Accepted paper:

From dialogues with the dead to the unknowability of death


Piers Vitebsky (University of Cambridge)

Paper short abstract:

Among the Sora of Tribal India, the familiarity, intimacy and negotiation of shamanic dialogues with the dead are becoming replaced by more authoritarian genres of prayer, sermon, and devotion to divine figures such as Jesus and Krishna, thereby rendering the state of the dead unknowable.

Paper long abstract:

This paper discusses a drastic change among the Sora of Orissa (Tribal India) since I first lived with them in 1975. In Dialogues with the dead (Cambridge 1993), I analysed a distinctive non-literate 'tribal' cosmology which was characterised by open-ended negotiation between the living and the dead, communicating through female shamans in trance. The dead caused illness and death by transferring their suffering on to the living, thereby creating an analogy between the biographies of the attacker and of the victim. The living responded defensively by talking the dead over many years into a progressively less dangerous subjective state. However, as younger Sora enter the literate world of school and the national space of party politics, they are becoming either Baptist Christians or fundamentalist Hindus. Between them, these mutually hostile paths towards 'modernity' squeeze out the shamanist worldview of their elders (JRAI 2008: 243-61). I shall explore the shift from robust family banter with the dead to respectful monologic forms of prayer, (male) sermon, and authoritative written texts. These new religions direct spiritual intensity away from ancestors toward gods instead. The ancestors become hungry and lonely but powerless to harm or protest, and the old fear to die because they anticipate being neglected. Krishna elicits a new kind of ecstatic (and nationalistic) devotion, while Jesus redeems the young from the new concept of sin. But both now make it impossible to engage with the dead or feel pity for them, since they render the realm of death itself unknowable and unexplorable.

panel P16
The 'evidence' of death: necrographic accounts on death perspectives