Lecture: “Mariyamman at the interface of Science and Religion” by Prof. Perundevi Srinivasan

Summary of the talk

Perundevi’s presentation concerns the encounter between the propaganda associated with colonial smallpox vaccination campaign and “local” religious-cultural discourses that associate poxes, especially smallpox, with Mariyamman in the Tamil context. It attempts to engage with the question: What happened when the British government tried to promote the smallpox vaccine in a culture that celebrates Mariyamman in connection with smallpox and that constitutes a smallpox-afflicted body as the cosmic goddess? Colonial public health materials such as administrative records refer to Mariyamman worship in disparaging terms; nevertheless, the goddess has been viewed positively and incorporated within the vaccination campaign for propagating the vaccine. Advocated as the “grace-filled” offering or “child” of the goddess, “scientific” biomedicine in the form of smallpox vaccine is reframed as a “sign of the goddess” in the colonial propaganda. Such reframing shows that science could be given an “indigenous” cast and assimilated within the framework of “local” cultural practices.

About Prof. Perundevi Srinivasan

Perundevi Srinivasan is assistant professor of religious studies at Siena College in Loudonville, New York. She received her PhD in interdisciplinary human sciences from George Washington University in 2009 and was a postdoctoral associate with the Rutgers Center for Historical Analysis in 2009–2010. Perundevi’s research interests are in religious traditions of South Asia, especially in popular religious practices engaging with colonial and post-colonial modernity, Tamil literature and films, epistemologies of body and subjectivity, gender and performance, and global feminisms. Perundevi has a chapter in ChandreyeeNiyogi (ed.)Reorienting Orientalism (New Delhi:  Sage, 2006).  Her book chapter, titled “The Creative ‘Modern’ and the Myths of the Goddess of Poxes,” was included in Religion in Literature and Film in South Asia, edited by Diana Dimitrova (New York:  Palgrave Macmillan, 2010). Recently, her chapter, titled “Constructing Goddess Worship: Colonial Ethnographic and Public Health Discourses in South India,” has been included in Inventing and Reinventing the Goddess: Contemporary Iterations of Hindu Deities on the Move, edited by Sree Padma (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2014). Perundevi’s article, titled “The Ascetic Goddess Who is Half Woman: Female Authority in the Discourses of Mariyammaṉ’sTapas,” was published  in Nidan: International Journal for the Study of Hinduism, 24 (2012). Her recent article “Nationalist Fabric, Gendering Threads: Notes on Bharati’s Draupadi” has been included in the Springer journal, International Journal of Hindu Studies (2014).   Perundevi has also authored three poetry collections and several articles and translations inTamil.


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