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Thesis defences

PhD Oral Exam - Purna Roy, Religions and Cultures

The Politics of Devotion: Material Culture and Lived Religion in a Bengali Guru-Shrine

Date & time
Monday, May 6, 2024
10 a.m. – 1 p.m.

This event is free


School of Graduate Studies


Nadeem Butt


J.W. McConnell Building
1400 De Maisonneuve Blvd. W.
Room 362

Wheel chair accessible


When studying for a doctoral degree (PhD), candidates submit a thesis that provides a critical review of the current state of knowledge of the thesis subject as well as the student’s own contributions to the subject. The distinguishing criterion of doctoral graduate research is a significant and original contribution to knowledge.

Once accepted, the candidate presents the thesis orally. This oral exam is open to the public.


This dissertation examines the intersections of material culture, lived religion, and nationalism at Belūr Maṭh, a guru-devotional site in Bengal and the headquarters of the Ramakrishna Mission, a transnational religious institution. Established in 1898 by Swami Vivekananda, Belūr Maṭh is popularly viewed as a cultural-religious symbol of Bengal and a prominent guru-devotional shrine visited by both devotees and tourists. The study examines the materiality of the site – the iconographic images of the saints, sacred food, and the built materiality – paying attention to how these items are presented by the monks of the institution and how the devotees encounter them. In analysing the iconographic representations of the saints, I show how discourses of gender and nationalism are embedded within the images, influenced by the ideological constructs of the anti-colonial movement centered in Bengal. Moving to the post-colonial contemporary period, I highlight two major changes in the materiality of the maṭh: alterations to the sacred food menu distributed to the public and a reconfiguration of the built materiality of the maṭh, with new facilities such as toilet blocks, drinking-water taps, amenities accompanied by signage acknowledging the patrons – the central government of India. Drawing from Meera Nanda’s concept of the “state-temple-corporate nexus,” I demonstrate the close alliance between Hindu gurus and nationalist parties and consider the various implications of the patronage of the site by the central government. In other words, by examining the material practices of the maṭh, this research elucidates the ways in which nationalist rhetoric is disseminated within religious communities, shaping collective identities.

The study also sheds light on the everyday practices of the lay devotees and visitors who come to the temple complex, and through fieldwork methods of participant observation and interviews, illustrate their encounters with the materiality of the site. I demonstrate how encounters with the saints’ iconography, relics, and sacred food believed to be imbued with their divine power facilitate bonds with the saints, and in the process shape religious identity. I also analyse their responses to the material changes as well as the political signage marking the site. By analysing the devotees’ responses through the lens of nationalism, I demonstrate how “banal nationalism” is constructed and shaped through everyday religiosity, surreptitiously seeping into the everyday public sphere. Overall, the study investigates the maṭh as a lived religious site, where religious specialists, lay devotees, (deified) saints, and political government figures form networks of relationships and how these relationships are shaped by various factors such as texts, social and political context and places.

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