From the College of Humanities and Social Sciences
Ravi Gupta

Ravi Gupta, the Charles Redd Chair of Religious Studies and Hindu scholar, is working on a translation of the Bhagavata Purana, a sacred Hindu text.

Unboxing Religious Studies

A decade ago this May, a $1.5 million gift from the Charles and Annaley Redd Foundation helped spur development of the first religious studies program in the Intermountain West. The gift funded the Charles Redd Chair of Religious Studies, a position devoted to further inquiry of religion and help build the program. The idea was it could help answer the question, ‘How can we live peaceably with other citizens of the world?’

Ten years later, it is a question political leaders hope to answer with greater understanding of world religions. In 2013, the U.S. Department of State established the Office of Faith-Based Community Initiatives to engage religious leaders and faith communities in diplomacy efforts. At its launch, Secretary of State John Kerry stressed that the voices and insights of religious leaders are critical to building partnerships abroad.

“We need to recognize that in a world where people of all faiths are migrating and mingling like never before, where we are this global community … we ignore the global impact of religion, in my judgment, at our peril,” he said.

Ravi Gupta echoed these sentiments from his office in Old Main. Last summer, he was hired to take the reins of the university’s religious studies program as the Charles Redd Chair. Gupta, associate professor of religious studies and Hindu scholar, believes the new interfaith office highlights the rising importance of the field.

“We stand to lose a lot,” Gupta said. “Too many students study political science and forget that religion is a part of that.”

Gupta wasn’t looking for a new job when the position was posted. However, when his younger brother pointed out the vacancy just a stone’s throw from Idaho where he grew up, he decided to investigate. Gupta was raised in Boise and homeschooled by his mother. When she ran out of things to teach, she encouraged him to enroll in a writing course at Boise State University. He was 12.

Gupta graduated with majors in math and philosophy and went on to study religion at the University of Oxford. He earned his doctorate at age 21, and for the last five years, Gupta taught at the College of William and Mary in Virginia. But he knew he wanted to find a position a little closer to home, with a mission a little closer to his heart.

“What really attracted me to the position was that I could play a role in building a religious studies program in a part of the country I love, a part of the country that I knew was ready for it and hungry for it,” Gupta said. “I am a firm believer that public state universities can offer a great education. I studied at a school just like Utah State.”

He studies Hinduism, the world’s third largest religion, but one with which many Westerners have limited experience since most of its practitioners are concentrated in India. As the country advances onto the world stage, more people are wondering about what Indians believe and value, Gupta says, and understanding Hinduism is an important part of understanding the people.

“I want to de-exoticize these religions,” he said. “We box religions, we put them on a map. They happen somewhere else.”

Gupta wants students to consider each religion from the perspective of the practitioner so they can appreciate the ideas of people of different faiths. In the fall, he will take over directorship of the Religious Studies Program from Philip L. Barlow, the Leonard J. Arrington Chair in Mormon History and Culture. Together, they are devising plans to revise the curriculum and integrate religious studies into the education of students across campus.

“Religious literacy is different from being religious,” Gupta said. “We live in a world where we see the effects of religious illiteracy every day. I want to make religious studies a part of everyone’s curricular options, not just those in the major.”

Many individuals at Utah State are religious. Gupta wants them to unpack their beliefs and learn about religion itself—how it works, how it affects political decision-making in the world, how it may impact the way you interact with your neighbor. It can affect how we treat one another as human beings, he said. Perhaps by studying world religions students will see more similarities than differences among them.

At the beginning of his class Hindu Sacred Texts, Gupta writes the phrase tat tuam asi, meaning ‘you are that’ in Sanskrit. Today his students are exploring dueling interpretations of God.

“Every monotheistic religions is going to have a mystery,” Gupta says. “There are some areas of God that are therefore unapproachable … a place where the mind cannot reach.”

Parsing these concepts is the job undertaken by philosophers and theologians who talk about that which is supposedly beyond reach to talk about, he says. “Ambiguity is one of the marks of a classic text. Ambiguity typically is productive. It leads to an overflow of meaning.”

The class attracts a certain type of student, a person deeply interested in eastern religions and philosophy. Katy Dollahite, ’14, is one such person. The religious studies major believes all students should be required to take a religious studies class in college. She aims to teach world religions in public schools after graduation.

“I feel like it’s vital to have a person be literate in religions,” she said. “I don’t think you can graduate from a university and be truly educated without it.”

In most cultures around the world, religion plays an important role in politics. But that’s not true in the United States, Dollahite said.

Her last semester she enrolled in the next class Gupta taught. She didn’t care what class he was teaching. Dollahite just wanted to take another class with him. “He’s so passionate about what he is teaching and getting his students to understand it,” she said. “I’m really excited Ravi is here. I just wish I was going to be here longer to see where the program is going to go.”