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The Sacred Marriage of a Hindu Goddess.

This reviewer is at pains to do justice to a work as rich as The Sacred Marriage of a Hindu Goddess, a creation that is so evidently the result of a superb, scholarly patience. Certainly there has been patience on the part of the people mentioned by the author in his preface - who have been awaiting the book's publication for years - but of course I am referring to the patience of the author himself and his work. Professor Harman has spent a number of years on his subject, and the result merits thoughtful savoring rather than a quick perusal in the midst of so many works on Indian religion and culture.

Harman's Sacred Marriage is an admirable and useful book that will serve Indologists for years to come. Though focusing on one temple tradition, in Madurai, south India, its theme is inseparable from a wide and dense texture that exists throughout the breadth of Indian culture, and furthermore cannot be isolated from sacred marriage elsewhere in the world. The author is thoroughly aware of the fact that the religious theme of the hieros gamos was first singled out explicitly for special attention by experts on the ancient Near East and ancient Greek traditions. The patience of Harman's labor includes his attentiveness toward the intricate cultural and transcultural fibers of his topic. He does not waste time on polemics - which would have been tempting in an area so rife with "methodological" partisanships - but deals with the material before him and in due course, never unkindly, corrects many a generalization about myth and cult in general and Hindu texts in particular. For example, in his chapter IV there is a discussion of ritual acts. In the present melee of theoretical propositions on the subject of ritual, the thought that ritual is meaningless by nature has a certain appeal. The thought, however, is merely a thought of a theoretician who has not considered the people immediately affected by what is going on. Without getting involved in the theories, but focusing on the material before him, Professor Harman notes, ". . . [the rituals'] performance will frequently generate meanings. Observed action elicits interpretation. And it is not always possible to control the interpretation, as many people who serve in public positions, such as politicians, can testify" (p. 69).

The work begins with some observations on the hieros gamos theme in religio-historical, philological, and anthropological scholarship. It points out the striking differences in the various documentations. This first step - it slowly dawns on the reader - is essential to enable a promising approach to the subject. The themes of sacred marriage and divine kingship are closely linked in south India, and yet no one should jump to the conclusion that that linkage is of the same nature as it may have been in the ancient Near East - even though in most cases divine, royal human rulers do marry earthly women. To begin with, "[f]rom the Tamil perspective, the English term divine kingship is redundant. A Tamil king (iraivan) is by nature divine. The same term can mean either `god' or `king' or both, depending on the situation" (p. 6). The metaphor of "sacred marriage" is effective in various directions, and Harman's book can be viewed as an elaborate demonstration of the various resulting "situations," i.e., the realities in the religious expression of myths, symbols, and rituals, and in social relationships. The reader discovers that sacred marriage is considerably more than an isolated peculiarity of one or a few religious traditions centered in a few temples and cities.

Following the introductory chapter, entitled "The Sacred Marriage Metaphor in Religious Studies and in Hinduism," five chapters address the major themes and materials of the sacred marriage. Chapter II deals with "The Story of Siva's Sacred Games: A Text and Its Contexts." The story in question is part of an ancient Tamil text. It tells us of an exploit of the god Siva in which he saves the town of Madurai. "Contexts" does not merely refer to a host of details that are technically inaccessible to the non-specialist; the chapter opens with a scene in Madurai in the year 1969, a period of devastating drought, and the ritual manner in which the inhabitants of the city, officials and ordinary people, turned again to their savior. The opinion that a twenty-five-foot-high granite elephant was not correctly oriented gained the upper hand in Madurai. The city council was swayed; ". . . the resolution passed, and construction workers with cranes reversed the statue's orientation. Four days later it began to rain in Madurai and it rained daily for eight days. The drought was over" (p. 21). The chapter goes on to analyze and interpret the ancient story. (Professor Harman presents his own translation of the relevant episode in Siva's deeds in appendix A, pp. 167-96.) Chapter III deals with "The Founding Marriage: The Goddess Weds Siva in the Text." Chapter IV, "The Primacy of the Goddess: Madurai's Annual Marriage Festival," focuses on an aspect that predictably will draw most attention under the prevailing trends in discussions on "the feminine." The king/god's spouse in many ways precedes the perfect god and can be said to outshine him. The balanced study made by Harman, turning to all the contexts and variations in interpretation in which this supremacy of the king's consort manifests itself, adds a depth to the discussion that many a present debater will welcome. Chapters V and VI extend the discussion in a most interesting way by exploring explicitly the relevance of the entire complex in symbols and ideas to human relations: "What Marriage Does: Deification, Transformation, and the Social Order," and "The Bonds Sacred Marriage Creates: Kinship Terms in Personal Devotion." The book concludes with the appendix already mentioned; a second appendix of "Selected Sanskrit Names and Terms and Their Tamil Equivalents"; a third listing the chapter titles from "The Story of Siva's Sacred Games"; notes; a bibliography; and an index. The work is a splendid contribution to our understanding of Hinduism and a most needed building block for a proper perspective in the comparative study of religions.
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Author:Bolle, Kees W.
Publication:The Journal of the American Oriental Society
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jul 1, 1992
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