Students explore Hinduism with REL 286: Introduction to Hinduism


By Lily Dolan, Staff Writer

Professor Adam Newman has been teaching an Introduction to Hinduism class for years, and since he began, it has opened the minds of students to more religious experiences. The class follows the history of Hinduism from its slow inception and the themes that have remained constant for thousands of years. Despite the class now being online, students still are able to walk away with a greater understanding and appreciation for the religion. 

Payal Patel, a sophomore in LAS, took the class because her parents are practicing Hindus. She said that she did not think they would go into the class with previous knowledge on Hinduism because the instructor set up the first few weeks to go over the main information that she would need to know before getting more specific.

Newman initially created his version of the course while teaching at the University of Virginia. Since joining the religions department at the University, he has brought new insight and lived-experience with the religion.

“I’m fascinated with pre-modern cultures which I primarily work on but modern cultures as well and the way that people negotiate things like identity and senses of belonging or not belonging and in that sort of the relationship there too to religion how religion really shapes people’s identity whether it be regional identity or national identity or even cosmic identity in terms of religion,” he said. 

The course follows a thematic approach that does not necessarily end in the current-day practices of Hinduism but rather goes into what has changed or stayed the same over the past 2,000 years. Newman said that his work in and out of the class follows the comparisons of Hindus in practice versus how the religious texts think Hinduism should be practiced.  

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“So you know a certain text from 2000 years ago says this is you know how we should practice or this is what we do,” he said “I then pair it with actual practice in a temple or in a city or a village of how people are actually living that religion you know and just presenting it as a sort of juxtaposition.”

Newman said that what a textbook says about a certain religious tradition is often different from how people actually practice it on the ground. He said he does his best to bridge the gap between the academic study for religion and what people practice.

Delving deeper into some of the topics of the course, some aspects of Hinduism might sound familiar whether or not one practice the religion. The course spends time on the Indian epics, the Mahabharata and Ramayana, but also talk about deities and important figures in Hinduism. 

Maxine Katz, senior in LAS, explained that the course “started with the Vedic period, then had a section on yoga, and had a section on the different devotion traditions for each of the three deities.”

“We had a little bit on philosophy as well and then we had some on the modern interpretation of Hinduism, and that covered Gandhi,” Katz said. 

Katz said she found the class to be one of the most engaging classes from her last four years. Despite the pandemic and overall difficulties transferring from in-class coursework to online classes, Maxine still felt the course was one of the most interesting classes. 

She said that it was almost like the pandemic made her interpret things and work better. She said that she was given more time to digest the readings because they weren’t having synchronous lectures, letting her have her own spin on it, and spend more time on the reading responses. 

“What I really want students to get out of (the course) is that 10 years later after you take the class, even if you don’t remember the details that’s fine, but you do retain a sense of respect for a tradition that might not be yours or even that is yours,” Newman said. 

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