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Humans of TDS: Sravana Borkataky-Varma, Lecturer on Hindu Traditions

“Intention makes the whole difference. If you want to do something different, ask a different question. Explore a different path within your field or outside, and ask yourself, ‘What is my intention?’”

Sravana Borkataky-Varma is a historian, educator, and social entrepreneur. She studies Indian religions focusing on esoteric rituals and gender, particularly in Hinduism (Śākta Tantra). As a social entrepreneur, she invests in building communities with individuals from various faith backgrounds who believe in kindness, compassion, and fulfillment.

Developing My Clairvoyance in India

I come from a very middle-class background. In India, my dad was with the government service. He was the primary breadwinner. My mom was a homemaker. So, mine was the typical story of any middle-class Indian growing up, born in 1975. 

Today, when I turn back and I look at my blessings, I think one of the blessings was my parents never shut down my—what I now understand as a portal—my clairvoyance. They never said, “Don’t say these things because people will think weird about you.” At the same time, they did not highlight it either. So, I grew up with this believing it is normal. 

You know, it is like you’re born with a certain skin tone. That’s normal. I appreciate the fact that my parents gave such a normative interpretation of what I would wake up and say or do at random. Until a very late age, almost late 20s, I did not realize that this clairvoyance was not happening to everybody. But none of this vocabulary was available to me until I studied religion. 

The second thing which I feel very blessed about is because of that, I was never pushed to do or study anything in a particular format. In India back then, growing up, you either become an engineer or a doctor or a lawyer or took on a government job. That’s the only way you could make a living. And there is no field of religious studies. Even today in India you cannot study comparative religion at an university. You can study philosophy and languages but not religion as studied in the United States. 

China and the Corporate World

I went on with life. I wanted to become a nun for the longest period. I still believe I am one. It’s just that I don’t don the cloth. I do have lots of issues with the cloth. I find it challenging, problematic, particularly in the context of power and authority. But I have no issues with people who don the cloth. It’s a personal choice. I haven’t found the answer to how and why the cloth gets to signify my path, my allegiance to the path, my value systems, and what does that cloth signify when somebody is looking at you from the other side? 

One thing led to the other and I decided to instead go on a corporate journey. I went to China with a business, having gotten my business degree. While I saw a lot of success in the corporate world—and I have no regrets whatsoever—I didn’t like the human being I was becoming. The power of the corporate world was, or had, depleted a lot of compassion in me. If you’re not happy, you can keep pursuing something outside of you, you can buy the fanciest bags and shoes, and jewelry, or homes. It’s not like one versus the other, but ask what will make you happy. Seek that and the rest will follow. 

While in China my interests in the academy, interest in teaching, interest in working with students, being around students, being a student myself again, was renewed. I think China brought that back. I realized this is the space that makes me happy. And it was my husband who said, why don’t you go back to religion because that is where you were most happy. 

My Journey 

We moved to Houston after China where, fortuitously, Rice University is located. I thought I’d want to study Buddhism because that’s what I was coming from. I had learned Tibetan, Pali, and Sanskrit, so I thought I’m going to study Buddhism in the northeast of India. At Rice, I started my Ph.D. coursework with Prof. Anne C. Klein and Prof. Jeffrey J. Kripal. But at the end of two years of coursework, I realized what I wanted to do was kind of an auto-ethnography of my own journey, of my own tradition, of my own path, and I wanted to figure out what I was doing in life. It’s very unusual once you join a Ph.D. program to change everything. But that’s what I did. I changed advisor, I changed path, I changed everything. 

I went on the path of Tantra, and now I am here at the Harvard Divinity School. Tantra is so misunderstood. If you’re an initiate, you’re sworn to secrecy. There are historic and spiritual reasons for the secrecy because not everyone is ready or would understand what you’re saying and can take some of what you’re saying and be in a much more dangerous situation. It’s what I call responsible teaching. Even when we are in the classroom, we have to gauge what will we say, how will we say it, and at what point. Learning the tantric way is kind of a journey. So, one has to be much a hyper-tuned in person to say when someone is ready for what level of information. 

I’m increasingly becoming comfortable saying that my job as a teacher, as a guru, is to bring my students relevant information. To provide different avenues and lenses that they can then explore. And it’s the individual who gets to choose. It’s the individual who gets to then say this is working for me or not working for me. This is a very different approach. In other words, I do not believe in a prescriptive method. 

Finding Support at Harvard 

You dream about Harvard. I call it the audacity of a dream. I’m borrowing it from Obama and not calling it “Audacity of Hope,” but the audacity of a dream. Harvard is a dream for many, especially when we come from the subcontinent, growing up you had only heard of Harvard, Oxford, and Cambridge, so never in a million years did I think I would be here. 

And now at the Harvard Divinity School I have found the most supportive and collaborative colleagues, especially within the new initiative called Transcendence and Transformation. There have been many blessings. But the two people I thank almost everyday in my prayers are: A big support person to me has been Prof. Janet Gyatso, Buddhist Studies, and Prof. Charles Stang, Early Christian Thought. The support we have at HDS is phenomenal and it is not just from faculty, but also administration, students, and so forth. 


Scholar, Practitioner, Scholar-practitioner

I’ve said this in my classroom so many times. Studying religion is difficult work, and there is a price to pay. If you look at it historically, anybody who has been any kind of a change-maker had to sacrifice a lot personally and professionally, and I think that sometimes frustrates me a little in my work.

Students at Harvard are eager to see the change. We feel the pain of the change not happening, but we must ask, are we willing to walk the path, to pay the price? What are we willing to do? And not many are willing to do the work. They simply expect the change to appear on a platter. Not happening! 

Words of Experience

Intention makes the whole difference. If you want to do something different, ask a different question. Explore a different path within your field or outside, ask yourself, “What is my intention?” 

My one word of advice is to tell Harvard students to take in the the present moment. When you wake up in the morning,  in the mirror and just say “I AM HERE.” “I am here.” And that in my mind is the beginning of a wonderful life filled with joy, fulfillment, and courage to deal with life’s curve balls. 

Interview conducted and edited by Denise Penizzotto; top image courtesy of Sravana Borkataky-Varma, second image by Denise Penizzotto

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