An Asian American Experience:
One Year in India
by
Ravi Kulkarni

[June 27, 2002]
 

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This lecture is going to be a narration and then a dialogue.

The AAARI brochure starts with a question: "Who are we?" You know, it is a million dollar question. There is a finer question, a trillion dollar question: "Who am I?" That is a deep question, and this lecture is not an occasion to talk about it. Curiously, for most of us, it is easier to get an idea about who we are, than about who I am. But since both Tom and I adore Buddha, let me only say, very briefly, how Buddha put it. It is said that when he got "enlightened", the first words that he spoke to the public were:

We are what we think
With our thoughts we create our world
Think of constructive thoughts, and our life is built
Think of destructive thoughts, and our life is ruined
That is the Simple and Golden Rule of Life

For thinking constructive thoughts, we have established AAARI, and most of us are Asian Americans, or we are interested in the issues that impact on Asian and Asian Americans.

So we need to know who is an Asian American. It may not be a million dollar question, but still a 100 thousand dollar question. Are we Asian? I think, the answer is "no". Our life experiences in the U.S. are very different from a typical Asian in China or India or Japan or Korea or Vietnam. Are we American? I think, the answer again is "no." It was definitely "no" for those of us who came here after spending our childhood in some country in Asia. It is still "no" for the second generations as well. We are just not going to be melted entirely to what is now a predominantly white Anglo-Saxon Protestant, or Roman Catholic, or Irish or Italian, or Hispanic, or Jewish, or Slavic worlds.

There will be mixed marriages. Love will play its unifying, but not melting role Monyikan-Nathan-Schlesinger concept of "melting pot" was discarded by their proponents themselves. What we have is a "garden salad"-type diversity.

Curiously, an Asian American is an Asian in America, or American in Asia.

Let me tell you my recent life experience, in the last two years. You know, I am professionally a mathematician. If you ask me, "Who are you?" my first answer after I tell you my name, is that I am a mathematician. But this is not how I can be treated in the U.S. or Europe. When they will refer to some work of mine, they will say, "You know that theorem proved by that Indian, what's his name - Ravi K - I cannot pronounce his last name." So I am a "mathematician of Indian origin in the U.S." - that is how I am identified.

But a similar thing happened to me in India in the last two years. Of course, there they do not have any problem in pronouncing my name. But during the last 40 years I am in the U.S., at universities and research institutes and I was going to India every two years or so giving talks After my parents became old and they did not want to come here, I started visiting India every year. Three years ago, my father passed away. I am the first child of my parents. Both my father and mother were the first children of their parents. And ours is a large extended family with all interesting hierarchies defined mainly by age - that is India, where age itself carries respect. - So after my father passed away, and my mother is very old now, in some ways the father's mantle has fallen on me. Now my siblings and their children look up to me. Many times they bring to me their internal problems. Most of the times I cannot solve them. But by the time they talk to me, they themselves resolve their internal problems. So everybody is relatively happy and contented. Nobody goes to consult a shrink, nobody tires to jump out of the window. - This has nothing to do with being Asian or American. This is just family. That is a very important identity in life.

But what I wish to tell you, is what happened to me professionally in the last two years. I usually visit research institutes in India in math. In January 2000 they invited me to visit Harish Chandra Research Institute in Allahabad, India. Harish Chandra was a great mathematician of the 20th Century. He was in the Institute for Advanced Study. He was originally from Allahabad. He died in 1983. This Institute is over 25 years old. It was renamed after Harish Chandra last year. Knowing that I was coming to India often, my hosts asked me, whether I would come to the Institute permanently. I told them, if they are serious I would consider their offer very seriously. But at the same time, I have some property in NY and 40 years of stem - if not the roots - in the U.S. "Will you allow me to retain my links with the U.S.?" They pondered over it. After about 3 months they wrote to me that their Council had voted to offer me Distinguished Professorship in math, and the Directorship. That was of course very happy news. In fact their expectation was that I would be able to contribute my 2 cents to build bridges in the mathematics and physics communities in India, U.S. and Europe.

I applied for sabbatical from CUNY. I was set to go by July 2000.

You think, everything was dandy, and it was just a matter of getting a formal appointment letter. Wrong! The HRI Council recommendation was to be approved by the Department of Atomic Energy, which supports some of the research institutes including HRI. There, somebody thought that they should enquire, what was my citizenship. How for 25 years, I am a U.S. citizen. Somebody noticed that every Director of a DAE-supported research institute had an Indian nationality. Fortunately there was no explicit rule that a Director had to be an Indian national. But still it became a major question, which delayed the action by one year. Indian people, on the whole, are very liberal. You know, one of the contenders for Prime Minister's job is Sonia Ghandi, who is an Italian-born wife of Nehru's grandson, and Indira Ghandi's son. Unlike the U.S., there is no law in India that the Prime Minister has to be an Indian-born citizen. So finally they approved, but before that I went though a vigorous interview for a full day from the DAE Chairman. Dr. Chidambaran in August 2000. I think, they wanted to make sure that I was not a CIA-agent. Fortunately Dr. Chidambaran, besides being an eminent physicist, has love for the Sanskrit language, literature, and Indian philosophy. I shared those interests. In a one-day interview, there were only about an hour's questioning about my mathematics. They mainly wanted to know where I stand emotionally, culturally and so on. So when Dr. Chidambaran veered the conversation towards Indian philosophy and Sanskrit, and I could quote something very authentic, with modern interpretations, he was at ease. He was convinced that anyone who knows Sanskrit poetry could not possibly be employed by the CIA. So after that he put on a very good recommendation. He said something to the effect, "Although Dr. Kulkarni has stayed for 40 years in the U.S., he knows more about India and its culture than most scientists in India." We have become good friends. Still after 8 months after that there was a police inquiry in which they interviewed my two sisters and my aunt. So finally in July 2001, I actually got an offer. So this is what it means to be an Asian American, you are an Asian in America and American in Asia. For me this is also a verification of what Buddha said, " Think constructive thoughts, and our life is built."

You probably want to know about my one year in India. I have to offer a very positive view. First of all, the HRI is at a very beautiful location. It is at the confluence of two major rivers, Ganga and Yamura. That confluence-point - or rather a line is about two kilometers from my institute. On a sunny day, you can well see the confluence line from a high spot in my institute. And there are many sunny days. It is a very scenic spot. You see, Yamura's waters are greenish; Ganga's are pure white. Where they mingle together there is a beautiful color combination. It has inspired many poets for centuries. It is described in Ramayana, on of India's two great epics, and mankind's oldest epic in writing. It was described by Kalidasa, a great poet who lived 2 thousand years ago as follows. You see Rama and Seeta are the hero and heroine of Ramayana. Rama and Seeta are flying from Sri Lanka to Ayedhya - in the north - and on the way they see Prayag and this confluence of rivers. Kalidasa pours from four ecstatic stanzas full of similes after similes to describe this confluence. Finally he says - let me sing it in the original, although you don't know the language.

"My beautiful wife, look at the waters of Ganga, split by the waters of Yamura." The scene reminds him of Shira (or Buddha) in meditation pose. Green color symbolizes the serpent in his neck, which is a symbol of energy and the white color symbolizes the white ash on his body, which is a symbol of serene detachment. This is an ecstasy of meditation, which has survived for two thousand years. Yoga and meditation are some of the high points of the Buddha's and Shankara's Patanjalis, - if you like India's and China's gifts to the world.

Some atheist complained that any phrase involving the word "God" violates the doctrine of separation of Church and State. Such a confusion about "spirituality" and religion! You see the judge's argument. It uses the word "monotheism" but not "monism" which is the contribution of Buddha and Shankara. "Monotheism" refers to "one God", but still that "God" is different from each one of us. "Monism" is the doctrine that all that "IS", each experience of "I AM", the experience of "Being", "Becoming" and "Bliss" is "God". So everything "Living" is God, and so united in God. So even an atheist believes in this God. This gives a very nice explanation why you feel the pain when somebody else is hurt. There is a basic unity in the experience of living. So if somebody is hurt, you feel hurt too. This whole perspective is missing in the West, and in the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition. This is one major philosophical contribution, which Asian Americans can give to the world.

You may of course ask: What about the Hindu-Muslim problem? The tensions in the two communities are real. I do not think that the actual war will take place. But in Kashmir, Gujarat, and some other places, the tensions are high. In the immediate future these are law and order problems. But the thinking is going on about whether the problem of religious conflicts can be solved say in 20 to 50 years. There is a belief that it is possible.

It is through pluralistic education at the starting level - from age 2 and 3. There is not just a Hindu-Muslim problem. There is a Jewish-Muslim problem and a Christian-Muslim problem. All these problems have their roots in the education in the religious schools: madarassas, yeshivas, and seminaries. The question is what is covered by the "freedom of religion?" It certainly covers freedom of individuals to choose a particular religion - in the sense of a ritualistic tradition, and a freedom to teach it in school. But it should not cover a freedom to teach hate towards other traditions. Better still, the law should compel each school to point out to the students:

a) Our tradition is one of the many traditions,
b) Introduction to at least one more religious tradition.
There are some PIL's - Public Interest Litigations along these lines

Let us come back to AAARI - Developing new courses in Asia and Asian Americans: specifically in Anthropology, Business, History, Philosophy, Psychology and Sociology.

Pan-Asian View - That is what I like best about AAARI. Thomas Tam's contribution. Betty Lee Sung made a major start. Thomas Lee is doing major work. East Asian/South Asian strong coalition - should develop.

For Asian Americans History of Asian Immigration I suggested - Susie Lee - Korean girl from Cornell - should be put on the web.

Fundraising - Basic Numbers

20,000 students x $1/biweekly paycheck = $500,000
500 faculty x $10/paycheck = $125,000

Mr. Charles Sung - $5,000 matching
I have - $10,000 matching

Charity should begin at home.
Then ask community, research grants and so on.

What can AAARI do for Asian faculty and students

1) Directory - Not just colleges, but also discipline-wise
2) Newsletter
3) Journal
4) Professional counseling
i) What is involved in getting tenure?
ii) What is involved in getting promotion?
5) Actual case studies
Betty Lee Sung's career - How did she become a Professor? Which steps?

Basic Calculation (Human Resources Information)

In 7 to 12 years a person should get a promotion
Ph.D. - 7 years --> Tenure (Assistant Professor)
7 years - 12 years -- Assistant Professor --> Associate Professor
12 years - 24 years -- Associate Professor --> Professor

Look at the career trajectories of Asian American faculty at CUNY. Do case studies.

I know a person - for 15 years - he is an Associate Professor, something is wrong.

My case: I told you my Directorship at HRI in India - that is a view from the top of the mountain. I tell you a view from the depth of the valley.

My career John Hopkins Ph.D. - 3 years
Germany Institute for Advanced Studies 3 - 5 years
Columbia University 6 - 8 years
Rutgers University 8 - 9 years
Indiana 7 -18 years
CUNY 18 - 34 years

At the age of 39 - CUNY mentions for Distinguished Professorship
At the age of 42 - CUNY mentions for Distinguished Professorship
1986 at age 44 - Tenured full...- verbal promise of Distinguished Professorship
1988 - 1990 - 1992 - 1998 -- Distinguished Professorship nomination

I have filed a suit. It is a PIL suit - Public Interest Litigation. I have said, I shall not make a dime from my personal use.

If I get monetary compensation, I shall offer it for:

1) AAARI
2) Graduate student support
3) Establishing Chairs in Comparative Religion and Comparative Philosophy

I asked for establishing a committee. I asked AAARI - Wellington Chen to make a presentation to Chancellor Goldstein to establish a committee.

If some members will lend me support in the Class Action Suit.

We are what we think
With our thoughts we create our world
Think of constructive thoughts, and our life is built
Think of destructive thoughts, and our life is ruined
That is the Simple and Golden Rule of Life

Prepared by Anchalee A. Pongsrirojana
Based on notes written by Ravi Kulkarni

 

 

 


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