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Ye Ishq, Ishq Hai Ishq Ishq: A Love Song in Lahore by Ann Grodzins Gold,

Ann Grodzins Gold, now and then

Ann Grodzins Gold, now and then

February 20, 2018

Syracuse University Student Malavika Randave asked Watson Professor Ann G. Gold to write a reflection for a student-initiated publication called The International.
The international tells stores that are of interest to international students. Please take a moment to read Dr. Gold's piece, "Ye Ishq, Ishq Hai Ishq Ishq: A Love Song in Lahore."


Ye Ishq, Ishq Hai Ishq Ishq: A Love Song in Lahore
by Ann Gold

It is May 1968; I am 21 years old, a college drop out. My then husband and I have made our way from Germany to Lahore by train, bus, and rides with other travelers. En route from Turkey to Tehran, we were fortunate to meet two Pakistani brothers, on their way home from the London School of Economics. Their names were Akbar and Abbas. They were somewhat older than we were. We learned that their family had been refugees from Kashmir at the time of partition, and were now re-rooted and flourishing in Punjab. The two brothers were equally fluent in English, Urdu, Kashmiri and Punjabi. My husband and I lacked any knowledge of South Asian languages, and knew little indeed about regional history, colonialism, or partition.

When we re-surfaced in our traveling companions' city a few weeks after parting in Tehran, they took us under their wings with that famous Asian hospitality, and we spent many delightful evenings in their company. At their homes we met the young women in the family, who scolded me for my drab attire, and on several occasions dressed me in silk and gold.

Akbar and Abbas introduced us to a third and younger friend, Aki, and the five of us spent a lot of time cruising the city in the same car that had taken us across much of Turkey and Iran. Most of that time is a blur to me now. It was a heady mix of passion, poetry, congeniality, delicious food, and blazing May heat unlike anything I'd ever known. The relief of evenings was unparalleled in pleasure. Memory's selective processes illuminate just a few moments from several weeks in Lahore.

One particular night Abbas, the most exuberant of the three men, proclaimed with his overflowing energy and booming joviality: "Now, we will go make an attack on some firni . . . . " After we savored this lovely, cooling, milky delicacy – purchased from one of many small vendors who occupied an entire street -- he demonstrated with panache how to smash the clay bowl to the ground.

My especially cherished and most vivid memory is of a song playing on the car radio: ye ishq ishq hai ishq ishq ('this love, is love'). Abbas explained to us after turning up the volume in the car that this was a song about love reigning supreme, love being more important than all names or beliefs. He told us that the song had verses in multiple tongues, that it denied the differences dividing Hindus and Muslims, and told of an all-powerful "religion of love." I later learned this was a qawwali, a musical genre of devotional performance that had moved into popular films. The song's refrain and melody seeped into my brain, and with it the emotional pitch we had shared in the car.

Many decades afterwards, in another lifetime, I downloaded the lyrics, and learned their author was a well known Urdu poet, Sahir Ludhianvi. His verses do indeed speak of a "religion of love" (mazahab-e-ishq). They assert that "neither [Muslim] sheikh nor [Hindu] Brahmin knows anything of love, which in itself is the single dharma and faith." The opening verse is framed in the imagery of quests, caravans and wayfaring travelers, making it all the more appropriate as the theme song for our encounter with Akbar and Abbas, a half-century ago. Now in 2018 and I have an ongoing friendship with their extended family, many of whom live in Texas.

Lahore was my first experience of South Asia. I had not been to India yet, and had no inkling that India would become for me a second home, and the source of inspiration for my research, writing and teaching life.


Ann Grodzins Gold is a professor of Religion and Anthropology at Syracuse University. Her research is concentrated on religion and culture in North India. Her research and travels have taken across the world. This is an account of one of her travels.

Originally Published in The International on their Facebook Page.

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Ann Grodzins Gold

Love by Mallory Hennigar

A rose from Nagaloka's gardens

A rose from Nagaloka's gardens

February 15, 2018

Love

On 7 February upon entering the canteen for breakfast, many of the students greeted me with a smile and a handshake saying, “Happy Rose Day, Di*!” After I asked them about Rose Day, they proceeded to explain to me that Valentine’s Day has been expanded. 7-13 February each have their own “day” related to love: Rose Day (7), Propose Day (8), Chocolate Day (9), Teddy Day (10), Promise Day (11), Hug Day (12) & Kiss Day (13), culminating in Valentine’s Day. But, it doesn’t end there! After Valentine’s Day, a second week begins to celebrate the darker side of love: Slap Day (15), Gift Return Day (16), Kick Day (17), Quarrel Day (18), Try to Convince Day (19), Breakup Day (20), & Find Another one Day (21). A true whirlwind of emotions in the style of a Bollywood melodrama would ensue if anyone decided to earnestly celebrate these days. Turning Valentine’s Day into a two-week What’sApp greeting image-filled** extravaganza is a true Indianization of the holiday. All that I had previously heard about the celebration of Valentine’s Day in India was that some conservative people saw it as an imposition of Western immorality and protested it by burning Valentine’s Day cards and the like. Therefore, I was amused to find not only that Valentine’s Day has survived these attacks, but has flourished!

Due to the young adult ages of the people with whom I have been spending most of my time here, I have been learning quite a bit about love among today’s Indian youth. For instance, the first time someone told me that they “proposed” to someone, I was shocked because I assumed they meant they proposed marriage to them. I then learned that “proposing,” means telling someone you love them. However, I was shocked again because I discovered that quite unlike popular American dating customs, a proposal, i.e. declaration of love, is required at the very beginning of a relationship to establish someone as your boyfriend or girlfriend. While in arranged marriages, marriage takes place before falling in love, in the Indian dating scene, love is supposed to happen before dating even begins. Relationships are largely conducted via phone calls and text messages with occasional public meetings. These days, many parents allow their children to choose their own marriage partner, but pre-marital relationships are usually under near constant surveillance if they are disclosed.  

I have come to appreciate how much marriage has faded in importance in America by the contrast of how truly central marriage remains here in India. Women I have just met on the bus or in a shop will ask me, “Shadi ho gayi? (Has your marriage happened?)” before even asking my name. Another common question, “when is your marriage?” often proves difficult to answer. I have been definitively told that I absolutely must marry before age 30 even if my studies aren’t yet completed. If I explain that I might not have anyone to marry since even if I don’t find anyone myself, my parents won’t arrange it, people shake their head in dismay at the sorry state of American society and I am told that someone simply must find me an Indian boy. “Why don’t people in your country marry?” I have been asked more than once. To which I reply, “marriage isn’t as important in America.” “Yes that’s good,” people will say, but will then reflect on the horrors of ‘live-in arrangements’ or ‘love before marriage.’ While my initial American response to these moralizations is variously frustration or amusement, in the end I remember that in India, love often leads to danger. Certainly, across cultures love can easily lead to danger, and I do not mean to diminish the very real risks that people take for love that goes against their familial or cultural norms in America. But in my conversations here in India about love, murder and suicide almost invariably come up as very present risks of falling in love outside of marriage, across caste or religious lines, or against heteronormativity. It is startling how many people have a story about a friend who has committed suicide because of a love affair gone wrong.   

While we often idealistically claim that love knows no boundaries and crosses all barriers, I have found that conversations about love, dating and marriage often leave me feeling the least prepared to respond and the most culture shocked. My American ‘individualism’ creeps up on me in these moments and my internal monologue is something along the lines of: “We should love whoever we want wherever we want! And who needs marriage anyway?!” But what I have come to realize through these conversations is that the word ‘love’ means something different in India than it does in America – it comes with a whole set of connotations, associations, cultural systems, and ideals. To any anthropology student this isn’t a shock, but to me I must admit, it has been sometimes shocking to experience it, even as I can intellectually understand it. Love is universal in the sense that all humans love other humans, animals, places, things, etc. – we all have the capacity to love. But how we express love, think about love, and maybe even how we feel love is different.

Here at Nagaloka, every day the residents perform Maitreya Bhavana (friendship-love feeling) meditation, the last stage of which is to try to feel love for every person in the whole world. This is an undeniably beautiful way to end each day and a reminder that no matter how many different shapes and shades that love has, we can all recognize the capacity to love and be loved in every fellow human being.

So, I suppose I will end by taking this opportunity to wish everyone a most happy Kick Day! 

*Di – short for Didi, meaning older sister

**What’sApp – for those who have not experienced it, What’sApp is an instant messaging program which is extremely popular among all Indians with data plans on their smartphones. A popular practice among all age groups is to send greeting card style images to one’s friends. For instance, on “Chocolate Day” I received a What’sApp message from a woman that included an image of a basket filled with Cadbury Dairy Milk chocolate bars with the phrase “Happy Chocolate Day” written across it.

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Mallory Hennigar

Caring by Foot by Sara Swenson

A young woman carrying a plastic bag on her arm, walks along a busy city street at night. Her silhouette is hazy against the glare of traffic lights. Several trees line the left side of the photograph.

A young woman carrying a plastic bag on her arm, walks along a busy city street at night. Her silhouette is hazy against the glare of traffic lights. Several trees line the left side of the photograph.

February 5, 2018

On Thursday nights, I join some friends who give away homecooked dinners to homeless people around Ho Chi Minh City. The young mother who organizes our gathering prepares the meals herself. She has plenty to keep her busy between work and family, yet she takes several hours each week to carefully cook and package each of the 130+ meals that will be distributed.

Two weeks ago, I invited a friend I met volunteering with another organization to join me for this Thursday night dinner run. For the sake of confidentiality, we’ll call her Jewel. Like Jewel, many of the charity workers I meet don’t have fixed relationships with just one organization. They tend to volunteer for multiple different groups, whenever their free time and interests align with the task at hand. We agreed to meet at the usual gathering point, and Jewel offered to drive me on her motorbike. Motorbikes are the fastest and easiest mode of transportation in Ho Chi Minh City, though notoriously not always the safest. Most charity runs happen with two people by motorbike: one person drives while the other carries the food. Jewel was already waiting for me when I arrived with 28 meals in Styrofoam containers and a large sack of milk pouches. I loaded my arms full of plastic bags and Jewel balanced the milk pouches between her knees while she drove. We turned onto a major street and stopped almost immediately when we found a group of four dusty, middle-aged men laying out cardboard to sleep on near the steps of a bank. We exchanged meals, thanks, and smiles before setting off again into the night.

It was easy to spot people bedding down on sidewalks and ATM kiosks. An elderly woman was laying out blankets in front of a freshly locked store gate, lit by the glaring neon lights of shops that were still open. A single mother was soothing her baby on a highway curb. I spotted a young man leaning on a park bench, but Jewel pointed out that he was only on a cell phone. We drove on.

We were chatting about Tet, idling at stop light, when suddenly Jewel’s motorbike sputtered to a stop. She broke out laughing. I did not. At the thought of having to push her bike while carrying 21 dinners and a sack of milk, the bags on my arms suddenly felt much heavier. We rolled the scooter to a vendor advertising bike repairs but the woman manning the stand couldn’t get her husband to wake up. We rolled on to another stand. Along the way, an uber driver stopped to ask if we needed a push. We remounted the bike. The young man set his foot against our back pedal to push us through traffic to a bigger repair shop. I nervously clutched the bags of meals between my knees and crushed one of the containers as we flew down the street, eerily soundless without an engine. There, the shop owner kicked-started our bike without a problem and refused to take any payment for his time. I felt a growing sense of irony. We had set out to do charity work, and instead we had become charity recipients from all the people who were helping us.

The bike died a second time at the next stoplight we hit, where a young couple rescued us with another motorbike-tow. 10pm had closed in on us and we were met by the blank stares of locked shop gates.

“We’ll have to finish our work on foot,” she joked. I laughed at the image of us toddling down the street with all this food under arm. We’d have to finish the job when her bike was fixed. Jewel directed our rescuers back to her home, where we rolled her bike inside around 10:30pm. I was already recalculating my schedule: if we put the remaining meals in her fridge to distribute them tomorrow, what time could I meet her again? While I was thinking, she pushed her keys and phone into my hand and took the milk sack out of mine.

“We’re going to look very strange,” she said, “Delivering rice on foot!” She laughed and set off down the street in her delicate golden sandals and a polka dot dress.

I jogged after her. “I thought you were joking!”

We crossed the street, followed the highway, and jumped the highway divider to give a meal to another elderly woman sitting on the sideway. “You aren’t even wearing good shoes!” I chided her. Jewel, however, was undeterred. We had a task to complete. Neither my pessimism nor her shoes could slow us down.

We walked close to 7 kilometers (over 4 miles) until midnight searching out people in need. While we walked, I was surprised again by how many people we had encountered already had dinners. Our group is hardly unique in Ho Chi Minh City: many friends like mine congregate at someone’s house to prepare meals and give them away to people in need. This informal charity infrastructure permeates the city to the point that I joked, “I think we need an organization to organize the organizations. How do we know if everyone gives away food on Thursdays, but no one gives away food on Mondays?”

Jewel shook her head and reminded me that this wasn’t the point. “A meal like this costs only 10,000vnd [0.44 cents US].” She implied it wouldn’t take much for people to be able to purchase their own meals. Rather, she explained, giving away food was only a small help, to show people that they are still cared for… but giving away meals alone, “doesn’t solve the problem.”

I was skeptical that we could find another 21 meal recipients wandering around on foot in the middle of the night, but it didn’t take us as long as I thought. As we gently set the last two packets of milk next to the head of a sleeping cyclo-driver, we finally relaxed and went off in search of a late dinner for ourselves. We split a few glasses of sugarcane juice and Banh Bao at a sidewalk café and marveled at how quiet the streets got after midnight. While Jewel daydreamed aloud about traveling to Korea, I quietly admired my friend’s dedication to finishing our volunteer work. She had never paused for a moment to put her own troubles ahead of our task.

I count how lucky I am every day to meet people like her, and like the mother who organizes the food distribution. Many of the people I meet hold no illusions about the impact they can make – they know offering one meal doesn’t solve the bigger problem of urban homelessness. Yet, that reality doesn’t stop them from doing whatever they can. Even if it the job must be completed on foot.

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Sara Swenson

New Perspectives by Mallory Hennigar

One of the gopurams of the Meenakshi Temple in Madurai

One of the gopurams of the Meenakshi Temple in Madurai

January 24, 2018

Over the years, Nagaloka’s students have come to Nagpur from 25 of India’s 29 states. One student from Madhya Pradesh told me that she never dreamed of having friends from outside her home-state before coming to Nagaloka. Similarly, for me, staying at Nagaloka has been an amazing opportunity to meet people from so many states that I haven’t yet had the chance to visit – Orissa, Arunachal Pradesh, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, among others. Even though there is great internal regional diversity among the student body at Nagaloka, it is unmistakable that we are all living in Maharashtra while we are there. As a foreigner who has spent most of her time in India within Maharashtra, sometimes it’s easy for me to miss the small signs of characteristic local culture.

Over the past week, I’ve taken some time to travel to Delhi, Jaipur, and Madurai. While initially I was hesitant to spend time away from my fieldsite, I have found these travels extremely helpful to gain perspective on what is unique about Nagaloka and the Vidarbha region of Maharashtra where I have spent my time so far. In Delhi, I attended the American Institute of Indian Studies Junior Fellowship Conference where I was able to meet the other graduate students on fellowship this year and hear about their research experiences. While the projects were extremely varied in method and topic, it was inspiring both to hear about other researchers’ challenges, questions, and successes in the field. After hearing others’ responses to my research so far, I was able to generate some ideas about which directions I want to go in my research. The most surprising reaction I had to my experience at the AIIS Junior Fellows Conference was that I felt visceral culture shock from my quick re-immersion in the American academic world. I realized that the clothes that I considered a dressed up and professional at my fieldsite left me feeling uncomfortable and out of place at the conference. Conversing about conference proposal submissions and the academic job market, mundane topics in my grad student life, felt suddenly more foreign than speaking in Hindi. I woke up with the Pali chants that are sung twice daily at Nagaloka running through my head. It was a definite reminder of how much fieldwork changes you as a researcher in ways that often go unnoticed.

After Delhi, I spent two days in Jaipur with my friend Alisa from the SU Anthropology department. I hadn’t returned to Jaipur since 2014 when I studied Hindi at the AIIS Summer Language Program there, so it was a lovely experience to return to a city I remembered fondly and spend time with a good friend. She is in the data processing and writing up phase of her research. At our different phases, we both found it useful to bounce our ideas off each other as we considered the progress of our respective projects. I also had the pleasure of meeting her research partner Surendra who has been working with her throughout her fieldwork and hear some of his responses to my findings which helped me see some of my questions from a totally different perspective.

The last stop of my short tour was in Madurai, Tamil Nadu to visit recent graduate of our own MA program Julie Edelstein during her year studying Tamil with AIIS. Since I began studying Indian religions I have had a curiosity to travel to Tamil Nadu, so it has been exciting to see some of the things I have only read and heard about in person. Julie’s life and experiences in Madurai are so different from mine in Nagpur in so many ways even though our approaches to research are quite similar. For instance, in large part due to my research interests and interlocutors, I have only ever visited one Hindu temple in Nagpur. I had never been in a temple that even came close to the size of the Meenakshi Temple in Madurai. Experiencing the beautiful sculpture and architecture firsthand was totally different than simply hearing it described. Julie also took me to visit Pandikoyil, the fieldsite of her MA thesis, and it was a special experience to see a place I had heard so much about and meet some of the people from her stories. Of course, Julie was a wonderful host and took me to eat at all the best spots in Madurai and fill my cravings for Tamil food which may just be my favorite cuisine in the world. Even though I was only able to stay in Madurai for a short time, seeing a completely different slice of Indian culture was incredibly valuable for thinking about my own research. Also, of course, visiting Julie renewed my gratitude for the friendship and support that we have built in our community of Religion Department graduate students.

All in all, while before I left I was extremely hesitant to spend time away from Nagpur and was worried it would be a waste of my time, I have found that some new experiences and reflection time are incredibly useful in the research process. It also made me realize how much I have acculturated to my life in Nagpur and how much I miss my friends at my research site. As I wrote in a previous post, part of fieldwork is being open to change. I thought I had noted most of the ways that my fieldwork was changing me, but by taking some time away, I was able to notice other things that had changed like new tendencies in how I analyze social interactions or my sense of personal aesthetics. Finally, I cannot close out this entry without taking some time to acknowledge the incredible work of the American Institute of Indian Studies which is not only supporting my year here in India, but is enabling so much important research and opportunities for rich cultural engagement throughout India.


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Mallory Hennigar

Sister Wisdom’s Cup of Tea by Sara Swenson

The image shows a brass incense cantor, red apple, sliced fruit on a white plate, and two china cups filled with tea, set in a circle on a black tabletop

The image shows a brass incense cantor, red apple, sliced fruit on a white plate, and two china cups filled with tea, set in a circle on a black tabletop

January 1, 2018

I have recently undertaken a research project alongside one of my monastic friends, Sister Wisdom. Originally, she wanted to help me understand more about the origins of Buddhist teachings, and the differences between Theravada and Mahayana Buddhist philosophies. Shortly after our project started, however, Sister Wisdom was contacted by another monastic friend of hers, who is doing research for a graduate degree in Buddhist Studies overseas. Her friend has been working day and night to translate English Buddhist studies texts into Vietnamese so that the can then translate them into Chinese to cite them for her thesis. Sister Wisdom asked me to write and translate several chapter summaries from a Buddhist Studies text book, Paul Williams’ Mahayana Buddhism: the Doctrinal Foundations to assist her friend.

Our project demonstrates how Buddhism is ever-evolving across international borders. While many Buddhist studies scholars come to countries in Asia to find sources perceived as ancient and authentic, here my monastic friends were reading textbooks written by scholars in the USA and Europe perceived as well-researched and authenticated. Perhaps Buddhism is something that happens beyond these two types of sources, and is, instead, something much more embedded in local, daily practices.

Even this thought isn’t completely mine, but an unexpected lesson from my monastic friends. On Monday morning, Sister Wisdom agreed to meet at my apartment to discuss the Mahayana philosophy of Trikaya – the idea that Buddha has three kaya or “bodies” that exist in various physical and metaphysical realms. I woke up very early to prepare and was still reviewing the textbook she had loaned me when she knocked on my door. I opened it to find this tiny, delicate woman in her flowing blue robes wielding a heavy box and two bags, which she had hauled to my flat by motorbike.

“Ngai Noodles!” She exclaimed, unpacking bulging bags of soup, noodles, and greens. She prompted me to boil water, and then unpacked the other bag: a fragile china tea set, two cups, green tea, apples, clementines, and an incense cantor.

“What’s all this?” I asked, anxious to get to my page full of questions to discuss.

“We will drink tea to celebrate the New Year in your country,” she told me.

“Do Vietnamese people drink tea during Tet [the Lunar New Year]?” I asked, unaware of the tradition.

“It is a Buddhist practice,” she responded indirectly. She showed me the precious tea she had been gifted from a monastic friend of hers, then carefully poured boiling water over the pot and cups to warm them before filling the cups to the brim. She lit the incense and explained it helped her to focus. She often kept the brass cantor on her desk while she was studying. I sat on my couch, in front of my papers, prepared to do the same.

“Can we sit here?” She asked, indicating the floor. I left my papers and we moved the end table to sit in the middle of the room. She demonstrated for me how to balance the cups between the thumb and forefinger of one hand. We drank so quietly I could hear us swallowing. The tea was exquisitely bitter.

“How many sips in a cup of tea?” She asked playfully. I paused to think.

“Four?”

“The same as me!” Sister Wisdom chimed, refilling our cups. We drank again, and this time I paid attention to the number of sips. She watched me with insightfully kind eyes that made me understand why she had been given her monastic name. “That is mindfulness,” she said simply.

“Is that why this is a Buddhist practice?” She didn’t answer, but prompted me to take some fruit slices. I asked for a photograph of the table and she helped me rearrange for a more beautiful picture. We chatted for awhile and she instructed me on how to warm up the Ngai noddles for lunch before I realized we both had meetings to attend.

“We forgot to discuss the chapter!” I slapped a hand to my forehead, glancing regretfully toward my stack of papers and textbooks. She smiled knowingly and answered, “We can study books, and philosophy, and history, and that is very important. However, the most important thing is to practice.”

“Practice is also important,” I agreed.

“Practice is the most important,” she corrected me, gently.

Her lesson finally dawned on me. When she agreed to come discuss Buddhist philosophy, Sister Wisdom felt that we had shifted much of our focus to ideas and theories, without remembering the self-application. That is why she had hauled a dainty, fragile tea set on a motorcycle through Saigon’s morning rush hour to my house. Sister Wisdom had come to remind me that, Buddhism, at the end of the day, is a set of practices and a way of orienting oneself to the world, even more so than it is a set of ideas.

 We can study Buddhist texts until we intimately know the turns of a Sanskrit phrase, but until we understand how Buddhism affects people’s daily lives, choices, behaviors, and feelings, we may be missing the most important part. This is why I love being part of the ethnographic branch of Buddhist studies. Through ethnography, I can share stories precisely like Sister Wisdom’s, which demonstrate the often overlooked value of practice for Vietnamese monastics and beyond.

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Sara Swenson

Impermanence by Mallory Hennigar

A photo of me and my friend Divya

A photo of me and my friend Divya

December 14, 2017

Impermanence is a double-edged sword of a concept. The Buddha taught that nothing in the universe is essential – that everything that comes also goes, everything that lives must die, and everything that is created will crumble. Accepting this concept can radically change the way a person sees the world and lives their life. On the one hand, as the Noble Truths teach, human suffering is caused by our attachment to impermanent things, and yet on the other, it can be freeing to know that even this suffering is changeable.

While I am not Buddhist, I have found the concept of impermanence useful in giving myself a bit of perspective every so often. During my months in India this year, impermanence often comes to the forefront of my mind while I analyze my experiences. “Impermanence,” one of my friends at my fieldsite jokingly consoled me, as I worried to her about my hair falling out due to my reaction to the water quality. Impermanence, I think as I sit down in the meditation hall surrounded by all the special people I’ve met and anticipate how much it will hurt to leave them at the end of the year. Impermanence, I wish, while I listen to people’s painful stories.

I spoke to one woman about what it means for a community to try to build an identity around a philosophy of impermanence. I want to pursue this question further in my work, but here I will reflect on how my fieldwork experience has forced me to confront the impermanence of my own identity. I’ve had to accept small things, like my hair falling out or that sometimes while hanging out with friends, I will be asked to sing a song and I should try to do it no matter how bad my voice sounds or how many words I forget. I didn’t know that I felt so strongly attached to being someone who only sang along to the radio and whose hair looked a certain way until I had to face these things head on. I know these examples sound silly – but what these small incidences add up to is that most of the time while I’m doing fieldwork I feel like a total idiot who has no idea what she’s doing. This larger feeling is the hardest truth to face as someone whose identity is, I realized, wrapped up in being smart and capable most of the time.

During the beginning years of graduate school, it feels like we are constructing an academic identity to wear like a suit of armor, to protect us as we venture into literal and/or figurative unknown territory for research. But really, I think research of any method requires us to be open, often uncomfortably so, to being changed. In the process of seeking answers, our selves are transformed in some small and some large ways. It is this potential for change that makes research so terrifying and so exhilarating. No matter how anxiety-ridden I get about feeling stupid in the field, ultimately when I reflect on the knowledge and relationships I have gained by being open, I know that the only fulfilling way to proceed is to continue putting myself in this vulnerable position.

In today’s world where research and knowledge are ubiquitously being deployed in the name of security – to build walls to contain us, to cease growth and change – I think it is important to approach our research from a perspective of impermanence. I don’t want to write to maintain the status quo, I want to write to aid transformation, whether it be my own or someone else’s. 

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Mallory Hennigar

Cultural Grammars by Sara Swenson

A golden Buddha statue foregrounds a stack of Vietnamese-English dictionaries.

A golden Buddha statue foregrounds a stack of Vietnamese-English dictionaries.

December 1, 2017

I teach English lessons at a pagoda on Mondays. The lessons are my way of saying thank you to the nuns who have offered me their time, books, stories, wisdom, and friendship. Two weeks ago, we had what I thought was a grammatical debate. We were practicing two meanings of the phrase, “I must.” On one hand, “I must,” could mean, “I am compelled to…” or “I have to…” [phải in Vietnamese]. On the other hand, “I must,” could mean, “perhaps,” or “I speculate that…” [có lẽ]. Some sample sentences we talked about were: “I must be tired” to diagnose one’s lack of concentration, or “I must be patient,” to urge oneself to be kind to others. We joked about switching the registers of meaning by saying, “I must be smart” or “I must be generous,” to compliment oneself rather than to compel oneself to better behavior. One of the nuns brought our class back to task by offering a sincere example. I wrote on the board as she read her example aloud: “I must be happy, because I am a human being.”

I told her that was a very good example for “must” as a compelling word, but asked if she also had an example of “must” as a speculative word. I misunderstood her sentence to mean, “I have to be happy, because I am a human being.” My interpretation of her response assumed an implicit comparison between humans and other animals. I took for granted that human beings would be considered a “higher” life form, and therefore we should be happy to have been born as humans.

The nun corrected me by saying that she did mean to offer her example speculatively. She patiently came to the board and charted out the differences between two types of beings [chúng sanh]: sentient [hữu tình] and non-sentient [vô tình]. (The other students declared a snack break while the two of us were contemplating the nature of the universe.) She explained that human beings are part of the category “that has life” such as men and women, dogs and cats, compared with things like plants, fans, and chalkboards. To “have life,” she explained, meant that we had “thoughts” and “feelings.” Her example sentence was intended to mean, “Perhaps we feel happiness because we are sentient beings.”

I was struck by the gaping contrast between our interpretations of her words. This one sentence revealed our very different orientations toward what we assumed about feelings, humankind, and other living creatures. Our conversation made me appreciate the importance of nuance and checking one’s assumptions as a researcher.

Of course, this isn’t always the case. The following week, I visibly overthought one student’s response with a dramatically raised eyebrow and furrowed forehead, before attributing her unusual translation to, “cultural differences...” The classroom broke out in laughter. “PhD Students must always have headaches!” one student joked. As they say, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. The importance of spending extended time studying language and developing deep research relationships is to help us identify these different moments!

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Sara Swenson

Encountering Eleanor Zelliot in the Field by Mallory Hennigar

In memory of Eleanor Zelliot

In memory of Eleanor Zelliot

November 15, 2017

Fieldwork is rollercoaster of emotion. I go from one high of discovery, to the next low of feeling like I have absolutely no idea what I’m doing. In these low times, I have a source of inspiration that helps me remember the bigger picture: the memory of Dr. Eleanor Zelliot. Eleanor Zelliot is credited as being among the first American scholars to study Ambedkar and Ambedkarites, but aside from that she is remembered as an ally, activist, and simply as an incredibly special person by Ambedkarites. A few times during my fieldwork so far, people have asked me if I knew Dr. Zelliot, and have shared stories of her with me. I am told fondly that she would take any opportunity to get to know people and share something with them – going into the kitchen to help prepare food or trekking out with the other women in the morning to relieve herself without the aid of indoor plumbing. India was different back then when she first came, they always tell me, but she endured all of the difficulties and inconveniences to connect with people and learn about their lives.  

            “Maybe you will be the next Eleanor Zelliot,” some people have said to me after sharing their memories of her. Anytime someone says that to me, it feels like an impossible compliment. How could I ever live up to such a person who was so humble, intelligent, kind, and beloved by so many people? To me, Eleanor Zelliot is everything any junior scholar could wish to become. Not only did she make an indelible mark in terms of scholarship in her field, but she went out of her way to work with and for the people she studied. To be thought of as following in her footsteps makes me feel both a serious burden of responsibility and a charge of inspiration and gratitude. I am so fortunate to be able to draw upon her hard work and to feel the goodwill that her genuine kindness and friendship has left in the community I am working with. While sometimes in discussion we get wrapped up in thinking about the unkindness and potential violence of academic pursuits to the point of paralysis, the memory of Dr. Zelliot has made me feel the true beauty that comes from seeking human understanding and connection. I deeply admire Dr. Zelliot’s ability to show the beauty and power of an oppressed community while also shedding light on caste oppression. I only hope that in my growing love for Maharashtra and its people I am doing any sort of justice to the comparison that others have made between us, and maybe one day I can feel that I deserve it.

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Mallory Hennigar

Urban Religion by Sara Swenson

A road runs through a neighborhood street in Ho Chi Minh City. On the right side of the road, the horizon is blocked by a high rise under construction

A road runs through a neighborhood street in Ho Chi Minh City. On the right side of the road, the horizon is blocked by a high rise under construction

November 3, 2017

Ho Chi Minh City is under construction. Walking out my door each morning, I face the skeleton of a high-rise being pounded into life. The road is dusty with building materials. All down the street, workers stand atop emerging sky scrapers, pressing new beams against the sun. I write my fieldnotes in a half-built mall. Inside workers fix bolts and electrical wires to bring it into being. Just outside, the electric eyes of a spectacle shop blink open and closed.

The new city grows on top of the old city, but both are vibrantly alive. In the hottest moments of the early afternoon, one may find a rare moment of quiet where the old city meets the new near the Saigon Bridge. A pagoda rests in the shadow of a lulled traffic overpass. Fruit venders rest in the shadow of the monastery. Drivers idle under the shade of the vending carts, picking through the oranges and mangos that are a reminder that the concrete does end somewhere. For many people I know, that somewhere is home.

The city growth is fed by aspirations. In the last five years, millions have moved here chasing work, education, marriages, and opportunities for success they feel are only available in Ho Chi Minh City. One mother who came here for her children’s education tells me, “Everyone wants to move to Saigon. Foreigners want to move to Saigon, Vietnamese people want to move to Saigon. Everyone comes here.”

Amidst the concrete, there are two places I most often see bare ground: in the courtyards of monasteries packed down by prayerful feet, and between the metal frames of new buildings packed down by ambitious hands. The growth of religious communities is inseparably intertwined with the growth of the market in Ho Chi Minh City. Religion is thriving in this urban environment, as is also documented in Philip Taylor’s edited anthology Modernity and Re-enchantment: Religion in Post-revolutionary Vietnam (2007).

The popularity of religion is most materially visible in the rising number of shrines appearing in alleyways and businesses. Small shrines to two squat, jolly business gods have become regular fixtures on fruit carts and cafes, at gyms, and in shop windows. Porcelain statues of the two men, rarely more than six inches tall, rest in polished wooden boxes, just large enough to contain a platform for offerings of fruit, tea, and incense. The two gods work together: one catches the eyes of customers and draws them in, the other entices customers to spend more. These miniature wooden shrines also occasionally house Quan Âm, the Bodhisattva of compassion. In the alley behind my apartment complex, a shrine is only just visible in the rubble of a neighboring construction site. Inside, a delicate figurine of Quan Âm diligently protects the project site from flooding.

As my time in Vietnam continues, I look forward to learning more about how urban life in Ho Chi Minh City is shaped by religious imaginations, and how religious life, in turn, is influenced by Ho Chi Minh City’s urban growth. One thing is certain: in this setting, one cannot begin to understand one without the other.

 

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Sara Swenson

Remembering Dr. Ambedkar at Dikshabhoomi by Mallory Hennigar

The stupa at Dikshabhoomi decorated to commemorate Ambedkar's embrace of Buddhism on Vijayadashami

The stupa at Dikshabhoomi decorated to commemorate Ambedkar's embrace of Buddhism on Vijayadashami

October 15, 2017

Whenever I read the writing of B.R. Ambedkar, I feel a spark of inspiration. This spark is what drove me to pursue my current project about the lives and practices of the people who chose to follow his lead when he took 22 vows to embrace Buddhism and reject Hinduism in 1956. Every year at Dikshabhoomi in Nagpur, the place where Ambedkar took these vows, hundreds of thousands of people gather to commemorate this momentous occasion. This year, I had the opportunity to visit Dikshabhoomi with a group of young Ambedkarite Buddhists on September 30. It was an experience that I will forever be inspired by and grateful to have had. While ostensibly the journey to Dikshabhoomi consists of pushing through crowds to quickly enter and exit the commemorative stupa (without even removing our shoes!), the time spent being shepherded through the stupa to pass our eyes over the Buddha statue was not what makes this event so special. Witnessing the vast numbers of visitors to Dikshabhoomi who Ambedkar continues to inspire, and feeling the energy and joy that his memory evokes is what makes this event so remarkable.

I visited Dikshabhoomi with the students of Nagarjuna Training Institute (NTI) at Nagaloka Center. These students have come from all over India to learn about Buddhism and Dr. Ambedkar. Like Ambedkar, these students come from disadvantaged communities classified as Scheduled Caste (SC) and Scheduled Tribe (ST) by the government. Despite the fact that Ambedkar is such an important national figure as the author of the Indian constitution and leader of the Dalit movement, before coming to NTI many of these students only had a very cursory knowledge of who Ambedkar was if they learned about him in school at all. Following Ambedkar’s example, many of these students have fought all the odds – the expectations of their families and communities, gender discrimination, poverty, language and culture barriers – to continue pursuing their education at NTI. To visit Diskhabhoomi with them and chant “Jai Bhim!” (Victory to Ambedkar!) with them evoked feelings in me that are difficult to describe.

What I have learned from my experience with this community so far that I most wish to share with all of you back in our Religion Department is that we can never forget the revolutionary power of education. The mandate for everyone to do whatever it takes to get educated is one of Ambedkar’s most important legacies. It is so easy to become jaded to the idea that the things we say and do in the classroom can create big changes in our students. I admit, that after meeting a particularly brilliant student here who would sneak out to buy books on revolutionaries with pocket money even though her father opposed girls’ education, I was feeling more than a little despondent about the problems we face motivating our students back home. As teachers, we can often feel discouraged by our students’ underdeveloped knowledge consumption skills, but I think sometimes this may distract us from the need to inculcate a desire in our students to be knowledge producers. Of course, especially in today’s world where informational authority is more tenuous than ever, developing the skills to understand an argument and think critically are crucial, but we must also remember that the main objective of the primary and secondary education that many of our students receive is to train them to merely accept dominant, hegemonic social narratives. Even for those students who conceive of their own lives as easily fitting into this narrative, this kind of education dulls their motivation to learn in order to create rather than learn in order to consume.

The students with whom I celebrated Dr. Ambedkar’s life and legacy at Dikshabhoomi have so much vision for their futures and the future of their society, country, and world. Ambedkar’s legacy as a prodigious voice who contributed to numerous disciplines, producing work that shows the world from an underrepresented perspective lives on through these students’ dreams. If we want change in our society, we need to live in the legacy of people like Ambedkar. We cannot jealously guard our status as knowledge producers. We must do our best to share and spread the joy and empowerment we feel as knowledge producers with our students.

As a final note, if you have an interest to learn more about Dikshabhoomi and Ambedkar’s conversion, I would recommend reading Dr. Ambedkar’s speech at Nagpur on the day of his conversion and, if you have more time, his classic undelivered speech Annihilation of Caste. In addition to the students of NTI, I also want to give credit to the program that ran at Nagaloka Centre on October 3, 2017 on the topic of Prabuddh Bharat, especially to Dr. Bodhi from Tata Institute of Social Science in Mumbai for his talk on education, which very much inspired me to write this piece.

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Mallory Hennigar

Why Vietnam? by Sara Swenson

 [Image of green fields and a river in Vietnam over the wing of an airplane. The image is slightly foggy.]

[Image of green fields and a river in Vietnam over the wing of an airplane. The image is slightly foggy.]

October 4, 2017

I arrived in Ho Chi Minh City on September 15th and have enjoyed reconnecting with several close friends whom I haven’t seen in nearly two years. I have also been introduced to many new people. Whether talking with old friends or new, one of the first questions I am often asked is “Why Vietnam?” It is a surprisingly hard question to answer!

Growing up in rural Minnesota, I never could have imagined life would take me 9,000 miles across the globe. When I moved to Colorado to begin my master’s degree in comparative religion, I started reading some books on meditation by a Buddhist monk named Thich Nhat Hanh. A group of self-proclaimed spiritual seekers from my university invited me to visit a Vietnamese Buddhist temple in the Rocky Mountains. I tagged along every week for a year and became intensely curious about the monastics who ran the temple. These monks were balancing the needs of two distinct populations: (1) a large group of first and second-generation Vietnamese immigrants and Vietnamese Americans, and (2) an equally large group of mostly white spiritual seekers from Denver, eager to learn more about the kinds of Vietnamese Zen they had read about from Thich Nhat Hanh. Instead of organizing these two groups as separate “sanghas” (meaning communities of Buddhist practitioners), the monastics facilitated monthly events where all members of both types of communities were invited to participate. The more I got to know the Vietnamese immigrants and Vietnamese Americans at this monastery, the more curious I became about how Vietnamese Buddhism in the United States differed from Vietnamese Buddhism in Vietnam.

When I began my Ph.D., my advisor Gareth Fisher encouraged me to study Vietnamese and visit Vietnam. I came for the first time in 2015, where I met many incredible Buddhist monastics and lay Buddhist volunteers. I learned about Buddhism’s centuries-long presence in Vietnam and its contested origins, coming from either India or China, or both countries at different times in different regions.

The friendships I developed with Vietnamese immigrants and Vietnamese-Americans in the United States, and even my early exposure to authors like Thich Nhat Hanh, did not occur in an historical vacuum. The sequences of events that enabled these books and relationships today largely stemmed from the world-shaking aftermath of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War – which is called, “The American War” in Vietnam.

 One idea I hope to explore moving forward is that of being an “intimate outsider” in Vietnam. While my language, upbringing, ethnicity, and cultural background make me an absolute “outsider” in classic ethnographic terms, the histories of our countries have profoundly influenced both sides of our cultural imaginaries. In this sense, the question “Why Vietnam?” encompasses far, far more than my research project. 

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Sara Swenson

Grateful to be Getting Started in Maharashtra by Mallory Hennigar

View of Wardha, Maharashtra from Mahatma Gandhi International Hindi University.

View of Wardha, Maharashtra from Mahatma Gandhi International Hindi University.

September 19, 2017

Hello all! I write to you from Mahatma Gandhi International Hindi University in Wardha, Maharasthra, India at the very beginning of my fieldwork experience.

After traveling for about 24 hours and landing in one piece in Delhi despite a last minute flight change due to Harvey weather effects, I knew my first post would have to be about the gratitude I feel towards everyone who has helped me get here and also everyone who is continuing to help me while I am here. While at first, I wasn’t feeling particularly grateful towards the insanely rude United Airlines employees who ‘helped’ me to reroute my flights, I even had some gratitude to spare when all of my luggage arrived safely!

Traveling so far from home often makes me feel totally helpless, especially at first. I’m used to being able to get in my car and take myself wherever I want to go, whereas in the bustling metropolis of Delhi even crossing the street can be an immense challenge (for which I did indeed require the help of a kind woman who stopped to show me a safe passage at a particularly difficult intersection on my first day). Needless to say, when I’m already jetlagged, facing an Indian city seems almost impossible. However, the amazing directors and staff at the American Institute of Indian Studies (http://www.indiastudies.org), Purnima Mehta, Rajender Kumar, and Mini-ji, could not have been more accommodating and helpful. They provided me with all the information I needed and shepherded me around so that I would be prepared to face the mountain of required formalities for my arrival. I could not be more grateful to have the aid and support of such a wonderful organization.

I am also so grateful for the friendship of my colleague in the Anthropology department Alisa Weinstein who came to welcome me in Delhi before heading off for further travels at the tail end of her research year. Her enthusiasm for her work on tailors in Jaipur helped me to feel energized to begin my research despite my jetlag and anxiety.

After finishing up my two days in Delhi, I set off to Nagpur, Maharashtra – the location of my research project. I was able to meet with some friends who I met last year who were kind and welcoming as ever to a bumbling foreigner. However, I am especially grateful for the support of Dr. Lella Karunyakara of Mahatma Gandhi Antarrashtriya Hindi Vishwavidyalaya and his students and staff who have been putting up with the inconvenience of dealing with all of the required registration paperwork to host a foreign student while also helping to secure housing, phone access, and every other required comfort for me. Not only has he done all of this, but Dr. Karunyakara has taken the time out of his extremely busy schedule as a Dean to read my work and offer guidance in my research. The amount of hospitality I have received is unparalleled and I cannot but feel overwhelmed by the gratitude I feel towards everyone I have met so far.

For me, travel to India is always an extremely humbling experience. While it certainly presents unique challenges, the opportunities to meet so many kind, intelligent, and talented people have always made me eager to return.

Of course, I would be remiss not to mention all of you back home in the Syracuse University Department of Religion who have supported me and prepared me for this amazing opportunity to fulfill my intellectual passions! I especially want to thank Dr. Tej Bhatia, my Hindi teacher in LLL, without whom I would be totally lost while here in India, as well as my ‘guides’ Drs. Waghorne, Gold, and Fisher who have helped me every step of the way.

I’m sorry to begin with such a sentimental post that recounts very little adventure, but I hope this will be resolved in my next post. Until I write again, I hope you all are having a wonderful beginning of year back in Syracuse! As the chill begins to set in, you can be grateful yourselves as you think of me sweating in Maharasthra.

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Mallory Hennigar

The Practice of Preparation by Sara Swenson

[Image 1: Cardiff Castle chapel ceiling with geometric patterns: Cardiff, UK]

[Image 1: Cardiff Castle chapel ceiling with geometric patterns: Cardiff, UK]

August 29, 2017

Greetings Syracuse students and company!

I am writing from Amsterdam in the Netherlands, where I am waiting to start fieldwork in Vietnam in ten days. In many ways, my fieldwork started weeks ago with language review, IRB protocol forms, and visa paperwork. After hearing the wonderful news that I had been awarded the Robert HN Ho Dissertation Research Fellowship in Buddhist Studies, I immediately emailed friends and contacts in Vietnam to let them know I would be returning this fall.

Starting my ethnographic project means starting a long process of changing my personal habits and way of thinking. Ethnography is equal parts research method and lifestyle, noun and verb. I have been practicing listening carefully in conversations and observing details around me that would be easy to overlook. I have also been trying to journal every day, to get in the habit of writing. The biggest change for me was buying a camera. I have never been much of a photographer. This decision was prompted by the realization that if I want to publish images from my fieldwork in the future, they will need to come from a quality camera.

 That said, a quality camera is only good in the hands of a quality photographer. I've been practicing my photography skills at every chance, to make sure my camera has the operator it deserves. I’m learning that photography isn’t an art form. It is a process of negotiation. Things move, colors change, people laugh, and the camera even turns itself off sometimes (in protest to my clumsy thumbs). Either way, it seems I very rarely succeed in taking a picture. Mostly, pictures succeed in taking themselves. I am one thread in a net of circumstances that sometimes captures something beautiful.

The same may be said of ethnography. Ethnographic texts are a product of circumstances and negotiations. Things move, colors change, people laugh, and language sometimes turns itself off – in shock, heartbreak, joy, or protest. As I prepare to start fieldwork, I have also been reviewing a few influential texts on ethnographic methods, to make sure my project has the ethically attentive researcher it deserves. For those who are curious about what this means, I’ll end by including a few helpful and informative resources, here:

  • Alcoff, Linda. 1992. “The Problem of Speaking for Others,” pg. 5-32 in Cultural Critique (20).
  • Creswell, John W. 2013. “Five Qualitative Approaches to Inquiry,” pg. 69-110 in Qualitative Inquiry and Research Design: Choosing Among Five Approaches. Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications.
  • Creswell, John W. 2013. “The Process of Designing a Qualitative Study,” pg. 42-68 in Qualitative Inquiry and Research Design: Choosing Among Five Approaches. Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications.
  • DeVault, Marjorie L. and Glenda Gross. 2006. “Feminist Interviewing: Experience, Talk, and Knowledge,” pg. 173-197 in Handbook of Feminist Research: Theory and Praxis. Sharlene Nagy Hesse-Biber (ed). Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications.
  • Dewalt, Kathleen M. and Billie R. Dewalt. 2010. “Doing Participant Observation” p. 41-65 in Participant Observation: A Guide for Fieldworkers. 2nd Edition. Lanham: AltaMira Press.
  • Dewalt, Kathleen M. and Billie R. Dewalt. 2010. “Informal Interviewing in Participant Observation,” pp. 137-156 in Participant Observation: A Guide for Fieldworkers. 2nd Edition.  Lanham: AltaMira Press.
  • Okely, Judith. 2010. "Fieldwork as Free Association and Free Passage," pg. 28-41 in Ethnographic Practice in the Present. Marit Melhuus, Jon P. Mitchell, and Helena Wulff (eds). New York: Berghahn Books.
  • Rodriguez, Dalia. 2010. “Storytelling in the Field; Race, Method, and the Empowerment of Latina College Students,” pg. 491-507 in Cultural Studies: Critical Methodologies (10.6). Thousand Oaks: Sage Journals.
  • Stacey, Judith. 1988. “Can There Be a Feminist Ethnography?” pg. 21-27 in Women’s Studies International Forum (2.1).

 My next post will come from Vietnam! Until then, be well.

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Sara Swenson