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Buddhism, Ethnicity and Identity: A Problem of Buddhist History. Professor Gananath Obeyesekere. Introduction: an Unscholarly Pre-statement. I this paper I . Buddhism, Nationhood and Cultural Identity: The Premodern and Pre-Colonial Formations. Lecture delivered by. Gananath Obeyesekere at the. Medusa's Hair: An Essay on Personal Symbols and Religious Experience. Gananath Obeyesekere. Roger Joseph. California State University, Fullerton.

I maintain that this material can be read at several levels. The comparative perspective can apply to each of three broad substantive domains that I deal with here.


The rebirth theories of small-scale societies discussed in chapter 2 have structural similarities that derive to a considerable extent from their smallness. Take two ideas common to virtually all of these societies: first, a dead person will circle back to the same kin group; and second, a neonate can be identified as a specific ancestor returned.

I show that although the first feature is applicable to every small-scale society in my sample, the second feature is absent among one of them, the Trobrianders. I demonstrate in my analysis that among Trobrianders it is meaningless to so identify the neonate, given this society's notion of ancestors as mostly anonymous beings.

It would be logically and structurally impossible for Trobrianders to get interested in the issue of the identity of the neonate. I also show that among the small-scale societies mentioned in this work there is a fundamental difference between the Amerindians and the rest, that is, West Africans and Melanesians: the presence of animal rebirth in the former and its absence in the latter. The presence of animal rebirths in Amerindian-Inuit societies permits us to establish an important link, methodologically speaking, with both the Buddhist and Greek worlds, which share that same propensity; and it helps us isolate Amerindian and Inuit forms of rebirth in our sample of preliterate societies as the ones most significant for comparative purposes.

As in the small-scale societies mentioned above, Buddhist and Greek doctrines of rebirth also permit internal comparisons such that the Indic religions exhibit close similarities and differences, as do the Greek ones. However, the main point of this work is not to demonstrate internal similarity and difference but to examine structural similarities and variations across the great cultural divides that separate Amerindian, Buddhist, and Greek rebirth doctrines.

This may seem a hopeless task at first glance because anyone knows that on the substantive level the actual ethnographic or historical accounts of rebirth theories are vastly different, and there is little to connect Buddhist, Greek, and Amerindian rebirth. Yet this work will show that underlying these vast differences are important structural similarities and variations based on a shared belief in reincarnation, which I show has an unvarying "elementary structure.

Thus, this book is an attempt to demonstrate that, although one must eschew universalistic lawlike theories modeled on the natural sciences, one must also reject the contemporary fascination in my own discipline for ethnographic particularity and a rejection of theory unless it shows that no theories are possible outside descriptive specificity.

In this work I make the claim, and demonstrate as best I can, that limited comparison and theorizing are possible in the human sciences.

The topographical models I have constructed simplify the complexity of eschatologies on the ground, as it were, permitting us to focus primarily on specific issues of structural similarity and transformation rather than on substantive content. Still, any idea of structure is senseless without the substantive content that permits the construction of simplified models. Once the models are constructed, one can infer some "expectable" features of content in the empirical record.

For example, I show that from a structural point of view one could expect societies with rebirth doctrines to show a preoccupation with "endoanthropophagy" endocannibalism.

In reality some do, and some don't; but once one isolates the structural problem of endoanthropophagy, it is possible to adduce reasons for the absence of this phenomenon in specific cases, such as in Buddhism, or, failing that, to at least describe the absence in a specific cultural context. In other instances even these operations may not be possible because of the paucity of relevant sociological and historical data. The preceding remarks may suggest that I have ventured into abstract realms of little concern to Indologists and classical scholars.

Although I primarily address anthropologists, historians of religion, and other inquisitive intellectuals, I try to present my argument in a fashion intelligible to those outside the human sciences. Moreover, readers who are put off by abstractions and who are unsympathetic to my theory of ethical and structural transformation might find provocative my descriptions and incomplete interpretations of specific rebirth eschatologies and cosmologies from different regions of the world.

The comparative information might also surprise many scholars and lay readers who have been prejudiced into thinking that such doctrines are the exclusive preserve of the religions of India.

My initial rationale for embarking on this project was to justify decentering India as the home and ground of rebirth.

But I go beyond my Buddhist prejudice to a vision of a larger purpose: I explore the common fate of those societies that through historical accident or through the circulation of ideas or through independent invention have come to believe in reincarnation as an integral part of their larger eschatological and cosmological belief systems. In the more abstract arguments presented in this work I explore the implications of that common fate.

Another, related, major theme pertains to general epistemology, namely, how thought is constrained within the frame of preexisting knowledge structures—what Foucault called "epistemes"—and the freedom and leeway for innovation and debate permitted to the individual virtuoso or layperson. This book had a very modest beginning.

The problem of the ethical transformation of a previously "amoral" eschatology into a more complex karmic doctrine was one of my early intellectual concerns, but at that time I framed my concern in terms of the origin of the karma theory.

Imagining Karma - A Handful of Leaves

I first presented these ideas in Edmund Leach's seminar at King's College, Cambridge, in and subsequently published them in "Theodicy, Sin, and Salvation in a Sociology of Buddhism. Until I read papers by Antonia Mills, I was ignorant, like many others, that Amerindians possessed theories of reincarnation.

I participated in a seminar organized by Mills and wrote a foreword for her collection of seminar papers, subsequently published under the title Amerindian Rebirth: Reincarnation Belief among North American Indians and Inuit.

In that foreword I relate Amerindian rebirth theories to those theories found on the Indian subcontinent. Nevertheless my early bias toward Buddhism is reflected in the present work.

Some of my most important theoretical findings—including the central concept of "ethicization"—are a product of my engagement with early Buddhism.

Yet my engagement with rebirth eschatologies of small-scale societies has in turn affected my understanding of both Buddhist and Greek rebirth doctrines. I was able to rethink these early interests during my sabbatical in Sri Lanka as a Fulbright scholar during the academic year.

Protestant Buddhism

As always, Sri Lanka, in spite of the violence in which it was enmeshed, inspired my creativity, and during the course of that year I wrote a preliminary draft of this book, focusing on the Amerindian and Indian material but excluding the Greek. The reason was simple: I found my foray into the Greek world in my paper shallow and unsatisfactory. I therefore decided, somewhat reluctantly, to ignore it.

My sabbatical culminated in a marvelous stay at the Rockefeller Center in Bellagio, where I had hoped to put the finishing touches to the book.

During my leisure hours at Bellagio I began to reread Plato and whatever was available on the Presocratics at the Bellagio library. I soon recognized that I had no choice but to use the Greek material because, like the Indic and the Amerindian, it included the notion of animal rebirths, a notion crucial to my comparative perspective.

Thus the Greeks came to stay in my book.

The Presocratic Greek material was especially difficult for me owing to its fragmentary nature, and this difficulty was compounded by the fact that classical scholars sometimes address their own circles with little serious comparative or theoretical thinking. The task was rendered even more difficult because two writers, H. Long and M.

Peris, who dealt with this topic explicitly, did not always render the Greek into English. In this scheme Plato is a key figure, the epitome of the Western speculative philosopher, whose thinking has come down through the Neoplatonists into later Christian theology. Yet Europe as we now understand it scarcely existed in Plato's time or in the time of the Pythagoreans that are the foci of my study.

Although European thinkers see the Greeks as their intellectual forebears, the Greeks themselves looked toward the East for the sources of true wisdom—to Egypt, Persia, and, during the early centuries of the common era, India. Thus tradition has it that early Greek thinkers traveled East in their quest for knowledge. Pythagoras, for example, is said to have wandered into Egypt and later to have sat at the feet of Zoroaster.

These traditions might not be based on fact, but they do illustrate the reality that Greeks saw the East as the source of knowledge, in much the same way that modern Europeans relate to the ancient Greeks.

This should not surprise those of us who believe that the ancient world, not just Eurasia, was an open one.

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Given the importance of this theme to his work as a whole however, the reader will have no choice but to grapple with these questions Willen and Seeman There are intriguing resonances with an earlier age of scholarship in this very long, very erudite and audacious book that interrupts the categories of our hyper-specialized contemporary academy.

James sought to blunt the force of a medical materialism that threatened, then as now, to deprive religion in its humanistic vein from a legitimate place in modern life. Obeyesekere similarly argues that visionary experience and visionary, aphoristic habits of thought represent devalued modes of engagement that need to be recovered.

This is not just an analytic argument but explicitly a moral one. If that were to happen, Western thought might not only be receptive to the epistemological thinking of Hindu and Buddhist philosophers, but they might also be able to enrich their own philosophical and scientific traditions by opening themselves to the varied forms of visionary and intuitive thinking that appear in this essay. New York: Random House. This is true even of Clifford Geertz's idea of culture because even though he shows webs of significance everywhere, he rarely shows the spider at work!

Obeyesekere , This idea is quite unlike that of Max Weber, for whom culture has to be mediated through the consciousnesses of special agents, such as prophets, magicians, and charismatic leaders, such that understanding cultural genesis and change was less a problem for him than for his Geertzian followers.

Medusa's Hair: An Essay on Personal Symbols and Religious Experience

Indeed, Talcott Parsons, one of Geertz's formative influences at Harvard, claims rightly, I think that Weber implicitly recognized a human drive toward meaning Parsons, xlvii. Sahlins also inherits the French structuralist bias against agency that ironically might link him with for him the detestable Foucault.

Sure, power might constitute a special form of agency for Foucault, but while he brilliantly exposes the discourses of power underlying the emergence and persistence of epistemes in Western thought, he also, at times, reifies power to such an extent that it loses interpretive or explanatory significance. That "apotheosis of power" is very much in the spirit of Durkheim's apotheosis of society.In any case looking at Plato through the models constructed in this work might throw a different perspective on that great thinker's soteriology.

In that foreword I relate Amerindian rebirth theories to those theories found on the Indian subcontinent. My point is that different kinds of intentional acts may be related to one another in complex ways that are connected to everyday moral, ritual and interpretive practices studied by anthropologists as well as historians of religion.

Obeyesekere , In the British become the first colonial power to win control over the whole of Sri Lanka and signed the Kandyan convention declaring the Buddhist religion practised by the locals to be inviolable.