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Fierce Gods: Inequality, Ritual, and the Politics of Dignity in a South Indian Village
Category: Ethnography and Areal Anthologies

Fierce Gods:

Inequality, Ritual, and the Politics of Dignity in a South Indian Village

By Diane P. Mines. 2006. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. 240 pages. ISBN: 0-253-34576-6 (hard cover), 0-253-21765-2 (soft cover).

Reviewed by Mahendra K. Mishra, Independent Scholar

[Review length: 567 words • Review posted on August 22, 2006 In Journal of Folklore Research, Indiana University Press, Bloomington]

Diane P. Mines’ Fierce Gods presents an illustrative view of discriminatory caste relationships in a South Indian village. In her ethnographic work she captures in microcosm the operation of the Hindu caste system in Indian villages. She finds the “village” to be a source of increasing power and politics, a concept as well as a material reality. The meaning of this sign is refracted through social, political, economic, and existential orientations. Treating the village as a whole, as a space where animates and super-animates interact and expose their power relations, she explicitly and implicitly tries to interpret the anthropology of power between dominant castes, dalits, and gods. In her view the power of humans is not the only relevant power at work in village politics, for the power of the gods who inhabit the village is part and parcel of the villagers’ construction and maintenance of their village.

Mines makes a powerful argument that, although the power of caste-rank and political-economic dominance is produced in large part through relations to the gods, it is the “fierce gods” who, through socially disordering powers, allow subordinate groups and persons publicly to turn the tables on domination and assert their own powerful alternatives to current village relations. Jati (caste), as she puts it, is embodied as well in verbal language, through which local power relations are expressed and enacted. She observes pertinently that jati has increasingly become the trope for regional if not also national political life.

The book portrays a strong sense of inclusion and contrast along several lines linking the castes and the gods in the “village whole” as it attempts to understand the little tradition and the great tradition. Gods are not merely cosmological justifications for distinctions in social power among castes; rather, gods are real sources of power for human beings, whether they are struggling for or against domination. The book vividly describes caste and rituals in South Indian villages. What the study offers most generally is an ethnography that, in its construction, works towards a semiotic, dialectic, and existential view of culture along the lines of E. Valentine Daniel and Michael Jackson.

In the domain of power between the local and the global world, seen from the perspective of political economy, the wider world has constitutive power over the local one; this is the threadbare reality. The author compares this situation to caste dominance in South Indian villages. The relationship of the wider and the local worlds is symbolic of the caste dynamics in the social, political, and religious spheres of the village.

The work essentially has two parts. Part one offers a thick description of the social relations of power, of dominance and rank in particular, while Part Two attempts to understand the struggle of village residents to redefine and rework these relations.

Mines’ investigation is unique in that the author thoroughly studies the village power relations among castes from the observation of yearly temple festivals. It argues that temple festivals are a venue for asserting and redefining relations of dominance and subordination in an idiom of inclusion within the village. The book powerfully depicts how temple rituals are fully entangled in political processes in South India and how festivals are arenas for engaging in all kinds of struggles—with gods, family, fellow villagers, and neighbors.

Overall the book presents a new view of the village and argues for its re-emergence as a unit of analysis.