Sathya Sai Baba international Indian guru dies at age 88.

Sathya Sai Baba, a South Indian guru with devotees around the world, died Sunday morning at the age of 88. The AP reports:

Hindu guru Sathya Sai Baba, worshipped as a god by millions of followers worldwide, died Sunday morning in a hospital near his southern Indian ashram. He was 86.

Sai Baba had spent nearly a month on breathing support and dialysis while struggling with multiple-organ failure after being admitted March 28 to the Sri Sathya Sai Institute of Higher Medical Sciences, near his ashram in Puttaparti village in Andhra Pradesh state.

Women selling marigold garlands broke down in tears outside the ashram when the news of his death was announced, and followers began trickling into the temple complex where the guru’s body would lie in state Sunday night through Tuesday. Hundreds of thousands of devotees are expected to pay last respects. A funeral with state honors is planned Wednesday morning.

The saffron-robed Sathya Sai Baba had a huge following, with ashrams in over 126 countries and Indian devotees including high-placed politicians, movie stars, world-class athletes and industrialists.

He was said to perform miracles, conjuring rings, watches and “vibhuti” — a sacred ash that his followers applied on their foreheads — from his overgrown and unkempt Afro-style hair.

Sai Baba was part of the twentieth century wave of gurus that impacted America and falls outside my current research interest, but I’ve read about him here and there during coursework and exams. I also know that there’s a chapter written by Norris W. Palmer about Sai Baba in Gurus in America edited by Thomas A. Forsthoefel and Cynthia Ann Humes that I’ve been meaning to look back over in the wake of his death.

The AP report doesn’t mention Sai Baba’s ability to attract devotees from various religious traditions, be it Christianity, Islam, or Hinduism. He also drew on religious sources (texts, shrines, holy people) from myriad traditions as well. I also always thought the ability to produce jewelry from his fro was remarkable, modern and downright cool. He was a global guru and he’ll be missed by devotees and academics alike.

What you think you know about church and state in America and why it’s wrong

David Sehat gives us five myths about church and state in America:

1. The Constitution has always protected religious freedom.

2. The founders’ faith matters.

3. Christian conservatives have only recently taken over politics.

4. America is more secular than it used to be.

5. Liberals are anti-religious.

Read the whole piece to see how he defends these.

I appreciate David’s work because he does such a good job of outlining Protestant cultural power during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. My current research focuses on the boundaries of the Protestant establishment that David has outlined in his Myth of American Religious Freedom. I’m digging into Hindus as a representation of the outside of America-the dark, heathen, other-and David has done a great job investigating the inside of American culture and the ways Protestant moralists managed that inside. I also appreciate his provocative flair.

Buy his book.

Is there a difference between ideology and religion?

The U.S. Intellectual History blog has an interesting guest post from Corey Washington on “After Ideology.” Here’s a bit:

There is good scientific evidence that political reasoning is based on innate, non-rational principles. Nevertheless, the fact that people reason so badly about politics is striking given that people are intelligent and believe strongly that it is important for their political beliefs to be true. Religion may also be innate and non-rational, but if people are rational enough to give up God-oriented religion because there is not sufficient evidence, why do they not give up ideologies as well?

When I ask this question, the responses are quite similar to what you hear when you discuss atheism with a religious person. Atheists/agnostics cannot imagine how you could act ethically, or more broadly make sense of the world, without an ideology. That is, ideology seems to give many atheists/agnostics a value system just as religion does for believers. I believe ideologies also provide people with a community of like-minded friends, as do religious beliefs, and people are loath to alienate themselves from their friends. But if your goal is to have an accurate political view of the world, what use are such ideologies and communities if they are based on beliefs one has very little reason to think are true?

Those two sentences I bolded struck me. Of course ideology functions like religion! Washington is right on the money with this. But so was Emile Durkheim. Religion and ideology, as sketched by Washington here, both form what Durkheim called “moral communities” in his Elemental forms of Religious Life. What Washington doesn’t outline in his post, thought I suspect it is to be worked through in his book, is the relationship between ideology and religion. Too often religion becomes subsumed under ideology. Thus, socially constructed notions of the sacred are reduced down economics or psychology or what have you. Instead, religion and ideology should be placed alongside one another as products of cultural and social imagination and construction. For example, nationalism (and here I’m following my recent reading of Benedict Anderson) as an ideology has the incredible power to motivate men to die. Anderson begins his discussion of nationalism with a comparison to religion. They both share this same power-a power that will motivate humans to lay down their lives. To go back to Durkheim, we can call this socio-culturally produced power ‘the sacred.’ Questions then follow. How is the sacred produced in cultures and societies? What is sacred in an ideology or religion? How dies it function?How do humans move between or occupy overlapping sacralities (i.e. a communist nationalist Christian)?

However one approaches the question of ideology and religion and whether one wants to use the term ‘sacred’ or not, the goal should be to  avoid reducing the phenomenon down to a single ’cause’ and instead to uncover their messy cultural production and practice.

The Dissertation Proposal: Hinduism and the Boundaries of Nineteenth Century American Culture

Two weeks ago I successfully defended my dissertation proposal. I thought it might be worthwhile to share an abridged version so anyone interested might get a sense of what this project is shaping up to be. I’d love to hear feedback and suggestions. In this abridged version I’ve cut out the literature review.

“This extensive and populous country…retains its peculiar manners which have stamped the people as a peculiar race from the earliest periods of history.”1 So writes Samuel Goodrich in 1845, using the pseudonym Peter Parley, under the heading “Hindostan” in his schoolbook Manners and Customs of the Principal Nations of The Globe. For, Goodrich, and for the children reading his grade school book, India was quite different from America. As common schools began to grow in the middle third of the nineteenth century, writers like Goodrich believed that children in America needed to have a global view. A view that included Asia and India. In his The Tales of Peter Parley About Asia (1845) Goodrich describes the people of India for his readers: “I shall now tell you of a people, who may be regarded as the most interesting of all the inhabitants of Asia, I mean the Hindoos…the Hindoos, in personal appearance, in disposition, in character, and in religion, are a distinct and peculiar nation.”2 Children would find the Hindus interesting because they were so different from Americans—so “peculiar.” As Goodrich pointed out, they looked different, lived differently, and believed in a different religion.

About a decade later, Henry David Thoreau bathed his mind in “the stupendous and cosmogonal philosophy” of the Bhagavad Gita during his mornings at Walden Pond. For Thoreau, the sacred book of India made the modern world “and its literature seem puny and trivial.” Laying the book aside, Thoreau made his way down to his well to draw water. The Gita still in his thoughts, at the well he met “the servant of the Bramin, priest of Brahama and Vishnu and Indra, who still sits in his temple on the Ganges reading the Veda, or dwells at the root of a tree with his crust and water jug.” Thoreau’s meditation on the Gita brought him to a place where “the pure Walden water is mingled with the sacred water of the Ganges.”3 For Thoreau, the Brahman at the foot of the tree reading the Veda represented everything missing from his industrial American society. Through his romantic vision, Hindu religious culture represented an ancient spiritual wisdom that Thoreau believed American industrial society had lost.

In 1884 the Methodist run Christian Advocate offered a very different image of India’s religions. The magazine published a report from the Rev. Samuel Knowles on “The Devi Patan Mela,” a religious festival in India. Knowles narrates the scene his group of missionaries arrived to find: “Thirsty tired, and full of dust, we entered under the grand grove of tamarind trees that surrounds the gloomy temple of the blood-deluged idol goddess…it was calculated that one animal a minute was sacrificed sunrise to sunset of every day for a week.” Like Thoreau, Knowles also sees Brahmins. “A number of blood-stained priests stand behind a stone in front of the temple,” waiting to help devotees offer sacrifices to “the dishonored shrine.”4

These three examples illustrate the variety of ways Americans imagined and represented Hindu religions in the nineteenth century. For the schoolbook writers, India was a land of barbarous, dark skinned, heathens that stood in contrast to the virtues of white, enlightened, Christian America. For Thoreau and his ilk, Indian religions held a spiritual truth that was missing in American Protestant culture. Americans needed to “bathe their minds” in India’s spiritual waters as an antidote to rising materialism and industrialism. Missionaries, like the Methodists in the Advocate, viewed Hindu religions as dark heathenism in need of the conquering light of the Gospel. As these examples indicate, Americans held a variety of reactions and ideas about India and its religious culture, but all of these reactions shared a common understanding of religious difference. Whether viewed positively or negatively, all Americans believed that Hindu religions were altogether different from America’s.

Furthermore, these visions of Hindu religions preceded the arrival of Hindus themselves. Swami Vivekananda’s speech at the World’s Parliament of religion is often cited as the beginning for Hinduism’s history in America. On the one hand, this is true insofar as Vivekananda’s Vedanta Society became the first Hindu religious institution to attract a following among Americans. But on the other hand, such a history fails to outline the events and ideas that made Vivekananda’s movement possible. The history of Hinduism in America begins a century before Vivekananda when Americans first encountered Hindu religions through missions work, trade, travel narratives, and the popular press. By examining the representations of Hinduism that preceded Vivekananda, this dissertation traces out the ideas and images in American culture that made Vivekananda’s work possible, thinkable even. In short, I point out the ground rules Vivekananda, and Hindus that would follow him, had to play by.


In this dissertation, I situate my investigation on the boundary of American culture. In the nineteenth century, Americans from a variety of backgrounds produced and consumed representations of Hindu religions. I argue that these representations took a myriad of forms and emphasized various themes about India but they were all predicated on a notion of religious difference—whatever Hindu religions were, they were not American. Thus, Hindu religions marked the edge of American culture. They were always already outside America, though they were then represented by Americans for Americans in American cultural forms. By sketching the borders of American culture in the period and by paying particular attention to the role of religion in maintaining this boundary, this dissertation will explore the different ways Americans used religion as a category for defining America. In a sense, this dissertation gets at “American religion” through the back door, by examining examples of what did not count as American religion during the century.

Read the rest of this entry »

Sharia Myths

Adam Serwer summarizes a new report that debunks the myths underlying conservative panics over sharia. In short, sharia is not like Biblical law or the Ten Commandments and it is not a threat to the United States.

But the sharia panic that is driving state legislatures to try and criminalize Islam, and making GOP presidential candidates fearful of even looking tolerant of Muslims, is based on an understanding of the religion that would be analogous to treating the bombing of an abortion clinic as the only true possible interpretation of Christianity.


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