Anna Zacharias

Religion is...


Various life experiences have engendered in me a deep sensitivity and appreciation for 'difference'. My training as a student of Sociology at Jawaharlal Nehru University in India at the Masters and higher degree research levels has nurtured these qualities even further. Among the variegated perspectives that the discipline offers, I found myself especially drawn to the study of religious identity and difference.

There are several seminal contemporary and former works on Judaism, Christianity and Islam in Indian academia. However, as regards 'popular' perceptions of the Abrahamic faiths in India, I often encountered a degree of mystification and misrepresentation. I also felt that certain religious traditions were sidelined to some extent vis-à-vis conventional understandings of the essence of 'Indianness'. For instance, despite the fact that Judaism and Christianity purportedly have ancient lineages in India, they are often viewed as foreign or latter-day imports in the popular imagination. These musings led me to ponder about my own identity as a Christian (from Kerala) in a 'secular' country like India; one which in recent years is increasingly being fed a homogeneous narrative about what it means to be an Indian.

These apparent contradictions instilled in me a fervent desire to seek out a more nuanced understanding of the Abrahamic faiths in India (and specifically Kerala) in their mutual enmeshments and divergences. Despite the fact that several scholars have carried out comprehensive and seminal studies in this area, I often felt the absence of an immediately accessible peer group who shared similar interests and concerns. My encounter with the Woolf Institute and its various courses and activities was therefore very fortuitous, having occurred in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, which gave me an occasion to pause and reflect. The online course Religion is… was also available at a very convenient time and I am immensely grateful to the Woolf Institute for providing it completely free of cost.

The course honed my knowledge and critical understanding of the Abrahamic faiths and filled the lacunae that I had previously felt to a significant extent. I found it to be very well organised and structured. The modules comprised of an intriguing mix of comprehensive and thought-provoking readings, videos, podcasts and news clips. I was also quite enthused about having access to a platform (via the weekly discussion forums) to voice my thoughts on various pertinent themes concerning religion-like religious fundamentalism, 'gender and religion', 'religion and the environment', etc. I also gained immensely from the contributions of my fellow course participants, who hailed from diverse professional backgrounds, religious and ethnic affiliations, nationalities, age-groups, etc. The insightful comments of the course tutors were also invaluable. The course co-coordinators and tutors were ever helpful and responsive to all queries and concerns. In effect, they nurtured a conducive environment that encouraged lively and harmonious discussion and debate, thus transcending the limitations that are generally associated with an online course.

In sum, this course has helped me reflect upon some deeply entrenched and taken for granted assumptions about religion in general and the Abrahamic faiths in particular. It has also inculcated in me a more critical and informed understanding of the Abrahamic faiths from a universal perspective. In effect, it has provided an appropriate framework to critically reflect on my research interests. I would hence like to express my most heartfelt gratitude to the course conveners for giving me an opportunity to participate in the course. I wish to continue my engagement with the Woolf Institute in multifarious ways in the future and also hope to be able to forge bonds that last a lifetime.

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