As a child, I often asked why. I was endlessly curious about why things were the way they were, and I had a keen sense that they could have been otherwise. How does your faith affect your worldview? How do the languages you speak conceptually shape your experience? How does your class status impact the way you interact with others? Although I did not frame my queries in such terms, these were the questions to which I was searching for answers in my wonderment of why people’s lives, traditions, and perspectives were what they were. So, it makes sense that I eventually found anthropology.
I came to anthropology through studying religion. I was fascinated with faith. I grew up observing religion shape people’s behaviors and convictions, and give them comfort about life’s mysteries. I wanted to know why people believe what they believe and what purpose it serves. What are the mechanisms of religion, and are they the same despite belief differences? I quickly discovered that my questions were not easily answered through doctrinal studies. Rather, I was interested in religion as practice, faith as an act and how it is sustained. Having studied Sanskrit and Tibetan texts, Nepal was an obvious place for me to expand my perspective beyond my familiarity with Judeo-Christian traditions.
It was in Nepal that I first did ethnographic fieldwork. I researched Buddhist and Hindu syncretistic traditions in the northwest Himalayas. I came to understand religion, belief, and ideology as components of the cultural lens through which people see the world. I also gained insight into religion’s role in politics and social hierarchy. The modern state of Nepal was a Hindu kingdom with the caste system as its organizing principle of law and society. Thus, my background in South Asian religions served me well when I chose to focus on party politics and student activism for my Ph.D. research.
I was becoming familiar with Nepal during a tumultuous time in its history. Since the beginning of my studies in Nepal, the country has endured a royal massacre; a civil war between the state and the Maoist party—during which 17,000 people were killed; dissolution of democracy by the king; a four year democratic political movement; a mass movement that deposed the Hindu monarchy and established a democratic, secular republic; and more recently, the drafting of a new constitution and state restructuring. I chose to focus on the university activists who were at the forefront of these political events because they demonstrated a clear conviction that things can and should be otherwise. As party activists new to politics, these university students initially had revolutionary effect by emphasizing emergent needs in a politics that was at a breaking point. I observed them exercise judicious opportunism as they became socialized and indoctrinated into a political system they were agitating against. They’ve secured their political careers within what I call a framework of revolution. These student activists’ experience gives context to how the historical drama of politics has unfolded in Nepal across generations. Democratic politics has been continual contestation over distribution of resources and meaning. It is an ongoing struggle that generates new interpretations and voices, which are then incorporated into the debate. What I have come to understand is that the ebbs and flows of Nepali politics are shaped by revolutionary ruptures, which have been both positive and negative, but have rarely led to resolution. This ongoing democratic debate, however, continues to produce new possibility and new political subjects.
In the fifteen years of doing ethnographic research, I have yet to reach the limits of anthropology as a discipline; I continue to learn new questions to ask and new ways of asking questions as I pursue new research trajectories. Claude Levi-Strauss’s explanation of the anthropology’s contribution to the social sciences captures my scholarly commitment: it is not about simplifying the complex, but rather making the complex comprehensible. In my teaching, research and writing, I strive to capture the complexity of human life and inspire others to ask why in their own way.