I’ve already posted about it on Facebook and I think someone sent out a tweet about it but I’ll post it here and make it official. I’m happy to announce I’ve accepted a one year faculty appointment in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Alabama for 2013-1014. I’m really excited to join such a great group of faculty members for what should be a great year. I’m even more excited because I’ll get to teach a seminar on Asian Religions in American Culture that I’ve wanted a chance to teach for some time now. I’ll also be teaching the honors introduction to religion course, which should be a blast.
So, I guess all that’s left to say is….Roll Tide!
Much of the recent coverage of the newly named Pope Francis I has focused on his role as a reforming pope for a church in crisis (e.g. this and this). It struck me that the “reforming pope” seems like an easy narrative to tell about a new pope so I did a quick search of the Making of America digital archive for “new pope” during the nineteenth century.
From the August 1846 issue of The American Whig Review regarding the new Pope Pius IX:
It is hoped, and confidently predicted, that he will administer the Papacy with moderation and discretion, and that he will introduce into the Papal states some of the reforms which have been so long and so greatly needed…
Caution and sou discretion, as well as boldness and vigor, will be required to introduce a new order of things.
From The Atlantic Monthly May 1878 regarding Pius IX’s successor Leo XIII upon his election:
Leo XII is certainly no fanatic, nor is he ignorant of the times in which he lives…Whatever the ends he may propose to himself, he will not seek to meet political antagonism by organizing medieval crusades; nor will he attempt to resist Protestantism or to put down infidelity by decreeing new honors to saints in paradise, or by accumulating new dogmas upon an already seriously overladen faith…
[If he] is to be an ecclesiastical reformer, as so many hope, he is not the name to make effusive announcements of his designs to the world beforehand, nor prematurely to arouse the violent resistance of the ultramontane party and the Jesuits by abrupt innovations or startling reversals of the measure of his predecessor.”
My point with these two examples is not to say anything about these popes and their status as reformers, but rather to highlight how American observers are always imaging and hoping for a reforming pope. For
Protestant non-Catholic American observers, the new pope is always hoped to be a reformer, whatever that may mean at the time.
Today is International Women’s Day . As a historian of American religious cultures, IWD reminds me of the foundational role women have played and continue to play in American religions. The story of Hindu religions in American culture that I laid out in my dissertation brought many women typically on the edges of American religious history to the center of the narrative. Women ranging from Helena Blavatsky to Lydia Maria Child to Hannah Adams.
So, in the spirit of IWD I present a section of Hannah Adams’ An Alphabetical Compendium of the Various Sects which have Appeared in the World from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Present Day (1784). This was the earliest work of comparative religion in America and the section below is the earliest account of Hindu religions penned by an American. For more on Adams remarkable career I recommend Gary D. Schmidt’s A Passionate Usefulness: The Life and Literary Labors of Hannah Adams (2004).
MOGUL’s EMPIRE. The original inhabitants of India are called Gentoos, or, as others call them, Hindoos. They pretend that Brumma, who was their legislator both in politics and religoin, was inferiour only to God; and that he existed many thousands of years before our account of the creation. They Bramins–for so the Gentoo Priests are called–pretend, that he bequeathed to them a book, called the Vidam, containing his doctrines and instructions; –and that though the original is lost, they are still possessed of a commentary upon it, called the Shahstah, which is wrote in the Shanscrita language, now a dead language and known only to the Bramins, who study it.
I defended my dissertation, “Imagining Hindus: India and Religion in Nineteenth Century America,” yesterday. This is what I felt like doing afterward:
I’ve taken on the role of co-chair of the North American Hinduism Group this year. Here’s our call for proposals for this fall’s annual AAR meeting:
The North American Hinduism Group seeks proposals on the topics listed below for the 2013 annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion. Please contact the listed organizers if you wish to contribute to the following themes:
The use and interpretation of Hindu texts in North America — Jennifer B. Saunders, Stamford, CT, firstname.lastname@example.org
Priests, pundits, and the promotion of Hinduism in North America — Alexandra Kaloyanides, Yale University, email@example.com
Hindu temples as sites of healing (for the individual, family, or community) in North America — Aimee Hamilton, Pacific Lutheran University, firstname.lastname@example.org
For a possible cosponsored session with the Religion and Politics Section, Hinduism in the American political consciousness — religion, identity, and citizenship — Anya Pokazanyeva, University of California, Santa Barbara, email@example.com
Hinduism in Maryland, Washington D.C., Virginia, Pennsylvania, and/or Delaware — Aimee Hamilton, Pacific Lutheran University, firstname.lastname@example.org
Food and festival in North American Hinduism — Aimee Hamilton, Pacific Lutheran University, email@example.com
Images and material culture in North American Hinduism — Alex Kaloyanides, Yale University, firstname.lastname@example.org
Conversion in North American Hinduism — Shreena Gandhi, Kalamazoo College, email@example.com
For a possible cosponsored session with the Childhood Studies and Religion Group and the Religion and Migration Group, the transmission of tradition to North American Hindu children — Rita Biagioli, University of Chicago, firstname.lastname@example.org
Hinduism in the American West — Michael Altman, Emory University, email@example.com
Transcendence and North American Hinduism — Anya Pokazanyeva, University of California, Santa Barbara, firstname.lastname@example.org
North American Hindus in the academy: deconstructing insider/outsiders — Leena Taneja, Stetson University, email@example.com
Who’s missing in the field of North American Hinduism — Leena Taneja, Stetson University, firstname.lastname@example.org
Tomorrow marks Swami Vivekananda’s 150th birthday. Vivekananda haunts me. He was a man who meant and continues to mean many things to many people. But for me, Vivekananda will always represent a limit or a boundary. When I started the research project that became my dissertation, I started with Vivekananda and then turned and looked backward. In American religious history, Vivekananda represented the beginning of Hinduism in America. He brought Raja Yoga and the Vedanta Society. His speech at the World’s Parliament of Religion was the dawning of a new pluralism in America. I wanted to know what happened before that. I wanted to turn Vivekananda into the ending. What did Americans think about India and Hindus and yoga and Brahma and Krishna before 1893–before the Swami came to Chicago? That has been the driving question of my research for the past seven years, across my masters and Ph.D. work, and through two universities.
As Hindus around the world remember and celebrate the life of the Swami, I celebrate as well, but for very different reasons. As I said, for me Vivekananda represents the end. He is the last figure in my dissertation. So, as I put the finishing touches on this dissertation, look toward a defense in a couple months, a graduation shortly after that, and eventually a book, I celebrate the life of Vivekananda. Because without him I would never have found this research topic. And without him it would not have an ending.
At least that’s what two stories I ran into this week are saying.
First, there’s a Fox News story that I came across via Media Matters in which the fine folks at Fox & Friends discuss the new “trend” of children practicing yoga with guest and parenting guru (no pun intended) Larry Winget. The whole segment is based around a frame of “yoga vs. sports.” While he initially praises the benefits of yoga (in order to satiate the “yoga nazis”–now there’s an image), the segment devolves into Winget lecturing the audience on why yoga isn’t a sport–it doesn’t have a ball, you can’t win or lose, you don’t keep score. The lowest part comes when Winget tries to link children doing the downward dog with the “wussification” of America.
Sports, according to Winget, has a character building value because it teaches winning and losing and is interactive and social. Yoga, on the other hand, does not teach a child how to compete or socialize with others, but instead, is an individual and isolating practice. This distinction is not new. Americans have long imagined yoga as an isolated practice. Some saw this positively, such as Thoreau. Meanwhile, 18th and 19th century European accounts of the “Hindoo fakir” that circulated in America imagined yoga as the individual practice of heathen holy men. For more on this see Kirin Narayan’s excellent article “Refractions from the Field at Home: American Representations of Hindu Holy Men in the 19th and 20th Centuries.” Cultural Anthropology 8 (1993): 476–509.
Now neither Thoreau’s yoga at Walden Pond nor evangelical missionary reports looked anything like preschoolers striking warrior pose, but the discourse of Western social activity, capitalist competition, and work ethic contrasted with Eastern isolation, asceticism, and navel gazing is embedded in our thinking about yoga today. Yoga is “wussification” insofar as it replaces the aggressive, communal, and competitive sports with its individual navel gazing and austere, individualized, and quietest practice. I also thought there were hints of an almost Robert Bellah-like argument against “sports Sheilaism,” for lack of a better term. If this yoga trend (is it really a trend?) keeps up we may see the downfall of our treasured social-sport institutions. We might all become “exercisers but not athletes.” The rise of the athletic “nones.” Little Leagues and Pop Warners will crumble. I’m being tongue-in-cheek, but I think this story does get to the role of sports in American culture and the major apologetic for child sports, that they build character and teach life lessons.
But what if yoga taught character and life lessons? Over at NPR a story from Encinitas, California does just that. The K. P. Jois Foundation, an Ashtanga yoga group, supports wellness program in the school district there that gets elementary students to hit the yoga mats. But at least one parent objects to the yoga classes, claiming that they are an establishment of religion.
“They were being taught to thank the sun for their lives and the warmth that it brought, the life that it brought to the earth and they were told to do that right before they did their sun salutation exercises,” she says.
Those looked like religious teachings to her, so she opted to keep her son out of the classes. The more Eady reads about the Jois Foundation and its founders’ beliefs in the spiritual benefits of Ashtanga yoga, the more she’s convinced that the poses and meditation can’t be separated from their Hindu roots.
“It’s stated in the curriculum that it’s meant to shape the way that they view the world, it’s meant to shape the way that they make life decisions,” Eady says. “It’s meant to shape the way that they regulate their emotions and the way that they view themselves.”
For their part, the Jois Foundation maintains that the program teaches character, not religion.
Jois Foundation Director Eugene Ruffin, however, maintains that the yoga program is typical of athletics programs for kids.
“They provide you with the exercise and the motivation for children,” Ruffin says. “And then they give you character exercises — ‘Thou shalt not steal, thou shall be honest, thou shall be respectful to adults.’ “
Ruffin says those ideals aren’t specific to Hinduism and don’t conflict with his own Catholic upbringing.
Apparently those character exercises are in King James English. Here yoga is lauded for teaching life lessons on the one hand, and derided for doing so too well, on the other. Note the divergent definitions of religion between Ruffin, the yoga apologist and Eady, the parent. For Eady yoga is religious because it teaches them how to make life decisions and how to make meaning in the world. Ruffin counters both Eady and even Winget by claiming that yoga is like sports. It builds character. It teaches life lessons.
And so now we are back where we started: life lessons. Both of these stories highlight the question of how best to instill “character” in our children. This is a long standing question that goes back to nineteenth century school reformers like Noah Webster and Horace Mann. These Protestant educators sought to instill virtue, what we might now call “life lessons,” into children and thought this could only be done with a non-sectarian Protestant education. Now, in the plural 21st century, educators are still wrestling with the question of how to instill character and virtue in young hearts and minds, but instead of the King James Bible and the Lord’s Prayer they are turning to yoga mats.
What are the kids getting out of all of this yoga? A deeper knowledge of Hinduism?
“Absolutely not — no. What my daughter tells me is she did the pancake today and she lays down and then she cracks up because it’s so funny,” Cocco says.
Ah yes, Patanjali’s infamous pancake asana.
The American Academy of Religion’s annual shindig is over and with Thanksgiving in the rear view mirror and a fridge full of leftovers it’s back to work. I won’t do a full recap, but I will say that my favorite two panels were both “author meets critics” style. One on Tracy Fessenden’s Culture and Redemption and another on John Lardas Modern’s Secularism in Antebellum America. I got nonspecific Protestantism on the brain; or as someone on the Fessenden panel described it, “nefarious Protestant hegemony.”
And if you haven’t seen Mark Oppenheimer’s NY Times article on the AAR’s decision to shun the Hyatt over it’s labor dispute with hotel staff be sure to check it out. It’s been blowing up my Facebooks over the weekend. Apparently it blew up Craig Martin’s too, as he posted a response to the story that argued the newspaper article misrepresented and exoticized the AAR.
I tweeted Oppenheimer a link to the Martin post and he responded:
That seems fair enough.
Speaking of Twitter, I think it’s time for the AAR to step up its game when it comes to organizing the use of social media at the annual meeting. The tweets were all over the place, under different hashtags, and with no idea which panel they were reacting too. The #sblaar hasghtag was a mess. And this was with only a relatively small number of attendees tweeting. Without going back and sifting through the tweets (and was anyone even archiving them?), all I remember seeing were tweets from religious studies folks I already knew about panels I was already in (mostly related to secularism, American religion, or pop culture) or biblical studies types. (BTW, those NT and OT folks are much harsher on each other via tweet than us Americanists. We’re downright cuddly.)
The AAR needs to include a “Social Media” info box in all of the pre-conference and conference books they send out that lays out the hashtag (that includes the date, e.g. #aar13) and recommends how to identify the panel (e.g. #A14507). And someone needs to archive these. Ever the social scientist who knows how to code his data, Jonathan VanAntwerpen offered great examples of how AAR tweets should look next year:
Reflecting on the conference as a whole, though, I think the use of Twitter, split mostly between Americanists and SBL-ers, and Martin’s critique of the Oppenheimer piece are examples of a larger theme I noticed throughout the weekend. The AAR is a fractured society. We have folks arguing for a liberal political theology while other folks analyze Protestant hegemony in American culture. Even on the same panels I continually see a divide between papers that are rigorously critical and those that are, to borrow a phrase from a colleague, “woo woo.”
Often in introduction to religious studies courses the instructor will trot out the well worn story of the blind men touching the elephant. We all describe different parts of this big religion elephant. The story can be an apology for a big tent approach to theory and method or a lesson in perennialism. But that story doesn’t really capture the state of the field and the AAR right now. We are not all blind men feeling the religion elephant. There are some of those blind men out there, grasping after this thing called religion as if it was the elephant in the room and finding different aspects of this giant unknowable beast. But there are also others standing in a corner yelling “There is no damn elephant!” And then there still others who can see the elephant and are standing over it with knives in hand ready to butcher the pachyderm, hoping to dissect and parse its organs in order to discover how it ever came be in the first place.
The challenge for the AAR in the next 10 years is to find places for all three of these folks and maintain some sort of institutional identity that can hold them. Can it provide a space for the blind men to debate the nature of the elephant? Can it offer a podium and megaphone for those who want to deny the elephant of religion and claim the animals of ideology or culture as their species of study? Can it sharpen the tools and provide the laboratory for the dissection–after all an elephant requires a lot of space? We shall see. But in the next year, let’s just get a better hashtag.
It is time to head to Chicago for the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion. This year I am excited to be part of an excellent roundtable discussion of transnationalism and religion in America. Here are the details:
Religion and the Social Sciences Section
Theme: Exceeding Boundaries: Approaches to Transnationalism in North American Religions
Pamela Klassen, University of Toronto, Presiding
Monday – 1:00 PM-3:00 PM
McCormick Place North 1st Level: Room N127
North American Religions is, in some ways, a category of wishful thinking. Much of the work that goes on within the category is still largely divided by national borders, whether only those delineating the big three of the U.S.A., Mexico, and Canada, or including the islands of the Caribbean. Transnational approaches to religion push scholars to see anew the ways that nation-states have circumscribed our own imaginative limits within the geographical space of “North America”. When immigrants, pipelines and revivals continue to cross North American borders amidst passionate, and even theologically-fuelled debates, scholars of religion require theoretical and methodological tools that highlight how these circulations are economic, political, symbolic, and embodied processes. While the idea of transnational North American religions is not new, this panel will further discussion about the theoretical underpinnings of that field of study and emphasize how important interdisciplinary approaches and methodologies are to advancing previous projects.
Justin Stein, University of Toronto
Michael J. Altman, Emory University
Elaine Peña, George Washington University
Heather D. Curtis, Tufts University
Beyond this panel, also check out the great line up of panels from the North American Hinduism Group. I’ve been elected co-chair of that group for next year but I’m starting my promotional duties now. Check out the mobile app or the program book for the details of those fascinating panels.
I will also be tweeting from the conference so keep an eye on my twitter feed and the #sblaar hashtag.
See yall in Chicago!
The Religion News Service has posted an excellent profile of Tulsi Gabbard, the Democrat running for Congress in Hawaii’s 2nd district. Gabbard is leading in the polls by a whopping 52 points and should win in a landslide. Of course, her opponent, Kawika Crowley, lives and campaigns out of bumper-stickered white van. If Gabbard wins, she will be the first Hindu in the United States Congress.
In the RNS article, reporter Omar Sacirbey notes some of the push back non-Christian religions have experienced in Congress:
Not everyone would welcome a Hindu into Congress. When self-proclaimed “Hindu statesman” Rajan Zed was asked to open the Senate with a prayer in 2007, the American Family Association called the prayer “gross idolatry” and urged members to protest; three protesters from the fundamentalist group Operation Save America interrupted the prayer with shouts from the gallery.
Then-Rep. Bill Sali, R-Idaho, said the prayer and Congress’ first Muslim member “are not what was envisioned by the Founding Fathers.” Former presidential candidate Rick Santorum told supporters this summer that equality was a uniquely Judeo-Christian concept that “doesn’t come from the East and Eastern religions.” Crowley, in an interview with CNN.com, said Gabbard’s faith was incompatible with the Constitution.
The AFA, Rick Santorum, and Kawika Crowley all sum up notions about Hinduism that have been ingrained in American culture since the early nineteenth century. When the AFA called a Hindu prayer “gross idolatry” they were invoking a view of Hindu religions that began with early European encounters in India and spread throughout America during the rise of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM) and the missionary movement as a whole. British missionary apologist Claudius Buchanan’s image of the bloody “Juggernaut” (an Anglicization of the god Jagannath) was a popular image of Hindu idolatry in America and Britian. When the ABCFM sent missionaries to Bombay in the first third of the nineteenth century they sent back accounts of “Hindoo idolatry” to be published in missionary magazines. These images dominated the American evangelical imagination of India and the Hindu other throughout the nineteenth century and even to today.
Similarly, Santorum and Crowley’s claim that Hinduism has no claim on the Constitution or American ideas of equality also has roots in the nineteenth century. As a Protestant moral establishment took control of American culture in the nineteenth century they sought to imagine America as a land of white/Protestant/democracy. In this scheme India became a land of dark/Hindu (or heathen)/caste. American writers, in genres ranging form magazine articles to school textbooks, consistently represented India as the opposite of America. Where Hinduism encouraged a hierarchical caste system in India, Christianity encouraged equality in America. Needless to say, both of these representations of Hinduism–as either idolatry or inequality–tell us less about Hinduism and more about the people propounding them.
The RNS article does a great job of outlining Gabbard’s own Hindu belief and practice. She served in the National Guard and was deployed in Baghdad and Kuwait. In that light, I find it interesting that she singles out the Bhagavad Gita as central to her understanding of Hinduism, as that book is itself a meditation on war and the warrior’s duty. Gabbard’s reference to the Gita also reflects another longstanding image of Hinduism in America. Beginning with the first English translation of the Gita by British Orientalist Charles Wilkins in the late eighteenth century, the Gita has been central to more positive representations of Hinduism in America. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Walt Whitman all praised the wisdom of the book. Furthermore, in a culture dominated by logo-centric Protestantism, the Gita was often cited as the “Bible” of Hinduism and compared with the New Testament, with Krishna and Christ put alongside one another.
So, as Tulsi Gabbard runs for, and probably wins, a seat in the the U.S. Congress the earliest American ideas about Hinduism, both for good and ill, endure. Now, if only someone was writing a dissertation about this…