Study of Religion: The Academic Study of Religion in South Asia

views updated


The locus for the academic study of religion in South Asia is found in a network of university departments and scholarly sites rather than in departments of religious studies or comparative religion within individual universities. The network also includes scholars located in nonuniversity settings: theological institutions, research institutes in social sciences, and specialized scholarly centers with a tradition of respected publications in academia.

The South Asian region includes at least 330 state-supported universities, of which 275 are in India, 17 in Pakistan, 18 in Bangladesh, 15 in Sri Lanka, and 5 in Nepal.

Institutions with a multidisciplinary focus in India include the National Institute of Advanced Studies (natural and social sciences and technology) and the Christian Institute for the Study of Religion and Society in Bangalore; the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies in Delhi; and the Indian Institute of Advanced Studies in Shimla. Pakistan has the Christian Study Centre, located at Rawalpindi, an ecumenical research and fact-finding site focusing on Islamization, interfaith dialogue, women and minorities, and conflict prevention and management among different religious groups in the region. In Sri Lanka the Ecumenical Institute for Study and Dialogue, located in Colombo, offers Buddhist studies, comparative religion, and studies of church and society. Scholars at these institutions have produced distinguished comparative and interpretive studies related to the different religious traditions of South Asia.

The South Asian strand of this field, beginning in a Western historical context, has for its antecedents in South Asia a form of study expressed most notably by two North Indian rulers. One is the emperor Aśoka (c. 265238 bce), who sought to respect and protect all religions, and the other is the emperor Akbar (15421605 ce), whose religious dialogues at Fatehpur Sikri encouraged debates among different religions with a view to synthesizing them into a single religion. In modern times the South Asian strand of the academic study of religion can be usefully delineated in the context of three historical conferences held between 1960 and 2003 in Marburg in Germany and in Bangalore and Delhi in India.

The IAHR Congress, Marburg, 1960

The International Association for the History of Religions Congress was held in Marburg, West Germany, in 1960. The prospect of holding an IAHR Congress in India was raised by Swami B. H. Bon Maharaj, the rector of the Institute of Oriental Philosophy in Vrindavan, India. In March 1960 he had founded the Indian national group that sought and obtained affiliation with IAHR. This proposal was unwelcome to some of the European members because they felt the Indian representatives were confused about the history of religion as an academic field. As R. J. Zwi Werblowsky's report on the congress noted, South Asian representatives showed what others considered to be a misunderstanding of Western scholarship in their failure to distinguish between studying religion and the study of religion. The Indian scholars felt their own tradition of philosophizing about religion and studying it as part of a religious discipline should be known to the West.

The parochial views expressed at the congress failed to do justice to the South Asian intellectual tradition, which has a long association with historical research and scientific thought. That tradition has produced monographs and scholarly papers in Indology, archeology, history, and sociology relating to functional and causal questions on matters that now fall under the category of the study of religion. Still the objective study of religion, as opposed to a moral study, has been slow to gain recognition in South Asian academia, and the region has a comparatively insignificant representation at international conferences on the academic study of religion. India's secularist politics are largely responsible and have provided a model for its universities. The Indian constitution, though tolerant of all religions and showing sensitivity to religious values, explicitly prohibits favoring any one of India's many religious traditions. This prohibition caused a reluctance among state-funded institutions to introduce religion as a subject in their curricula.

The avoidance of religion in any state-funded college curriculum can be seen as early as 1882, when a government commission recommended teaching the principles of natural theology, which favored no single religious tradition, in public and private colleges. One of the commission members objected on the grounds that this, far from satisfying the religious camp, would be a step backward on the secular side. In 1903 the Indian Universities Commission rejected the idea of introducing a course on the theology of any one religion into the state curriculum. Later commissions sought to preserve the religious neutrality of the state while becoming more sympathetic to religious studies. A commission chaired by Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan in 19481949 pointed out that to be secular did not mean to be religiously illiterate. The report of the Secondary Education Commission (19521953), headed by A. L. Mudaliar, agreed that secularism did not mean there was no place for religion. The Sri Prakasa Committee (19591960) report recommended an objective, comparative, and systematic study of the important religions of India. The report of the Kothari Commission (19641966) drew a distinction between religious education and education about religion and suggested establishing chairs in comparative religion at the universities at a time when the debate in North America was just beginning as to whether the academic study of religion should remain a secular study independent of religio-theological approaches.

The Bangalore Consultation, Bangalore, 1967

The study of religion in Indian universities was addressed at the 1967 Bangalore Consultation, a milestone event in the academic study of religion in South Asia. Two of the presentations were by the North American scholars John Carman and Wilfrid Cantwell Smith, who respectively considered the study of religion at Indian universities and in a global context. Presentations at the conference helped move discussion among Indian academics to a more critical and analytical level. The paper by T. M. P. Mahadevan, the director of the Centre for Advanced Study at the University of Madras, outlined principles governing the teaching of religion at the university level. One of them was the encouragement of "the method of objective criticism." He also recommended that "the stress should be on the teaching of moral and spiritual values, and not on dogmas and particular rituals" (Seminar on the Study of Religion in Indian Universities, 1968, p. 55). The effort to reconcile two opposite and contradictory approaches, the secular and the religio-theological, reverberated in presentations calling for the establishment of comparative religion as a university subject.

The prevailing view conceived of the study of religion as a means of promoting moral and spiritual values. Much-needed perspective was added by the inaugural address, presented by the vice chancellor of Bangalore University, V. K. Gokak, who pointed out that if the objective of teaching religion was to promote spiritual values, then it could not be done through either an eclectic philosophical approach dealing with "elements of reality that each philosophic system accepts" or the scientific study of religion that "refines away the essence of religion itself to vanishing point the awareness of spirit and all that it implies" (Seminar on the Study of Religion in Indian Universities, 1968, pp. 28, 30). By recalling that the scientific study of religion already operated in the context of existing departments of history and sociology, the inaugural address took the position that the study of religion should serve "secularity or tolerance, not spirituality" (Seminar on the Study of Religion in Indian Universities, 1968, p. 32). The presentation by J. L. Mehta of the Centre of Advanced Study in Philosophy at Banaras Hindu University proposed that one of the tasks of the study of religion in India was to aid in understanding the "other within the complex fabric which is the heritage of the Hindu student of religion" and that for such an understanding "detached and disciplined academic energy and attention" are required (Seminar on the Study of Religion in Indian Universities, 1968, pp. 39, 40).

What is important to note about the level of dialogue that characterized the Bangalore Consultation is that it was accomplished in concert with scholars from North America and showed Indian scholars to be mindful of the Western intellectual tradition. In particular Mehta's presentation, referring to the task of coming "to closer grips with the truths of other religious traditions" and of understanding one's own religious and cultural tradition, introduced a discussion of hermeneutic as a methodology in the study of religion (Seminar on the Study of Religion in Indian Universities 1968, p. 39). In this respect, the reflections at the conference approximated the discussion occurring outside India on the direction and scope of the academic study of religion.

Comparative religion

The Bangalore Consultation involved more than theoretical discussions of the study of religion. It also marked a shift to the use of the term comparative religion, which implied a preference for a study of the different religions of India. That perspective introduced the element of dialogue as a methodology suited to learning about other religions' traditions from the perspective of their own adherents and representatives. The impetus for this conceptualization arose from the dialogue between Indian and Western scholars who wanted to see a recognition of India's moral and religious values. Carman and Smith stressed the importance of understanding the outward expression of a religious tradition and its inner meanings for its adherents, for whom the traditions may have supreme significance. Methodologically this approach is unlike that taken by either philosophy or theology, both of which are concerned with ideas rather than their adherents. A dialogue allows room to consider the views of the reflective and articulate practitioner. In this respect comparative religion became a method in the study of religion as well as a discipline. Ultimately, however, it did not gain any significant momentum among South Asian institutions of learning.

Smith was among the advocates of this method, and in 1965 he recommended to the Kothari Commission that chairs and degrees in comparative religion be established. The University Grants Commission and the Education Commission accepted his recommendation, which was implemented at Punjabi University at Patiala and at Visva-Bharati University at Santiniketan in its philosophy department. A comparative religion department was already in place at Osmania University as a result of a 1949 reorganization, but due to lack of support from the university, it was later divided into two independent departments: Islamics and Indology.

Radhakrishnan, chair of the 19481949 University Education Report, characterized comparative religion in his East and West in Religion as a means for different religions to share their visions, insights, hopes, fears, and purposes. He also believed comparative religion could serve as a prophylactic against claims of exclusivity by any one religious tradition. This functional view was later accommodated by Smith's conceptualization of comparative religion as both a discipline and a subject. But the momentum for establishing comparative religion as a university discipline ultimately rested on asking and finding answers to the fundamental question of what religion really is. Given that only a handful of South Asian universities offer courses on religion at undergraduate and postgraduate levels, it may well be that the question has failed to become as important to scholars in South Asia as it is to their Western counterparts.

Still the drive to have comparative religion instituted as a discipline within a university setting persists in South Asia and may perhaps be due largely to the Indological works and wider academic interests of F. Max Muller, who is associated with the founding of comparative religion as a scholarly discipline.

Hindrances to the academic field

One reason the South Asian approach to the study of religion differs from the Western approach is that the South Asian worldview sees dharma or religion configured in a different way. The dichotomy between the sacred and the secular does not exist in South Asia as it does in the West. Among Western academics, the study of religion is understood to deal with the outward expressions of a social reality and the production of data about it. The tendency in South Asia is to focus on understanding the inner meaning of that social reality in peoples' lives and in that respect comes to be seen and taught as an aspect of Indian philosophy. It approximates in the West that which is known as philosophical theology, having philosophy as its academic mother.

Another factor mitigates against the establishment of religious studies departments in Indian universities: aspects of religion as a subject matter are already considered by various different departments, thus making a separate department redundant. The field of anthropology, for example, is frequently occupied with aspects of the study of religion. But anthropologists generally have little interest in understanding religion as a phenomenon, and their study seldom shifts from descriptive accounts to explanatory and theoretical ones. On the other hand, there is little significant momentum in existing comparative religion departments to broaden the study as a subject matter and a discipline comparable to that found in the West.

The IAHR Regional Conference, Delhi, 2003

The Indian Association for the Study of Religion (IAHR) Regional Conference took place in Delhi, India, in December 2003. One of its aims was to restructure and strengthen the Indian Association for the Study of Religion in recognition of the fact that India was comparatively underrepresented in the scholarly study of religion on the international level. The restructuring of the existing national association was intended to encourage wider participation in the study of religion beyond a handful of scholars working in anthropology, especially on tribal and folk religions.

The conference, whose theme was "Religions and Cultures in the Indic Civilization," brought together some three hundred scholars, roughly 20 percent from the West. Many of the participants focused attention on the relevance of the study of religion and its future direction. In the inaugural session Bhikhu Parekh delivered an address titled "The Role and Place of Religion," which was followed by Ashis Nandy's "A Modest Plea for Learning the Language of Religion." In one workshop four papers dealt with teaching a basic course on the academic study of religion in an Indian context. In another session the theme was promoting the study of religion in Indian universities. Papers presented included "Political Implications of Changes in Religious Demography in India," "Language and Religion as Sites of Struggle," "Women Regaining a Lost Legacy: The Restoration of Bikkhuni Order in Sri Lanka," suggesting a shift away from a normative to a nonnormative approach as practiced at secular universities in the West. Interestingly the majority of participants came from outside departments of comparative religion or philosophy. Conference participants expressed interest in establishing an Indic studies network, raising hopes that a stronger South Asian presence will emerge to make a distinct contribution to the academic study of religion.

Religious Studies in Modern South Asia

Thirteen institutions of higher learning on the Indian subcontinent offer one or more courses on the study of religion as a subject either at the undergraduate or at the postgraduate level, according to the 20032004 Commonwealth Universities Handbook. India has a total of nine universities that offer degrees either at the undergraduate, masters, or doctoral level. This does not include schools focusing on a specific religion or tradition. Sri Lanka has two universities that offer courses in the study of religion at the undergraduate level. In Pakistan only the Lahore School of Management, in its social science department, offers a course at the undergraduate level. In Bangladesh there is growing interest in courses and programs on world religions. Dhaka University in Bangladesh established a Department of World Religions in 2000, offering two-year master's and master of philosophy degrees. Small private universities in Bangladesh also offer programs in comparative religion.

In the Muslim world of South Asia, the academic study of religion is comparatively slow in gaining recognition. Most teaching focuses on the classical and modern perspectives of Islamic thought and contemporary movements and issues related to the Muslim world. Interfaith dialogue is limited to Islamic forms of religious consciousness and the desire to perpetuate traditional Islamic values without going beyond a normative approach. As Smith suggested at the Bangalore Consultation in 1967, "Muslim society here is on the whole too frightened to be interested in other men's faith; and too bewildered to ask systematic questions about its own."

Religion and politics

The emergence of national politics in the postindependence era in South Asia has historicized and contextualized academic study of religion on the subcontinent. In particular religion has become intertwined with nationalist politics, resulting in religious communalism, the rejection of the concept of a modern nation-state as understood in the West, and resistance to modernization and secularization as indicators of social development. For some, religion has become a means to overcome a disenchantment with modernity and to reinstate South Asia's cultural and spiritual heritage. Neither political Islam nor political Hinduism can be discounted in the subject matter of academic studies of religion. Nor can the temper of such religious movements, linked to transcendent values, be understood solely in terms of Western democratic models of party politics or polity.

The phenomenon of religion in South Asia has become subject matter for scholars not only in political science but also in economics, geography, sociology, and cultural studies. Many have a Marxist orientation seldom found among academics in the West. Thus the study of religion in South Asia is characterized by certain broad themes reflected by contemporary scholars, such as Madhu Kishvar and Asgar Ali Engineer, and in some of the works presented at the 2003 Delhi Conference cosponsored by IAHR. Themes include women's and minority rights, nationalism and identity, diaspora and ethnicity, peace and conflict studies, rethinking of secularization and globalization with respect to Indic cultural heritage, and ethnic politics and religious empowerment.

History and the future

Historical context distinguishes South Asian concepts of the study of religion from either the North American or European approaches. As a secular state, India is impartial to expressions of religion in its secular institutions of learning. It has a history of resisting the study of religion as a subject matter but allows for the study of the phenomenon under existing departments, such as sociology and anthropology. In this unique environment South Asian scholars from different disciplinary fields will undoubtedly continue to bring their unique perspectives and worldviews to the study of religion, approaching it from a historical, phenomenological, and structural perspective. Those with a philosophical bent may move the study from descriptive accounts to explanation and theory. The inseparable connection between religion and philosophy explored by scholars such as Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, T. R. V. Murti, T. M. P. Mahadevan, Daya Krishna, and Muhammad Iqbal continues as a tradition of scholarly investigation. Methodological and theoretical studies have their antecedents in studies by scholars such as K. N. Jayatilleke, Ananda Coomaraswamy, M. N. Srinivas, Aziz Ahmad, Fazlur Rahman, and T. M. Madhan.

Though the prospect of a burgeoning rise of departments of religion in South Asia, and, for that matter, of student enrollment, seem dim, the indications are promising for an increased interest in the academic study of religion: interaction and dialogue occurring between Western and South Asian academics at international conferences, visiting scholar arrangements, and joint academic projects and publications. In such encounters each side clearly becomes exposed to the influence of the other, thereby keeping alive in the academic study of religion the idea of comparative religion as method and discipline, and providing impetus for the rethinking and reconceptualizing of the engagement between the philosophy of religion and the history of religions.


Association of Commonwealth Universities. Commonwealth Universities Yearbook. London, 20022003. Provides information for each British Commonwealth country on its higher education institutions, structure of degree programs and diplomas, developments and initiatives, and departmental specializations.

Conference on Religions and Cultures in the Indic Civilization. Available at Lists speakers and the titles of their addresses, panels, abstracts, and critical comments on the academic quality of the conference held in New Delhi, December 1821, 2003.

Pye, Michael, ed. Marburg Revisited: Institutions and Strategies in the Study of Religion. Marburg, Germany, 1989. Reports on the study of religion, primarily in European and African regions.

Radhakrishnan, Sarvepalli. East and West in Religion. London, 1948; reprint, 1958. Offers a perspective as early as the 1930s on the conceptualizing of religion by distinguished Indian scholars in the field.

Seminar on the Study of Religion in Indian Universities. Study of Religion in Indian Universities: A Report on the Consultation Held in Bangalore in September 1967. Bangalore, India, 1968. Includes papers presented by John B. Carman, V. K. Gokak, J. L. Mehta, T. M. P. Mahadevan, Hasan Askari, and Wilfrid Cantwell Smith; the recommendations of the seminar; a list of participants; and a copy of the program.

Werblowsky, R. J. Zwi. "Marburg, and After" Numen 78 (19601961): 215220. A report on the Marburg Congress and reasons for resisting the suggestion to hold the Congress in India.

Abrahim H. Khan (2005)

About this article

Study of Religion: The Academic Study of Religion in South Asia

Updated About content Print Article