The X in LXR — a Georgetown University residence hall — stands for Xavier.
Francis Xavier, a Jesuit missionary, was deeply involved in establishing the Goa Inquisition in what is now Goa, India, 460 years ago. For more than two centuries, the Portuguese empire and Jesuit missionaries designed policies of extreme religious suppression, violence and persecution. They documented the dynamic and diverse local traditions of Goa for a European audience, which included the veneration of local divinities and nontheistic spiritual practices, as a monolithic “heathen” religion.
These types of Orientalist scholarship privileged textual knowledge over dynamic local customs, leading to the emergence of “Hinduism,” a broad classification for thousands of unique spiritual traditions. In later phases of the colonial era, the British Raj’s penal code imposed Brahminical conceptions of caste, gender, sexuality, modesty, morality and diet on all Dharmic communities, which intensified caste hierarchies. These legal tools combined with intentional forms of epistemic violence. For example, in 1835, Thomas Babington Macaulay, argued that the British administration must reduce funding for traditional forms of education, replace local vernaculars with English and create “a class of persons Indian in blood and colour, but English in tastes, in opinions, in moral and in intellect.” Macaulay’s “Minute on Indian Education” resulted in major institutional transformations to educational systems in South Asia that persist to this day. These whims of colonial scholars, administrators and missionaries fundamentally altered the ways in which Dharmic communities knew themselves and their traditions.
As Orientalist scholarship and Jesuit missions ascribed Western conceptions of “religion” onto the practices missionaries observed in South Asia, the need for a holy book, dogma and religious institutions magnified. But the Dharmic traditions are not about belief or faith but, rather, about seeking. Seeking a break from cycles of suffering. Dharma is not a codified dogma but a wide variety of communally preserved and consistently evolving knowledge systems, customs, languages, symbols and stories.
While the Dharmas are inherently pluralistic, one shared principle among them is the cyclical nature of existence, called “samsara.” Vaishnavas, Shaivas, Smartas, Shaktas, Jains, Buddhists, Sikhs and various nontheistic and regional Dharmic seekers might accept the premise that life works in seasons. Each individual might search for a unique path out of these cycles. The destination at the end of that path is called “moksha,” “nirvana,” “keval gjana,” “kaivalya” or “shunya,” among other terms. These terms have a range of translations, including “enlightenment,” “liberation,” “nothingness” and “pure knowledge.” The paths and translations may vary, but the recognition and pursuit of freedom from these cycles is what makes these traditions Dharmic.
To juxtapose these traditions with “world religions” in the form of “Hinduism” is a gross misrepresentation of their innate pluralism.
As famines, political violence, racialization and caste persecution materially devastated Dharmic communities further, their abilities to articulate their identities on fluid terms were permanently disrupted. Now, people no longer have access to crucial community knowledge needed for forging Dharmic paths. It is because of this epistemic violence that in South Asia today, you can find members of Dharmic traditions venerating the third-gendered Ardhanarishvara and advocating for homophobic laws in the same breath.
The Orientalist and colonial representations of Dharma, with systemic dismantling and silencing of Dharmic spaces, communities and traditions, are not just things of the past. The past informs the present, which shapes our future. The same willful ignorance that colored Francis Xavier’s “heathen” label for Dharmic traditions or Macaulay’s “Minute on Education” is echoed in a Georgetown student’s recent hate speech against “idols” and “pagan festivals.” While Xavier and Macaulay’s actions are far more consequential than those of a grossly misinformed young adult, the latter is reflective of ongoing acts of hatred, which include hate speech, political and communal violence, religious persecution, censorship and the systemic breakdown of communities.
Dharmic philosophies push us to seek a compassionate and peaceful future. One path to that may be reparations from the Catholic Church and former colonial governments to communities struggling for material and cultural survival. Another related path is decolonization, the continuous critical process of building a better tomorrow in light of yesterday’s injustices. Georgetown University can play a crucial role here. Georgetown’s Dharmic Meditation Center, its Dharmālaya, is the first-ever space of its kind at a Catholic institution.
On the one hand, Jesuit heritage is riddled with violence and oppression, and on the other, this heritage is what lends Georgetown its principles of “cura personalis.” To live up to its identity, Georgetown owes resources to the university’s communities to authentically embody out their Dharma in their daily lives. This can take the form of redesigned curricula that prioritize pluralistic thought. Despite the facade of multidisciplinarity, epistemic erasure is clear in our classes when John Locke, whose works are clearly dipped and doused in biblical literature, is deemed the beacon of “Political and Social Thought” in a core curriculum course for School of Foreign Service students. Meanwhile, non-Western philosophers only appear in niche topic courses. Similarly, neoclassical economic frameworks rooted in the East India Company’s colonial logics saturate our government and economics courses.
Georgetown can also offer a greater variety of academic opportunities within South Asian studies. Despite Georgetown administrators introducing a new South Asian studies certificate — the product of years of student organizing and advocacy — Georgetown only offers two (very similar) South Asian languages — Hindi and Urdu — and few regional courses. Georgetown can also contribute to increased funding, personnel and spaces for Dharmic communities on campus and elsewhere. Or perhaps, Georgetown can begin by simply removing the names of imperialists from buildings like Loyola, Xavier and Ryder — LXR.
Suhani Garg is a senior in the School of Foreign Service. Nikash Harapanahalli is a junior in the School of Foreign Service.