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In Conversation With Tulasi Srinivas

Nirmala Garimella
03/02/2006

Tulasi Srinivas is currently a visiting Assistant Professor at Wheaton College in the department of Sociology and Anthropology. She is an anthropologist of religion and her field area is South Asia, primarily South India. In her work she explores the consequences of the forces of religion and globalization on the subcontinent. I met her at her home in Arlington and interestingly enough was introduced to unusual pets in her living room - African Grey parrots that she had brought from a rescue home. Her interests are varied . She is as much at home speaking authoritatively on South Indian vegetarian cooking, gardening as much as on the  impact of religion in  societies  all over the world today.

When Peter Berger, an authority on Sociology of Religion was discussing hierarchical societies in a class at BU, the notion of caste in Indian society came up.  Tulasi Srinivas, one of his students, raised her hand and said cheekily; “That it is not true of India”. As Srinivas recalls, the Professor said with great humanity; “If you honestly believe this, then write me a paper and prove your point”. Thus started an interest and a major academic change for Tulasi Srinivas when the same professor, impressed by her presentation, urged her to move from architecture into Anthropology and Sociology.

For Srinivas, it seemed predestined in a way. Her father M.N.Srinivas was an eminent Anthropologist in India and a pioneer in his field and so it was natural that somewhere within her, the latent passion needed a boost. Her dissertation was the study of Brahmin priests at four local temples in Malleswaram, Bangalore within a ½ square mile radius. Here she spent a considerable amount of time, observing, talking and noting how Hinduism was constantly evolving and changing. Unlike the Western literature that argued that Hinduism is continuous and unchanging, she realized that in large pilgrimage places in India, priests performed the traditional functions in a way that was very different from the priest in a local temple. “This was not the kind of Hinduism that I grew up with”, she says of the large pilgrimage centers that would be typically visited by many Hindus only once in their lifetime. “In the local temples, the priests face a different kind of challenge – how to negotiate change in their daily rituals. I remember one instance in which a young couple came to the temple and the priest who performed the pooja asked for their gothram. The lady named her father’s gothram and the priest asked her to give her husband’s instead. At this point, Srinivas said, the lady questioned the priest as to why she should not give her own gothram for which the priest responded by saying, “Feminisma !” in good humor, shrugged, and went ahead reciting the mantras with the gothram she had given. These oddities in behavior would not be accommodated with the priest in a large temple for example, according to Srinivas, and so right there itself there was a change in tradition.

This aspect of Hinduism that allows; “Divinity to engage with modernity” is where it draws its strength, according to Srinivas. Because it does not rigidly adhere to rules and allows for minor accommodations, it retains its devotees globally even to this day.

What is it then in Hinduism that allows it to be retained worldwide? Says Srinivas ‘It is what Professor Berger would call as ‘cognitive dissonance’ that other religions have with their followers in an era of modernity, that Hinduism doesn’t, and this sets it apart compared to other religions”. “When modernity is at odds with certain attitudes and there are two pieces of information that are radically opposite to each other, then people move away from religion”, says Srinivas. “Hinduism on the other hand is constantly changing. Look at how it adapts itself even in our celebrations. We use technology like computerized lighting to decorate our Gods, we do alankaram with dollar bills and we even use exotic fruit like Kiwi fruit in our phala vastram. And so Hinduism becomes to many of us a way of life that accommodates all these changes”.

What about Hinduism and globalization? Is it different from what is practiced in India? “In India we absorb the religion though osmosis. It is all around us. People in India bring their religion into the public sphere. But here when you are divorced from it in your daily life, it is important to ask questions. This is a resolve that parents need to make to educate their kids. Part of the explanation can be through a strong social science education about Indian culture. Indian American children here need a language to deal with their dual identity. In America, religion and culture becomes a choice. You can be attracted to another religion and move into it. But in Hinduism we are born and remain Hindus. Traditionally there are no conversions into or out of this religion. Hinduism will be different in each country based on the influence of the local culture. But that, I believe, is the strength of Hinduism. It is resilient because we are able to change and be open to interpretation. The strength that we can gain from the West is asking questions and seeking answers that satisfy our curiosity and understanding”.

Why is it that religion had dominated the present day world? “It has definitely influenced all aspects of life. In a way the world is now a pitched battleground where fundamental voices are heard much more than the moderate. The violence that it brings is paradoxically opposite to those who view religion as one that bring peace, philosophical thought, value and goodness into their lives”.

So where does all this lead to with so many controversies and agendas? Says Srinivas, “We need to build a strong moderate voice. No society is without faults and flaws. Scholars and like minded people must come together. In the case of India, if Western scholars are at odds with Indian scholars it is up to those who are empathetic toward India to open a conversation with their Western counterparts and bring understanding and tolerance. There is always a middle ground that can ensure a just democratic, economically and socially forward religious behavior. Neither Fundamentalism or Western Progressive views need be accepted completely, but a dialogue must be initiated.”

Tulasi Srinivas Tulasi Srinivas is currently a visiting Assistant Professor at Wheaton College in the department of Sociology and Anthropology. She is an anthropologist of religion and her field area is South Asia, primarily South India. In her work she explores the consequences of the forces of religion and globalization on the subcontinent. Between 1998 and 1999 she was the site director for the Indian section of a ten nation study on cultural globalization undertaken jointly by the Institute for the Study of Economic Culture at Boston University, and the Harvard Academy of International and Area studies at Harvard University, which was funded by the Pew foundation and the Smith Richardson foundation. She has held several prestigious fellowships and has presented her thoughts about Indian religion both in India, and in the United States, at international and national colloquia, seminars and workshops.

 

 

 



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Tulasi Srinivas with her pet parrot Monty,

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