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Philosophic bent of mind

He's well versed in Sanskrit and has studied in depth the sacred texts of Hinduism. Meet Michael Comans, scholar and teacher...

THE WORDS ``Sammecheenam bhavan" pronounced with a hint of a foreign accent caught one's attention. A tall foreigner was in animated conversation — in Sanskrit — with a priest. The sight was as intriguing as it was interesting.

Curiosity turned into amazement and transformed into admiration when Krishnamurthy Sastri, principal of the Sanskrit College, introduced the `white' man as Michael Comans.

A Ph.D from the Australian National University, Canberra, Comans' topic for dissertation was a technical treatise in Sanskrit on philosophical lore. ``Mine is not a passing fancy for things Indian. My interest in India and her religion began when I was in school,'' said the dhoti-clad Comans. "Incidentally, I respond to the name Vasudeva too,'' he added with a smile.

A chance glance at a pamphlet on Hinduism put up on the walls of a church in Sydney kindled 11-year old Comans' interest in it. He remarks, ``I should admit I didn't understand anything of it because it was a technical paper. But there was another book on India that left a deep impression on me.''

The `Song of India' by Frank Clune had a small write-up on the sage of Arunachala, Ramana Maharishi. At the age of 21, Comans arrived in South India with an itinerary to tour Kanchipuram, Tiruvannamalai, Pondicherry and a few other places. Commenting on the experience, he laughs, "When I first landed in Chennai and saw a few bullock carts on the road, I felt I had entered another time zone. But honestly, I wouldn't have used that opportunity to go anywhere else but India. For that matter even as a ten-year old my parents gave me a choice for my birthday gift and I opted for a book on India.'' Comans certainly seems to have had a natural orientation towards India from a very young age. He admits Hinduism and Buddhism had always intrigued him. But what is remarkable is the fact that he has nurtured this nascent interest with such intensity that he has been successful at grappling the core concept of Hinduism and along with it its medium, Sanskrit. Comans continues, ``In the first year of my bachelor's degree, I took a one year course on the religions of India and I did my Master's thesis on Swami Vivekananda.''

But coming from an alien background, how did he attain such mastery over Sanskrit?

``Well, initially I did find it very difficult, but one day at the University, I met a Jewish girl who was doing a thesis on one of Sankara's works. I asked her the same question that you asked me now. She replied, ``Under the guidance of Swami Dayananda Saraswati.'' Comans continues, ``One day, I had the opportunity to listen to Swamiji's lectures in Sydney. I knew enough from my background to appreciate the depth of his teachings. He allowed me to attend his two and a half year Vedanta course. He was still in Chinmaya Mission. That was in 1980.''

What was his family's reaction to his pursuits? ``Oh, my father initially did demur but after meeting a young Roman Catholic priest who advised him to support my spiritual quest, he gave his support.''

After the course and after his Ph.D, Michael Comans served as faculty member in the Department of Indian Studies at the Sydney University. However, in 1995, it was clear to him that his interests were ``really spiritual and not academic.''

Today, in Sydney, he teaches Sanskrit, the Bhagavad Gita and Upanishads to students, both Australian and Indian.

With already two books to his credit on Advaita and related subjects, he is currently working on a book, which deals with Hinduism, Christianity and Islam.

To a pointed question as to whether he considered Sanskrit a `dead' language, Comans decisively answers, ``No, on the contrary Sanskrit being a classical language, it is intellectually worthwhile to study it. It is very structured and through it, one can understand the meaning of the sacred lore."

Asked for his opinion on Hinduism, and in particular Advaita, Comans says, ``Hinduism has a deep philosophy that appeals to me. While initially it was only the philosophy that brought me into its fold, today I am comfortable with much of its religious aspects as well.

"As regards Advaita, it has a view of tolerance. Because of the profundity of the Advaita understanding of God, it can allow others to be as they are,'' Comans concludes.

LAKSHMI DEVNATH

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