Western Questions and Devout Silence – on Researching Disasters in Highly Religious Settings

Wednesday, 18 July 2018: 16:00
Oral Presentation
Daniel F. LORENZ, Disaster Research Unit (DRU), Freie Universitat Berlin, Germany
Cordula DITTMER, Disaster Research Unit (DRU), Freie Universitat Berlin, Germany
In June 2013, a major flash flood due to early monsoon and a bursting glacial lake destroyed the livelihood of thousands of people in the remote areas of the Himalayas in the Indian state of Uttarakhand. Thousands of people lost their lives and hundreds of bodies have never been recovered. The whole region is a sacred space full of holy places where Hindu people from all over India come to worship and visit ancient temples on a multi-day pilgrimage. Thus, the loss of life, especially in the most holy place Kedarnath, is seen as sacred not as a tragedy or disaster.

Three years after the disastrous events, we conducted research in this area centered around the vulnerability of the people in the face the disaster and their explanations of the events. Accompanying pilgrims on their way up the mountains to remote temples, we were confronted with highly religious people praying and performing religious rituals, who were undeterred by the recent disaster and the permanent dangerous high altitude environment. This situation evoked questions whether it is possible and/or appropriate to ask pilgrims “rational” scientific questions about vulnerability and disasters while they were experiencing the whole situation as devout. This led to deeper reflections on contradicting epistemological foundations of Western scientific rationality and religious worldviews as well as experiences.

Based on the case study we will elaborate on general (research) ethical questions and the implications for disaster research in terms of difficulties and challenges of researching disasters in highly religious contexts where common research methodologies and approaches are not applicable (or appropriate). This also implies reflecting on our own (self-)identity and positionality as Western and non-Hindu researchers and the implicit expectations of the research field.