Ritual Innovation

Strategic Interventions in South Asian Religion

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Brian K. Pennington, Amy L. Allocco
  • Albany, NY: 
    State University of New York Press
    , February
     288 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Ritual Innovation focuses on intentional and conscious innovation of ritual traditions, not on unintentional or accidental innovation.The collection thus offers a fresh perspective, different from—yet in line with—recent publications on ritual change and ritual dynamics (see, for example, the publications of the Ritual Dynamics Collaborative project in Heidelberg). 

Self-conscious change (“strategic interventions”) presupposes distinct agents and intentionality connected to ritual. A prime example is the case study presented by Amy Allocco. In her fascinating contribution about a local goddess in Chennai (Mundakkanni Amman), she shows how rituals pertaining to this major goddess, formerly oriented toward relatively poor and mostly non-Brahmin worshippers, were changed by the temple authorities in 2005 when they began to cater to a new class of devotees with “brahminical worship sensibilities” to raise funds for a new temple chariot. The designers of the new ritual (a flower shower for the goddess) took care to stay within an established ritual vernacular while expanding the popularity of this efficacious goddess to include Brahmin devotees. Allocco points out that it remains to be seen whether upper-class and upper caste devotees will replace or supplement the “original” worshippers (not the least because the utensils for the flower shower are beyond the means of many poor worshippers) and ritual experts. 

Often conscious amendments and changes of ritual are necessitated by increasing mass mobility and a growing middle class that can afford pilgrimages. Luke Whitmore writes on such ritual changes in the Kedarnath shrine. The ritual there was once characterized by the “intimacy of the devotee massaging the liṅga.” However, the stark rise of the numbers of pilgrims caused lengthy rituals to be replaced by shorter, much less intimate ones. Whitmore convincingly analyses this ritual innovation within the framework of individual experiences and of interest groups invested in the pilgrimage site. 

In some case studies, the actors engage in designing new rituals in order to accommodate new or changing circumstances. The contribution “Recasting Sexuality, Gender, and Family through Contemporary Canadian Ritual Innovation” by Sudarshan Durayappah and Corinne G. Dempsey looks at three rituals that are performed in the diaspora context of Toronto: a gay wedding between a Hindu anda Muslim man, the ritual joining of a polyamorous collective of eight people, and a gay rite of passage. They clearly show that innovation and non-conformism in terms of the gender (and number) of the participants are acommodated by a strong conformity to traditional ritual form. 

A special emphasis in this book is on the impact of social and political change on ritual. Here ritual innovation “engineers” socio-political change or is expressive of such change. Thus, Anne Mocko deals with the appropriation of royal ritual by the Nepalese state from 2006 and 2008, when the interim prime minister and then the president replaced the king. By taking over the king’s ritual roles during the bhoṭo jātrā, the new representatives of the government managed to replace the king’s link and to establish their own link to the deity instead. Some changes to the ritual were planned while others happened as spontaneous responses to the situation—yet in the end, the ritual change supported the political shift.

Reid P. Lockin shows how the 9th-century philosopher Śaṅkara argued “against ritual,” yet himself introduced embodied ritual forms. This contribution is aligned with the results of two working groups on “The Denial of Ritual,” who argue that ritual persists or returns, even if there are massive attempts to abolish it, pointing towards a more general human need for ritual (see Hüsken and Donna Seamone, “The Denial of Ritual,” The Journal of Ritual Studies, 2017; and Hüsken and Udo Simon, The Ambivalence of Denial. Danger and Appeal of Rituals, Harrassowitz Verlag, 2016). 

Charles S. Preston strongly criticizes the application of the label “ritual” to all kinds of practices and questions the usefulness of the volume to which he has contributed. While I do not agree with his criticism, his contribution points to one of the very few weaknesses of the volume: it would have helped if the editors, for the purpose of this volume, had spelled out their understanding of “ritual,” thus providing a definition that Preston could have engaged with.

Many contributions address gendered forms of agency—an aspect which is often overlooked in ritual studies, if only because women’s roles in rituals are usually not fixed in texts, not part of the (male) ritual canon, and transmitted orally and in the vernacular. Accordingly, in many of these contributions, the innovations seem to happen along the way and the interpretation as “innovation” is mainly that of the researcher.

Brian Pennington introduces one such female ritual innovator. With close attention to detail and giving the reader a fine sense of context, he follows a Gharwal widow’s journey from her village to town, where she successfully established herself as a medium of Bhairav Devta. Pennington shows how this woman “carried the devta with her from her natal village” and in this way followed an established pattern, but then through subtle strategic ritual moves managed to carve out a space for herself which she could not have occupied had she stayed in her home village. 

Shital Sharma’s contribution about a “Vaishnava kitty party” (“Consuming Krishna: Women Class and Ritual Economies in Pushtimarg Vaishnavism”) looks at female devotees as consumers, whose ritual practices continue to “transform economical capital into the cultural and symbolic capital needed to reproduce family and class status.” Here we can see clear parallels to the kolu display during Navaratri in Tamil Nadu, which offers a similar space for aspiring middle-class women (see Deeksha Shivakumar, “Display Shows, Display Tells: The Aesthetics of Memory during Pommai Kolu”and Nicole Alyse Wilson, “Kolus, Caste and Class: Navarātri as a Site for Ritual and Social Change in Urban South India,” both in Nine Nights of the Goddess: The Navarātri Festival in South Asia, State University of New York Press, 2018).

M. Whitney Kelting (“Leveraging Agency: Young Jain Women’s Ritual Innovations through the Updhān Fast”) shows how a practice of temporary asceticism gives young Jain women leverage in their marriage arrangements, since they might opt out of marriage and choose nunhood instead. Kelting’s contribution highlights the often complex relationship between resistance and compliance. Rather than as resistance, she interprets the young women’s temporary nunhood as the realization of or engagement with the possibility of choice. 

Liz Wilson writes about the Ayyappan pilgrims and what this “all male” pilgrimage means for masculine identity, especially in the context of a transnational labor market. She argues that this pilgrimage gives young men the opportunity to establish a “semblance of stable manhood in the midst of all the uncertainties of contemporary life” (219). While the article is in itself interesting (she published a similar version in the Journal Religion and Gender in 2016), it is unfortunately not spelled out how this article contributes to the overall theme of conscious ritual innovation.

The volume is a very important contribution to the ongoing discussion on South Asian ritual, ancient and contemporary. Many case studies in this volume show that even strategic change is often not presented as innovation, but rather as the return to an original tradition, as the restitution of an older and better state before time corrupted the ritual system. It shows clearly that looking closely at ritual practices within their specific historical and local contexts helps understand how religious traditions maintain a “timeless” aura while constantly adapting to a rapidly changing world.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Ute Hüsken is Professor of Cultural and Religious History of South Asia (Classical Indology) at Heidelberg University.

Date of Review: 
August 29, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Brian K. Pennington is Professor of Religious Studies at Elon University and the author of Was Hinduism Invented? Britons, Indians, and the Colonial Construction of Religion.

Amy L. Allocco is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Elon University.


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