Alex Owen’s first book The Darkened Room: Women, Power, and Spiritualism in Late Victorian England (Univ. Chicago Press, 2004) examines the intersectiAlex Owen’s first book The Darkened Room: Women, Power, and Spiritualism in Late Victorian England (Univ. Chicago Press, 2004) examines the intersections between the rise of the Spiritualist movement and the roles played by women within it – and the wider issue of the “Woman Question” from 1860 onwards. Owen examines in some detail the religious background to Spiritualism, and the growth in both secular and Christian Spiritualist organisations and its relationship to Swedenborg & Mesmerism. In examining the rise in the popularity of Spiritualism, she relates it to the growth of social reform movemements – examples being the British National Association of Spiritualist’s stated aims to be that of “To cause the Rights of Women to be recognised in full” and the medium Emma Harding Britten using her “spirit inspired” lectures to assert that women should be allowed to enter the professions.
The relationship between suffrage & other social reform movements and esoteric movements in the 19th century is also a concern of Joy Dixon’s book so The Darkened Room complements it nicely.
Owen shows that women were considered at that time to be innately predisposed towards mediumship due to their “feminine virtues” (one of which was passivity). Yet, she says, women as mediums not only reinforced the Victorian stereotypes of femininity, they also challenged them, insofar as women mediums became “voices of authority” and frequently gained an independent income. She also looks at class issues, discussing one particular case in a middle-class household where the female medium was a servant. Part of Owen’s argument is that women played a central role in the early Spiritualist movement as mediums, healers and pioneers, yet unlike their male counterparts, they were less prone to writing up their experiences for public consumption and becoming ’spokespersons’ for spiritualist causes. Owen also discusses how women mediums were dismissed by the burgeoning medical establishment as suffering from hysteria (she devotes one chapter to examining the case of a middle-class woman who was incarcerated in various asylums for over a decade on the basis of her practice of automatic writing). Early psychologists such as Janet and Hartmann described mediumship as indicative of hysteria or multiple personalities, yet it was the investigation of mediumship which spurred Frederick Myers to form his theory of the “subliminal mind.” Again, the tensions between medical “professionals” and spiritualist healers are perhaps a continuation of the conflicts studied by Owen Davies in Cunning-Folk. These tensions also shaped emerging sexological discourses....more
Women in Ochre Robes is an engaging and intimate ethnographic portrait of contemporary sannyasinis in India; women who have renounced the orthodox valWomen in Ochre Robes is an engaging and intimate ethnographic portrait of contemporary sannyasinis in India; women who have renounced the orthodox values of family life and domestic obligations in order to pursue the path of spiritual liberation. This is all the more remarkable when one considers that, as Khandelwal points out, the Sannyasa tradition was created for and by men, and so Sannyasinis not only may face opposition from family & friends in pursuing renunciate status, but also may face opposition from male ascetics.
This book is no disengaged account of these women's histories - Khandelwal places herself within the text, so as much as this book is an examination of the complexities of sannyasini lives, it is also an engaging account of the author's pursuit of her research, and her own encounters and responses to life within communities of ascetics. This approach provides a rich background context to the author's research, and also acknowledges that ethnology is itself, "a form of human relationship."
Women in Ochre Robes brings out a central problem in the study of renouncer traditions in India - the notion that householder and renouncer stand as dichotomous opposites. Khandelwal prefers to speak of 'tensions' rather than oppositions, and notes for example, that whilst renouncers relationship with their families changes once they become sannyasa, they may still maintain connections with their families - that whilst renouncers are no longer thought of as being of society - they are still enmeshed within a complex network of social relationships. Khandelwal also astutely points out that the phenomena of female renunciation itself provides a critique of anthropology's tendency to represent the lives of people in other cultures as overdetermined.
Khandelwal focuses in detail on her relationships with two sannyasinis - Anand Mata and Baiji, exploring how both these women reconcile the tensions and contradictions of renunciate detachment and social engagement. She notes, for example, that sannyasinis tend to discourage other women from following their example, not out of a blind belief in 'orthodoxy' but that it is contrary to the ideals of sannyasi to recruit followers. She provides a thoughtful and pithy examination of how the thorny issue of authenticity is resolved amongst sannyasas and their disciples. Khandelwal says that whilst there are no 'objective criteria' for making such evaluations, there are, nonetheless, 'discernable patterns' by which real saints are distinguished from the merely fraudulent and that the distinction between the holy man and the freeloader are often subtle. The fraudulent ascetic is a common figure in Indian literature, both ancient and modern. Khandelwal notes that:
"It was generally assumed by most people I met that, while the vast majority of sadhus are frauds, genuine saints do exist, and discrimination is required to distinguish between them. Using one's faculty of discrimination means not only comparing one sadhu with another or "shopping around" but also testing them." (p162)
Khandelwal also provides an intriguing perspective on the 'mutuality' of gurus and disciples, and in particular, how disciples interpret the behaviour of their gurus. Whilst there is great potential for abuse within this kind of relationship, there is also the possibility of the guru becoming 'trapped' by the disciples expectations - a point also examined by Agehananda Bharati in his book, Light at the Centre.
Khandelwal poses the question "How are the gender identities and roles of women affected when they enter the world of renunciation?" She argues that Sannyasinis reject the notion that 'women must become men' (either metaphorically or through rebirth) and says that whilst they distance themselves from female householders, they do not reject femininity itself. Whilst there is a common refrain that to be a renouncer is to be indifferent to matters of gender, Khandelwal notes that despite otherworldly indifference (the ideal) women who renounce "remain attentive to the ambiguities and ambivalences of gender issues within the renunciate sphere. She discusses how the very real problem of sannyasinis being treated as objects of male sexual attention can mean that sannyasinis, rather than being able to wander at will, often have to be circumspect in their behaviour. Khandelwal says that during the course of her research, she received warnings not to visit ashrams alone or speak to unfamiliar sadhus. "It is clear", she says, "that ochre robes do not provide an escape from the perils of being a woman in North India."
Khandelwal argues that whilst the renunciate ideal imagines gender as ephermeral, as one looks deeper, the categories of Brahmanic ideology are reproduced and even elaborated - so that women may be denigrated and masculinity privileged at the same time that maternal qualities such as compassion & nurturing are held up as renunciant ideals.
Women in Ochre Robes is a deeply fascinating book, all too welcome given the current lack of accessible material on contemporary Indian women's religious experience. Khandelwal presents a highly nuanced and complex picture of the lives of sannyasinis and the world they inhabit - a world that encompasses the philosophical, personal, social and emotional aspects of experience. Highly recommended....more
This book, first published in 1986, is widely considered to be a “classic” work on Hindu Goddesses. The first chapter provides an overview of goddesseThis book, first published in 1986, is widely considered to be a “classic” work on Hindu Goddesses. The first chapter provides an overview of goddesses in Vedic literature, then there are chapters focusing on the more well-known Indian goddesses: Sri-Laksmi, Parvati, Sarasvati, Sita, Radha, Durga, Kali, and the Mahadevi. Kinsley also examines groups of goddesses – the Matrkas and the Mahavidyas. The final two chapters examine, respectively, the Goddesses and their relation to Sacred Geography, and “local” or Village Goddesses. There is also an appendix dealing with the Indus Valley Civilisation and the problems of extrapolating too widely about evidence for goddess worship from the little we know about it. The first chapter is a useful start for anyone interested in looking into the earliest textual evidence for goddesses in India, examining goddesses such as Vac, Ratri or Nirrti. The chapters on Sr-Laksmi, Durga, Kali, Parvati, etc., focus on textual and iconographic representations. For each goddess, Kinsley examines the development of textual sources, the progression of each goddesses’ mythologies, and examines festivals, and how each goddess relates to wider cultural values and expressions. Kinsley was one of the first scholars to examine in depth the relationship between goddesses and the land, and whilst its easy to take this kind of material for granted nowadays, its not hard to see how ground-breaking his work was in the late 1980s. In Hindu Goddesses: Visions of the Divine Feminine in the Hindu Religious Tradition he eloquently expresses the diversity and richness of Indian goddess traditions in a way that few others have matched. Its an excellent work, and one for numerous re-readings. ...more
Owen Davies’ Cunning-Folk: Popular Magic in English History (Hambledon and London, 2003) shows how cunning folk (known under a variety of labels) wereOwen Davies’ Cunning-Folk: Popular Magic in English History (Hambledon and London, 2003) shows how cunning folk (known under a variety of labels) were a part of English culture (both rural and urban) up to the early twentieth century. He estimates for example, that by the nineteenth century, there were several thousand plying their trade across the country. Davies reveals that whilst prosectution was certainly an occupational hazard for them, in fact only a very small percentage of cunning folk were charged under the Witchcraft Act – because, he hypothesises, ordinary people made a distinction between “helpful” magic and “malicious” witchcraft. Cunning Folk is a thorough and engaging piece of historical research with some wonderfully funny moments – such as the account where a farm labourer took a cunning man to court because he had gone to consult him to reveal the identity of a thief who had made off with some produce – only to find that the lost stuff was in the cunning man’s rooms. I’d highly reccomend it to anyone with an interest in finding out how widespread popular magic was in England between 1500 and the 20th century....more