Religious Literacy Month: Liz Kineke

On October 28, we hosted our fourth event in our Religious Literacy Month slate of events! Liz Kineke, a producer, journalist, and director on the “God Beat” joined us to talk about how, as a journalist, she sees religion as always in the room!

At her talk, Ms Kineke walked students through how being able to read religion in the room–a religious literacy issue–came later on in her career as a journalist. She said, “while 4 years ago I would have said religion is a white noise hum, today it is a blaring siren,” and warned students that religion and freedom of the press are tied up, literally, in the first amendment. In her view, freedom to think and write are the bedrocks of democracy; she quipped that if students wanted to become journalists, they need a first amendment scholar on speed dial, but if students wanted to write about religion they need two.

Ms. Kineke also–perhaps obviously–showed the audience clips of documentaries. She highlighted Faith on the Frontlines, a piece about the prominent role of clergy in the Charlottesville, VA anti-racism, anti-fascism demonstration that left one dead. She also spoke about Religion & Identity in Young America, a documentary that follows three young people from minoritized religions and attends to them not as victims but as protagonists dealing with increased religious-racial scrutiny.

The talk was attended by about 100 students, faculty, staff and community members and wrapped up with a panel discussion featuring Ms. Kineke, Dr. Vicki Brennan, and Dr. Ilyse Morgenstein Fuerst.

Reflection on Dr. Tia Noelle Pratt’s Lecture

Dr. Tia Noelle Pratt gave an intriguing lecture at UVM on Tuesday for the Religion Department’s month(ish) of lectures and panels for Religious Literacy. Her lecture, entitled “Catholic Young Adults and Pro-life Teachings: A Bellwether for the U.S. Catholic Church” pinpointed on ideas of how college-aged Catholics felt about the Roman Catholic Church’s pro-life teachings, and how the pro-life teachings of the church have come to only translate to the argument of “abortion” (even though the church has an expansive assemblage of what “pro-life” means).  

Dr. Pratt’s lecture started off with discussing why she got into this work, which I believe is the most amusing part. Her main “hustle”, she describes, is systemic racism and the Catholic church. But she states that no one would even touch her work, let alone publish it, because it was “too edgy.” So, she decided to take a more conventional and boring path (in her words not mine), pro-life teachings of the Catholic church, thus creating her “side hustle.” I love her use of the term hustle here, mostly because I’ve never heard a scholar call their work this, and it’s always more entertaining when a lecturer can gather a laugh when talking about a serious topic.  

Throughout her research, Dr. Pratt noticed that the buzzword “pro-life” lacked usage in peer reviewed articles and studies, which seems strange because how can they be discussing pro-life without actually using the term? Until she stumbled upon Dr. James R. Kelly, who had published a mile-long list of public scholarship writing on pro-life related issues and the movement itself. This included an article from 1987 that discussed how the HIV/AIDS epidemic was a pro-life issue, which was monumental for the time. She joked, though, for students 1987 might as well be 1776.  

Her main focus of her lecture was on Catholic young adults, for which she included her methods and results of her research. As a sociologist, her study heavily relied on focus groups. She asked these groups about their feelings of pro-life issues, the church, and other specifics as well. Dr. Pratt’s discoveries included that abortion was overwhelmingly focused upon, and nothing else was getting through the “sieve” (she used the metaphor multiple times throughout her lecture). Her evidence gathered that most of the people in the studied agreed upon a “live and let live” mentality, meaning that they wouldn’t get an abortion themselves, but they believed the option to have an abortion should be available for those who seek it. Although, when Dr. Pratt asked about the death penalty, she was met with a contentious debate. The question here is why are other facets of pro-life messages from the church being lost in translation? Dr. Pratt presents that young adult literacy is limited because the teachings itself are limited. The more prolific issues, like capital punishment, murder, war, stem cell research, were simply not sticking with the public.  

What I found quite funny was that the disaffected Catholic youth weren’t mad about the church’s issues, but instead were mad about their personal childhood experiences. Dr. Pratt humorously stated, “They were mad about things that happened in second grade!” Which was indeed true, her study showed that these folks were angry that religion was forced upon them by their parents, and that they had to go to mass as punishment. So, what Dr. Pratt found was that the Catholic youth wanted civil courtesy and felt more connected to Pope Francis rather than local leadership, due to his statements of support for the LGBT community. 

 But the problem here, according to Dr. Pratt is that the Catholic church is a global religion, which is lived locally and can only thrive when there is local engagement. Dr. Pratt contended, that in order for the Catholic the church to continue to see people in the pews in the future, they must adapt to the ideals of the younger generation. If these catholic young adults are seeing mass as a punishment, then they’ll be less likely to bring their own families to church in the future. She stated that the expanded language around pro-life must move past just abortion, not only for political expediency, but for the survival of the church. Overall, Dr. Pratt’s talk was insightful and gave a new perspective in religious literacy regarding the Catholic church.  

Religious Literacy Month: Dr. Tia Noelle Pratt

On October 22, we hosted our third event of Religious Literacy Month! Dr. Tia Noelle Pratt, a sociologist of religion and scholar of systemic racism and Catholicism, joined us for a talk titled “Catholic Young Adults & Pro-Life Teachings: a Bellwether for the US Catholic Church.”

In her talk, Dr. Pratt talked about how “pro-life” has come to only mean “abortion,” despite Church documents, leaders, and theological orientations having a far more expansive understanding of what “pro-life” includes. She talked about how for young Catholics, this collapsing of issues is a problem–for them and for the Church. As a sociologist, Dr. Pratt approaches these issues institutionally: how have institutions made choices? how do those choices impact the members of those institutions? what is lost or gained in such translations?

Dr. Pratt pointed out in her talk that moving into public-facing scholarship–that is, research and writing aimed at a mass audience, rather than a paywalled, University-library audience–is a new feature of her research, and perhaps even part of her ongoing thinking about religious literacy. Here are some examples of this work:

You can find Dr. Pratt’s reflections on writing about Black Catholicisms here.

And as Dr. Vicki Brennan pointed out in her introduction, a really moving piece reflecting on Toni Morrison after her death here.

Dr. Vicki Brennan (right) introduces Dr. Tia Pratt

Religious Literacy Month: Abenaki Spirituality and Religion

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. 

from left to right: Chief Don Stevens, Dr. Frederick Wiseman, & Dr. Vicki Brennan

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.

Image
Packed house in John Dewey Lounge

Religious Literacy Lecture Reflection: Abenaki Spirituality

Yesterday I attended the second lecture in the religious literacy series that centered around the recent celebration of Indigenous Peoples day. The talk was led by two experts on Abenaki life and spirituality, Dr. Fred Weisman and Chief Don Stevens. Dr. Fred Weisman began his segment outlining the different types of Abenaki spirituality, distinguishing various traditions and elements of Native religion from each other. He went through the Way of the Animal Spirit, explaining the concept of animism to the attendees. Dr. Weismann wove central themes of native religious tradition throughout his talk, making clear that a connection between nature and mankind is at the core of Abenaki life. He labeled this concept “concentric ecology,” a relationship in which mankind is taken off a pedestal and a mutual relationship of responsibility if fostered between man and the earth. He spoke of different events ceremonies such as Forgiveness Day and Summer Solstice. In the way he spoke of the various ceremonies, Dr. Weisman embodied this spirit of wonder and awe that he described as coming from the traditions. He mentioned that at one event “it was as if our ancestors were there.” Ancestry, natural connection and upholding of traditions seemed to be at the core of his description of Abenaki spirituality. 

Chief Don Stevens entered the discussion as not a scholarly religious expert, but a lived expert. Being the chief of his tribe, Stevens scholarship is personal and activist in nature. He spoke about the religion of the Abenaki people as a “connection to the source,” concluding that when one loses their connection, they lose touch with the spirit of life. He touched on the Abenaki creation stories and mentioned the names of their central God and spirits. I found it interesting how a lot of his reference had to be put in Christian analogies; whether intentional or not, this need to “christianize” all native references spoke to me as a product of colonialism and backlash still faced today. Chief Stevens also tackled the mental side of his tribes spirituality. He spoke of the blessings a child is given before they leave their mothers womb, hammering the point of intentionality of life to the audience.

I found one of the most interesting parts of the lecture to be the discussion of climate change and its entangled relationship with indigenous people. Chief Stevens implied that Mother Earth is going to adapt and change, with or without humans. Without explicitly saying his personal position on climate change, I felt that Chief Stevens had maybe come to terms with the inevitability of a changing earth and humans destruction of it. This surprised me, but it seemed that Stevens work was more focused on the internal spirituality and less on the external world. Another thing I noted was his emphasis on expertise and “knowing.” He shared that he was imbued with the knowledge that allowed him to become a leader in his tribe, as if by magic. He stressed the importance of upholding tradition and protocol, seemingly discrediting those who practice publicly without “proper” knowledge and training. This talk was fascinating in light of my classes study of tradition, offering me a new perspective on what religion is for a community of people.

A Reflection on Dr. Simran Jeet Singh’s Religious Literacy Talk

On September 26th,  Dr. Simran Jeet Singh joined us at UVM to discuss religious literacy. Dr. Singh’s talk entitled “Turbans, Beards, and Hate: How Experiencing Racism Made Me a Scholar Activist” was enriched with deeply personal experiences of racial profiling, institutional racism, and sprinkles of dad humor.  

Dr. Simran Singh, September 26, 2019.

As a Sikh, activism was brought into Dr. Singh’s life at a young age. After experiencing racist remarks as an elementary school student in southern Texas, his parents –who were immigrants from India- had decided to do a workshop with fellow parents at the school. They brought homemade food and discussed their cultural background, which was obviously a lot different than his white classmates. 

He states that for his parents this workshop wasn’t about education, but survival. This is where Dr. Singh’s thesis, which he stated multiple times throughout his talk comes into play, “For people on the margins, religious literacy is a matter of survival.” Dr. Singh emphasized how you cannot always control how people treat you, but you can control how you respond to they way you are treated.  

After 9/11, Dr. Singh and his family had faced a new reality. Because they wore turbans, they were hyper visible to the rest of the world, but yet as Sikh’s, they were completely unseen. After continuous racial profiling after 9/11, Dr. Singh states that, “it didn’t matter how they saw themselves, but how other people saw them.” Sikhism is the 5th largest religion, but most Americans cannot recognize what Sikhism is, or what the people who practice it look like. With the lack of proper understanding of religious literacy in America, a lot of harm can be done, whether it is intentional or not. 

To Dr. Singh, activism is all about the power of community. Upon my reflection of this, a religious literacy activist has a commitment to social justice through both the study of religion in academic settings, while maintaining moral responsibility for said religious communities. 

So, why is religious literacy important? It gives us the opportunity to change people’s perspectives, which for some, is an incredibly meaningful experience to have.  

As a student currently studying religion, religious literacy, awareness, and advocacy work is really important to me. At the same time, it is important to note that intellectual interest in religious literacy, especially for a white university student like me, is a position of privilege that marginalized people may not have or even have the option to have.  

When I think about my position, I question how I can return my privilege in a way that is both helpful and respectful, while at the same time not overstepping any boundaries. As religious literacy advocates, we need to create a community that demonstrates activism and raises the voices of marginalized people and their beliefs.  

Religious Literacy Month: Simran Jeet Singh, Ph.D.

Join us on Thursday, September 26 for our kickoff event of Religious Literacy Month!

Dr. Simran Jeet Singh is a scholar of South Asian Religions, Islamophobia, race/racialization and religion, and Sikh traditions. He is also a noted activist, applying scholarship to social justice issues around race, racial profiling, anti-Muslim and anti-Sikh hatred and violence.

He has taught at Trinity University, Columbia University, Union Theological Seminary, and New York University. Dr. Singh’s public writings on religion, race, Sikhi, and Islamophobia have appeared in major news outlets (including the Washington Post, CNN, Huffington Post, and Religion News Service, where he is a regular columnist); he has appeared on television and documentary programs; and he serves the Interfaith Advisory Board Committee of New York State. In 2014, was invited to address President Obama and other members of government about Sikhs; in 2015, he similarly was invited to address the Pentagon.

His list of awards for this work is impressive:

In 2018, Dr. Singh won the Harvard Divinity School Alumni/Alumnae Council selected him as a 2018 Peter J. Gomes Memorial honoree, an award which “recognizes distinguished HDS alumni whose excellence in life, work, and service pays homage to the mission and values of Peter J. Gomes STB ’68 and Harvard Divinity School.”

In 2018, he was named a “faith leader to watch” by the Center for American Progress; in 2017, he was named Educator of the Year by the Dialogue Institute for the Southwest.

In 2016, he won the  Walter Wink Scholar-Activist Award from Auburn Seminary, which “recognizes courageous individuals who dedicate their lives to advocating for justice and peace in our world.”

Dr. Singh’s scholarship and activism demonstrate how and why religious literacy is necessary. We’re so honored to have him help kick off our month of events!

Religious Literacy Month

Starting Thursday, September 26, the Religion Department is hosting a (long) month of events centered on religious literacy! We’re marking the launch of the Certificate in Religious Literacy for Professions, the first undergraduate certificate of its kind in the U.S., with an all-star lineup of guest speakers, panels, and faculty forums.

Follow us on Facebook for event information. Check into the hashtag #RelLitUVM on Twitter and Instagram for live-tweets, related content, and photos. Or–better yet!–come to any or all events in person: they’re free and open to the public.

Reflections of a Summer Intern

by Becca Turley ’21

Over the summer I was given the great opportunity to work as a Government Affairs Intern at the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR-Chicago). CAIR-Chicago is a local chapter of a national non-profit organization whose mission is to defend civil rights, promote tolerance, and fight bigotry. At CAIR-Chicago, our Civil Rights Department provides legal services for members of the Chicagoland Muslim community, mostly focusing on immigration cases relating to the current administration’s limitations on travel and immigration status for Muslims. The pro-bono legal services at CAIR-Chicago provides protections for Chicago’s Muslim community in the face of discrimination on the basis of race, religion, or ethnicity.

My first week on the job was interesting, to say the least. We were preparing for our Taste of Ramadan iftar and spent the week hanging up streamers and balloons to decorate our office for the event. While the arts and crafts time was a great way to get to know my fellow interns without feeling as though we were interrupting the workflow, I was nervous that the entire internship would be busy work and the negative clichés you always hear about internships- coffee, cleaning, photocopying, etc. Over the following weeks, I began receiving legitimate work to do and started to feel as though my time and effort was producing valuable work.

As a Government Affairs intern, my work mainly focused on civic engagement and policy research in addition to writing articles for our online publication. The bulk of my policy research dealt with the Illinois General Assembly where I compiled a list of relevant legislation that has been introduced or passed this year in both chambers of the Assembly. Most notably, the General Assembly passed landmark legislation relating to women’s reproductive rights, marijuana decriminalization and legalization, and employment civil rights.

Throughout the summer, the Government Affairs team and I planned a few events for the general public. First, we held viewing parties for the DNC debates in June and July where we wrote profiles on each of the 23 prospective nominees. We also made an appearance at Chicago’s World Refugee celebration in June where we participated in a march and set up a table to pass out information and “Know Your Rights” pamphlets ahead of the ICE raids in Chicago. In addition to these minor events that we participated in, we planned a larger event at the end of the summer called “Bridging the Gap: Conversations Between Politicians and People.” We invited local politicians from Illinois to have a panel discussion regarding issues that directly impact the Muslim community in Chicago. Although some of our guests never showed up, we were fortunate to have a Congressman from the Illinois General Assembly and a representative from a state Senator’s office in attendance. The state Representative, who had a long career before his appointment as a rabbi and an activist, brought a fresh perspective to our conversation and provided him the opportunity to speak to a politically underrepresented community that CAIR supports.

Beyond the day-to-day work at CAIR, the interns participated in a series of “Immersion Days” where department heads would teach us about a specific topic of interest to them. The most fascinating and inspiring Immersion Day that I attended was at the West Side Justice Center where we met members of the Black Panther Party and the Rainbow Coalition. These men, some of whom founded the Chicago chapter, took us on a tour of their exhibit which featured posters, newspapers, and documents from the founding days of the party with Fred Hampton at the helm. This immersion day was one of the best experiences I have ever had the privilege of attending and I learned so much about the underground history of my city.

Along with meeting some incredibly inspirational people, I also had one of the most challenging experiences of my life when an organization of former white supremacists and Neo-Nazis attended a two-day workshop at our office. In small groups, we discussed various questions relating to media coverage of terrorism and extremism and ultimately relating those biases to the experiences of our diverse group. After spending several hours talking to a former white supremacist in my group, I learned that in his past he committed hate crimes against Jewish people and synagogues. As a young Jewish woman, I immediately felt defenseless and terrified, never mind the fact that I had to wake up the next morning and sit at a table with this man for another 7 hours. The next day I walked into our office—putting all of my reservations aside— only to thoroughly enjoy our second day, including taking our “formers” to the local masjid to observe the midday salah.

Overall, my internship at CAIR-Chicago was a wonderful opportunity for me in both my personal and academic life. CAIR fostered an incredibly welcoming and friendly work environment where I met wonderful people of all different backgrounds, ideologies, and experiences. I learned so much about the incredible diversity in thought, practice, and belief within the worldwide Muslim community, and became friends with some inspiring and passionate young adults. My time at CAIR was significantly elevated by all of the intelligent, hard-working, and friendly people that I met along the way, and I still feel incredibly grateful for the opportunity.

Visiting the “Jeweled Isle” Exhibition of Sri Lankan Art at LACMA

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.

Sign at exhibit entrance.
(All photographs are mine, unless otherwise indicated; Los Angeles County Museum of Art, June 2019)
Display of 21 precious gems from Sri Lanka.

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.

Rock crystal reliquary, 2nd-3rd cent.
Ivory reliquary, 17th-18th cent. Ebony reliquary, 19th cent.
Two illustrated palm-leaf manuscript covers (inside surface); the top pair (18th-19th cent.) are wood overlaid with inscribed silver; the bottom pair (19th cent.) are painted wood. Both include depictions of the 16 great pilgrimage sites associated with the tradition of Gotama Buddha’s three visits to the island; the upper set also depicts the bodhisattva’s encounter with 24 previous Buddhas prior to his final rebirth as Siddhartha, and the first seven weeks after his enlightenment. Together they illustrate the extended life of the Buddha, beginning with his first aspiration to Buddhahood countless ages ago, his three visits to the island during his lifetime, and his post-death connection to sixteen places across the island where his physical relics continue to mediate his presence in the world.
Detail, showing (above) the bodhisattva’s encounter with previous Buddhas and (below) the first seven weeks following his enlightenment at Bodhgaya.
Detail from gallery card.

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.”

19th-cent. colonial photographs: “Villager Selling Plaintains, c. 1890. Photo from exhibition catalogue: Robert Brown, et al., The Jeweled Isle: Art from Sri Lanka (Los Angeles: LACMA, 2018).
“Kandyan Chief,” Scowen & Co., c. 1880-90.
Photographs displayed on wall near entrance to the exhibition, with introductory label.
Reg van Cuylenburg, “Village Girls Bathing,” c. 1950-58.

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.

Panel depicting Ganesha and a demonic spirit.
Probably Shakra, king of the gods; in the background can be seen a large carved wooden mask (20th-century) of Maha Kola Sanni Yaksha, chief of the demonic spirits (yakshas), who are engaged in yaktovil healing rituals. UVM’s Fleming Museum has several Sri Lankan yaktovil masks, including a very rare 19th-century mask of Maha Kola Sanni Yaksha, now prominently displayed in the Fleming’s new gallery of Asian art; see my discussion of the mask here.

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.

Joseph Lawton, photograph, “Reclining Buddha at Gal Vihara, 1870-71
Lewis deSoto, painted vinyl infused with cloth, “Paranirvana (Self Portrait),” 2015

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.