Geographies of Religion in South Asia
Whether as a once-in-a-lifetime event or a regular part of daily life, experiences of sacred geography are an integral part of South Asian traditions. Worshippers travel to the Buddha’s seat of enlightenment at Bodh Gaya or the sacred river Ganges, encounter temples and holy persons, and return home with anything from life-changing experiences to small tourist souvenirs. As sites change in popularity or significance, new communities and practices develop in tension with tradition. This course investigates fundamental concepts of sacred geography and pilgrimage in relation to texts, artworks, and ethnographies of Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism.
The Virtues of Objects: Buddhist Visual and Material Culture
When one understands the central role that art objects play in Buddhist ritual life, conceptions of “art” and “object” are fundamentally transformed. Such items are not passive collections of material, but active mechanisms in the complex world of lived religion. Several major themes are addressed, including relics, rituals for the consecration and deconsecration of constructed artworks, and interactions with images during daily rituals. Examples come from Buddhist traditions across Asia, including those of India, Nepal, Tibet, China, Japan, Sri Lanka, and Thailand.
Creating the Universe: Buddhist Science, Ritual, and Visual Culture
Complex ideas concerning cosmology and biology underly many aspects of Buddhist ritual and material culture. Understanding these principles allows one to see art objects and ritual activities as parts of an efficacious technological system, rather than mere superstition or tradition. This class is about the scientific perspectives that inform processes of ritual and the production of art in Tibet, Nepal, and India. Topics include physical models of the universe, the types of beings that dwell in the world, and the cycles of life and death. Within these subjects, we investigate the relationships between sacred texts, ritual practices, and visual arts as the material culture of religion.
Tantric Buddhism: Topics and Approaches
Tantric Buddhism has been understood as everything from a radical rejection of tradition to a natural extension of the earliest tenets of Buddhist philosophy. Whatever the case, there is no denying its powerful complexity or its importance to the history of Buddhism across Asia. This course explores many of the key issues in the study of tantric Buddhism, including aspects of its historical development, ritual ideology, visual and material culture, notions of identity and embodiment, and variations across different times and cultures. Students read primary texts in translation, debate secondary literature, view artworks in museums, and develop independent final projects.
The Buddhist Individual: Identity, Society, History, and Gender
How does a tradition portray an individual, and how does an individual see themselves within a tradition? From epics of kings to private visionary experiences, the relationship of the individual to the tradition is a central theme of Buddhism. This course examines different conceptions of the individual by looking at numerous examples, including devoted patrons, accomplished masters, and struggling practitioners. Major themes include the structure of early Buddhist society, the roles of women, and autobiography. Topics are drawn from 2,000 years of literature and artwork from India and Tibet.
Visualizing Buddhism: An Introduction to Buddhist Traditions
This course is an introduction to Buddhism, organized around conceptual themes related to key philosophies, rituals, and art forms. Art, ritual, and material culture are powerful expressions of religious belief, and so must be included in an interdisciplinary approach to religious studies. Students gain a basic introduction to Buddhist literature and history, as well as understandings the role of visual art in expressing ideas, epitomizing practices, and transmitting beliefs. The course involves topics from the past 2500 years, emphasizing India, Nepal, and Tibet, with supplementary material from China and Japan.
Buddhist Heroes: Buddhism Through Its Exemplars
One of the most powerful ways that a religion can transmit its central beliefs is through stories of beings who personify particular ideals. This course introduces basic ideas of Himalayan Buddhism through a variety of literary genres that consider the lives and stories of such exemplars. Rather than simply exploring philosophical movements in the abstract, students understand how a particular idea affected an individual’s life and why that individual became an exemplar for later Buddhists. The course also takes advantage of a strongly multidisciplinary approach, supplementing textual discourse with examinations of art and material culture.
Fundamental to engagement with any culture or tradition is an understanding of the languages that it employs. Sanskrit has not only been an important language for Buddhism, but a premier literary language of South Asia for much of its history. Many of the great poems and epics, such as the Mahabharata and Ramayana, hold immense cultural weight not only in South Asian traditions, but to a growing degree in the global cultural sphere. Sanskrit is both one of the great classical languages of the world and still of great relevance today.
Religion and Art in Transnational Asia
Asian religious and artistic traditions deeply interrelate in complex networks of transmission and influence. This course examines several topics especially centered on Buddhism and Daoism. Looking across South Asia, the Himalayas, Central Asia, and East Asia, we compare, contrast, and find connections between major concepts, practices, sites, and artworks, including the nature of human life and death, the worship of relics, rituals for artworks, philosophies of color, the cave temples at Ajanta (India) and Dunhuang (China), Dunhuang manuscripts, ritual mirrors, the Famensi relics, and Mongolian ovoo. [This is a team-taught course.]