Speaker: Vijaya Nagarajan

Rituals of Generosity

Vijaya Nagarajan is an Associate Professor and former Chair in the Department of Theology/Religious Studies and in the Program of Environmental Studies at the University of San Francisco. She is also a contributor to the American Academy of Religion, an environmental activist, and has written extensively on Hinduism, gender, ritual, ecology and the commons.

Vijaya wrote the first in-depth publication in English on the kolam. Kolam, the Tamil word for beauty, is the name given to the intricate rice flour designs that are created by women at dawn on the thresholds of millions of homes in South India. Her book, Feeding a Thousand Souls: Women, Ritual, and Ecology in India, An Exploration of the Kolam, explores this 1000-year-old (at least) art form and its multifaceted significance through the lenses of history, anthropology, mathematics, ecology and more. The book is the manifestation of a lifetime quest -- a quest in which intellectual rigor is blended with embodied ethics. In Vijaya's work, personal history and particularities of place intertwine with universal constants. Assumptions are tested, interpretations are multiplied, and the boundaries between disciplines begin to shimmer and shift. 

Born the eldest of three daughters in rural Tamil Nadu, Vijaya’s was a distinctly bicultural upbringing. During her formative years, the family triangulated between her ancestral village, New Delhi and Washington D.C. The early exposure to profound contrasts in landscape and culture perhaps seeded in her deep questions on economics, ecology, gender and religion that she would pursue with such vibrancy in adulthood. 

In the late 1970s, her innate affinity with the natural world led Vijaya to spend two and a half years as an engineering student at the University of Maryland. She was eager to explore the impact of engineering design on social equity and the environment, and the influence of social equity and the environment on engineering design. Her enthusiasm was ahead of her times. Such interests, she was told, lay outside the engineering discipline. Partway through the program, she transferred to UC Berkeley’s College of Natural Resources, and later traveled to India to study the energy efficiency of cow dung and biogas plants. The experience was deeply transformative and laid a foundation for what was to follow.

Soon after graduating from Berkeley, Vijaya began alternating manual labor stints (including working at a yeast factory, in a furniture-making business, and as a house painter,) with research jobs for environmental organizations. One of her roles, with the non-profit Friends of the Ganges, involved raising public awareness about the pollution of one of India’s most revered rivers. It was in this period that she began inquiring deeply into the contradictions that exist between religion and ecology, and recognized that when a religion frames the environment as sacred, this does not always extrapolate to environmentalism in the culture. “The materiality of the river couldn’t be protected by that mythic layer,” she says,"The mythic belief [of the river as goddess, in fact] often prevented confronting the intense pollution.”

In 1984, inspired by their friend and mentor Ivan Illich, Vijaya and her husband, Lee Swenson, founded a non-profit called the Recovery of the Commons Project. Their vision was to create a community space for exploratory conversations on ecology, literature and power. Over a period of twenty years, they hosted a slew of workshops, seminars, international learning trips, and intimate circles. Their work brought together dazzling environmental writers like Barry Lopez and Terry Tempest Williams with renowned activists like Vandana Shiva from India and Gustavo Esteva from Mexico. In 1986, the couple founded the Institute for the Study of Natural and Cultural Resources. Founded while Vijaya was between undergraduate and graduate school, the work of these two organizations continued throughout her graduate program, and beyond. “I was always working two jobs,” she remarks. "It is the energy of youth, I suppose, where working over a hundred hours a week felt as nothing special."

Feeding A Thousand SoulsVijaya’s book on kolam published in 2018, is a shining example of that brand of dedication. The title refers to the belief in Hindu mythology that householders have a karmic obligation to “feed a thousand souls.” By creating the kolam out of rice flour, a woman provides food for birds, ants and other tiny life forms. In this way, each day is greeted with “a ritual of generosity.” Traditionally created on the ground outside of the home, kolam are implicitly a dual offering to Mother Earth and the commons. Created by hand with a combination of skilled artistry, mathematical precision, and spontaneity, the kolam is a deliberately transient form of art. Each day’s kolam disappears underfoot, and by the next dawn a new one will take its place. Today an estimated 20 million women across Tamil Nadu keep this daily, devotional art form alive. Vijaya’s book surfaces thought-provoking belief systems and questions:

"In a context where suffering, death, illness, and poverty are everyday realities, a woman's positive intentionalities are believed to actually make a difference in people's lives. The power of her hands is fluid, and the female personification of energy, or shakti, moves from the women's active, creative hands to the kolam, to be picked up by the feet and transported throughout the day. The kolam appears on the streets day after day - the visual signs of a woman's blessings in the vicinity, "fluid signs." In this world, women's blessings are believed to have an effect. I often wonder: are women's blessings themselves a kind of commons?”

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