Religious Studies faculty present at conference in Vietnam 

Associate Professor Amy L. Allocco and Professor Brian K. Pennington recently presented papers at the Seventh South and Southeast Asian Association for the Study of Culture and Religion conference.

Associate Professor Amy L. Allocco and Professor Brian K. Pennington of the Department of Religious Studies recently presented papers at the Seventh South and Southeast Asian Association for the Study of Culture and Religion (SSEASR) conference, which was organized by the Vietnamese Buddhist Research Institute and Vietnam Buddhist University and held in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

The conference venue<span style=”font-size: 13.9997px;”>&nbsp;</span>in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.&nbsp;
Allocco, who serves as director of Elon’s Multifaith Scholars program, recently presented at the Seventh South and Southeast Asian Association for the Study of Culture and Religion (SSEASR) conference in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Titled “Transacting with the Dead: Social and Ritual Possibilities in Tamil South India,” Allocco’s paper analyzed Hindu rituals to invite the dead back into the world to serve as protective family deities.

In addition to discussing why these ritual transactions and ongoing relationships with the dead have been consistently overlooked by scholars working on Hindu traditions, Allocco advanced three interrelated arguments.

First, she argued that because scholars have become so accustomed to regarding sight, or darshan, as the fundamental element of Hindu ritual engagement they may not fully account for what is crucial in ritual transactions with the dead: speech. In these ceremonies the dead must not only speak through the body of a living host but must also agree to dispense advice to living kin in future consultations.

Second, Allocco argued that these rites clearly demonstrate that kinship bonds and their attendant ritual obligations extend beyond the grave. These ceremonies aim to permanently install the dead person as a family deity so that he or she may continue to participate in family life, particularly important occasions like weddings.

Finally, Allocco argued that urban ritual participants create and recreate certain kinds of spaces (e.g., village, domestic) and perform the kinship bonds that animate them. As such, these rituals reveal a great deal about contemporary gender and spatial dynamics in globalizing, urbanizing India.

Allocco’s paper drew on the ethnographic fieldwork that she carried out in the city of Chennai, South India during the 2015-16 academic year. Her research project, “Domesticating the Dead: Invitation and Installation Rituals in Tamil South India,” was supported by a Fulbright-Nehru Academic and Professional Excellence Fellowship and National Endowment for the Humanities/American Institute of Indian Studies Senior Fellowship, as well as by a sabbatical award from Elon University.

She first recorded ritual transactions with the dead during more than a year of dissertation fieldwork in South India between 2005 and 2007 and subsequently documented additional such ceremonies during research periods in 2008 and 2011. The research for this current project builds on her extensive study and fieldwork in the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu, which now extends back more than 20 years.

Brian Pennington, director of the Elon Center for the Study of Religion, Culture, and Society, presented ongoing research related to contemporary religious change in the Himalayan Mountains of North India. His paper, “A Refuge for the Millennium: Contested Histories of Uttarkashi,” detailed the British “discovery” of pilgrimage sites as they incorporated the Himalayan regions into their expanding Indian colonies.

Pennington argued that Britain’s assertion of political and military control of the region inaugurated the development of modern Hindu pilgrimage in the region that continues to this day. This research is part of the larger book manuscript he is now writing, titled “God’s Fifth Abode: Entrepreneurial Hinduism in the Indian Himalayas.”

The SSEASR conference is a regional conference of the International Association for the History of Religions (IAHR). This year the biannual conference drew approximately 100 scholars from 44 countries. It was conducted in English and Vietnamese. During the conference Allocco also participated in a meeting of the IAHR Women Scholars Network, for which she serves as a member of the Steering Committee.