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The Hugging Guru: Amma and Transnationalism

In this interview conducted at the 2018 EASR conference in Bern, Marianne Qvortrup Fibiger speaks to Sammy Bishop about Amma, a guru who has become world famous for her healing hugs – apparently giving more than 33 million hugs over the past 30 years. They discuss the ways in which different audiences can interpret Amma’s message, and how she reconnects Hindus in diaspora with their traditions. Focusing particularly on the guru’s global reach, Fibiger discusses her fieldwork in Amma’s Kerala ashram, and how Western devotees in India are influencing developments there.

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A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.


The Hugging Guru: Amma and Trans-nationalism

Podcast with Marianne Qvortrup Fibiger (12 November 2018).

Interviewed by Sammy Bishop.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Qvortrup_Fibiger-_The_Hugging_Guru_1.1

Sammy Bishop (SB): Hello. I’m Sammy Bishop. I’m here at the EASR conference in Bern. I am here with Marianne Qvortrup Fibiger, who is Associate Professor at Aarhus University. So, thank you very much for joining us.

Marianne Qvortrup Fibiger (MQF): Thank you for allowing me to come here and talk about my subject matter.

SB: How is your conference going so far?

MQF: Oh, Great! There’s a lot of good panels and good keynotes. And I think you can see how religion, and the way that we are talking about religion, is changing – and that’s a really good thing.

SB: Ok. So your current research is focussing on Amma, the hugging guru?

MQF: Sure, yes.

SB: So for those people who aren’t so familiar with it, could you just tell us a bit about who Amma is?

MQF: Yes. She’s a transnational guru. She was born, in 1953, in Kerala, which is in South India. And she is from the fisherman class, a low-caste Hindu family. And she grew up and she had . . . This is very typical, that you look on her story in a religious-centred way. And she has some special abilities all the way. She did things all the way back to when she was about 9 years old. And this has just been developing. So you can talk about her going from being a very local girl with special abilities, becoming – what they say within the Hindu tradition – a kind of a Shakti representative, meaning that she has some kind of special female energy which is related the goddesses, which can incarnate in people. And from that she becomes a local guru you can go to and ask questions. But also – and this is the main thing about her – she also gives healing hugs. And from there, you know, it developed, she developed, the devotees around her became more, until she’s also became a guru for Western devotees. And that is where we are now. And what the organisation around her, called MAM writes on the webpage – please look into that it’s a really interesting read – she has given 35 million hugs all around the world. So what is interesting is that she’s appealing both to European Americans, she still appeals to local Hindus as well, and she also appeals to middle-class Hindus from all over India – and even Indians living in diaspora. So she’s a trans-local, transnational, global guru of today.

SB: And when it comes to these different groups of devotees, what’s the main appeal? Is there a different appeal for different groups? And does she pitch her message differently?

MQF: Yes. It’s – and this is what we always answer as researchers – it’s a both/and! So in one way she is saying the same things, but the ears that hear differ. So I think that what she says is translated and interpreted in different ways, if you look at local Indians, more transnational Indians and European American devotees. And that is what is interesting, that she can say something that in some ways goes into the mind or the brain, and the heart, to devotees from all over the world. And what I think – and this is one of my theses, or hyper-theses – is that she is balancing between being very traditional Bhakti guru, where she has a special devotionalism related to her . . . . And then she has a kind of authenticity, you know? It’s very open how you can see she is an Indian guru. And on the other hand she has universal messages. (5:00) And also that she’s a woman – I think that’s important. And she has this idea that she, herself, is incarnating a message. She is incarnating what she thinks is the main way of understanding religion, namely love, she says. “Religion is love, my religion is love.” And she thinks that she should be acting accordingly. So that’s why she also gives these hugs which should heal both the person that she heals, but – and this is very important in relation to the way we understand the world today – she will also heal the world which is “bleeding”, as she says. So she also has this kind-of very universal message that appeals to everyone. And when we are talking about this conference, you can hear how many who are referring to how climate changes, the Anthropocene – that it is the human beings in the world who are the main reason why the climate changes are so rapidly going the wrong way. And she is talking into that kind of discourse – which everybody thinks is important.

SB: Yes. And you mentioned briefly, there, the gendered nature of her message, and the name Amma obviously meaning mother. Can you say a bit more about that, maybe particularly regarding the climate change aspect, as well?

MQF: Yes. You can talk about this being a female . . . or representative of a kind-of female energy, on different levels. You can talk about it in relation to a deity worship, a goddess worship where the goddess is incarnated in that person in the world: someone thinks she is like that, and then she is a deity, and then they called her Devi Amritanandamayi, which is her name. And sometimes she’s Mata – mother – which . . . devotees I’ve interviewed have said, “She is like a mother to us.” You know? And she talks about her devotees as her children that she wants to take care of. And that is, you know, what you can do being a female. In another perspective she’s also related to mother earth, you know: that, being a female, she is kind of entangled in the understanding of the earth as a mother – which is the main reason for her life on earth – and, on the other hand, is also a mother who is bleeding. So she can be inscribed in different ways of understanding what a female, or the female, can do in relation to . . . also, to appealing to people in another way than if it was a male.

SB: And just thinking about her representing different things, as well, in this very kind of international span that she has: you mentioned, in your presentation yesterday, how she’s been representing Hinduism at the UN. Could you say a bit more about that?

MQF: Sure. Yes. It was back in 2010 when she was invited to the United Nations. And maybe she didn’t play the major role there, but she was invited and there was a speech that she created that gave her time to come and represent Hinduism there. And there was a man, he was the representative for public and private partnership in New York. And in the end of his talk he said, “What you do brings happiness to people. You are truly a saint.” And this is interesting, because he’s using the notion and conception of saint, which has Christian connotations. (10:00) So she, in that way, she was also inscribed in Christian, or a more universal understanding of her. She can be part of all kinds of denominations and relations to the world.

SB: So, taking it down to your current research at the moment: as I understand it, it’s been on her ashram in Kerala. So could you tell us a bit about the groups of people who are there and what goes on there?

MQF: Yes. Kerala, her ashram in Kerala is called Amritapuri, and I visited it for the first time all the way back in 2006- 2007, when I did fieldwork in Kerala about goddess worship. And I thought, “I need to go there!” And I was kind-of struck by the way it was organised, because it was organised by European American devotees. And I was kind-of “Well,” you know, “Is it a new way of colonising – not the land, but the tradition?” And I went to have a hug. I needed to see what she was doing. I didn’t feel that much, I must admit! But then I had to take a kind of token. You take a token and you queue up. And I was sent to queue up. There were two queues: one for the Indians and one for European Americans. And you think, “No! We can’t do it like this!” But it seems like the Indians actually didn’t mind. And what I saw was, also, seeing how she was doing very big darshans where 40,000 people, at least, came from all through India. And I saw how the European American devotees were organising everything. And they were sitting in front in white gowns, when all the different Hindus were sitting in the back. But, you know, and then I was thinking about, “How come it is like that? Is it a good or bad thing for the traditions of India?” And what I can see today is that this kind of translation – the European American devotees are trying to translate the local Indian tradition to a more global one – this is now appealing to the growing Indian middle-class in India, which is really interesting. And it has not only to do with guru worship or guruism, but it also has to do with the relationship between what we can call . . . it’s wrong to call it between East and West. And what you can see is that it’s an example of this dynamic: how I think it’s very important that you understand religion not as rooted in one context, but that we follow its route around the world. And I think its Clifford who says that you look at not roots, but routes – you know, how it’s travelling. And in the travelling the tradition is changing. But what is interesting, when it comes to the globalised world, these kind of changes are not only good for . . . not only a way that devotees in European countries understand the tradition, but now, also, because this translation of the tradition is turning back to India. And suddenly, middle- class Indians – Hindus, who are in many ways secularised and feel disconnected from the tradition that they grew up in – get reconnected to the Hindu tradition again. So this is interesting, I think. And it’s a new way of looking at how ideas, which are circulating very quickly, are translated in such a way that the appeal is wider than you believe it would be, thinking from a first order perspective.(15:00) And I think that’s interesting. And I also did a fieldwork in Mauritius among Hindus there. You know, in Mauritius, Hindu’s are a majority, but they also, in many ways, are secularised – understood as making a compartmentalisation between being religious. And in other ways they are very much secularised. And I think Amma was visiting for the first time in 1987. And a lot of people suddenly understood the tradition that they didn’t understand any longer, through her way of . . . . And also, the European and American devotees who were travelling along with her, they were kind of reconnected to the Hindu tradition again. So this is, you know, a way of understanding this kind of entanglement of different ways of translating or understanding religion. And it’s a crucial example of religion as context-related but also a very dynamic phenomenon.

SB: And when it comes to European and American devotees having a great influence in the organisation, do you find certain people kind-of laying claims to the tradition, and other people critiquing the involvement of these Western devotees as well?

MQF: Yes, of course you’ll find someone who thinks that we need to take the tradition back to the Indian roots again. Or some conservative Hindus think that she is too inclusive. And some are criticising the way that she is dealing with some of her right-hand people who are representing the MAM tradition, when they are doing things which is – in their perspective – not part of the Hindu tradition. So what you’ll see . . . and it’s the same when some Hindus think, or are arguing, that we need to get yoga back to the Hindu or Indian tradition again. So, you will always see that, you know, when things are changing someone wants it to stop. And they want to root it back in a tradition which can also be difficult to define. So you see this kind of . . . the way people want to get hold of it again and not make it open for the whole world.

SB: Yes. It seem that a lot of the discourses around it are fairly similar to the ones that happen around yoga, as well. Do you find it helpful comparing the two?

MQF: Well, yes you can do that. But the difference between them is that Amma is a guru, she’s a person, and yoga is a phenomenon. And so I mean it’s easier to get hold of, or grab onto, the messages of a person who’s still alive, than get a hold on yoga which has been changing since it was . . . . And people even don’t know when it started. Should we go back all the way to pre-Vedic tradition when it comes to yoga? Or should we kind-of place it in the Upanishadic tradition? And things like that. So, I mean, here you can actually take her messages and you can try to decipher it and try to criticise it because it’s there. (20:00) And yoga’s a floating signifier.

SB: Yes. Are there are certain ways in which Amma was able to claim authority as a guru?

MQF: Yes. And I think that’s very important as well. So it’s good that you asked me that question. Because on the one hand, she has this kind of universal message. On the other hand, she’s very much inscribed in Hindu guruism, in Bhakti devotionalism, and she also understands herself as a karma yogi – as a yogi who acting in the world. So I mean, in one perspective she’s inclusive, in another perspective she’s also exclusive. And that, I think – this kind of balancing between inclusivism and exclusivism – makes her so appealing both for Indians and also for Europeans and American devotees. And in relation to that, I think it’s so interesting to see . . . . You know, I’ve been interviewing devotees especially in Denmark where I’m from. And they are telling me how they are really trying to stick to the Indian tradition. So in some ways, and understand me correctly, in some ways they are trying to be kind-of more traditional than a lot of Hindus are, living in India or around Persia. They are telling me they would like to learn some mantras in Sanskrit; they are having a guru purnima, where they have a special day where they are devoted to their guru, which they do in the month of June, everywhere. And I was participating in one of these guru purnimas, and they were very anxious to do the puja in the right manner. And because I was there, they were kind-of, you know, “Did we do it the right way? Or should we do it like that with flowers?” And things like that. So I mean that is also interesting, right? So . . . that she’s never changing her behaviour as being an Indian guru I think is important, as well. And it’s appealing to America European devotees.

SB: Just to change the topic slightly: you raised the idea, there, of your presence as a researcher kind-of affecting the behaviour of devotees slightly, as well. So, talking about research methods, were there certain problems that you came up against? Could you say a bit more about that?

MQF: Yes. It’s always difficult just to be a fly on the wall when you are there. And when you have presented yourself as being a researcher and not an Amma devotee, people are very much concerned about “How do we, then, represent the tradition that you want to write about?” And also, you know, “In what way will you . . . . Are you having a critical point of departure, or do you want to kind-of do it in a way that could promote our tradition?” And I think it’s very important, as a researcher, that you tell them, you know, the reason for being there. And also I think it’s very important that when you write, you write the things in relation to being a researcher. And it has to do with the big discussion: emic or etic? Or also, the big discussion around this kind-of phenomenological relation to the tradition, which I know a lot of anthropologists think is important: that you can’t do research on something that you haven’t kind-of been part of yourself. I think it’s important. And people could criticise that. And I try to stand three steps behind what I’m actually doing. (25:00) And I think people are accepting that. I might not get all the answers that a person who will be part of the Amma group. But I get some other answers. And I put it into . . . . And I think that’s important, too – and that’s the way I’m brought up, in academia – that you have some kind of theoretical point of departure when looking at empirical phenomenon. And I’ll always do that. And it can give some backlash, but as long as you as researcher are very clear in your mind in the way you’re writing, and also towards the one you are going forward in relation to, I think you do what you can do. Someone will disagree with that, but I think from my perspective, it’s important.

SB: So, going forwards as well, where do you see your research going in the future?

MQF: Well, I think it will go in a different direction. I’ve always been interested in Hinduism diaspora. And the reason for being interested in that field, particularly, is firstly to see how religion is changing in relation to the social and cultural context, but also because Hinduism is so difficult to define. And I’m not going to tell you. But I’ll just say it anyway, that I’ve promised my students I will retire if I get to know what I’m actually an expert in!

SB: (Laughs)

MQF: But I think it’s very important that Hindus in diaspora are trying to put some words on what is the Hindu tradition. Being away from where the tradition has been part of culture for ages, suddenly you try to figure out, you know, what do we want to keep? And what do we want to leave behind? And I think that’s interesting both in relation to Hinduism, but also in relation to understanding religion as a dynamic phenomenon. So my research will keep on trying to look on Hinduism diaspora but also I’ve done a book with one of my colleagues called Eastspirit about how ideals, concepts, notions are circulating between what we call East and West. And what I think is so interesting is to see also how this is changing the way that Europeans are looking on their lives in the world, but in a way that . . . . I have also written an article where I’m not talking about the process of Easternisation of the West, but what I’m trying to argue for a new concept called the “Weasternisation”, meaning that the Eastern concept and notions are translated in a Western way, so they give meaning also in Western countries. And I’ve also been researching, and I would like to do a bit more about it, about how Indian or Hindu tropes are getting new meanings in a European context. Especially, as an example, you can talk about karma, which in many ways in European context is a kind of a feel-good notion. And if you compare what karma actually means in India, it has totally changed. Also, in relation to the understanding of reincarnation as “another go” – a new possibility – I think that’s interesting too. And you can’t say that the way you understand reincarnation or karma is wrong. It’s just embedded in a new European context, which makes it possible for the concept to change. So I think that’s really interesting. (30:00) And I think that’s so important. But also, in the discussion of how notions from Hinduism and Buddhism . . . it’s not the kind-of worldviews “coming to Europe”, it’s not kind-of “now it is taking over another worldview”. It is more like something . . . a part of a new way of understanding yourself. So it’s not that you have to choose between your old worldview and the Eastern one. But you can combine it. And I think it’s interesting how come that concepts from India . . . it’s much easier to be entangled, or be kind-of a floating signifier that could be rooted in a Western tradition as well. So that’s some of the things I would like to work on. And there’s a lot of things to do, so I hope someone else will take up these ideas!

SB: Yes, I look forward to seeing that as well. Marianne – thank you so much for your time.

MQF: Thank you for allowing me to talk a little about something I’m really interested in, in a research perspective.

SB: Thank you.


Citation Info: Qvortrup Fibiger, Marianne, and Sammy Bishop. 2018. “’The Hugging Guru: Amma and Transnationalism”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 12 November 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 9 November 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/the-hugging-guru-amma-and-transnationalism/

If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with transcribing the Religious Studies Project archive, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

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Religious Studies Project Opportunities Digest – 8 December 2015

Dear subscriber,

We are pleased to bring you this week’s opportunities digest and would like to express our gratitude to everyone who has submitted calls for papers, event notifications, job vacancies, etc. On that note, we would also like to encourage you to continue to do so (and invite those who remain hesitant to begin)!

It is super easy to have a Religious Studies call for papers, exciting event, or alluring job vacancy appear in future Opportunities Digests! Simply use the submission form, forward them to oppsdigest@religiousstudiesproject.com or, better yet, include said e-mail address in your mailing list for such e-mails!

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Calls for papers

Journal: Open Theology

Special issue: Multiple Religious Belonging

Deadline: April 1, 2016

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Conference: FINYAR-konferanse 2016: Mellomvesen og mellom vesen: Kommunikasjon i og om nyreligiøsiteten

April 27–28, 2016

Bergen, Norway

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Conference: NSRN Conference: The Diversity of Nonreligion

July 7–9, 2016

Universität Zürich, Switzerland

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Conference: SOCREL: Construction and disruption: The power of religion in the public sphere

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Lancaster University, UK

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Conference: BRISMES: Networks: Connecting the Middle East through Time, Space and Cyberspace

July 13–15, 2016

University of Wales, UK

Deadline: February 19, 2016

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Conference panel: EASR: Relocating Protestants: Pilgrimage and De-/Re-Reformation

June 28–July 1, 2016

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Conference panel: EASR: Christianity in diaspora: Ethnographic case studies of religoius practice and identity construction

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Conference panel: EASR: Contesting and Relocating Authority

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Animals in Mesopotamia

December 14–15, 2015

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Assistant Professor: Islamic Studies

Virginia Commonwealth University, USA

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African Christianity in the West

‘Africa’. ‘Christianity’. ‘The West’. Three seemingly simple terms with clear referents. Three categories which – perhaps unsurprisingly, to regular listeners of the RSP – have been, and continue to be, associated with and invoked in support of myriad competing agendas, truth claims, ideologies, and more.

In telling the story of the complex interrelationship between these terms, some might point to the Berlin Conference of 1884/5 as a defining moment marking the beginning of intensive Euro-American Christian mission to Africa. Others might direct attention to the fact that Christianity has been present in Africa almost since its emergence, with three of the best known figures of the early church – Anthony (c. 285-356), Athanasius (296-373) and Augustine (354-430) – living and working in the north of the continent. Still others might prefer a more contemporary approach, focusing upon the Christianities that can be discerned among communities of African origin in Diaspora. This week’s podcast focuses upon the latter.

In this interview with Chris, Dr Afe Adogame of the University of Edinburgh provides a stimulating introduction to this vast and complicated triad.

Discussion covers a wide range of questions, including:

  • What makes African Christianity ‘African’? Is it only for ‘Africans’? Who decides? Why do we take this huge continent as a single entity?
  • If African Christianity is particularly non- or anti-Western, how does this manifest itself in the West? Is it also non-African (i.e. non-indigenous?)
  • Does referring to ‘African Christianity in the West’ or even ‘African Christianity’ in general perpetuate racial divides, systems of exclusivity?
  • What is the public image of African Christianity in the West? Is there one?
  • What does the study of African Christianity – in the West or elsewhere – bring to the study of ‘religion’ in general?

This interview was originally conceived as a kind of two-parter with an interview on ‘African Indigenous Traditions in the West’ which has, as yet, not occurred. Of course, it must be stated that ‘Christianity’ and ‘Indigenous Traditions’ are not the full story of ‘religion’ in Africa, with one glaring omission being ‘Islam’ amongst others. However, due to time constraints this interview will focus almost exclusively on ‘Christianity’ and we shall attempt to rectify this in the future.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying books, cooking utensils, waistcoats, stuffed animals, and more.

Religion, Migration and Diaspora

“We had so many studies focusing on institutions and on official discourse, and so few studies on the silent majority, which never shows up in these institutions… So we over-emphasize the religious belongings. All the muslims are supposed to know the Qur’an, although they don’t. Some of them have never opened it. Some of them don’t think they are Muslims. – None of us is Christian, Muslim, a Mason, Atheist, 24 hours a day. We have much more belongings, identities.”

Photo_SalzbrunnNeedless to say, migration and diasporic communities are a politically hot topic. In many European countries the attitudes towards immigration, especially by those representing different cultural or religious backgrounds, have become more critical and in some cases outright hostile. On the other hand, there are those who advocate openness without paying much attention to the challenges increased immigration as well as uninformed immigration policies may cause. The digging of ideological trenches and heated debates seem to highlight the very real need of comprehensive academic study on the realities of migration, immigrant communities, immigration policies and beyond. But how are these to be studied most effectively? One person who definitely has something to say about this topic is professor Monika Salzbrunn. She is currently the leader of the Research Institute for Social Sciences of Contemporary Religions (IRSSCR) and holds a full-time professorship in “Religion, Migration and Diaspora” at Lausanne University, Switzerland. She has been involved in an impressive array of research projects. For example, she was the leader of the French team in the European GEMMA project on policymaking, gender and migration in the 7th framework program of the European Union at Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (EHESS). The RSP had a great opportunity to discuss the broad themes of migration and diaspora with professor Salzbrunn at the biennial conference of International Society for the Sociology of Religion in Turku earlier this year.  Salzbrunn contributes the final episode to our current theme ‘Religion, Migration and Diaspora’, and tells about the work done at the IRSSCR. She gives an introduction to her current research projects, and also says something about what in her view remains to be done in the future. A point to emphasize, in her view, is that it is important to study the multifaceted everyday life of the ‘silent majority’ to get relevant information on the religious diversity ‘on the streets’: food, entertainment, and especially the religious events and festivities, in which religious and ethnic identities are being constructed and maintained.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when buying your Christmas presents etc.

(For those wondering about the noises and chimes on the backround, we also had the honour of having Salzbrunn’s inquisitive daughter take part in the interview. She is already an experienced conferencionista herself. Enjoy!) More information on the research projects steered by Salzbrunn can be found here: L’islam (in)-visible en ville. Expressions matérielles et immatérielles des pratiques de l’islam dans l’espace urbain (pdf-file, in French) Undocumented Mobility (Tunisia – Switzerland) and Digital-Cultural Resources after the ‘Arab Spring’ (on Lausanne University’s website, in English).

The other episodes in this series featured Andrew Dawson on Santo Daime, and D. Mitra Barua on Immigrant Buddhism in the West.

Concepts and Symbols, What Does It All Mean? Examining Immigrant Buddhists in Toronto

Published by the Religious Studies Project on 13 November 2013, in response to D. Mitra Barua’s interview on Immigrant Buddhism in the West  (11 November 2013).

Talal Asad, in Genealogies of Religion, sets out an argument by which he hopes to improve upon Clifford Geertz’s anthropological method of examining a culture’s symbols in an effort to analyze the meanings that these symbols hold “of” and “for” a culture’s religious character. He points out that although “[r]eligious symbols… cannot be understood independently of their historical relations with nonreligious symbols…” (53) “It does not follow that the meanings of religious practices and utterances are to be sought in social phenomena, but only that their possibility and their authoritative status are to be explained as products of historically distinctive disciplines and forces. (54) In short, any culture cannot be said to be a fixed point to be dissected as such, but rather, a stream or flow of histories whose “power” and influence received from prior discourse must be taken into account as a process of cultural, and therefore religious, creation.

Webb Keane takes Asad’s emphasis upon socio-historical discourse being a process through which meanings can be analysed and provides a term for this concept that he feels is better able to be wielded by the ethnographer, namely, the utilisation of “semiotic forms”. Semiotic forms, Keane argues, are “social categories” which are “recognizable as something knowable”. He continues, “they must, that is, have some material manifestation that makes them available to, interpretable by, and, in most cases, replicable by other people: bodily actions, speech, the treatment of objects, and so forth.” (114) Seeing as how, for Keane, “[s]emiotic forms are public entities…” they are “objects for the senses…” and “as such, they have distinctive temporal dimensions…” however, “[b]ecause they are repeatable, they have the potential to persist over time and across social contexts.” (114-115). In this specific context, Keane only examines one example of a semiotic form for the sake of illustration- speech; however, Mitra Barua hits upon this exact idea in his conversation with Chris Silver. We start to get an idea of Barua’s work when he tells us of his interest in how Buddhism has been transmitted into new locations (inter-cultural dimensions of Buddhist transmission) and between first- and second-generation immigrants living in diaspora (inter-generational dimensions).

Working with Sri Lankan Theravada Buddhists (presumably Sinhalese) who form a disaporic group in Toronto, Canada, Barua is able to link his work with that of Asad and Keane by adding to his two dimensions of Buddhist transmissions an overall sense of time, or discourse. He identifies three primary historical periods of migration within which he frames his work; namely, the Colonial, Post-Colonial and Diaspora periods. None of these have any ontological purchase independently; rather, only as a spectrum, each blending into the next (ignoring firm historical dates one must assume and only focusing on the state of transmission of teachings which does not generally change, or stop-start, with any firm temporal grounding). His interest lies in how Buddhism has been and continues to be transmitted from older, first-generation migrants who came from Ceylon to Canada, to their children who were raised in Canadian culture; or, inter-cultural and inter-generational dimensions of transmission and the problems that arise therefrom.

What he finds is perhaps a bit unsurprising; the younger generation who have grown up in a “secular”, Western culture have different views and emphases regarding how to balance their secular and their religious livesthan their parents. Additionally, Barua finds that there is a serious concern within the older members of the community regarding the “religiosity” of Buddhism being not only separated out, but also lost in favour of a more secular, functional usage of concepts like samatha/vipassana or group temple worship.

Concerning this worry surrounding the “dilution” of Buddhism that Barua identifies amongst the Buddhist immigrants in Toronto, some important questions arise for scholars of religion as a whole. Throughout the interview terms like “religion”, “faith”, “theology” are thrown about, ironically often in close proximity to discussions on how Buddhism is tied into not just the immigrants religious lives but also and perhaps most importantly their culture. During the first third of the interview, Dr. Barua even explains how these immigrants have changed the adjectives of the Buddhist Eight-fold Path, from “right” speech, thought, action, etc. to “harmonious”. Why does this bi-polarity seem to weigh so heavily on this group of immigrants, on the one hand being self-conscious enough to feel it necessary to change the language of one of their most fundamental principles, while at the same time wanting to save the “religiosity” of Buddhism from complete secularisation? Further, do Christo-centric terms like faith and theology even work within a Buddhist setting, and if not, why does this community feel it useful or indeed necessary to use them? Does the very act of using foreign, Christian terms contribute to the undermining of the very sense of importance and individuality that the Buddhist elders are trying to stave off; and most intriguingly, if religion (in this case Buddhism) is indeed not sui generis but rather, linked wholly with a society’s culture; are these immigrants not so much concerned with the loss of their religion, but instead and more disconcerting, with a loss of their culture and self-identity? In a response to a similar question from Chris Silver, Dr. Barua does give us a related answer when he affirms, that he found these Buddhists to self-identify as indeed in some ways more religious in Canada than they were in Sri Lanka.

By way of conclusion with the understanding that cultural (and therefore religious) symbols and concepts are intrinsically intertwined within the socio-temporal spectrum of a group of people, as scholars of religion some pressing questions now pop up for further inspection, perhaps most importantly are some that are self-reflexive: are we truly Post-Orientalist/Colonialist? Do we, living in primarily First and Second World countries, take for granted our contemporary cultural hegemony? What can we learn about immigrant groups who find their most effective recourse to be utilising OUR terminology to describe THEIR culture? Perhaps the era of colonisation is not quite over.

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

References

  • Asad, Talal. 1993. Genealogies of Religion: Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
  • Geertz, Clifford. 1973. The Interpretation of Cultures. New York. Basic Books
  • Keane, Webb. 2008. ‘The evidence of the senses and the materiality of religion’. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute. Volume 14: 110-127.

D. Mitra Barua on Immigrant Buddhism in the West

D. Mitra BaruaDr. D. Mitra Barua is an instructor of Religious Studies at the University of Saskatchewan, and has a Masters in Buddhist Philosophy undertaken in Sri Lanka. His doctorate concerned several generations of Sri Lankan immigrants in Toronto, and how their Buddhist practices are affected by being transplanted to Canada.

In this in-depth interview with Chris Silver, Barua discusses the links between ethnic and religious identity, and how the relationship has changed over time. They discuss how traditional Buddhist teachings are reinterpreted in order to harmonise their Buddhism with the multicultural society in which they are embedded, although this has not been uncontroversial. Buddhism, of course, has historically been geographically and theologically diverse, and this has continued in a North American context. 

They also discuss how these affect our models of religion and culture. Are the appropriations of Buddhist traditions like meditation in therapeutic contexts to be considered ‘religious’? Dr Barua also describes some of the practical issues with carrying out fieldwork within a monastic community.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when buying your important books etc. Remember… Christmas is on the way!

This interview marks the beginning of a short series of podcasts from the RSP on Religion, Migration and Diaspora, which began last week with Andrew Dawson discussing Sante Daime, and concludes next week with Monika Salzbrunn speaking to Hanna Lehtinen about Religion, Migration and Diaspora.

Podcasts

The Hugging Guru: Amma and Transnationalism

In this interview conducted at the 2018 EASR conference in Bern, Marianne Qvortrup Fibiger speaks to Sammy Bishop about Amma, a guru who has become world famous for her healing hugs – apparently giving more than 33 million hugs over the past 30 years. They discuss the ways in which different audiences can interpret Amma’s message, and how she reconnects Hindus in diaspora with their traditions. Focusing particularly on the guru’s global reach, Fibiger discusses her fieldwork in Amma’s Kerala ashram, and how Western devotees in India are influencing developments there.

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, George Michael’s “Faith” LP vinyl, the cult classic Mall Rats, and more.


A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.


The Hugging Guru: Amma and Trans-nationalism

Podcast with Marianne Qvortrup Fibiger (12 November 2018).

Interviewed by Sammy Bishop.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Qvortrup_Fibiger-_The_Hugging_Guru_1.1

Sammy Bishop (SB): Hello. I’m Sammy Bishop. I’m here at the EASR conference in Bern. I am here with Marianne Qvortrup Fibiger, who is Associate Professor at Aarhus University. So, thank you very much for joining us.

Marianne Qvortrup Fibiger (MQF): Thank you for allowing me to come here and talk about my subject matter.

SB: How is your conference going so far?

MQF: Oh, Great! There’s a lot of good panels and good keynotes. And I think you can see how religion, and the way that we are talking about religion, is changing – and that’s a really good thing.

SB: Ok. So your current research is focussing on Amma, the hugging guru?

MQF: Sure, yes.

SB: So for those people who aren’t so familiar with it, could you just tell us a bit about who Amma is?

MQF: Yes. She’s a transnational guru. She was born, in 1953, in Kerala, which is in South India. And she is from the fisherman class, a low-caste Hindu family. And she grew up and she had . . . This is very typical, that you look on her story in a religious-centred way. And she has some special abilities all the way. She did things all the way back to when she was about 9 years old. And this has just been developing. So you can talk about her going from being a very local girl with special abilities, becoming – what they say within the Hindu tradition – a kind of a Shakti representative, meaning that she has some kind of special female energy which is related the goddesses, which can incarnate in people. And from that she becomes a local guru you can go to and ask questions. But also – and this is the main thing about her – she also gives healing hugs. And from there, you know, it developed, she developed, the devotees around her became more, until she’s also became a guru for Western devotees. And that is where we are now. And what the organisation around her, called MAM writes on the webpage – please look into that it’s a really interesting read – she has given 35 million hugs all around the world. So what is interesting is that she’s appealing both to European Americans, she still appeals to local Hindus as well, and she also appeals to middle-class Hindus from all over India – and even Indians living in diaspora. So she’s a trans-local, transnational, global guru of today.

SB: And when it comes to these different groups of devotees, what’s the main appeal? Is there a different appeal for different groups? And does she pitch her message differently?

MQF: Yes. It’s – and this is what we always answer as researchers – it’s a both/and! So in one way she is saying the same things, but the ears that hear differ. So I think that what she says is translated and interpreted in different ways, if you look at local Indians, more transnational Indians and European American devotees. And that is what is interesting, that she can say something that in some ways goes into the mind or the brain, and the heart, to devotees from all over the world. And what I think – and this is one of my theses, or hyper-theses – is that she is balancing between being very traditional Bhakti guru, where she has a special devotionalism related to her . . . . And then she has a kind of authenticity, you know? It’s very open how you can see she is an Indian guru. And on the other hand she has universal messages. (5:00) And also that she’s a woman – I think that’s important. And she has this idea that she, herself, is incarnating a message. She is incarnating what she thinks is the main way of understanding religion, namely love, she says. “Religion is love, my religion is love.” And she thinks that she should be acting accordingly. So that’s why she also gives these hugs which should heal both the person that she heals, but – and this is very important in relation to the way we understand the world today – she will also heal the world which is “bleeding”, as she says. So she also has this kind-of very universal message that appeals to everyone. And when we are talking about this conference, you can hear how many who are referring to how climate changes, the Anthropocene – that it is the human beings in the world who are the main reason why the climate changes are so rapidly going the wrong way. And she is talking into that kind of discourse – which everybody thinks is important.

SB: Yes. And you mentioned briefly, there, the gendered nature of her message, and the name Amma obviously meaning mother. Can you say a bit more about that, maybe particularly regarding the climate change aspect, as well?

MQF: Yes. You can talk about this being a female . . . or representative of a kind-of female energy, on different levels. You can talk about it in relation to a deity worship, a goddess worship where the goddess is incarnated in that person in the world: someone thinks she is like that, and then she is a deity, and then they called her Devi Amritanandamayi, which is her name. And sometimes she’s Mata – mother – which . . . devotees I’ve interviewed have said, “She is like a mother to us.” You know? And she talks about her devotees as her children that she wants to take care of. And that is, you know, what you can do being a female. In another perspective she’s also related to mother earth, you know: that, being a female, she is kind of entangled in the understanding of the earth as a mother – which is the main reason for her life on earth – and, on the other hand, is also a mother who is bleeding. So she can be inscribed in different ways of understanding what a female, or the female, can do in relation to . . . also, to appealing to people in another way than if it was a male.

SB: And just thinking about her representing different things, as well, in this very kind of international span that she has: you mentioned, in your presentation yesterday, how she’s been representing Hinduism at the UN. Could you say a bit more about that?

MQF: Sure. Yes. It was back in 2010 when she was invited to the United Nations. And maybe she didn’t play the major role there, but she was invited and there was a speech that she created that gave her time to come and represent Hinduism there. And there was a man, he was the representative for public and private partnership in New York. And in the end of his talk he said, “What you do brings happiness to people. You are truly a saint.” And this is interesting, because he’s using the notion and conception of saint, which has Christian connotations. (10:00) So she, in that way, she was also inscribed in Christian, or a more universal understanding of her. She can be part of all kinds of denominations and relations to the world.

SB: So, taking it down to your current research at the moment: as I understand it, it’s been on her ashram in Kerala. So could you tell us a bit about the groups of people who are there and what goes on there?

MQF: Yes. Kerala, her ashram in Kerala is called Amritapuri, and I visited it for the first time all the way back in 2006- 2007, when I did fieldwork in Kerala about goddess worship. And I thought, “I need to go there!” And I was kind-of struck by the way it was organised, because it was organised by European American devotees. And I was kind-of “Well,” you know, “Is it a new way of colonising – not the land, but the tradition?” And I went to have a hug. I needed to see what she was doing. I didn’t feel that much, I must admit! But then I had to take a kind of token. You take a token and you queue up. And I was sent to queue up. There were two queues: one for the Indians and one for European Americans. And you think, “No! We can’t do it like this!” But it seems like the Indians actually didn’t mind. And what I saw was, also, seeing how she was doing very big darshans where 40,000 people, at least, came from all through India. And I saw how the European American devotees were organising everything. And they were sitting in front in white gowns, when all the different Hindus were sitting in the back. But, you know, and then I was thinking about, “How come it is like that? Is it a good or bad thing for the traditions of India?” And what I can see today is that this kind of translation – the European American devotees are trying to translate the local Indian tradition to a more global one – this is now appealing to the growing Indian middle-class in India, which is really interesting. And it has not only to do with guru worship or guruism, but it also has to do with the relationship between what we can call . . . it’s wrong to call it between East and West. And what you can see is that it’s an example of this dynamic: how I think it’s very important that you understand religion not as rooted in one context, but that we follow its route around the world. And I think its Clifford who says that you look at not roots, but routes – you know, how it’s travelling. And in the travelling the tradition is changing. But what is interesting, when it comes to the globalised world, these kind of changes are not only good for . . . not only a way that devotees in European countries understand the tradition, but now, also, because this translation of the tradition is turning back to India. And suddenly, middle- class Indians – Hindus, who are in many ways secularised and feel disconnected from the tradition that they grew up in – get reconnected to the Hindu tradition again. So this is interesting, I think. And it’s a new way of looking at how ideas, which are circulating very quickly, are translated in such a way that the appeal is wider than you believe it would be, thinking from a first order perspective.(15:00) And I think that’s interesting. And I also did a fieldwork in Mauritius among Hindus there. You know, in Mauritius, Hindu’s are a majority, but they also, in many ways, are secularised – understood as making a compartmentalisation between being religious. And in other ways they are very much secularised. And I think Amma was visiting for the first time in 1987. And a lot of people suddenly understood the tradition that they didn’t understand any longer, through her way of . . . . And also, the European and American devotees who were travelling along with her, they were kind of reconnected to the Hindu tradition again. So this is, you know, a way of understanding this kind of entanglement of different ways of translating or understanding religion. And it’s a crucial example of religion as context-related but also a very dynamic phenomenon.

SB: And when it comes to European and American devotees having a great influence in the organisation, do you find certain people kind-of laying claims to the tradition, and other people critiquing the involvement of these Western devotees as well?

MQF: Yes, of course you’ll find someone who thinks that we need to take the tradition back to the Indian roots again. Or some conservative Hindus think that she is too inclusive. And some are criticising the way that she is dealing with some of her right-hand people who are representing the MAM tradition, when they are doing things which is – in their perspective – not part of the Hindu tradition. So what you’ll see . . . and it’s the same when some Hindus think, or are arguing, that we need to get yoga back to the Hindu or Indian tradition again. So, you will always see that, you know, when things are changing someone wants it to stop. And they want to root it back in a tradition which can also be difficult to define. So you see this kind of . . . the way people want to get hold of it again and not make it open for the whole world.

SB: Yes. It seem that a lot of the discourses around it are fairly similar to the ones that happen around yoga, as well. Do you find it helpful comparing the two?

MQF: Well, yes you can do that. But the difference between them is that Amma is a guru, she’s a person, and yoga is a phenomenon. And so I mean it’s easier to get hold of, or grab onto, the messages of a person who’s still alive, than get a hold on yoga which has been changing since it was . . . . And people even don’t know when it started. Should we go back all the way to pre-Vedic tradition when it comes to yoga? Or should we kind-of place it in the Upanishadic tradition? And things like that. So, I mean, here you can actually take her messages and you can try to decipher it and try to criticise it because it’s there. (20:00) And yoga’s a floating signifier.

SB: Yes. Are there are certain ways in which Amma was able to claim authority as a guru?

MQF: Yes. And I think that’s very important as well. So it’s good that you asked me that question. Because on the one hand, she has this kind of universal message. On the other hand, she’s very much inscribed in Hindu guruism, in Bhakti devotionalism, and she also understands herself as a karma yogi – as a yogi who acting in the world. So I mean, in one perspective she’s inclusive, in another perspective she’s also exclusive. And that, I think – this kind of balancing between inclusivism and exclusivism – makes her so appealing both for Indians and also for Europeans and American devotees. And in relation to that, I think it’s so interesting to see . . . . You know, I’ve been interviewing devotees especially in Denmark where I’m from. And they are telling me how they are really trying to stick to the Indian tradition. So in some ways, and understand me correctly, in some ways they are trying to be kind-of more traditional than a lot of Hindus are, living in India or around Persia. They are telling me they would like to learn some mantras in Sanskrit; they are having a guru purnima, where they have a special day where they are devoted to their guru, which they do in the month of June, everywhere. And I was participating in one of these guru purnimas, and they were very anxious to do the puja in the right manner. And because I was there, they were kind-of, you know, “Did we do it the right way? Or should we do it like that with flowers?” And things like that. So I mean that is also interesting, right? So . . . that she’s never changing her behaviour as being an Indian guru I think is important, as well. And it’s appealing to America European devotees.

SB: Just to change the topic slightly: you raised the idea, there, of your presence as a researcher kind-of affecting the behaviour of devotees slightly, as well. So, talking about research methods, were there certain problems that you came up against? Could you say a bit more about that?

MQF: Yes. It’s always difficult just to be a fly on the wall when you are there. And when you have presented yourself as being a researcher and not an Amma devotee, people are very much concerned about “How do we, then, represent the tradition that you want to write about?” And also, you know, “In what way will you . . . . Are you having a critical point of departure, or do you want to kind-of do it in a way that could promote our tradition?” And I think it’s very important, as a researcher, that you tell them, you know, the reason for being there. And also I think it’s very important that when you write, you write the things in relation to being a researcher. And it has to do with the big discussion: emic or etic? Or also, the big discussion around this kind-of phenomenological relation to the tradition, which I know a lot of anthropologists think is important: that you can’t do research on something that you haven’t kind-of been part of yourself. I think it’s important. And people could criticise that. And I try to stand three steps behind what I’m actually doing. (25:00) And I think people are accepting that. I might not get all the answers that a person who will be part of the Amma group. But I get some other answers. And I put it into . . . . And I think that’s important, too – and that’s the way I’m brought up, in academia – that you have some kind of theoretical point of departure when looking at empirical phenomenon. And I’ll always do that. And it can give some backlash, but as long as you as researcher are very clear in your mind in the way you’re writing, and also towards the one you are going forward in relation to, I think you do what you can do. Someone will disagree with that, but I think from my perspective, it’s important.

SB: So, going forwards as well, where do you see your research going in the future?

MQF: Well, I think it will go in a different direction. I’ve always been interested in Hinduism diaspora. And the reason for being interested in that field, particularly, is firstly to see how religion is changing in relation to the social and cultural context, but also because Hinduism is so difficult to define. And I’m not going to tell you. But I’ll just say it anyway, that I’ve promised my students I will retire if I get to know what I’m actually an expert in!

SB: (Laughs)

MQF: But I think it’s very important that Hindus in diaspora are trying to put some words on what is the Hindu tradition. Being away from where the tradition has been part of culture for ages, suddenly you try to figure out, you know, what do we want to keep? And what do we want to leave behind? And I think that’s interesting both in relation to Hinduism, but also in relation to understanding religion as a dynamic phenomenon. So my research will keep on trying to look on Hinduism diaspora but also I’ve done a book with one of my colleagues called Eastspirit about how ideals, concepts, notions are circulating between what we call East and West. And what I think is so interesting is to see also how this is changing the way that Europeans are looking on their lives in the world, but in a way that . . . . I have also written an article where I’m not talking about the process of Easternisation of the West, but what I’m trying to argue for a new concept called the “Weasternisation”, meaning that the Eastern concept and notions are translated in a Western way, so they give meaning also in Western countries. And I’ve also been researching, and I would like to do a bit more about it, about how Indian or Hindu tropes are getting new meanings in a European context. Especially, as an example, you can talk about karma, which in many ways in European context is a kind of a feel-good notion. And if you compare what karma actually means in India, it has totally changed. Also, in relation to the understanding of reincarnation as “another go” – a new possibility – I think that’s interesting too. And you can’t say that the way you understand reincarnation or karma is wrong. It’s just embedded in a new European context, which makes it possible for the concept to change. So I think that’s really interesting. (30:00) And I think that’s so important. But also, in the discussion of how notions from Hinduism and Buddhism . . . it’s not the kind-of worldviews “coming to Europe”, it’s not kind-of “now it is taking over another worldview”. It is more like something . . . a part of a new way of understanding yourself. So it’s not that you have to choose between your old worldview and the Eastern one. But you can combine it. And I think it’s interesting how come that concepts from India . . . it’s much easier to be entangled, or be kind-of a floating signifier that could be rooted in a Western tradition as well. So that’s some of the things I would like to work on. And there’s a lot of things to do, so I hope someone else will take up these ideas!

SB: Yes, I look forward to seeing that as well. Marianne – thank you so much for your time.

MQF: Thank you for allowing me to talk a little about something I’m really interested in, in a research perspective.

SB: Thank you.


Citation Info: Qvortrup Fibiger, Marianne, and Sammy Bishop. 2018. “’The Hugging Guru: Amma and Transnationalism”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 12 November 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 9 November 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/the-hugging-guru-amma-and-transnationalism/

If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with transcribing the Religious Studies Project archive, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

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Religious Studies Project Opportunities Digest – 8 December 2015

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African Christianity in the West

‘Africa’. ‘Christianity’. ‘The West’. Three seemingly simple terms with clear referents. Three categories which – perhaps unsurprisingly, to regular listeners of the RSP – have been, and continue to be, associated with and invoked in support of myriad competing agendas, truth claims, ideologies, and more.

In telling the story of the complex interrelationship between these terms, some might point to the Berlin Conference of 1884/5 as a defining moment marking the beginning of intensive Euro-American Christian mission to Africa. Others might direct attention to the fact that Christianity has been present in Africa almost since its emergence, with three of the best known figures of the early church – Anthony (c. 285-356), Athanasius (296-373) and Augustine (354-430) – living and working in the north of the continent. Still others might prefer a more contemporary approach, focusing upon the Christianities that can be discerned among communities of African origin in Diaspora. This week’s podcast focuses upon the latter.

In this interview with Chris, Dr Afe Adogame of the University of Edinburgh provides a stimulating introduction to this vast and complicated triad.

Discussion covers a wide range of questions, including:

  • What makes African Christianity ‘African’? Is it only for ‘Africans’? Who decides? Why do we take this huge continent as a single entity?
  • If African Christianity is particularly non- or anti-Western, how does this manifest itself in the West? Is it also non-African (i.e. non-indigenous?)
  • Does referring to ‘African Christianity in the West’ or even ‘African Christianity’ in general perpetuate racial divides, systems of exclusivity?
  • What is the public image of African Christianity in the West? Is there one?
  • What does the study of African Christianity – in the West or elsewhere – bring to the study of ‘religion’ in general?

This interview was originally conceived as a kind of two-parter with an interview on ‘African Indigenous Traditions in the West’ which has, as yet, not occurred. Of course, it must be stated that ‘Christianity’ and ‘Indigenous Traditions’ are not the full story of ‘religion’ in Africa, with one glaring omission being ‘Islam’ amongst others. However, due to time constraints this interview will focus almost exclusively on ‘Christianity’ and we shall attempt to rectify this in the future.

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Religion, Migration and Diaspora

“We had so many studies focusing on institutions and on official discourse, and so few studies on the silent majority, which never shows up in these institutions… So we over-emphasize the religious belongings. All the muslims are supposed to know the Qur’an, although they don’t. Some of them have never opened it. Some of them don’t think they are Muslims. – None of us is Christian, Muslim, a Mason, Atheist, 24 hours a day. We have much more belongings, identities.”

Photo_SalzbrunnNeedless to say, migration and diasporic communities are a politically hot topic. In many European countries the attitudes towards immigration, especially by those representing different cultural or religious backgrounds, have become more critical and in some cases outright hostile. On the other hand, there are those who advocate openness without paying much attention to the challenges increased immigration as well as uninformed immigration policies may cause. The digging of ideological trenches and heated debates seem to highlight the very real need of comprehensive academic study on the realities of migration, immigrant communities, immigration policies and beyond. But how are these to be studied most effectively? One person who definitely has something to say about this topic is professor Monika Salzbrunn. She is currently the leader of the Research Institute for Social Sciences of Contemporary Religions (IRSSCR) and holds a full-time professorship in “Religion, Migration and Diaspora” at Lausanne University, Switzerland. She has been involved in an impressive array of research projects. For example, she was the leader of the French team in the European GEMMA project on policymaking, gender and migration in the 7th framework program of the European Union at Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (EHESS). The RSP had a great opportunity to discuss the broad themes of migration and diaspora with professor Salzbrunn at the biennial conference of International Society for the Sociology of Religion in Turku earlier this year.  Salzbrunn contributes the final episode to our current theme ‘Religion, Migration and Diaspora’, and tells about the work done at the IRSSCR. She gives an introduction to her current research projects, and also says something about what in her view remains to be done in the future. A point to emphasize, in her view, is that it is important to study the multifaceted everyday life of the ‘silent majority’ to get relevant information on the religious diversity ‘on the streets’: food, entertainment, and especially the religious events and festivities, in which religious and ethnic identities are being constructed and maintained.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when buying your Christmas presents etc.

(For those wondering about the noises and chimes on the backround, we also had the honour of having Salzbrunn’s inquisitive daughter take part in the interview. She is already an experienced conferencionista herself. Enjoy!) More information on the research projects steered by Salzbrunn can be found here: L’islam (in)-visible en ville. Expressions matérielles et immatérielles des pratiques de l’islam dans l’espace urbain (pdf-file, in French) Undocumented Mobility (Tunisia – Switzerland) and Digital-Cultural Resources after the ‘Arab Spring’ (on Lausanne University’s website, in English).

The other episodes in this series featured Andrew Dawson on Santo Daime, and D. Mitra Barua on Immigrant Buddhism in the West.

Concepts and Symbols, What Does It All Mean? Examining Immigrant Buddhists in Toronto

Published by the Religious Studies Project on 13 November 2013, in response to D. Mitra Barua’s interview on Immigrant Buddhism in the West  (11 November 2013).

Talal Asad, in Genealogies of Religion, sets out an argument by which he hopes to improve upon Clifford Geertz’s anthropological method of examining a culture’s symbols in an effort to analyze the meanings that these symbols hold “of” and “for” a culture’s religious character. He points out that although “[r]eligious symbols… cannot be understood independently of their historical relations with nonreligious symbols…” (53) “It does not follow that the meanings of religious practices and utterances are to be sought in social phenomena, but only that their possibility and their authoritative status are to be explained as products of historically distinctive disciplines and forces. (54) In short, any culture cannot be said to be a fixed point to be dissected as such, but rather, a stream or flow of histories whose “power” and influence received from prior discourse must be taken into account as a process of cultural, and therefore religious, creation.

Webb Keane takes Asad’s emphasis upon socio-historical discourse being a process through which meanings can be analysed and provides a term for this concept that he feels is better able to be wielded by the ethnographer, namely, the utilisation of “semiotic forms”. Semiotic forms, Keane argues, are “social categories” which are “recognizable as something knowable”. He continues, “they must, that is, have some material manifestation that makes them available to, interpretable by, and, in most cases, replicable by other people: bodily actions, speech, the treatment of objects, and so forth.” (114) Seeing as how, for Keane, “[s]emiotic forms are public entities…” they are “objects for the senses…” and “as such, they have distinctive temporal dimensions…” however, “[b]ecause they are repeatable, they have the potential to persist over time and across social contexts.” (114-115). In this specific context, Keane only examines one example of a semiotic form for the sake of illustration- speech; however, Mitra Barua hits upon this exact idea in his conversation with Chris Silver. We start to get an idea of Barua’s work when he tells us of his interest in how Buddhism has been transmitted into new locations (inter-cultural dimensions of Buddhist transmission) and between first- and second-generation immigrants living in diaspora (inter-generational dimensions).

Working with Sri Lankan Theravada Buddhists (presumably Sinhalese) who form a disaporic group in Toronto, Canada, Barua is able to link his work with that of Asad and Keane by adding to his two dimensions of Buddhist transmissions an overall sense of time, or discourse. He identifies three primary historical periods of migration within which he frames his work; namely, the Colonial, Post-Colonial and Diaspora periods. None of these have any ontological purchase independently; rather, only as a spectrum, each blending into the next (ignoring firm historical dates one must assume and only focusing on the state of transmission of teachings which does not generally change, or stop-start, with any firm temporal grounding). His interest lies in how Buddhism has been and continues to be transmitted from older, first-generation migrants who came from Ceylon to Canada, to their children who were raised in Canadian culture; or, inter-cultural and inter-generational dimensions of transmission and the problems that arise therefrom.

What he finds is perhaps a bit unsurprising; the younger generation who have grown up in a “secular”, Western culture have different views and emphases regarding how to balance their secular and their religious livesthan their parents. Additionally, Barua finds that there is a serious concern within the older members of the community regarding the “religiosity” of Buddhism being not only separated out, but also lost in favour of a more secular, functional usage of concepts like samatha/vipassana or group temple worship.

Concerning this worry surrounding the “dilution” of Buddhism that Barua identifies amongst the Buddhist immigrants in Toronto, some important questions arise for scholars of religion as a whole. Throughout the interview terms like “religion”, “faith”, “theology” are thrown about, ironically often in close proximity to discussions on how Buddhism is tied into not just the immigrants religious lives but also and perhaps most importantly their culture. During the first third of the interview, Dr. Barua even explains how these immigrants have changed the adjectives of the Buddhist Eight-fold Path, from “right” speech, thought, action, etc. to “harmonious”. Why does this bi-polarity seem to weigh so heavily on this group of immigrants, on the one hand being self-conscious enough to feel it necessary to change the language of one of their most fundamental principles, while at the same time wanting to save the “religiosity” of Buddhism from complete secularisation? Further, do Christo-centric terms like faith and theology even work within a Buddhist setting, and if not, why does this community feel it useful or indeed necessary to use them? Does the very act of using foreign, Christian terms contribute to the undermining of the very sense of importance and individuality that the Buddhist elders are trying to stave off; and most intriguingly, if religion (in this case Buddhism) is indeed not sui generis but rather, linked wholly with a society’s culture; are these immigrants not so much concerned with the loss of their religion, but instead and more disconcerting, with a loss of their culture and self-identity? In a response to a similar question from Chris Silver, Dr. Barua does give us a related answer when he affirms, that he found these Buddhists to self-identify as indeed in some ways more religious in Canada than they were in Sri Lanka.

By way of conclusion with the understanding that cultural (and therefore religious) symbols and concepts are intrinsically intertwined within the socio-temporal spectrum of a group of people, as scholars of religion some pressing questions now pop up for further inspection, perhaps most importantly are some that are self-reflexive: are we truly Post-Orientalist/Colonialist? Do we, living in primarily First and Second World countries, take for granted our contemporary cultural hegemony? What can we learn about immigrant groups who find their most effective recourse to be utilising OUR terminology to describe THEIR culture? Perhaps the era of colonisation is not quite over.

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

References

  • Asad, Talal. 1993. Genealogies of Religion: Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
  • Geertz, Clifford. 1973. The Interpretation of Cultures. New York. Basic Books
  • Keane, Webb. 2008. ‘The evidence of the senses and the materiality of religion’. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute. Volume 14: 110-127.

D. Mitra Barua on Immigrant Buddhism in the West

D. Mitra BaruaDr. D. Mitra Barua is an instructor of Religious Studies at the University of Saskatchewan, and has a Masters in Buddhist Philosophy undertaken in Sri Lanka. His doctorate concerned several generations of Sri Lankan immigrants in Toronto, and how their Buddhist practices are affected by being transplanted to Canada.

In this in-depth interview with Chris Silver, Barua discusses the links between ethnic and religious identity, and how the relationship has changed over time. They discuss how traditional Buddhist teachings are reinterpreted in order to harmonise their Buddhism with the multicultural society in which they are embedded, although this has not been uncontroversial. Buddhism, of course, has historically been geographically and theologically diverse, and this has continued in a North American context. 

They also discuss how these affect our models of religion and culture. Are the appropriations of Buddhist traditions like meditation in therapeutic contexts to be considered ‘religious’? Dr Barua also describes some of the practical issues with carrying out fieldwork within a monastic community.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when buying your important books etc. Remember… Christmas is on the way!

This interview marks the beginning of a short series of podcasts from the RSP on Religion, Migration and Diaspora, which began last week with Andrew Dawson discussing Sante Daime, and concludes next week with Monika Salzbrunn speaking to Hanna Lehtinen about Religion, Migration and Diaspora.