Welcome to Religious Studies
News. I'm your host Kristian Peterson. And today I'm here with Jessica Vantine
Birkenholtz, Associate Professor of Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies and
Asian Studies at Pennsylvania State University. And winner of the AAR Book
Award in Textual Studies. She's here to speak to us about her book, Reciting
the Goddess: Narratives of Place and the Making of Hinduism in Nepal, published
with Oxford University Press. Congratulations, Jessica, and thanks for joining
Thank you so much. Thanks for
This is a really interesting
book. I hope that some listeners will tackle this, even if it's not the subject
that they are working on directly. Because I think there's some interesting
broader issues that I think will help them think about other subjects and
communities. But before we get into that, can you help us think about Hinduism
in Nepal? So some people might be familiar with Hinduism from other contexts,
but what do we need to know about Hindu religious identity and practice in this
part of South Asia to start to understand your project?
Right. That's a great question.
And a question that really is at the heart of the book, actually, in many ways,
because one of the objectives of this book was to forefront Hinduism in Nepal.
So oftentimes when we think of South Asia, we think of India for obvious
reasons. It's physically, geographically, culturally, politically, economically
dominant in the region, but it does not constitute South Asia in its entirety.
And when we oftentimes think of Hinduism, the first thing that we think of, of
course, is India. And again for obvious reasons. But it is not the only place
that we find Hinduism in South Asia. And in fact, Nepal has a very long history
as being a Hindu kingdom. And it was, in fact, a Hindu monarchy up until 2008.
So its status, in any case, as a Hindu kingdom, nation, culture is really very
fresh and very prominent.
And so, one of the things that's
always interested me about working in Nepal is trying to bring more, to
highlight, illuminate Nepal as a very rich, cultural, religious context, in
which to think about religion, to think about South Asia. And Hinduism, oftentimes,
again, the Nepali forms of Hinduism get conflated with Indian forms just as
Nepal, in general, oftentimes gets conflated as part of India, or it's just not
thought of, it's not brought up in the conversation about South Asia or about
And so, one of the things that I
seek to do in my work is to give some attention to the different religious
cultures in Nepal, most specifically Hindu religious cultures. And in terms of
what's there or what's not there and how it relates to what we find in Hindu
India, there of course is a great degree of continuity and many respects the
fact that, that any of these states, ordinations in South Asia ended up how
they did, part of India or not, where lines were drawn or not is, these are
modern political nation states.
And so, there's a lot of cultural
linguistic, religious continuity and flow back and forth, particularly between
the Southern strip of Nepal and Northern India. But there are also a lot of
important differences between forms of Hinduism that we see in Nepal versus
what we see in India. And of course it bears saying that India, being such a
massive country with so many different cultures and religious practices and
whatnot, it gives a false sense of reality that India is monolithic or Hinduism
in India is monolithic, because of course it's not, nor is it in Nepal either.
But in terms of what we see on
the ground historically, and in Nepal today, there are two dominant forms of
Hinduism. The first being the Newars. The Newars are considered to be the
indigenous inhabitants of the Kathmandu Valley, which historically constituted
Nepal Proper, again, Nepal as we know it today, that is a much more recent
development. And historically when referring to Nepal, that just referred to
the Kathmandu Valley and its immediate environments surrounding it. And the
group that, the population that lived there were the Newars.
And the Newars practice both
Hinduism, Buddhism, and a combination of both. So it's a very common joke that
if you ask a Newar, "Are you a Hindu or Buddhist?" They'll say,
"Yes." So there's a lot of fluidity in terms of religious practice
among the Newars, which lends some really interesting flavor to Newar culture.
So, the book that's at the heart
of my book is Newar, originated as a Newar tradition and narrative and texts
and so on. But the other dominant group and I really do mean dominant now, they
are politically, economically, socially dominant in Nepal and have been since
the 18th, late 18th Century, are the Parbatiya Hindus, the hill Hindus. And the
hill Hindus, the Parbatiyas, their heritage traces back to India, but they came
from the Western Hills outside of Nepal Proper, back when it just meant the
And when the Parbatiyas came in
and they conquered the Valley, there was a mixture of, a mixing of these two
different dominant forms of Hinduism as well as other religious traditions,
like Buddhism and other indigenous forms of religion as well. So we see a lot
of, so Newars have a lot of practices and traditions that are really practiced
only among Newars and they would seem familiar, I think, to anyone who is
familiar with Hinduism from different parts of India, similar, but new, in that
way of, within the great diversity and realm of possibility that is Hinduism
all over South Asia and beyond now.
So the Newars and the Parbatiyas
are the two dominant forms of Hinduism today, as I said, the hill Hindus who
are all high caste, they're Bahun and Chhetri, which is equivalent in Nepali to
the Sanskrit Brahmin and Kshatriya classes at the top of the social hierarchy.
And Newars have a very extensive caste system of their own. So they have Brahmins,
Newar Brahmins as well and the whole gamut. But these two populations are
really interacting and intersecting. And that comes out very much in this
textual tradition that is the focus of my book. Because it originated as a
Newar tradition. But then as the Kathmandu Valley became infused, and with this
influx of Parbatiya Hindus, who then also took up the tradition, we see it
really become a near universal Nepali Hindu tradition practiced by both Newar
Hindus and Parbatiya Hindus.
And interestingly, one of the
things that has always surprised me, or at least piqued my curiosity, back when
I first started this project, was that Indian Hindus who happened to be living
in Nepal were completely unaware of it, which really, for me, highlights one of
the many ways in which this is a Nepali specific tradition. And again, that's
one of the things that excited me about this project in the first place, was
finding something that was unique to Nepal and a real contribution that was
born in Nepali soil and culture and religious practice. And it certainly
becomes more than that. And it certainly takes in a lot of Hinduism from
outside of its immediate context. But it really has been a very, in many
respects, unifying to the degree that any one thing in the Hindu world is
unifying for all Hindus, but it has become the main Hindu text in Nepal and has
been for a very long time.
So, at the center of your study
is this goddess and the tradition developed around her. Can you tell us a
little bit about who this goddess is, about her birth and emergence and
transformation over time?
Sure. The goddess in question,
her name is Swasthani, which is a really, she's a really interesting figure,
because she's not a very, she's rather opaque. And it's difficult pinpoint her
in certain ways, unlike, there's other Hindu goddesses in the Hindu world. So,
Swasthani, I translate as the goddess of one's own place, Swasthan and then the
feminization i at the end. But that's not very specific. And whereas, so many
other goddesses' names say something very specific about them or their powers
or their purpose, their mythology, what have you. So, Swasthani, this tradition
and the goddess, the earliest reference that we have to her is the text itself.
And the text is the Svasthanivratakatha, which means The Story of the Ritual
Vow to the Goddess Swasthani. And this text dates back to the late 16th
And one of the, again, a
curiosity of this tradition is that we really have no, almost no evidence of
the tradition, of the goddess outside of these manuscripts, these
Svasthanivratakatha manuscripts, which just for ease of those who are not
familiar with this part of the world, I'll refer to as the SVK.
And so Swasthani herself, she is
worshiped primarily in the form of this text. So she is brought out only once a
year for the course of a month. The text itself is read over the month of
Maagh, which translates to mid December to mid January. No, sorry, mid January
to mid February. And during that month, the text is read from cover to cover.
And historically, these were handwritten manuscripts, of course, and that was
the goddess herself. She didn't have any graven images, any other kind of drawings,
those emerged much later in the tradition. So really the only, we have only
three statues that we know of to her, two were [inaudible 00:13:28] and one was
just consecrated within the 21st century. So within the last 15 years. Leaving
two others that were built about the same time around 1674, I'm sorry, 1764.
And so it's very striking that
she is a goddess without a lot of iconography. That being said, in various
manuscripts, there was a slow emergence of iconography that depicted her
initially as a consort of Shiva, the Great God Shiva. But ultimately there's a
major shift in her iconography, which again is very limited and never exists
outside of manuscripts. But this shift is from her being positioned, seated
next to Shiva and the way that she has been depicted now for a very long time,
about a hundred or a little bit more years or so, is that she's seated on a
lotus flower in the middle of, and circled by the Ashtamatrika, the eight
So she remains an interesting and
oblique figure, the story that the SVK tells doesn't say anything about her
origin per se. It just teaches humans how to perform the Ritual Vow to her. But
does not tell us really anything more about her own story or who she is. She
just kind of appears. And so she's, to me, very fascinating in that respect as
Now she, the tradition around
this goddess changes dramatically over time. You started to allude to some of
those, the conditions which made those changes possible, but what can you tell
us about how this came from a local to a translocal type of tradition? What
were the key factors in the transition of the practices around this goddess?
What were that changed over time?
Well, one of the main arguments
in the book is, or objectives in the book is to recover the history and
development of the SVK. So again, as our really only source for this goddess,
which incidentally, I became fascinated by this text. And it was my interest in
her as a goddess really was secondary initially. And of course she's a key
component, but she is so in the background in many respects, I mean, she's both
... Swasthani Parameshwari. So she's this preeminent, divine female divinity,
but she also is so physically absent, which says a lot about tantric influences
But in any case, so the way that
this text developed from being really just the oldest text that we have told
only this very local folk legend about Swasthani and about a mother and her son
and daughter-in-law, the mother being very pious, the son also being very
responsible and beautiful, and the daughter-in-law not. Right. She's kind of
the opposite of the two. And this shows us the way to incur the goddess' wrath,
but also to receive her benevolence.
And the way that the story, so it
stays in that form for about the first 200 years of its written history. And
it's also worth noting that this tradition has an unbroken textual history. So
we have the oldest [inaudible 00:17:47] from 1573 CE, and we have texts up to
the present day without any kind of break or absence in-between. And the number
of texts that we have continue to grow and grow and grow suggesting the growth
of the tradition.
So the first 200 years are pretty
consistent, just focusing on that local legend. Around the 18th century, we
suddenly see the infusion in three different phases of Pranic narratives. So
very well known mythology drawn from Brahmanical classical Hinduism and the
normative Sanskrit texts of the Pranas, that are a warehouse of mythology for
Hinduism at large. And what I argue in the book is that the three phases in
which these Pranic narratives are added into the SVK, both the timing of those
phases and the particular narratives that were added in during each one
reflects broader conversations, discourses, political events, and repercussions
that were happening in medieval Nepal and the larger region, including India.
And so these are not one to one
correlations necessarily. It doesn't map that specifically on to each other,
but when you look at the history and development of the text, and when it goes
from being a local folktale in many ways, or folk legend, to becoming its own
Pranic text very much mirroring, mimicking some very well known Mahaprana's
great Pranic text. And what I argue is that we see a relationship there that
this local text SVK was being used both as an archive to document, but also a
warehouse to process these local and regional and translocal events that were
happening. And the way in which the lay population in Nepal was taking all of
that in and responding to it.
So this is very much a lay
tradition, and circulating among the people. And what I argue is that, again,
we can kind of see the contours and the specific narratives that were chosen at
these different times to include our reflecting broader discourses about what
it means to be a Hindu in Nepal, vis-a-vis outside of Nepal and specifically in
India. And this is where the making of Hinduism comes into play, that I argue
that the SVK was a really benign, and whether it was intentional or not, we'll
never know, but it served as this really important medium for having these
conversations among just the general population who was participating in this
and who was taking in all of these outside influences and processing them and
rejecting some, accepting others, or tweaking them and so on.
So that's how this overall
process, without getting into the specifics of it, that we can see that Nepal
always positioned itself as a very historical [inaudible 00:21:27] always
suggest that Nepal was very isolated, that its rulers really sought to limit
outside exposure and they did to a very large degree. But part of what I seek
to demonstrate in this book is that there was actually much more awareness and
conversation going on in Nepal, both at the ruling level, but also among the
Now, there's a great deal in the
book that, of course we don't have time to cover, unfortunately. So I certainly
encourage listeners to get the book. And especially if they're interested in
South Asian literary traditions, the tensions between local and translocal, or
even global now traditions and how they work, ideas about centers and
peripheries. I know I certainly benefited in my own work from thinking about it
with your texts. But I'm wondering from your perspective, how do you imagine
that others in the study of religion might benefit from your book either in
your, perhaps some of your conclusions or some of the approaches you've taken
with your textual archive? What do you think others might learn from your book?
Well, I think it serves as a
model in a couple of different ways. I mean, for scholars of religion who are
coming for our field geographically or in a different religious tradition,
certainly the textual work that I did for this project of really deep diving in
archives and doing a very close reading of these different manuscripts to
reconstruct the way in which this tradition evolved and developed into
something really powerful. I always say that it's hidden in plain sight. I
mean, this is a really dynamic archive that most Nepali households have a copy
of it in their homes and continue to read it every year, but are unaware of
just all the history that's behind this text.
So the close textual work that's
involved, I think can be instructive. The way it helped me think about language
was also important and seeing, so the text SVK has been written in Newar,
Nepali and Sanskrit and the dynamics and the relationships between those three
languages has been very interesting to look at and the ways that they
interacted within this one particular textual tradition.
So we often assume that Sanskrit
is a cosmopolitan language and that Nepalian Newar are both vernacular
languages, which of course they are, but there's a bit of, it's not as linear
as that, and it's not as hierarchical in the sense of a vertical hierarchy
between them. So thinking about the relationship between different languages at
play within a particular tradition.
And lastly, I would say that for
those who are interested in certainly center and periphery, those kinds of
conversations, local, translocal, but also women, a lot of this is a
"women's tradition." And I try and complicate what that means because
when I started the project as a very naive undergraduate student and then
graduate student, that meant one thing to me, and it means a very different
thing to me now in the way I understand this tradition. And so there's a lot of
food for thought in terms of women and women's traditions and texts and things
of that nature. So those might be some access points for others.
Well, it's certainly a wonderful
book and well deserving of the award. So congratulations.
Thank you so much. It's a real
honor. And I feel very grateful to have my work recognized in this fashion and
by scholars who are coming from outside of South Asian studies or Hindu
studies. And so thank you.