Laurie L. Patton is a professor of religion at Middlebury and its 17th president. She is the author or editor of nine books in South Asian religions, two books of poetry, and over fifty articles. She has also translated the Bhagavad Gita for the Penguin Classics Series. Her newest monograph, Who Owns Religion? Scholars and Their Publics in the Late 20th Century, is forthcoming from University of Chicago Press. Her third book of poems, HouseCycle, will be coming out from Station Hill Press in 2017.  She is now working on a new monograph: Grandmother Language: Women, Sanskrit and Identity in Postcolonial India.


“My Knowledge Is Only from Books”: Textuality, orality, and literacy of women Sanskritists in postcolonial India

With the massive entry of brahmin men from traditional Hindu families into the more lucrative fields of science, technology, and engineering, in postcolonial India the sacred Hindu language of Sanskrit has become the expertise of women as well as men. Working from 90 oral life histories of women Sanskritists, this paper addresses the ways in which these women negotiate orality, textuality, and literacy in their postcolonial environments. My findings reveal that women have taken on new roles as necessary caretakers of a classical language that has been prohibited to them for millennia. Yet they do so in a historical moment when the originally oral, religious language of Sanskrit has become a humanities subject of Indology, where written publications are the norm. Oral recitation and memorization remain traditional forms of prestigious brahminical knowledge, and these women participate in such public practices. In doing so, they compare themselves to the men who were their teachers, fathers, and brothers. However, they understand their work as humanist scholars who publish as a separate activity—less religious, less traditionally prestigious, and more global in its reach. Their written work is understood as the domestic, and therefore female, labor necessary to maintain a field.

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