Contemporary conceptions of religion focus on historical narratives and events, on customs and practices, on beliefs and attitudes. But religion far exceeds these narrow and superficial boundaries. The history of religions shows a continuous dynamic engagement with new vistas of human life and growth. A historical-critical analysis shows both the depths of cruelty and carnage, and the ultimate reaches of care and compassion for others.
Religion was the most innovative force in human life until the emergence of modern science. It remains a potent source of active inspiration for human endeavor even today. What is often forgotten in the rhetoric against religion is its creative plenitude. This creative legacy, across religious cultures, includes the origins of art, architecture, literature, poetry, music, theater and, in some cultures, healing and medicine.
The academic study of religion applies various approaches to understand the multidimensionality of religion. The study of religion is inherently interdisciplinary — it uses approaches and theories from fields as diverse as literature and anthropology, cultural studies and gender studies, art and contemplative studies, economics and sociology, to name just a few among the dozens of disciplines used to examine religion. Religion has often been deeply involved, historically and today, with politics and economics. Without the study of religion, our knowledge of the world is woefully incomplete.
The Graduate Theological Union, or GTU, just a block north of the campus of UC Berkeley, has long understood the complex and subtle nature of religion and theology. With five programmatic research centers, eight member schools, and several affiliate institutions, GTU remains one of North America’s largest academic institutions dedicated to the graduate study of religion and its applications. Six global religions are represented by the centers and schools of GTU, along with a wide range of academic approaches, fields and methods.
Increasingly, contemporary theologians and scholars of religion have offered interpretations, constructions and applications in regard to the potential positive impact of religions in imagining and creating the greater good. Religious groups have worked globally to develop forward-leaning initiatives that contribute to community resilience and ecological restoration. Over the past several years, there has been a growing awareness at GTU of the need to bring religion and theology into the academic and public discourse on long-term solutions to the complex of problems that now face humanity and the biosphere. As such, GTU has launched Sustainability 360, which, through a range of efforts, is foregrounding the contribution of religious studies and theology to social, economic, environmental and cultural revitalization — the pillars of sustainability studies. A Certificate in Sustainability and Religion is being developed.
In 2015, GTU established the Mira and Ajay Shingal Center for Dharma Studies, which offers courses, graduate certificates and Master of Arts and doctoral programs in Hindu studies and yoga studies, as well as curricula in South Asian Buddhist and Jain philosophy and ethics. With a number of experts from a variety of fields, the center offers concentrations in historical and cultural studies of the Hindu world; sacred texts and interpretations; yoga studies; and much more.
Dharma studies, as an academic field, is particularly important at this time of climate change, ecological destruction and social disruption. As the work of critical theorists of the global south argues, critical indigenous knowledge systems — situated within non-Western religious cultures — should also be considered as resources for thinking about the complex challenges that now confront humanity. This inclusion in the struggle for global solutions allows us to reclaim, reinterpret and reapply principles, philosophies and practices (such as “mindfulness” and “radical nonviolence” or ahimsa) that lie latent within the vast reaches of the Hindu and yogic traditions, along with other religions under the purview of dharma studies.
The term “dharma studies” is known in North America as signifying not just “South Asian” religions and culture but, rather, the life-worlds of the three traditions referenced above in their diverse global expressions — whether in South Asia, the region of their emergence, or elsewhere in Asia, the West and diaspora communities: transnationally, beyond the markers of borders, nationalities and ethnicities. Dharma studies at GTU is crucial to this effort, as it uses transdisciplinary research methodology, or TRM, which applies a critical-creative lens to specific problems while bringing in the capacities of diverse fields.
But TRM is equally important for major crises that require interreligious and intercultural collaboration. GTU is a pioneer in interreligious studies that moves beyond multireligious siloed research toward a framework that interweaves the unique contributions of distinct religious cultures. Because it focuses directly and primarily on the study of religions, in tandem with diverse approaches, GTU allows for deep and complex analyses of texts, traditions, contexts and cultures of each unique religious ethos within dharma studies. The center also sponsors symposiums and conferences, and it publishes three journals, including the Journal of Dharma Studies.
Without a proper understanding of religion, we will continue to have the kind of insidious hate and horror that we have seen in the tragic violence at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Al Noor Mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand, the intentional car crash injuring a Hindu family and other pedestrians in Sunnyvale, California, and the Chabad of Poway synagogue shooting. Hatred is the fruit of ignorance. Learning about religions sets one free from fear and hatred.
Wherever we are, the historic reach of religion and its many circles of influence will impact our lives and those of our communities — whether it informs our lives in beneficial or harmful ways depends on how well we understand it.
Rita Sherma is the director and an associate professor at the Mira and Ajay Shingal Center for Dharma Studies at the Graduate Theological Union.