I spoke recently to Jim Ryan, professor and director of the Asian and Comparative Studies program at California Institute of Integral Studies (CIIS). Ryan is a much-loved faculty member who teaches classes in Sanskrit and Indian religion.
“I grew up in the town of Wausau, Wisconsin,” says Ryan. “My parents both worked in factories, my dad in a papermill, and my mom in a plant that made small engines. Each of them spent thirty years on the line.”
In the mid 1960s, Ryan went to University of Wisconsin-Madison. “I had no intention then of studying Indian languages, but I heard that if you took Hindi, you could fulfill the language requirement all in one year. It was the first language course I’d ever taken. All I knew about India before that was Gandhi, who was a big influence on the peace movement during the Vietnam War and on the civil rights movement; the writer Tagore; and Ravi Shankar.”
Ryan excelled at Hindi, and by chance saw a poster for a junior year abroad in India. He was accepted to the program. When he travelled to India, it was the first airplane flight he’d ever taken. “I went to India,” he says, “and in a sense, I never came back.” He returned there several times to study Hindi,and Tamil, and to do research.
During his trips to India he became radicalized politically. “When I read the 'Communist Manifesto,'” Ryan recalls, “I said, ‘This is about me.’ And I looked at India—it was a case study in class oppression, with its caste system.”
When Ryan returned to the University of Wisconsin after his first trip, his advisor, George L. Hart III, said to him, “You don’t really know about India till you know Sanskrit.” Ryan devoted himself to studying the language, first in Wisconsin, and later at UC Berkeley, where he followed Professor Hart.
Residing in San Francisco in 1981 while finishing his PhD dissertation, Ryan did clerical work to support himself at Victoria’s Secret and Banana Republic. He was living near the Cultural Integration Fellowship, a center for East-West exchanges and the organization from which the Institute had grown, and he put up a notice there offering to teach Indian languages. When he went to check why no one had responded, a staff person directed him to California Institute of Asian Studies, the earlier name of CIIS. To his surprise, Ryan was hired to teach Sanskrit.
“I was working during the day filling orders for lingerie, and at night I was teaching Sanskrit,” he remembers. He has taught at CIIS ever since, and is now a full professor and one of the longest-serving faculty members.
During his time at CIIS, he has opened up to the spiritual side of his area of study. “I became a convert because no one tried to convert me,” Ryan explains. “If someone had told me, ‘You have to read 'The Life Divine' by Sri Aurobindo,’ I would have run away and never come back.”
He is proud to be listed as one of the “founding mothers” of the Women’s Spirituality program at CIIS, which started when Ryan chaired the Philosophy and Religion department. Ryan is renowned for his ability to intone the thousand names of the Hindu goddess Lalita in Sanskrit.
Even after thirty years, he still finds CIIS a stimulating place to teach: “Our strength in the Asian and Comparative Studies program is that we believe that practice in the tradition you study makes you a better scholar.”
Why should a student choose CIIS? “Because you will be taken account of as a whole person,” says Ryan, “including your spiritual aspirations and development. The students here are not student widgets. We give a place to the fuller narratives of people’s lives, allowing them to be fuller people.”