A Hindu perspective on being a disciple-scholar, with Ravi Gupta
BLAIR HODGES: It’s the Maxwell Institute Podcast. I’m Blair Hodges. Who owns religion? Who gets to say what’s right or wrong, fact or fiction about any religious tradition? Religious believers and scholars of religion don’t always see eye to eye on these questions. In this episode, Dr. Ravi Gupta joins us to talk about where the academic study of religion meets the practice of religion.
Dr. Gupta is himself a practicing Hindu and a scholar of Hinduism. He was here at BYU’s Maxwell’s Institute in October delivering a lecture called, “Who Owns Religion? A Hindu Perspective on Being a Disciple Scholar.” If you’ve ever felt uncomfortable with academic approach to religion, or if you wondered as a scholar how best to interact with believers of the traditions you study, Dr. Gupta has much to offer you.
He’s the Charles Redd Professor of Religious Studies and Director of the Religious Studies Program at Utah State University. He’s the author or editor of four books, including an abridged translation of the Bhagavata Purana with Kenneth Valpey, published in 2016 by Columbia University Press. Ravi completed his doctorate in Hindu Studies at Oxford University. A video of his Maxwell Institute guest lecture will be available on our YouTube channel soon.
Questions and comments about this and other episodes of the Maxwell Institute Podcast can be sent to me at email@example.com. Please, if you have a moment, take time to rater and review the show in iTunes. It’s literally the second least thing you could do.
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BLAIR HODGES: Ravi M. Gupta joins us today here at the Maxwell Institute. He’s the Charles Redd Professor of Religious Studies and Director of the Religious Studies Program up at Utah State University. Welcome to Brigham Young University, Ravi.
RAVI GUPTA: Thank you. I’m really enjoying my visit here.
GROWING UP IN BOISE
HODGES: You gave a guest lecture yesterday called, “Who Owns Religion?” It talked about what it’s like to be a practitioner of religion as well as a scholar of religion. I wanted to start off by introducing people a little bit to your background. You were a Hindu before you were ever a scholar. Now you’re both of those things. Tell us about how you got to that point, where you grew up, and that sort of thing.
GUPTA: I grew up in Boise, Idaho in the 80s. Boise was a much smaller place then than it is now. It was a wonderful experience. I loved every aspect of growing up in Boise.
I think one thing that was distinctive about our experience was that my family was one of very few Hindu families in Boise. For many different religious or cultural occasions—whether it’d be a Thanksgiving, interfaith service, or a diversity day at local schools, or cultural events at Boise State University, or something in the governor’s office—our family was invited to represent Hinduism and to represent India, and sometimes more broadly to represent all of Asia. I’ve really spent a good deal of time of my childhood articulating who I was, what I believed in, what I stood for, and trying to negotiate the boundaries of being accurate, while at the same time presenting something to people who don’t know much about my tradition that is comprehensible. And it’s not always easy to do both.
So I think it was that process of continuously having to articulate my own identity and my belief system that, in hindsight, led me to this path of becoming a professor, and teaching, and learning, writing, as my career. I studied at Boise State University for my undergraduate degree and tried a variety of different things until I finally settled on a bachelor’s degree in Philosophy. We did not have a Religious Studies Program, we still don’t at Boise State. I studied Philosophy, that was very, very enriching, and also Mathematics. Math was kind of my nod to the real world.
HODGES: [laughs] Just in case you needed to make money when you grew up?
GUPTA: Yeah. Exactly. I didn’t know at the time that you could have a fruitful career, make enough money to support a family, teaching religion or teaching philosophy. And as the child of Indian immigrants, my parents came to this country in the early 70s to study and then to work, and then raised their family here. I was born in Chicago. As the son of immigrants, it was only natural to go in a direction that assured economic stability for the family. That’s always a concern for immigrants arriving in the country.
HODGES: Before we pick up that thread, too, I wanted to ask you, did you feel a lot of cross-pressure? Because your parents were immigrants, you were this first generation kid in the United States, but you also had the community looking at you. You saw yourself being seen by your parents and by your community—
HODGES: —as a child.
GUPTA: Yes. I kind of grew up in the spotlight. My childhood was a bit unusual because I was homeschooled, first of all, and then I went to Boise State University. I began officially when I was twelve years old. I was almost thirteen. Then graduated with my bachelor’s degree at seventeen. This cast another sort of spotlight over me, one, in terms of the religious practice we were articulating in public settings, the other was my unusual early story of going to the university.
HODGES: The whiz kid.
GUPTA: Yeah, the wiz kid. So, I kind of grew up in that spotlight. You can actually read the Idaho Statesman over time and get a pretty accurate summary of my life story. So I’m not sure if I knew the difference. I just—
HODGES: That was your life.
GUPTA: That was my life and I recognized the fact that being a distinctive minority means we would always be observed, usually in a good way. Boise was a really welcoming community, I have no bad memories of that process other than, yes, the occasional pressure of always living your life on a stage.
HODGES: You’ve finished up your undergraduate degree and you did math, but you also did philosophy, and then seems like you made a choice there to continue to pursue non-math stuff.
GUPTA: Yes. Even in the math stuff, I was taking all the classes that were theoretical mathematics, not applied. I soon realized that I was incurable when it came to studying subjects that were not quote-unquote “practical.” Although, religious studies is pretty much the most practical thing you can think of.
HODGES: Why do you think that?
GUPTA: I think that because…Well, there used to be a time when I had to actually make an argument to respond to your question. But today, I mean with my students, I just point to the world around us and I say, “Look at what we see around us in terms of the media, in terms of what’s happening in broader society, in the world, international politics.” The former US secretary of the state, John Kerry, he made a speech at the department of state to his people and said, “You know, if I had to go back to college today, I would major in comparative religions, because that’s how important it is to everything I do in my work.” Right?
So religion matters in our world. Whether one believes in a particular religion or a different one, or is an atheist, the reality is regardless of your perspective, one has to recognize the fact that religion really matters. And being able to talk about religion in an empathic and articulate way, and critical way, is crucial. It’s a crucial skill for our world.
HODGES: Yeah, religious studies has become, itself, a practical discipline in many ways.
WHEN SCHOLARSHIP CONFRONTS TRADITION
HODGES: That’s right. During that process as you’re going through school, you’re a practicing Hindu throughout that time and up to the present, was there anything that you had to give up during that process? A belief, or a story, or something historical, something that you cherished that, as you encountered your faith through an academic lens, had to change.
GUPTA: That’s a really good question. And it’s a difficult one, too. I mean, that journey is difficult. I think we all, growing up in a particular tradition, go through a process of making that tradition our own, opening our eyes and recognizing that there are some things that we’re more comfortable with than other things. The process of doing it through scholarship—that is this academic study of religion—I think intensifies that process and makes it more difficult. Because it’s more far reaching, the implications of religion.
In my case, I don’t think it was so much as giving up certain aspects of my tradition, but recognizing that the way in which I saw them was perhaps not… I couldn’t hold on to it in the same way. One example of this would be, just in terms of the use of historical criticism on sacred texts, right? So we get a set of books that are revelation. These are the words of God, or they’ve been eternal since the beginning of creation in the case of Hindus. In any case, these are non-human created works, right? And in some sense, they are perfect, either in every letter or in the message they give. Then, to discover or to be told, or to recognize that there are historical influences that go into the shaping of this texts, that they are grounded in the periods of history in which they emerged—So they don’t just drop down in a vacuum, but rather they are responding to issues of class, or caste, or race, or gender, or political upheaval during their times.
HODGES: Even the very geography.
GUPTA: Yes. Even the very geography of it. I think that required a real shift in orientation, being able to say, “Well, yes, I can recognize that. And I have to be honest and admit the fact that that’s there. Yet, I can still consider this to be a revelation.” Or “I can still regard this as being eternal truth in some sense.”
HODGES: Do you know of people who were Hindus that went through that process that ended up disconnecting from the tradition as a result? If so, what do you think the differences are? I know there are a lot of different complex stories, but maybe on a basic level, what do you think some differences are about those type of experiences versus your experience?
GUPTA: Yeah, I definitely know people like that. I know plenty of people for whom the journey of scholarship was damaging enough to their faith where they could not sustain it anymore. And you know, I respect their journeys. I understand, I can see—having been through it myself—I can see why someone might choose that direction.
I think the answer to your question is, I guess, less academic than one might first think. I really feel it has a lot to do with community connections, right? That ultimately, as human beings, we stick with something when we find something of value in it. And when people go through those journeys and at the same time lose their connections with their religious or devotional communities, the relationships that are built there, and thus no longer see the benefits, the power, the effect of that religious practice in their own lives, I think it’s natural to disconnect, or to drift away, or to outright reject the traditions.
So both have to go hand in hand, the teaching and the ideas, but also the practice, the community aspect of it. In Sanskrit we call this Sangha or the association, the community of people.
HODGES: In Hinduism, are there a lot of historical claims that people bump into that can unsettle faith, or what type of issues might people encounter? Because the reason I ask is, being disconnected from that community, could that be because you’ve come to see things so differently that you just see your former co-religionists as being just wrong or naive or whatever and maybe that can lead to a disconnect? Or maybe the community reacts against your new forming beliefs and that causes alienation?
GUPTA: It’s all of the above. In some cases, it is the community reacting very strongly to something where you’ve just discovered and it’s an epiphany or a revelation for you, in your journey as a scholar, and yet is not digestible—at least in the language that you express it—within your religious community. So it can cause a pushback that can be alienating in many ways. But it could also be more from the side of the budding scholar who stops seeing themselves in that community, who can’t find a place for themselves.
The types of issues in Hinduism tend to be less historical in nature simply because Hinduism thinks of time in a cyclical way, as a cycle. And so history has less meaning than it does…We all live through history. We work through it. But ultimately, history is not going anywhere in terms of the grand historical narrative of the beginning and the end times that the Abrahamic traditions—Christianity, Judaism, and Islam—all share. Because history isn’t going anywhere that grand narrative isn’t there, and time is moving in circles, things often repeat themselves. Therefore, if something is younger than previously suspected or out of order in terms of this chronological sequence, or we cannot find artifacts or historical evidence to back something up, it’s less of a problem. For centuries, Hindus have said, “Well, it could have been in a different age, in a different cycle of time.” The challenges that Hindus struggle with tend to be more social in nature. So questions of caste, inequality, for example, or—
HODGES: Like, does this belief system reify inequality? Something like that?
GUPTA: Exactly, exactly. And to what extent, or how much can we separate ourselves in our own times from entrenched notions of inequality or discrimination that might be present within our history?
RELIGIOUS STUDIES SCHOLARS AS DOCTORS OVER PATIENTS
HODGES: That’s Ravi Gupta. We’re talking with him today about the relationship between faith and scholarship.
Ravi, in your lecture yesterday, you talked about a religious studies scholar Robert Segal—not the NPR Robert Siegel, a different Robert Segal—who wrote a controversial article about religious studies. He compared the relationship between scholars and adherents of a religious tradition to a doctor-patient relationship. The scholar in this metaphor would be like the doctor, and the religious believer would be like the patient.
Here’s a quote from him, he said, “Just as the patient has the disease but defers to the doctor’s diagnosis, so the religious adherent has religion but defers, or should defer, to the scholar’s analysis.”
What are your thoughts about Segal’s metaphor?
GUPTA: Religious studies is a diverse discipline. There are scholars who take different approaches to their work. Robert Segal represents a very well-known and accepted approach in certain circles. That is, of course, not all that appealing as an approach to scholars who are practicing a particular tradition or adherents of it.
I think there are a number of questions we might raise about that metaphor. Metaphors are always problematic because they never work entirely. [laughter] But if we were to think about that relationship, two things it does assume. One is that religion is a disease to be cured. Therefore, you need someone who is detached from the experience. I mean, you wouldn’t want a doctor who was terribly sick herself trying to cure a patient, right? You’d want that doctor to stay home and get better before she came back into the office. So if you think of religion as a disease, it basically assumes that the scholar has to be one who is free, or almost free, of the disease or is capable of at least keeping it under enough suppression that it doesn’t affect her work, right?
The first problem is, well, is a religion a disease? And what happens when we think of religion as a good thing, as an asset that works for positive change in the world, that can bring about equality rather than inequality, or more kind of parity in social relationships, and can be the motivation for humanitarian work for example. So how do we figure that metaphor there and what becomes the scholar’s role in that situation? Are you a cheerleader? Or are you just telling the patient, “Well, you look good. Go on and do what you like.” And so the whole question of diagnosis disappears as soon as you stop thinking of a problem. That’s the first issue I think with the metaphor.
The second one has to do with, what do you do with a doctor who has the disease? In other words, not just disease in remission, but really the full-blown disease, that is the scholar-disciple or the scholar-practitioner who really tries to do both things. I think someone who argues along the lines of Segal might say that that is an impossible situation, that that person is in some way compromised, and truly, a religious study scholar has to be someone who is not an adherent of that tradition, or at least is capable of suppressing their feelings enough where no one would notice.
HODGES: “Objectivity” is the word that people will use.
GUPTA: Exactly. But there has been a big shift in the academy of recognizing the fact that—this is not just in the study of religion but more broadly in the humanities saying—”well, pure objectivity is a myth,” that every perspective is a perspective from somewhere, and unless we articulate where we’re standing and be open about it, that’s when we’re doing a disservice to our readers and to our students, because we are pretending as if my perspective is a universal perspective. As if there is a spot I can stand outside the universe and look into it. Perhaps God has that perspective. But from a human standpoint, we all stand somewhere and therefore, the view we see is biased according to our location. That is true both of people of faith, but also of people without faith.
HODGES: And scholars and non-scholars, and scholars who are also religious and scholars—
HODGES: If we wanted to reuse that medical diagnosis metaphor, we could say everybody has the disease of limited perspective, I guess.
GUPTA: Exactly, so my argument is that we need all those perspectives, right? It’s not this or that. We need all of the above. And that’s when we can hope towards a reasonable discourse, is when we have scholars who don’t profess a faith, and we have scholars who are invested in their faith, and we have practitioners who are not scholars, right? All of those perspectives are going to lead to a reasoned discourse and make religion less of a problem in our world.
HODGES: I think Robert Segal could be representative of a Boogeyman that a lot of religious practitioners see when they think about a scholar who is studying religion. It’s this outsider, this person who’s coming in assuming there’s a problem with you, and is going to tell you why you’re either fault for it, or what you can do to fix it. How common do you think that type of, I would call it even sort of quasi-colonial approach is in religious studies today in the academy is? Is Segal representing a wide constituency of practitioners, do you think? Or do you see more variety in the field where there are lot of religious studies scholars that don’t see it that way.
GUPTA: I think there’s a lot of variety in the field. I think Robert Segal’s view is definitely a significant one. I would not call it on the sidelines or a fringe, or marginal perspective. I think there was a time where his… This was the time maybe, well, I don’t know, a half-century ago, or so, when religious studies was divorcing itself from theology. Kind of saying “We are our own discipline, we don’t assume a faith perspective.” And I think that was good. It’s a healthy process because we need to be able to study religion without having one’s own perspective color everything that we do.
At the same time, you know, the pendulum sometimes swings, and when it does, it swings too far in one direction, usually. I would say, during this divorce process for religious studies I think the Segal perspective would have been mainstream. I think today there’s a lot more diversity of perspective out there, in terms of scholars who are theologians and yet actively participating in the area of religious studies scholarship and contributing to it, as well as people who wouldn’t consider themselves theologians but nevertheless are happy to recognize, to profess, or admit their own perspective and their own commitments as they write about what they study.
CONTROVERSIES IN HINDU STUDIES
HODGES: This has played out for Hinduism. This divorce that you talked about, Hinduism was one of the things being studied. It’s been part of religious studies and the study of religion since really the turn of the century, and probably before that as Western scholars were very interested in what they saw as the “exotic” traditions and this type of thing. In the case of Hinduism more recently, you’ve talked about how there’s been tension between some practicing Hindus and scholars of Hinduism. I thought it would be great to hear some examples of that, about what you’re seeing in the field. Some of those tensions, what’s causing them? What are some specific things that are happening between adherents of Hinduism and scholars who might have Robert Segal’s approach, for example.
GUPTA: Yeah, it’s actually been a pretty tense relationship in the past few decades. There’ve been many reasons for this. One has been the definite kind of colonialist bias that scholars held a century ago. During the colonial period in India, studying Hindu traditions for the purposes of essentially justifying the colonial project. And that, of course, is over but a certain predilections and old legacies take a long time to work their way out of the system, and the questions we raised are often still questions that were decided way back when the agenda wasn’t all that clean.
On the other hand, there’s this rising Hindu nationalism, a political Hinduism—
HODGES: Is this in India in particular?
GUPTA: In India. Yes. In India. That has its own agenda in terms of trying to present a certain view of Hinduism that is nicely packaged and boxed and ready to go, and that looks good for the world, but primarily for a Western Christian audience, since they are still the main interlocutors, that’s the seed of economic and political power in the world.
HODGES: And there’s no Pope of Hinduism or anything that’s controlling all of this, it’s people that are in government, in politics, and, yeah.
GUPTA: Yes, exactly. So, both of those are kind of underlying the whole discussion. I guess, that tension is built because the undercurrents are not all clean in either direction, right? There’s politics, there’s historical tensions that are mixed up with it.
One kind of good example of this that were things have really come to a head is the case of a scholar who teaches at the University of Chicago named Wendy Doniger, who is a very fine scholar in her own right. Yet, often writes and researches in a way that causes a great deal of consternation to practicing Hindus, definitely to those who are nationally Hindu, politically nationalist groups, but also I think to a lot of mainstream Hindus who read her work and aren’t able to recognize themselves in it.
So the accusations recently that have been placed against her from various Hindu communities is that she intentionally elicits or finds or ferrets out everything that is weird within the Hindu tradition. Every religious tradition is going to have those elements that you don’t necessarily want to place in front of outsiders, or parts of history that are embarrassing and—
HODGES: The salacious.
GUPTA: —The salacious aspects of it. And Hindus have accused her of reveling in that salaciousness and bringing that out without acknowledging the mainstream aspects of the tradition enough for providing a counterpoint.
HODGES: And she doesn’t have a Hindu background, right?
GUPTA: Yeah, she doesn’t.
HODGES: So that’s—
GUPTA: Yes. She has been accused of furthering a colonialist agenda, being a missionary of all kinds of things that, I think for the most part are incorrect because I think these accusations go too far. But at the same time, those accusations do point to this problem that we are talking about, of scholars who may be oblivious to the communities that they study. Or not oblivious to them, but don’t feel themselves accountable to those communities, where those communities cannot actually find themselves in your work or don’t understand why you’re doing what you’re doing. And I think that’s the responsibility of a scholar. That’s our responsibility as scholars, to make sure that those whom we study can recognize themselves in our work. Or if they can’t, that we do a good job of explaining to them why not and why this work is still important, it’s still genuine, it’s still well-intentioned, and what benefit it will have to the tradition that these people value.
HODGES: Give us an example—I know she published a book that specifically caused a big outcry. What was the story there, what’s something particular in that book that people would be shocked about or resistant to?
GUPTA: Yes. There’s a couple of her books that have caused issues. She’s not a stranger to controversy. But the most recent one was a book called, An Alternative History of Hinduism. I mean, the title makes it clear that she’s not aiming for a mainstream history of the tradition. And yet, given her stature as one of the best-known and loved scholars in the field, what she writes ends up becoming mainstream or normative simply because she’s writing it. This book was published by Penguin, again a mainstream publisher often, you know, reaching out to trade audiences not just to academic circles, and published in India as well. And there was enough of an outcry in India that led to legal challenges, where her book was taken to court as violating certain laws in India that restrict people from intentionally inciting religious violence or disagreement, or intentionally writing or speaking with the intent of causing religious tension. And so this was taken to court and in the end, the book wasn’t banned, rather, Penguin voluntarily pulled the books from the shelves and stopped selling in India.
HODGES: And then the Academy is gonna get—
HODGES: —or have a similar reaction to what some Hindu nationalist had, which “you’ve broken our ‘laws’ by doing that.”
GUPTA: Exactly. Exactly, and so the American Academy of Religion published a statement supporting Wendy Doniger and this right of all scholars to write and publish freely. So, it became a whole free speech issue and the book—You know, the popular word was the book was banned, but that was technically not true—or that the book was pulped, that was also not true because in the end, before the publisher could pull the book, all of the copies sold out because, as these things work out, when you try to ban something it becomes more popular.
HODGES: Popular, yeah.
GUPTA: Right. So, that was the latest example of something that’s caused problems.
HODGES: What was in the book? What’s an example of something in there that they didn’t like?
GUPTA: So, the things that bring about the most anger amongst Hindus are when Hindu deities or saints or teachers are presented in ways that seem sexual or vulgar, right? So, for example, presenting front and center stories that have sexual undertones to them or bringing out a particular, psychoanalytic interpretation of what’s going on in a particular story that is not how Hindus read that account—or at least not how they read it today. And that develops a whole lot of anger because then you’re, of course, stepping on sacred territory. Deities are to be honored and respected, as are gurus and saints. So, that would be a typical example, the type of thing that happens, I think.
HODGES: Have you faced anything like that in your work as you’ve written on Hinduism where you’re dealing with a sensitive issue and you know that’s a sensitive issue. You’re an insider to the tradition and have you found yourself having to adjust your approach or maybe even not touch certain topics?
GUPTA: Well, I can’t say I’ve been faced with this a whole lot myself. There’s a few colleagues of mine, very good friends, who have ended up on certain blacklists or, you know, on the internet in particular forums that argue against scholars. That’s happened to me, I would say, once or twice before where I’ve been called out, and it had to do specifically with this issue that I’m talking about in the podcast, of me trying to strike a—what I thought was kind of a balancing note to the discussion, holding both sides, taking both sides to task and holding them accountable. And yet, even that which in my eyes was a perfectly reasonable thing to do was not far enough in the eyes of certain Hindu practitioners.
HODGES: It could also alienate some scholars too, that say, “Oh, Ravi Gupta is an apologist for his tradition only and we can’t trust him.”
GUPTA: Yes, yes, exactly. And so it’s doing what I’m doing in this podcast, essentially, that could get me in trouble, even as innocent as it might seem to most of our listeners, I think in certain circles it would cause problems.
HODGES: One of the questions that came up from the Q&A yesterday after your lecture was kind of making a comparison with Mormonism. In the Latter-Day Saint tradition, there’s a hierarchy with authority and so scholars of Mormonism who are also Mormon often take that into account in what they write or how they talk about certain especially sensitive topics. And you talked about how that’s not something that you have to deal with a lot within Hinduism, those type of cross-pressures.
GUPTA: To a lesser extent. So Hinduism is a tradition that is, for most Hindus today, I would say less structured in terms of ecclesiastical authority and administrative authority. A lot of Hindus today operate outside those institutional structures. Whereas some do, they do find themselves within that—But the pressures tend to be fewer, I think in a formal sense.
In an informal sense, those can be just as powerful, the potential of being ostracized from a community or being seen as a persona non grata or, you know, not the favorite person to invite for any kind of speaking engagement. So that kind of thing is very real and it does happen. I think the worries of ecclesiastical structure and administrative authority would exist for some Hindus who find themselves in particular organizations within Hinduism, but I think more broadly speaking is less of a worry for the general mass of Hindus.
HODGES: We could keep going there but we better move to the next thing. [laughs]
NEGOTIATING DIFFERENT WORLDVIEWS
HODGES: We’re talking with Ravi Gupta today, he’s visiting us from Utah State University, he’s the author and also edited several books. One of them being an abridged translation of the Bhagavata Purana, did I pronounce that correctly?
GUPTA: Very good, yes.
HODGES: That was published in 2016 by Columbia University press. Today we’re talking about his relationship between his own religious practice as a Hindu and his work as a scholar.
So we’ve talked about some of the tensions that can happen between scholars and religious adherents. Often these tensions occur because they’re starting with different assumptions about the world. You talked about this in your lecture yesterday. A believer is operating from within their tradition’s worldview, and then scholars have their worldview as well and these can come into contact with each other. Talk a little bit about how religion functions that way, to give people an idea.
GUPTA: For a person of faith or an adherent of a tradition, I’ve found that there are three characteristics that really shape that person’s worldview, regardless of religious tradition, and that often stand in direct opposition to the scholar’s perspective on that same tradition. For an adherent, their religious perspective is going to be something that is comprehensive, it covers the world. There’s an explanation in religion for the sun and the moon and the stars, as well as for our relationships as human beings, for everything from gendered relationships, to how you raise your kids, and all of that is explained in a religious perspectives, these are global and comprehensive worldviews. These views are regarded as consistent, so in other words, they’re internally consistent amongst people of that religion, but also assumed to be consistent across time. And that leads me to the third one, which is a sense of being timeless, that these are eternal truths or at least some aspects of that tradition are going to be eternal and unchangeable or not affected by change in time.
From an academic or scholarly perspective, these assumptions become problematic because religion has a distinctive place in the world that is shaped by the movements of history and the changes of society. Religion is a human product, and like any human creation—our music culture is constantly changing, it’s subject to a lot of flaws, it’s different in the past than it is today, it’s different in different contexts.
So, those sets of assumptions really start off at loggerheads and unless one is willing to go deeper, that conflict can become pretty obvious and pretty severe. Whether one is studying, you know, Hinduism, Buddhism or Christianity.
FAITH INFORMING SCHOLARSHIP AND SCHOLARSHIP INFORMING FAITH
HODGES: And that’s kind of the source of a lot of these tensions that we see these competing worldviews. As a scholar and a practitioner, you’ve had to learn to see with different sets of glasses that way. Has that change your Hinduism then? And then, conversely how has your Hinduism informed how you do your scholarship?
GUPTA: Yeah, so I think it is a matter of wearing two different hats, or putting on two different glasses for sure. I guess my goal is to try to incorporate or bring together those perspectives so that I’m not constantly changing hats, I’m not constantly changing glasses and acting as two different individuals, but really to somehow integrate them.
And you know, that’s not always easy and I’m not always successful in doing that. Definitely, I think my Hinduism has changed as a result of what I study. In many ways, I have to say my faith has deepened, it’s matured. Because one really has to ask one’s self, well, what is it about my tradition that makes it work, that I value about it? You know, if it’s not the exact date this text was composed that’s what’s important to me, then what is it that’s important to me? If I’m okay with the fact that there can be historical influences on my tradition that are not revelatory in nature, then what is it about my tradition that is revelatory, right?
So, one is forced to plumb deeper. And I guess if one begins with the perspective that there is something of value in the tradition that then one has that conviction that it will withstand the scrutiny, and perhaps even stand to benefit from the scrutiny, that the historical study of religion provides, right? And so I think that’s where the deepening happens of one’s religious practice.
HODGES: And when you’re interacting with other practitioners, then, do you find yourself having to do a lot of translating there? How does that work—or maybe even just not bringing up certain things because you know that they might not be widely shared within your faith community?
GUPTA: I think in teaching, whether it’s to students at the university or to people in one’s local temple or church, one always has to be very aware of context, right? And it’s a teacher’s job to give something to the student that is digestible, and yet stretching to them, right?
So, you know, the teacher’s motto of “comforting the disturbed and disturbing the comfortable.” And you know, I do my teaching like that. In certain contexts, you want to disturb people as way of stretching them, but to a point where you don’t break their back, right? I mean if you end up destroying the subject, if you end up, you know, making your student fall apart, you haven’t done them a service, right? One has to—you have to stretch an athlete in increments that are slightly painful but not going to be physically damaging, right? In the same way, you want to stretch people’s minds in a way that is good for them, that expands their mind, and yet doesn’t break apart their sense self-identity to an extent where they can’t recover.
HODGES: I think a lot of scholars appreciate the difficulties—believing scholars—as they’re interacting with their faith communities and then as they’re interacting with scholarly peers, many of whom or some of whom don’t share their same faith commitments.
You called my attention yesterday in your lecture to Catherine Bell’s description of what it can be like to teach about Buddhism. This is a really good example, I think this gets at what’s at stake here when you’re trying to do this stretching with your students.
She says, “Whenever I present the history of Buddhist teachings and institutions, few people want to hear about centuries of purely oral transmission, the late emergence of texts attributed to earlier figures, [and so on.] It is not what we like to imagine for Buddhism or for any religion. When we come across it, we can feel a bit disappointed. Discussion of these topics seems to deflate the possibility of the truth or validity or even clear identity of Buddhist ideas.”
Talk about that idea of deflation. It seems like that’s one of the chief risks.
GUPTA: Yes, deflation is—Yes, it’s a problem. And I think it’s a problem not just for the study of religion but it’s a problem for our times, where the whole idea of postmodernism questions the idea of Truth with a capital T. The possibility of a grand narrative that explains it all. And religion is just the best example of the ultimate grand narrative, right? And so it’s the—I think the angst of our times is this question of, do we deflate possibility of truth enough where people are left without grounding? Without an orientation as to how to live their lives and move through the world?
So I think she raises a very important point. And yet, at the same time, if one is of the conviction that there is substance there, as I was saying earlier, then even if a little hot air is let out, one hopes it’s not empty like a balloon, that there is something at the center there that cannot be deflated, that is of value. And in that case, sometimes, a little bit of hot air release might not be a bad thing. It can bring us back to the earth, it can put our feet back on the ground.
HODGES: So there’s a sense in which you would encourage religious studies scholars to be cautious with the religions that they’re treating, to be mindful of the practitioners of those religions. I can hear someone pushing back against that, saying something like, “Look, I’m just a scholar looking for truth,” right? “That’s all I’m trying to do, so if truth is what matters and if you care about truth, then even if it happens to hurt someone’s faith, tough.”
How do you respond to that kind of an attitude?
GUPTA: I would push back against it and say, “Look, it’s not out to protect or nurture people’s faith.” A scholar is not necessarily a minister or a pastor or a guru. But at the same time, the idea that we can throw stuff out into the world, free of responsibility because after all, it’s a truth, it’s accurate and therefore, it couldn’t possibly be a problem—I think that is an irresponsible position to take and we have seen the consequences of that in our world.
I mean, take a look at the advances of science and technology, right? There was a time, I think, where scientists did feel that “Hey if we discovered it and it’s accurate, it’s true, we can throw it out into the world and watch what happens because after all, we’re just scientists.” But that idea of being just scientists or just scholars I think is living in a fake world. Because we have seen the consequences of just throw technology out there and the ways in which we have devastated our environment and we’ve caused so much conflict in the world and the challenges that come with advancements and technologies along with the benefits that are there. And I think it is imperative for anyone who creates anything—and the scholar of religion is creating something, right? They’re creating a product of knowledge, of information—that it is imperative that that person who is creating anything be responsible for their creation. They take responsibility that it’s gonna have an effect in the world.
WHEN SCHOLARSHIP BEARS GIFTS TO RELIGIOUS PRACTITIONERS
HODGES: That’s kind of the downer stuff, so we’ve talked about some of the risks that scholarship has. Now let’s get to some of the benefits here. You also say that scholarship can “provide great gifts to practitioners” as well? What do you have in mind?
GUPTA: You see, the problem with religion’s comprehensive, consistent, and timeless viewpoint is that it can develop this absolutism to it. It can make that community insular, it can make the community arrogant, as in, “we know everything and we have all the answers.” And it can make it suspicious of or downright hostile to other traditions and to people who stand outside that faith tradition. And we are very well aware of where that can lead in our world today. At the very least, it causes social tension, in its worst scenarios, it causes wars and genocides and all kinds of mistrust and violence.
And so, I think scholarship has a great gift to offer in helping us recognize the historically contingent nature of our practice—that these things are often a result of history, that our perspective today on our religion, our faith, our doctrinal perspectives, are often different then what is in the past, what the tradition practiced earlier, and therefore being willing to take a critical eye to our own tradition. To turn that critical perspective on ourselves and say, “Well, maybe there is potential for learning from the other. Maybe I don’t have to take things in such an absolute way. Maybe there’s room to recognize that some things are malleable and adjustable within my tradition.”
And that helps us create a world where we’re not isolated islands trying to stay in our own little worlds until were forced into contact because of trade or war or something worse.
HODGES: It seems like this will be one of the hardest things to confront for scholars, because for some practitioners, I know, that contextualization itself is the threat.
HODGES: They don’t want to reckon with that. And I don’t know of any sure way to resolve that.
GUPTA: Yes, it is. Contextualization can be a real threat; historical, social contextualization, and I really think this is a responsibility that really lies in the hands of practitioners, of religious leaders, to say, “Look, we might as well reckon with that process of contextualization because whether we want it or not, it’s going to happen.”
We live in a world where the encounter between scholarship and religion is not gonna go away and it’s not gonna remain isolated, right? Members of any religious tradition know the effects of finding an element of their tradition being contextualized or subject to historical criticism on the internet. And young people reading it and going, “I can’t look at my faith, in the same way.” Right? That process is not restricted to Hinduism or Mormonism or Buddhism, it’s a global universal phenomenon. And so, we might as well face it directly and become more comfortable with doing it—not just in the rarified circles of the academy, but in our congregations, in our communities, and talk about such things and find ways of incorporating them into our faith.
RELIGIOUS COMMUNITIES CAN CULTIVATE SCHOLARS
HODGES: So given these ongoing debates, given these ongoing conflicts, and given the possibilities that you see scholarship offering, what would you say to religious practitioners? Are they obligated to look at scholarship in a particular way or are there ways that you would recommend that they look at scholarship in order to help facilitate a better dialogue between practitioners and scholars?
GUPTA: Yeah. I think it’s a matter of practitioners, of communities, fostering, supporting, encouraging the cultivation and development of more scholar-disciples, scholar-practitioners who emerge from their communities. I think we all get behind the construction of a new temple or a new church or, you know, a humanitarian project. Those are all wonderful things. But I think it’s important to recognize that we have to put in the same amount of passion and support in cultivating education within our communities. And I mean not just educating our children in how to be engineers and doctors and lawyers, but really encouraging at least some members of our community to become scholar-practitioners, to do this professionally. And it’s when communities do that, that those people can then turn around and educate those same communities in those aspects of scholarly discourse that are beneficial for them, that they need to face, that are perhaps even risky and dangerous, but are nevertheless an inevitable part of the modern human experience that we need to face. So, it’s a circle and we really do need to cultivate that culture of being scholar-disciples.
HOW TO BECOME A DISCIPLE-SCHOLAR
HODGES: What are some practical tips that you’d give a scholar who wants to learn how to be a disciple-scholar for their tradition?
GUPTA: The most important tip, I think, is finding mentors. It can be a frightening experience, coming from a place of faith, entering the academy. One can lose one’s bearings and feel disillusioned. It’s not always successful. And I think that the key difference is finding mentors, people who have gone ahead, whom one can look to and say, “I wouldn’t mind becoming like that person and contributing to the work that they are doing.”
That process is immensely useful, and in every faith tradition that I know of, there are such mentors who were available. And so, seeking them out and building that community that we talked about earlier—the community of scholar-disciples—participating in that. I think that’s the key.
HODGES: And then what practical advice would you give to people who don’t necessarily plan on becoming scholars, but they may feel a bit interested in it or a little wary of it. What kind of advice would you give them in terms of introducing them to these scholarly discussions of their faith?
GUPTA: I would say, read good books. And ask some of those scholar-disciples for suggestions for what those books might be. There are some wonderful books out there that really approach the subject in a very balanced and reasonable way, and they are different for each tradition. And so, going to those people in the community who are aware of these things, asking for reading lists and book lists, and then reading them and forming discussion groups, right?
Again, the key is to do this in community. One doesn’t have to make this a lonely, frightening journey to the edge of a precipice, right? It can be a journey of growth—and a very joyful one at that—if we do it in smaller circles and study groups with people who are like-minded and are interested in the same sorts of things we are.
HODGES: It’s really encouraging to hear that from you Ravi, I know here at the Neal A. Maxwell Institute at BYU, that’s precisely what we’re trying to do. We see that value, that community, as the right place to cultivate that balance between faith and scholarship, and I think you’re absolutely right. Without that community, you’re going to encounter a lot more difficulties. And with that community, it can become a remarkable experience regardless of the end result, you can grow through that process in relationship to other people. I couldn’t agree more.
HODGES: The last thing I wanted to give you a moment to talk about was “methodological humility.” You talked about this in your lecture and people would be able to hear your lecture when we put the video up here in a little while, but I wanted them to hear about this principle because it’s something that applies to religious adherents as well as scholars of religion.
GUPTA: Yes. When we’re working towards dialogue between scholars of a tradition and practitioners, I think one of the keys to successful dialogue is both sides practicing a humility of method. And the reason I called it a “humility of method” or “methodological humility” is because I’m trying not to tie this to actually being a humble person or trying to assess the other person’s character which can be difficult to do. But really saying that it’s a humility of method, where we take certain approaches, recognizing the limitations of our own view. For the adherent or the practitioner of the tradition, this means being willing to listen to those outside of our tradition when they have something—some qualification and something worth saying about your tradition. Someone who’s spent their life studying your particular faith tradition has something to say about it. I think it’s an aspect of humility to say “I’m willing to listen to this person even though they’re not a member of my church or my temple” or whatever, and then being willing to stick through that conversation even when things become a little uncomfortable because they do sometimes, and that’s an element of humility as well. Recognizing that I may not know everything and so let’s listen, even when it’s difficult.
I think from the scholar’s point of view, having the humility to recognize that we are accountable not just to other scholars in our field but also to the communities that we study. And we want to make sure that those whom we study can recognize themselves in our work, or at least understand why they can’t, why they don’t recognize themselves.
Explaining ourselves to the community is not condescending down, demeaning ourselves to the level of the common practitioner. I think that’s the arrogance that’s the problem. A humility of method recognizes that these are conversation partners, not just people I need to look at from a distance and study like a phenomenon, but really converse with and understand as human beings.
Giving the benefit of the doubt to the tradition when all else is equal saying, “well, the tradition can carry some truth and some knowledge about its own history.” And I think those elements go a long way to make the dialogue between scholars and practitioners more fruitful and beneficial, because I really am convinced that we need both perspectives, right? We do. For there to be a healthy discourse about religion, we need scholars who do not practice the tradition. We need scholars who do practice the tradition. And we need practitioners who are not scholars. And I think when all three elements are present, that’s when we can hope to achieve a rational, a reasoned, a fruitful and beneficial discourse about religion in our very fraught world.
HODGES: And to those listening to this episode, I hope you will take the time, when we get the video up online, to go and listen to the lecture, “Who Owns Religion? A Hindu Perspective on Being a Disciple-Scholar,” by Ravi M. Gupta. It’s a fantastic lecture, it expands on a lot of the ideas that we talked about today, including a really great cake metaphor that we’ll make you go listen to the lecture to find out what that’s all about.
But Ravi, thank you so much for being here and taking the time to talk to us.
GUPTA: Thank you, Blair. I really enjoyed my visit at the Maxwell Institute, and particularly enjoyed this podcast, having a chance to talk to you.
HODGES: Great, thank you.
GUPTA: Thank you.