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Hindu culture provides an important case study for understanding how we think

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NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – At first glance, looking at Indian art, eating at an Indian restaurant and participating in a Hindu religious ceremony honoring the onset of spring may seem to have little to do with the study of psychology.

On the contrary, these are important elements in the Social Cognition class that Paul Lewis, professor of psychology at Bethel College, teaches every other spring semester, including this one.

Social cognition posits that culture is primary in determining how an individual’s thinking develops and that thinking, in turn, affects social behavior. Put simply, “Social cognition is the scientific study of how people think about their own and others’ behavior and the theories such people have about why they and others do what they do,” says Lewis.

Adds his student Caitlin Welch, a junior psychology major from Lawrence, “Social cognition is the study of how people interact with and interpret themselves and others. From a clinical and counseling perspective, it’s important to understand how people process things, how they engage the world and understand themselves, in order to work with them or help them.”

For many years, psychology scholars considered Western culture to be normative for understanding all cultures. In more recent years, however, it has become clear that this is not true.

In the late 1990s, Lewis was working on reshaping his class so that it would meet Bethel’s then newly instituted “cross-cultural learning” requirements. As a graduate student studying moral and cognitive development himself, the primary non-Western culture he worked with was the Hindu Indian one.

That was the start of his interest, which led him to form friendships with Hindu Indian people in Wichita, where the temple has a membership of about 250 families. So it seemed natural to begin integrating an intensive study of Hindu culture into his Social Cognition class.

This spring was the third time Lewis has taught the class in this way. The majority of students who take it are psychology majors but there are always several from other disciplines, who choose this as one of their cross-cultural learning components.

“The students are always surprised to learn that Hinduism is monotheistic,” Lewis says. What seem like an array of gods are in fact ways to express different facets of the one God, Nirguna Brahman.

They are also impressed by the openness of the Hindu Indian communities to them as outsiders, Westerners and mostly Christians. An important part of the Social Cognition class is a weekend trip to Kansas City at the time of the Holi, a spring celebration held at the temple in Shawnee, which comprises at least 2,000 families.

“One of my best friends in high school came from the Hindu culture,” says Welch, “so I wasn’t surprised but I was very pleased by how welcoming the community was, how happy they were to share their faith and culture with us. It made me feel less like an intruder.”

“One evening, we went out for dinner to an Indian restaurant where they prepared a special four- or five-course meal for us,” says Lewis. “Three temple couples came with us. They interspersed with the students, asked them questions, told them about themselves and about the food. They were so gracious.”

Jerel Fast, a junior psychology major from Boulder, Colo., notes that participating in the Holi was “helpful for getting a different perspective on worship, or formal religious services—seeing some similarities and some intriguing differences.” The former included congregational singing in the temple and the fellowship hall downstairs, which Fast says represent acculturation and wouldn’t necessarily be found in a Hindu temple in India.

Among the differences between Hindu and Mennonite/Protestant religious practices, he lists the fact that Hindus don’t meet in their worship space every week, don’t use their temples for weddings and generally worship very individually and meditatively. Most Hindu people have areas in their homes reserved for worship.

And during this particular “high holy day,” Hindus throw colored chalk dust on each other to symbolize blessing the new and non-conventional, and a relaxing of social norms—a ritual in which the class joined.

But integrating study of Hindu culture into a Social Cognition class is far more than allowing students to experience the “trappings” of another culture.

Psychology, a Western discipline, “has long not taken its own culture into account, [traditionally] explaining behavior by personality traits,” Lewis says. “However, people from Eastern cultures—for example, India or China—aren’t trait-oriented, they’re situation-oriented. This has opened up the whole area of how culture affects human thinking. This contact with such a different culture really brings that home to students.”

Bethel College is a four-year liberal arts college affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. Founded in 1887, it is the oldest Mennonite college in North America. Bethel is known for its academic excellence and has been named a Top Tier college by U.S. News & World Report every year since 1998. For more information, see the Bethel web site at www.bethelks.edu.

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