Seven Days of Nectar

Contemporary Oral Performance of the Bhagavatapurana

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McComas Taylor
  • New York, NY: 
    Oxford University Press
    , August
     2016.
     248 pages.
     $99.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780190611910.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In our ever-increasing fast-paced society, time is at a premium. With every moment passing like a precious jewel, our demands for efficiency and conciseness rise. Thus, it is surprising to find, as McComas Taylor does, a rise in the frequency and size of Bhagavata-saptaha performances, a seven-day long event. Each day involves hours of narration and musical performance centered on stories from the Bhagavatapurana, an authoritative Sanskrit text centered on the life of Krishna, a well-known divinity. What compels sponsors, storytellers, and audiences to participate in these week-long Bhagavata-saptahas? What is the role of Sanskrit texts such as the Bhagavatapurana and Bhagavad Gita in these oral performances? How do these performances manifest, and why are they relevant and on the rise, moving into new contexts? These are some of the central research questions at the heart of Taylor’s Seven Days of Nectar: Contemporary Oral Performance of the Bhagavatapurana.

In his introduction, Taylor highlights the relatively small amount of scholarly research on saptahas in general. He reasons that Sanskritists have previously focused on texts rather than lived religion while scholars of religious practice, particularly anthropologists, have rarely attended to the centrality of Sanskrit texts in these rituals. Thus, Taylor’s work seeks to bring both of these methodologies to bear on Bhagavata-saptahas. Taylor argues that this is of fundamental importance to understanding the Sanskrit texts of orthodoxy and orthopraxis in South Asia, since these texts are not conventionally handled as books but rather received as oral performances. Consequently, he maintains that “making a shift from text-as-material to text-as-communication” is crucial in order to fully grasp the Bhagavatapurana in context as an emergent oral performance embedded in intersecting relationships of texts, speakers, and hearers. His methodology utilizes performance theory, mainly as put forth by Richard Bauman, to understand the various receptions of the Bhagavata-saptaha.

As a Sanskritist and the former head of the South Asia Program at the Australian National University, Taylor attentively brings to the ethnographic field a keen awareness of the larger Hindu and Sanskirt episteme within which these events emerge. In his introduction, he situates his work and the saptahas in the larger field of research on South Asian oral performances and initiates a unifying metaphor for the book: yajna, the Hindu ritual sacrifice. After ksetropadhana, the laying of the field in the first chapter, the second chapter is a rich ethnographic detailing of three contemporary saptaha practices analyzed throughout the book. The third chapter analyzes the motivations of various sponsors of the saptahas, drawn on interview data. Chapter 4 looks at the training, background, and lineages of the expert narrators. Chapters 5 and 6, Veda and Mantra respectively, looks at the specific Sanskrit verses and texts that emerge in oral narratives of the saptaha. Chapter 7 looks at audience experiences of the saptaha, while chapter 8 analyzes the transformative effects and outcomes of saptahas and addresses why they remain meaningful to contemporary Hindus.

The sensory is vital and present as part of Taylor’s book. His ethnographic approach lets loose the materiality of place, sound, and embodiment, without flattening the multivalent possibilities of religious experience. As a Sanskritist, Taylor is able to add in larger Vedic philosophies, terminologies, texts, and social beliefs that inform narrations of the Bhagavatapurana. Relocating himself, with bodily presence, in particular places as part of his ethnographic accounts avoids most pitfalls of other ethnographies, such as casual ahistorical and abstract conceptualizations of the "other." His portrayal of his interlocutors is rich and in the foreground he directly quotes interviewees at length, further highlighting ambiguities, multiplicities, and dissension among various individuals. Thus, there is not a static representation of the saptaha, but rather a set of comingling agents, contexts, and events that eventually produce an "authentic" saptaha in the eyes of participants. As Taylor writes in his introduction, "The oral performance of the Bhagavatapurana is best understood as a complex event that involves the interaction of the performer, and the text in a given setting" (23).

With that being said, there are several moments when Taylor could have offered greater engagement with the theorists and interviewees that arise in his book. This issue came up a number of times for me in Chapter 8, "Results-Phala," where he explicitly chooses to be brief, but does not offer a satisfactory reason as to why his analysis of the outcome of these oral performances should be brief. His assumption that "the tradition is growing because it is fulfilling some social or experiential needs [for] the various participants" is clearly of vast importance to his aim to enable readers to understand why this tradition is growing (172). Thus, briefly situating the saptaha tradition in Victor Turner's rite of passage tripartite framework is indeed interesting—but unhelpful—if not engaged with more extensively. How does analyzing the saptaha tradition as a rite of passage help scholars to explain why the tradition is growing? Taylor looks at the power of sound from the emic point of view with sustained attention, but concludes by writing those beliefs off as merely "socialized," and a "cultural rather than a physical phenomenon" (187). This seems to again ignore an opportunity to critically reflect upon Western academic epistemology and Indic epistemology. A materialist might question the transformative power of sound as solely or primarily social by looking at the physical properties of sound or neurological studies on mantra meditation.

To conclude, the book richly offers academics a close look at the Bhagavata-saptaha tradition in three distinct contexts: the rural town of Naluna, India; the more cosmopolitan Vrindavana, India; and the author’s hometown of Canberra, Australia. As it is bridging a gap in the academic literature on this genre of oral performances, it pays close attention to details, like networks of actants, their embedded contexts, and central participants (sponsors, exponents, audiences, and Sanskrit text). Scholars, mainly of anthropology, religious studies, South Asia, and folklore, interested in the interplay of power, text, and oral performance would be greatly benefited by this well-documented ethnography on the contemporary practice of oral performances of the Bhagavatapurana.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Krishni Metivier is a Ph.D. student in Asian Religions at Duke University.

Date of Review: 
November 30, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

McComas Taylor is Associate Professor and Head of the Department of South and Southeast Asian Studies at The Australian National University.

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