It’s a complex endeavor to travel to India, live with a community of Buddhist nuns, collect their oral histories, and return to the United States to write a play documenting their stories.
But that is what Robyn Spateholts ’13 has set out to do in a project whose goal is to disseminate knowledge about a community of nuns largely unknown to the world.
“Mount Holyoke truly encourages its students to think beyond what is commonly accepted as possible,” Spateholts says. “My professors equipped me to dream really big.”
Spateholts has been awarded a Fulbright fellowship to support her project. She is scheduled to leave August 18 for the city of Nagpur in the state of Maharashtra, where she will conduct her interviews.
A native of Hudson, New York, Spateholts majored in religion and minored in Asian studies, graduating magna cum laude and receiving the Chapin Prize for Academic Excellence in Religion. Having also acted and directed at area theatre companies, she wove her interest in social justice theatre into her Fulbright proposal.
An independent study in India on Buddhist pilgrimage, combined with a religion course on feminist theologies, crystallized her thoughts on women and Buddhism. This led to her senior research project with Associate Professor of Religion Susanne Mrozik, Gender Reform in Religious Institutions: Tibetan Bhikshunis and Roman Catholic Women Priests.
Mrozik laid the groundwork for Spateholts’s upcoming project by connecting her with Indian nuns Mrozik had met at a Buddhist women’s conference.
“Robyn has developed a really creative project that combines ethnography with theatre,” Mrozik says. “Many Maharashtrian Buddhist nuns come from the economically and socially disadvantaged Dalit caste. Since the mid-twentieth century, large numbers of Dalits have converted to Buddhism to fight caste discrimination, which they associate with Hinduism,” she says. “There are many articles and books about Dalit Buddhists, but none so far about these nuns. Both Buddhist scholars and practitioners, including other Buddhist nuns, will benefit from Robyn’s project.“
Mrozik adds that, contingent on funding, Spateholts might stage a version of her play at the next Sakyadhita (Daughters of the Buddha) International Conference for Buddhist Women, scheduled for June 2015 in Indonesia.
—By Ronni Gordon