As an undergraduate at Ambedkar University Delhi in India, Swati Chauhan (she/her) started reading the many Ramayanas in a comparative literature class. At first, she approached the tradition strictly through a literary lens, focusing on character development and plot structure. When asked about its theological content, she saw this as outside her scope: “People would ask me questions like, ‘What do you think about Rama as a god?’ or ‘What do you think about the Ramayana’s appropriation by the ‘Hindu nationalists’?’ and I would say, ‘That’s not my thing.’”
But little by little, Chauhan began grappling with the theological depths of the text. “I realized that I was limiting the text in ignoring these deeper, religious questions, so I began to explore the tradition for its theological discourses.”
Religious studies programs are rare in Indian universities, so Chauhan sought out programs abroad, which is how she found Harvard Divinity School. Chauhan was largely drawn to HDS for its language program. “The emphasis HDS places on learning the original language is rare,” she says. “There are very few places where I could learn all of the languages that bring me closer to the texts and the questions I want to study.”
From her very first semester, Chauhan took full advantage of Harvard’s language offerings, studying classical Sanskrit, ancient Vedic Sanskrit, and Old Hindi. When she discovered an ancient Sanskrit text available only in German translation, she enrolled in Theological German through HDS’s Summer Language Program. Her language courses have helped her explore a vast array of sacred poetry, including the Ramacaritamanasa, an epic poem that is considered one of the greatest works in Indian literature.
“For me, theology and textual study are not abstract concepts. I’m continually asking myself: How can I approach religious texts in ways that will be meaningful outside academia? How can I be a peacemaker as a responsible scholar?” Swati Chauhan
Chauhan has also expanded beyond Hindu studies to take courses in Islam and Buddhism, as well as comparative religion more broadly. She is grateful for HDS’s holistic approach to religious studies, as she gets to hear “brilliant, vibrant voices sharing perspectives that are not as commonly studied,” like Professors Ali S. Asani and Teren Sevea on the practice of Islam, Professor Charles Hallisey on scripture as a human activity, or Professor Diana Eck on approaching South Asian religious texts today.
For Chauhan, none of this work is strictly abstract—she sees studying religious texts as a powerful way to encounter and examine the way we form our perceptions and associations. “The simple acts of reading, writing, and analyzing are powerful tools, and we have a responsibility to use these tools to address the social problems in the world today.”
After HDS, Chauhan plans to pursue a PhD in South Asian religious traditions, where she will continue to approach ancient texts with an eye to their everyday practice. “Academia doesn’t need to be an ivory tower apart from the rest of society,” she says. “I’m invested in reading these texts in ways that will benefit my community. That’s my responsibility as a scholar.”
Learn more about the Summer Language Program at HDS.
—by Sarah Fleming