Lisa I. Knight’s Contradictory Lives: Baul Women in India and Bangladesh is a sensitive and engaging ethnographic account of the everyday lives of BauLisa I. Knight’s Contradictory Lives: Baul Women in India and Bangladesh is a sensitive and engaging ethnographic account of the everyday lives of Baul women in Bangladesh and India, and how they negotiate agency and respond to various contradictory expectations – between the cultural expectations of Bauls as unencumbered by social restraints and concerns and cultural expectations of how women should behave. Knight frames Baul women as “encumbered actors”, pointing out that “unlike their male peers, they are never completely unencumbered by societal restraints and expectations” – they have responsibilities as mothers and wives, and are “encumbered by a patriarchy that legitimizes Baul men’s performance and itinerancy and devalues women’s public contributions”. She focuses on how Baul women, despite the various encumberances – patriarchy, tradition, family, gurus, and patrons actively create meaningful lives for themselves – sometimes challenging the status quo, but equally sometimes seemingly acquiesing to the expectations of normative society. A key point which Knight makes in this respect is that for Baul women “resistance and defiance are not always the most useful or feasible ways to respond. Sometimes the most effective response is to give the appearance of upholding norms. In fact challenging the status quo can create a very difficult life, a reality that should not be overlooked. Therefore trying to determine how much agency a person has cannot always be done by observing their actions – and the results of their actions – since sometimes their choice not to act is not merely passivity.” (pp7-8)
Contradictory Lives is divided into two sections. The first part: “Multiple Sites” situates Baul women’s place within in particular locales, communities, and discourses. In the second chapter, Knight argues that both popular and scholarly discourses on Bauls tend to marginalise women, and examines how popular bhandralok (the Bengali elite) discourse, drawing on romanticised images of Baul males as wandering, solitary, sadhu-minstrels – an image influenced strongly by the work of Rabindranath Tagore – tends to reinforce the view that “real Bauls” are men, and that women, when they are present, only exist to serve the men This view, Knight shows, is also present in much of the scholarly literature on Bauls – particularly in respect to women as “assistants” (but not equal actors) in Baul sexo-yogic rituals, with the implication that Baul women do not do sadhana for themselves or have knowledge of it. These discourses tend, Knight argues, to either marginalise women, or lead to an expectation that Baul women should behave just like Baul men. Knight explains that for many urban Bengalis, Bauls represent an idealised connection to a “pristine” village life and a longing for an experience of the Divine, and that these images colour expectations of how Bauls are supposed to look and behave. She recounts a meeting with a journalist in Dhaka where she was asked to produce some photographs of Baul women: “When the photos I brought showed women who who looked like ordinary women with their hair tied back and wearing printed green or blue saris, my interviewer looked disappointed … from these photos – even one of Kangalini Sufia, the most famous Baul singer in Bangladesh – the journalist could not recognise them as Bauls.”(p42)
Chapter four provides a sensitive portrayal of how Baul women secure respect and support from their non-Baul neighbours, drawing on the normative paradigms such as the Bengali “good woman” even as their public performances and social critiques challenge those norms. Knight shows how Baul women draw on the gendered norms of their cultures in order to demand respect.
Chapter 5 examines the songs and performances of Baul women, which frequently present Baul critiques on social, caste, and gender discrimination. Some Baul women’s songs also act to shame Baul men who abandon their wives and abuse alcohol.
In Chapter 6, Knight turns to Baul renunciation. Knight draws a distinction between Baul and Brahmanical modalities of sannyas and argues that Baul couples take sannyas as a means of gaining legitimisation and respect from their bhadralok patrons. Although partner-orientated sannyas is the norm, Baul women can and sometimes do pursue this course alone. In spite of the obstacles they face, renunciation enables Baul women to live alone in society.
In her conclusion, Knight explains that Baul women share Baul ideology on gender equality and understand that their relative mobility and independence distinguishes them from their non-Baul female peers. Yet at the same time, Baul women recognise the structures that limit their movements, and whilst they do not agree with these limitations, they draw upon them in order to articulate their concerns as mothers and wives.
Readers expecting to find lurid details of Baul esoteric sexual practices will be disappointed. As Rina, one of Knight’s Baul informants stresses, these are secret and can only be understood through direct engagement with the Baul path under the direction of a guru … “that real Bauls do not identify themselves as Bauls, or at least they do not advertise their identity, and will not blurt out Baul secrets to just anyone” (p125). Rather, I would say that the strength of Contradictory Lives is that it counters the romantic idealisation of marginal religious groups such as the Bauls, and provides a sensitive and rich portrayal of how Baul women live their everyday lives, negotiating and managing everyday concerns. ...more
Revelry, Rivalry, and Longing for the Goddesses of Bengal: the Fortunes of Hindu Festivals is a fascinating study of three important yearly Bengali feRevelry, Rivalry, and Longing for the Goddesses of Bengal: the Fortunes of Hindu Festivals is a fascinating study of three important yearly Bengali festivals dedicated to the goddesses Durga, Kali and Jagaddhatri. Rachel Fell McDermott describes the development of these large public festivals, their growth from the 1700s onwards, and their relationship to social power, aspiration and status, and the commercialisation of the modern “puja industry”. She discusses how the representation of the goddesses has changed over time – and, in particular relation to Kali, what relationship modern representations of Kali bear to Her tantric past, and also highlights some recent controversies, such as the environmental impact of the pujas, and tensions over animal sacrifice; to the use of dirt from the doorways of sex workers in Durga Pujas.
Revelry, Rivalry, and Longing for the Goddesses of Bengal highlights the hidden history and politics behind the Bengali goddess festivals and the complex tensions over what constitutes “traditional practices”. If you want to understand more about the history and workings of these large public festivals and how they relate to different modalities of Indian religosity, this book is an excellent place to start....more
Lynn Foulston and Stuart Abbott’s Hindu Goddesses: Beliefs and Practices (Sussex Academic Press, 2009, p/bk, 16 colour images) manages to pack a greatLynn Foulston and Stuart Abbott’s Hindu Goddesses: Beliefs and Practices (Sussex Academic Press, 2009, p/bk, 16 colour images) manages to pack a great deal into its 292 pages. The first chapter provides an introduction to the theological concepts of Sakti, maya and prakrti – and provides an introductory look at “essentially benign” goddesses such as Sri-Lakmsi and Sarasvati – and “essentially fierce” goddesses such as Durga and Kali. Next, Foulston & Abbott review textual sources – beginning with the Vedas, and moving through to the Puranas, with particular focus on texts such as the Devi-mahatmya. Chapter 3 focuses on key themes in goddess mythology, such as the descent of Ganga and the events around the destruction of Daksa’s sacrifice. They also explore the relationship between local and localised pan-Indian goddesses. Chapter 4, in turn, examines Tantric goddesses – in particular groups such as the Yoginis, the Seven Mothers, and the Ten Mahavidyas, and also a brief introduction to Sri Vidya. The second part of Hindu Goddesses – “Practices” deals with issues relating to goddess worship, festivals, and pilgrimages; providing an introductory overview of major festival pujas to goddesses such as Durga and Kali; goddess temples and Sakti pithas; localised forms of goddesses such as Kamakhya and Minaksi; and looks at the diverse forms of practice, from devotional and tantric rituals to temple and home worship. The final chapter examines the relationship between “Mother India” and Hindu nationalism, and looks at some relatively “new” forms of the goddess such as Santosi Ma, AIDS-amma and Manushi Swachha Narayani – the broom goddess.
Hindu Goddesses: Beliefs and Practices has a strong emphasis on ethnographic accounts of goddess practice, and, whilst textual sources are not ignored, Foulston & Abbottt also give much insight into material culture and the relationship between goddess theologies and everyday life in contemporary India. If you’re after an introductory book on Hindu goddesses in all their diversity and glory, I’d recommend Hindu Goddesses: Beliefs and Practices highly. ...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
Sondra L. Hausner’s Wandering with Sadhus: Ascetics in the Hindu Himalayas (Indiana University Press, 2007, 250pp) is an intimate ethnographic accountSondra L. Hausner’s Wandering with Sadhus: Ascetics in the Hindu Himalayas (Indiana University Press, 2007, 250pp) is an intimate ethnographic account of the lives of Hindu renouncers in northern India and Nepal. Throughout Wandering, Hausner highlights seemingly opposed tensions and how these are reconciled in the daily lives of her informants; for example between the ideal of renouncers as solitary individuals versus sadhu life as a parallel form of community; between the emphasis on the illusory nature of space, time versus the importance of sacred time, space and place, and the issues of religious practice; between the body as illusion and hindrance and the body as the ground of experience.
Wandering with Sadhus opens with the perspective that there is a fundamental split in renouncer lives which is at once both practical (splitting away from householder society) and metaphorical (the split of the soul away from the body). Hausner relates how this split is mirrored across all aspects of a renouncer’s life and that this reflects a wider Hindu concern with transcendence from the material world. She points out that all of her informants strongly emphasised how their religious practices or lifestyles were different to householder society, and goes on to discuss how much renouncer society offers a “place of refuge” from mainstream Indian society – particularly for women. She also points out that for householders “the sadhu community symbolizes the fearsome power of a world outside structural norms, from which there is no return. I heard a number of lay families, even as they outwardly expressed respect for renouncers, tease their children with the threat of giving them away to a wandering sadhu if they misbehaved” (p45). She presents a useful review of Hindu ideas of the body, and argues that the “split” between renouncers and householders does reflect, to a degree, the work of Louis Dumont – particularly his work on renouncers as forming an “other-worldly challenge” to the social web of householder life. She refutes the contemporary idea that the mind-body split is not present in Indian religious or medical body traditions, and argues that the interpretation of Cartesian dualism is not actually a seperation of mind from body, but between body-mind and soul – pointing to the similarities between Descartes and the Indian Samkhya philosophy. She suggests (pace Jonathan Parry) that “the collective refusal to think of South Asian embodiment as a dualistic enterprise might be Orientalism at work” (p56). This discussion is carried on in the book’s appendix, which provides a useful review of anthropological work on Hindu renunciation and embodiment. Pretty much all of the heavy “theory” in this book is done in chapter one and the appendix, which certainly makes the book more accessible.
Hausner shows how, despite textual ideals and popular representations of sadhus as isolated individual practitioners, renouncer life is highly social – mantained through family lineages, administrative orders (akharas), and the guru-disciple relationship – allowing the widely geographically dispersed sadhu communities to remain vital, ensuring the transmission of religious values and the maintenance of communal identities, and also how the akharas both support and discipline their initiates. She also examines how the act of wandering is related to the representation of sadhus as having broken free of the constraints of householder life – and how renouncers’ spatial experience of community is related to networks of pilgrimage circuits. Wandering, she points out “teaches detachment and observation, but also gathers the blessings from dispersed holy places into the body of the wanderer.” She describes pilgrimage sites as “spatial nodes” where members of the dispersed sadhu community may periodically meet each other and examines how visiting pilgrimage sites can act as social and economic supports for itinerant renouncers Hausner also highlights the tensions – and material problems – of wandering versus the benefits settling down in a particular place in terms of the dictates of practice. Hausner also makes some interesting contrasts between “places of solitude” such as caves, jungle, and forests, and the social demands of ashrams.
In her conclusion, Hausner discusses how social and bodily practices are understood by sadhus within terms of their religious worldview: “Renouncers insist on the split between soul and body because it is a powerful metaphor for the split they enact from householder society” (p183). She ably articulates how for renouncers, religious transcendence translates into social power – that because sadhus are not tied to one particular place – they inhabit a circuit of holy places, and function on divine, rather than everyday time, they are considered able to manipulate the world at will. Their peripheral and mobile status contributes to their reputation for being religiously powerful. As one of Hausner’s informants put it: “The individual thinks the individual body is his body; the knower of brahman knows the whole universe is his body. Others see his body as his body, but from his point of view his body is the whole universe” (p185). She also presents some useful observations on the nature – from a renouncer’s perspective – of bodily experience, and in particular, how renouncer’s religious discipline serve to enable them to distinguish between “experience that clarifies and experience that obscures.”...more
David Gordon White’s Sinister Yogis (University of Chicago Press 2009, h/back, 336pp – also available in paperback and for Kindle) is third part of aDavid Gordon White’s Sinister Yogis (University of Chicago Press 2009, h/back, 336pp – also available in paperback and for Kindle) is third part of a “triptych” (the previous two books were Alchemical Bodies and Kiss of the Yogini.) Of the three, I would say that Sinister Yogis is the most accessible, although like the other two, it is not exactly a page-turner either.
According to White, the majority of scholarly approaches to Yoga have oriented themselves around the “philosophical yoga” tradition (commonly known as “Raja Yoga” or “classical yoga”) of which Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras is a foundational text. White says that: “it has been the equation of yoga with meditation or contemplation that has been most responsible for the skewed interpretations that have dominated the historiography of yoga for much of the past one hundred years.” (p42) White says that this focus has had the effect of marginalising earlier (and later) developments and so, as a counter, Sinister Yogis focuses on the Yogi – the practitioners, and examines accounts of practitioners within a wide variety of literary genres spanning a period of over a thousand years; ranging through the Vedas, Epics and Puranas, to early traveller accounts of Yogis, colonial reports; narratives from Hindi, Sanskrit and Persian sources, which depict yogis behaving in extraordinary and yes, sometimes “sinister” fashion, but largely not depicted in terms of the practices familiar from “classical yoga” – assuming postures, restraining breath and senses, meditating or realising transcendent states of consciousness. White asserts that, in contradiction to the majoritarian view of Yoga practice, the yogis in these narratives are not introspective or inward-turning.
In countering the familiar image of the yogi as “holy man” – detached from the concerns of the everyday world and spurning the acquisition (and use) of siddhis – magical powers such as the ability to enter another person’s body, raising the dead and so forth, White makes the radical claim that this image of the yogi is not historically correct, and he gives a lengthy examination of “the science of entering another body” (which can be likened to a form of possession) and how this relates to Indian models of perception and modes of personhood:
“Before it was closed off from the world to ensure the splendid isolation of spirit from matter, or the vacuum necessary for the “hydraulic” practices of hatha yoga, the yogic body was conceived as an open system, capable of transacting with every other body – inanimate, animate, human, divine, and celestial – in the universe” (p166).
Moreover, White examines how scholarly representations of the yogic body in terms of it being a microcosmic “miniature” of the wider cosmos is a mis-step (see some related discussion here); rather, he says, it would be more accurate to understand the yogic body as “a self-magnifying self that has become fully realized by the magni-ficent universe” (p175).
In addition, Sinister Yogis examines portrayals of yogis as power-brokers, ascetic warrior-mercenaries and traders; and the British criminalisation of yogis in the nineteenth century. He presents a critique of the popular, unreflexive assumption that the figure in Sir John Marshall’s so-called “Pasupati Seal” is seated in a yogic posture, and argues that the “lotus position” was originally associated with royal sovereignty – and later became extended to yogis due to the relationship between yoga and sovereign power.
Sinister Yogis is without doubt a ground-breaking approach to the historical representation and understanding of yoga traditions and aims. It overturns much of what is considered canonical in terms of how we think about yoga and yogis....more
Ron Barrett’s Aghor Medicine: Pollution, Death and Healing in North India (University of California Press, 2008, h/bk, p/bk & Adobe Digital EditioRon Barrett’s Aghor Medicine: Pollution, Death and Healing in North India (University of California Press, 2008, h/bk, p/bk & Adobe Digital Edition) is an engaging examination of contemporary Aghori adepts and how, in shifting their practices towards the healing of socially stigmatised diseases (in particular, leprosy) the Aghoris have become socially legitimate and acquired political power. This is particularly interesting as popular representations of Aghoris are bound up with cremation ground worship, cannibalism and coprophagy (although admittedly the latter does not loom large in popular western representations of antinomian tantric practices).
In This book, based on extensive fieldwork with members of the Kina Rami Aghori lineage in Banares, Barrett examines the cultural dynamics of pollution, death and healing in relation to what he terms “Aghor Medicine” – which includes a wide range of eclectic practices such as religious purificatory rites, Ayurvedic and biomedical treatments conducted with the guidance of Aghoris, and the Aghori philosophy of nondiscrimination which challenges practitioners and clients alike to confront and overcome fears and aversions – particularly those around death and disease. Although, as Barrett shows, much of the older cremation-ground practice smashan-sadhana has been supplanted by more socially acceptable practices, the underlying philosophy of cremation-ground practice and its symbolism is still central to Aghori medical practices. He also examines how patients & devotees of the Aghoris draw upon the cultural capital surrounding their reputation for possessing power (shakti) and magical abilities (siddhis).
Along the way, Barrett examines and dispells many of the popular misconceptions that have grown up around the Aghoris. For example, he is cautious about automatically assuming that Aghoris are “tantrics” – discussing contemporary Aghoris’ own ambivalence towards the term, and the general difficulties of defining just what constitutes “tantra” anyway. Instead, he opts for a polythetic approach – “in which Aghor may share enough features with certain tantric traditions to claim some family resemblance but in in which no single feature defines all of them as necessarily tantric” (p12). There is also an interesting discussion of the notion of the right-hand path (dakshinamarg) and left-hand path (vamamarg) which are often portrayed as oppositional and antagonistic. One of Barrett’s sources, an Aghora guru named Hari Baba however, takes a nondualist view that the two paths are complementary to each other:
“they are like two banks of a river that work together to channel the water in a certain direction. The disciple might use one or the other path or a certain combination of both, at different stages of his or her development. Moreover, the disciple need not be an Aghori to combine left-hand approaches with right-hand ones. … Left-hand practices are meant to be temporary exercises, not permanent ways of living. They are supposed to be practiced in moderation, no more than is needed to overcome a particular obstacle to nondiscrimination.”(p152)
Aghor Medicine is a highly readable and fascinating book which sheds much light on the interrelationships between sacred geography, healing and pollution, as well as showing how the Aghori tradition is changing and developing....more