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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