Findly Delivers Inaugural Lecture as Scott M. Johnson ’97 Distinguished Professor of Religion

Examines tension between “the worldly” and “the other worldly” in Indian culture

HARTFORD, Conn., April 9, 2014 – In her inaugural lecture on April 2 as the Scott M. Johnson ’97 Distinguished Professor of Religion at Trinity College, Ellison Banks Findly examined the tension between “the worldly” and “the other worldly” in Indian culture, exploring three models for how to live a public worldly life while also experiencing a rich, reflective inner life.

L-R: President James F. Jones, Jr.; Thomas S. Johnson '62, P'97, H'05; Ellison Banks Findly; and Dean of the Faculty Thomas Mitzel.

In her talk, “At Home in the World: Challenges of Asian Thought Today,” Findly asked the audience to first consider the example of Indian nationalist leader Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, more commonly known as Mahatma Gandhi. Drawing examples from Gandhi’s autobiography, The Story of My Experiments with Truth, and from Erik Erikson’s psychohistorical study, Gandhi’s Truth, Findly described the transformative process of satyagraha or “grasping onto truth” that was integral to Gandhi’s life. She spoke of the importance for Gandhi of the concept of an ashram—a place away from the world for meditation, prayer, and contemplative life—and showed how he compartmentalized his life into two parts: one in which he worked for social justice and the other in which he strived for spiritual integrity.

The second model Findly presented was The Bhagavad Gita, the 700-verse sacred Hindu scripture that is part of the Mahabharata, known as the longest epic poem ever written. Calling it a brilliant text, Findly said the Gita not only weaves together all major Hindu concepts and philosophies, “but socially it is both quite conservative (being the first major text to affirm and prescribe caste obligations) and quite liberal (being the first major text to affirm the liberating practice of devotion to God.)” In a crucial scene in the Gita, Krishna must convince the hero of the teaching, Arjuna, to go forward into battle after he becomes fainthearted. Krishna urges Arjuna to do his duty as a warrior, but to do so with no concern for the outcome. By focusing on god and giving his actions over to god, Arjuna will serve the community through his prescribed duty, while at the same time attaining a god-centered inner life.

The third model Findly described, which she noted was the one that works the best for her own life, was the Householder Bodhisattva. In this model, transformation is brought about through the development of empathy. The Bodhisattva develops a practice in which he sees all others as equal to himself and himself as equal to all others. In the Bodhisattva model, the ability to shift perspectives means seeing everyone as “equally transitory, equally suffering, and equally capable of compassion.” Both intention and results matter in this model. “If we can empathize fully with all sentient beings,” said Findly in her conclusion, “then we can empathize with them, wherever and however they are. We can, then, possibly be ‘at home in the world.’ ”

A member of the Trinity College faculty since 1980, Findly earned her B.A. in religion from Wellesley College, her master’s degree in the history of religions from Columbia University, and her M.Phil. and Ph.D. in Hinduism and Buddhism from Yale University. In 2012, Trinity honored Findly with the Thomas Church Brownell Prize for Excellence in Teaching. She is the author of numerous articles and books on Mughal India, women and Buddhism, Buddhism and economics, and the Indian philosophy of plants. Her latest book, Spirits in the Loom: Religion and Design in Lao-Tai Textiles, was published in January 2014 by White Lotus Press. A companion volume on the shamanic experience is in the works, to be published by the same press.

The Scott M. Johnson ’97 Distinguished Professorship is the second endowed chair given to Trinity by Ann and Thomas S. Johnson ’62, P’97, H’05, of New York City. It honors the memory of their son, Scott, Class of 1997, who lost his life in the attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.

Findly said, “I am truly honored by the professorship and most grateful to the Johnsons for this gift to the College. As the first faculty member named to hold this chair, I hope to reflect the Johnsons’ generosity and concern for others in my work.”

The first Johnson professorship at Trinity is the Thomas S. Johnson Distinguished Professorship, established in 2007, and Daniel Blackburn in the Biology Department is the inaugural and incumbent chairholder. In addition, the Scott Michael Johnson ’97 Memorial Fund—established in Scott’s memory with gifts from nearly 600 individuals and organizations—is currently used to support the College’s partnership with the Institute of International Education’s Scholar Rescue Fund in order to bring to the College visiting scholars-in-residence who are foreign nationals whose academic and intellectual work has put their careers, liberty, and/or personal safety at hazard in their home countries.

Thomas S. Johnson, a Trinity trustee, emeritus, served on the board from 1983 to 1992 and as its chairman from 1996 to 2004. He has received numerous awards for service to Trinity, including the Eigenbrodt Cup, the College’s most distinguished honor, the President’s Leadership Medal, the Alumni Medal of Excellence, and in May 2005, an honorary doctorate. He received his M.B.A. from Harvard University. He spent his career in the banking industry, retiring as chairman and chief executive officer of GreenPoint Financial Corporation in 2004. Scott Johnson was employed at Keefe, Bruyette & Woods, whose offices were located on the 88th and 89th floors of the South Tower. In The New York Times, Scott was remembered as someone who left an indelible mark on the world he inhabited: “The fire of his passions changed you, people said of him.”

Thomas S. and Ann Johnson have two other children: Thomas P. Johnson, who was previously married to and had two children with Isabella Pearson Speakman ’96, and Margaret Johnson Wager. Tom’s sister is Margaret Ann (Peggy) Johnson Reynolds P’92, wife of Scott Reynolds ’63, P’92, secretary of the College, emeritus.

View more photos from this event here.