Interview with Dr Kiyokazu Okita

Interviews with affiliate advisors at Woolf.

Dr Kiyokazu Okita is Assistant Professor at Sophia University, Tokyo, and his area of expertise covers Hindu devotional traditions in early modern India.

Kiyo, your research explores the complex interlinks between theology, aesthetics and ethics in Hindu devotional traditions. What motivated you to research in this particular area?

Ever since I read as an undergraduate student The Sword and the Flute by David Kinsley , I have been fascinated by God Krishna. According to Hindu scriptures, Krishna descends on earth as a cowherd boy. He is mischievous and playful. He steals butter and play pranks with his friends. He is also a playboy who attracts the attention of young women in his village. It is such a delightful and dynamic vision of God that I do not find anywhere else.

For my doctoral research I studied epistemology, ontology, and soteriology of a particular Hindu school dedicated to the worship of God Krishna. Based on this work I published my first book Hindu Theology in Early Modern South Asia (OUP, 2014). While I was conducting my doctoral research I realized that there was a huge debate concerning Krishna’s relationship with his female partners. It was controversial because Hindu scriptures tell us that some of the female companions of Krishna were married to someone else.

It is well known that in the colonial period British missionaries severely criticized the worship of Hindu gods such as God Krishna. What I found surprising was that criticism against Krishna’s relationship with his female companions can be found in the pre-colonial period as well. For my current research I have been tracing the history of this theological-ethical controversy primarily based on the works of Rūpa Gosvāmī, a famous poet-theologian who was active in North India in the sixteenth century. In his works Rūpa argues that while being a paramour is ethically problematic for human beings, that is not the case for Krishna because he is God. He advanced this radical claim in the context of aesthetics. Rūpa attempted to situate devotionalism in the context of aesthetics. He wanted to argue that the narratives on God are not only salvific but also aesthetically pleasing.

Rūpa’s claim was innovative and problematic at the same time. It was innovative because he provided a robust theoretical framework for understanding devotional aesthetics. It was problematic since orthodox Sanskrit tradition of poetics did not consider extra-marital relationship to be a proper subject of poetry or drama. In other words Rūpa was directly arguing against the tradition of Sanskrit poetics, trying to create a space for Krishna devotionalism which included a vision of God as paramour. My recent article “Ethics and Aesthetics in Early Modern South Asia: Controversy Surrounding the Tenth Book of the Bhāgavata Purāṇa” (International Journal of Hindu Studies) is a result of my ongoing research on this topic.

You are currently Assistant Professor at the Faculty of Liberal Arts at Sophia University in Tokyo. Could you comment on the challenges that face institutions of higher learning in Japan, and how you think the Woolf project has the potential to address them?

The main challenge that Japanese universities are facing now is internationalization. The government is spending a lot of funding to globalize higher education in Japan. Japanese universities are sending more and more students for study abroad. But studying abroad is a luxury you can afford only if you are single and free to move. If you are married or have some family obligation you cannot live abroad so easily. Japanese universities also try very hard to recruit researchers from abroad for permanent positions but it is very difficult to keep them in Japan for a long term. This is because there is a general lack of social infrastructure to accommodate foreign researchers. Suppose you need to look for a kindergarten for your child. Then you need to communicate with local kindergarten teachers which of course requires Japanese language. But unless your research is something related to Japan or unless you are married to a Japanese person, you don’t have the luxury of investing a lot of time in learning the language because you need to publish your papers, attend conferences, apply for the next position, and to take care of your family. But not having language skill makes your life very difficult. So eventually many foreign researchers find positions elsewhere, often in English speaking countries, and move on.

In this situation I believe Woolf can provide a great opportunity for both teachers living outside Japan and students living in Japan. Since the courses are offered online, teachers do not have to deal with practical challenges living in Japan. They can teach from wherever they live. As for students in Japan, they can study with good foreign researchers without having to go abroad. The flexibility that Woolf offers can be advantageous for both teachers and students. Once established, Woolf can also be a model that Japanese universities can emulate. As the population of young pupils is shrinking, universities in Japan are eager to attract foreign students. However, foreign students living in Japan will have to face a similar kind of linguistic and cultural challenges mentioned above. This naturally limits the number of students who are willing to live in Japan for their study. If Japanese universities manage to adopt the Woolf model they might be able to attract more student enrolment.

What interests you most in the Woolf project as a researcher and teacher?

First of all, I am genuinely interested in seeing the success of this project, and in observing how it may revolutionize the world of education. I believe it is an exciting project with a lot of potential. Secondly, I am interested in developing collegial network with those who work for the project. Thirdly I am potentially interested in offering Sanskrit reading course at Woolf.

For more details about Dr Kiyokazu Okita’s research, see here.

For more details on the Woolf project, check out our website. Stay tuned for interviews of other affiliate advisors!