Learning Hinduism through a Rural Homestay in South India
As a professor of theology with expertise in interreligious issues, I designed a January Term course on Hinduism set in south India. The course met liberal arts requirements and was designed for predominantly upper Midwestern students with Catholic and Protestant backgrounds. The focus was not on major sites but on meeting people in the countryside. Also, the course moved traditional learning and pedagogy into a living space by staying for six nights, during the Pongal harvest festival, in rural homes in Tamil Nadu. In terms of academics, the course was originally designed to focus on asceticism, the worship of Shiva, village goddesses, and the role of hill shrines in Tamil Nadu. The students would learn about these topics directly through the town, its inhabitants, and nearby religious sites. I did my best to prepare students for the experience, utilizing interviews, orientation sessions, on-site orientations, and assigned readings. My plans and preparations might seem to have been good, but at the midpoint of the course, on the first day in the small town, the program ground to a halt. Many students were emotionally devastated by the level of poverty. In this context, my lectures on asceticism, Shiva, goddesses, and hill shrines rang hollow and empty. Instead, the minds of the students were flooded by a host of other issues, including poverty, race, class, gender, environmental pollution. Although initially devastated by poverty, the students were quickly drawn into the life of the town. After only two days many frowns and tears turned into smiles. They were drawn in by the hospitality, the highly relational nature of the Tamil people, the exuberance and color of the Pongal celebrations, and the town’s rituals. Religion was a main facet of the experiences of the students, and this was key in terms of transforming their stay into a positive one, but my lectures on Shiva nevertheless rang empty. The students were experiencing a different aspect of the religion than what I had learned about in graduate school or was prepared to teach. Westerners tend to think of Asian religions in terms of meditation, asceticism, and philosophy, but the students were experiencing religion in terms of family intimacy, obedience to the elders, and hospitality to the stranger. I later found that the sixth century Tamil classic, the Tirukkural or “Holy Speech,” addresses the experiences of the students. The text gives instructions on how to live a virtuous life, and it discusses two main lifestyles, those of the ascetic and the householder. The former pertains to material that I was prepared to teach and the latter to the world my students were experiencing. There were a variety of lessons which the students, and students in future years, learned from the lifestyle of a Hindu householder. Lessons they wrote about in their journals included generosity to outsiders and guests, valuing family relations, that great joy can exist in the midst of poverty, and that Americans value individual choice, whereas Indians value collective decision making.
Iyengar, K. R. Srinivasa. 1988. Postcript to Tirukkural: Lights of the Righteous Life, by Tiruvalluvar, trans. K. R. Srinivasa Iyengar. Calcutta: M. P. Birla Foundation.
Miller, Barbara Stoler, trans. 1986. The Bhagavad-Gita: Krishna's Counsel in Time of War. New York: Bantam Books.
Tharoor, Shashi. 1998. India: From Midnight to the Millennium and Beyond. New York: Harper Perennial.
Tiruvalluvar. 1988. Tirukkural: Lights of the Righteous Life. Trans. K. R. Srinivasa Iyengar. Calcutta: M. P. Birla Foundation.