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Grinnell professor explores Bhakti traditions

BY TOMMY MORGAN JR. | FEBRUARY 18, 2010 7:30 AM

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Devotion can come in many forms. For some, including female Hindi ascetics, it can mean sacrificing a typical life in the name of religious adherence.

Antoinette DeNapoli, a visiting professor of Asian religions at Grinnell College, will recount her study of Indian female ascetics in “My Bhakti Is My Power” at 4 p.m. today in the University Capitol Centre.

“The subject deals with women’s empowerment in a religious tradition that is often understood to be patriarchal and male-dominated,” wrote Phillip Lutgendorf, a UI professor of Indian studies, in an e-mail to The Daily Iowan.

“Bhakti” is a Hindi term for devotion to the divine. DeNapoli researched and interacted with 22 female ascetics in the north Indian state of Rajasthan from 2001 to 2006. Lutgendorf said the lecture will be accompanied by photos highlighting DeNapoli’s research.

“A female ascetic is an unusual thing in India,” DeNapoli said. “The norm is for women to be mothers and wives.”

The women she worked with believed God called upon them during childhood, she said, including one woman who had memorized more than 300 devotional songs by age 6. They weren’t born into a life of asceticism, however. Many of the ascetics she studied lived traditional lives, she said, until they cast that life aside in favor of religious devotion.

Many of the women, she said, had married and raised children, and a number of them were widowed.

“It’s not like they didn’t fulfill the normative expectations for women in their society,” the professor said. “They did, but they knew from the time that they were children that they just wanted to serve God.”

DeNapoli was quick to point out, however, that for the women, this devotion wasn’t a matter of conscious decision, and they never necessarily intended to choose an ascetic path.

“In their world, it’s not a choice,” she said. “It’s a calling.”

The experiences of the ascetics in Rajasthan aren’t just particular to their situation. DeNapoli believes they can be applied to all of humanity.

“I think all human beings are constantly negotiating what society tells them they have to be and who they believe they are in their hearts,” she said. Of the ascetics, she said, “they’re negotiating their lives in ways that make the best of their situation but at the same time give precedence to an ultimate power in which they immerse themselves and which they believe will bring them the ultimate joy.”

Even if the change was large, taking on a new roles didn’t mean the women had to give up being members of society completely.

“Being with God does not in any way mean these women are not with humanity,” DeNapoli said. “In many ways, they experience God by caring for humanity.”

Still, there is a disconnect between their current and former lives. However, she said, there is a lesson to be learned in the stories she will share today.

“By being very much straddled in two worlds, they’re constructing models of womanhood that continue to give women hope,” she said. “[It’s] a testimony to the fact that there’s no one way to be a human.”


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