Jodi Shaw theorizes the sacred in South Indian Hindu temples by maneuvering affect theory and her current ethnographic work in Cidambaram into dialogue. Shaw directs our attention to the pre-verbal and extra-linguistic elements of temple encounters in order to shape a sense of the sacred as “visceral conversations.”
I tried to follow the words on paper and the sound of his voice as he sang more rapidly than I could read Tamil. He insisted I sing too and told me not to fret about what it meant. We sang together the opening lines of this poem memorized by generations of Saivites across the centuries. Later when I mentioned learning a snippet of the Sivapuranam to a Diksitar, to a retired school teacher I met in the Kali temple, and to an employee at a high-end hotel in Pondicherry they all, almost before I finished saying Sivapuranam, began to sing the first four or five lines. This was my first time to sing it, off key and mispronouncing the words.
“இமைப்பொழுதும் என்நெஞ்சில் நீங்காதான் தாள்வாழ்க (long live the foot of the one who never leaves my heart [even] for the length of a blink of an eye) இமைப்பொழுதும். இமைப்பொழுதும். இமைப்பொழுதும் என்நெஞ்சில். என்நெஞ்சில். நீங்காதான் தாள்வாழ்க.”
He turned to me in that bright yet morning diffused light and then looked at the entranceway in a manner that invited me to do the same. His words conveyed that surely I must know that once you walk down those 21 steps into the temple something changes inside you… “maybe at a cellular or molecular level.” He emphasized that this was all due to Siva’s grace, of course. You are altered when you step down and into this temple “Om nama Civaya. Om nama Civaya. Om nama Civaya…”
December 25, 2014, around eight pm. I entered the East entrance with Douglas R. Brooks and some of his students. He signaled me to pay attention, then whispered the srividya [ix] mantra followed by the pancaksara as we tripped down each syllable and step (ka e ī la hriṁ, ha sa ka ha la hriṁ, sa ka la hriṁ, aum, na-maḥ śi-vā-ya). The sixteen syllable srividya mantra (sodasi) would make a perfect 21, but while I failed to ask him what happens to the last step with this fifteen-syllable mantra (pancadasi), I could easily interpret it as the space between the sounds, or maybe the space for more. Because mantra, the universe, and even temples are never finished [ii, x, xi].
Unfinished-ness is a key idea. In Srividya ritual, and more broadly in Saivism, movement, room for expansion is integral to the efficacy of the ritual and for its continued relevance. The ritual re-enacts what Siva does, or rather what the cosmos does, moving from srsti (creation) to samhara (destruction), or laya (re-absorption), and back again. Don Handelman and David Shulman describe Saiva temple ritual as recreating each day by taking away the previous one, where time and space are then made anew through ritual [xii]. Thus, while one may feel obligated to perform pujas in order to maintain a deity’s presence in a murti, for example, or to continue the momentum built through repeated practice [xiii] it is not a by-route, deadened obligation. It is a creative endeavor; a co-participation in the making of the world and a conversation which may be more visceral than verbal. Mantra does not require grammatically coherent sentences. For example, the srividya mantra is made up of bijas (seeds), which do not have any literal, grammatical meaning. This allows each syllable to simultaneously hold multiple interpretations of meanings and no meaning [xiv]. Whether daily practice includes an elaborate placing of mantras onto one’s body and/or an image (nyasa), or preparing the ground for and then drawing a kolam on the street in front of the home, it is a creative, never-ending process which takes away what was there and makes something new.
Endnotes and References
- i. Cidambaram is a town in the South Indian State of Tamil Nadu, which is synonymous with the Nataraja temple, and temple grounds (approximately 40 acres) located at its center. Among South Indian devotees of Lord Siva it is simply known as the temple. One of its many distinctive features is that the main deity under worship, Nataraja (Dancing Siva or more literally, The Lord of Dance), and his consort Sivakamasundari (The Lovely One Whom Siva Desires) are bronze processional deities, which are taken out into the street twice a year for the temple’s major festivals. Typically, in South Indian temples, the central deity is made of granite and stays “permanently” in its shrine, while the separate bronze processional deities are ritually enlivened for festivals.
- ii. Branfoot, Crispin. “Remaking the Past: Tamil Sacred Landscape and Temple Renovation.” Bulletin of SOAS 76, 1 (2013). 22-47.
- iii. Durkheim, Emile. Elementary Forms of Religious Life. Carol Cosman, translator. Oxford: Oxford University Press 2001 .
- iv. Eliade, Mircea. Patterns in Comparative Religion. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1996 (1958). 32-33.
- v. Schaefer, Donovan. Religious Affects: Animality, Evolution, and Power. Durham: Duke University Press, 2015.
- vi. The underlying Christian worldview in much of religious terminology is a topic of extensive study. Words like sacred, mystic, faith, holy, God, creation etc., tend, for those of us raised in “western” educational systems, to be understood within, if not Christian, at least an Abrahamic worldview. See Assad, Talal. Genealogies of Religion: Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam. Baltimore, MD, John Hopkins University Press, 1993. Masuzawa, Tomoko. The Invention of World Religions: Or, How European Universalism Was Preserved in the Language of Pluralism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005. King, Richard. Orientalism and Religion: Postcolonial Theory, India and the Mystic East. London and New York: Routledge, 1999.
- vii. Diksitars (the initiated) are a special Brahmin priestly community in Cidambaram who serve the temple. The temple is one of the only ones in India without any government control (something battled over in a number of court cases) and is basically “owned” by the Diksitar community.
- viii. Translations are my own, unless otherwise stated.
- ix. Srividya (Auspicious Wisdom) is an erudite Goddess centered Tantric tradition (Sakta Tantra), which, in Tamil Nadu is primarily practiced by Brahmins. The mantra has a number of differing variations among lineages including the number of syllables and which syllables it contains. For more on Srividya see Brooks [xiv].
- x. Orr, Leslie. “Temple: Form and Function.” Brill Encyclopedia of Hinduism. Leiden: Koninklijke Brill, 2010. 495-510.
- xi. Parker, Samuel K. “Sanctum and Gopuram at Madurai: Aesthetics of Akam and Puram in Tamil Temple Architecture.” Tamil Geographies: Cultural Constructions of Space and Place in South India, Martha Ann Selby and Indira Viswanathan Peterson, editors. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2008. 143-172.
- xii. Handelman, Don and David Shulman. Siva in the Forest of Pines: An Essay on Sorcery and Self-Knowledge. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2004. 61.
- xiii. See Hancock, Mary Elizabeth. Womanhood in the Making: Domestic Ritual & Public Culture in Urban South India. Boulder & Oxford: Westview Press, 1999.
- xiv. Brooks, Douglas, Renfrew. Auspicious Wisdom: The Texts and Traditions of Srividya Sakta Tantrism in South India. Albany: State University Press, 1992. 97-103.
- xv. According to the treatise on temple construction, the Hindu temple is a map of the cosmos, and a modeled after the human body, with various subtle body anatomy elements (like the energy centers or cakras and their association with the elements) found therein. In theory, moving through the temple takes devotees more deeply into the “creative energy of the universe.” Bharne, Vinayak and Krupali Krusche. Rediscovering the Hindu Temple: The Sacred Architecture and Urbanism of India. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing. 2012. 93.
- xvi. Hancock, Mary Elizabeth. The Politics of Heritage from Madras to Chennai. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2008.
- xvii. Vaudeville, Charlotte. “Braj, Lost and Found.” Indo-Iranian Journal 18 (1976): 195-213.
- xviii. Bayly, Susan. Saints, Goddesses and Kings: Muslims and Christians in South Indian Society 1700-1900. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003 .
- xix. Loud, John Alden (1988). The Diksitars of Chidambaram: A Community of Ritual Specialists in a South Indian Temple. PhD Dissertation. University of Wisconsin, Madison.
- xx. Harle, J.C. Temple Gateways in South India: The Architecture and Iconography of the Cidambaram Gopuras. Oxford: Bruno Cassirer, 1963. (See Harle on the East and West gopurams’ goddess who looks a lot like Durga, but is called Tripurasundari in inscriptions).
- xxi. Daniel, E. Valentine. Fluid Signs: Being a Person the Tamil Way. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984.
- xxii. Mines, Diane P. Fierce Gods: Inequality, Ritual, and the Politics of Dignity in a South Indian Village. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2005.
- xxiii. Brennan, Teresa. The Transmission of Affect. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2004.
- xxiv. I write “virtually” in part, because, as some post-colonial literature attests, there are mutual influences between “East” and “West.” The influence of the west on a post-colonial country like India is a well known subject, but India’s influence on the “West” is a lesser known topic.
- xxv. Stewart, Kathleen. Ordinary Affects. ebook. 2007.
- xxvi. McCormack, Derek P. “Sensing Affective Afterlives: The Spectral Geographies of Material Remains.” Annals of the Association of American Geographers, Vol. 100, No. 3 (July 2010): 640-654.