Members of the Brahma Kumaris movement in Nepal relocate their religious practices away from traditional Hindu puja (worship directed toward images of deities) in households to meditation services held in the movement’s centers. Although this change involves a shift from the seemingly private household to the seemingly public congregation, household puja is “public” in many respects, while Brahma Kumaris group meditation is comparatively “private.” Other public spaces that offer relative privacy, such as restaurants or theaters, are often not available to Nepali women. The organization of Nepali households, the familiar nature of puja, and its performative aspects suggest that puja is “open and accessible”—and thus public—despite its location in the home. In contrast, the Brahma Kumaris are culturally alternative; their meditation is “isolated and inaccessible,” occurring in physically secluded sites, and some practices are “illegible” to other Nepalis, offering a kind of privacy. I suggest that public and private are best conceptualized as situational and temporary, not defining features of physical spaces.

Public and private religion and the fate of public religion in modern societies are topics that have long been central to social science research on religion. This article examines the fate of public and private religion in rural Nepal, a non-western setting experiencing rapid social change and modernization. I investigate the Brahma Kumaris movement in Nepal as a case of public religion seeming to go hand-in-hand with modernity, but I ultimately conclude that this seemingly public religion offers more of the private to worshipers than traditional forms of religious practices, which, although they are undertaken in the home, are remarkably public in nature.

The Brahma Kumaris movement is both relatively new and culturally alternative in the context of Nepal. The movement first arrived in Nepal in the 1960s and many Nepalis are still encountering its members for the first time. In addition to a lack of familiarity with the Brahma Kumaris, members’ non-normative practices such as celibacy and wearing white clothing, which is associated with death in Nepal, precipitate suspicion toward them.

Examining the Brahma Kumaris movement within the Nepali context illustrates the need for less rigid thinking in terms of defining the spaces where public and private religion occur. As the juxtaposition of “public” traditional puja in households and “private” meditation at Brahma Kumaris services in ashrams1 illustrates, public and private are best conceptualized as situational and temporary, not defining features of physical spaces. Sociologist Robert Wuthnow observes that notions of public and private vary cross-culturally and historically. He writes that “what public means is itself a matter of cultural definition” and that “if the public and the private are always connected, it is nevertheless important to recognize that they are probably more distinct, and problematic, in modern settings than in most of the societies preceding ours historically.”2 Nepal’s unique developmental trajectory, combined with its background in Hinduism, a religion that is not always congregational in expression, renders our usual notions of public and private religion inapplicable to the Nepali context. Brahma Kumaris centers, while ostensibly public, provide Nepali women with a unique space to practice religion away from the demands of their households.

The dichotomy of private and public has long been of interest to scholars and social scientists, and various ways of comprehending this dichotomy are often used as organizing principles for understanding western societies. As such, there are many ways in which these ideas have been conceptualized in social thought. In this article, I draw on scholarship conceptualizing “public” as “a sphere of fluid and polymorphous sociability.”3 Scholarship conceptualizing the public in terms of sociability is rooted in the work of French historian Philippe Aries and his work on the evolution of families in Europe. Aries described the evolution of a new private sphere, one of isolation and intimacy, created as people retreated from the more communal spaces of the street, village, and castle court. The development of the new, private home was concomitant with the development of families as we understand them today.4 As single-family homes became increasingly synonymous with “private,” places outside the home became defined as a “public realm.”5 However, the association of place with public or private is an ideology, not a neutral description of a fixed reality. “More public” and “more private” exist along a spectrum, and just as the home remains at least partially accessible to outsiders, even the most public physical spaces are often structured to create order and are interpenetrated with “islands of privacy.”6

In Nepal, the spectrum of public and private has been affected by the increased availability of consumer spaces that provide new opportunities for a sense of privacy, particularly for men. Anthropologist Mark Liechty discusses the development of new consumer spaces in Nepal, explaining that they are regulated by both class and gender. He describes these “commercial settings—restaurants, cinemas, shopping arcades—that are ‘public’ to the extent that anyone with money is ‘free’ to enjoy them.”7 Spaces such as restaurants replace caste regulation with that of class. Restaurant patrons may violate caste-related dietary prescriptions by consuming meat, alcohol, or food prepared by a lower-caste cook, but they affirm their middle-class status, paying to participate in this consumer sphere. While ostensibly public spaces, restaurants offer what Liechty, following the work of historian Rebecca Spang, refers to as “public privacy.”8 He notes that “ironically, it was the privacy of these public eating establishments that allowed upper-caste men to relax their dietary prohibitions.”9 Restaurants and other consumer spaces are public in a sense, but they also offer privacy and anonymity to their middle-class customers.

Liechty also notes, based on his 1990s research in Kathmandu, that women can face social stigma for occupying these consumer spaces.10 He writes that “public places from cinema halls to restaurants to parks are places that women inhabit only at their own peril. In the public sphere the social currency is ijjat and in that sphere, women risk not only their own, but their family’s prestige/honor.”11 Here Liechty explains that women in consumer spaces, such as restaurants or cinemas, face the possibility of becoming subjects of gossip and social stigma or loss of ijjat (honor/prestige). He further notes that women in these spaces risk gendered harassment, noting that “on streets and campuses, in cafeterias and cinema halls, women talk of facing a steady barrage of name calling and groping.”12 Thus, while these consumer spaces are accessible to middle-class women, they come with risk. Lower-class women may be shut out of these spaces entirely.

Focusing on religion, I frame my analysis in terms of the criteria for public and private religion laid out by Wuthnow in his 1994 book, Producing the Sacred: An Essay on Public Religion.13 Wuthnow notes that in considering the difference between public and private, “public” can take on three meanings: “the people”; “openness or accessibility”;14 and adult responsibility. He writes that “in its Latin derivation, public is associated with the idea of having been altered, probably in the way that an adult is altered by having gone through puberty. Hence, the term public also connotes the kind of adult responsibility that we do not normally expect of children.”15

In this article, I demonstrate that puja, a traditional Hindu worship practice of making offerings to images of gods, which is typically done individually and in one’s home, can be considered more “public” in that it meets Wuthnow’s criteria of openness or accessibility and having an association with adult responsibility.16 In contrast to this, although Brahma Kumaris members worship in congregations, both the congregational setting and some of the members’ more unconventional practices (in the Nepali context) render the group somewhat isolated and “unintelligible,” or unreadable, and therefore more private.

Sociologists of religion have frequently hypothesized that as modernity advances, traditional and “public” forms of religion, such as worshiping in congregations, will increasingly be replaced by more individualistic and private forms of religion.17 As I began research in rural Nepal in 2008, my first inclination was that what I observed in terms of religious change was the opposite of these scholars’ ideas—that with development, religion was, in fact, moving along the spectrum from private toward public. This belief was based on my observation that people were either ceasing or supplementing traditional puja in the household with participation in new religious movements such as the Brahma Kumaris, where religious activities are done in centers intended for group religious activity. However, after five months of observation and an improved understanding of Nepali households, my eventual conclusion was that the transition from performance of puja to meditation in the Brahma Kumaris centers, despite being a shift from religious activities performed in households to congregations, is a transition from relatively public religion to comparatively private religion. By moving worship somewhat out of households, women in the Brahma Kumaris movement experience an increase in their level of privacy, away from children, housework and neighbors. This sort of “public privacy” can be difficult to attain for Nepali women and may help explain the Brahma Kumaris’ appeal in the Nepali context.

The Brahma Kumaris are a Hindu religious movement that developed in India in the late 1930s.18 The group’s founder, a Hindu businessman named Dada Lekhraj Kripani (1876-1969), received visions of the Hindu deities Vishnu and Shiva, and of the world’s destruction and subsequent establishment of an earthly paradise.19 The group that emerged around Lekhraj and his visions developed to become what we know today as the Brahma Kumaris, with Lekhraj’s visions becoming their sacred scriptures, or muralis, which are read aloud at services.20 A group of ten Brahma Kumaris from India brought the Brahma Kumaris movement to Nepal in the Nepali year 2023 (1966-1967). Because the Brahma Kumaris greet each other with “Om Shanti,” instead of the typical Nepali greeting of Namaste, many Nepalis have come to refer to this religious group as “Om Shanti” and to its ashrams as Om Shanti centers.21

A key point of Brahma Kumaris doctrine is the idea that humans are souls, as opposed to bodies.22 Brahma Kumaris are tasked with forsaking “body consciousness” and instead developing “soul consciousness” through a type of meditation known as raja yoga and other practices. Practitioners are encouraged to avoid consumption of meat, fish, garlic, onions, alcohol, and tobacco products. Ideally, their food should be prepared by someone who is “soul conscious” (another Brahma Kumari), using cookware and dishes that have not been contaminated by improper foods. However, the most important means of avoiding “body consciousness” is through abstaining from sexual activity. As anthropologist Lawrence Babb puts it, according to teachings in the Brahma Kumaris movement, “more than anything else, lust draws the soul into engagement with the body, thus entrenching the soul in further ignorance.”23

Today, the Brahma Kumaris have essentially two types of members. “Surrendered” members live in Brahma Kumaris centers and devote their lives to spiritual practice full-time, akin to monks or nuns living in a monastery. They are unmarried and removed from family life. There are also lay members who attend daily services but live in their own homes with their families. In Nepal and worldwide, both the surrendered and lay Brahma Kumaris tend to be predominantly women. There are also some men who are members, known as Brahma Kumars. This article is based on interviews conducted with lay women members.24

This research is situated in the Terai, a geographic region located in south-central Nepal. Prior to a deforestation program in the 1950s, this area was a dense jungle, populated only by the indigenous Tharu ethnic group thought to be immune to malaria. Following a government program of malaria eradication, deforestation, and resettlement, the valley is now a site of agricultural production. As people came from all over Nepal to seek land in this area, the area is now home to a great variety of religio-ethnic groups, including high-caste Hindus, low-caste Hindus, hill Tibeto-Burmese (Tamang, Gurung, Magar), Newars, and Terai Tibeto-Burmese (Tharu, Darai). Schools, health centers, markets, roads, and electricity are spreading throughout the region, radiating from Bistanagar, an urban area in the north end of the district. Because of its central location in Nepal, Bistanagar has become a transportation hub, with roads linking it to other Nepali cities and to India. This diversity in terms of both religio-ethnic groups and proximity to development makes this region an ideal locale for conducting research in Nepal. While life in the Terai previously had been organized around the family, this proliferation of nonfamily organizations has moved an increasing number of activities outside the family.25 During the past sixty years, the physical landscape has been changed by roads, electricity, and hydro-electric dams; the population has been affected by the spread of western biomedicine and family ideologies through health clinics and schools; and the dominant mode of societal organization in the Terai is no longer centered exclusively around the family. The political landscape of Nepal has also changed during this time, as the country experienced a Maoist “people’s war” and transitioned from a Hindu kingdom to a secular republic in May 2008.

Nepal historically has strong connections with both the Hindu and Buddhist religious traditions. Today, most Nepalis are Hindu, but there are also Buddhist ethnic groups, such as Sherpas.26 Many people practice both Hinduism and Buddhism. Religion is a key element of Nepali life. In his book on the character of Nepal, anthropologist Dor Bahador Bista writes that “religion has always been a central feature of Nepali life.…Nepalis love colourful rituals of all kinds and have welcomed a variety of religious traditions.”27 Other religions also are gaining ground in Nepal. Dilli R. Dahal notes that Christianity is becoming increasingly popular, particularly after the advent of Nepali democracy.28 There are also a number of Muslims and followers of the Kirant religion, an indigenous religion practiced by the Rai and Limbu ethnic groups.29 In addition to the Brahma Kumaris, other neo-Hindu religious groups in Nepal include followers of the Sathya Sai Baba and Osho movements.

Hindus in Nepal follow what is known as the “householder’s path.”30 This necessitates following the requirements of traditional Hindu religion, as well as producing sons, who perform the funeral ceremonies necessary for souls to go on in the afterlife. Daily religious practice is often considered to be the domain of Nepali women.31 Hindu women practice their religion by performing puja by making offerings of water, flowers, fruits, lighted lamps or candles, and/or bell ringing to images of gods kept on a special altar in the home. Anthropologist Lynn Bennett explains that “puja is a central feature of the householder’s religious life. It is a means for achieving a good rebirth or entrance to heaven in the afterlife and also a means for achieving one’s worldly goals in this life.”32 Women, as well as other family members, may also visit local temples or shrines and perform puja there.

Figure 1.

Altar for performing puja in a household near Bistanagar. Courtesy of Emily McKendry-Smith.

Figure 1.

Altar for performing puja in a household near Bistanagar. Courtesy of Emily McKendry-Smith.

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Hinduism in Nepal tends to focus more on practice than on belief. This focus on action is in keeping with the fact that the Nepali term for religion, dharma, also means “duty” or “rules.” Bennett writes that “ritual and belief are still unselfconsciously integrated—so much so that villagers tend to speak of dharma in terms of action, as something one does (or at least should do), rather than something one believes in.”33

Om Shanti Centers

This study focuses on three Brahma Kumaris centers (referred to here as Om Shanti centers) in three towns in a Terai district of Nepal—Subhapur, Bistanagar, and Gaida Chowk.34 There are about twenty Om Shanti centers located in this district. The oldest center was established in the early 1980s and the newest was constructed in the early 2000s. I selected the Subhapur center for observations and interviews because it was one of the newest, the Bistanagar center as it was one of the oldest, and the Gaida Chowk center because it was founded at an intermediate time, in the 1990s. In addition to the temporal distribution of their founding, these three Om Shanti centers were selected due to their geographic locations. Bistanagar is a large urban area and the juncture between two major highways, making it a transportation hub. The village of Subhapur, located at a middle distance between Bistanagar and the jungle, has a population of over twelve thousand individuals living in about 2,500 households. While many residents of Subhapur are engaged in farming, it also has a commercial area and is located in close proximity to an agricultural college. The Subhapur Om Shanti center is located just off the main road on the outskirts of Subhapur bazaar, the main commercial area. Gaida Chowk, located near the edge of a national park, has a population approaching nine thousand individuals living in about 1,700 households. Like Subhapur, Gaida Chowk also has a small bazaar, or commercial area, located on the main road. The Gaida Chowk Om Shanti center is located some distance away from Gaida Chowk bazaar at one of the next chowks (locations where roads cross). At the time of my fieldwork, sixteen Brahma Kumari sisters and seven Brahma Kumar brothers lived at the Bistanagar Om Shanti center, two or three lived in the Subhapur center (a third sister moved in during my fieldwork period), and two Brahma Kumari sisters lived at the Gaida Chowk center. While attendees at the Bistanagar Om Shanti center were largely from Bistanagar itself, people also came from nearby communities to attend services at the Subhapur and Gaida Chowk centers.

Center Observations

At each center, I attended daily services (known as murali classes), held at all Om Shanti centers starting at 6:30 A.M. From November 2008 through April 2009, I observed a morning murali class at one of these three centers virtually every day.

Figure 2.

Women waiting for murali class to start in the Subhapur Om Shanti Center. Courtesy of Emily McKendry-Smith.

Figure 2.

Women waiting for murali class to start in the Subhapur Om Shanti Center. Courtesy of Emily McKendry-Smith.

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Although individuals may arrive early to sit in the center “classroom” and silently meditate, the official class begins at 6:30 A.M. If electricity is available, which is infrequently, special Hindi recordings of Brahma Kumaris music may be played before the class officially starts. As men and women enter the room, they place Nepali rupees in a small donation box located near the door and then sit, men on the right side of the room and women on the left facing toward the front of the room. At 6:30, the Brahma Kumari sister who is leading the service greets the room by saying “Om Shanti,” which the crowd replies back to her. She then begins reading aloud the murali, which is in Hindi and distributed to Brahma Kumaris centers worldwide from the movement headquarters at Mount Abu, India.35 Men and some women will take notes as the murali is read, often in notebooks they have purchased at the Om Shanti center that have images of Dada Lekhraj or the Supreme Soul. After the main text of the murali has been read, everyone will recite a greeting to Shiva Baba together.36 This is followed by the sister reading several numbered points that summarize the main points of the day’s murali, followed by the day’s “slogan.” The service concludes with the sister’s “Om Shanti” and those assembled replying “Om Shanti.” On Thursdays, bhog, or holy food, is offered at the conclusion of the service. This consists of the men and women in attendance lining up, placing donations on a table in front of the sisters, and in return receiving tika (red powder applied to the forehead), a flower, a spoonful of water, and a food item, such as fruit or rice pudding.


From January through March 2009, I conducted seventy interviews with Nepali women regarding their religious beliefs, practices, and family life. Forty-seven of these interviews were with women attending services at Om Shanti centers as lay members, and the remaining twenty-three were with systematically matched women who were not. At the two smaller centers, in Subhapur and Gaida Chowk, I interviewed the entire population of women who were attending services at the time I conducted interviews—thirteen in Subhapur and fourteen in Gaida Chowk. At the Bistanagar center, which sometimes had over a hundred women in attendance at services, I selected interviewees using stratified random sampling with an oversample of certain ethnic minorities. Using a list of women members modified to include women who had very recently begun attending, I identified the five women from the center who were Tamang, Gurung, Magar, Rai, Limbu, Madhesi, or low-caste Hindu. I then took a random sample of fifteen interviewees from the remaining high-caste Hindu and Newar women. (There is a sizable number of Newars both in Bistanagar in general and at the Bistanagar Om Shanti center in particular, rendering oversampling unnecessary).

I selected women not involved with Om Shanti as interviewees by matching them to Om Shanti participants in terms of three characteristics—neighborhood of residence, age group, and marital status. After leaving the homes of certain Om Shanti interviewees, I would go to the next home not owned by a member of the interviewee’s family and go door-to-door until I found a woman with the same marital status (ever married or not) and in the same age group (eighteen to thirty, thirty to fifty, or fifty-plus years old) as the Om Shanti interviewee in question. For example, after interviewing a 20-year-old, never-married woman participating in Om Shanti in Bistanagar, I went door-to-door down the same street until I found an 18-year-old, never-married woman not currently participating in Om Shanti who was willing to be interviewed. I interviewed twenty-seven of these non-Brahma Kumari women—ten in Bistanagar, seven in Subhapur, and six in Gaida Chowk. These women were included in this study for the purpose of making comparisons with women participating in the Brahma Kumaris movement.

I also conducted several informal interviews on matters of religious teachings and practices with Brahma Kumari sisters living at the Subhapur and Gaida Chowk centers, and both with the head sisters and brother and many of the other sisters living in the Bistanagar center. In addition, I took the seven-day course required to become a member of the Brahma Kumaris movement twice—once entirely in English at the Subhapur center with an English-speaking senior member of the congregation there, and once in both English and Nepali from the senior brother at the Bistanagar center, along with a female Nepali friend. Finally, I received permission from a Nepali family to observe their seven-day course, which was given again at the Subhapur center by the senior sister there.

Household Puja as Public Religion

Family homes in the Terai differ from homes in the United States and other western contexts, and westerners would perceive them as being much more “public” in nature. Thus, although daily puja is typically conducted in individuals’ homes, it is a religious practice that is “open and accessible” and is located in a venue where sociability occurs. Many homes that I observed in the Terai do not have conventional doors, do not have doors that lock, or have sheets of fabric hanging in doorways in place of doors. Even when a house has a door fastener, it is not uncommon for individuals to unlatch this and wander into a home in search of someone. (It is possible, however, that norms regarding this are changing. When I returned to Nepal in 2015, a friend living near Bistanagar had installed a metal fence around his home that could be locked with a padlock. This was rarer in 2008-2009, especially in the smaller communities of Subhapur and Gaida Chowk.)

Family homes in the Terai are also less private than American homes. Outdoor areas are considered a natural extension of the physical house, and many tasks considered private both in the United States and Nepal are conducted out of doors. It is not uncommon to observe people washing laundry, cooking, washing dishes, bathing, or brushing their teeth outside. Just as kitchens are kept ritually pure for Hindus, outside courtyards are also regularly purified. Finally, many locations that westerners may think of as being public spaces, such as stores or restaurants, are attached to people’s homes in the Terai; for example, when I arrived to interview Rammaya, a 63-year-old Hindu woman living in Subhapur, I found her both washing her family’s dishes outside at a tap and monitoring the small general store attached to her house. These observations are consistent with other writings on the nature of Nepali households. Anthropologist Marc Gaborieau observes of Indo-Nepali homes that

the courtyard is used for several purposes. It is an extension of the house as well as the agricultural and craftwork buildings. It is used all the time. The children play there and in the cold season…the family members warm themselves in the sunshine of the courtyard. Seated on mats made of rice straw, men and women work, chat and discuss the proceedings of the day. Some domestic chores are performed in the courtyard.…The courtyard is also a religious and social space. Some of the ceremonies relating to the life cycle are performed here.…37

While my respondents may sit on plastic mats, rather than ones made of rice straw, this description of Nepali homes echoes my experiences in the Terai. When I attempted to conduct interviews in someone’s courtyard or in front of their home, the interviews were often interrupted when neighbors approached us, curious about my presence as a foreigner. I also observed others entering courtyards, such as wandering sadhus asking for alms of uncooked rice. On many instances, my interview assistant Raksha and I entered respondents’ homes in search of them, merely calling out to announce our presence as we entered. This occurred even when we were not previously acquainted with the respondent, and Raksha explained that this is a common practice in the area. On one occasion in early January, we came unscheduled to the home of Krishna Kumari, a 65-year-old woman from the Subhapur Om Shanti center, to conduct a formal interview with her. When we found that Krishna Kumari was not home, we sat in her entryway, waiting on a wooden bench for several hours. When Krishna Kumari’s neighbors saw us, they did not remark on our presence; neither did Krishna Kumari’s husband, with whom I was not previously acquainted, when he eventually returned home, suggesting that our behavior was normative and unremarkable.

Similar to the pre-private European homes described by Aries, homes in the Terai are a social space occupied by not only family members but also neighbors, friends, servants, and members of business relationships. This sociability is facilitated by the fact that a private/public distinction is not necessarily made between indoor and outdoor household space.38

In addition to the public nature of Terai homes, puja, the Hindu worship practice conducted within, is traditional and easily recognized and understandable to most Nepalis, even if they are not Hindu. Thus, puja is “public knowledge,” in keeping with Wuthnow’s criteria for public religion.39 Puja is part of public knowledge in two ways. First, at the individual level it is a ritual that individuals are likely to practice, or witness if they do not engage in it themselves. Second, as Nepal had been a Hindu kingdom for most of its existence, puja is associated with rituals and ideologies that had until recently been linked with the official state.

Almost all the women I spoke with described puja as an important traditional practice for Nepalis, even if they had joined the Brahma Kumaris and no longer practiced puja themselves. Arati, a 30-year-old woman from Subhapur, said of puja, “our forefathers have been doing this, so we have to do it.”40 Similarly, Laxmi, a 40-year-old woman practicing Om Shanti, said “that’s the culture…doing puja is our culture. It was being followed as culture from a long time ago.”41 Indra, a 45-year-old Hindu woman from Subhapur, explained the importance of puja:

[I]f we don’t follow [this], then our culture will be extinct. Tradition also will be finished. Religion helps us to follow our traditions; these shouldn’t be changed.…We should keep our tradition. Everybody like children, family, and future generations should know our culture and tradition in the future.…If we don’t follow it, the future generations won’t know about our culture, right?42

Even among women associated with the Brahma Kumaris, puja remained important as a traditional Nepali practice. Chandni, a 36-year-old woman from Subhapur, explained why she maintained a than (altar for puja) in her house after joining the Brahma Kumaris by noting “there is nothing to get by praying to the stone gods. But it is our culture and tradition. I used to do puja before marriage.…I couldn’t dare to dismantle the than. I still love the traditional gods. Maybe I will quit praying to them in the future.”43 Similarly, Urmila, a 41-year-old woman from near Subhapur practicing Om Shanti, said, “Om Shanti talks about knowledge and soul. But Hindu religion…we don’t oppose Hindu religion. We can’t discard our culture.”44 In some instances, the continuation of puja practices seemed related to women’s understanding of the Brahma Kumaris as just another form of Hinduism, something compatible with puja that did not require its discontinuation. However, even women who interpreted the Brahma Kumaris as a distinct religion that asked its followers to cease doing puja attached importance to this practice and in many instances continued it. As Laxmi explained:

I do daily work getting up early in the morning. I change the water in the vessel and arrange materials for puja, although it is not done in Om Shanti. They say it is not necessary to do bhakti (devotion) if one has gyan bhakti (devotion to the knowledge of Om Shanti). But I think our children won’t learn to do puja path if we stop doing it.45

As mentioned earlier, certain religious practices in Hinduism are often referred to as “the householder’s path.”46 Many women I spoke with, both those involved with the Brahma Kumaris and those who were not, spoke of puja as a necessary household task, something that someone in the household must accomplish on behalf of the household, along with other tasks such as cooking and taking care of animals. When asked if she did daily puja, Diya, a 26-year-old woman who had just begun coming to the Om Shanti center, explained, “Father always does it. I only do [it] when he is not at home. And mother does [it] sometimes. I do other external works. I [am] busy looking after kids and livestock.”47 Relatedly, when asked this question, many women mentioned that their daughter, daughter-in-law, or another family member performed puja. These statements illustrate that some Nepalis see puja as a form of religious practice that is done by individuals on behalf of the entire household. That puja is considered to be a household chore suggests that it has a connotation of adult responsibility, in line with Wuthnow’s ideas on public religion.48 This interpretation of puja as an adult responsibility is further supported in that respondents spoke of puja as a task they learned and began doing in their adolescence or after being married. Most women spoke of not doing puja in their childhood, but of learning the practice when they were between ages ten to fifteen and sometimes only beginning it after marriage.

Finally, and in accordance with households in the Terai serving as a relatively public space, the puja conducted in these houses has a performative element. Puja is done not merely for the individual and god(s) but also for surrounding observers. Chandni contrasted this to the Brahma Kumaris, noting that “puja is showing others. Baba is prayed to by heart.”49 Similarly, Laxmi stated:

I have left doing puja. Doing puja is a showy thing…we don’t need to do puja and offer flowers to god because they are only showy business.…[W]e should serve others and do meditation for gyan (knowledge) so that we can concentrate. We should assimilate ourselves to the supreme spirit.50

Later on in the interview, however, Laxmi admitted to sometimes still doing puja, noting that “I don’t want my relatives to think that we have forgotten our culture.”51 This performative element is noteworthy in that it connects puja to Wuthnow’s first and second definitions of “public”—being “of the people” and being associated with openness and accessibility.52 Doing puja for an audience, even if the audience consists of neighbors who are not overtly watching, renders it an act that is not purely individual. In addition, because this audience understands the meaning of puja, and it is done with the knowledge that observers will understand it, puja is clearly open and accessible in its meanings. This is in contrast to practices of the Brahma Kumaris, which are inaccessible and subvert traditional meaning systems, such as wearing white clothing (traditionally associated with death and widowhood) as a sign of renunciation and purity.

When many women spoke of the performative aspect of puja, they mentioned its importance as a traditional practice and their desire to pass it on to their children. Maya Devi, a 33-year-old woman both following traditional Hindu practices and involved with the Brahma Kumaris, explained:

[I]f all of the daughters are taught the norms of Om Shanti, I worry they will even forget to light the lamp or religious lights. So, I am trying to teach them by conducting worshiping.…I do the old religious activities, but I remember the Parmatma (Supreme Soul) mostly…I am trying to teach only about the culture.53

The Brahma Kumaris as Private Religion

Having demonstrated how traditional Hindu household puja in Nepal can be understood as relatively public, according to Wuthnow’s criteria for public religion, I now move to consider how the Brahma Kumaris represent a more private form of religion. In this discussion, I continue to rely on Wuthnow’s claim that openness and accessibility are characteristics of public religion; I expand on this claim and contend that isolation and inaccessibility, as the reverse of these, are therefore characteristics of private religion.54 In what follows, I discuss two ways in which the Brahma Kumaris movement can be considered a more private form of religion when compared with traditional practices of puja. First, I discuss the ways in which worshiping in Om Shanti centers physically isolates Brahma Kumaris members from outsiders while they are engaged in worship, an isolation largely perceived by my respondents as beneficial. Then, I illustrate how the Brahma Kumaris are culturally isolated from mainstream Nepalis due to the non-normative nature of a number of their practices, particularly that of wearing white. I use the phrase culturally isolated because, as I will illustrate, this wearing of white dress renders the Brahma Kumaris both distinctive and relatively “illegible” in a system where people are accustomed to using clothing as a means of “reading” the marital status of women.55

First, worship and meditation in the Brahma Kumaris centers can be considered a more private form of religion than household puja in that the physical locations of the centers provide worshipers with more opportunity for solitude than does the Nepali home. When asked about the differences between religious practices at home and in Om Shanti centers, the increased privacy was consistently one of the first subjects mentioned by women involved with the Brahma Kumaris. Shreya, a 40-year-old woman worshiping at the Subhapur Om Shanti center, explained of meditation: “If we do it at home, we are disturbed; our concentration goes somewhere. But if we go to the center, our meditation is concentrated. We can get silence there, but at home the children shout.”56 Renuka, a 29-year-old from Bistanagar practicing Om Shanti, noted, “Of course I don’t get a suitable environment for meditation at home. I get disturbed when my family members call me for work during meditation. I feel disturbed at that moment. So, I get pleasure to be at the ashram for meditation.”57

In addition to being physically isolated from the outside world when worshiping in Om Shanti centers, members of the Brahma Kumaris are socially isolated from other Nepalis by virtue of the group’s unconventional teachings and practices. These include the practices of vegetarianism, non-consumption of garlic and onions (believed to stimulate desires/emotions), and celibacy, as well as the white clothing worn by “surrendered” members who live in ashrams and have devoted their lives to the Brahma Kumaris movement. Although practicing a sattvic, or “pure,” diet is common for devout Hindus in India, it is relatively uncommon for Hindus in the Terai. Maya Devi explained how this diet initially caused her to be suspicious of the group. “One of my friends told me to go to Om Shanti religion. I didn’t like it before I followed this religion. I used to say that I won’t go to follow this religion where people don’t eat garlic and onions and they wear white clothes.”58 She later explained that her husband was also wary of the Brahma Kumaris “because people wear white dress and they leave eating fish, meat, garlic and onion.” Similarly, Kamala, a 44-year-old Hindu from Subhapur, explained that although she appreciated some Brahma Kumaris teachings, she was unwilling to commit to the group because of the dietary practices. Describing her past involvement, she stated:

I got the one-week training course from there.…I like other things except the foods they prescribe. I can’t avoid eating anything at home.…Maybe I can leave eating meat in future. But I can’t leave onions and garlic. They are also used as medicines. They make the curry tasty, don’t they?59

Rashmi, an 18-year-old Hindu from near Gaida Chowk, similarly stated:

Getting up early in the morning, taking baths, are good aspects, but leaving meat and fish to eat is a bad aspect.…If we leave eating meat and fish, we can’t get the energy we need in our body.…I have heard that people shouldn’t get married in this religion, so I feel a little bit odd [about it].60

As Rashmi’s statement illustrates, an issue of even greater concern to Nepalis is confusion regarding marital status, caused by the white clothing worn by Brahma Kumaris, particularly those who had surrendered and become full-time members of the religious group. Surrendered Brahma Kumaris would commonly wear white saris. While these were sometimes worn by lay women, they more commonly wore white shawls or cardigans over more brightly colored saris or sulwar kurtas (consisting of baggy pants gathered at the ankles and long tunics). This white dress violates Nepali norms in that it is customarily only worn by widows, not by unmarried women such as the Brahma Kumaris sisters.

Arati explained her surprise at seeing young women in white garb. “In this religion, we used to see the women come to the center in white saris and we used to be surprised and think how fast they had become widows—unknowingly, we used to guess it.”61 Hema, a 38-year-old Hindu and Buddhist woman from Bistanagar, when asked how she felt about the Brahma Kumaris, used their wearing of white to justify her dislike. “People wear white dress in this religion but I don’t know more about it.…They wear white dress even though their husbands are alive, but only widows wear white dress in our culture.”62 Similarly, Rabina, a 37-year-old Hindu from Bistanagar, speculated that her husband would dislike it if she participated in the Brahma Kumaris because “he may not like the dress, I think.…Because the dress is white—you know in our culture, the white dress is worn by widows.…[B]ecause of that, I think he won’t like this religion, though he has not said anything about it.”63

As evidenced by these statements, the wearing of white dress by the Brahma Kumaris is concerning to Nepalis because it does not accurately reflect their members’ marital status. Nepali women customarily wear a variety of clothing and accessories to signify their marital status. In addition to frequently wearing the color red, married women will wear chura (bangles) on their arms, pote (strings of beads) around their necks, and sindoor (vermillion powder) in the parts of their hair. White, on the other hand, is typically worn by women for a period of at least one year after the death of their husbands. Widows do not wear other signifiers of marriage such as bangles; after the death of their husbands, they undergo a ceremony in which their bangles are broken off and other signifiers are removed. Anthropologist Mary Des Chene notes that these items and their removal are not purely symbols of marriage and widowhood; wearing them is part of enacting the identity of a married woman, and their removal is part of the process of becoming a widow.64 She writes of a widowed woman that “the breaking of the bangles was, in the doing, not a ‘mere’ symbol of becoming a widow; it was the act itself.”65

Surrendered female Brahma Kumaris, as well as non-surrendered married devotees who wear white clothing, have opted out of symbols that both represent and contribute to enacting marital status. In this way, they are similar to individuals with ambiguous gender expression, who gender theorist Judith Butler notes are “unintelligible,” or cannot be “read” using conventional ideas about gender.66 Just as gender ambiguity can lead to feelings of discomfort and wariness on the part of observers, the Brahma Kumaris precipitate these same emotions by being “unintelligible” in terms of their marital status and sexuality. Surrendered female Brahma Kumaris are further ambiguous in that Hindu ascetics, who have withdrawn from work and family to pursue a spiritual life, are typically male.67 Religion scholars Lindsey Harlan and Paul B. Courtright write that while they can be seen as admirable, women, particularly wives, who become celibates can also be viewed as threatening, because their sexuality is no longer under traditional male control.68 This violation of norms also aids in rendering the Brahma Kumaris private, as their practices are no longer “open and accessible” to non-members. This echoes theorist Michael Warner’s observation that, while participation in social life and social interaction is public, practices that remove one from typical participation in social life can be considered private.69 By rendering Nepali women in the movement illegible, the white dress serves to provide them with a kind of privacy, as their marital status is no longer as easily discerned.

This violation of gender and marital norms is further seen in the surrendered members’ practice of celibacy, which includes unmarried people declining to marry and already married individuals living celibately as “brother and sister.” The teaching of the Brahma Kumaris movement that married men and women should live as celibate brothers and sisters serves to further symbolically isolate the group and its members from mainstream Terai society. Bipana, a 23-year-old Hindu college student from near Subhapur, explained how this practice garners disapproval.

I don’t like that.…If you’re unmarried from the beginning, that sounds good to live as brother and sister, but it doesn’t suit to behave like that when you’re married. It doesn’t look nice to others.…Our society doesn’t approve that for married couples.70

Similarly, Devaki, a 43-year-old woman from Bistanagar practicing Om Shanti, observed the incredulous reaction of other Nepalis to this teaching. “That is also an unbelievable thing.…Nobody believes that but they think this is a kind of joke.…[T]hey think that nobody can live as brother and sister being a husband and wife.”71

In explaining why they disliked the practice of marital celibacy, many women noted that it violated the natural order of things within the family. While it is viewed as natural in this context for unmarried women to be celibate, the participation of married couples in celibacy was viewed as abnormal by many respondents, with potential negative ramifications for family life. Renuka explained why she does not follow this practice and maintains a sexual relationship with her husband, even though they are both heavily involved with the Brahma Kumaris.

Yes, we’ve such relation. It’s natural.…I don’t accept what you’ve heard, because that’s not true. It’s a natural process. There’s a close relationship between couples and they have their own feelings, thinking and experiences. We can’t blame it as wrong.72

Woman both involved and not involved with the Brahma Kumaris movement expressed concern that celibacy between married men and women could be detrimental for both families and society in general. Regarding her concern for the family, Parvati, a 45-year-old Buddhist woman from near Subhapur, stated that “if one has to live as brother and sister even after the marriage, that family can’t be happy. There can’t be harmony between them, so I didn’t like.”73 Even women involved with the Brahma Kumaris who accepted that marital celibacy is necessary for purity expressed concern that this practice might cause unnecessary and harmful friction in some families. Bhagwati, a 55-year-old woman practicing at the Om Shanti center in Gaida Chowk, explained her concern that this would occur when one family member followed the beliefs of the movement but others did not.

If they maintain their family being together, it is a great thing. It is not necessary to have sex. If they can compromise, it is all right. But there occurs quarrelling in the family regarding physical relationships, some people are convinced and some are not.74

Bhagwati went on to express concern that the practice of non-marrying and celibacy might be damaging to society as a whole, stating that “sometimes I think that if people don’t get married, the world doesn’t run. All the Bahinji (sisters) don’t get married but how will it be possible to run the world when people remain single?”75

The wearing of white dress, not marrying, and celibacy among married men and women are all concerning to others in Nepali society and serve to isolate the Brahma Kumaris symbolically because they free women from their society’s conventional sexual and familial trajectories. Both surrendered Brahma Kumaris sisters who live in ashrams and female lay members resist the norms of marriage and family of their society. Feminist Adrienne Rich’s assessment that “if we think of heterosexuality as the ‘natural’ emotional and sensual inclination for women, lives such as these are seen as deviant, as pathological, or as emotionally and sensually deprived” holds true in the rural Nepali context.76 Women associated with the practice of celibacy are seen as unnatural and potentially threatening to the social order. Further, the Brahma Kumaris are aware of the isolating nature of these practices and employ them, at least in part, for this reason. One of the women I interviewed, Bina, was a 21-year-old college student who planned in the future to become a surrendered member of the Brahma Kumaris living in an ashram. She commented on the separating nature of these practices.

The white dress is actually used for dead bodies. It is used for the people who have left this world, separated from normal world, so it is used by the people of Om Shanti as they are different from the people who live normal lives.…We wear white dress because we have already died; (it) means separated from normal people.77

As Bina explained, white dress, along with celibacy and somewhat unusual dietary practices, all represent forms of boundary work that Nepalis involved with Om Shanti engage in. More specifically, these practices can be conceptualized as drawing symbolic boundaries, or “conceptual distinctions made by social actors to categorize objects, people, practices, and even time and space.”78 As symbolic boundaries, these practices serve to identify and demarcate members of the Brahma Kumaris from non-members, and likely help produce collective identity, feelings of similarity and membership within the group.79

Although it is a new religious movement in a small country, the case of the Brahma Kumaris in Nepal is more broadly relevant to scholarship on religion in that it cautions scholars against making a priori assumptions regarding the locations of public and private religion. This case study serves to illustrate that the boundaries between public and private are situational and temporary, not enduring features of physical spaces.80 Although they are ostensibly public, the Brahma Kumaris and the space of Om Shanti centers offer Nepali women a space that is experienced as private in several respects. These spaces are particularly important, as many of my interviewees are shut out from the similar “public private” spaces that exist in the consumer sphere.81 As women, they could face social stigma for visiting a restaurant or a cinema. They may be unable to afford such spaces, and, particularly for those living in the more rural areas of Subhapur and Gaida Chowk, they may not have convenient access. The Brahma Kumaris movement offers a similar private space for women that is readily available, affordable, and, although the Brahma Kumaris members do violate some social norms, comparatively respectable to visit.

Scholars of religion can learn from the case of the Brahma Kumaris in Nepal in two ways, both of which follow from the conceptualization of public and private as poles of a spectrum rather than a dichotomy. First, the discrepancy between public homes in rural Nepal and the western notion of the home as a private oasis for the family alerts us to the “monocivilizational narratives of ‘Western modernity’” embedded in theories of the home as private.82 As research on religion expands to include more frequent examinations of religion in non-western contexts, it is important to recognize that theories imbued with western developmental trajectories may be of limited utility. This then creates opportunities for theory-refining and theory-building.

The intermingling of public and private in both American and international contexts creates new research opportunities. Scholars need to discover the new practices that arise from the shifting locations of public and private, and the new meanings that are developed as locations and actions are transformed. Because scholarship tends to attach great importance to activities that are performed in public, it is particularly important to be sure that our understandings of “public” and of associated meanings conform to those of actual actors. Attention to this matter may also serve to prevent misunderstandings of religious changes. Scholars run the risk of overestimating decline in religious practices if we are not attentive to the possibility that the practices in question may have moved to another venue. We also risk not being aware of changes, as the meaning and purpose of activities may change, even as they continue to occur in the same locations. The fact that some Nepali women shift from performing puja in their households to participation in a Brahma Kumaris center can be easily perceived as a transition from private religion to public religion, when in fact it is the opposite, a move from the relative public space and legibility of the household to the comparative privacy and inscrutability of the congregation. This demonstrates the need to be sure that scholarly understandings of physical and religious spaces conform to the meanings attributed to them by actors.

The author would like to thank Catherine Wessinger and Nova Religio’s other editors and the anonymous reviewers for their help in revising this manuscript. I also thank the staff at the Institute for Social and Environmental Research in Chitwan, Nepal, particularly Raksha Joshi Gurung and Sita Chaudhary, for their invaluable assistance.


While the term “ashram” typically refers to a Hindu hermitage, or a place where a religious person has gone to live in seclusion from the outside world, Brahma Kumaris ashrams, also known in Nepal as “Om Shanti centers” are locations where daily services are held, as well as where the monks or nuns who conducted these services and public proselytizing activities may live. In this way, Brahma Kumaris ashrams more resemble Christian churches with rectories than other Hindu ashrams.


Robert Wuthnow, Producing the Sacred: An Essay on Public Religion (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1994), 9, 10.


Jeff Weintraub, “The Theory and Politics of the Public/Private Distinction,” in Public and Private in Thought and Practice: Perspectives on a Grand Dichotomy, ed. Jeff Weintraub and Krishan Kumar (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997), 7.


Philippe Aries, Centuries of Childhood: A Social History of Family Life (New York: Vintage, 1965).


Lyn H. Lofland, The Public Realm: Exploring the City’s Quintessential Social Territory (London and New York: Routledge, 1998).


Christena Nippert-Eng, Islands of Privacy (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2010).


Mark Liechty, Out Here in Kathmandu: Modernity on the Global Periphery (Kathmandu, Nepal: Martin Chautari Press, 2010), 211.


Liechty, Out Here in Kathmandu, 248; Rebecca L. Spang, The Invention of the Restaurant: Paris and Modern Gastronomic Culture (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000).


Liechty, Out Here in Kathmandu, 260.


It is likely that restaurants have become more acceptable for women since Liechty conducted his research. However, my experience indicates that some stigma still remains and older norms of respectability are particularly adhered to by older women.


Liechty, Out Here in Kathmandu, 327.


Liechty, Out Here in Kathmandu, 331.


Wuthnow, Producing the Sacred.


Wuthnow, Producing the Sacred, 9.


Wuthnow, Producing the Sacred, 11.


Wuthnow, Producing the Sacred.


Robert Wuthnow, After Heaven: Spirituality in America Since the 1950s (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998); Robert N. Bellah, Richard Madsen, William M. Sullivan, Ann Swidler, and Steven M. Tipton, Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985); Grace Davie, Religion in Britain Since 1945: Believing without Belonging (New York: Wiley-Blackwell, 1994); Mark Chaves, “Secularization as Declining Religious Authority,” Social Forces 72, no. 3 (1994): 749–74.


In describing the Brahma Kumaris movement as Hindu, I am concurring with Lawrence A. Babb’s assertion that it can be categorized as Hindu despite the fact that members do not always consider themselves to be so. See Lawrence A. Babb, Redemptive Encounters: Three Modern Styles in the Hindu Tradition (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986).


Babb, Redemptive Encounters; John Walliss, The Brahma Kumaris as a ‘Reflexive Tradition’: Responding to Late Modernity (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2002).


The term murali means “flute” and is a reference to the flute played by the Hindu deity Krishna.


Walliss indicates that the Brahma Kumaris intend “Om Shanti” to mean “I am a peaceful soul.” See Walliss, Brahma Kumaris as a ‘Reflexive Tradition’, 70.


This is a limited discussion of the Brahma Kumaris movement’s history and teachings, as my focus here is on practice in Nepal. For further discussion of history and doctrine, see Walliss, Brahma Kumaris as a ‘Reflexive Tradition’, and Babb, Redemptive Encounters, as well as the several texts published by the Brahma Kumaris on these topics. Tamasin Ramsay’s bibliography provides another useful starting point. See Tamasin Ramsay, “Brahma Kumaris,” Oxford Bibliographies, ed. Tracy Coleman (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), available at


Babb, Redemptive Encounters, 119.


When surrendered members are mentioned in this article, they are called “brother” or “sister,” in keeping with how they are referred to in Nepal.


William G. Axinn and Scott T. Yabiku, “Social Change, the Social Organization of Families, and Fertility Limitation,” American Journal of Sociology 106, no. 5 (2001): 1219–61.


Sherry B. Ortner, High Religion: A Cultural and Political History of Sherpa Buddhism (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1989).


Dor Bahadur Bista, Fatalism and Development: Nepal’s Struggle for Modernization (Hyderabad, India: Orient Longman Limited, 1991), 3.


Dilli R. Dahal, “Social Composition of the Population: Caste/Ethnicity and Religion in Nepal,” Population Monograph of Nepal 1 (2003): 87–135.


Martin Gaenszly, “Redefining Kiranti Religion in Contemporary Nepal,” in Religion, Secularism, and Ethnicity in Contemporary Nepal, ed. David N. Gellner, Sondra L. Hausner, and Chiara Letizia (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2016), 326–52.


Lynn Bennett offers a comprehensive description of the “householder’s path” in Dangerous Wives and Sacred Sisters: Social and Symbolic Roles of High-Caste Women in Nepal (New York: Columbia University Press, 1983). Nepali Hindus who do not follow the householder’s path may become ascetics, or sadhus. See Sondra L. Hausner, Wandering with Sadhus: Ascetics in the Hindu Himalayas (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2007).


Bennett, Dangerous Wives and Sacred Sisters, 45.


Bennett, Dangerous Wives and Sacred Sisters, 48.


Bennett, Dangerous Wives and Sacred Sisters, 34.


Individual names and town names have been replaced with pseudonyms as per the Institutional Review Board requirements for this research as granted by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.


Comprehension of Hindi varies according to socio-economic and education levels. Affluent Nepalis may routinely consume Hindi media, such as films and magazines, or travel to India for tourism. Others, such as members of the Tharu ethnic group, may experience Nepali as a second language and have little to no familiarity with Hindi.


The Brahma Kumaris worship Shiva, the Supreme Soul, whom they conceptualize as an omniscient, all-powerful point of light. Shiva Baba is distinct from the traditional Hindu deity Shiva, whom the Brahma Kumaris refer to as Shankar. According to Babb, certain other Hindu gods have become identified with movement figures; for example, Lekhraj, the group’s founder, is sometimes identified with the creator deity Brahma. Babb, Redemptive Encounters, 94.


Marc Gaborieau, “The Indo-Nepalese House in Central Nepal: Building Patterns, Social and Religious Symbolism,” in Man and His House in the Himalayas: Ecology of Nepal, ed. Gérard Toffin (New Delhi: Sterling Publishers, 1991), 33–53.


Because my interviewees are from three different towns and are members of many different castes and ethnic groups, I want to be careful not to imply too much homogeneity when describing their homes. In almost all cases, the courtyard was contiguous with the house and in many cases distinguished from the surrounding areas by being free of grass. In other cases, courtyards were separated by a stone border. This again is consistent with Bouillier’s descriptions of high-caste Hindu households. See Véronique Bouillier, “From the Fountain to the Fireplace: The Daily Itinerary in Domestic Space among High Indo-Nepalese Castes,” in Toffin, Man and His House in the Himalayas, 54–68.


Wuthnow, Producing the Sacred.


Arati, interview by author, 31 December 2008, Subhapur, Nepal. Interviews were conducted and recorded in Nepali, the recordings were transcribed into written Nepali, and then the transcripts were translated into English. Respondent comments have been lightly edited to remove false starts, pauses, and spoken (versus written) syntax styles; the substance of their comments remains entirely their own.


Laxmi, interview by author, 12 January 2009, Subhapur, Nepal.


Indra, interview by author, 2 January 2009, Subhapur, Nepal.


Chandni, interview by author, 2 January 2009, Subhapur, Nepal. During my fieldwork, I did not observe any worship of Hindu images at Brahma Kumaris centers, nor was this a practice encouraged at murali classes that I observed. Whaling notes of the Brahma Kumaris movement that “contact with Shiva Baba is basically though meditation, not through gazing at an image or in other ways.” See Frank Whaling, Understanding the Brahma Kumaris (Edinburgh: Dunedin Academic Press, 2005), 89.


Urmila, interview by author, 6 January 2009, Subhapur, Nepal.


Laxmi, interview by author, 12 January 2009.


Bennett, Dangerous Wives and Sacred Sisters.


Diya, interview by author, 13 January 2009, Subhapur, Nepal.


Wuthnow, Producing the Sacred.


Chandni, interview by author, 2 January 2009.


Laxmi, interview by author, 12 January 2009.


Laxmi, interview by author, 12 January 2009.


Wuthnow, Producing the Sacred.


Maya Devi, interview by author, 28 January 2009, Bistanagar, Nepal.


Wuthnow, Producing the Sacred.


Judith Butler, Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of Sex (New York: Routledge, 1993).


Shreya, interview by author, 5 January 2009, Subhapur, Nepal.


Renuka, interview by author, 28 January 2009, Bistanagar, Nepal.


Maya Devi, interview by author, 28 January 2009.


Kamala, interview by author, 5 January 2009, Subhapur, Nepal.


Rashmi, interview by author, 3 March 2009, Gaida Chowk, Nepal.


Arati, interview by author, 31 December 2008.


Hema, interview by author, 6 February 2009, Bistanagar, Nepal.


Rabina, interview by author, 25 January 2009, Bistanagar, Nepal.


Mary Des Chene, “Fate, Domestic Authority, and Women’s Wills,” in Selves in Time and Place: Identities, Experience, and History in Nepal, ed. Debra Skinner, Alfred Pach, and Dorothy Holland (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1998), 19–50.


Des Chene, “Fate, Domestic Authority, and Women’s Wills,” 30.


Butler, Bodies That Matter.


Lawrence A. Babb, “Indigenous Feminism in a Modern Hindu Sect,” Signs 9, no. 3 (1984): 399–416; Meena Kandelwal, “Sexual Fluids, Emotions, Morality: Notes on the Gendering of Brahmacharya,” in Celibacy, Culture, and Society: The Anthropology of Sexual Abstinence, ed. Elisa J. Sobo and Sandra Bell (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2001): 157–79.


Lindsey Harlan and Paul B. Courtright, “Introduction: On Hindu Marriage and its Margins,” in From the Margins of Hindu Marriage: Essays on Gender, Religion, and Culture, ed. Lindsey Harlan and Paul B. Courtright (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995): 3–18.


Michael Warner, Publics and Counterpublics (New York: Zone Books, 2002).


Bipana, interview by author, 11 January 2009, Subhapur, Nepal.


Devaki, interview by author, 25 January 2009, Bistanagar, Nepal.


Renuka, interview by author, 28 January 2009.


Parvati, interview by author, 13 January 2009, Subhapur, Nepal.


Bhagwati, interview by author, 18 February 2009, Gaida Chowk, Nepal.


Bhagwati, interview by author, 2009.


Adrienne Rich, “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence,” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 5, no. 4 (1980): 652.


Bina, interview by author, 25 February 2009, Gaida Chowk, Nepal.


Michèle Lamont and Virág Molnár, “The Study of Boundaries in the Social Sciences,” Annual Review of Sociology 28 (2002): 168.


Cynthia Fuchs Epstein, “Tinkerbells and Pinups: The Construction and Reconstruction of Gender Boundaries at Work,” in Cultivating Differences: Symbolic Boundaries and the Making of Inequality, ed. Michèle Lamont and Marcel Fournier (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), 232–56; Richard Jenkins, Social Identity (London: Routledge, 1996).


Eviatar Zerubavel, The Fine Line: Making Distinctions in Everyday Life (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991); Christena E. Nippert-Eng, Home and Work: Negotiating Boundaries Through Everyday Life (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995).


Liechty, Out Here in Kathmandu; Spang, Invention of the Restaurant.


Nilufer Gole, “Snapshots of Islamic Modernities,” Daedalus 129, no. 1 (2000): 91–117.