Reciting the Goddess

Narratives of Place and the Making of Hinduism in Nepal

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Jessica Vantine Birkenholtz
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , April
     344 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Jessica Vantine Birkenholtz presents the first critical study of the Svasthānīvratakathā (SVK), the textual tradition of the Hindu goddess SvasthānīBirkenholtz provides both a textual-historical as well as an ethnographic study, encompassing the many faces of one of the most popular religious traditions in Nepal. The SVK and its ritual tradition serve as a lens through which Birkenholtz explores the making of modern Hinduism in Nepal, especially its propagation as a “Hindu Kingdom” vis-à-vis Hindu identities elsewhere in the region. Her philological approach serves as a basis “to explore more broadly the reflexive, layered relationship between people, places, and literature as a critical site for identity negotiation and the translation of ideology into and through practice” (3).

The goddess Svasthānī, the “Goddess of One’s Own Place,” is closely connected to her text, a manuscript or book that is wrapped in red cloth and safely stored for most of the year. It is only in the month of Māgh (mid-January to mid-February) that Svasthānī is brought from private into public space. In this month her devotees celebrate the annual recitation of the SVK and follow the Svasthānī vrat, the ritual that accompanies the recitation. Svasthānī is the reason for one of the most popular Hindu traditions in Nepal and her story is still told to almost every child. Due to its representation of the female, the SVK has become the subject of gender debates. However, a growing number of women perform the communal ritual at Sankhu, close to Kathmandu, each year and devote themselves to a month-long “devotional marathon” (13).

In a very comprehensible way, Birkenholtz familiarizes the reader with all aspects of her work in chapter 1. She introduces the story told in the SVK and its encompassing rituals (vrat) and narratives (vrat kathā) that provide a model for proper religious behavior and social interaction. By outlining the history of South Asian literary culture, Birkenholtz situates her work in the “linguistic triangle” (23) of Sanskrit, Newar, and Nepali, emphasizing the importance “of a cross-cultural association that does not conflate cultural boundaries with political or geographical boundaries” (27). Fortunately, Birkenholtz does not hesitate to provide an outline of the history of Nepal and Hinduism in the Himalaya region, thereby ensuring that the intertangled histories of seemingly separate religions, including Hindu, Newari, and Buddhist, are not underestimated. I consider this successful first chapter very suitable as an introduction for students to the study of religion, opening space for non-Indian, local Hindu traditions, and introducing the main aspects of contemporary textual research in the field. 

In chapter 2, Birkenholtz places the goddess Svasthānī in the established categories of pan-Hindu goddess traditions. In contrast to Kālī (the Dark One), Durgā (the Invincible One), or Pārvatī (She of the Mountains), Svasthānī’s name does not reveal a defined character. She neither belongs to the fierce “goddesses of the tooth” nor to the motherly “goddesses of the breast.” Rather the “Goddess of One’s Own Place” refers to different layers of space: she is connected to the individual selves of different devotees, to different communities of devotees, or even to particular territories, such as the Nepal Valley. Birkenholtz argues that because all of these individual, local, and national borders are in constant flux over time, the meaning of Svasthānī cannot be fixed. As a representation of private and public space, of the individual and the familiar realm, and of regional and national communities, the goddess can be understood as constant balance between all those places. In the second part of chapter 2 Birkenholtz follows the rare representations of the goddess in statuary and her increasing but varied depiction in the SVK manuscripts. This material and visual introduction is a brilliant move, introducing the reader to Svasthānī’s dynamic historical development.

In chapter 3, Birkenholtz reveals her deep understanding of the development of the SVK manuscript in the “Cosmopolis” (83) of the Newar, Nepali, and Sanskrit languages and cultures. She succeeds in leading the reader through the complex hybridity of different textual layers, working out phases and shifts from a 16th-century eight-folio text to the thirty-one-chapter authoritative Purāna text. Birkenholtz’s explanations of the emergence of the Nepali SVK tradition in the context of Nepal’s growing print culture and the political situation in the 18th century are revealing (112–20). In line with her focus on visual representation of the goddess in the previous chapter, she concludes chapter 3 with observations on recent adaptations of the SVK. Its textual and oral tradition have expanded, making Svasthānī accessible today in television shows and movies, on iTunes, or via smartphone apps.

Still working on the manuscript’s extension throughout the centuries, in chapter 4 Birkenholtz introduces a broader perspective on the SVK in the context of Nepal as a “Hindu Kingdom.” The creation of that Hindu identity came alongside historical developments of the rising Indian nation and revealed itself in the increasing “Purānicization” of the SVK. By weaving Purānic narratives into the SVK, the manuscript expanded greatly and the story of Svasthānī lost its prominence. Furthermore, the traditional roles and notions of the feminine assigned to Hindu women changed significantly. To address this shift, Birkenholtz uses the “Women’s Question” in 19th-century India and Nepal as historical background to discuss the different female characters in the SVK in chapter 5. Regrettably, Birkenholtz ends the chapter with only a brief discussion of the SVK as a women’s tradition, and does not include reflection of her reading in context of womens’ history. She could have been more straightforward in contrasting Hindu women’s traditions and feminist expectations, as well as addressing possibilities and problems of historical, postcolonial feminist readings.

Birkenholtz concludes her critical study with an appendix of archival records of the SVK, a thorough translation and transliteration of the 16th-century manuscript, as well as the structures of different text models. The extensive bibliography provides the state of current research on the local Hindu Himalayan traditions. This careful critical study deserves all the attention it can get.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Dolores Zoé Bertschinger is Academic Assistant in the Study of Religion and History of Religion at the Ludwig-Maximilians-University of Munich.

Date of Review: 
August 27, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Jessica Vantine Birkenholtz is Assistant Professor of Religion at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Her areas of research include the comparative study of Hindu religious identity, practice, and literature from the medieval period to the present day, Hindu goddess traditions in Nepal and India, and gender and religion. She is co-editor of Religion and Modernity in the Himalaya and is the Reviews Editor for HIMALAYA, the Journal of the Association for Nepal and Himalayan Studies.


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