March: Graduate Student Spotlight: Matt Sayers, Ph.D. candidate
Posted: March 1, 2008
JT: What got you interested in Asia in the first place? and how did you decide to get a Ph.D. in Asian Cultures and Languages?
MS: The first turning point, that shifted my attention from religion in general to Indian religions was the Aryan Invasion Theory. My undergraduate mentor was teaching world religions or another introductory course and this idea was amazing to me. I later found out it was a debunked theory, but it was too little to late, I was very interesting in India from then on. Besides, the more likely theory is even more interesting. The second turning point, and what convinced me to pursue a Ph.D. in Asian Cultures and Languages, was First Year Sanskrit during my first year as a Masters student. Learning the language was the key to understanding the religion, and that first teacher somehow got me hooked.JT: What is the topic of your dissertation?
MS: My dissertation focuses on ancestor worship as a central aspect of the religion of the householder in ancient Hinduism and Buddhism. I have two main goals: 1.To show that the intellectuals of both traditions were reflecting upon a shared notion of who a householder is and used the same metaphors, language, and theological arguments to construct the notion of a 'proper householder'; and 2. one key aspect of the construction of the 'proper householder' involved writing themselves into the role of mediator, taking on the role of intermediary between the householder and the supernatural entities that he propitiated in ritual, i.e., the gods and his ancestors. The first helps us break down the hard and fast lines we draw between Hindu and Buddhist, which often obscure some of what was going on. It also highlights the householder as central to the construction of Hinduism. The second aims to give us a better understanding of the social function of rituals in general and ancestral rites in particular.
JT: Tell me about the course you taught last year, Death and Dying in Indian Religions. What made you decide to teach on that? Do you think you'll teach on it again?
MS: That class grew out of my dissertation research, but blossomed into much more. I was able to examine several different religious ideas about death, the process of dying, and responses to both. I organized the class around the process of dying. After brief introductions to the religions examined, primarily Hinduism and Buddhism, I started with aging and the preparation for death. I then moved to the moment of death and explored what happens to the dead person after they died. After discussing the dead person's process we returned to the survivors and looked at the rituals that surround death: the funeral, cremation, and the shraddha, a Hindu ritual to advance one's deceased father to heaven. All along the way we read both texts from the tradition and scholars' reflections on the tradition. It was a great class, with many students actively engaging me every day. I definitely plan to teach this class again. Beyond the fun I had teaching, it was a great opportunity to expose students who would otherwise not be interested in other religious traditions to Indian religions. Everyone faces death eventually, and this class provides the chance to see how other cultures respond to it.
JT: Where's your favorite place in India and why?
MS: While each place in India I have visited in India affected me in different ways, and many make want to return as soon as I can, I am most drawn to Gangotri and Gaumukh. Gangotri is the town high in the mountains where one starts the pilgrimage to Gaumukh, the source of the Ganges river. Gangotri is a small pilgrimage town with a beautiful temple right on the river. The pilgrimage is 18 km long and begins on a path at about 10,000 feet above sea level, but rapidly changes to stone worn by ages of pilgrims and ends on the pile of rocks at about 14,000 feet above sea level at the foot of the glacier that feeds the Ganges at about 14,000 feet above sea level. This is my favorite place because of the cold, clear water of the Ganges only 100 feet from the glacier, compared to the water of the Ganges at Banaras, because of the people who easily walk the 18 km at such an altitude in a day, when I take three, compared to people back home who take the elevator to go up one floor, and for other reasons which are neither so cynical, nor so easily to articulate.
JT: If you could have dinner with any person living or dead (or undead) who would it be and why?
MS: Benjamin Franklin, because he would have some idea how to fix this.
JT: Who is your favorite god or goddess and why?
MS: My favorite divinity is Kali Ma, because she inverts hierarchies, represents gender independence, doesn't fear her sexuality, offers hope, and kicks butt to boot. Jai mata di!
JT: If you were an animal, what kind of animal would you be?
MS: An albatross, because he is ill at ease on the ground, but able to soar above it all.