My Divine Pet Rock

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 latest book release on her blog, Peregrination.

“Isn’t He just adorable.” Gangadevi laughed, clutching the small Krishna Govinda Shaligram in her right hand. “I have had Shaligrams for many years but He is special, you see. Krishna was my very first Shaligram. The very first Shaligram I ever dressed or offered praśadam (holy food) to. The first every morning to receive sandalwood tilak and water. You know, I call him my divine pet rock.”

Chuckling together, I feigned incredulity. “A divine pet rock?”

“Oh yes!” She replied with glee. “But we wouldn’t use those googly eyes for his face. That would just be cruel.”

“Like the ones they use for party favors?” I asked.

“I was tempted to do that once, you know?” She replied. “Instead of the painted eyes or the metal ones from the puja box, I thought I might just stick on some big wobbly plastic ones and see how long it took anyone to notice!”

Shaligram Stones (also called Shaligram Shila or salagrama) are the sacred fossil ammonites of the Himalayas. Viewed primarily as manifestations of Hindu gods, these aniconic deities are obtained by pilgrimage to the Kali Gandaki region of Mustang, Nepal. They are then brought home, to families and communities all over South Asia and the Diaspora, where they are venerated as living household and temple divinities.

Gender, power, and humor

The first time I told this story, I was conducting a fieldwork presentation in a room full of colleagues, students, and peers just three months after returning to the United States in the fall of 2012. Bookmarked in my notes, it had always struck me as a particularly humanizing and fun account from my initial fieldwork in India; one that demonstrated the multiple, and sometimes humorous, ways in which people engaged with their religious traditions and sacred objects. Gangadevi’s use of the term “divine pet rock” was also particularly fascinating because it helped her not only to explain her beliefs and actions to someone not otherwise familiar with them (me) but allowed her to interact with her deities in a way that best complemented her ebullient and jovial personality. In fact, I had many such stories from Gangadevi, several of which included joking renditions of ritual failures told with animated delight or notations on the amusing tales she loved to tell her grandchildren about the occasional slap-stick exploits of God in the world. To her, the Divine had a tremendous sense of humor and in many ways, humanity was ample proof of that. It was therefore to my surprise when my tale was quickly met with harsh criticism.

“You shouldn’t mock your informants.” An older, male, professor warned sternly. “You need to take your work seriously. Poking fun at your research isn’t going to be viewed lightly.”

“Yeah!” A male graduate student interjected approvingly. “You should watch your tone if you want to present this at a conference.”

The women in the room looked at the floor. I was taken aback.

Amusing anecdotes about fieldwork were, from what I could tell, basic currency throughout university halls, on conference panels, and in graduate student lounges. Many of my teachers and advisors had often relayed similar, if self-deprecating, stories about their own spectacular mishaps or moments of levity while working with people in every context imaginable: research participants, colleagues, friends, and community leaders alike. So why then was this reaction to my story so sudden and so visceral?

Negotiating authority and respect both in the field and in academia is nothing new to female scholars. As an anthropologist who works in religion, I am often deeply cognizant of the ways in which I interact with both devotees and lay-people, usually in terms of what I say but especially in cases where women are not allowed to fully participate in certain practices (as is the case in some types of Shaligram worship) or are not considered to be capable of holding expertise in esoteric subjects. But my use of humor also uncovered the deeply troubling truth about negotiating authority and respect in academia as well; where, ostensibly, my advanced PhD candidate status at the time and extensive fieldwork in South Asia should have validated my claim to a seat at the scholarly table. Or, at least, as I had assumed, earned me the benefit of the doubt.

This was not the first time something like this had happened. Once, while teaching an undergraduate class in the Anthropology of Religion, a male upperclassman repeatedly and disruptively challenged my description of a particular ritual drawn directly from my own ethnographic work. Later on, while we discussed the incident in office hours, he admitted to knowing nothing himself about the ritual in question but simply shrugged and said “You didn’t sound like you knew what you were talking about.” Even in my course evaluations, which are generally positive overall, I am still constantly swinging between “should be more nurturing” and “acts entitled to use complicated words.” I have also faced down my fair share of peer reviewers and conference participants who’ve rejoined with some variation on “you should be more scholarly,” even if it was never quite clear exactly what that meant.

In the end, it was nothing specific to the content of my research or the quality of my analysis, just the presentation of my character. Apparently, as long as I maintain a “mind-to-be-reckoned with/take-no-prisoners” attitude, I can enjoy the derision of one side who feels that my demeanor is arrogant and inaccessible and the policing of the other who is sure to let me know that I am not sufficiently “professional” and “academic.” What is not lost on me, or really any other women and femme-presenting scholars, as well as many first-generation academics for that matter, is that these critiques largely come from men. The critiques and engagement of my female mentors, while strict and to a high standard, have never taken this form.

“She thinks she’s funny”

Balancing wit and wisdom is often difficult for even the cleverest thinkers, but it has become clearer to me over the years that the icons of the venerable sage and the irascible raconteur are images largely reserved for men. In short, Euro-American culture doesn’t quite seem to know how to interact with women who don’t obviously fit the role of the “loving, maternal, guide” or the “power-hungry, frigid, bitch.” The former, of course, being highly regarded for supporting their students and academic departments under a load of uncompensated emotional labor (see especially Bellas’ “Emotional Labor in Academia: The Case of Professors” and Guy and Newman’s “Women’s Jobs, Men’s Jobs: Sex Segregation and Emotional Labor”) and the latter being the ivory-tower elitist everyone just loves to hate.

The worst thing about it all, sadly, is that the majority of my male colleagues have absolutely no idea what I am talking about, and when I bring it up, they shake their heads and throw up their hands. “Well, I’ve never seen it. Maybe it was something you said.”

But it wasn’t about what was said. It was about who said it. They use humor and crack wise all the time, to no detriment (rather, they are usually lauded for it). Their students don’t write out class evaluations complaining about their emotional distance or about not feeling sufficiently cared about. Their colleagues don’t remind them to watch their tone otherwise people won’t take them seriously. But my femme colleagues know it all too well, nodding their heads in silent solidarity each time someone sees fit to pipe up during a roundtable and call out the woman presenting for how she presumes too much, takes herself too seriously (or not seriously enough!), or how “condescending” her tone is. The actual research then just gets lost somewhere underneath it all: the veneer of “professionalism” and “non-professionalism” both acting to obscure the message behind the locked gates of gender, race, ability, and class.

The thing is, it was a really funny story about a pet rock though. Or maybe you just had to be there.

Further reading

Harvard Business ReviewHarvard Business Review

Making Jokes During a Presentation Helps Men But Hurts Women

[Image of the Krishna Shaligram courtesy of Holly Walters.]

[Image of the painted rock is by Nick Fewings sourced from Unsplash.]

[Image of the handwriting on the concrete wall is by Marija Zaric sourced from Unsplash.]

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