Emory Report
November 13, 2006
Volume 59, Number 11



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November 13 , 2006
On Sanskrit, spirituality and scholarship

BY kim urquhart

As a young religion scholar fresh out of Harvard, Laurie Patton was on a “find-yourself fellowship” in India when she did, indeed, discover her passion.

She was reading Sanskrit texts with the head priest of a major temple in Varanasi when she realized that she wanted to spend the rest of her life thinking about Sanskrit texts, their poetic meaning, and the role that ancient sacred poetry has in society.

Patton, who joined Emory in 1996, is now chair of Emory’s Department of Religion and is serving a three-year appointment as the Winship Distinguished Research Professor.

That initial experience in India sparked a life-long interest in the textual traditions of the country, traditions that form the basis of Patton’s scholarly work at Emory. Her teaching and research focuses on the interpretation of early Indian ritual and narrative, comparative mythology, and literary theory in the study of religion.

Since Patton became chair of the department of religion in 2000, it has grown from 15 to 23 faculty members. Patton said she has particularly tried to focus on intellectual and cultural diversity in building the department.

The impact, Patton said, has been that more students are studying religious traditions other their own, and more students are studying Asian religious traditions such as Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam. They are also studying Christianity and Judaism in new ways. Patton has also noticed more interest in comparative and historical thinking, as well as more interactions between the religious traditions represented in the University.

Patton’s own religious upbringing as a Unitarian made her aware from an early age that all religions have a voice and that every religion matters. She has since become a “Jew by Choice” in the Conservative movement of Judaism, but said that Unitarian values still affect her work.

In her current role as co-convener of the “Religions and the Human Spirit” initiative of the University’s strategic plan, Patton is helping to coordinate, implement and monitor initiatives in areas such as religion, conflict and peace building; religion and the arts; religion and health; contemplative studies; and religion and science. As part of this effort, Patton and co-convener Carol Newsom, professor of Old Testament at Candler School of Theology, will host a University-wide research seminar in religion in the spring of 2007.

“These initiatives have grown out of grassroots collaborations that have already happened at Emory,” Patton said. “It is genuinely interdisciplinary, and that’s really exciting to see.”

Patton’s academic and research appointments have taken her from Columbia University to the University of Tel Aviv, Israel, and Deccan College in Pune, India. Pune is also home for Patton during her Indian journeys. She described her world in Pune as equally multi-religious to her world at Emory. “I work with Hindu teachers, do my research on Hindu women, and my other friends and family are secular Marxists and Muslims.”

In Pune, Patton works closely with a non-governmental organization called Aalocana, a women’s documentation and research center. Pune is also one of the places where women have served as Hindu priestesses for decades, part of a movement that Patton hopes to explore further in the future.

Patton said her intellectual journey has been shaped by the roles and interactions between poetry and society. “I have always been struck by the role of the arts in changing the world,” she said. “When societies are in conflict at every other level – diplomatic, religious, strategic and otherwise – I think that artistic exchange is the last place of hope for those involved in and affected by violence.”

Poetry, in particular, has become her passion. Her first book of poetry, “Fire’s Goal: Poems from a Hindu Year,” was inspired by a year of journeys to sacred water sources in India, augmented by a decade of writing and reading interpretation of India’s most sacred Sanskrit compositions, the Veda. She is currently completing a second book of poetry following the Jewish ritual year.

Patton’s other works include “Bringing the Gods to Mind: Mantra and Ritual in Early Indian Sacrifice” and “The Indo-Aryan Controversy: Evidence, History and Politics.” Another book, on the role of scandal and the secular study of religion, will be published by the University of Chicago Press.

Patton last visited India as a Fulbright scholar, where she researched her second forthcoming book, “Grandfather Language: Women and Sanskrit in Maharashtra and Beyond.”

The book, Patton’s first ethnographic project, will provide a unique perspective on the history of Sanskrit and gender. Patton describes it as “all about women coming to own their voice as Sanskritists.”

As an analysis of more than 80 life histories of women Sanskritists living in all parts of India, the book addresses the gender demographics of the study of Sanskrit – “an issue that hasn’t been frequently raised in the field,” Patton said.

Patton composed several of the last poems in her first book in Sanskrit. “I’m a fairly slow and not terribly gifted student of the language,” she said, “but it adds a certain contemplative quality to what I do.” Her English translation of the “Bhagavad Gita,” an ancient Sanskrit text, is forthcoming from Penguin Classics.

In her spare time, Patton is writing a novel, a multi-generational saga set in the same New England town. It is her first attempt at fiction, and she has been inspired by the rigorous creative writing courses she has taken at Emory. “I have the good fortune to be a part of two writing groups at Emory, all brilliant women who also take creative writing seriously even as they pursue other academic or administrative careers,” she said.

Patton’s own career can be traced to a thoughtful study of religion that began at Harvard, advanced at the University of Chicago and continues today at Emory, where many religious traditions flourish.

“Religious diversity,” she said, “is one of the things that contributes to the richness of this planet.”