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Poetics of Conduct

Poetics of Conduct: Oral Narrative and Moral Being in a South Indian Town

Leela Prasad
Copyright Date: 2007
Pages: 312
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  • Book Info
    Poetics of Conduct
    Book Description:

    Leela Prasad's riveting book presents everyday stories on subjects such as deities, ascetics, cats, and cooking along with stylized, publicly delivered ethical discourse, and shows that the study of oral narrative and performance is essential to ethical inquiry. Prasad builds on more than a decade of her ethnographic research in the famous Hindu pilgrimage town of Sringeri, Karnataka, in southwestern India, where for centuries a vibrant local culture has flourished alongside a tradition of monastic authority. Oral narratives and the seeing-and-doing orientations that are part of everyday life compel the question: How do individuals imagine the normative, and negotiate and express it, when normative sources are many and diverging? Moral persuasiveness, Prasad suggests, is intimately tied to the aesthetics of narration, and imagination plays a vital role in shaping how people create, refute, or relate to "text," "moral authority," and "community." Lived understandings of ethics keep notions of text and practice in flux and raise questions about the constitution of "theory" itself. Prasad's innovative use of ethnography, poetics, philosophy of language, and narrative and performance studies demonstrates how the moral self, with a capacity for artistic expression, is dynamic and gendered, with a historical presence and a political agency.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-51127-8
    Subjects: Anthropology, Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-vii)
  3. [Illustrations]
    (pp. viii-viii)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  5. Note on Translation and Transliteration
    (pp. xiii-xvi)
  6. Introduction
    (pp. 1-23)

    Puranas like to stretch their own genealogies. If I were to tell the story of Sringeri, a pilgrimage town in south India, as a Puranic narrative, it would begin many, many centuries ago. That beginning is beyond my power to recall, but the part familiar to me began in the summers that my parents would take us children to Sringeri on a pilgrimage. I remember those visits not as a pious pilgrim, but as providing an escape from summer school homework, a series of exhilarating rides on trains, buses, and, best of all, on a boat across the river Tunga....

  7. 1 Sringeri: Place and Placeness
    (pp. 24-63)

    Sringeri is part of the region in northwestern Karnataka known as the Malnad that takes its name from male (hill) and nāḍu (land).¹ It receives on an average 130 to 150 inches of rain every year, and one rarely visits Sringeri—or leaves it—between June and September when the rains can be torrential. Lying east of the Sahyadri mountain range in southwestern India, the Malnad includes the taluks of Sringeri, Koppa, Narasimharajapura, and sometimes Mudigere. The roughly 400-mile long and 40-mile wide stretch of the Malnad is at a height that ranges from 500 to 3,000 feet above sea...

  8. 2 Connectedness and Reciprocity: Historicizing Sringeri Upachara
    (pp. 64-97)

    The areca season drew to a close, bringing to an end my visits to Kadavadi, eight miles from the town of Sringeri, where Putta Murthy’s family has a small areca grove and rice fields. Putta Murthy’s eldest son, Nagaraja, and his wife, Indira, live in Kadavadi for most of the year, supervising the harvesting and processing of areca and paddy, returning to Sringeri to be with the rest of their family when festivals come round or when there is a lull in agricultural activity. Kadavadi is a twenty-minute bus ride from Sringeri. From the bus stop it takes about fifteen...

  9. 3 Shastra: Divine Injunction and Earthly Custom
    (pp. 98-117)

    “Now that my daughters are married and have left home, I don’t think I will do an elaborate display of dolls (for Navaratri), but, for the sake of shastra, I’ll maybe arrange two dolls in the puja room,” mused Vijaya Krishnamurthy, when I telephoned to greet her for the upcoming Navaratri festival. I agreed, remembering the many times I too had done things to conform to shastra at least minimally. For example, balancing the Hindu festive calendar with a workday calendar that did not recognize those festivals meant that sometimes we would cook just chitrānna and pāyasa¹ to mark the...

  10. 4 “The Shastras Say . . . ”: Idioms of Legitimacy and the “Imagined Text”
    (pp. 118-147)

    Conversational narratives in Sringeri reveal that, although historically traced to millennia-old Sanskrit texts and manipulated to a great degree by colonial administrations, shastra is in everyday life a nebulous but dynamic and open-ended cultural background that influences conceptualizations of conduct and is in turn influenced by them. Sringeri stories and conversations argue that a phenomenology of shastra requires that we extend the widened understanding of text and textuality to recognize “shastric texts” also in the world of material and oral practices that are animated by human agency and function as vibrant forms of moral guidance for Hindus. In understanding the...

  11. 5 In the Courtyard of Dharma, Not at the Village Square: Delivering Ashirvada in Sringeri
    (pp. 148-181)

    Ashirvada, a Sanskrit term for “blessing,”¹ refers in Sringeri in particular to a ceremony of blessing that occurs at the conclusion of a religious event such as a parayana (votive reading) or a wedding that is hosted by a family in a home, a temple, or a rented space. Irrespective of the caste of the family that is conducting the religious event, an ashirvada performance toward the end of the event is integral to it. It includes the following parts: 1. a formal request made by the host family to the assembled purohitas (priests) for blessing, 2. the recitation of...

  12. 6 Edifying Lives, Discerning Proprieties: Conversational Stories and Moral Being
    (pp. 182-224)

    “Who? Papanaiyya, the freedom fighter?”¹ Ramachandra Bhattru asked, when I mentioned to him a name I had often encountered. “You could call it our history (itihasa), one that many of us in Sringeri are beginning to forget,” he began, as, in the summer of 2004, he recounted to me his memories of Papanaiyya’s life. Papanaiyya, whose formal name was Phaniappa, was a brahmachari who had lived in Sringeri all his life, save for the time he had spent in Gandhiji’s ashram in Gujarat and had participated in India’s freedom struggle.² It had been a period, however, that had given him...

  13. Ethics, an Imagined Life
    (pp. 225-230)

    “It will be good to read this when the rains come,” said Dodda Murthy as I gave him a copy of this book’s chapters in draft as June approached, the month when the monsoon usually set in. Already rainwater was pouring down the roof of the Rameshwara temple in the courtyard and splashing noisily on the soaking earth. I liked to imagine Dodda Murthy sitting in his armchair on the veranda and reading about himself and people he knew—what would he think? So intrigued by the past, so meticulous about preserving documents about it, so fastidious in “telling things...

  14. Notes
    (pp. 231-258)
  15. Bibliography
    (pp. 259-278)
  16. Index
    (pp. 279-292)