Religious Studies' Selva Raj Dies

'He Graced this Earth'

Selva Raj, professor and chair of religious studies who was known internationally as an expert on the religions of south India and beloved locally as a kind and gentle scholar, died unexpectedly of natural causes Saturday (March 15) at his home in Albion. He was 55.

A prolific scholar who called himself a "teacher-learner," Raj was an internationally recognized specialist in popular Christianity in India, and other South Asian religions. But he also prided himself on expanding his areas of scholarship and remaining in-step with emerging trends in his discipline while maintaining the interest of his students through the development of new courses.

In 2006 Raj, who had taught at Albion since 1995, was named to a second four-year term as the Stanley S. Kresge Endowed Professor in Religious Studies.

His research focused on the ritual exchange among Hindus and Catholics in southern India, and he had recently begun examining women's movements in contemporary India. Another area of interest was contemporary women saints.

"Selva was an amazing scholar and a magnificent human being," said Bindu Madhok, professor and chair of Albion's philosophy department and a close friend for years. "He was one of the kindest and gentlest persons I will ever know. He was capable of infinite love and caring, and he gave all his love and caring to those who loved him and cared for him."

Over the years Raj taught courses on Hinduism, Buddhism; Rites of Passage; Introduction to Eastern Religions; India, Values, and Gender Roles (team-taught with Bindu Madhok); Feminine in World Religions; Religion and Ecology; Death and Dying in World Religions; and Myth, Symbol, and Ritual; and Global Christianity. Future courses Raj was developing included Religion and the Body and South Asian Religions in America. This semester he was a teaching a Hinduism course.

The author of several books, chapters, and articles as well as scores of conference presentations, Raj co-edited the books "Dealing with Deities: The Ritual Vow in South Asia" in 2006 and "Popular Christianity in India: Riting between the Lines" in 2002, both published by SUNY Press. These books have been used in upper-level courses for religion majors, according to Madhok.

A third co-edited book, "Miracle as Conundrum in South Asian Traditions," was submitted for publication. At the time of his death, Raj also had many other books and edited manuscripts in various stages of preparation, including works exploring ritual humor in Third World Christianity and other religious traditions, and the South Asian Christian Diaspora in North America and Europe. In addition, he was working on his own manuscript on popular Christianity in South India.

{mosimage}He also was working on two memoirs. At the invitation of SUNY Press, Raj was writing a book-as he described it-"based on my personal acquaintance and knowledge of Mother Teresa and her work among the poor." The tentative title was "Touched by an Angel: The Career and Charisma of Mother Teresa of Calcutta."

When Mother Teresa died in 1997, Raj flew to India to represent the College at her funeral. At the time of his death during Albion's spring break, Raj was working on an upcoming talk about his experiences with Mother Teresa that he was to deliver at Loyola University in Chicago at the end of the month. In the fall of 1997, Albion's alumni magazine, Io Triumphe!, featured a profile of Raj's experience with Mother Teresa (PDF).

"He was truly a many-splendored human being," recalled Madhok. "He was brilliant, scholarly, determined, and passionate, and he lived his dream of contributing everything he had to the academy and to the people he loved dearly."

Selva Raj was born on May 31, 1952, and grew up with eight other brothers and sisters in South India. His passion for higher education began in 1973, when he completed a three-year Certificate Course in Philosophy at Morning Star Regional Seminary in Calcutta.

{mosimage} He earned his bachelor's degree in philosophy and history from the University of Calcutta in 1975 and completed a three-year Certificate Course in theology from Morning Star in 1975. Raj received a M.Ph. in philosophy at Jnana Deepa Vidyapeeth, India in 1981 and the following year served as an adjunct professor of philosophy at the Morning Star.

In the late 1980s, Raj became an ordained Catholic priest. While serving in Calcutta, he began working alongside Mother Teresa. He also served as a priest in Chicago. After he received his Ph.D. in the history of religions from the University of Chicago in 1994, he was hired by Albion a year later. After a few years, Raj decided to leave the priesthood and dedicate himself to his scholarship and teaching.

Since moving to Albion 13 years ago, Raj returned to India more than half a dozen times to conduct field research. Most recently, last summer he studied ritual practices at a shrine in South India. In 2005 he studied the impact of the tsunami on Catholic worship in South India. He also did several joint field research projects on cross-cultural value frameworks in Calcutta with Madhok. In 2002, he traveled to India to produce an educational video/CD-ROM as a companion to his book "Dealing with Deities."

"Selva did groundbreaking work in Indian Christianity," said Madhok. "His passion was trying to get the academy to understand Indian Christianity in its popular manifestations through the ritual lives of the people who practiced it. He was intellectually stimulated by how grassroots religious practices in one tradition were influenced by those in another and worked extensively to document the crossing of ritual boundaries between Indian Christianity and Hinduism in South India."

He was past-president of the Association of Hindu-Christian Studies, program chair, vice-president and past president of the Midwest American Academy of Religion, where he also served as chair and convener of the History of Religions Section.  He also had been elected to serve on the International American Academy of Religion's steering committees for two separate groups: Religion in South Asia and Comparative Studies. He founded, organized, and convened the Conference on the Study of Religions in India, bringing together a group of academics who met yearly to present papers destined for publication under Selva's editorship. During his time at Albion he organized dozens of national conferences and roundtables on popular Christianity in India.

He organized and hosted two annual CSRI conferences at Albion, bringing in experts on the religions of India for formal presentations, informal discussions and socializing. Conference sessions were attended by scholars and academics from around the globe as well as interested Albion students, faculty, and community members.

"He had a passion to bring people together to discuss ideas, to allow new ideas into the academy, and to give a chance to young scholars," said Madhok. "At his conferences and meetings he always talked about making room for young scholars who were up and coming. He wanted to bring the young scholars together with the established ones to exchange ideas."

Ronney Mourad, associate professor of religious studies, recalled Raj as a mentor who encouraged young colleagues.

"Selva was my department chair from the first time I came to Albion, and he was one of the main reasons I wanted to come here," Mourad said. "He exuded a sense of intellectual seriousness, and he had real aspirations and hopes that we would be productive in terms of scholarship and find ways to synthesize that with our teaching. He modeled that consistently."

"He was really generous as a mentor of young faculty, in terms of carving out space and time for us to do our class preparation, to develop our repertoire of classes, and to pursue our scholarship," Mourad added.

Raj's close friend and colleague Bill Harman, professor and chair of the department of philosophy and religion at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, remembered Raj as a "pioneer in scholarship that is both inter-disciplinary and comparative."

"His scholarship combines meticulous field-work methodology and interviews with historical analysis, structural observations, economic considerations, and an attention to social dynamics," Harman said. "Aside from his talent as a scholar, building and sustaining compatible academic communities was one of his finest gifts. In effecting such communities, he was able to remain unusually selfless. His evident satisfaction seemed to come not in what he accomplished but in what he was able to facilitate in the accomplishments of a group."

"He was both gentle and intense," Harman continued. "Working with Selva was an unusual pleasure. He was thoughtful, tactful, always honest, cooperative, diligent, forgiving, extremely organized, and conscientious. In his quiet, kind, unassuming way he was an intellectual lightning rod."

In addition to receiving the Kresge Endowed Professorship in 2002 and 2006, Raj was honored with the Phi Beta Kappa Scholar of the Year Award in 2004, the Richard Baird Presidential Recognition Award in 2002, and a slew of national grants, scholarships and awards from student organizations. "I really can't say enough about how important it was for him to earn his recognition, not just to get it," said Madhok.

Raj was remembered this week by his friends and colleagues for his kindness and gentility. He was like a member of her family, Madhok said.

"He had a framed saying in his office, ‘We are spiritual beings having a human journey,'" Madhok said. "He was not just a spiritual being, he was very, very human. He could combine the spirituality with the humanity. There are some who do one or the other--but he did both in such a beautiful way."

"He graced our lives in a million ways," she said. "He graced this earth."

Raj is survived by several brothers and sisters in India, and by a beloved nephew, J.A. "Charlie" Charles, of Madurai, India.

Visitation was from 6 to 8 p.m. on Monday, March 24, at the J. Kevin Tidd Funeral Home's Erie Street Chapel, 208 W. Erie in Albion (517-629-9155). A memorial service and Mass was held on Tuesday, March 25, at 10 a.m. in Goodrich Chapel on Albion's campus. For more information contact Bindu Madhok at   or 517-629-9044.

Memorial contributions may be made to the Dr. Selva J. Raj Memorial Scholarship in Religious Studies. Contributions may be made payable to Albion College (memo: Selva Raj) and mailed to Albion College, 611 E. Porter Street, Albion, MI 49224. Contributions may also be made at the College's online giving site (note Selva Raj in the "comments, questions, and designations" section).

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