University must put South Asian studies on the map

It is appalling that an institution like Yale, billed as a premier global university, does not have a major in South Asian studies. In the Ivy League alone, UPenn and Brown both have South Asian Studies departments, and Harvard has a Department of Sanskrit and Indian Studies. Furthermore, Dartmouth, Cornell and Columbia all offer opportunities for students to concentrate in South Asia as part of a broader degree examining Asia. Yale and Princeton stand alone as the only Ivies not to offer undergraduates a standardized framework for pursuing specialized instruction in South Asia.

The demand for South Asian courses at Yale is at an all-time high. In the past six months alone, two students — the two of us — have applied for the special divisional major in South Asian studies. Last year, a student-led initiative persuaded University officials to offer Tamil, a South Indian language, and since 2000, over 1,000 students have enrolled in South Asian courses.

Regrettably, many more students are left feeling as if they never had the opportunity to fully satisfy their curiosity in South Asia while in the Elm City. According to Cynthia Oquendo ’06, “There’s a lot of interest on campus in South Asian studies across all fields — language, politics, religion, art, literature, history, etc. — but nowhere near enough courses to match that interest. I chose to major in religious studies because I felt it allowed me, more than any other typical major, to study as many of those disciplines in relation to South Asian countries as possible. If there had been a formal South Asian studies major, I definitely would have signed up.”

South Asia’s omission as a major is particularly reprehensible considering the multitude of area studies programs already in place. Yale College offers majors in East Asian languages and literatures, East Asian studies, Latin American studies, Near Eastern languages and civilizations, and Russian and East European studies.

Currently, students wishing to obtain a degree in South Asian studies may do so only by creating a special divisional major. This process, however, is tedious and risky. Students applying for a special divisional major must petition the Committee on Honors and Academic Standing, which generally approves only one or two students per year. Those select few students who are willing to put up with the tiresome paperwork must also knowingly forfeit research and funding opportunities readily available to students operating under normal departmental structures.

South Asia — the region that includes India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, the Maldives and Sri Lanka — is home to fully one-fifth of the world’s population and has become an increasingly important player in today’s global society. Economically, India has built itself into one of the top five economies in the world; politically, the United States and other countries can ill afford to ignore the region’s burgeoning influence. Moreover, as demonstrated by the recent tsunami, environmental occurrences in South Asia can affect people the world over.

President Levin returned in January from a week-long visit to India during which he discussed the University’s interest in the subcontinent for future academic initiatives and institutional partnerships. If Yale is serious about its commitment to South Asia, however, it needs to create a mechanism for its undergraduate students to conduct an in-depth examination of the region.

While Yale College currently offers some 45 courses with substantial content related to South Asia, the courses are spread out across a plethora of different departments, including anthropology, religious studies, economics, history and English. Even more alarming is the fact that of these 45 courses, only six are being taught by senior level faculty members. Many essential courses are taught by faculty operating on short-term appointments that are set to expire, and still more courses are taught by faculty who will have no choice but to leave the University if they are not granted tenure in the near future. When these untenured faculty members leave, there will be huge gaps in the University’s curriculum and its ability to deal with the study of South Asia.

If Yale wants to have a voice in this increasingly important part of the world, it needs to train its students to understand the complex issues facing South Asia. With more senior faculty in place, we can offer more classes and begin to attract the undergraduate students, Ph.D. students, junior faculty and donors necessary for Yale to become a true leader in South Asian affairs.

Lux et veritas. At the culmination of his quest for definition, Siddhartha Gautama revealed, “Now, I am awake.” Thousands of years ago under that fateful Bodhi tree, light and truth fused into enlightenment, into Buddha. Today, as hundreds of Yale students and faculty fascinated by South Asia embark on their own quests for understanding, they do so without the full institutional support of the University. The timing for a South Asian studies major is right, the resources are available and the interest is undeniable. Yale too must now awaken and enter into enlightenment.



Rohan Jain is a sophomore in Trumbull College, and Chatan Kumar is a senior in Pierson College. Both have applied for the special divisional major in South Asian Studies.

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