Introduction to Hinduism
What makes someone a Hindu? What does such a person believe? What exactly do they do? The answers to these questions are numerous. As with all major religions, Hinduism is a tradition with a rich diversity of sacred literature, philosophical thought, and ritual performance. And yet, to date, scholarship has yet to agree to a definition of Hinduism as a unified world religion. Not all Hindus worship the same deities, accept the same doctrines as truth, or practice the same rituals and social customs. What is it, then, that all (or many) Hindu communities have in common?
We will attempt to answer these questions as a class through a historical exploration of three distinct phases of the religion we now call Hinduism: 1) the Vedic (and post-Vedic) period, 2) The Tantric Age (or Śaiva Age), 3) Bhakti or devotional religion. We then look at how these three types of Hindu religiosity inform what it means to be a Hindu in the diverse Hindu communities of the Indian subcontinent and in the modern Hindu diaspora. Our focus, in the process, is not on unity but on diversity, understanding the shared modes of relating to divinity that facilitate the pluralism of perspective within the Hindu religion.
Goddess: The Divine Feminine in India
What happens when God is a woman? The Goddess—the female form of divinity—is foundational to much of Indian religiosity, whether Hindu, Buddhist, or even Jain—and in turn, without Her story, most of the theology and practice of these religions remains incomprehensible. This course examines the principle expressions of the theology and ritual worship of the Goddess in Indian history, from the Vedas to the Hindu Epics, to Indian philosophy, tantric ritual practice and philosophy, and devotional worship, in order to understand how the gendering of divinity affects theological speculation, religious experience, and embodied religious identity. Our exploration will span the classics of Hindu Śākta (goddess-oriented) scripture to Tantric ritual practice to the female saint in India, concluding with the entry of the Goddess into the modern world through the Hindu diaspora, new age movements and female Global Gurus.
Religious Encounters: Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam
Who is a “Hindu” to the Muslims of early modern North India, or a Jain to the Śaivas of twelfth-century Tamil Nadu? And what was the cultural impact of such moments of encounter? Much of South Asian literature, whether religious or secular in its content, was composed at the boundaries of distinct, intersecting communities. We begin with a consideration of the problem of cultural translation as a model for approaching the study of religious encounter.
We first look at interreligious encounters in early Indian history, examining how features of Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain doctrine emerged in dialogue with the religious values of their neighbors. We then turn to an examination of dynamics of encounter in North India during the Mughal, Colonial, and post-Colonial periods, which have proven definitive of lasting models of North Indian religious identity, both Hindu and Muslim. Our goal, throughout, is to engage in a close reading of particular moments of encounter in order to examine how dialogical partners translate new concepts into their own religious worldviews. This process, in fact, often results in transformations in both traditions that have had a lasting impact on the history of religions in India and beyond.
I recently had a student thank me for being the first person in her life—or so she tells me—to convey to her anything positive about India. This anecdote captures precisely why teaching South Asian Religions has the potential to offer a measurable impact on the world views of today’s undergraduate minds.
First, in the surface level, I inform students about the social, cultural, and political history of the world around them, providing them with an awareness that will help them to navigate today’s globalized world, in which cultural boundaries are becoming increasingly malleable. Second, I aim to foster dialogue and intercultural exchange by providing students the opportunity to acquire a fluency in to the diversity of cultural experiences in regions outside of the Western world.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I aim to contribute to the rigorous, liberal arts education of my students by providing them with the opportunity to develop a critical awareness about the categories through which they view the world, and the ability to reconstitute those categories as they grow as individuals and citizens.