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Expert on 'Global Hinduism' to deliver this year's Thulin Lecture at Illinois

4/2/2014 | Dusty Rhodes, Arts and Humanities Editor | 217-333-0568;

[ Email | Share ] CHAMPAIGN,Ill. — The religious tradition that brought us yoga, meditation and the concepts of karma and reincarnation will be the topic of this year’s Marjorie Hall Thulin Lecture in Religion, an annual event sponsored by the University of Illinois department of religion. Vasudha Narayanan, the distinguished professor of religion at the University of Florida and author of “Hinduism” and “The Vernacular Veda: Revelation, Recitation and Ritual,” will deliver the lecture at 8 p.m. April 9 (Wednesday) at Spurlock Museum. Her topic, “Global Hinduism,” will touch on Southeast Asia, the Caribbean and the United States.

Narayanan, a past president of the American Academy of Religion, was educated at the University of Madras and Bombay in India, and Harvard University. In 2010, she was named Teacher Scholar of the Year at the University of Florida, where she helped establish the nation’s first Center for the Study of Hindu Traditions. She is a co-editor of the popular essay collection “Life of Hinduism.” Her research has been supported by a variety of grants and fellowships, including the National Endowment for the Humanities and the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation.

For the past 15 years, she has been researching Hinduism in the U.S., Cambodia, the Caribbean and elsewhere.

“Hindu traditions have flourished in many parts of the world over the past 2,000 years,” she said. With the exception of the influence of a few charismatic leaders, the spread of Hinduism has happened mainly by migration, Narayanan said, since the religion has no tenet compelling followers to proselytize. “Exporting of religious ideas does not seem to have been the primary reason for Hindus to be traveling outside of India,” she said. “There have been economic reasons – largely trade, indentured work, and in the 20th and 21st centuries, I would say professional opportunities in Europe, Australia and certainly our country.”

Hindus began moving to the U.S. after passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 replaced the quota restrictions (70 percent of immigrant slots were reserved for people born in the United Kingdom, Ireland or Germany) with a system based on family reunification and job skills. Narayanan traces the relatively recent building boom in Hindu temples back to this initial wave of highly skilled immigrants and their appreciation of traditional American values.

“Because of the nature of the Act, the first major wave of immigrants was professionals. They were not under financial strain,” she said. “In addition to that, the socioeconomic and political system here values religious patronage. Religion has a certain cultural capital here in America that it might not have in other countries. So freedom of religion, the value placed on institutions of faith, the financial infrastructure and the professional qualifications of the immigrants – all these things have combined here to result in the building of temples in practically every city in America.”

The temples are the most visible representation of Hinduism in America; the religious tradition itself defies easy definition, because of its expansive breadth, encompassing a range of ideas and traditions.

“I could argue that it’s even more diverse than Christianity,” Narayanan said, “because with few exceptions, in Christianity, there’s the centrality of Christ. Hinduism is more like a Venn diagram: There are multiple areas of overlap, but the diversity is quite amazing.”

For the Thulin lecture, Narayanan plans to discuss Hinduism from two perspectives: as practiced by people who identify themselves as Hindus, and by teasing out themes that may have had Hindu connections at some point – connections that have been ignored, forgotten or so transformed that they may be rendered irrelevant.

“I’m talking about ideas and practices that at some point had Hindu context, but which are de-contextualized from their sociocultural milieu and distanced from the name Hindu,” she said. “Yoga and different kinds of meditation are actually promoted under the guise of being universal, or good for your health. But these have been almost completely decontextualized from the Hindu religion.”

The Thulin lectures were endowed by Marjorie Hall Thulin (1910-2009) out of her desire for students to understand how religion grows and functions in a complex society, especially Christianity in America. She was a 1931 graduate of Illinois, and enjoyed a successful career in advertising. She published poetry and children’s literature, and edited a book on the history of Glencoe, Ill.

The Spurlock Museum is at 600 W. Gregory Drive in Urbana. A reception will follow the lecture.

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Editor's note: For more information, contact David H. Price, the head of the department
of religion and a professor of religious studies, of history, and of Jewish studies at the U. of I.:

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