Ireland, Scotland and India: distinct places with a clear link in mythology, a link that introduced Laurie Patton to her lifelong passion.
At 2 p.m. today (June 24), in the Hall of Philosophy, Patton, the first woman president of Middlebury College in its 218-year history, will open Chautauqua’s Interfaith Lecture Series with “That Driver Could Be God: How the Bhagavad Gita Changed the World.” Her lecture is part of Week One’s interfaith theme “Religious Moments That Changed the World.”
“Because there are a lot of scholars who make connections between Irish mythology and language, and Indian mythology and language as part of the Indo-European spectrum, I became interested in India,” Patton said. “It sparked there and never stopped.”
Her growing interest in India prompted her to apply for the Frederick Sheldon Traveling Fellowship, awarded to Harvard students for one academic year of travel, study and/or research outside the United States. Patton’s year-long venture started with the sacred waters in Ireland and Scotland and finished with a trip to visit sacred river sources in India.
“My first time in India was very much about interviewing people who were walking to the river sources and who worshipped by the river in different parts of India,” Patton said. “Over time, because of those interviews, I became interested in the sacred texts in India that inspire people to worship in the way that they do.”
That emphasis on sacred texts led her to learn Sanskrit, an ancient Indo-European language of India, in which the Hindu scriptures and classical Indian poems are written. Patton went on to get her doctorate at the University of Chicago with a focus on ancient Indian texts in the Sanskrit language.
“I looked into poetic inspiration and why people in ancient India thought they could become creative poets, as well as what divine inspiration looked like in early India as well,” she said.
In addition to her academic achievements, Patton is also the author of three books. In 2008, Patton translated the Bhagavad Gita, which means “the song of the Lord.” The Gita is a Hindu sacred text originally written in Sanskrit and, according to Patton, has become an important work of Hindu tradition in terms of both literature and philosophy.
Patton said people approach translating the Gita in two ways; solely as a philosophical text or as an early Victorian English form of sensitivity. Both of these approaches, according to Patton, are an injustice to the full potential of the text to reach across interfaith barriers.
“I thought it was important to translate it myself so I could change that divide, to write a translation that my students that were Hindu students in America could connect with and relate to,” she said.
This translation proved to be so influential with Patton’s students that she decided to share the value with Chautauquans as well.
“In my lecture, I am going to focus on the Gita and what it is about, its formation and its content that then allowed Gandhi to interpret it in a particular way and also allowed just another Hindu resister to interpret the text both violently and nonviolently,” Patton said.
Due to varying interpretations, the text has influence both inside and outside of Hinduism.
“It became a leading text for a lot of (people) thinking about nonviolence in the 20th century, including that of Martin Luther King Jr.,” she said. “There are just so many different ways in which the existence of that text and the reflection about the cost or nature of violence is something that allowed us, even today, to change the world.”
After previously lecturing at Chautauqua in 2017, Patton said she knew this would be an ideal topic to discuss given the thoughtful nature of the community.
“The people I have met at Chautauqua are thinkers; they are people who are really interested in as many different ideas as they can get their hands on to make their lives better and the world better,” Patton said. “They have both a macro and a micro perspective on things and I think that makes them an ideal audience to take this topic on.”