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Diane Manuel, News Service (650) 725-1945; e-mail:

Stanford launches Asian Religions and Cultures initiative

Smithsonian scholar Vidya Dehejia introduced her audience to Bhuvaneshvari, the Granter of Wishes, in a 17th-century Indian painting and talked about how that piece and more than 120 other works of art were virtually transformed by their inclusion in a recent exhibition she curated in Washington, D.C.

The special slide lecture in Annenberg Auditorium on April 20 was co-hosted by the Stanford Center for Buddhist Studies, the Society for Art and Cultural Heritage of India (SACHI) and the Asian Religions and Cultures (ARC) initiative, the newest interdisciplinary entity on campus.

By linking university programs with community groups like SACHI, the initiative aims to bring together scholars and individuals with interests in Asian cultures who don't often have the opportunity to associate. Together they can explore religions and cultures that tend to fall between disciplinary cracks.

"There's a lot of work in Asian studies that goes on at the Institute for International Studies and in political science and economics, but there's very little interaction on campus between those areas and the humanities," says Carl Bielefeldt, a professor of religious studies who is a specialist in 13th-century Zen Buddhism and co-director of the Center for Buddhist Studies. "We see the new initiative as a bridge between the social sciences and the humanities, and also between the premodern tradition and contemporary culture and society."

Housed at the Center for Buddhist Studies and supported by the Department of Religious Studies and the Center for East Asian Studies, ARC recently received $200,000 from the President's Fund for the first four years of operation. Bielefeldt and ARC co-director Bernard Faure, the George Edwin Burnell Professor of Religious Studies, will be doing extensive fundraising to establish a permanent endowment that will help to support conferences, lectures, visiting scholars, publications, workshops, exhibits and performances.

"We're looking at a wide range of areas that are not well represented on campus, such as South Asia, Chinese religions and Islam," Faure says.

Faure will co-direct ARC with Gregory Schopen, a specialist in Indian Buddhism, Hinduism and South Asian studies who currently teaches in the Department of East Asian Languages and Literatures at the University of California-Los Angeles and who will join the Stanford faculty next fall. Irene Lin, assistant director of the Center for Buddhist Studies, will oversee administration.

ARC takes its title from the "Asian Religions and Cultures" series that Faure, Bielefeldt and Schopen currently are editing for Stanford University Press. Designed to redefine Buddhism and other Asian religions by examining them from the methodological perspectives of anthropology, literary criticism, art history, philosophy and cultural studies, the series aims to break through the tendency to isolate Asian religions into compartments of spiritualism or Orientalism. The press will publish the first volume in the series next fall.

This week ARC is co-hosting two lectures that will help to carve out the initiative's niche on campus:

  • David Stronach of the University of California-Berkeley will talk about "Herodotus, the Battle of the Eclipse in 585 B.C. and the Current Excavations at Pteria/Kerkenes Dag in Cappadocia" at 7:30 p.m. today in Building 260, Room 113.
  • Gurinder Singh Mann, holder of the Kundan Kapany Chair in Sikh Studies at the University of California-Santa Barbara, will talk about "Sikhs Since Independence: Politics, Community, Communalism" at 7:30 p.m. tomorrow, April 27, in Building 200, Room 305.

By co-sponsoring the talks with the community-based Silk Road Study Group and the campus-based South Asia Initiative, ARC is establishing the kinds of relationships that the directors see as its particular strength.

"We'd like to bring both academic figures and public figures to campus," Faure says. "And we're hoping future conferences will be of interest to both academics and the public."

In Fall Quarter, ARC co-hosted a major conference on early Indian religions. Next year faculty associated with the initiative will organize a conference on the origins of Mahayana Buddhism in India, with a conference on Tantrism across Asia scheduled for the following year.

Faure and Bielefeldt also would like to see ARC fund postdoctoral scholars who come to Stanford for a year or two to work on books and teach courses.

"We've already attracted Japanese Buddhism scholars who come with their own funding," Faure says. "If we had additional funding, we could meet them halfway and provide them with connections and with a good place to work."

Religion has had a profound impact in Asia, from its influence on popular beliefs to ancient philosophies. Faure says new spiritual movements continue to be central to daily life in Asian countries, and he points to the recent endowment of the first chair in Shinto studies at the University of California-Santa Barbara as one indication of the growing academic interest in contemporary beliefs and practices.

"After the [second world] war, Shinto was seen as being too nationalistic," Faure says, by way of example. "But Shinto is an important aspect of Japanese religion, and it finally is now emerging as a legitimate scholarly enterprise."

For more information about the Asian Religions and Cultures initiative and a calendar of upcoming events, visit the website at


By Diane Manuel

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