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Gods on Earth (The Management of Religious Experience and Identity in a North Indian Pilgrimage Centre)

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Item Code: NAS517
Author: Peter Van Der Veer
Publisher: The Athlone Press
Language: English
Edition: 1988
ISBN: 0485195100
Pages: 340
Other Details 9.00 X 5.50 inch
Weight 580 gm
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Book Description

About the Book

This book is a detailed anthropological and historical study of Ayodhya, a Hindu pilgrimage centre in the North Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. Based on intensive fieldwork and archive research, it considers the values and identities of the pilgrim groups and of the religious specialists who receive them, and how these have changed over time. The author focuses in particular on the Ramanandi monks and the Brahman priests, the two most important groups of specialists at the shrine. He argues that, contrary to the `Orientalist' perspective of much of the literature on Hinduism, which stresses the unchanging nature of the religion grounded in sacred texts, the religious experience and values of both pilgrims and specialists are constantly changing as a result of large-scale political and economic processes, in particular the impact of British rule. Dr van der Veer thus makes a major contribution to our understanding of Hinduism as a truly historical phenomenon.

About the Author

Peter van der Veer is Lecturer in Cultural Anthropology at the University of Utrecht.


This study deals with Ayodhya, a Hindu pilgrimage centre in the North Indian state of Uttar Pradesh.1 Its subject is not, however, pilgrimage or pilgrims. My research focuses on those who reside in Ayodhya rather than its visitors. By offering an interpretative description of the way religious specialists - monks and priests - live and of the institutions that tie them together, I intend to analyse the main forces that mould religious identity and experience.

The web of relationships among the various groups of specialists to a large extent decides their social position and their leverage over laymen. To understand the way religious specialists are organized, and the beliefs that they hold, it is necessary to understand their interaction and competition between them. Relationships within this arena - the pilgrimage centre - are in their turn affected by large-scale political and economic processes. That all these relations are in a state of flux and that beliefs, values and religious experiences change accordingly, is the keystone of my argument: none of these religious phenomena is fixed in a static system of meaning, nor can they be directly deduced from the sacred tenets of Hinduism.

In the following chapter I attempt to present an 'inside' view of Ayodhya as a place of pilgrimage.2 This will be supplemented by some broad historical observations relevant to the study. The second chapter will set out the principal theoretical problems and perspectives. Chapters III and IV form the core of the book. Both chapters consider the two chief groups of religious specialists, the Ramanandi monks and the Brahman priests. Central to my investigation is the question of how, and to what extent, their social identity is formed by forces operating within these groups and forces impinging on them from without. Both identity formation and the shaping of religious experiences will be shown to be heavily influenced by political processes, through the interplay and competition of political actors who constantly define and redefine their position in the pilgrimage arena. The priests and monks are depicted as political actors who articulate, underplay or stress their identities, depending on how they perceive conditions in the local arena and how they assess strategic processes in the wider North Indian society. This argument leads inevitably to a critique of dominant 'orientalist' and 'symbolic' approaches to the phenomena of caste and sect, and hence to a reconsideration of certain ideas generally received in the study of Hinduism and of Indian society.

It is necessary to introduce at this stage some of the themes which will be treated in detail in chapters III and IV concerning the Ramanandis and the Ayodhya pandas.


The Ramanandis are divided into two sections: a monastic order of religious specialists (sadhus) and a community of laymen. We are concerned here with the monastic order. The social organization of this order is loosely structured and based on spiritual lineages of gurus and their initiates. Some sadhus have a position of authority when they act as gurus for other sadhus as well as for laymen. The fundamental difference between sadhus and laymen is based upon two qualities the sadhus possess: their specialization in a religious method (siidhand) and their celibacy.

There is much diversity in religious and social attitudes among the Ramanandi sadhus. We can distinguish three sections among them: ruktis and rasiks. Tyagis follow a relatively radical path of asceticism and renunciation. They lead a peripatetic life in itinerant groups. Nagas are fighting sadhus who are trained in the use of violence and live in fortified temples. Rasiks are sadhus specialized in a kind of 'sweet devotion' which centres on the worship of images in temples. They emphasize the emotional relation between the devotee, who is envisaged as being female, and the deity.

These subdivisions of the Ramanandi order relate to a historical process of sedentarization. Tyagis are still to a great extent ascetics who roam in the jungle, while the nagas are already to some degree sedentarized as a result of their military organization. The rasiks, however, are unambiguously temple-dwellers (asthanadhdris), living in sacred centres. The tyagi may be called a 'world renouncer' and, as such, may be opposed to the lay householder who remains in the caste society. We should, however, be careful not to push this opposition too far, as Dumont (1970) did when he argued that renunciation and caste were two structurally opposed institutions. The social origin of a renouncer is never unimportant for his status among other sadhus, and a renouncer is never a man outside the world, since his religious and economic transactions bind him to the world. Asceticism and renunciation, then, form a tendency in the process of identity formation of Ramanandi sadhus, but the other tendency is that of sedentarization.

The social origin of a sadhu tends to play a larger role in a settled life among householders than in a peripatetic life. One of my arguments will be that the process of sedentarization among the Ramanandi sadhus, which is a correlate of the loss of functional autonomy of sadhus in Indian society, brings about a relatively stronger emphasis on social origin in the determination of a sadhu's status. The latter development is linked to the process of articulating exclusive caste identities in North India during the British period. My general argument will be that the Ramanandis form an open category of sadhus. Their origin is unknown, just as their alleged founder Ramanand is a completely legendary figure. There is no clear theological core to their teaching, or in their methods of reaching spiritual perfection. Moreover, the Ramanandis combine religious ideas and practices which are otherwise found in entirely separate traditions. The tyagis are organized in much the same way as the Shivaite Tantric Gorakhnath Jogis, with whom they share many ascetic practices. The nagas seem to have copied their military organization from the Shivaite Dashanamis. Finally, the rasiks worship Ram in a way which is strikingly similar to the way of other groups who worship Krishna. An important festival in Ayodhya, seems to be a copy of the festival celebrated in Krishna's Braj. Possibly because of their 'openness' in terms of organization and identity, the Ramanandis have become probably the largest monastic order of North India.


The Brahman priest is a god on earth. He is the acme of purity and superior to every other being in this life. This is part of Hindu ideology as laid down in the Sanskrit texts written, not surprisingly, by Brahmans themselves.

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