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Moving Toward Utopia: Language, Empathy, and Chastity among Mobile Mothers and Children in Mayapur, West Bengal


This dissertation examines the Utopian impulse as a historical concept that informs twenty-first century religious migration and community formations in opposition to late-capitalist modernity. It foregrounds the understandings and experiences of women and their children in Mayapur, a transnational village comprised of devotees of Krishna in West Bengal, India. Based on eighteen months of ethnographic fieldwork, this study offers linguistic anthropological insights into the motivations for why women choose to leave Western and other “liberal” contexts in favor of fundamentalist religious spaces. Through close analysis of everyday interactions in multilingual children’s peer-groups it shows the affordances that growing up in such a utopian community has for the development of “linguistic empathy” across racial and linguistic boundaries, as well as the reflexive understandings of religious and cultural concepts that children acquire, debate, and transform.

Beginning with the history of utopia in sixteenth-century Europe to its exportation to India in the nineteenth century, this study identifies ways in which Utopian thought shapes the creation of Mayapur. “Utopia” was invented by English saint and satirist Sir Thomas More in 1516 as a double entendre meaning “non-place” as well as “place of happiness.” More did not intend his satirical novel to become a blueprint for actual alternative world-making projects. Yet, over the course of five hundred years, innumerable attempts to manifest “ideal” worlds have taken place. This study traces how Utopian thought impacted nineteenth century Bengali reformer Bhaktivinoda Thakur, who envisioned Mayapur as the homeland of Gaudiya Vaishnavism.� Gaudiya Vaishnavism centers on�bhakti,�the devotional worship of Radha and Krishna, avatars of the supreme Hindu god Vishnu. This medieval religion was later exported from India to the West by Srila Prabhupada, who founded the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) in 1966. Mayapur is ISKCON’s headquarters and was prophesied to be the learning center and homeland for all devotees of Krishna. Mayapur is fast becoming a city with around 3,500 Bengali and other Indian residents alongside approximately 2,500 international devotees who are culling together their resources to build their Bengali guru’s Vaishnava utopia.

Through participant observation, interviews, and video recordings of face-to-face interactions, this study examines everyday life among those living in utopian communities. It addresses the subjective, existential concerns of devotee women, who migrated to this utopian project. Featuring close analysis of devotee mothers’ narratives of entrapment, I suggest that pressures on mothers in the working world has been a catalyst for migration to communal projects that uphold strict gender divides. The main push for family migration is vested in protecting their children from “material world” logics, chief among them, feminism. For devotees, feminism stands as the trickster that duped them into engaging in social commitments for which they were not prepared, delaying motherhood in pursuit of education or career advancement, and placing money or society above one’s family—all framed as anti-motherhood and ultimately practices that they as members of a community of like-minded devotees need to correct in order to birth the Vaishnava utopia envisioned by their guru.

Once families migrated to Mayapur, children from around the world and different cultural and linguistic backgrounds began living in close proximity to one another in school, neighborhoods, the temple and other community settings. This dissertation showcases the communicative possibilities in this utopian community. Due to constant migration and ever-changing demographics, the community is in constant flux. In a place predicated upon a mobile constituency and liminality, this study investigates the communicative dispositions made possible in Mayapur. Recorded social interactions among devotee children (ages 8-11) reveals that children assist each other in language learning and display patience for conversational mistakes, referred to here as linguistic empathy.

This dissertation discusses how the lifeworlds of girls as highly mobile migrants promote religious flexibility regarding chastity among their generation. The girls transform iskcon’s concept of chastity from a strict moral code with clear tenets into a demeanor that is contextually variable. Investigating religious change among mobile devotee girls complicates ideas about children’s role in migration as “passive” dependents who mirror the sentiments and ideologies of their parents. From the perspective of the girls’ families, utopia is about protecting their daughters from the “world-out-there.” Yet, because of their constant migratory experiences, devotee girls are periodically exposed to that world. Rather than categorically reject or embrace it, the girls display an ability to modify or switch moral frameworks surrounding chastity. This study discusses cultural changes initiated by the next generation of devotees as an outcome of their cosmopolitan life, especially their frequent geographical mobility, which exposes them to variability and affords contestation of localized�values.

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