Thursday, July 10, 2008

Petty, primitive, weird

I picked up one of those facsimile reprints of The Village Gods of South India, and discovered it's a little too faithful to the original. Not remastered, shall we say. On some of the pages, the ink is patchily pre-faded; readable, but an irritant.

I also quickly learned that the Right Reverend Henry Whitehead isn't so obective and open-minded as the Catholic priest who wrote that book on Santal tribal religion, because while his information seems fairly sound, his adjectives aren't exactly unbiased. Thus we get "repulsive features," "grotesque figures," "gloomy and weird rites" (a personal favorite), and, it almost goes without saying, "primitive," "primitive," and "primitive."

One of my favorite lines so far is "The general attitude of the villager toward his village god is 'Let sleeping dogs lie' " (p. 46), which seems like a fairly sensible strategy in many respects. The one that most seems to miss the point is that the religion deals with "petty local deities concerned with the affairs of a petty local community" (p. 35).

As a Christian, he seems offended at the lack of devotion among the villagers. They're not loving and praising God in the abstract, but have a practical relationship. (Of course, most of the sources I've read name South India as the origin of the Bhakti movement, so there ya go).

In the first place: like there aren't Christians praying for what's in their own interest, lacking interest in larger theological questions and slacking off in sheer disinterested devotion. In the second, how are the life and death concerns of everyday existence really "petty"? Whitehead describes the village Gods being propitiated in times of epidemics (which had to be faced without access to our modern medicine). They're involved in all the agricultural issues, which would be absolutely vital to the community.

The village Gods are fascinating to me in part because of the way they strip religious belief down to an essential. (I'm definitely trying to avoid any hint of "noble savage," because frankly, I don't think any of these people were so primitive, or certainly unsophisticated. As far as I can know without having seen for myself). There are whole swathes of contemporary life which are still as interested only in their practical, local concerns, which is probably just human nature....

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