Welcome Dr. Sebastian!
Dr. Sebastian officially joined the Manhattan College Religious Studies faculty this fall and is starting off his MC career teaching "The Nature and Experience of Religion" and "Hinduism." He is also the new coordinator for the Student Veterans Program on campus!
Shortly after the semester started, I sat down with Dr. Sebastian to get to know the newest member of the department. You can find below his thoughtful and creative answers to interview questions.
Q: What brought you to religious studies as a career?
A: Well, it was almost accidental honestly. I was doing my major in South Asian Studies at the National University of Singapore. That's where I was born and spent most of my life. I got into a program in Australia and my dissertation was also South Asian related, but not so much about religion. I came back and did my masters dissertation on India-derived new religious movements in Singapore in the department of Sociology. I applied for a scholarship through a lot of places and the place I got it was the University of Florida in the department of Religious Studies. I am very happy the way it turned out, I learned about many different religions and traditions including South Asian but also others. It was great and a really nice journey. I enjoy reading about the individual journeys of religion as well as the development of religions as a whole and their influence on society, politics, history, economics, environmental issues, and so many other issues for thousands of years.
Q: Where do you think the role of religious studies falls today, specifically in a time when STEM fields are considered of the most value by many?
A: One thing it is very difficult to define the word religion, it is a problematic term because there are so many ways to look at the term religion. For example, Buddhism is a nontheistic religion, so it doesn't involve god. Confucianism doesn't involve deities as much as it is a code of ethics. Part of studying religion is to be able to understand the different meanings of religion. Religion prompts people to think beyond the profession. It prompts people to ask the big questions in life. "What is the purpose of human life? Why is there so much suffering? How did we come about?" How religion influences cultural norms and how people interact with one another is also important. Religion is a powerful force that often goes beyond human logic and a rational way of thinking. It is important to be aware of that and to understand the world around us much better in a way that I don't think the STEM disciplines can teach us.
Q: Where were you before Manhattan College?
A: I was in Gainesville, Florida at the University of Florida for 6 or 7 years.
Q: What do find most exciting about getting to teach in New York City?
A: Well, New York City is just really diverse. I live in the East Village which is really diverse, many strong personalities. It's nice, but I like it and it's sometimes crazy. Manhattan College specifically is New York but at the same time it is uptown in the Bronx, so it is different than the part of New York City that I am living in. The landscape and the rhythm and tempo of life is a little bit slower than in the East Village. So it's challenging and I like it. It's rich in history and diversity. It's tough to live in a city like New York, it's hard sometimes. Through the medium of religious studies, I hope to raise sensitivity - so that we can be more attuned to the problems of human life, feelings, suffering, and issues like that.
Q: Are you planning to do any off campus excursions with your class, if so what are your ideas?
A: On Wednesday, we are going to the Buddhist Temple just 10 minutes from here. We also have other planned excursions to go to a Hindu Temple nearby and a couple yoga centers in Manhattan in the East Village where I stay. There are also many museums that I have not yet explored but these are definitely places that I would like to take my students.
Q: What class are you most excited to teach?
A: I like the 110 course because the students are freshmen and they are kind of eager to know and are enthusiastic. I am also teaching a "Religions of India" course next semester that covers Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Sikhism, Jainism, so I think that will be very rich and diverse because we are talking about at least a 4000 year history. Some of these traditions interacted with each other a lot and influenced the world in history, language, religious practice and so forth. Beyond that, I really look forward to teaching more general courses which cut across religious traditions. For example, "Religion and Love" is something I have in mind. This course would explore different concepts of love across traditions and within traditions - love for the divine as well as love amongst fellow beings, so that is something I look forward to. Additionally, I would like to teach a class specifically designed for veterans over the summer called "Religion and Work." So here I want to look at a course that will give students a motivation for work that goes beyond just financial rewards, something that would give them satisfaction in the long run. Definitely something that cuts across religious traditions and something students can take with them to motivate themselves to work.
Q: If you could sum up your research in a word, what word would you choose and why?
A: Rasa, it is a Sanskrit word used in the context of aesthetics. It's difficult to define but a few synonyms could be taste, flavor, experience. Rasa theory looks into how when you watch a drama or a play or even a movie, you experience different feelings like awe, horror, fear, etc. Feelings such as love, different kinds of love. Love between a child and parents, love between friends, love between lovers. So, my research work for the past four years has focused on an Indian classical dance called the Manipuri raslila. Manipur is a state in North East India right in between India and other southeast Asian countries, like Myanmar. It is also near China. It is a blend of Southeast Asian and South Asian cultures. The movements and gestures are very southeast asian dance, it's very fluid. But the themes are rooted in Hinduism, specifically Bengal Vaishnavism. The dance was constructed sometime in the mid 18th century. The whole idea was to bring about a flavor or experience, a religious experience for the audience so that they could identify with both cultures. They did this by a harmoniously integrating music, costumes, gestures, lyrics so that audience and actors experience rasa , or a feeling of love for the divine. So rasa theory, the theory of how to bring out experiential emotions in an audience I something I’m really interested in. Not only in terms of my research on Indian dance, but also in terms of a broader picture, when I’m communicating with my students, what I want them to experience when I teach them, that is something I am very interested in.