Since 1956, Nagpur in central India has been the major site of activity for Indian Buddhists who inherit the legacy of the Dalit (ex-Untouchable) leader Bhimrao Ambedkar. In the past twenty years, the city’s profile has attracted increasing attention, personal contacts, and financial support from Buddhists outside India, especially from Taiwan and Japan. These connections have led to, among other things, four major building projects that prominently display international collaborative roots. The Nagaloka Buddhist Training Centre on the outskirts of Nagpur is a campus built with funds from India, the UK, and Taiwan, in the middle of which stands a 12m statue of Walking Buddha by a Taiwanese sculptor. A tsunami memorial and dhamma hall complex near the towns of Mansar and Ramtek were constructed through the collaborative efforts of diverse Japanese Buddhists and local Indians. And the Dragon Palace Temple in the town of Kamptee was built through the collaboration of two women – a local Dalit politician and a Japanese entrepreneur – and is now affiliated with the Nichiren Shu Order. My talk will focus on the visual economy of these buildings, which proudly display their transnational connections while relating to local communities. By observing transnational flows of people, resources, and cultural capital through these sites, I consider the prospects and challenges of appealing to a common “Buddhism” at work in them to bridge significant cultural and sectarian differences.
Prior to joining MSU in 2015, Jon Keune was a postdoctoral fellow in the India Studies program at the University of Houston and in the Centre for Modern Indian Studies at the University of Göttingen in Germany. His main field of research is in west-central India, where he lived for several years, and he has comparative interests in central Europe and East Asia.
Keune focuses on the development of popular, devotional (bhakti) Hindu traditions, especially the Varkari tradition and its hagiographical literature in Marathi between the sixteenth century and the present. He is working on a book manuscript, Shared Devotion, Shared Food: Bhakti and Transgressive Commensality in Western India, about the tension of bhakti traditions between observing caste boundaries and spiritual equality. Keune has published several articles in journals, edited books, and encyclopedias about Hindu devotionalism, Marathi hagiography, Hindu-Christian encounters, and German orientalism. He co-founded the Regional Bhakti Scholars Network, a platform which brings together scholars of various Indian regions and languages to explore patterns in literatures, traditions, and theologies that come under the umbrella of devotional Hinduism. Keune is also working on a project on new connections between Dalit (ex-Untouchable) Buddhists in India and Buddhists in Japan and Taiwan.