Ideally when my students leave the classroom, they have learned something about the history of Hinduism and its amazing classical scripture, but they are also prepared to travel to India, or just to interact with friends and classmates they may meet who are Hindu.

After years of studying Hinduism and the ancient language of Sanskrit, Karline McLain realized that her training was missing something when it came to understanding today's Hindus.

"My on-the-ground experience in India made me acknowledge that my grounding in classical India was incredibly important, but that the lived reality of everyday Hinduism can be fantastically different from what I was reading about that is 2,000 or 3,000 years old or older," she says. "It was in that context that comic books fell into my life."

The comic books McLain studied in her first book, India's Immortal Comic Books: Gods, Kings, and Other Heroes, are from the series Amar Chitra Katha, an incredibly popular series in India that brings to life Hindu mythology and Indian culture. The series was created after its founder realized that middle-class Indian children attending English-speaking schools were not learning about their own heritage.

"In my book I explore the range of debates that has taken place about what it means to be Hindu and to be Indian in the context of twentieth-century India as the comic book producers sought to create a national canon of mythological and historical heroes and villains."

Studying the comic books brought McLain to her current book project about Shirdi Sai Baba, who was featured in one of the comics. Sai Baba died in 1918 after becoming revered as an enlightened teacher in the village of Shirdi. His popularity has soared in the past several decades, with his image appearing everywhere and hundreds of temples to him constructed across India and around the world."One of the questions I had was what explains his growing popularity," McLain says. "Why him and why now? What does he mean to people who choose to join this new religious movement?"

McLain brings her love for both classical and contemporary beliefs and practices to her course on Hinduism. "Ideally when my students leave the classroom, they have learned something about the history of Hinduism and its amazing classical scripture, but they are also prepared to travel to India, or just to interact with friends and classmates they may meet who are Hindu," she says.

Posted Sept. 20, 2011

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