As but one session of a day-long event celebrating, honoring, and reflecting upon Indigenous Peoples’ Day, our second Religious Literacy Month event was “Abenaki Spirituality and Religion.” Dr. Vicki Brennan presided and moderated a panel led by Nulhagen Abenaki Tribe Chief Don Stevens and Dr. Frederick Wiseman, Director, Wôbanakik Heritage Center.
Dr. Vicki Brennan organized the event in conjunction with the larger, UVM-wide Indigenous Peoples’ Day Celebration.
Unlike our other Religious Literacy Month events, this panel featured practitioners–on purpose. Part of Religious Literacy, as well as the study of religion, is coming to understand how some voices have historically been marginalized, ignored, oppressed, and–importantly–seen as incapable of being experts on their own traditions.
In this event, we sought to center practitioners, as a way to prioritize Abenaki voices when, far too often, non-Native scholarly (or governmental) voices have dominated the discourse around Native/Indigenous histories, religions, practices, and, yes, spiritualities. Similarly, we sought to center practitioners as a way to round out our work on religion, religious literacy, and reading these lectures.
The event saw over 100 people–and had even more breaking fire code and sitting in the aisles. Event photos thanks to Dr. Tom Borchert.
Earlier this summer I had the opportunity to visit “The Jeweled Isle,” a major exhibition of Sri Lankan art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Exhibitions of Sri Lankan art in the U.S. are few and far between; to my knowledge, this is only the third exhibition devoted exclusively to the art of Sri Lanka. The first, in 1992-93 at the Sackler Gallery in Washington, DC, focused exclusively on Hindu and Buddhist sculpture, while the second, the 2003 “Guardian of the Flame” exhibition at the Phoenix Art Museum, was limited to Buddhist artifacts. The LACMA exhibition, which opened last December and closed in early July (2019), presents a much broader focus, highlighting the interactions of the diverse communities, ethnicities, and religious identities that have taken root on the island over the past three millennia. This globalized perspective is effectively evoked by the first image that appears at the entrance to the exhibit: the island’s silhouette superimposed at the center of a web-like pattern that simultaneously evokes a network of global connections, and the facets of a jewel, one of the island’s natural resources that has captured the attention of traders and colonizers.
The power of “jewels” is one of the key organizing themes that run throughout the exhibit, linking the human attraction to precious gemstones with two foundational forms of Buddhist practice: taking refuge in the “triple gem” of the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, and activities centered on the Buddha’s bodily relics, which have long been symbolically and physically linked with precious stones. Buddha relics are typically enclosed in two different kinds of containers, both of which appear throughout the exhibit: in the massive relic monuments (stupas) that spatially and ritually define important Sri Lankan Buddhist devotional sites (displayed here on palm-leaf manuscript covers and as captured by 19th-century colonial photographers), and in stupa-shaped reliquaries, which are either permanently enshrined in stupas or serve as moveable relic containers for devotional purposes. Several examples of reliquaries, labeled “votive stupas,” appear throughout the exhibit, dating from the 2nd-3rd century to the 19th century.
These containers for precious materials evoke another key theme threading throughout the exhibition: the island itself as a physical container, bounded by water, and defined by the comings and goings of different groups of people throughout its long history. As the gallery card provided for the gemstone exhibit notes, in the early centuries of the Common Era the island was known as “Ratnadvipa” (Island of Gems), and legends developed that the gems found there originated from the tears of the Buddha, or of Adam and Eve. Medieval Christian and Islamic texts preserve a tradition that it was the site of Paradise. The island, with its strategic location for global trade and valuable natural resources and commodities (e.g., spices, gems, rubber, coffee, tea), has exerted a powerful centripetal force, attracting diverse groups of outsiders defined by a multiplicity of identity markers (including racial, ethnic, linguistic, and religious differences). Sinhalas, the largest ethnic group in Sri Lanka, trace their origins to North India, and the traditional account of their migration to the island is closely linked to the life of the Buddha: Vijaya, their legendary progenitor, is said to have set foot on the island on the day of Gotama Buddha’s parinibbāna (final passing away). Tamils, who are predominantly Hindu, constitute the second largest ethnic group, and they trace their origins to groups of settlers from South India. Other ethnic groups include the Väddas, an indigenous group whose ancestors are regarded as predating the arrival of the Sinhalas; Moors, descended from Arab-speaking traders, who are predominantly Muslim; and Malays, also predominantly Muslim, whose ancestors came from the Malay Archipelago. Sri Lanka was also populated by three successive groups of European colonizers, beginning with the Portuguese in the early 16th century, followed be the Dutch in the 17th century, and finally the British who gained complete control of the island, then called Ceylon, in 1815 and ruled it as a British crown colony until its independence in 1948. The Burghers, a Eurasian community defined by links to a paternal ancestor of European descent, constitute an additional group.
All of these communities, with the exception of the Malays, are represented through the objects on display, most of which belong to the LACMA collection, supplemented by objects borrowed from a number of other museums, including the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and New York’s Metropolitan Museum. Without attempting to provide a detailed account of the impact of European colonial rule, or of the long history of inter-ethnic conflicts on island, the objects on display effectively evoke the complex interactions of diverse groups, pointing to moments of shared interest and appreciation, as well as contestation and social othering. This is accomplished through the curators’ choice of objects for display, the exhibition’s integrated spatial layout and unified aesthetic plan (designed by a prominent Los Angeles architecture firm), and the strategically placed signage, which provides essential historical and cultural information. I was particularly impressed by the use of 19th-century photographs strategically placed throughout the exhibit to highlight the impact of British colonial points of view, including their fascination with Buddhist archaeological sites, aspects of the natural environment, and “native” Sri Lankans represented by shots of humble villagers, as well as members of the Kandyan aristocracy, a group that lost power with the British conquest of Kandy in 1815. These photographic displays culminate near the end of the exhibition with a series of 20 photographs by Reg van Cuylenburg (1926-1988), a Sri Lankan photographer of Kandyan Sinhalese, English, and Dutch descent who toured the island from 1949-58, documenting people and places in the newly independent nation. It is revealing, I think, to compare the very formal and static character of the 19th-century photos with the vibrant and dynamic force of van Cuylenburg’s “Village Girls Bathing” (see below). A final sign at the end of the exhibit, titled “Buddhist Legacies and Island Memories,” makes a poignant contrast between the optimism that informed van Cuylenburg’s work, and the more recent history of ethnic conflict, concluding: “Among the greatest tragedies in Sri Lanka’s recent history is the civil war (1983-2009) that pitted Sinhalese Buddhists against Tamil Hindus, two groups that had coexisted and comingled for much of Sri Lanka’s history. It is unlikely that such a prolonged conflict could have been foreseen when Sri Lanka won its independence from Britain in 1948. Young Sri Lankans of that time, including the photographer Reg van Cuylenburg, reveled in optimism for the future of their island nation, which had been strewn for two millennia with the jewels of diverse communities, cultures, ethnicities, and religions.”
Much could be said about the ways that the exhibit portrays the deep integration of “Buddhist” and “Hindu” religious practices in the lives of Sri Lankans, providing a visual counter-narrative to one of the enduring legacies of British rule in South Asia—a taxonomy of knowledge that represented “world religions” such as Buddhism and Hinduism as tightly organized and exclusive systems of belief that closely aligned with other exclusivist racial/ethnic and linguistic categories (e.g., Buddhist/Sinhala and Hindu/Tamil). This integrative approach is apparent in the prominent display of a series of 17th-18th-century painted wood panels from the LACMA collection, which most likely served as window or door panels in a Sri Lankan Buddhist temple (their original provenance is unknown; they came to the museum as a donation from the actor James Coburn). These depict major gods associated with Indian Brahmanical religion and planetary deities, as well as devotees and powerful local spirits. As the gallery card notes: “Sri Lankan Buddhist practices often involve honoring various deities who were originally assimilated from popular, folk, and Indian traditions in order to undergird Buddhism’s relevance to the everyday lives and goals of worshippers … [who] seek protection and benefits in their present lives, and the gods found throughout Buddhist temple complexes in Sri Lanka aid their efforts.” The two panels depicted below show the popular elephant-headed god Ganesha, and probably Shakra (Indra), who figures prominently in Theravada accounts of the Buddha’s life; a demonic spirit (commonly depicted as fierce guardians in Buddhist temples) and a female devotee are depicted in the lower registers of each panel.
The final object in the exhibition might at first strike the viewer as incongruous, as it was created by Lewis deSoto, a contemporary artist of Cahuilla Native American ancestry. Titled “Paranirvana (Self Portrait),” it is a 26-foot inflatable image of the reclining Buddha with the artist’s own face. Like the inflatable lawn ornaments that appear during the holidays in the front yards of many American homes, it relies upon an electric fan to keep it inflated. As the nearby label notes, the sculpture’s inflation in the morning and its deflation at the close of the day calls to mind the rising and falling of “spiritual breath” (prana) in yogic practice, as well as the cycle of birth and death (samsara). It’s connection to Sri Lanka? It is inspired by the massive 12th-century reclining Buddha image at Gal Vihara, part of the Polonnaruwa temple complex in Sri Lanka. It seems particularly fitting that the last object in the exhibit simultaneously looks backward toward an ancient Sri Lankan Buddhist monument, and forward toward new globalized forms of Asian religious practice (yoga, as well as Buddhism in its multiple North American hybridized forms). And, once again, the curators have juxtaposed a final example of a British colonial gaze in the form of a 19th-century photograph of the Gal Vihara sculpture.
I feel very fortunate to have been able to undertake this academic pilgrimage to Los Angeles to view this remarkable exhibition, which has given me much to reflect upon. I also want to express my gratitude to Dr. Tushara Bindu Gude, co-curator, who very graciously walked me through the exhibition and gave me a better understanding of its genesis.
As in years past, the 2019 Student Research Conference has quite a showing of Religion majors and minors! Students will give traditional conference papers, poster presentations, and a creative presentation that utilizes sound. Topics engage notions of idigeniety, imperialism, nationalism, sustainability, gender, race/racialization, sound, capitalism and tourism.
The Student Research Conference has a 12 year history at UVM and continues to grow in its scope, format, and impact. It is an all day event on Wednesday April 17 in the Davis center. We are really proud of our seven scheduled presenters. Join us if you can!
ABSTRACT: I was born in Vermont but I’m not a “Vermonter”. What is this statement based upon? and why do we have it? and what work is it doing knowingly or not? I attempt to trace the ideological process behind this identity claim—one that carries significant capital in terms of marketing and brand building but is also reflective of an American rural ideal that is racially and ethnically crafted and inherently gendered and nationalistic. I question why this identity is so celebrated and powerful in an effort to think about how imperialism and empire operate ideologically and economically. While Vermont appears to be a thriving “sustainable” agricultural state, it is structured to take for granted the patterns of marginalization and power that were inherent in the shaping of the identity. If we take for granted these markers of identity without critically assessing them, we will continue reiterating the hegemonic colonial metanarratives that are not “sustainable”, but are, as we know, harmful socially, environmentally, and economically.
ABSTRACT: The question of historical agency and sovereignty is one that cannot be easily answered, as history is dictated by agents of imperialism rather than their subjects; such is the case of the Abenaki, or Alnôbak. The Abenaki, as explained by Frederick Matthew Wiseman, are “the descendants of people who lived in Vermont, New Hampshire, and Western Maine ‘since time immemorial,’ as they said in 1766” (9). Despite their long history, spanning thousands of years in Northern America, Wiseman says that many White-Anglo settlers throughout Maine, Vermont, and New Hampshire assumed until the early twentieth century that the Abenaki had left, essentially exiled from—and Othered in—their own land. He specifically notes that “Anglo historians seem to lack research interest or tools to discover much about the Alnôbak of this time, so their lore is lacking” (118). This lack of interest in the native inhabitants of a since colonized land is not surprising, as acknowledging the original and sustained presence of a sovereign Native people could prove problematic for modern American government and legislation. Through this project, I will elucidate how the distinct yet deeply intertwined influences of race, religion, and science affected the Alnôbak and their interactions with Anglo-settlers, with an aim to understand how the Alnôbak express their agency in a colonized space.
ABSTRACT: Beyond simply a category of explanation, religion is a category of contestation. Despite the instability of the category of religion, governments worldwide participate in signifying what does and does not count in their laws and legal systems. The systems of law in France provide no exception. French laws reflect a desire to differentiate church and state, or laïcité. However, beneath the surface, particular institutions remain privileged. France is a country that claims secularity, yet within that secularity lies an institutional understanding of what religions are and what that means for the law. Legal systems in France are saturated with Catholic undertones, and laws regarding religion disproportionately affect minority religious communities under the masquerade of neutrality. Thus reflecting anxieties emerging from the encroaching “other” which are obscured by labels such as ‘Islamophobia.’ In this project, I examine legal efforts to differentiate religion and non-religion with a focus on recent court cases around school lunches and the rights of religious minorities.
ABSTRACT: Kagbeni, Nepal is a town which sits at a series of overlapping crossroads. With the restricted region of Upper Mustang to the north, and a popular pilgrimage site to the east, the town is constantly being shaped by globalization, religious and cultural identities, and tourism. I explore each of these forces in turn, centering my analysis around the mode of sound. This project combines anthropological methods of participant observation with theories from sound and religious studies in order to present a new way of understanding the forces shaping Kagbeni. How does sound claim space, and how does it reshape the communities who live in Kagbeni? In order to better answer these questions, I have curated a series of sound compositions to accompany this project. Each composition focuses on a theme: politics, religion, and tourism. Taken as a series, along with a written analysis of daily life in Kagbeni, these sound compositions draw attention to the ways that outsiders perceive the Loba community who lives there, and how these perceptions impact the lives of the Loba in turn.
ABSTRACT: In October, 2012, the Catholic Church canonized Kateri Tekakwitha, an Iroquois convert to Christianity who lived in the 17th Century in modern day New York and Quebec. The actual story of Kateri, colonial sainthood, and the missions of the French Jesuits, however, is one that illuminates a discursive warfare whereby Jesuit missionaries used sainthood to assert gender roles that they relegated to distinct racial groups. These gender roles perpetuated a traditional medieval discourse that justified imperial invasion. The martyrdom hagiographies and Jesuit Travelogues I investigated expose this discursive operation. Martyrs were portrayed as physically effeminate to highlight the brutality of the Iroquois as well as spiritually heroic and masculine to justify their control of the North American landscape (which was a feminine force that needed male protection). Other hagiographies operated to endow the Jesuits with a sense of collective identity with Old World Catholicism. This set them apart from and above their native neighbors who, in hagiographies, were often treated as objects to accentuate the white saint’s holiness, either as villains to overcome or as lost souls to convert.
Through motifs of martyrdom, Catholic collective identity and gendered landscape, the Jesuits created a mythic narrative that enforced a racialized state, glorifying white Christian identity and vilifying native identity. While this rhetoric created a nearly infallible conception of race (then and now), the Jesuits were challenged by the category of native saint. Native saints abandoned their indigeneity, but were still not considered to be on the same tier of perfection as European saints because of their inherent racial otherness. My project locates the discursive machinations behind the creation and maintenance of that racial otherness and, through investigating native sainthood, exposes the ultimate fallacy of race as an absolute, heterogeneous category.
ABSTRACT: Medieval manuscripts concerning the daily lives and miraculous experiences of living saints contain a great deal of information on how devout Catholics interpreted and understood religious practice and bodily suffering. These manuscripts were written by either the saints themselves, or a scribe and confessor of the saint. In this presentation I examine one such manuscript, Thomas of Cantimpré’s vita of Lutgard of Aywières, in order to understand how medieval fasting practices and conceptions of the body contributed to ideals of female piety in medieval England. In particular, I utilize feminist theories on medieval texts to explore how male scribes writing about female saints contributed to these ideals and thus reinforced gender norms within the catholic church. Based on the emphasis in these texts on Lutgard and other female saints taking on the role of Christ’s virgin bride, I argue that the emphasis placed on female bodily suffering depicted in these texts reflect a societal desire for a more passive female subject. My investigation of this case sheds light on how religious texts attempt to structure religious and social behavioral norms within a society as a whole.
ABSTRACT: The area that is now deemed as the state of Israel has a complex colonial history. From the Ottoman Empire to the British Empire, this region has always been occupied by a form of colonial power. Indigenous Bedouin people inhabited this region before and alongside these empires, and since Ottoman times have been treated as an internal colony of each empire. With this massively influential history, it should come as no surprise that Israel itself has now become a colonial state. In an exertion of its colonial might, Israel has maintained the internal colony status of indigenous Bedouin people through the decimation and claiming of their spaces.Through processes of imposing racialized, religious categories on Bedouins, the Israeli government defines them as people who are outside of the “normal” body politic, stripping them of rights and humanity. This dehumanization allows Israel to justify its claim to Bedouin spaces. In claiming Israeli authority over these spaces, the government subsequently redefines them as Jewish. The Israeli government imposes a strict definition of white Jewishness to place, completely undermining Bedouin cultures and lifestyles that are deeply tied to land they have inhabited for thousands of years.
Professor Brennan is excited to offer a new course that will bring Rel@UVM students into conversation with the curators at the UVM Fleming Museum! With the museum scheduled to renovate its Africa and Ancient Egypt Gallery over the next two years, students in this seminar will have an opportunity to help research some of the objects in the museum’s collection and to provide input into how the museum might organize the display of objects in the gallery.
COURSE DESCRIPTION: This seminar will examine African indigenous religions from the perspective of material culture in order to understand how the colonial encounter between Africans and Europeans impacted the creation, use, interpretation, and display of religious objects. At the same time, we will investigate how African religious objects have been displayed and interpreted in Euro-American museums. In doing so we will explore how African religious objects were transformed into “art” as well as the ways in which the value and authenticity of such objects are determined by different participants, including practitioners, scholars, museum professionals, and museum visitors. We will draw on a variety of media—including hands-on workshops with objects from the Fleming Museum’s collection—in order to consider the impact and interpretive work that the display of African religious objects has on the viewer in the Western museum.
We are excited to offer this new course on Religious Literacy, taught by Professor Trainor. Whether you want to better understand the role of religion in current events, or you want to dive deeper into debates such as the relationships between religion and science or religion and law that are central to how we understand life today, this is the course for you. You will also be asked to consider how the study of religion might help shape your life after college–how it fits in with a variety of careers, such as politics, medicine, law, counseling, journalism, or the arts, and also how it provides preparation for living in an increasingly globalized world.
COURSE DESCRIPTION: Religious literacy entails a basic understanding of the history and contemporary manifestations of religion, including central texts (where applicable), beliefs, and practices as they are shaped by particular social, historical and cultural contexts, as well as the ability to discern and explore the religious dimensions of political, social and cultural expressions across time and place. While all Religion courses speak to issues of religious literacy, this course takes religious literacy as its primary site of investigation. This course is designed, therefore, to introduce students to key topics in the study and application of religious literacy, such as theories and histories of the term itself, public expressions of religion, and profession-specific engagements with religion. For example, during the middle unit of the course, students will undertake a case study of “mindfulness” in North America, exploring its development as a “secular” phenomenon, its uses in medical, educational, and entrepreneurial settings, and its ties (historic and contemporary) to religious practices, texts, and beliefs. This intermediate-level course asks questions about religion in ways that are consistent with contemporary methods and theories in this field and prepares students to apply what they learn to a variety of possible professional settings.
Hate crimes are on the rise against every minority. We have seen calls to ban refugees, ban immigrants, and ban Muslims. We talk about countries as “Muslim states.” When we hear “Muslim” we think “terrorist.” Many Sikh Americans who wear turbans are victims of anti-Muslim crimes.
All of these grim facts reflect a racialization of religion—a process that collapses many identities, ethnicities, languages, nationalities into one overarching race. We can’t understand things like an uptick in hate crimes, how Sikhs are prominent victims of anti-Muslim violence, how whole countries can be seen as the same as each other because of religion, how very different communities are seen as the same, and how “Islamophobia” became real without understanding how Islam and race are conflated, constructed, and operate.
Islam is not a race—religions are not races—but Islam and religions can and are racialized. In this course, we examine how Islam and Muslims (those who practice Islam) come to be seen as a cogent race. The racialization of Islam and Muslims is global, and in this course we will reference transnational and historical patterns of race, religion, and Islam, but we focus on North America to keep our scope maintainable. The course takes theoretical ideas (definitions of race and religion and the racialization of religion) and explores them in case studies related to Muslims—and those imagined to be Muslims—in North America. We explore notions of “whiteness,” “brownness,” and “blackness” as they play out for Muslims as well as Islamophobia, surveillance, and the category of “Muslim” itself. This intermediate-level course asks questions about Islam and race in ways that are consistent with contemporary methods and theories of the study of religion and the study of race, preparing students to apply what they learn to other religion courses, other religious traditions, and in daily experiences of a world marked by religious and racial identifiers.
Examination of “whiteness,” “brownness,” and “blackness” through primary and secondary materials as well as a lot from films, TV, Twitter, and music!
Guest lecturers via Skype and (fingers crossed) in person
Skills-focused assignments: writing for multiple audiences; assessment of sources; creative and independent project
Students will develop an awareness of “race” as it relates to North America and Islam/Muslims, which includes historical and contemporary issues .
Students will develop an appreciation for their own assumptions of race, religion, and Islam.
Students will come to understand the intersection of race, religion, and Islam, including how these ideas come to affect people’s lives, community structures and practices, and institutions.
Students will develop critical thinking skills that will empower them to discern diverse viewpoints analytically, thoughtfully, and rigorously.
Students will work on transferrable skills, such as critical reading and writing, in order to interpret and evaluate course materials, popular culture, as well as books, articles, media, and more.
This course uses three “case study” religions to explore the questions of “What is religion?” and how can we begin to compare religions? We’ll look at stories, rituals, beliefs, and social roles from Buddhism, Islam, and Navajo religion, using the theories of scholars of religion. We’ll explore how religion can be intensely personal, involving visions and experiences that change a person, and change the course of history. We’ll grapple with the ways religions shape our understanding of what it means to be good or evil, and what it means to be a human, or a god, or an animal, and what happens to us after we die. We will work together to explore the diversity we find within religious traditions, reflecting complicated relationships between religion and culture, demonstrating that religion, far from being a fixed object that we can pin down, is fluid over time and across the globe.
Islam is, in our post-9/11 world, a feature of the daily news; nearly 2 billion people worldwide identify as Muslims; and Muslims have been a part of the American religious landscape since the slave trade moved Muslim Africans to our shores. No doubt, this is an historic and yet timely topic, very much worthy of our attention. But how much do you really know about Muslims or Islam? This course examines the history of Islam, focusing especially on its variation over time and location. By examining practices and writings of Muslims in multiple locations, we will complicate the idea that Islam is a discrete, universal set of ideas, practices, or beliefs.
Professor Brennan is excited to offer a new intro-level course on “Religion, Health, and Healing” this spring. Given Professor Brennan’s areas of expertise, the course will emphasize religious cultures found on the African continent. However, the case studies considered center on the role of religion in ideas about health and healing, as well as how disease and illness are interpreted and acted on through religious means.
This course is a comparative and cross-cultural exploration of the relationships between religion, health, and healing. Through a consideration of case studies from the US, South Africa, Niger, Ethiopia, and Egypt (among others), we will examine how religion shapes people’s understanding of health and well-being and provides them with a means of interpreting and responding to illness, suffering, and death. Drawing upon interdisciplinary approaches that include religious studies, anthropology, history, music, and ethnic and gender studies, we will consider the diversity of ways in which religion both reflects and shapes ideas about health, well-begin, illness and disease. We will consider topics such as: spirit possession and altered states of consciousness, the importance of sound and music to healing processes, issues of race, gender, and sexuality in relation to religious worldviews and healing systems, and the possibilities and potentials for integrating indigenous healing practices with Western bio-medicine.
• Students will develop an awareness of the diversity of attitudes towards religion, health, and healing in both Euro-American and non-European cultural contexts.
• Students will develop an appreciation for the assumptions upon which their own ideas about religion, health, and healing are based.
• Students will come to understand the intersection between religion and healing in a variety of contexts, including how such ideas came to be, how ideas about religion and healing are articulated in a variety of forms including ritual, biography, and political action, and how they are represented in a variety of media including scholarly writing, popular media, and films.
• Students will develop critical thinking skills that will enable them to analyze information and evaluate arguments from diverse viewpoints and multiple perspectives.
• Students will develop critical reading and writing skills that will allow them to interpret and apply the knowledge acquired in this class.