New Books by Our Assistant Professors
Bryan D. Lowe, Ritualized Writing: Buddhist Practice and Scriptural Cultures in Ancient Japan (2017)
Review: Bryan Lowe's Ritualized Writing reviewed by Anna Andreeva in Reading Religion , a publication of the American Academy of Religion.
Podcast Interview: Bryan Lowe's Ritualized Writing on Vanderbilt University's Authorial Intentions with Chris Benda.
Podcast Interview: Bryan Lowe's Ritualized Writing on the New Books Network with Luke Thompson.
Ritualized Writing takes readers into the fascinating world of Japanese Buddhist manuscript cultures. Using archival sources that have received scant attention in English, primarily documents from an eighth-century Japanese scriptorium and colophons from sutra manuscripts, Bryan D. Lowe uncovers the ways in which the transcription of Buddhist scripture was a highly ritualized endeavor. He takes a ground-level approach by emphasizing the activities and beliefs of a wide range of individuals, including scribes, provincial patrons, and royals, to reassess the meaning of scripture and reevaluate scholarly narratives of Japanese Buddhist history.
Copying scripture is a central Buddhist practice and one that thrived in East Asia. Despite this, there are no other books dedicated to the topic. This work demonstrates that patrons and scribes treated sutras differently from other modes of writing. Scribes purified their bodies prior to transcription. Patrons held dedicatory ceremonies on days of abstinence, when prayers were pronounced and sutras were recited. Transcribing sutras helped scribes and patrons alike realize this- and other-worldly ambitions and cultivate themselves in accord with Buddhist norms. Sutra copying thus functioned as a form of ritualized writing, a strategic practice that set apart scripture as uniquely efficacious and venerable.
Lowe employs this notion of ritualized writing to challenge historical narratives about ancient Japan (late seventh through early ninth centuries), a period when sutra copying flourished. He contends that Buddhist practice fulfilled a variety of social, political, and spiritual roles beyond ideological justification. Moreover, he demonstrates the inadequacy of state-folk dichotomies for understanding the social groups, institutions, and individual beliefs and practices of ancient Japanese Buddhism, highlighting instead common organizations across social class and using models that reveal shared concerns among believers from diverse social backgrounds.
Ritualized Writing makes broader contributions to the study of ritual and scripture by introducing the notion of scriptural cultures, an analytic tool that denotes a series of dynamic relationships and practices involving texts that have been strategically set apart or ritualized. Scripture, Lowe concludes, is at once a category created by humans and a body of texts that transforms individuals and social organizations who come into contact with it.
Anand V. Taneja, Jinnealogy: Time, Islam, and Ecological Thought in the Medieval Ruins of Delhi (2017)
Review: Anand Taneja's Jinnealogy reviewed by Rana Safvi of The Wire - The Dispossessed and the Possessed.
Podcast interview: Anand Taneja's Jinnealogy on Vanderbilt University's Authorial Intentions with Chris Benda.
Jinnealogy: Time, Islam, and Ecological Thought centers on Firoz Shah Kotla, a ruined medieval palace that has become a prominent dargah, or Muslim saint shrine, in contemporary Delhi. Built circa 1354 and long fallen into disrepair, the widespread popularity of Firoz Shah Kotla as a dargah began in 1977. Firoz Shah Kotla is frequented by both Hindus and Muslims, and the saints venerated at this dargah are not human, but Islamic spirits known as jinn. Visitors write letters of petition to these jinn-saints as if petitioning government officials, including their names, addresses, and passport photos in their appeals. They deposit multiple copies of these letters in various niches and alcoves through the ruins. Firoz Shah Kotla is also a place where another kind of nonhuman life flourishes, especially cats, snakes, and kites. As the jinn are shape-shifters in Islamic mythology, often taking the form of animals, these animals are also imbued with sacrality in this space.
Drawing on ethnography, Urdu literature, and government arhcives, Jinnealogy casts new light on the relation of theology to post-colonial politics, the ethical potentialities that popular Islam holds open for Muslims and non-Muslims, and the relation of the ecological to urban sacrality. At a time when reformist Islam is dismissive of the jinn and the realm of the unseen, following the familiar script of modernity and disenchantment, here the jinn are sanctified. The book compellingly argues that the “enchanted” nature of popular Islam encountered here is not a pre-modern relic, but an ethical, political, and theological stance emerging anew in response to the post-colonial condition.