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New book examines diversity within South Asian religions

by Stefanie Dion-Jones - April 27, 2009


Not all scholarly works originate from within the quiet confines of a professor’s office. The idea for a new book co-authored by Bandana Purkayastha, associate professor of sociology and Asian American Studies, surfaced during a lively dinner party in the company of friends.

Among this group of female friends and colleagues, the conversation one evening turned to the portrayal of Hindu and Muslim women in mainstream media, which often generalize these women as oppressed victims of a “non-modern” culture.

Fundamentalist religious groups further distort such perceptions, projecting a narrow, skewed view of servile female devotees, who in reality practice and interpret their religious beliefs in very diverse ways seldom acknowledged in public discussion.

“We said, ‘What about the rest of us? Don’t we have something to say about these religions?’” Purkayastha says. “At the end of dinner, we decided to put a book together.”

Living Our Religions: Hindu and Muslim South Asian American Women Narrate Their Experiences (Kumarian Press, 2009) is a collection of deeply personal accounts written by 14 women with roots in one of four South Asian countries – India, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Pakistan.

Each chapter is written from the perspective of a different author, who offers a unique insight into how she “lives” her religion, from early memories and experiences with religious customs to the way she has come to understand and celebrate her religious values today, living in the United States.

“People interpret religion very differently,” Purkayastha says.

“The point of the book was to let people say in their own words how they live their religion, whatever that word means to them. And this was the only way of doing it – that is, let people talk, let people take ownership, let people’s stories go where they need.”

Authors include first- as well as second-generation South Asian Americans whose professions run the gamut from doctors, lawyers, and historians to college professors and students.

Their narratives vary greatly, shaped by distinct voices and different nationalities, family histories, levels of education, even the regions in which they live, with authors residing across the United States, in the Northeast, Midwest, and West. Among the writers are several UConn faculty, staff, students, and alumni.

Bandana Purkayastha, associate professor of sociology and Asian American studies.
Bandana Purkayastha, associate professor of sociology and Asian American studies. Photo by Jessica Tommaselli

As much of the book reveals, the boundaries between religions are surprisingly blurry. In their introduction, Purkayastha and co-author Anjana Narayan, a UConn alum and assistant professor at California State Polytechnic Institute at Pomona, highlight the significant diversity inherent even within a single religion.

“Hinduism,” they write, “does not look the same in different parts of India, Nepal, and Bangladesh; Islam does not appear the same in Pakistan, Bangladesh, and India.”

Author Bidya Ranjeet, for instance, describes her childhood in Nepal, where her community embraced both Hindu and Buddhist traditions. Purkayastha, who grew up in India’s Bengali region, points to examples of religion’s “permeability” within her own life.

In practicing Hinduism, she follows a calendar for religious observances that is in fact based on the Muslim calendar. Meanwhile, her friends from other regions of India use a different religious calendar.

“It’s another good example of this blending and blurring,” Purkayastha says. A great deal of diversity exists within any given religion, she adds, but there are also variations across regions and local cultures.

In the United States, religion is often perceived as something celebrated almost exclusively in designated places, such as temples, mosques, or churches. Not all religious traditions require this, however. Some authors describe their adherence to certain rituals; others choose to pray at home rather than visit places of worship.

The writers also illustrate how stereotypes about their religions have spilled into other parts of their lives, particularly in the years since Sept. 11, and share insights into how they live their religions in ways that challenge common misperceptions about Hindu and Muslim women.

Ultimately, the book asks its readers to “look to the diversity of religions,” Purkayastha says.

“Try to listen to women who practice any religion – not the institutional spokesperson. Look beyond the simplicities and don’t generalize from a handful of cases. These religions are too vast, too diverse and dynamic.”

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