The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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There are myriad ways in which religion permeates a culture. Myths, which form the core of any religion, are invested with meanings by a particular culture which in turn is defined by them. At the synchronic level, these “meanings” constitute a system of signs shared by the members of a community, enacted in its rituals and reflected in its moral codes. This consensual allegiance to the system generates community feeling which holds a community together.

In a composite culture like Hinduism, the system works in a far more intricate manner than in a unitary culture based on, say Islam or Christianity. Ralph W. Nicholas quotes from Morals and Merit: “The concern about the orthodoxy of their fellow-men’s beliefs shown at times by the adherents of such religions as Christianity or Islam, is foreign to Hindus. No one thinks of those professing different beliefs as ‘heretics’…” Non-rigidity of faith is just one among the several factors that have made Hinduism what it is today. Identification of these factors is one of the tasks Nicholas takes upon himself in his book.

Nicholas dwells on Hindu myths, especially in deltaic West Bengal. The essays were written between 1965-81. Predictably enough, things have changed a lot since then. Films and teleserials have intervened in the modes of propagation of myths, superceding older modes like yatras or even printed texts. The cable network has ensured that local deities cross the local boundaries and gain pan-Indian status. The eight essays mark a distinct phase of “the complex historical development” of the practical religion in rural Bengal and, in some ways, anticipate its future shape.

As for his approach to his subject, Nicholas clearly states his appreciation both for the “symbolic” anthropology of Max Weber and the structural method of Claude Levi-Strauss. In his essays, he discreetly balances these two approaches.

In the first essay, Nicholas examines the Hindu religious year in Bengal. In the second, Nicholas evaluates the contribution of Vaishnava and Islamic tradition to the social organization of the Bengali Hindu community, going on to discuss the resemblance of a Vishnu temple with the tulasi manch in the third.

In the next chapter, Nicholas discusses the community worship of village-goddesses like Durga and Shitala on the basis of his field work in Kelomal village. The fifth chapter is devoted to goddess Chandi, who figured in Markandeya Purana in the 3rd century AD and then again in another text devoted to her. Nicholas puts this text in a sociological context, stressing the intrinsic homology between the goddess and her other subordinate manifestations which, he thinks, metaphorically embodies the relationship between the king and his subjects.

The last three essays of the book are on Shitala. Nicholas makes an interesting observation that the acquirement of scientific knowledge about small pox did not prevent Bengalis from worshipping Shitala — an act which enhanced social cohesiveness. In the last chapter, Nicholas demonstrates how the mass market is bringing about a standardization of the Shitala myths. He also provides us translations of two Shitalamangal palas — one by Kavi Jagannath and the other by Manikram Ganguli in this volume.

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