Lavanya Vemsani is a Professor of Indian History and Religions in the Department of Social Sciences at Shawnee State University. She holds two doctorates in the subjects of Religious Studies (McMaster University) and History (University of Hyderabad). She was awarded the South Asia Council of the Canadian Asian Studies Association’s (SACA/CASA) Best Thesis Honorable Mention prize for her Ph.D. thesis at McMaster University.
Her research and teaching interests are varied and multifold. She researches and publishes on subjects of ancient history and religions as well as the current history of India.
Her books include Modern Hinduism in Text and Context; Krishna in History, Thought, and Culture: Encyclopedia of the Hindu Lord of Many Names; Hindu and Jain Mythology of Balarama. She is the Editor-in-Chief of American Journal of Indic Studies; Managing Editor of International Journal of Indic Studies and Editorial and Review Board Member of Air Force Journal of Indo-Pacific Affairs as well as Canadian Journal of History. She is currently the Vice-President and President-Elect of Ohio Academy of History (2018-2020).
Shawnee State University recently gifted Vemsani the 2020-2021 Fulbright U.S. Scholar Program award in History. India Currents interviews Professor Lavanya Vemsani on her work and academic pursuits.
I have researched your work! Because it is so unique, could you explain to India Currents readers exactly what you do?
LV: I use both textual sources as well as inscriptions and other resources in my work. The problem with Indian history is that it has never been written representing India. Indian history has always been written representing invaders, invasions, and the interests of those who have come into India. [What is written,] only partially represents India’s history.
So, my work is to represent India holistically by using all the available resources. [I do this] instead of using some sources partially or ignoring other sources as was done previously. My goal is to come up with a history of India that represents India and also brings up new frameworks [to do so].
Previously, Indian history was written using imperialist frameworks. It used invasions as the framework. Indian history is understood on a geographical axis through invasions. Everything else that happened did not matter. So everything that is recorded as Indian history are the invasions and the achievements of the invaders. The true achievements and representation of India is missing from the history of India. So that’s what I am trying to do.
What led you to pursue the field and career which you are today (empowering mythological women in particular)? What have you discovered since entering this field?
LV: India has a very strong storytelling tradition, representing all aspects of society: women, children, men. All kinds of human struggle are represented in the stories of India. We have ignored the Mahabharata, the Vedas, the Ramayana for a long time. The stories have always been ignored. And even historical stories – the stories of saints, especially female saints – were there, but in the historical works, you don’t find them. Women are not represented and they are misrepresented.
I started my work to examine them and discuss them so that we can find the changing historical roles of women and society in India. I had written about Sita. I had even written about Saint Amdal. I have recently written a book with eleven stories which examine female heroics and divines.
The stories, as I study them, actually show women in a number of roles. India actually understood a person as a holistic person – a person with feminine and masculine aspects within them. As a person explores the personhood [they will find], that all people, either male or female, strive to achieve full personhood. That’s what is represented in the Mahabharata and all the stories we have seen.
The person [in these stories], the women especially, whatever challenges there are, they tackle them. They don’t run away from them. Sita had actually faced a lot of challenges, but she tackles them in her own way – she doesn’t run away from them. That’s what you would see in almost all the stories.
Women’s stories are much more inspirational than what we see. When we look back, it provides us a much-needed perspective to understand women and their roles in society and how we can go forward.
There are so many women in history, how do you pinpoint the women you want to focus on? Is your goal to cover each woman throughout history?
LV: Yes, my first one was Sita, [but that’s because of my upbringing]. Ram and Sita’s local stories are intermixed within the culture of India. There is no village without a temple of Ram or Hanuman in India. Nobody hears the stories of Ram and Sita for the first time. They hear the stories without even knowing it. Growing up in India, that’s how it was for me. The region I grew up in has a really large temple. The Shrirama Temple and the Sita temple. And many places were marked as the path of their exile, when they were on their 14th-year exile.
Growing up with these stories, of course, my first choice was to try to understand her. And, of course, the names. My mom is named Sita, so it is, you know, fascinating for me. Andal was also a part of traditions. Who I study comes from my upbringing and who we see in India.
How does your work empowering mythological women continue to empower women today?
LV: These stories, of course, we see them as stories now, but for India, they are historical stories. The stories that appear in the Mahabharata are still considered feminine heroic divine. They have become heroic and then they have become divine because of their heroic acts. They are still part of the practice of India.
By studying their stories, by understanding their struggles, by understanding their practice surrounding them, we can gain inspiration. These stories provide inspiration. These stories also provide strength for the modern generation. Many of the women have taken the path of struggle. They have done their struggles in many different ways and they have been successful. It can provide inspiration for younger women of the modern world. There is nothing to be scared of. We can take the steps, whatever happens.
It’s important to have many role models rather than just one role model. Indian storytelling tradition provides many role models; there isn’t just one warrior woman.
How are you applying your learnings of Hinduism to society today as well as your everyday life?
LV: I draw inspiration from many of the women I study. They give me the strength to work on what I am. I think they provide inspiration for everyone and anyone who reads their stories.
As someone who is very culturally Hindu, but not as religiously Hindu, I was wondering your thoughts on the two? Are people like me losing parts of their identity by not being as religiously engaged? What are some takeaways you would want young women like me to know?
LV: Hinduism and also the divine traditions. The spiritual traditions of India do not require you to practice your spirituality or cultural practice in a certain, set way. You can be yourself and you can read as much as you want. You can learn and explore by yourself, you can really go on your own path.
To know your path, that is the most important thing. When you read these stories, you see people like Andal and Davitri – super innocent- but ready to make their choices and stick to them. The point is to find your personhood. What appeals to you? What is your spirit? How do you archive your personhood? Find the wholeness inside yourself. The spiritual traditions of India do not give you a set path and reading these stories would also tell you the same thing. It’s important to find yourself and become the best person that you can become by exploring.
What is your view on religious and cultural appropriation, especially of the texts you read and write?
LV: Cultural appropriation, when acknowledged – when using the stories, when using the images of the deities, when taking spiritual traditions – is acceptable. When you don’t acknowledge it, it’s like plagiarism, right? You’re not giving credit to your source. Of course, you can use it, but it is important to acknowledge the source. Indian traditions are universal traditions and they mention that in the Vedas and sacred texts, so of course it’s universal knowledge. One is free to explore. But it is important to note where this is coming from. Sometimes people dispute the fact that the origin is in Hinduism. That is the problem.
What research will you be doing with the Fulbright Award?
LV: I am visiting India for the Fulbright. I’ll be working on my book.
I am also working on my project, Narasingha. It has influenced a lot of practice in Middle India so it is understanding religion in all of middle India- Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Warisa, and Karnataka.
So, I will be working on these two writing projects and I’ll be teaching at JNU – Jawaharlal Nehru University as a visiting professor.
What does the award mean to you?
LV: I am honored and blessed to receive this award. It recognizes my work so I am really honored and blessed. At the same time, I am really thankful to my parents and family and friends, and everybody that supported me. And thank you Fulbright for giving me this opportunity.
This helps me bring forward the research that I have been doing. It also helps me foster dual and research relationships between India and the United States.
Ayanna Gandhi is a rising senior at Castilleja School in Palo Alto, California. She has a deep interest in writing and reading but also enjoys politics, singing, and sports of all kinds.