The death of Jyoti Raghu has robbed the Faculty of Theology and Religion of a talented doctoral candidate, a persistent scholar, and a kind and generous friend. We are grateful for the time she spent with us and the model of scholarship steeped in humanity that she bequeaths to us.
Jyoti arrived at Oxford to work with Professor George Pattison and—later—Professor Graham Ward, having taken degrees in religion and philosophy at the University of Wisconsin- Madison, the University of Chicago Divinity School, and Columbia University in New York City. To these academic accolades she added a rich tapestry of personal experience and culture, mediating India to Oxford (and vice versa), sharing with us her deep familiarity with the Hindu tradition, and inviting us into her personal quest for truth, goodness, beauty and love. Perhaps because she herself bridged cultural and religious traditions, she had an unusual ability to reach out across the divides that so often cut across our society. She will be mourned in many academic communities, as well as by friends and family across the world, but not least on the streets of Oxford, where she could often be found on a Wednesday evening, with a volunteer team taking food to the homeless. She was predeceased by her mother, but nobody will miss Jyoti more than her father and sister, who survive her.
On paper, Jyoti’s research focussed on the Christian hope for the redemption of the body in the light of contemporary affect-theory and the work of French phenomenologists Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Michel Henry. But her scholarship ranged more widely; in fact, many of her conference papers and articles were prefaced by a semi-apologetic confession that what she was about to say had nothing to do with her doctoral research. Like her life, Jyoti’s scholarship blurred the boundaries between traditions and disciplines. She presented papers and published work that engaged continental philosophy, the study of religion, embodied cognition, film studies, Christian Science, popular culture, postmodernism, and even Shrek.
In the end, though, Jyoti never completed the doctoral thesis that was in her. In the last two years of her life she struggled with poor health. This necessitated a leave of absence from Oxford, where she was much missed by her colleagues and friends. Although physically absent, she still spoke of our community as one of her centres of spiritual and intellectual gravity. Yet, truth be told, her health was not the only obstacle to completion that Jyoti faced. Even before her illness, she often spoke of the struggle she had in cutting her ideas down and shaping them into chapters and paragraphs. In fact, this was part of what made Jyoti such a remarkable and stimulating interlocutor. Her questions were not artificially manufactured on the stoves of academia. They were the ‘big questions’ of life and the universe: how are we to come to terms with our embodied finitude? How should we respond theologically to histories of colonialism and privilege? What is the meaning of human love? How can we behave in morally and spiritually responsible ways in the culture of academia?
Attempting to answer such questions can, understandably, be paralysing. In the midst of such challenges, Jyoti had a marvellous ability to draw out scholarly insight and find rich spiritual experiences, which she said filled her with lots of inspiration, growth, gratitude, and joy. You would occasionally hear Jyoti say that she had made no progress with her research, only to discover tens of thousands of words of robust and exciting argument drawing on untranslated sources in three modern languages. Jyoti wore her considerable learning lightly, but this was not false humility or a simple lack of self-confidence: it reflected her passionate belief in the importance of the topics she pursued, their value for others, and her conviction that the process of writing could itself shape a good-life – one lived in the quest for values that have a bearing on eternity. Consequently, Jyoti was deeply concerned with authenticity, refusing the ersatz of cheap and easy answers. A deep thinker, she took time to work out where she stood on issues; her insights were hard won and precious. She set an example to those who knew her of how scholarship can be simultaneously rigorous and humanizing.
Many of Jyoti’s friends have now left Oxford and embarked on careers in academia and elsewhere. As the sad news has spread, one word resonates loudly: kindness. People loved Jyoti for her natural kindness and many remember her flourishing as Wolfson’s student welfare officer. Her e-mails (sometimes long, with epexegetical comments) were invariably signed “CUV”, cura ut valeas, ‘take care so that you are well’. Though the Latin phrase was abbreviated, Jyoti’s kindness was definitely not. Her kindness was generous and, if need be, heroic, seeming to spring from her own sense of gratitude; perhaps it was sometimes also more costly than she would have admitted. In her published work, Jyoti quoted the Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf: “filmmakers are here only to illuminate, to bring joy to life [and to help people to act] with a little kindness towards the world”. I doubt if Jyoti ever made a film, but by that definition she would have been excellent. Jyoti goes on: theologians could—and should—she says, also aim to “bring a little more happiness and joy to life and to the world and consider such a goal a legitimate enterprise.”
Nobody could doubt that Jyoti Raghu succeeded in doing exactly that.
The Faculty has set up a Just Giving page in memory of Jyoti - any funds raised will be donated to a charity nominated by Jyoti’s father.