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Storytellers, Saints, and Scoundrels

Storytellers, Saints, and Scoundrels: Folk Narrative in Hindu Religious Teaching

Narayan Kirin
Copyright Date: 1989
Pages: 304
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  • Book Info
    Storytellers, Saints, and Scoundrels
    Book Description:

    Swamiji, a Hindu holy man, is the central character of Storytellers, Saints, and Scoundrels. He reclines in a deck chair in his modern apartment in western India, telling subtle and entertaining folk narratives to his assorted gatherings. Among the listeners is Kirin Narayan, who knew Swamiji when she was a child in India and who has returned from America as an anthropologist. In her book Narayan builds on Swamiji's tales and his audiences' interpretations to ask why religious teachings the world over are so often couched in stories. For centuries, religious teachers from many traditions have used stories to instruct their followers. When Swamiji tells a story, the local barber rocks in helpless laughter, and a sari-wearing French nurse looks on enrapt. Farmers make decisions based on the tales, and American psychotherapists take notes that link the storytelling to their own practices. Narayan herself is a key character in this ethnography. As both a local woman and a foreign academic, she is somewhere between participant and observer, reacting to the nuances of fieldwork with a sensitivity that only such a position can bring. Each story s reproduced in its evocative performance setting. Narayan supplements eight folk narratives with discussions of audience participation and response as well as relevant Hindu themes. All these stories focus on the complex figure of the Hindu ascetic and so sharpen our understanding of renunciation and gurus in South Asia. While Storytellers, Saints, and Scoundrels raises provocative theoretical issues, it is also a moving human document. Swamiji, with his droll characterizations, inventive mind, and generous spirit, is a memorable character. The book contributes to a growing interdisciplinary literature on narrative. It will be particularly valuable to students and scholars of anthropology, folklore, performance studies, religions, and South Asian studies.

    eISBN: 978-0-8122-0583-1
    Subjects: Anthropology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. A Note on Transliteration
    (pp. xi-xii)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-12)

    Swamiji lay in his deck chair. His legs, bare below the knee, were outstretched, but his eyes were alert. He was chatting with the assembled company about other Gurus. He had told us anecdotes about an eccentric saint, then about a child who was proclaimed to be the reincarnation of a popular Guru bv some people but dismissed by others as a fraud. Like any day when Swamiji’s doors were open, a motley array of visitors was present: Indians from various regions and castes, and a handful of Westerners. I sat among these visitors, cross-legged against the wall on the...

  6. I: Orientations

    • 1. There’s Always a Reason
      (pp. 15-36)

      “Come Mataji, come in,” Swamiji called through the screen window. It was a morning in September 1985. I had just arrived at the second-floor flat where he stays, and was slipping off my sandals outside the door. The fine netted screen allows Swamiji to see out but blocks the view within. His voice—low, rumbling, rich with the warmth of a grin—had greeted me before I could see him.

      When I entered I found Swamiji sitting alone at the end of the narrow room, and he was indeed smiling. After the clamor on the street outside, this room bore...

    • 2. Lives and Stories
      (pp. 37-62)

      “It’s hardly that I make up the stories,” said Swamiji one morning. He had just enquired whether I liked the story I had taped, and I had replied that it was beautiful like all the stories he told. “I only tell what has come to us from the past,” Swamiji said, redirecting my compliment. “This happened, then that happened. I don’t make anything up. I just tell what’s already there.”

      “But as you tell a story don’t you change it?” I asked, straining forward. As soon as Swamiji mentioned stories, I had switched on the tape recorder beside me. “Like...

    • 3. Sādhus
      (pp. 63-87)

      “A sādhu is dressed up and put on show,” said Swamiji one morning after three busloads of pilgrims from Gujarat had descended for his darshan. From bent old grandparents to babies in arms, they filed through the room in what seemed like a never-ending procession. “Jai jagadambā mātājī kī jai, jai jagadambā mātājī kī jai.” Swamiji kept up a steady stream of blessings as he doled out sugar balls as prasād. When the waves of people engulfing the room had finally withdrawn and once more there were just a few of us sitting against the walls, Swamiji reclined with relief...

    • 4. The Listeners
      (pp. 88-110)

      “How can she understand sādhus in just a few months?” Madan asked Jagadish Seth in Marathi. We were out for a walk on the breathtaking expanse of the Saptashring plateau, and I had lagged behind the two men. Madan had just left home to live near Swamiji as a celibate brahmachārī preparing for sannyās. Jagadish Seth was from Swamiji’s region of India and now worked at Nasik Road for the government mint. Madan must have thought that I was out of earshot or that I didn’t understand Marathi since mostly I spoke Hindi. He was obviously talking about me. “We...

  7. II: Storytelling Occasions

    • 5. Loincloths and Celibacy
      (pp. 113-131)

      “Did I tell you the story of how a loincloth [langoṭī] created a whole worldly play [saṃsār]? Did Swami R. tell you this?” Swamiji asked on a September morning in 1980.

      “No,” I said, looking up from the notebook in which I had been frantically scribbling all he said. It was before 10 a.m. and Swamiji had already been talking for a few hours. He sat cross-legged on the floor beside the altar in this small Nasik house. The couple who had built the house for his use were now both dead, but their presence was established in two gargantuan...

    • 6. False Gurus and Gullible Disciples
      (pp. 132-159)

      One July morning in 1983 conversation had drifted to a contemporary Guru and his ashram. Swamiji noncommittally noted that the ashram had grown very wealthy through the last few years. Someone described workshops at which, for a fee, one could sign up for a mystical experience. One of the men present, Mr. Advani, had helped to organize such a workshop locally. He boasted of the numbers that attended, and extolled the spiritual awakenings that occurred.

      Swamiji listened with interest, left elbow resting on the arm of his deck chair with his hand under his chin. There was a break in...

    • 7. Death and Laughter
      (pp. 160-188)

      On the fourth of July in 1983, Swamiji’s morning darshan was proceeding as usual. Prakash Seth, who had been helping Swamiji since his illness, opened the wooden door at 10 a.m. A group gradually grew around Swamiji’s chair, assembling into the habitual divisions of space. On the women’s side were “Gayatri,” “Saraswati,” and “Bhavani,” as well as Meena Gupta and I. On the men’s side, Swami Sadananda (who oversees the children’s feeding program at the Saptashring ashram) sat closest to the altar, occupying the deerskin reserved for visiting ascetics. Gupta Saheb was beside him. Prakash Seth and Mr. Karnad stood,...

    • 8. Heaven and Hell
      (pp. 189-207)

      Though Swamiji now lives in Nasik, he visits his old ashram on the Saptashring mountain once a year, at the time of the radiant October moon. The annual visit rolled around toward the end of my second extended trip, and Swamiji had offered to take me along. Freshly bathed and dressed in a silk sari for the occasion, I waited in the carriage area of our family bungalow. In my childhood we had been the last house on the road with a view that swept out toward mountains in the North. But Nasik had grown. As I looked out in...

    • 9. The Divine Storyteller
      (pp. 208-228)

      If ever as a child I felt an enchanted world was immanent, it was at Saptashring. Climbing up so high to a space elevated above everyday life gave me the sense of leaving my known world, to enter instead into a landscape charged with sacred meaning. The view from the mountain reduced families, roads, schools, and buses to a minuscule hubbub of activity; what mattered, looking out over the horizon, were the other groups of mountains attired in legend and myth. This mountain was itself criss-crossed with legends of the Goddess’s appearance. Rahoul had told me some of these stories,...

  8. III: Conclusions

    • 10. The World of the Stories
      (pp. 231-241)

      “Give me the atlas,” Swamiji called over his shoulder to “Dattatreya.” This was in 1980, and Swamiji was sitting, bare-chested, on the floor. Before him sat a man who had just poured out endless tales of difficulties. As the man spoke Swamiji let out “hmms” through a mouth filled with tobacco. He had not said anything. Now when he asked for the atlas it seemed almost as though he had not heard what had been addressed to him. The man tweaked a toe, looking around at the walls filled with pictures. He seemed a little hurt.

      A giant atlas was...

    • 11. Storytelling as Religious Teaching
      (pp. 242-247)

      On the Saptashring plateau I presented Swamiji with my tape recorder. This marked the formal end of fieldwork. But this was also the beginning of reflection on all that had occurred. What had I learned about storytelling as religious teaching? The question hummed in my head as I transcribed a few remaining stories; joined my family in gathering around my brother as he spent his last days; organized notes; cut off my braid the day after Rahoul died, dropping with it the demure Nasik girl; attended an anthropology meeting where the discourse brought on another form of culture shock; bought...

  9. Epilogue
    (pp. 248-250)

    The news came first through the spoken word. Swamiji, I learned in speaking with my family over the phone, had “left.” I was absorbed in revising this manuscript at the time. It was disorienting to think that the relaxed, amused presence I conjured up daily no longer had a physical counterpart; that I could not go back to Nasik and find Swamiji leaning back against cushions near the altar and calling out his usual greeting: “Come in, Mataji, come in.” Letters from India gradually arrived and I pieced together a picture of what had happened. On June 11, 1988, after...

  10. Appendix I: Glossary of Commonly Used Hindi Terms
    (pp. 251-252)
  11. Appendix II: Map of India
    (pp. 253-254)
  12. Notes
    (pp. 255-266)
  13. Bibliography
    (pp. 267-282)
  14. Index
    (pp. 283-287)
  15. Back Matter
    (pp. 288-288)