The Cow in the Elevator

An Anthropology of Wonder

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Tulasi Srinivas
  • Durham, NC: 
    Duke University Press
    , May
     296 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


These are the days of miracle and wonder, Paul Simon once sang. According to Weber’s modernization and secularization theories, the world should instead be thoroughly disenchanted. However, Tulasi Srinivas’s new ethnography of ritual in India firmly shows that enchantment is alive and well in the modern world and that this offers important lessons about modernity, religion, and culture in general.

Toward the end of the book, Srinivas describes the volume as “a folio composed of fragments of creative experiments,” and it is that, but as she goes on to state, it is also “a manual of wonder combined with a ledger of possibility” in India and beyond (214). Focusing on temple rituals in Bangalore, a city also renowned for its technology sector, her central argument is that “wonder is apparent in everyday ritual in Bangalore, and that practices of wonder align with moments of ritual creativity or improvisation that occur sporadically but then sediment and become instituted as part and parcel of the ritual” (4).

Noting that Victor Turner’s theory of ritual emphasized liminality, Srinivas contends that modernity in Bangalore (and doubtless elsewhere) is a condition of permanent liminality; there is no steady state, and improvization—or what locals aptly call “adjustment”—is continuously demanded. The book explores many avenues of creativity and adjustment, from lived spaces to time, technology, ethics, and money. In all these ways, she finds that “the past, the present, and the future are linked not in linear progression but in a porous and plastic way” (44) that blends memory and aspiration in spectacular forms—literally, often as spectacles like street processions and ritual performances. Modernity and neoliberal capitalism may in one sense be a rupture of continuity and tradition, but the omnipresent experience of wonder “is a generative force that allows for rupture-capture of the techniques, tools, and strategies of capitalism: an anti-alienation machine” (57).

Saying that wonder can bind the past, present, and future in imaginative ways is not to say that contemporary experience is seamless or even pleasant. In the second chapter, Srinivas insists that adjusting also entails a measure of waiting, which often ends in unfulfillment. Tension and anxiety are still characteristic of modern Bangalore, and people discover themselves in a “mobile-yet-stopped world” where “morality shifts as well” (70). The only thing that is certain is “experimentation, improvisation, ingenuity, and creativity” (91), including or especially in the realm of religion.

What Srinivas rightly calls experimental Hinduism takes many forms and will inevitably take many more. In the third chapter, money appears as a material object for adorning deities, and wealth and debt are absorbed into Hindu religious and philosophical thought. In the fourth chapter it is modern technologies, often conceived as the enemies of religious faith, that provide the lines for faithful resourcefulness, whether it is constructing an animatronic deity, flying over a ceremony in a helicopter, adding electronic drums to worship, or employing photography (previously banned in regard to gods and their statues) and Facebook to make religion available independent of time and space. Consequently, Srinivas asserts that, rather than static and integrating, religion and ritual can be fragmenting, fluid, exciting, and disruptive.

Such novel media for religious experience are particularly necessary because of the lifestyles of residents of urban Bangalore, especially its call center workers whose irregular hours (often related to servicing Americans on the other side of the world) have led locals to call them “vampires.” These “IT ghosts” inhabit dislocated time and fragmented social lives, to which temples and priests must and do respond. This is not to say, she insists, that all experiments and innovations succeed; some invoke criticism, and some are obsolete almost as soon as they are deployed. The people of Bangalore even have a term for the time disruption—avvelle or “unright time”—which demands, among other things, 24/7 access to religion.

The effects of modernity on religion are not always comfortable or kind: “They can be violent, as in the cases of the suppression of certain gods, festivals, or temples; the shunting of time for festivals or pujas; the erasure of other gods, demigods, and sages; or the sundering and reworking of links between ‘successful’ festivals and processions … or even, potentially, the silencing of whole lower caste groups, and the appropriation of their festivals, gods, and temples” (199). But such forces and processes have always been in operation, and anthropologists and religion scholars would be wrong to maintain that ritual or religion in general is fixed and invariable. Srinivas provides a lively lesson in religious originality with applications and implications far beyond Bangalore or India.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jack David Eller is Associate Professor of Anthropology (retired) at the Community College of Denver.

Date of Review: 
September 12, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Tulasi Srinivas is Associate Professor of Anthropology at the Institute for Interdisciplinary Studies at Emerson College, author of Winged Faith: Rethinking Globalization and Religious Pluralism through the Sathya Sai Movement, and coeditor of Curried Cultures: Globalization, Food, and South Asia.



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