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My research has definitive phases marked by specific subject matter, linked together by a unifying theme. The unifying theme of my research is contemporary reception and interpretation of forms and symbols in Śākta, Tantra, and Yoga, such as ritual (i.e., sādhana and contemplative theopraxis) and imagery. A large part of what I render as “contemporary” reception includes all forms of media, such as print and all forms of web media. I use forms and symbols to explore the dynamics of cultural translation, the potential for post- and neo-colonial appropriations, and fruitful intercultural exchange. My most significant subjects have been the iconographic and imagined forms of the tantric devī in the United States. I am currently exploring the emotive quality of images and contemplative theopraxis in contemporary tantric and yogic traditions as they traverse different corporeal and abstract spaces and temporalities, which moves my work away from a narrow focus on materiality and toward affect and embodiment. 


Recent Research 

My dissertation (August 2021), entitled Visualizing Power: The Image of Śakti in Modern Day Trika Tantra, is a multimodal, interdisciplinary project that draws from cognitive and visual culture theories and uses ethnographic methods to illustrate how embodied visualization and immersive engagement with the Tantric image of Śakti functions to meet the Trika’s soteriological aim of nonduality between self and the world, illustrating and actualizing the potential of Tantric imagery to cultivate empathetic understanding with ideological and cultural “others” across time and space. Parā Śakti is the central deity of the nondual tantric Trika tradition that flourished in the medieval period in Northern India and continues today in the Nityananda Sampradaya-Rudrananda Pantha (NSRP) in the United States. Within the NSRP, contemplative visualization practices are the means by which to “lift the veil” of socially constructed categories that prevent one from realizing their divinity and inherent freedom. 

This is one of the first academic studies of an American-Hindu denomination based on the teachings of Bhagavan Nityananda (1897-1961). It uses a sophisticated methodological framework that blends Western and Hindu hermeneutics to offer a transcultural perspective accessible to non-experts and is of value to scholars in the field. This work presents its subject matter and methodology as an interdisciplinary meditation on visual and material culture that integrates philosophical theology, contemplative practice, the aesthetics of emotion, and the theopraxis of embodied experience. The complexity of my methodological structure is complemented by auto-sociological intervals where a first-person voice creates an intimacy with the reader, allowing them to participate in the immersive encounter. As this work spans many fields and sub-fields, it promises to be of interest to scholars in a wide variety of disciplines. 



Plans for Publication    

Currently, I am seeking publication of Visualizing Power as a monograph. I hope to submit my proposal to either a university or academic press by the end of October 2021. I am also seeking publication for a previous socio-historical project, entitled, Presence and Absence: The Iconic Image of Dakṣiṇakālī (2019), funded by the Douglas Adam’s Center for the Arts and Religion. This study demonstrates how Dakṣiṇakālī’s iconic transformation vis-à-vis print media can be used to reveal larger religious and social dynamics within what Arjun Appadurai terms various “regimes of value.” I use an iconological visual hermeneutic to illustrate the discursive ways culture and religion navigate colonial engagement through strategic manipulation and transformation of imagery. Through a survey of images and their proliferation through print reproduction, I ascertain the needs, wants, and desires of the various cultures that have appropriated Kālī’s form. Dakṣiṇakālī’s material and non-material forms are organized across three contextual categories: 1) The textual-narrative context of her dhyāna (meditation mantras) in Krishnānanda’s Tantrasāra and descriptions in the Śākta Upapurāṇas; 2) The colonial context, which acts as a bridge between her non-material and material forms, is comprised of colonial discourse, Indological scholarship, merchant diaries, and Indian Nationalist responses; and 3) The material context, which includes modern mass media reproductions in Bengal and Kalighat and contemporary mūrti and pratimā used in Kālī Pūjā ceremonies in Calcutta and California. Throughout this study, Dakṣiṇakālī serves as an example of the power of the religious icon to transcend matter as it persists in memories of those who view it. This study culminated in one talk and two academic conference presentations. 


Works in Progress 

I have two projects in their infancy: (1) Virtual Embodiment: Tantric Ritual and New Media; and (2) Yoga and Emotion: A Social-History of Contemplative Feeling. “Virtual Embodiment: Tantric Ritual and New Media” is a digital humanities project that seeks to understand how virtual religion alters the embodied nature of tantric sādhana and contemplative theopraxis, such as śaktipāta. Śaktipāta, popularized by Swami Muktananda and Gurumayi, is defined in the tantras as the descent of divine power that is mediated through the body of the guru. Virtual śaktipāta complicates the embodied nature of tantric sādhana, yet has grown in popularity in the twenty-first century to meet the demands of diasporic Hindu-Americans and contemporary tantric gurus with international devotees. This demand reflects both centripetal and centrifugal movements—inward toward one’s cultural origin (often rooted in a geographical place) and outward toward a decentralized international community of tantric practitioners. This study examines how the body and senses are brought to bear during virtual sādhana; it views its subject matter through the lens of new materialism and affect theory to interrogate conflicting interests and motivations that undergird these two movements. 

My second work-in-progress, “Yoga and Emotion: A Social-History of Contemplative Feeling,” is a more traditional project that would culminate in a monograph. The inquiry that motivates this work is how contemplative feeling and emotionality have transformed across time and place. Yoga and the concept of emotion are indeed a curious couplet when examined through the lens of classical Indian philosophy, where yoga sādhana is considered as the means by which to quell the movement of emotion and desire. Emotion, affect, and feeling figure more prominently in the aesthetic discourses of Bharata, Bhaṭṭa Nayaka, and Abhinavagupta. They discuss feeling (bhāva) as the gateway to a state of transpersonalized (sādhāranīkarana) transcendental bliss.

In contrast to classical yoga philosophy, modern Western yogas often place emotion at the forefront of their contemplative praxes, drawing from modern psychology’s approach toward mental and emotional health and well-being. This project explores the gaps between the classical and contemporary by (1) mapping changing yoga praxes and contemplative feelings between India and the United States and Europe throughout history and (2) exploring how emotions are a part of the historical unfolding of the religious and social practices that underlie yoga sādhana. Yoga sādhana and its attending philosophies, ideologies, and theologies offer a unique opportunity to move past constructionism and its inability to appraise historical change. Yoga is a practice that has moved through the perceptual barrier between cultures and histories, thereby dismantling cultural constructions, allowing one to apprehend extra-cultural goals, motivations, and intentions. 

There are two primary ways in which my research holds significance for religious studies and the scholarly community. First, my research attempts to decenter philosophical and religious discourse away from logocentrism by examining the non-linguistic expressions of spiritual experience and life. While I often draw from doctrine, narrative, and literature to inform my research, I aim to illustrate how logos constellates within a cosmos that includes pathos and ethos. Second, my work seeks to innovatively interpret and apply the concept of “pluralism” in methodological and socio-cultural terms. As I define it, methodological pluralism embraces diversity, seeks an understanding of various perspectives, and acknowledges that textual understanding (even as metaphor) can unintentionally exclude the very knowledges that produce the symbols, images, and cultures we seek to understand. 

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