SOME RECENT PUBLICATIONS (you can also visit my Academia.edu page)
BOOK MANUSCRIPT: "This Whole World is OM: A History of the Sacred Syllable in India" (now under contract at Oxford University Press) While the Sanskrit mantra "OM" has been central to recitation, ritual, meditation, and yoga for the last three thousand years, very little is known about its history. This Whole World Is OM: A History of the Sacred Syllable in India is the first book on this ubiquitous "sacred syllable" of Indian religions, showing how a single utterance emerges in the first millennium BCE to become the pinnacle of sacred sound. The book traces OM's rise as a symbol of Brahmanical orthodoxy and its wildly successful spread across the religious and cultural landscape of premodern India, including Hindu, Buddhist, Jain, Yogic, and Tantric traditions. This book makes a significant contribution to the history of religions in India, covering more than two millennia during which formative traditions of worship, such as devotion, renunciation, and contemplation, take root. With an innovative approach attuned to the sensory and performative dimensions of its textual sources, This Whole World Is OM reveals the primacy of sound and performance in the syllable's history. As the seminal work on OM, the book will be of interest to scholars of Indian religions and Indian cultural history, as well as to scholars of religious studies, ritual studies, and contemplative studies. Moreover, it will attract the notice of a general public keen to discover more about the roots of yoga, meditation, and Indian spirituality.
DISSERTATION: "This Whole World is OM: Song, Soteriology, and the Emergence of the Sacred Syllable" Harvard University, Department of South Asian Studies (May 2015). Drawing on the oldest textual corpus in South Asia, the Vedas, I survey one thousand years of OM's history, from 1000 BCE up through the start of the Common Era. By reconstructing ancient models of recitation and performance, I show that the signal characteristic of OM in the Vedas is its multiformity: with more than twenty archetypal uses in different liturgical contexts and a range of forms (oṃ, om̐, om, o), the syllable pervades the soundscape of sacrifice. I argue that music is integral to this history: more than any other group of specialists, Brahmin singers of liturgical song (sāmaveda) fostered OM's emergence by reflecting on the syllable's many and varied uses in Vedic ritual. Incorporating the syllable as the central feature of an innovative soteriology of song, these singer-theologians constructed OM as the apotheosis of sound and salvation. My study concludes that OM plays a crucial role in the development of South Asian religions during this period. As the foundations of South Asian religiosity shift, from the ritually oriented traditions of Vedism to the contemplative and renunciatory traditions of Classical Hinduism, OM serves as a sonic realization of the divine, a touchstone of Vedic authority, and a central feature of soteriological doctrines and practices.
2017 Journal of South Asian History and Culture. "The Amplified Sacrifice: Sound, Technology, and Participation in Modern Vedic Ritual." The amplification of religious sound in public spaces has become a key medium for negotiating identity, difference, and pluralism in societies worldwide. This paper explores the religious soundscape of Hindu traditions in Kerala, India by examining the role of sonic amplification in the sacrifices of Nambudiri Brahmins. While Brahmanical praxis is based on ancient liturgies from the first millennium BCE, the modern performance now incorporates microphones and loudspeakers that amplify recitations well beyond the power of the human voice. This technological shift coincides with significant changes in patronage and participation, as people from outside the Nambudiri community take a more active role in the funding, organization, and celebration of such rituals. In contrast to the private sacrifices of previous generations, the "amplified sacrifice" is now carried out as a public Hindu festival with thousands of attendees and a full suite of marketing and media coverage. In this way, the local, sonic amplification of performance tracks with a regional, cultural "amplification" of Vedic ritual and Nambudiri identity.
In press Asian Ethnology "Digital Guru: Embodiment, Technology, and the Transmission of Traditional Knowledge in Kerala." . The Nambudiri Brahmins of the South Indian state of Kerala transmit what may be the oldest surviving musical culture in South Asia, a fixed oral tradition of sacred songs used in ritual (sāmaveda). Without recourse to written notation, Nambudiri practitioners teach songs face-to-face, using their voices and a distinctive system of hand gestures to convey melodies to their students. This article presents a case study of the close bond and evolving pedagogical relationship between an aging guru ("teacher") and his student, highlighting the integration of digital technology into their lessons, and examining the impact of this innovation on textual, pedagogical, and ritual authority. The "digital guru"—in the form an archive of audio- and video-recordings—aids recall and restores a sense of authority to the transmission of Sāmaveda, and yet the living guru is ultimately a presence that cannot be replaced.
2017 "Vedic Oral Tradition." Oxford Bibliographies on Hinduism. Ed. Tracey Coleman. New York: Oxford University Press. DOI: 10.1093/OBO/9780195399318-0184 This article gives a richly annotated overview and comprehensive bibliography on the oral traditions associated with South Asia's oldest texts, the Vedas. With its history extending from the late Bronze Age into the early 21st century, and its influence reaching into every region of India, vedic oral tradition is a complex cultural phenomenon, encompassing text, ritual, transmission, and performance as well as the patronage networks, familial organization, and sociopolitical status of the Brahmins.
2016 "Melody, Mantra, and Meaninglessness: Towards a History of OM." In On Meaning and Mantras: Essays in Honor of Frits Staal, George Thompson and Richard Payne, eds., 185-225. Moraga, CA: Institute of Buddhist Studies and BDK America. This chapter explores the early history of OM on the basis of Sāmavedic texts and rituals, presenting a complete survey of OM's uses in the Sāmavedic liturgy (audgātram).
2016 "Tree-hugger: the Sāmavedic Rite of the audumbarī." In Roots of Wisdom: Plant Life in South Asian Religions and Culture, Fabrizio Ferrari and Thomas Dähnhardt, eds., 165-190. Bristol, UK: Equinox. This article uses the gesture of "tree-hugging" as a point of departure for an exploration of ritual in South Asia, specifically the Sāmavedic rite in which a singer grasps a trunk of udumbara wood (=ficus glomerata) to authorize his performance in the Soma sacrifice. I raise the possibility that this gesture of "tree-hugging" can also be interpreted as "tree-climbing," thereby encoding the prehistory of the singer's role as an expert in heavenly ascents.
2016 "Survivals & Revivals: the Transmission of Jaiminīya Sāmaveda in Modern South India." The Vedic Śākhās: Past, Present and Future, Jan Houben, Michael Witzel, and Julieta Rotaru, eds., Harvard Oriental Series, Opera Minora 9. This long article with accompanying photos and videos is the culmination of several months on the road in Kerala and Tamil Nadu, visiting and recording singers ofJaiminīya Sāmaveda (JSV), one of India's oldest song traditions. While scholarly literature rightly emphasizes the rarity, fragility and antiquity of JSV, this article critically examines the notions of survival and revival, concluding that most modern pedagogical lineages combine aspects of both.