The Annual Durfee Lecture series at American University in Washington, D.C. recently hosted Maryville College’s Dr. Brian Pennington, professor of religion and division chair of the humanities department at the college.
As a part of the event, a lecture is held every spring to help students at American University experience new perspectives, as well as learn from distinguished guest scholars through their presentations.
This year’s lecture series was highlighted by a delivery of Pennington’s on “God’s Fifth Abode: Entrepreneurial Faith in the Hindu Himalayas” on Tues. April 2.
After receiving an invitation to speak last semester from the university, Pennington said that he complied research that he been conducting in Uttarakhand, a North Indian state, since 2001.
His presentation was composed of a discussion about the concept of “religious entrepreneurship,” which deliberates how gradual economic growth in India is manipulated by people who “create,” or simply re-engineer pieces of land that have religious value, Pennington said.
According to the lecture brief about Pennington’s exposition, Uttarakhand has seen a huge growth in its migrant population due to an explosion of tourism and hydroelectric development on the Ganges River.
This increase of tourists and civilians has also brought forth religious leaders who manipulate the state’s insatiable appetite for pilgrimage sites.
These leaders tend to have an eye toward commercial success, rather than religious values. Pennington’s lecture examined these recent movements present in the Uttarakhand area that have been readily received by the community, but are considered “deeply fraudulent” at heart.
“It’s a kind of religious fraud,” Pennington said.
Pennington said that the leaders are in the process of implementing new religious traditions to communities that do not know the truth behind them.
In 1998, there was a small cave that was discovered by some villagers during a search for water. On the walls of the cave were said to be manifest images of the Hindu gods and goddesses.
According to Pennington, the cave temple quickly became a location for pilgrimage. The religion professor, present in Uttarakhand during the discovery of the cave, began tracking the popularity of the cave and researched some of the history behind it.
As it turned out, 20 years prior to the discovery of the cave temple, a low-caste villager had stumbled upon the cave and told others about it. After the new exploration, several high-caste villagers took over the land and essentially transformed it into a religious site.
Within his lecture, Pennington addressed the idea of regarding pilgrimage sites in a different light. For instance, what is their role as products of history and human development?
Religious entrepreneurism has grown immensely popular in India, as a reflection of the deeply religious attitudes present in the country, he said.
Pennington said that he also discussed how religious leaders have flocked to areas of India, looking to “capitalize on the reputation of the Himalayan Mountains as the ancient site of divine self-disclosure and karmic liberation.”
Overall, Pennington said that his lecture reviewed the intentions present in modern religious movements and the fraudulent activities that seem to take place for the sake of personal gain.
Pennington is currently completing a third book with Amy Allocco, titled “Ritual Innovation in South Asia.”