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Are Goddesses Real? The Ethnographer as a Believer

Are Goddesses Real? The ethnographer as a believer Sachidananda Mohanty Straddling many geographic locations and encompassing south Asia, new England and Latin America, the essays in the volume by Frederique Apffel-Marglin go beyond the traditional boundaries of cultural anthropology and critique its claim for definitive knowledge. This is a collection of her articles published earlier over a period of 20 years.

BOOK REVIEWEconomic & Political Weekly EPW april 11, 2009 vol xliv no 1531Rhythms of Life: Enacting the World with the Goddesses of Orissaby Frederique Apffel-Marglin, Collected Essays (New Delhi: OUP), 2008; pp 292, Rs 750. Are Goddesses Real?The Ethnographer as a BelieverSachidananda MohantyStraddling many geographic loca-tions and encompassing south Asia, new England and Latin America, the essays in the volume by Frederique Apffel-Marglin go beyond the traditional boundaries of cultural anthropology and critique its claim for definitive knowledge. This is a collection of her articles published earlier over a period of 20 years.In a self-reflexive manner, Marglin tells us that the book is more than an academic exercise. Orissa, she says somewhat nos-talgically is, my first spiritual home and I carry its mark inside me, forever with deep gratitude for having initiated me to hitherto unknown di-mensions that have profoundly transformed the way I experience life and the world as well as the way I think (p x).Aware of the claims of colonial anthro-pology to unravel the exotic “other” through the prism of enlightenment reason, Marglin must avoid the other extreme of idealisa-tion of the people and life-worlds of non-western societies. She faces a crisis that centres around the question of “profession-alisation of knowledge, autonomous uni-versity (and) separation between life and knowledge production” (p 2).Rhythms of Life is more than a study of a neglected region, its belief systems, temple iconography, rituals, female sexu-ality and deep ecology. It is a radical critique of western epistemology and colonial knowledge systems that feed into imperial projects. Marglin’s work goes beyond this question and indicts some of thedominant paradigms held axiomatic today. It is politically incorrect and goes against the grain. It is her “realisation that the world of goddesses, gods, spirits, demons and such is real”. Other than human, they “have an agency that acted to profoundly transform me”.Marglin’s tryst with Orissa began as an academic venture based on an exchange fel-lowship. In due course, it became an affaire de coeur. Aided by guru Surendranath Jena, the devadasi Kokila Mahari, Rajpurohit, Krishna Chandra Rajguru, and language teacher-cum-guide Purna Chandra Mishra, Marglin made extensive studies of the ritu-als associated with the goddesses of the “high” and “low” traditions of coastal Oris-sa. She studied, in particular, the festival of Mangala at Kakatpur near Puri. With the passage of time, she says, Mangala became part of her living consciousness. Questioning Western ParadigmsIn undertaking this study based on exten-sive fieldwork and meticulous research, Marglin comes to a set of conclusions that invariably question the dominant western paradigms: the overriding view is that the cultural experience here is not amenable to an exclusive, binary or dualistic approach of the Derridean kind. For in-stance, she suggest that the pure-impure category and dichotomy, sacrosanct to many anthropologists such as Dumont and (Veena) Das is absent in instances like an inter-caste sexual union, where “the pure and the impure are found simultane-ously” (p 35). She goes on to say:When I first analysed my material on the ritu-als on the devadasis of Puri and realised that auspiciousness and inauspiciousness was the central principle in those rituals, I unthink-ingly treated that dichotomy as an exclusive one. In other words, events, actions and per-sons are either auspicious or inauspicious. It never occurred to me that this blindness comes from the fact that in structural think-ing, dichotomies are taken a priorito be exclusive binary oppositions (p 35).Marglin next takes us into the fascinat-ing world of the legends and myths asso-ciated with Lord Jagannath. She points out that, in a complex and subtle manner, goddesses like Mangala and Laxmi impact on the social imagination of the devout. Some goddesses, as Paul Herrshman notes, are associated with disease and female fer-tility. Similarly, she considers the notion of male and female celibacy and argues that masculine divinity “seems to act as re-straining power”. The conclusion is that “the issues reside not in a dangerous female sexuality but in the ambivalent potency of female and male celibacy” (p 71). On Smallpox VaccineI would like to cite the chapter “Smallpox in Two Systems of Knowledge” as parti-cularly worthy of our attention. In recog-nising the difference and similarity between variolation and vaccination, Marglin at-tempts to challenge the entire project of modernisation. She shows us brilliantly that before Jenner’s discovery of the smallpox vaccine, indigenous methods of pox control in the form of variolation existed world-wide. Thus, Donald Hopkins, doctor ofthe Centre for Disease Control in Atlanta, the US gives credit to traditional Indian systems of smallpox control. While the modern system of medicine positions itself as necessarily antagonistic to traditional belief systems, Marglin advocates a more nuanced and re-spectful way the two can mediate with each other. Thus, we must consider the possibi-lity of a “low status, oral, medical tradi-tion” in a non-elite popular culture. She concludes that “given the similarity in tech-nique and the type of knowledge involved in variolation and vaccination, the Indians’ strong preference for the former during the 19th century cannot be easily attributed to blind adherence to superstition or obscu-rantism as has been the case” (p 118). How, then, shall we negotiate with the tradition and the modern, particularly with societies that aspire to be modern and yet remain deeply traditional? Using the ex-ample of smallpox eradication, Marglin ad-vocates the deployment of methods that is creative and somewhat poetical:If development means fewer people dying of disease and starvation, such development could have furthered itself had vaccination been isolated for its political and cultural entailments. Variolators could have then informed of the superiority of vaccination: its lower mortality rate and the fact that vaccinated persons are not contagious, un-like variolated persons. Such education, to be successful, should of course have taken place in an atmosphere of genuine respect and understanding vis-à-vis the worship
BOOK REVIEWapril 11, 2009 vol xliv no 15 EPW Economic & Political Weekly32of Sithala. Variolators could have retold and become vaccinators, chanting hymns to Sithala as vaccinated. Vaccination could then have a cheap and grass root method of epidemic control. The aim of vaccinat-ing 80% of the population could have been attended if the indigenous system of variola-tion had not been destroyed (p 148).Marglin offers an equally trenchant critique of the developmental paradigms in other chapters. She correctly suggests that we need to move from Women in Development model to Women and Environment Development. The logic confers privilege on the development experts’ construction of reality (p219). In contrast, Marglin’s worldview is informed by a deep ecological perspec-tive and suggests that women’s regenera-tive capacity far exceeds the “mere repro-duction of life”. Likewise, a study of Harachandi’s sacred grove stages a conflict between the notion of scientific forestry, rationally known and managed by the secular state and the sacred grove, a site for ritual offering. The lesson clearly is to go beyond the “monoculture of the mind”. All through, we learn that the ethno-grapher must confront the deep disconti-nuity between the lived experience and academic discourse. Marglin seems to have found her own answers: her special rela-tionship with goddess Mangala coexists harmoniously with her family’s religion, Judaism, and the demands of her acade-mic discipline, anthropology. In the pro-cess, she must abjure the fear of the new age spiritual movements of new England as well as the anthropologists’ implicit taboo on “going native”. The fieldwork thus leads to a process of mutual learning. As Marglin argues, Bohr’s complemen-tarity and Barad’s agential realism show that the “Cartesian classical scientific worldview is deeply flawed”. Ethics and ontology go hand in hand (p 21). The ques-tion “are goddesses real?” and “does uni-versal nature exist?” must necessarily deal with issues of ontology. While, all this is well taken, Marglin’s essays occasionally seem to suggest that she is a traditionalist. It is true that the pre-modern or tradition, as Ashis Nandy aptly argues, does not necessary represent reaction or retardation. Equally, it is not bereft of political power that may be harnessed positively for contemporary ends. But does tradition by itself have all the answers that modernity desperately seek? In her critique of modernity, at times, Marglin tends to swing to the other extreme and extol tradition as a repository of all values. Possibly this is not what she intended. But that is the message that occasionally comes through. Frederique Apffel-Marglin has written an outstanding collection of essays. She has produced a jargon-free work that is well-located in a concrete socio-cultural context. It is a volume that brings a hither-to neglected region to the forefront of in-ternational attention. Marglin shows as to how cultural anthropology can imagina-tively engage with disciplines such as liter-ature, folklore, popular culture, temple ico-nography and performing arts. In uphold-ing the reality of the goddesses in the soci-etal context, Marglin’s book offers a power-ful critique of dominant modernities.Email: ReceivedAsia Pacific Judicial Reform Forum (2009):Searching for Success in Judicial Reform(New Delhi: Oxford University Press); pp xv + 330, Rs 750.Baskaran, S Theodore (2009): History through the Lens: Perspectives on South Indian Cinema(Hyderabad: Orient Blackswan); pp 129, price not indicated. Bhatia, Nandi, ed. (2009):Modern Indian Theatre: A Reader (New Delhi: Oxford University Press); pp xxxix + 487, Rs 895.Bhowmik, Someswar (2009):Cinema and Censorship: The Politics of Control in India (Hyderabad: Orient Blackswan), pp xiv + 381, price not indicated. 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