Field Visits as a Strategy for Deconstructing Religious Boundaries
The way that lecturers in Higher Education teach South Asian religious traditions is often complicit in reifying boundaries between the religious traditions. As scholars, such as Roger Ballard and Harjot Oberoi, have indicated these boundaries are not necessarily meaningful at a grass roots level. This clear demarcation between South Asian traditions may also tend towards emphasising dominant forms of religious traditions, such as Sanatana Dharma and Khalsa Sikhism.
The pedagogical challenge is to develop a strategy which enables students to gain an understanding of the diversity of traditions and the permeability of boundaries without causing too much confusion. At the University of Wolverhampton we have found that field visits to traditions such as Valmikis, Ravidasis and Baba Balaknath can be an effective pedagogical strategy. Indeed, a recent visit to the Hindu Mandir in Wolverhampton alarmed so many students who were confused at the number of turbaned Sikhs ‘worshipping’ at the Mandir. Field visits can raise an awareness amongst students that the everyday lived religious reality of many South Asians does not always correspond to the bounded definitions that discrete modules on Sikhism and Hinduism seem to promote.
This comment by a student on a field visit to a Ravidassia Sabha in many ways encapsulates the issues that the forum of TAROSA wishes to raise:
I was not sure that it was a place to pray. There was confusion in my mind. I liked the way that it was, completely different to what was in my mind about a gurdwara a mosque or a temple.
We feel that field visits are a critical part of the learning experience. It is important that students both hear the insider’s perspective and experience the sacred space of particular religious traditions.
The majority of students write very positively about the opportunity to visit places of worship on end of module evaluations. Such student comments are:
Field visits are an essential component in the study of religion.
Coming on the visits I have got to see first hand, not just reading from the books. I feel that I have a better understanding now.
A number of students commented that visiting the Ravidas Sabha in particular helped them to understand the Indian caste system better. The field visit clarified, for the same student, how important the caste system is amongst South Asians in the diaspora too.
This would not have been so openly discussed in a Gurdwara, the issue of caste distinctions amongst Sikhs is a sensitive topic.