Pilgrimage, Power, & Place in Hinduism

REL/SAME 520
REL/SAME 520

What is a pilgrimage? Who becomes a pilgrim, and how or why do they do so? What does it mean to undertake a pilgrimage? Who or what are the objects of devotion or the physical and/or spiritual destination guiding these pilgrims? What is physically or symbolically gained or lost in the course of these journeys? This course seeks to explore the ancient and multicultural concept and practice of pilgrimage as it is experienced in the Hindu world today. Our primary objective is two-fold. First, we will use the study of pilgrimage, power, and place as a lens through which to examine in detail the interplay of Hindu belief and practice. Second, we will examine the study of pilgrimage itself and critically reflect on the different methodological approaches and theoretical frameworks scholars employ, including (but not limited to) discussions of ritual process, agency, typology of sacred sites, and secular aspects of pilgrimage. Our guides throughout the semester will be several ethnographies that grapple with the varied and vibrant dynamics of pilgrimage in South Asia, particularly India. These ethnographies will take us on pilgrimages through several regions of India, including West Bengal, the Himalayas, Rajasthan, Maharashtra, and Vrndavan. They will introduce to us to different local, regional, and pan-Hindu gods and goddesses and their most sacred sites. We will meet pilgrims from an array of socioeconomic backgrounds and learn about their motivations for and experiences of pilgrimage. These ethnographies employ both oral and written sources to contextualize both the historical practice of pilgrimage in the Hindu world and its contemporary practice that has become an important part of India’s social and political economy today. These ethnographies will be our steadying walking sticks throughout semester, but we may periodically supplement with additional readings that further elucidate their theoretical foundations or highlight specific issues that are increasingly impacting Hindu pilgrimage and important pilgrimage sites, such as environmental disasters and overtaxed infrastructures.