25-year-old becomes youngest PhD graduate in 105-year history of UP Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies

Posted on September 22, 2022

Yuvan Mathias Shunmugam, a passionate religious scholar from Tongaat on the north coast of KwaZulu-Natal, has become the youngest PhD graduate in the 105-year history of the University of Pretoria’s (UP’s) Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies.

Shunmugam (25) received his PhD in the Science of Religion during the 2022 spring graduation ceremonies held recently  at the university’s Hillcrest Campus. His thesis was titled ‘The contribution of Nishkama Karma in the philosophies of Shankara, Ramanuja, and Madhva on social cohesion’. Nishkama Karma is the act of selfless or desireless action, or when someone does something without any expectation.

“My focus examined the Hindu concept of Nishkama Karma and its contribution to promoting and advancing social cohesion,” Shunmugam says. “In my opinion, religion does not do enough in terms of promoting social cohesion.”

His thesis draws on the principle of selflessness in the concept of Nishkama Karma toward developing a link between Nishkama Karma and being interested in the well-being of others. “Often people are focused on the afterlife, thinking about how to please God, and how to live a life so that one can attain salvation. In Hinduism, we say attaining moksha. In other religions, you’d say ‘go to heaven’, or whatever the case. And that’s what people focus on, not necessarily on how we can contribute to making the world a better place.”

UP student Yuvan Mathias Shunmugam in his PhD graduation cap and gown

Shunmugam (25) received his PhD in the Science of Religion during the 2022 spring graduation ceremonies held recently  at the university’s Hillcrest Campus. 

He says many religions propagate the idea that the world is wrong and that upon death one will go to a better place. “This is typically what religion or religions teach. And that’s something I'm afraid I have to disagree with. I think religion needs to do a lot more to promote a much better world.”

Shunmugam says the principle of selflessness in Nishkama Karma is evaluated as an altruistic and empathetic concept that relates to similar images found in other religious traditions. This contributes to the existing discussion on the role of Hinduism and the practical application of Nishkama Karma in interfaith talks about the role of religion in social cohesion and sustainable community development.

Shunmugam is passionate about Hinduism, religion studies, social activism, and language education. He serves on various leadership structures contributing to social justice or decolonial narratives. He has studied a variety of academic disciplines in addition to religion, such as archaeology, ancient languages, and psychology.

He also dedicates time to contributing to initiatives centred on preserving and propagating his mother tongue, Tamil. He believes mother-tongue education is vital for cultural diversity and further promotes peaceful and sustainable societies. “My grandmother was a Tamil teacher and instilled my understanding and love for the language.”

Shunmugam, whose mother passed away when he was six, credits his father, a Durban social worker, for steering him through his studies. “My dad raised me as a single parent. He never lost faith in me, and always supported me at university, and supported my decisions regarding what I wanted to study and when I got involved in student leadership and activism. My dad – who is visually impaired – is my role model and inspiration. He is one of the reasons I am the way I am, because he always encouraged my sister and me to strive for excellence.”

Shunmugam also credits his supervisor at UP, Professor Maniraj Sukdaven, for supporting and instilling in him a winning mentality. “Having a supervisor dedicated to your success is important if you’re going to complete a PhD. I was blessed.”

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