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Studying Hindu Traditions

This article was Originally published in the April - May 2005 issue of CLASnotes.

Angkor WatBe it meditation, vegetarianism or yoga, the American public has widely embraced many facets of the Hindu religion, with more than 3 million practicing Hindus nationwide. To encourage the research, teaching and public understanding of the Hindu culture, the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences has established the country's first Center for the Study of Hindu Traditions (CHiTra). The only other center of its kind in the world is Oxford University's Centre for Hindu Studies, with which UF will have collaborations.

"Oxford has been encouraging us to do this for a while and is very supportive of our venture," says Religion Professor Vasudha Narayanan, who will serve as the center's first director. "Many universities in this country are just opening up to the idea of Hindu studies and, since our program is interdisciplinary and we are not just looking at it through one set of lenses, I believe we will create new interest."

Drawing from UF's richly diverse resources, CHiTra will offer a series of interdisciplinary courses and lectures to UF students focusing on Hindu traditions and the arts, Hinduism and environmental concerns and Hinduism and health-related issues. It also will offer regular instruction in one of the oldest Indo-European languages, Sanskrit, which remains an official language of India. The acronym CHiTra is the Sanskrit word for "beautiful work of art."

The center will not initially offer an undergraduate major or minor, but will work towards offering a certificate program. Its first three courses will be offered in the fall—an honors course, Introduction to Hindu Culture, taught by Narayanan; and Beginning Sanskrit, taught by graduate student Michael Gressett, as well as Second-Year Sanskrit, taught by Govinda Rangarajan, an adjunct professor who holds a PhD in Sanskrit from Madras University in India.

classical dancerMuch like the word "Hindu" itself—which serves as an umbrella term for several religious and cultural traditions that orignated from India—the center will bring together faculty from across campus, collaborating extensively with the Department of African and Asian Languages and Literatures, the Asian Studies Program, the Center for Women's Studies and Gender Research, and the School of Theatre and Dance. "By gathering faculty and students with diverse interests and limited resources from multiple units in the university, the center will get the synergy for organizing programs and developing the curriculum," says Narayanan.

The center will have strong ties with Oxford and is planning to co-host a series of lectures and programs for the research community, as well as possible faculty and student exchanges. It also will collaborate with the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts in New Delhi to pursue joint research projects in India and the possible exchange of visiting scholars. The Gainesville community will benefit from CHiTra by attending sponsored art exhibits and dance and musical performances offered in conjuction with the Center for World Arts, the Samuel P. Harn Museum of Art, and the Phillips Center for the Performing Arts. The center also aims to help expand the Hindu studies collection at UF's Smathers Library.

The creation of the center was the idea of Narayanan, the former president of the American Academy of Religion and a researcher of the Hindu traditions of India, Cambodia and America. "She has extensive connections internationally because of her research, and in some ways her presence makes it possible for us to do this in ways we might not be able to were she not here," says CLAS Associate Dean for Centers, Institutes and International Affairs Angel Kwolek-Folland.

An ad hoc advisory committee has been established to guide the center and includes Joan Frosch, associate professor and assistant director of the School of Theatre and Dance; Charles Mason, curator of Asian art at the Harn; David Hackett, associate professor and chair of the Department of Religion; Shaya Isenberg, associate professor of religion; and Bron Taylor, associate professor of religion.

"The center promises to provide important intellectual and artistic leadership in the internationalization of the university," says Frosch. "No US institution, as far as I know, has such a center in place. I would expect CHiTra to play an increasingly national, if not international, role in the understanding of Hindu culture, its traditions and innovations."

—Buffy Lockette

Photos:
Vasudha Narayanan

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