What is the role of the academy, and academia, in the study of religion and spirituality? The role of academia is often oversimplified and romanticized to that of a truth-seeking force that peels away the myths and misconceptions which have accrued around a hard core of “the facts.” Sometimes, academia, on the one hand, and religion/spirituality, on the other hand, are set up as opposing forces. This is a particularly forceful paradigm for thinkers in the West who have been influenced by the Enlightenment narrative of reason and progress vs. superstition and obscurantism; I would venture that few of us reading today have escaped some degree of influence by the Enlightenment belief system. Religious and spiritual traditions (particularly insular and highly traditional ones), for their part, often warn their adherents against venturing into secular academia, lest they destroy their faith. What, then, are we to make of the figure of the scholar-practitioner, who seems to exist at this semi-taboo intersection of personal religious experience and putative academic impartiality? Whatever personal reconciliation of this problem, or lack thereof, we might achieve, we can at least rest assured that other humans before us grappled with this tension. The works of the early-twentieth-century scholars John Tracy Ellis, Surendranath Dasgupta, and Gershom Scholem offer us precedents, and possible models, for navigating between the two poles of the academy and spirituality.
More nuanced theorists of history and religion have been striving to deconstruct this idea of absolute academic impartiality for some time. History, and the great stories (like the Bible or the Bhagavad-Gita), which form the core of many of the world’s religious traditions, “interpenetrate,” to use a piece of academic jargon. Influential scholars of religion and epistemology like Joseph Campbell, Mircea Eliade, and Roland Barthes have all advanced the idea that “myth” offers access to deeper levels of human meaning and desire than the surface narratives of history. More recently, scholars of yoga and decolonization like Tria Blu Wakpa have advanced the idea that this duality or supposed conflict is itself a colonialist structure, “because underlying European ways of knowing is the assumption of mind-body duality, whereas Indigenous epistemologies, also apparent in yoga, recognize the holistic connection among body, mind, and spirit.” If all this duality is, in this case, just an illusion, can the scholar-practitioner, or even the serious student of yoga, hold apparently incompatible realities simultaneously in their mind? For example, the date range academically assigned to prominent yoga texts like the Bhagavad-Gita differs sharply from the much more ancient dating given by many spiritual traditions within yoga. Perhaps sensing that the academic study of yoga is dangerous, or at least not a well-defined, territory, few universities in the U.S. currently offer a degree program specifically in yoga; interested scholars often steer themselves instead towards South Asian Studies, with a focus on one of the traditions of yoga.
One of the supposed dangers of the scholar-practitioner’s role is that they will be “drawn in” by the seductive allure and ecstatic transports of the tradition they study and lose their stern impartiality. This was the case, at least for a time, with E. Burke Rochford Jr., who first set out to make a sociological study of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), part of the Gaudiya Vaishnava tradition of bhakti yoga and better known as the Hare Krishnas, in 1975. While Rochford first tried to make it clear to the devotees at the temple in Los Angeles that he was not a spiritual seeker, but was merely interested in gathering information, the devotees blithely ignored these distinctions and urged him to begin japa meditation and other devotional practices. He confessed that, at some point, his reasons for participation in the community shifted: “While it would be easy to say that I continued my involvement as a way of maintaining my research opportunities, I think it more accurate to say that I wanted to explore my spiritual self as I never had before.” In the case of Rochford, or other academics who make a similar journey from outside of to within a movement, the unpremeditated nature of their devotional plunge is presented as a mark of sincerity, a sort of surprise, road-to-Damascus experience; however, it is at least as typical for an academic to make the journey in the opposite direction. To use other examples within ISKCON, Graham Schweig and several other professors became devotees in the early days of ISKCON and later went on to obtain advanced degrees and successfully balance their devotional and academic activities. This intentional decision to knowingly engage with the dualities of spirituality and academia is arguably a more intriguing narrative than that of spontaneous conversion, and John Tracy Ellis, Surendranath Dasgupta, and Gershom Scholem all undertook this challenge to varying degrees.
Of the three scholars we examine, Monsignor John Tracy Ellis was the most securely ensconced within his faith tradition, while simultaneously, and not without risk, examining and critiquing that tradition. Ellis was born in 1905, in Seneca, Illinois, earned a Ph.D. in History from the Catholic University of America (CUA) in 1930, and was ordained a priest in 1938. During his lengthy academic career, he taught U.S. Catholic history at Brown University, CUA, the Graduate Theological Union at Berkeley, Mount St. Mary’s University, Notre Dame, and in Rome at the Gregorian and Angelicum universities and the North American College, was editor of the Catholic Historical Review and president of the American Catholic Historical Association and published twenty books. In an era when Catholic history in the U.S. was often hagiographical and sectarian, Ellis’ commitment to research and inquiry earned him recognition both within the Church and in general academia. In a 1955 speech and essay, “American Catholics and the Intellectual Life,” Ellis spoke out against American Catholics’ self-imposed isolation from the general intellectual discourse of their nation, to the offense of many conservative and anti-modern Catholics. A whole generation of Catholic historians subsequently credited Ellis with having created space for them to practice their craft with less fear of repercussions from the Church: his long-time friend Msgr. George Higgins later wrote in Ellis’ obituary that “the church in the United States owes a great debt to Ellis … for having kept alive a sense of history among their fellow-Catholics during the darkest days of what many have described as the era of nonhistorical orthodoxy.” In more recent years, historians like Leslie Tentler have been able to write on contentious topics like Catholics and contraception, while simultaneously being able to practice their faith, because of the shift in the Church’s attitudes on this topic.
Surendranath Dasgupta is unique among these three scholars for having connected the worlds of Eastern and Western thought. Dasgupta was born in 1887, in present-day Bangladesh, and studied Sanskrit literature and both Eastern and Western philosophy, eventually earning doctorates from the University of Calcutta as well as Cambridge University in England. His first work, A Study of Patanjali, was published in 1920. Besides over ten other books, including his own poetry, Dasgupta’s magnum opus was a five-volume history of Indian philosophy, the last volume of which was published posthumously, edited by his second wife Surama, after Dasgupta’s death in 1952. While Dasgupta’s works received widespread attention in the West, he might be, ironically, best-known as one of the teachers of religious historian Mircea Eliade, who arrived in India in 1928, at the age of 21, to study Sanskrit and Indian philosophy with Dasgupta at the University of Calcutta. The professor was almost unfathomably hospitable to his sole Western student at the time, advising him on how to catch up with the Bengali students’ textual familiarity, and giving his lectures, for a while, in English for Eliade’s benefit. After Dasgupta invited Eliade to stay with him at his family’s house, Eliade secretly fell in love with Dasgupta’s sixteen-year-old daughter Maitreyi, considering marriage with her for a time, which eventually led to the disintegration of Dasgupta and Eliade’s teacher-student relationship once the romantic connection was discovered. Later, Eliade wrote a thinly-disguised confessional account of this episode, Bengal Nights, while Maitreyi told her side of the story in the counter-narrative It Does Not Die: A Romance. The metaphors for Orientalism, and for Western consumption and exoticization of Eastern culture, in Eliade and Dasgupta’s relationship are easy to discern; indeed, in the foreword of his later work Yoga: Immortality and Freedom, which emerged from his studies with Dasgupta, Eliade makes it sound as though the most remarkable historical development was not Indian philosophy itself, but rather the West’s discovery of it: “There is no more absorbing story than that of the discovery and interpretation of India by Western consciousness.” Nonetheless, it had been Dasgupta’s massive efforts towards synthesis and presentation which had enabled Eliade to so easily access the dizzying varieties of the traditions of yoga in the first place.
Gershom Scholem, among our three scholars, was the most prolific writer. He was born in Berlin in 1897, to an assimilated, well-to-do German Jewish family, and rebelled against his family’s bourgeois lifestyle as a teenager by adopting Zionism, and haphazardly starting to explore Jewish mysticism, or Kabbalah. There was no academic field of Kabbalah at the time, and it was widely regarded as superstitious fairy stories, the province of the sequestered and anti-modern Hasidic communities of Eastern Europe. After translating and annotating the Sefer ha-Bahir, a Medieval Kabbalistic text, for his doctoral dissertation, Scholem moved to Palestine in 1923 and began to work at what would become Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Until the rise of Nazism interrupted him, Scholem dedicated himself to traveling Europe in search of obscure, lost texts of Jewish mysticism, in much the same way that modern-day scholars of yoga seek to recover key teachings from fragile palm leaf manuscripts. The rise and fall of Nazism, to which Scholem lost several close friends, stands inevitably as a backdrop to his work and helped cement his Zionism. As well as teaching at Hebrew University until his death in 1982, Scholem served as a visiting professor at Hebrew Union College, Brandeis University, the Jewish Theological Seminary, Princeton, and Yale, published over 40 books and nearly 700 studies, and dialogued, sometimes collaborating and sometimes clashing, with intellectuals like Theodor Adorno, Hannah Arendt, Walter Benjamin, Martin Buber, Chaim Potok, and Franz Rosenzweig. More recent scholars of Kabbalah nearly unanimously point to Scholem as the pioneer who made their discipline possible: In a 2005 work, for example, Elliot Wolfson says that Scholem’s words on the untapped poetic and imaginative potential within Kabbalistic texts served “as the guideword on my path.”
While it is easy for modern-day observers to discern the continuities between the works of Ellis, Dasgupta, and Scholem, how did these scholars themselves conceive of their role and mission? Eliade, somewhat uncomfortably, referred to “my guru Professor Surendranath Dasgupta” in the dedication of Yoga: Immortality and Freedom. Dasgupta, on the contrary, in his introduction to A History of Indian Philosophy, explained that one of the intentions of his work was to liberate the arcana of Indian philosophy from specialized Sanskrit terminology, and from the exclusive, insiders-only transmission of the guru-disciple model. Dasgupta sought, in fact, to produce a work that any well-educated Westerner could pick up and read with little to no preamble, and without having to enter into the spiritual surrender of parampara. Followers of a spiritual tradition, on the other hand, often assert that their tradition’s mystical literature can only be fully grasped from a standpoint of belief. John Tracy Ellis specifically intended his work to be a kind of intervention, to spur the Catholic intellectual scene at the time out of its stagnation and self-referentiality. Because the Catholic community in the U.S. had developed as a minority, outside of and sometimes persecuted by the Protestant mainstream, Catholics had built their own, parallel educational system to public schools and universities. This was partly a self-protective measure, and partly to ensure that the faithful were not lured away by the forces of Protestantism and secularism. While this system had been useful during the heydays of Nativism, in the nineteenth century, by the 1950s anti-Catholicism was no longer widespread in the U.S. One of Ellis’ fellow Catholic priests and academics asked him to write and deliver his 1955 speech, and encouraged him to speak to the situation in the Church, not as a scholar, but as an “annoyed Catholic.” Apparently, Ellis’ fraternal corrections made an impression, since, in reaction to his speech being published, he received around three hundred letters, some supportive and some critical. One aggrieved bishop, who happened to run into Ellis as he was walking across campus at Catholic University, told him, “You had better let up for a while.” Since Ellis, unlike Dasgupta and Scholem, remained an active member of his faith community throughout his life, his motivation to push for the reform of that community was also higher.
Scholem’s relationship to the sacred, as conveyed by the Kabbalistic literature he studied, was complicated. One of the central tenets of Jewish mysticism is the mysterious and hidden, yet all-pervading presence of God in the world, in a panentheistic sense that is highly reminiscent of the concept of achintya-bheda-abheda in Gaudiya Vaishnava yoga philosophy. (Achintya-bheda-abheda is a different way of conceiving of God’s relationship to the world than either absolute non-dualism, or the conventional Christian imagining of the cosmos. In this belief system, God’s presence suffuses the created world, but is not limited by it, and God remains a person with an independent existence apart from the material world.) In other words, the world is within God, and God is present in everything that exists in the world, but God is not limited by the world, and the world itself is not God. Scholem emphasized that the Kabbalistic declaration “There is nothing outside of Him” was not meant as a claim that God had no existence apart from created beings. Nonetheless, while Scholem studied a system that insisted on a radical divine presence within the world, he witnessed the atrocities of Nazism cause many to discard their belief in God. In the wake of the Holocaust, in fact, a whole subgenre of sociological writing emerged to deal with this problem of evil in the world, whether the conception of God was still relevant, and how to cope with the undeniable evidence of people’s innate capacity for cruelty. While writing about God’s relationship with the world, Scholem was forced to confront a painful and cavernous divine absence in the world. Therefore, while Scholem did not practice Judaism in a religious sense, he was entranced by the themes of Messianism, apocalypticism, and redemption in Kabbalistic literature, even daydreaming as a teenager that he was destined to be the Messiah.
As historians and as scholars of religion, Ellis, Dasgupta, and Scholem were all confronted with the question of what to report when their research turned up some inaccuracies or unsavory truths about their spiritual tradition. Ellis was ahead of his time in calling for the Catholic Church to acknowledge injustices it had committed, such as the Inquisition. His philosophy of history was informed by Pope Leo XIII’s words upon the opening of the Vatican Archives: “The first law of history is not to dare to utter falsehood; the second, not to fear to speak the truth.” Interestingly, in other scenarios, Ellis did not advocate for telling the truth in an unqualified sense, although he was never in favor of lying to glamorize the Church: in 1960, one of Ellis’ doctoral students at CUA came across some letters during his research that seemed to indicate that one of CUA’s founders, John Lancaster Spalding, bishop of Peoria, possibly had a pattern of sexual affairs throughout his life. Mary Gwendoline Caldwell, Catholic University’s primary financial benefactor, had later left the Church, and allegedly confessed on her deathbed that she and Spalding (who, as part of his priestly ordination, had taken a vow of celibacy) had carried on a nearly twenty-year-long affair. Ellis advised his student, David Francis Sweeney, to sidestep this episode in his dissertation, both because of the hearsay nature of the claims, and because Ellis was already concerned about the loss of trust in the Church in the wake of Vatican II. Andrew Greeley, another Catholic historian, known for his progressive and iconoclastic mindset, then accused Sweeney and Ellis of conducting a cover-up. Ellis’ misdirection of his student in this instance offers some timely parallels to more recent cover-ups of sexual indiscretions in modern postural yoga and shows how normally ethical individuals might be tempted to sacrifice the complete truth to benefit an established institution.
Although much of Dasgupta’s work covered mystical areas of Eastern philosophy that had been distorted by Western sentimentalism and projection, he approached his subject matter with restraint. H.L. Mencken, the notoriously acerbic American satirist, was delighted with Dasgupta’s tone: he anticipated that the work Hindu Mysticism would disillusion American practitioners of yoga, which by 1927 had started to spread from Los Angeles to other urban areas. “Here is a little book,” he wrote, “which offers salubrious reading to those persons who still labor under the delusion that the Hindus are privy to a store of wisdom hidden from Western eyes, and that their religion is, in some vague way, more refined and civilized than Christianity… Unfortunately, Dr. Dasgupta’s book is too intelligent.” Mencken, unlike many American spiritual seekers of the era, would have been in favor of a strict academic approach to the study of Indian spiritualities, and of mercilessly demythologizing their central narratives.
For Scholem, one of his self-appointed tasks was to pin down the obscure and allegorical language of Medieval Kabbalah to concrete, historical specificities of time and place: “All I found were scattered, shabby pages, and I transformed them into history,” he once said. Much like scholars of yoga texts, Scholem was confronted with a divergence of many centuries between the faith tradition’s own claims about the antiquity of its sacred writings, and academia’s best efforts to establish a reliable chronology. In the case of Kabbalah, the Zohar, one of the central Kabbalistic texts, is traditionally presented as the work of a rabbinic sage in ancient Judea, shortly after the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans; academics, on the other hand, assert that the Zohar was written in thirteenth-century Spain. Scholem lamented that the letters, records, and biographies that would normally aid the historian in establishing a more firm context for such texts had mostly “been lost in the storms of Jewish history.” The obscurity of Kabbalistic literature was also intentional, since the Jews, as a persecuted minority in Europe, had heavily encoded their mystical teachings in figurative language, in order to protect them from hostile eyes.
Lastly, these three scholars of religious traditions all strove to depict, on the one hand, their traditions’ intellectual and organizational heft, and, on the other hand, the more ineffable and numinous hintings of personal mystical experience, which the hard organizational shell arguably existed to protect. Surendranath Dasgupta, at least according to Eliade, preferred the intellectual precision of classical Yoga and Vedanta to the popular and non-Brahminical practices of Tantra; or, possibly, he did not trust Eliade to understand Tantric texts and practices. Ellis feared that, by the 1950s, the Catholic Church in the U.S. had become just another “big business,” and that the mundane tasks of administration would leave priests and bishops little time to turn their attention to intellectual and spiritual matters. In other words, the Catholic Church had become so paradoxically non-spiritual that even intellectual inquiry, in a dry academic sense, seemed more elevated and preferable to Ellis than remaining perpetually bogged down in financial details. Scholem took the Jewish tradition’s well-known avoidance of anthropomorphism around the image of God, and turned it on its head as an apologia for mystical writing: the precise and wordy legal and liturgical frameworks of Judaism were merely a historical framing, he said, for the mystic’s quest to “taste and see” the divine Presence within the world. When infused with the idea of the mystical indwelling of God, Jewish religious practices constructed “a sacramental universe.” Catholicism, Yoga, and Judaism are all notable for containing this balance of exoteric and esoteric elements.
John Tracy Ellis, Surendranath Dasgupta, and Gershom Scholem all took on the difficult task of presenting, to academic and secular audiences, spiritual traditions that had, to some extent, sequestered themselves from modernity, or which were regarded with suspicion in the modern world. They did this with little to no pre-existing critical and discursive framework to build on. Their era was broiling with the question of how to reconcile tradition and modernity, and their lengthy textual offerings represent an effort to re-situate the spiritual within the world, rather than in the distant realm of myth and lore. The real act of love and service, for scholar-practitioners, might be in investing the time to truly immerse oneself in a tradition, before distilling it for a general audience. When undertaken with the right intention, perhaps even study can become a kind of tapas, or spiritual practice.