Study of Ethics would help bring peace: Stepanyants

Professor Marietta Stepanyants.

Professor Marietta Stepanyants.

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It is not possible to speak of justice only within confines of the law, said Professor Marietta Stepanyants, among the world’s foremost Indologists. Studying Ethics and Existential philosophy would be useful to curb violent, terrorist thought, the feisty 80-year – old Chief Fellow, Institute of Philosophy, at the Russian Institute of Sciences, said in a freewheeling conversation with RIR.

If the humanities, and particularly philosophy and Ethics were a more integral part of the education system worldwide, there would be far less strife, violence and terrorism, the distinguished scholars opined, as the first global conference of Indologists wound to a close.  

This conference was one she played a part in bringing about, said Professor Marietta Tigranovna Stepanyants with a twinkle in her eye.

The Chair holder and Professor, Mahatma Gandhi Chair on Indian Philosophy and UNESCO Chair of “Philosophy and the Dialogue of Cultures,” was among a handful of eminent Indologists invited for breakfast with the Indian President Pranab Mukherjee, when he visited Moscow in May.

During a brief presentation, she told the President, “I think India makes a mistake in not fully using its immense soft power; of philosophy, of classical music, art and so on. Soft power is not only Bollywood and Hindi movies,” she said. “The study of humanities and Philosophy is critically important.”

From that idea came this meeting, the first ever International Conference of Indologists in New Delhi, hosted by the Indian President. The 21 distinguished visiting delegates, including Professor Stepanyants, were housed in the guest wing of Rashtrapati Bhavan (Presidential palace), usually reserved for visiting foreign Heads of State.

“It is a mark of how much respect we have been accorded by the President and the Indian government, and how much respect our work is given,” she said.

Visiting Indologists from 19 countries spent three days in discussions on various topics related to Indian culture and philosophy, along with eight senior scholars from India. 

“Indology does not merely imply the study of India,” said President Mukherjee. “Indology is, rather, the pursuit of a major component of human knowledge; it is the understanding of the evolution of human civilization and is a science for the diagnosis and mitigation of the complexities of human life,” he said in his address. 

India her second home

Professor Stepanyants is no stranger to India, first visiting the country in 1959, after her graduation in Urdu from the Lazarev Institute of Oriental Languages, a Moscow school specializing in Orientalism.

“I wanted to study Hindi, but the boys got preference, so I studied Urdu and Hindustani,” she said. “My parents wanted me to study languages at the Lazarev School, and I always wanted to learn Indian languages. I came to this field when India was a most beloved country,” said Stepanyants, who is Armenian, like the founder of the Lazarev Institute.

“After graduation, the State was supposed to provide a job. So we came to India. There were seven boys and I was the only girl in that group,” she said, “and we visited (then) Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru at his home. He held me by the hand and told everyone that I spoke better Hindustani than all the others!”

For Marietta Tigranovna, the trip was even more special because she met her future husband during that visit.

“He was with the Embassy and we decided to go back and get married. My grandmother was particularly happy,” she said. “We came back in 1961 and our daughter, ‘Asha’ was born here in 1962. I have been back numerous times, for annual meetings of the Philosophical Congress, at Patna, Varanasi and Jodhpur, and we lived here between 1966 and 1969.”

From Oriental languages, she moved to the study of philosophy, with ancient India and Islamic philosophy of Sufism as her main areas of study for her doctoral thesis. She has been associated with the Institute of Philosophy since its inception and continues there.

She was felicitated by Indian Ambassador P.S Raghavan at the embassy in Moscow on her 80th birthday on November 16th, just before she arrived in Delhi. Her influence and contribution to developing this area of scholarship is apparent from the list of greetings she received, from Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, to Alexander Kadakin, Russia’s Ambassador in India and the Iranian Ambassador to Russia, among others.

Humanities marginalized

“Humanities are becoming marginal in all civilized countries,” she said, “and that is a mistake. The study of Philosophy and Ethics teaches peace and understanding.” “This is so important today.”

“Even the UNESCO General Conference wants to eliminate the study of Philosophy and replace it with Gender studies, racism and so on. You cannot speak of justice only in the realm of law. Ethics and existential problems are useful for a dialogue,” she said, speaking of the huge rise in tensions and violence across the globe.

“Humanities is vital to develop a tolerant world view,” she said. “Sanskrit, for example, is a language which symbolises unity. Sanskrit is the root of Indian culture,” the Professor said, in response to a question on how subjects like Indology and philosophy were relevant in this era.

Russian education system

“Russian university education is today very damaged,” she said, “with a very Europe-centric approach to the study of history and philosophy.”

She has initiated a course in comparative philosophy as part of “Philosophy in the Dialogue of Cultures” programme and teaches a course on comparative Indian, Chinese and Islamic philosophy, for a one year introductory course at the Institute of Philosophy. Those who wish to study further are offered courses in Sanskrit and Indian philosophy and Sufism.

Recognised and lauded for her efforts by UNESCO, she has set up a curriculum to train teachers at the high school level for a course in “The Dialogues of Cultures” for students of the ninth and tenth grades.

“We have trained teachers from 14 regions in Russia and, from the feedback it seems the children loved it.” This will be formalised into the Russian education system.

After the three-day Indology conference, some visiting delegates, including Professor Stepanyants, headed to Delhi University for a dialogue with the students there about how Philosophy and the humanities was an essential part of their education and would help them face the world.

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