PolyFaith: The Dialectic Interplay Between Art, the Body, and Spirituality

Feb 13 2019
When: 5:00 PM - 6:30 PM
Where: Sidney Center (previously known as the Harman Academy); Doheny Memorial Library, room 241
Event Type: Workshop

Event Details

Presented in collaboration with the USC Interfaith Council.


“When I run, I feel His pleasure.” Eric Liddell, Chariots of Fire


Whirling dervishes, reggaes’ beat, aromatic incense, and Greek Orthodox iconography all share something in common—they are each unique portals to the ecstatic, conduits to sublimity. For Olympic gold medalist Eric Liddell, his spiritual ecstasy came when he simply ran. How might we understand the complexity of this sort of induced sensual/spiritual intoxication, literally and metaphorically?  For our spring 2019 session of the Polyfaith Series, Varun Soni and James Mchugh will guide us through an interrogation of how ritualistic practices of the physical and sensory body—such as movement, sound, smell, and the visual—adorn the spiritual experience and enhance the devotional life. Their conversation will be moderated by Shradha Jain, President of the USC Interfaith Council.

Speaker Information


Dr. Varun Soni

Dr. Varun Soni is the Dean of Religious Life at the University of Southern California (USC) as well as the Vice Provost of Campus Wellness and Crisis Intervention, Adjunct Professor of Religion, and University Fellow at the Annenberg Center on Public Diplomacy. He has led a polymathic life, earning degrees from Harvard Divinity School, a J.D. from UCLA School of Law, and a Ph.D. in Religious Studies from the University of Cape Town. His research has taken him throughout South Asia where he even spent time living in a Buddhist monastery. He is the author of Natural Mystics: The Prophetic Lives of Bob Marley and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan (Figueroa Press, 2014) and he produced the critically acclaimed graphic novel Tina’s Mouth: An Existential Comic Diary by Keshni Kashyap (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011), which is currently being adapted as a television show. His essays and commentaries have appeared in a number of print and online publications, including CNN, Huffington Post, Washington Post, Jewish Journal, Religion Dispatches, CrossCurrents and Harvard Divinity Bulletin. As a national interfaith leader, Soni has organized and hosted many programs and events with prominent spiritual, scholarly and civic leaders, including His Holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, Archbishop Jose Horacio Gomez, Marianne Williamson, Gary Snyder, Krista Tippett, Chade-Meng Tan, Reza Aslan, Rainn Wilson, Pico Iyer, Lisa Ling, Louis Zamperini, Kobe Bryant and Baaba Maal. For two years, he produced and hosted his own radio show on KPFK-Pacifica (90.7FM, Los Angeles) that showcased music from South Asia and its diaspora.

Dr. James McHugh

James McHugh studies the cultural and material history of pre-modern India. He works on classical and early medieval Indian materials, mainly working with Sanskrit texts. His first book, "Sandalwood and Carrion: Smell in Indian Religion and Culture" (Oxford University Press, 2012) is about is the sense of smell and the use of aromatics in South Asian religions: Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism. He is currently working on a second book: "An Unholy Brew: Alcohol in Indian Religion and History" (under contract with Oxford University Press), about alcohol in South Asian history and religions. This book will draw on textual, art-historical, and ethnographic research into drinking. He also has an interest in the history of gemstones and magic in South Asia.