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Bridging a Gap Between Tradition and Modernity

A.R. Vasavi

By Leela Prasad
Permanent Black, Ranikhet, 2007, pp. 291, Rs. 595.00

VOLUME XXXI NUMBER 12 December 2007

The text vs the field, the classical vs the folk, the occasional vs the quotidian. These have been some of the key oppositional categories through which sociology of India, particularly understandings of Hindu life and culture have been articulated and debated. This book, a result of the author’s field work in Sringeri (one of the four religious seats that embody and carry on Shankara’s philosophy of advaita), brings to the fore these debates and contextualizes these in her discernment of Hindu ethics as narrated by some people. I say ‘some people’ as the book draws primarily on conversations and narrations that the author has had with only a select number of people, primarily brahmins and families who occupy key positions in the Matha, temple, and in Sringeri town. While this may have given the author the ability to gain access to in-depth ideas and views, the absence of her reading of how ethics is manifested or can be discerned in a broader set of debates, events, trends, or decisions among or between a wider range of people in the town makes the study a little less representative. Framed within a limited number of interactions and transactions, primarily within the Smartha brahmin families or their relationships with the temple or Matha (and therefore acceptable as a reflection of the context and orientation of these families), these details of ethical orientations fail to indicate how these ethics would be manifested in the context of inter-caste and even inter-religious relations. This is particularly important as it would have indicated how such shastric injunctions are negotiated in the context of the outing of brahmin families into a larger world of democracy, modernity, altered economic and social relations, and growing Hindu and Islamic fundamentalism. Even the photographs, most of which focus on brahmin individuals or couples, represent the study as one primarily based on the interactions of the author with a very limited number of subjects.   The limitations of ethnographic encounters and engagement are however more than adequately made up by the issues and theoretical perspectives that the author raises. For one, there have been few studies which have contextualized the practice of ethics in the Hindu lifeworld and or have teased out the categories whose lineage may lie in the classic sacred texts but which continue to be significant in the contemporary world. Prasad’s key contribution is in highlighting how scriptural ...

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