The Religion in South Asia (RISA) Section is part of the American Academy of Religion (AAR). RISA was created by the merger of the Religion in Modern India Group (1978-83) and the Hinduism Group (1978-82). It appeared on AAR’s annual meeting program for the first time in 1983. The purpose behind the merger was to extend the focus beyond Hinduism to include South Asian religious traditions more generally, because critical reflection on individual religions in South Asia requires recognition of the shared history and social context of all religions in this region. RISA was thus created as an intellectual space in the AAR that reflects the complex and intertwined history of the multiple religious traditions and communities in South Asia, and recognizes that its social, cultural, economic, political, intellectual and religious realities always have been, and continue to be, shaped by the presence and interactions of South Asia’s multiple religious traditions.
The Religion in South Asia List (RISA-L) was initiated in November, 1995. The purpose of the list is to provide a forum in which the professional scholars active in RISA may exchange ideas and information on matters pertaining to their research and teaching. The searchable digital archive records all messages posted to RISA-L. The website also includes topical bibliographies of works suggested on RISA-L and compiled by members, links important to the discipline, RISA meeting schedules, and other resources. As the number of messages built up over the years, a search facility was added to the archive. The result is that we now have an on-line, searchable archive/database of some fifteen years of discipline-related information exchange among an international group of leading scholars of religion in South Asia.
Significance of Geographic Focus
The remarkable ethnic, cultural, linguistic and religious diversity of the South Asian region makes for a very complex phenomenon, and thus offers an ideal and intellectually challenging context in which to study religion. An area focus makes it possible, for example, to understand how religious traditions are related not only to one another, but to an ever-changing set of other regional social and cultural expressions and institutions. It offers scope to examine how different religious currents influence each other, how intellectual, social, political and artistic ideas are shared or opposed, and how religious traditions such as Islam and Christianity take root in socio-cultural environments very different from those in which they originated. Scholarship presented in RISA has demonstrated that it is methodologically unsound, if not impossible, to examine these issues without attending to the shared intellectual, cultural and linguistic spaces defined by the region of South Asia. RISA thus owes much to the area studies framework that has been important in North American academia for the past half-century and more.
At the same time, RISA in recent years has been influenced by the shift from area studies to the study of trans-regional flows, as seen in the study of processes such as globalization, transnationalism, and diasporic communities. South Asian religions have extended beyond the region itself. For two millennia religions have moved from South Asia to all other parts of Asia, and less extensively as far as Europe and Africa. Particularly in the last century, the impact of colonialism, globalization, migration and transnational religious movements have brought into relief the global dimensions of South Asian religions. Substantial numbers of South Asians who continue to regard South Asia as their imaginary homelands have settled in Africa, Europe and North America. Thus, in recent years RISA has incorporated into its scope attention to South Asian religions in their new global contexts. As a working model for treating religions within a geographical framework, as opposed to viewing them as discrete entities, RISA offers an important theoretical and hermeneutic framework and critical presence in AAR.
The Importance of South Asia in the Study of Religion
There are good reasons for viewing religions within the framework of geographical continuity. RISA as a section of AAR also signals the importance of South Asia both to global history and the contemporary world. Its recorded history stretches back millennia, and the region is one of the birthplaces of urbanism. It has been the source of religious, philosophical, cultural, scientific, culinary and other influences throughout the centuries. It is now one of the most densely populated parts of the world. Its importance in politics, economics and culture are daily more evident. It contains the world’s largest democracy and second most populated country (India); arguably more linguistic diversity than any other part of the globe; an equally rich religious diversity; expressions of the contested intersection of religion and politics that warrant the attention of all of us; three of the nations with the largest populations of Muslims; economies which increasingly are rising to global prominence. It includes countries that are predominantly Hindu (India, Nepal), Muslim (Pakistan, Bangladesh) and Buddhist (Sri Lanka, Bhutan). In recent years, with the growing importance of the South Asian diaspora, the renown of Indian call centers, and the wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the region, its diversity and its complex history have attracted renewed and growing attention. Since the conflagration of religion, politics and socio-economic forces in South Asia tends to dominate the news, and to engender impassioned responses from both scholars and the broader public, scholars and teachers of religion have a particular stake in exploring and examining the resilient, culturally vibrant and religiously plural history of South Asia.
The study of religion in South Asia has also played a foundational theoretical role from the very beginnings of the scholarly study of religion. Medieval and early modern tales of India helped shape Europe’s growing awareness of the world beyond its own small corner of Eurasia. Christopher Columbus, after all, wanted to go to India, not the Caribbean. Early Orientalist translations of Indian literature were of formative importance in German Romanticism. Later, the scholars who created the field of comparative religion in the nineteenth century, such as Max Muller, Andrew Lang and Monier-Williams, as well as scores of German Indologists, based their cutting edge theories on data from India. Two scholars who arguably transformed the academic study of comparative religion in America and beyond in the years after World War II, Mircea Eliade and Wilfred Cantwell Smith, both started as students of South Asian religions. More recently many scholars of comparative religion of national and international prominence have also started as scholars of South Asia. The theoretical richness of the sessions regularly sponsored by RISA continues to be a fertile training ground for some of the more important voices in our discipline.
Methods and Goals
RISA’s approach to the study of religions of South Asia is decidedly inclusive and wide-ranging. Since its inception, RISA has encouraged methodological sophistication and interdisciplinary approaches and perspectives that explore methods that consider connections among textual, ethnographic, archaeological, historical, theological, aesthetic, performative and now digital materials. Sustained attention has been given to questions of theory and method, and the extent to which proposals for sessions and papers involve such questions is an important criterion in acceptance to the annual conference. RISA sessions and papers regularly explore the tension between insider and outsider claims and discourses; subaltern, feminist and post-colonial critiques of representation of religions of South Asia; and the intellectual and moral challenges of studying religion in a region where religion is highly contested in the public sphere. RISA has become identified by South Asianists in North America, and increasingly abroad, where linguists, anthropologists, historians, ethnographers, post-colonial theorists, musicologists, philologists and others can converge for scholarly exchanges. Many of the participants of the RISA-L listserv come from disciplines other than the study of religion, and are welcome participants in the global virtual discussions on that forum.
RISA Steering Committee
Members of the RISA Steering Committee are elected to three-year terms by the membership of RISA. Voting is open to any AAR member, and to anyone on RISA-L. Starting in 2010, the members of the Steering Committee serve staggered terms in order to ensure continuity.
The composition of the steering committees over the past decade has been as follows:
1999-2001: Anne Feldhaus and Vasudha Narayan (co-chairs); Chris Chapple, Joyce Flueckiger, Laurie Patton, Fred Smith
2002-2004: Philip Lutgendorf and Leslie Orr (co-chairs); Arti Dhand, Brian Hatcher, Nancy Martin, Selva Raj
2004-2007: Tazim Kassam and Parimal Patil (co-chairs); Corinne Dempsey, Linda Hess, Alf Hiltebeitel, V. Narayana Rao
2007-2010: John Cort and Robin Rinehart (co-chairs); Amir Hussain, Eliza Kent, Rebecca Manring, Christian Novetzke, Archana Venkatesan