Professor garners book award, NEH grant for study of Hindu goddess and ritual

'Reciting the Goddess: Narratives of Place and the Making of Hinduism in Nepal,' receives accolades from National Endowment for the Humanities, American Academy of Religion

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Jessica Vantine Birkenholtz was a junior in college the first time she visited Nepal. She had been interested in language, mythology and religion, and a semester abroad in the South Asian country solidified for her what she wanted to do with her life. She remembers calling her mother from Nepal.

“I belong here,” she said.

While in Nepal, Birkenholtz, now associate professor of Asian studies and women’s, gender, and sexuality studies in Penn State’s College of the Liberal Arts, learned of a tradition dedicated to a Hindu goddess named Svasthani. The tradition originated in the Kathmandu valley of Nepal in the late 1600s and continues to this day. Birkenholtz spent a month studying the tradition — the recitation of a sacred text over the course of a month and a ritual vow based on that text— and the goddess herself, in order to write a paper for her independent study.

“I was just captivated by what I learned,” she said. “That project planted the seed for what became my Ph.D. dissertation and eventually this first book, which I have been thinking about for a very, very long time.”

“Reciting the Goddess” garnered a book award from the American Academy of Religion. Credit: Courtesy of Oxford University PressAll Rights Reserved.

Her book, “Reciting the Goddess: Narratives of Place and the Making of Hinduism in Nepal,” published by Oxford University Press, apparently captivated the scholarly community as well. It earned the 2019 American Academy of Religion Award for Excellence in the Study of Religion in the textual studies category. In addition, her work garnered a National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) Scholarly Editions and Translations Grant to allow Birkenholtz and a fellow scholar to translate the Svasthani text into English. To date, it exists in Sanskrit, Nepali, and Newar (the language of the Newar people of Kathmandu).

Svasthani is a particularly interesting goddess, explained Birkenholtz.

“Her name literally means ‘goddess of one’s own place,’ which is very intriguing and compelling — but also very unhelpful,” she said. “Most other goddesses’ names refer to something more specific. The cool one. The pale one. The impenetrable one. Svasthani as a goddess is a bit of an anomaly.”

Yet, once a year, dating back to the 1600s, the Hindu lunar month occurring from about mid-January to mid-February is dedicated to honoring Svasthani. A chapter of the sacred text is read each night by the head of the household, followed by treats for the children. If also observing the ritual vow, restrictions include fasting, refraining from using soaps and lotions, and sleeping on the floor. There is also a public communal performance that witnesses 200-400 devotees, primarily women, reenacting this vow to Svasthani as described in the text, which includes a 4 a.m. bath in the nearby river’s frigid winter waters.

In her book, Birkenholtz uses the backdrop of the Svasthani ritual and text to consider how they and the goddess have played a role in constructing Nepali Hindu identity and practice. Moreover, she explores how the stories in the text, though all about women, are not necessarily for women.

“The longer I’ve worked with [the text], the more I’ve realized it’s not friendly to women and is quite misogynistic,” said Birkenholtz, whose prized possession is a copy of the text from 1830. “I have tried over the years to bring more nuance to that.”

“Professor Birkenholtz is a scholar of South Asia with expertise on religious cultures as they relate to gender issues. Specifically, she studies Himalayan cultures with particular reference to Nepal,” said On-cho Ng, head of the Department of Asian Studies and professor of history, Asian studies and philosophy. “Her award-winning book sheds new light on the roles that the goddess Svasthani and the ritual text have played in the construction of Nepali Hindu identity and practice with regard to women. Professor Birkenholtz greatly enhances our department’s coverage of the field of South Asian studies.”

Birkenholtz said she was “speechless” on receiving word that “Reciting the Goddess” had won the American Academy of Religion award and equally pleased to have received the NEH grant to translate the Svasthani text. “It’s an incredible honor to have my work recognized, but it is even more meaningful to have a work on Nepal highlighted and given attention. The book took many years and many sacrifices and a lot of work, but it was very satisfying and meaningful to me.”

While admitting that her book is rather “niche,” Birkenholtz said she is excited to share her passion with students.

“I think it’s important to share my passion and my curiosity about places like Nepal to pique students’ interest. I credit my undergraduate professors with opening my eyes and setting me on a path for incredible discovery and growth and enrichment,” she said. “I love to show students how medieval texts are applicable to today — to spark conversation and get students to think much more broadly. I love when they say they want to know more.”

Associate Professor of Asian Studies and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Jessica Vantine Birkenholtz Credit: Courtesy of Jessica BirkenholtzAll Rights Reserved.

Last Updated April 15, 2021