Every week, members of the HDS community gather together at noon on Wednesdays in Andover Chapel to participate in a communal moment of reflection, spiritual worship, and religious practice. Wednesday Noon Service is hosted by a different religious community on the HDS campus every week, allowing all in the HDS community to pray in a multireligious environment not bounded by our many respective traditions.
This year’s Noon Service began with an event hosted by the HDS Hindu Studies Colloquium. The HSC is composed of students who are interested in advancing the study of religious and cultural disciplines from the South Asian subcontinent, especially as they relate to Hinduism. Current Office of Admissions GA, Sujay Pandit, MTS’18, had the opportunity to participate in this Noon Service event as an attendee and as a speaker. Then, he sat down for a conversation with Morgan Curtis and Michelle Bentsman, who run the Hindu Studied Colloquium here at HDS. Here is a part of their conversation about the behind-the-scenes process of Noon Service.
Morgan J. Curtis is a M.Div. studying Tamil literature and South Indian Hindu traditions and Michelle Bentsman is a M.Div. ’18 pursuing studies in Comparative Religion, Hinduism, Judaism, Death & Dying.
Sujay: Last semester, I took a fantastic class called “Hindu Ethics,” taught by Professor Anne Monius at HDS. The class introduced me to the rich, complex and varied world of Hinduism, specifically through ancient Vedic texts from thousands of years ago. One of the great aspects of studying topics that you are passionate about is that you meet fellow scholars/students who are passionate about the same ideas. Thanks to my Hindu Ethics class, I met the two of you. Towards the end of the semester, Michelle, you requested that I speak at the Noon Service event that the HSC would host in January. I enthusiastically accepted. Michelle, could you describe the Hindu Studies Colloquium and your particular role in the organization?
Michelle: The Hindu Studies Colloquium has been an organization devoted to providing a space for students and community members to openly discuss Hindu texts and concepts. I’m currently co-chairing with Morgan Curtis.
Sujay: I think it is really interesting that the HSC has two co-chairs who plan and collaborate on the events like Noon Service. Morgan, would you tell us what events or circumstances prompted you to want to conduct a Noon Service event?
Morgan: We were approached at the end of fall semester by Kerry Maloney, Chaplain and Director of Religious and Spiritual Life, because there was an opening for the first noon service of spring semester. We wanted to be able to help them out by hosting and also wanted to be able to offer something to the HDS community as they came back from winter break and also as we were all dealing with the inauguration of a new president.
Sujay: Since this was the first noon service of the semester, and students were on winter break for a month, it certainly must have been challenging to plan your Noon Service event for early January when everyone returns! How did you plan the Noon Service event? What were your intentions while preparing the different types of activities, inviting speakers and preparing the ritual moments?
Morgan: Knowing that this would be the first noon service of the semester and also the first noon service post-inauguration, we wanted to be able to hold a space where people could reflect on how they wanted to move forward in light of both of those circumstances. We wanted to invite people to speak who had moved us with their ideas and who we felt would share words that people needed to hear in these troubling times.
Michelle: Morgan and I had been discussing the fires of Rudra (a name for Shiva, commonly associated with destruction in Hinduism) in regard to the political climate. Transformation was on our minds. We wanted to create a space where people could shed some of the heaviness that was rolling in and get inspired through words, ritual, and song. Including a fire ritual felt necessary — not only on the symbolic level, but also in considering Hindu practice and history. Singing Shiva mantras fit strongly with these themes.
Sujay: Transformation was certainly a key theme in your Noon Service events! I am so grateful to have been a part of the service and to have the chance to speak. Especially because on the day of the HSC Noon Service, I was thrilled to see so many professors, students and HDS community members gather. I was really struck by the start of your Noon Service, which began with a Hindu chant by the HDS choir. A fellow HSC member and classmate of ours, Sunitha Das, spoke about the power of the female goddess figure in Hindu religion.
Thanks to your invitation, I had the chance to give a brief talk entitled, “Hinduism and the Making of the Incomplete Lover.” It’s interesting that this talk actually grew out of our class together. When you asked me to be a part of Noon Service, I knew that I wanted to share with the participants some of the research I did for our Hindu Ethics class on the 17th century, Indian mystic poet Mirabai. Mirabai was a radical writer and voice. In literary history, she is known as a Rajasthani princess who left her wealth and status to worship the Indian god Krishna, the flute-playing, blue-skinned god who often reappears in Indian mythology. I thought Mirabai would be a perfect representative of the devotion that many Hindus have towards poetry, song and God.
Sujay: By participating in Noon Service, I was able to reflect on how the content I was learning in class affected me as a scholar and a member of the HDS community. How has Noon Service contributed to your educational or social lives at HDS? What do you find most valuable about the experience?
Morgan: Honestly, hosting noon service was the first time I’ve attended a noon service. I’ve had classes that conflicted with the service every other semester of my time at HDS.
Michelle: The second Noon Service I ever attended was the day after the presidential election. The room was packed. Many of us were crying, a few were dressed in black. There was hugging, a tenderness in the air. It was the most powerful expression of solidarity and love I had ever witnessed within the HDS community. And though this was a very particular circumstance, it conveyed the centrality of this space within HDS. Even when earth-shattering historical events are at bay, Noon Service is an illuminating space to learn about the faiths and practices of fellow students, tap into a spiritual mode of being, and find meaning and uplift within the week.
Sujay: Michelle, I really felt the centrality of space that you talk about. I think Noon Service really does a fantastic job at bringing our entire community together. I was honored to have the chance to participate in Noon Service alongside the HSC. It was an enriching experience to be able to speak about my research; to gather with fellow HDS students, faculty and staff; and to understand Hinduism more deeply.
As we end our conversation, are there any suggestions you would have for other students (especially entering students) who are interested in hosting or participating in Noon Service?
Morgan: I was daunted by the idea of hosting a Noon Service but am glad we did it. The ability to share this kind of space with members of our community is part of what makes HDS special. It was such a welcoming and warm environment, and I felt like people were very open to the space we tried to create for them. So, I think the trick is to approach the hosting as an offering to the community and to trust that the community will meet you.
Michelle: Do it! If you’re hosting, arrange early. The challenge is well worth it. You get to choreograph/curate a spiritual experience for your peers, which means you can let your faith-based freak flag fly, or ply your skills in important religious activities like giving sermons and songs.
Sujay: Thanks, Michelle and Morgan. I know I am looking forward to attending more Noon Service events in the future, and I hope to see you there!