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Why Study the History of Religion in Asia?

Because the religions and cultures of Asia are full of extraordinarily fascinating things: From the teachings of the Buddha, to the records of the journeying of Chinese pilgrims along the silk route, from religious nationalisms in nineteenth and twentieth century India to the construction of understandings of the past in twelfth century Kashmir, from ancient poetry and science to secularist self-understandings in modern India and China. Knowledge of these things, and of the past in general, will not, of course, help us to predict the future, but they can help us to consider critically how we understand ourselves and others and what we want to achieve individually and collectively within our own lifetimes.

In broader terms, there is also an increasing global awareness of the importance and significance of Asian cultures. This awareness has led to a sense for the need for ongoing enquiry into the role of forms of religious knowledge in Asian social and cultural life both historically and in the present.  The requisite linguistic competencies, and an awareness of the complex issues involved in the translation and ‘transcreation’ of words and ideas across linguistic and cultural boundaries, are growing in importance. In addition, a wide range of critical issues in contemporary Asian religious and cultural identity-politics hinge on understandings of the past and its significances. The Centre is thus in a position not only to enhance and develop knowledge of human societies past and present but also to act as both an exemplar of, and an effective advocate for, the social, cultural and economic significance of Arts and Humanities research more generally.

What is the point of the Humanities?

One of the stranger features of contemporary society is its sense that the study of the Human is marginal. Rhetorical questions abound concerning the ‘point’ of historical enquiry, or of the preservation, interpretation and translation of religious texts. Yet whoever reads these words does so as a consequence of a range of very complicated factors and competencies that would be inexplicable without the accumulated insights of Humanities scholars. For example, the mechanics of the very computer with which you access this website in no way explain or allow you to interpret the nature and purpose of the material that you find here, any more than a printing press ‘explains’ the content of the books printed upon it. The institutions through which we organise and disseminate knowledge, the way in which we organise and regulate our communities and societies, our languages and relationships to each other, all of these things are human phenomena. It is Humanities scholars who ‘make’ the knowledge that we have of these phenomena. They do not do it free from error, omission or political bias but they do it on the basis of evidence-based argument that is open to criticism and debate. This Centre is a part of this ongoing collaborative endeavour in relation to the religion and society of historic Asia.