Negotiating the Divine

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Item Code: IDD509
Author: Ursula Rao
Publisher: Manohar Publishers and Distributors
Language: English
Edition: 2003
ISBN: 8173045151
Pages: 185
Cover: Hardcover
Other Details 9.8" X 6.5"
Weight 470 gm
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About the Book:


The Book investigates contemporary discourses on religion in urban India through the prism of Hindu temples. It is based on material collected during extensive fieldwork in Bhopal between 1996 and 1998. Presenting and interpreting data of the history as well as the ritual, social and political life of two central goddess temples, the author presents the first comprehensive study of Hindu temples as socio-religious institutions in the urban environment of contemporary India. She also addresses several issues of general importance: questions of changes in community life in urban India with reference to caste and religious communities; the role of traditions in a fast changing cultural environment; the problematic relationship between religion and politics in the political life of India and a critical assessment of discussion of subalternity and resistance. These discussions appear in a new light in a study that avoids the classical dichotomies of politics and religion, tradition and modernity, elite and subaltern. In a detailed analysis of the religious / Political practices and reflexive processes of a broad range of people the author shows how discourses are interconnected and dynamically re-created in practice.

About the Author:

Ursula Rao is lecturer in Anthropology at the University of Halle, Germany. She is co-editor of the book: Im Rausch des Rituals. Gestaltung und Transformation der Wirklichkeit in korperlicher Performanz (2000, Lit). Her areas of interests are: ritual studies, the relationship between religion and politics and the anthropology of cultural performances. Most recently she has started a study on the production of news through journalistic practices, with field research located in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh.



The study set out with the question of how the idea of the divine is realized by Hindus in contemporary India. The focus of observation is the temple, which provides the centre for the description and analysis of the way religious beliefs and practices take shape in a modern urban environment} The aim is twofold. First, the study offers an introduction into the institution of Hindu temples. It gives examples of how they are built and managed and discusses the way they are shaped as sacred territory by human activities directed towards the divine. Secondly, the study presents a discussion of religious politics rooted in the daily practices of a wide range of people.

Integrating these perspectives, the study strives to contribute to an understanding of contemporary forms of Hinduism, both in their devotional orientation as well as their political dimension. It takes seriously the claims of believers about the existence of non-human agents, whom they turn to for orientation and protection, and investigates the ways deities become present in the lives of devotees through mutual communication in the temple. Simultaneously, it also looks at oppositional forces as well as the opinions and stances of those who deny the possibility of divine intervention, or see other motivations at work during the construction of temples and their (socially determined) realization as sacred territory. The aim is to understand the practices of temple religiosity in the larger context of urban negotiations about an appropriate place for the divine in the human world.

In this context, religious practices are understood as political in two ways. First, they take shape within a field of human negotiations in which exist many different ways of creating reality and acting upon it, in competition to one another. They are political in the sense that they contribute to overall power struggles. Secondly, religious activities are meaningful for the making and unmaking of leaders, and for the assessment of their contribution to the welfare of society. They are influential in a discourse socially delineated as political, in which religious attitudes and activities are important markers of positions in a field of oppositional ideologies.

By investigating the everyday religious practice of people in terms of their affinity t0 power struggles, the analysis is situated in an area left void by those studies that investigate the politics of religion from the point of view of religious ideologies or party strategies. There are many interesting and detailed studies of the histories of Hindu organizations and parties (for example, Basu et al. 1993; Graham 1990; Hansen and jaffrelot 1998; jaffrelot 1996; Lele 1995) the rhetoric and symbolism of Hindu nationalism (Ludden 1996; Pandey 1993; Sarkar and Butalia 1995; van de Veer 1994) and about the logic of Hindu• Muslim riots (Brass 1998; Kakar 1995; Nandy et al. 1995; Pandey 1990; Panikkar 1999; Sarkar and Butalia 1995). However, few of these studies pay attention to the orientation of citizens outside the political limelight, their framing of religious practices, their shaping of religious concepts and the influence they have on the religious discourse? It is this latter perspective which I have chosen here.

Thus, this work is not about Hindu nationalism. It is rather about the activities of diverse groups of people who shape urban temples through their activities and concepts. This, however, is relevant to the study of religious politics—also in the sense of party politics—because it offers explanations of how religious issues involve worshippers, temple activists, priests, ascetics, beggars, political leaders and administrators in a shared discourse. I do not focus on any one of these groups, but offer an analysis of their interactions in the concrete setting of the temple. Central to the study is the analysis of the various contexts of communication between agents and the way social behaviour and reflexive activity is oriented, shaped and changed in actual situations. While presenting a detailed analysis of the situated practices of a wide variety of people, I do not intend to submerge the descriptions of society under an endless enumeration of single events. Although people act contextually, they do not act at random. Their perceptions are pre—structured through culturally available standard narratives, which are available to them as ‘cultural capital’ (Bourdieu 1984) and are selected and adjusted in accordance with context. The notion of narrative orientations counters the multiplicity of the existence of one objective truth anti points towards the multiplicity of possible interpretations and perspectives. Yet it also shows the limits of an individual understanding of reality, by establishing that every interpretation is embedded in a cultural context which produces explanatory frameworks and gives them plausibility.

This formulation of the research problem is informed by con- temporary debates on culture in its overarching anthropological meaning, according to which I understand social systems to be made up of a multiplicity of interconnected and competing discourses. The complexity of a culture—as an intersection of many competing fields of cultural discourse—comes to us with particular force in the urban environment, where life is characterized by the interaction of many actors who have access to different interpretative frameworks. In any concrete situation people will find reasons to draw boundaries and actively maintain the truth of certain ideologies. But their effort to grasp the logic of the social sphere is undermined by social practices that constantly shift frames and dislocate ideologies. Open to interpretation and in no way pre—determined through any given ‘cultural core’, all categories have to be constantly re—negotiated. In every situation, social actors have to recreate reality by subjecting it to an interpretation set in particular contexts (see Bauman, Richard 1989; Baumann, Gerd 1996: 9- 50). These contexts are constructed through the actors themselves and through their selection of relevant elements. Comaroff and Comaroff have suggested a definition of culture that emphasises its fluidity:

Culture always contains within it polyvalent, potentially contestable messages, images, and actions. It is, in short, a historically situated, historically unfolding ensemble of signifiers—in—action, signifiers at once material and symbolic, social and aesthetic. Some of these, at any moment in time, will be woven into more or less tightly integrated, relatively explicit worldviews; others may be heavily contested, the stuff of counterideologies and ‘subcultures’; yet others may become more or less unfixed, relatively free floating, and indeterminate in their value and meaning. (Comaroff and Comaroff 1992; 27)

This description of culture points towards its variability as well as its stability. Culture comes to life in a variety of contexts to which more or less pre-conceived notions of ‘reality’ are applied. Yet an analysis of culture cannot rest with the description of actions, interpretations and contexts and their relation to each other, but must also take note of the powers that support the structuring of reality These powers derive not only from social agents but also from ‘non—agentive’ force fields like constraints, conventions and values (Comaroff and Comaroff 1992: 28).

To meet the requirements of this multi-dimensional definition of culture in my study of religious meaning, I have anchored my discussion in one particular place, investigating the contextual activities of people, which are then analysed in relation to debates and networks of power that have meaning also beyond the temple and its surroundings. Each of the first four chapters concentrates on one aspect of temple life and investigates the way people’s interactions with the divine as well as their mutual appreciation or rejections of certain forms of belief contribute to the structuring of human relations and the shaping of social concepts. Chapter 6 sums up the findings in terms of their relevance to debates on tradition and modernity as well as to subalternity and resistance. It points to the limits of dichotomous constructions of reality and shows how people’s practices in the religious sphere transcend various conceptual boundaries by constantly overstepping and thereby changing them. Therefore, this study is an undertaking in understanding the concrete life world of the temple in its social embeddedness, as well as a contribution to conceptual debates which aim at capturing the logic of the organization of human social activity.

Chapter 2 will set the scene. It introduces the reader to the history of the Kali and Durga Temples, the main sites of observation in this study. Both temples are situated within the old town of Bhopal and rank among the larger and more popular temples. Both have a history of conflicts between Hindus, Muslims and the city ad1ninistration.The narration of the incidents leading to the construction of these sites will allow a first encounter with two important themes within social negotiations that run through the work. How should urban territory be managed in the light of the competing interests expressed by many groups and the idea of divine intervention? In which context should the construction and management of temples be understood as religious, in which as political, and who should be allowed to claim authority over its procedures? Beyond these more general questions, Chapter 2 follows the joint activities of people who bring a temple into existence, and shows how a temple in its function as a symbol for, and religious core of social groups—here of the Khatik caste and the Hindu community—supports the physical and conceptual integration of a community.

Chapter 3 narrows the perspective and concentrates on the temple as a sacred place that is set apart from other places in the city through the presence of the goddess. It shows how the temple is created as divine territory through the transformative activity of worshippers, who secure the divine presence and its benevolent impact on their lives through ritual activities. The characterization of the temple as sacred territory makes an important point of departure with relevance to the over all discussion on religion, because it shows ways in which the belief in non-human agency is realized in this world.

Returning to the larger urban scene in Chapter 4, the reader is introduced t0 the ways the temple is embedded in political processes. How it serves social groups and individual leaders to nurture their constituencies, stage their importance, and increase their social status. The interconnections between urban citizens and their leaders are analysed in the context of temple festivals and discussed with reference to the careers of selected politicians. In connection with this, the need for a demarcation of the domains of religion and politics as well as the knowledge of their inseparability in practice becomes an issue of reflexive debates. The vigour and urgency with which it is followed up has to do with people’s knowledge about the many ways religion is manipulated for the realization of vested interests. Yet it is also informed by the realization that all social activities, even religious ones, are part of ongoing power negotiations.

The controversial debate about an appropriate place for religion in modern society is continued in Chapter 5, which discusses the way the administration of the city becomes involved in temple matters. The focus is on questions of management and corruption, as well as on urban territory and ‘illegal’ temple construction. Although the state is said to intervene only in the secular aspects of temples, such as when it determines where a temple can be built and how its finances should be managed, it encounters resistance from some believers, who perceive deities as being independent agents whose activities cannot and should not be constrained by state laws. Most temples are built without state permission. They are defended in terms of the religious needs of the people, the constitutional right to freedom of religious expression, and the self-manifestation of deities. Here we encounter another aspect of the discourse of religion, set against the background of struggles over the organization of urban territory, which finds expression in debates about modernity and tradition, scientific rationality and religious beliefs. The conceptual antithesis between tradition and modernity provides the point of departure for the theoretical discussion in Chapter 6. Here the dichotomy is deconstructed by placing the constructs of tradition and modernity in relation to social practices, which encompass both taken-for—granted knowledge as well as reflexive awareness. The temple is described as a place of both tradition and modernity, where traditions are remembered, realized, re—worked and invented with reference to the requirements of modern life. The chapter shows how religious beliefs and practices associated with the forefathers are re—adjusted to contemporary life through their conceptual integration into scientific rationality. As a place that encourages resistance to both the idea of in secular society and the negation of divine actors also by integrating and submitting to ideas of modernity and rationality into its own domain the temple becomes a space for alternative projections of the social order. Thus, Chapter 6 closes with a review of the rhetoric of resistance, especially in its usage among the members of the Subaltern Studies group, and asks in which way the activities of believers transcend the dichotomy between elite and subaltern and blurs distinctions between dominance and resistance, as well as between persuasion and collaboration.

This study is about ideology as much as it is about performance. It analyses the intersection of belief and practice, of action and reflection, and shows how they are mutually shaped through the integrated activity of people. Yet there are also moments when things appear to fall apart, when people get carried away by activities that appear no longer sanctioned by their convictions, or where no amount of reflection can make certain actions or beliefs intelligible. There are moments when plans are undermined, when views have to be re-evaluated in face of new developments, and when stereotypes are countered by experience. All these moments prove that life is invested with many uncertain- ties. It forces all actors to constantly re—adjust their ideas and strategies of actions to situations as they unravel and are given a shape as events.

Thus, when l talk in this study of worshippers, temple activists, bureaucrats, and politicians, these are not fixed categories, but social constructs that provide relevant classifications and help people to orient their behaviour without determining it. In fact, there are many cases where people behave at odds with established stereotypes. By considering the multiplicity of orientations displayed in performance, the study shows the dynamic of cultural processes. The identification of ideologies that shape and explain actions, is set within the discussion of the many moments in which different ways of narrative ordering meet and overlap, thereby supporting alternate ways of structuring and understanding reality.



List of Illustrations6
2.Temples in a World of Changing Communities22
3.Ritual Life and the Mediation of Authority in the Divine Darbar57
4.Temples, Leaders, and Religious Politics83
5.The State and the Locality107
6.Formulating Religious Alternatives130
7.Conclusions: Situating the Divine154

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