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Swasti Bhattacharyya presents lecture on ancient Indian stories, contemporary bioethics

Swasti Bhattacharyya presents

Swasti Bhattacharyya presents "Mothers and Mantras" (Northern Review photo/Holly Dyer).

Religious scholar Swasti Bhattacharyya of Buena Vista University led a discussion of how ancient Indian stories relate to contemporary bioethics on Friday, April 8. In her presentation, “Mothers and Mantras,” Bhattacharyya explained how birth narratives found in sacred Hindu texts address ethical issues facing the modern medical community. The presentation, hosted by Ohio Northern University’s Department of Religion and Philosophy, attracted a large crowd of both students and faculty.

Bhattacharyya’s work illustrates how the stories found in ancient Hindu texts can be used to better understand contemporary bioethics. Shared themes among these paradigmatic narratives suggest a code of morals.

In explaining the importance of ancient storytelling in contemporary bioethics, Bhattacharyya emphasized the concept of cultural humility. While this principle can help individuals be more open-minded to the ideas and practices of others, Bhattacharyya says that this concept is especially important in the practice of medicine. In describing this drive for understanding, she said:

You learn about other religions not to gain knowledge for the sake of knowledge. You learn about other religions so that you can be open-minded to other ways of thinking and so that you can better understand your patient.”

In her dissertation, Bhattacharyya refers to the Mahabharata in outlining the foundations of these guiding principles. The Mahabharata Sanskrit epic is central to ancient Indian literature. The text is more than ten times the length of the epic poems “The Odyssey” and “The Iliad” combined. Even though the text was written in ancient times, the complexity of the narratives allows modern readers to derive ethical principles through common themes. In her studies, Bhattacharyya chooses to apply these principles in evaluating the ethics of reproductive technology.

In her analysis, Bhattacharyya refers to birth narratives, a common method of storytelling in the Mahabharata. She identifies five guiding principles of the Hindu faith, applying themes reoccurring in the narratives.  In the professional world, Bhattacharyya says that these guiding principles allow us to be more open to the ideas of others.  These principles can also allow us to be more accepting of individuals who practice diverse religious traditions.

These stories first reflect the multivalent nature of Hindu traditions. Bhattacharyya said that there “isn’t one belief, person, one idea, one text, one god, that is central to anything that falls under Hinduism.”

The diversity within the faith can be explained by its ancient origins, as Hinduism attracted a wide variety of individuals who were not of Christian or Muslim faith in its early years. These principles also highlight the unity of all life and an emphasis on societal good.

Bhattacharyya said, “A lot of people coming out of Indian traditions do not focus on individual autonomy.” Rather, she said that “there is an emphasis on societal good.”

Themes of the Mahabharata also focus on the theory of Karma and the responsibilities of Dharma. The theory of Karma suggests that life is partially determined by actions in previous lives. The responsibilities of Dharma describe one’s role in society and the importance of following one’s passion. Bhattacharyya shared that she was a registered nurse until she realized her calling as an educator.  Bhattacharyya says that this passion is what makes a career fulfilling.

To conclude her presentation, Bhattacharyya asked audience members for an example of a modern bioethical debate. Bhattacharyya encouraged students and professors to think from a perspective that employs the five guiding principles suggested in the Mahabharata.  Audience members concluded that these morals, while seemingly ancient, have much relevance to modern issues.