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Understanding Social Praxis

Amiya P. Sen

By Ursula Rao
Manohar, New Delhi  (South Asian Studies No. XL1), 2003, pp. 158, Rs. 500.00


Those of us who regularly pursue the contents of Religion may recall  the sparkling essay that appeared roughly two years back from the author of this monograph on broadly the same theme. The sparkle, as one can see, has endured though the monograph, when compared to the essay, is obviously more serious reading, given its greater theoretical embellishment and attention to detail.      This work is about how the idea of divinity is perceived, related to and internalized in the lives of contemporary urban Hindus especially through the institution of the temple. It is also about the surreptitious ways in which the apparently religious engagement between man and the divine enters the organization of non-religious public life.      Ursula Rao’s study is based on extensive researches carried out in respect of two recently constructed temples in the old town of Bhopal and brings out the manifold and motley considerations that guided the behaviour of certain individuals and groups who implicated themselves in the delineation of sacred space or determining the functions of various religious institutions. Here I must admit that I remain somewhat uncomfortable with her use of the currently fashionable term ‘negotiated’. For one, not everything may be negotiated and in the analysis of social ideas or praxis, matters such as habits and areas of acceptance, I imagine, can be equally important. Rao’s formulation may also be countered by those who believe that divinity cannot be bounded by humanly determined space and temple Hinduism, though currently popular, is not the only way in which a Hindu may relate to either god or this world.   More importantly, however, what seems to be negotiated here is not so much the divine or divinity itself but the value or functions that this might be brought to bear on  the public arena. It is the political value, social standing or ritual power that an individual or a group is believed to have acquired from their active association with the divine that becomes the contentious ground of negotiation.      The narrative core of the work comprises chapters 2-4  which are flanked by three other chapters [1,5,6] which are more theoretical in nature. This allows Rao to weave a rich texture of anthropological theory and some complexly nuanced human responses, meticulously gathered from oral testimony. Chapters 2-4 narrate the circumstances in which the two temples [both dedicated to goddesses] came to be constructed. In the first case, ...

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