Tales of Justice and Rituals of Divine Embodiment

Oral Narratives from the Central Himalayas

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Aditya Malik
  • New York, NY: 
    Oxford University Press
    , June
     2016.
     320 pages.
     $99.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780199325092.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Aditya Malik’s book, Tales of Justice and Rituals of Divine Embodiment: Oral Narratives from the Central Himalayas, introduces its readers to a regional deity, Goludev, who is famous in Kumaon, a region in the state of Uttarakhand in northern India. Goludev serves as the “God of Justice” for his devotees and who approach him both through petitions hung in his temples and through rituals (jāgars) performed by ritual specialists, a singer and a dancer. Tales of Justice is based on Malik’s ethnographic data collected in 2008 and 2009 and includes interviews, observations, and a few hundred petitions posted by devotees that he collected during his fieldtrips.

The work is structured into seven main chapters, framed by a prologue (xvii-xx) and an epilogue (225-229). The first chapter introduces Goludev and defines the “everyday,” the focus of Malik’s study: “The everyday…must be understood in terms of the temporality of the present moment as the location for the unfolding of our existence and as the temporal field of our experience” (6). The author further describes his first encounter with Goludev and the deity’s significance for his devotees and, giving examples from his personal life, implicitly connects autobiographical experiences to everyday notions of justice (1-34). The next two chapters narrate Goludev’s life story (35-62) and discuss the notion of justice from different points of views, taking historical stories about the dispensation of justice by Goludev into account (63-88).

Subsequently, the author depicts the petitions (89-139) and jāgars (140-62) used by devotees to request Goludev’s assistance in matters of justice. During these jāgars, “possession” plays a major role. Pursuing his critique of the term in the previous section, Malik elaborates this discussion in the sixth chapter and compares possession to embodiment and transformation while considering phenomenological, cognitive, and neuroscientific insights (163-90). In his last chapter, Malik focuses on another element of the jāgars: dance. After a general representation of dance in India, he presents his material on dance during the rituals, before he finally continues his analysis of the term "possession" (191-223).

On the one hand, Malik’s habit of rephrasing and rewording his points several times helps the reader to grasp his arguments. But on the other hand, his tendency to phrase points as questions occasionally makes it more difficult to understand them. Malik often stays close to his sources. Be they encounters from his fieldwork, primary sources, or secondary literature, Malik lets others speak with their own words. Many of the devotees’ petitions and the jāgars performed by the ritual specialists are reproduced in part or in full so that the reader gets a good impression of the phrasings used by devotees and ritual specialists. In addition to the petitions in the main section of the ethnography, a few additional petitions have been translated from Hindi in Appendix 2 (241-44). Moreover, the author regularly quotes passages from prose and poetry around the globe such as Robert Bly’s poem The Watcher, Jorge Louis Borges’s short story Pierre Menard, and poems by his uncle Keshav Malik.

With this study, Malik adds to the writings on lesser-known regional deities on the South Asian subcontinent. Although an increasing number of authors focus on local or regional deities—the deities of the “little tradition” in contrast to the better known deities of the “great tradition”—there are still many Hindu deities about whom we know nothing. Hence, Malik positions his work within a broader context of studies on Hindu devotion and enhances our knowledge not only of the little tradition, but also of non-institutional justice.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Cora Gaebel is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Cultural and Social Anthropology at the University of Cologne.

Date of Review: 
February 3, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Aditya Malik is Professor and Dean of the School of Historical Studies at Nalanda University in India.

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