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The Internal Turn: Rethinking Autonomy through the Swaminarayan Hindu Tradition

March 1, 2024 | 2:00PM - 4:00PM
Asian Institute, Centre for South Asian Studies

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Room 208N, North House, 1 Devonshire Place, Toronto, ON, M5S 3K7
What does it mean to be free? Is freedom just about breaking external barriers set by others, or does it also involve overcoming our own internal barriers like undue desires and self-centered attitudes? What is the real essence of autonomy? 
To address these questions, Bhatt explores the challenges that decisions and actions of religious practitioners pose to secular liberal understanding of autonomy. As a case study, he will examine how modern interpretations of premodern Hindu sacred texts, such as the Bhagavad Gītā and Vacanāmṛta, both shape and are shaped by the processes of self-formation within a transnational organization, BAPS Swaminarayan Sanstha. Drawing from his extensive textual and ethnographic research, he will argue that genuine agency not only involves removing external barriers in the realms of society, politics, economics, and beyond but also entails addressing the internal barriers rooted in human nature, which often arise from egoistic and selfish motives. Bhatt will show that personal autonomy as self-governance encompasses three key facets: first, it synthesizes both external and internal autonomy; second, it entails the realization of inherent aspects of the self, such as peace and happiness; and third, it is deliberately directed towards refraining from causing harm to others and actively fostering their well-being. Enhancing personal autonomy by returning the gaze to within in order to negotiate freedom without marks the “internal turn.” 
Kalpesh Bhatt is an assistant professor of Asian religions at the University of Mary Washington. Synthesizing the fields of anthropology of religion and textual studies, his works examine how modern interpretations of premodern Hindu sacred texts and practices shape and are shaped by secular conditions, everyday concerns, and the ethical subjectivation of those who practice them. His projects have interrogated dynamics of agency and autonomy, religious differences, communal tensions by studying diasporic Hindu communities and temples in North America as well as Hindu festivals like the Maha Kumbh Mela in India. Kalpesh's research interests include lived Asian religions, religious and cultural pluralism, and Hindu-Christian studies. He is also committed to enhancing public understanding of religion by disseminating scholarly findings to common people through visual anthropology methods.
Before earning his PhD from the University of Toronto and obtaining a Master of Theological Studies from Harvard University, Kalpesh pursued a Masters in Physics and a Bachelors in Computer Science at BITS Pilani, India. His diverse interests in religion, science, and art have led him to direct several films, including an IMAX film on India, and state-of-the-art multimedia shows such as a grand watershow based on an ancient story from the Upaniṣads, highlighting the interplay between religion and technology, tradition and modernity.
Sponsor: Centre for South Asian Studies, Asian Institute
Asian Institute, Centre for South Asian Studies


Khalpesh Bhatt

Assistant Professor of Asian Religions, University of Mary Washington

Srilata Raman

Professor, Department for the Study of Religion; Associate Chair, Undergraduate, Department for the Study of Religion