Reflections from Chandra Mallampalli, 2021-22 HDS Yang Visiting Scholar in World Christianity
Professor Chandra Mallampalli holds the Fletcher Jones Foundation Chair of the Social Sciences at Westmont College and is a professor of South Asian history. He was one of two inaugural Yang Visiting Scholars in World Christianity at HDS during the 2021-22 academic year. Below, Professor Mallampalli talks about the early inspiration he received from his teachers and professors, the enthusiasm of HDS students in his classes on Christianity in the Global South, and what he hopes the lasting impact is of his research and forthcoming book, South Asia’s Christians: Between Hindu and Muslim.
Harvard Divinity School: When did you become interested in teaching and in academic scholarship?
Chandra Mallampalli: My career aspirations took many bends and turns, but I settled in on becoming a scholar after working as a journalist. Well after college, during the early 1990s, I traveled throughout South Asia writing articles about secularism, religious freedom, and conflict. The experience made me curious about many aspects of the history of modern India. I eventually enrolled in the PhD program in South Asian history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
In college and graduate school, I had several inspiring professors who modeled a remarkable balance between being amazing intellectuals and excellent teachers. They made me excited to pursue teaching as a profession. I have found the combination of scholarly research and teaching to be key ingredients of what has thus far been an exhilarating line of work. It is not easy to learn something well enough to teach or write about it effectively, but when coupled with interactions with students, this has been deeply rewarding.
HDS: Can you tell me more about the two classes you taught this year: “Conversion in South Asia” in the fall, and "Asia and World Christianity” this spring? What hopes did you have for the classes?
CM: Both courses were taught in a seminar format to promote vibrant discussion. Both convinced me that there is a real eagerness among HDS students to learn about the growing Christian presence in the Global South in all of its complexity. Their enthusiasm was contagious and made for an invigorating teaching experience.
In the fall, my seminar “Conversion in South Asia” looked at conversion to Catholicism and Protestantism since 1500. Conversion has become a highly contentious issue in India, with as many as nine states advancing “anti-conversion” legislation. On the one hand, conversion belongs to the missionary impulse of a salvation religion—a desire to bring a message of redemption and emancipation to others. On the other hand, conversion may be viewed as a siege on the consciousness of another person—a form of violence against that person’s autonomy.
The readings of the course present different snapshots of conversion in South Asia in different time periods and regions. They draw insights from history, anthropology and theology, and present case studies that are centered on issues of rupture and continuity, the motives behind conversion, and the ties to colonial power, global capitalism, and caste.
In the spring, my seminar “Asia and World Christianity” examined Christianity in Japan, China, India, and South Korea. We discussed the methods and motives of Roman Catholic and Protestant missionaries, the political climate of nineteenth and twentieth century Asia—in particular, colonialism and nationalism—local theologies, gender, and the experience of churches within predominantly Hindu, Confucian, Shinto, or Buddhist societies.
We paid special attention to the rapid growth of Pentecostal/Charismatic movements in contemporary Asia and their interaction with local forms of spirituality. The course draws from many disciplines, but primarily history, to recognize Christianity as an Asian religion and ask whether it remained that way against the history of foreign missionary involvement. We compare and contrast different Christian experiences across Asia and examine how Asian theologies have balanced local experience and a global faith vision in their formulations of belief and praxis.
Students were generous in their feedback about both courses. Besides the eye-opening material, which was completely new for many of them, they expressed their appreciation for the diverse experiences and backgrounds of their peers and how this brought new insights and energy to class discussions.
HDS: How is the work going for your book project, South Asia’s Christians: Between Hindu and Muslim? Is that research and writing part of your work as a Yang Visiting Scholar?
CM: I came to HDS as a Yang Scholar mainly to work on this book, and I am pleased to say the book is now entering production with Oxford University Press, New York. It should be out in the beginning of next year.
The book offers a general history of Christians in South Asia, with a special focus on their deep history of interactions with members of other religious traditions—most notably, Hindus and Muslims. Being a Yang Visiting Scholar provided me with a highly supportive and motivating climate for research and writing, and yes, the book has been the main focus of my time at HDS this past year.
HDS: What’s been the biggest surprise of your time at Harvard Divinity School?
CM: I confess to being pretty surprised by the number of wild turkeys and their early morning chatter. Beyond that, I was most grateful for the quality interaction I was able to have with a few scholars who made themselves available for conversation over drinks or meals at various points in the year. I guess that isn’t exactly a “surprise,” but in light of how busy we academics are, it wasn’t something I took for granted.
HDS: Do you think you’ve been able to expand your scholarly network with new and meaningful relationships, both at HDS and perhaps even more broadly across Harvard?
CM: I have enjoyed my interactions with members of the History Department, the Laxmi Mittal Family Center for South Asian Studies, and the Center for the Study of World Religions. Between these venues, I have definitely expanded my scholarly network and built quality ties with new colleagues, which hopefully will continue.
HDS: What do you hope will be the larger impact of your work and scholarship?
CM: I hope my work and scholarship will deepen our appreciation of South Asia as a world area and how it enriches the study of religion, society, and world history. I also hope my scholarship—especially my forthcoming book, South Asia’s Christians: Between Hindu and Muslim, will contribute to lively discussions about the Christian dimension of South Asian history and its importance to the study of World or Global Christianity.
So far, studies of World Christianity have been focused—quite understandably—on regions where Christianity has undergone dramatic numerical growth (for instance, sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, or South Korea). What South Asia brings to this discussion is a vital inter-faith component and a focus on the plight of oppressed and marginal peoples who have become Christian. These topics are central to some of the greatest challenges of our day.
HDS: How did you hear about the opportunity to be a Yang Visiting Scholar at HDS?
CM: I am on a list serve that posts these kinds of opportunities from time to time. About a week before the deadline, someone was kind enough to post the announcement about the Yang Scholars Program—just in case we had not yet heard about it (and I hadn’t!). I did my best to pool my materials together to submit my application, and I am so grateful for the opportunity to be one of the inaugural scholars. I saw the Yang Visiting Scholarship as a great opportunity to interact with an outstanding community of scholars and to make use of Harvard’s excellent research facilities. The experience has more than lived up to my expectations.
HDS: Had you been to Harvard before you came this year? What were your expectations, both of the Yang Visiting Scholars program and of life in general at Harvard and Harvard Divinity School?
CM: I really did not know what to expect in terms of everyday life at Harvard, since I had never been here before this year. The requirements of the program were quite straightforward in terms of the teaching, etc., so there were no surprises on that front. What I most appreciated was life at the Center for the Study of World Religions, where we resided and where there is a highly engaging community of scholars who were great people to interact with on a regular basis.
I also appreciated getting to know the HDS students and the interfaith dimension of an HDS education. The diverse backgrounds and experiences of my students greatly enriched our discussions of the material on World Christianity.
HDS: How has being a Yang Visiting Scholar aided in your academic work, and what do you think you’ll take with you back to Westmont College?
CM: The Yang Visiting Scholars Program created a climate where I could focus on my scholarship and enjoy the support and energy that comes from a vibrant intellectual community and vast resources of Harvard’s libraries. I hope to bring back many insights from what I’ve discovered in my research, along with the value of inter-faith and inter-ethnic relationships and exchanges. My interactions with Muslim students at an event raising awareness about the plight of China’s Uyghurs and with Hindu colleagues at the CSWR and during Diwali are some of my fondest memories from this past year.
HDS: If you could give future Yang Visiting Scholar applicants a piece of advice when applying, what would it be?
CM: Try to be as specific as possible about what you hope to accomplish if granted this extraordinary opportunity and its significance to the study of World Christianity. Try also to make a case for what you can bring to the HDS community and what you hope to receive from it if you are a successful candidate.