Pilgrimage and social division at a Hindu miracle shrine in India

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R. Jeremy Saul


This article considers whether shared devotion to the same deity in religious pilgrimage is conducive to solidarity across otherwise diverse social groups. It presents qualitative evidence from the author’s ethnographic fieldwork on a local manifestation of Hanuman at a temple in the village of Salasar in Rajasthan, India. Starting from the theoretical premise that pilgrimage has been central to the construction of nationwide Hinduism, the article argues that while pilgrimage can indeed intensify solidarity within preexisting groups, it may also exacerbate social divisions between them as they seek to perpetuate or contest unequal socioeconomic privileges in acts of devotion. In the case discussed here, the author identifies several distinct groups who revere the deity but approach devotion from decidedly community-conscious perspectives. The most elite devotional group comprises merchants from distant cities who trace ancestry to the region of the temple and receive privileged treatment there because of their generous donations. Brahmin priests collaborate in this arrangement for their own benefit, in taking commissions for conducting rituals in the god’s name to increase the merchants’ wealth. Meanwhile, a second group of Brahmins, from various other lineages, is denied the lucrative career of the priests, and so they devise other services for pilgrims that do not impinge on the priests’ prerogatives. And lastly, farmers and other non-merchants from the surrounding area have been attracted by the temple’s reputation for wealth creation, but remain deeply suspicious of both merchants and Brahmins because of negative past experiences with them. This balkanized devotional public thus plays out rival agendas of community interest as they share in the exultation of one deity. The article concludes that pilgrimage in a context where it is a group-mediated experience with unequal economic stakes is more likely to reinforce established social divisions than bridge them.


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