Audrius Beinorius - visiting professor of East Asian religions | University of Tartu Asian Center

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Audrius Beinorius - visiting professor of East Asian religions

Starting this Spring, Prof. Audrius Beinorius from Vilnius University will hold the position of a visiting professor of East Asian religions at the University of Tartu. He will be teaching the course "An introduction to Indian civilization" during the Spring semester and give occasional stand-alone lectures, two of which will be given already this week.

On this backdrop, we asked Prof. Beinorius a few questions to get a better understanding of his research interests and why is it important to learn about India in the first place.

What brings you to Tartu? What are your expectations for the upcoming year in Tartu?

When I learned from my Tartu colleagues of the plans to establish this position and suggestions to apply for it, my first thought was: it is wonderful, why not to give it a try? Tartu University is a really well known academic institution holding an internationally solid name in many fields and it is my honour, interest and certainly a pleasure to be involved in its activities. I have visited Tartu several times with various academic and personal intentions. For many years, I was in touch with Linnart Mäll, the eminent Estonian scholar of Buddhist studies and Keeper of Oriental studies tradition at UT.

I have rich experience of teaching and pursuing research in many European countries, US, and India, but I have never had such an experience in the Baltic countries. This is my deep regret - we are all more informed of the works of our colleagues in the West while at the same time we are comparatively less familiar with activities of our proximate colleagues, not to mention the need of closer cooperation among us. This motivated me to apply for the newly-created position and it was also the reason behind establishing an academic network entitled the Baltic Alliance of Asian Studies (BAAS) in 2014.

Therefore, I came here, first of all, to broaden my teaching experience and to acquire new knowledge and proficiency from Estonian colleagues, an international staff and, certainly, from curious students of Tartu University. Secondly, to share my own knowledge in the field of South Asian, namely in Indian, studies. This field of studies is more developed in Lithuania than in Estonia. I am very glad to have a chance to contribute to the development of Indian studies at Tartu. Finally, and this is not a secret, to make more Estonian friends, to get closer acquainted with the Estonian spirit, and to explore Tartu’s cultural and social life.

Please tell me about your research. What interests you the most and what have you worked on?

I have a background in Asian and comparative philosophy and religions. Since my first dissertation (PhD), I have migrated and relocated from one topic and even academic field of research to another. Having started with contemporary (phenomenological) analysis of the problem of consciousness in classical Indian philosophy (mostly of Yogacara Buddhism and Advaita Vedanta schools), I later shifted to post-colonial discourse and religious studies (namely Hinduism and Indian Buddhism). That was also the topic of my habilitation thesis - Postcolonial perspective to Indian religious culture. Afterwards, I became more attracted to and inspired by the psychology of religion and cultural psychology (and I do teach this at Vilnius University).

However, for a longer period up until now, I have been dealing with a topic largely ignored in the field. I research the curious topic of historical development of Indian astrology and divination. Keeping in mind the tremendous importance of astrology in Indian past and present society, where it is treated as sacred traditional knowledge lying in the heart of all religious practices, it may look strange and inexplicable how such culturally significant layer of Indian social and religious life has been neglected by the early generations of Indologists. Researching the topic provides us with much intriguing and hidden knowledge about Indian mentality and social relations, traditional psychology and religious practices, cosmology and cross-civilizational history. My research is based on primary Sanskrit sources and I combine it with contemporary anthropological methodologies. The most significant international research grants (US Fulbright, the Royal Netherlands grant of J. Gonda, Japan Foundation, Indian Council for Cultural Relations, etc.) were awarded to me precisely for the investigation of this topic.

What are you working on currently?

I recently became involved in a new project sponsored by the European research foundation and executed by a group of Vilnius University researchers, titled: Between choice and determinism: cultural variations in experiencing and conceptualizing free will, luck, and chance. The task of this project is to carry out a transcultural textual-historiographical and empirical-psychological study in order to reveal the connection between the sustained theoretical-intellectual traditions and ordinary folk conceptions of free will and choice in different cultural contexts - China, India, Mongolia, Thailand, Lithuania, US. Previous studies have not taken into account the cross-cultural element nor evaluated the influence of non-Western intellectual traditions on the everyday practice and conceptualization of free will. Thereby, together with my team, we will seek to include different systems of knowledge and action from different civilizational fields into a fruitful intellectual dialogue. Hopefully something intellectually inspiring will be achieved.

You will be teaching a course on India this semester. Why should we in the Baltics care about Indian history and religions? Why would you encourage students to enroll in the course?

I always stress to students at my home university that knowledge of other cultures and different religions is extremely beneficial existentially as it sharpens our perceptions and deepens our understanding of our own cultural identities, distinctions, and values. It is the most effective tool to get new insight into the way our culture has shaped and determined us. This is the most valuable epistemological profit and reflective implication of Indian civilisation and religion studies.

My personal interest in India started mostly from a religious and philosophical perspective, as I considered Indian religions challenging to our obsolete perceptions and culturally narrow understandings of the "normative" European conception of religion. The very diverse and rich history of Indian philosophical traditions provide us with a different and, I would say, intellectually refreshing vision of many problems and issues raised by Western philosophers and theologians throughout history.

Secondly, India has become a very influential player in the global market and world politics. Beside China, India is the second most rapidly developing world economy. We should ask ourselves - how it happened and why? One prolific way to get fruitful answers is to learn about those pillars that nourish and sustain the vitality and productivity of Indian civilization. And, hence, religion and philosophy are among those substantial supportive pillars of India's culture and mentality.

A third reason, why to study India, is the ongoing process of "easternisation of the West". What we see nowadays in the Western world is the abounding market of popular Yoga practice centres, commercialized Ayurvedic medicine, remedies and massages, an import of commodified spiritual practices, cults, gurus and exotic religions. It is easy to get lost in all this diversity. However, by knowing India better and by appreciating its cultural peculiarities, specific historical circumstances and underlying values, it is easier to make sense of it. I consider this to be a part of my academic obligations.

For these three reason, I encourage students to enroll in the course and attend my other lectures.

In Estonia, we have been having various public conferences about Asia and the need for experts who speak Asian languages and understand the culture. UT is working to open a new MA program for Asian studies. How would you describe the situation in Lithuania? Is Asia a concrete focus of the universities or the state?

Yes, it certainly is. After regaining our independence, Asian Studies were re-established in 1993 with the opening of the Center of Oriental Studies. With the support of Vilnius University authorities, Ministry of Foreign Affairs and other partners new undergraduate (BA) programmes in Chinese studies, Japanese Studies, Indian Studies, Arabic Studies, Iranian Studies, and Turkology were implemented. Since 2006, the Center also offers a graduate masters programme of Modern Asian Studies, which focuses on modern and contemporary developments of Asia with an interdisciplinary and transcultural approach. Various Asian topics and issues are dealt with on the PhD level as well, specifically in the fields of Philosophy, History, Ethnology and Philology.

All this attests that in Lithuania Asian studies are considered to have a pragmatic and strategic significance. I am happy and proud that I have been actively involved in this process, including heading the Center of Oriental Studies for over 10 years. By the way, just a week ago, the Centre was reformed into the Institute of Asian and Transcultural Studies and is now an integral part of the Faculty of Philosophy of Vilnius University. Besides Vilnius, East Asian Studies are taught at Kaunas Vytautas Magnus University on BA and MA levels.

In your opinion, what are the most important or impactful recent developments in India?

I would mention the radicalization of political Hinduism with support and inspirations coming from the state ruling nationalist Bharata Janata Party (BJP). India is getting divided between two modern trends. On the one hand, a trend towards universalization, which contributes to contemporary global culture and processes. Yet, on the other hand, there is a trend towards exclusive political nationalism on local and national levels. Such political nationalism may inspire friction between the Hindu, Muslims and Christian communities and evoke violence. I consider it a major danger for the future of peaceful, productive and harmonious development of India as a unique multi-cultural, multi-ethnic and multi-religious society.

Anything else you would like to add?

I am looking forward to the time I am going to spend at Tartu University, which will create new intensive and inspiring opportunities for experience, learning and sharing.

Professor Beinorius’ stay at Tartu University is supported by the University of Tartu ASTRA Project PER ASPERA, financed by the European Regional Development Fund.

Written by Mart Veliste, 11.02.18