Douglas Ober

Ph.D. Student
Modern Indian buddhism

Douglas Ober

Tell us a little about yourself, your background and how you became interested in Asian Studies?

I was born in Chicago but I moved to the west coast when I was 18 to attend the University of Puget Sound, where I did my BA in History. Since then, I’ve been slowly migrating up the coast, first to Seattle where I did my MA in Comparative Religion at the University of Washington and now in Vancouver, where I’m finishing my PhD in Asian Studies. Of course, there were some long stints spent in South Asia in between and during those programs.
My interest in Asian Studies began as a teenager through the prism of Tibet and the Himalayas—I was, I suppose, “a prisoner of Shangri-la,” to use Donald Lopez’s famous expression. Over time and through critical academic studies and first-hand experiences, most of those earlier perceptions changed and developed into a deep and abiding interest in geography and cultural ecology of the region. As an undergraduate, I focused on modern Japanese and Chinese history but I also had the good fortune of studying abroad in India, Nepal and Tibet (Autonomous Region) with the School of International Training (SIT)’s “Tibetan Studies” program. That experience was extremely transformative and after I graduated, I returned to South Asia for two more years. I spent the first year working at a Buddhist monastic college (bshad grwa) in western Bhutan and the remainder was spent in north India, where I managed a series of travel and homestay programs in the northwest Indian Himalaya. During that time and after, I was able to experience firsthand the incredible diversity of the region (particularly in places like Afghanistan, India, western China) but I often left these trips feeling that I needed more context, more structure, and critical foundation. So I returned to school for my MA, narrowing my topical focus to South Asian religions and my linguistic training to Hindi and Tibetan.

Why did you choose the Asian Studies program at UBC? Was there an aspect of the program or location that was particularly attractive to you compared to other programs in Canada or internationally?

The location was always attractive but the reality is that I chose it in order to work with three different faculty members: Harjot Oberoi, Tsering Shakya and Jessica Main. All three are on my doctoral committee and have been central to my project since day one. While I have benefited immensely from their individual expertise and critical insights, it is from the totality of their supervision and mentorship that my project has been able to both probe deeper and reach a wider audience.

Could you explain to a non-expert what you are researching and why it is important?

My dissertation rests at the intersection of South Asian history and Buddhist studies. Put simply, the conventional view in academia (and beyond) is that sometime between the 12th – 15th century, Buddhism “died” or “disappeared” from India before being “reborn” in 1956 when the Indian constitutionalist, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, converted to Buddhism along with half a million of his Dalit (“Untouchable”) followers. That is, of course, a rather compressed and simplified summary of the existing view but my research is an intervention in the grander argument. First, I argue that Buddhism never exactly disappeared from the subcontinent and that it lived on in various ways, through people’s memories, histories and the occasional pilgrim’s journey. Second, and this really forms the heart of my dissertation, I examine the 150 years prior to the mass conversions of the 1950s, and demonstrate that there was an incredibly robust conversation about Buddhism taking place among Indians of all walks of life. Most of this was stimulated by the Orientalists’ discovery of ancient Buddhist ruins in British India as well as the influx of Buddhist pilgrims and missionaries from foreign lands. Thus, by the turn of the century, you had Hindi schoolbooks comparing the Buddha to Abraham Lincoln, Burmese merchants sponsoring Hindu wrestlers to become Buddhist monks and conservative Hindu industrialists building Buddhist temples. These sorts of things gave tremendous shape to the way that South Asians (and the world more widely) understand what it means to be Buddhist and what Buddhism means to India and the modern world. With Buddhism being one of the fastest growing and most politically active religions in India today, the nature of this colonial inheritance has taken on a more urgent importance.

As a graduate student, what are your main activities?

Reading, writing, and more reading and writing. I think that is the hallmark of graduate school. During the first few years, this process is a bit more structured since you are taking classes but once you finish your comps (comprehensive examinations), your own reading and writing schedule takes on a more independent streak. Once you reach this stage, I find that attending conferences and lectures delivered by visiting professors, etc., is a great way to stay connected and intellectually stimulated. Teaching also forms an important part of your graduate training and I think it is extremely vital, not only for your continued intellectual nourishment but for learning how to best convey the complexities of academic scholarship to a wider undergraduate community.

What has been the most memorable or impactful moment of your graduate experience?  

There hasn’t been any one moment in particular but rather the fluidity of the experience as a whole. Being able to get back to South Asia is always the most rewarding part. Although there is a large South Asian (particularly, Punjabi) community in Vancouver, being on the ground in South Asia is always an important reminder of why I began this study in the first place. Here in Vancouver, I feel very fortunate that I have had so much exposure to my own advisors—my work desk sits outside two of their offices! The UBC campus, and in particular, the corridor where the Department of Asian Studies, Institute of Asian Research, Anthropology Museum, etc., are located, is also just a very pleasant place to spend your days.

What are your goals (career or academic) once you’ve completed the program? And how is our program helping you achieve them?

In an ideal world, I would find employment at a university that integrates language study and semester-long study abroad programs into a central part of the undergraduate curriculum. If I don’t find that, then I guess I’ll have to build it…
Many UBC faculty (both inside and outside our Department) have shared their own experiences and thoughts on how to best approach the job market, attain success, and so on. Being able to serve on a job search provided a lot of insights into what goes on behind the scenes in hiring and the general dynamics of a large public university like UBC. That experience was especially helpful.

Can you give any advice to new students in our program or for students considering applying to it?

Research the program thoroughly and contact faculty prior to applying. Having strong faculty support—i.e., meaning faculty that are interested in your project—will have a profound bearing on your graduate school experience and success. Expect to work hard and be aware of the time and life investment it takes to complete a PhD. These are rewarding years but they can also be stressful. If you choose to enter academia, you will be entering a very competitive field, one with huge rewards but significant risks. All in all, UBC and the Vancouver area in general is an outstanding place to spend these years. Perhaps the only downside to UBC is that after you finish, you will (most likely) have to leave!