An unfulfilled search for a Ph.D in Hinduism

On her return this student from Columbia University discovers that no university in India offers a comprehensive course in Hinduism studies

July 13, 2013 08:25 am | Updated 08:27 am IST - CHENNAI:

A woman’s quest to conduct research in Hinduism has remained in limbo as there is no university in the country that offers such a study.

Subadra Muthuswami, who has a master’s degree in public health from Columbia University, hoped to pursue her interest in Hinduism when she returned to India.

“In my undergraduate programme in St. John’s University, it was a must that we do nine credits each of theology and philosophy for an arts degree. I ended up doing Hinduism studies. Then in my master’s programme, I opted to do a few courses in Hinduism. Since I am in India, I decided to do research to understand why we practice rituals and rites in Hinduism. But I understand that no university offers a comprehensive course in Hinduism studies,” she said.

She discovered that the University of Madras has programmes in vaishnavism and Indian philosophy. She enquired with universities such as Madurai Kamaraj, Annamalai and Sastra, but without success. Finally, she went to Madras Sanskrit College in Mylapore, where she was informed that she could register as an independent research candidate or seek help from the University of Madras.

“While you may study Indian philosophy in the philosophy department or vaishnavism or saiva siddhanta, which is in Tamil medium only, you cannot study the religion in all its constituent parts in India,” she said. She learnt that even Banaras Hindu University has a department in philosophy and religion but nothing specific to Hinduism.

According to Siniruddha Dash, head of Sanskrit department at University of Madras, there are six different philosophies in Hinduism and to master each of them, one may need 10 to 20 years. All philosophies are studied separately, just as in the learning of languages. Vaishnavism is a widely-practised aspect of Hinduism, one of the reasons the University offers the programme, Dr. Dash added.

The University’s department of philosophy allows a student to appreciate Indian philosophy, which professors say is about Hinduism.

S. Panneerselvam, head of the department of philosophy said it is only a matter of nomenclature. “We offer 12 papers at the master’s level including Advaita and Hindu social philosophy.

Senior professors say universities are secular places where Hinduism as a religion cannot be taught. Sources in the University said when the department wanted to offer a paper in yoga (which is also a shastra) last year, the move was opposed on the grounds that it was endorsed by a political party.

The University has separate departments for Christian and Islamic studies.

100-year-old college has no women students now

The Madras Sanskrit College, which has entered its 108th year, has over 150 students enrolled for various programmes.

Set up in 1906, the college was the first to be affiliated to the University of Madras in 1911 and was run with funds from local philanthropists. In 1977, it was brought under the ministry of human resources devolpment.

Principal N.V. Deviprasad says, “This institution is meant for those who want to study the traditional shastras or sciences. We offer a seven-year course for which a student can register after class X. He will graduate as a ‘siromani’, with a master’s in Sanskrit.”

The college used to admit women. “We had women students 12 to 15 years ago, but now, only men join,” Dr. Deviprasad said. Though the course is designated as an M.A. degree in Sanskrit, students learn the various ancient sciences.

The different specialisations offered here are vedanta (philosophy), vyakarana (grammar), sahithya (includes literary criticism), alankara (study of poetry and its nuances), jyotisha, nyaya (ancient science of logic, useful to understand making of laws and punishments) and mimamsa (vedic mantras and rituals, the meaning of words, their derivates and use).

Each of these streams may take at least 10 years to master, Dr. Deviprasad said.

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