Department of Asian Studies
Department of Asian Studies

February Graduate Student Spotlight: Gardner Harris, Ph.D. candidate

Thu, January 31, 2008

JT: What got you interested in Asia in the first place? and how did you decide to get a Ph.D. in Asian Cultures and Languages?
GH: My interest in Hinduism developed as an undergraduate at TCU. I enrolled in several classes with a professor who really piqued my curiosity about Hinduism. When I graduated I did not know what I was going to do with my life--such is the problem with a Philosophy degree. I moved to Austin and taught Literature and Composition at the Griffin School, a non-profit, private high school, for three years. That was very rewarding but I was continuously thinking about studying Hinduism in-depth. My academic background in South Asia was not very strong at the time. I enrolled in UT as an undergraduate and took Hindi and a few content courses to get me up to speed, so to speak. It certainly added to my knowledge and revealed to me the beauty in studying languages. While I did not continue with studying Hindi, I have continued studying South Asian languages. When I was admitted to the Asian Studies program, I did not know how far I was going to take my studies. I thought that I was going to be able to continue teaching at the Griffin School, managing a restaurant (which I was doing to pay the bills), and succeed as a graduate student. That lasted for a year, and a painful year at that. I quit teaching and managing the restaurant and devoted 100% of my time to study; when I did, I realized that after the Masters Degree, I would need to continue with the Ph.D. because there is just so much to learn. After nine years of study, research, spending time in India, and developing wonderful friendships my time as a graduate student is coming to a close. I am excited about new doors opening and beginning a new life as a teacher and researcher.

JT: What is the topic of your dissertation?
GH: In the dissertation, I conduct an intra-textual and inter- textual philological and literary analysis of three genres of Tamil literature, investigating the motive of medieval Tamil Shaiva poets and philosophers for choosing the term "arul" to designate Shiva’s fundamental principle. It was Shiva’s arul that spawned the cosmos and it also provides the soul spiritual release from the clutches of samsara or rebirth. In a Saiva theological context, the term debuts in the bhakti (devotional) hymns (c. 6th – 9th cents CE) of the nayanmar (poet-saints). Over the course of three centuries, the semantics of the term widened. In the last major devotional work produced, the Tiruvacakam ("Sacred Utterances"; 9th cent CE), Manikkavacakar (He whose speech is Rubies) expanded the semantic latitude of arul, using it in ways that previous Shaiva authors had not. He used the term to indicate almost all of Shiva’s mythological exploits, and he used it appositionally to indicate Shiva himself and the proper knowledge required for spiritual liberation. Manikkavacakar created a space for arul to become the Shaiva identity marker par excellence. My question regarding this term was, is this a neologism? I turned to classical Tamil poetry (ca. 100 BCE- 400 CE) and discovered that it had a life prior to its inclusion in the technical vocabulary of Tamil Shaivism. In classical poetry, the term was associated with the ideal king and the ideal lover. Much like Shiva in the later devotional literature, either the king or the lover offered his arul to another. The bestowal of arul had the potential of radically altering a person's lived experience in a positive way; its absence caused suffering. In the Shavia context, when a devotee received Shiva's arul, then they would experience spiritual liberation and suffering would cease. One aspect of my dissertation is to focus on the structural similarities between the earlier classical poetry and the later Tamil Shaiva devotional literature.

JT: Tell me about the course you are teaching, Shiva: the Great God of India. It's a great title, what made you decide to teach on Shiva?
GH: Shiva is one of the more interesting deities in the Hindu pantheon. He is simultaneously the ideal ascetic and a husband, two personalities that seemingly contradict one another. How can one be an ascetic--a person who renounces the social world, which includes physical pleasure--and be a husband, a role that affirms the social world and physical pleasure? This question is the motivation for the course. In exploring this paradox, we are reading mythology and philosophy, both of which provide different answers--mythology picks up where philosophy stops and vice versa. We are also studying iconography, devotional literature, and ritual. At the end of the semester, we will have a section on Shiva's family. We will conclude the semester and the course studying aspects of his wife, the Goddess, and his sons, Ganesha, the elephantine god, and Skanda.

JT: Where's your favorite place in India and why?
GH: I have two favorite places in India: Madurai and Chennai. Both of these cities are in the state of Tamilnadu. These two places are dear to me because I have spent a lot of time in both. In Madurai, I began studying Tamil on the American Institute of Indian Studies language program; in Chennai, I conducted the research for my dissertation. All of India is beautiful, though; however, memories provide the rationale behind my choosing these places as being my favorites. And I am desperate to return. It is like an addiction: if I don't have my India fix, then I begin experiencing withdrawls. Presently, I need to be committed because it has been three years since I spent time in India.

JT: If you could have dinner with anyone living or dead who would it be and why?
GH: More than likely, it would be Thomas Pynchon, author of "Gravity's Rainbow," "V", and "The Crying Lot of 49," among others. Although a bit peculiar at times, I find his novels absolutely brilliant. From what I understand, he is a bit of a recluse and an oddball. Spending time in the company of oddballs has interesting rewards.

JT: If you were an animal, what kind of animal would you be?
A cat, and particularly one of my wife's cats (names: Puli-raja and Meena). She loves cats so much and dotes on them so frequently that I often find myself wishing I had a tail, whiskers, and a fluffy coat. Perhaps in a next life.

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