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Death and Deification: Folk Cults in Hinduism Author(s): Stuart H. Blackburn Source: History of Religions, Vol. 24, No.

3 (Feb., 1985), pp. 255-274 Published by: The University of Chicago Press Stable URL: Accessed: 01/09/2009 13:58
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Stuart H. Blackburn


Were it not better to give death the place to which it is entitled both in reality and in our thoughts ... ? [Sigmund Freud] As a source of Indian religious thought, death is probably unsurpassed; no matter which historical period or cultural level one chooses to examine, concepts lead to or from the problems it presents. Beneath their cosmic purposes, Vedic sacrifices were designed to ward off death temporarily and attain a full life span for men. A more total conquest of death was the goal in the philosophies of the Upanishads, Buddhism, and Jainism; it is this secret that Naciketas (in the Katha Upanishad) asks Yama to divulge to him. And even the process of samsira, the foundation of Indian thought, was first understood not as a rebirth but as continual "redeath" (punarmrtyu). Later, in the Puranas, death becomes a force (Time and Fate) that controls men as much as karma and that Siva absorbs into his array of qualities. A final and very different attitude develops in the devotional cults that enlist the intervention of a god to sidestep the problem altogether; there is Markandeya, who, by clinging to a lingam, was able to remain sixteen forever when Siva kicked Yama in the chest and prevented him from Thegerminal ideafor thisessaywaspresented a paperreadat theannualmeeting in of the Associationfor AsianStudies,San Francisco,1983.Fieldresearch drawnon in this articlewas carriedout in 1977-79 and in 1980in TamilNaduand Keralawith grants fromthe Social ScienceResearch Institute IndianStudies,the of Council,the American and Institution. Foundation, the Smithsonian Fulbright
? 1985 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved. 0018-2710/85/2403-0001$01.00


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taking his devotee. The problem of death is so pervasive that one recent study concludes: "Much-some might even say all-of Indian religion is dedicated to the attempt to achieve immortality in one form or another."' After all, it is death (along with blinking, sweating, wearing garlands that fade, and standing with one's feet on the ground) that separates us from the gods. In the social world, if purity and impurity have anything to do with the way Hindus perceive and organize it, death is all the more central because it is the single most polluting human experience. And even if the pure/impure dichotomy is not the organizing principle of Hindu life, an opposition between death and life may be; this is the conclusion of several important studies of Sanskrit ritual and literary texts, and one confirmed by my own work with an oral tradition.2 This kind of rapprochement between classical and folk streams of Hinduism is the guiding light behind this essay. To date, discussions of the problem of death have been based almost exclusively on classical traditions, the mythological and philosophical texts.3 Now, however, there is enough published research on folk Hinduism (and tribal religions in India) to broaden the basis for discussion. As even the following select and limited examination of this new data will show, the popular streams of Hinduism, no less than the high-status ones, are centered on death. Looking at narrative, ritual, and iconography in cults of the dead in folk Hinduism, we will see a variety of relations with classical Hinduism; in some places there is continuity, in others
I Wendy D. O'Flaherty, The Origins of Evil in Hindu Mythology (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976), p. 214. 2 See J. C. Heesterman, "Brahmin, Ritual, and Renouncer," WienerZeitschriftfir die Kunde Sud- und Ostasiens 8 (1964): 1-31, and "The Case of the Severed Head," Wiener Zeitschrift fur die Kunde Sud- und Ostasiens 11 (1967): 22-43; Veena Das, Structure and Cognition: Aspects of Hindu Caste and Ritual (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1977), pp. 119-20; Stuart Blackburn, "Birth Stories, Death Stories: Oral Performances in a Tamil Folk Tradition" (1983, typescript). Compare Fr6edrique Apffel Marglin, "Types of Sexual Union and Their Implicit Meanings," in The Divine Consort: Radha and the Goddesses of India, ed. Jack Hawley and Donna Wulff, Berkeley Religious Series (Berkeley: Graduate Theological Union, 1982), p. 308. 3 In addition to the studies cited in n. 2 above, see J. Bruce Long, "Death as a Necessity and a Gift in Hindu Mythology," David R. Kinsley, "'The Death That Conquers Death': Dying to the World in Medieval Hinduism," and David M. Knipe, "Sapindikarana: The Hindu Rite of Entry into Heaven," in Religious Encounters with Death: Insightsfrom the History and Anthropology of Religions, ed. Frank E. Reynolds and Earle H. Waugh (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1976), pp. 73-96, 97-110, 111-24; Jonathan Parry, "Sacrificial Death and the Necrophagous Ascetic," in Death and the Regeneration of Life, ed. Maurice Bloch and Jonathan Parry (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1982), pp. 74-110; Alf Hiltebeitel, The Ritual of Battle: Krishna in the Mahabharata (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1976), chap. 10; Meena Kaushik, "The Symbolic Representation of Death," Contributions to Indian Sociology 10, no. 2 (July-December 1976): 265-92.

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divergence. But even in the latter cases, folk traditions present a contrasting and not a conflicting view.

But what is folk Hinduism? Certainly it is not an isolated unit but rather one stream of the Hindu tradition; never truly separate from other varieties of Hinduism, it nevertheless differs from them in important aspects. Though we cannot wish to define folk Hinduism as a category, we can identify its characteristic aspects. These aspects, furthermore, admit of gradations in that they point to a condition, just as a word indicates a color that is only more or less present. The "folk" part of folk Hinduism depends primarily on two factors: local control and prominence among certain social groups. As to the first, in folk Hinduism participants and patrons tend to come from a geographically limited area and to be, in fact, the same group. An exemplary case would be a temple festival celebrated only by and for persons resident in, or linked by kin to, the settlement (a village or town quarter) in which the event takes place. An exception to this localization are those folk temples or shrines that attract crowds from a large region; but even here participation and patronage are closely overlapped. Folk performers may (and usually do) come from outside the local setting, but still they are controlled by local patrons. Localization, however, does not mean that folk traditions are restricted to a single locale; as a tradition, most are geographically widespread, but their individual instances are under local control. By contrast, nonfolk festivals are usually controlled by a trust of far-flung, wealthy donors or by a governmental board that does not participate directly in the ceremonies. Thus the central difference is that the congruency between participation and patronage in folk Hinduism brings to its events (though such things are difficult to gauge) an immediacy and an intimacy. Folk Hinduism also has a distinct sociological dimension in that it tends to be found at the middle and low levels of the caste and class hierarchies. High status groups sometimes do patronize or participate in folk Hinduism, but this is atypical, and Brahmin participation is extremely rare. Conversely, religious practices found exclusively among high-status groups would not be folk. Note, however, that this does not mean that these groups have no folklore; the proverbs of a Brahmin caste, for instance, are part of that group's folklore repertory. But because religion in India is so closely aligned with the social hierarchy, its forms are readily associated with differential status. Practices of high castes have high status, plus the authority of text and theology;


Death and Deification

folk Hinduism has its own texts and theologians, but they are not of equal status. Turning to the "Hinduism" or the specific religious features of folk Hinduism, we may speak of the objects of worship and the ways of worship. The first of these, the folk pantheon, contains several levels of gods and goddesses. At the top of the hierarchy, there is usually some local form of Siva, Visnu, or some lesser being from classical mythology (Hanuman, Bhairava, Hariharaputra, etc.). Next, in order of progressively more local deities, are goddesses often identified with some form of the pan-Indian Devi (Sakti, ParvatT,Kali, Durga) but perceived as belonging to the local area. On a third level are gods of even more local origins who are guardians for the goddesses or are otherwise associated with them. On the last and most local level are those supernaturals called "ghosts," "spirits," or "devils"in English and pisacu, bhut, jinn, pir, pey or some other term in Indian languages. Typically, these are supernatural forms of humans who lived or were known in the locality, who died an unusual death, and who now are worshiped. They may be helpful or harmful, are always accessible, and are usually meddlesome. When the worship of these beings is regularized and elaborated with ritual, like the worship of other gods, there emerges what one might call "cults of the deified dead." Folk Hinduism is also characterized by elements in the worship of this pantheon. These may be found in other Hindu contexts, but they will not dominate there as they do in folk cults. One element, an extension of the localization in folk Hinduism, is that gods and goddesses are seen as having curing powers that directly affect the worshipers. Another element is that localization can become a personalization: folk gods and goddesses enter into the bodies of their worshipers and possess them. Pan-Indian gods, by contrast, do not (as a rule) possess their devotees; even Siva, who is otherwise prone to ecstatic and "mad" states, does not usually possess his devotees but only grants them "grace" (arul, in Tamil) to save them from an unwanted state of possession. A third element in folk worship is an oral performance of the deity's story. Stories are performed for deities at all levels of the folk pantheon, but those performed for the deified dead are of particular interest because they touch the most local forms of Hinduism. In these performances, the singing and music often serve as a catalyst for possession by the god of his human mediums. The stories themselves are typically accounts of the origins of the god or goddess, explaining how he or she came to the specific temple in which the performance is taking place. Furthermore, and unlike the mythological stories about more pan-Indian gods, these stories are essentially heroic: their setting is earthly, not celestial, and the main actors are human beings, not

History of Religions


gods (though the human actors are often deified in the story). Finally their theme is human struggle-the problems of love and death. This last point is important because it explains why the oral performance of these stories is the primary ritual in some cults of the deified dead. At present there are fairly good descriptions of five such cults in which the dead are worshiped with the singing of their stories. Two are in northwest India: the bhomiya in Rajasthan and the khambha in Gujarat; the other three are in coastal areas of South India: the paddana in southwest Karnataka, the teyyam in northern Kerala, and the vil pattu (bow song) in southern Tamil Nadu.4 This essay draws heavily on my own research with the bow song, but commonalities in narrative and performance suggest that these five cults are of a piece. In particular, the narrative similarity between them approaches uniformity; if personal and place names were suitably changed, a story from one could be performed in the others. Though reports of the actual performances are less detailed than those of the stories, one shared performative element is apparent: the performances, like the texts, turn on the event of the hero's death, which is the ritual high point when the hero/god possesses his human mediums.5 Different combinations of the religious features identified above give folk Hinduism its multiple forms. One common form, and the one that interests us here, is cults of the deified dead. But even in them there is variation. However, the one feature shared by all cults of the deified dead is the worship of humans become gods. This makes these cults a fundamental form of folk Hinduism and, as I hope to show, influential in other forms of Hinduism as well. To understand these cults of the deified dead, let us look first at the death that generates them.

To the well-known Hindu perspectives on death, the cults of the deified dead add something new. In the Puranas (and in ancient Tamil

4 K. K. N. Kurup, The Cult of Teyyam and Hero Worship (Calcutta: Indian Publications, 1973); Peter J. Claus, "The Siri Myth and Ritual: A Mass Possession Cult of South India," Ethnology 14, no. 1 (January 1975): 47-58; Komal Kothari, "Epics of Rajasthan" (paper presented at the Conference on Oral Epics in India, Madison, Wisconsin, 1982); Eberhard Fischer and Haku Shah, Vetra ne Khambha-Memorials for the Dead (Ahmedabad: Gujarat Vidyapith, 1973); Stuart Blackburn, "Oral Performance: Narrative and Ritual in a Tamil Folk Tradition," Journal of American Folklore94 (1981): 207-27. For related cults in North India, see William Crooke, The Popular Religion and Folklore of Northern India (1896; reprint, New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal, 1978), vol. 1, chap. 4. 5 See Brenda E. F. Beck, The Three Twins: The Telling a South Indian Folk of Epic (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1982), pp. 37-41; Gene H. Roghair, The Epic of Palna.du:A Study and Translation of the Palniti rVrula Katha (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982), pp. 27-29; Blackburn, "Oral Performance."


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poetry) death is deified, but in these cults it is the dead themselves who are deified. If elsewhere in Hinduism death separates humans from gods, in these folk cults it joins them together. However, not just any death has this effect; only a special kind makes the dead hero an object of worship. First, the death must be premature, an end that cuts short a person's normal life span.6 Second, and more important, the death must be violent, an act of aggression or a sudden blow from nature. Many deified heroes are killed in battle, some in less glorious conflicts; others (especially women) commit suicide. Lastly, the death that deifies is undeserved; the person killed is an innocent (if often fated) victim. However, unlike the problem of theodicy, this deification does not depend on the innocence of the victim. Indeed-and this cannot be overemphasized-it is not moral considerations but violence that transforms humans into deities. Although oral tradition tends to portray the dead hero as a virtuous champion, this is a later development to win new adherents to a cult and not a quality required for the original deification. This point was made clear to me while collecting a version of the Nalla Tankal story in a Tamil village.7 Nalla Tankal (the Good Younger Sister) was driven by a famine from her married home and returned to her natal house (now occupied by her brother and his wife) to seek help. When her sister-in-law insulted her and turned her away, Nalla Taink! threw each of her seven children down a well and then jumped in herself. During a discussion with people in a village (the only one where Nalla Tanka! is worshiped), the question arose as to why she and not the sister-in-law was deified. I suggested that, since the sister-in-law was evil, she would not be worshiped, but the villagers rejected this explanation. "No," I was told, "the sister-in-law is not a goddess not because she is evil (ketta) but because she didn't suffer; Nalla Tainka might be evil, too, but we worship her because she suffered and died." That a violent, premature death is a prerequisite for deification in folk Hinduism is also clear from stories performed in cults of the deified dead. Whether in a short narrative about a household god who (as a human) chopped up his brother-in-law for failing to repay a debt or in an epic recited for thirty hours, it is a sudden, terrible death that

6 On the significance of premature death for religious thinking, see Talcott Parsons, "Religious Perspectives in Sociology and Social Psychology," in Reader in Comparative Religion: An Anthropological Approach, ed. William A. Lessa and Evon Z. Vogt, 2d ed. (New York: Harper & Row, 1958), p. 131. See also O'Flaherty, p. 212. 7 For a more complete discussion of the Nalla Tankal story from literary sources, see David D. Shulman, Tamil Temple Myths: Sacrifice and Divine Marriage in the South Indian gaivite Tradition (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1980), pp. 256-59.

History of Religions


transforms a human into a deity. A typical example is a Tamil bow song, the story of Natan Cami (Natar god), which I summarize here: One day a young Nadar man happens on a burning funeral pyre. On top lies a Brahmin woman, bitten by a snake and left to burn by her parents and relatives who could not bear to watch. Suddenly, with his inner vision, the Nadar man realizes that the woman is not dead and uses his magical powers to cool the flames, and then extract the venom from her body. Waking up as from a dream, the Brahmin woman declares that he must marry her: since he saved her life, and touched her in the process, he is already her husband. The Nadar protests, but she is adamant and finally wins him over, and eventually their families, too. In her village, however, other high-castes are incensed at the cross-caste marriage, particularly at the Nadar's audacity, and plot to kill him. Seizing him and tying him to a post, they send a petition to the Maharaja of Travancore requesting permission to quarter him for violating caste rules. The Maharaja decides against their request, but in their impatience the high-caste men misinterpret the message and butcher the Nadar man anyway; following this, the Brahmin woman pulls out her tongue. In the end, they both go to Siva's heaven where the man is given the name Natan Cami and sent back to earth to enjoy worship in several temples. In other bow song narratives, death is similarly violent-men are impaled on stakes, stabbed in the back, crushed to death with stones, or cut down with a machete-like knife. Women are raped, thrown down wells, or beaten to death, or they commit suicide to avoid these violations. As indicated earlier, similar stories about the deified dead are performed in other cults from Rajasthan to Kerala. Even more widely dispersed among these cults is the practice of erecting a monument to the deified dead. All over India, literally from the Indus Valley to Kanya Kumari, there are stones or wooden pillars set up to represent the dead. From both ancient literature and contemporary reports, we know that these memorials are erected to people who die a violent death-killed by an animal, in an accident, or in battle (usually defending against cattle raiders)-and to satTs (wives who cremate themselves on their husbands' pyres).8 From the same sources, we also know that the stones and wooden slabs are shrines, places where the heroes/gods are worshiped. In the northern districts of contemporary Tamil Nadu, for example, the hero stones are named 8 See GeorgeHart, The Poems of Ancient Tamil:TheirMilieuand TheirSanskrit of Counterparts (Berkeley: University CaliforniaPress, 1975),pp. 25-26, 42-43; and Fischerand Shah. Hart has also arguedthat worshipof the dead was a formative influenceon the developmentof devotional Hinduismin South India;see his "The in and in Theoryof Reincarnation amongthe Tamils," Karma Rebirth IndianClassical ed. Traditions, WendyD. O'Flaherty (Berkeleyand Los Angeles:Universityof CaliforniaPress,1980),pp. 116-38.


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after a local deity, Vetiyappan, and the sites themselves are known as "temples of Vetiyappan."9 Even more interesting are the sculptured reliefs on the stones, which visually present the death-deification pattern found in the narratives of the cults of the dead. For at least one kind of memorial, erected to men who died in battle, there is a standard style of three panels. On the bottom panel the male figure is shown in battle; in the middle panel he ascends to heaven; and in the top panel he is either worshiping a god (usually Siva) or homologized with him.10 A less elaborate form of these memorials to the dead is found in those put up for women who die in pregnancy or childbirth. One example of this form is the cumai taiki (load bearer) found in parts of Tamil Nadu. Built of three stone slabs, two upright and one across, the cumai tahki is used to support the load carried by travelers on foot, just as the dead woman carried her child. But not all these cumai tahki structures remain in their original shape. When conditions (financial, kinship, individual interest) are right, the three slabs may develop into a small shrine, surrounded by mud walls, sometimes with a wooden or even iron gate, and covered with a tile roof. Now, the woman who died in childbirth and was worshiped only by relatives will be identified with a local goddess (usually Muttar Amman) and become the center of a cult embracing more diverse groups. When festival time arrives, the little cumai tdnki will be covered with thatch and decorated with embroidered cloth, banana tree stalks, and flower garlands while music ensembles perform before assembled crowds of one hundred persons or more. Occasionally, at the base of large temples in Kanya Kumari District, Tamil Nadu, one can find the cumai tiiki with its three stone slabs still intact. This kind of transformation has occurred elsewhere, too, for example, at the Vithoba temple in Pandharpuir,Maharashtra. According to Deleury, this major temple dedicated to a form of Visnu evolved
9 Ra. Nagasamy, Cenkam Natukarkal (Madras: Tamil Nadu Department of Archaeology, 1972), p. 1. 10For the iconography of these stones and wooden slabs, see Fischer and Shah; Romila Thapar, "Death and the Hero," in Mortality and Immortality: The Anthropology and Archaeology of Death, ed. S. C. Humphreys and Helen King (New York: Academic Press, 1981), pp. 293-316; Wilhelm Koppers, "Monuments to the Dead of the Bhils and Other Primitive Tribes in Central India," Annali Lateranensi6 (1942): 117-206; Ethel-Jane W. Bunting, Sindhi Tombs and Textiles: The Persistence of Pattern (Albuquerque: Maxwell Museum of Anthropology and University of New Mexico Press, 1980); S. Settar and Gunther Sontheimer, eds., Memorial Stones: A Study of Their Origins, Significance and Variety (Dharwar and Heidelberg: Institute of Indian Art History, Karnataka University and University of Heidelberg, 1982); W. G. Archer, The Vertical Man (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1947).

History of Religions


from a simple stone dedicated to a dead hero." A similar case might also be made for some of the great Cola temples of medieval Tamil history, a few of which at least have been identified as funerary monuments.'2 When we include the Buddhist stupa, it is clear that rituals and monuments to the dead underlie much of Indian religion. A funerary foundation for folk Hinduism was first suggested to me while I was doing fieldwork on the bow song tradition. During a casual conversation, an educated villager told me, "These [folk heroes/ gods] are all 'small gods'; they are dead people and we worship them like we worship the dead." What he did not explain, but what others frequently mentioned, is that not all the dead are worshiped as "small gods"only those who have died violently are. But a more important discovery came later: the two groups-the dead and the small gods- are worshiped with the same ritual materials and sequence. At least this is true for Natars, the largest caste in Kanya Kumari District. Though many Natars bury their dead, most burn the corpse. On the morning following cremation, the ashes are collected, washed in honey and milk, mingled with fragrances, folded into a banana leaf, and placed in a pot wrapped in a cloth. Near the cremation ground, two small pTtams(rectangular mud altars) are shaped by hand, one for the deceased and one for Ganesa. On the deceased's pitam are placed a ghee lamp, the pot containing the ashes, and then an offering called the pataippu (serving). This offering, arranged on a banana leaf, consists of flowers, fruits (especially bananas), areca nut and leaves, liquor, cheroots, and anything else that the dead person liked to eat or drink. This pataippu on a banana leaf is also the basic puja offering in a bow song festival. Every year in local temples, a festival is held during which all the gods and goddesses (as many as twenty-one) are fed pija, an act that gives the festival its name: kotai or "offering." In the pija to the major deities, the pataippu is obscured, literally buried, by the ponkal (sweetened rice), eggs, and meat (chicken or goat). But in the puja to the minor deities, the pataippu stands out, for it is the only offering made. These minor gods and goddesses, moreover, are usually of represented by a mud pTitam the same size and shape as that used in the postcremation ritual described above (though sometimes by a raised mound of earth sprinkled with white powder). Even more significant is the fact that this puja is called a pataippu and consists of the same materials as those already enumerated for Nadar funerary rites. Exactly this finding-that the offerings to ancestors are identical to
1i G. A. Deleury, The Cult of Vithoba (Poona: Deccan College, 1960), chap. 9, postscript. 12 Burton Stein, Peasant State and Society in Medieval South India (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1980), pp. 335-39.


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those for other gods-has also been reported among Tamils in two other contexts, ancient Tamil Nadu and modern Sri Lanka.13 A more general connection between funerary rituals and worship of ordinary gods has been described for Rajasthan by K. Kothari.'4 Beginning with deaths in the family and tracing the development of the cult, he shows how the category "ancestor" shades off almost imperceptibly into that of "god and goddess." The same phenomenon has been observed also by writers on Indian tribal religions. In his lengthy monograph on the Gonds, C. von Fiirer-Haimendorf explains how the central ceremony for the dead (karun) is folded into worship rituals for clan deities; not surprisingly, ancestral shrines often evolve into cult centers for the clan gods.'5 A similar progression from funeral to worship, from deceased to deity, has been reported for the Kurichiya in central Kerala.'6 And in the most comprehensive study yet published on tribal (or folk) religion in India, Verrier Elwin describes the connection between ancestors and gods in eastern India this way: "Among the Saora, the process of god-making never ceases ... ; every ancestor, on entering the Under World after the proper performances of the guar (mortuary rite), becomes one of the . . . deities."'7

This close relation, sometimes identity, between funeral rituals and the worship of the gods is not limited to folk or tribal cultures in India. From an article by David Knipe, we know it exists also in the postcremation rites of classical Hinduism: the sraddha rituals.'8 During the highpoint of the sraddha ceremonies, the sapindikarana, three categories of ancestors-father, grandfather, and great-grandfather of the deceased-are worshiped by feeding them rice balls (pinda). Following these offerings, the dead man joins the ranks of ancestors and will be worshiped in the first category, "father,"when his son dies. This transition bumps each ancestor up one level: the father to "grandfather,"the
13 Hart, The Poems of Ancient Tamil, p. 82; Bryan Pfaffenberger, Caste in Tamil Culture: The Religious Foundations of Sudra Domination in Tamil Sri Lanka, South Asian Series, no. 7 (Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University, Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, 1982), pp. 169-223. 14 Kothari (n. 4 above). 15Christoph von Furer-Haimendorf, The Gonds of Andhra Pradesh: Tradition and Change (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1979), pp. 363-93. 16A. Aiyappan, "Deified Men and Humanized Gods: Some Folk Bases of Hindu Theology," in The Realm of the Extra Human: Agents and Audiences, ed. A. Bharati (Paris: Mouton, 1976), pp. 139-48. 17 Verrier Elwin, The Religion of an Indian Tribe (Bombay: Oxford University Press, 1955), p. 81; cf. the statement made by E. W. Hopkins in 1885: "It is not denied that the Hindus made gods of departed men" (The Religions of India [Boston: Ginn Co., 1885], p. 10). 18 Knipe (n. 3 above).

History of Religions


grandfather to "great-grandfather,"and the great-grandfather to the Visvedevi, the category of the "all gods" who preside over the rites and were themselves previously ancestors. Thus, Knipe's point is very similar to Elwin's: ancestors become gods.19 Even without this ritual conveyer belt moving ancestors into the pantheon, other continuities exist between sraddha rituals and folk cults. In the sapindTkarana,for example, the arrangement of the three classes of ancestors is nearly identical to the lineup of deities outside a small bow song temple. And the deceased himself in the form of a pinda rice ball (later mixed with the pinda offerings to the ancestors) is worshiped with the same materials-incense, flowers, ghee lamp, and water-used to honor the minor gods and goddesses in the folk cult. These continuities are not, of course, to be explained by any sort of historical borrowing or derivation. Rather, the sraddha and bow song rituals show affinities because they share the funerary foundation, or ritual attention to the dead, that underlies much of Hinduism. In anthropological terms, both are forms of secondary treatment of the dead: they occur after death and after the primary rites have been

But the two sets of rituals deal with different categories of the dead. Among the castes that follow them, sraddha rites are normally performed for all those who die a natural death (though women and children are not as likely to be honored as are adult males), but the bow song and similar cults celebrate only those who die violently and prematurely. And these categories of the dead have correspondingly different destinies. The natural dead become ancestors sustained through ritual and sacrifice until they are reborn, but the violently killed are never reborn (though, as discussed below, they do return). Furthermore, the social groups that support these two traditions are, for the most part, different, too. Castes who participate in the bow song tradition have relatively simple and brief funerary (both primary and secondary) rituals; none observe anything like the sraddha system. Conversely, those castes (generally Brahmins) who follow the sraddha ceremonies in detail are usually not involved in cults to local gods and goddesses. Stemming from these differences, the folk cults and the sraddha ceremonies have developed their rituals for the dead in different directions. The bow song, for example, has generated a large pantheon
'9 Ibid., p. 120. 20 On secondary treatment of the dead, see Richard Huntington and Peter Metcalf, Celebrations of Death: The Anthropology of Mortuary Ritual (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1979); most of their examples concern secondary treatment of the corpse, but some concern rituals to the noncorporeal dead (see pp. 89-92).


Death and Deification

(more than one hundred gods and goddesses in Kanya Kumari District alone) who are honored with puja, long oral performances of their stories, possession dances, and other rituals. This folk tradition, in other words, has developed the funerary base into that complex of gods and temples usually referred to as village or popular Hinduism. The sraddha ceremonies, on the other hand, have developed the base in the other direction, into a system of ancestor worship.2' These variant elaborations of a common base of mortuary ritual are complementary, for the bow song and the sraddha system emphasize opposite ends of the human-god continuum in Hinduism. The folk tradition has created a pantheon of deities, while the high-caste practice honors a group of humans. However, when the mortuary rituals in the folk traditions and the transition to divinity in the sraddha rituals are brought to light, the full continuum-from human death to deified dead to god-is visible. Given the nature of the Hindu world view, this human-god continuum can also be seen as a circle. Here the complementary nature of folk and classical perspectives on the dead is even more apparent. In the Puranas, epics, and law texts, the human-god continuum moves in one direction: through the avatdra mechanism, gods (particularly Visnu) take earthly forms and work in the world of men. Movement in the other direction, humans becoming gods, however, is fraught with danger and meets formidable celestial resistance; human aspirants are corrupted, deceived, or beaten back.22But, as we have seen, this deification of the dead is at the very core of many folk cults: dead heroes are recruited into, not barred from, the ranks of the gods. A combination of this deification in folk Hinduism with the avatara in classical Hinduism forms the symmetrical circle diagramed in fig. 1. Along the left-hand arc of the circle, humans are born, killed, and then deified in Kailasa. Along the right-hand arc, gods exist (or are born) in Kailasa and come down to earth for transactions with humans. There is thus a continual flow between earth and Kailasa: humans go up, and gods come down; even the gods, though not actually reborn, are caught in something like samsira. Finally, as the diagram suggests, this circular flow is a variation on the better-known cycle that connects ancestors with the living. This circular world view is based on a complementarity between folk cults and classical Hinduism, but the two are not mirror images of each
21 A third development of the mortuary base in Hinduism might be the state funerals in Bali; see Huntington and Metcalf, pp. 130-32; Clifford Geertz, Negara: The Theatre State in Nineteenth-Century Bali (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1980), pp. 116-20. 22 See Wendy Doniger O'Flaherty, Women, Androgynes, and Other Mythical Beasts (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1980), pp. 66-68.

History of Religions Kailasa/gods deification/ascent avatara/descent ama Loka/ancestors




rebirth earth/humans
FIG. 1

other. While the ascent of humans to Kailasa (deification) is opposed in the classical texts, the reverse-the descent of gods (avatdra)-is not rejected by folk traditions. In fact, many cults contain a category of gods who are "born" in Kailasa and who descend to earth to conduct their business and win worship; in this way, gods and humans remain in a circular flow even without the avatara process. The bow song tradition, for instance, neatly divides its pantheon into two categories: "cut-up spirits" (vettuppatta vdtai) and figures of "divine birth" (teyva vamcam). The first category consists of gods who are deified by a violent death, the second of gods born in Kailasa. The two categories, then, are differentiated by how they acquire the status of a god (cdmi): one must earn it, while the other is born to it. Bow song deities born in Kailasa include the standard figures of Siva, Visnu, Ganesa, Murukan, and ParvatT (especially as Bhagavati), but there are others who are worshiped more often. These are deities of lesser birth, born from some part of Siva's or Parvati's body (blood, sweat, tears, or armpits) or through their agency, usually cooked up in a huge celestial vat that the devas keep heated in Kailasa. The stories of these deities describe how they are born in Kailasa, come to earth, and interact with human beings (both beneficially and negatively). However, of all the events in their stories, it is this one alone-the descent from Kailasa to earth-that is singled out and given a generic name: kaildca varavu (coming from Kailasa). If the birth and descent from Kailasa define the stories of these deities, it is the death and ascent to the same place that define narratives of "cut-up spirits," the other category in the bow song pantheon. These stories tell how humans (like Natan Cami) are born on earth, are treacherously killed or forced to commit suicide, and then are "taken"


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by Siva to Kailasa where they are given new names. Now deified, the heroes/gods return to earth (like the birth deities) to avenge their murders and to win worship. Significantly, this last segment is extremely short in texts; instead, the death and ascent to Kailasa is the focus in both narrative and performance. Yet, the actual act of deification itself in the narrative is uneventful, usually on the order of, "They went to Kailasa to receive boons from Siva." Fairly typical is the following excerpt from a performance (which I recorded in 1979) of the Tampimar story about two brothers (KuincuTampi and Valiya Tampi) murdered in the eighteenth century in Travancore and now worshiped in a small cluster of temples in Kanya Kumari District. Takingout a littledagger, he slit Kufcu Tampi'sthroat; Cut like a goat or a chicken, "Thisis the end!"Kuficu Tampicried, And fell on the field wherehis brotherhad fallen. Murdered, the two brothers wentto Kailasa to LordSiva. Theirhandsraisedin worship they stood beforeMahadeva and askedfor boons. ThenSiva, coveredwith snakes many-armed and Lordof Kailasa, Spoketo those who had died, "Thosewho die a crueldeath haveneithertapasnor boon; those who die by suicide haveboth tapasand boon. But, my KuficuTampi, those who die on the bloodyfield, theirpurityis lost; To ridyourselfof impurity go washin that fire pit!" But one should not expect that the deification process would be any more important in these narratives. For giva, in granting new names and boons, is only rubber-stamping what already has been conferred on the dead by their worshipers on earth. When fortune or misfortune is attributed to the spirit of a dead person, and when formal rituals are performed to him, that person is deified.

History of Religions


Behind the death-deification pattern identified in folk materials stands a basic question: Why are the dead deified in the first place? Unfortunately, this problem has not been well researched, and our understanding of it has not advanced much beyond the theories of Frazer and Freud. One reason for this stagnation is that the only type of death cult to receive sustained scholarly attention is ancestor worship. Already in this essay it has been shown that other Hindu cults of the dead (centered on the deified dead) share a ritual base with the ancestral rites of sraddha and that these folk cults diverge from the classical rites by elaborating their common base into a system of god worship. By considering below some standard explanations for cults of the dead, particularly ancestor worship, the special problems presented by the Hindu folk cults will stand out more clearly. One anthropological interpretation of ancestor worship, particularly in Africa, has been to see it as an extension of social relations into the afterworld. In this view, the authority of the elders continues after death, assuring the continuity of the norms that govern social behavior and, as Goody has demonstrated, distributing wealth and power over successive generations.23 A second anthropological approach is less sociological and more psychological. From this perspective, attitudes toward the departed spirit, ancestral or not, are the outcome of the worshipers' personal relations with that person before death. Most studies from this perspective, using data from South Asia and elsewhere, follow Freud in suggesting that the worshiper projects onto the spirit the hostility he felt toward the relative or friend (while living); the worshiper's hostility then becomes the "spirit's" malevolence, which then must be appeased by worship.24The aggression of a "spirit"can also be a form of secondary projection that relieves the guilt resulting from negative feelings toward the human turned spirit; when the spirit
23J. Goody, Death, Property and the Ancestors (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1962); see also John Middleton, Lugbara Religion (London: Oxford University Press, 1960); Emily H. Ahern, The Cult of the Dead in a Chinese Village (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1973). 24 Sigmund Freud, Reflections on War and Death, trans. A. A. Brill and A. B. Kuttner (New York: Moffat, Yard & Co., 1918), and Totem and Taboo, trans. J. Strachey (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1950), pp. 51-63. Important interpretations from a psychological perspective include Kathleen Gough, "Cults of the Dead among the Nayar," in Traditional India: Structure and Change, ed. Milton Singer (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1959), pp. 240-72; R. D. Bradbury,"Father, Elders, and Ghosts in Edo Religion," in Anthropological Approaches to the Study of Religion, ed. Michael Banton (London: Tavistock, 1966), pp. 127-53, esp. p. 150; Gananath Obeyesekere, Medusa's Hair: An Essay on Personal Symbols and Religious Experience (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981), pp. 117-22; M. E. Opler, "An Interpretation of Ambivalence of Two American Indian Tribes," in Lessa and Vogt, eds. (n. 6 above), pp. 421-31.


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attacks, the victim is unconsciously gratified because he feels he deserves the punishment.25 Neither of these interpretations, however, can apply to cults of the deified dead like the bow song and others in India. The first, the sociological argument that worship of the dead transfers authority across generations, is inapplicable because in these folk cults the deified dead are not necessarily kin to the worshipers. At an early stage of a cult, such as that described by Kothari in Rajasthan or illustrated by the cumai tdhki in Tamil Nadu, the god or goddess may be worshiped only by relatives, but this is not true for the larger cults of teyyam, paddana, bhomiya, and bow song. In fact, in these cults, it is not unusual for the deified dead to be of an entirely different caste from that of the worshipers. Nor will the psychological explanation, based on ambivalent personal feelings toward the deceased, fit the case of these folk cults. Most figures worshiped in them were not only unrelated to their worshipers during life but were even unknown to them. How could these theories explain, for example, the case of Captain Pole of the British Army who was killed in 1809 trying to take the Travancore lines, was buried on the seashore in Tinnevelly District, and then (within a decade) was worshiped by local villagers with offerings of liquor and cheroots?26Neither social continuity nor psychic projection could be said to have motivated this deification. A third major explanation for the worship of the dead is based on the concept of liminality. Are not the deified dead in these cults simply pretas that were not given proper funerals and therefore are not incorporated into the world of the ancestors? These figures are powerful and dangerous and worshiped, the argument would continue, because they are out of social and ritual bounds. This explanation is more plausible because, unlike the other two, it does not require that the spirit be related or even known to the worshipers. Still, the failure to perform proper mortuary rites cannot by itself account for the worship of the dead since not all who fail to receive proper funerals are deified. The liminality interpretation fails because it ignores the actual type of death that brings deification. In fact, some of the deified dead in the bow song tradition do receive the ordinary cremation and postcremation rites. Finally, since the bow song festival (kotai) is itself a form of mortuary ritual, according to this theory, it should defuse the powers of the hero/ god and transfer him to the ancestor category; but this is not the case.
25 Gough, p. 254. 26 Rev. Robert Caldwell, The Tinnevelly Shanars: A Sketch of Their Religion, and Their Moral Condition and Characteristics as a Caste (Madras: Christian Knowledge Society Press, 1849), p. 27.

History of Religions


A fourth, somewhat vague explanation for worship of the deified dead identifies it as "hero worship." This explains the deification of the hero by reference not so much to his death as to his life-the fact that he defended values and material goods important to the social group that deifies him.27Once again, this interpretation is not fully satisfying because not all deified dead are "social heroes"; some are simply victims of violence, while others are more like villains. Folk tradition may eventually, rather quickly, in fact, mold figures into the social hero type, but this does not explain why they are deified at the outset. For a more adequate explanation of the deified dead in folk Hinduism, it is necessary to look back at the death event itself and at its violence. Specifically, I would highlight three themes as keys to understanding the deification of the dead: (1) its (partial) triumph over death, (2) the power of the violently killed, and (3) deification as a means to make that power accessible. On the surface, the first seems curious. Surely death, if anything, signifies a human defeat and not the reverse. Moreover, the violent, premature deaths with which we are concerned would seem death's most complete victory: its victims, as the theory of the unincorporated preta holds, are denied access to the world of the ancestors where they could be fed and from where they could be eventually reborn. However, the deified dead do return. Though banished from the ritual world of the ancestors, the victims of violent death return through deification to another ritual world, the local cults of Hinduism. Killed or murdered, these men and women manage (through the agency of Siva) to return as gods. When their stories are sung in a festival, and when they are honored with puja, death is beaten back, its finality denied. Deifying the dead celebrates not a triumph of death but a partial victory over it. Deification defeats death on the narrative level as well. Stories (especially epics) about folk heroes/gods in India seem to develop in a particular pattern by adding two primary motifs: a supernatural birth and then an identification with a pan-Indian god or hero. The effect of this pattern is that the human history of the deified hero is gradually absorbed into a divine pedigree; often his birth and his death are forgotten or simply explained away as a consequence of a prior curse, vow, or boon from Kailasa. In this way, the deification process undermines itself, for the ladder that human heroes use to ascend into the world of the gods is pulled up after them-were it left dangling, others might try to climb it. Even the stories of Shakyamuni Buddha, Mahavira, and Sankara were constructed to establish the prior divinity
27 See Thapar (n. 10 above); and Kothari (n. 4 above).


Death and Deification

of these "historical" figures, to show that they were, from the very beginning, manifestations of a transcendental reality.28 But it is not only a theological victory over death that deification accomplishes. The fact that the deaths are violent gives that deification a more pragmatic payoff, too. In the bow song tradition, and in other local cults, the deified dead are the most powerful gods and goddesses; they may lack the status and authority of the other deities with divine origins, but they have a more immediate power. They are as powerful as death itself, perhaps because they met it in its rawest form; in other words, the deified dead have become the violence they experienced. That force, driven inside them at death, then becomes a source that worshipers can call on to counteract other elemental forces of disease, disaster, and even death. Violence and destruction, of course, are part of the Hindu world process, but much of Hindu philosophy and theology has been marshaled against it. Even in the ritual realm, as Heesterman has shown, death was rationalized out of the ancient Vedic (srauta) system when the agonistic, violent elements were smothered by sacerdotal formula.29 This ritualization of violence is dramatically illustrated in a late Vedic text by Prajapati's conquest and absorption of death (mrtyu), especially by their weapons: in Heesterman's words, "The 'weapons' of Prajapati were the standard elements of the classical ritual-chant, recitation, and (orderly) act.... Those of Death, on the other hand, were typically non-srauta elements-song, dance, wanton act."30Not coincidentally, these weapons of death are precisely the central elements of a bow song performance. Both the Vedic and the folk traditions, then, achieve a victory over death, but by different means: the classical ritual defuses it; the folk ritual embraces it. Indeed, violence cannot be banished from the folk ritual since, as the source of the power of the deified dead, it is a necessary element in their worship. Instead, violence is brought within the ritual frame of bow song performances where people can make safe contact with it and, possibly, direct it toward their own ends. Here the folk cults stand against the felt need in Hinduism to isolate death as a polluting experience. It may be that village religion in South India and ancient Vedic sacrifice join hands in accepting the necessity of death in the world process; it is true that both these ritual traditions,
28 See O'Flaherty, Women, Androgynes, and Other Mythical Beasts, pp. 67-68. 29 See Heesterman, "Brahmin, Ritual, and Renouncer" (n. 2 above), and "The Case of the Severed Head" (n. 2 above). 30 Heesterman, "The Ritualist's Problem" (paper presented at the annual meeting of the Association for Asian Studies, San Francisco, 1983), p. 4; see also O'Flaherty, Women, Androgynes, and Other Mythical Beasts, pp. 133-34.

History of Religions


both the ancient and the modern, are centered on the sacrificial killing of animals.3' And, as David Shulman has shown in detail, the sacrifice-the necessity of winning life from death-is the original layer of the Tamil Puranas, later overlaid with concerns for purity.32 Perhaps the bow song and other folk cults are part of this early ethos (continued, with Brahminical modifications, in the Mahibharata) that did not shrink from death. But the Vedic sacrifice does not explain much in the folk cults of the deified dead. The death in these cults may be sacrificial and animal, but it is also unwilling and human. Death's presence in them, furthermore, does not indicate the necessity of destruction and dissolution in the world process; death is natural and inevitable of that there is little doubt. What the folk cults are concerned with is not the continuity of that process but the appropriation of its power. And it is deification that makes that power accessible-the final point in this explanation of Hindu cults of the deified dead. Here the preta-pitr model provides a useful analogy. Just as the embodied subtle self must be made into an ancestor, so, too, the violently killed must be transferred to a known cultural category. However, they cannot be made into ancestors, like the ordinary dead, because the violence of their end makes them too powerful. Instead, another category is needed, and this is supplied by some level in the folk pantheon like vettuppatta vatai (cut-up spirit) in the Tamil bow songs (and sometimes by the term preta itself). Deification, then, is not just an honoring; it is also a category transfer that allows others to make contact with the power of death. Only when the violently killed are deified are there established patterns for interaction with them. Thus the relation between folk and classical Hinduism, in terms of the problem of death, is complex. As we have just seen, there is continuity in that both folk and Vedic cults involve death, but to different ends. This essay has also pointed to a more general continuity: the mortuary ritual base shared by folk cults and classical ceremonies. There are contrasts as well: folk cults embrace violence, while the classical sacrifice and philosophy rejected it. And, finally, there are complementarities in the circular world view formed by the deification
31 See Olivier Herrenschmidt, "Le Sacrifice, du buffle en Andhra Cotier: Le 'Culte de Village' confronte aux de sacrificant et d'unite de culte," Purusartha 5 (1981): 137-78; Shulman (n. 7 above), pp. 90-93, passim. On continuities between sacrifice in the Mahabharata and folk cults in Tamil Nadu, see Alf Hiltebeitel, "Sexuality and Sacrifice: Convergent Subcurrents in the Fire-walking Cult of DraupadT,"in Images of Man: Religion and Historical Process in South Asia, ed. Fred Clothey (Madras: New Era, 1982), pp. 72-1 11; further discussion is found in Kees W. Bolle, "A World of Sacrifice," History of Religions 23, no. 1 (August 1983): 37-63. 32Shulman, chaps. 3, 4.


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of the dead in folk Hinduism and the avatar process in classical Hinduism. The study of folk Hinduism and its relations with the classical tradition is only just beginning. For the present at least, we can say that these two streams of Hinduism are consistent in their concern with the problem of death. Of course, preoccupation with death is not necessarily a sign that a culture is pessimistic; it could just as easily indicate the opposite. It could indicate that exuberance for life that unites Hinduism's oldest, most esoteric literaturewith its most contemporary, folk traditions. Dartmouth College