Tulasi Srinivas

The Body, Sex, and the Democratization of Transparency: Rethinking Religion and Globalization through the Sathya Sai Movement


In many religions, the relationship between the body, sexuality, and the spirit is contentious. I examine this complex relationship with reference to the little known yet highly successful, transnational, civil, Indic (Hindu-Islamic) Sathya Sai Movement that emerges out of India. The data suggests that the Sai religious self is re-constructed towards salvation through a set of cognitive, corporeal, seemingly Foucauldian inspired disciplinary tactics that are reinvented from traditional Hindu and Islamic sattvic (ascetic) experience. These disciplines construct a “legible body” that in turn provides the grammar for the larger symbolic world of global Sai devotion. However, there are two recognized disputing parties over the meaning of this legible body and the level of compliance required – the global Sai Organization and the anti-Sai network – who I argue engage differing yet similar “strategies of silence” when discussing the body and sex. This paper examines these strategies of silence that, I suggest, allow for and engage a vital ambiguity that is in seeming contrast to the rhetoric of transparency that all global institutions are presumed to adhere to. Using one example of a dispute, I reflect on the politics of knowledge and belief that shapes conceptions of embodied devotion and desire, through an analysis of the transnational Sathya Sai Movement’s conception of somatic experiences, and the varying emotional and moral values inherent in, and assigned to, these conceptions. I set them against the larger question; the nature of ambiguity in cultural translation, and the problems and paradoxes that a liberal project of religion faces in a rapidly globalizing world.