First, who is a Hindu?
Arguably, it depends on who you ask!
Historically, the term “Hindu” was used to identify persons of specific cultural practices and geography, eventually evolving into a religious identifier for those living in India.
Over time, Hindus became commonly defined as persons of Indian origin who hold beliefs and practice rituals that are opposed to logic and science. Who perform idol worship to many gods. Who makes the cow supreme, and so, do not eat beef. Who follow the oppressive caste system and classify one’s importance in society and their right to education by birth and lineage.
Any real “Hindu” reading the definition above would cringe. What an atrocious, and unfortunately, widespread misunderstanding of a most beautiful civilization, seen from an “outsider’s” perspective.
Through colonialism, the sad truth is that this and numerous other similar misinterpretations became so popular that even many who saw themselves as “insiders” to Hinduism began believing the characterization, passing it down to future generations so that it still lives on today.
Presently, combined with the definitions above, many associate Hindus with the Western definitions of reincarnation, karma, and hatha yoga.
So, what does it really mean to be Hindu?
According to Western history, this fundamental instruction takes its origin from the Coffin Texts of Egypt. The words were carved into Apollo’s temple of Delphi in Greece. They became the watchwords of Socrates, inspiring humanity to take a more in-depth look at its existence beyond the mundane and physical. Spiritual gurus such as Moses, Buddha, and Jesus have all advised man to look within himself to find this Truth.
Who am I? From where, whom, or what have I come? And, where will I go after this? The moment these questions form in our consciousness, life itself takes on an entirely new dimension. We become seekers.
There is one society whose entire foundation and focus is built on answering these questions. One civilization maps this process of knowledge of the self by turning inwards and illuminating every aspect of life with the truths found within, even as scientists persevere in the search outwards.
According to Sanatan Dharma (the original Sanskrit term for the way of life that Hinduism describes), one who follows this path is the true Hindu! In brief, the word “Hindu” is a name given to those who adhere to the principles and practices of Sanatan Dharma. Indeed, a Hindu inherits and applies an eternal way of life that speaks to every aspect of how one enters the world, functions within it, and subsequently transcends beyond it over one or many lifetimes. (We can see the disparity in this definition of “Hindu” from those mentioned previously.)
With Hinduism believed to have its origins in India – the birthplace of civilization – what, then, is Hindu studies, if not an examination into the world’s history, a search for the realization of who we are, and the pursuit of absolute Truth?
Even if one does not acknowledge that all civilizations take root in India, there is no arguing that 15% of the world’s population or approximately 1.25 billion people identify as Hindu today. With the mass marketing of “yoga” as a health and wellness tool, words like “karma” and “guru” infiltrating daily conversations, and the popularity of names like “Maya” and “Arya” increasing among non Indian descendants, even an “outsider” must acknowledge that the impact of Hinduism on daily norms are significant in ways that are both obvious and obscure. Yet, the “insider” knows that the less apparent impressions go far beyond the average person’s conscious perception.
But Hinduism is so much more than these fragments of culture that it has influenced. Sanatan Dharma offers the ultimate truth and brings to light the very critical questions that spark self-discovery. Long before Socrates reminded humanity that our search must go beyond the superficial, Yama expressed to Nachiketa in the Katha Upanishad, “Those who realize the Self are forever free from the jaws of death.” In Bhagavad Gita, chapter 13, Lord Krishna tells Arjuna, “This is true knowledge, to seek the Self as the true end of wisdom always.”
We’ve established that Hindu studies are, in fact, the study of the self, and there is nothing more important than that for the seeker. But, is it necessary for this study to take place in an academic setting?
The proper setting for Hindu studies
Before we answer this question, let’s go back a little further.
What exactly is the truth? Where do we find it? Can we find it on our own? And, when we do, how can we identify it?
As insiders to Hinduism, many of us may be able to look at these questions and formulate some level of intelligent response based on received knowledge. We may have our subjective definitions of truth and might even agree on authentic places where this truth is found, such as the Shrutis, Smritis, and today – even Google! With a wealth of information on every secret of the universe available at our fingertips, there is rarely an inquiry that someone hasn’t already addressed on the internet. Can’t we read informally and interpret what is presented in the privacy of our homes? I may have a master’s degree or a high IQ. Indeed, I am equipped to interpret what I read without assistance! What does the environment have to do with it?
An academic environment for hindu studies can be defined in simple terms as the conditions under which one undertakes study. It typically refers to a formal classroom setting where an instructor imparts or facilitates knowledge to the student(s) in a structured manner.
The question put forward is: are Hindu Studies in an academic environment important?
The answer to this question is a resounding YES! With skewed definitions and misinterpretations on Hinduism as colossal as the ones described above and the enormity of uncontrolled information available to seekers, it is almost impossible for the individual seeker to weed through with an acceptable level of clarity.
From time immemorial, Hinduism’s traditions and the immense knowledge contained therein have been passed on in a formal setting. Whether through Parampara in the official Gurukulas or Satsangha in the Naimisharanya forest, an academic environment’s characteristics were adhered to for many reasons.
Let’s look at some of these and how they remain applicable to Hindu studies in an academic environment today.
1. Subject matter expertise – the concept of a qualified “Guru” or expert in the specific field of truth is always of utmost importance. A Guru imparts knowledge acquired either through pramana or studies through their system of sampradaya, and this is sustained for quality control, maintaining the integrity of the information being imparted. Learners can identify existing challenges with received knowledge or simply available information and move away from subjective to absolute truth.
2. Structure – There is always a logical sequence or “syllabus” for imparting the knowledge being disseminated to make sense to the learner. When Raja Parikshit put forward a question asking about life’s meaning, Suka Deva explained the entire Bhagavat Maha Purana to him, discussing the Das Avatars, etc., before getting to the heart of the answer. Suka recognized that Parikshit needed this background information for his ultimate understanding. Independent learning without structure or guidance of a qualified Guru often results in misinformation, misinterpretation, and more confusion. The student does not always know the proper prerequisites for studying a subject, especially one as elaborate as Hindu Studies. An academic environment provides that structure and proficiency that affords clarity to the learner’s journey.
3. Discipline – The student is held accountable for learning, accuracy, and proper application. We see an excellent example of this in the Mahabharata, where Guru Dronacharya places a wooden target in a tree and asks his students to describe what they see. He does not just impart knowledge but tests his students’ understanding to gauge where they are in their learning and their ability to implement in real life situations. In a modern-day academic setting, this is done through essays, presentations, dissertations, internships, etc., allowing the Gurus and educational bodies to verify that the knowledge remains authentic and is adequately understood.
4. Clarification opportunities – In Bhagavad Gita, Shree Krishna allows Arjuna to ask clarifying questions. In Rama Gita of the Ramacharitamanas, Rama tells Lakshmana to listen with his mind and intellect fully engaged, ensuring that what he is saying is understood in its entirety. Many of our Puranas contain conversations where students seek and receive clarification where there is doubt. This opportunity to clarify is invaluable to a novice of Hindu studies, especially when one finds it challenging to accept that their received knowledge conflicts with what is stated in authentic sources.
These are just a few reasons why an academic setting is ideal for Hindu studies. These methods were not formulated in a haphazard manner, but with great importance given to effectiveness and integrity. They have been tried and tested through the ages. Even though the classroom’s appearance has evolved, the benefits the academic setting provides, not just to the learner but to preserving the purity of the subject of Hindu studies itself, is invaluable.
In Kaliyuga, Truth is the last remaining leg of Dharma, but in a world where “fake news” is so prevalent, merely finding the truth is an arduous journey. Like the one provided by the Hindu University of America (HUA), an academic setting that facilitates genuine learning gives seekers a fighting chance.