- Offering Flowers, Feeding Skulls: Popular Goddess Worship in West Bengal
June McDaniel's Offering Flowers, Feeding Skulls: Popular Goddess Worship in West Bengal, is a welcome addition to the study of religion and society in India, specifically since the research took place in West Bengal, where many previous studies have addressed forms of popular religious cults. Like McDaniel's, these works have situated the importance of the Mother Goddess within the local and scriptural Hindu pantheon. McDaniel's own approach considers religious texts alongside the lives of the ordinary male and female practitioners—tribal, rural and urban devotees. This is an attempt on her part to broaden the division between high and low deities, gods and human beings, literate and illiterate people, in ways that religion makes sense to the worshiper. It is in this regard that I found the book remarkable reading: unique and refreshing for readers beyond those in religious studies.
Special mention must be made of her chapter on the Shakta Bhakti, notably the way she develops Shakta nationalism along lines closer to the nationalist movement and the associated role of the Goddess, the symbolism of land and country, and the concept of the motherland. She draws on the parallel between the emergence of idea of Bharat Mata and the anti-colonial nationalist movement, weaving in the rich range of Bengali [End Page 903] literature, poetry and songs reminiscent of the period preceding the first war of independence.
Her chapter on the folk shaktism combines folk stories and interpretations found across villages and tribal areas of West Bengal concerning the goddess and her worship, her multiple temperaments, her dispensation of sacred boons and punishments, telling stories much in the style of some contemporary ethnographic works. The book is full of anecdotes and brief stories, but where McDaniel stops short is in her omission of relevant anthropological works and in neglecting to pursue the meanings behind the information she received. There are several ways to address the Goddess, through text, anecdote, observation, and through people's own account of what they do and understand. Her treatment of "the ideal wife Behula" or Sitala the Goddess of children and diseases, or Manasha the Goddess of Snakes, would have benefited from consideration of recent anthropological studies, such as the works of Ralph Nicholas and Aditi Nath Sarkar. Furthermore, the meaning of the wrath, love, and fear of the Goddess Manasha has been linked in anthropological literature to Bengali marriage rituals, elaborating the significance of iron bangles which married women wear, in an almost exact replay of the Manasha myth. Additionally, McDaniel's endeavor to rely on folk texts in elucidating the meanings of the goddess Durga, at times reaching into remote villages in an attempt to gain wider information is commendable, but I was surprised by the omission of Akos Ostor's definitive work on the particularities of Durga, Shiva, and Manasa, studies which combine rich anthropological data with history, tradition, and practice in the Mallabhum area where the worship is still widely practiced. In these days of recognizing blurred boundaries, a question arises about the nature of the relations among disciplines. To what extent should we draw on interdisciplinary approaches in considering a particular subject? Not that every dimension of "folk religion" ought to be covered from history to sociology and economics, but where anthropological approaches to the same subject exist in a close degree relevance, surely they deserve at least a nod in their direction.
The book has its drawbacks, despite its impressive collection of literary materials, texts, and other "on the ground" data amassed for the study. McDaniel's work will be cautiously read and used for courses in religious and area studies, popular culture and cultural studies, and anthropology, offering different yet parallel perspectives in studying local and historical manifestations of popular Hinduism.