Meet Gopal Gupta, AU’s first Joe Dunham Distinguished Professor of Ethics

Gopal Gupta

As a young man, Gopal Gupta had his sights set on becoming an electrical engineer. Math and science fascinated him. But the further he got into his studies, the more intrigued he became with deeper questions. What’s the relationship between science, religion, and ethics? How can these forces of the world be used to make life better?

As the questions grew larger, so too did Gupta’s journey. After earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees in electrical engineering from Boise State University in his hometown of Boise, Idaho, Gupta traveled to Oxford University in the United Kingdom, where he received a master’s degree in science and religion, then a doctorate in theology and religious studies. He wrote his thesis on human suffering and māyā, one of the most fascinating and enigmatic concepts in Indian philosophy. And he researched thinkers including Ian Barbour, Rupa Goswami, John Hedley Brooke, and Rabindranath Tagore.

Last year, his book, “Māyā in the Bhāgavata Purāna: Human Suffering and Divine Play,” was published by Oxford University Press. He also serves as editor of the Journal of Hindu-Christian Studies, a peer-reviewed journal focusing on comparative religion.

This fall, Gupta will bring his fascination with the human condition to Aurora University as the first Joe Dunham Distinguished Professor of Ethics. The professorship was established in the name of the late Joe Dunham, a remarkable professor of philosophy and religion who was an essential part of AU for more than four decades. Dunham was widely lauded as one of AU’s greatest teachers and a trusted mentor to students and colleagues. The endowed professorship was established by his family, friends, and former students in hopes of ensuring that future generations will benefit from his legacy.

Gupta comes to AU from the University of Evansville in Indiana, where he was a professor of philosophy and religion. We spoke with Gupta about his teaching philosophy, his plans for AU’s ethics curriculum, and his personal goals as a professor. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Aurora University: What is your teaching philosophy?

Professor Gupta: Among other methods, I enjoy teaching ethics through a narrative-style approach that has proved so successful with students. Through my research and teaching, I found that the primary way ethical insights are communicated in all traditions is more through story than theory. I tell this to my students: Storytelling, especially the stories of heroes and saints, shapes the ethical imagination of civilizations.

I want my students to think ethically. I want them to develop an ethical consciousness, an ethical point of view. They can do this by imbibing the traditions, hearing the stories of world cultures, and recognizing how these stories might be relevant to them in their present lives. For example, Gandhi’s ethics were shaped by the “Bhagavad Gita” and his Hindu faith, but also by Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount. And then Martin Luther King’s ethical views were influenced by Gandhi’s insights. Through the narratives of different traditions, many of our major figures in history received insights from an exercise in comparative ethics.

The issues of ethics lie at the heart of every human endeavor, in every field of study. Gopal Gupta, Joe Dunham Distinguished Professor of Ethics

AU: What stood out to you about your visit to AU?

Gupta: I had conversations with students, faculty, and staff — I really started to love Aurora University almost instantaneously after these conversations. It became overwhelmingly apparent to me that the AU community believes that issues of ethics lie at the heart of every human endeavor, in every field of study.

AU: What do you hope to bring to the AU curriculum?

Gupta: I would like to propose both a concentration and a minor in ethics that are available to all students. This would allow students to pursue in-depth studies in human character and conduct. They can benefit from, for example, looking at the traditions of Confucianism and Taoism, which talk about character and conduct — what we ought to be and what we ought to do. Both the concentration and the minor would promote a greater understanding of ethics as a discipline in relation to philosophy, religion, history, business, and medicine.

The two greatest influences in people’s lives today are science and their beliefs, both religious and ethical. Since these two areas influence people so much, it’s important to understand how they can work together and how they need to work together to make a better world.

My teaching schedule is still to be developed, but we are talking about offering ethics classes for students studying the environment, medicine, science, business, and the humanities.

AU: What are your personal goals for this professorship?

Gupta: I would like to engage with the students in class. A good teacher takes students seriously and engages with them enthusiastically and patiently. They are also part of the conversation.

Second, I want to engage with students outside of the classroom. At the University of Evansville, I would teach courses where students applied ideas in the community. They engaged in projects and community discussions, and brought concepts to life. I deeply believe that the dullest of topics can become interesting if it engages the learners. So I want to connect with the community. And not just by giving lectures, but by having courses with an applied aspect that engage with nonprofit organizations, communities, and businesses in the area. The students can see how their knowledge and their education can play a practical role in society.

Lastly, a good teacher engages students in conversations with their fellow classmates. This is also part of my teaching philosophy: Students should engage with one another. They should work in groups, have discussions and debates on ethical issues, and understand that ethics is not just a private issue, but a public matter.

Many of my students come from backgrounds in which they’re told, “You don’t talk about religion and ethics — these are very sensitive topics.” But in the academic environment, these are topics to be discussed in a respectful, courageous, and open manner. These are topics at the heart of a good education.