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Dealing with Deities

The Ritual Vow in South Asia

Selva J. Raj, William P. Harman

Publication Year: 2006

Drawing on original field research, Dealing with Deities explores the practice of taking ritual vows in the lives of ordinary religious practitioners in South Asia. The cornerstone of lay religious activity, vow rituals are adopted by Muslims, Hindus, Christians, Buddhists, Jains, and Sikhs who wish to commit themselves to ritually enacted relationships with sacred figures in order to gain earthly boons and spiritual merit. The contributors to this volume offer a fascinating look at the varieties and complexities of vows and also focus on a unique characteristic of this vow-taking culture, that of resorting to deities and shrines of other religions in defiance of institutional directives and religious boundaries. Richly illustrated, the book explores the creativity of South Asian devotees and their deeply felt convictions that what they require, they can achieve faithfully—and independently—by dealing directly with deities.

Published by: State University of New York Press

Dealing with Deities

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pp. ii-vi


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pp. vii-viii

Maps and Illustrations

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pp. ix-xii

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pp. xiii-xv

This book is our modest attempt to share with a wider public the richness and vibrancy of lay religious life in South Asia. A chance meeting at the Midwest American Academy of Religion in St. Louis began our collaboration, one in which we discovered a sense of intellectual kinship and an affinity for religion in southern India. Since then, we have sought for several years to identify what ...

Sites Associated with Ritual Vows

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pp. xvii-xix

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1. Introduction: The Deal with Deities—Ways Vows Work in South Asia

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pp. 1-14

Setting out to find common threads among the major religious traditions of South Asia— Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, Sikhism, and Jainism— had better be a daunting task. Our resolve here is to propose a few modest but significant generalizations about six major religious traditions as they are understood by specialist scholars who offer here their collective expertise. The ambitious abstraction of our task may be, we hope, balanced by the fact our task may be, we hope, balanced by the fact that we are ...

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2. “The Vow”: A Short Story

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pp. 15-21

Full-moon day, the day to keep the vow to the goddess. Midnight had passed, the night was almost over. Under its basket, the rooster crowed. And Tatya Nailk sat up with a start. His wife Sarji sat up too. Tatya got up and walked to the corner of the room. He leaned down and felt with his hand under the basket, listening to the muffled krr krr of the chicken inside. He rose again, took the board leaning against the door and put it on top ...

I. Getting What You Want

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p. 23-23

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3. Negotiating Relationships with the Goddess

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pp. 25-42

Further on in this chapter I shall draw some generalized conclusions about vows that devotees take to the Indian Tamil goddess Mariyamman. But for the moment, I prefer to begin by emphasizing the specific and local nature of my topic. I shall be speaking here about a particular goddess in a particular temple in a particular town. I shall also be concerned ...

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4. Shared Vows, Shared Space, and Shared Deities: Vow Rituals among Tamil Catholics in South India

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pp. 43-64

Taking vows is a popular religious activity among Tamil Catholics in rural south India. Collectively known as nerccai or nerttikkatan, vows are particularly prominent during religious festivals, pilgrimages, life-cycle celebrations, and crisis interventions. Though some scholars of Hinduism consider vows in South Asia primarily, if not exclusively, as a female devotional exercise, the nerccai rituals are gender neutral. These rituals assume

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5. Religious Vows at the Shrine of Shahul Hamid

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pp. 65-86

Women carrying flower garlands swarmed around me. Men and women carried little baskets of offerings. Some were putting cash and little silver representations of human organs into a large hundi, where one traditionally dropped “offerings.” People washed themselves in the tank with holy water or drew water from the sacred well and bathed ...

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6. In the Company of Pirs:Making Vows, Receiving Favors at Bangladeshi Sufi Shrines

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pp. 87-106

In July 2001 Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf visited India for peace talks with his Indian counterpart Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Before the peace talks began, however, Musharraf visited the tomb of the Chisti saint Khwaja Moin uddin Chisti (d. 1236) in Ajmeer, India. In Bangladesh nearly every political campaign commences only after politicians have performed devotional prayers and sought the blessings of saints. This is true for both the Bangladesh ...

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7. Bara: Buddhist Vows at Kataragama

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pp. 107-128

Are there vows in Buddhism? The answer depends on what is meant by the term “vow.” In general, we can say that there are two meanings to the term. On the one hand, a vow is a promise one makes to oneself. On the other, it is a promise made to a supernatural being to propitiate that being for performing a requested favor. In the Indian religious traditions the former type of vows are known as vrata. In Buddhist terminology they are called sila in Pali ...

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8. Performing Vows in Diasporic Contexts:Tamil Hindus, Temples,and Goddesses in Germany

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pp. 129-144

During the recent two decades, the study of Hindu traditions in regions outside the Indian subcontinent has gained academic credibility. The topic of overseas or diasporic Hindu communities has been addressed in a variety of disciplines. Anthropologists, social scientists, and historians of religions have conducted studies on South Asian Hindus in South and East Africa, the Caribbean, North America, Europe, Australia, and Southeast Asia ...

II. Getting What You Need

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pp. 145-146

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9. Singing a Vow: Devoting Oneself to Shiva through Song

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pp. 147-164

As a category, “vow” has great elasticity: a vow can be long-term or shortterm, constitutive or instrumental, ontological or conditional, duty-bound or voluntary, directed toward a specific deity or aimed at transforming one’s life path to increase one’s spiritual status—or, seemingly, almost any combination thereof.1 For while these descriptive terms appear to be oppositional, they are not necessarily so. What unites them is that ...

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10. Monastic Vows and the Ramananda Sampraday

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pp. 165-186

India has long been viewed by the West as typifying the “mystic East.” Early records of foreign travelers give descriptions of her strange-looking hermits and ascetics, with their matted hair, near-naked bodies, and mysterious practices. More recently, an increasing number of young Westerners and even assorted young urban upper-middle-class Indians have reawakened an outside interest in the lifestyles of Hindu renunciants, collectively referred to herein as “sadhus.”1 From afar, the lives of these ascetics seem ...

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11. Negotiating Karma, Merit, and Liberation:Vow-taking in the Jain Tradition

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pp. 187-200

Lay Jains negotiate the terrain between the path of karma reduction leading to liberation and the acquisition of merit that fosters familial well-being. The nature of Jain vows balances on the fulcrum between vow-taking as a step on the way to karma reduction and ultimately spiritual liberation, and vow-taking as a key element in familial well-being; this can be seen as a negotiation between mendicant liberation ideologies and ...

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12. Vows in the Sikh Tradition

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pp. 201-218

In these two concise statements attributed to the first and tenth Sikh Gurus and penned some two centuries apart is contained the general Sikh attitude with regard to vows and oaths. On the one hand formal religious vows such as those of fasting, celibacy, or any other form of asceticism are not a part of the Sikh religion. To those who know how to properly read the hymns of Guru Nanak, the founder of the Sikh ...

III. Getting Nothing At All

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pp. 217-218

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13. When Vows Fail to Deliver What They Promise:The Case of Shyamavati

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pp. 219-233

Although the Hindi term vrat (Sakt. vrata) is often translated into English as “vow,” there is much that is lost in translation. Mary McGee describes vrats in their contemporary form as acts of self-discipline “dedicated to a particular deity and having a specified, personal desire or outcome in mind” (1987: 33). As a type of religious observance, vrats may involve ...

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14. Two Critiques of Women’s Vows

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pp. 235-246

When the editors told me about their collaborative study of vows in South Asian religion, I automatically found myself working backward from English to the South Asian language that I know best, Hindi, substituting vrat, which would be the most common translation of the word “vow.” And when I thought of vrats, I naturally thought ...

IV. Conclusion: Some Promising Possibilities

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pp. 247-248

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15. Toward a Typology of South Asian Lay Vows

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pp. 249-256

As you make your way through the final pages of this volume, you may find yourself perplexed by the breadth of traditions discussed here and by the bewildering variations that typify lay vows found in those traditions. There are the more public, temple-based vows as well as the private, domestic-based vows; the orthodox, officially sanctioned vows as well as the unorthodox, unconventional vows of the “god-intoxicated” devotees; the vows ...


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pp. 257-268


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pp. 269-272

Appendix: Essays Arranged According to Tradition

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pp. 273-274


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pp. 275-287

E-ISBN-13: 9780791482001
Print-ISBN-13: 9780791467077
Print-ISBN-10: 0791467074

Page Count: 288
Illustrations: 42 b/w photographs, 2 maps, 1 figure
Publication Year: 2006