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 radical 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 considered within 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 (2007) and another on cosmopolitanism in the yoga capital of the world (2012). In keeping with her view that sexuality and abstinence are mutually constituted, she has published “Arranging Love: Interrogating the Vantage Point in Cross-Border Feminism” in Signs (2009); this essay examines western discourses of arranged marriage and argues for combining the insights of area studies and transnational frameworks.
More recently, Khandelwal has turned her attention to three ongoing projects related to transnational studies, migration and development. The first is a small project that examines South Asian-American cultural displays in the United States by examining an intercollegiate Indian dance competition. The second is major book project on US-based Indian diaspora organizations that support development projects in India. During the last decade, 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 third project is a collaboration with H.S. Udaykumar (Mechanical Engineering, University of Iowa) sparked by a chance conversation about a solar cooker project. Udaykumar took a group of engineering students to visit a village in Rajasthan, India. They found that women and girls were now 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. Their efforts to build an inexpensive and functional solar cooker and their consideration of perspectives from cultural anthropology and gender studies led to an awareness that the cooking fuel problem is technological, environmental, cultural and political. Khandelwal and Udaykumar, together with their students, are tracing the linkages between forests, energy, gender relations, health, consumption and culture and between the local and global processes.