Teaching in Banaras

Indian academia is booming; every department in every university is gaining faculty members. New dormitories are popping up all over campuses. At Banares Hindu University alone, 650 new faculty members are being hired. IT, Bio-medical Technology, Engineering, and Medicine have the most new positions, yet even majors such as Philosophy, Dance, and Peace Studies are each gaining several new faculty members. If there is an Indian national out there with a specialty in Jewish Philosophy and Kabbalah, then he or she would be almost guaranteed a position. Currently, the Indian universities only have a few Political Scientists whom are familiar with Israel studies, but there are no faculty members whom are well versed in Jewish philosophy And because of this rarity, the institution would be quick to snatch up a specialist. (There is one odd Indian professor in a regional college who gives academic talks that summarize his newspaper clippings on the Indian-Israel relationship or newspaper human interest stories about the remaining Jews in India). Below is a picture of the building that houses the department of Philosophy & Religion, as well as the Psychology department.

BHU philosophy

This month is application month. Tens of thousands of applicants descended on the campus to try for admissions. They make journeys from small towns hoping to change their futures by rising out of the working class and becoming a civil servant or even a doctor or IT worker. In philosophy and history, about 850 apply in each field to be BA freshmen, only about fifty are accepted as students. The ratios are worse in the sciences.

The spring semester in India officially starts in the first week of January but in the north, it is the winter season and still cold and clammy with 40 degree temperature. So every day, the instructors come in and decide if there will be classes that day or if the weather still too cold. No one will ever say that we start mid-month or that there is no class tomorrow as they would at a western institution; rather, every department goes through this ritual on a daily basis to decide it is still too cold.

The language of instruction is English as is the one universal language for the diverse student body. My Indian Hindu class included Thai and Cambodian Buddhists monks, a Cambodian woman, two Tibetans, a native of Ladakh whose native tongue was Ladakhian, an Indian convert to Christianity, as well as a “Western” Australian son of a minister. The campus, as the largest in South East Asia, has many students from Thailand and Cambodia. Thailand contributes a large annual fee to cover all the Thai students and their needs. There is also a special dormitory just for Thai Buddhist monks.

In January, there was a student strike with the cancellation of classes for the day because they raised tuition by over 300% for next year. Bonfires were lit and various objects thrown at officials in protest. (I did not directly enter the crowd and watch because the State dept gave us Fulbrighters a warning to not stand in the sidelines of even seemingly peaceful protests. From behind the barricades, I could see that this protest already had gas masks and possibly tear gas. Here is someone else’s report.)

strike at BHU. all gates are closed. unable to egress or enter…students protesting on rise of tuition by 5x. but many of them are just joining the wall to be loud and boisterous…. Issues: teachers not teaching their classes, not announcing when they will not be attending yet demanding we be on time, lack of planned syllabus and homework, lack of clean bathrooms in hostels.

Now here is the punch line- they were going to raise tuition from 480 Rupees to 1500 Rupees which is US $7.73 to $24.15. This small amount, by American standards, was enough to start a protest. The university gave in by the early afternoon. (For the dormitory and daily hot lunch they pay 2000 Rupees a semester, about 32 American Dollars.)

The Philosophy and Religion department teaches the classic philosophic works of Hinduism and Buddhism under the rubric of Indian philosophy and focusing specifically in Nyaya, Vedanta, Brahma Sutra, Buddhist Yogacara as well as logic and Western thought. Classes treat each Indian approach as a separate worldview, a darshan, and they treat Plato, Hume, Kant, Wittgenstein, and Rawls the same way as separate worldviews. There is little analysis or theory. The large faculty is predominately from old Brahmin families. Saryupareen Brahmins with one Buddhist from an untouchable background and one Christian woman from a tribal background. The Social Science department was only a little more diverse.

I taught Judaism- as part of a course on Western religions- and Comparative Religion- both required courses. The Judaism course provided an inside into how India views Judaism. As noted in previous blog posts, the Indian people know Judaism mainly from Christian, anti-Judaism citations or as the religion of Leviticus. At the start of the course, I was repeatedly asked questions like: You got rid of animal sacrifices due to the 19th and 20th century reformers? Was it a 10th century revivalist who taught you to stop doing sacrifices? Did you substitute a coconut, the way some Hindu communities do? I downplayed this line of thinking to avoid leading into the New Testament and started with mizvot, Sinai, Oral law, and Rabbinical Judaism. I also had the professor who normally teaches the course sit in on every lesson taking copious notes for his future lectures.

The class saw Maimonides as part of the Yogic tradition in that for Maimonides one overcomes the ignorance and drives of the natural condition through intellectual training. They related to blessings and names of God as magical mantras. (Jews tend to misuse use the word “mantra” which is a word that has power with the concept of japa- the reputation of a word for devotion.) They liked Kabbalah as dualistic dvaiata Vedanta like Madhva and dislike Hasidut as emotionalism that cannot liberate. Like the ibn Ezra, they treated ritual and mussar statements as scientific. And in the Yogic tradition, debated Maimonides, Nahmanides, and Emergence of Ethical Man on the fallen state that we need to raise ourselves from. They went right for the verse that Adam was only permitted vegetation and saw the ideal even in the Bible as vegetarianism the way Albo read the verse. They liked all the 20th century thinkers especially Rav Kook and Heschel. The professor who sat in on the class proclaimed about how the Humash is different than other scriptures in that here it is “God in search of Man.”

The required Comparative Religion course was a bit trickier to teach. The textbook was an inverse of a Christian colonial approach. The British books proved the superiority of Christianity over Hinduism and the goal of the Hindu version was to prove the superiority of Hinduism over Christianity, which was better at offering liberation. All the other religions of the world, Judaism Included, were not seen as contenders. The last chapter of the book was on whether we can all agree to become one religion. The book’s perspective left it as a problem since there is not enough commonality, people won’t accept a religion that is not theirs, and no one will accept a new religion. I started with that chapter and explained that is not how we do comparative religion, philosophy, or theology in the West. In principle, we do not compare theologies to create a new religion. It gave me a chance to explain the new no-reductive approaches of the theology of other religions.

In general, their book was 19th century approach of looking for the essence of each religion in 8-10 statements and then comparing the supposed essences. The book had no interest in manifestation. For example, one the essence of Judaism or Islam was defined, then the actual texts of the Talmud or Koran/Hadith play no role in the discussion; they could even be seen as irrelevant to the essence.

I went about my own way and started with William James, Mircea Eliade, and Western views of mysticism. In this approach, I learned how they see religion. For example, they rejected James idea of religion and mysticism as a personal feeling done alone to the alone. For them, one requires a guru to teach you how to control your body and mind and one needs to submit to an ashram and to practice the classical techniques.

At one point, I spoke to the PHD philosophy students about how to do research and develop a thesis; some of them had been my friends ever since. One Friday, one of the PhD students came up to me to say that he is dropping out of the program and moving to Delhi. Why? He is very uncomfortable around women and cannot talk to them. He says he grew up in a home of strict separation of the sexes which was very strict about what each sex says to the other, even sibling do not cross the line. So like Raj on the Big Bang theory he cannot talk to women one to one.

Well on this particular Friday he asked a girl to marry him and she said no. The girl is doing a PhD is philosophy and the boy was doing a PhD in philosophy just to be near her. He says he has loved her for three years already but never took her out on a date or a private cup of coffee n campus. He did not really speak to her and never told her about his attraction for three years. After years of silence, instead of asking her on a date or out to coffee, he approaches her with “I have been madly in love with you for three years and will you marry me.“ He says he really didn’t want to do philosophy but it kept him close to her. He feels he wasted three years and will now go to Delhi and sit for the civil servant exam. I would have thought he was pulling my leg as a prank if I did not know the students involved or did not keep abreast of his transfer process.

I was asked many times over the course of my time India what my views on Hitler are. They ask: “What do I think of Hitler?” These students have no context of Western or Jewish history, have never heard of Anti-Semitism except as 19th century Christian and German Aryan truths about the Jew. Few adhere in a meaningful way to the ideas of human rights, crimes against humanity, or genocide. For them, Hitler was just a ruthless leader who defended Germany against her enemies and who took a semi-feudal country having trouble adjusting to modernity and drafted the populous into building factories, autobahn, and cars for all. All virtues in today’s India and Mein Kampf is for sale at every train station. Their question and curiosity is based in innocence.

From their perspective, there are always genocides. The Chinese do not make their loss of six million civilians by the Japanese into the center of their story. Or, for example, I asked the two Cambodia Buddhist monks whom were enrolled in the program how did they revive Buddhism after the killing fields of the late 1970’s when 2-3 million were killed, especially the monks. They answered that the Khmer Rouge destroyed everything but some of the monks fled to Vietnam and returned after the war to rebuild the religion and rebuild the monasteries. They are doing very well and are already the second generation after the destruction. Many spend their late adolescence in the monastery and are ordained as monks at 20 and then become laymen except for those who either become officiates or academics. These two monks studying for an MA saw their story as a triumph of survival over the forces of destruction.

10 responses to “Teaching in Banaras

  1. This was my longest gap in blogging. So I remind my readers to review the page of rules for comments. In addition, no anonymous comments without traceable emails and IPs.
    Knowledge of Indian religion, or anything else, from google or ignorance or kiruv literature does not get posted. (I let a few get by in the last few months.)
    No comments from Hindu nationalists about genocidal meat-eating monotheists or anything similar will be posted.

  2. Thank you very much Alan for your insightful perspective. It sounds almost like you were our Jewish ambassador to Mars…

  3. Fascinating! Much to absorb… Thank you for this multi-darshaned report, Alan!

  4. Thanks, Alan. You have made up for lost time with this delightful posting, full of information and insights that most of us otherwise would have no access to. Your teaching-learning experience in India sounds like it has been mutually illuminating, and you surely have done much to promote greater understanding of Jews and Judaism.

  5. what do you think of the assertion that “hindu” signifies a cultural spectrum and not a specific organized religious movement?

  6. Very interesting. I would only point out that orthodox and ultra-orthodox Jews tend to view he holocaust in a similar way those Cambodian monks view the years of Khmer Ruoge – it is just another episode of persecution (though an extreme one). The destruction of the two temples is much more significant. For the Israeli public, too, the Holocaust is not as nearly as central as for the American Jewish community.

  7. That is actually a very valid and interesting point, Uziya.
    And as to Gil. That assertion is correct and very important to keep in mind. I am curious as well, Alan, if you encountered discussions of how the term “Hindu” is used in this context in the west.

  8. Fascinating perspective, demonstrating how different we Westerners are. How much more different must be the vast majority who aren’t privileged to enroll. The world truly has much work to do, to bring our minds together, so we can all benefit from each others’ perspectives.

  9. So fascinating and such a fresh pleasure to read.

  10. they rejected James idea of religion and mysticism as a personal feeling done alone to the alone. For them, one requires a guru to teach you how to control your body and mind and one needs to submit to an ashram and to practice the classical techniques.

    Very interesting. I can see echoes of both in our tradition. On the one hand, we have Rav Soloveitchik’s Lonely Man of Faith articulating somethign which may be a truism, that certain experiences are inherently internal, hence the man of faith is lonely despite having many friends. This chasim isn’t only between different religious groups, but even to a lesser extent between two equally observant members of the Tribe. On the other hand, we know from the Merkava tradition of the master-student relationship that was so crucial in developing “devekutically.” In fact, the admonition of not engaging in nistar until one has become satiated with “bread and water” is another broader example of the need for guidance.

    However, Rav Soloveitchik’s expression of the essential existential loneliness of the religious experience is something which I find a truism (as there are no objective physical manifestations of the religious experience – cf. Daniel’s prophetic dream in presence of his colleagues), and so must the Hindus not deal with the very same observation?

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