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Sensing the Sacred

Sensing the Sacred

By FINNIAN M MOORE GERETY
On Sensing the Sacred, we delve into the past and present of religion, politics, and society in South Asia, highlighting the latest academic research through conversations with leading scholars. A new podcast from the Center for Contemporary South Asia at the Watson Institute at Brown University, hosted by Finnian M.M. Gerety.
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Mantras, Healing, and Tantra in Jainism: Ellen Gough

Sensing the Sacred

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Alcohol in Early India: James McHugh
When you think of alcoholic drinks in world history, you might think of French wine, Japanese sake, Russian vodka...But what about India? Although it’s not well represented in global histories of alcohol, in fact Indian history overflows with drinking cultures and a diverse array of alcoholic drinks. We learn about all this—and more—through the pioneering research of James McHugh, Professor of South Asian religions at the University of Southern California. His new book, An Unholy Brew: Alcohol in Indian History and Religions, is the first-ever academic monograph on alcohol in early India. But it’s not just about alcohol, because drinking in India was rarely an end in itself: whether in rowdy festivals, sleepy taverns, or sophisticated salons, drinking was a social activity; drinks were meant to be consumed with friends and snacks in a convivial atmosphere. By analyzing texts in Sanskrit, Pali, and Prakrit, McHugh offers insights on the technology of ancient brewing, theories of alcohol and intoxication, and how drink relates to other substances: including betel nut, cannabis, and tobacco. In this interview, he gives us a small taste of this rich scholarship. So pour yourself a glass and settle in… SHOW NOTES James McHugh’s book, An Unholy Brew: Alcohol in Indian History and Religions, was published by Oxford University Press in late 2021. Also highly recommended is his previous book, Sandalwood and Carrion: Smell in Indian Religion and Culture (OUP 2012). Find out more about this podcast and the Center for Contemporary South Asia at our show page. We’re eager for your feedback and support: please subscribe and then rate the show on your favorite platforms so that others can find us. You can email us at southasia@brown.edu.
01:01:51
February 11, 2022
Interpreting the Pew Report on Religion in India: Neha Sahgal
Would it surprise you to learn that most people in contemporary India believe in god? That Śiva is the most popular Hindu deity? That while half of Indians meditate weekly, only a third have ever practiced yoga? These are just a few of the findings of the Pew Research Center’s report on religious life in India. Published this past summer, the Pew report is a major milestone in the study of South Asian religions. It represents the most extensive publicly available data ever collected on religion in Indian society—including the intersection with politics, caste, and identity. One of the report’s big themes comes through in the title: “Religion in India: Tolerance and Segregation.” Even as most Indians value religious diversity and share beliefs and practices across faiths, they nevertheless prefer to keep their communities separate—and they don’t always feel they have much in common with each other. To learn more, I sat down with Neha Sahgal, the report’s lead author and a specialist in international polling on religion. Sahgal is associate director of research at the Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan think tank that studies global trends and attitudes. In our conversation, Neha Sahgal made a compelling case for studying religion using survey research—and explained how quantitative data can shed light on even the most controversial aspects of Indian religions. To find out more about the Pew report, visit: https://www.pewforum.org/2021/06/29/religion-in-india-tolerance-and-segregation/
55:60
November 17, 2021
Sanskrit, Indo-Muslim History, and Twitter: Audrey Truschke
Sanskrit is known as the classical language of India, especially Hindu traditions. But over its 3000 year history, Sanskrit was widely used in other Indian religions, as well. And not only religions. Sanskrit was a lingua franca in Early India—a window onto cosmopolitain, literary, intellectual, and political cultures of the past. On this episode, Finnian talks with Audrey Truschke, a historian of South Asia at Rutgers University, who has made her name studying Sanskrit texts and Islamic power on the subcontinent. Her most recent book, “The Language of History: Sanskrit Narratives of Indo-Muslim Rule” (Columbia UP), presents a ”history of Sanskrit views of a Muslim Other.” For those on the far-right of identity politics in modern India, the very existence of such Sanskrit works about Muslims—not to mention Audrey Truschke’s scholarship—comes as an affront. Hindu nationalists are deeply invested in the idea of a never-ending conflict between Hindus and Muslims. And they’re not above distorting history or attacking historians to preserve their worldview. In this conversation, Audrey Truschke speaks about her work, her ideas about history, the importance of public scholarship—and why her research makes some folks on Twitter so angry. Learn more about Audrey Truschke and her new book here: https://www.audreytruschke.com/ Highlights of this conversation are featured on the podcast Trending Globally, “Hindu Nationalism, Contested Histories, and Challenging the Fascism Blueprint.” Listen to this episode and subscribe to Trending Globally here: https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/hindu-nationalism-contested-histories-challenging-fascism/id1173544870?i=1000530302801 Find out more about Sensing the Sacred and the Center for Contemporary South Asia here: https://watson.brown.edu/southasia/news/podcasts. We’re eager for your feedback and support: please subscribe and then rate the show on your favorite platforms so that others can find us. You can email us at southasia@brown.edu.
57:56
July 28, 2021
Yoga and Meditation Studies: Karen O’Brien-Kop and Suzanne Newcombe
What comes to mind when you hear the word “yoga”? A sequence of postures, maybe; perhaps a seated meditation. But this Sanskrit word has a history going back millennia. Yoga has been—and continues to be—a label for many different doctrines and practices; a spiritual path claimed by Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, Muslims, Sikhs, and many other groups; and a potent symbol in religion, politics and culture around the world. Growing from roots in early Indian asceticism, Yoga today is a truly global phenomenon. At the same time, yoga’s success has also fostered the rise of yoga and meditation studies as an academic discipline. Here, the tried and true methods of scholarship challenge the monolithic perception of yoga. Instead, yoga studies reveals the stunning diversity of yoga’s past and present. On this episode, Finnian talks with Karen O’Brien Kop (University of Roehampton) and Suzanne Newcombe (Open University), two scholars working at the forefront of yoga and meditation studies. Their new edited volume, the Routledge Handbook of Yoga and Meditation Studies, is a watershed publication that reflects on key topics including decolonization, “classical yoga,” scholar-practitioners, health, and politics. Show Notes Find out more about this podcast and the Center for Contemporary South Asia at our show page. Make sure to check out other podcasts from the Watson Institute here. We’re eager for your feedback and support: please subscribe and then rate the show on your favorite platforms so that others can find us. You can email us at southasia@brown.edu. Suzanne Newcombe is a Senior Lecturer in Religious Studies at the Open University, London and author of the recent monograph Yoga in Britain from Equinox Publishing; Karen O’Brien Kop is a Lecturer in Asian Religions and Ethics at the University of Roehampton, London and author of the forthcoming monograph, Rethinking ‘Classical’ Yoga and Buddhism: Mind, Metaphors and Materiality. Working together as editors, Karen and Suzanne recently published the massive Routledge Handbook of Yoga and Meditation Studies (Routledge 2021), which we discuss at length in this conversation.
46:36
June 08, 2021
Mantras, Healing, and Tantra in Jainism: Ellen Gough
Some years before the Buddha lived, another renunciant teacher rose to prominence in ancient India. Known as Mahavira, “the great hero,” he practiced the most difficult austerities. Preaching non-violence, he aimed to transcend his body and escape rebirth. When he finally reached liberation, he became known as the Jina—the victor. His followers, the Jains, worshipped Mahavira as the last in a series of enlightened teachers. Although its numbers are relatively small, Jainism remains a vibrant faith in India up to the present day—making it one of the oldest surviving religions in South Asia. On this episode, Finnian speaks with Ellen Gough, assistant professor in the Department of Religion at Emory University, about her work on Jain mantras and rituals. These are features that most scholarship on Jainism has neglected—or even considered alien to the tradition’s ascetic roots. But Ellen’s research puts Jainism in a new light, showing the importance of mantras, mandalas, healing, and astrology.  Show Notes Find out more about this podcast and the Center for Contemporary South Asia at our show page. Make sure to check out other podcasts from the Watson Institute here. We’re eager for your feedback and support: please subscribe and then rate the show on your favorite platforms so that others can find us. You can email us at southasia@brown.edu. Ellen Gough’s forthcoming book is Making a Mantra: Tantric Ritual and Renunciation on the Jain Path to Liberation (University of Chicago Press, 2021). Formulas, texts, and terms discussed in this program include: Namokar/Navkar/Panchanamaskar mantra, a popular devotional mantra that praises Jain monks, teachers, and saints The Jaina Method of Curing by Manju Jain Bhaktamara stotra, a widely used Jain praise-poem Riddhis, ‘superhuman powers’ achieved by some Jain teachers and ascetics Tirthankaras ‘ford-makers,’ 24 enlightened figures whose lives provide a template for Jains to pursue liberation Rishaba, the first tirthankara Mahavira, the last tirthankara
45:27
April 19, 2021
Hindu Street Shrines: Borayin Larios
If you’ve ever walked along city streets in India, chances are you’ve noticed Hindu street shrines. These are public spaces where people worship deities, saints, and spirits. Wayside shrines come in all shapes and sizes, from humble altars to full-on temples. You could think of them as crowd-sourced devotion: they seem to arise organically in response to the urban environment—at the base of a tree or near a busy intersection. The shrines usually house a sacred object, some incarnation of spiritual presence: a statue, an image, a stone. Going about their days, Hindus pause here to pray, reflect, and leave offerings of incense, flowers, money. But street shrines go beyond the religious: they’re also foundations for community building, political activism, and informal economies. Indeed, according to Borayin Larios, Hindu street shrines express an “everyday defiant religiosity.” Borayin is assistant professor of modern South Asian studies in the Department of South Asian, Tibetan, and Buddhist Studies at the University of Vienna. He’s been doing ethnography for more than a decade in and around the state of Maharashtra. His research interests include popular devotion, material religion, and priestly education. Show Notes Find out more about this podcast and the Center for Contemporary South Asia at our show page. Make sure to check out other podcasts from the Watson Institute here. We’re eager for your feedback and support: please subscribe and then rate the show on your favorite platforms so that others can find us. You can email us at southasia@brown.edu. Much of the material discussed in this episode comes from a special journal issue on street shrines edited by Borayin Larios and Raphaël Voix. Larios, Borayin, and Voix, Raphaël. "Introduction. Wayside Shrines in India: An Everyday Defiant Religiosity." South Asia Multidisciplinary Academic Journal 18, no. 18 (2018): South Asia Multidisciplinary Academic Journal. Larios, Borayin. "From the Heavens to the Streets: Pune’s Wayside Shrines.” South Asia Multidisciplinary Academic Journal 18, no. 18 (2018): South Asia Multidisciplinary Academic Journal. To learn more about Borayin’s work on Vedic schools: Larios, Borayin. Embodying the Vedas: Traditional Vedic Schools of Contemporary Maharashtra. Warsaw ; Berlin: De Gruyter Open Poland, 2017.
36:14
April 11, 2021
Islam and Political Imagination in Early Modern Afghanistan: Tanvir Aktar Ahmed
The Mughal Empire was an Islamic dynasty that ruled much of South Asia from the 16th-19th centuries. It was one of the grandest empires the world has ever known. But the Mughals did not rely on military might alone to consolidate their rule. They also used works of literature—stories that evoked peoples, cultures, and far-flung landscapes. Through stories, regional factions competed for influence at the Mughal court—and sought to define themselves. My guest today is Tanvir Aktar Ahmed, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Religious Studies at Brown University. Tanvir works at the intersection of Islam and politics in early modern Central Asia. He’s currently finishing his dissertation, "Radical Shadows of God: Islam and Sociopolitical Dissent, 1240-1600." We focus on a literary compendium from the Mughal era which narrates the often supernatural adventures of saints, power-brokers, and rebels. Show notes: Our conversation focuses on Ni‘mat Allah Harawi’s Afghan Treasury (c. 1630; Tārīkh-i Khān Jahānī wa Makhzan-i Afghānī, ed. Sayyid Muḥammad Imām al-Dīn. Dhaka: Zīkū Parīs, 1932). Find out more about this podcast and the Center for Contemporary South Asia at our show page. Make sure to check out other podcasts from the Watson Institute here. We’re eager for your feedback and support: please subscribe and then rate the show on your favorite platforms so that others can find us. You can email us at southasia@brown.edu.
37:10
April 02, 2021
Religion, Democracy, and Hindu Nationalism: Ashutosh Varshney
In the past decade, India has seen the resurgence of Hindu nationalism, a political ideology of “Hindu-ness,” expressed by the neo-Sanskrit term Hindutva. Hindutva envisions India—a country where Hindus are the majority in terms of numbers—as a rightfully Hindu nation; Hindu nationalists feel threatened by minority groups, especially India’s Muslims. Riding this momentum is the current prime minister, Narendra Modi, who’s fanned the flames of identity politics throughout his career and now governs with a Hindutva worldview, with policies that critics call anti-Muslim. To learn more, I sat down with Ashutosh Varshney, Sol Goldman Professor of International Studies and the Social Sciences and Professor of Political Science at Brown University, where he also directs the Center for Contemporary South Asia. With Indian elections underway—and in a moment when ethnic nationalisms are on the upswing around the world—I wanted to talk with Ashu about how religion has contributed to this Hindu nationalist turn. Find out more about the this podcast and the Center for Contemporary South Asia at our show page. You can check out other podcasts from the Watson Institute here. We’re eager for your feedback and support: please subscribe and then rate the show on your favorite platforms so that others can find us. You can email us at southasia@brown.edu. Show Notes This episode refers to political acronyms, specialized terms, public figures, and recent events, including: -Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, intellectual father of Hindu nationalism who coined the term Hindutva -pitṛbhūmi and punyabhūmi, neo-Sanskrit terms for “fatherland” and “holy land” -BJP Bharatiya Janata Party, India’s Hindu nationalist ruling party -RSS  Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, leading Hindu nationalist volunteer organization -OBC Other backward class, bureaucratic label for socially disadvantaged castes and groups -SBM Swacch Bharat Mission, Modi’s sanitation and hygiene initiative -ahiṃsā “non-violence” in Sanskrit -BSP Bahujan Samaj Party, made up of lower caste groups -SP Samajwadi Party, socialist party -Dravidian movement, advocates of ethnic identity made up of Dravidian language-speakers groups in South India -Yogi Adityanath, Hindu monk and chief minister of Uttar Pradesh -CAA Citizenship Amendment Act, extending to citizenship to religious minorities (excluding Mulsims) -pogrom, the massacre of ethnic or religious group -Farmers’ Protests, ongoing protests to reform agricultural regulations -Bangalore climate activist Disha Ravi was arrested in February 2021 -IAS Indian Administrative Service -JNU Jawaharlal Nehru University Some additional references of interest: -On religious leaders in Indian politics, Prof. Varshney cites Rajesh Pradhan, When the Saints Go Marching In: The Curious Ambivalence of Religious Sadhus in Recent Politics in India (Black Swan, 2014). -On “Sanskritization,” see M.N. Srinivas, “A Note on Sanskritization and Westernization,” The Far Eastern Quarterly 15.4 (1956): 481-96. -As of 2021, Freedom House has rated India as “partly free.” -On “democratic backsliding,” see Prof. Varshney’s recent column for the Indian Express.
34:58
March 26, 2021
Sensing the Sacred Trailer
Welcome to Sensing the Sacred, a new podcast from the Center for Contemporary South Asia at the Watson Institute at Brown University. There’s so much fascinating scholarship about South Asian religions across disciplines—religious studies, history, anthropology, critical theory, political science. With Sensing the Sacred, we aim to bridge these boundaries and bring you interdisciplinary conversations on a wide range of topics. I hope you’ll join me, Finnian Gerety, as I talk to colleagues from around the world about Hindu nationalism, street shrines in India, stories of saints in Afghanistan, mantras and astrology in Jainism—just to name a few. Subscribe now so that you can tune into our debut episodes, launching on all major platforms this spring.
01:05
March 19, 2021