Religion and Modernity in the Himalaya

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Megan Adamson Sijapati, Jessica Vantine Birkenholtz
Routledge Contemporary South Asia Series
  • New York, NY: 
    , December
     192 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In Religion and Modernity in the Himalaya Megan Adamson Sijapati and Jessica Vantine Birkenholtz present nine essays about how religion mediates and is mediated by current social, political, economic, and environmental changes in the Himalayan region. Stressing foci on both geographic diversity as well “lived religion” (3) in her introductory essay, Sijapati states that the rest of the essays arise from ethnographic encounters in mountainous areas of Pakistan, India, Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan, and Sichuan; and study Hindu, Buddhist, and Islamic religious forms. On the whole, these essays are both well-formed and instructive, offering essential resources for anyone studying the interfaces between religion and contemporary processes of modernization in South Asia generally, or the Himalaya in particular.

After the introduction Luke Whitmore provides the first essay, “In the Mountains of Radical Juxtaposition,” as a case study of recent changes at the famous Hindu shrine of Kedarnath in the Garhwal region of India. Whitmore claims that Garhwal commonly has been regarded by lowland Indians with ambivalence—seen as both a backward rural outpost and a revered home of the gods. In this light, Whitmore traces recent changes in Kedarnath pilgrimage practices shaped by greater ease of transportation, political realignment, cellphone videos, and the devastating floods of 2013, with these changes ambiguously linking Kedarnath with the greater Indian polity.

The next essay, “T-Pop and the Lama” by Holly Gayley, interestingly explores new religious, social, and political uses for video compact discs [VCD] that are produced and enjoyed in Tibetan areas of Tibet, Qinghai, and Sichuan. These VCDs, Gayley says, combine popular singing with messages from important Tibetan spiritual leaders thereby creating an amalgam through which Tibetans can experience cultural pride while simultaneously expressing their dissatisfactions with rule from Beijing. Rather than representing mere sources of entertainment, these VCDs employ Buddhist messages that engender a sense of Tibetan ethnic solidarity, according to Gayley.

“Pocketing the Himalaya” by Andrea Marion Pinkney then supplies an examination of recent changes in the north Indian Char Dham Hindu pilgrimage to shrines at Kedarnath, Badrinath, Gangotri, and Yamunotri. Pinkney relates that pilgrim numbers on the Char Dham have exploded in recent years because of improved transportation infrastructure as well as changes in the styles of printed mahatmya guides for pilgrims. Unlike their predecessors, contemporary mahatmyas are oriented towards independent pilgrims, integrate practical travel advice along with do-it-yourself liturgies that diminish the need to hire local priests, and sometimes serve as sacred objects in themselves, reflecting the growth in India of combining tourism with religious practice.

In “From Text to Internet, Aniconic to Statuesque,” Birkenholtz traces historical changes in the “text, ritual, and goddess herself” (86) of the Nepali Hindu deity Svasthani. Birkenholtz relates that Svasthani, previously an amorphous minor local deity, has gained prominence over the last two decades because of factors such as the widespread availability of cellphone applications with her liturgy as well as the intentional popularization of her ritual, transforming the goddess into one with her own iconography and home temple. Although the reader is left wondering why these changes are occurring now, the essay provides a poignant window into transitions in current Nepali Hinduism.

Radhika Govindrajan’s essay, “Adulterous Dotiyal or Protector of the Oppressed,” then intriguingly studies perceptions and roles of the Hindu deity Ganganath in the Kumaon region of the Indian Himalaya. Govindrajan shows that some Hindus demean the deity Ganganath because they see his cultus as a superstitious and foreign obstacle to modernization and progress. However other Hindus, particularly women, experience Ganganath as a supporter of women and their causes, so that to them, Ganganath’s worship participates in feminist elements of modernizing currents, thus contributing to progress.

Feminist elements appear again in the next essay, “Redefining Monastic Education,” by Nadine Plachta. Historically, Tibetan Buddhist nuns have remained subordinate to monks, including the exclusion of nuns from the exalted leadership title of geshe. However, as Plachta describes, the nuns of Khachoe Ghakyil Ling nunnery in the Kathmandu Valley responded to modernizing feminist influences as well as the effort to invigorate Buddhism in Nepal by establishing a new program of study for nuns that results in the title of geshe rabjampa. In this way Nepalese Buddhism participates in the feminization of Buddhism that marks much of the contemporary world.

The Hunza Valley of Pakistan reveals an alternative dynamic according to Katherine J. L. Miller’s essay, “Schooling Virtue.” In an overwhelmingly Isma’ili Muslim territory, education remains a valued commodity among “enthusiastic proponents and critics of development alike” (153), given the primacy accorded to education by the spiritual leader of the Isma’ilis—the Aga Khan. This places these Isma’ilis in contrast with some Muslim neighbors in Pakistan who might be less keen on education and modernization, although the essay does not fully examine this contrast.

Elizabeth Allison’s fascinating essay, “At the Boundary of Modernity,” concludes the volume. As Allison portrays it, the nation of Bhutan takes pride in cultivating an ecofriendly Buddhist identity. However, government actions based upon Western ecological principles for responsibly managing local waste has significantly failed. According to Allison, this is because the word pollution (drib) takes on Buddhist purity, not environmentalist, overtones for much of the Bhutanese populace who may see nonbiodegradable waste—a fairly new thing in Bhutan—as positive and even pretty. Thus, households sometimes indiscriminately dump their waste. In Allison’s study, Buddhism both helps and hinders ecofriendly activities in Bhutan.

A weakness of this otherwise fine collection of essays is that each work appears to employ an alternative understanding of what modernity means, thus scholars looking to refine this controversial term may not find help from the entire text. Nonetheless, taken altogether the essays helpfully enrich our understanding of empirical religious realities in the present-day Himalaya.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Daniel Capper is a professor in the department of philosophy and religion at the University of Southern Mississippi

Date of Review: 
April 6, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Megan Adamson Sijapati is Associate Professor of Religious Studies and Co-Chair of Globalization Studies at Gettysburg College, in Pennsylvania, USA. She is the author of Islamic Revival in Nepal: Religion and a New Nation (Routledge, 2011).

Jessica Vantine Birkenholtz is Assistant Professor of Hinduism in the Department of Religion at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, USA. She is the Reviews Editor for Himalaya, journal of the Association for Nepal and Himalayan Studies.



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