Thoughts on Theses: Gabriela Espinosa
Issue   |   Wed, 04/27/2016 - 00:10

Gabriella Espinosa ’16 is a religion major. Her thesis explores the devotional practices of the internationally recognized guru Amma (Mata Amritanandamayi) and considers their appeal to transnational communities. Her adviser is Professor Maria Heim.

Q: Can you give a brief overview of your thesis?
A: Last summer, I lived with a woman named Amma in an ashram named Amritapuri, which is a Hindu ministry in South India. Amma is the lead guru there. She has hugged over 35 million people around the world and has a charity organization called Embrace the World. She also serves on the United Nations Peacekeeping Committee. I lived there for five weeks and did participant observation of the activities in the ministry. I also held a volunteer job while I was there, working in a clinic that practiced ancient Indian medicine. My thesis was about how she has successfully created a transnational ministry, which is based upon Amma’s hugs, which are very ephemeral but important spiritual acts. I used emic categories of Hindu thought and worship to problematize and discover facets of the devotional mindset that occur during her embraces.

Q: What were the primary texts you considered?
A: I was going back and forth between canonized western authors — Durkheim, Maus, Marx — and texts written by subaltern authors. I also used scholarship on other guru movements. There’s a whole history of ecstatic emotions and behaviors in the history of the art. Moreover, I used books and songs written by Amma’s devotees, which were a real source of information that was not theoretical. These included the ancient Vedas.

Q: Did you divide your thesis into sections on personal experience and theory?
A: I went back and forth between writing about my own experiences and discussing the theorists and other texts. I focused on seeing, playing and consuming in Amma’s ministry, which were my three chapters.

Q: What was your relationship with Amma? Did you develop a friendship with her through your research and writing process?
A: I wouldn’t call it a friendship, because your relationship with gurus is really one of deference. My first chapter is actually about relationships with gurus. I explored the relationship between horizontality and verticality in a guru relationship. One thing that Amma does do with her hug and embrace is she makes it seem as if you are friends. Yet, there are also strong imbedded structures of power that mandate you [to] be a guru disciple in a very submissive relationship.

Q: Did you have any concerns about maintaining a relatively objective perspective when interacting with the monastery?
A: There was a methodological concern because I was straddling a line between considering my own experiences within Amma’s movement and also maintaining the analytical and academic side. I think this represents an interesting and current line of thought in anthropology and in religion. It definitely muddies the waters, and there were moments when I felt that I had to take a step back or I worried that the information I gathered might no longer be credible because of my appearance. It wasn’t as if I was on a spiritual journey of sorts. It’s about how an individual and an interested academic researcher comes to be swayed and persuaded and affected by the various sensory and logical components of a devotional movement.

Q: Did you confront language or cultural barriers?
A: There were definitely language barriers, and Amma speaks only Malayalam. But more than that, a lot of the devotees thought that I was doing personal research into religious movements, and some thought that I was with Amma on a spiritual journey. At times, I was worried that people’s way of perceiving me would lead them to tell me things that they wouldn’t if I really looked like I was doing research. For example, in regards to clothing, people typically wear white clothes and traditional Indian dress, which conforms to standards of modesty. When I would adopt that kind of dress, I was worried that people would think that I was a devotee, but if I wore western clothes, people would stare and it would be really uncomfortable. You want to work your way in as best as you can.

Q: Who is your thesis adviser, and how did you collaborate with her during the process?
A: My advisor is Maria Heim. She has been a huge presence in personal and academic ways— a real advocate throughout my time here. The first time I went to India, she convinced my parents to let me go. Her work also relates to my project. She has done research on gift theory in Southeast Asia and she also studies Theravada Buddhism. She has been super helpful throughout the process, and she helped me orient the project towards an audience that has read primarily Western theorists.

Q: What would you say to students who are currently considering writing a thesis?
A: Why wouldn’t you write a thesis? Your thesis could be about anything and any length. Mine was 170 pages, but it could be much shorter. You can get funding from the Alpha Delta Phi funds to travel and do research, regardless of whether it is anthropologic. It enables you to take responsibility for your only personal interest and your own academic interest. Basically, you’ve spent years critiquing the work of other authors in class, and so here’s the chance in the subject matter and in the writing to do something you wholeheartedly believe in. It also opens up chances for you to be published and to work on your own interests in the future.

Q: Finally, do you have any advice for prospective thesis writers?
A: My advice would be to be really interested in what you want to talk about and to discover ways that it makes you feel alive. I’d also recommend working really closely with your adviser. And write a lot, and travel.