I am trained as a historian of religions, and my work combines historical/archival research, literary analysis, ethnography, and media/performance studies. I work in two major areas: Indian cultural history (especially religion) and the theorization of religion in relation to history, modernity, politics, and the state.
My dissertation involved the empirical study of a performance tradition associated with a 14th century Indian Hindu/Sikh saint named Namdev who is popular in central, western, and northern India and whose songs and stories are preserved in various languages, including Hindi, Marathi, Rajasthani, Braj, Awadhi, and Punjabi. He is fascinating for his broad cultural reach and enduring public appeal. The performance tradition he espoused, called kirtan, integrates song and dance with philosophical or theological exposition, almost always used to address some present-day concern, whether in the 15th century or the 21st century. I traced the legacy of Namdev and the performance of kirtan from the 14th century to the present in order to draw out a logic of practice indicated in performance and writing. My fieldwork for this project included the ethnographic study of kirtan performances as well as archival research amid collections of old notebooks carried by performers of kirtan for over three centuries. I took an ethno-historical approach to uncover the past and present of the Namdev tradition. Based on an understanding of this logic, I examined the ways Namdev was remembered in time—from 16th century manuscript sources, 18th century biographies, 19th and 20th century scholarship, and 20th century film. I argued that the logic of performance unique to Namdev also articulated a historiography of a kind, a system of recording the past and using the past to comment on the present. I used this argument—that the Namdev “religious” tradition functioned in historical, but non-literate (which is to say, performative) ways—to make larger arguments about the interconnection, or contestation, between religion and history in modern Western philosophies and theories of history.
For the book, Religion and Public Memory, I reoriented my attention toward what the Namdev tradition was doing when it was acting “historically.” I shifted, in a sense, from theory to practice. In the book I argue that what we consider “religious” about this tradition (its nature as a form of bhakti, that is a kind of “non-orthodox” devotional practice in India) is an effort to shape an enduring public memory that has as its fulcrum the legacy of Namdev, who serves as its historical device. But the histories themsevles engage multiple issues over time, from battles of caste and class, to religio-philosophical debate, to commentary on the nature of the Indian nation, all told through Namdev’s memory. Religion and Public Memory marks a shift in my work from literary evidence to performative evidence, transitioning toward understanding an “audience” that is historically conditioned, loosely coheres over time and space, and is self-referential, that is, understands itself to exist in a very real way. I have referred to this “audience” in my book as a “public,” following the work of scholars of public culture, the public sphere, and of various kinds of modern publics (though not with reference to the state-centered view of “publics”). This shift is very apparent from my dissertation work, which makes no mention of publics, to my book, which makes the historical formation of publics a central issue.
A new book project engages a related issue, which is the study of the pre-modern public sphere in India. In the 13th Century in Maharashtra, Marathi was at the center of a public sphere of oral-performative-literary debate about caste, language, and gender. My next book project examines this moment in Indian history and how the process of vernacularization enabled the (sometimes unintended) immanent critique of caste and gender, given the way in which literacy, particularly with regard to Sanskrit, had been tied to elitist ideas about caste and gender. In this book I will argue that vernacularization inhabits the field of cultural politics, which resided largely outside royal courts, where social issues were vibrantly debated. This emergent pre-modern public sphere is one of the many facets of the genealogy of modern Indian democracy and the contemporary democratic public sphere in India. This book is tentatively called Cultural Politics in the Pre-Modern Public Sphere in India: Vernacularization, Caste, and Gender in the Thirteenth Century.
In addition to the study of publics and the public sphere, a second major theme of my research and writing is an exploration of the interrelationship of history, religion, and the state, and in particular, their intersections in Indian religions and cultures. Many historians and philosophers of history have engaged with religion and history, from Hegel to Huntington, but aside from the work of Michel de Certeau (The Writing of History 1975), very few scholars have sought to pinpoint the philosophical relationship between history and religion in the emergence of modern thought, and almost none in the US academy. The most cohesive treatment in the US is no older than 2007 in a special issue of History and Theory, and such issues are rarely raised in the study of Indian religions, where the dichotomy between religion and history in analyzing historical records is perhaps most acute, a legacy of Orientalism and colonial difference.
I have seven essays in peer reviewed publications on the relationship between religion and history. In one essay, “The Subaltern Numen” (2006), I look at how religion functions within the work of one of the mostly highly praised cohorts of historians of South Asia, the Subaltern Studies Collective. I refer to their appraisal of religion in the explanatory matrix of historiography of India as “numinous” or a “limit point” in that it both forecloses rational explanation for them, but also is a primary way for them to mount their critiques of the failure of Western historiography to account for “subaltern pasts,” the pasts of the disempowered. In several other essays, I try to offer a more positive assessment of religion’s role in historiographic undertakings in India by seeing how one can differentiate between “theographic” and “historiographic” narratives in hagiography (“The Theographic and Historiographic…” (2007)), and how we see the effort to establish a “provable” relationship between a past, sacred event and a current, physical location within the context of a religious collective memory (“History, Memory…” (2007)). In two articles for a compendium of theoretical perspectives in the study of Hinduism I wrote about various approaches to the “history and religion” dilemma, through the lens of “the subaltern” (“Subaltern” (2007) and through the study of memory (“Memory” (2007)). In a related way, I have also written critical essays on the study of India in the fields of religion and history, noting that an emphasis on “Hindu-Muslim” antagonisms overrides other equally vital historical dialectics, particularly those related to caste difference (“The Laine Controversy…” (2004) and “The Study of Indian Religions…” (2006)).
This interest in history and religion has led me to undertake new work that examines the relationship between religion and the state and social-epistemic forces. In this work I argue that religion and the state are structurally similar–both seeking soteriological goals–yet they pursue opposite end-points. The state, I agrue, provides “liberty” whereas religion offers “freedom.” Contrary to normative political theory, I present liberty and freedom as diametric opposites: liberty is a permissiveness conferred by an authoritative state; freedom is the absence of such worldly authority entirely. An on this subject is slated to appear in the next year in a publication under the editorial direction of Christoph Uehlinger, who will edit the proceedings from the “Concepts of Religion” Sympisium held in Zurich in November of 2012. The title of that essay will be “Religion, Power, and the State at the End of Colonialism in India.” I hope to expand this project into a book-length study that explores the social-epistemological relationship between the state and religion.