USC establishes country’s first Hindu studies chair

The Dharma Civilization Foundation established the first chair of Hindu Studies in the United States at USC in June. The $3.24 million gift to the School of Religion created the Swami Vivekananda Visiting Faculty in Hindu Studies and the Dharma Civilization Foundation Chair in Hindu Studies.

The school expects to name a chair by January 2013.

The Dharma Civilization Foundation, a non-profit organization focused on the study of Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism, chose USC because of its high population of Indian students, as well as its increasing reputation as an elite university, Dean of Religious Life Varun Soni said.

“As one of the preeminent universities in the Pacific Rim, we aspire to develop institutional strengths in the study of Asian religions, and this chair is a major step towards fulfilling that goal,” Soni said.

Duncan Williams, who serves as the chair of the School of Religion, said the creation of a new chair displays the school’s desire to include religions from all parts of the world.

“We are looking at things in a global way by creating a religious studies program that isn’t biased toward one part of the world,” Williams said. “We aim for a multi-faith and global religious studies program that takes advantage of our place and moment as we position ourselves to be the intellectual hub for the Asia-Pacific century.”

The new position might also serve as a national model for universities working toward narrowing in on the study of a specific religion, Soni said.

“American universities are increasingly engaging with ethnic and religious communities in order to develop scholarly programs focused on particular regions and religions,” Soni said. “This new chair provides a national model for how universities and communities can work together to fulfill their shared goals of research, policy and advocacy.”

Director of Hindu Student Life Bharathwaj Nandakumar said he expects the addition to enhance spiritual life on campus.

“Since a lot of the Indian population at USC are Hindus, this chair will be a wonderful spiritual guide for the students here,” Nandakumar said.

Soni said the chair should benefit the studies of all students interested in theology, not only those interested in Hinduism.

“For students interested in studying religion broadly conceived, and Hinduism specifically, this chair will provide invaluable resources in teaching, research, travel and community engagement,” Soni said.

Indian students said being recognized with the chair is an honor that will assist with providing unity, pride and opportunities for growth the community’s growth.

“This chair is a sign of USC’s expanding diversity,” Pavitra Krishnamani, president of the USC Hindu Student Organization, said. “It helps students get a more varied view on the world while inside our gates. We have always had a large population of Hindu students, but I don’t think we have been properly represented in USC’s academia prior to this appointment.”

Robin O’Neal, a 2012 graduate who majored in philosophy and religion, said this chair is important for USC’s diversity.

“USC has a significant international student population, so in creating the Hindu Chair, the university is recognizing and responding to a void in the program,” O’Neal said. “As a school, we seek to accurately portray our community to the outside world while making each tenant of the Trojan Family feel equally valued.”

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