Possessed by the Virgin

Hinduism, Roman Catholicism, and Marian Possession in South India

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Kristin C. Bloomer
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , December
     2017.
     336 pages.
     $99.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780190615093.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

The most compelling aspect of Kristin Bloomer’s Possessed by the Virgin is its deeply personal quality. Bloomer’s work is interspersed with a visceral account of her own Catholic upbringing in Connecticut and the play of strange familiarity she finds in the context of Marian possession in Tamil-speaking South India. In reviewing this book, therefore, I cannot but begin similarly. Marian possession was integral to the milieu of small town Tamil Nadu in which I was raised, and I saw plenty of swaying, singing, and laying-of-hands. In the convent school I attended, to have dreams and visions of the Virgin Mary was to establish social power and prestige among classmates. No one was disrespectful of Mary, not even my caste-observant grandmother who otherwise used “Christian” as a pejorative metonymic of “Dalit.” The cast of characters in Bloomer’s book are familiar to me. Many I knew in school went to the Our Lady of Jecintho House of Prayer in Chennai that forms a central site of Bloomer’s research, and I myself attended Stella Maris College, whose former principal, Annamma Philip, appears in the book as a socially powerful witness to Marian possession. Cultures of Marian devotion, as Bloomer notes in her book, are widespread across Catholic communities in Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean. And their role as simultaneously the boundary of the Vatican’s authority, and a site at which new believers are drawn into the Catholic Church, is common sense in Tamil Nadu. 

Coming from this context, reading this book is an interesting ethnographic exercise in itself, mapping an encounter between gendered subjects of Catholicism in the US and South India, where the Virgin Mary is a central figure in the embodied and lived practice of worship. This encounter stages the book’s central problematic: that of gendered agency within the context of Catholicism. Does Marian possession allow women to claim forms of agency that challenge or subvert Catholic ecclesiastical authority? Or do the women who are possessed by Mary re-inscribe gendered norms of power, while articulating for themselves a space of religious expression? What makes some possessions more authentic than others? 

Bloomer’s answers to these questions are complex and draw on her interactions with three women who claimed to be, in different circumstances, possessed by the Virgin Mary. This theme of multiplicity—each case of possession somewhat different from the others—runs through the book, troubling definitions of “Hindu” and “Christian,” as well as raising questions about distinctions between the self and deity, authority and subversion in doctrinaire Catholic and Tamil practices of Marian faith. Intimate in its tone, the book takes us through the circumstances—contoured by the Indian state’s modernist suspicion of Bloomer for her interest in the study of what it considers “dangerous” elements—in which the author encountered these women: Dhanam, Rosalind, and Nancy. The women belong to different castes and social backgrounds and Bloomer shows that Marian possession plays distinct roles in each case: in one, enabling a young woman to negotiate the terms of her marriage; in another allowing a Dalit woman to play a substantial social role in her church; and in a third letting a single mother become a figure of reverence within her community. In each case, this charismatic form of worship stands in tension with doctrinaire Church authority: informing tussles between the Vatican’s ecclesiastical authority and Catholicism as a colonial religion on the one hand, and the demands of churches and parishes in the local context of Tamil Nadu on the other, where Marian worship has drawn growing numbers into the fold of the Church. Bloomer’s ethnography tells us about the ebb and flow of this relationship. When Dhanam’s son is ordained as a priest, the English rites explicitly articulate the power of priests over that of Mary in the forgiveness of sins. Rosalind’s Our Lady of Jecintho prayer house falls out of favor with the Catholic Church, even as it grows in popularity in its local community. Nancy’s intermittent stigmata is both an inconvenience to her family, and a site of her continued piety. 

In this, the book unpacks possession and Marian worship as sites of boundary-drawing and disrupting: troubling caste-patriarchal authority, the power of the Catholic Church, and that of modernist assumptions about “backwardness” and progress. At the same time, Bloomer emphasises the ways in which possession enables women to find a place within these structures rather than in uncomplicated opposition to them. This recalls recent debates in religious studies on gendered agency as embodied and enacted in gendered subjects’ capacity to inhabit norms rather than to necessarily mount structural challenges to them. In all of this, Bloomer’s work might be read alongside an emergent scholarship that challenges sovereign and progressive modes of inhabiting agent potentials. Building on an older critique of the secular within religious studies and anthropology, this scholarship has shown that “modern” subject positions are shot through with contradictory embodied desires, tendencies, and practices that unsettle notions of progressive time and development as sites of agency. In particular, this book begs dialogue with the work of Lucinda Ramberg and Carla Bellamy, who have emphasized the significance of time, place, and body as sites where the potentials for agency are inhabited in religious contexts in South Asia. 

Bloomer’s book is a compelling account of religious plurality and gendered agency in an India that is increasingly under the stifling stranglehold of Hindu nationalism. In this, its attention to the minutiae of the lives of women who claim to be possessed by the Virgin Mary allows the book to tell a story about everyday inhabitations of religion that critique and subvert hegemonic forms, creating sites of potential in local contexts, even as they do not enact wide-ranging structural transformations.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Sneha Krishnan is Junior Research Fellow at St. John's College, Oxford.

Date of Review: 
June 8, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Kristin C. Bloomer is Associate Professor of Religion at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota.

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