Accepted paper:

The place of devotion: siting and experiencing divinity in Bengal-Vaishnavism


Sukanya Sarbadhikary (Presidency University)

Paper short abstract:

The paper builds on intensive ethnography among Bengal-Vaishnavas, and aims to study different kinds of experiences of sacred geography: as externalised pilgrimage sites, and internalised affective spaces of the body and mind.

Paper long abstract:

The Vaishnavite devotional tradition in Hinduism is widely characterized by strong involvement with sacred geography and intense sensuous experience of deities. My aim is to show how these distinctive dimensions of devotees' experience overlap, that is, to document the remarkably diverse and politicized ways in which devotees experience sacred geography: not just in external pilgrimage sites but also in interiorised affective spaces of their bodies and minds. Building on fieldwork conducted among worshippers in the Navadvip-Mayapur sacred complex, Bengal's greatest site of guru-centered Vaishnavite pilgrimage and devotional life, my paper explores the distinctive ways in which resident ascetic-renouncers and householder devotees cultivate intense relationships with the sacred place. I argue that devotees embody distinct spatial practices, in sites including pilgrimage places, imagination, the body, and embodied places where musical utterance is enacted and experienced. I argue that a complex philosophy of substitutability of place informs the experiences of these different sites. Devotees refer to Navadvip and Mayapur as well as these different sites as gupta (veiled) Vrindavan. For devotees, Vrindavan is not only the north Indian Vaishnava pilgrimage place but more centrally, the celestial abode where the deity-consort, Radha-Krishna enact their love-plays. Referring to these sites as veiled-Vrindavan signifies that they conceal the spiritual/erotic essence of the sacred place, and are accessible to those who cultivate appropriate techniques. I document both the techniques and experiences of emplacement in these diverse affective sites, and analyse them from the prisms of the anthropology of pilgrimage and place, and the anthropology of affect.

panel P41
Spatial and visual dimensions of pilgrimage in South Asia