Consecration Rituals in South Asia

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István Keul
Numen Book


Among the various iconocentric traditions within South Asia, “the devotees’ worship is addressed to the deity as image and to the deity whose power is in the image” (6, cf. Christopher Fuller, The Camphor Flame: Popular Hinduism and Society in India, Princeton University Press, 1992, 61). Consecration rituals (pratiṣṭhā) specially designed to convert statues of stone, metal, wood, or other materials into holy receptacles raise fundamental questions regarding the South Asian connection between deity and image, specifically the incongruity between that which is lifeless and that which is animated (5). The essays in Consecration Rituals in South Asia then offer a comprehensive survey – primarily textually-based – of the pratiṣṭhā in multiple religious contexts and in various historical periods. The sources examined include pratiṣṭhā-related chapters in an early encyclopedic text (Pratiṣṭhāpanādhyāya), early Śaiva treatises (Sarvajñānottara and Niśvāsatattvasaṃhitā), Āgamas, a late-classical Buddhist text (Mūlyamantra­sūtra), Vaiṣṇava Pāñcarātra sources (Paramasaṃhitā, Jayākhyasaṃhitā, Viṣṇudharmottarapurāṇa, and Hayaśīrṣa Pāñcarātra), and Jain manuals (Pratiṣṭhāpāṭha).

As the volume’s first major contribution, the essays are thoroughly engrained in South Asian Studies, engaging the religious dimensions of mūrtis (chapter 7), darshan (chapter 12, albeit briefly), astrological ritual structures (chapter 2), the evolution of liṅgas (chapter 3), the importance of local deities like nagas, the origin of tantrism (both chapter 6), the relationship between “Temple Hinduism” and Puranic religions (chapter 8), death practices and funeral rites (chapter 10), and even South Asian diaspora (chapter 11). Unfortunately, the importance of apotropaism is not discussed as much as I predicted. That said, Marko Geslani’s essay (chapter 2) shows how various elements of Vedic ritual as well as astrological motifs are preserved in late-Vedic and Puranic installation ceremonies, many of which include variants of what he calls the “apotropaic consecration,” an aspersion ceremony based on Atharvan śānti paradigms, originally designed to counteract inauspicious forces (see 18, 32-40). Shingo Einoo’s essay on the planting of trees and the dedication of a garden (chapter 10) likewise features hints at apotropaic consecration specifically in the form of adorcism and ancestral worship (247-52).

Given my bias towards the methodology of ethnography, I favored the essays written by Ellen Gough, Annette Wilke, and István Keul (chapters 11-13). Their ethnographic accounts of consecration rituals include a Jain pratiṣṭhā in Jaipur, a temple and image consecration in Hamm-Uentrop (Germany), and the installation of a Hanumān image in Varanasi (7). Pratiṣṭhā rituals, in general, have received substantial scholarly attention over the years, which editor István Keul reviews in the introduction of this volume (chapter 1). However, few of those studies have been particularly focused on the folk practices of the locals and their personal concerns regarding the performance of the consecration rituals. This marks the second major contribution of the present volume.

For instance, in 2008, Gough witnessed an eight-day long consecration ceremony for the installation of twenty-six Jain temple images in the Jain Center of Greater Phoenix in Arizona. Many of the Digambaras at the Center were followers of a relatively new branch of Jainism, the Kānjī Svāmī Panth, which has rejected the need for mendicancy, advocating for a lay path to liberation. Given the sanctity of the event, the Digambaras still invited a ritual specialist (a layman, not a monk) from India to perform the pratiṣṭhā ceremony (265-66). Ultimately this volume is dedicated to “the complexity and various morphological levels of the consecration procedures” (14). As Keul writes in his own contribution (chapter 13), much of this approach has to do with what Thomas Tweed called the “Quotidian Turn,” which is a “tendency to attend most fully to ordinary people and everyday life, which minimizes the significance of clergy, beliefs, ecclesiastical institutions, prescribed rituals and consecrated spaces” (“After the Quotidian Turn: Interpretive Categories and Scholarly Trajectories in the Study of Religion since the 1960s,” Journal of Religion 95:3, 2015, 379). Keul added, “Even if image installations belong to the repertoire of organized, ‘prescribed’ religion, the present essay can be nevertheless located in an interpretive tradition that analyzes the everyday. It looks at practiced religion, the actual performance of a ritual that is, to be sure, based on prescriptive texts and is highly choreographed, but that nevertheless also has distinctive individual, particular features: its environment, the actors and the artefacts involved, the liberties taken (adaption, improvisation, etc.)” (353-54).

For these reasons, I foresee this volume being a true asset to anyone studying South Asia, especially those interested in the ritual mechanics of vernacular religion.

About the Reviewer(s): 

William Chavez is a doctoral student in Religious Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Date of Review: 
March 4, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

István Keul is professor in the study of religions at the University of Bergen (Norway). He has published a monograph on Hanuman and has edited volumes on tantra, yoginis, and science and technology in South Asia.


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