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New Methods in Comparative Studies of Religion with a Focus on Women

Panel Chair: Katja Triplett | Tuesday, August 25, 3:30-5:30 p.m.

Comparative Religion has recently come under harsh criticism for a number of reasons. These range from allegations that the study of comparative religion is simply the product of a scholar’s imagination to the critical assessment of postcolonial scholars. Certain postcolonial theorists state that religion was part of an imperial project that distorted the actual meanings used by the colonized peoples – be they those of religious elites or indigenous peoples. This panel comprises presentations from women scholars who, in in the light of such criticisms, are exploring alternative approaches to the study of women and religion in comparative and/or intercultutural studies. The papers are both theoretical in nature, discussing changes in method, and applied, with an emphasis on women. Two papers introduce specific studies that apply new materialist approaches to the study of religion, while two others feature specific religious contexts.

Karen Pechilis

Ethnography, Women, and the Comparative Study of Religion

This paper explores the contribution of ethnographic method in the comparative study of religion, especially its ability to revise the understanding of women in religion. With its roots in the History of Religions, the comparative approach traditionally employed textual materials. Feminist, postmodern and postcolonial scholars have argued that this focus represents a biased, culturally-elite, male view of religion. The turn to ethnography enriches the field of comparative religion with its emphasis on lived religion today, especially in relation to women, where the differences between textual representations of women and their participation in the making of a living tradition. Reflection on recent ethnographic studies of women in Hinduism, as well as a case study of a contemporary festival to Karaikkal Ammaiyar, a classical female devotional poet-saint from Tamil south India, will demonstrate the historical depth and contemporary enactment of women's distinctive contributions to Hinduism, especially on the theme of speaking desire.

Alexandra Grieser

“Comparing what, and how!?”: Analyzing Religious Change from an Aesthetic Point of View

Criticism of “comparative religion” has demonstrated that comparison is not an “innocent” academic procedure; rather, it is prone to ideological and epistemological problems. Conscious decisions alone cannot prevent gender-blindness. Blind spots and seemingly self-evident norms remain part and parcel of comparative category building. Dismissing comparison completely for this reason, however, would be a naïve decision. Grouping, categorizing and comparing are basic cognitive operations. Differentiating – being a task of the cultural sciences – is impossible without recognizing similarities and differences. Integrating a gender critique of religious studies scholarship, and drawing on recent developments in the study of Western Buddhism, the paper will present examples from a newly emerging research approach, “aesthetics of religion,” which focuses on the engagement of sensory perception in religious practice. Discussion focus on how aesthetic categories can help analysis in a comparative perspective as to how gender differences are created by "cultivating" the senses religiously.

Sylvia Marcos

Reconfiguring Gender Theory from a Mesoamerican Decolonial Perspective

Gender theory has mainly been systematized from the geopolitical North, by its intellectual theoreticians and within its academic institutions. A review of this material will not be part of this presentation as its complexity and length would make it impossible to present alternative approaches in the time allowed for this panel. My own focus will be specifically on those issues that appear to propose radically different parameters for theory-articulation in order to comprehend a gender theory that emerges from Mesoamerican religion. This could more adequately portray the practices and the elaboration of discourses of women’s rights as voiced within indigenous women’s declarations and demands. Issues like duality, fluidity, simultaneity, homeo-rheic equilibrium, embodiment, will be reviewed explicitly with implicit references of comparison and contrast to Northern feminist gender theory.

Jay Johnston

Sense and Spirit: Matter, Gender and Perception in the Study of Religion

The development of “material” and “spatial” approaches to the study of religion has enabled studies that privilege – in a variety of ways – the specificity of embodied experience. Simultaneously, Cultural Studies has developed “new materialism” as a mode of engagement with material agency and a “politics” of non-human agency. The space of assumed “unseen” exchanges between subject and object is closely observed. This paper draws together directives from these two theoretical and methodological approaches in order to investigate the modes of epistemology and the scopic regimes that become necessary when close attention is paid to cultural constructions of the senses. The proposed approach places Buddhist and Post-structuralist ontological concepts in dialogue to articulate a new theory-praxis: i.e., a gendered, embodied and self-reflexive method for the study of materiality ascribed to religious agency. Case studies from contemporary self-directed spiritual practices will be discussed to exemplify the analysis and proposed methodological approach.

Participants: Karen Pechilis, Alexandra Grieser, Sylvia Marcos, Jay Johnston


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