IPEC 3691.001 Special Topics

The World Religions: Eastern Religions

Murray J. Leaf

Last update 22 Dec 2018


Spring 2019

                                                         Office: Gr. 3.128

Class #27503

                                          Office tel: (972) 883-2732

FN 2.104

                                        email mjleaf@utdallas.edu

M-W 4:00-5:15 pm

                                                    Skype: murray2508


This course provides a comparative overview of the world's major religious traditions.  The whole thing is two semesters, but each semester is free-standing.


The perspective of the course is anthropological and to some extent philosophical.  Its aim is to describe religions, not advocate one or another.

We do not begin from any definition of what religion is. We begin only from the common recognition of what the world’s major religious traditions are: the South Asian traditions centering on Vedanta which include Hinduism and Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism, Shinto, Zoroastrianism and the Judeo-Christian traditions.   As we will see, definitions of religion vary greatly among these different traditions. Each different religion has its own idea of what religion in general is, and imposing an idea of religion drawn from one tradition onto the ideas and practices of another is the first and surest step toward misunderstanding.   The purposes of the course are (1) to provide an understanding of the great differences among religions and among concepts of what religion is, and (2) to provide a sense of the way these differences are maintained or lost in sects that represent these world traditions in the United States, in order to (3) arrive at an understanding of the place of religion among human institutions generally and the impact of religion on the course of human history.

This semester focuses on the "Eastern" traditions.  I expect most of the students in the class to have grown up exposed to the "Western" traditions-- mainly Judaism, Christianity, and/or Islam.  The eastern traditions are based on several very different ideas of what religion in general is, and they carry them through in very different ways.  Getting a sense of the differences should enable students to see all religions in a more objective light.

The textbook is by me, plus a lot of readings that are available on the internet.  Most are on the Internet Sacred Text Archive: http://www.sacred-texts.com/hin/sbe01/sbe01243.htm

 The course format is lecture-discussion. You will have my views in the text.   It seems a little silly for me to repeat the same thing in class, and I think it works much better if I ask you to tell me what it says and then can respond to anything that I think is misunderstood. We will also have student preparations on the readings. Exactly how many preparations each student does will depend on how many are in the class, but I would like to have at least two preparations per day, 15 to 20 minutes each. Then, of course, you should be prepared to discuss your views with your classmates.

Texts Required:
Leaf, M. J. The Anthropology of Eastern Religions.  Lexington. 

Internet Sacred Text Archive: http://www.sacred-texts.com/hin/sbe01/sbe01243.htm 

I will put some readings in Box.com. I will also put in a list of links to readings on the internet. You should be able to download and click on the read   ings as we go along. You will be sent a link to box.com once we start.

Van Gulick, R. 
Murder in Ancient China. Two Judge Dee Mysteries. Amazon, $0.99

Texts Recommended:

J. A. B. Van Buitenen. 1959. Tales of Ancient India.  You should be able to get copies cheaply. Nice stories from when India was Buddhist.


 The grade will be based on an in-class mid-term and final (30% each) and a research paper (40%).
The mid-terms will be short-answer format, designed to test the breadth of your grasp of basic concepts and terms from the readings and lectures.


The paper assignment is to describe relations between major ideas, major ceremonies, church organization, and the relation of religious concerns to non-religious concerns of a specific and clearly described set of followers of one or a set of the sects in one of the great traditions. Use the opportunity to check out what we have been saying in class and in the assigned readings.  It may be past or present, large or small. You need not describe all the ideas, and probably had better not. Just some important ones. Similarly for ceremonies, organization, or the concerns of the followers.  But whatever you focus on, it is important that you do not look only at the ideas but also at the appeal they have to those who hold them and what those people do in turn that preserves the ideas. Usually, this will involve building upon a study that somebody else has already made and published, and evaluating that study.  Keep the four elements of the subject in mind (ideas, ceremonies, organization, and followers’ concerns) as you organize your discussion and designate them clearly in the paper.

It is a good idea, but not necessary, to focus on a religion or a religious idea or  organization that you can actually find represented in the Dallas area, preferably one new to you, so you can check what you read with your own experience. Every one of the traditions we cover is represented in the metroplex somewhere. You can include first-hand observations and conversations you may have with representatives of the group, in which case you are reporting your observations (what you observed them telling or showing you). Or the paper can be based entirely on library materials if you wish and if that is appropriate for the subject you have chosen.  But it should not be based on prejudice, meaning opinions you may have formed on the basis of what may have heard from sources outside or apart from the group but that you cannot actually pin down and evaluate factually.  On the other hand, you should not be gullible. If people believe something that seems to you to be patently ridiculous, don’t be afraid to say so and wonder why – or even ask them why. The reasons often make more sense than the ideas themselves.

You should be careful not to write in the manner of an apologetic -- that is, a doctrinal defense of a specific set of religious ideas.  This is a course about religion, but not a religious course.   Nor, by the same token, is there any point in a doctrinal attack on any specific religion. Your manner of argument must be critical and factual.  The problem is to describe a set of ideas and describe their significance to those that hold them or reject them. Whether you share them or not should be a side issue. What are the ideas? How are they symbolized or otherwise represented? How are they used in by those who hold them in establishing their relationships to each other?  What do they mean to those who hold them? Why is that important? How does it fit with other concerns they might have in other aspects of their lives? The main danger in selecting a religion that you personally identify with is that you will not pay enough attention to this need to prove what you say factually – not only what the main ideas are, for example, but how one comes to know them.  The length should be 12 pages of text double spaced, plus bibliography.  I have no objection to more if it is not padded. If you do less, you are probably leaving out something.

 It is important to discuss and evaluate your sources.   Since religious traditions have their own idea of what their main ideas are and what they do, this should described even if they are not entirely explicit in what you read.  And of course many religions also have opponents. If you quote someone, you have to know what they are up to.  All sources (written, living, or electronic) should be clearly indicated; all major points in the argument should be justified by references that show how those sources have been used. Presenting material from sources you do not cite is plagiarism and all cases of plagiarism will be referred to the Dean of Students. If you have doubts about whether or how to site something, check with me.  Be sure the paper takes into account what we do in class  -- you don’t have to agree, but you do need to show that you were there and that you understood what we did and can build on it.   The paper is due at the time of the final examination.

A word about the internet.  It is convenient and has much good material.  It is getting better all the time. Virtually all major traditions are now represented by one or more organized groups with good websites that offer clear, honest, and disciplined explanations of their ideas and organization. Many good scholarly studies and translations are available. But there is also a tremendous amount of absolute rubbish out there. One of the most basic things you should learn in this course is to distinguish one from the other, to separate  factual description from apologetic, and to separate reasoned and authoritative apologetic from bigotry and stupidity.  If you quote a loony source and do not recognize that it is loony, it will be your error.  Books in the university library and journals in the library are certified as probably legitimate by the fact they are there. Generally, it means they have gone through a process of scholarly review designed to weed out what is patently wrong or irrational, although in fact it sometimes weeds out only what is unprofitable or unfashionable.  But there is no such process on the web.  Anyone can say anything and more and more people do. Don’t waste my time with such stuff.  Being critical does not mean being nasty. It means evaluating your data carefully and using it appropriately.

Order of readings:

 We will read all of the chapters of my Anthropology of Eastern Religions.  Each chapter has small quotes from key texts.  You can find the full texts on the internet in most cases.  Many are in the Internet Sacred Text archive.  Otherwise, the text gives the source.

 Always bring the text and/or readings for the day to class.  It is important to have discussion. A lot of the material is poetry and does not bear a rushed reading. Keep reading it until you think you might understand it. Then we will talk about it, and you will probably change your understanding. Then if you read it a few more times, you will probably think you really are beginning to get it. 

Weekly Topics and Readings:

Week                 Topic and Readings (More readings will be listed out when we see who is in the class and what they are interested in)

1.    Introduction. 

2.    Leaf Introduction

3.   Vedas/ Vedic Religion.  In the Internet Texts: Agni, Heaven and Earth, Sun, Purush.

4. Buddhism and Jainism.  Internet Texts: Life of the Buddha and Lotus Sutra.  Van Buitenen--Buddhism in India. Two stories from The King and The Corpse and The Buddhist King of Taxila.

5.  Vedanta and "classical" Hinduism.
Internet Texts: Chandogya Upanishad.   Isa Upanishad. Laws of Manu. Ramayana video in Hindostani for the flavor and images (2 hrs 40 min.): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AlLRiCcnn_Q

Bhagavad Gita video with English subtitles: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=je7Rm10krBI

6. Sikhism. Internet Sacred Texts: Macauliffe, Life of Guru Nanak and Japji.

7.  Start China's religions: Buddhism in China. 

8.  Confucianism.   Read Analects described in the text plus Murder in Ancient China.

9.  Taoism.   Look for full versions of the poems described in the book.

10.  Legalism. It is hard to find translated readings. The Webpage by Sanderson Beck is very good but mostly Beck:  http://www.san.beck.org/EC16-Legalism.html

11.  Japan: Overview and Shinto.

12.  Japanese Buddhism (Zen)

13.  Conclusion.