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.

Studying Tantra from the Inside and Out

In this interview on ‘Studying Tantra from the Inside and Out’, Douglas R Brooks allows the listener an insight into his own personal and academic development, and an account of how various factors led him to the study of South Indian Shrividya Shakta Tantrism. There are many interesting elements to consider therein, but for me, the interview first and foremost appeals to one of the core debates within Religious Studies: the insider/outsider debate. Due to the interview’s largely autobiographical focus, I find it most useful when viewed as an elaboration on this discussion, and I hope, in this short response, to highlight elements of the ongoing debate. Specifically, I wish to highlight the shifting nature of the categories of ‘insider’ and ‘outsider’; emphasise the position of the ‘other’ in judging the status of the researcher; and to consider how the researcher may work to position themselves in this dynamic.

One of the RSP’s earliest interviews with George Chryssides covers the insider/outsider debate, and raises several questions in relation to it – as does Katie Aston’s response, in which she explores the question of whether it is best for the scholar (or more specifically, the anthropologist) of religion to have any belief in order to relate to the individuals that they research.   Most would agree that being an insider or outsider to the group that one studies will always be on some sort of spectrum, with few clear or stable boundaries. The researcher’s position in this spectrum will alter according to various identity markers, including whether or not they are already an accepted member of the community being researched, or indeed if they are a ‘believer’ in any capacity; but also according to markers such as nationality, ethnicity, native language, age, and gender.  Each of the researcher’s identity markers will be perceived differently by the individuals they encounter, and this will define the extent to which one is perceived as an ‘insider’ or an ‘outsider’ by each individual.  This sets a broad background for the interview with Brooks, a scholar renowned for his research on (and deep involvement) in Shakta Tantra in South India.  Several of the aforementioned ideas arise particularly prominently in this interview.

Starting with a more general consideration of being an insider or outsider to a typically Christian, North American background, Brooks discusses his experience of being brought up in a non-religious household, using the somewhat revealing phrase that he ‘didn’t have to undo a great deal’.  By casting his non-religious upbringing as an advantage, Brooks consciously positions himself outside of the sphere of traditional religion in the North American context. Despite appearing to be grateful for this lack of religious influence in his early life, he also describes how this later led to him being somewhat of an outsider on his University course, which assumed that students of comparative religion would come from a Judeao-Christian background, and would have some form of committed belief. Brooks clearly felt that he did not fit this mould.

However, to avoid reiterating previous discussions about the effects of a (non)religious background, I prefer to focus on one theme that emerges particularly strongly in this interview: that of language, and the great effect that it can have on the status of the researcher. Brooks clearly places great value on his own command of Sanskrit and Tamil, and indeed, his knowledge of these languages has afforded him a unique understanding of South Indian Tantric and Goddess traditions that few scholars can match.  The importance placed on language also leads him to refer to a past lecturer on Hinduism and Buddhism as ‘a well-meaning amateur’ due to his lack of first-hand knowledge of Sanskrit, which thus denied him direct access to the literature (here, Brooks perhaps overemphasises the role of texts).  Clearly, Brooks’ skill in this area can afford him increased access to not only the literature of his field, but to individuals and communities in South India today – contributing toward his efforts to become an insider.  On a more practical level, advanced linguistic ability also avoids the complexities of employing a translator in the fieldwork setting – an arrangement which risks a loss of nuance, and reinforces the researcher’s position as an outsider through the translator’s necessary presence and involvement.

As well as aiding in his research in South India, this linguistic ability also gives Brooks social and cultural capital for the groups that he speaks with during his public engagement events: one attendee and blogger writes, ‘It blew my mind when he lead puja on the last day.  He busted out mantras as if he were born a Brahmin. Dude can read Sanskrit!’. Through his use and knowledge of languages, Brooks can thus be perceived by America yoga students as more of an ‘authentic’ insider to those South Indian traditions which he studies.  This in turn can afford him the status of an insider to the yoga community, which places high value on these relatively rare skills.

This also raises the question of Brooks’ status to those involved in the North American yoga community, in which he lectures extensively on Tantric philosophy and appears to be considered a yoga teacher.  However, unlike the vast majority of yoga teachers, he does not teach asana (as far as I can tell).  Thus Brooks straddles the spheres of the academy and the yoga world, finding a place in both but not as a ‘typical’ member.  This straddling echoes that done by Brooks’ own mentor, Dr Sundaramoorthy.  It seems that for Brooks, Sundaramoorthy represented an ideal insider to the both the academic world and the world of South Indian Tantrism, as he studied Shakta Tantrism academically, was skilled in languages, and was born to an orthodox Brahmin family.

Finally, we can take a more removed perspective and consider Brooks’ positioning of himself to the audience, and the language used therein – already touched upon in his comment on not having to ‘undo’ the effects of a religious upbringing.  Although it is important not to hypothesise too imaginatively on the interviewee’s choice of words or topics to cover, we can at least consider the effect they might have on the audience.  For example, Brooks explicitly places himself outside the ‘hippy movement’ of the Beatles’ era, as well as emphasising his removal from the modern postural yoga movement exemplified by figures such as K. Pattabhi Jois, B.K.S Iyengar, and Tirumalai Krishnamacharya. What does the interviewee convey to the audience by doing so?  To me, Brooks seems to emphasise his commitment to studying South Indian traditions in their more classical or traditional forms. However, by doing so, he could perhaps be casting himself as a more ‘authentic’ researcher and insider of Indian traditions by maintaining some distance between himself and the New Age movement, often subject to accusations of cultural appropriation, a lack of historical understanding, and being more ‘lightweight’.   As well as looking at what is said in this interview, we can also consider what is not said. Brooks’ own involvement in the North American yoga world is downplayed as his ‘weekend job’ of public engagement, which partially obscures the fact that this isn’t done in an entirely academic capacity, but also in the capacity of a devoted teacher of the Rajanaka Yoga philosophy.  The listener wonders whether Brooks’ downplaying of his involvement with the North American yoga world could perhaps be an appeal to greater academic credibility, and to the academy’s preference for highly objective empirical accounts of religious phenomena.

I find autobiographical interviews such as this valuable for the themes that emerge throughout the narrative, such as that of the researcher’s status as an insider or outsider.  I hope that this short response has highlighted the complexity of relationships between Brooks (as the researcher) and the other social actors he encounters including, but not limited to: the individuals and communities he studies; his mentor, Dr Sundaramoorthy; the North American yoga world; the academy; and the listeners of this podcast – all of whom, I suspect, will judge him as an ‘insider’ or ‘outsider’ to wildly varying degrees.