About SAR

Research Unit for South Asian Religion (SAR), Aarhus University

The academic study of Hinduism and Buddhism is of vital importance in developing any programme in the study of religions. Firstly Hinduism and Buddhism have been formative in the civilizations of China and South Asia for several thousand years and Europe needs to study these civilizations. South Asia is the cradle of Hindu and Buddhist thinking, ritual forms, meditation, architecture, and polities that impacted not only on the history of South Asia but the histories of Tibet, China, South-East Asia and Malaysia as well. Secondly, the Hindu population of South Asia is about eight hundred million: a large section of the world population with significant economic power in the global economy and importance stretching into the future. Thirdly Hindu and Buddhist ideas have had and continue to have influence on Europe and America in so many cultural fields from German Romanticism to yoga and vegetarianism, from Hindu fundamentalism to the politics of non-violence. Hindu and Buddhist Studies at Aarhus will build on the existing strengths of the university as well as international collaboration and both deepen these studies and open them to broader intellectual inquiry.

Hindu/Buddhist Studies and Comparative Religion

For some years the academic study of religion and the study of South Asian religion in particular, had become fragmented into area specialisms to such an extent that any discussion that cut across disciplinary boundaries was rendered difficult if not impossible. While the development of specialism is to be welcomed as a corrective measure to earlier over-generalization and vague pronouncements about ‘Hinduism’ and ‘Buddhism’ that do not stand up to critical scrutiny, there is nevertheless a need for a forum where we can step out of these subject areas and talk to one another in a non-polemical, supportive environment which nevertheless promotes rigour in discussion and judgment. Hindu and Buddhist Studies at Aarhus can be a flagship that shows how detailed, textual scholarship and anthropological fieldwork can be relevant to higher level discussion about meaning, social, political, and economic significance, and interdisciplinary studies. Discussion can take place across disciplinary boundaries and questions raised in one area might be relevant to another. Thus, anthropological concerns about kinship are surely relevant to textual concerns about plot, character, and narrative while textual prescriptions about ritual are surely relevant to fieldwork.

The programme for the academic study of religion that comprises various research units is an excellent model that allows for detailed study of particular societies, texts, and histories while simultaneously generating a language that can interface with other disciplines and interest areas. Hindu and Buddhist Studies is a good exemplum of the inter-disciplinary nature of the academic study of religion. We hope that questions raised in one area might be relevant to another and discussion can take place across disciplinary boundaries. Hindu and Buddhist Studies within the South Asian Religion research unit directly contribute to the comparative study of religion in a fruitful interplay with other units. For example, we are convinced that the sometimes very complex and challenging forms of religion known as Śākta traditions and Tantric traditions provide a test case for our understanding of Hinduism as well as Buddhism. It raises important theoretical and methodological questions with regard to the study of religious traditions in South Asia as well as to the more general and comparative study of religion. Simultaneously, any headway in this field will be of great value for the future study of religion in past and present South Asia. Also, the study of Sanskrit Buddhist and Hindu texts about the human person are relevant to questions about the nature of the person in pre-modernity in Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. 

Thus, the South Asian Religion research unit emphasises a broad approach, studying across religious traditions of past and present South Asia. Furthermore, our new research unity intends to raise questions and allow experimentation in the sense of looking at issues in Hindu and Buddhist Studies from new perspectives. We feel that it is now time when more theoretical tools developed in literary theory, semiotics, phenomenology, linguistics, and cognitive science might be of use in the broad field of Hindu and Buddhist Studies. In the same manner our studies will contribute to developing the theoretical framework within comparative studies as such. Comparative religion that generates theories of the human person translates the particularity of Hindu and Buddhist studies into more general philosophical and cultural concerns. The new research unit can provide a cross-fertilization of ideas in this kind of way. Rather than simply focusing on particular texts or ethnographies (although that is important), we intend that scholars of Hindu and Buddhist Studies in the new Research Unit will speak out from their particularity to address areas of shared concern. 

The study of texts is an essential ingredient in the development of such a programme just as the anthropological study of contemporary communities, studies of global Hinduism and Buddhism, and studies of Hindu and Buddhist art, architecture, and models of economics and politics. At the same time we need text-critical editions and translations of texts, histories of the religions, and more focused regional and thematic studies. 

Impact and Knowledge Transfer

We need to look at Hindu and Buddhist Studies in very broad terms, especially in the contemporary context of globalisation, religious literalism, and in the shadow of a colonialism which has only recently gone away. With this new research unit we hope to create the conditions for discussion across areas of expertise. The potential for impact beyond the disciplinary boundaries of Hindu and Buddhist Studies is therefore large. In a wider perspective, the work done in the South Asian Religion research unit could be highly relevant to political concerns about immigration, multiculturalism, minority communities and rights, women’s rights, and the place of religion in the modern world. For example, it is probable that research done within the unit could have an impact on Religious Education in Denmark just as it may affect policy decisions about minority Hindu and Buddhist communities. The impact of research in Hindu and Buddhist Studies is thus potentially far reaching beyond the publication of academic monographs and studies. 

 

Summary

  • The South Asian Religion research unit (SAR) contributes to understanding the importance of religion through history as well as in contemporary global politics, multiculturalism, society, and economics. SAR is based on the conviction, that the academic study of Hinduism and Buddhism is of vital importance in developing any programme in the study of religion within the Human Sciences. 
  • SAR has Hindu and Buddhist Studies as its main points of departure but seeks to promote a broad approach, encompassing the study of a variety of religious traditions of past and present South Asia, including Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, Sufism and Tantra.
 These traditions are often closely related and best studied together.
  • As appropriate to the comparative study of religion, the methodology is deeply interdisciplinary, incorporating such disciplines as anthropology, sociology, semiotics, linguistics, history, and philosophy.
  • Research in Hindu and Buddhist Studies comprises: the study of Sanskrit texts (philology but also higher criticism), the anthropological study of Hindu and Buddhist communities in South Asia and the South Asian diaspora, the study of art and architecture, the study of society, politics and philosophy.
  • Hindu and Buddhist Studies translate specialism to broader interdisciplinary concerns. It contributes to comparative religion and humanistic study in general.
  • At the same time Hindu and Buddhist Studies is based on specialism and the recognition of the need for more text-critical editions and translations of texts, histories of the religions, and more focused regional and thematic studies.
  • The impact of research in Hindu and Buddhist Studies is potentially far reaching beyond the publication of academic monographs and studies and may, for example, affect religious education or policy decisions about minority Hindu and Buddhist communities in Denmark.

Gavin Flood
Professor of Hindu Studies and Comparative Religion
Oxford University
Academic Director, Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies