Ambiguity in the Oral Exegesis of a Sacred Text: Tirukkōvaiyār (or, the Guru in the Garden, Being an Account of a Tamil Informant's Responses to Homesteading in Central New York State)

Peer Reviewed

Essay Excerpt

My aim in this articleis to describe some ways in which intentional ambiguity, the deliberate crafting of messages in such a way that they invite multiple devolves in an ethnographic situation. I take the ethnographic situation to be not a strang eone, but a very common one-an example of dialogue taking place across a horizon, between two worlds that are likely to interpret the same tree, let us say, on that horizon very differently. In this case, in fact, we are dealing not with two worlds but with many worlds and an indeterminate number of horizons, since the material of our analysis is an ancient Indian (Tamil) poem that comes to us embedded in many layers of interpretation and can be seen to incorporate multiple voices much more ancient than itself even prior to its own embedding.

By intentional ambiguity I mean something more than anomaly, or mediation, or transition, or otherness, more than something outside the structure that has somehow to be dealt with, and more than the kind of once-a-year chaos that is needed to keep some orders well defined. Intentional ambiguity is not interstitial ambiguity-marginal, liminal ambiguity characteristic of what is dismaying or strange to people-but ambiguity at the heart of things, openly embraced where it is found, emphasized where it is hard to perceive, and created where it would not otherwise exist. It entails an acceptance of the fact that the horizon is everywhere, including the place where we stand now. 

In what follows, I try to show that the ambiguities I encountered in the poem I studied and in the exegesis of it that was offered to me acted in similar ways to bring diverse forms of thought into some kind of mutual awareness.In particular, I try to show how various kinds of poetic ambiguity are used to relate opposed paradigms, opposed theories about the nature of things, or, less formally and self-consciously, opposed worldviews. Poetic ambiguity forces such opposed world-views to talk to each other, uncomfortable though this conversation maybe.  (Trawick, 316-317)

About the Author

Margaret trawick is a Professor at Massey University. She teaches Systems of Healing and anthropology of gender.

"I've been teaching Systems of Healing now for 25 years, since I first started teaching in the United States. I'm a medical anthropologist, so I've always been interested in indigenous systems of healing.Nowadays a lot of people are into alternative medicines - that's not what I'm doing. All human beings have a body, but they think about it differently in different cultures. My initial interest was in how American Indian concepts of the body shaped their medical ideas and practices. My studies extend to the way people deal with social problems by ritual means.

I specialise in Tamil society, culture and language. I have been researching the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka for the past seven years, and I've taken several field trips there."


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