Students contribute to research on Hinduism by documenting, studying temples in India

Posted by Centre News in Academics, News, Religion, Research 22 Jul 2015

templehaskettAs a national leader in international education, Centre College places a strong emphasis on the opportunity for all students to engage in study abroad experiences through the Centre Commitment. This summer, two students are taking advantage of this guarantee by studying Hindu temples in India with Assistant Professor of Religion Christian Haskett, who was awarded a grant in March from the American Academy of Religion to conduct collaborative international research.

Gray Whitsett ’16 and Robert Widener ’16 first went to India with Haskett on a 2014 CentreTerm trip, where they “fell in love with the people, places and culture.”

“We both care deeply about the study, nuances and misconceptions of Hinduism, as well as how the world’s oldest major religion affects life within Indian society,” Whitsett, a politics major with minors in religion and history, said.

They are taking the summer to study the temples and their importance in everyday life for followers of the Hindu religion.

A typical day for the group, which also includes Oberlin College student Amy Jackson-Smith and tour guide Binit Kumar Mishra, starts early. They try to complete their work in the morning before it gets too hot.

“We head out to various parts of Varanasi to look for temples in neighborhoods,” Whitsett explained. “This means walking in the narrow alleyways between houses, finding our way through maze-like passages between the cramped dwelling and shops, and interacting with a variety of Indian life.”

The group then makes note of the temples they find in the phone app Fulcrum, which records location, photos and notes about the temples’ usage and the deities represented.

Using this information, Haskett hopes to understand why people build temples in the places they do, how they understand the presence of gods in their environment and what effect the temples have on the presence of Hinduism in their lives.

“I’m not only hoping to get a better understanding of how to incorporate students into data collection but also how to involve them in the process of analyzing data, thinking about problems and re-conceptualizing religions,” he said.

The group’s favorite memories of their trip so far, however, are not of times spent at the temples but of small moments of interaction with locals—and mishaps with driving directions.

“One afternoon, Gray and I misjudged the distance we needed to drive on the road and we wound up in the outskirts of Varanasi,” Widener said. “It was truly beautiful out there, with plenty of open space and large expanses of field to feast our eyes on.”

In regard to their long-term academic goals, both Whitsett and Widener agree that their summer research fits them perfectly. For Whitsett, his passion is to “wrap his head around the crossroads of traditional religious practice and modern political life.”

“India really is one of the most extraordinary places to study religion in a time of rapid change, being the birthplace of four major religions—Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism—as well as home to the second largest population of Muslims in the world and over 50 million Christians,” he explained. “If what we truly want is a diverse, globalized society, India, I think, has some fascinating answers to what that may look like.”

Widener, a religion and English double major, said that the project is a “perfect litmus test” to determine whether or not he wants to study Hinduism further.

“While this country can be frustrating at times, the culture and people who constitute that culture really are fantastic,” Widener explained. “I am definitely going to continue studying this religion, and this trip was instrumental in shaping what I want to do.

“This is exactly what Centre can offer students,” he continued. “Discover a genuine interest, then develop a relationship with a faculty member who can really help advance that understanding.”

by Hayley Hoffman ‘16
July 22, 2015

Pictured (left to right): Assistant Professor of Religion Christian Haskett, Gray Whitsett ’16 and Robert Widener ’16 at the Ganges River.