A review of Gods for the Modern Era: The Rise of Miracle Shrines in Northwestern India, by Rufin Jamey Saul.
Rufin Jamey Saul’s dissertation, Gods for the Modern Era, offers a wealth of insights into the ways that neo-liberal economic conditions of the past twenty years have shaped Hindu religiosity in northeast Rajasthan and beyond. Focusing on two very different major temples dedicated to local forms of the Hindu god Hanuman, each receiving over one million visitors per year, he examines why one (Mehndipur Balaji) has been the subject of numerous academic books and studies, whereas the other (Salasar Balaji) has been practically ignored until now. According to Saul, the answer is not only the different attitudes toward possession attributed to each of these extremely popular gods, but is also (and more importantly) rooted in the socio-economic dynamics of the patrons and religious officiants who orchestrate the business and infrastructure of each site.
Thankfully, Saul does not limit himself to any single theoretical lens. He approaches the topic with a solid understanding of South Asian religions and cultures, and mediates between a variety of theoretical explanations alongside letting his informants speak for themselves. The emphasis on economic factors shaping these new religious movements might have been reductive, where it not also a major explanation of numerous subjects themselves. Rural or urban, rich or poor, the subjects self-consciously sought, in the author’s words, “a fast-track to the good life” (p. xx) via the most successful deities, in a neo-liberal marketplace of miracles.
The first chapter introduces the major temples, social groups, and histories at play in the dissertation. India’s economic liberalism has led many to quickly rise to affluence, and just as many to struggle not to be left behind. In the face of widespread corruption and other bureaucratic obstacles, many Indians (including Hindus, Jains, and Sikhs) have turned to Hanuman’s local form Balaji as a legitimate spiritual alternative to get things done. In such a religious marketplace, the currency for obtaining the god’s favor is faith, which Saul, following Larry Witham, posits as a form of investment against future benefits. Responding to Michael Taussig’s work on capitalism as a degradation of pre-capitalist society, he argues that, “these Marwari-patronized gods are not just antidotes for the modern era; they are also creations of it” (p. 15). Saul theorizes that Salasar Balaji is both a moral index for the wealthy Marwaris who patronize the deity, and an inside connection for young Jat men who use pilgrimage on foot as an outlet for their career ambitions.
Chapter 2, “Making a ‘VIP’ Shrine,” focuses on Salasar Balaji and his special connection with the diasporic Marwari community of businessmen. This connection “influenced the spread of tales that Salasar Balaji assists his devotees in attaining wealth and other desires” (p. 46). In addition to the widespread trend of middle- and high-class interests reconnecting with their rural religious roots, Saul frankly points to the financial advantages of religious donations and investments in pilgrim resthouses (dharmśālā), which act as tax havens and mechanisms for money laundering. Without dwelling too long on this sensitive issue, he goes on to analyze the relationship between the Marwari VIPs who view Salasar as their lineage deity (kuldev), and the Brahmin pujaris who manage the temple with their support.
The third chapter, “The Brahmin’s Inheritance,” continues Saul’s thick description of Salasar Balaji’s social and religious context. He explores Salasar’s outright ban on exorcism activities and faith healers, reflecting a respondent’s view that Mehndipur Balaji represents Salasar’s sinister shadow. The orthodox and Sanskritic nature of Salasar Balaji extends to the more limited types of miracles that he will grant; devotees know that they cannot ask for anything too extravagant, and rather seek to meet the god halfway in their quest for success. This rational character is contrasted, in the discourse of respondents, to the free-for-all marketplace of Mehndipur Balaji’s faith healers and possession performances. They recognize that Hanuman, as an enemy of demons in the Ramayana, has the power to punish demons as part of his repertoire, however the pujaris and patrons of Salasar have taken pains to delineate their Balaji as separate from such dangerous and impure activities associated with lower castes. Saul’s keen analysis of the production of new religious literature is particularly fascinating; it illustrates the role of profit-seeking businesses in shaping the supposed character of popular deities.
Chapter 4 focuses on the very recent phenomenon of foot pilgrimage to Salasar Balaji, its attendant youth culture, and the socio-economic changes and infrastructure developments of the last twenty years that have led to this spike in the pilgrimage’s popularity. It especially explores the Jat caste’s special, if recent, relationship with Hanuman. Saul draws on and criticizes a variety of major academic thinkers—including Max Weber, Victor Turner, Alan Morinis, or Kathleen Erndl—to theorize this pilgrimage and its rise.
With chapter 5, Saul takes us to the other major Balaji temple in Rajasthan, Mehndipur, and theorizes its demonic possession and exorcism traditions from a variety of viewpoints. Here he responds to Sudhir Kakar, Antti Pakaslahti, Graham Dwyer, Frederick Smith, and Philip Lutgendorf. The author’s superb photographs interspersed throughout the dissertation are a real asset, and some in this chapter are remarkably evocative of the intense experiences undergone by medical pilgrims visiting Mehndipur. The chapter closes with a long series of case studies of individual faith healers connected to Mehndipur’s Balaji.
Chapter 6 leaves the rural shrines and pilgrimage traditions behind, taking us into the urban devotional communities (maṇḍal) that promote them. Saul uses this space to further explore and theorize the interaction between rural and urban. He pushes against the received wisdom that urbanization implies movement away from the “little tradition” of rural India and toward the “Great Tradition” of pan-Indian Sanskritic Hinduism; he rather highlights the recent trend toward connecting with one’s roots in the competitive sphere of the urban diaspora within India. A major section in this chapter describes the very elaborate annual urban devotional events called Jāgraṇ, and contrasts these with rural versions. Surprisingly (to this reviewer), a majority of some such groups consist of Jain merchants who expressed a lack of faith in Jain temples as a reason for turning to Balaji. The chapter also includes several sections on individual gurus who lead urban groups devoted to Balaji. Saul observes: “it is not simply that these urban devotional communities are outposts of devotional culture centered on Salasar and Mehndipur, but that the shrines are equally outposts of urban devotional culture” (p. 456).
The final chapter of the dissertation explains the recent reification of Rajasthan as a sacred land of miracles. To some extent, Saul sees this as a type of “branding” that goes hand-in-hand with the larger economic forces that have shaped these devotional movements in the past twenty years. A prime example is the rise of Babosa, a very popular new deity linked to Hanuman who started as a little-known ancestor spirit. Babosa draws not only Hindus, but also Sikh and Jain devotees seeking to benefit from his miraculous powers channeled through the female medium Manjubai. This popular modern guru makes herself accessible to her devotees in a variety of ways, and is even on Facebook. Her followers have produced a television serial on Babosa, which they hope will supersede the popularity of the Ramayan and Mahabharat serials of Ramand Sagar and Ravi Chopra.
In short, Gods for the Modern Era sheds much light on a variety of issues. Anyone interested in local vs. national religions, new religious movements, pilgrimage, healing, possession and exorcism, gender dynamics, urban vs. rural dynamics, the economics of religion, and contemporary Hinduism will benefit by reading this exciting and erudite new work when it is published as a book.
Assistant Professor of South Asia
Western Washington University
Ethnographic research in northeast Rajasthan, surrounding areas, and major cities in India
Religious literature in Hindi
University of Michigan. 2013. 564pp. Primary Advisor: Arvind-Pal Mandair.
Image: Photograph by Author.