Hindu Studies Comes to the GTU

By Alan Kelchner

from Currents Spring 2015


We are pleased to announce that the comprehensive study of the Hindu faith, one of the world’s largest religious cultures, is now available at the Graduate Theological Union. In January, the GTU welcomed renowned professor Dr. Rita Sherma as Director of Hindu Studies, as part of the launch of its highly anticipated Hindu Studies Initiative. The GTU now offers a Master of Arts degree with a concentration in Hindu Studies as well as a Certificate in Hindu Studies. These new Hindu Studies programs can be taken independently or in combination with any degree program at the GTU. The application deadline for all MA programs has been extended to July 1, 2015.

The GTU Hindu Studies program will focus on Hindu philosophy of religion, theology, art, and sacred texts; Hinduism and world engagement in consideration of its historical and cultural contexts; and the interrelationships of Hinduism with other Indic Dharma faiths—particularly Jainism and Indian Buddhism. In accordance with the interreligious environment of the GTU, the Hindu ethos will be studied in dialogue with other religious traditions, in an effort to deepen understanding and relationships among cultures and faiths while also honoring the distinctiveness of each. With this new degree option, the GTU becomes one of the first master’s degree programs in North America with a clear focus on Hindu Philosophy of Religion and Theology (which integrates art and music), as well as Hinduism engaged in global issues.

Courses on Hindu philosophy and theology have been offered occasionally at various GTU member schools over the years, but as Dr. Arthur Holder, Academic Dean and Vice President of Academic Affairs, said recently, “This is something entirely new, and it is very exciting. The GTU has entered into a partnership with the Dharma Civilization Foundation to develop a robust program in Hindu Studies here.”

Three courses will be offered this fall, including “The Self and ‘I’ in Indic Thought,” taught by Dr. Purushottama Bilimoria. Dr. Bilimoria has taught on four continents, is the editor-in-chief of the journal Sophia, and known internationally for his work on Indian Philosophy and Ethics, with eight edited volumes and several authored works on these and related areas. Visiting faculty Dr. Martha J. Doherty will offer the course “Foundations for a Hindu Vision of God: Introduction to Vedanta.”  Dr. Rita Sherma will teach “Introduction to Hinduism,” as well as an interreligious course entitled, “Environmental Thought, Practice, and Eco-theology in the World's Religions.”

Before joining the GTU as Associate Professor of Dharma Studies as well as Director of Hindu Studies, Dr. Sherma served for the past two years as the Swami Vivekananda Visiting Professor in Hindu Studies at the University of Southern California. Dr. Sherma is a Hindu Theologian who received her MA in Women’s Studies in Religion and PhD in Theology and Ethics from Claremont Graduate University. In addition to publishing five edited volumes, she spearheaded the effort to establish the Hinduism program unit of the American Academy of Religion (AAR), is editor-in-chief of the International Journal of Dharma Studies by Springer, and is cofounder of the Dharma Academy of North America (DANAM) which holds its annual meetings in conjunction with AAR.

Professor Sherma is an associate editor of the forthcoming multi-volume Encyclopedia of Indian Religions, which is the first comprehensive compilation of India’s multifaceted religious landscape and incorporates in one work India’s Hindu, Jain, Buddhist, Sikh, Islamic, Christian, Jewish, Baha’i, Primal (Tribal), and Zoroastrian religious worlds. Her latest work, Hinduism and the Divine: A New Introduction to Hindu Theology will be available in early 2016. At present, she is completing her book, Ecology, Ethics, and Enlightenment, on a contemporary Hindu ecological theology of divine immanence. Dr. Sherma is co-chair and organizer of five conferences in India in 2015 and 2016, including “The Value-Based Lifestyle,” “A Common Basis of All Religions (The Golden Rule),” “Transdisciplinary Approaches to Environmental Care,” “Science and Spirituality,” and “Sustainable Rural Development.”

GTU Alum Dr. Laurie Zoloth, in her role as President of the American Academy of Religion last year, forcefully contended that scholars in religious studies and theology have a responsibility to the world. Dr. Sherma concurs, saying, “Religion is an indispensable resource for the unparalleled struggles of our time. In an era when many view religion as a relic from a primitive past, and see  science and technology as the bastions from which all solutions to planetary problems are expected to emerge, it is worth remembering that religion birthed art, architecture, music, dance, drama, philosophy, ethics, literature, and poetry. And in the case of some cultures—including the Hindu world—medicine, astronomy, grammar, mathematics, and the contemplative sciences were generated through religious culture as well. We cannot uncritically include all elements of religious cultures which developed in a very different historical context, but critical-constructive reflection reveals much that is valuable as resources for our current situation.”

Dr. Sherma points out that if we deny religion a place at the table, “we are denying humanity its greatest historic resource for transformative thought and action. This is why I am enthusiastic about the enlightened vision of GTU, which encourages us to consider the importance of religions engaging the crises faced by humanity and the biosphere with compassion and care.”

At the GTU, we believe it is essential to include all of the world’s great religious traditions in the conversation concerning the big issues facing humanity. We are especially pleased that the Hindu Studies program at the GTU, under Dr. Sherma’s guidance, will move in the direction of interdisciplinary engagement with global concerns. Professor Sherma points out that, “Academic Hindu Studies has rarely concerned itself with the ways this vast and ancient faith may contribute to the discussion on climate change, conflict resolution, and sustainability. But here at the GTU, these issues will receive significant emphasis.”

Studying the Hindu world is an adventure. Encyclopedic in its breadth and scope, it is a fascinating area of study for those who are interested in narrative literature. The longest epic poem ever written (the Mahabharata) is a central text, and the Hindu ethos is rich in compilations of stories where history meets legend to transmit ideals and values. It also possesses a vast range of art, which functions iconographically as theological principles at a glance. Captivating forms of Hindu sacred dance are not only modes of worship but also both meditation in motion, as well as theological transmission through performance. For those interested in Yoga philosophy, psychology, and praxis, Hindu Studies is a good place to trace the deep and diverse roots of this ancient tradition.

At the core of Hindu life is the quest for an intense and personal relationship with the Divine—variously interpreted as communion or union—and meditation is the vehicle for the journey. As such, diverse contemplative practices are available as different methods are suited to different temperaments; it is analogous to contemporary “personal diagnostics” but for spiritual health. Of interest to many is how these contemplative practices lead to a strong ethical framework rooted in non-harming (ahimsa) that has been applied to every area of life. The most famous example of socially engaged contemplative practice is the life and work of Gandhi, who toiled to liberate India from British colonial rule but held fast to nonviolent political activism. All this and more will be explored under the rubric of the new Hindu Studies program at the GTU.

Many Hindus are uncomfortable with the word religion, and particularly the “ism” attached to Hindu which, some historians maintain, has its roots in the “sapta Sindhu” or seven rivers. “Hindu” was first used a millennia ago by the Persian neighbors to the north of India. Hindus often prefer terms other than religion to define this variegated tradition, including Hindu Dharma, civilization, or worldview. One reason for this discontent with the word religion is that it leaves out the transdisciplinary nature of the Hindu experience. In the Hindu world, scripture and empiricism are not at odds; in fact, art, aesthetics, architecture, design, drama, poetry, astronomy, Hindu traditional medicine, the science of consciousness, linguistics, psychology of emotions, and much more were and are integrated in a pattern that makes it difficult to tease apart the secular from the sacred.

“Through its Hindu Studies Initiative, the GTU is developing a leading-edge program for the multidimensional study of Hindu history, theology, ethics, and culture,” Says Dr. Rita Sherma. “The program will offer the study of sacred texts and commentaries with both theological methodologies as well as innovative multidisciplinary approaches grounded in critical-constructive reflection.” The initiative also provides an opportunity to study and experience the rich variety of arts, performances, celebrations, and festivals that are integral to the Hindu world. Hindu Studies at the GTU will go beyond descriptive methods to an in-depth understanding of the lived experience of the Hindu faith and the ways in which it negotiates its embeddedness in South Asian realities and its increasing international presence due to growing Diasporas.

The program will offer study and research opportunities in various areas of academic focus in Hindu Studies, with particular emphases on Hindu Theology, Indian Philosophy and Ethics, Classical and Modern Hindu Literature, Hindu Arts and Aesthetic Culture, Mahadevi (Divine Feminine) Traditions, Hindu Diaspora Studies, Yoga Studies, Hindu Thought and Ecology/Sustainability. There will also be opportunities for study and research in India.

In April, the GTU held its annual Surjit Singh Lecture on Comparative Religious Thought and Culture.  This year’s lecture was preceded by a classical Indian dance performance given by Rina Mehta, founder and director of The Leela Institute for the Arts in Los Angeles. Following Mehta’s performance, Professor Anantanand Rambachan presented this year’s lecture, entitled, “Interreligious Relations as Friendship: Mahatma Gandhi and Charles Freer Andrews.” A Hindu theologian internationally known for decades of fruitful interreligious dialogue, Dr. Rambachan is a Professor of Religion at St. Olaf College in Minnesota. He is the author of several books, and serves on the Theological Education Steering Committee of the American Academy of Religion.

Professor Rambachan acknowledged the importance of the GTU’s new Hindu Studies program: “The Hindu Studies program at the Graduate Theological Union is a historical opportunity to integrate the finest intellectual disciplines in the academic study of religion with a commitment to the flourishing of the Hindu tradition in our contemporary world. This unity of scholarship and commitment will alone ensure the vitality of the Hindu tradition and its contribution to human well-being.”

Dean Arthur Holder joins Professor Rambachan in celebrating this new direction for the GTU: “Many people have worked hard to bring Hindu Studies to the GTU. We can be grateful that the study of the world’s third largest religious tradition is now a part of this wonderful ecumenical and interreligious community at the GTU.”

Alan Kelchner is the GTU’s Vice President for Advancement.