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Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life

Studying Hinduism as an Interdisciplinary Practice: Notes from Boston, Oxford, and Delhi

Event Recap

On October 21, Father Francis X. Clooney, S.J. presented observations from his forthcoming book Hindu Goddesses and the Virgin Mary: Six Hymns in Praise of Her (Oxford University Press, 2004). It studies three Hindu goddess hymns in their theological contexts, and then relates them back to the Christian tradition, including contemporary feminist theology. Clooney began his presentation by leading the audience through a variety of commentaries on the South Indian Hindu goddess Sri Lakshmi from a range of sources and historical periods. His talk focused on the ways that different groups of scholars relate to his work and how he accommodates these interests in his discussions of the goddess texts.

Devout believers in the southern Indian Srivaisnava tradition, for example, were mainly concerned with the authenticity of his interpretation. Their interest is in whether scholars are able to read the texts in the original language, and to present them more or less as insiders do. Oxford philologists, on the other hand, tend to focus on the accuracy of the translations of the texts, unconcerned by issues of religious truth or authenticity of belief. University scholars in New Delhi have been mainly interested in how Clooney’s work fits into a post-colonial intellectual agenda and the problems of modernization. At Boston College, Clooney has discussed these texts in ways that raise analogies between the worship of Sri Lakshmi and the Marian devotions in the Catholic tradition.

While all of these scholars would agree that tradition is important in their approaches, Clooney’s international and inter-disciplinary travels have allowed him to survey the multi-valent meaning systems that various disciplinary perspectives bring to these texts as they relate to the Hindu Goddess Sri Lakshmi.

The ensuing conversation at the Boisi Center was spirited, raising discussions about asymmetry between cultural and intellectual traditions. Professor Wolfe observed that traditions in Judaism and Protestantism emphasize the critical reading of texts, which in turn cultivates skills for scholars in these traditions to analyze the texts of other traditions. Islamic traditions that focus on the memorization of the Qu’ran, on the other hand, do not as naturally lead to comparative textual studies.