Letter to the Editor

Religious Studies Renaissance

California, March 29, 1972

Recently asked to comment on certain developments in the educational community, I could not help but reflect upon the last several years of turmoil on university campuses and make comparisons with one of the most interesting, if not one of the most misunderstood personages of the Hindu pantheon, Shiva, who is usually depicted in the role of the destroyer. I say misunderstood for it seems that this characterization fails to reveal that Shiva is also the regenerator, who periodically destroys the form in order that the evolving life-force may manifest in a more perfect vehicle.

It is easy to see the quality of action personified by the destructive aspect of Shiva in the events of the last decade taking place on American college campuses, beginning about 1964, and climaxing with the nationwide campus violence of May 1970. But how easy is it in the midst of upheaval to detach oneself sufficiently to recognize the quality of action of Shiva's mirror image — that of the regenerator? Perhaps after a temporal distance of almost two years it is possible to discern more clearly the larger significance of this troubled era.

Although campus administrators were ready for any emergency in the Fall of 1970, subsequent events proved their precautions to be of little value, for quiet had returned to the campus. Yet the quiet was hardly that of peace. Students are rarely content. Many felt that the phenomenon was shell-shock, a temporary reaction only, and that more violence should be expected. When large demonstrations failed to materialize, the early trepidation eventually gave way to the perception that something else was afoot — something which had been developing for a number of years, but until recently was obscured by the more "newsworthy" events of violence and destruction.

"The students are turning inward," said one University of California, Berkeley, sociologist. "If you have a course with 'Religion' in the title you will get a mob," said another who teaches a highly popular course in the sociology of religion at the same campus. These are not insignificant remarks, for there is much to evidence that one aspect of this turning inward is manifesting in a tremendous resurgence of interest in religion. Not that all students are now consciously embarked on a search for the Holy Grail — this is not the case. There does, however, seem to be a genuine desire on the part of many of them to explore large areas of the human experience that have been relatively untouched by the academy: the religions of man.

A year ago a college committee on religious studies at the University of California at Los Angeles conducted a campus-wide survey to assess the quantity and quality of interest in the areas of religion and religious institutions. Of the ten and a half thousand students who responded to the questionnaire, over seven thousand indicated a desire to take courses in one or more aspects of the subject. More remarkable than the show of numbers were the results on the branches of study which most attracted the students. These were, in order of preference: Religions of the World; Anthropological/Psychological/Sociological Studies in Religion; Philosophical Issues in Religion; Eastern Religions; Religion in Literature and Art; Ancient Religions; Western Religions; and Tribal Religions. The most frequent write-ins were Mysticism and Magic. The trend appears to be more universal in character — a trend found repeating itself in Religious Studies programs developing in schools across the United States, and, indeed, in many parts of the world.

It seems that not only is this a renascence, a rebirth, of the study of religion, but truly a renaissance in the European sense that the old formal patterns of study are giving way, gradually, to a fresh, lively, and wide-open approach. No longer confined to the examination of one or two religious traditions and to token consideration of "other" faiths, this vitalizing force is strongly evident, so that many now seek to explore religion per se, i.e., to investigate in comparative analysis those universal elements which make religion "religion" — in every culture, ancient and modern.

In whatever sense these current developments show the positive, regenerative aspects of Shiva, it must be remembered that the educational community —as well as the human community in general — is still in upheaval, for wherever a transition in philosophy occurs, the party of reaction never ceases to make life difficult. This is to be expected. But wherever the breaking up of crystallized patterns of thought is found — whether in a microcosm like the university or in the greater cosmos of world attitudes — we will encounter the Janus-faced Shiva fostering renewal and rebirth.

W. T. S. Thackara

(From Sunrise magazine, May 1972; copyright © 1972 Theosophical University Press)

Theosophical University Press Online Edition