Teaching Religion: A Response to Douglas Brooks

Douglas Brooks is the reason I became a religion major. This is strange to say given that he never even told me to do it.

When Brooks speaks of religion, it is as a sort of super-category capable of absorbing (or manipulating) other cultural entities for its own purposes. Religion intersects with history, philosophy, political science, art, music, linguistics, and so on. The converse is also true, as any of the subjects listed can include religion as a supplement. But viewing religion as the “Department of the Humanities” has clearly influenced Brooks’ teaching philosophy (and even my own). In fact, one of his more recent innovations at the University of Rochester was to teach a class built around a reading list that the average undergrad “should” have read in college…but likely did not.

I emphasize “should” because the class is not built around a key figure or text. It is not working towards any big idea, in particular. For example, I took a philosophy class at Rochester on mathematical logic where the goal was to lay the groundwork for tackling Gödel’s incompleteness theorems at the end of the semester. Brooks’ course, which he calls “Advice and Dissent,” is much more amorphous. What matters is conversation. I’ve heard him reveal as much even when he spoke about his “Theories of Religion” seminar. “There are two types of students on this campus: those who have taken ‘Theories’ and those who haven’t.”

The readings assigned in Brooks’ ultimate humanities course are all interchangeable. The course’s broad scope is probably best summarized as Indo-European in context and even that is not entirely accurate. I really see this course as a microcosm of how Brooks views his place in academia. In line with J.Z. Smith (see On Teaching Religion, 2013), Brooks views his position as integral to cultivating a deeper appreciation for the humanities, especially at a research institution like Rochester. In many ways, he is a classical philologist preserving our connections to the past. While he does engage the political conditions that have shaped society, at the undergraduate level, he is more concerned with exposing his students to new ways of thinking.

This teaching philosophy then continues into his South Asian material. His courses are not designed around ethnography, although they certainly could be. Instead, Brooks isolates complex concepts, values, and myths that are vital to classical Indian philosophy. The same applies to his East Asian courses; they are designed to enrich his students’ conceptions of the world around them.

This engagement with the literature is actually how Brooks first became interested in India. He took an introductory course on Hinduism and Buddhism (at Middlebury College) and got hooked after reading the Upanishads. At eighteen, captivated by the beauty, insight, and cultural complexity of the text, he committed himself to learning Sanskrit – which later evolved into learning Tamil and other Indian languages. This entire enterprise had the immediate goal of textual access. Brooks then traveled to India in 1977 looking for the living traditions to grant him further ritual access to the historical material.

A brief note should be made regarding what exactly Brooks studies in South Asia. It is clear from the interview with Dan Gorman that Brooks has a great historical sense of the public perception of Indian culture. On the one hand, his cultural immersion – not just in the language but in the religion, as he himself would admit that he’s “gone native” – was just after the Hippie craze of the 1960s and early 1970s, when waves of mostly affluent whites flocked to India as subversion to American life. On the other hand, Brooks’ time in India was slightly before the yoga fitness boom of the 1980s and 1990s. The phenomenon of various gyms and studios co-opting the word “yoga” to mean generic postures and exercises was initially foreign to Brooks. “That is not my subject at all.”

I find the analogy of Taco Bell’s place in Mexican cuisine helpful when talking about the Western appropriation of Indian yoga. For years, Brooks has encountered students – in both the classroom and in his “weekend job” of leading spiritual retreats across the world – that are expecting the more popular version of yoga. That is, they come and ask for a “Chicken Quesarito” or request that you add Doritos and Cheetos into their food. Many figures have contributed to this cultural syncretism, including Krishnamacharya (1888-1989), Pattabhi Jois (1915-2009), B.K.S. Iyengar (1918-2014), John Friend, Rodney Yee, and Francois Raoult. But, as Brooks is quick to say, “That world had nothing to do with my world.” “They’re in Pune doing asana yoga…when I was in Madurai studying Tantra and learning Sanskrit and speaking Tamil.”

The question then becomes: What type of yoga has Brooks been studying for all these years? Most of his books are about the intersections of various medieval traditions, i.e. the rise of esoteric yoga, Tantra practice, and the Goddess traditions. Yoga, for Brooks, refers to “the practical, esoteric methodologies of applied religion.” “The study of yoga is the study of India, as far as I can tell.” Yoga and Tantra took the ideas, values, and myths of the religiously encoded world of India and infused them in the ritual body.

And yet, this aspect of Brooks’ expertise doesn’t really manifest in his South Asian courses. He doesn’t lecture students on the complexities of Tantric liturgies nor does he really speak to the particulars of the material that was “unlocked” for him by his teacher (Gopala Aiyar Sundaramoorthy) and informants. You will likely find this side of Brooks when he is teaching his Rajanaka Yoga, the “weekend job” mentioned earlier. In my experience with him, I accredit this division to his unwavering dedication to the secular study of religion.

In his classroom, there is a clear divide between scholar and practitioner, between religious studies and religious practice. Obviously, he is an example of how those two worlds comingle. But he is also committed to further advancing the study of religion as a secular discipline – in the same way that one studies history, psychology, sociology, and the like.

Ultimately, I think his success is due to his charismatic persona and flexibility. He can be whatever you want him to be. As I’ve heard him say before: “I make my living talking faster than your write.” In regards to Rajanaka, I wonder about the people that express genuine spiritual interest in his teachings. For instance, I think of the documentary Kumaré (2012) where a lapsed Hindu (Vikram Gandhi, a New Jersey native) poses as a guru in Phoenix only to dupe his devotees and encourage them to reflect on their gullibility. Douglas Brooks is an honorable man. I wonder how he would recommend handling these students (of whatever age) that are clearly looking for some form of authenticity or even escape. How much does he turn into the spin of the Western romanticism of the East?

I mention this only in light of Brooks’ new scholarly project: a historical examination and ethnography of some of the holiest pilgrimages in India. But there is a larger component to this. Accompanying Brooks on this academic journey are common American folk genuinely interested in yoga and India. This provides Brooks with a great opportunity to employ Michael Burawoy’s “Extended Case Method” (1998), producing a reflexive model where the scholar documents precisely how the new cultural environment changes the foreigners (who presumably are seeking a rich spiritual experience) and how the foreigners change the cultural environment as well.

How would Indian locals respond to these visitors accompanying Brooks? How will the presence of these foreigners influence the pilgrimage experience of the locals? What liminal state does Brooks himself occupy during this process? As an Americanist, I certainly hope to see these dynamics fleshed out whenever the book is completed. But I also understand if this is not purely his project. In the end, I am happy to read anything that he produces and I look forward to his new venture.


Jonathan Z. Smith. On Teaching Religion. Ed. Christopher I. Lehrich. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.

Kumaré. Dir. Vikram Gandhi. Kino Lorber, Disposable, 2012.

Michael Burawoy. “The Extended Case Method.” Sociological Theory, Vol. 16, No. 1 (Mar., 1998), pp. 4-33.

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