At Pantheacon Pagans deeply involved in interfaith affairs reported important achievements in two panels, one on the Lost and Endangered Religions Project (LERP) and the other on international interfaith work in general.  Both are doing great good for our spiritual traditions as well as being of genuine service to others.  This post discusses LERP, a Pagan originated organization now sponsored by the United Religions Initiative  (URI)  out of San Francisco.  LERP initially grew from research into our own beginnings, but has grown to see itself as seeking to assist in the survival or future revival of religious traditions at high risk of extinction.

Dr. Layne Little emphasized that LERP was founded to help people on their own terms.  The community at risk sets the terms of assistance, and if that means a sacred text is not made available to scholars, so be it. This effort to respect and empower traditions at risk “opened a thousand doors for us,” Little said.

Although still small and under funded, LERP has already made some significant contributions to the survival of threatened religious traditions.  Sometimes this is within our own country, as when a small Yezidi  community in Lincoln, NB, was provided with their sacred text.  While still surviving in parts of the Middle East, many hd immigrated to fell widespread persecution, and some who had immigrated had lost their sacred literature.

Much farther afield, the Devadasi  of Southern India had long held a special status as sacred dancers and ritualists.  Dr. Archana Venkatesan explained they were the only significant class of literate women, and were often multi-lingual as well.  They were also uniquely self-governing.  In a society where women were deeply subordinated to their husbands the Devadasi were married to Gods, but could and did take human lovers, with whom they even raised families.

Their destruction began with Victorian colonialists, who listed them as prostitutes, and then sought to ‘help’ them by destroying their livelihood. These attitudes transferred over to the secular elites who came to control India’s independence, criminalizing them in 1947, when the country gained independence.  The government even outlawed public religious dance if the dancers were a member of this tradition. Today only a few remain, elderly and living in poverty.  They do not presently want to revive their traditions, but are willing to pass on what they know.  LERP is assisting these women in their final years, while reserving their knowledge should future generations seek to recreate their tradition.

Male religious dancers in South India were is similar catastrophic decline, their traditional hereditary communities extending back to the 11th century survive today in only three temples.  Here LERP’s sympathetic interest has helped to revitalize some dancers, and new apprentices have begun to learn the tradition.  LERP has been given permission to restore and digitalize degraded records of their songs, making them available to their original community as well as to future scholars should the community fail to survive.

One might wonder why make the effort to protect traditions so close to extinction. I think we are uniquely able to answer this question. Because the sacred is immanent within the world, each tradition represents a way of approaching it, a way valuable because it sacralizes human life in a unique way.  Were these traditions to die out because their members have found something more satisfying,  I for one would have no problem with that development.  But that is not what happened.  They were suppressed or destroyed either by secular moderns or by people acting in the name of a monotheistic religion.  The West in particular has taken so much from these people, LERP is an opportunity to give back.

Long may it flourish.

Note: I am a very biased reporter.  I have long been a member of LERP’s academic advisory board.

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