Gauri Viswanathan
“Theosophy, Memory, and History: Religion after Religion”

Spring 2011

On April 7, 2011, the Institute for Signifying Scriptures hosted Gauri Viswanathan for its annual Distinguished Speaker lecture series. Widely regarded as an innovative literary and cultural critic, Prof. Viswanathan drew on her current research project to look into the excavation and writing of alternative religious histories. Her presentation focused on theosophical material in the writings of Helena Blavatsky, W. B. Yeats, and Annie Besant, which attempt to retrieve a religious history prior to its flattening and fixing by religious dogmatism.

Some ISS research assistants reflect on the significance of this event.

Richard Newton:

“Gauri Viswanathan led us on an intellectual odyssey through the theosophic movement. Her critical reflections illuminated the creative ways that the movement's exemplars appropriated mythic pasts, and even the dead, in response to socio-religious pressures. Her rich prose facilitated our critical engagement with the scripturalizing at work in the era of concern. And the conversations hosted and sparked by her work will not be forgotten as we continue to excavate scriptures in a comparative manner.”


“In broaching critical issues for the study of religion, Prof. Viswanathan’s lecture showcased the breadth and depth of her expertise. Her evocative skill wove seemingly disparate material into a compelling narrative and articulated, I thought, very innovative data and methods for addressing broader disciplinary questions. Overall, I thought her valorization of categories and dimensions deemed inconsequential by established institutions—religious, academic, and so on—was a trajectory that one can not disregard any more.”

Melissa Reid:

“One of the ideas put forth by Dr. Viswanathan that I found particularly interesting was the idea that, in modernity, literature comes to assume the function of ecclesiastical authority.  The transfer of power from persons to texts is a fascinating notion to ponder and investigate further.”

David Olali:

“I thought that Prof. Gauri Vishwanathan’s presentation addressed some very pertinent issues and methods that retrace and reconstruct a sense of the past that exists only in fragments. Seeking a recovery of the broken links in civilizations’ anchors, she courses through archives of history and memory to suggest a heterogeneous religious history that was rounded off by the ascendancy of the so-called world religions. Her mention of the possibility of understanding of the past through a return via ancient religious literature reminds me of my own search for my family roots and routes. She pushes me to think further, and rethink the retelling of tales of repression and the pretexts that are obscured by manipulations in the upward climb toward cultural and political dominance.”
Wendell Miller:

“What I found particularly interesting in Prof. Vishwanathan's provocative lecture on theosophy was how the scriptural authority of literature translates into ethical authority, and how this transformation gives literature canonical power.  Prof. Vishwanathan’s presentation challenged me to further excavate the effects of possible ecclesiastical underpinnings inherent in non-text (performance) based modes of expression, and whether or not these underpinnings prevent such expressions from being accepted as authoritative in specific communities.”


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