The UNC Charlotte Religious Studies Department welcomes Prea Persaud, the new lecturer in Hinduism. To learn more about Prea and her journey throughout academia, check out the interview below!
Why did you choose to study religion throughout your academic career?
My route to religious studies is a bit unusual in that I have always been interested in religion and culture. My interest began in high school and then I majored in religion and philosophy as an undergrad and have never changed my focus. That’s unusual because it is perfectly normal (and often a good thing!) to change your major several times during college. But I have always found religion endlessly fascinating and have had the benefit of having extraordinary teachers that have continued to inspire me. The thing is, most people (outside of academia) have this idea that religion is just about god and the supernatural. They don’t appreciate religion’s dynamic and complicated relationship with all facets of our lives – gender, power, the environment, food, trauma, etc. It’s difficult to pin down “religion” or to fit all religious people in a box. You can study it endlessly and still not find the bottom of the barrel.
Explain what your research interests are.
I am interested in postcolonialism, religion in the Caribbean, race, and the Hindu diaspora.
What was your dissertation about and what inspired you to start the project?
My dissertation, “God Must be a Trini: The Transformation of Hinduism into a Caribbean Religion,” looks at the ways Hinduism in Trinidad has established itself as a Caribbean religion by appealing to nationalist discourses, inscribing itself on the local landscape, and creating new traditions. By locating Trinidadian Hinduism within the category of creole religion, I challenge studies on diasporic Hinduism which center India as the homeland, scholarship on the Caribbean which ignores the influence of Asian migration, and the rigidness of categories within the study of religion. Using primarily ethnographic methods, I illustrate how the Hindu concepts of “purity” and “auspiciousness” are reformed in the Caribbean, and how the trauma of indentureship has become a vital part of the Indo-Trinidadian identity and their practice of Hinduism.
My dissertation was inspired by my own frustration as an undergrad with courses on Hinduism. They did not represent the Hinduism I knew and experienced in the Caribbean. Of course, a lot of Hinduism courses do not really reflect lived religion in general, but I did not realize that when I was an undergrad.
What courses will you be teaching at UNC Charlotte?
This coming fall I will be teaching Hinduism, a course on Caribbean religion (Sugar, Sorcery, and Spiritualities), and a course on indentureship in South Africa, Mauritius, and the Caribbean (Sugar Slaves). In the spring, I hope to also teach a course on religion and food. I am also open to listening to what students would like to learn more about and hopefully we can find fun topics that interest us both.
What are your goals as an instructor and researcher?
As a researcher, I am most interested in lived religion, that is the various ways in which people practice and theorize their own religious traditions in our world. In my research and classes, I talk about things like food, films, art, music, pilgrimages, and pop culture. This is contrast to something like textual studies in which a scholar might focus on the language and history of a text. While I think texts are important to study, I have been less interested in the etymology aspect and more focused on what people are actually doing (which might be very different from what is in the text).
As an educator, I work to highlight the intersections between gender, race, power, and religion and urge students to think critically about definitions of religion and the diversity of beliefs and practices within a single tradition. I view the classroom as a collaborative space in which students are encouraged to draw from their own experiences but are also challenged to think beyond these encounters. I agree with the Department of Religion at UNC that in our current political climate, there is an urgent need to explore the religious diversity within our own communities so that we can strengthen our bonds and work to eliminate destructive ideologies. I do this in my classrooms in part through assignments which require students to analyze the production of knowledge and by making use of local resources, such as museums, guest speakers, and places of worship. I see a commitment to diversity as not just providing a variety of course content, areas of focus, and assessments, but also being invested in making materials available to everyone regardless of identity, location, and institutional affiliation. This has led to my work with the Digital Library of the Caribbean where I support collaboration among Caribbean scholars and work to increase the access and use of various digital resources among both scholars and students.