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Thursday, March 28, 2013

A(n Indian) world full of creatures: Gilles Tarabout on nature

From Hompi, Karṇataka
Is the world as we see it or not? Both in India and in the West, one has believed for centuries that this was not the case and that the world was full of living, though unperceivable, beings. The historian of philosophy Tullio Gregory writes that the space from earth to sky was believed —in the Western Middle Age— to be full of various kinds of angels, hierarchically ordered.

In Indian religious and popular culture (though not in the philosophical reflection, I am inclined to think, see here) one similarly sees that one believes and believed in a variety of intermediate beings occupying each inch of land, earth and sky. The anthropologist Gilles Tarabout underlined this aspect in (at least) two of his papers. In one of them, published in RiSS and dealing with astrology in Kerala, Tarabout refers of how astrologers consulted by the committee of a temple regularly describe the temple as full of presences, part of which may need to be pacified.

In his recent speech at the conference on The Human Person and Nature in Classical and Modern India, Tarabout has repeated how "No place is free of occupants". Thus, while building something new, one needs to pacify these powers, especially insofar as several of them may be malevolent or at least ambivalent. Among the former are listed bhūtas, pretas (which are described by Tarabout's informants as malevolent due to their untimely death) and are violent deities, whereas among the latter are yakṣīs which are dangerous female beings, honoured as goddesses and thought of as the spirits of unmarried dead girls. Only the serpent-deities may remain and most gardens in Kerala have a spot which is left wild and where nāgas are thought to dwell. In an interesting document of the Colonial time reported by Tarabout a spot of land is said to be sold together with cobras, the sky above, the underground with its treasures and the corresponding part of hell…

I guess that ancestors (pitṛs) would instead be counted among benevolent creatures. Do you have any evidence of the contrary?

Furthermore, this background assumptions partly explain also why non-theistic religions such as Buddhism and Jainism did not feel the need to deny the existence of nāgas, devas, and so on, and why monotheistic Indian religions acted in the same way: these beings were not the object of a specific faith but were just part of the description of the world as it is. Thus, they did not compete with the Buddha, the Jina, Viṣṇu, etc., for their believers' hearts.

For the program of the Rome conference on nature, see here. For my contribution to the conference, see here. For a further contribution to the conference, see here.



Yes, in fact pitṛs or ancestors are benevolent in nature. Nāndīmukha [nānni mukh in colloquial Bengali] or vṛddhi śrāddha is an indispensible part of Bengali marital rituals. It is performed with a view to expressing gratitude to and seeking blessings from one’s ancestors [for more on this see Prof. Chintaharan Chakraborty’s Bengali book on rituals and customs, Hindur ācāra-anuṣṭhāna]. Homage to the ancestors is also paid through the ritual of tarpaṇa on occasion of the Mahālaya, which marks the end of the pitṛpakṣa and the beginning of the devīpakṣa, the latter being the time-period when the famous Durgā Pujā of Bengal is celebrated. During the upākarma ceremony performed on the full moon day of the month of Śrāvaṇa, the pitṛs are offered prayers to alongside the gods and the ṛṣis. However, according to Prof. Chakraborty’s book (p. 75), through tarpaṇa performed during śrāddhas, the entire universe [ābrahmastamba paryanta samasta jagat] is paid homage to, apart from ancestors, friends, foes, etc. Pitṛ-ṛṇa or one’s debt to one’s ancestors forms part of the triad of debts mentioned in the dharmaśāstras. Also the adorable nature of the pitṛs is clearly mentioned in Manusmṛti 3/193 and duties to the gods are deemed as subsidiary to those pertaining to the ancestors in Manusmṛti 3/203.

elisa freschi said...

Thanks Sudipta. Any information about the cohabitation of pitṛs, nāgas, bhūtas etc.?


Dear Elisa,

The following verse from the Manusmṛti [I/37] advocates a common origin of the pitṛs, nāgas and bhūtas, if not [even by implication] their cohabitation:

यक्षरक्षःपिशाचांश्च गन्धर्वाप्सरसोऽसुरान्।
नागान् सर्पान् सुपर्णांश्च पितॄणाञ्च पृथग्गणान्॥

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