About 1400 years ago, there was a young student Xuanzang (Hiuen Tsang), in China. Following the footsteps of his older brother, he became a Buddhist monk at the age of thirteen. However, he wanted to reach the source of Buddhist wisdom, and at the age of 25, he literally and figuratively had a dream to visit India. Walking for several thousand miles for over a decade across the route from China to Kyrgyzstan to Uzbekistan to Afghanistan to Pakistan to India, he traced several Buddhist monasteries. At Nalanda University, he became an ardent student of several subjects in humanities such as logic, grammar, Sanskrit, and philosophical traditions such as Buddhism. Today, just a couple of miles away from the ruins of Nalanda University, a grand memorial hall continues to preserve and celebrate his visit and his thirst for Indic traditions.
More than two millennia ago, long before telephone or the internet, the world was connected by the Silk Road that enabled the spread of Buddhism into China, eventually inspiring a young Chinese boy to come to India to study further.
Fast forward to present times, today’s world is well connected not just by technology but also by the largest diaspora in the world, comprising of millions of Indians now living worldwide. Seeking greener pastures, they have also taken their staggeringly diverse religious traditions to every corner of the world. What if tomorrow, a student in Russia, South Africa, Suriname, Israel, Mexico, or elsewhere observes his or her Indian classmates or neighbors and is inspired to come to India to study India or Indic traditions further? Today, if an international student comes to India to explore Indic indigenous traditions of Hinduism, Buddhism, or Jainism, would he or she be given a grand welcome as Hiuen Tsang experienced in the 7th century? Hiuen Tsang gratefully took over 600 Buddhist texts, seven statues, and more than 100 relics of the Buddha to China. But even today, if somebody from Israel or America or Saudi Arabia or Iran comes to India, they can take similar rare treasures of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, or Zoroastrianism back to their homelands. India has preserved these received traditions for centuries, as I hinted in my earlier article.
Just before the pandemic stopped all travel in 2020, many of my colleagues and students have been visiting India from the USA in the last few decades. We have been overwhelmed with India’s textual and contextual wisdom traditions. In April 2021, before the second COVID wave again forced us into lockdown across India, I was at Nalanda (both the ruins and the brand-new campus), Bodh Gaya, Rajgir, Shikharji, Hastinapur, Delhi, Girnar, Somnath, and Dwarka. India remains an endless exploration in its infinite historical and contemporary variations and vibrations, where almost every corner is brimming with a unique temporal and spatial experience. We need to keep constructing dozens of new Nalandas and Taxilas across India, where the world’s religious traditions should be taught and researched. Let’s look at some more potential reasons to include religious studies in Indian higher education (this is already a vibrant discipline in American universities).
Today, more than 85% of the world’s population adheres to at least one religious tradition and more than one in many Asian countries. In 2019, Pew Research Center surveyed 34 countries where more than 38,000 people equated faith in religion with morality. In India, for 79% population, being religious is essential to being moral. This study shows that without an academic survey of diverse world religions, we miss out on the core content of what defines being human and what defines being ethical. Religion or spirituality, in general, helps us transcending the silos of knowledge categories, and it helps us become enlightened citizens – being enlightened means becoming one with the universe. We need this oneness as we increasingly feel the need to transcend these boundaries now more than ever before. We need to break the barriers between nature and culture and similar divisions among castes, ethnicities, races, classes, religions, nationalities, and so on. Similarly, we need to break the barriers between different academic disciplines, such as sciences and humanities. Most of the theoretical and practical problems we face today have arisen due to such dichotomies. Most leaders and visionaries today call for a holistic approach at all levels. Such a holistic and metaphysical approach can succeed if we include spirituality in our education. We know that spiritual experience at the highest level, irrespective of any religion, connects with the universe. It means to think beyond the body, beyond the mind, and to go even beyond thinking. Any learning that is rooted in that kind of experience can help us break all sorts of barriers. Incidentally, this was the Nalanda pedagogy, as I noticed at the ancient ruins last week.
The next reason to study world religions is that religious philosophies can help us solve existential threats such as climate change. We know that many religious traditions equate spirituality with reverence for nature and respect for the earth. In Indian culture especially, revering animals, trees, mountains, and rivers, has been going on for thousands of years. This respectful attitude can help us transcend and connect our spiritual traditions with the environment and protect it. Another reason to include academic study of religions is to promote intercultural and interracial harmony. We know that spiritual experience is shared amongst all faiths. Without learning about diverse religions, students will remain ignorant about the people living in different countries. Another reason for teaching religious studies in curricula could be to develop non-Western paradigms. When we build our thinking based on a country’s spiritual philosophy, such as India, we would be inclined to think from a non-Western paradigm. In the traditional Western way, the philosophical paradigm dichotomizes humans from nature. Whereas, in Indian philosophy, humans are an integral part of nature, as alluded to above. This helps us in thinking from a non-Western paradigm, further diversifying our academia and pedagogy. To conclude, religious studies can help us prepare our students better for their respective careers. It can train them to thrive in today’s job market by developing global connections, inspiring non-Western paradigms, transcending all kinds of silos, preparing them to be good stewards of our natural resources, and promoting inter-cultural and racial harmony.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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