, “and those who were lenient to begin with increasingly felt the need for greater discipline. Those who began as atheists had become more willing to entertain the idea of something transcendent. Those who began as theists were raising questions about God’s benevolence and justice.”

Decades later, when he spoke with a panelist at the Parliament of World’s Religions in Barcelona, Spain, Sharma said he learned that such migration of thought had also occurred among a group in South Africa who had also shared their spiritual biographies.

“This had to be more than a coincidence,” said Sharma, who holds the Birks Chair of Comparative Religion at McGill University in Montreal. “And then it struck me: Life is too complex to conform to any single model. So be committed to what you are doing, but keep an open mind.”

Graduating seniors and their family and friends attended the hour-long baccalaureate service, which opened with music from the South Side Brass and The Concord Chamber Singers.

Students from three religious traditions spoke about their faiths:

•    Nathan Kasimer ’14, a Massachusetts native graduating with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering, represented Judaism.
•    Jerard Gordon, a master’s student in mechanical engineering, represented Christianity.
•    Sana Ashraf ’14, a Bethlehem native graduating with a major in psychology, represented Islam.

The Rev. Lloyd Steffen, university chaplain and director of the Lehigh Center for Dialogue, Ethics and Spirituality, introduced Sharma. He said that in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Sharma had used his prestige to convene a world conference to consider what would become of religion.

Sharma had emphasized the need for dialogue, for confronting misunderstanding, for keeping one’s eye on truth and for understanding religion as a great power, Steffen said.

A prolific author and leading authority on Hinduism, Sharma has promoted the adoption of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the world’s religions.

In his address at Lehigh, Sharma asked his audience to consider:

•    “When you hear of an act of violence being committed and are about to condemn it, think of what Martin Luther King Jr. said: ‘Violence is the voice of the unheard.’ Keep an open mind.”

•    “’Return evil with that which is better.’ In which religious text does this statement appear twice? The New Testament? The Torah? The Bhagavadgita? It appears twice in the Qu’ran. Keep an open mind.”

•    “When you set out to save the world, or more modestly, to change it, think of what Mahatma Gandhi said: ‘Be the change you want to see in the world.’ Keep an open mind.”

•    “When railways were first introduced, everyone knew that it would change the way we lived. But no one foresaw the rise of suburbia. Keep an open mind.”

The baccalaureate service concluded with a choral benediction.
 

Photos by Christa Neu

Story by Mary Ellen Alu

Posted on Monday, May 19, 2014

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