True diversity

by Goutham Ganesan, Diamond Back, April 5, 2007

Maryland, USA -- Long before the Catholic Church was, well, Catholic, there existed what we might call a "universal" religion. At one point or another during the period of 500 B.C. to approximately 1000 A.D., much of the Eastern world followed the tenets of the Buddha, his successors and disciples. From the western Greco-Indian kingdoms in modern-day Afghanistan all the way to Korea in the East, the Buddhist Dharma profoundly molded culture and society.

Needless to say, the history of Buddhism and its expansion has had an incalculable effect on modern culture in these nations. The famous Silk Road was a conduit for linguistic, spiritual and political exchange. If one goes to the Freer Gallery of Art and witnesses the degree of conservation between images of the Buddha from India and those from China, the magnitude and fidelity of this exchange hits home. Scholarship of the Buddhist and Hindu history began in earnest in the nineteenth century, but its results have been wonderful and illuminating.

It is strange that our university lags so far behind in this vital area of scholarship. We trumpet our commitment to diversity to no end, but this major aspect of world tradition is almost entirely ignored. The one exception I can find is a 200-level art history course which admirably attempts to squeeze the histories of Indian, Chinese and Japanese art into one semester.

A useful program for the study of this history and culture would focus primarily on language - a student would have to obtain some proficiency in Sanskrit and Pali, the classical languages in which most Indian Buddhist scriptures were written. Although we have programs in the Chinese and Japanese languages, they have very little if any emphasis on the research of primary or historical sources. There would also need to be rigorous courses on the fundamentals of Buddhist philosophy and epistemology.

It goes without saying that such a program would require many new faculty members, as well as a large commitment from interested students. I am sure that there are many students who would be enthusiastic about such a program of study - students who are tired of paying lip-service to the ideals of diversity without being asked to engage in sound and rigorous scholarship on its subjects. We can consider as well the fair objection that the resources for such a program are simply not available. If that is the case, then I would argue that the university's priorities ought to be given some serious thought.

But, looking at the course catalog, I simply do not buy the objection. Let us take as an example the department of Asian-American studies. It offers subjects such as Asian-American foodways, Asian-American sexualities and identity in politics. Now I am sure that these subjects are worthy of some academic consideration, and that the faculty members who teach them are dedicated and thorough in their scholarship.

I simply cannot accept, however, that the experiences of Asian immigrant groups in this country merit study more than the great, millenia-old civilizations of Asia from which these immigrants trace their roots.

The fact that we prioritize Asian-American experiences over the study of Asian civilizations represents a profound denial of the importance of the past in shaping the world in which we live. We constantly hear platitudes about the rising importance of India and China, but our university seems to treat both countries as little more than investment opportunities and the new fashionable places to study abroad.

In a recent issue of TERP magazine, President Mote boasted about the university's commitment to the study of language. He then proceeded to elaborate mostly our accomplishments in the field of linguistics, which is an entirely different field. This is a sad state of affairs. Let us, as students, demand that our university take efforts to re-invigorate and prioritize the rigorous study of the humanities, in all of the world's great cultures. Only then would our commitment to diversity be anything more than a platitude.

Goutham Ganesan is the deputy opinion editor of The Diamondback.