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Further thoughts on Lineage

Another way to conceptualise lineage is in terms of two complementary axes – the vertical and the horizontal. The vertical axis is the “weight” of tradition and the invocation/deference given to authorities – the persons (often teachers, both living and dead) who are seen as embodiments of a particular lineage – those who are seen to have made a significant contribution to moving a tradition forwards – disseminating it, changing it in significant ways. One can often find, when tempers flare and arguments become heated, that authority is invoked by proxy – by those who claim a close relationship to a particular teacher, be it through having been a “student” of theirs, or claiming authority via their percieved closeness to the teacher through their relationship with other members who were themselves, close to the teacher. I’m thinking here, of a row amongst a group of Wiccans I was hanging out with in the mid-1980s, when one person present threatened to bring down the wrath of “Maxine” (Sanders) down on the offenders (claiming a first-name relationship with a revered person is always a good tactic). She wasn’t actually (as far as I knew) one of Maxine’s own initiates, but she’d been trained by someone who was – and given that no one else present had even a remote connection to Maxine, was clearly bolstering her own authority by invoking the presence of a revered figure. This is where the other axis comes into the play – the horizontal – which is the sense of kinship or family between members of a lineage. The way in which lineage operates horizontally is less obvious than the vertical, and for me, brings to mind the way tradition is performed (in the Butlerian sense).

“Tradition” is often represented as a static “thing” with its own historical presence, existing independently of those who “tap” into it. “Tradition” in the breathless rush of modernity, is often taken to be that which does not change; it’s a sense of pastness as heritage, as nostalgia. I often think of “tradition” as a shifting horizon, something that one can feel, at one moment, very close to, at another, somewhat distant.

A central feature of the way the horizontal axis of lineage operates is through the bonds and relations of kinship. This is the forging of familial connections. Whilst the vertical axis often focuses attention on asymetrical relations of deference to authoritative elements (the teacher(s), significant texts, the informing histories – both formal and informal), the horizontal axis enacts tradition through the forging of family ties. This is readily apparent in lineage-oriented groups – such as in modern Wicca, where a coven’s High Priestess & Priest can easily become alternative parent figures (see here for some earlier thoughts on group leaders) – which can be problematic at times. Even in groups which do not cleave to a formal, hierarchical model of authority, there are frequently authorative figures – people who are seen as “elders” for example; who may have played a foundational role in the beginnings of a community, and are still present to provide arbitration and advice.

Sondra L. Hausner’s book Wandering with Sadhus: Ascetics in the Hindu Himalayas (University of Indiana, 2007) is an ethnographic account of the author’s four-year study of Saiva sādhus in Nepal and India. Hausner’s account shows how sādhus both reproduce and participate in communal structures:

“By their very name, and in any society, renouncers are supposed to leave behind the trappings of daily socialized existence. In real life, however, renouncer life is supported through the communal activities of powerful institutions. Sādhu society demonstrates fully developed social mechanisms—lineages, families, institutions, and rites of maturation—and also the unavoidable social practices of gossip, politics, and rivalry. Being a renouncer in contemporary South Asia means sharing cultural understandings about how space, time, and matter are constituted or stripped away, but it does not generally mean isolation, individuality, or separation from social existence. Despite its explicit purpose—and religious mandate—to strip away society’s influence, renouncing the world remains a social act.”(p61)

Hausner reports that – despite the popular image of renouncers as socially isolated individuals (a perspective which owes much to the work of Louis Dumont) – renouncers live within a higly complex social community, constituted in part through the dasnami lineage, in which the guru plays a central role:

“The guru-disciple relationship ensures that a renouncer is never outside of the monastic social structure. Even a sādhu who chooses (and is permitted by his or her guru) to practice in complete isolation belongs to a social web, and is beholden to sādhu society, through his or her connection to his or her guru. The relationship between guru and disciple precisely prevents the social isolation or disconnectedness that might otherwise be expected of renouncers. Through relationships with their gurus—often thought of as parent-child relationships— sādhus take their place in communal families of religious teaching and ritual practice, even during periods of solitary retreat.” (p74)

Hausner discusses how – for sādhus – the family lineages are a source of identity and nexuses of social networks. Individuals who share membership of a lineage feel both related and responsible for each other – as might members of a natal family. This alternative family has particular importance for sādhus – many of whom have renounced their natal families. Hausner views initiation as a non-procreative form of reproduction, ensuring the survival of the lineage – functioning in a similar fashion to the wider cultural injunction for families to ensure their immortality via the Brahmanical injunction to produce sons.

Conceptualising lineage in terms of an alternative/intentional family structure can be a useful way of approaching contemporary pagan & occult lineage-oriented networks – particularly for those who may not have a strong connection to their natal families (some queer pagans for example). Whilst lineage-oriented pagan networks are sometimes accused of being elitist or exclusivist (see previous post) – the tendency to keep some kinds of information “private” makes much more sense if one thinks of it in terms of a family keeping a boundary on what becomes “public” knowledge, and what may be shared only between intimates. Kinship relations can of course, not only be extended to human beings, but to ancestors, spirits, deities, specific sites, to recurrent events and to other descent groups with which individuals and groups feel a “spiritual” kinship with.

For further discussion of Kinship and modern paganism, see Matthew Wood’s Kinship Identity and Nonformative Spiritual Seekership in Religion, identity and change: perspectives on global transformations (Simon Coleman, Peter J Collins, eds, Ashgate, 2004).

One comment

  1. Danny
    Posted February 20th 2011 at 12:42 pm | Permalink

    Good piece Phil. I’m reminded very much of the word “kaula”….