Professor of religion, Asian studies inspired to expand teaching through inner peace
“World Peace Through Inner Peace,” a summer symposium at the Swami Sivananda Ashram and Yoga Retreat, on Paradise Island in the Bahamas, gave Jeffery Long more than just an opportunity to share knowledge with other researchers, writers and educators. It helped rejuvenate his passion for teaching on the subjects of interfaith engagement and religions and the ways to connect his lessons to popular culture.
Along with five speakers from the “Sutra Journal” team, a group of writers and scholars who cover a wide range of topics related to India and South Asian traditions, Long, a professor of religion and Asian studies at Elizabethtown College, presented three programs to visitors and residents of the ashram – a place of religious retreat.
“It was humbling” to be among scholars and practitioners who have spent their lives applying their knowledge to the alleviation of human suffering, said Long. “They are doing a lot for humanity, spreading awareness of Hinduism in the Western world.”
We don’t just do our work for knowledge, but to benefit others.”
Hinduism is a belief system that originated in South Asia, but is now practiced worldwide. It is based on belief in one all-pervasive supreme being, an ancient collection of scriptures known as the Vedas, karma, reincarnation and the idea no religion teaches the only way to salvation.
The retreat was established in 1967 by Swami Vishnudevananda Saraswati who, noted Long, was the person who gave the Beatles a book on yoga which initially piqued the band members’ interest in Indian religions. The ashram was begun as a place where seekers from around the world could study yoga and learn to train others in this ancient practice as well.
Focusing on messages such as therapeutic meditation, prison yoga programs, and the connection of Hinduism to popular culture, the speakers shared their messages each day with around 500 attendees. “There are many who live at the ashram to maintain it and study. There were monks and nuns and people who just happened to come that week for a spiritual retreat,” Long said. “There were about 100 people there doing yoga-teacher training.”
Interest in the Hindu philosophy came to Long soon after the death of his father. At the age of 13, he picked up a book at a sale in a Methodist church parking lot. There, among the sci-fi novels and comic books, he said, was the Bhagavad Gita, a 700-verse Hindu scripture. The Bhagavad Gita is a small part of the Mahabharata, a Hindu epic that is four times the length of the Bible. It is a source of information on the development of Hinduism between 400 BCE and 200 CE.
Long said he was fascinated and immediately wanted to learn more.
His fascination became a lifelong study and practice. Today he is a prolific writer on the subject of Hinduism and interfaith studies, writing 5 books, with 3 more in progress. His most recent is the “Encyclopedia of Indian Religions: Buddhism and Jainism (Volumes One and Two).” He also contributes to numerous journals and story collections and is the series editor of “Explorations in Indic Traditions: Theological, Ethical, and Philosophical,” published by Lexington Books.
“The famous monk who brought Hindu philosophy (Vedanta) to America in 1893 was Swami Vivekananda. He established the Vedanta Society, of which I am a member,” said Long. “The first one was in New York, which he established in 1894.” He spoke there in May on “The Yoga of Yoda.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0V5mp_yVe1E
Though his studies, research and teaching techniques – Long has used the Beatles, Star Wars and Yoda to help open the eyes and minds of his students – can be perceived as exotic and strange to some, his interests and early workshops helped the College develop its Interfaith Leadership Studies major – the first in the nation. He now teaches classes in the major.
Long, who played an indirect role in bringing the Japanese program to Elizabethtown College–the minor in 2004; the major in 2006 – said he wants to be an inspiration to students and “a therapeutic presence while teaching.”
His students might not remember everything he teaches, he said, “but they will remember how you made them feel.”
Now that he is back from his sabbatical, he is “full of enthusiasm for what I am doing.”
“We don’t just do our work for knowledge, but to benefit others,” he added. “I sometimes need to be reminded of that, to be grounded in a spiritual sense. It’s energizing.”