University of Toronto graduate Mukti Patel talks about the study of religion and its role ‘in everyday life’
Mukti Patel first visited India during his gap year after high school. Born in Canada and raised in Richmond, Virginia, Patel was eager to see the country where her parents grew up.
The trip included a visit to his parents’ home state of Gujarat, the neighboring state of Rajasthan and the country’s capital, New Delhi.
“I thought it was all fascinating, new, brilliant,” says Patel, adding that she was fascinated by the ubiquity and diversity of religious symbolism wherever she went.
“That’s when I started noticing the visual impact of religion. I was drawn to the carvings in the temples, the religious signs in the shop windows and the collections of murtis [sacred images] in stores – and I wanted to know more about the stories and histories of these pieces.
“It made me think about the role of religion in everyday life, because it was very different from what I had seen back home.”
Fast forward to today and Patel is about to graduate from Innis College with an Honors Bachelor of Arts with a major in the study of religion – a field she says opens the door to many opportunities, contrary to popular misconception.
“The academic study of religion is not as restrictive in terms of career prospects as some people might think,” says Patel. “I have friends with degrees in religion who have gone on to study law, business, university – since the program is interdisciplinary and can involve a range of subjects, there are opportunities for many different professional pursuits.
“The study of religion trains students in critical thinking, reading and writing. My classmates and I feel we have developed the understanding and cultural awareness needed to work with other people.
The University of Toronto’s Department of the Study of Religion in the Faculty of Arts and Science has drawn increased attention during the pandemic as people have felt lonely, isolated and more introspective than usual. This includes everything from popular common courses on the history of plagues to courses on happiness – even student-focused websites designed to promote wellness.
Patel says the tight-knit nature of the department was on full display during COVID-19.
“The pandemic has been very stressful, but there were a lot of support systems in place for me as a student in my department,” says Patel.
She tells how at Christmas, the department sent her a gift package that included a bottle of maple syrup and a card with photos of department staff on Zoom screens with little Santa hat filters. “It was one of those small gestures that meant so much to me – to know that there is this community of people who will support me during the pandemic, and to know that they are also helping many other students in different ways. .”
Patel attempted to return the favor in college. She was very involved in student life at Innis College, where she held the position of vice-president of social affairs in residence during the pandemic. She has also devoted herself to research on everything from representations of pleasure to the 18eGujarati literature of the last century to the relationship between yogic powers and religious authority in the Hindu tradition.
But his most indelible contribution was founding the Religion Undergraduate Student Association (RUSA) in his second year at the suggestion of Associate Professor Jennifer Harris. The association is credited with strengthening ties within the Department of Religious Studies.
Of course, creating a new group of students from scratch was no easy task. Patel remembers the group’s first meetings, which drew only a handful of people. “For our first event, we ordered two dozen donuts and only one person showed up, and he sat there for a little while out of pity,” says Patel.
Still, RUSA gradually picked up steam and became “the heart and soul of my undergraduate experience,” says Patel. It has since held competitive elections and attracted 70 registrants to a virtual conference. The group’s outdoor bubble tea get-togethers were a particularly huge success.
Pamela Klassendirector of the Department of Religious Studies, describes the social as “an incredible gathering that has brought undergraduates, faculty, and staff together in a way I’ve never encountered before in nearly 25 years in as a professor in the department”.
RUSA’s impact on the department also extended beyond the social realm. The group was invited to the Faculty Club for an Undergraduate Curriculum Retreat, where students were invited to present their feedback and ideas on course offerings and the curriculum.
Patel says the faculty’s enthusiasm and willingness to respond to student interests is a hallmark of the department. For example, in her sophomore year, Patel emailed two faculty members she had never met – associate professor Ajay Rao and assistant professor Luther Obrock – to inquire about opportunities to study Sanskrit, as there were no lessons on the ancient language on the schedule. Rao quickly set up a summer Sanskrit course; he and Obrock also gave Patel access to other Sanskrit educational opportunities, including an intensive virtual Sanskrit immersion program. “They opened the doors to a lot of opportunities that I’m grateful for,” says Patel, who became a Sanskrit tutor.
Patel also cites Elisa Freschi, assistant professor in the department of philosophy and specialist in Sanskrit philosophy, as a great influence. “She was kind, compassionate, and always ready to engage in academic discourse — not just to share her perspective, but with a genuine willingness to learn from everyone,” Patel says, “which I really want take him away as I move forward.”
For Patel, the study of religion offers useful lessons for students in any discipline. She quotes a verse from the Bhagavadgītā which resonated particularly strongly with her:
tad viddhi praṇipātena paripraśnena sevayā
upadekṣyanti te jñānaṃ jñāninastattvadarśinaḥ
(Learn the knowledge of the Ultimate by embracing humility, engaging in inquiry and dialogue, and serving the guru
The sage who sees the nature of reality can impart knowledge to you)
Patel explains that the verse can be interpreted as laying out the characteristics of a good student.
“She reveres her teacher, classmates and materials; she asks questions, is curious and engaged; and she is giving service to her teacher – which for me involves humility and also extends to serving the community by sharing what she has learned,” says Patel.
Patel’s desire to share his knowledge has already extended far beyond campus. She recently taught a class on ancient Indian civilizations to 4th graders and illustrated a children’s book that translated Gujarati folk tales into English.
In the future, she hopes to develop her insight as a scholar and public communicator at the University of Chicago, where she will pursue graduate studies at the Divinity School on a merit scholarship.
“Nothing is more exciting for me than being at a university surrounded by so many brilliant minds who can inspire me to see something that I find interesting in different ways,” she says.