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Common Knowledge 10.1 (2004) 159-160
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Rohan Bastin, The Domain of Constant Excess: Plural Worship at the Munnesvaram Temples in Sri Lanka (New York: Berghahn, 2002), 254 pp.
Every undergraduate who has taken a "world religions" survey course has heard the cliché that Hinduism is the most successfully syncretistic of the major religious traditions. Hindu iconography, theology, and ritual are well known for absorbing and integrating aspects of other religious traditions and coexisting with multiple and manifold layers and versions of "the sacred." But it is a very useful exercise to look carefully into the messy details of how the process of syncretism actually operates in contemporary Hindu social reality. It is particularly useful in a time when we have all been invited by inescapable global realities to look seriously at how competitive religious ideologies too often interact with consequences that are anywhere from difficult to disastrous.
Bastin's book is a detailed ethnographic analysis of the social reality surrounding a prominent Hindu temple complex in western Sri Lanka. His research was conducted in the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s, during the height of the Sinhalese-Tamil conflict on the island. A significant ritual and social site to both Sinhalese Buddhists and Tamil Saivites, Munnesvaram is portrayed by Bastin as an architecturally, ritually, socially, aesthetically, theologically, and politically functional model of the sacred as a multilevel "blossoming or unfolding" of complexity, diversity, and multivocality. In opposition to characterizations of the sacred as univocal, static, and transcendentally oriented, the Munnesvaram temple complex is a real-world demonstration of a "religious" institution that functions as a model of the sacred as inherently dynamic. A core notion in Bastin's analysis is that it is the often imperfect embrace of diversity, complexity, and contradiction—rather than the purified yearning for unity, simplicity, and order—that provides the social power of Hinduism and the Hindu temple. Through [End Page 159] careful descriptions of bathing rites, flag-hoisting rituals, firewalking, trance possession, and ritual processions, Bastin's book describes how the ability to integrate and recognize multiple and competing societal voices without a need for ultimate synthesis, consensus, or reconciliation enables social order even in the midst of religious conflict and other serious disorders. For those of us who lean toward reading "theoretical" texts, the combination of delicacy and crudity that this kind of ethnography brings to ideologically based social problems is like a cleansing of the palate. One can easily forget, in the midst of too much abstract speculation, that human social reality runs happily roughshod over most carefully developed political and philosophical distinctions.
Andrew P. Tuck is cofounder of Applied Research and Consulting, a social-research business consultancy in New York City. He has taught philosophy and religion at Columbia University and New School University and is the author of Comparative Philosophy and the Philosophy of Scholarship.