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Dharma in the age of likes and clicks: 3-day meet at Georgia Tech brings together academics, technologists, and experts

BY JYOTHSNA HEGDE & MEGHANA NAIK

Atlanta, GA, June 25, 2024: “People wonder what Technology has to do with Dharma. And what we wanted to do was show that both stand for growth and sustenance of mankind,” Shrikant Palkar, President of DCF of the board of trustees, Dharma Civilization Foundation (DCF), told NRI Pulse about a unique 3-day conference held in Atlanta. The conference, titled Dharma in the Digital Age (DDA) was hosted by DCF at Georgia Tech between June 14 – 17, 2024. 

Rooted in timeless wisdom, the Bhagavad Gita, a sacred scripture brimming with profound insights, offers a roadmap for self-realization, purposeful living, and inner transformation, also introducing us to the concept of ‘Dharma.’ Dharma, the foundation of Indic civilization and philosophy, offers principles guiding individuals and society to make choices aligned with truth, fostering harmony, integrity, and a sense of purpose in actions.

How does the age-old concept of Dharma apply to the fast-paced world of likes, clicks and shares?

The digital age has transformed our world, truly turning it into a global village. Technology’s march forward has touched every aspect of society, enhancing various aspects of human life.  While digital technology is often hailed as a miraculous tool, it brings its share of challenges: privacy concerns, the digital divide, and ethical dilemmas mark today’s hyper-connected society. In order to address these challenges, a blend of human consciousness, social responsibility, and spiritual evolution, alongside technological innovation, can provide deeper insights.

Interfacing technology and dharmic philosophy, the conference fostered dialogue on integrating technology with Dharmic principles, with focus on ontological, epistemological, and axiological aspects. Dedicated to find solutions to protect and enhance the long cherished human values in the age of technology, the event featured Inspiring keynotes, breakout sessions on various tracks and fireside chats to synergistically blend ancient wisdom and technological marvels, awaken interconnectedness, and foster a deep reverence for life, and usher in an era of conscious creation. The conference examined technological universality raising the question –  Is technology culture-specific, or does it transcend cultural boundaries seamlessly?

A unique confluence of academics, technologists, public intellectuals, and Dharma researchers worldwide, the conference involved both plenary and parallel sessions with interactive discussions, immense networking, meet and greet with authors, and immersive cultural performances across three days. The discussions focused on six main themes – Society and Multiple World Views, Family and community, Organizations with the same ethos, Art and its representation, Personal Well Being and Reimagining Institutions, and Policy and Governance, all within the framework of infusing Dharmic principles within each.

Some of the featured speakers/organizers included Atlanta’s Padma Bhushan Dr. Jagdish Sheth, Charles H. Kellstadt Professor of Marketing at the Goizueta Business School of Emory University , USA and Chairman, JAGSOM, India, Dr. Devesh Ranjan, Eugene C. Gwaltney, Jr., School Chair and Professor at Woodruff School of Mechanical Engineering at Georgia Institute of Technology, along with Subhash Kak, Historical revisionist & Professor of Computer Science Department at Oklahoma State University–Stillwater, Jonathan Granoff, President, Global Security Institute, Ravishankar Gundlapalli, Entrepreneur, Author, Co-founder of the Global Festival of Oneness, amongst many other luminaries.

The local organizing team of Dr. Raghu  G.V. Chinmaya Mission Atlanta, Srikanth Gundavarapu,  VP, Sewa International USA,  Shiv Aggarwal, Owner, Global Mall, Dr. Uday Parekh, BAPS, Smt. Manju Tiwari, VHPA, and   Dr. Ajay Houde, HSS, Co-Founder and CEO, Annoviant made it possible to gather a team of 50+ volunteers who worked diligently over a month to organize the conference. 

Supporting organizations included HSS, Art of Living, BAPS, VHPA, CHINMAYA MISSION, Sewa International, Hindu University of America and CoHNA.

The conference also hosted the finale of the one of its kind Tejas: Indic book competition. The book competition aimed at encouraging youth in Age Group categories (14-18, and 19-35) to strengthen the habit of exploring concepts through reading and to present complex ideas using popular formats. Over 200 participants read 4 books and delivered six challenges – YouTube shorts, Meme, Booklet, Podcast, GenZ speak and Spot It. The top teams battled it out in three rounds on June 15 and June 16, Jeopardy, Just Three Minutes, and Act It Out. Judges for the competition included Minu Shukla, Sham Navathe, and Aditya Patwardhan.

Authors Ami Ganatra, Deepa Bhaskaran Salem, Mitra Desai, Sahana Singh, and Shivprasad Mantri joined the conference in person. 

“The founding members of DCF realized that a lot of information in the Vedas and Upanishads and Hindu scriptures can be leveraged and put in context of today’s Digital age. The intent of this conference was to bring together thought leaders, academicians, community and business leaders and utilize their thoughts in leveraging these ancient scriptures into the rapidly evolving AI, Chat GPT technology, to explore the challenges and opportunities they present,” Dr. Ajay Houde, HSS and organizing committee member, DDA said. 

The event provided ample opportunities for attendees to interact and network with intellectuals. A session featured Organizations such as Indic Dialogue, Tusk and Quill, Samskara Foundation,and CoHNA which embrace the same ethos and work together, separately.

“I would like to commend all your hard work that contributed to the success of this conference. Tejas Competition that encourage youth participation is especially close to my heart. I’m very happy that you chose Atlanta for this conference,” Guest of honor, Hon. Ramesh Babu Lakshmanan, Consul General of India, Atlanta said. Citing various initiatives by ICCR, Hon. Lakshmanan said he is willing to extend support in areas of mutual interest.

The Conference opened with inauguration welcome address, blessings, and Keynote by  K Ramasubramanian, IIT Mumbai, Historian, Sanskrit Scholar, Vedic Teacher, Indian Philosopher, Rajiv Malhotra, Founder – Infinity Foundation, Author, Entrepreneur, Ashish Pandey,  Professor, Shailesh J. Mehta School of Management, Indian Institute of Technology Bombay (IITB), Mumbai, and Shrikant Palkar, Board of Trustees | President, DCF.  While Malhotra highlighted the new tool for colonization – Technology, Ramasubramanian underlined the need of Indriya-Jaya, the ‘conquering of senses’, that needs to be established in one’s true nature, remaining free from attachment and aversion, undisturbed by the ceaseless current of desires. As the Gita states, “Vashe hi yasye’ndriyani tasya prajna pratishthita” – ‘His wisdom is constant whose senses are under subjugation.’

The plenary session with convener Prasad Kaipa, opening remarks by Ruchir Sharma, and panel including Gauri Mahulikar, Academic Director, Chinmaya International Foundation | Former Dean, Chinmaya Vishwavidyapeeth, and Narendra Ahuja, Professor Emeritus in Engineering Sciences at the University of Illinois Urbana Champaign discussed technology, society and multiple world views.

“I’m in my nook as a medical doctor. But the stalwarts that were present here, the range of through process shed a new light on so technology medicine and so much more in the framework of Dharma and how Dharma can be applied in all these scenarios,” Dr. Tummala said.

Encouraging detoxification of digital technology, keynote speaker Dr. Sheth also underlined the importance of curating consumption behavior, especially with today’s technology right at your fingertips. “Even at dinner tables across the country, artificial becomes more real at times, and it’s easier to live amid artificial media if we’re not careful,” he remarked. Dr. Sheth has personally studied five demographics, a couple of which are youth choosing to live alone by choice and the longer lifespan of our century. Dr. Sheth talked about experiential learning, passing on knowledge to the younger generation, and using intervention strategies so that the umbilical cord to the core community stays intact amongst the youth and keeps them in touch with our vast heritage and culture. One of the Panel sessions, “Significance of family and community in the age of rapid technological change,” included Ami Ganatra, Author, Dr. Devesh Ranjanand Puneet Bindlish, Faculty of Religion and Theology, Vrije University. Dr. Ranjan discussed heritage and social inequalities and expressed a desire to move social equality forward with ample opportunities in everyday life to teach children, who are a blank page when young. “Have conversations at dinner time, approach success and failure in a learning frame of mind so children fail fast and in a safe environment,” he said. The session underscored the importance of family and sustaining values of sharing love, unconditional care, in the wake of globalization and technology.

Dharma of Art and its representation in the Digital Age brought together artists Aditya Patwardhan, Film Director and Producer, Abha Auti, Kathak dancer and choreographer, Charles Ekabhumi, Artist, poet, student, teacher, hatha yoga and Kakali Bandopadhyay, Sitarist. Cultural presentations of classical dance and music were also part of the grand celebrations. The discussion highlighted the fact that art is not for entertainment. Entertainment is a side effect. The purpose of art is to elevate the consciousness, and real artwork is which elevates the consciousness of others. That’s why the statues of the deities are not meant to showcase the art or skill of the artists but to inculcate the bhava of the people who observe that.

Tejas competition concluded with a grand closing ceremony on the last day of the conference, where prizes were awarded. The youth participants expressed their excitement at discovering entirely new genres of books, opening their minds to new ideas and philosophies that never surfaced in mainstream media. “The reading helped them connect to their roots, helped them what it means to be a Hindu and helped them get a sense of why preserving the Indic heritage is so important and taking it forward. This was a great initiative and I hope there are more of these,”  author Ganatra remarked.

“Ethics and values must guide AI development and use to promote harmony and unity in the face of global challenges like nuclear weapons, climate change, and pandemics,” Granoff observed in the panel discussion “Reimagining Institutions, Policy and Governance in the light of exponential technological advancement”.  He also underlined the importance of understanding the “why” in modern society, citing examples of AI and technology. Dharma, he noted, is “universal and found in every tradition, including Mahabharata, Christianity, Confucianism, Islam, Judaism, and more.” The panel also included Convener: Biren Gandhi, Founder and CEO of Speak to IoT and SMART INDIA, Badri Narayanan, Economist, Fellow – NITI Aayog,  Manoj Gupta, and Author and Business Leader Ravi Gundlapalli 

Convener Pranav Gupta and Daaji  Panel: Aruna Tummala, Holistic Psychiatrist, Divya Kanchibhotla, Executive Director, Sri Sri Institute for Advanced Research at Art of Living International Center, Bangalore Ram Nagappan, CIO | Strategic Advisor | Author

And Sahana Singh, author discussed ways to “Managing Personal Well Being in the Digital Age” 

“Innovations in technology and Dharma have been intertwined in Sanatan Dharma throughout history,” Pujya Swami Bhadresh Das said in his address. He and Daaji of Heartfulness addressed the conference online.

“British colonialism suppressed Indian sciences, but modern sciences like quantum mechanics are built on Indian principles,” observed Subhash Kak. Expounding on this idea, he highlighted the importance of understanding the connections between the microcosm and the macrocosm, as articulated by the creators of quantum mechanics. “Indian thought has played a crucial role in shaping the development of modern sciences, particularly in physics and chemistry,” he said. Citing one of the remarkable, intellectual achievement of the twentieth century, the quantum theory, which is at the basis of our understanding of chemistry, biology and physics and, consequently, it is at the base of the century’s astonishing technological advances, Kak said one of the two creators of this theory Erwin Schrodinger (1887-1961), in an autobiographical essay, explains that his discovery of quantum mechanics was an attempt to give form to the central ideas of Vedanta which, indirectly, played a role in the birth of this subject.

 “If we are inspired by a great purpose, there is a greater likelihood that we will conquer the urges of our senses (Indriya jaya) that will result in in sama buddhi( the ability to stream all things alike), which will in turn result in loka samagraha (community welfare),” Prof. Pandey concluded.

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