When one thinks of religion, one may think of Christianity, Buddhism, or Islam, and the practices of these various languages. However, something that may not come to mind right away is the study of religions, when one looks at the practices,philosophies, and origin behind each religion. Professor Lee Siegel, a religion professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, gives a unique perspective on the study of religion that ties in with his own research of the Indian culture.
Although Professor Siegel is a religion professor, his main expertise is not in religion as a whole. Rather, he specializes in East Asian culture, and more specifically, India. Professor Siegel clarifies, “Everyone in my department (Religion) was not hired because they were experts in religion. They were hired because they were experts in a certain area that deals with a different religion.” When asked about his research methods, Professor Siegel said that he sought to learn more about India by actually going and living in India. He described his research method as somewhat “anthropological.”
Professor Siegel carried out his research in India by actually going to India and living there. In fact, he first became interested in India because he always associated India with magic, and wanted to learn more about the aspect magic played within the Indian culture. He decided to enter India not as a professor, but as a magician. Before leaving America, Professor Siegel dabbled in magic tricks to help him prepare for his role as a “magician.” Once in India, he joined a group of Indian magicians and upon numerous trips back to India, worked his way to performing with them. In addition, Professor Siegel said that the most startling experience he had throughout his research and time in India was the close friendship he made with an Indian magician. They were completely different, a juxtaposition– he a literate Jew and his friend an illiterate Muslim. Yet, they were best friends because they had the bond of interest in magic. He said that this broke down his view of the necessity of nationality, gender, race, etc. in a close relationship. Professor Siegel’s example shows that there are very different methods to research outside of the humanities, especially in such an interdisciplinary field such as religion, that also reveal important ideas outside the main goals of the main research purpose..
An interesting product of Professor Siegel’s research is his fiction novels. His first and most popular novel, Love in a Dead Language: A Romance was named a New York Times Notable Book of the Year and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. Surprisingly, Love in A Dead Language is not a nonfiction work, but an Indian love story using Professor Siegel’s knowledge of the Indian culture. Professor Siegel spoke of “scholarship in service of fiction”, and that unlike many colleagues he was foremost a writer. In his book he “blurred the line” between nonfiction and fiction, presumably by using his findings from research (truth) to make his story (fiction) more plausible and knowledgeable. Love in a Dead Language is a successful example that shows it is possible for research to not only lead to a fact-based product but also a fictional one as well.
Lee Siegel’s anthropological research methods as a professor of religion dispels the notion that research outside of science is nothing but reading articles from various sources. His method of conducting research includes traveling and experiencing what he was researching (Indian culture) hands on. His research not only lead to successful academic articles and fiction novels, but experiences that contributed to his overall enrichment.