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IU professor studies worship traditions in India

Jan. 20, 2016

David Haberman, a professor in IU’s department of religious studies, has been traveling to India for more than 40 years, first captivated by the country in 1973.

His most recent travels had him studying the worship of one of India’s most sacred mountains, Mount Govardhan.

david haberman talks with local indian man

IU professor David Haberman considers himself a lifelong student of Indian culture. | PHOTO COURTESY OF DAVID HABERMAN

 Living on the edge of the 7-mile long mountain allowed him to be up close and personal with the landmark. It is common to see people dressing the stones in human clothing or giving the stones a face, he said. In India, this act of giving human qualities to an inanimate object is a fairly common feature of worship, which was Haberman’s primary focus of study.  

“This was regarded in the past as a primitive act,” he said. “We need to move out of this way of thinking, and to a large degree have, but not completely by any means. We have to look at another culture in a manner that does not dismiss it as primitive but rather sees it simply as a different way of being human. Perhaps there is even something for us to learn from it.”

Haberman studied the religious conceptions behind rock worship, but he is also interested in ways of presenting this notion to those who weren’t raised in the religious culture of India.

“If I have learned anything as a lifelong student of the study of other religious cultures, it is that all our experience is viewed through a very particular cultural lens,” he said. “When you shift that lens a whole other world appears and other possibilities present themselves so that our relationship with things around us and our behaviors toward them change depending on which cultural lens we are viewing them through.” 

indian rock diety

Ascribing human features to inanimate objects is commonplace in Indian worship. | PHOTO COURTESY OF DAVID HABERMAN

As the author of six books, all with research based in India, Haberman is extremely fond of that area of the world. In fact, he has lived in India at various points in his life for a total of seven years.

“India just grabbed me like no other place did,” he said. “They have a strong material culture that has remained in place for thousands of years. That continuity is hard to find anywhere else.”

When Haberman isn’t traveling the world conducting research, he is here in Bloomington teaching. He teaches everything from freshman to graduate level religion courses, with a special focus on Hinduism. His goals for his students are two-fold, he said.

“I want them to understand that reality is not the same for all human beings,” Haberman said. “I hope that they have a self-reflective moment of understanding how they came to their own sense of reality, meaning and values, and then expose themselves to other cultures so that they might live consciously instead of in a pre-programmed fashion.” 

Haberman is currently back at IU teaching and writing a book, “Loving Stones,” about his most recent research.

Haberman's work aligns with several priorities in the university's Bicentennial Strategic Plan, including catalyzing research and a vibrant community of scholars.

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