Brian Pennington presents research on 'Entrepreneurial Hinduism'

The director of Elon's Center for the Study of Religion, Culture, and Society discusses religion as livelihood in a developing region of the Indian Himalayas

Brian K. Pennington, director of Elon’s Center for the Study of Religion, Culture, and Society and a professor of religious studies, recently presented a paper titled “God’s Fifth Abode: Entrepreneurial Hinduism in the Indian Himalayas” at the Association for Asian Studies conference in Chicago.

In his paper, Pennington discussed the ways in which new Hindu institutions have arisen as a means of securing a livelihood by people of rural mountainous districts being left behind by other forms of economic development in the Himalayas.

The paper utilized three examples from Pennington’s long-standing research in the state of Uttarakhand to develop the concept of entrepreneurial Hinduism in the contemporary North Indian Himalayas. More specifically, Pennington’s presentation analyzed the conditions forestablished at the frontiers of the developing nation-state as reflected in the pilgrimage city of Uttarkashi. This site has functioned since the 10th century as a famed center for ascetic retreat, and since the 19th century as a major hub of the Chār Dhām Yātra (Pilgrimage to the Four Divine Abodes), in which hundreds of thousands of Hindus travel annually from all over India to bathe in the spots where India’s holy rivers emerge from now rapidly receding glaciers. The sacred reputation of Uttarkashi has enabled a decade of energetic innovation and invention trading on this region’s ancient renown as Hinduism’s spiritual homeland and provoking conflict between guardians of regional practice and those who adopt homogenizing trends from India’s plains.  

Presented as part of a session titled “Constructing Sacred Landscapes in the Himalayas” that featured among the conference’s nearly 400 panels at this annual conference, Pennington’s paper argued that the viability of new religious spaces in a region where tradition and culture are cumulative can be understood as a function of the negotiation of opportunities and constraints presented by the cultural and natural landscape. Material presented in this paper will be included in the book by the same name that Pennington is currently writing about religious change in a rapidly developing Uttarkashi and in the central Indian Himalayas.