Study? Practice? Can the Two be Integrated?


There is no intelligence if one is not disciplined.
Without discipline there is no meditation.
Without meditation there can be no tranquility.
Without tranquility, how can there be happiness?

— Bhagavad Gita II:66

These verses from Mahatma Gandhi’s favorite text set the frame for the conversation on the relationship between having a personal practice of meditation and being of service to others as an educator. To remain neutral and objective is an important part of gaining the trust of students when discussing sensitive or controversial matters. However, above all else, students seek authenticity in their teachers. To practice meditation is different from espousing belief. Studies have demonstrated the efficacy of meditation and Yoga practices in bringing relief from stress and enhancing human health. In post-modernity, teaching an integrated bodily practice combined with philosophical insights can be of tremendous benefit.

This article discusses the history of the university, analyzes the challenge of modernity and post-modernity, and affirms the efficacy of integrating study and practice.

Religion and the University

European universities were first established around a thousand years ago[note]Universities were established as follows: Bologna (1088), Oxford (1096), Salamanca (1134), Paris (1160), Carmbridge (1209), Padua (1222), Naples (1224), Siena (1240), and Coimbre, Portugal (1290). Harvard, the oldest university in the United States, was established in 1636.[/note] to train young people for three core professions: ministry, law, and medicine to provide meaning, civic order, and human health, respectively. Prior to Martin Luther, ministry was available to clerical men, while married persons could enter the fields of law and medicine. Outside Europe, Nalanda University was founded in 450 for the training of Buddhist monks. Its enrollment reached 10,000 students and it flourished for more than 500 years. Al-Azhar University was established in Cairo in 970 for the study of the Quran and Islamic law. In the early period, religion and, particularly, the study of sacred texts was inseparable from the process of education throughout the globe.

At the time of the Enlightenment, a new definition of being human emerged that did not require adherence to religious dogmas. Francis Bacon in England (1561-1626) and Rene Descartes in France (1595-1650) laid the foundation for a new world order based on Natural Law and Reason rather than reliance on priestly authority. The rise of their ideas came alongside the age of exploration and, with advances in technology that arose from science, empowered European powers to colonize much of Africa, the Americas, Asia, the Middle East, and the Philippine archipelago. Jesuit priests documented countless cultures and languages during the 17th and 18th century, and the hundreds of records[note]See Reuben Gold Thwaites, ed.. The Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents: Travels and Explorations of the Jesuit Missionaries in New France 1610-1791. Sydney: Wentworth Press (2019).[/note] they published of the native peoples of North and South America inspired the French philosophers Voltaire (1694-1778) and Montesquieu (1689-1755) to lionize and romanticize the “noble savage.” In South America, the Jesuits protected the Guarani people from enslavement for 150 years.[note]See Christopher Chapple. The Jesuit Tradition in Education and Missions: A 450 Year Perspective. New York: Scranton University Press (1993).[/note]

The time of conquest saw a rise in revolutions (United States, France, and more), a downgrading of the importance of religions, the birth of the secular citizen, and new tools, including advanced weaponry, to enslave Africans, to launch genocidal campaigns against native peoples, and to advance the mercantile interests of European powers. Some cultures, particularly in North America, saw total destruction of many indigenous languages. The great wealth of India was laid waste by British economic policies. The Chinese empire was left in ruins after coordinated attacks by allied European forces. Despite this unrelenting assault on non-European human dignity worldwide, glimmers of pre-contact wisdom survived the onslaughts of the 18th and 19th century,[note]The 20th century saw a similar colonialization of central Asia with the suppression of Tibetan and Uighur culture by Han hegemonic policies, which continues into the 21st century.[/note] through oral traditions and through institutions such as temples and monasteries that avoided dismemberment.

Modernity and the Loss of the Sacred

Seyyed Hossein Nasr (b. 1933), in his ground-breaking book Knowledge and the Sacred (1981),[note]This book is based on Nasr’s presentation of the Gifford Lectures at Edinburgh University in 1981. One of the greatest honors accorded to an academic, earlier Gifford Lectures resulted in the publication of William James’s Varieties of Religious Experience (1902) and Alfred North Whitehead’s Process and Reality (1927-1928).[/note] provides a direct and piercing analysis of the aftermath of the European enlightenment: modernity produced a technology that destroys humans and nature, a cosmology that robs the human person of all meaning, and a consumerism that commodifies and trivializes human endeavor. By deadening the world and the place of the human within the cosmos, by robbing the human person of the most basic sense of innate dignity, the world enters chaos. Nasr writes, “The reduction of the Intellect to reason and the limitation of intelligence to cunning and cleverness in the modern world not only caused sacred knowledge to become inaccessible and to some even meaningless, but it also destroyed that natural theology which in the Christian context represented at least a reflection of knowledge of a sacred order, of the wisdom or sapientia which was the central means of spiritual perfection and deliverance.”[note]Seyyed Hossein Nasr. Knowledge and the Sacred. Albany: State University of New York Press (1981: 4).[/note] Science, for most modern people, displaced the old stories regarding creation and the role of the human in the earth community. Knowledge itself became quantified and turned into a commodity. The wisdom of sages became devalued in a world of “cunning and cleverness.”

With modernity, the thousand-year old tradition of the university became altered. Science proliferated with new areas of inquiry: biology, microbiology; physics, astrophysics; chemistry, bio-chemistry; geology, meteorology, and more. The social sciences emerged: sociology, political science, economics, and anthropology. Humanities differentiated into literature, philosophy, religious studies, and history. Under the college system in the United States, students were to have a grounding in all the above before specializing in graduate or professional school, leading to the development of separate seminaries, law schools, and medical schools. However, in many instances, this fragmentation threatened the core task of education: feeding the human spirit. 

The modern period gave birth to rapid fire artillery, mustard gas, nuclear weapons, drone attacks, and psychological cyber warfare. In many parts of the world, religious dogmatism provided relief from a world without meaning, particularly after the fall of the Iron Curtain. Many eastern European countries now embrace Orthodox Christianity with gusto. Fundamentalist Christianity and fundamentalist forms of Islam and Hinduism have gained wide popularity and hold great political influence. Other people reject the deadened world of science and modernity but rather than returning to an earlier faith, choose to define themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” Such people are open to exploring differing modalities for enhancing human affect and value the search for meaning.

It is within this context that the question can be posed: what is a scholar-practitioner? The very question seems to posit a tension between study and practice, between scholia and praxis. In the premodern period such a dichotomy would have been unimaginable. As noted above, the first institutions of higher learning, such as Nalanda University, were utterly devoted to the training of philosopher monks who fully engaged in all forms of religious practice, including ritual and the observance of ethical vows. The same was true for Jews and Christians and Muslims. Without knowledge of the sacred book, no meaning could be evinced. Law and medicine were intertwined with theology, and theology inseparable from all the aspects of philosophy: ontology (knowledge of how the world works), epistemology (logic and the operations of the mind), and ethics (how to behave in the world). 

Returning to the brutal historical narrative of the steam-rolling of cultures, there are a few notable examples of resiliency. In the 18th century, the Jesuits, as noted earlier, documented indigenous languages and protected indigenous peoples and cultures, at their own peril.[note]Because of their refusal to enslave indigenous people in South America, the Society of Jesus was disbanded in 1773 by Pope Clement XIV and was not restored until 1814. The oldest Catholic university in the United States, Georgetown, was founded by John Carroll, a “disbarred” Jesuit in 1789. [/note] In the 19th century, many British civil servants became quite enamored of Indian thought and undertook massive translation projects. Women were instrumental in the advancement of knowledge of Indian traditions, including Annie Besant (1847-1933) who served as President of the Theosophical Society and co-founder with Mohandas Gandhi of the Indian National Congress. The work of translation and scholarship gained momentum in the 20th century. Although Communist ideology continues to pose a severe threat to the study and practice of religion in China and North Korea, refugee Tibetan Buddhists supported by the Tolstoy Foundation in New Jersey helped launch the academic field of Buddhist Studies in the 1960s. At the same time, departments of religious studies began to open in both formerly Protestant colleges and at state universities, and Vatican II brought about a liberalization of the teaching of religion in Catholic schools.[note]Nostra Aetate, an official church teaching approved in 1965, proclaims that truth and goodness can be found in all faiths, opening the door for the study of Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and other traditions within the context of the Roman Catholic church and its institutions.[/note]

Modernity holds religion with suspicion. Founding figures of the social sciences saw no purpose to following religion. Marx declared religion to be the opiate of the people. Freud dismissed the practice of religion as fostering an infantile “oceanic experience.” Hard science for the most part had no use for religion since the Roman Catholic Church declared Galileo a heretic. Post-modernity sees religion through a cynical lens, as a dated institution rife with scandals, both financial and sexual. Yet, despite this resistance, countervailing voices continue to be heard. At Esalen, post-Freudians charted the transpersonal movement.[note]See Jeffrey J. Kripal. Esalen: America and the Religion of No Religion. University of Chicago Press (2007).[/note] The work of Carl Jung, who studied various systems of myth and belief and valued the lessons to be gained from dreams, still influences psychotherapy. Psychedelics, which were banned for use in scientific experimentation for more than 40 years, are now being studied as forms of treatment for addiction and depression. Meditation and Yoga, which entered the United States with the Parliament of the World’s Religions in 1893, became somewhat suppressed by the anti-Asian immigration law enacted in 1924, though the work of the Vedanta Society and the Self Realization Fellowship continued with mainly white followers. However Civil Rights legislation in 1965 reopened the United States to Asian and other immigrants, resulting in the establishment of new Ashrams in various parts of the country, including centers established by Swami Satchitananda, A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, Gurani Anjali Inti, and many others. Disenchanted and disenfranchised youth joined these centers as a respite from drug addiction, a safe haven away from disapproving parents, and as a pathway to the spiritual freedom taught in these various traditions. 

Post-Modernity and the Challenge of Inclusion

In the 12th century, the theology curriculum at the university would focus on Christianity in Europe, and at Nalanda in India, the focus would have been exclusively on Buddhism, with careful arguments rebutting counter-positions at each institution. In the modern university religion might be taught through a Cartesian lens influenced by Marxism and Jung and regarded critically. Until recent times, seminaries, whose primary mission would have been to train ministers and priests, would advance the teachings of their sponsoring faiths, whether Jewish, Protestant, or Catholic. Starting in the 1960s, multiple factors began a change within institutions that reshaped attitudes toward the study of religion. In some instances, the critique of religion intensified. Some departments of religious studies that had been created in the 1960s and 1970s lacked the political power to survive budget cuts in successive years. Because of increasing ethnic and religious diversity nationwide, religious studies at colleges, universities, and seminaries began to become more inclusive in their curriculum, requiring cultural studies and the study of diverse faiths, as well as encouragement to hire faculty representative of the home culture. As children of immigrants from groups that were banned prior to 1965 came into adulthood, it became possible, for instance, to hire someone of Indian origin to teach Hinduism, of Middle Eastern or Indonesian origin to teach Islam, and someone of Chinese origin to teach Confucianism and Taoism. 

Unless one is teaching at a strictly denominational seminary that emphasizes an exclusivist theology, all professors must be equipped and prepared to deal with the big questions raised by religion. Professor Douglas Brooks at the University of Rochester summarizes the job as follows: how do religions organize themselves around the big three events of the human drama – hatch, match, and dispatch? How does one educate and nurture a child? How does a religious system support marriage and the family? How does a religion deal with issues of death, dying, and grief? In today’s world, at least in North America, a diversity of backgrounds and beliefs will be represented in the university classroom. The professor must have a teaching methodology that can help students organize their thoughts around universals and then see the different ways in which a religious practice helps make sense of the many transitions that each human person will inevitably encounter.  

Personal Narrative

This brings us to the topic of this current issue of Tarka. Is it acceptable to practice Yoga and meditation openly and also to engage in scholarly work? Should these domains be kept separate? Is it acceptable to bring the practice of spiritual traditions into the classroom?

A professor must keep the best interests of her or his students as the top priority. Undergraduate students will enroll in a class because of many factors: time of day, reputation of teacher, need to fulfill a requirement for graduation. Religion majors and graduate students will be more focused in their intentions. In all instances, a professor must deliver what is promised on the syllabus in the form of learning objectives, which vary from class to class. The content of the class material is primary; the feelings and allegiances of the professor are secondary.

Nonetheless, the professor brings her very being into the presence of her students every time the class convenes. As educator Parker Palmer has noted, “We teach who we are.” Students watch the example of the teacher and assess the degree of credibility, sincerity, and commitment to the material on the part of the professor. Whether conscious or unconscious, personal history and perhaps implicit bias both play a role in the making of every professor.

Though I cannot speak for the hundreds of colleagues in the United States who teach the religions of India, I can share my own experience. I started university with an intent of studying anthropology, doing field research, and advancing knowledge of world cultures. In ninth grade in New York State we had studied Africa, India, East Asia, and Latin America for ten weeks each, one hour a day. I had studied French and Spanish in high school. I had been accepted to St. John’s College in Annapolis and enjoyed the seminar style format of instruction. The first two years are dedicated to the study of Socrates and Aristotle in the original Greek. The second two years focus on French and the reading of Moliere, Descartes, and others in the original. But I complained to my guidance counselor that I thought the world knew enough about Greece and France and that I wanted to explore world cultures. He suggested enrolling at a large state university with an expansive global curriculum. I chose the State University of New York at Buffalo, where I started the study of Sanskrit, continued Spanish language study, attended lectures on Africa and Asia, and explored both philosophy and anthropology. During that first semester a fellow student in philosophy talked frequently about her Yoga teacher on Long Island. After a visit and consultation with Gurani Anjali Inti, founder of Yoga Anand Ashram, I decided to transfer to Stony Brook and enter Yoga training at the Ashram.[note]See Chapple, “Raja Yoga and the Guru: Gurāṇi Añjali of Yoga Anand Ashram, Amityville, New York,” in Gurus in America, edited by Thomas A. Forsthoefel and Cynthia Ann Humes.  Albany: State University of New York Presss (2005:15-36) and “Guru-Centered Education: Gurāṇi Añjali,” by Maureen Shannon-Chapple and Christopher Key Chapple in Antonio T. De Nicolas: Poet of Eternal Return, edited by Chapple. Ahmedabad: Sriyogi Publications. (2014: 273-298).[/note]

Rama, Sita, and Lakshmana at the Hermitage at Bharadvaja, ca 1780.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Seymour and Rogers Funds, 1976.

Once arriving at Stony Brook, I opted to double major in Comparative Literature and Religious Studies. I had soured on anthropological study after a full year of preparation at Buffalo, having become disillusioned with the supercilious approach inherent in the discipline. The philosophy department heavily influenced both majors, and, with studies in Sanskrit and Tibetan literature in the original over the course of seven semesters, I received excellent training. To this day, I am grateful to the supportive faculty at Stony Brook and for the guidance offered by staff of the on-campus Institute for the Advanced Studies of World Religions, which hired me to help with its extensive library holdings in Asian religions. I felt well prepared to enter graduate school. 

Choosing a graduate program required some discernment. Rather than opting for the prestige and money offered by better-known programs at Penn, Columbia, or Wisconsin, I decided for methodological reasons to enroll at Fordham. The dissertations being written were in the scholastic style championed at Stony Brook and two of my six major professors were born and raised and educated in India, compared with none at the other universities. Additionally, my driving questions were theological in nature, not philological or anthropological. After completing my dissertation on the nature of human will in the Yogavasistha, a 12th century Sanskrit text that combines perspective from Yogacara Buddhism, Advaita Vedanta, and Yoga, I returned to the Institute at Stony Brook for five years, organizing conferences, publishing my research, and teaching at the university. In 1985, the Department of Theology at Loyola Marymount University offered me a position that eventually evolved into the Doshi Professorship of Indic and Comparative Theology. 

Both at Stony Brook and LMU, my practice of Yoga was never a secret, and depending upon the class, would sometimes inform my teaching. However, in teaching a survey of the world’s religions, there is little time for the professor to share personal stories. From the beginning, I would include field trips as part of the class experience, and we visited Hindu and Buddhist temples. In the 1980s, Yoga was still far from mainstream and had been largely discredited since the unfortunate events at Jonestown, Guyana, which cast all non-traditional faiths under suspicion. However, in the 1990s, a revival of Yoga took place. Yoga studios began to proliferate first in California and then throughout the world. Serious students of Yoga sought me out and I began teaching at YogaWorks (located in Santa Monica, CA) and various other locations, including the Muktananda Ashram in South Fallsburg, New York. In 1996, I convened a study group every third Wednesday night to work on the Yoga Sutra, which we had studied and translated over a seven year period at Yoga Anand Ashram. The attendees included disciples of Swami Lakshmanjoo, members of the Vedanta Society, followers of Sivananda Yoga, early students of Bikram Choudhury, as well as devotees of the Self Realization Fellowship, Swami Chidvilasananda, and Ammachi. Other professors joined in and, five years later, we completed the entire text. 

The university at first rebuffed the idea of developing a graduate degree in Yoga Studies, somewhat reluctantly suggesting community outreach instead. Through LMU’s Center for the Study of Religion we offered a well-subscribed certificate in Yoga Philosophy, requiring the study of Sanskrit, the Upaniṣads, the Bhagavad Gītā, the Sāṁkhya Kārikā, the Yoga Sūtra and electives totaling 120 contact hours, the equivalent of an undergraduate minor, but open to all. Srivatsa Ramaswami, currently one  of  the  few surviving teachers trained by Krishnamacharya, began to offer a certificate in his comprehensive approach to Yoga, and we began a four year Yoga Therapy sequence organized by Larry Payne. The university, with evidence of interest provided by the hundreds who had earned our various Extension certificates, approved the Master of Arts in Yoga Studies which began in 2013. At this point, the answer to the question “Can a scholar be a practitioner?” was answered with a resounding “Yes!”


The needs to be fulfilled by the educational process have changed. The 19th and 20th centuries required a great deal of information to be conveyed to the student. Libraries were repositories of knowledge not easily obtained. Much of my early research and writing was done with rare materials found only at the New York Public Library. To be a scholar, one had to become a pilgrim. 

We live now in a post-information age. The computer makes all data available at the touch of a keyboard. We no longer educate to inform. We educate to transform. Now more than ever, students need discernment skills to shift and sort out the barrage of “facts” they encounter every day. They need pathways of understanding that lead to meaning. They need an antidote to counteract the ever-increasing levels of stress, anxiety, and depression that plague 21st century culture. 

Philosophers and the new gymnosophists, the Yoga teachers, have skills that can alleviate the existential angst generated by concerns over human health, as well as social justice and environmental issues. The role of the professor has shifted to ally and life-coach, across disciplines. 

Yoga, as integrated system, holds great appeal. It can combine the physical, emotional, and intellectual aspects of the human person, refining them into a coherent narrative through movement, breath, and conversation. To teach Yoga, one must practice Yoga.