January 20 2018

Sensing the Gods: Utilizing Embodied Pedagogy to Understand Hindu Devotion

by Katherine C. Zubko, University of North Carolina–Asheville

Embodied Knowledge and Academic Institutions

Teaching about Hinduism in North American contexts raises particular challenges, especially in classrooms with students who view concepts of religion through predominantly Christian categories. As Narayanan (2000) and Bauman and Saunders (2009) discuss, two of these challenges include the privileging of text/scripture over embodied ritual and presuming a monotheistic framework that resists a multiplicity of gods and the corresponding variety of devotional relationships, some of which are viewed as uncomfortably intimate. Our own academic training often perpetuates these assumptions about what counts as religion, informing not only our research methods but also approaches to teaching.

For example, when I was just beginning my own study of Hindu traditions at the graduate level, I was advised to enroll in Sanskrit language courses and to read Hindu philosophy, especially texts like the Bhagavad Gita that present Krishna as refracted through a monotheistic lens. At the same time, I sought out a dance teacher in the wider community and began classes in bharata natyam, a dance form that traditionally embodies the stories of Hindu gods. Deciding to dance again after leaving behind intensive ballet training in my late teens, I originally saw it as a stress-relieving complementary activity that would get me up on my feet and away from my constant companion, the Monier Williams Sanskrit dictionary. However, the stories we began to learn in dance class quickly began to raise questions: Who was this Krishna that stole the clothing of the milkmaids? Why was Krishna’s beloved Radha angry at him? And where was the Krishna of the Bhagavad Gita—the cool-headed charioteer advisor—who did not seem to be featured in these dances, but instead showed himself to be a lovesick flute player, trapped by the bow and arrow of Radha’s arched eyebrow and darting glances?

Dance class became a bodied education that changed how I read the texts back in the academic seminars on Hinduism, especially when we did immerse ourselves in the wider array of mythologies and explored the concept of bhakti, or devotional relational models between gods and practitioners. From then on, I valued what my bodied knowledge could help me to understand—in particular, the spectrum of emotional nuances that both devotees and gods experience as part of evolving bhakti relationships. Enlisting my own bodied insights became a central part of my research methodology in graduate school and beyond, but it also would become a central part of my pedagogical toolbox.

When the opportunity arose to teach a class of my own that would include embodied learning, it was during my first year at a public liberal arts college with a brand new religious studies department. While I had freedom to develop curriculum in new directions, including the proposed course titled Religion and Dance in South Asia, I had limited access to dance studio space as it was under the purview of campus recreation despite having a dance minor. The idea of needing multiple spaces for a class was also novel and raised resource questions that, without an established network of institutional contacts, I had no way of knowing how to navigate at first.

At the time I did not realize how unusual a request this was. My previous experience with hybrid religious studies courses at Emory University appeared to be institutionally seamless. In particular, I had been the teaching assistant of a course on religion and embodied knowledge that involved an embedded weekly studio practicum in the Indian dance form of Kuchipudi, and that was a model I hoped to import into my new teaching context. This original course has now been taught several times at Emory and has been transplanted to other institutions (see Flueckiger and Kamath 2009).

If I wanted to get students into their bodies for the first iteration of the class at my university, it looked like I would have to adapt around the furniture. I decided to develop several mini-exercises that could be done in a typical classroom setting to expand on or even introduce particular concepts that are central to Hindu traditions. As a course that also fulfilled a general education arts requirement, I intended these small kinesthetic incursions to be inviting to a larger portion of the student population with (who had) mixed levels of engagement with bodied ways of knowing. In what ways can we utilize bodied knowledge as part of the learning process, as appropriate to our own disciplinary, institutional, and classroom contexts?

Embodying Rasas to Read Hindu Myths

The following mini-exercise facilitates accessing embodied knowledge to help students “think through” relationships between text and practice, and it enlists their own sensory experiences to understand the spectrum of emotional responses that create close devotional relationships with Hindu gods. I employed the strategy as part of a unit on myth and Hindu devotion in which a typical approach might be to read a series of selected myths and analyze visual images of the Hindu gods. What is often missed is the ability of students to make the leap to imagine how people respond to these gods and their actions. The pedagogical purpose of the exercise is to help bridge this gap through enlisting the sensory knowledge of the students in order to experience how devotion is cultivated through creating interactive, affective relationships. 

A grounding principle of South Asian aesthetics is the concept of the nine rasas, or emotional moods ideally experienced by a person experiencing a work of art, whether a poem, painting, sculpture, or performance. While those in theater and performance studies have developed more elaborate studio exercises utilizing rasa (Schechner 2001), for my pedagogical purposes, I provide students with a simplified introduction to these universally recognizable nine rasas: love, anger, humor, disgust, wonder, compassion, heroism, fear, and tranquility. I then assign a rasa to groups of two to three students and have them imagine an everyday scenario in which the emotion may be play-acted (e.g., biting into a rotten apple and corresponding facial response for “disgust”). Groups examine and record what the different parts of the body do in response to enacting “disgust,” such as squinting of eyes, puckering of lips, furrowing of brow, and holding the apple at a distance with their torso leaning away, and so on. A few groups volunteer to show the results of their role-play and corresponding observations.

The next step is to then give the group a Hindu myth to read and have them identify different possible rasas that would be involved in performing the story. For example, the Ramayana story of Shabari biting into each piece of fruit before offering only the sweetest to the god Rama might involve disgust on the part of Shabari who at first bites into rottenness, as well as the disgust, or shame, of observers who see the offerings that should remain untouched and pure for the gods being sullied. Students who only read the story often are puzzled as to why it would matter that Shabari samples the fruit first, and if it was such a violation, why Rama would accept the half-eaten fruit. By experiencing the mechanisms of disgust within the embodied aesthetic framework of rasa, students make more sophisticated observations about Shabari as a devotee who intentionally takes on the possibility of encountering sour or bitter in order to locate the sweetest offering, purposefully dismissing societal conventions (a typical rhetoric at the heart of bhakti), and creating an intimacy of shared food often reserved for close family members or lovers. Rama also becomes a god who invites affection in compassionate, in sometimes unorthodox ways, and is not bound in his choices by rigid purity systems. Being able to recognize these aspects of affection, as grounded in their own bodied knowledge, opens up a multidimensional understanding of bhakti.

Each of the rasas can be examined for how they create different types of closeness, affection, and divine intervention as part of cultivating bhakti. Myth-rasa combinations that work well include Siva burning Kama (anger), Krishna stealing the milkmaids’ clothes (erotic love), and Ganesh riding on the rat/mouse and tripping over a snake with the moon laughing (humor). In what ways does humor further deepen a devotional relationship? The tactic helps students use embodied emotion to explore these affective dimensions of bhakti in courses that introduce thematic concepts such as myth or gods, as well as courses on Hinduism or world religions.

Navigating the Power of Embodied Learning in Religious Studies 

In Oldstone-Moore’s (2009) essay, “Sustained Experiential Learning,” she notes that one of the “key features of religion that is difficult to reproduce and grasp in a classroom setting [is] the power and transformative nature of the multisensory context of religious practice” (110). To talk abstractly or theoretically about the body and senses in relation to religious practice often comes across as distant or may create a further gap, and yet any methods used that directly engage bodied components must be framed well to avoid misunderstanding—we are not practicing religion, we are using practice to learn about religion.

There is a complex history of why embodied learning strategies have been and continue to be questioned in religious studies classrooms, in part due to the legacy of defining the academic study of religion in opposition to theological or confessional study among other factors (see LaMothe 2008). Some forms of embodied learning, such as respectfully delineated field site visits are noted for their impact on student learning within the frameworks of experiential education, active learning and kinesthetic learning styles (Roberts 2016). Other forms, such as yoga and meditation, along with other contemplative pedagogies, reflect measurable benefits for students that range from increased awareness and focus to analytical acuity and integration of knowledge (Simmer-Brown and Grace 2011), but also can lead to questions of appropriateness in public institutions and academic classes if they are (mis)perceived as only religious practices.

With unintentional fault lines such as these, faculty teaching in religious studies are perhaps more cautious and sensitized to navigating the power of bodied learning within respectful perimeters. As Michelle Mary Lelwica (2009), who incorporates Aikido, a Japanese martial art, into some of her religious studies courses states, “Bringing the body into the process of learning about religion introduces a kind of epistemic diversity that changes—and potentially enriches—our understanding of religious practices and beliefs by revealing the creative role the body plays in the construction of religious meaning” (126). With such great potential comes both risk and responsibility. Each embodied pedagogical strategy should be evaluated to weigh the benefits and necessarily framed with attention to each institutional context, course, and student population. If this is done well, the inclusion of bodied knowledge within a multi-epistemological approach fulfills the potential of disrupting privileged ways of knowing and invites our students to wholeheartedly harness all of their resources in their learning process, feet first.


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Katherine C. Zubko Katherine C. Zubko is associate professor of religious studies at University of North Carolina–Asheville. Her areas of expertise include aesthetics, ritual, performance, and embodied religion in South Asia. She received her PhD in West and South Asian religions from Emory University in 2008. Zubko is the author of Dancing Bodies of Devotion: Fluid Gestures in Bharata Natyam (Lexington Books, 2014). Current research interests include exploring the bodied aspects of conflict transformation, in particular the role of gestures of compassion and hospitality. Zubko currently serves on steering committees for two groups at the American Academy of Religion: Teaching Religion and Religion and Body.

Image: George Wilson, safety for the Buffalo Bills (American football), prays before a game against the New York Jets. By Ed Yourdon (Flickr: NY Jets vs. Buffalo, Oct 2009 - 02), via Wikimedia Commons