Meena Khandelwal is best known for her research on Hindu religious renunciation. This work resulted in an ethnography entitled Women in Ochre Robes (SUNY Press 2004) that focuses on the everyday lives of women initiated into sannyasa, a particularly extreme variety of Hindu asceticism. Sannyasa entails the renunciation of marriage, family ties, wealth, caste, and professional status for a life of celibacy and spiritual discipline. This book explores the complex gendering of a tradition that, on the one hand, was created by and for elite men, and, on the other, claims to transcend gender. Although, historically, women have been excluded from sannyasa, female renunciants (sannyasinis) comprise a substantial minority of contemporary initiates. Khandelwal’s research suggests that sexuality and celibacy are mutually implicated and that abstinence should be accounted for in the field of sexuality studies. She co-edited a volume with Sondra Hausner and Ann Grodzins Gold entitled Women’s Renunciation in South Asia (Palgrave Macmillan 2006). A South-Asian edition of this book was published with the title Nuns, Yoginis, Saints and Singers (Zubaan 2007). Khandelwal has also published on the transnational aspects of Hindu renunciation, including an essay on foreign swamis who have migrated to India (Identities 2007). Her essay “The Cosmopolitan Guru: Spiritual Tourism and Ashrams in Rishikesh” examines renunciant cosmopolitanism in the yoga capital of the world (in The Guru in South Asia ed. by Copeman and Ikegama, 2012).
As a householder herself, Khandelwal has also published on romantic love and other things renounced by Hindu sadhus! Her essay “Arranging Love: Interrogating the Vantage Point in Cross-Border Feminism” (Signs 2009) examines western discourses of arranged marriage and argues for combining the insights of area studies and transnational frameworks. In her essay “Dance On!” Khandelwal has also written about cultural politics in campus-based Indian diaspora identities and institutional practices.
More recently, Khandelwal has turned her attention to two ongoing projects related to transnational studies, migration and development. The first is a study of US-based Indian diaspora organizations that support development projects in India. As part of the process of privatization of foreign aid, development experts and policy-makers have embraced diaspora as a new development strategy. With regard to skilled and professional migration, talk has shifted from negative “brain drain” to the more positively-inflected “brain circulation” with the implication that migration contributes to development in the homeland through remittances, investment and philanthropy. US-based Indians have become increasingly involved in civil society organizations in the homeland at the same time that India has seen an enormous—and controversial—expansion of its NGO sector. This project explores the implications of diasporic involvement in development NGOs.
The second project is a collaboration with applied scientists sparked by a chance conversation about a solar cooker project. H.S. Udaykumar (Mechanical Engineering, University of Iowa) took a group of students to visit a village in Rajasthan, India; they found that women and girls were trekking long hours to find and haul firewood that was once available just outside their homes—simply to cook a meal. Availability of a solar cooker, they thought, would not only address the problem of deforestation but would also reduce women’s workload and result in girls going to school. The engineers’ consideration of perspectives from cultural anthropology and gender studies led to an awareness that the cooking fuel problem is technological, environmental, cultural and political. They then invited several other colleagues to join the conversation, resulting in a multi-disciplinary and multi-dimensional research team exploring the linkages between forests, energy, gender relations, health, consumption and culture and between the local and global processes.
Thus far, two publications have resulted from this collaboration. Khandelwal has published an essay on veganism, vegetarianism and beef-eating titled “Cooking with Firewood: Deep Meaning and Environmental Materialities in a Globalized World” (in Mapping Feminist Anthropology in the Twenty-First Century ed. by Lewin and Silverstein, 2016). She is also lead author on a multi-authored essay “Why Have Cook-stove Initiatives in India Failed?” which is accepted for publication in World Development.
Khandelwal has been awarded a Fulbright-Hays Group Project Award to take a group of 12 faculty and students to Rajasthan to learn about the story of cook-stove interventions. The seminar is planned for December 2016 and is described here:
Here is the announcement for Prof. Khandelwal's Fulbright-Hays award: "When an Engineer Can't Fix It."
This research collaboration has also led to the development of an innovative, multi-disciplinary ‘big ideas’ course People and Environment: Technology, Culture and Social Justice being taught by the same group of faculty. Khandelwal has directed and co-taught this course for three years and describes it in a video as part of UI’s Extraordinary Teaching Project:
Introduction to Cultural Anthropology
South Asian Sexual Cultures
Anthropology of Marriage and Family
Gender and Justice: Inquiry into Social Change in Rural Haryana, India (study abroad 2010)
Feminist Ethnography (graduate seminar)
Reading Transnational Feminist Theory (graduate seminar)
Bollywood, Parades and Religion: How “India” Came to America (first year seminar Fall 2011)
Bollywood, Curry and Temples: How “India” Came to America (first year seminar Fall 2012)
Cooking Up Storms (first year seminar Fall 2013)
People and Environment: Culture, Technology and Social Justice
Love and Kinship in South Asia