Kristin Hanssen: Women, Religion and the Body in South Asia. Living with Bengali Bauls

Jean-Claude Galey
2020 Norsk Antropologisk Tidsskrift  
Galey is a social anthropologist whose overarching interest is in the comparative analysis of the different regional configurations of the caste system and the emergence of new forms of identity in the Indian subcontinent. His point of departure was an ethnographic study of a former princely state (Tehri-Garhwal, in Uttarkhand), with his research going on to highlight the interactive encounters brought about by the presence of modern ideology. His work now includes other ethnographic and
more » ... ographic and ethno-historical case studies (in coastal Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat) which have helped him further refine the contextualization of such phenomena. Employing a historical and critical approach, he is also reconsidering past and present notions of Caste and Tribe, making it possible for them to be examined together in sets of transformation when observing the perennial links they establish through rituals, kinship and territorial structures, never losing sight of the constitutive relationship between creditor and debtor. The intimate ethnography presented in this book recounts the life stories of members from a single family group of Baul mendicants, a scattered community of spiritually enlightened troubadours living in and travelling around the countryside of West Bengal in India. It sheds light on their past and current fate from being poor and of low caste origin. As part of their vocation, Bauls consider begging and singing for alms as a form of religious practice, alleviating the stigma of their alleged low status while providing them a source of monetary income. The book also portrays the wider and local society in which they live, illustrating how their daily existence connects with other villagers. In their venture, Bauls acknowledge women with an active presence and participation with lesser constraints of gender than their more numerous Hindu counterparts. As a genuine form of worldly asceticism, the Baul path relates to Vaishnava life-cycle rites and it is shown here how representations of body substances and self link to enacted arenas such as food practices, song performances and a construction of personhood. Fasting, begging and singing manifest a kind of embodied knowledge which, associated to a devotional quest, cultivate a modesty defined as virtuous and pure, cherishing values of freedom and liberation. Yet, capturing the flow of the daily interactions and ways of being observed within a particular section of a Baul community, the book brings further evidence on how diverse the phenomenon of renunciation in the South Asian subcontinent actually is. Thus, it relevantly invites more in-depth descriptive attention and a larger scrutiny on the potential Årgang 31, nr. 4-2020, s. 297-300
doi:10.18261/issn.1504-2898-2020-04-05 fatcat:5uizuyxsrffwdokvr6vao5uvnm