MIPodcast #123—Pursuing the intellectual life from a place of commitment, with Ravi Gupta
Dr. Ravi Gupta joins guest host Philip Barlow to talk about faith and scholarship. Dr. Gupta was a visiting scholar at the Maxwell Institute this semester, and a previous guest on the Maxwell Institute Podcast. He’s a practicing Hindu and also a scholar of Hinduism, and he’s become a close friend of the Institute over the past few years. He’s known Dr. Barlow for even longer, so you’ll hear two old friends talking about the benefits and drawbacks of being a believer and a scholar of one’s own religious tradition.
Ravi M. Gupta is the Charles Redd Professor of Religious Studies at Utah State University. He is the author or editor of four books, including an abridged translation (with Kenneth Valpey) of the Bhagavata Purana, one of India’s most beloved sacred texts in the Sanskrit language. Ravi holds a doctorate in Hindu Studies from Oxford University and has taught at the University of Florida, Centre College, and the College of William and Mary. His current interests have drawn him to religion and ecology.
BLAIR HODGES: It’s the Maxwell Institute Podcast. I’m Blair Hodges.
Philip L. Barlow serves as guest host in this episode, sitting down with Dr. Ravi Gupta to talk about faith and scholarship. Dr. Gupta was a visiting scholar at the Maxwell Institute this past semester, and a previous guest here on the podcast. He’s a practicing Hindu and also a scholar of Hinduism, and he’s become a close friend of the Institute over the past few years. He’s known Dr. Barlow for even longer, so you’re about to hear two old friends talking about the benefits and drawbacks of being a believer and a scholar of one’s own religious tradition.
Questions and comments about this and other episodes can be sent to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. It’s our associate director Philip L. Barlow talking with Dr. Ravi Gupta of Utah State University on this episode of the Maxwell Institute Podcast.
PHILIP BARLOW: Dr. Ravi Gupta is visiting the Neal A. Maxwell Institute. Ravi, it’s a pleasure to be with you. We’re pals from way back up in our Logan days together at Utah State University. So, this isn’t a first meeting for us, and we’re just delighted, as you already know, everybody around the Maxwell Institute is just delighted at your presence here this semester. We wish we had you longer, but I’ve had many signals from my friends up at Utah State not to try to put clutches into you. So, we know you’re here just through December.
RAVI GUPTA: Thank you so much, Phil.
BARLOW: This morning I’d like to talk to you about several things. I’d like to talk to you about your personal life a little bit, your personal life among the Latter-day Saints in particular. I’d like to talk about the nature of your work and approaches to work, and specifically what you’re working on now in the semester you have with us.
The Maxwell Institute, as you know, is set up to be a research institute on the topic of religion, and our particular mode of operation is to gather and nurture, support disciple-scholars as these scholars engage the world of wider ideas. But also, with the interest of nourishing, fortifying Latter-day Saints in their belief and in the expiration of really fostering good causes and allegiances to values and trying to make a better world.
So that’s not foreign to you, but you’re operating here in a Latter-day Saint context while being a Hindu scholar and I’d be interested in some of that conversation, too.
So, I wish you would tell us just a little bit about your life. You’ve said in a previous interview with Blair Hodges that people can check out—the topic of that interview was exploring what disciple-scholarship means in your understanding and your own practice. So, we won’t revisit that in any depth here. But my memory is that you were born in Chicago but you were raised in Boise. Tell us a little bit about that. There is a considerable minority of Latter-day Saints in the Boise area, of course, you would have encountered some of us exotic creatures.
GUPTA: It’s wonderful to be here, Phil—here at the Maxwell and here with you in particular. I visited the Maxwell, as you mentioned, some time ago and secretly hoped that I would get a chance to spend more time here amongst the very wonderful community of disciple-scholars that you have nurtured here. So, it’s a privilege to be here and to be talking to you today.
You’re right in that my father and mother moved to Boise, Idaho when I was just four years old. And so, my earliest memories are from Boise. My parents came to the United States to study, and as a child of immigrants I grew up in the middle of two cultures. The culture which my parents brought with them when they moved to the United States, and the culture that I was steeped in around me in Boise, Idaho. And I think a big part of my upbringing in Boise was shaped by being in a place where I was constantly representing who I was to a broader community.
You see, we were one of maybe a handful of Hindu families in Boise. And my parents ran the only Hindu temple in all of Idaho, which served as the main gathering place during festivals and regular weekends for much of the Indian community. And so, we were regularly asked to come and speak about Hinduism and India and all kinds of different events.
In that process, I got to know a variety of different religious communities, different groups in the valley and, of course, the LDS community as well. I remember as a child missionaries visiting the temple—or prospective missionaries who were planning to go out to various parts of the world and they wanted to encounter a little piece of culture and religion and tradition here in Boise before they went out. And having conversations with them, giving them tours of the temple, even as a child, and that left a marked impression on me. Not to mention the Institute that was flourishing and well-built right across from Boise State University where I did my undergraduate studies.
BARLOW: The LDS Institute of Religion, that is.
BARLOW: Were you well accepted as a Hindu family in Boise, Idaho? Or were there dimensions of that that were edgy?
GUPTA: I’ve got nothing but good memories of life in Boise as a Hindu. We were very welcomed and Boise, at that time particularly, was a place that was eager to encounter new traditions and cultures just because there were so few people from different places. Now it’s grown much more and become much more of a diverse place. But at the time, we were invited to more or less every interfaith event that took place, from the Thanksgiving interfaith service at the Cathedral of the Rockies to interfaith panels to the opening of the Anne Frank Memorial in Boise.
And in all of those events, we were representing who we were. And I was often asked to speak. My parents were very wise in pushing me forward and saying, “Ravi, you should speak here.” And that gave me my first experience of speaking, but also of representing who I was and articulating my identity to others.
BARLOW: Now that sounds like a nice opportunity. I should confide to our listeners that you are—were, still are, by the standards of the academy or the time frames of the academy—a child prodigy, kind of a child wonder. You were homeschooled and you were off to Boise State before your thirteenth birthday and you accomplished a doctorate in the study of religion at Oxford University by age twenty-one, if memory serves. So, tell us about that. Are we to think of you as a Brainiac from outer space, different from the rest of us normal mortals? Or what was it like being a child-wonder at a university at age thirteen? How were you accepted there? What was that like? [laughter]
GUPTA: Well, regardless of what I say, I think some people are going to always think of me as a Brainiac from outer space. But I hope this interview will serve at least a little bit to calm their fears of who I might be. But yeah, I had an unusual upbringing. I was homeschooled, as you mentioned, and that meant my mother particularly educated me and my younger brother at home in a variety of different subjects, but primarily focusing on the three R’s— reading, writing, and arithmetic or mathematics—with the conviction that these are the foundation of all other forms of study and education that we might want to do later on in life.
And my early admission to Boise State University, I was just about to turn thirteen at the time. This was something that wasn’t really planned. This is something that differentiates our home education from how many people think of homeschooling, especially outside of Idaho and Utah where it’s less common. A lot of people think of homeschooling as a way for the parents to push the children to their limits, lock them in a room with a stack of books and make sure they study everything as quickly as possible. For my parents it was very much the opposite.
Of course, we had books and of course we studied, but only a few hours a day, and most of our day was filled with engagement with the community. And I think that’s what helped make my homeschooling a lot more “normal” in terms of its trajectory, because so much of my life was engaged with human interaction and that was what I remember most about my homeschooling and that’s what I enjoyed the most.
Of course, I loved reading, I’ve always loved reading and studying and the bookish side of homeschooling, but that engagement was really powerful for me both within the Hindu community, which the temple was there and we were engaged in that, but also with the broader of community in which we lived. In hindsight, I think it was that which eventually led me to choose a life as a teacher, because I was already so used to being present in a situation and expressing who I was and what I wanted to tell a group of people.
BARLOW: That may already have answered my next question. But the question was going to be, how did a Brainiac from outer space become so grounded and so sane and so gracious? I’ve known you for a number of years, I know your family is a family that any Latter-day Saint would be thrilled to be a part of and represents many things that Latter-day Saints strive for in terms of generosity and an informed, intelligent, thoughtful faith and an outreach to others. And being a child wonder, or just very smart and able to navigate the challenges of a university at such a tender age, I wouldn’t have been. High school was challenging enough socially for me in doing that.
So, I’ve wondered—marveled—not just at your intelligence and your scholarship, but your graciousness and how that all worked out. Maybe you’ve answered that question already or is there anything else to say about that? I hope I’m not embarrassing you, but I actually think it’s important for people to think about, for me to think about.
GUPTA: Well, thank you Phil. That’s very kind of you. There are times, actually quite often, when people to my parents or they come to me and they say, “I would like my children to accomplish academically what your child or what you did. How do we do that?” And the first thing that my mother will tell them, or I will tell them, is to say, “Don’t try to!” Because I think the biggest mistake that parents can make, particularly in this kind of homeschooled situation, but also of children going to school, is to set their goals in front of the children and then push them hard to meet the goals that are really all about them, that is the parent, rather than about the children. And for us, I think the biggest blessing for me was that this was never planned by my mother or father, it happened in a very organic sort of way.
My parents were running a Govinda’s, an Indian vegetarian restaurant in Boise for about six years when I was a child, and I would do my studies there while my parents were cooking or running the place. And as I did my work, customers would come in and they would need to be introduced to what Indian food was. And so, I would get up or my brother would get up from our work and we would introduce them to Basmati rice and what curry was, and after they finished going through the buffet to do the cash register and take the money. And then once they left, to clean up the tables and put everything in the dish washer. And again, that was an element of—we didn’t realize at the time, as in, my brother and I, we didn’t realize that that was a part of our education. We thought we were getting a break from our studies!
But in reality, again, like my engagement with my community, this was another way in which both of us learned what it meant to greet someone, to host someone, to welcome them in a way that they would want to enjoy that food, that they would want to come back. It was a family business. It was something we did completely as a labor of love. It wasn’t our primary income; it never was planned to be. My father worked for Hewlett-Packard as an engineer. But we did it because we wanted to engagement with our community in that way. So, I learned much from that experience.
And from that came my studies at BSU as well. There was a professor who used to come and eat regularly, and he would talk to us, my brother and I, regularly just as other customers would. He told my parents one day, he said, “I don’t know what you’re doing with him in terms of homeschooling, but he might consider, if you’ve run out of things to do, he might consider taking just a course at Boise State University in English because Ravi seems to be good with language.”
And my mother liked the idea, partly because she thought it would be a great way for me to progress and partly because we were all overwhelmed with the restaurant. So, that’s where it started, just with a single course as a way to supplement what I was doing anyway.
So, back to my point that I think it’s very important that it not be something that is forced or pushed, but something that emerges naturally. Because I think every child has their own trajectory, their own path to follow and it will emerge given enough care and some protection and some risk taking and pushing, I think that emerges.
BARLOW: I’m very provoked and interested by the natural integration of life and community involvement and the eventual trajectory of your education. Something for all of us in education to think about.
My name again is Philip Barlow here at the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship continuing a conversation with Dr. Ravi Gupta, a visiting scholar at the Institute this semester.
Let’s get into your work a little bit if we may Ravi. You are a Hindu studying Hinduism. Talk about that a little bit. Are there any dangers of being too inbred when you’re a member of a religious tradition, specifically yours, studying your own tradition in the academy?
GUPTA: There is, of course, that danger. I think history is replete with examples of religious communities becoming too insular and becoming concerned with matters that cut them off from the larger world they inhabit. And I think that’s particularly a risk for us today in a globalized world we live in and where our neighbors might be from a variety of different religious traditions. It’s so important that we engage.
But I think when done well, when done correctly, religious persons studying their own tradition can be very powerful, supportive, and even sometimes destabilizing, in a good way. A destabilizing force that can break us out of our insular communities and help us to relate to the other by, first of all, reflecting critically about ourselves and who we are and how we relate to others in our community.
And so that’s why I particularly appreciate this opportunity at the Maxwell because as a Hindu studying Hinduism I’m with LDS scholars studying the LDS tradition and, in this way, we both study ourselves, but we also do it in conversation with the other. And I think that’s where that disciple-scholarship becomes the healthiest.
BARLOW: And again, you may already have preempted this question, but you’re a Hindu studying Hinduism in America. There are rather more Muslims in America than Hindus and rather more Baptists in America than Hindus. Is there anything about the American setting that’s distinctive, and now, after teaching in Kentucky and Florida was it? And Virginia at William and Mary, now you’re a Hindu studying Hinduism in the United States of America in Utah and now at BYU. So that’s a bit of the layered context for being a cultural outsider, or maybe you’re a cultural insider by now, but someone of your tradition do or do not know that. Is there anything more to say about those contexts?
GUPTA: Yeah, I’ve come to the conclusion that everyone is an outsider and everyone is an insider, depending on how we look at the situation. And I’ve kind of given up trying to figure out whether I’m an outsider or I’m an insider simply because, well, here I am with two mother tongues—Hindi and English—having spoken both fluently as a child, living in two cultures at the same time—in the United States where I was born and raised, but then spending sometimes as child months as a time in India and being quite comfortable spending time there and engaging with understanding the culture and community. And then as you pointed out, having lived in different parts of the United States and now back home in the intermountain West.
And so, insider and outsider distinctions tend to be so fluid and so blurry, but one thing that I have been convinced about is that a religious tradition does well to be a majority in some places and a minority in others. That when we live as a minority and practice our faith, it gives us a different perspective on our tradition than as a member of a majority in a particular location. And I know this having been Hindu in India and being Hindu in the United States and particularly in Boise or Utah. It’s a different kind of experience and in many ways, the other serves as a mirror to ourselves where we see how an LDS person practices and we think, “This is wonderful and I wonder what I can find in my own tradition that can reach out and meet that. What ways can I supplement what I have received? And in what ways can I learn from what I have received?”
And that process is something that has been an ongoing thing for me. Particularly now since I’ve moved to Utah, Utah State University, and now visiting BYU.
BARLOW: Thank you. Your project while you’re here, I understand, has to do with theology. What’s your understanding—briefly, because I want to get into some other details—but what’s your understanding of religious studies where you’re a professor in a department of history and religious studies? In fact, you are, as of January or June, you will be the department chair of that department at Utah State University. What’s the distinction between theology and religious studies? Or what’s the relationship of them? And maybe what should be, as opposed to what is or what’s perceived to be?
GUPTA: Yeah, theology—I like one of the classical Christian definitions of the term, “faith seeking understanding.” Basically, I see it as the systematic pursuit of the intellectual life but done from a place of commitment. And I mean, theology is as old as any science is in the world in terms of various universities that have taught it and studied it across the world.
Religious studies, on the other hand, is something that’s much newer. It’s a product of the Enlightenment. It’s really flourished in the United States maybe in the past sixty or seventy years, maybe a little less. And it begins with an attempt to bracket out matters of commitment and faith and to say, “It doesn’t matter whether you are a member of this tradition, or you are a theist or an atheist, or whether religion is something that makes a difference in your life or not.” But we all recognize that religion is something that is important to study as a human phenomenon rather than as a divine phenomenon.
And so, religious studies begin with bracketing out commitment, not rejecting it, ideally. Not rejecting commitment, but saying, “We cannot speak about that. We have no authority to speak about it.” And by studying exclusively the human phenomenon of religion as opposed to the divine phenomenon of revelation, for example, and studying those aspects of religion which are human—the social, the cultural, the historical, the textual and so on.
BARLOW: Do you find one more important than the other? Or they’re both friends?
GUPTA: Yeah, they both, hopefully, ideally, should be friends. And I see both as essential to understanding how religion works. Both the perspective of the person with commitment and one who stands outside of that committed fold. I think both bring insights into the study of religion that are essential. In my earlier podcast interview with Blair, I think we dove into some of the finer points about how that works and the risks there.
BARLOW: Yes, I’ll refer listeners to that interview again. I think it would be helpful context for our conversation.
Theology is something of a foreign term to Latter-day Saints or where it’s a common term, what it means may not be the same as what you were talking about or at least how you intend to practice it.
One broad sensibility among the Latter-day Saints is we have prophets, so who needs theologians? We’re getting our information directly form the Lord and we don’t need intellectuals or scholars or scribes intruding overmuch. Or Latter-day Saints may hear theology and think of it as the religious stuff that they believe that prophets teach, or they may hear it as synonymous with doctrine or official pronouncements from Church leaders.
So, talk to me a little bit about the nature of theology or types or your version of what you’re doing when you’re studying theology this semester or thinking about it.
GUPTA: I think theologians do multiple things, and that’s of course, a large topic. But there are a couple of things I would like to highlight which I think are very important for any tradition.
The first is that theologians provide a consistent and comprehensive understanding of a tradition in a way that makes sense for today’s world, for the audience whom they address.
So, by that I mean theologians take things like revelation and history and tradition and practice—and these various elements can sometimes have a staccato-like feel to them. They can be a little here and a little there and they might look like they conflict at times and sometimes they don’t quite match. And a theologian is someone who is able to bring some aspect of the tradition and make it whole, bring it together. And then take that and apply it to the concerns of our world, make it relevant and make it applicable, even to innovate in ways that are still loyal to the tradition.
I like to think of revelation of the grist of theology. There’s no theology without revelation. But at the same time, revelation is something by its very nature that is meant to persist over large periods of time and over large numbers of people, perhaps in different parts of the world. Theology, on the other hand, takes that and says, okay, what does that revelation mean for our times today? How does it make sense of where we have been in the past? And what does this revelation, what are its implications for the future?
So, it’s like if I had, you know, stone-ground wheat flour—strong wheat flour that’s ideal for baking. So, without that wheat, which is the revelation, one could not bake bread. And yet, it’s the baker who takes that goodness and decides, “We’re going to make sourdough bread.” Or, is this going to be whole wheat bread? Or is this going to be a cinnamon roll? And all of those things that can be fashioned from it based on what the family wants to eat and what would be good for us, and so on. That’s the work of the baker and that’s the theologian taking that goodness that comes from revelation and seeing how it can be fashioned to best nourish the community in which they work.
BARLOW: So that speaks to the function and potential benefit of theology to the community. Are there any risks inherent in that process or within the Hindu tradition? I realize that Hinduism is rather a shorthand term for a bazillion religious impetuses emerging out of the subcontinent of India, so a very complex phenomenon. But I’ll use that shorthand and you can amend as you’d like. But within the Hindu tradition, there will be religious leaders, there will be spiritual leaders, there will be authority, religious authority, as opposed to academic authority in some sense. Are there tensions or risks to be navigated?
GUPTA: Most certainly. I think throughout history and across different traditions, ecclesiastical authority has always lived in tension with theologians and theological authority. I think that’s a very natural thing, it’s almost unavoidable just because once someone gets thinking as theologians do and once someone knows as much as theologians do about a particular tradition, it’s just as easy as it is to nourish, it’s also as easy to poke and to jab and to point out inconsistencies and to nudge the tradition to move in a particular direction. And all of that can be at odds and in tension with those for whom their purpose and their job is to keep a tradition, keep an institution stable and consistent and contained. And I think that that tension is exactly where we want to be.
There are ways, of course, in which that tension can become unhealthy, it can become so great that it results in chaos and conflict. But there are also ways in which it can be unhealthy because it lacks sufficient tension and sufficient ability to not just nourish, but also to break open. And I think the healthiest circumstances are when both of those forces—the forces of consistency and calmness and stability—are in healthy tension with those that push a tradition to move and adapt and innovate in ways that keep it relevant, fresh, exciting, and good for everyone involved.
And so again, I go back to the metaphor of the cook. Where yes, it’s good to have those staples and that comfort food that nourishes us on those cold winter days when life is looking a little bit dreary and bleak, but it’s also good to break open and try other things that will give us a broader palate and also a wider range of nourishing goodness.
And so, that tension has existed in my own tradition, it’s existed throughout much of the world’s religions. I think it will always remain. But I don’t think we should fear that tension so much that it draws us away from engaging from the very important work of theology.
BARLOW: Feel free to deflect this if this is too personal a question, but has that tension existed in your head or your heart in the course of your academic career?
GUPTA: Most certainly, most certainly Phil. I’ve come to recognize that this is something that’s going to be part of my life forever. In that, as a religious studies scholar and as someone grounded in my own tradition, I will always be living between two worlds and negotiating them for myself.
But I think the nice thing about that is that I’m able to bring that into the classroom where, here in Utah, so many of my students are deeply religious themselves and as they enter the classroom, they are engaging with what they study and trying to understand the ways in which it relates to who they are as a religious person. And I think when they see something of that in their teacher, I think it gives them some sense of courage to go ahead and say, “It might be worth taking the risk of dabbling into areas that are a little unsettling and somewhat worrisome and risky, because after all, it seems that others have done the same and they seem to be fine as well.”
So hopefully that tension, the multiple identities that exist within me, is something that can be good for the world rather than unsettling those around me.
BARLOW: Yeah, I have spent a generation telling students to try to work through contradictions or apparent contradictions and find conceptual, emotional, and if you’re a religious person, spiritual or religious integrity, and yet tension holds galaxies together and holds solar systems together and holds people and societies together. So, I like very much what you say.
Could you talk to me a little bit about the types of theology you navigate? Within the Latter-day Saint tradition there’s a famous philosopher, more philosopher than theologian, but he wrote an important book, or at least an influential book on Latter-day Saint theology and a separate important book about Latter-day Saint philosophy. His name was Sterling McMurrin, one of the most prominent intellectuals to emerge from Latter-day Saint culture in the second half of the twentieth century and was John F. Kennedy’s commissioner of education, the equivalent to a secretary of education today. So, he was prominent nationally in some circles. But he did these works of theology and philosophy that tried to categorize the Latter-day Saint conception of God or the Latter-day Saint conception of salvation and put it in historical context with classical Christina categories. And it all seemed a little bit wooden or that the matrix that he set up didn’t capture the life of the community somehow.
That’s very different from a contemporary theologian like the Maxwell Institute’s own Terryl Givens or Adam Miller or Blake Ostler or other people we could name—Truman Madsen in earlier decades, or Elder Bruce McConkie who did a taxonomy through a legal lens of sorts in a book called Mormon Doctrine that was very influential for more than half a century.
So, again that’s related to “what is it,” and you’ve done a nice job explaining what you mean by the term, but still within your definition there are types of theology. Anything you’d like to share with us about your reflections on that?
GUPTA: Yes, theologians come in many different varieties. I think one way to distinguish them is where they stand or where they work from, where they belong. And by that, I mean those that work within the context of a religious institution and those that work from outside the context of a religious institution. Now as theologians, both would work from a place of commitment, but the nature of that commitment would be different, and each can do and accomplish different things in good ways.
So, the one who stands outside of institution can move it in ways that the inside cannot—by poking at the sides, for example, by pointing out inconsistencies or issues or, “This is where we need to go in the next fifty years. This is how our theology is impacting these people who are on the margins of the institution.” Location, for example, is a very important distinguishing factor amongst different kinds of theologians and those various locations are all important.
Another way in which we might distinguish theologians is the type of questions that concern them. There are those who are concerned primarily with questions within the doctrines and internal theology of that tradition—working out inconsistencies, showing reasonability, applying older revelation to contemporary times, and demonstrating its change in meaning or application.
And then there are those who say, “That all is well and good, but my concern is being in a larger world and demonstrating how my theology impacts and engages with the world that may be not consisting primarily with members of my faith.” People who engage with matters of environment or social justice or questions of religious pluralism. All of those are other ways, other types of questions that a theologian might be concerned with.
So, both in terms of their location, where they stand, and then secondly what kinds of questions concern them, I think we can distinguish various kinds of theologians.
BARLOW: We’re nearing the last stage of our interview with Dr. Ravi Gupta, who is visiting the Neal A. Maxwell Institute from Utah State University where he is the Charles Redd professor of religious studies.
Let me ask you just a couple of—well, three more questions, Ravi. One is from outside the tradition or in secular eyes, who say theologians may be a little in-house, so why aren’t we separating church and state more thoroughly, don’t bug me with your religious commentary.
That isn’t always the case, but it is the sense of some thinkers. Does theology, reflection of and within a tradition, have anything to say to the outside world who may be impatient with the very existence of theologians, or think that they’re scarcely relevant to the pressing issues that are tearing at the country and at the world?
GUPTA: I certainly think so. There are, of course, ways in which theologians can make many people impatient, both outside their tradition but also within it. We have many examples in history of conversation and discussions that today and in their own times many people rolled their eyes at and said, “Theologians are talking about things that scarcely matter to anyone here with their feet on the ground.” But I think that’s where the responsibility of theologians becomes so important and I think this is something that all people who live the life of the mind have to be concerned with.
This is true of religious studies scholars, it’s true of historians and of philosophers, that it can become very easy and sometimes comfortable for us to speak only to ourselves. And that work is of course essential, we can’t speak to the world unless we speak to ourselves. But always making sure that the questions that we raise have relevance and the answers that we give are comprehensible to a wider public.
And I think that’s where we, as in theologians, as in scholars like you and I, have to keep our awareness always sharp on that matter and to say, “I want to speak in a way that makes sense to the world.
And I think if we do so, what we can offer is exactly what people are looking to hear from religious communities. So much of the world is hoping, is looking to hear what religious traditions have to say and have to contribute to the problems of our day. And theologians have such an important role to play in that if we take that mission seriously.
BARLOW: Thanks. My understanding of your work while you’re here is that it’s theological envisioning and mapping out a road to proceed on with theological reflection that centers in two arenas, and one of them is eco-theology. Could you tell us a little bit about why you came to that and what it is you’re after there? What you’re pursuing?
GUPTA: This one of those things that really was not something I had planned as a next step in my academic work. But various elements in this world and in my life came together and it started to become clear that this is a matter of great need within the Hindu community, and particularly the Vaishnava community.
So as you mentioned earlier, Hinduism is a very broad term referring to what is better thought of as a family of religious traditions, and within that family I belong to the Vaishnava tradition, which also is a family which we could narrow down further. But suffice it to say for now that Vaishnavas are those who worship Vishnu or Krishna as a supreme deity. And within the Vaishnava community, this has become a growing concern and amongst Hindus generally: How does Hinduism give us resources to respond to the ecological crisis that we find our world in? A crisis that is very, very visible to the naked eye in India and all over the world. And what are ways in which or tradition sets up roadblocks for us to respond constructively to the problems of the environment that we humans have created?
So the questions of, what can we contribute and how do we stop blocking the way? Those questions are what have concerned me recently. So, I’ve been trying to, while at the Maxwell, read broadly about this subject, not just within the Hindu tradition where there’s precious little written on this topic, but also more broadly within the Christian traditions for example. And engage in conversations with others—listen to lectures and really try to develop my thinking on how the tradition would respond in a systematic, thoughtful way that is engaged with our history and looking forward to the future on matters of ecology and the environment.
BARLOW: Why is there so little written?
GUPTA: Well, a couple of things. One is that theology done in English for the Hindu community is just very—there’s very little of it. Not just on matters of ecology, but in general. Simply because the timespan that Hindus have had to think of their tradition and articulate it in a professional context in the English language can be counted in decades, not centuries or millennia. There has been, of course, amazing work done in Sanskrit and traditional Indian languages.
But then on the matter of ecology in particular, the ecological issues that India faces are so, so very recent compared to the span of history that Hinduism has flourished on the Indian subcontinent. And by recent, I mean technology and society has moved so quickly in India that culture, religion, theology, has not had the chances yet to catch up and make sense of what’s happening.
One very little example is that to this day, regular phone lines, that is landlines, don’t work in India. And if you ask for a landline, it would work maybe less than half the time. India never had the trajectory from—I remember the rotary dial phones and then the touchtone phone, and then the big huge cordless phones that we used to use and you could walk out in your driveway to talk, and then the flip phones that gave you freedom through cell phone towers to speak anywhere and now the smartphone. India has skipped all of those stages and gone from not having any phones to every man, woman, and many children having smartphones in their hands today in a matter of decades.
It has been nearly impossible for culture and religion and society to keep up with that pace of change that has arrived in India in just the last twenty, thirty, maybe forty years. And so there’s a lot of work that theologians, cultural critics, and writers and thinkers and activists, there’s a lot of work they have to do in order to bring everyone along, even as technology races forward and tears things apart, before we can even catch a breath.
BARLOW: Well, we feel breathless enough in this country, but that sounds more dramatic.
The other theological focus of your interest has to do with interfaith dialogue, interfaith theology. Talk to us about that. Perhaps there’s even a bridge with Eco-theology in some ways.
GUPTA: Now this is something that I’ve been thinking about much longer than eco-theology and it goes back well to my childhood without thinking about it systematically then. But the roots of it go back to my childhood in the ways that we’ve already talked about, having grown up in an interfaith context.
I think here the Hindu tradition has done a lot more thinking over not just decades but centuries of living with various religious traditions. India—in many ways like the United States except for a much longer period of time—India has been a place where multiple religious traditions have not only existed but found a home and flourished. Everything from ancient communities of Christians and Jews to the world’s second largest population of Muslims, and of course Hindus. Buddhists, of the tradition, who were born in India and then spread around the world. Jainism, Sikhism, and other lesser-known traditions. India has been a flourishing garden of religious variety and sometimes a hotbed with conflicts of various kinds happening as well in its history.
And so, there’s been a lot of thought given to, What does it mean to have a religious other as my neighbor? What does it mean to engage in conversation with a religious leader from another tradition? There are such accounts narrated and recorded in Hindu sacred texts for some centuries now. And so, trying to extract from that, what is it that we can take and the principles that we can articulate for a theology of religious pluralism, for our present day? That’s actually quite a fun and exciting sort of project.
BARLOW: And by religious pluralism, you don’t mean making up a religious milkshake and merging entities, exactly?
GUPTA: No, not at all. That’s very much not the idea of an interfaith theology. But really to say, given the reality of pluralism in our world, given the reality of—I’m sorry, plurality in our world—of there being many different religions and traditions and many varieties within a tradition, how do we make sense of that?
And one of the principles that we find emerging from Hindu traditions is that on matters of ultimacy, the more important something is, the more of it we can expect. And so, especially on matters of ultimacy, ultimate questions of God and the nature of the world and so on, we can expect the greatest variety, rather than saying the higher we go, the more important the question becomes, the more singular the answer should be.
So, Hindu traditions have argued that singularity is, generally speaking, something that is a result of us not looking carefully enough and the more we dive into something, the more types of it, the more varieties, the more different kinds we find.
BARLOW: Thank you. Like all of our points, I wish we could take an hour on each of your responses and spread it out, but this would be an invitation for all of us pay careful attention to your work as it finds its way into public presentations in, I hope, oral and written form. Any interest given your location which, you have talked about surrounded by a fair number of Latter-day Saints, do you have any, in your own personal, academic work interest in interfaith partnership in eco-theology, exploring it, or interfaith theology on other grounds with Latter-day Saints?
GUPTA: Very much so. While during my time at the Maxwell, but also living in Utah and Idaho for much of my life, there are many different elements of the LDS tradition that I’ve learned more about and grown to love as well, and to learn something from. And I think interfaith theology—any form of theology—is best done in conversation with religious others, with partners from various traditions where we can discuss and reflect and question in ways that we can’t simply when we’re talking to ourselves.
And so, I sincerely hope that this will emerge into some kind of dialogue of both in oral, but also in written forms. My dream one day is to write an interfaith engagement that’s co-authored with myself and a partner from the LDS tradition where we each talk about where we come from and how we view each other and where that goes. So, this is not yet in the works, it’s just one of those dreams for the future, but being at the Maxwell, I think, is a good start for that.
BARLOW: Well, whatever Latter-day Saints scholar partners with you on that will be privileged. I’ve seen enough in the half dozen years to know that that would be a rich enterprise. Thank you.
I was just lying about three final questions. Here’s the final-final one! The Latter-day Saints have an Article of Faith, the culminating article of faith, of which there are thirteen, that enjoins Latter-day Saints to seek out that which is virtuous, lovely, and of good report. Anything that is good or true or beautiful. Early Church leaders taught, including Joseph Smith and Brigham Young and others, the thirteenth article of faith continues to be influential among the Saints. Seek out those things that are virtuous or true or lovely or noble or edifying and learn from them and absorb them and make them part of your own religious tradition, our own religious tradition. We could do that more than we do, perhaps, but it’s there for us to continue to unfold.
I’ve learned many things from you in the last half dozen years, but one thing, even before I met you, that I learned from the Hindu tradition that I liked—I think it was when I was scanning a humble English translation of the Upanishad, but you may correct me, it may have come from elsewhere—but as I remember it, “To action alone thou hast a right, not to its fruits.”
BARLOW: Act according to true principles, whether or not you get to claim the fruits. That’s affected me. Over life I’ve thought about it a good deal and tried to, at least selectively, be informed by it.
Have you learned anything from the Latter-day Saints as a mirror image of that? Hinduism, rather famously actually, is flexible in absorbing and “Yes, we like that” and “That illustrates the Hindu principle of X or Y…” I’d just be interested to conclude if you’ve encountered anything like that in your encounter with my people.
GUPTA: Yes, Phil. In fact, there are many things. I’ll just mention two that come to mind right away. The first is, as you’ve mentioned I’ve lived in many parts of the country with different sorts of religious demographics and I’ve lived in places where people are every committed to their faith. And that commitment to their faith often translates into being closed off to other people’s faith, even a bit nervous about coming too close to someone from another tradition. Seeing it as too risky or sometimes worse.
I’ve also, on the other hand, lived in places where people are very open to the other’s faith and people from other traditions and yet that has often meant that they are not committed to any tradition themselves.
Here amongst the LDS, one thing I’ve really come to appreciate—and I really see as a model for how a religious person can live—is the fact that so many friends and acquaintances and coworkers that I know are deeply committed to their tradition and yet, so open and willing to learn from the traditions of others. And I think that is a magic combination. I think it’s something that any person of faith ought to aspire to. That is to say, being open to others does not translate into a lack of commit to one’s own. And conversely, a commitment to one’s own does not translate into a fear of the other. And so, I’ve really come to appreciate that across the board amongst colleagues, amongst my students, and amongst friends in the community.
The other thing I’ll mention is what I’ve seen as a commitment to the systematic study of one’s own tradition. I see the Maxwell Institute, I see Brigham Young University, and I see the ways in which so many of my very thoughtful LDS friends are committed to understanding and diving deep into their tradition, but also investing resources into supporting the systematic study of their own tradition, whether through historical means or theological means and so on. And that’s something I think the Hindu community can learn a lot from.
Having the immigrant experience that we have in the West, there’s been—naturally, I think, and rightly—an emphasis on making it for one’s self in this world and surviving and flourishing and making sure that the children flourish economically and so on. But as we lay down roots that are now several generations old in the United States, I think it’s more and more important that we think of ways in which we can support not just our personal and community flourishing in economic terms, but our flourishing theologically and culturally and religiously by supporting the systematic, academic, intellectual study of our tradition. And so, in many ways, my experience at the Maxwell has been inspiring for me as I go back into my own community of faith.
BARLOW: Well, that’s lovely. Thank you so much. I can speak for my colleagues rather literally because I’ve heard so many comments while you’ve been down with us here at the Maxwell Institute about what a privilege it is to have you with us and a while ago when you came down to offer a public lecture in pre-pandemic times and consulted with us here on that earlier occasion. So we trust that we’ll have an ongoing working relationship as long as we breathe air in this world, I hope. It’s lovely to take an hour with you. You’re very generous with your time as you always are and thank you so much Ravi.
GUPTA: Thank you so much Phil. It’s really a pleasure talking to you today. I’m really happy to have this opportunity.
The views expressed here and in Maxwell Institute publications are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Maxwell Institute, Brigham Young University, or The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“Seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith.” (D&C 88:118)