- Pub. Date: June 2008
"You should come with us to Lumbini, Lord Buddha's birthplace," said the Saint of Kathmandu as she swept by me after evening devotions in the nunnery. Pausing at the bottom of the stairway to her quarters, she turned and, bright black eyes locking with mine, added, "Will we meet tomorrow? The buses leave at six"-an order, not an invitation, I realized, and so, putting my life on hold, the next morning [I joined the pilgrimage].
Sarah LeVine began doing research in Africa in 1969 as a young woman and sometime Anglican newly married to an anthropologist and provisionally, at least, to a rationalist view of religion. Over the next several decades, as she continued her research in cultures as various as Muslim Nigeria, Catholic Mexico, Buddhist Nepal, Hindu India, and New Age America, she honed a keenly observant eye. During this time she also raised two children, learned and forgot many languages, wrote highly praised novels (under the pen name Louisa Dawkins), and began to understand that religious faith has little to do with doctrine or philosophical abstractions.
These deftly crafted accounts plunge us into the lives of some of the people LeVine became close to on four continents. In a northern Nigerian town we find orthodox Muslims trying- and failing- to ignore the thriving spirit possession cult in their midst. In a Mexican city women struggling with their husbands' infidelity and the loss of children and take the Virgin Mary as their role model. In the face of tragedy in a Kenyan village, tensions flare between traditionalists who live in dread of ancestral wrath and witchcraft and Christians who reject such beliefs. In affluent Hong Kong a Filipina maid, enduring a long separation from her son, turns for support to a charismatic Catholic church; and in Nepal, LeVine accompanies the remarkable Saint of Kathmandu, who fled an arranged marriage and earned renown as a Buddhist nun and feminist leader, on a pilgrimage to holy places all across north India.
These lives led LeVine to think of religion as inseparable from cultural complexity and constraints, and to view less critically her own lingering attachment to what she calls The Life of Christ (The Movie). As engrossing and surprising as any novel, The Saint of Kathmandu is a richly textured and unsentimental depiction of the role of religion in lives all over the world.
Anthropologist LeVine, who has observed family interactions in Asia, Latin America and Africa over the course of decades, recounts how faith and superstition influence the daily life of the vibrant people she has met. "My focus is always on my characters' need for religious faith and the uses they make of it," she writes. With her "observing eye" and boundless curiosity, LeVine describes how witchcraft, Buddhism, spirit possession, charismatic Christianity and the Virgin Mary help people make sense of their lives and endure the hardships they encounter. Vivid descriptions and sympathetic portraits are this book's strengths, while the author's treatment of religion sometimes tends toward the superficial, addressing religion primarily as solace. LeVine (who coauthored Rebuilding Buddhismwith David Gellner) is reticent about her reactions to the practices she witnesses and doesn't always reveal when the events occurred, thereby omitting vital clues about political and cultural contexts. Still, this is compelling ethnography, and much of the book serves as testimony to the vulnerability of women in developing countries. (June 18)
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Sarah LeVine grew up in England. She was educated at Oxford, the University of Chicago, and Harvard, where she received her Ph.D. and is now an associate in the Department of Sanskrit and Indian Studies. Her most recent book, with David Gellner, is Rebuilding Buddhism. She lives in the Boston area.