Balancing Acts: An Ethnographer’s Thoughts on Studying Religion

Author: Dr. Holly Walters, a cultural anthropologist at Wellesley College, United States. Her work focuses on religious experience and ritual practice in South Asia. Her current research addresses issues of political practice and ritual mobility in the high Himalayas of Mustang, Nepal among Hindu and Buddhist pilgrims who venerate sacred ammonite fossils, called Shaligrams. Holly is a regular contributor to TFS. Find more about Dr. Walters’ work on Shaligrams and especially her upcoming book on her blog, Peregrination.

Anthropologists sometimes study sensitive topics and it is therefore not uncommon for ethnographic work to attract serious criticism along such lines. This is true for academics who study all kinds of issues including gender and sexuality, identity, violence, politics, race, and of course, religion.

In a recent social media thread, I encountered one such critic whose principal argument was, essentially, that both I the ethnographer and the academic study of religion in general had no business writing about religious traditions (Shaligrams, in my case), should not be participating in rituals or engaging with sacred objects, and that any practitioner who so invited a scholar to do so was automatically de-legitimated from being a “real” member of the religious community. In short, that no real Hindu (specifically Vaishnava in his argument) would ever allow a scholar to enter into their communal practice and if they did, they were not a real Hindu.

What should the ethnographer’s response to this be then? What is our role in all this?

The academic/ethnographic study of religion comes with a wide variety of pitfalls, much of which is undoubtedly related to the colonialist history of many academic disciplines as well as the academy itself. It is a history that has long been problematic both in terms of how peoples from “elsewhere” have been represented in relation to a broadly white, Christian, scholarly hierarchy and to the role of Abrahamic religion in the constitution of the Euro-American academy as an institution. As a result, scholars of religion often encounter a number of potentially uncomfortable questions and assumptions, ranging from the view of religion departments as being moral centres of their respective colleges and universities to the perspective that only true believers in any given religious tradition can or should be studying it.


I recall one relatively recent public example of this issue when scholar and author Reza Aslan, who wrote and published the book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth (2013), was repeatedly called upon to retract his work on the historical context of and religious interpretations of Jesus’ life due to the fact that many readers took issue with a Muslim daring to interpret anything regarding Christ under the purview of academic authority.

In the end, all of this leads to a common misconception that particular scholars should either convert to their religious focus of choice as a matter of perspective or that they must do so in order to produce the “correct” kinds of scholarship. And for those who are not suitably “insider” to the religion in question, they often find themselves having to justify their interests and methods on the grounds that their presence is not “legitimate” or that they aren’t properly deferring to the authority of any given denomination’s orthodoxy when it comes to analysing person, practice, pedagogy, or text.

It is at this point that I should note that questions about whether or not I have ever “converted” to Hinduism are common in my particular line of anthropological work. I use “converted” here in a circumspect manner though, since the term is especially loaded towards Christian conceptualisations of belief and tends to convey implications of missionary pressures. Rather, what my research participants and interlocutors are usually asking is whether or not I have taken initiation into the practices, mantras, or guru lineages of any particular Hindu tradition: Vaishnava, Shaiva, Smarta, Shakti, or otherwise. As I am now used to explaining, I have not. But that is by intention.

Whose Practice?

There is a perception among many Shaligram devotees that Shaligram veneration is predominantly a Vaishnava Hindu practice. While I acknowledge that Vaishnavas comprise the majority of northern Indian and Nepali practitioners, there is, in fact, quite a significant and diverse collection of Shaligram traditions throughout South Asia; including Shaiva, Smarta, Shakti-Devi, Buddhist, Bon, and Jain. And among these traditions, there is little homogeneity. How devotees interact with their faith, how they view others who interact with their faith, and how they view the nature of sacred objects overall is exceptionally varied. No two individuals ever share the exact same perspective and there is no such thing as a unified view of religion even within particular groups. Consequentially, for me to take up the mantle of any one particular tradition would be to potentially inhibit my ability to work with communities of other traditions and would also serve to possibly align myself with political ideologies I don’t share. A point of positionality I discuss at length in my upcoming book on Shaligram pilgrimage.

This doesn’t mean that I am welcome everywhere, however. As many ethnographers can attest, some people will be interested and willing to work with you and others will not. Some people might be exceptionally welcoming, some might find your presence merely tolerable, while others might even be deeply offended at the presence of an outside observer. As such, striking the careful balance between study and faith, practice and participation, as well as access and exclusion is something all anthropologists must do (regardless of what they work on). This might mean not getting to interact with certain people, or not being able to observe certain events. I take no issue with this.

For my part, I am acutely aware that certain Hindu traditions do not allow women to participate in Shaligram worship. Others restrict ritual practices to only Brahmins and furthermore to only Brahmin men. And when I encounter those practices, I endeavour to be as respectful as I can and remove myself from the situation if that is what is required. Still, many other Shaligram traditions make no such distinctions. Buddhist and Jain Shaligram practices are specifically anti-caste and welcome even those deemed “untouchables” to interact with their sacred objects. Many Shaiva and Smarta traditions do not discriminate based on gender and one Shakti/Bon tradition in the Himalayas even foregrounds women in its ritual practices. Many of these traditions interpret Shaligram agency differently and view the self-manifest nature of sacred stones as incorruptible by humans. As in, the Divine is Divine regardless of how flawed the human working with it is and Shaligrams therefore cannot be harmed by human failings.

Ultimately, what I took from my Twitter exchange above wasn’t so much that I, the outside ethnographer, should cease and desist all work into Shaligram traditions but that we as anthropologists should be more open to discussing why we study the topics we study and why we feel it is important for this work to happen.

In short, how, then, do we address the complex nature of studying religion as an ethnographic project? Why do we do what we do?

I generally take to heart most criticism from the communities I work with, but it is one thing to debate the role of academic inquiry in religious practice and quite another to automatically delegitimize anyone who chooses to participate in ethnographic collaboration. It is also quite something else to argue for “purity” narratives when it comes to who should be allowed to study religion and who shouldn’t. This is because purity narratives, for the most part, have no end point. There will never be a “pure” enough scholar (or even a “pure” enough worshipper) with a “pure” enough point of view because the diversity of viewpoints in spirituality will always challenge naturalized conceptualizations of the-way-things-have-always-been.

Studying Religion

I study religion for two reasons. One, the religious background I come from has been a serious complicating factor in my life and my initial foray into anthropology as an undergraduate gave me the conceptual vocabulary to talk about my own relationship to and experiences with faith, divinity, and the immaterial. And two, religion is a fascinating method for deeper inquiries into fundamental human conundrums of life and death, love and hate, identity and meaning, self and other. The ethnographic study of religion also provides the opportunity to understand, with depth and nuance, the many beliefs and rituals that move persons around the world to appreciate different ways of knowing and to conceptualise different realities beyond the physically immediate. Shaligram practices, especially, complicate and challenge many common understandings of personhood and agency, of what it means to belong to a spiritual community, and of what religion even is.

But this also entails understanding the difference between learning about religion and learning religion. There is, of course, great value in the theologian, the one whose rhetorical pedagogy is meant to persuade others into accepting or internalising their system of beliefs as well as to interrogate the nature of their own beliefs in relation to institutional religion. But the role of my and many others’ work is to approach religion as primarily a human endeavour that taps into fascinating comparative philosophies, histories, mythologies, moral systems, narratives, and ritual practices that form a profoundly important foundation for how people live their lives now, in the past, and into the future.

Religion also does not exist apart from other social and cultural systems (despite the oddly pervasive belief that it does) such as history, politics, economics, law, art/media, and literature. I would even go so far as to say that religion rivals trade and exchange as a truly fundamental cross-cultural and trans-national force. It is simply not possible to understand what is going on in India with the new citizenship amendment act protests, Middle Eastern foreign policy, or even the U.S. election cycle without understanding something about religion. Even if one is not religious, or does not belong to a specific denomination, religion still affects us all every day of our lives. And that is how I, as an ethnographer, approach the question of Shaligrams. How do they act in the world? How do people interact with them? And through what kinds of intersections do their meanings resonate with other aspects of culture, society, and globalized concerns?

An Ethnographer’s Intent

Life in a pluralistic society is challenging. Often my work intersects with a variety of audiences. I work with multiple traditions of Shaligram practitioners both in South Asia and in the Diaspora, for example, but I am also commonly mediating between elderly ritual specialists, knowledgeable devotees, those who’ve only encountered Shaligrams in passing, and audiences who have never heard of such a thing as a sacred ammonite in their entire lives. And I take that responsibility quite seriously because the growing division between fossil prospecting/souvenir hunting in the Himalayas and Shaligram pilgrims increasingly finding it harder to reach the Kali Gandaki River Valley in their lifetimes is only getting worse. So, my role is different than that of the guru. I am not here to become the authority on Shaligram theology nor to teach young devotees the nuances of proper observances. Rather, I’m here to talk about this amazing, diverse, multi-faceted, way that humans and the Divine have worked together over the past two thousand years to understand their world and to find their place within its complexity.

[Featured image and the two in-text images of Shaligrams courtesy of the author]

[Image of the tulips is taken by Rupert Britton from Unsplash]

One thought on “Balancing Acts: An Ethnographer’s Thoughts on Studying Religion

  1. The same attack could be levelled at almost any topic anthropologists have chosen to study, in the history of the discipline. If ethnography and anthropology have have any place at all, few subjects can be “closed”. Yes, religionis, to its adherents, a particularly ‘sensitive’ area of enquire, but some practitioners of traditions which are not among The World Religions actually welcome the ethnographer’s interest, perhaps hoping that s/he will learn and relate the value of their bélier and way of life, but also understand the genuine interest shown by the anthropologist, without expecting or requiring ‘conversion’.
    In my experience, as someone who was raised and continues without any religious adherence at all, I learnt, absorbed and I would like to think, was able to present a way of life which had hitherto not been described.

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