'Nepali but culturally Indian' in Sarvepalli's Oxford chair

Diwakar Nath Acharya, 46, who has just been appointed Spalding Professor of Eastern Religion and Ethics at Oxford University, has spoken at length to The Telegraph about himself and his philosophy and stated "I am Nepali but culturally I am Indian".

By Amit Roy in London
  • Published 28.02.16
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(From top) Diwakar Nath Acharya in the garden of Mimurotoji Temple in Kyoto; he rings a bell at the temple; and Acharya at the Grand Canyon in Arizona 

London, Feb. 27: Diwakar Nath Acharya, 46, who has just been appointed Spalding Professor of Eastern Religion and Ethics at Oxford University, has spoken at length to The Telegraph about himself and his philosophy and stated "I am Nepali but culturally I am Indian".

"Many people confuse political and cultural India and create disputes," he added. "People at Oxford were telling me that I am perhaps the first Nepali to have a professorial position at Oxbridge."

Acharya takes over what Oxford has called "one of the pre-eminent positions in the world in the study of Asian religions" that was established in 1936. It was held until 1952 by Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, who went on to become President of India.

Acharya has been based in Japan the past 10 years, having gone to the Graduate School at Kyoto University in 2006 as a visiting professor and being appointed to the regular faculty in 2011 as associate professor. He will move to Oxford on April 4.

He will be based in the Faculty of Oriental Studies and also be a Fellow of All Souls College, which goes with the job.

Acharya will be accompanied by his wife Shobha and their daughter Surabhi, 16, and son Devamitra, 12.

"Yes, I feel a bit sad leaving Kyoto," he admitted. "I came from a country of one type of rituals and etiquette to Kyoto, the cultural capital of Japan that has another code of culture, etiquettes and rituals. Now I am moving to Oxford to another type of rituals and etiquettes."

Oxford issued a detailed 11-page "job description and selection criteria" as it set about finding a successor to Alexis Sanderson, who was Spalding Professor from 1992 until his retirement last year. His predecessors after Radhakrishnan were R.C. Zaehner (1952-1974) and Bimal Krishna Matilal (1976-1991).

Quite apart from Radhakrishnan, "I equally admire my immediate predecessor, Prof Sanderson, and Prof Matilal before him, both of whom have made a great contribution in the area of their specialisation," said Acharya.

"So, I feel a sense of responsibility. I am filled with enthusiasm and will try my best to maintain the prestige of this position by way of research and teaching."

The chair was set up by philanthropist Henry Norman Spalding and his wife Nellie, whose family had made its fortune in shipping and guano trading, "to promote intercultural understanding by encouraging the study of comparative religion".

The appointments panel comprised eight professors, including John Vickers, Warden of All Souls, with Alice Prochaska, principal of Somerville College, appointed its chairperson by Oxford's vice-chancellor.

"The interview at Oxford was relaxed. Everybody was very friendly, but we had a lively discussion," recalled Acharya.

Prochaska, who will be in India soon to announce a couple of scholarships and publicise her ambitious plans for an India Centre at Oxford, told this newspaper: "He was such an impressive candidate for this prestigious chair, and a delightful person. The field was strong; we were very fortunate.

"We are all very excited about this appointment. He is a brilliant scholar and a lovely person, and we hope to see him leading the study of Indian religions and ethics at Oxford for many years."

Significantly, Oxford cast its net outside Oxbridge circles to find the right person.

"I was resident at the OCHS (Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies) only for one term in 2010 but had visited Oxbridge twice before," Acharya remembered.

"The number of scholars doing classical Indian studies is not so big, and many of them know each other personally."

He added: "I was involved in the Clay Sanskrit Library. I translated Sudraka's Mrichchhakatikam (The Little Clay Cart). I wrote my PhD dissertation in Hamburg, and worked for the Nepal German Manuscript Preservation and Cataloguing Project for a couple of years. In addition to this, since 2014 I have been editing the Journal of Indian Philosophy."

Acharya spoke to this newspaper after returning from a weekend hiking with friends in the mountain trails near Kyoto.

"I love nature, majestic mountains and rivers, and yes, indeed, they fit with my outlook on life," he agreed.

"Hiking poses challenges, possibilities and curiosity. I went to the Hieisan mountain, which has a series of temples at its top. It is regarded as a sacred mountain by many Japanese Buddhists."

Acharya was born on November 6, 1969, in Kathmandu near the famous Pashupati temple.

"I come from a humble background. I belonged to a family displaced from a village in the Sindhupalchok hills - a place near the epicentre of last year's devastating Nepal earthquake," he said.

"My grandfather brought his family to Kathmandu and my father was only five years when he died. My father managed to become a schoolteacher and acquired free rooms in an inn next to the main entrance of the Pashupati temple complex."

He went on: "I went to the only Sanskrit High School situated in central Kathmandu, which taught modern subjects alongside Sanskrit grammar, logic and literature. At the university level, too, I chose the same combination of modern and traditional subjects.

"After finishing BA in economics and Sanskrit grammar from Kathmandu, I went to Benares to study Saivism. After finishing my MA from the Sampurnananda Sanskrit University, Benares, I came back to Kathmandu and eventually started to teach in the same college I studied earlier."

During his research, he found that "discovering and reading otherwise unknown ancient texts from old manuscripts was as exciting as a detective story".

"I enjoy reading major texts of Indian religions slowly and deeply, with a focus on philosophical discourses from the early Upanishads and myths and themes from the Satapatha and other Brahmana texts," he explained.

"My approach is to read them in their textual and historical contexts, which have often remained unchallenged for centuries and decades, respectively. Having done so for a few years, I have already been able to make significant findings, which I have started to publish in the form of articles."

He finds enjoyment in reading such novels as Gharaunda by Rangeya Raghava, Gora by Rabindranath Tagore (in a Hindi translation), The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck, Candide by Voltaire and Kafka's works, as well as Thus Spoke Zarathustra: A Book for All and None by the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche.

In Oxford, he won't have to deal with such everyday issues as Islamic extremism or Hindu nationalism. "I am basically concerned with classical texts."

He will probably be asked what he makes of the controversy raging in Oxford because of the "Rhodes must fall" campaign. Some students want to get rid of the statue of Cecil Rhodes outside Oriel College on the ground that the great 19th-century imperialist, who left a large educational bequest, was also allegedly a "racist".

"There is a line in the Taittiriya Upanishad, among the last instructions of the teacher imparted to his pupil going back home. It tells the pupil to admire and adopt only the good habits and practices of the teacher and not his bad habits or practices," responded Acharya.

"So, a statue of Rhodes outside Oriel College can tell us that it is only because of his good deeds he is still standing and remembered at Oxford. But because of his bad deeds and ideas he is denounced at other places and contexts."

Acharya concluded: "He should stand there, reminding us of his good and bad legacies."