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Transnational Gurus and the Making of a Modern Devotional Public

During the reception following the first South Asian performance I attended after moving to Denver, I met several members of the Denver Tamil community. Towards the end of my conversation with a woman from a village outside Chennai, she began to tell me about her devotion to Amma. She began by asking, “Do you follow Amma?” And without waiting for my response, she volunteered, “We are all Amma devotees here. We just went to see her in Las Vegas.” I knew that she came from a conservative Brahmin background; so, it was surprising to see her enthusiasm when she spoke about Amma. Curious to know more, I asked her how she became interested in Amma. She quickly turned to her daughter and asked her to share her first experience of meeting Amma. There was wonder and joy in her daughter’s voice as she told me of her plans to go see Amma again. This exchange was illuminating as I was unaware of Amma’s popularity in the broader South Indian Tamil community. Before listening to this podcast, it had seemed somewhat baffling that Amma would appear in Las Vegas. Dr. Marianne Qvortrup Fibiger explains how Amma’s embrace of her position as a transnational and “translocal” guru makes the broad reach of platforms such as Las Vegas fitting for her message.

The phenomenon of buying and selling spirituality has always been a part of public religious praxis. With transnational spirituality comes a neoliberal underpinning in which identities and cultural icons can become brands in which people can invest. Listening to Dr. Marianne Fibiger speak about Amma and her remarkable relationship with a broad community of devotees, I was struck by Amma’s uncanny ability to “market” her message to various groups. Fibiger describes this process as “hearing with different ears.” She references a devotee who remarks that Amma is “truly a saint,” in order to show how Amma has become “transnational” through a sort of Christianizing of her status as divine. It also appears to show Amma’s skills at making herself appealing to both local and universal communities. In many ways, Amma’s “universalism” dovetails with the efforts of early transnational yogis such Swami Vivekananda, Aurobindo, and BKS Iyengar. They are able to repackage yoga as a universal health and wellness practice that does not require scriptural knowledge. Through a disciplined, embodied, practice, one would gain spiritual enlightenment. For Amma, hugging functions as both an act of love and darshan (seeing/experiencing the divine), helping to fashion a sort of humanistic theology (Lucia, 6).

Fibiger’s interview underscores the sheer numbers of Amma devotees as well as their varied backgrounds. The material presence of Amma is buttressed by a robust virtual one. Her website and social media presence are indicative of a savvy marketing platform. Her physical presence lends authenticity to her online brand. My response considers how transnational gurus such as Amma have learned to navigate a global neoliberal marketplace in order to sell their ideas. Amma, similar to conservative Indian public figure Ramdev, appears to have a keen understanding of her audience and how to disseminate her message and broaden her appeal. While Ramdev uses patanjaliayurved.net to market products building his name as brand, Amma’s website centers on building her brand by hawking her message. On https://amma.org/ the visitor is greeted by a smiling Amma with open arms, her tour dates emblazoned across her image. Linking a devotional picture of Amma with her next tour presents her persona and message as important and valuable commodities in high demand. Just below her image on the home page, the visitor will see four links detailing what Amma is doing now, how to donate, and information on Amrita Yoga (her signature practice). Here, the main facets of Amma’s brand emerge: charity, accessibility, and a doctrine to follow. The bottom of the home page has a brief introduction that describes Amma as a transnational spiritual teacher. Statements such as “she never asked anyone to change their religion” and “her entire life has been dedicated to alleviating the pain of the poor, and those suffering physically and emotionally” are designed to cement a vision of Amma as the accessible divine.

While her Facebook pages are largely centered on events and appearances, Amma uses her Twitter handle (@Amritanandamayi) to promote her message and build her brand as the “Hugging Guru.” The social media communities that form around Amma (e.g. unofficial “Amma” social media accounts) reinforce the transnational character of her message. These disparate groups of devotees form virtual networks through which Amma’s message disseminates. This devotional network further boosts the reach of Amma’s message and platform for charitable donation. Amma also has a series of apps (Amrita Apps). These apps provide links to her social media, news of her appearances as well as chants for sādhana (daily practice) and seva (service) opportunities. In these ways, Amma becomes a “full-service” spiritual guide, larger than just her person and her hugs. She also has several books and a few periodicals along with Amrita TV which continuously connect her devotees to her message (Lucia, 6). Through these virtual extensions of her material presence, Amma has transformed herself into a non-sectarian religious “brand,” competing for devotees in a growing soteriological marketplace.

 

Above, advertisements for one of the several shows on Amrita TV that features Amma. The network offers a variety of wholesome programming, including comedies and dramas, not just devotional programming. This program, Amritavarsham, aims to “promote world peace and imbibe the spirit of service among peoples of the world.” It opens with a brief message from Amma in which she shares “simple anecdotes and examples from day-to-day life to make it engrossing for one and all.” English subtitles are provided “so that people across the world can understand the meaning.”

Marianne Quvortrup Fibiger’s research on Amma highlights an important aspect of public religion: the making of a devotional public. Near the beginning of the interview, she calls Amma “a trans-local, transnational, global guru of today.” She then describes Amma’s appeal to her diverse community of devotees as rooted in her “authenticity,” which allows her to be a “traditional bhakti guru” as well as have “universal appeal.” Fibiger’s also points out the unsettling imagery of a large public darshan (40,000+) with Europeans in the front row in white and everyone else behind them, though she notes that these events were often a place for Hindus to reconnect with their faith. These communal gatherings of devotion provide a good example of the delicate balancing act Amma performs between the universal and local aspects of devotion. Transnational gurus like Amma must repackage religious praxis in the language of human connection in order to appeal to a diverse and broad constituency. In doing so, Amma and her message help build a public devotional community held together by commitment to abstract values such as love and spiritual harmony that are achieved through practices and teachings rooted in specific traditions. I think Fibiger’s comments on translation and understanding of religion are particularly interesting in this context. She suggests that transnational gurus like Amma can function, in a way, as translators of traditions, producing “bridges of understanding.” The questions that follow are: What is the content of this “understanding”?  And for whom is it understood?  Fibiger’s discussion near the end of the interview regarding her project on East and West spirituality underscores the ways in which these questions produce the boundaries within which these emerging spiritual identities are being forged and negotiated.

 

Reference

Lucia, Amanda J. Reflections of Amma: Devotees in a Global Embrace. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014.

On the Global Guru Circuit: From India to the West and Back Again

Above, Amritapuri—“Amma’s abode”—is located on the original site of her family’s home along the southwestern coast of India. In addition to serving as Amma’s main ashram, it is also her organizational headquarters and adjacent to Amrita University campus. Photo from https://www.amritapuri.org/ashram

By Dr. Amanda Lucia, University of California-Riverside

Many of the points Marianne Qvortrup Fibiger made during her interview resonated with existing research on transnational Hindu gurus and particularly on Mata Amritanandamayi (Amma). Before I began publishing on Amma and her devotees, Maya Warrier had written an excellent book on Amma’s movement in India, Hindu Selves in a Modern World, published in 2005. There are also important articles by Warrier, Selva Raj, and several unpublished dissertations that address Amma’s movement directly, often through the lenses of transnational religion, modernity, globalization, and gender.

Above, A devotional video depicting Amma’s unique darshan embrace, available at https://www.amritapuri.org/amma

But while Amma is a particular guru who is innovating a particular form of global Hinduism, she is also embedded within a much broader field of transnational religion. The growing body of scholarship in this field reveals that Amma is not so unique as she tacks between the particular and the universal and speaks in different registers to resonate in different contexts and with different demographic audiences. Amma is both a South Indian bhakti saint and a tantric, and a religious exemplar who appeals to those of all faiths with universalistic affirmations like: “My religion is love.” As such, she exemplifies a new tradition of Hindu gurus who have effectively transformed their local and particular messages and identities to become palatable within both the Indian context and to global audiences.

In fact, the proselytizing gurus of the late nineteenth and twentieth century exported many local Indic ideas that have become globally commonplace today – yoga, meditation, karma, reincarnation, and the imaginary of India as a spiritual epicenter. These global gurus were a product of the colonial encounter in India and many aimed to reform Hinduism or at least highlight those aspects that they believed would be most palatable to modern, Western audiences. They spoke what Srinivas Aravamudan has called Guru English, signifying both the practical fact that they spoke clear British English and that they spoke in a transidiomatic register, utilizing a theolinguistics that enabled religious cosmopolitanism. Indic religious ideas were refracted and reflected through the ambivalent and polyvalent language that these gurus used, rendering them comprehensible to vastly different audiences simultaneously.

Fibiger mentions this in her interview as she notes divisions between Indian and Western devotees at Amma’s ashram in Kerala. She suggests that Amma’s ashram in India is organized by Euro-American devotees and questions whether the privilege given to Euro-Americans is not a form of neo-colonialism. In actuality, Amritapuri, Amma’s ashram in Kerala, supports a staff comprised of both Indians and whites and the majority of the senior leadership is Indian. However, Fibiger accurately recognizes that at Amritapuri devotees are divided quite starkly into Indians and Westerners; at Amritapuri, there are Indian and Western canteens, kitchens, and darshan queues, as Maya Warrier discusses in her field research in India. In my own ethnographic research in the United States, I found similar patterns of de facto congregationalism that divided the devotional community along ethnic lines. Such divisions are practical expressions of the different aims of ethnic communities of devotees and represent tensions and fissures in the expansion of a local religion into a transnational context. This practice persists despite the fact that Amma preaches a message of equanimity and unity in diversity.

Fibiger also describes Amma as one among many contemporary transnational gurus who have transformed localized Hindu traditions into universalized spirituality and are now targeting the growing Indian middle classes with their messages. In fact, contemporary transnational gurus contribute much to the study of globalization, embodying what Tulasi Srinivas has argued are reverse flows of knowledge from India to the West. As transnational gurus have increasingly mobilized globally in multidirectional patterns and occupy significant virtual spaces of connectivity, the ideal that religious traditions are dependent on geographical fixity has become increasingly destabilized. Hugh Urban has written of Bhagvan Rajneesh/Osho’s transnational guru movement as series of hyphal knots. Such a view is similar to what Arjun Appadurai recognized as the cellular structures of global terror organizations or what John Urry and Manuel Vasquez have attempted to identify as complex, multidirectional, and layered flows and migrations of religion in globalization. In fact, even as early as 1970, Agehananda Bharati suggested the idea of the “pizza effect” to describe the transnational mediation of ideas and practices related to Sanskrit, yoga, tantra, and meditation from India to the West and back again.

Fibiger is quite right to note the dynamic and multifarious entanglements of transnational guru movements as they move through territories of translating and understanding. Such movements create unique spaces for religious innovation, and Fibiger accurately notes that there are conservative detractors from Amma’s inclusive reforms of modern Hinduism. As Amma rearticulates her message through multiple cultural and religious contexts, the way her embraces are interpreted reveals as much about the local context as they do about Amma. Fibiger’s initial forays into these territories prove that she will be a welcome conversation partner in this exciting field of research.

References

  1. Amanda Huffer [Lucia], “Hinduism without Religion: Amma’s Movement in America,” CrossCurrents, Religion in Asia Today 61 no. 3 (2011): 374-398 and Amanda Lucia, “‘Give Me Sevā Overtime:’ Selfless Service and Humanitarianism in Mata Amritanandamayi’s Transnational Guru Movement,” History of Religions 53 no. 4 (2014): 188-207, and Reflections of Amma: Devotees in a Global Embrace (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2014).
  2. Maya Warrier, Hindu Selves in a Modern World: Guru Faith in the Mata Amritanandamayi Mission (New York: Routledge, 2005).
  3. Maya Warrier, “Guru Choice and Spiritual Seeking in Contemporary India,” International Journal of Hindu Studies 7 no. 1/3 (2003): 31-54 and “Modernity and its Imbalances: Constructing Modern Selfhood in the Mata Amritanandamayi Mission,” Religion 36 (2006): 179-195.
  4. Selva Raj, “Ammachi,” in The Graceful Guru: Hindu Female Gurus in India and the United States, ed. Karen Pechilis (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004).
  5. See for example, Bhavana Upadhyaya, “Amma’s Daughters: A Transmodern Study of Personal, Gender, Cultural, and Religious Identities amongst Women in the Amma Community in the United States” (dissertation, University of New Mexico, 2010).
  6. Fibiger accurately mentions the Christian connotations to the term “saint,” but nevertheless, it is commonly used in the South Asian context.
  7. Srinivas Aravamudan, Guru English: South Asian Religion in a Cosmopolitan Language, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006), 7.
  8. Warrier 2005: 130
  9. Lucia 2014: 182-225.
  10. Tulasi Srinivas, Winged Faith: Rethinking Globalization and Religious Pluralism through the Sathya Sai Movement (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010), 7.
  11. Hugh Urban, Zorba the Buddha: Sex, Spirituality, and Capitalism in the Global Osho Movement, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2015.
  12. Arjun Appadurai, Fear of Small Numbers: An Essay on the Geography of Anger (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006).
  13. John Urry, Global Complexity (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2003); Manuel Vasquez, More Than Belief: A Materialist Theory of Religion (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).
  14. The pizza effect was the process by which an idea or cultural form traveled away from its home country, was transformed abroad, and then re-introduced to the home country in its new form. Agehananda Bharati, “The Hindu Renaissance and Its Apologetic Patterns,” Journal of Asian Studies 29 np. 2 (1970): 267-287.

 

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.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution- NonCommercial- NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. The views expressed in podcasts are the views of the individual contributors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT or the British Association for the Study of Religions.

A student response to “Hinduism”

Edinburgh Masters students respond to Will Sweetman on “Against Invention: A Richer History for ‘Hinduism'”

by Whitney Roth and Lauren Flynn

Read more

Against Invention: A richer history for ‘Hinduism’

In this interview Associate Professor Will Sweetman talks to Thomas White about the idea that ‘Hinduism’ and many of the other terms we use to classify religions—including the term religion itself—are modern inventions, emerging out of nineteenth-century inter-cultural contact and European colonialism. Will argues against this critique, and to make his case he draws on historical sources that discuss ‘Hinduism’ both outside of the anglophone experience and long before the nineteenth century. Through identifying alternative, non-anglophone sources of cross-cultural, West-East encounters, where comparative religion is the subject of reflection and description, the concept of ‘Hinduism’ is presented as obtaining a much richer history than the ‘invention thesis’ allows. Such sources include accounts by German Protestant missionaries and those by Jesuits writing in Portuguese, as well as native, expository works by self-reporting Indian religious thinkers. Will argues that ‘Hinduism’ as a concept is older, broader, and indeed more internal to India, than is currently assumed, but this is frequently missed through an overemphasis on relatively late sources almost exclusively in English. The interview goes on to discuss the implications of this research – and endeavours similar to it – for the study of religion in general. The interview closes with a brief chat about Otago’s hosting of the IAHR Congress in 2020.

*This week’s podcast is sponsored in part by, Cen SAMM. Through their collaboration with INFORM, they’ve created a searchable database of millenarian movements available online.*

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, Lancashire cheese, tiny dinosaur figurines, and more.

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

Against Invention: A richer history for ‘Hinduism’

Podcast with Will Sweetman (19 February 2018).

Interviewed by Thomas White

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Sweetman_-_Against_Invention_-_A_richer_history_for__Hinduism__1.1

 

Thomas White (TW): Kiaora! And a warm welcome from the Otago University recording studios here in Dunedin, on New Zealand’s South Island, where I’m joined today by our very own Associate Professor, Will Sweetman. Professor Sweetman is an historian of religion, whose research focuses on the interactions between the religions of Asia and the West in the modern period, and has published three books and several academic articles that explore the historical and the theoretical aspects of the study of religion, with a theoretical focus on South Indian traditions. Will, thank you very much for agreeing to this interview and welcome to the Religious Studies Project.

Will Sweetman (WS): My pleasure, thank you.

TW: Now, the topic I’m hoping to discuss today with you is what you described to me as a defence of the “ism” – with the particular ism in question being Hinduism. But perhaps, to ease our way in, we maybe should start at the beginning, or at least your academic beginning, as it were. So, Will, could you please describe your early training in the study of the history of religion and how this has shaped the trajectory of your research career?

WS: Sure. So it was very much a happy accident. I did my undergraduate degree at Lancaster, which is probably well-known to the listeners of this podcast, but it wasn’t to me. I had chosen to go to Lancaster to study Maths and Philosophy, and Religious Studies was . . . you were required to study a third subject in your first year. And for me, it was very much a toss-up between Religious Studies and Psychology. But the queues for Psychology were much longer!

TW: (Laughs)

WS: So I decided to choose Religious Studies, and really never looked back. So I switched to Philosophy and Religious Studies for the remainder of my degree. But what that meant was my understanding of the academic study of religion was shaped by that Lancaster tradition – which was open to all traditions and emphasised, really, none. And even though much of the work I did was, in fact, on the Christian tradition, because of my interest in Philosophy, and because there were papers in the Lancaster Religious Studies department that were focussed on . . . the paper was called: “Modern Religious and Atheistic Thought.” And it was focussed, really, on 18th century and after philosophical thinking about religion. My work was very much focussed on Western Christian thinkers and thought, coming out of that tradition. But I didn’t privilege that, in a way. Then when I went on, my initial aim was to do more philosophy of religion. And I went to Cambridge to do an MPhil in Philosophy of Religion and very quickly discovered that that wasn’t quite what I wanted to do. But partly because although Cambridge had a Religious Studies . . . the faculty of Divinity was teaching Theology and Religious studies, the assumptions were so different. And really, it was that jarring discovery that the Lancaster way was not the only way – because Lancaster really was my only experience of what it was to treat region in the academy. But at Cambridge it was very different, and that prompted in me the question: how did these two such different traditions emerge? And really, that led me to the 18th century and looking at foundational works, like Hume‘s Natural History of Religion – but how this naturalistic approach, that privileges no religious tradition, emerged. That in turn then led me to looking at the religions that were being studied – or the non-Christian or non-Western traditions that were being studied or discovered in Europe at that time. And because, I suppose, of the colonial expansion going on in India it was particularly Hinduism that was being discovered and discussed at that time. Which then led me to my doctoral work on the study of Hinduism and the conceptualisation of Hinduism from the 17th through to the 18th century. Originally, I intended to include the 19th century but . . .

TW: It got a bit too much?

WS: Yes – as many PhD students discover.

TW: Ok, great. It seem that you’ve got quite a personal narrative feeding into your research interests. In terms of the actual methods of the historical study of religion, particularly inter-religious contact, what would you say are the best habits of analysis, or the important things to watch out for when you’re engaging in such research?

WS: So for me, by temperament I think, as much as anything else – because I’m not really trained as a Historian, although that’s how I would describe myself – attention to the sources is absolutely paramount (5:00). And that means – particularly in the context of what we’re talking about, where most of my work is set, that is, the period of European expansion overseas, encounter with and study of Non-Western cultures – well, two things: first of all the European sources, but particularly, also, the sources on the other side. Now that’s always harder, I think, in . . . . There may be a few exceptions in some periods or highly literate cultures but certainly it’s much harder, generally, to recover the voice from the non-European side of the encounter. Harder but, I would say, not impossible. There are ways of doing it and it’s important, even though it’s difficult, not to short-cut that process. So there is a tendency, I think, even in the works of some scholars whose work otherwise I would admire . . . . I’m thinking here, particularly, of Urs Apps’ The Birth of Orientalism which is wonderful book, but he has a tendency to dismiss the sources that are described by Western scholars as their own inventions, to say that they simply made up the source: it doesn’t exist. Now that’s a possibility, but before you can say the source doesn’t exist, you have to do your damnedest to find out whether it does! And there is a particular example in my own work. This is an early 18th century Protestant German missionary who assembled a library of Tamil Sources, which he documented, he catalogued quite carefully, which is unusual for that period. More often, other similar writers – missionaries and others – would simply have done general term like: “in their books”. But he identifies the texts, and some of them are very well-known and it’s not difficult to identify them. But there’s one particular text which he said is the “most important of all Hindu texts”. It clearly isn’t. Particularly because there is no other reference to this text anywhere, so far as I can discover. I had the good fortune when I came to Otago to be given some research money that was pretty much . . . I didn’t have to compete very hard for it. I simply had to propose a project. So I proposed a project I thought nobody else would ever fund, which was a wild goose chase to go looking for this text.

TW: Yes.

WS: And courtesy of a brilliant research assistant, Ilakkuvan, who worked with me – a young Tamil Scholar. It took him about ten or twelve months going through archives very diligently and he found the source. So it is possible to recover the source. And it’s not the most important text. It was wrongly evaluated. But it was the most important text for this particular missionary. And by reading this source we can see what he’s doing with it, and how that’s shaping his own account of Hinduism. Which is, undoubtedly, shaped by his Protestant, Christian presupposition.

TW: So this is the missionary, Bartholomew?

WS: Ziegenbalg. Sorry. So it’s still . . . It is fed through his Christian presuppositions, but it isn’t sheer invention. He is following a text. And what’s interesting about this text is that it’s a basically monotheistic text. So when Ziegenbalg describes Hindus as monotheist this is not only a relic of Christian assumptions about the natural light of reason and a universal revelation, but the result of his close reading of a text – so we can now follow him, and read that text, and discover. . . . So that’s what I would say is the key to this: attention to those sources. On the European side of the encounter, I would also . . . I regularly bemoan the fact that because the sources are thickest in the 19th century, and because the vast majority of people who work – particularly Indian scholars, but not only – are Anglophone: that’s all they read, is English sources. And it’s really important, I think, to look at sources in other European languages. And there are, of course, people looking at those languages. I’ve recently started using Portuguese sources which are the most amazing mine of material. And they have been read, but largely they’ve been read by Portuguese scholars who tend to publish in Portuguese. Not exclusively, there are exceptions to that. So I would say that going beyond the Anglophone sources – or rather, the failure to go beyond the Anglophone sources is a particular problem in much of the historiography of colonial encounters of religion (10:00). Again, there are exceptions, but as a generalisation.

TW: So the importance of linguistic analysis, and making sure that you’re covering all the different cultural, colonial experiences of the European adventure. Perhaps relating to this, at the start of your book: Mapping Religion, Hinduism and the Study of Indian Religions 1600-1776, published in 2003, you equated the dominant history of religion in India as a “Just So Story”. What did you mean by this?

WS: So a “Just So Story”, as I’m sure you know, is Kipling’s stories of “How the Leopard got his Spots”, and so on. And I think there are a couple of accounts of how many of the terms that we are familiar with in the study of religion, how those terms came to be used. So, in the case of Hinduism, there’s a popular account that this was a matter of divide and rule: that the British, by dividing Muslims from Hindus were able to dominate both – set them against each other. Or there’s another story, which I first heard from one of my teachers at Lancaster, which was that the missionaries needed an opponent. They were used to systematic debates, and therefore they constructed an opponent with whom they could have a debate. Now what’s “Just So” about these stories is that though it could have happened like that, that may be how it happened, there’s no evidence that it did. Or, I would say that obviously there’s a grain of truth in both of those stories, but the real story is much more complicated, and involves, again, patient attention to the sources. So again, in that book, what I trace is how the emergence of the concept of Hinduism as a single pan-Indian religion, distinct from Buddhism and Jainism in particular, emerges – at least in part – from experience of Europeans in India and attention to texts. So the question of the spread of Hinduism as a religion throughout India, but confined to India – and therefore different from similar-looking or outwardly-similar religious traditions elsewhere in Asia – partly arose from Europeans observing phenomena like pan-Indian pilgrimage. There are pilgrims from the North of India coming to the major pilgrimage sites in the South. Or that some of the  . . . . For example, the mythology of Krishna: much of it is set in North India, but there were Europeans reading the mythology of Krishna in South India, in South Indian texts, in Tamil Sources, which describe Krishna in places in North India. So it was on the basis of this that Europeans began to connect phenomena of Hinduism in different parts of India. And then, the opposite part of the question is: what do you exclude? And again it was from looking at Indian sources that Europeans decided that Buddhism and Jainism were regarded as more-or-less beyond the pale. And again, if you look at South Indian religious sources, the Tamil texts are very clear. There’s one Tamil author who devotes one verse in each of his poems to denouncing the “filthy Jains”, and the “heretic Buddhists”. And it was through attention to these sources that Europeans worked out that there was a dividing line here, somewhere. There may well have been  . . . And no doubt this idea was consolidated by the practice of censuses by the British. And there was a degree of the other Just So Story that I mentioned, of the missionaries seeking an opponent: so, using Indian sources saying, “Not all Indians agree with us. The Buddhists disagree with you. They say the Veda is idol worship.” So there’s a grain of truth in those stories. But the full story is more interesting, I think. And it also shows a greater degree of Indian agency in the production of these classifications – or if not directly “agency”, at least “input”.

TW: So, the argument that Hinduism is actually a far more coherent, or far more collected systems of rituals, beliefs and institutions than perhaps the “Hinduisms narrative” presents. How do these arguments sit, perhaps, within more current debate about religion and the public space in India? Is there a way that this kind of scholarship can speak to contemporary issues, perhaps regarding the BJP or Hindutva or other current religious public sphere issues taking place in India at present?(15:00)

WS: It’s an interesting question. And there is a danger, I think, that arguing for a greater coherence in Hinduism will give succour to those who argue that Hinduism is the Indian religion and there should be no other. But there’s also a danger – and you can see this in the works of some modern Hindutva ideologues or thinkers, who present the critique of the idea of Hinduism as an attack on Hinduism. So, “You’re trying to tell us that our religion doesn’t exist.” So in a way, those who – not for that reason of course – but who have attempted to deconstruct the idea of Hinduism are also able to, or are in danger of giving succour to those who want to say, “See. The West is out to destroy you. Hinduism we need to unify and rise up!” So the dangers are. . . . So I guess, in the end, you can’t control how your ideas are going to be used. Some unusual people have cited my work in ways that don’t or were never part of my intention. But that’s . . . you can’t control that. You have to go where the sources lead you. And it’s not an argument, I think, to say, “We shouldn’t say this because it might be used in a way that’s not to our liking.”

TW: Yes. I’m finding similar questions and challenges in relation to my research in Fiji, in terms of: where do these ideas feed into other political agendas? But I think you’re right. You just have to go where the sources take you. Now, as I understand it, you’ve been collecting case studies regarding the conceptualisation of religion, or world religion-type concepts in pre-colonial and colonial encounters outside of India. Can you tell us a little about this?

WS: Yes, so this isn’t really something that I’ve done consciously. But I guess, over the last ten years or so, I have done little more than pay attention to where I have seen arguments similar to my own being made in the case of other traditions. And, for a while now, I’ve thought that it would be interesting to do some kind of survey or compilation of the kinds of evidence that’s being presented, and look at what that is telling us about – or what that suggests about – this broader critique of the formation of the “isms”. So I’ll be giving a paper at the Stephen Berkvitz has recently published an article challenging this idea that you find in the work of people like Philip Almond and others, that Buddhism was a 19th  century invention based on the study of text. And he’s showing that no, very clearly in the 16th and 17th century Portuguese, mostly Jesuits were communicating with each other across Asia, or travelling in some cases. So Loís Fróis, a 16th century Jesuit, spent a lot of time in India and then went to Japan. And he understood the connections between India and Japan, and the trajectory of Buddhism from one to the other (20:00). From the other perspective, or the other direction, Eva Pascal has recently written about Franciscan friars coming from the Philippines into Thailand or Siam and engaging with Buddhism. And again, like Fróis, who described Buddhism as a religion, making the same analogy. So that’s one set of case studies. There’s another which is looking, perhaps, more at indigenous understandings of this. So this would be the work, I’m think here of Ilyse Morgenstein Fuerst who’s looked at Islamic South Asian Sources, which not only classify religions in a way that’s not dissimilar to the supposedly modern Western way in which we classify religions, but she’s also shown that the very scholars in the 19th century to whom this classification is usually attributed were influenced by . . . they were reading these sources. So Abu’l-Fazl– a Muslim intellectual, a Mughal intellectual, who describes the religions of India, was being studied intently by British scholars in the middle of the 19th century. And then finally – and again you could see that, the Mughal Empire, as a form of cross-cultural encounter, even though it’s an Empire. But there are even, on a deeper level, indigenous accounts. And here I’m thinking mostly of the work of Andrew Nicholson and his book, Unifying Hinduism. So he looks at pre-modern doxographies, from as early as the 6th Century, in India, which are concerned with classifying the different schools of thought that there are. And so these are not all Hindu, there are Buddhist and Jain texts and, perhaps, particularly Buddhist and Jain sources were interesting in this. But what’s very interesting is that he shows that toward the slightly later texts, but still very much pre-modern, there is a kind of coalescing of an idea of an āstika – so, texts that affirm the Vedas: a unification of . . . it’s not quite what we might call Hinduism,  but it’s not a million miles from it either. So, hence the title of his book is Unifying Hinduism. And again, this is not a reaction to either Muslim or Western incursions or colonial structures, it’s something coming from within the tradition and within different schools of thought within the Indian tradition. So, I think, there are some other older works as well, Michael Pye’s work on Tominaga Nakamoto – again pre-European influence – a Japanese intellectual discussing the three religions, san jiao, in China: Confucianism, Daoism and Buddhism . And again, coming up with a generic concept that’s not unlike the concept of religion which is supposedly invented, like everything else, in the 19th century.

TW: OK, Well, the argument seems to be that the use of the term religion is older, broader, transects outsider/insider distinctions. Does that mean that scholars of religion are safe? Can we rest easy? Are we no longer at risk from the conceptual tools of our analysis?

WS: I think the approach that I would take to this is to say that it’s better the devil you know. So the work that’s been done in deconstructing historicising the concept of religion is by no means valueless. I’m not saying we should discard that, and go back to a happy sense that this is a natural kind and it emerges from the world unproblematically. But I think the proposals from some scholars that we should replace religion with some other term – I mean, you go all the way back to Cantwell Smith and, I think, “cumulative traditions”, or Timothy Fitzgerald has made various proposals of things that we might . . . . The problem is that those terms are no less the result of our attempts to construct reality in accordance with our presuppositions. So the advantage, to my mind, of terms like religion and Hinduism is that we are now – because of the work of these scholars who’ve deconstructed them – much more keenly aware of their limitations. And I don’t think that they are applicable in every circumstance. So, I think there are scholars who’ve done ethnographic work on sites in India, where you will have people coming to a particular site which is, or might formerly have been described as Hindu, and what they’re showing is this label is very problematic (25:00). And the kinds of people who are coming to those sites aren’t, maybe, clearly identified, or can be labelled as Hindu, or Muslim, or Christian in some cases. And I would agree, in that context, the label Hinduism is perhaps not useful. But that doesn’t mean there’s no context in which it is useful. So it’s always a matter of what the context is, what the purpose is for us. I think one of the things that strikes me as a little bit odd, is – and again this is something I’ve kept track of over the years – is the number of times you will hear a speaker, or at the beginning of a book somebody will deconstruct the term Hinduism. And having cleared their throat and covered their bases with this term will then go on to use the term with exactly the same referent as the supposedly pre-critical scholars who used this. So, Donald Lopez had a nice joke about this. He said you could spot scholars of Hinduism by their over-developed pectoral muscles, from continually having to make “scare quotes” in the air . . .

TW: (Laughs)

WS: …every time they used the word Hinduism! But the point is, that they continue to use the word Hinduism and the scare quotes were there. So, I think we can and we should continue to use the term, and the danger of replacing it, or of replacing religion with some other term– because those terms haven’t been so thoroughly deconstructed – is we would be tempted to think of them as more closely corresponding to some actual reality and less constructed, in a way in which they aren’t really.

TW: Yes. That’s also a lot of heavy lifting to go and create these new terms, and try to describe how they can kind of convey meanings that aren’t subject to the same problems as previously.

WS: I think the other dimension here is that precisely because of their history, these terms have a purchase beyond the academy that we can’t ignore. And so this is sometimes described as, you know, people in Religious Studies sawing off the branch on which they sit. Now, if it were the case that there was a compelling argument for discarding the term and disbanding departments of the study of religion, our own financial self-interest wouldn’t be a reason to retain the term. But there are other reasons, as I’ve tried to explain, why I think we should. And given that, if we are to speak to the public sphere, we need to do so in ways that are intelligible. And talking about cumulative traditions or hierarchical structures simply doesn’t cut it.

TW: It doesn’t communicate.

WS: And we can go on to complicate what those terms mean, but we would be ill-advised, I think, to abandon them from that point of view, as well.

TW: Yes. I agree. I do agree. OK. Last question, Will. We’ve been talking about the historical study of religion and its importance to the broader discipline of Religious Studies and its methodologies. Now in 2020 the International Association for the History of Religion will host its next World Congress here in Dunedin. Now, as head of department for Religion and Theology at Otago, I’d imagine you’ve already started to think through what you hope this might look like, or what ambitions you might have for the event. Can you share some early thoughts that you might have on this, please?

WS: Sure. I think there’s a lot of reasons for doing this. Some of my colleagues think I’m mad for even contemplating it! But I think there’s a lot of benefits that I see in this. I mean, one of the primary aims is to share this wonderful part of the world with scholars from all over the world, and we hope many will come. And I think we should be honest about the fact that that’s a reason why many people will come! Because New Zealand is a wonderful place and it will be great to share it. But it’s also, for me, the other side of that is Religious Studies in New Zealand, as it is in many parts of the world, is a relatively small, and in some cases embattled discipline. We have lost departments of Religious Studies even in the short time that I’ve been in New Zealand. And those that do exist are small, for the most part, and not exactly directly threatened, but not as secure as they’d like to be. So I hope that hosting an event of this sort will help in a host of ways to consolidate the discipline here (30:00): to create visibility both internationally – for work that’s been done in New Zealand – but also within New Zealand, to bring to the attention of our academic colleagues and people more broadly, also, what the academic study of religion is. That’s a constant battle. New Zealand is a country where religion is – I would compare it often . . . . For many people what your religion is, or religion at all is about as much interest as whether you prefer strawberry or chocolate ice-cream. There’s a kind of apathy toward religion. Not always, but. . . . And I think, demonstrating the importance of what we do by bringing the best scholars from around the world to talk about what they’re doing, and why the study of religion is important will be important.  And also it will give our graduate students . . .  . We’re a remote location, we don’t get an opportunity to interact with these people. So it will be a once in a lifetime opportunity, I think, for younger scholars in New Zealand to really see the scope of what’s going on overseas and to interact personally with those people. There’s something irreplaceable about that opportunity which, I think, young scholars in New Zealand don’t have as much as scholars in other parts of the world.

TW: Thank you, Will. Well, on that rather optimistic and forward-looking note I think we’ll draw this interview to a close. But thank you very much for sharing your thoughts and expertise with us.

WS: Thank you. And we look forward to seeing you all in 2020!

TW: Indeed! Thank you.

Citation Info: Sweetman, Will and Thomas White. 2018. “Against Invention: A richer history for ‘Hinduism’”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 19 February 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 16 February 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/against-invention-a richer-history-for-hinduism/

All transcriptions for THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT are currently produced by volunteers. If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with these efforts, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution- NonCommercial- NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. The views expressed in podcasts are the views of the individual contributors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT or the British Association for the Study of Religions.

The Perils and Promise of “Authenticity”

A Response to “Hindu Traditions in Contemporary British Communities” with Theodora Wildcroft and Stephen Jacobs

by Race MoChridhe

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Hindu Traditions in Contemporary British Communities

blog_yogarave_1_bellytitleThe spread of religion and practice from origin points to global phenomena is a prevalent topic within religious studies. Stephen Jacobs, a senior lecturer at Wolverhampton University, and Theodora Wildcroft, a PhD researcher at Open University UK, are both interested in the common presence of yoga and bhakti tradition in the contemporary British rave and festival communities. This podcast explores how Hindu belief and traditions have been incorporated into modern western practices. An overview of the British kirtan community and the Art of Living movement is followed by a discussion of authenticity, reconciliation of tradition and modernity, and the influence of popular culture. As appropriation of culture and questions of authenticity pervade conversations across fields, the study of contemporary British Hindu movements is important in understanding how millennia old religious traditions are being used in new, modern contexts.

This podcast is sponsored by the postgraduate taught programmes (Masters and PhD) in Religious Studies at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland. Many of the RSP team have been through the Edinburgh RS programme, which comes highly recommended. Find out more here.

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, Lascaux cave painting replicas, Pixie Sticks, and more.

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

Hindu Traditions in Contemporary British Communities

Podcast with Steve Jacobs and Theodora Wildcroft (25 September 2017).

Interviewed by Ella Bock.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Transcript available at: Jacobs and Wildcroft- Hindu Traditions in Contemporary British Communities 1.1

Ella Bock (EB): Ok, so. Shall we get started? I guess I can introduce my self to you, first of all, in person. I’m Ella. I go to school at Lewis and Clark College, in Portland Oregon. But I’m currently at home for the summer in Washington DC.

Steve Jacobs (SJ): Ok. Well, I’m Steve Jacobs or Stephen Jacobs if you’re being very formal, but nobody calls me that. I’m senior lecturer at the University of Wolverhampton, here in the UK, mostly based in the Media department, but also based in Religious Studies as well.

Theodora Wildcroft (TW): I’m Theo Wildcroft. Nobody calls me Theodora unless they want to make me giggle, basically. I’m at the OU, the Open University, in Milton Keynes, but I’m actually at home in Wiltshire at the moment – in north Wiltshire, in the south of the country. And I am just coming up on my last year of PhD, in full thesis-writing-up-joy at the moment!

SJ: That’s the most exiting bit! (Laughs).

TW: It is, actually. I had a really good supervision on Tuesday, so I’m fine right now. Good supervision, good response. So that’s another two chapters sorted. So fingers crossed!

SJ: Brill.

EB: Congratulations on your PhD!

TW: Thank you.

EB: So, I guess we can jump right into it. My first question is to just get started with introducing what “yoga raves” and “kirtan” are. So if you could, like, explain a little bit what those are, and their presence in Britain, and if they interact at all, and how they would do that.

TW: Well, I think for a while now there’s been a sub-current of kirtan influence in the UK, but it’s not particularly well-known. So we start, I think, with kirtan – because kirtan is an existing practice within South Asia and the Indic and Hindu contexts, basically – which is a practice of devotion or religious practice through sound – specifically through singing and music: sharing singing and music. And that has an interesting history which I think we’ll go into in more detail, in terms of how that has met and interacted with the kinds of sub-culture elements within British culture in the last thirty to forty, maybe even fifty years – at least fifty years, probably. Yoga and the most recent kind of incarnations of that are doing some interesting things that aren’t particularly well-known. But it’s interesting what they’re doing. Yoga raves, I think, is really a much more recent phenomenon and Steve can talk a lot more about that, really being quite specific.

SJ: Yes, I mean yoga raves is a term that’s used by a duo who come from this group called the  Art of Living Foundation, who – well, to cut a very long story short – are a kind of Hindu-derived meditation movement. They’re a very close cousin to Transcendental Meditation. And they wanted to . . . and one of the things with Art of Living is they wanted to draw in a younger audience. So these two musicians who were members of the group, started what they called yoga rave dance parties:  kind-of alcohol, drug-free events that had the same sort of format as a kind-of rave would have, but using traditional kind-of Hindu mantras, to use a loaded term, or bhajans as a sound track – but giving it a Western kind of sound track, particularly an electronic dance music beat. (5:00) So it’ s a kind of interesting syncretic phenomena.

EB: OK

TW: So we’ve got the kind of yoga raves going on – I think, mostly in London?

SJ: Well, yoga rave isn’t a term that’s used by the UK group. They prefer the term yoga jam. So there’s a whole range of different terminology: I’ve seen mantra punk; yoga rave; yoga jam.  And one of the reasons . . . and it’s based very much around a small group within Art of Living, here in the UK. And they said to me, “We do not like the term ‘rave’”, because in the UK rave is so much mixed with the culture of electronic dance music and  part of that is taking lots of NDMA or Ecstasy as it’s more commonly known. So jam – they preferred this terminology. The leader of the group said, “I like the term, it’s cool!” he said. And it kind-of has this kind of connotation of the bricolage and also something that’s fun and enjoyable.

TW: There is a wider movement as well, though, called Conscious Clubbing, which I’m aware of. I have friends from the yoga community – particularly around London, I think, maybe Brighton, maybe places like that – that do conscious clubbing events which are specifically alcohol and drug free. And often early Sunday mornings seem to be a big time for a get-together. And, of course, the music they’re using is very much rave music. But it has that similar sense of wanting to achieve a state of ecstatic kind of communion, a coming-together kind of a feeling and a celebration, but without the artificial stimulants. So there’s kind-of a cross-over there. And then, of course, they’re all often using contemporary kirtan music, contemporary kirtan tunes, which provides another link as well. Whereas kirtan is much more a practice that’s done live. I think that’s one of the big differences for me, is that – not that that’s always a difference between them and the yoga jams, I think – but one of the things that’s clear with kirtan is that it’s always live musicians, live singers, live interactions with the audience, the music happening in real time, if that makes sense.

SJ: Yes. I think one of the things that Theo and I have talked about over the years that we’ve been interested in this, is the difference between participation and just being a part of the audience. And that whole thing has kind-of – it’s a whole kind of array of different relationships of participation. So the traditional kirtan is, of course, a call and response and very much involves everybody. Whereas sometimes the yoga jams and the yoga raves seem to be less participatory, even though there is an element of participation.

TW: Yes. Definitely.

SJ: They’re much more performances, in many ways.

EB: Well, I’m interested in how the two different movements and communities are trying to reconcile traditional cultures and practices with contemporary modern . . . like having yoga and therapeutic things in raves and EDM music. How do you see them reconciling those two? And if they are[seen as] authentic ways of practising and, like, what authenticity means here – because that’s a loaded term.

SJ: OK. Authenticity is a really interesting phenomena. I’ve just been reading a book about authenticity by Lindholm and he says, really, when we’re thinking about authenticity you see two different types of discourses around authenticity. (10:00) One he calls the historical and genealogical,  and the other he calls the romantic and expressive. And what’s really interesting for me is that when you look at discourses about yoga rave and yoga jam and in Art of Living – and indeed their wider practices – is they use both of those discourses. So it’s authentic because it’s Vedic. And of course, if you know anything about the Vedas, sound is very primordial, with the primordial mantra Ohm. In fact, the notion of sound within the Hindu tradition is badly understudied. It’s not studied . . .  it’s not given the centrality by many people the way that it [should be]. So it’s got that roots in a kind of invented or romanticised Vedic past, but it also is part of the therapeutic culture where it’s the experience. But the experience without the roots becomes kind-of too ambiguous and free floating. So you experience a somatic experience, but that somatic experience is then rooted back into an imagined Vedic past.

TW: You see, I would add a third aspect. Because I think that’s all really true, and rings very true with the things I’m looking at. But a third aspect is the notion of authenticity that comes from a personal way to practice, and a personal investment into the practice. That’s what the kirtan wallahs – the musicians and the people who share kirtan – are bringing: it’s a level of experience with that practice. They’re often quite accomplished musicians, although that’s not . . . they’re not necessarily prized for their technical ability so much as a sheer devotion to the practice itself: that they spend large amounts of time doing what they do – which is singing and playing, not just for audiences, but for themselves. And that also, tangentially, has a communal aspect which . . . . One of the things I find really interesting is, when you have big bakhti events, big kirtan events where you have a number of different kirtan musicians playing one after another, they will back each other up. So if someone arrives early, or someone’s around , you know, one will say to another “Could you play shaker on this for me?” or you know, “I’d love to play tabla on yours.” And so you get these individual musicians, or small groups of musicians, but actually when they play at theses events they have all sorts of friends playing with them. And their friends are usually people who have either just played or are going to play again. So there’s this idea that the most joyous thing that they could be doing is playing. Always. So there’s an authenticity there that comes from that weight of practice and that weight of personal history, rather than necessarily genealogy. And certainly, one of the historical aspects that I’m aware of with regards to kirtan here, out in the south-west in particular, is that we have a certain community of people who’ve spent a lot of time in Indian ashrams and loved the experience of kirtan there and began to practice kirtan there. And they’re over here, they’re home again and they miss that community coming together. And a lot of these events are about them coming together with other people, regardless of whether they were at the same ashram, regardless  of whether they’re the same lineage, regardless of even if they have the same devotional roots, even. You have people from different sects and lineages coming together, people with no lineage at all coming together. But what they value is that communal coming together and singing and sharing kirtan, which is really interesting. So there’s that communal weight as well. So that, over time, the community has its own history. So it’s really interesting, when you talk about authenticity with regards to Hindu roots and South Asian roots – which are obviously very real and very true – but what I would say is what I see. And what I see is a weight of practice in this country that’s been going on for decades. And that’s the roots, as much as anything else, that they’re connected to.

SJ: I mean there is a romanticisation of Hindu traditions that Theo and I have talked about. (15:00) It goes right back to cultural roots here in the UK, of course: George Harrison, 1969, the Mahamantra by the Krishna Consciousness got to number 12 in Top of the Pops, sold 700,000. In America you’ve got the counter-cultural movements, particularly people like Ginsberg and the Mantra Rock Dance in San Francisco that had some of the foremost counter-cultural groups, people like Moby Grape. And then also of course, there was Swami Prabhupada the founder of . . . [the International Society for Krishna Consciousness]. In fact, you’ll see his image on the poster for the Mantra Rock dance in ’69. So all of these kind of influences, counter kind-of influences between the West and the East, well they’ve actually been going long before the counter-culture of course. I think the counter-culture is a very important threshold.

TW: It is. It’s a threshold. But I think its a threshold of visibility. That’s what’s interesting about it. It’s that we have these periodic visible manifestations of commercial culture engaging with Hindu devotional music in one way or another. I mean you shared the – was it the Cher?  Cher’s version of the Gayatri Mantra? And it’s really interesting to see those commercial expressions and commercial engagements with Hindu devotional music. But what it’s important to remember is those do not feed necessarily directly from ancient Indian practices, they feed from an existing subculture that is continually engaging with this music and continually engaging with this practice. You know, there’s a transnational culture that certainly in the UK spends time, a lot of them will spend time, going back and forward from the UK. A number of the people involved will be South Asian heritage, a number of people won’t. You know, it’s a whole transnational current that’s going on that’s always there. It’s just the bits that we tend to notice: the bits that get into the top 40 sphere, or the bits that end up on the credits of pop shows, which we were also talking about weren’t we? We were talking about how the Gayatri Mantra was used on the opening credits to Battlestar Galactica, you know – who knew that?! Because it’s a really interesting mantra in terms of its visibility. The story goes that one of the actors basically went to the show runners and said, “We have to use this. We have to use this Mantra.” And he wanted that sense of authenticity of this being something ancient, because the show itself speaks to really interesting themes around religion and rebirth and these different things. But without the counter-cultural and sub-cultural engagements with Hindu devotional music, he would never have had that to bring them. (Laughs).

SJ: Yes. No, Cher wouldn’t have been doing that Gayatri mantra . . .

TW: No. Cher doesn’t rock up at an Ashram in India and go “I think I’ll take this mantra.” She takes it from someone else, who takes it from someone else, who takes it from someone else. And the intermediaries are the kind of yoga jam people and the new kirtan people and the bhakti musicians that we’re talking about. And there’s a thriving – certainly in the UK and particularly, in my opinion, in the South West of the UK – it’s a thriving and vibrant little culture. I’m hoping you’ll be able to include some actual music and links.

EB: Well, I hope that David does.

TW: Yes.

EB: Well, I was wondering if you’ve seen or come across any backlash against the use of mantras in Western pop culture? Or even within the kirtan and yoga rave/ yoga jam communities?

TW: I can speak to one really interesting discussion of this by, I won’t mention her by name, but she’ll recognise herself, by an integral yoga teacher of japa, so a mantra teacher. So she was leading a session, that I was at, that wasn’t even really kirtan, it was very much on mantra and the effect of sound and how we can . . . chant, so much more chanting than singing, if that makes sense. So, the effect of mantra on the energetic field, the effect of mantra on our connection to the universe. And she talked specifically about the Gayatri Mantra. And she said a number of things about it. (20:00) She said that the Gayatri is a very ancient mantra – so she connected it to this lineage – that it’s been chanted continuously in India for thousands of years – however the story goes – and then she said, “But these days a lot of people come across the Gayatri Mantra through. . . .” She didn’t mention the Cher version but she mentioned various pop culture versions of it. And she said, in her view, that is absolutely fine because its a way in. People come across these pop culture versions of mantra and it is not the same, it does not have the same effect as a mantra that’s been chanted in community for devotional intent. But the words still have power and the sound still has power and it is the connection – a seed that is planted that can lead people to something deeper and fuller. I’m aware that in the States, in particular, there is a very, very different debate that’s going on, I think, around the issues of authenticity and appropriation. And I think it’s important to be aware that the discussions of appropriation are very different here in Europe and particularly in the UK. Our yoga culture as a whole is less commercialised. It’s still commercialised in many respects but we still . . . we have an enormous grassroots yoga community, still. And our yoga community is still much more integrated with South Asian groups and communities and influences. So, as a result, the conversations are more complicated. That’s not to say that appropriation isn’t an issue and it’s not talked about, but it’s much less polarising than debates have been recently in the States, if that makes sense. Would you agree?

SJ: The discussions about appropriation really only occur in the academic arena because when we’re talking broadly about the Hindu traditions – and I’ll use the plural here – there’s not this idea that, you know . . . . Ok, so you have a Murti and it’s installed in a temple, but anybody can go and buy an image of the Ganesh, or anything. And they’re not so precious about different uses of it. Of course you’ve got the tradition of calendar art in the more visual things. And also when you think about kirtan in India itself, you know, a lot of Hindus are chanting kirtan to Bollywood tunes. So you already have that tradition of, you know, taking a traditional kirtan that goes back to the medieval Bhakti period, but it’s being chanted to the latest Bollywood tunes. And even in India you get CDs like Cosmic Trance for Youth, which is within the Hindu community itself. Young people are taking the traditional mantras and bhajans and giving it their own electronic dance soundtrack, to try and draw young Hindus in India into it. You know, devotional music in India is one of the biggest selling kind of genres of music. You go anywhere like Rushikesh, which is a very important pilgrimage place, and you’ve literally got stall upon stall in the bazaar along the banks of the Ganges selling all of these kind of remixed mantras, if you like.

TW: I also love that the supposedly traditional kirtan instruments that are now accepted to be the ones that everyone should have are tabla and harmonium. And that’s fascinating when you think the only reason that harmoniums ever came to India, as far as I’m aware, is through Christian missionaries.

SJ: Yes, that’s correct.

TW: Christian Missionaries arrived in India with harmoniums and played lots of choral music and got them singing Christian songs. And you know, essentially Indian people, the Indian culture, went: “That’s great, we’ll have that! We’re just going to sing Vedic mantras instead.” And now, if you want a good harmonium you go to an Indian manufacturer. You don’t go anywhere else. One of the few places in the world that still has huge amounts of harmoniums being played is India. And now, if you have kirtan that doesn’t have harmonium and tabla that’s now seen as non-traditional. I mean, I was at an event the other week – it was a bhakti event – and I realised tucked away in the corners around the space were eight different harmoniums waiting for – because everybody has their own – waiting for their particular musicians to come. So I counted eight lying there, which is great. So at which point I’m less interested in  . . . .  I mean, I think cultural borrowing is really interesting, and all religious scholars hopefully are aware of how syncratic religion is, generally.(25:00) There are further discussions you can have about power and about colonialism, but I think those differences are much clearer when you’re talking about multi-million dollar selling pop artists than if you’re talking about kirtan musicians in Bristol, or wherever, who have a day job and sell a few CDS. The level of power that they have to appropriate somebody else’s power is very different, I think, than Sony might have.  (Laughs). What is more interesting to me is the syncretism involved in the music itself. And I don’t know how much that’s true of the yoga rave/ yoga jam side of things, but I know that in the kirtan movement in the south-west, singers are using not just Vedic and Hindu mantras, they’re using Buddhist mantras, they’re using Sikh mantras, they’re using Sufi mantras, they’re using all sorts of different things and bringing them together under the label of kirtan. And I think that’s really interesting.

SJ: Certainly within Art of Living Satsangs you certainly do have occasionally – but it’s very, very occasionally – do they use songs or poems from outside. I’ve heard Imagine done once in a kirtan (laughs). But they tend to stick to their kind-of favourite that come from the Sanskrit and Bhakti traditions. But they do have a kind of – well I wouldn’t call it a song book, exactly – but they do have a list and you flick through and yes, there’s poems by Rumi and [indistinct] chorus, but they very rarely use them ,interestingly enough.

TW: That is interesting.  Well I see a lot more uses of that. One of the classic examples which I personally adore, is a chap called Tim Challice who’s from down kind of Bath and Bristol way. And he has a chant which takes a Hafez poem I think, which is This Place, so, “This place where you are, God circled on a map for you. Wherever your eyes and ears and heart can move against the earth and skies a beloved has bowed there waiting.” Which is rather beautiful, but he takes that and sings that and then he takes it immediately into a Hare Krishna. So we see that as well. We see essentially taking two different traditions and bringing them together in those chants. And the sense, within this community in particular, is that it does not matter. The shape of your belief does not matter. The deity that you are calling to does not matter. These places often have these enormous long altars filled with any number of different Murtis, any number of different images of different Gurus, any deity or anything else that is considered to be sacred can go on there. The point is, is that you come together and you sing. And that’s it. And there’s the idea of devotion without prescribing the object of devotion. And that’s a really interesting thing, I think.

SJ: Yes. I mean there are other artists, we talked about Sheila Chandra who’s a British South Asian and coming from a Hindu background and then bringing in English folk music. She’ll start off with Om Namaha Shiva and then suddenly morphs into some sort of English folk song. I mean that’s kind of cultural thing as well, only from a different side.

TW: Yes. I think there’s really, really beautiful alliances and kind of borrowings that are going on and it’s interesting, again, to go back to that idea of what makes them authentic. What makes them effective. And I think it is a depth of understanding of the music that they’re working with and the practices that they’re working with.

SJ: When you talk to the yoga jam crew they talk abut the Vedic origin and what Guy Beck calls the Sonic Theology that goes back right to the Atharvaveda, is the experience that is also validated through a quasi-scientific discourse around the physics of vibration, which you know, that if you chant the mantras you do not need to know – and of course Staal talks about how it’s the sound not the semantics that’s important; that this is all to do with the science of vibration. (30:00) So it’s kind-of validated through, you know, tracing it back to romanticise a Vedic past, the somatic experience of chanting it, which is again validated through this kind of quasi-scientific discourse around vibrations, which is kind-of interesting.

TW: Yes, and it will eventually change the world. Just keep chanting the Gayatri Mantra, just keep chanting it and all will be well.

EB: Ok so we’re abut out of time for the podcast length, but I’ve enjoyed listening to both of you talk and thank you so much for doing this and talking to me and the RSP about everything you know.

SJ: Well thank you for facilitating this.

TW: Indeed.

EB: Of course. It was my pleasure.

Citation Info: Jacobs, Steve, Theodora Wildcroft. 2017. “Hindu Traditions in Contemporary British Communities” The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 25 September 2017. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 7 September 2017. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/hindu-traditions-in-comtemporary-british-communities/

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Studying Tantra from Within and Without

Shakti

Shakti

Douglas R. Brooks, Professor of Religion at the University of Rochester, discusses how he became involved in the academic study of Hinduism, specifically Tantra and goddess-centered traditions. He begins with his training in Sanskrit and Tamil at Middlebury College, where he found that little English work had been done on Hindu traditions for some years. Living intermittently in India during the 1970s–80s, Brooks found a lack of secular studies of Hinduism, as opposed to religious devotional studies. Given these challenges, Brooks has had to study Tantric Hinduism from within and without the traditions. On the one hand, his friendship with Dr. Gopala Aiyar Sundaramoorthy introduced him to the lived practice as well as venerable philosophical traditions of Tantra and tantric yoga. Working with Sundaramoorthy, Brooks was “within” a vibrant Hindu tradition. As he refined his work at Harvard Divinity School, however, Brooks articulated a critical, non-religiously invested perspective on Hinduism — in short, observing Tantra from “without,” treating the religion like any other secular subject worthy of study. This approach caused Brooks to clash with older scholars at HDS, who assumed that Judeo-Christian terms and concepts were universally applicable to all religions. Later in the interview, Brooks discusses his interpretation of Tantric yoga, giving particular attention to the philosophy’s doctrine of application to daily problems. This kind of yoga is distinct from the New Age, exercise-based style of yoga that B.K.S. Iyengar and others popularized in the West. In recent years, Brooks has attended many popular yoga workshops with the goal of educating the general public about genuine Tantric philosophy from India. He concludes with some reflections on public service as an academic and his plans for a new book on Tamil pilgrimages.

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


Studying Tantra from Within and Without

Podcast with Douglas R. Brooks

Interviewed by Daniel Gorman Jr.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock

Audio and transcript available at: Brooks – Studying Tantra from Within and Without 1.1

Daniel Gorman (DG): Professor Brooks, welcome to the Religious Studies Project.

Douglas Brooks (DB): Thanks for having me.

DG: Could you tell us, briefly, what drew you to the study of Hindu, in particular, Sanskrit literature? Because you went to Middlebury College – a place that you could be trained in any of many languages, and you chose one of the oldest and deadest!

DB: I didn’t so much choose Sanskrit as Sanskrit chose me. And the same quickly followed up in the study of Tamil and other Indian languages. So, I suppose it traces back to my interest in history and the ancient world, and specifically in religion. I wasn’t raised in a religious family, but I think that’s always been an advantage to me: I didn’t have to undo a great deal. But I made myself religious, as a child, of my own accord, so I suppose that’s a kind of peculiar character feature. I mean, what kind of a kid asks to go to church, when his parents are not church-goers at all? Anyway, I got over that, that being itself it’s own story. And when I got to Mid, I was just interested in History, and the Classics and particularly philosophy and political science – and religion. Religion always struck me as still the subject that let you study all other subjects. So I suppose that was the real hook for me. You could be interested in language, politics, art, music, linguistics. . . . Everything in the study of religion just lets you study culture, lets you study history, all of the subjects. And I still think that as an undergraduate teacher. I think this is the department of the Humanities. And I think that that’s a fair assessment. So, India provided a perfect example if only because everything about the Hindus is. . . creates a history and a literature, and a politics and the rest of it. So what really happened was, I took a class that introduced Hinduism and Buddhism, from a really wonderful man who, as I look back on now, I see as a very thorough scholar for a fellow who didn’t have the languages, who – by my own standards today – would be a well-meaning amateur, in the sense of not having direct access. But he did an excellent job and I got hooked reading early Buddhism and then, particularly, the eclectic prose and verse Upanishads. And the literature just captivated me for its beauty, and for its insight, and for its cultural complexity, and its depth. And I said to myself at eighteen years old, “If this is interesting in these wooden unreadable translations, how much better would it be if you could go after the real thing?”

DG: I suppose I’m curious about access, because I’m thinking of the University of Chicago’s publication, now, of the Bhagavad Gita in the Mahabharata in English. They’re still not done with it! So how much material was available when you were. . . ?

DB: That’s because nobody wants to do it!

DG: So how much was available in the 1970s, before computers?

DB: (5:00) Well, you know, there was this amazing emergence of Indology at the end of the 19th-century. And there are astonishing scholars of that era, whose work we continue to rely on. I mean, Maurice Bloomfield, Wilhelm Kalend . The material available in German and French and the early English scholarship – astonishing degrees of erudition! I just don’t even know how these guys learned that much about everything. They had their own issues of colonialism, and sexism and their own parochialisms that came out of the era in which they first emerged. But the 19th-century provided an enormous well-spring of philology, and scholarship, and commitment: very serious people. That carried on in the period between the wars in Europe, which was also the period when American scholarship in Indology and the History of Religions, really took off. And because the History of Religions as a kind of German phenomenon – you know Religionsgeschecte, Wissenschaft, that kind of “subject” invented in Europe – translated well here because we’re pluralists and because we’re almost by nature compelled to study religion, as a subject – which is still a rare subject in a European University. You find Philology, and you find History departments, and you find other ways in which the subject is divvied up, but you don’t really find Religion departments. And that, too, was available at Middlebury. So there was a fair amount of – as I said – old, wooden, 19th -century translation material. There was the material that was created in the space between the wars, and then there really was a long hiatus until the ‘50s and ‘60s, when another generation came along and took up the work of that generation that was, in fact, trained before World War Two. So, my principal Sanskrit Professor at Harvard, Daniel Engels, was a code-breaker during World War Two. He was a Harvard undergraduate in the ’30s, and  I was studying with him in the ’70s and ’80s. ‘80s, I suppose, was our real time together: ’79-’86. He retired in ’84. So he came from a different era. He came from a whole different world. And then, what happened in the ’60s and ’70s kind of reshaped me. Because I came out of that rebellious world of looking for alternative voices, and subversive models, and other kinds of “How do you discover yourself?” questions – which were very much still not part of my History of Religions programme. Let me say one more thing about that. When I entered the doctoral programme at Harvard . . . . I guess that was ’81 after my first master’s. I graduated at the Divinity Schools and you had to reapply and then get into the Doctoral programme. There, the expectation was that we were Christians, or that we were Jewish and that we were studying theses “other” religions. The Comparative Study of Religion meant that you were a committed religious person of your own Western persuasion, and that these were the subjects you studied. It hadn’t occurred to the directors of that programme that any of us had, what they would call, “gone native”, or that we weren’t particularly avowed or created by our own Western religions. We weren’t using that as our home base, or our focal point for the study of religion, and yet that was still very much the model. You know, my secondary field in the Comparative Study of Religion, when I passed my general exams at Harvard, was Christianity – which had long since passed being of any personal connection to me.

DG: And that brings me to Dr Sundaramoorthy, if I’m saying his name correctly.

DB: Yes, you said it perfectly. So I arrived in India in 1977, on the University of Wisconsin’s College Year programme, looking for “the wonder that was India”. (10:00) Romantically, still very much a seeker, I didn’t know that I was seeking Hinduism, but I was seeking those sources and those ideas and commitments. And before I met Dr Sundaramoorthy I’d tumbled down that flight of stairs that makes you realise that you missed everything: that this was over, that the “wonder” that I had romanticised, and created this ancient India, and I had worked through this vision of what I thought it would be, or could be. . . . And I arrived there and  it was 1977. And from the standpoint of that romanticised vision, that party was over. Now, I was blessed because I came late enough into the “East comes West” story to miss the Beatles. Does that make sense?

DG: Yes.

DB: I didn’t really get the Hare Krishna Beatles bug. I didn’t get caught up in one of the Swamis coming West – any Maharishi, Mukundananda – that wasn’t my gig. I was too young for that. I wasn’t going that way. None of that ever seemed to be the real thing that I was looking for. So, when I went to India looking for the real thing, rather than some distilled version of hippy culture – I wasn’t averse to that, it just wasn’t what I wanted for myself – I got to India and it didn’t seem to be there any more. It seemed to be long gone. India was definitely on its own mission of economic development, but it had culturally decided not to do that, go in that direction. Every kid I knew or met, was studying medicine or engineering. They were headed into our world. They were headed into First World global consumerist sience and medicine. And you can still see that in diaspora Indian communities. That’s where the energy still is in education. So there wasn’t this rich, deep, academic culture of the study of India in India. That’s not what you found. And then, out in the temples, or out in the liturgical worlds, or in the practitional worlds, or in peoples’ religious lives you didn’t really find that level of scholarship, or that level of deep erudite commitment, that I had kind of romanticised and hoped for. And then, at my wits end with really very little other recourse, I was introduced to Dr Sundaramoorthy, who was a Reader and Chair of the Sanskrit department at Madurai University. He was eventually elevated to Professor. And he actually was that character I was looking for. Because he had this serious academic training that traversed through Indian Universities and Oxford and other places where his work had been reviewed and he had learned his subject. He was a linguist and a comparativist. His English was elevated – immaculate, really. But he had also been raised in an ultra-orthodox Brahmin family. So his heritage was the stewardship of a tradition of Sanskrit erudition and Tamil culture. He was just as magnificent in Tamil as he was in Sanskrit. And yet he also had the capacities and the training of Western scholarship. So meeting him was, again, just pretty much serendipity. Like, I walked in and met the right guy at the right time. He had just, in fact, returned from a long stint in Malaysia and Singapore working at the university in Kuala Lumpor. If I had come a year earlier, he wouldn’t have been there. So I just got lucky, I mean. And then, as those years moved on – I was supposed to spend nine months, I spent two years – and as our studies moved on, he was the one who encouraged me to go to Harvard and to continue my doctoral work and my more advanced work here, and then to go back and study with him. (15:00) Which is what I did. And when I won the Fulbright, in ’84, that’s technically my Fulbright year . . . . I wrote a PhD proposal for the grant that I won before the professorial committee approved my proposal. So I had the Fulbright to write my PhD before the professorial committee had given me approval, and I applied and actually won the grant before I passed my general exams for the PhD! And the grant essentially landed on Dr Sundaramoorthy’s desk, so I was paid to go home! And then, I had leveraged the situation so that: what were they going to do, say, “Oh no we’re not going to approve your PhD proposal, even though you already have the grant”? So I had the Fulbright fellowship and got to go back to Madurai to live in my teacher’s house, to become a Fellow of the Department of Sanskrit, at the University where he was the Chair of the department.

DG: How did that introduce you to the study of yoga, though?

DB: Well, the study of yoga is the study of India, as far as I can tell.

DG: It’s what most of your books are about.

DB: Well, most of my books are about the intersections of the medieval traditions of the rise of esoteric yoga, the Tantric traditions, especially the goddess traditions: those particular, peculiar formulations that involve the Brahmins in South India and other ways in which it anthropologically took hold. What living in Sundaramoorthy’s house did, and spending all those years in India did is, it gave me immersion in language and culture. I got, essentially, the training of an anthropologist, both in a kind of formal fieldwork sense but also the company of a gifted comparative linguist and philologist. So I got a classical education and a fieldwork education at the same time. When you spend that much time in India, you see that correlation between sources and texts and history and living traditions. And I was particularly interested in the kind of historical tradition that you couldn’t understand without a living tradition. There’s no penetrating Tantric lore, and text, and prescription, and liturgy, and philosophy and what they call “yoga”, without meeting someone who can tell you what the books are saying and finding out what it looks like. You don’t study Tantric liturgies of complex yogic rituals without learning it from someone who can do those rituals. It’s impossible. That was always my ace in the hole, was that: the book says this, but I know what that looks like, I’ve seen that performed in more than one place, by more than one person, in more than one way.

DG: But when you said performed, we’re not just talking about the exercise aspect of yoga. . . ?

DB: No, no, no you mean what we call yoga today in the West?

DG: There’s much more to it than that.

DB: Oh no, no, no. I don’t even refer. . . . Let’s talk about that for a second. What we call yoga today in the West is now a meme, it has a life of its own, it’s a phenomena of gyms and yoga studios, and morning TV exercise shows. That is a whole separate history from the history that I would have considered yoga until 20 years ago. Those characters that brought/ invented/ co-opted the word yoga to mean postures and exercise and the somatic engagement that happens on mats or in asana in posture, that’s, in fact, not really my subject at all. I don’t really know much about that. I didn’t really follow that transmission of that material to the West. I had to learn that much, much later in my career. Who were these guys? What’s the history of what we call yoga today, like yoga asana? There are people who write about that, who’ve taken that up as their academic subject. That’s just something that happened while I was there. Characters like Krishnamacharya and Pattabhi Jois and B.K.S. Iyengar who’s a famous name in all of that. (20:00) Those guys were largely still in Pune or in Madras when I was studying in India, then they kind of brought their stuff to the West.

DG: And then you get people like John Friend. . .

DB: John Friend and Rodney Yee and Francois Raoult – these were all people who studied with Iyengar in Pune. They’re in Pune doing Hatha Yoga with Iyengar when I was in Madurai studying Tantra and learning Sanskrit and speaking Tamil. We had nothing to do. . . .That world had nothing to do with my world.

DG: So, in your world, what is yoga?

DB: Yoga was the practical esoteric methodology of applied religion. I mean, if yoga meant engagement it meant application, it meant method. And, in that sense, it meant the study of how to take ideas, values, insights, claims, and apply them somatically, cognitively emotionally: how to put them into action, or into your life. That would apply to ritual, to study, to mythology, to esoteric practices. That’s what yoga was. Yoga was the application of this visionary, philosophical religiously encoded symbolic world into practice. And the practice would be somatic and cognitive and ethical and practical, in terms of living your life. And most of that was learned textually, contemplatively and ritually.

DG: And there is, you mentioned earlier, pluralism. What you’re describing to me were different ways of living. There is a pluralistic component there.

DB: Well, because yoga means application, there were Buddhist yogas and Hindu yogas and Jain yogas and Sikh yogas – everybody’s using the word. And they’re all, in effect, using the word to mean: “This is what we do and this is how we do it.” And the “it” on the other end of that, is: what we think; what we believe; what we conjure to be possible in bodies; and what are our cognitive, spiritual and intellectual goals; how do we organise our lives? What’s the practical implications of . . . . If we have these stories and rituals and practices, how does that change our everyday lives? How do we live? How we go about our ordinary lives, our moral lives, our intellectual lives? That was what. . . . So yoga applied in every religion in India, it was just the word people used for method, application, how we do what we do, how we engage, how we connect.

DG: And you’ve spent a significant amount of time, now, doing public engagement with people who may not know the scholarly issues you and I have been discussing.

DB: Oh no, none of it! The vast majority of people, who are sort-of my weekend job, are people who got introduced to yoga simply as asana. Now that’s changing too, because over the last fifteen years of that, I would say. . . .Twenty years ago, yoga was nowhere near the sort of simple, mainstream place it factors into our contemporary society. I mean I call it “Aisle 11a” now. When you go to the Wegmans grocery store in Rochester, yoga is in Aisle 11a. It’s like “outdoor goods”, “Seasonal”, “yoga”. So, how much more mainstream can you get? It’s not even in the gym, it’s in the grocery store! So, most of the people I meet who do yoga came in through that way. They came in through a yoga studio or a gym, practicing asana. What happened fifteen or twenty years ago is that that same nascent crew, which was far from the mainstream, was still interested in things Indian. They were still interested in that old sense of all the meanings of the word yoga. Now, they had no clue of what that was about, and that’s how I got involved. They were just curious. “We do yoga. What’s that?” Well, Niagara Falls! That’s just going to come tumbling over in volumes of history and curiosities expressed in texts and sources and ideas. And somehow there’s still some small segment of that population that still asks me that question. And their rooms are full- such as it is- with people for whom yoga is just their asana practice. (25:00) And that asana practice creates this surrogate community that often substitutes – in our fragmented, secularised, less religious, less institutional world – for the kinds of communities that even my parent’s generation associated with the church, or the rotary club, or the Boy Scouts, or the Book of the Month club. People go to yoga studios and they have. . . . And since we don’t have those other kinds of institutional, pre-created structures for us – you know, you went to the church or your father was a Mason or something – you go there, now. And so, yoga studios and these sorts of environments are not only places where they get their asana practice – which they’re still principally interested in – it’s where they meet their friends, where they meet like-minded people. And then they all say, “Well, what’s yoga?” And then some bright light says, “Well, we could have an event, we could ask somebody who knows about that.”

DG: Professor Brooks we’re basically out of time, but if you could say briefly – you’ve mentioned your public work but what is your new scholarly project, if you have one?

DB: Oh yes. So I parley the two together because I’ve always thought that the vanity and self-perpetuation of scholarship, at a certain level, is just more and more of itself. It really does very little good for the world, in a certain way. And I came from an environment where we wanted to do something in the world, we wanted to build schools, we wanted to help people, we wanted to give people in India a chance to study their culture, or to have a good life, or to get an education: very simple kinds of things. So I took this out of the university environment of learning and parleyed that into opportunities to take people to India and then two pieces happened The first is, they get a great experience and we do things like build schools and send children to school, and take care of folks. That’s the simple way of putting it. But also, that means that I get to spend a great deal of time on the ground in India. So, my new projects have to do with an extension of the goddess traditions that I was working on in the ’80s. And now I’m focussed on the furtherance of that mythology as it takes place in pilgrimage in South India. So there are these whole seasons of tens of thousands of people on the road – especially in Tamil Nadu – who are going to Shiva temples and Ganesha temples and Muraga temples and then to this character named Ayyappa. And I’m following all of those pilgrim paths and tracing history, language, sources, philosophy and literature into the anthropology of the practices of pilgrimage.

DG: Professor Brooks thank you for your time. And pleasant voyages.

DB: Thanks a lot.


Citation Info: Brooks, Douglas R. 2017. “Studying Tantra from Within and Without”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 1 May 2017. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 3 May 2017. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/studying-tantra-from-within-and-without/

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Historical, Popular, and Scholarly Constructions of Yoga

In this interview, we discuss the history and development of yoga in its South Asian contexts, and then examine its transformations across the globe into the contemporary era.

In its earliest uses, the word “yoga” meant “yoke,” primarily yoking a warhorse to a chariot. In the classical period, yoga took on a variety of other meanings, including yoking the mind-body complex through meditative practices, such as breath control and mantras, to achieve liberation. Yoga was an analysis of perception and cognition, whereby to know something is to be it; higher states of consciousness could expand individuals into the universe and even to omniscience. Yoga also included achieving superpowers through sexual and other bodily alchemical practices, allowing practitioners to see through things and to take over other human bodies. In tantric yoga, which developed during the medieval period, the goal became not union with the absolute but rather to become a living god, a yogi, through occult practices. In hatha yoga, practitioners regulated their breath and channeled vital fluids within the body, via chakras, in order to achieve awakening and supernatural powers. Contemporary forms of yoga as postural practice developed from Hindu Vedanta, Indian nationalism, the Orientalist resurrection of the Yoga Sutras, Theosophy, Swedish gymnastics, and other sources, and constitute a relatively recent phenomenon in the history of yoga. Even more recently, the study of yoga in North America has been riven by debates about what counts as “authentic” yoga and who gets to make such claims authoritatively, as the Hindu America Foundation’s Take Back Yoga campaign can attest.

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Podcasts

Transnational Gurus and the Making of a Modern Devotional Public

During the reception following the first South Asian performance I attended after moving to Denver, I met several members of the Denver Tamil community. Towards the end of my conversation with a woman from a village outside Chennai, she began to tell me about her devotion to Amma. She began by asking, “Do you follow Amma?” And without waiting for my response, she volunteered, “We are all Amma devotees here. We just went to see her in Las Vegas.” I knew that she came from a conservative Brahmin background; so, it was surprising to see her enthusiasm when she spoke about Amma. Curious to know more, I asked her how she became interested in Amma. She quickly turned to her daughter and asked her to share her first experience of meeting Amma. There was wonder and joy in her daughter’s voice as she told me of her plans to go see Amma again. This exchange was illuminating as I was unaware of Amma’s popularity in the broader South Indian Tamil community. Before listening to this podcast, it had seemed somewhat baffling that Amma would appear in Las Vegas. Dr. Marianne Qvortrup Fibiger explains how Amma’s embrace of her position as a transnational and “translocal” guru makes the broad reach of platforms such as Las Vegas fitting for her message.

The phenomenon of buying and selling spirituality has always been a part of public religious praxis. With transnational spirituality comes a neoliberal underpinning in which identities and cultural icons can become brands in which people can invest. Listening to Dr. Marianne Fibiger speak about Amma and her remarkable relationship with a broad community of devotees, I was struck by Amma’s uncanny ability to “market” her message to various groups. Fibiger describes this process as “hearing with different ears.” She references a devotee who remarks that Amma is “truly a saint,” in order to show how Amma has become “transnational” through a sort of Christianizing of her status as divine. It also appears to show Amma’s skills at making herself appealing to both local and universal communities. In many ways, Amma’s “universalism” dovetails with the efforts of early transnational yogis such Swami Vivekananda, Aurobindo, and BKS Iyengar. They are able to repackage yoga as a universal health and wellness practice that does not require scriptural knowledge. Through a disciplined, embodied, practice, one would gain spiritual enlightenment. For Amma, hugging functions as both an act of love and darshan (seeing/experiencing the divine), helping to fashion a sort of humanistic theology (Lucia, 6).

Fibiger’s interview underscores the sheer numbers of Amma devotees as well as their varied backgrounds. The material presence of Amma is buttressed by a robust virtual one. Her website and social media presence are indicative of a savvy marketing platform. Her physical presence lends authenticity to her online brand. My response considers how transnational gurus such as Amma have learned to navigate a global neoliberal marketplace in order to sell their ideas. Amma, similar to conservative Indian public figure Ramdev, appears to have a keen understanding of her audience and how to disseminate her message and broaden her appeal. While Ramdev uses patanjaliayurved.net to market products building his name as brand, Amma’s website centers on building her brand by hawking her message. On https://amma.org/ the visitor is greeted by a smiling Amma with open arms, her tour dates emblazoned across her image. Linking a devotional picture of Amma with her next tour presents her persona and message as important and valuable commodities in high demand. Just below her image on the home page, the visitor will see four links detailing what Amma is doing now, how to donate, and information on Amrita Yoga (her signature practice). Here, the main facets of Amma’s brand emerge: charity, accessibility, and a doctrine to follow. The bottom of the home page has a brief introduction that describes Amma as a transnational spiritual teacher. Statements such as “she never asked anyone to change their religion” and “her entire life has been dedicated to alleviating the pain of the poor, and those suffering physically and emotionally” are designed to cement a vision of Amma as the accessible divine.

While her Facebook pages are largely centered on events and appearances, Amma uses her Twitter handle (@Amritanandamayi) to promote her message and build her brand as the “Hugging Guru.” The social media communities that form around Amma (e.g. unofficial “Amma” social media accounts) reinforce the transnational character of her message. These disparate groups of devotees form virtual networks through which Amma’s message disseminates. This devotional network further boosts the reach of Amma’s message and platform for charitable donation. Amma also has a series of apps (Amrita Apps). These apps provide links to her social media, news of her appearances as well as chants for sādhana (daily practice) and seva (service) opportunities. In these ways, Amma becomes a “full-service” spiritual guide, larger than just her person and her hugs. She also has several books and a few periodicals along with Amrita TV which continuously connect her devotees to her message (Lucia, 6). Through these virtual extensions of her material presence, Amma has transformed herself into a non-sectarian religious “brand,” competing for devotees in a growing soteriological marketplace.

 

Above, advertisements for one of the several shows on Amrita TV that features Amma. The network offers a variety of wholesome programming, including comedies and dramas, not just devotional programming. This program, Amritavarsham, aims to “promote world peace and imbibe the spirit of service among peoples of the world.” It opens with a brief message from Amma in which she shares “simple anecdotes and examples from day-to-day life to make it engrossing for one and all.” English subtitles are provided “so that people across the world can understand the meaning.”

Marianne Quvortrup Fibiger’s research on Amma highlights an important aspect of public religion: the making of a devotional public. Near the beginning of the interview, she calls Amma “a trans-local, transnational, global guru of today.” She then describes Amma’s appeal to her diverse community of devotees as rooted in her “authenticity,” which allows her to be a “traditional bhakti guru” as well as have “universal appeal.” Fibiger’s also points out the unsettling imagery of a large public darshan (40,000+) with Europeans in the front row in white and everyone else behind them, though she notes that these events were often a place for Hindus to reconnect with their faith. These communal gatherings of devotion provide a good example of the delicate balancing act Amma performs between the universal and local aspects of devotion. Transnational gurus like Amma must repackage religious praxis in the language of human connection in order to appeal to a diverse and broad constituency. In doing so, Amma and her message help build a public devotional community held together by commitment to abstract values such as love and spiritual harmony that are achieved through practices and teachings rooted in specific traditions. I think Fibiger’s comments on translation and understanding of religion are particularly interesting in this context. She suggests that transnational gurus like Amma can function, in a way, as translators of traditions, producing “bridges of understanding.” The questions that follow are: What is the content of this “understanding”?  And for whom is it understood?  Fibiger’s discussion near the end of the interview regarding her project on East and West spirituality underscores the ways in which these questions produce the boundaries within which these emerging spiritual identities are being forged and negotiated.

 

Reference

Lucia, Amanda J. Reflections of Amma: Devotees in a Global Embrace. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014.

On the Global Guru Circuit: From India to the West and Back Again

Above, Amritapuri—“Amma’s abode”—is located on the original site of her family’s home along the southwestern coast of India. In addition to serving as Amma’s main ashram, it is also her organizational headquarters and adjacent to Amrita University campus. Photo from https://www.amritapuri.org/ashram

By Dr. Amanda Lucia, University of California-Riverside

Many of the points Marianne Qvortrup Fibiger made during her interview resonated with existing research on transnational Hindu gurus and particularly on Mata Amritanandamayi (Amma). Before I began publishing on Amma and her devotees, Maya Warrier had written an excellent book on Amma’s movement in India, Hindu Selves in a Modern World, published in 2005. There are also important articles by Warrier, Selva Raj, and several unpublished dissertations that address Amma’s movement directly, often through the lenses of transnational religion, modernity, globalization, and gender.

Above, A devotional video depicting Amma’s unique darshan embrace, available at https://www.amritapuri.org/amma

But while Amma is a particular guru who is innovating a particular form of global Hinduism, she is also embedded within a much broader field of transnational religion. The growing body of scholarship in this field reveals that Amma is not so unique as she tacks between the particular and the universal and speaks in different registers to resonate in different contexts and with different demographic audiences. Amma is both a South Indian bhakti saint and a tantric, and a religious exemplar who appeals to those of all faiths with universalistic affirmations like: “My religion is love.” As such, she exemplifies a new tradition of Hindu gurus who have effectively transformed their local and particular messages and identities to become palatable within both the Indian context and to global audiences.

In fact, the proselytizing gurus of the late nineteenth and twentieth century exported many local Indic ideas that have become globally commonplace today – yoga, meditation, karma, reincarnation, and the imaginary of India as a spiritual epicenter. These global gurus were a product of the colonial encounter in India and many aimed to reform Hinduism or at least highlight those aspects that they believed would be most palatable to modern, Western audiences. They spoke what Srinivas Aravamudan has called Guru English, signifying both the practical fact that they spoke clear British English and that they spoke in a transidiomatic register, utilizing a theolinguistics that enabled religious cosmopolitanism. Indic religious ideas were refracted and reflected through the ambivalent and polyvalent language that these gurus used, rendering them comprehensible to vastly different audiences simultaneously.

Fibiger mentions this in her interview as she notes divisions between Indian and Western devotees at Amma’s ashram in Kerala. She suggests that Amma’s ashram in India is organized by Euro-American devotees and questions whether the privilege given to Euro-Americans is not a form of neo-colonialism. In actuality, Amritapuri, Amma’s ashram in Kerala, supports a staff comprised of both Indians and whites and the majority of the senior leadership is Indian. However, Fibiger accurately recognizes that at Amritapuri devotees are divided quite starkly into Indians and Westerners; at Amritapuri, there are Indian and Western canteens, kitchens, and darshan queues, as Maya Warrier discusses in her field research in India. In my own ethnographic research in the United States, I found similar patterns of de facto congregationalism that divided the devotional community along ethnic lines. Such divisions are practical expressions of the different aims of ethnic communities of devotees and represent tensions and fissures in the expansion of a local religion into a transnational context. This practice persists despite the fact that Amma preaches a message of equanimity and unity in diversity.

Fibiger also describes Amma as one among many contemporary transnational gurus who have transformed localized Hindu traditions into universalized spirituality and are now targeting the growing Indian middle classes with their messages. In fact, contemporary transnational gurus contribute much to the study of globalization, embodying what Tulasi Srinivas has argued are reverse flows of knowledge from India to the West. As transnational gurus have increasingly mobilized globally in multidirectional patterns and occupy significant virtual spaces of connectivity, the ideal that religious traditions are dependent on geographical fixity has become increasingly destabilized. Hugh Urban has written of Bhagvan Rajneesh/Osho’s transnational guru movement as series of hyphal knots. Such a view is similar to what Arjun Appadurai recognized as the cellular structures of global terror organizations or what John Urry and Manuel Vasquez have attempted to identify as complex, multidirectional, and layered flows and migrations of religion in globalization. In fact, even as early as 1970, Agehananda Bharati suggested the idea of the “pizza effect” to describe the transnational mediation of ideas and practices related to Sanskrit, yoga, tantra, and meditation from India to the West and back again.

Fibiger is quite right to note the dynamic and multifarious entanglements of transnational guru movements as they move through territories of translating and understanding. Such movements create unique spaces for religious innovation, and Fibiger accurately notes that there are conservative detractors from Amma’s inclusive reforms of modern Hinduism. As Amma rearticulates her message through multiple cultural and religious contexts, the way her embraces are interpreted reveals as much about the local context as they do about Amma. Fibiger’s initial forays into these territories prove that she will be a welcome conversation partner in this exciting field of research.

References

  1. Amanda Huffer [Lucia], “Hinduism without Religion: Amma’s Movement in America,” CrossCurrents, Religion in Asia Today 61 no. 3 (2011): 374-398 and Amanda Lucia, “‘Give Me Sevā Overtime:’ Selfless Service and Humanitarianism in Mata Amritanandamayi’s Transnational Guru Movement,” History of Religions 53 no. 4 (2014): 188-207, and Reflections of Amma: Devotees in a Global Embrace (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2014).
  2. Maya Warrier, Hindu Selves in a Modern World: Guru Faith in the Mata Amritanandamayi Mission (New York: Routledge, 2005).
  3. Maya Warrier, “Guru Choice and Spiritual Seeking in Contemporary India,” International Journal of Hindu Studies 7 no. 1/3 (2003): 31-54 and “Modernity and its Imbalances: Constructing Modern Selfhood in the Mata Amritanandamayi Mission,” Religion 36 (2006): 179-195.
  4. Selva Raj, “Ammachi,” in The Graceful Guru: Hindu Female Gurus in India and the United States, ed. Karen Pechilis (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004).
  5. See for example, Bhavana Upadhyaya, “Amma’s Daughters: A Transmodern Study of Personal, Gender, Cultural, and Religious Identities amongst Women in the Amma Community in the United States” (dissertation, University of New Mexico, 2010).
  6. Fibiger accurately mentions the Christian connotations to the term “saint,” but nevertheless, it is commonly used in the South Asian context.
  7. Srinivas Aravamudan, Guru English: South Asian Religion in a Cosmopolitan Language, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006), 7.
  8. Warrier 2005: 130
  9. Lucia 2014: 182-225.
  10. Tulasi Srinivas, Winged Faith: Rethinking Globalization and Religious Pluralism through the Sathya Sai Movement (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010), 7.
  11. Hugh Urban, Zorba the Buddha: Sex, Spirituality, and Capitalism in the Global Osho Movement, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2015.
  12. Arjun Appadurai, Fear of Small Numbers: An Essay on the Geography of Anger (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006).
  13. John Urry, Global Complexity (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2003); Manuel Vasquez, More Than Belief: A Materialist Theory of Religion (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).
  14. The pizza effect was the process by which an idea or cultural form traveled away from its home country, was transformed abroad, and then re-introduced to the home country in its new form. Agehananda Bharati, “The Hindu Renaissance and Its Apologetic Patterns,” Journal of Asian Studies 29 np. 2 (1970): 267-287.

 

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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A student response to “Hinduism”

Edinburgh Masters students respond to Will Sweetman on “Against Invention: A Richer History for ‘Hinduism'”

by Whitney Roth and Lauren Flynn

Read more

Against Invention: A richer history for ‘Hinduism’

In this interview Associate Professor Will Sweetman talks to Thomas White about the idea that ‘Hinduism’ and many of the other terms we use to classify religions—including the term religion itself—are modern inventions, emerging out of nineteenth-century inter-cultural contact and European colonialism. Will argues against this critique, and to make his case he draws on historical sources that discuss ‘Hinduism’ both outside of the anglophone experience and long before the nineteenth century. Through identifying alternative, non-anglophone sources of cross-cultural, West-East encounters, where comparative religion is the subject of reflection and description, the concept of ‘Hinduism’ is presented as obtaining a much richer history than the ‘invention thesis’ allows. Such sources include accounts by German Protestant missionaries and those by Jesuits writing in Portuguese, as well as native, expository works by self-reporting Indian religious thinkers. Will argues that ‘Hinduism’ as a concept is older, broader, and indeed more internal to India, than is currently assumed, but this is frequently missed through an overemphasis on relatively late sources almost exclusively in English. The interview goes on to discuss the implications of this research – and endeavours similar to it – for the study of religion in general. The interview closes with a brief chat about Otago’s hosting of the IAHR Congress in 2020.

*This week’s podcast is sponsored in part by, Cen SAMM. Through their collaboration with INFORM, they’ve created a searchable database of millenarian movements available online.*

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, Lancashire cheese, tiny dinosaur figurines, and more.

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

Against Invention: A richer history for ‘Hinduism’

Podcast with Will Sweetman (19 February 2018).

Interviewed by Thomas White

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Sweetman_-_Against_Invention_-_A_richer_history_for__Hinduism__1.1

 

Thomas White (TW): Kiaora! And a warm welcome from the Otago University recording studios here in Dunedin, on New Zealand’s South Island, where I’m joined today by our very own Associate Professor, Will Sweetman. Professor Sweetman is an historian of religion, whose research focuses on the interactions between the religions of Asia and the West in the modern period, and has published three books and several academic articles that explore the historical and the theoretical aspects of the study of religion, with a theoretical focus on South Indian traditions. Will, thank you very much for agreeing to this interview and welcome to the Religious Studies Project.

Will Sweetman (WS): My pleasure, thank you.

TW: Now, the topic I’m hoping to discuss today with you is what you described to me as a defence of the “ism” – with the particular ism in question being Hinduism. But perhaps, to ease our way in, we maybe should start at the beginning, or at least your academic beginning, as it were. So, Will, could you please describe your early training in the study of the history of religion and how this has shaped the trajectory of your research career?

WS: Sure. So it was very much a happy accident. I did my undergraduate degree at Lancaster, which is probably well-known to the listeners of this podcast, but it wasn’t to me. I had chosen to go to Lancaster to study Maths and Philosophy, and Religious Studies was . . . you were required to study a third subject in your first year. And for me, it was very much a toss-up between Religious Studies and Psychology. But the queues for Psychology were much longer!

TW: (Laughs)

WS: So I decided to choose Religious Studies, and really never looked back. So I switched to Philosophy and Religious Studies for the remainder of my degree. But what that meant was my understanding of the academic study of religion was shaped by that Lancaster tradition – which was open to all traditions and emphasised, really, none. And even though much of the work I did was, in fact, on the Christian tradition, because of my interest in Philosophy, and because there were papers in the Lancaster Religious Studies department that were focussed on . . . the paper was called: “Modern Religious and Atheistic Thought.” And it was focussed, really, on 18th century and after philosophical thinking about religion. My work was very much focussed on Western Christian thinkers and thought, coming out of that tradition. But I didn’t privilege that, in a way. Then when I went on, my initial aim was to do more philosophy of religion. And I went to Cambridge to do an MPhil in Philosophy of Religion and very quickly discovered that that wasn’t quite what I wanted to do. But partly because although Cambridge had a Religious Studies . . . the faculty of Divinity was teaching Theology and Religious studies, the assumptions were so different. And really, it was that jarring discovery that the Lancaster way was not the only way – because Lancaster really was my only experience of what it was to treat region in the academy. But at Cambridge it was very different, and that prompted in me the question: how did these two such different traditions emerge? And really, that led me to the 18th century and looking at foundational works, like Hume‘s Natural History of Religion – but how this naturalistic approach, that privileges no religious tradition, emerged. That in turn then led me to looking at the religions that were being studied – or the non-Christian or non-Western traditions that were being studied or discovered in Europe at that time. And because, I suppose, of the colonial expansion going on in India it was particularly Hinduism that was being discovered and discussed at that time. Which then led me to my doctoral work on the study of Hinduism and the conceptualisation of Hinduism from the 17th through to the 18th century. Originally, I intended to include the 19th century but . . .

TW: It got a bit too much?

WS: Yes – as many PhD students discover.

TW: Ok, great. It seem that you’ve got quite a personal narrative feeding into your research interests. In terms of the actual methods of the historical study of religion, particularly inter-religious contact, what would you say are the best habits of analysis, or the important things to watch out for when you’re engaging in such research?

WS: So for me, by temperament I think, as much as anything else – because I’m not really trained as a Historian, although that’s how I would describe myself – attention to the sources is absolutely paramount (5:00). And that means – particularly in the context of what we’re talking about, where most of my work is set, that is, the period of European expansion overseas, encounter with and study of Non-Western cultures – well, two things: first of all the European sources, but particularly, also, the sources on the other side. Now that’s always harder, I think, in . . . . There may be a few exceptions in some periods or highly literate cultures but certainly it’s much harder, generally, to recover the voice from the non-European side of the encounter. Harder but, I would say, not impossible. There are ways of doing it and it’s important, even though it’s difficult, not to short-cut that process. So there is a tendency, I think, even in the works of some scholars whose work otherwise I would admire . . . . I’m thinking here, particularly, of Urs Apps’ The Birth of Orientalism which is wonderful book, but he has a tendency to dismiss the sources that are described by Western scholars as their own inventions, to say that they simply made up the source: it doesn’t exist. Now that’s a possibility, but before you can say the source doesn’t exist, you have to do your damnedest to find out whether it does! And there is a particular example in my own work. This is an early 18th century Protestant German missionary who assembled a library of Tamil Sources, which he documented, he catalogued quite carefully, which is unusual for that period. More often, other similar writers – missionaries and others – would simply have done general term like: “in their books”. But he identifies the texts, and some of them are very well-known and it’s not difficult to identify them. But there’s one particular text which he said is the “most important of all Hindu texts”. It clearly isn’t. Particularly because there is no other reference to this text anywhere, so far as I can discover. I had the good fortune when I came to Otago to be given some research money that was pretty much . . . I didn’t have to compete very hard for it. I simply had to propose a project. So I proposed a project I thought nobody else would ever fund, which was a wild goose chase to go looking for this text.

TW: Yes.

WS: And courtesy of a brilliant research assistant, Ilakkuvan, who worked with me – a young Tamil Scholar. It took him about ten or twelve months going through archives very diligently and he found the source. So it is possible to recover the source. And it’s not the most important text. It was wrongly evaluated. But it was the most important text for this particular missionary. And by reading this source we can see what he’s doing with it, and how that’s shaping his own account of Hinduism. Which is, undoubtedly, shaped by his Protestant, Christian presupposition.

TW: So this is the missionary, Bartholomew?

WS: Ziegenbalg. Sorry. So it’s still . . . It is fed through his Christian presuppositions, but it isn’t sheer invention. He is following a text. And what’s interesting about this text is that it’s a basically monotheistic text. So when Ziegenbalg describes Hindus as monotheist this is not only a relic of Christian assumptions about the natural light of reason and a universal revelation, but the result of his close reading of a text – so we can now follow him, and read that text, and discover. . . . So that’s what I would say is the key to this: attention to those sources. On the European side of the encounter, I would also . . . I regularly bemoan the fact that because the sources are thickest in the 19th century, and because the vast majority of people who work – particularly Indian scholars, but not only – are Anglophone: that’s all they read, is English sources. And it’s really important, I think, to look at sources in other European languages. And there are, of course, people looking at those languages. I’ve recently started using Portuguese sources which are the most amazing mine of material. And they have been read, but largely they’ve been read by Portuguese scholars who tend to publish in Portuguese. Not exclusively, there are exceptions to that. So I would say that going beyond the Anglophone sources – or rather, the failure to go beyond the Anglophone sources is a particular problem in much of the historiography of colonial encounters of religion (10:00). Again, there are exceptions, but as a generalisation.

TW: So the importance of linguistic analysis, and making sure that you’re covering all the different cultural, colonial experiences of the European adventure. Perhaps relating to this, at the start of your book: Mapping Religion, Hinduism and the Study of Indian Religions 1600-1776, published in 2003, you equated the dominant history of religion in India as a “Just So Story”. What did you mean by this?

WS: So a “Just So Story”, as I’m sure you know, is Kipling’s stories of “How the Leopard got his Spots”, and so on. And I think there are a couple of accounts of how many of the terms that we are familiar with in the study of religion, how those terms came to be used. So, in the case of Hinduism, there’s a popular account that this was a matter of divide and rule: that the British, by dividing Muslims from Hindus were able to dominate both – set them against each other. Or there’s another story, which I first heard from one of my teachers at Lancaster, which was that the missionaries needed an opponent. They were used to systematic debates, and therefore they constructed an opponent with whom they could have a debate. Now what’s “Just So” about these stories is that though it could have happened like that, that may be how it happened, there’s no evidence that it did. Or, I would say that obviously there’s a grain of truth in both of those stories, but the real story is much more complicated, and involves, again, patient attention to the sources. So again, in that book, what I trace is how the emergence of the concept of Hinduism as a single pan-Indian religion, distinct from Buddhism and Jainism in particular, emerges – at least in part – from experience of Europeans in India and attention to texts. So the question of the spread of Hinduism as a religion throughout India, but confined to India – and therefore different from similar-looking or outwardly-similar religious traditions elsewhere in Asia – partly arose from Europeans observing phenomena like pan-Indian pilgrimage. There are pilgrims from the North of India coming to the major pilgrimage sites in the South. Or that some of the  . . . . For example, the mythology of Krishna: much of it is set in North India, but there were Europeans reading the mythology of Krishna in South India, in South Indian texts, in Tamil Sources, which describe Krishna in places in North India. So it was on the basis of this that Europeans began to connect phenomena of Hinduism in different parts of India. And then, the opposite part of the question is: what do you exclude? And again it was from looking at Indian sources that Europeans decided that Buddhism and Jainism were regarded as more-or-less beyond the pale. And again, if you look at South Indian religious sources, the Tamil texts are very clear. There’s one Tamil author who devotes one verse in each of his poems to denouncing the “filthy Jains”, and the “heretic Buddhists”. And it was through attention to these sources that Europeans worked out that there was a dividing line here, somewhere. There may well have been  . . . And no doubt this idea was consolidated by the practice of censuses by the British. And there was a degree of the other Just So Story that I mentioned, of the missionaries seeking an opponent: so, using Indian sources saying, “Not all Indians agree with us. The Buddhists disagree with you. They say the Veda is idol worship.” So there’s a grain of truth in those stories. But the full story is more interesting, I think. And it also shows a greater degree of Indian agency in the production of these classifications – or if not directly “agency”, at least “input”.

TW: So, the argument that Hinduism is actually a far more coherent, or far more collected systems of rituals, beliefs and institutions than perhaps the “Hinduisms narrative” presents. How do these arguments sit, perhaps, within more current debate about religion and the public space in India? Is there a way that this kind of scholarship can speak to contemporary issues, perhaps regarding the BJP or Hindutva or other current religious public sphere issues taking place in India at present?(15:00)

WS: It’s an interesting question. And there is a danger, I think, that arguing for a greater coherence in Hinduism will give succour to those who argue that Hinduism is the Indian religion and there should be no other. But there’s also a danger – and you can see this in the works of some modern Hindutva ideologues or thinkers, who present the critique of the idea of Hinduism as an attack on Hinduism. So, “You’re trying to tell us that our religion doesn’t exist.” So in a way, those who – not for that reason of course – but who have attempted to deconstruct the idea of Hinduism are also able to, or are in danger of giving succour to those who want to say, “See. The West is out to destroy you. Hinduism we need to unify and rise up!” So the dangers are. . . . So I guess, in the end, you can’t control how your ideas are going to be used. Some unusual people have cited my work in ways that don’t or were never part of my intention. But that’s . . . you can’t control that. You have to go where the sources lead you. And it’s not an argument, I think, to say, “We shouldn’t say this because it might be used in a way that’s not to our liking.”

TW: Yes. I’m finding similar questions and challenges in relation to my research in Fiji, in terms of: where do these ideas feed into other political agendas? But I think you’re right. You just have to go where the sources take you. Now, as I understand it, you’ve been collecting case studies regarding the conceptualisation of religion, or world religion-type concepts in pre-colonial and colonial encounters outside of India. Can you tell us a little about this?

WS: Yes, so this isn’t really something that I’ve done consciously. But I guess, over the last ten years or so, I have done little more than pay attention to where I have seen arguments similar to my own being made in the case of other traditions. And, for a while now, I’ve thought that it would be interesting to do some kind of survey or compilation of the kinds of evidence that’s being presented, and look at what that is telling us about – or what that suggests about – this broader critique of the formation of the “isms”. So I’ll be giving a paper at the Stephen Berkvitz has recently published an article challenging this idea that you find in the work of people like Philip Almond and others, that Buddhism was a 19th  century invention based on the study of text. And he’s showing that no, very clearly in the 16th and 17th century Portuguese, mostly Jesuits were communicating with each other across Asia, or travelling in some cases. So Loís Fróis, a 16th century Jesuit, spent a lot of time in India and then went to Japan. And he understood the connections between India and Japan, and the trajectory of Buddhism from one to the other (20:00). From the other perspective, or the other direction, Eva Pascal has recently written about Franciscan friars coming from the Philippines into Thailand or Siam and engaging with Buddhism. And again, like Fróis, who described Buddhism as a religion, making the same analogy. So that’s one set of case studies. There’s another which is looking, perhaps, more at indigenous understandings of this. So this would be the work, I’m think here of Ilyse Morgenstein Fuerst who’s looked at Islamic South Asian Sources, which not only classify religions in a way that’s not dissimilar to the supposedly modern Western way in which we classify religions, but she’s also shown that the very scholars in the 19th century to whom this classification is usually attributed were influenced by . . . they were reading these sources. So Abu’l-Fazl– a Muslim intellectual, a Mughal intellectual, who describes the religions of India, was being studied intently by British scholars in the middle of the 19th century. And then finally – and again you could see that, the Mughal Empire, as a form of cross-cultural encounter, even though it’s an Empire. But there are even, on a deeper level, indigenous accounts. And here I’m thinking mostly of the work of Andrew Nicholson and his book, Unifying Hinduism. So he looks at pre-modern doxographies, from as early as the 6th Century, in India, which are concerned with classifying the different schools of thought that there are. And so these are not all Hindu, there are Buddhist and Jain texts and, perhaps, particularly Buddhist and Jain sources were interesting in this. But what’s very interesting is that he shows that toward the slightly later texts, but still very much pre-modern, there is a kind of coalescing of an idea of an āstika – so, texts that affirm the Vedas: a unification of . . . it’s not quite what we might call Hinduism,  but it’s not a million miles from it either. So, hence the title of his book is Unifying Hinduism. And again, this is not a reaction to either Muslim or Western incursions or colonial structures, it’s something coming from within the tradition and within different schools of thought within the Indian tradition. So, I think, there are some other older works as well, Michael Pye’s work on Tominaga Nakamoto – again pre-European influence – a Japanese intellectual discussing the three religions, san jiao, in China: Confucianism, Daoism and Buddhism . And again, coming up with a generic concept that’s not unlike the concept of religion which is supposedly invented, like everything else, in the 19th century.

TW: OK, Well, the argument seems to be that the use of the term religion is older, broader, transects outsider/insider distinctions. Does that mean that scholars of religion are safe? Can we rest easy? Are we no longer at risk from the conceptual tools of our analysis?

WS: I think the approach that I would take to this is to say that it’s better the devil you know. So the work that’s been done in deconstructing historicising the concept of religion is by no means valueless. I’m not saying we should discard that, and go back to a happy sense that this is a natural kind and it emerges from the world unproblematically. But I think the proposals from some scholars that we should replace religion with some other term – I mean, you go all the way back to Cantwell Smith and, I think, “cumulative traditions”, or Timothy Fitzgerald has made various proposals of things that we might . . . . The problem is that those terms are no less the result of our attempts to construct reality in accordance with our presuppositions. So the advantage, to my mind, of terms like religion and Hinduism is that we are now – because of the work of these scholars who’ve deconstructed them – much more keenly aware of their limitations. And I don’t think that they are applicable in every circumstance. So, I think there are scholars who’ve done ethnographic work on sites in India, where you will have people coming to a particular site which is, or might formerly have been described as Hindu, and what they’re showing is this label is very problematic (25:00). And the kinds of people who are coming to those sites aren’t, maybe, clearly identified, or can be labelled as Hindu, or Muslim, or Christian in some cases. And I would agree, in that context, the label Hinduism is perhaps not useful. But that doesn’t mean there’s no context in which it is useful. So it’s always a matter of what the context is, what the purpose is for us. I think one of the things that strikes me as a little bit odd, is – and again this is something I’ve kept track of over the years – is the number of times you will hear a speaker, or at the beginning of a book somebody will deconstruct the term Hinduism. And having cleared their throat and covered their bases with this term will then go on to use the term with exactly the same referent as the supposedly pre-critical scholars who used this. So, Donald Lopez had a nice joke about this. He said you could spot scholars of Hinduism by their over-developed pectoral muscles, from continually having to make “scare quotes” in the air . . .

TW: (Laughs)

WS: …every time they used the word Hinduism! But the point is, that they continue to use the word Hinduism and the scare quotes were there. So, I think we can and we should continue to use the term, and the danger of replacing it, or of replacing religion with some other term– because those terms haven’t been so thoroughly deconstructed – is we would be tempted to think of them as more closely corresponding to some actual reality and less constructed, in a way in which they aren’t really.

TW: Yes. That’s also a lot of heavy lifting to go and create these new terms, and try to describe how they can kind of convey meanings that aren’t subject to the same problems as previously.

WS: I think the other dimension here is that precisely because of their history, these terms have a purchase beyond the academy that we can’t ignore. And so this is sometimes described as, you know, people in Religious Studies sawing off the branch on which they sit. Now, if it were the case that there was a compelling argument for discarding the term and disbanding departments of the study of religion, our own financial self-interest wouldn’t be a reason to retain the term. But there are other reasons, as I’ve tried to explain, why I think we should. And given that, if we are to speak to the public sphere, we need to do so in ways that are intelligible. And talking about cumulative traditions or hierarchical structures simply doesn’t cut it.

TW: It doesn’t communicate.

WS: And we can go on to complicate what those terms mean, but we would be ill-advised, I think, to abandon them from that point of view, as well.

TW: Yes. I agree. I do agree. OK. Last question, Will. We’ve been talking about the historical study of religion and its importance to the broader discipline of Religious Studies and its methodologies. Now in 2020 the International Association for the History of Religion will host its next World Congress here in Dunedin. Now, as head of department for Religion and Theology at Otago, I’d imagine you’ve already started to think through what you hope this might look like, or what ambitions you might have for the event. Can you share some early thoughts that you might have on this, please?

WS: Sure. I think there’s a lot of reasons for doing this. Some of my colleagues think I’m mad for even contemplating it! But I think there’s a lot of benefits that I see in this. I mean, one of the primary aims is to share this wonderful part of the world with scholars from all over the world, and we hope many will come. And I think we should be honest about the fact that that’s a reason why many people will come! Because New Zealand is a wonderful place and it will be great to share it. But it’s also, for me, the other side of that is Religious Studies in New Zealand, as it is in many parts of the world, is a relatively small, and in some cases embattled discipline. We have lost departments of Religious Studies even in the short time that I’ve been in New Zealand. And those that do exist are small, for the most part, and not exactly directly threatened, but not as secure as they’d like to be. So I hope that hosting an event of this sort will help in a host of ways to consolidate the discipline here (30:00): to create visibility both internationally – for work that’s been done in New Zealand – but also within New Zealand, to bring to the attention of our academic colleagues and people more broadly, also, what the academic study of religion is. That’s a constant battle. New Zealand is a country where religion is – I would compare it often . . . . For many people what your religion is, or religion at all is about as much interest as whether you prefer strawberry or chocolate ice-cream. There’s a kind of apathy toward religion. Not always, but. . . . And I think, demonstrating the importance of what we do by bringing the best scholars from around the world to talk about what they’re doing, and why the study of religion is important will be important.  And also it will give our graduate students . . .  . We’re a remote location, we don’t get an opportunity to interact with these people. So it will be a once in a lifetime opportunity, I think, for younger scholars in New Zealand to really see the scope of what’s going on overseas and to interact personally with those people. There’s something irreplaceable about that opportunity which, I think, young scholars in New Zealand don’t have as much as scholars in other parts of the world.

TW: Thank you, Will. Well, on that rather optimistic and forward-looking note I think we’ll draw this interview to a close. But thank you very much for sharing your thoughts and expertise with us.

WS: Thank you. And we look forward to seeing you all in 2020!

TW: Indeed! Thank you.

Citation Info: Sweetman, Will and Thomas White. 2018. “Against Invention: A richer history for ‘Hinduism’”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 19 February 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 16 February 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/against-invention-a richer-history-for-hinduism/

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The Perils and Promise of “Authenticity”

A Response to “Hindu Traditions in Contemporary British Communities” with Theodora Wildcroft and Stephen Jacobs

by Race MoChridhe

Read more

Hindu Traditions in Contemporary British Communities

blog_yogarave_1_bellytitleThe spread of religion and practice from origin points to global phenomena is a prevalent topic within religious studies. Stephen Jacobs, a senior lecturer at Wolverhampton University, and Theodora Wildcroft, a PhD researcher at Open University UK, are both interested in the common presence of yoga and bhakti tradition in the contemporary British rave and festival communities. This podcast explores how Hindu belief and traditions have been incorporated into modern western practices. An overview of the British kirtan community and the Art of Living movement is followed by a discussion of authenticity, reconciliation of tradition and modernity, and the influence of popular culture. As appropriation of culture and questions of authenticity pervade conversations across fields, the study of contemporary British Hindu movements is important in understanding how millennia old religious traditions are being used in new, modern contexts.

This podcast is sponsored by the postgraduate taught programmes (Masters and PhD) in Religious Studies at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland. Many of the RSP team have been through the Edinburgh RS programme, which comes highly recommended. Find out more here.

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

Hindu Traditions in Contemporary British Communities

Podcast with Steve Jacobs and Theodora Wildcroft (25 September 2017).

Interviewed by Ella Bock.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Transcript available at: Jacobs and Wildcroft- Hindu Traditions in Contemporary British Communities 1.1

Ella Bock (EB): Ok, so. Shall we get started? I guess I can introduce my self to you, first of all, in person. I’m Ella. I go to school at Lewis and Clark College, in Portland Oregon. But I’m currently at home for the summer in Washington DC.

Steve Jacobs (SJ): Ok. Well, I’m Steve Jacobs or Stephen Jacobs if you’re being very formal, but nobody calls me that. I’m senior lecturer at the University of Wolverhampton, here in the UK, mostly based in the Media department, but also based in Religious Studies as well.

Theodora Wildcroft (TW): I’m Theo Wildcroft. Nobody calls me Theodora unless they want to make me giggle, basically. I’m at the OU, the Open University, in Milton Keynes, but I’m actually at home in Wiltshire at the moment – in north Wiltshire, in the south of the country. And I am just coming up on my last year of PhD, in full thesis-writing-up-joy at the moment!

SJ: That’s the most exiting bit! (Laughs).

TW: It is, actually. I had a really good supervision on Tuesday, so I’m fine right now. Good supervision, good response. So that’s another two chapters sorted. So fingers crossed!

SJ: Brill.

EB: Congratulations on your PhD!

TW: Thank you.

EB: So, I guess we can jump right into it. My first question is to just get started with introducing what “yoga raves” and “kirtan” are. So if you could, like, explain a little bit what those are, and their presence in Britain, and if they interact at all, and how they would do that.

TW: Well, I think for a while now there’s been a sub-current of kirtan influence in the UK, but it’s not particularly well-known. So we start, I think, with kirtan – because kirtan is an existing practice within South Asia and the Indic and Hindu contexts, basically – which is a practice of devotion or religious practice through sound – specifically through singing and music: sharing singing and music. And that has an interesting history which I think we’ll go into in more detail, in terms of how that has met and interacted with the kinds of sub-culture elements within British culture in the last thirty to forty, maybe even fifty years – at least fifty years, probably. Yoga and the most recent kind of incarnations of that are doing some interesting things that aren’t particularly well-known. But it’s interesting what they’re doing. Yoga raves, I think, is really a much more recent phenomenon and Steve can talk a lot more about that, really being quite specific.

SJ: Yes, I mean yoga raves is a term that’s used by a duo who come from this group called the  Art of Living Foundation, who – well, to cut a very long story short – are a kind of Hindu-derived meditation movement. They’re a very close cousin to Transcendental Meditation. And they wanted to . . . and one of the things with Art of Living is they wanted to draw in a younger audience. So these two musicians who were members of the group, started what they called yoga rave dance parties:  kind-of alcohol, drug-free events that had the same sort of format as a kind-of rave would have, but using traditional kind-of Hindu mantras, to use a loaded term, or bhajans as a sound track – but giving it a Western kind of sound track, particularly an electronic dance music beat. (5:00) So it’ s a kind of interesting syncretic phenomena.

EB: OK

TW: So we’ve got the kind of yoga raves going on – I think, mostly in London?

SJ: Well, yoga rave isn’t a term that’s used by the UK group. They prefer the term yoga jam. So there’s a whole range of different terminology: I’ve seen mantra punk; yoga rave; yoga jam.  And one of the reasons . . . and it’s based very much around a small group within Art of Living, here in the UK. And they said to me, “We do not like the term ‘rave’”, because in the UK rave is so much mixed with the culture of electronic dance music and  part of that is taking lots of NDMA or Ecstasy as it’s more commonly known. So jam – they preferred this terminology. The leader of the group said, “I like the term, it’s cool!” he said. And it kind-of has this kind of connotation of the bricolage and also something that’s fun and enjoyable.

TW: There is a wider movement as well, though, called Conscious Clubbing, which I’m aware of. I have friends from the yoga community – particularly around London, I think, maybe Brighton, maybe places like that – that do conscious clubbing events which are specifically alcohol and drug free. And often early Sunday mornings seem to be a big time for a get-together. And, of course, the music they’re using is very much rave music. But it has that similar sense of wanting to achieve a state of ecstatic kind of communion, a coming-together kind of a feeling and a celebration, but without the artificial stimulants. So there’s kind-of a cross-over there. And then, of course, they’re all often using contemporary kirtan music, contemporary kirtan tunes, which provides another link as well. Whereas kirtan is much more a practice that’s done live. I think that’s one of the big differences for me, is that – not that that’s always a difference between them and the yoga jams, I think – but one of the things that’s clear with kirtan is that it’s always live musicians, live singers, live interactions with the audience, the music happening in real time, if that makes sense.

SJ: Yes. I think one of the things that Theo and I have talked about over the years that we’ve been interested in this, is the difference between participation and just being a part of the audience. And that whole thing has kind-of – it’s a whole kind of array of different relationships of participation. So the traditional kirtan is, of course, a call and response and very much involves everybody. Whereas sometimes the yoga jams and the yoga raves seem to be less participatory, even though there is an element of participation.

TW: Yes. Definitely.

SJ: They’re much more performances, in many ways.

EB: Well, I’m interested in how the two different movements and communities are trying to reconcile traditional cultures and practices with contemporary modern . . . like having yoga and therapeutic things in raves and EDM music. How do you see them reconciling those two? And if they are[seen as] authentic ways of practising and, like, what authenticity means here – because that’s a loaded term.

SJ: OK. Authenticity is a really interesting phenomena. I’ve just been reading a book about authenticity by Lindholm and he says, really, when we’re thinking about authenticity you see two different types of discourses around authenticity. (10:00) One he calls the historical and genealogical,  and the other he calls the romantic and expressive. And what’s really interesting for me is that when you look at discourses about yoga rave and yoga jam and in Art of Living – and indeed their wider practices – is they use both of those discourses. So it’s authentic because it’s Vedic. And of course, if you know anything about the Vedas, sound is very primordial, with the primordial mantra Ohm. In fact, the notion of sound within the Hindu tradition is badly understudied. It’s not studied . . .  it’s not given the centrality by many people the way that it [should be]. So it’s got that roots in a kind of invented or romanticised Vedic past, but it also is part of the therapeutic culture where it’s the experience. But the experience without the roots becomes kind-of too ambiguous and free floating. So you experience a somatic experience, but that somatic experience is then rooted back into an imagined Vedic past.

TW: You see, I would add a third aspect. Because I think that’s all really true, and rings very true with the things I’m looking at. But a third aspect is the notion of authenticity that comes from a personal way to practice, and a personal investment into the practice. That’s what the kirtan wallahs – the musicians and the people who share kirtan – are bringing: it’s a level of experience with that practice. They’re often quite accomplished musicians, although that’s not . . . they’re not necessarily prized for their technical ability so much as a sheer devotion to the practice itself: that they spend large amounts of time doing what they do – which is singing and playing, not just for audiences, but for themselves. And that also, tangentially, has a communal aspect which . . . . One of the things I find really interesting is, when you have big bakhti events, big kirtan events where you have a number of different kirtan musicians playing one after another, they will back each other up. So if someone arrives early, or someone’s around , you know, one will say to another “Could you play shaker on this for me?” or you know, “I’d love to play tabla on yours.” And so you get these individual musicians, or small groups of musicians, but actually when they play at theses events they have all sorts of friends playing with them. And their friends are usually people who have either just played or are going to play again. So there’s this idea that the most joyous thing that they could be doing is playing. Always. So there’s an authenticity there that comes from that weight of practice and that weight of personal history, rather than necessarily genealogy. And certainly, one of the historical aspects that I’m aware of with regards to kirtan here, out in the south-west in particular, is that we have a certain community of people who’ve spent a lot of time in Indian ashrams and loved the experience of kirtan there and began to practice kirtan there. And they’re over here, they’re home again and they miss that community coming together. And a lot of these events are about them coming together with other people, regardless of whether they were at the same ashram, regardless  of whether they’re the same lineage, regardless of even if they have the same devotional roots, even. You have people from different sects and lineages coming together, people with no lineage at all coming together. But what they value is that communal coming together and singing and sharing kirtan, which is really interesting. So there’s that communal weight as well. So that, over time, the community has its own history. So it’s really interesting, when you talk about authenticity with regards to Hindu roots and South Asian roots – which are obviously very real and very true – but what I would say is what I see. And what I see is a weight of practice in this country that’s been going on for decades. And that’s the roots, as much as anything else, that they’re connected to.

SJ: I mean there is a romanticisation of Hindu traditions that Theo and I have talked about. (15:00) It goes right back to cultural roots here in the UK, of course: George Harrison, 1969, the Mahamantra by the Krishna Consciousness got to number 12 in Top of the Pops, sold 700,000. In America you’ve got the counter-cultural movements, particularly people like Ginsberg and the Mantra Rock Dance in San Francisco that had some of the foremost counter-cultural groups, people like Moby Grape. And then also of course, there was Swami Prabhupada the founder of . . . [the International Society for Krishna Consciousness]. In fact, you’ll see his image on the poster for the Mantra Rock dance in ’69. So all of these kind of influences, counter kind-of influences between the West and the East, well they’ve actually been going long before the counter-culture of course. I think the counter-culture is a very important threshold.

TW: It is. It’s a threshold. But I think its a threshold of visibility. That’s what’s interesting about it. It’s that we have these periodic visible manifestations of commercial culture engaging with Hindu devotional music in one way or another. I mean you shared the – was it the Cher?  Cher’s version of the Gayatri Mantra? And it’s really interesting to see those commercial expressions and commercial engagements with Hindu devotional music. But what it’s important to remember is those do not feed necessarily directly from ancient Indian practices, they feed from an existing subculture that is continually engaging with this music and continually engaging with this practice. You know, there’s a transnational culture that certainly in the UK spends time, a lot of them will spend time, going back and forward from the UK. A number of the people involved will be South Asian heritage, a number of people won’t. You know, it’s a whole transnational current that’s going on that’s always there. It’s just the bits that we tend to notice: the bits that get into the top 40 sphere, or the bits that end up on the credits of pop shows, which we were also talking about weren’t we? We were talking about how the Gayatri Mantra was used on the opening credits to Battlestar Galactica, you know – who knew that?! Because it’s a really interesting mantra in terms of its visibility. The story goes that one of the actors basically went to the show runners and said, “We have to use this. We have to use this Mantra.” And he wanted that sense of authenticity of this being something ancient, because the show itself speaks to really interesting themes around religion and rebirth and these different things. But without the counter-cultural and sub-cultural engagements with Hindu devotional music, he would never have had that to bring them. (Laughs).

SJ: Yes. No, Cher wouldn’t have been doing that Gayatri mantra . . .

TW: No. Cher doesn’t rock up at an Ashram in India and go “I think I’ll take this mantra.” She takes it from someone else, who takes it from someone else, who takes it from someone else. And the intermediaries are the kind of yoga jam people and the new kirtan people and the bhakti musicians that we’re talking about. And there’s a thriving – certainly in the UK and particularly, in my opinion, in the South West of the UK – it’s a thriving and vibrant little culture. I’m hoping you’ll be able to include some actual music and links.

EB: Well, I hope that David does.

TW: Yes.

EB: Well, I was wondering if you’ve seen or come across any backlash against the use of mantras in Western pop culture? Or even within the kirtan and yoga rave/ yoga jam communities?

TW: I can speak to one really interesting discussion of this by, I won’t mention her by name, but she’ll recognise herself, by an integral yoga teacher of japa, so a mantra teacher. So she was leading a session, that I was at, that wasn’t even really kirtan, it was very much on mantra and the effect of sound and how we can . . . chant, so much more chanting than singing, if that makes sense. So, the effect of mantra on the energetic field, the effect of mantra on our connection to the universe. And she talked specifically about the Gayatri Mantra. And she said a number of things about it. (20:00) She said that the Gayatri is a very ancient mantra – so she connected it to this lineage – that it’s been chanted continuously in India for thousands of years – however the story goes – and then she said, “But these days a lot of people come across the Gayatri Mantra through. . . .” She didn’t mention the Cher version but she mentioned various pop culture versions of it. And she said, in her view, that is absolutely fine because its a way in. People come across these pop culture versions of mantra and it is not the same, it does not have the same effect as a mantra that’s been chanted in community for devotional intent. But the words still have power and the sound still has power and it is the connection – a seed that is planted that can lead people to something deeper and fuller. I’m aware that in the States, in particular, there is a very, very different debate that’s going on, I think, around the issues of authenticity and appropriation. And I think it’s important to be aware that the discussions of appropriation are very different here in Europe and particularly in the UK. Our yoga culture as a whole is less commercialised. It’s still commercialised in many respects but we still . . . we have an enormous grassroots yoga community, still. And our yoga community is still much more integrated with South Asian groups and communities and influences. So, as a result, the conversations are more complicated. That’s not to say that appropriation isn’t an issue and it’s not talked about, but it’s much less polarising than debates have been recently in the States, if that makes sense. Would you agree?

SJ: The discussions about appropriation really only occur in the academic arena because when we’re talking broadly about the Hindu traditions – and I’ll use the plural here – there’s not this idea that, you know . . . . Ok, so you have a Murti and it’s installed in a temple, but anybody can go and buy an image of the Ganesh, or anything. And they’re not so precious about different uses of it. Of course you’ve got the tradition of calendar art in the more visual things. And also when you think about kirtan in India itself, you know, a lot of Hindus are chanting kirtan to Bollywood tunes. So you already have that tradition of, you know, taking a traditional kirtan that goes back to the medieval Bhakti period, but it’s being chanted to the latest Bollywood tunes. And even in India you get CDs like Cosmic Trance for Youth, which is within the Hindu community itself. Young people are taking the traditional mantras and bhajans and giving it their own electronic dance soundtrack, to try and draw young Hindus in India into it. You know, devotional music in India is one of the biggest selling kind of genres of music. You go anywhere like Rushikesh, which is a very important pilgrimage place, and you’ve literally got stall upon stall in the bazaar along the banks of the Ganges selling all of these kind of remixed mantras, if you like.

TW: I also love that the supposedly traditional kirtan instruments that are now accepted to be the ones that everyone should have are tabla and harmonium. And that’s fascinating when you think the only reason that harmoniums ever came to India, as far as I’m aware, is through Christian missionaries.

SJ: Yes, that’s correct.

TW: Christian Missionaries arrived in India with harmoniums and played lots of choral music and got them singing Christian songs. And you know, essentially Indian people, the Indian culture, went: “That’s great, we’ll have that! We’re just going to sing Vedic mantras instead.” And now, if you want a good harmonium you go to an Indian manufacturer. You don’t go anywhere else. One of the few places in the world that still has huge amounts of harmoniums being played is India. And now, if you have kirtan that doesn’t have harmonium and tabla that’s now seen as non-traditional. I mean, I was at an event the other week – it was a bhakti event – and I realised tucked away in the corners around the space were eight different harmoniums waiting for – because everybody has their own – waiting for their particular musicians to come. So I counted eight lying there, which is great. So at which point I’m less interested in  . . . .  I mean, I think cultural borrowing is really interesting, and all religious scholars hopefully are aware of how syncratic religion is, generally.(25:00) There are further discussions you can have about power and about colonialism, but I think those differences are much clearer when you’re talking about multi-million dollar selling pop artists than if you’re talking about kirtan musicians in Bristol, or wherever, who have a day job and sell a few CDS. The level of power that they have to appropriate somebody else’s power is very different, I think, than Sony might have.  (Laughs). What is more interesting to me is the syncretism involved in the music itself. And I don’t know how much that’s true of the yoga rave/ yoga jam side of things, but I know that in the kirtan movement in the south-west, singers are using not just Vedic and Hindu mantras, they’re using Buddhist mantras, they’re using Sikh mantras, they’re using Sufi mantras, they’re using all sorts of different things and bringing them together under the label of kirtan. And I think that’s really interesting.

SJ: Certainly within Art of Living Satsangs you certainly do have occasionally – but it’s very, very occasionally – do they use songs or poems from outside. I’ve heard Imagine done once in a kirtan (laughs). But they tend to stick to their kind-of favourite that come from the Sanskrit and Bhakti traditions. But they do have a kind of – well I wouldn’t call it a song book, exactly – but they do have a list and you flick through and yes, there’s poems by Rumi and [indistinct] chorus, but they very rarely use them ,interestingly enough.

TW: That is interesting.  Well I see a lot more uses of that. One of the classic examples which I personally adore, is a chap called Tim Challice who’s from down kind of Bath and Bristol way. And he has a chant which takes a Hafez poem I think, which is This Place, so, “This place where you are, God circled on a map for you. Wherever your eyes and ears and heart can move against the earth and skies a beloved has bowed there waiting.” Which is rather beautiful, but he takes that and sings that and then he takes it immediately into a Hare Krishna. So we see that as well. We see essentially taking two different traditions and bringing them together in those chants. And the sense, within this community in particular, is that it does not matter. The shape of your belief does not matter. The deity that you are calling to does not matter. These places often have these enormous long altars filled with any number of different Murtis, any number of different images of different Gurus, any deity or anything else that is considered to be sacred can go on there. The point is, is that you come together and you sing. And that’s it. And there’s the idea of devotion without prescribing the object of devotion. And that’s a really interesting thing, I think.

SJ: Yes. I mean there are other artists, we talked about Sheila Chandra who’s a British South Asian and coming from a Hindu background and then bringing in English folk music. She’ll start off with Om Namaha Shiva and then suddenly morphs into some sort of English folk song. I mean that’s kind of cultural thing as well, only from a different side.

TW: Yes. I think there’s really, really beautiful alliances and kind of borrowings that are going on and it’s interesting, again, to go back to that idea of what makes them authentic. What makes them effective. And I think it is a depth of understanding of the music that they’re working with and the practices that they’re working with.

SJ: When you talk to the yoga jam crew they talk abut the Vedic origin and what Guy Beck calls the Sonic Theology that goes back right to the Atharvaveda, is the experience that is also validated through a quasi-scientific discourse around the physics of vibration, which you know, that if you chant the mantras you do not need to know – and of course Staal talks about how it’s the sound not the semantics that’s important; that this is all to do with the science of vibration. (30:00) So it’s kind-of validated through, you know, tracing it back to romanticise a Vedic past, the somatic experience of chanting it, which is again validated through this kind of quasi-scientific discourse around vibrations, which is kind-of interesting.

TW: Yes, and it will eventually change the world. Just keep chanting the Gayatri Mantra, just keep chanting it and all will be well.

EB: Ok so we’re abut out of time for the podcast length, but I’ve enjoyed listening to both of you talk and thank you so much for doing this and talking to me and the RSP about everything you know.

SJ: Well thank you for facilitating this.

TW: Indeed.

EB: Of course. It was my pleasure.

Citation Info: Jacobs, Steve, Theodora Wildcroft. 2017. “Hindu Traditions in Contemporary British Communities” The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 25 September 2017. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 7 September 2017. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/hindu-traditions-in-comtemporary-british-communities/

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Studying Tantra from Within and Without

Shakti

Shakti

Douglas R. Brooks, Professor of Religion at the University of Rochester, discusses how he became involved in the academic study of Hinduism, specifically Tantra and goddess-centered traditions. He begins with his training in Sanskrit and Tamil at Middlebury College, where he found that little English work had been done on Hindu traditions for some years. Living intermittently in India during the 1970s–80s, Brooks found a lack of secular studies of Hinduism, as opposed to religious devotional studies. Given these challenges, Brooks has had to study Tantric Hinduism from within and without the traditions. On the one hand, his friendship with Dr. Gopala Aiyar Sundaramoorthy introduced him to the lived practice as well as venerable philosophical traditions of Tantra and tantric yoga. Working with Sundaramoorthy, Brooks was “within” a vibrant Hindu tradition. As he refined his work at Harvard Divinity School, however, Brooks articulated a critical, non-religiously invested perspective on Hinduism — in short, observing Tantra from “without,” treating the religion like any other secular subject worthy of study. This approach caused Brooks to clash with older scholars at HDS, who assumed that Judeo-Christian terms and concepts were universally applicable to all religions. Later in the interview, Brooks discusses his interpretation of Tantric yoga, giving particular attention to the philosophy’s doctrine of application to daily problems. This kind of yoga is distinct from the New Age, exercise-based style of yoga that B.K.S. Iyengar and others popularized in the West. In recent years, Brooks has attended many popular yoga workshops with the goal of educating the general public about genuine Tantric philosophy from India. He concludes with some reflections on public service as an academic and his plans for a new book on Tamil pilgrimages.

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


Studying Tantra from Within and Without

Podcast with Douglas R. Brooks

Interviewed by Daniel Gorman Jr.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock

Audio and transcript available at: Brooks – Studying Tantra from Within and Without 1.1

Daniel Gorman (DG): Professor Brooks, welcome to the Religious Studies Project.

Douglas Brooks (DB): Thanks for having me.

DG: Could you tell us, briefly, what drew you to the study of Hindu, in particular, Sanskrit literature? Because you went to Middlebury College – a place that you could be trained in any of many languages, and you chose one of the oldest and deadest!

DB: I didn’t so much choose Sanskrit as Sanskrit chose me. And the same quickly followed up in the study of Tamil and other Indian languages. So, I suppose it traces back to my interest in history and the ancient world, and specifically in religion. I wasn’t raised in a religious family, but I think that’s always been an advantage to me: I didn’t have to undo a great deal. But I made myself religious, as a child, of my own accord, so I suppose that’s a kind of peculiar character feature. I mean, what kind of a kid asks to go to church, when his parents are not church-goers at all? Anyway, I got over that, that being itself it’s own story. And when I got to Mid, I was just interested in History, and the Classics and particularly philosophy and political science – and religion. Religion always struck me as still the subject that let you study all other subjects. So I suppose that was the real hook for me. You could be interested in language, politics, art, music, linguistics. . . . Everything in the study of religion just lets you study culture, lets you study history, all of the subjects. And I still think that as an undergraduate teacher. I think this is the department of the Humanities. And I think that that’s a fair assessment. So, India provided a perfect example if only because everything about the Hindus is. . . creates a history and a literature, and a politics and the rest of it. So what really happened was, I took a class that introduced Hinduism and Buddhism, from a really wonderful man who, as I look back on now, I see as a very thorough scholar for a fellow who didn’t have the languages, who – by my own standards today – would be a well-meaning amateur, in the sense of not having direct access. But he did an excellent job and I got hooked reading early Buddhism and then, particularly, the eclectic prose and verse Upanishads. And the literature just captivated me for its beauty, and for its insight, and for its cultural complexity, and its depth. And I said to myself at eighteen years old, “If this is interesting in these wooden unreadable translations, how much better would it be if you could go after the real thing?”

DG: I suppose I’m curious about access, because I’m thinking of the University of Chicago’s publication, now, of the Bhagavad Gita in the Mahabharata in English. They’re still not done with it! So how much material was available when you were. . . ?

DB: That’s because nobody wants to do it!

DG: So how much was available in the 1970s, before computers?

DB: (5:00) Well, you know, there was this amazing emergence of Indology at the end of the 19th-century. And there are astonishing scholars of that era, whose work we continue to rely on. I mean, Maurice Bloomfield, Wilhelm Kalend . The material available in German and French and the early English scholarship – astonishing degrees of erudition! I just don’t even know how these guys learned that much about everything. They had their own issues of colonialism, and sexism and their own parochialisms that came out of the era in which they first emerged. But the 19th-century provided an enormous well-spring of philology, and scholarship, and commitment: very serious people. That carried on in the period between the wars in Europe, which was also the period when American scholarship in Indology and the History of Religions, really took off. And because the History of Religions as a kind of German phenomenon – you know Religionsgeschecte, Wissenschaft, that kind of “subject” invented in Europe – translated well here because we’re pluralists and because we’re almost by nature compelled to study religion, as a subject – which is still a rare subject in a European University. You find Philology, and you find History departments, and you find other ways in which the subject is divvied up, but you don’t really find Religion departments. And that, too, was available at Middlebury. So there was a fair amount of – as I said – old, wooden, 19th -century translation material. There was the material that was created in the space between the wars, and then there really was a long hiatus until the ‘50s and ‘60s, when another generation came along and took up the work of that generation that was, in fact, trained before World War Two. So, my principal Sanskrit Professor at Harvard, Daniel Engels, was a code-breaker during World War Two. He was a Harvard undergraduate in the ’30s, and  I was studying with him in the ’70s and ’80s. ‘80s, I suppose, was our real time together: ’79-’86. He retired in ’84. So he came from a different era. He came from a whole different world. And then, what happened in the ’60s and ’70s kind of reshaped me. Because I came out of that rebellious world of looking for alternative voices, and subversive models, and other kinds of “How do you discover yourself?” questions – which were very much still not part of my History of Religions programme. Let me say one more thing about that. When I entered the doctoral programme at Harvard . . . . I guess that was ’81 after my first master’s. I graduated at the Divinity Schools and you had to reapply and then get into the Doctoral programme. There, the expectation was that we were Christians, or that we were Jewish and that we were studying theses “other” religions. The Comparative Study of Religion meant that you were a committed religious person of your own Western persuasion, and that these were the subjects you studied. It hadn’t occurred to the directors of that programme that any of us had, what they would call, “gone native”, or that we weren’t particularly avowed or created by our own Western religions. We weren’t using that as our home base, or our focal point for the study of religion, and yet that was still very much the model. You know, my secondary field in the Comparative Study of Religion, when I passed my general exams at Harvard, was Christianity – which had long since passed being of any personal connection to me.

DG: And that brings me to Dr Sundaramoorthy, if I’m saying his name correctly.

DB: Yes, you said it perfectly. So I arrived in India in 1977, on the University of Wisconsin’s College Year programme, looking for “the wonder that was India”. (10:00) Romantically, still very much a seeker, I didn’t know that I was seeking Hinduism, but I was seeking those sources and those ideas and commitments. And before I met Dr Sundaramoorthy I’d tumbled down that flight of stairs that makes you realise that you missed everything: that this was over, that the “wonder” that I had romanticised, and created this ancient India, and I had worked through this vision of what I thought it would be, or could be. . . . And I arrived there and  it was 1977. And from the standpoint of that romanticised vision, that party was over. Now, I was blessed because I came late enough into the “East comes West” story to miss the Beatles. Does that make sense?

DG: Yes.

DB: I didn’t really get the Hare Krishna Beatles bug. I didn’t get caught up in one of the Swamis coming West – any Maharishi, Mukundananda – that wasn’t my gig. I was too young for that. I wasn’t going that way. None of that ever seemed to be the real thing that I was looking for. So, when I went to India looking for the real thing, rather than some distilled version of hippy culture – I wasn’t averse to that, it just wasn’t what I wanted for myself – I got to India and it didn’t seem to be there any more. It seemed to be long gone. India was definitely on its own mission of economic development, but it had culturally decided not to do that, go in that direction. Every kid I knew or met, was studying medicine or engineering. They were headed into our world. They were headed into First World global consumerist sience and medicine. And you can still see that in diaspora Indian communities. That’s where the energy still is in education. So there wasn’t this rich, deep, academic culture of the study of India in India. That’s not what you found. And then, out in the temples, or out in the liturgical worlds, or in the practitional worlds, or in peoples’ religious lives you didn’t really find that level of scholarship, or that level of deep erudite commitment, that I had kind of romanticised and hoped for. And then, at my wits end with really very little other recourse, I was introduced to Dr Sundaramoorthy, who was a Reader and Chair of the Sanskrit department at Madurai University. He was eventually elevated to Professor. And he actually was that character I was looking for. Because he had this serious academic training that traversed through Indian Universities and Oxford and other places where his work had been reviewed and he had learned his subject. He was a linguist and a comparativist. His English was elevated – immaculate, really. But he had also been raised in an ultra-orthodox Brahmin family. So his heritage was the stewardship of a tradition of Sanskrit erudition and Tamil culture. He was just as magnificent in Tamil as he was in Sanskrit. And yet he also had the capacities and the training of Western scholarship. So meeting him was, again, just pretty much serendipity. Like, I walked in and met the right guy at the right time. He had just, in fact, returned from a long stint in Malaysia and Singapore working at the university in Kuala Lumpor. If I had come a year earlier, he wouldn’t have been there. So I just got lucky, I mean. And then, as those years moved on – I was supposed to spend nine months, I spent two years – and as our studies moved on, he was the one who encouraged me to go to Harvard and to continue my doctoral work and my more advanced work here, and then to go back and study with him. (15:00) Which is what I did. And when I won the Fulbright, in ’84, that’s technically my Fulbright year . . . . I wrote a PhD proposal for the grant that I won before the professorial committee approved my proposal. So I had the Fulbright to write my PhD before the professorial committee had given me approval, and I applied and actually won the grant before I passed my general exams for the PhD! And the grant essentially landed on Dr Sundaramoorthy’s desk, so I was paid to go home! And then, I had leveraged the situation so that: what were they going to do, say, “Oh no we’re not going to approve your PhD proposal, even though you already have the grant”? So I had the Fulbright fellowship and got to go back to Madurai to live in my teacher’s house, to become a Fellow of the Department of Sanskrit, at the University where he was the Chair of the department.

DG: How did that introduce you to the study of yoga, though?

DB: Well, the study of yoga is the study of India, as far as I can tell.

DG: It’s what most of your books are about.

DB: Well, most of my books are about the intersections of the medieval traditions of the rise of esoteric yoga, the Tantric traditions, especially the goddess traditions: those particular, peculiar formulations that involve the Brahmins in South India and other ways in which it anthropologically took hold. What living in Sundaramoorthy’s house did, and spending all those years in India did is, it gave me immersion in language and culture. I got, essentially, the training of an anthropologist, both in a kind of formal fieldwork sense but also the company of a gifted comparative linguist and philologist. So I got a classical education and a fieldwork education at the same time. When you spend that much time in India, you see that correlation between sources and texts and history and living traditions. And I was particularly interested in the kind of historical tradition that you couldn’t understand without a living tradition. There’s no penetrating Tantric lore, and text, and prescription, and liturgy, and philosophy and what they call “yoga”, without meeting someone who can tell you what the books are saying and finding out what it looks like. You don’t study Tantric liturgies of complex yogic rituals without learning it from someone who can do those rituals. It’s impossible. That was always my ace in the hole, was that: the book says this, but I know what that looks like, I’ve seen that performed in more than one place, by more than one person, in more than one way.

DG: But when you said performed, we’re not just talking about the exercise aspect of yoga. . . ?

DB: No, no, no you mean what we call yoga today in the West?

DG: There’s much more to it than that.

DB: Oh no, no, no. I don’t even refer. . . . Let’s talk about that for a second. What we call yoga today in the West is now a meme, it has a life of its own, it’s a phenomena of gyms and yoga studios, and morning TV exercise shows. That is a whole separate history from the history that I would have considered yoga until 20 years ago. Those characters that brought/ invented/ co-opted the word yoga to mean postures and exercise and the somatic engagement that happens on mats or in asana in posture, that’s, in fact, not really my subject at all. I don’t really know much about that. I didn’t really follow that transmission of that material to the West. I had to learn that much, much later in my career. Who were these guys? What’s the history of what we call yoga today, like yoga asana? There are people who write about that, who’ve taken that up as their academic subject. That’s just something that happened while I was there. Characters like Krishnamacharya and Pattabhi Jois and B.K.S. Iyengar who’s a famous name in all of that. (20:00) Those guys were largely still in Pune or in Madras when I was studying in India, then they kind of brought their stuff to the West.

DG: And then you get people like John Friend. . .

DB: John Friend and Rodney Yee and Francois Raoult – these were all people who studied with Iyengar in Pune. They’re in Pune doing Hatha Yoga with Iyengar when I was in Madurai studying Tantra and learning Sanskrit and speaking Tamil. We had nothing to do. . . .That world had nothing to do with my world.

DG: So, in your world, what is yoga?

DB: Yoga was the practical esoteric methodology of applied religion. I mean, if yoga meant engagement it meant application, it meant method. And, in that sense, it meant the study of how to take ideas, values, insights, claims, and apply them somatically, cognitively emotionally: how to put them into action, or into your life. That would apply to ritual, to study, to mythology, to esoteric practices. That’s what yoga was. Yoga was the application of this visionary, philosophical religiously encoded symbolic world into practice. And the practice would be somatic and cognitive and ethical and practical, in terms of living your life. And most of that was learned textually, contemplatively and ritually.

DG: And there is, you mentioned earlier, pluralism. What you’re describing to me were different ways of living. There is a pluralistic component there.

DB: Well, because yoga means application, there were Buddhist yogas and Hindu yogas and Jain yogas and Sikh yogas – everybody’s using the word. And they’re all, in effect, using the word to mean: “This is what we do and this is how we do it.” And the “it” on the other end of that, is: what we think; what we believe; what we conjure to be possible in bodies; and what are our cognitive, spiritual and intellectual goals; how do we organise our lives? What’s the practical implications of . . . . If we have these stories and rituals and practices, how does that change our everyday lives? How do we live? How we go about our ordinary lives, our moral lives, our intellectual lives? That was what. . . . So yoga applied in every religion in India, it was just the word people used for method, application, how we do what we do, how we engage, how we connect.

DG: And you’ve spent a significant amount of time, now, doing public engagement with people who may not know the scholarly issues you and I have been discussing.

DB: Oh no, none of it! The vast majority of people, who are sort-of my weekend job, are people who got introduced to yoga simply as asana. Now that’s changing too, because over the last fifteen years of that, I would say. . . .Twenty years ago, yoga was nowhere near the sort of simple, mainstream place it factors into our contemporary society. I mean I call it “Aisle 11a” now. When you go to the Wegmans grocery store in Rochester, yoga is in Aisle 11a. It’s like “outdoor goods”, “Seasonal”, “yoga”. So, how much more mainstream can you get? It’s not even in the gym, it’s in the grocery store! So, most of the people I meet who do yoga came in through that way. They came in through a yoga studio or a gym, practicing asana. What happened fifteen or twenty years ago is that that same nascent crew, which was far from the mainstream, was still interested in things Indian. They were still interested in that old sense of all the meanings of the word yoga. Now, they had no clue of what that was about, and that’s how I got involved. They were just curious. “We do yoga. What’s that?” Well, Niagara Falls! That’s just going to come tumbling over in volumes of history and curiosities expressed in texts and sources and ideas. And somehow there’s still some small segment of that population that still asks me that question. And their rooms are full- such as it is- with people for whom yoga is just their asana practice. (25:00) And that asana practice creates this surrogate community that often substitutes – in our fragmented, secularised, less religious, less institutional world – for the kinds of communities that even my parent’s generation associated with the church, or the rotary club, or the Boy Scouts, or the Book of the Month club. People go to yoga studios and they have. . . . And since we don’t have those other kinds of institutional, pre-created structures for us – you know, you went to the church or your father was a Mason or something – you go there, now. And so, yoga studios and these sorts of environments are not only places where they get their asana practice – which they’re still principally interested in – it’s where they meet their friends, where they meet like-minded people. And then they all say, “Well, what’s yoga?” And then some bright light says, “Well, we could have an event, we could ask somebody who knows about that.”

DG: Professor Brooks we’re basically out of time, but if you could say briefly – you’ve mentioned your public work but what is your new scholarly project, if you have one?

DB: Oh yes. So I parley the two together because I’ve always thought that the vanity and self-perpetuation of scholarship, at a certain level, is just more and more of itself. It really does very little good for the world, in a certain way. And I came from an environment where we wanted to do something in the world, we wanted to build schools, we wanted to help people, we wanted to give people in India a chance to study their culture, or to have a good life, or to get an education: very simple kinds of things. So I took this out of the university environment of learning and parleyed that into opportunities to take people to India and then two pieces happened The first is, they get a great experience and we do things like build schools and send children to school, and take care of folks. That’s the simple way of putting it. But also, that means that I get to spend a great deal of time on the ground in India. So, my new projects have to do with an extension of the goddess traditions that I was working on in the ’80s. And now I’m focussed on the furtherance of that mythology as it takes place in pilgrimage in South India. So there are these whole seasons of tens of thousands of people on the road – especially in Tamil Nadu – who are going to Shiva temples and Ganesha temples and Muraga temples and then to this character named Ayyappa. And I’m following all of those pilgrim paths and tracing history, language, sources, philosophy and literature into the anthropology of the practices of pilgrimage.

DG: Professor Brooks thank you for your time. And pleasant voyages.

DB: Thanks a lot.


Citation Info: Brooks, Douglas R. 2017. “Studying Tantra from Within and Without”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 1 May 2017. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 3 May 2017. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/studying-tantra-from-within-and-without/

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Historical, Popular, and Scholarly Constructions of Yoga

In this interview, we discuss the history and development of yoga in its South Asian contexts, and then examine its transformations across the globe into the contemporary era.

In its earliest uses, the word “yoga” meant “yoke,” primarily yoking a warhorse to a chariot. In the classical period, yoga took on a variety of other meanings, including yoking the mind-body complex through meditative practices, such as breath control and mantras, to achieve liberation. Yoga was an analysis of perception and cognition, whereby to know something is to be it; higher states of consciousness could expand individuals into the universe and even to omniscience. Yoga also included achieving superpowers through sexual and other bodily alchemical practices, allowing practitioners to see through things and to take over other human bodies. In tantric yoga, which developed during the medieval period, the goal became not union with the absolute but rather to become a living god, a yogi, through occult practices. In hatha yoga, practitioners regulated their breath and channeled vital fluids within the body, via chakras, in order to achieve awakening and supernatural powers. Contemporary forms of yoga as postural practice developed from Hindu Vedanta, Indian nationalism, the Orientalist resurrection of the Yoga Sutras, Theosophy, Swedish gymnastics, and other sources, and constitute a relatively recent phenomenon in the history of yoga. Even more recently, the study of yoga in North America has been riven by debates about what counts as “authentic” yoga and who gets to make such claims authoritatively, as the Hindu America Foundation’s Take Back Yoga campaign can attest.

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