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Book review: Bringing the Sacred Down to Earth

I’m generally wary of the comparative approach to the study of religion (and myth), if only as, as an approach it has tended to supress or conceal differences between cultures, giving rise to the illusion of homogeneity by reducing the expressions of other cultures to the concepts being deployed by the person doing the comparison. Comparative approaches, so often uncritically map the religious features of other cultures onto European classifications, and thereby work as a form of cultural imperialism. Comparative models have also been used to support the flawed notion that magical/religious techniques can be easily “lifted” from their cultural context. Having said that though, I’ve retained a soft spot for comparativist Wendy Doniger – and in particular, her 1998 book, The Implied Spider: Politics and Theology in Myth. Doniger, in making her case for the comparative approach, points out that “The great universalist theories were constructed from the top down: that is, they assumed certain continuities about broad concepts such as sacrifice, or a High God, or an Oedipal complex; but these continuities necessarily involved cognitive and cultural factors that, it seems to me, are the least likely places in which to look for cross-cultural continuities.” Instead, Doniger argues for a “bottom-up” approach which is more responsive to cultural difference and language and instead, focuses shared cultural predispositions and social behaviours (an overview of The Implied Spider can be found here).

I approached Corinne G. Dempsy’s Bringing the Sacred Down to Earth: Adventures in Comparative Religion (Oxford University Press, 2012, p/bk, 200pp) with an air of cautious optimism, and found myself pleasantly suprised by both her general approach and the “cases” she selected for comparison (admittedly, my initial decision to purchase this book was influenced by the presence of discussions regarding Sri Vidya practice). Bringing the Sacred Down to Earth is concerned with the slippery category of “the sacred” – and in particular, how that category is contested, given its potency, and how it can shift, depending (in the author’s own phrasing) “according to who is calling the shots”.

"Bringing the Sacred Down to Earth"The introduction commences with a brief overview of the “comparative debate” (with particular emphasis on the criticisms levelled at Mircea Eliade’s approach). Dempsey sets out the contemporary critique of comparativism then turns her attention to the case for the comparative method. This requires, she argues, a departure from the nineteenth century view of the comparative enterprise as an objective “science” towards a recognition that comparison involves the scholar’s own inventio – a process of “creative insight and mutual understanding”. A central issue, for Dempsey, is an ethical commitment to “take seriously the religious experiences and expressions of those we study”. Dempsey’s approach then, is to examine the ways that religious beliefs and practices “complicate and resist religious, political, and epistemological abstractions and generalisations”. She also argues that making comparisons can help to “bridge divides” between what would otherwise be “sequestered human communities and experiences” and work to confound the “perceived Orientalist divisions between East and West”.

In the first chapter, titled “The Suffering Indian Nun and the Wandering (Drunken) Irish Priest”, Dempsey draws on her fieldwork in Kerala and from folkloric materials from northwestern Ireland to explore two kinds of “heroic” figure – the (Indian) suffering nun and the (Irish) wandering priest within a broad framework of postcolonial theory. She begins with an examination of St. Alphonsa (1910-1946) who lived in a remote convent in Kerala, and has the distinction of being the first native-born Indian to become a Catholic saint. Alphonsa is consistently portrayed by her devotees as a nun who quietly and heroically withstood “debilitating disease and excruciating pain.” She argues that St. Alphonsa offers Catholics in Kerala an instance of Indian spiritual supremacy over the materialistic/rational west (the inversion of the imperial British tropos of India as backward and irrational). She then turns her attention to the heroic wandering priest – “defender and avenger of the indigenous Irish” which she argues, also enacts a reversal of colonial stereotypes – representing “pure and positive Irishness” and appearing in local tales taking on the local incarnations of Protestant power – landlords, bailiffs, agents. Dempsey explores the complex relationships between both Church authority and local laities, and looks at the powers associated with St. Alphonsa (healing) and the wandering Irish priest (endowed with a capricious power to heal or harm) and how both blur oppositional distinctions between us/them, national/foreign, good/bad, etc.

The second chapter, “Arguing Equal Access to an Earthly Sacred” is an examination of Liberation Theologies working against a backdrop of religious orthodoxy, and Dempsey’s conversations with Aiya, the head of a Hindu temple in the town of Rush, in upstate New York. What emerges out of these conversations is how Aiya shares with Christian feminist and Latin American liberation theologies a concern for those marginalised by orthodox religious authority (for instance, in encouraging women to take on leadership roles in ritual); and how Aiya’s nondual tantric tradition (Sri Vidya) rejects body-negating theologies that attempt to contain the sacred to an exclusivist or wholly transcendent realm and points instead towards a divine immanence which is both socially inclusive and suspicious of the promotion of the spiritual over the material. Although Dempsey points out that the different communities face distinct challenges, and that the theologies being challenged are in many ways, radically different, both are in the position of having to “push back” against orthodoxy. But again, there are differences. Aiya is, she says, fully aware that socially conservative south Indians consider the public performance of temple rituals by women and non-Brahmans to be blasphemous, yet the lack of a centralised authority allows the Rush temple to carry on, despite criticism, with those who don’t like what goes on at the temple staying away. However, for Latin American liberation theologians, orthodox criticism, she says, is more centralised, and “can be impossible to ignore” – citing an example where Leonardo Boff, author of Church, Charism, and Power (a book which was highly critical of the Church’s power) was forced to resign his vocation following continued pressure from the Vatican.

Chapter 3 – “Making and Staking Sacred Terrain – examines how two communities from India – Rajneeshpuram (which transferred its location from Pune to Oregon in 1981) and Hindu diasporic settlements which have established and claimed sacred space within the North American landscape, via quite different strategies, which Dempsey terms as “Utopian” (for Rajneeshpuram) and “heterotopian” (for the Hindu diasporic communities). She draws on two related ideas – that religious sites are neither static nor secure, but can be considered as “zones of intercultural contact” and that sanctifying terrain often reveals political processes; and how territorial claims can be related (for America) to “Settler Dynamics”. Demspey argues that what differentiates the two communities is that the Rajneesh community was rooted in an abstracted, utopian vision which had much in common with colonialist settler dynamics, whereas the Hindu diasporic community she studied had an understanding of sacred terrain which was more accomodating to different usages and remained sensitive to pluralistic usages by different communities.

Dempsey describes how the transformation of a 64,000 acre site – known locally as “Big Muddy” – into Rajneeshpuram – “one of the largest, most developed, and richest commune experiements in the United States” led to conflicts with local residents, in particular, the neighbouring town of Antelope, where Rajneeshees who had settled there outvoted existing city council members and in effect, created their own city council made up of sannyasins, levying taxes for planned city improvements which were not endorsed by non-rajneesh locals and publically branding locals as “rednecks” and “ignorant old people”. Over time, street names were retitled to reflect places and persons of significance to the Rajneeshees, and by 1984 the town was renamed as “Rajneesh”. Dempsey, in her analysis of Rajneeshpuram from its inception to its final days (in 1985, Rajneesh admitted that it had become a “concentration camp”) shows that it was rooted in a “utopian vision” which allowed little or no room for competing discourses, and used the us/them dichotomy of a settler dynamic – and that the renaming of cities, streets and other sites outside of “Rancho Rajneesh” can be read as a strategy of deliberate exclusion and negation of prior connections to the land.

In contrast, Dempsey examines how, in the founding of temple sites across the United States, although diasporic Hindu communities also engage in the “relabeling of land” – sanctifying the terrain through association with Indian deities and sacred place-making, these communities tend to make their claims for sacred land by incorporating, rather than erasing other forms of spirituality, into their sacralisation of the landscape – allowing sacred terrain to encompass multiple meanings and histories. She characteries this approach as (pace Foucault) heterotopian, as opposed to utopian. One of her examples is a Hindu temple in Hawaii (built after the site’s founder received three visions of Shiva in the meadows near the Wailua River) which recognises a six-foot-tall Hawaiian healing stone as a representation of Shiva. She quotes Dr. S. Ramanthan, a former president of the society that has organised Hindu worship at the site since 1988 saying “We don’t own that place; we don’t claim it. We are just one of the worshippers.” Dempsey sees this approach’s success in incorporating the “already sacred” into Hindu sacralisation – a benign process which incorporates multiple religious and secular realities. This chapter reminded me of Adrian Ivakhiv’s book, Claiming Sacred Ground: Pilgrims and Politics at Glastonbury and Sedona (Indiana University Press, 2001) which also takes up Foucault’s notion of Heterotopias in order to examine how sacred sites are used and understood in a variety of ways.

The fourth chapter, “Embodying the Extraordinary in Iceland and India” juxtaposes Icelandic Spiritualism and India Neo-Vedanta. Dempsey shows how both movements were informed by their respective countries’ struggle for independence, and how both make use of scientific frameworks for validation. She focuses on the various ways in which practitioners conceive of their bodily encounters with the sacred, and how these encounters frame both their cosmologies, and their ethics. Whilst there are significant differences between the Hindu concept of siddhi – arising out of a practitioner’s engagement with tradition, and the Icelandic skyggnigáfa – “an innate receptivity to the spirit world” – both sets of abilities can be used in “outreach” activities such as healing or counselling. The key difference though -for Dempsey – is the presence of spirits, which is problematic for Neo-Vedantins, but absolutely central to Icelandic Spiritualist praxis.

Finally, the Postscript – “Unanticipated Adventures in Ritualized Ethnography” juxtaposes the “lofty enterprises” of ritual and ethnography and discusses how they are both rooted in bodily knowledge, indeterminancy and reflexivity. In recounting an event – the ritualised reading of the entire manuscript of her book The Goddess Lives In Upstate New York: Breaking Convention And Making Home At A North American Hindu Temple over a three-day puja at the Rush temple – which she describes as “folding ethnography back into ritual”. Dempsey reflects on the performative elements of both types of practices. In her comparison of Sri Vidya ritual and ethnographic practice, she makes the important point that “ritual performances are not simply symbolically dense but, if doing their job, are meant to be physically, emotionally, and spiritually packed as well. Likewise, ethnography is not, at its heart, simply an intellectually dense house of reflexivity mirrors lodging potential misrepresentations of misunderstandings. As a sensually and emotionally laden performative process, it can offer – at its best and in often unanticipated ways – something more.”

All in all, I found Bringing the Sacred Down to Earth to be thoroughly engaging and thought-provoking. Not only does it point a way forwards for doing comparative approaches to religion, but it would be also useful, I think, for anyone with a keen interest in inter-religious dialogue or in investigating approaches to what constitutes the sacred in contemporary culture.

Corrine Dempsey is also the author of Kerala Christian Sainthood: Collisions of Culture and Worldview in South India (OUP, 2001) and The Goddess Lives In Upstate New York: Breaking Convention And Making Home At A North American Hindu Temple (OUP, 2006).

One comment

  1. steve davies
    Posted July 25th 2012 at 10:33 pm | Permalink

    Thanks Phil-really interesting review. As someone who has spent a bit of time hanging out in unitarian universalist and theosophical circles, I was always a bit uncomfortable about the totalising, modernist agenda. Whether expressed in terms of the “perennial philosophy” or “sanatana dharma”, there is always the danger of ignoring the context specific phenomena of religious practice (from the bottom up) in a well intentioned attempt to make things “fit” into overarching schemata. Although I enjoy some aspects of the Integral movement, I think it risks similar-over simplicity in trying to map the territory-“this is magic, this is religion etc”