A Meet Mukti redux! Originally published in October 2020, this Q&A profile gives an overview of one student's journey in the study of religion.
Mukti Patel is a third-year DSR specialist and president of RUSA, the Religion Undergraduate Student Association. She jumped online to chat with us about her love for studying religion and how this weird semester is shaking out for U of T undergrads.
DSR: Why did you decide to focus on the Study of Religion?
MP: After high school I took a gap year, and I went to India. When I was there, I noticed that there were temples and roadside shrines everywhere. I was especially drawn to art and architecture, because art helps me make sense of what I see. So I naturally paid attention to religious artwork, whether images on the rickshaw dashboard or on calendars in the corner of a store. It seemed that religion was a nexus that connected so many aspects of daily life. After that experience is when I started asking – what is it that puts religion in everyone's life?
Were your perceptions challenged once you started taking classes in the DSR?
When I started taking religion classes, I began to approach what I considered to be “religion” differently. My courses pushed me to think about things I hadn’t considered – something as seemingly simple as how we define religion. Studying religion helped me develop critical thinking skills. As a result, I’ve grown more careful with my language. What do I mean when I say “belief”? What am I signaling when I use the words “religious tradition” over “religion”? My professors have made me aware of the baggage any given term carries.
Studying religion helps me understand why people act and interact in the ways they do. I’ve become more aware of how seemingly mundane decisions can be informed by religion, like how people wear their hair, what food they eat, or the clothing they wear. These can be direct statements of how they orient themselves to religion. Taking classes in the DSR has been useful in broadening my viewpoint.
Do you foresee a career related to the study of religion?
My friends and family always ask me what I’m going to do with my religion degree, and it can be tricky to answer. In short, yes, I see a career related to religion. The degree is more versatile than people think. We have options in law, teaching, publishing, management, and, of course, academia. A humanities-trained mind can offer many skills in many different settings. Interdisciplinary training helps broaden our way of thinking about the world. For example, understanding religion can help a legal professional grapple with bioethics laws, such as in the AC v Manitoba case. By studying religion, we become keenly aware of certain issues that others might skip over.
How would you explain the Department of the Study of Religion to someone who is in a different department? To someone who might assume that if you are taking courses in the DSR you are on a path to becoming a pastor or rabbi?
It can serve that purpose, but it's not necessarily the intention. It’s called the study of religion, particularly, a critical study of what we understand to be the human phenomenon of religion. A critical approach to religion allows us not just to understand the nature of god, but why people believe in God, how they build value commitments, how they construct their identity, and more.
What is unique about this department?
I think generally people who study humanities are compassionate; they’re exposed to different worldviews and are open minded, used to making efforts to understand things rather than take them at face value. Generally, I think they are accommodating and forgiving people. I find that the professors are receptive to students reaching out. Last year, a couple of us wanted to take a Sanskrit course, but the professor who usually teaches it was on sabbatical. So professors Ajay Rao and Luther Obrock started a class with only two students in it.
When I first came to university, I was afraid of reaching out to professors, but that turned out to be a mistake and that was one year of support I missed out on. So many professors extend their support in so many ways. It really seems that everyone wants to see students succeed and to grow as thinkers. This department is also unique in how many opportunities it offers for students to get involved and offer feedback directly to our chair and associate chair.
What is undergraduate life like in the age of COVID-19?
It's very unsurprisingly isolating and surprisingly stressful. We’re already grappling with physical and mental strains that come with living in a pandemic, and we’re expected to perform the same in class, or even better because we supposedly have more free time at home. This is an uncertain time for young students who are building their careers. I hear from students who are struggling to keep up with schoolwork, and it's upsetting and definitely uncomfortable, but that’s one of the reasons I am so grateful for RUSA. Student organizations can be comforting for students who are seeking an outlet and platform to meet friends.
I do think some of the literature I've encountered helps me widen my perspectives on the pandemic. I think about a subhashitam I learned in my intermediate Sanskrit class:
rātrirgamiṣyati bhaviṣyati suprabhātam
bhāsvānudeṣyati hasiṣyati paṅkajaśrīḥ ।
itthaṃ vicintayati kośagate dvirephe
hā hanta hanta nalinīṃ gaja ujjahāra
This verse talks about a bee that gets stuck in a lotus overnight, but he thinks about how tomorrow will come, and the lotus will open again. But before that happens, an elephant comes by and uproots the lotus, trapping the bee and killing it.
While I'm a big fan of the optimism the bee has in the first two lines, maybe the bee should have continued to enjoy the lotus nectar in its final breaths. Likewise, it sucks to be living in a pandemic, but there might be ways we can make the most of what we have in these difficult times and try to find and enjoy the nectar under our feet.