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Gods Beyond Temples.

Gods Beyond Temples edited by Harsha V. Dehejia. Motilal Banarsidass, New Delhi, 2006. 270 pages with colour illustrations throughout. Rs 2.500 / US$ 62.50.

When a book has many articles authored by a variety of scholars and writers, it can make for a rich reading and thinking experience. This is especially so when the subject matter of the book is the presence of divinities outside the formal institutions of the temple. Unfortunately, Gods Beyond Temples edited by Harsha Dehejia not only fails to achieve conceptual richness but even falls short in presenting with clarity an understanding of divinities or the nature of the institutions in which they exist. The book appears as a work compiled to ride the popular visual culture wave that recently has captured the imagination of many in the field of Indian art history.

The book begins with statements typical of academics searching for the subaltern who will save them from the asphyxiation of scholarship in elite institutions, particularly foreign ones.

Harsha Dehejia writes:
 The sacred in the Indian tradition is
 more an experience than a concept
 and goes much beyond the narrow
 confines of an organized temple or
 even a shrine.... In a civilization which
 has encountered majestic truths and
 erected grand temples, these sacred
 manifestations and expressions of the
 ordinary people tend to be sidelined
 or dismissed by scholars as well as
 the world at large, as minor or lesser
 gods worthy of curiosity but not of
 serious study.


Upon reading the first few paragraphs of the introductory essay, it becomes apparent that whatever was Dehejia's intention, serious study is not the end result. The book has basic errors like calling a neem tree a pipal (photograph on page 11) or more complex ones such as the statement that India was under Muslim dominance in the 19th century (page 16).

Far more troubling is Dehejia's conflation of Hindu practices, popular/folk/tribal religion, and Indian tradition. Keeping this in mind, it is important to note the array of topics which have found their way into the book.

There are articles on small Shaiva bronzes of Maharashtra, folk gods of Himachal, Bauls of Bengal, textiles, tribal murals, Vishnu's avatar as Kurma in temple sculptures and devotional objects, Tukaram, etc. And there are two essays about Islam. It is really hard to justify the notion of a boundary that the word "beyond" implies since many of the people, divinities, and objects under discussion are made either specifically for worship in temples or are made to travel into many settings, including temples.

How would this book's conception of popular religion change if Dehejia actually took into consideration the incredible syncretism of everyday religious practice? People who pray to gods under trees also visit large temples and if the context and their ideological orientation permit, take the blessing of a Sufi saint or worship Infant Jesus. They also are not that interested in whether scholars are taking note of their practices. We write about such things mainly because our curiosity and our work are compelled by them, not because scholars can improve the actual status of popular religions and their practitioners. In fact, two questions are worth raising here. The first is what provokes some scholars to become advocates for any religious practice. The second concerns the ideological implications of bemoaning the unrecognized status of many of these gods when the people who worship them are even worse off. I raise these questions, not to answer them specifically, but to create a space for interrogating such publications.
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Author:Garimella, Annapurna
Publication:Marg, A Magazine of the Arts
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 1, 2007
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