Rodney Sebastian is an Assistant Professor from the Religious Studies Department at Manhattan College. Besides introductory courses, his teaching focuses on religious traditions in India. He also serves as the coordinator for the Veterans at Ease Program at Manhattan College, which involves assisting student veterans adapt to civilian life and achieve success during their college experience. His current research focuses on the history, religious themes, and structures of Vaishnava performances in the northeast Indian state of Manipur. In his PhD dissertation submitted at the University of Florida, he examined the sociopolitical structures and religious history that produced the Manipuri Rāsalīlā dance dramas.
Role in the Project: The Manipuri Rāsalīlā, which was first performed in the 18th century and is now well-known as one of India’s classical dances, depicts the theology of Hindu Vaiṣṇava texts, primarily the Bhāgavata Purāṇa, as well as aesthetics and gestures from indigenous religious dances. Based on a study of Manipuri court chronicles, the lyrics of various Manipuri Rāsalīlās and ethnographic work, I examine how the Bhāgavata Purāṇa influenced Manipuri Vaiṣṇavism through specific discourses and instutitions that blended with the indigenous religion, and consequently led to a hybrid form of religious ideas and practices. It also led to the production and structuring of religious specialists, religious literature, and art forms such as the Manipuri Rāsalīlā. By analyzing the intellectual history and influence of the Bhāgavata Purāṇa in Manipur as a medium of construction, dissemination, and practice of religion, I demonstrate how religious knowledge based on written texts is transmitted in embodied ways. This research follows my PhD dissertation on the historical development of the Manipuri Rāsalīlās. I have also presented papers in conferences on this theme. They include 'Variations of the Manipuri Rāsalīlās in the 20th century: The Nitya Rās and Diva Rās.' in Center for the Study of Hindu Traditions (CHiTra) Mela 3 (2019),‘Constructing the Manipuri Rāsalīlās: Agency, Power, and Consensus’ in the American Academy of Religion (AAR) Annual Meeting (2018), ‘Mapping the Manipuri Rāsalīlā: Theme, Ritual and Structure’ with the Dharma Academy of North America (DANAM) as part of the panel theme, “Regional Bhakti Traditions” (2018), and ‘Interpreting the Manipuri Rāsalīlās: A Sociopolitical Contextualization’ in the 47th Annual Conference on South Asia, Wisconsin-Madison, 2018.
2019. Sebastian, Rodney ‘Cultural Fusion in a Religious Dance Drama: the Sociopolitical Origins of the Manipuri Rāsalīlās.’ Journal of Vaishnava Studies, 27 (2), 75-94.
2019. Cultural fusion in a religious dance drama: building the sacred body in the Manipuri Rāslīlās. Dissertation submitted at the University of Florida.
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