Dissertation: "This Whole World is OM: SOng, SOTERIOLOGY, and the Emergence of the Sacred Syllable" (ComplETED May 2015)

  • READ IT HERE! This study explores the emergence of OM, the Sanskrit mantra and critically ubiquitous "sacred syllable" of South Asian religions. Although OM has remained in active practice in recitation, ritual, and meditation for the last three thousand years, and its importance in Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain traditions is widely acknowledged, the syllable's early development has received little attention from scholars. 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.

Film: "Gwagwaaaaaaay! An Epic in Fragments" (in editing)

  • Another work-in-progress is my documentary film on the revival of Sanskrit drama (kudiyattam) among teenagers in South India. Conceived at the Harvard Film Study Center, "Gwagwaaaay! An Epic in Fragments" depicts Hindu temple performers as they struggle to sustain their vocation amidst declining patronage. Their solution—teaching fragments of the repertoire to high school students for arts competitions—has attracted media attention, opened up new sources of patronage, and led to artistic and social changes within the community. Narration-free and observational, the film is a sensory immersion in this dynamic world of pedagogy and performance. Check out this rough sequence of the kids as they don their make-up before a competition... 

Teaching: "Karma, Rebirth & Liberation: Life and Death in South Asian Religions," Fall 2014 

  • I taught this course at Brown in Fall 2014, intended as an introduction to the religions of South Asia on the theme of karma. Check out the draft syllabus. From the course description: "Karma, the name in Sanskrit for the 'action' that makes up a human life, has been a central concern for the religious traditions of South Asia throughout their history. Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism share the belief that after death people are reborn, taking on better or worse lives according to their actions in lives previous. What's more, reincarnation is regarded as a negative condition; liberation from the cycle of rebirth is the ultimate goal of human existence. In this course we examine the ideas of karma, rebirth and liberation in Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism from historical, cosmological, ritual, narrative, iconographic and theological points of view. We also trace the influence of these ideas in Western culture, where karma has taken on a life of its own..."

Chapter: "Survivals & Revivals: the Transmission of Jaiminīya Sāmaveda in Modern South India" (forthcoming)

  • 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 of  Jaiminīya 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. In The Vedic Śākhās: Past, Present and Future, edited by Jan Houben, Michael Witzel, and Julieta Rotaru, Harvard Oriental Series, Opera Minora 9 (expected 2015).

Chapter: "Tree-Hugger: the Sāmavedic Rite of the audumbarī" (submitted)

  • 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. In Roots of Wisdom: Plant Life in South Asian Religions and Culture, edited by Fabrizio Ferrari and Thomas Dähnhardt, Equinox (expected 2015).

Film & commentary: "Mantras 2 the Max" (forthcoming)

  • Film--more precisely in this case, digital video--seems a fitting way to critically respond to another film. "Mantras 2 the Max" is my video response to the 1976 film "Altar of Fire," a collaboration between filmmaker Robert Gardner and philologist Frits Staal.  Gardner and Staal documented the performance of an archaic 12-day ritual by Nambudiri Brahmins in Kerala,  emphasizing its status as "one of mankind's oldest rituals" and predicting that it would never be performed again. Things turned out otherwise. Their film raised the international profile of Nambudiri ritual culture and contributed to its revival. I documented the same ritual when it was performed again 35 years later and found a strikingly different scene: massive crowds, camera crews, loudspeakers--it had become a bona fide festival! Where Staal and Gardner emphasized the ritual's status as an ancient cultural relic, I push the emic experience of the 2011 event; while they filmed in gorgeous 16 mm with an experienced crew, I shot alone with a lo-fi Lumix point-and-shoot; while their film features voice-overs and interviews, my video has no supporting exposition. These choices add up to a video rebuttal of their argument that Vedic ritual must be understood chiefly in terms of its praxis and history. In the online publication Imaging the Ineffable: Representation and Reality in Religion and Film, edited by Lina Vercherry and Zoe Kelly-Nacht, Mahindra Humanities Center at Harvard (expected 2015).

Teaching: "Hindu Stories: Traditions of Narrative and Performance," Fall 2012

  • This was the first course I designed and taught at Brown, an introduction to Hinduism on the theme of narrative and performance. I focused on the multiformity of Hindu traditions, guiding the students through the core myths and epics in an array of different media: from television serials to graphic novels to reels of my own fieldwork. Here's the syllabus. From the course description: "Ranging widely across a diversity of narrative and performative “texts”—poetry, prose, theatre, comics, sculpture, paintings and ethnographic film—we enter a world where fires are kindled, gods and demons clash, sages and kings debate, lovers are parted and reunited, crises of faith and duty are resolved. For centuries, Hindus have turned to these works as they have walked the paths of ritual, renunciation, and devotion. We follow in their footsteps, examining the ritual cosmology of the Vedas, the philosophical speculations of the Upanishads, the great epics, Mahabharata and Ramayana, the devotional poetry of singer-saints, and the stylized dance-dramas of Sanskrit theater. Through these and other core texts, we encounter the key Hindu concepts of dharma (duty), bhakti (devotion), and karma (action); learn about the mythology and iconography of the major gods and goddesses; see Hinduism as it is lived in various regions of India; and acquire a more nuanced understanding of some Hindu concepts that have permeated global culture: OṂ, karma, rebirth, yoga, and tantra..."