Religion and Teaching

  • By Dr. Subhasis Chattopadhyay
  • October 20, 2023
  • We have to understand Judaism and the Bible while reading certain books of literature and poetry. So, should we be disturbed about understanding Sanatana Dharma whilst studying similar Indic literary books?           

When I have to teach John Milton to both undergraduate and post-graduate students, I have to alert them to the Hebrew concept of YHWH’s covenant love for the Chosen people, that is, hesed. This notwithstanding whether I accept hesed as real or not. I have to discharge my duty as a teacher --- I have to discuss Milton’s ‘grand style’ when I discuss his epic, Paradise Lost.


Similarly, John Donne’s poetry cannot be understood without reference to the Bible --- Donne’s wit lies in his double entendres in his greatest love lyrics. Trauma studies, gender studies, and even European modernist movements cannot be taught without a profound engagement with comparative religion. For instance, is it not that James Joyce is finally a religious man whose attempts at flying from religion is an affirmation of Roman Catholicism? Joyce’s heir and amanuensis, Samuel Beckett was influenced by the Rhineland mystic, Meister Eckhart. Thence Beckett asks us to wait for Godot to arrive --- no reading of Beckett is complete without aligning Beckett with both Eckhart’s and Joyce’s Christianity. 


Similarly, Jacques Derrida repeatedly mentions religion in his works. In his later works, Derrida speaks of the trace to God. Of course, needless to say, without knowing Christianity one cannot understand either Dostoevsky or Tolstoy. W.B. Yeats and Herman Hesse were both well-schooled in Indic religions.


Yeats cannot be understood unless one knows the Upanishads. Hesse cannot be understood unless one knows Buddhism. This list can go on and on.


The point here is that we are taught by literature to not merely tolerate other religions but to respect them. That is our patrimony. Literature is an act of religion. Derrida was right all along. If one is unsettled by even the mention of our Dharma anywhere in any context, we need to introspect.


Are we the right people to communicate the event of literature? For that matter, if anyone has any problem with any other faith tradition, should that person remain as one who professes literatures in English? Is it not unfair to teach Yeats without referring to Mohini Chatterjee and Yeats’s indebtedness to Hinduism? 


To be disturbed by other religions and singling our Dharma for a verbal or written bashing is not very sane or just. It betrays a dissatisfaction about one’s own self-fashioning and never of our Dharma. Literature is about the interior life --- to quote John Donne in a very different context: “Nothing else is”. 


To rant against my Dharma or anyone’s religion is to betray anxieties about the self-in-process. Our aim is to show our students that vision of Henry Vaughan. Vaughan saw eternity as did William Blake. Ranting and outbursts do not help anyone see eternity anywhere. To deny this vision to our students since we have not seen it, is not merely about logical positivism --- but outright intellectual acedia.


So, when we teach the works of Raja Rao, considering Rao’s background we need to teach our students about Advaita Vedanta. To elide Advaita Vedanta is outright wrong. When we teach Meena Kandasamy, we must take care that we are just to her intellect. And not either condemn her or valorise her. Yes, she is right that deep inequalities have crept in our religion and those need to be interrogated and reformed. 


That does not mean that without applying the same techniques that we apply to the academic study of the Bible, we condemn the Manusmriti. Manusmriti and manuvada, are two entirely different matters. The former is an accretion of texts open to literary scrutiny while manuvada is a marginalising movement, unfortunately informed, or rather misinformed by Marxist biases. Kandasamy should be taught but only as literature since it is our duty to convey to our students that insofar she is a feminist it is well and good. To the extent that she is mixing up philosophical categories; she needs to be critiqued.


It is my sad experience that many are intolerant of even my Dharma’s iconography in academic discussion groups. Yet we do not have any problems in wishing each other a Happy New Year when we are perfectly aware of our celebration of the Gregorian calendar. 


It is good and correct to use literature to critique our religion, but it is erroneous to call our religion just another way of life. We should be open minded in constructing newer interpretations of our religion without forgetting our roots. I would go so far as to advocate the late literary theoretician Terry Eagleton’s academic work as a teacher, who did not write on Marxism in his classic book on literary theory, as a symbol. Why did a global expert on Marxism not write on Marxism in his book for students? He knew that Marxism is an ideology and is no less than a religious discourse. 


Thus, he steered clear of Marxism in his introductory book on literary theory. We need to be very careful that we do not lose sight of the aim of literatures in English as being finally the opening up of the mind effecting an irrepression of the repressed. That makes us more human and alive as a Faith community.


I invite my peers to engage with all religious discourses with courtesy and lack of hesitation. As we are all aware, literatures in English as practised in India challenge metanarratives of power. In other words, doing literature is an act of rebellion which will only help our Faith community. This is why our seers often engaged in high art and more importantly, high literary criticism. Sri Avinavagupta’s literary criticism will ricochet through millennia to come. When we teach prosody, it is imperative to teach ancient Indic prosody too. Not to do so is being unfair to our students. 


No matter what the argument, we in our nation speak many tongues. To prioritise one language over the other is harakiri. The only language which unites us is English and as academics we know that through the English language we are writing back at the empire. Yet linguistic unity is not enough. We are a multireligious nation. We need to accept each other and only then will our students learn to live in harmony. We do not need to be fearful in exploring other religions. This is living out lives in letters. It is right that we discuss phenomenology in the classroom but never at the cost of reminding our students that ultimately phenomenology derives from German Idealism whose ontic base is monism found in the Upanishads.


Note: Any scholar of literatures in English can easily find out that I have taken the liberty of not citing any sources since it is useless to cite a pastry to a baker. The ideas are my own, but some of the phrasings are from well-known books on literature.   


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Author Subhasis Chattopadhyay    earned his Ph.D. from the University of Calcutta. He delivered the 2022 De Nobili Endowment Lecture last year at the Jesuit International House of Philosophy at Chennai. His reviews in Prabuddha Bharata for over a decade have been extensively quoted by Ivy League Presses online and offline. He had promoted Sanatana Dharma in Indian Catholic Matters never disrespecting the Catholic tradition. He has been teaching literatures in English from the age of twenty-one. He has been visiting faculty in many PG departments. Currently he teaches English in the PG and UG Department of English in a non-community college affiliated to the University of Calcutta. He has taught coursework to doctoral students. Further he has formal qualifications in the Bible, in Sanatana Scriptures and in various branches of psychology including geriatric psychology. He has been involved in an international literary festival held in the Himalayas. 


Also read

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2. The Constitution of India is today’s Manusmriti

3. Different ways of Remembering Manusmriti vs. Roman Inquisitions

4. What is the concept of God in Sanatana Dharma and Christianity

5. Comparing Indic vs. Abrahamic Faiths – A Primer

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