Book review_The Camphor Flame – Popular Hinduism and Society in India


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“The flame symbolizes both the deity’s embodiment during puja, by appealing directly to the physical senses, as well as the deity’s transcendence of its embodied form, for the burning camphor, which leaves no sooty residue, provides an intangible display of incandescent light and fragrance”. As the all-consuming flame acts upon the senses of the worshiper, as well as of the deity, it simultaneously symbolizes the total disembodiment of the human worshiper. When a camphor flame is shown at the climax of puja, therefore, the divine and human participants are most fully identified in their common vision of the flame and hence in their mutual vision of each other – the perfect darshana”

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Book review_The Camphor Flame – Popular Hinduism and Society in India

  1. 1. Book ReviewBook: The Camphor Flame – Popular Hinduism andSociety in India.Author: C.J.FullerReviewer Name: Mahesh JakhotiaImportance of Camphor Flame: [1]“The flame symbolizes both the deity’s embodiment during puja, byappealing directly to the physical senses, as well as the deity’stranscendence of its embodied form, for the burning camphor, whichleaves no sooty residue, provides an intangible display ofincandescent light and fragrance”. As the all-consuming flame actsupon the senses of the worshiper, as well as of the deity, itsimultaneously symbolizes the total disembodiment of the humanworshiper. When a camphor flame is shown at the climax of puja,therefore, the divine and human participants are most fully identifiedin their common vision of the flame and hence in their mutual visionof each other – the perfect darshana”Summary:This book tries to clear a lot of intricacies involved in the Hindu-society. The author has triedto strike a balance between various schools of thoughts. He starts the book by describing theorigin of the hierarchy system and the role played by the different castes in the Hindu society.Later he moves on to explain the kinds of gods and goddesses, and makes a clear distinctionbetween the great deities –Vishnu, Shiva and Devi, who are supposed to have greater powers;and the localized village deities with narrower powers. The sixteen steps involved in a Hinduworship are explained by considering the case study of the Minakshi temple. In the laterchapters he focuses on „Sacrifices‟ and tantric rituals followed in Hinduism. He tries toexplain why sacrifices are made to the deities even though it might conflict with the values ofthe Hindu-beliefs. Ethnographic research on the festivals happening in the Central & northIndia, and the collective festivals of villages are explained. In the 7th chapter the authorexplains how the devotionalist movements like Ramanandi and Swaminarayana were formedin order to condemn the sacrificial practices happening in the Hindu society. During thisphase more importance was given to the Vaishnava dharma instead of Shaiva tradition, which
  2. 2. generally deals with the sacrificial practices. In 9th chapter, Fuller explains the importance ofpilgrimage in the Hindu society. The 10th chapter deals with misfortune, which has beencategorized into three types – misfortune because of the ghostly spirits of the prematurelydead, misfortune because of the impact of planets and horoscope, and misfortune because ofthe Karma.Research Methodology UsedC.J.Fuller‟s research is based on his experiences at the great temple of the goddess Minakshiand her husband Sundareshwara(Shiva) in the south Indian city of Madurai, and the authorhas tried hard to overcome the south Indian, urban, Brahmanical, temple centered bias thatthis may have induced in him. He has used ethnographic research methods to write this book.The critical analysis of Namaskara[2]C.J.Fuller starts his book by explaining about the most basic symbol of communicationamong Hindus called the namaskara. In namaskara, the Hindus raise their hands, with thepalms pressed together and fingers pointing upward, and slightly bow the head. This gestureis made by people to deities and by both deities and people to each other. C.J.Fuller makes avery interesting observation by considering this physical gesture - Since the Namaste is doneby both Deities and people to each other, there is no absolute distinction between divine andhuman beings. The gesture is made to salute “that bit of god which is in every person” caughtin a simple phrase one of Hinduism‟s axiomatic truths.But C.J.Fuller assumes in the book that namaskara is done by inferior to superior people andthus proves the existence of a rank asymmetry in the Hindu society. I have been brought up inthe school of learning in which namaskara is actually done to portray respect to the otherperson and not to portray superiority or inferiority. I believe that the rank asymmetry can alsobe expressed through a means of mental platforms and does not always require any kind ofphysical symbol like Namaste. Thus though the other religions such as Judaism, Christianity,and Islam do not have any physical gesture to portray hierarchical asymmetry it does notmean that they do not have any rank asymmetry.The textual and popular beliefs behind the caste system:C.J.Fuller explains the reasons behind the caste hierarchy system in Hindu society. This isrevealed not only through an ethnographic research, but also by textual scholarship.
  3. 3. The following “Purusha sukta” verse from Rig Veda explains the textual justification of castehierarchy in Indian society – “The gods created the world and everything in it by sacrificingthe primeval Man, Purusha. His mouth became the Brahman; his arms were made into thewarrior, his thighs the people, and from his feet the servants were born” [3]Author explains how the arranged marriage is one of the factors which drive the caste systemin India. In Hindu societies the marriages are generally done in an endogamous orhypergamous way thus the hierarchy is maintained.[4]There are three kinds of pollution in Hindu society: Birth, Death and Menstrual pollution. Ithas been said that blood attracts the lower malevolent deities and spirits. That is whymenstruating women are said to be polluted because they attract these blood loving deities.Virtually, all bodily emissions and waste matter are sources of pollution (saliva, semen,menstrual blood, feces, urine, hair, and nail clippings in particular) [5]C.J.Fuller disapproves the Harper‟s theory of caste system in which Harper argues thatBrahmans must be totally pure in order to imbibe the impurities of the deities. Thus theBrahman priest is supposed to be in the highest possible state of purity, which can only beattained if the lower caste eliminates the impurities of the higher castes. Hence according toHarper, Hindu society “is organized around the task of caring for its gods, and a division oflabor among the castes is necessary to attain the end”.[6] C.J.Fuller contradicts Harper byexplaining that the crucial aim of puja is to honor the gods and not to remove impurity fromdeities. Gods are always present in the highest state of purity and no external source candisturb this state of purity.The paradox of Widow:C.J.Fuller however does not explain one of the paradoxes presented in this book. On one side,the author states that being widow is considered extremely unacceptable in the Hindu societyand she may even be blamed for his death, because a good wife predeceases her husband.[7]But on the other side, he states that woman become more powerful after the death of herhusband, precisely because she is no longer subject to her husband‟s authority. They act amajor role in home, in arrangement of their children‟s marriages, the buying and selling ofproperty, and many other matters.[8]
  4. 4. The dominant and inferior nature of women:Scripturally, women are assimilated with Shudras because of the pollution created by themduring their menstrual cycles. In spite of the lower position of women in the south-east Asiancountries, a few of them such as, Indira Gandhi from India, Benazir Bhutto from Bangladesh,Sirimavo Bandaranaike from Sri Lanka et al have ruled these countries. Why is it that somewomen have been dominating? In one of the case studies presented by C.J.Fuller on theMinakshi Temple, there is an interesting observation to make. Generally women in Hindusociety have been considered equivalent to Lakshmi, a wifely servant of Lord Vishnu,serving her husband while staying at his feet. On the other hand, Minakshi in Ennai Kapufestival is presented as an epitome of sexual attractiveness because of which even Lord Shivasuccumbs to her beauty. This story portrays that women can still dominate men by using theirmost powerful weapon-their Shakti. Goddess Durga is known because of the Shakti or themental strength it brings to its devotees.[9]The paradox of Sacrifice;The practices and beliefs followed by the Hindu society can be classified into two types –Shastrik (or scriptural) and the lautik (or popular). If a belief can be established as Shastrik, itis “eternally valid and binding on all Hindus, and is unquestionably authoritative, but if lautikit is not. According to Hindu scriptures, there is “One and Only God and One Truth”.[10]The very first book of Hindus RIGVEDA proclaim, "Ekam Sat, Viprah Bahudha Vadanti"(There is only one truth, only men describe it in different ways).One of the main paradoxes, which the author is not able to explain in a clear manner, is whydo the sacrifices happen even though the sacrifices (blood and immolation) are consideredimpure by the priests and deities? The sacrifices are considered so impure that after the goatsare immolated in the festival in the Coorg, the Brahman priest purifies the temple. On thefinal day of the festival after all the sacrifices have been done, an elaborative purificationritual is done by the priests.[11] One of the reasons given is that the sacrifices are not for maindeities but it is for the inferior village deities. This point totally contradicts the scriptural text,which states that there is only one god and different deities are often seen as alternative formsof a single deity.The other reason given is that a few of the Chandis devotees at Cuttact believe that thesubordinates of Chamundi and not the goddess itself accept the offering. The true recipient of
  5. 5. sacrifice is not the deity ostensibly offered it, but the deitys inferior, subordinate guardian, orany evil spirits who happen to be in the vicinity.[12]This explanation totally disproves the fact that the divine power of god has been transferredfrom the deity to the stone carving.[13] How can you feed the subordinates by offering thesacrifice to the deity‟s image if only the deitys image has been embodied in the stone carvingand not of its subordinates?The oscillation between the violent, hyper active unmarried goddesses and the subdued,cool married goddesses[14]Fuller explains how to control the ambivalent nature of Indian goddesses in which on oneside the unmarried goddesses are hyperactive, more violent; and in the fiery rage they mightdestroy even the good things besides the demons. On the other side married goddesses aretotally subdued by their husbands and hence they do not take any action for your welfare. Inthe case of Minakshi‟s relationship with Sundareshwara, Minakshi is consistently portrayedeither as oscillating between separation from and unity with her husband or as progressingfrom an unmarried state to a married state. Thus a goddess‟s hazardous powers are checked,by oscillating Minakshi between an unmarried and a married state."Kashi is everywhere, including ones own body"[15]I however slightly disagree when the author says that the pilgrimage can be done by visitinginner self as the gods are present inside us. Each and every pilgrimage place has a lot ofenergy and it has been scientifically proven that the sacred places are embodiment ofenormous energy. Going to pilgrimage places gives you a clearer way to see the divinepower and heal yourself by utilizing the energy of the place.What matters is the experience and not the target or the statue. The pilgrimage journeythrough strenuous means increases your endurance levels and it ultimately helps indeveloping an inner energy, which may not appear if you try to visit local pilgrimage placesor your own body.Thats why in Tirupati thousands of people still climb the hill by walking 6000 steps everyday. I have seen that a few people even traverse the steps by their knees. This does not meanthat god wants you to go through this hardship but the experience of hardship will teach you alot.
  6. 6. The author also tries to explain why Shiva is worshipped even though he is called a destroyer:The world is created out of sacrificial destruction (as the hymn of purushas sacrificeexplains), preserved by destroying the demonic enemies of order, and finally destroyed sothat it can be created and preserved anew. Moreover he is known to destroy the bad and evilspirit existing in your lives.Hindu religion is very vast and diverse. It is sometime good to know that a lot of things arestill unknown. Imagine if you knew everything of the world; would your existence makesense? C.J.Fuller is one of the best sociologist professors from LSE but I am somehowskeptical about the Ethnographic research methods used by the sociologists. Is it good to relyon a small sample to study the topic? For example what if a researcher chooses two peopleout of a sample of ten people, and the chosen two have a different thought process whencompared with the rest of the group. Do we accurately show the right picture? I would like toconclude that C.J.Fuller has done a great job in this book and has analyzed a lot of literaturepresent on this topic before writing this book. The style of writing helps the reader to becompletely engrossed in the book. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book and it has sparkedan interest of pursuing anthropological-research in me.References[1]: Chapter 3: Worship; Page – 73.[2]: Chapter 1: Hinduism and Society; Page-3, 4.[3]: Chapter 1: Hinduism and Society; Page-12.[4]: Chapter 1: Hinduism and Society; Page-14.[5]: Chapter 1: Hinduism and Society; Page-15, 16.[6]: Chapter 3: Worship; Page-76[7]: Chapter 10: Misfortune; Page-238[8]: Chapter 1: Hinduism and Society; Page-21[9]: Chapter 8: Devotionalism & Women; Page-188,190,199,201 & 203.[10]:[11]: Chapter 6: Rituals of the Village; Page-134.
  7. 7. [12]: Chapter 4: Sacrifice; Page-87.[13]: Chapter 3: Worship; Page-67, Table 1.[14]: Chapter 8: Devotionalism & Women; Page-188,189.[15]: Chapter 9: Pilgrimage; Page-209.