Folklore Foundation

Stories about Posts: Vedic Variations Around the Hindu Goddess

By Madeleine Biardeau. Translated by Alf Hiltebeitel, Marie-Louise Reiniche, and James Walker. Edited by Alf Hiltebeitel and Marie-Louise Reiniche. 2004. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ISBN: 0-226-04595-1 (hard cover).

Reviewed by Mahendra K. Mishra, Independent Scholar

[Review length: 988 words • Review posted on May 4, 2006 In Journal of Folklore Research, Indiana University Press, Bloomington

Indian culture has a characteristic way of associating the past with the present in terms of maintaining continuity of tradition. It is more transformative than mere change and more complementary than constant opposition. Indian culture is embedded in the sacred texts created in the remote past regulating present-day society. Unity in diversity is manifested in its living culture and religion.

Many scholars have seen Indian culture in terms of dichotomies such as “great” and “little,” “classic” and “folk,” or “urban” and “rural.” But such dichotomies do not offer a holistic picture of Indian culture. The cycle of royal and rural is complementary and interwoven in the web of a common fabric. Viewing Indian culture in terms of any single polarity will be erroneous.

While classical Indologists see Indian culture from a textual point of view, with respect to its sacred written texts, anthropologists tend to see it from an empirical point of view, ignoring the diachronic nature of culture. They study the present synchronically, setting aside the historical dimension of culture. It is, however, necessary to examine both the mythical texts and current practices in order to understand the transformation and persistence of culture through time.

Madeleine Biardeau, a well-known Indologist and ethnographer from Paris, has broken away from an exclusive focus on myth in studying Hindu Vedic religious processes. Instead of studying Indian culture as dichotomous, she has tried to free herself from such theoretical limitations. She studies both texts (Vedic myth and local myths) and actual practice (such as festivals and buffalo sacrifice in temple rituals) centered on sacrificial posts and has approached a greater truth from her intensive field observation. She conducted her ethnographic studies in Tamilnadu, Andhra Pradesh, Maharastra, and Orissa where she observed buffalo sacrifice festivals/rituals in sacred centers. Her objectives were to understand the mosaic of religious practices associated with the Vedic gods and goddesses and local deities current among different ethnic groups, and to examine the Vedic rituals and symbols continuing in the villages of southeastern India.

She studies Vedic ritual practices involving sacrificial posts and their associated gods and goddesses. The objects of her study include village festivals, rites and rituals, clan gods and goddesses, ethnic groups associated with the buffalo sacrifice, time and space of the festivals, and Vedic ritual and symbols. She also studies the purpose of rituals and symbolic representations of Vedic myths in current ritual performances in order to understand their deeper meanings. Therefore she has interpreted both verbal and non-verbal symbols in this ritual context.

The local village god, Potta Raju, presented as the little brother of the goddess, is invisible, but is represented by a wooden post made of the sami tree. Buffalo sacrifice is practiced to propitiate goddesses such as Ganganamma, Doleramma, and Badvel. These local goddesses are reinterpreted in light of classical Hindu mythological figures such as Jamadagni and Renuka, and Durga Mahisasura influenced by Devi Mahatmya. There is a detailed account of buffalo sacrifice conducted by different caste groups in south India adjoining Maharastra and Orissa. The author also observes how Vedic symbols have retained their meaning but also splintered through time and space to bear different meanings in order to meet the needs of the performers. While some gods and goddesses represent clan deities of some royal lineage, others represent the cultivator goddesses in the villages, who also solve local issues.

As we move through time and space the role of Pottu Raju also changes. He is differently perceived and adapted in various regions according to socio-cultural circumstances. Pottu Raju has been reinterpreted in different regions during the buffalo sacrifice. For example, the same god and goddesses are vegetarian in one village and non-vegetarian in another. Symbols are transformed but not entirely changed: ritual activities like sacrifice are constant whereas the object of sacrifice may be variable. In India human sacrifice was in operation during the nineteenth century, but British administrators suppressed this practice, and a buffalo was substituted in place of a human. Buffalo sacrifice was an annual calendar practice among the Kondhs of Orissa and later was celebrated once every twelve years. Nowadays the sacrificial buffalo is replaced with a goat or a sheep, or, due to the intervention of social reformers, even a pumpkin. But interestingly the basic philosophy of the Vedic ritual has remained unchanged.

Draupadi, the Pandava heroine in the Mahabharata, is worshipped in the Pondicherry region. The Vanniyar caste worship Draupadi as their mother goddess, whereas the Vellala Mudaliyers worship her differently. The sami tree, with Vedic significance, also reappears as demon and goddess. Even the sacrificial post representing Pottu Raju is a product of the local imagination.

Biardeau’s study of buffalo-sacrifice festivals is based on her quest to visualize Vedic symbols currently used by the priests and the people. She visited seventy-two sacred centers for this study and has explored the affiliation of caste and clan with the local village gods and goddesses, analyzing each and every object of ritual practice—verbal and non-verbal—and deciphering the meaning of the symbols used in the performances.

In addition to empirical research, her intuitions have been helpful in realizing this study. In Indian discourse intuition is the higher realization of knowledge and truth. She has been able to develop a holistic worldview based on Vedic variations recurrent in the country that applies equally to high Brahminical order and rural social tradition. Her work is supported with many classical and oral myths, and with hundreds of pictures of posts in the temples and of the priests and patrons in the festivals and rituals she visited.

The research conducted by Biardeau offers new interpretations of Hindu religion over a wide span of time, examining religious tradition in both the classical and local domains. The study is a strong example of empirical analysis supported with evidence to argue that Indian culture encompasses the past and present and maintains its continuity without compromising core philosophical ideas retained from earlier periods.