from the Statesman, Calcutta
Posted October 28, 2004
From chanting Vedic mantras at a Bengali wedding to teaching Indian American children Sanskrit, Shukavak Das's heart beats for this city, writes Ruchi M Roy
He was born and raised in an American family in Canada. But right from the age of 11, Shukavak Das was drawn to the Hindu philosophy and the magic of the East. He completed his PhD in South Asian Studies and a Masters in Sanskrit grammar from the University of Toronto in Canada. As luck would have it, his research took him to interior Bengal. Government archives, local libraries, home visits were all part of his journey, giving him an insight into life in this part of India. "I think I was destined to come here. All through my childhood, I nursed a liking for India, Hinduism and yoga. I used to go to libraries to learn more about the region," says Das.
"If you want a city with life, go to Kolkata," he's likely to tell you when you ask him about his experience in Bengal. When he looks back at the years he spent in that city, unlike other places, Shukavak does not remembers any one particular thing. "I got lost in the hustle bustle of Burra Bazaar... the magnificent Victoria Memorial is distractive with the lush green Maidan. All I clearly reminisce are the people," he explains. For Shukavak, a city is not all about buildings and architecture, although Bengal is rich in that, but he thinks it is the people that define it. A Caucasian American Hindu convert, Das studied the Vedas and rituals of Hindu ceremonies and is presently a practicing Hindu priest in Southern California and lecturer at many local universities. His fluent delivery of Sanskrit shlokas has made him the most popular priest in California. Das's hands are quite full performing the task of the head priest of the Riverside Laxmi Narayan Mandir, participating in various rituals, and conducting seminars. He also runs a school where he teaches Indian American children Sanskrit.
There is a popular connotation in California, that a ceremony is special if the purohit is Shukavak Das. He not only translates each and every mantra but also explains them explicitly. "Das is very particular with rituals, his knowledge is indeed very vast," says Chitra Sarkar. Shukavak wedded Sarkars' daughter in a traditional Bengali marriage.
Immersed in the bhakti of the Lord, Shukavak is also a caring husband and a loving father of nine. Although Das's wife, Sukulina is an American, she possesses an equal interest in Hinduism, yoga, and Bengal. The tradition does not just stop here. Suaulina and Shukavak's children follow vegetarianism and all have Sanskrit names.
In spite of his busy schedule as a priest, Das has written three books. His first is his PhD work, which has been converted into a book, called Hindu Encounter With Modernity. It is an academic book that studies what happened to Bengali religion during the British incursion in India. "Dr. Shukavak in this book has written a clear analysis of the strain between traditional faith and modern critical thought," reviews Joseph T. O'Connell, University of Toronto.
The book is a grace for modern culture as it depicts on how religions change under different cultural pressures. Bhagavad-Gita Translations by Shukavak Das, is another creation of Das; the book is his translation of the Gita, based on the commentaries of Sankara, Ramanuja, and Madhva. And The Hindu Primer is a guide to Hinduism. "It is for people who come to me to know about Hinduism," says Shukavak. To review Das's books visit www.sanskrit.org. Along with his fond memories of Kolkata, Shukavak relishes the mishti doi and rasogullas of KC Das. "No where in India are the sweets as nice as Bengal," chuckles Das.
He just cannot forget to mention the spectacular noise of dhak and dhunuchi naach during durga pujo. But his favorite has been Sawarswati pujo, the young boys dancing across the narrow lanes in praise of the goddess of education.
"I just love Kolkata, for its rawness, sometimes just for no reason, I call it purna janam," smiles Das. For Shukavak, Kolkata is an intellectual haven, and Bengalis are special people all over India. "Bengal is the only place that is not all about money, it values art, literature, and is all about passion," added Das.
Being a Bengali Hindu American in the west, Shukavak's prime goal is to educate his shishyas (students) about Bengali culture. Even though Das lives in America, his heart is in Kolkata, India. In modern times of stress and turbulences, Shukavak Das thinks nothing could be more fulfilling than the Gita. "I love what I am doing and would do it all over again," departs Das with a namaskar.