A vital, unique effort: Vir Sanghvi on the work of the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies
At a time when Hinduism is increasingly influencing political agendas, it is sometimes hard to remember that there is another kind of Hinduism: one that lends itself to academic studies.
That is the kind of Hinduism being studied at Oxford University, one of the few great global universities to let students read Hinduism at all stages of the academic experience, from undergraduate degrees to doctorates. For the last two decades, its Centre for Hindu Studies has won a reputation for excellence in a field that is not studied enough.
In recent years, the centre and the university have grappled increasingly with the obvious perception problem. Is a Centre for Hindu Studies part of the Hindutva project? Is it a way of earning global respectability for political Hinduism?
“We have had this perception problem mainly with Indian academics,” says Shaunaka Rishi Das, the charismatic Irishman (more about his non-Irish name later) who has headed the Centre since it was established in 1997. “We are very clear that we are not a Hindu Centre. We are a Centre for Hindu Studies. The centre is not meant only for Hindus, but for scholars of all religions and nationalities to study Hinduism and Hindu thought.”
While Buddhism is a popular subject of study at American universities, Hinduism has rarely been afforded the same level of academic attention. Das says this may be because Buddhism is relatively straightforward for those with a Western / Christian perspective: “It says there is no God and it lays down its precepts quite clearly. Hinduism, on the other hand, is far more complex.”
He gives the example of one question Hindus are often asked by those with a Western perspective: “We have the Bible. Which is your holy book?”
Many Hindus, he says, name the Bhagwad Gita. “It may be a book but it is by no means The book,” Das says. “For a start, it is not even a book. It is part of an oral tradition, is almost like a performance with its poetry. And in any case, was compiled long after Hinduism came into being.”
The correct answer, argues Das, is that Hinduism has no one book. But Christians don’t always get that. Also, “unlike Buddhists, who are clear that they don’t have a God, Hinduism has millions. And yet it only has one. It is a complex answer and one that sometimes baffles Westerners”.
The Centre began at the instance of Keith Ward, who was then the Regius Professor of Theology at Oxford. Ward had long wondered why there was so little academic study of Hinduism at the University, and then he met Das.
Das has led a colourful life. Raised in Ireland as Timothy Kiernan, a Catholic, he was on course to become a priest when he discovered Hinduism through ISKCON, the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, popularly called the Hare Krishna movement. Das joined, and that’s when he took his Hindu name. He spent several years with the movement, part of them as a celibate monk, before marrying a fellow ISKCON follower of Welsh descent and becoming involved in both the interfaith movement and the serious, academic study of Hindu philosophy.
He launched the Centre for Hindu Studies for the university, and roped in some of the world’s leading academic experts on Hinduism. The university soon began to see the merit in his view that Hindu Studies was not only about religion, but included philosophy, art, culture and even mathematics.
Over the years, the Centre has overseen a score of doctoral theses, and has had 150 books published by Fellows and research students. Its Journal of Hindu Studies is among the most respected publications in the field.
The ethos of the Centre is that one of the defining aspects of Hinduism is its plurality and its complexity. There is no single Hindu tradition; there are several.
This is at odds with the simplistic version of the religion favoured by some advocates of political Hindutva and Rishi Das is careful while talking about it. He says he treats Hindutva as a subject to be examined.
“Is it Hinduism?” he asks. “Can it speak for Hinduism? Which elements of Hindu tradition does it exemplify? Is it Hindu by heritage or a new form of political religious culture? Is it nationalism — a recent Western concept?”
Oxford University has been proud and supportive of the Centre’s work. Which raises the question: when Oxford is prepared to explore the diversity and complexity of Hindu belief why is there so little debate about Hindu philosophy and religion in our own public sphere? Have we got to the stage where it is just a choice between “Godless secularism” and one version of Hinduism?
It’s an important question that is, sadly, rarely debated here in India. We could all do with some version of Hindu Studies!