Material Acts in Everyday Hindu Worlds
- ISBN: 9781438480114
- Published By: SUNY Press
- Published: October 2020
- ISBN: 9781438480121
- Published By: SUNY Press
- Published: July 2021
Discourse on religion does not solely rely on what meaning institutions or individuals ascribe to religion but encompasses a plethora of ways in which it can be made sense of. Within the context of Indian religiosity, while a lot of research has been done on specific religious figures and deities (their roots and origins, issues of communalism, etc.), less attention has been paid to studying the everyday as part of religiosity. Sociologists have however tried to address this gap by studying it through cultural perspectives (Arjun Appadurai, The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective, CUP, 1986), through material and visual aspects, and through images (Richard H. Davis, Lives of Indian Images, PUP, 1997; Christopher Pinney, Photos of Gods: The Printed Images and Political Struggle in India, OUP, 2004). In Hinduism, material objects and ritual acts play a key role in how religiosity is understood, but the topic has not yet been examined thoroughly. To address this lacuna, Joyce Burkhalter Flueckiger wrote Material Acts in Everyday Hindu Worlds, which explores aspects of visual and material importance in the Hindu worldview. Broadly, the book attempts to “bring materiality to the center of our understanding of everyday Hindu worlds” (10) and it succeeds in doing so.
In the introduction, Flueckiger sets the tone for the book, posing vital questions related to the anthropology of religion, and more importantly to the indigenous theory of material agency that is prevalent in Hinduism. The book consists of an introduction, followed by five chapters, each exploring the agency and importance of materials that make up the realm of the religious, and a concluding chapter. The introduction, covering the centrality of material and material acts to everyday Hinduism, justifies the title of the book. The author asks, do materials have effect on their own, or is their agency always read in tandem with human action? Materials in the Hindu world cause things to happen, which makes sense, even when considered in isolation from human intervention. For example, turmeric in ritual and everyday use, glass bangles and ornaments worn by women and women impersonators, concrete idols of gods, shrine structures, and so on all possess a type of standalone agency. These materials have a twofold effect—one, they are seen, and two, they cause things. However, in this book the author’s focus is less on how materials are perceived, and more on their presence.
Methodologically relying on ethnographic work in and around Chattisgarh, Hyderabad, and Tirupati, the book brings to the fore indigenous theories of material agency. The first chapter discusses ornaments and how their agency extends to humans. Ornaments, as Flueckiger suggests, are worn not only for their visual effect, but also to convey manifold meanings. Glass bangles worn by married women, in the Gond community, as the author shows, indicate the fragility of the entire institution of marriage. Widowed women are allowed to wear similar looking ones in plastic or other materials, which have the same aesthetic, but not the same appeal or auspiciousness as glass ones. Similarly, the book explores tattoos, mangalsutras, talis, and sacred threads, all of which connote different meanings in different contexts. In the next chapter, the focus shifts to the use and importance of turmeric and saris to analyze the way in which materials aid in transforming both humans and the supernatural. Ritual turmeric use, as the author’s ethnography around the Gangamma Jatara shows, not only helps devotees’ identity with gods and goddesses in different forms, but also has the potential to transform the way gender is understood in these contexts.
The next three chapters of the book explore material agency in partial isolation from human participation. For example, in chapter 3, Flueckiger urges readers to question and quantify the way materials are perceived. Contrasting scenarios emerge from Tirupati around the Gangamma Jatara (where the male bodies of devotees through turmeric use, become the spirit medium) and the Varalakshmi Puja (where turmeric paste is applied on bodies of female devotees). While in the Jatara, material items mean excess, in the Puja, abundance. The author asks questions not on a continuum, but rather waith a dichotomy, which helps readers understand how excess and abundance can be distinguished. The focus of chapter 4 shifts to the urban landscape of Hyderabad, as it lies punctuated by cement shrines of village goddesses. Here, Flueckiger ’s attention is not limited to the presence and politics of the shrines, but the way these structures affect human mobility. This chapter also addresses the burning question of communal tension and the politics of communalizing spaces and places in the urban landscape.
The last chapter takes readers to rural Chhattisgarh, where certain visual and ritual elements surrounding the material presence of Ravana problematize the very essence of shrine culture and how materials maneuver religion. Here, the author shows how idols of Ravana, the antagonist in the epic of Ramayana, are created by the faithful not to remember Ravana, but the destruction of evil. However, the concept of concretizing Ravana in Adivasi villages offer different stories, where inhabitants identify with Ravana’s ethnicity and consider him a king, but at the same time participate in the ritualized burning of Ravana effigy during the annual celebration of Dussera.
The book makes several important contributions to our understanding of Hindu religiosity. Firstly, it not only encourages one to think about materials in isolation from human agency, but also about “what materials can tell us about human history and the humans who interact with them. . .” (8). Secondly, it establishes the case for an indigenous theory of materiality, one that modern religious ideas often tend to sideline. One minor shortcoming of the book is the way it conceives of agent and agency. While Flueckiger convincingly argues that materials have a capacity to “become agents independent of human intention or activity” (10), she doesn’t substantiate the claim that materials work in isolation to human will. For example, the Maladasari as is presently performed is devoid of its original meaning because the present faithful are compelled to certain ritual behavior owing to the material aspects of it. Here, her arguments would be strengthened if they were based on the discourses surrounding memory and the transfer of religious knowledge. Despite that, the book is filled with theoretical insights about materiality and makes a substantial contribution to the sociology and anthropology of religion in India.
Ankana Das is a PhD candidate in the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences at Indian Institute of Technology, New Delhi.Ankana DasDate Of Review:June 16, 2022