Painted hands in Holi Festival of Colour
Theology & Spirituality
Research Spotlight

Gavin Flood

I’m Professor of Hindu Studies and Comparative Religion in the Faculty of Theology and Religion at Oxford. My background is in Religious Studies and I worked at a number of universities before coming to Oxford in 2005 as Academic Director of the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies.

My work is concerned with understanding how religions have affected us through the history of civilizations and how religions have impacted upon personal lives as expressed in religious texts. So, on the one hand I am concerned with the big picture, how religions function historically across civilizations, and on the other how religions contribute to who we are as persons and communities, to the stories and practices that define our identities. While we can study religions through the social sciences of Psychology, Sociology, or Anthropology, I don’t think religions can be reduced either to capacities of our minds (such as being parent substitutes) or to purely political and social functions, because religions address questions of meaning and purpose that are in excess of the ways we have organised our societies. There is, in my view, a verticality or vertical attraction articulated through religions that cannot be explained away. This approach means that we need to accept complexity and that to understand religions – which is partly to understand ourselves – we need levels of abstraction and modelling that inevitably simplify the historical and biological reality who we are, but which are constrained by that reality (and so our models are not entirely fictional). Religions are both terrible and wonderful, being excuses for great human evil yet also being resources for lives of deep holiness as well for the greatest human achievements in art, literature, and architecture.

I illustrate these concerns through the study of Hindu texts in the tantric religion of Shiva and through research interest in Phenomenology. By way of illustration, I have been studying a Sanskrit text called the Netra Tantra, the Scripture of the Eye, composed in the eighth century in Kashmir and copied for a King of Nepal in 1200 AD. It’s about the saving properties of the third eye of Shiva and the practices designed for magical protection of the king and his family in this life, and for salvation from this world of suffering in the next. Beyond philological concerns, we can ask philosophical and theological questions of meaning and truth. At the opposite end of the spectrum, I am working on a project on the category of Holiness, which follows from my last book Religion and the Philosophy of Life.

I feel grateful to have been able to spend my professional life teaching and researching a topic so important to human history and to the human future. With a deepening of our understanding of who we are through evolutionary science, with our recent move into the ‘infosphere’, with our eventual move into space, and with our continuing struggle with our material and biological nature, this is an exciting, if stressful, time to be alive. A Jesuit Theologian I admire, Teilhard de Chardin, once wrote, that we are part of ‘the evolutionary principle of a universe in movement’ towards what we do not know but, like the end of Brucker’s ninth, I suspect will be quite something.