How do we imagine power? A recent wave of anthropological thought has been drawn to the idea of sovereign power, a theoretical turn or return associated primarily with the writings of Giorgio Agamben and his reanimation of Carl Schmitt. I was led to a different conception of sovereignty by a deity, local and global in scope. How might a god or a spirit inspire us to think differently about sovereignty, or life? I approach this question, beginning with an ethnographic puzzle.
Cultural Anthropology has published several excellent essays on theories of culture, sovereignty, subalternity, and religious and secular modes of aspiration. The journal's curated collection "Subaltern Studies: 30 Years Later" engages with the broader issue of subaltern pasts and their contemporary resonances. Of particular importance are Donald Moore and Saba Mahmood's articles on power, agency, and notions of resistance. As Richard McGrail and Rupa Pillai note in their editorial introduction, Moore's essay "Subaltern Struggles and the Politics of Place" criticizes how anthropology has fetishized subalternity and resistance by placing the autonomy of subaltern consciousness outside the domain of power relations. Similarly, Mahmood parochializes certain contemporary notions of women's autonomy and agency in her article "Feminist Theory, Embodiment, and the Docile Agent" by drawing on her ethnography of Muslim women participating in the Islamic revivalist movement in Egypt.
Cultural Anthropology has also published essays on spiritual economies, notably Marisol de la Cadena's "Indigenous Cosmopilitics in the Andes: Conceptual Reflections Beyond 'Politics'" (2010) and David Novak's "Cosmopolitanism, Remediation, and the Ghost World of Bollywood" (2010). Danilyn Rutherford's article "Sympathy, State Building, and the Experience of Empire" (2009) and Angela Garcia's "The Elegiac Addict: History, Chronicity, and the Melancholic Subject" (2008) explore the relationship between history, memory, and power.
The images, songs, and interviews that follow showcase the depth and richness of ethnographic experience and encounters that led to the writing of this essay. Bhrigu Singh remarks that, "Usually as anthropologists we only get to share the finished article, and in that text form, a lot of the other excitement of fieldwork, including forms of music and conversation, can never find a place." He hopes that the opening song for Thakur Baba will give a few other people 'goose-bumps' as it gave him when he first heard it!
Thakur Baba Song 1
Sung by: Lakhan Singh Yadav, Parvat Singh Yadav and others from Balarpur Village (Shahbad, Baran district, Rajasthan)
Recorded by Bhrigu Singh at Sheikh Sain (a forest shrine for Thakur Baba)
This song, sung by a group of Ahir (pastoralist caste) men, is part of a genre of music called gote, typically sung with the dhaank (a ‘warlike’ drum), meant to beckon a deity to possess the spirit medium. This, as it happens, is the ‘goose-bump inducing’ song I mention in the essay (on p.403), after seeing my reaction to which Gajanand is moved to ask me, ‘I hope you are not going to get possessed.’ The lyrics are not particularly anxiety-provoking or ‘warlike’ though, and rather express the ‘child-craving’ aspect of a devotee’s relation to Thakur baba, even when sung by men. The lyrics of the gote recorded here, for instance, expresses a supplicant woman’s perspective.
O mere deva re, teri dhaakan kei dhamora mene ghare angana ri sun lai re.....
[My deity, I overheard the sound of your drum in my courtyard]
Deva re, mere Maharaje, ve dhaakan ke dhamora sune sei re... O re mo pe ghare angana raho aiye na jaa
[My deity, my lord, once I heard the sound of your drum...I just couldn’t stay home]
Deva re, mere Thakur Baba, mene tere karan hai re, O adhi raat se uth ke peese chakiya bhaiya re
[My deity, my Thakur Baba, because of you, I stayed up till midnight to ground the grain on the grindstone]
Deva re, mere Maharaje maine uth din ugtai re, O purve karaiya mei tel mei karvale chattiso pakavaan…
[My deity, my Thakur baba, I woke up at daybreak, to fry the sweets and flatbreads to offer you…]
Deva re, mere Maharaje, mere angna mei re, O devraniya jethaniya ke bethe hei moda…
[My deity, my king, my elder and younger sister-in law’s children are playing in our courtyard…]
Deva re, mere Thakur baba, mujhse devraniya jethaniya nai re... arre mere baalik naiyaa te binne dhar lau mero banjhutia naam…
[My deity, my Thakur baba, my elder and younger sister-in-laws ill-treat me, because I don’t have a child, they’ve given me the nickname ‘barren woman’]
Deva re, mere Maharaje, mei mere angnaa mei re…O bethe chod aiyaa devraniya jethaniya ke
[My deity, my lord, I ran leaving my sister-in-laws sitting in my courtyard…]
Deva re, mere Thakur Baba re, tere saranan gayi ki re, O aava ki pataiya raakh diyo, mere dinbandhaiya re, O Bhagwan
[My deity, I have come asking for your help, keep my respect for coming to you, friend of the unfortunate, O lord…]
Thakur Baba Song 2
Sung by: Rukmabai Sahariya & Shantibai Sahariya, from Khedla Village (Kishanganj, Baran district, Rajasthan)
This song, sung by two Sahariya women, is part of a wide-ranging genre known as Bhajan that could be addressed to a variety of deities. This variant of the Bhajan is usually sung by groups of women in the ‘background’, in larger festivals without any accompanying instruments. When addressed to Thakur Baba, as this song is, the lyrics take up a similar theme of childbirth as the gote sung by the men, although in a less intensely plaintive mood and tone.
First group: Thakur jiyo, Kahaan se aayi odi Banjhdi, Kahaan se aayi bharoda ri Ma
[Long live Thakur Baba. Where does that barren woman come from? Where does that baby’s mother come from?]
Second group responds: Thakur jiyo, Kota se aayi odi Banjhdi, Boondi se aayi bharoda ri Ma
[Long live Thakur Baba. The barren woman has come from Kota (to request a child). The baby’s mother has come from Boondi (to offer thanks).]
Both groups together: Sil pe nahave Thakur uujda, dhaanda pe sukhave Pitammal dhoti
[The fair Thakur bathes on that rock. On the uneven ground he dries his saffron loincloth]
This last line of the song has both an erotic and a sacrificial resonance. The donning of a saffron cloth is said to express a willing embrace of death for the Rajput warrior, a sacrifice in an ‘un-winnable war’ (Harlan 2003: 23l; Hiltebeitel 1999: 313). The same lyric also has an erotic insinuation. ‘The fair Thakur bathes on that rock. On the uneven ground he dries his saffron body cloth’. The line indicates that the Thakur is partially or fully undressed, as the women visualize his presence. Rather than ‘bawdiness’, these songs for Thakur Baba express what Lindsey Harlan has called a form of ‘thwarted eroticism’ (2003: 199).
Recorded by Bhrigu Singh at: Sankalp Sanstha (Shahbad, Baran district, Rajasthan. Link to audio
Bhrigu Singh: So how did your ancestral Preet spirit begin to be worshipped at Tilpassi (an abandoned village nearby)?
Gajanand Namdev: What happened was that my grandfather…
BS: The one with long hair…?
GN: Yes, the one with long hair. He was coming back from the ‘gifting of cloth’ (a ritual) at the wedding of an elder cousin. He died at that spot (as mentioned in the article on p.391), so a shrine was made for him there. How did they get to know? When there is a pareshani (trouble) at home, they go to ask a devta (a deity, via a spirit medium). Then they say that such and such Preet of yours is disturbed, so for their peace you must get a Katha or Bhagvad Gita (a sacred narration) done at that spot. So we got it done there.
After that, there was my grandmother’s time. This was a time when she was still young. She didn’t have a child, so they told her go to that place (the shrine). There was a Panditji (a Brahmin) named Ramprasad Bhal, from (the village of) Casbathana. The deity came in his deel (body/consciousness), and so he gave my grandmother babhoot (sacred incense), from which my father was born. So my father’s baal (a ritualized ‘first haircut’ for infants) happened there, as did his paalna (the first time he was placed in a crib). And ours too. Like that, from then on a bandhan (bond) was formed. My chachaji (father’s brother), buaji (father’s sister), whoever was born, their rituals happened there. So it became a kind of pratha (practice) at that site, getting a Katha (sacred narration) done there, mundan sanskar (the ritual first haircut), gathjoda (the untying of the wedding knot). So all of those happen there. And they will keep happening there. Because we are doing it, and our children see us, so they’ll also do it, then their children will see it. So it becomes a kind of riti-rivaaz (belief-practice).
And what is made cannot be undone…
BS: So you were saying…when you had very recently moved to the village of Mamoni, then…
GN: Yes, at the time, my wife was still pregnant with my daughter…
GN: Yes, Guddi. So Guddi’s mother went to the pond to bathe and wash clothes. She was fine and healthy when she went. On the way back, some wind caught her, and she began to feel cold. And by the time she came home she had high fever. I got her treated but nothing helped. In that period Kailash Bhargava (the spirit medium for the Tilpassi Thakur Baba) came from somewhere, I don’t know from Baran maybe. He came to meet me, and I said, ‘well, this is good that he has come’. I took him to the terrace of my house. It was summer. We sat on the terrace. He used to smoke a chillum (marijuana pipe) at the time, so I had that arranged as well. So then the deity possessed him.
BS: The Tilpassi Thakur?
GN: Yes, and he said, ‘What happened?’ I said, ‘If I tell you everything, what will you tell me?’ Sometimes I get very stubborn with these deities! So he said ‘Yaar (friend), you are testing me.’ I said, ‘paili tau pathar pe hi chalti hain’ (a sword is sharpened/tested on a rock), then you see what kind of a mark it makes. I said, ‘if you are a devshakti (divine force) then tell me, what do I have in mind?’ So he said, ‘you are testing me.’ I said ‘take it as you will, but I’m the one with the difficulty at home.’ Then he said, ‘someone from your house is ill.’ I said, ‘you are right’. He added, ‘she was returning from the pond, that’s when she fell ill, on the way back. And you’ve gotten her treated in every way and still she hasn’t improved.’ ‘She hasn’t,’ I agreed. He said that the house you are staying in… [Brief interruption]
BS: So he said…
GN: So she fell ill on the way back from the pond. So he said, ‘the house in which you live, the owner of that house has a deity who resides below the pond. There is a Renjda tree, behind which, among the shrubs there, you won’t find a shrine, what you will find are a few rocks (arranged in the form of a deity). At that spot offer a ghoda (cloth icon of a horse), a coconut and incense. And then she’ll get okay.’ He took some ash from the chillum (pipe) he was smoking and said ‘give this to her.’ And after that she actually got okay. When I actually went to the shrine there was a lot of forest there at the time, so I couldn’t find the shrine. So then I went to the owner of that house saying is there a deity you worship here. He said, ‘there is’, and took me to the spot. We went crawling and ducking under the shrubs. And there he pointed it out to me. And I made the offering. This is a true story. I got her treated in every way, with injections and everything. But it didn’t make any difference. And then finally this is how she got better.
BS: Whose shrine was it in the forest? Thakur Baba?
GN: No, some household deity of theirs, probably a Preet or something, I don’t really know.
BS: What was the caste of the owner of the house?
GN: Gonje (the ‘robber’ caste)
BS: And what was the offering you had to make?
GN: A cloth horse. I make that (as a tailor).
BS: That is offered to Thakur Baba?
GN: Yes, and a coconut, and incense. So sometimes these things do happen.
Interview with Bhrigupati Singh
Hafeez Jamali: Thank you for a very interesting, ethnographically rich, and provocative essay. In trying to make sense of the kind of force or influence a local deity, Thakur Baba, exerts over the local people in Shahabad, India, you engage with some of the fundamental questions in anthropology. Some of these issues, such as, the relationship between the sacred and profane, life and death, and individual and society, have been abiding concerns of classical sociology and anthropology. Others have a more contemporary provenance in anthropology: the nature of historical and mythical time, secular and religious, and force and contract. In particular, the question of the substance and form of sovereign power in the modern world has taken center stage in anthropology and other social sciences in the wake of Georgio Agamben’s seminal works Homo Sacer and Means without Ends. Agamben’s concept of ‘bare life’ describes a form of existence whose recognition is predicated on its exclusion from political life and resonates with multiple forms of state sanctioned violence, surveillance, and destruction that we witness today. As I understand, your article points to the limits of this approach for understanding authority by reducing its substance to the most negative of negatives. You also take issue with postcolonial historians such as Dipesh Chakrabarty for sequestering subaltern pasts and presents into a black box that would not allow for intervention by the historian and the anthropologist.
I will begin by asking you to tell us a bit about your life experiences, anthropological training, and encounters in the field in Rajasthan that sparked your interest in your ethnographic project?
Bhrigupati Singh: Hafeez, I must begin by thanking you for your thoughtful summary of the article, and for reading it so attentively, and with such joy. This essay was a chapter in my PhD dissertation. Anyone who was written a dissertation knows what a labor of love, and hardship, and solitude it can be. And yet you are not “alone”. My picture of thinking, following Deleuze, is not one of dry rationality, but as a kind of delirium, of different moods and intensities. You gradually gather up friends and rivals and interlocutors, in a kind of dance, which ethnography can intensify and take in unexpected directions. From your reading it is clear to me that you joined the dance, which I am grateful for.
To answer your question, I grew up in Delhi, which I still consider my intellectual home, at some level. I felt that for scholars of my generation, while there is a vocabulary of some sort to think about economic transformations and suchlike, the language in which to think about spiritual and religious life, which is all around us, was becoming more impoverished, conceptually. And I don’t mean only scholars in the professional sense. I also mean friends of mine and interlocutors who went into NGOs or those who write fiction. This is essay is a small attempt, in whatever limited way I could, to contribute to the vocabulary with which to think about these issues. It arose partly from a kind of dissatisfaction with some of the literatures I was immersed in such as postcolonial theory, subaltern studies and the journal Public Culture, and so on, and their relative inability to say much about lived religious experience. There are people I like, of course, Anne Gold would be an example, or Richard Eaton’s article on Baba Farid. But I am talking about a more pervasive and basic discomfort, for instance with the rational/supernatural dichotomy, or for instance when questions of politics come to be involved. I am thinking here of many of the “canonical” positions, such as Ashis Nandy’s idea of a kind of “pagan syncretism” at the level of popular religion, or M.N.Srinivas’s idea of “Sanskritization”, or David Hardiman’s Coming of the Devi, which I argue against in another piece, for its impoverished idea of the mother goddess as an expression of adivasi “resistance”, which I think wholly annihilates the kinds of spiritual transactions that occur between neighboring and rival social groups in South Asia, where so often spirits can migrate “across” groups that might otherwise be hostile to one another, and thereby, sometimes create contingent relations. So then, at another level, it was not only a question of religious life, but also our ideas of what constitutes politics and ethics and ways of living together, and how we move between religious and secular ideas, for instance with a concept such as sovereignty.
These conceptual issues though only came up belatedly, as a result of an ethnographic imperative, to answer the other part of your question, about encounters in the field. I went to Shahabad with a largely “secular” project in mind, about poverty and inequality among the Sahariyas, as former bonded laborers now living largely through temporary agricultural labor. My PhD dissertation and book manuscript address these questions of labor and quality of life more directly. I see this essay too as a chapter in that journey, since one cannot conceive of life in this milieu without deities such as Thakur Baba. Gradually the gods began to impinge more strongly on my project. I’m not sure how this happened. There wasn’t any one “conversion” moment. Somehow I just felt it was important to write about this, since it was so ubiquitous in Shahabad, as a dimension of life. And also, fortunately, I had the freedom to write about this as an anthropologist, and a whole archive to draw on. In that sense writing about Thakur Baba and the ancestral Preet spirits, brought me back to many of the questions that you so generously outline, about life and death, sacred and profane, and the disagreement with Chakrabarty and so on.
I wanted to write about Thakur Baba in a way that someone like Gajanand, a key ethnographic interlocutor whom I mention in the article, would recognize his own experiences in my description of the deity. The concepts are part of this endeavor, as ways to intensify and organize those experiences. I think as anthropologists we try to grow concepts out of “life”. This might bring us back to very “traditional” disciplinary concerns at times, but that doesn’t necessarily make those concerns “Eurocentric” or foreign to the ethnographic milieu in which they are reanimated, that is to say brought to life. My anthropological training, since you asked about that, was at the Anthropology department at Johns Hopkins University, and this article strongly reflects my “upbringing” there. There was a deep resonance I came to feel there between anthropology and philosophy, done in other guises sometimes, such as political theory and in the Humanities center at Johns Hopkins, but there was also a real emphasis on ethnography. It was a tremendously exciting place for me. It gave me a way out of some of the intellectual dissatisfactions I felt.
HJ: Can you explain for us your departure from Dipesh Chakrabarty’s influential idea that the subaltern subject, the low caste Sahariya’s in this case, inhabits a world or domain that is part of modernity and yet is not amenable to intervention and understanding by the rational historian (without doing grave violence to this subject)? How can we talk about this world if it is not ‘historical’, as you claim?
BS: Chakrabarty’s Provincializing Europe is an adventurous text, but I see it as part of a postcolonial vocabulary that I can’t continue. So what next? In disagreeing with Chakrabarty, I don’t necessarily want to negate or undervalue his project. He is clearly interested in “non-historical” modes of time, in his invocation of Heidegger, for instance. And yet, he and many others, consciously or unconsciously, continue a negative dialectical lineage of thought. So invariably some form of lack or void or negative transcendence or Derridean aporia comes to be posited as the highest point of thought. Something like this happens in the key moment of Provincializing Europe (in the chapter on “Minority Histories and Subaltern Pasts”), where Chakrabarty posits an “irreducible gap” between the so-called “rational” historian and the “supernatural world of the Santal”. And further, he says that attempts to cover this gap are inevitably Eurocentric. Of course everyone is very sympathetic to this. So should we just stop at the impasse? I think the impasse is itself based on false premises.
Firstly, the “rational” historian is not quite as rational as we might think, and here Chakrabarty would probably agree, but there are more important issues at stake than agreement or disagreement. Consider this: why this overwhelming emphasis on rebellion in so much of this literature? This is a theologico-political attraction to a kind of redemption, a “messianic” undoing of the law by the meek. It is Jesus versus the Romans, even if Jesus is redistributed into the peasants. I hope this doesn’t sound like an oedipal moment. Maybe it is at some level. No one can deny the impact of those movements of thought, the different ways in which it made us think about history and the resistance to colonialism. And the spaces this thought opened up in the academy, even for me to be able to write at this moment. That said, what I am suggesting is not a devaluation but revaluation. The “rational” historian is also theological, in a different way perhaps, than the Santal. The Internationale for instance is a totally theological song, about a final battle, after which we will all be redeemed. Those who believed in the song were bound to be disappointed. When such great redemptive hopes are dashed one then swings to the other extreme and declares a “global catastrophe”, as Agamben does, as does Benjamin to some extent. So the question arises, what other kinds of theologies and forms of transcendence can we explore, which need not be messianic or redemptive? Thakur Baba, for me, was one such starting point, as is the Mitra Varuna concept of sovereignty, which I try to develop further in my book manuscript.
Now Chakrabarty and others may agree with some of this. And yet, there is a disagreement which should not be suppressed, which goes beyond the personal or this or that author. Chakrabarty says, in an apparently throwaway remark that the irreducible gap between the Santal and the historian cannot be put together by “anthropological cobbling”. If you remember, in the article, I bristle at this remark and say that I take this as a putdown, not to myself, but to an ethnographic tradition to which I feel some affinity. The troubling thing is that many anthropologists today, especially of South Asia, would agree with such a remark. There is an idea, even if no one will say this explicitly, that an archival based critique of colonialism is somehow more morally legitimate than ethnography, which is too “compromised” by its colonial heritage and forms of epistemic violence. Again, there is a delicate problem here, and this sense I am not writing “against” Chakrabarty. Provincializing Europe in fact tries to emphasize the Eurocentric heritage and forms of epistemic violence within history. Somewhat different from this, though, is the tension between historical and ethnographic modes of knowing, and the very different capacities these have to engage the world. And this tension should not be suppressed. “Old” anthropology was not simply “ahistorical” or “apolitical”. Rather, it had its own modes of temporality and movement (as Deleuze has for instance, tried to argue with respect to Levi-Strauss). As you ask above: how does one talk about these modes of temporality if they are not “historical”?
To clarify, I am not arguing “against” or negating historical time. There are of course historical questions at stake too. For instance, as I say in relation to Thakur Baba, the human domestication of horses is itself a roughly dateable event, as is the advent of Rajput “tribes” into India and the various admixtures that followed between groups to redefine the category of the Rajput, as we see in the accounts of the historians I quote, such as Dirk Kolff. So the headless horseman is clearly not a “timeless” figure, wholly outside of history. But history and historical time is perhaps not the best way to understand the continuing presence of Thakur Baba in the lives of the Sahariyas. So then how do we talk about these other layers and modalities of time? It is not a redemptive flash of non-historical lightning in the style of Benjamin. I try to set out a different set of terms to engage non-messianic time: varying thresholds of life, power over life, understood as relations of force and contract, and then, from Nietzsche’s remarkable essay on temporalities of life, as distinct from the time of history, I draw two further concepts, of the “infra-historical”, which is a realm of proximity “below” history, and the “supra-historical”, which refers to transcendental theological elements, such as sacrifice, which are reconfigured in sacred and secular forms, and enter history in different ways. I also found the idea of different degrees of transcendence helpful. Through this idea I suggest that “rationalizing” movements, in religious or secular forms, are often shifting the degree and mode of transcendence, sometimes to a “higher” degree, such as heaven, or the nation, and waging battles against the “superstitious” lower degrees of transcendence. So these are some of the ways in which we might think about the varying thresholds of life, in which a group such as the Sahariyas are immersed. So it is not a case of “supernaturally” immersed tribes such as the Sahariyas, as against some notion of rationality. As I emphasize, all of us participate in “infra-historical” and “supra-historical” layers of time. The way in which we participate depends on the thresholds to which we are open and receptive. I guess this takes us to your next question.
HJ: You introduce the term ‘varying thresholds of life’ from the philosopher Gilles Deleuze as a way of engaging the dead, the spirits, and the not-yet-born who inhabit the world alongside the living. This is a way of inhabiting places and engaging with the non-human that is common among South Asia people living in urban as well as rural areas. Local people living around certain sites that engage or attract these nonhuman beings such as sacred groves, forests, graveyards, and shrines of saints take special precautions and observe proper etiquette lest they incur the displeasure of these powerful beings. Can you tell us what do you mean by the words ‘life’ and ‘threshold’ in this context? Is it enough to bridge the gulf between the human and the nonhuman?
BS: You are right to stress that deified forces such as saintly shrines, are both rural and urban, and also stretch much beyond South Asia. Is it interesting to think about such phenomena explicitly under the conceptual framework of “life”? This requires a bit of clarification about this framework. The discussion began, or began again in some ways (since “vitalism” has a much longer history), in recent years, following Foucault’s idea of biopolitics and Agamben’s influential rendering of “bare life”. Some of the work in the aftermath of Agamben is implicitly imbued with a sense that there is some kind of global conspiracy afoot to subjugate life. Maybe there is, but hopefully there is more to life than what neoliberal governance can control or make live and let die. Then again, let me not be reductive of Agamben either. If we were to read him more ‘nobly’ in the Deleuzian-Nietzschean sense of the term, then we would emphasize what is most interesting and productive in his work. For instance Agamben’s proposition, about how we might rethink political theory not from the basis of the citizen but rather from the perspective of the refugee, is a stunning insight and a challenge. And his use of the “old”, to rethink the contemporary, is certainly very interesting, as long as we are open to further such excavations. Anyway, let’s return to the question of “life’ within anthropology.
A second strand of the discussion on life or “life itself” came from the anthropology of science and biomedical technologies. This literature sometimes has a slightly premature sense of newness, as if only now we face ontological challenges like never before, as the zones of life and death are being blurred. Shamans and ascetics were traversing the zones between life and death long before pacemakers and life-support systems and IVF technologies arrived!
Aside from these two strands, biopolitics and the anthropology of science and biomedicine, which sometimes overlap, there have also been a number of anthropologists who have worked out alternative philosophical renderings of life, in very interesting ways, such as Veena Das’s use of Wittgenstein/Cavell’s term “forms of life”, or others who have used Judith Butler’s rendering of “precarious life”. My own way of engaging the question of life comes from Deleuze, who builds a kind of philosophical counter-tradition, against dualism, and against negative dialectics, through Nietzsche, and Spinoza (conatus), and Bergson (elan vital). Now how does one bring a philosophical concept or genealogy of thought to bear on the anthropological investigation of phenomena such as saintly shrines?
In the article I return to a founding moment in the anthropology of religion, in Durkheim’s Elementary Forms of Religious Life. Durkheim says that the basis of religion is an engagement with a vital animating principle, “a kind of anonymous and impersonal force…Spirits, demons, genies, gods of every rank are merely the concrete forms that capture this energy, this ‘potentiality’”. I felt I should clap my hands with delight at the formulation! It captured what I wanted to say so well. Spirit mediums in Shahbad often say that genuine states of possession are akin to receiving an electric “current”. And now listen to Durkheim: “When we say that these principles are forces, we are not using the word in a metaphorical way: they behave like real forces. In a sense, they are even material forces that mechanically generate physical effects. If an individual comes into contact with them without taking the necessary precautions, he receives a shock that can be compared to an electric charge.” (2001: 142). But then, sadly, comes the “Durkheimian” turn, which “humanizes” this entire potentiality, the vast impersonal force, to a sociological form of transcendence, namely “society”. The Melanesians call this force mana, the Iroquois call it orenda, and Durkheim calls it “the moral authority of society” (2001: 155).
For me, Deleuze and the concept of life that runs through all his work, serves to reopen this potentiality, to restore its nonhuman and potentially infinite dimension. Life is both finite and infinite in a Nietzschean sense. The Will to Power is all about this: quanta of force, expressed in varying forms. This is what I take to be life. When people tiptoe around a saintly shrine, what exactly is happening? We might say that there is a quantity of force, of life that is thought to reside here, and to exert certain forms of potency. Now these potencies might wax and wane, as I also indicate in the article. So these deified forces are not static or timeless.
So the question arises, how does one understand movements and differences within this monist principle of life? For this, I was drawn to the term varying thresholds of life. You asked me about thresholds and I don’t want to give a vague answer to your question, so I’ll try to answer it specifically. I use the word thresholds in three senses, although there are zones of overlap and indistinction between these senses. First, thresholds perform a sort of ontological role. We don’t have to share “beliefs” to talk about thresholds of life, since, as I say in the article, a dream or a hallucination or a memory is also a threshold of life, as is a ghost or a god. In this sense we can ask what kinds of thresholds a culture or a form of consciousness is open to, and this may vary a lot even within cultures, since some bodies are more open than others. Then I also use threshold in another sense, as stages within a life, birth, marriage, death, afterlife, and I suggest that religious ritual often commemorates these thresholds. Humans have most often felt the requirement for ritual when crossing a threshold of life. We can follow this thought in Van Gennep’s famous theory of “rites of passage”. Then I use threshold in a third sense, as levels or strata, an idea I got from Deleuze and Guattari’s chapter on “the geology of morals” in Thousand Plateaus. It is possible that with so many different senses of a word, we verge on nonsense. Sometimes, thought neighbors lunacy! It is not only fanciful though. This term threshold is crucial for overcoming the aporia that Chakrabarty posits. And in the larger manuscript I use the concept further, to reevaluate what economists mean by the term “quality of life” and how anthropologists might think about this differently, as attentiveness to varying thresholds of life.
And lastly, the term threshold becomes dynamic with a supplemental concept of intensities, which for me is a deeply experiential term. It signals a range within the same threshold. Intensities express the ebb and flow of life, waxing and waning, even when things seem to remain constant. Intensities can vary and pass through different bodies, human and nonhuman. This may not entirely bridge the gulf between the human and the nonhuman, as you ask in your question, but it does open up a mode of passage, through the movement of intensities. It is not rational or supernatural, but a more open-ended kind of physics, a metaphysics of unseen but sensed intensities which we can be attentive to as ethnographers. These varying intensities also take us back to questions of force and power and politics somewhat differently, since political movements too can gain or lose intensity, even when conditions apparently remain the same.
HJ: You take issue with the widespread use of Georgio Agamben’s idea of contemporary sovereignty as a kind of (state) power that comes into being at the moment when the subject of that power is reduced to ‘bare life’ stripped of its political rights and privileges. But the purpose of deploying the term ‘sovereignty’ in political literature and elsewhere is, in my understanding, precisely to distinguish modern political power from other kinds of power exercised by individuals and social collectivities. Are you not, perhaps, muddying the political and sociological waters by extending the term sovereignty to include the powers of saints?
BS: Yes, it would be a kind of epistemic violence if the question was not implicit in the material itself. The question of sovereignty and sacred ambivalence didn’t come to me, at least initially, from Agamben or Schmitt, but from the deities and saints themselves. Consider that the word wali (saint/“friend of God”) is an Ottoman term for a governor or provincial administrator, and dargah (shrine) is a synonym for “court” (Eaton 1984: 346). Comparable articulations can be found in many different cultures and times. In Cult of the Saints, Peter Brown tells us that perhaps the most important activity of the early Christian church was exorcism, and he emphasizes ‘the heavy judicial overtones of the process of exorcism at a shrine” (1981: 108). Within Hinduism, Graham Dwyer in his book on the famous Mehndipur shrine of Balaji (Hanuman, from the epic Ramayana) tells us that afflicting spirits are said to be coerced, to stand and present themselves in Balaji’s durbar (court) for a peshi (hearing) (Dwyer 2002: 89). In the article I also quote the instance of the Chinese rural pantheon, which analysts have described as resembling “a vast supernatural bureaucracy” (Wolf 1974: 9). My basic contention would be that when a devotee refers to a deity as “my lord” they are not just using a “metaphor” but actually referring to a potentiality, a particular form of power over life. Thakur Baba after all is a Rajput, which was for centuries a figure of sovereign authority, although I try to open this figure, through Kolff’s account, to a wider warrior culture that traverses different castes and tribes.
So I don’t think the question of sovereignty is imposed, it is already there, as a form of power over life. Now this is not to say that there is a seamless continuity between the power of saints and forms of secular sovereignty. The task of political theology, as I understand it, is to track morphs, as something shifts from one form to another, across thresholds. This is the case with power and sovereignty, as in Schmitt’s idea of a ‘secularized theological concept’. And it is the case with ethics and morality, as with Weber’s idea of the Protestant ethic, where the divine element may also recede, or much more profoundly than Weber, it is the case in Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals, where we see the influence of ascetic ideals even on secular moralities, including atheism. Following this mode of thinking, I don’t see an irreducible gap between so-called secular modernity and religious tradition, or between sacred and secular ideas of sovereignty. Nor though is there seamless continuity. So then maybe we are anthropological ‘cobblers’, finding ways to navigate these gaps.
HJ: In conclusion, how do you see your attempt to return to an earlier anthropology of religion concerning the understanding of ritual, magic, and spirit world, pace Victor Turner, to understand questions of sovereignty and power in relation to the contemporary work on these issues? What direction might this approach take you from here?
BS: It is not exactly a “return” to old anthropology, but rather, as you posed it at the outset, in your generous summary, it is an attempt to navigate between the old and the new, without claiming to be “post” anything, or without the umbrella of any illusory “ism”. It is a very interesting time for the anthropology of religion that is now moving in tandem with the destabilization of the category of the secular. I find some of the work in the recent anthropology of Christianity very exciting, and some of the more offbeat and adventurous people writing on Islam like Naveeda Khan and Stefania Pandolfo. I say that it is an interesting time because some of the older distinctions don’t work, such as “folk” and “classical”, or the idea of textually bound “world” religions. But it is not enough to say that these older categories are “Eurocentric”. I think the time is coming when one will have to propose a different set of comparative concepts, not necessarily grounded in European Christianity. One can’t just keep negating and complaining. So one direction in which I might go from here is to further develop some of the concepts which I encountered in this project. I found an interlocutor whose work on religion in China I find really thrilling. So I might try to think more with them about concepts of comparative religion, in the aftermath of postcolonial theory. I am still thinking, with great excitement, about some of the things I want to do next. The first thing of course will be to finish the book manuscript about Shahabad, which is almost done. I hope the review process won’t beat me into “normalcy”! Let’s see what happens. Then I have a couple of projects I have been working on for a while, I have written bits and pieces, so I might try to finish those. One is a book of essays, which, just for the sake of argument and enjoyment, for whoever cares about such issues, I might title “What comes after postcolonial theory?”
Then some parts of this project, as you mentioned, take me back to the history of anthropology. Next semester I have to teach a course in the history of anthropology. I want to teach it differently from how it is often taught, as a parade of error, or ‘isms’, where each succeeding ‘ism’ makes the previous one outmoded. Or worse, the entire history taught through guilt and bad conscience and sad passions. Or a false sense of newness and self-congratulation: after the “reflexive” turn we are finally self-aware. I have some sense of how I’d like to trace the history differently from these accounts. Anthropology, even “old” anthropology, has often been hospitable to adventurers and free spirits, so I want to find some way to track that impulse. So I’m thinking I’ll write an essay, or a short book, called “A Joyful History of Anthropology”.
Then in ethnographic terms, while staying in Shahabad, I was a bit startled by the sheer volume of migration for labor, recurrently across large distances. So like the Shahabad research was focused on bonded laborers, in the future I might try to follow migrant labor more carefully. Sometimes, at least this is what I noticed with pastoral nomads in Shahabad, such groups move with their deities. And those deities then may continue to travel. I wrote a chapter about this even in this project, on the entry of a new god into Shahabad, and how this divine migration rearranges social relations. So I have been thinking about a larger project on this, tentatively titled “Divine Migrations”, since I realized that this was a more global phenomenon. In some ways, all gods are migrants.
On the other hand, there was another recurring theme that I noticed in this project that I wasn’t able to pay enough attention to. People I came to know better would tell me, “I went mad for a little while, but then I made x offering to y deity, and then I got okay.” So I might try to understand these psychic disturbances a bit better. So these are some or many of the directions in which I hope to move. I’ll start this summer and see how it goes. Who knows how much of all of this I’ll be able to do. The potentiality is often greater than the actuality, and that can make us happy when we think of all we could do. Or it makes us sad, when we think of all we couldn’t do. In professional settings you have to often present a very coherent research agenda. Fortunately this is a setting where I can speak more freely. Despite all the professional woes that come after graduate school, which bring you back to “reality”, not necessarily in a nice way, I can still say that I wouldn’t chose any other occupation or way of life. And that is something. Who knows how long it’ll be before these intensities wane, but for now it is a thrill. Thanks again for these thoughtful questions and for the care with which you read my article.
About the Author
Bhrigupati Singh completed his PhD at the Department of Anthropology at Johns Hopkins University and is currently a postdoctoral scholar in International Studies and Anthropology at the Watson Institute, Brown University. He has published numerous articles on issues of religion, politics, and media, and is currently completing a book manuscript entitled Gods and Grains: Political Theologies of Popular Hinduism, and co-editing a volume entitled Anthropology and Philosophy: Affinities and Antagonisms. His most recent articles include "Agonistic Intimacy and Moral Aspiration in Popular Hinduism: A Study in the Political Theology of the Neighbor" in American Ethnologist and "Frugality and Excess in Gandhi, Thoreau and Nietzsche: An Essay in Geo-Philosophy" in Borderlands.