Sydenham Clark Parsons Professor and Professor of Religion, Buddhist Studies, and South Asian Studies
Contact & Office Hours
Pierce Hall 203
Ph.D., University of Chicago
B.A., Columbia University
I am scholar of religion who engages in textual and ethnographic work on the role of narratives, images, and markets in South Asia, focusing on early Indian Buddhism, South Asian media, and the modern economies of the North Indian bazaar. I have cultivated these interests under the guidance of exceptional teachers, and to them I owe a debt of gratitude.
I was raised in a family that valued education, and my parents, my brothers, and the teachers at the public schools of Worcester, Massachusetts, guided me well until I went to college at Columbia University in New York City. There I majored in religion, working closely with James R. Russell, and I served as jazz director of WKCR, which allowed me to spend most nights out listening to music. After studying abroad on the Antioch Buddhist Studies Program in Bodh Gaya, India, and learning from C. W. “Sandy” Huntington, Jr., I decided to focus my studies on India and Buddhism, past and present.
Once I graduated from college, I spent a few years alternating between working as a mover in Manhattan and living in India and learning languages, especially Hindi, which I studied with Virendra Singh. I was accepted by the University of Chicago’s Department of South Asian Languages and Civilizations, where I continued my studies of India and Buddhism under the sage guidance of scholars such as Sheldon Pollock, Steven Collins, and A.K. Ramanujan. Various fellowships allowed me to conduct fieldwork in India for many years, during which time I lived in Banaras, Sarnath, and Pune, studying with gurus and geshes, ustads and university professors. My teachers included Ramu Pandit, Rabindra Goswami, K. N. Mishra, Ramshankar Tripathi, Lobsang Norbu Shastri, Ngawang Samten, M. G. Dhadphale, J. R. Joshi, Suresh Nadkarni, and many more. I am still in awe of their wisdom and generosity.
Even before I finished my PhD dissertation, I accepted a part-time job at Smith College, substituting for the retiring Dennis Hudson, whose shoes I am still trying to fill. I have now been at Smith for more than twenty years, and during that time I have been mentored by the members of the Religion Department as well as numerous faculty, staff, and students, all of whom have helped me flourish. My students, in particular, have pushed me to be a better thinker, teacher, and community member. Their insights and efforts have been invaluable, and I trust their counsel when I’m deciding what to write, research, or teach.
When writing, I try to be rigorous yet accessible, interesting to scholars and non-scholars alike. This is especially the case with my books, including Hungry Ghosts (Wisdom Publications, 2021), which looks at the role of hungry ghosts in Buddhist literature and art; Amar Akbar Anthony: Bollywood, Brotherhood, and the Nation (Harvard University Press, 2015), co-written with William Elison and Christian Novetzke, which offers a multiperspectival interpretation of one of India’s most popular films; Thus Have I Seen: Visualizing Faith in Early Indian Buddhism (Oxford University Press, 2009), which considers the construction of faith as a visual practice in Buddhism, and how seeing and believing are part of intersecting visual and moral systems; and Divine Stories: Translations from the Divyāvadāna, parts 1 and 2 (Wisdom Publications, 2008 and 2017), a two-part translation of an important collection of early Buddhist narratives. The first volume inaugurated a new translation series from Wisdom Publications called Classics of Indian Buddhism, of which I am the chief editor. The second volume won the Khyentse Foundation Prize for Outstanding Translation.
My current research focuses on two book projects, both of which explore the intersection of morals and markets and alternate ways of envisioning justice. These are Bazaar Religion: Marketing and Moral Economics in Modern India, a longitudinal study of the main bazaars in Banaras, which examines the moral economy behind the objective economy of visible transactions; and Saving the World through Commerce? Buddhists, Merchants, and Mercantilism in Early India, which chronicles the close relationship that Buddhism had with merchants in the early centuries of the Common Era, and how the market left its imprint on the foundations of Buddhism.
Writing and research have fueled my teaching, and vice versa, and yet being in the classroom is a singular pleasure. I try to make the most of that time by focusing on issues and materials that really matter to students. Many of my courses address South Asian religion and culture, both premodern and modern, but questions of values and ethics predominate. My classes include Religions of Ancient India and Introduction to Contemporary Hinduism, as well as a number of course that address thematic issues: Violence and Nonviolence in Religious Traditions of South Asia, South Asian Masculinities (cross-listed with Study of Women and Gender), South Asian Visual Culture (cross-listed with Art History), Morals vs. Markets (co-taught with Rick Fantasia from Sociology), The Meaning of Life (co-taught with a professor from Philosophy), and Spiritual But Not Religious (co-taught with David Howlett). I also frequently teach the Religion Department’s required theories and methods course, What is Religion? In addition, I have taught many special studies, as I enjoy reading Sanskrit and Pali with students or helping them research a topic that they find fascinating.
Crucial in everything I do is service, whether helping a student or a colleague, an initiative at Smith or elsewhere. See my cv for details. The goal is pretty simple: use my skills and resources to benefit others.
Selected Course Syllabi
- Approaches to the Study of Religion
- Religion of the Marketplace: A Demystification
- Religious History of South Asia I: Ancient to Medieval
- Religious History of South Asia II: Medieval to Modern
- Seeing God and Nation: Topics in South Asian Visual Culture
- South Asian Masculinities
- Spiritual But Not Religious
- The Meaning of Life
- Violence and Non-Violence in Religious Traditions of South Asia
Hungry Ghosts. Somerville: Wisdom Publications, 2021.
Divine Stories: Translations from the Divyāvadāna, part 2. Classics of Indian Buddhism Series. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2017.
Amar Akbar Anthony: Bollywood, Brotherhood, and the Nation. Co-written with William Elison and Christian Novetzke. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2015.
Thus Have I Seen: Visualizing Faith in Early Indian Buddhism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.
Divine Stories: Translations from the Divyāvadāna, part 1. Classics of Indian Buddhism Series, inaugural volume. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2008.
Articles and Chapters
“Bargaining Justice: Negotiating Law in an Indian Bazaar.” Seattle University Law Review 45, no. 1 (2021), Berle XII: Corporate Capitalism and the City of God: 131–153.
“Brandism vs. Bazaarism: Mediating Divinity in Banaras.” In Rethinking Markets in Modern India: Embedded Exchange and Contested Jurisdiction, edited by Ajay Gandhi, Barbara Harriss-White, Douglas E. Haynes, and Sebastian Schwecke, 234–268. Cambridge University Press, 2020.
"In Varanasi We Trust." In The City and South Asia, pp. 53–55. Cambridge: Harvard South Asia Institute, 2014.
"Buddhism and Hospitality: Expecting the Unexpected and Acting Virtuously." In Housing the Stranger: Between Religions, edited by Richard Kearney and James Taylor, 115–122. New York: Continuum, 2011.
"Baba's Got a Brand New Bag: Indian Jute Bags and Exotic Others." In 5 Year Plan: Literary Supplement, edited by Aaron Sinift, 31–55. Jaipur: Krishna Printers, 2010.
"Marketing Morality: The Economy of Faith in Early Indian Buddhism." In Śrīnidhiḥ: Professor Shrikant Shankar Bahulkar's Gratitude Volume, edited by Shripad G. Bhat, Shilpa Sumant, and Ambarish Vasant Khare, 253–290. Pune: Saṁvidyā Institute of Cultural Studies, 2009.
"The Power of Proximity: Creating and Venerating Shrines in Indian Buddhist Narratives." In Buddhist Stūpas in South Asia: Recent Archaeological, Art-Historical, and Historical Perspectives, edited by Jason Hawkes and Akira Shimada, 51–62. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2009.
"White African Masks: Representing Africa in a Johannesburg Hotel." Co-written with April Strickland. Material World, October 2007.
"The Erotics of Practice: Objects and Agency in Buddhist Avadāna Literature." Journal of the American Academy of Religion 71.3 (2003): 555–578.
"The Midnight Buffet." Co-written with Elizabeth Pérez. Public Culture 13.2 (2001): 329–332.
Audio and Video
“The Hungry Ghosts Among Us.” With James Shaheen. Tricycle: The Buddhist Review. July 14, 2021.
“Amar Akbar Anthony: Bollywood, Brotherhood, and the Nation.” With Kristian Petersen, William Elison, and Christian Novetzke. New Books in Religion. Podcast audio, June 20, 2017.
“The Divine Stories of Early Buddhism.” With Daniel Aitken. The Wisdom Podcast. April 10, 2017.
"Liberation through Images: Seeing the Buddha in Indian Art and Architecture." Lecture at Boston College, in conjunction with Asian Journeys: Collecting Art in Post-War America, an exhibit at the McMullen Museum of Art, April 2010.
"Rotman Collection of Vintage Stereographs of India." Contains 99 19th-century stereographic photographs available online in both two-dimensional and three-dimensional form.
"Tales of the Third Dimension: Bringing 19th-Century India into Wondrous Focus." Insight, April 15, 2013.