Dissertation Abstracts

Old Gods, New Religions, and Modern Marriages in Nepal

Author: McKendry-Smith, Emily , mckendry@westga.edu
Department: Sociology
University: University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill, USA
Supervisor: Dr. Lisa Pearce
Year of completion: 2013
Language of dissertation: English

Keywords: Nepal , religion , new religious moveme , Brahma Kumaris
Areas of Research: Religion , Communication, Knowledge and Culture , Family Research


This dissertation is a set of three papers broadly focused on the role of religion in a context of rapid social change associated with modernization and development. My research design comprises two areas of data collection at three Brahma Kumari centers in Chitwan, Nepal: participant observation at daily religious services and in-depth interviews with female devotees. I complement this with statistical analyses on spousal choice and religious salience using survey data from the Chitwan Valley Family Study.
In the first chapter I address the paradox that in Nepal, religion appears to be shifting from individual to communal worship, in contrast to the belief of many scholars that modernity has a privatizing and individualizing effect on religion. I find that due to unique features of Nepali homes, the role of puja in Nepali society, and perceptions of the Brahma Kumaris lead to a case where puja in the home is public and congregational meditation is private.
In the second chapter, I address how the Brahma Kumaris frame their movement in relation to value-laden ideas about modernity and how this framing influences acceptance of their “strict” demands. I find that Nepalis tend to accept and follow the group’s strict demands when those demands have been framed as modern and that framing is resonant with the prevailing definitions of modernity offered by Western development agencies. When the modern framing is not resonant, the strict demand is not followed and the frame itself is rejected in favor of the practice being defined in different terms.
My third chapter employs data from the Chitwan Valley Family Study. I examine the relationship between education, religious salience, and the practice of arranged marriage, using interaction terms to examine how religious salience may moderate the relationship between spousal choice and education, and I find a significant interaction between respondent years of education and average neighborhood religious salience. I explain this using the “moral communities thesis,” a theory suggesting a relationship between a community’s religious characteristics and levels of deviance.