2000 Student-Faculty Fellows: University Of Puget Sound

Malaysia: Hinduism in the Diaspora: The Sathya Sai Movement in Malaysia

Mentor: Sunil Kukreja, Department of Comparative Sociology
Student: Jasmine Furnish, ’02, Religion

Jasmine Furnish

The research project Professor Kukreja and I conducted in Malaysia was essential to the objectives of my proposal in part because a critical aspect of the project was the emphasis on examining the Sathya Sai movement from the viewpoints of the organization’s leadership and membership. In addition, it was also necessary to conduct the research within the social, political and economic climate in which the movement manifested in order to gain significant insight to the Sathya Sai movement and its implications within Malaysian communities. From the perspective of both objectives I am satisfied that the research project was highly successful. Although not without personal and academic challenges, my experiences conducting research in Malaysia were positive from arrival to departure. The project required me to make the transition from the classroom to the world by making the necessary connections between the theories, ideas and assumptions I brought with me and the people, places and events I encountered while I was there. Not only did the research project frequently challenge my own worldview and force me to reevaluate my own values and assumptions (as well as the original objectives of the project), it also served as a constant reminder of my personal and cultural lens and by doing so, helped me avoid the temptation of only looking for what I originally set out to see. In other words, the life lesson that transcends the particulars of this research project is to approach any subject by simultaneously engaging my ability to think critically and also keep an open mind.

Prof. Sunil Kukreja

As faculty fellow, returning to do fieldwork in Malaysia was most gratifying. On the whole, I couldn’t have asked for a better scenario for the way things turned out. Jasmine and I established a wonderful working relationship, which contributed to an experience that was professionally rewarding and intellectually engaging. Aside from first establishing ties with Sathya Sai devotees and then scheduling and conducting interviews, we supplemented our data with on-site observations through regular attendance at a range of Sathya Sai devotional and various community service related activities that many devotees regularly engage in.

Beyond the immediate parameter of the research, though by no means unrelated to our focus, the experience provided an opportunity to re-established numerous contacts with various individuals I have worked with in the past. It also aided in initiated significant new ties with various individuals, and set up a number of other contacts with prominent individuals in the political and social arenas.

Research Findings

Though we have yet to systematically process the data gathered, it would not be unreasonable to suggest that since the early 1970s – when the Sathya Sai movement in Malaysia first began to acquire a sense of institutional identity – it has become progressively more visible and coordinated. This has been the result of a combination of rather disparate factors. Most noteworthy, however, has been the role of its de facto leader, Jegadesan. It was his increasing presence, inspired by his own zeal for Swami’s (Sai Baba’s) teachings that helped bring about a greater degree of coordination and sparked the increasing international preeminence of both Jegadesan and the Malaysian Sai movement, at least in the eyes of devotees. On another level, our data also suggests extensive heterogeneity among devotees. This fact, something that extant studies on the Sai movement have largely ignored, seems to underscore a number of aspects about devotees’ perspectives and experiences. Jasmine and I are optimistic that as we examine our data more closely and systematically, this will provide a valuable window for analyzing and assessing the various interpretations Sai devotees attach to the “revival” of religious activity, and the process by which devotees reconcile the adaptation of predominantly Hindu religious symbols with the advancement of “universal ideals” central to the Sathya Sai mission.

Venues for Sharing

Upon completion of our analysis of the data, we intend to work on a joint paper on the topic and hope that we will be able to eventually submit it to a scholarly journal for publication.