I traveled to India with the New York State Independent College Consortium for Study in India, of which St. Lawrence is a member organization, in the fall of 2013. A portion of the required curriculum for that program was an Independent Field Study on any topic that incorporated qualitative research. My study was an analysis of the daily application of ethical philosophy by Buddhists and Hindus in Northern India. I conducted research in each of our many program locations, but knew before even going to India that the complexity of the topic would require travel to more specific locations. Thanks to members of the Sol Feinstone family, I was able to do just that.
My method for research was to interview monastics, scholars, and practitioners of the two traditions about their ethical beliefs. My goal in these interviews was to establish whether people adhered to ethical principles in their daily actions, and weather they saw those beliefs as being the result of philosophical reasoning or religious faith. Many of my interviews were obtained by making appointments with partners of the program. However, a vast majority of my informants were strangers that I met at temples, monasteries, chai stalls, restaurants, or India’s many bazars (markets). These conversations not only fueled my research, but they also gave me opportunities to learn about the culture by directly asking people about their worldviews, and practicing my Hindi language skills. My method allowed me to talk all sorts of people, from business executives in India’s booming IT sector, to beggars on the street. This gave me a glimpse into the complex dynamics of race, religious fundamentalism, caste, gender, and socio-economic inequality in the quickly developing, ever changing Indian context.
Because our program was spending less time in cities with large Buddhist populations, I had intended to travel to Buddhist centers in order to have more contact time with this demographic. Over our fall break I traveled to Dharmsala, and spent five days doing research in the home of the exiled Tibetan government (Tibetan refugees are the largest proportion of India’s Buddhist community today). There is was able to meet with many students and advisors of the Dali Lama and receive some of their teachings and knowledge.
After the program had officially ended, I traveled to Haridwar; one of the holiest cities to the Hindu religion, which lies on the banks of the holey Ganga (Ganges) River. The city is a major pilgrimage site and therefore provided an incredible opportunity for me to interview Hindus from every corner of the Indian subcontinent. I spent nine days wandering the holy ghats (large sandstone staircases) that line the river, talking with pilgrims and locals alike about the origins of their beliefs. This was the first time that I had traveled alone in a foreign country, and the experience made me acutely aware of how much I come to know the culture and the confidence that came with it.
Upon returning to the U.S. I summarized my findings in a formal research paper for course credit. Reflecting on my research, I found that religion in India is a major vehicle for ethical knowledge, and that these principles are almost unanimously explained in terms of philosophical reasoning. While I learned a great deal about the presence of practical philosophy in India, I learned just as much about diversity and complexity of the global world that we live in, and I have been provided with a lot of material for pondering my own place within it. I want to thank the Sol Feinstone family once again for this incredible opportunity.