Do we look at people as who they are and what they do, rather than what they could have been? Wouldn’t you be more interested in what people wanted to be because it says a lot more about them? Sure, Prof. Sean Bala instantly piques your interest when you learn that he graduated from Harvard University. More than the mention of his alma mater it’s probably because his degree is in Comparative Study of Religion. Today, he is an Associate Professor and founding faculty member of Jindal School of Liberal Arts and Humanities at JGU. But then he mentions everything he could have been or can see himself as – theater director in New York or Chicago, an aeronautics engineer building rocket ships, a leader of a religious community, you see the stories that could have unfolded.
Interestingly, one of his alternate reality roles could well have been of a novelist. But then in all seriousness he mentions that if he were to define his life’s work it would be titled ‘This is why we tell the story’. “Ultimately what I think is at the root of it, it is the importance of stories and the idea that our stories matter. We are all trying to understand who we are, where we fit into the world and how we should act in it. We do that through our stories, through the narratives we tell about ourselves. One of the problems in modern life is that we’ve downplayed these stories. The process of storytelling, that narrative, that fumbling, that constant exploration in the dark to try to understand who we are; that is actually the essence of being human,” he says inadvertently inspiring us to excerpt the story of his journey so far.
Finding his place through his passions
Prof. Bala earlier mentioned about us trying to fit into the world, and it’s something he had to do as he came from a small town in upstate New York to one of the most prestigious, hallowed universities in the world. Adjusting to a new world posed numerous personal and professional challenges. But finding his interest and passion in his chosen field of study helped him settle in. “The other thing that helped me was being involved in theater and performing arts when I was in college. The way academics and artistic interests were intertwined would have an unexpected impact over the course of my life. They were mutually reinforcing, and I wouldn’t be where I am today without them,” he asserts. An academic background makes a person great reader of texts and gives them ideas to explore while the arts helps one understand how to present ideas in the most effective way possible.
India calling or was it?
For an academic, who has been in India for as long as Prof. Bala has, you would think that India would have been part of his long-term career plans. In fact, Prof. Bala asserts that India was never on his radar as a place he wanted to go to. Instead it was the opportunity to establish one of India’s first liberal arts schools that drew him to Sonipat. Reflecting on his choice to come to India, he states: “I tell my students that most of the time in your life you are not given good or bad choices. They are merely choices; it takes a real process of reflection and discernment to fully understand what you should be doing. I believe that you’ve moments in your life when you just know that this is the moment; this is where I am supposed to be now.”
What is Religion?
Prof. Bala is full of life, effervescent, but his stories are not merely of ‘what ifs’. He has a relaxed calm and charm about him. His conversations move seamlessly between topics but are colored with philosophical and spiritual themes—not surprising giving his education at the Divinity School at the University of Chicago. Many scholars have tried their hands at defining religion and even Prof. Bala has tried his hand at the task—a definition created in light of his myriad experiences. He says: “I think religion consists of two elements – stories we tell about ourselves and secondly, it’s a language. Languages have grammar, which is shared between different religions. They are malleable, they evolve but are surprisingly robust. Similar religions, or even the same religion, can take on different meanings and emphases depending on the time and location.” For example, Catholic and Protestant Christians each interpret the crucifixion of Jesus with different emphases, Shia and Sunni Muslims each interpret the story of Karbala distinctly, and the notion of karma is shared between Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism but has different meanings depending on the community.
Prof. Bala’s informed views finding the landscape of India; the land of many religions, has to be a riveting combination. While he stressed on religion as language earlier, his first point of stories is what gains ground in the Indian context. According to him, religion is also cosmology and an ethic. In India, he admits, he has developed more interest in ethics. “Yes, I am interested in stories about how religions grow and build mythologies about themselves. But it’s also fascinating to understand how religion can contribute to conversations of how we live in the world today. If you can bring the two together, then it is about community formation and maintenance,” he says thoughtfully.
Prof. Bala brings many diverse experiences to his study, rooted firmly in stories, community, and narratives. Why study religion? For Prof. Bala, religion ultimately helps us understand both the strength and the multiple meanings of religions, all towards creating constructive spaces for more nuanced conversations about the omnipresent role of religion in our lives.