‘Allow the young to think critically,’ says Srilata Raman

Professor Srilata Raman on researching and writing about religion

Updated - September 23, 2022 04:43 pm IST

Published - September 22, 2022 05:33 pm IST

Srilata Raman

Srilata Raman | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Srilata Raman is the Professor of Hinduism at the Department for the Study of Religion, University of Toronto. The Chennai-born author studied Indian religions at Oxford University and the University of Tübingen. She has published three edited volumes and several articles. Her first monograph is on the concept of prapatti in Srivaishnavism titled Self-Surrender (Prapatti) to God in Srivaisnavism: Tamil Cats and Sanskrit Monkeys (Routledge, 2007). The second, The Transformation of Tamil Religion: Ramalinga Swamigal and Modern, Dravidian Sainthood (2022). Excerpts from an interview.

Question: Hailing from a business family how did you take to academia?

Answer: Studying in a J. Krishnamurti school at Rishi Valley and meeting him personally had a profound impact on me. It made me feel that learning about Indian religious history was a worthwhile and important thing to do.

Q: Where did you travel to as part of your learning?

A: I went to Oxford in England, where I had the opportunity to study with Alexis Sanderson, who was and remains the leading authority on Kashmiri Saivism worldwide. He was also a remarkable teacher – his rigour, his dedication – remains deep. And it was Vasudha Dalmia at the University of Tübingen in Germany, who pushed me to expand the parameters of my scholarship all the time.

Q: Could you tell us about your book Self-Surrender (Prapatti) to God in Srīvaisnavism...?

A: The book is about doctrinal differences between the two schools of Vaishnavism — Vadakalai and Thengalai — as these differences emerged in works written by the acharyas of the community between the 12th and 14th century. The research involved a deep study of the works of Ramanuja and of the manipravalam commentaries on the Tiruvoimozhi with the help of scholars like Arayar Srirama Sharma, Melkote, and M. A. Venkatakrishnan, University of Madras.

Q: How would you explain your new work The Transformation of Tamil Religion and the intersection with the Christian theology work in South India?

A: In the book, I have tried to show how the image of Vallalar, as Ramalinga Swamigal was popularly known as, posthumously changed from being a Saivaite devotee linked to the Cittar tradition to a socio-religious reformer. He creatively adapted Christian doctrine to his own religious ends.

Q: Do students challenge you? Do they push you into the new woke world of teaching?

A: Many of my students in the Hinduism courses are Hindus, but from different backgrounds. They have a genuine interest in knowing more about the religion. As I get older I welcome “woke” — and sympathise with young people’s frustration over the lack of social justice in the world. I find that if one presents students with the evidence in a nuanced manner and leave them to think critically for themselves, they are willing to rethink prejudices and clichés and arrive at mature judgments.

Q: Why do you think there are very few centers of excellence for the study and pursuit of Indology in India ?

A: Indology as a discipline was never institutionalised in India. It would have then been easier to educate young people, and the populace at large, that examining one’s religious tradition critically is not to denigrate it but to understand it better.

Q: What are you working on currently?

A: The Tamil thesauri, called the nighantus, are a collection of works I have been fascinated by and hope to about sometime.

Q: Your advice to young scholars.

A: Ask yourself always if your scholarship can stand the test of your own standards and of those whose work you respect. This means to work rigorously and not to compromise on the quality of one’s research under some kind of publication pressure and out of getting transfixed by the whole circus of rewards and recognition.

The writer is the founder trustee of the Chennai-based Prakriti Foundation

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