Accepted Paper:

Making and unmaking gods  


Soumhya Venkatesan (University of Manchester)

Paper short abstract:

What is a god? How does a piece of worked stone or metal become a god, and how does it stop being one? This paper explores the above through a focus on ritual sculptors and priests and the complex relations they share with the gods they make, sustain, worship and even de-sanctify.

Paper long abstract:

In everyday life Hindus often make a clear separation between persons, things and gods but these can be made one and the same thing through expert processes, and in certain marked spaces and times. This paper draws on fieldwork among Hindu ritual sculptors, priests and worshippers at temples in Tamilnadu, South India.

Ritual sculptors and priests employ their skills and knowledge as well as material and immaterial resources to make immanent in an image a transcendent deity. The stone/metal image then is god and worshipped as such. My own interest in this paper is to explore the opposite of this process - when a god is de-sanctified, returned to being an inert object, again through ritual processes. I ask how different kinds of person -priests, worshippers, sculptors and others engage with these de-sanctified images that they once worshipped and may well continue worshipping. This is an important question because even as people accept the expertise of others and the effects their actions have at one level, at other more affective levels they may be unwilling to 'let go' fully. The image may simultaneously be god and not god. This poses an important challenge to ontological stability that worshippers and others live with, and that anthropologists of Hinduism need to engage with.

Panel W023
For a sceptical anthropology?