Hinduism at the Crossroads at Home and Abroad

Title: 1026 | Hinduism at the Crossroads at Home and Abroad
Area: Border Crossing and Inter-Area
Stream: Religion
Presentation Type: Panel Presentation
Tracy Pintchman, Loyola University, United States (organizer, presenter, chair)
Patrick McCartney, Australian National University, Australia (presenter)
Varuni Bhatia, Azim Premji University, India (presenter)
Jeremy Saul, Mahidol University, Thailand (presenter)
Diana Dimitrova, University of Montreal, Canada (presenter)


The papers in this session explore emergent forms of Hinduism that exist at a variety of geographical, technological, political, economic, and theological crossroads both in India and elsewhere in the world. We understand the term "crossroads" as encompassing a variety of intersecting vectors, and we focus our attention on the religious forms that such intersections make possible. Collectively, we explore temple architecture, digital devotion, globalization, spiritual soft power, and the repurposing of ancient goddesses in the modern world. Session participants work at academic institutions in five different countries (India, Canada, Japan, Thailand, and the United States) and are all stages of career development, from post-doctoral fellow to senior scholar.

Panel Abstracts:
Karumariamman at the Crossroads: Translocality and the Goddess in India and the United States
The Parashakthi Temple in Pontiac, Michigan, in the United States, is dedicated to the Hindu goddess Karumariamman as Parashakthi (“highest power”). Devotees at this temple claim that it resides at a crossroads of divine power, merging the Hindu goddess’s energy (shakti) with Native American, Jewish, Christian, and “new age” elements of divine power. In 2012, under the direction of the temple’s spiritual director and president, the Parashakthi Temple started construction on a grand rājagopuram, or “royal tower,” that was completed and ritually installed in August of 2015. While art historians like Stella Kramrisch have discussed the rājagopuram in the context of South Indian temple styles, little has been written about their religious significance. This paper explores the distinctive elements of this temple’s rājagopuram and the ways temple discourse promotes it as a powerful, “mystical” architectural element. This rājagopuram has come to be theologized as the medium through which the goddess works to transcend distances and breach boundaries—between India and the United States, between cultures, between religions, and between the spiritual realm beyond form and the material world—in order to extend boundless divine energy into the human and natural realms. The paper will conclude by considering the material dynamics at the Parashakthi Temple in relation to the larger category of “translocality” as a way of moving beyond the term “diaspora” when speaking of Hinduism outside of India in order to frame academic discourse about religious spaces, like this one, that reside at religious, cultural, and geographic crossroads.

Dharmic Crossroads: Operationalizing Spirituality for Soft Power Purposes
Dharma (moral duty) is an empty signifier. It resides at the crossroads of religious, cultural, and political meaning that can be harnessed in a variety of ways by both state and non-state actors. Countries like China, Japan, and India utilize the symbolic capital of Hinduism, Buddhism, yoga in similar ways, encapsulating their shared cultural heritage within a broad dharmic frame. These nations deploy dharma to promote wellness tourism and sustainable development and to endorse the idea that global issues are solvable through the neo-Romantic sentiment of re-enchanting ourselves with Asian mysticism. India’s prime minister believes a “yogic lifestyle” will solve climate change. China’s premier believes poverty can be eliminated by yoga-related wellness tourism. And Japan maximizes its share of the booming wellness industry by linking yoga with wellness, mindfulness, Zen meditation, gastronomy, hiking, and onsen (hot spring) tourism. Hinduism, Buddhism, and yoga have become diplomatic tools that Asian nations exploit to create demand for tourism and exert geopolitical influence. What are the potential outcomes of the growing influence of this kind of dharmic soft power across Asia? How might Hindu, Buddhist, and yogic elements work at the crossroads of religious and political discourse as efficient cultural integrators for Asian nations to help them form economic and political alliances? This paper explores these issues through the lens of the Trans-Asian Buddhist Circuit (TABC), a joint India-Japan economic development initiative that includes developing “smart heritage cities” through a network of Buddhist heritage sites.

Hinduism at the Crossroads of Mobile Technology: Bhakti on the Fingertips
Since 2014, with the introduction of inexpensive mobile phones in the Indian domestic market alongside the availability of better connectivity at decreasing costs to the user, cell phone usage in India has dramatically increased. Indians today are using their phones extensively, from entertainment and politics to purchasing grocery, keeping abreast with news, being in touch with friends and family, and much more. Internet connectivity and the mobile app allows for the phone to simultaneously simulate the sensorium of a cinema hall, a family gathering, and also (for many Hindus) a temple. This paper will examine how social media and file-sharing apps have interfaced with and transformed (if at all!) the religious practices of Hindus in contemporary India. By examining ShareChat, a social media app available only in Indian languages, the paper will argue that a bulk of the religious content circulating on social media is both transient as well as repetitive in nature. In arguing thus, this paper seeks to extend the nascent field of scholarship on religion and digital technology in contemporary. Current scholarship on Hinduism and new media has focused primarily on the proliferation of Hindutva related content on social media and the constitution of right-leaning digital publics that become visible primarily through the amplification of rage as an affect. My paper looks at the proverbial other side of the coin, and examines how everyday piety and its performance (bhakti) is mediated in an increasingly digitized mediascape.

Sati at the Crossroads: Reconfiguring an Ancestral Goddess for Pan-Asian Globalization
Rani Sati, a deified merchant woman of Rajasthan who centuries ago committed sati— ritualized self-immolation in her husband’s funeral pyre—has had to navigate new challenges in modernity. The notorious sati of a young woman in Rajasthan on her husband’s pyre in 1987 prompted the Indian government to forbid the worship of any past or present satis. At the same time, the rise of nationalist Vaishnava devotion exulting Ram and Hanuman in the 1980s, particularly in Marwari merchant communities, has necessarily brought Rani Sati into association with Vaishnava deities after she had been a standalone recipient of mercantile patronage for decades. This presentation thus contends that Rani Sati has been reconfigured as a deity of normative (Vaishnava) Hinduism, and hence upholds Vaishnava morality. In Rajasthan-themed festivals in urban locales where Marwaris are found, and even in some new temples, Rani Sati has become one of a collectivity of deities that signify a Marwari heritage that is rooted in both Rajasthan and Vaishnava. She has even become a model of Marwari womanhood upholding social solidarity in the pan-Asian Marwari diaspora, in line with the spread of Marwari-owned clothing and gem businesses and factories. And so, this presentation will highlight a Rani Sati devotional group in Bangkok that has installed her image in that city’s main Vaishnava temple, which even draws some ethnic Thais. In this era, the goddess’s devotees have taken to calling her “Dadi” or “grandmother,” maintaining her as ancestral figure while obscuring her now-controversial association with sati.

The Radhasoami Tradition at Crossroads: Spiritual Identity and Globalization
This paper studies the Radhasoami tradition at crossroads and in global space. The focus is on the issue of spiritual identity of the followers in North America. I examine several aspects of the globalization of Radhasoami movement in North America and its complex links with South Asian religions in India. It seems that the tradition is at crossroads, just as the devotees’ cultural identity is at crossroads – being simultaneously Western and secular and at the same time South Asian and spiritual. What happens when traditions and identities are at crossroads? What are the changes to ritual, and to structures and spaces of thinking, being and believing? Are there any other transformations that happen in this cultural mobility? With the migration of many members to North America, many transnational Radhasoami centers were established on the continent, and their numbers are steadily growing, as more and more members relocate to a new homeland. These centers are at the heart of spiritual life and it is here that the devotees, who find themselves at crossroads, find a new sense of belonging to both India and North America. By means of analysis of texts and data from interviews with Radhasoami followers, this paper discusses the Radhasoami tradition at crossroads and as a truly global movement, which has made home in a new world while maintaining links with the spiritual homeland in India.

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