"Leave Everything and Sing to God": The Performance of Devotional Asceticism Open Access

Denapoli, Antoinette Elizabeth (2009)

Permanent URL: https://etd.library.emory.edu/concern/etds/r781wg17r?locale=en
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Abstract


This dissertation is an ethnographic performative study of female asceticism in the north
Indian state of Rajasthan. It offers a new model of Hindu asceticism and renunciation
through examination and analysis of what I refer to as female sadhus' "rhetoric of
renunciation," their song, story (including life story), and textual practices. These
practices create and express a form of asceticism that has been underrepresented in
religious studies on asceticism in South Asia. One of the purposes of this dissertation is to
bring this level of practice and experience--what I have called "devotional asceticism"--
to the study of asceticism and to show that devotion and asceticism are neither distinct
nor contradictory religious paths for the female sadhus of Rajasthan, but rather are
experienced as the same path/phenomenon by these sadhus. Since the Rajasthani female
sadhus I worked with think of singing, storytelling, and textual recitation as a form of
asceticism, it is important for scholars of religion to expand the boundaries of "what
counts" in categorizations of asceticism and to include these expressions of devotional
performance. These performances, too, constitute types of religious sources with which to
study South Asian traditions, more broadly, and South Asian asceticism(s) in particular.
Through performance, narrative, and textual analysis of the female sadhus' rhetorical
practices, this dissertation highlights the specificity of female asceticism in Rajasthan; it
also illuminates the complex and multiple ways renunciant devotional practice provides a
strategic and a constructive means by which female ascetics push beyond dominant,
textual representations of asceticism, and thus, distinguish their form of asceticism from
the authoritative Bramanical model. Through performance of their practices, the
Rajasthani female sadhus model their lives on the devotional traditions of north Indian
poet-saints ( sants) in the construction of ascetic identity and practice as well as exert
agency and negotiate authority as female ascetics in what is often perceived to be a male-
dominated tradition of renunciation. In its use of the lens of devotional performance, this
dissertation shifts the representation of whose voices are heard in the construction of
asceticism as a category that carries power and authority in South Asian religions.

Table of Contents

TABLE OF CONTENTS Acknowledgements..........................................................................................................vii A Note on Transliteration and Translation.....................................................................x Introduction........................................................................................................................1 The Context of This Study....................................................................................5 Devotional Asceticism as a New Model of Hindu Asceticism..........................19 The Context of Sant Bhakti in the Devotional Asceticism of Rajasthani Female Sadhus......................................................................................................30 Authority, Agency, and the Power of Performance for Female Sadhus.........42 Caste and Ascetic Identity...................................................................................52 The Rajasthani Cultural Context.......................................................................55 Organization of the Dissertation.........................................................................61 Chapter Two--Interpretive Foundations: Literature Review, Theories, and Methods.............................................................................................................................65 The Literature Review.........................................................................................66 The Theoretical Tools/Approaches....................................................................90 Ethnographic Methods......................................................................................110 Chapter Three--"By the Sweetness of the Tongue": Female Agency and the Performance of Asceticism through Personal Narrative...........................................134 Gendered Implications of Female Sadhus' Personal Narratives...................159 Narrative Patterns in Male Sadhus' Stories....................................................163 Conclusions.........................................................................................................195 Chapter Four--"Forget Happiness! Give Me Suffering Instead": Gender and the Performance of Devotional Asceticism through Popular Narrative.........................200 Narrative Motifs and Religious Frameworks..................................................206 Three Narrative Portraits of Female Devotional Asceticism.........................220 Performing Female Ascetic Lineage through Religious Narrative...............265 How Alternative Are Female Sadhus' Gendered Models of Asceticism?.....268 Conclusions.........................................................................................................274 Chapter Five--"Write the Text in the Heart": Religious Authority and the Performance of Asceticism through Sacred Text.......................................................276 Devotion and Satsang as Sources of Female Sadhus' Scripturality..............288 A Recitation of the Tulsi Ramayan...................................................................294 An Evening of Ramayan Satsang with Baldevgiri...........................................328 Gendered Differences in Rajasthani Sadhus' Textual Performances...........349 A Gita Performance with Gangagiri................................................................353 Conclusions.........................................................................................................369 Chapter Six--"Leave Everything and Sing to God": Gender, Power, and the Performance of Devotional Asceticism through Song................................................375 The Interpretive Frameworks behind the Power of Bhajan Performance..........................................................................................398 Bhakti, Brahmacarya, and Power.....................................................................403 Performance and Identity.................................................................................411 Bhajans as Resources for Female Sadhus' Performance of Devotional Asceticism........................................................................................416 Song Themes ............................................................................................416 Conclusions.........................................................................................................452 Chapter Seven--Concluding Reflections: Devotional Asceticism as a Model of Hindu Renunciation.......................................................................................................455 Devotional Asceticism as an Alternative to Brahmanical Asceticism...........457 Devotional Asceticism as a Gendered Model of Hindu Asceticism...............465 Renunciant Practice, Female Agency, and Religious Power..........................478 The Polythetic Nature of Devotional Asceticism.............................................484 Future Research Trajectories...........................................................................488 Epilogue..........................................................................................................................491 The Sadhus.....................................................................................................................498 The Songs........................................................................................................................500 The Stories......................................................................................................................537 Karma Bai Story and Song Performance....................................................................549 Select Bibliography........................................................................................................555
FIGURES Figure 1: Female Sadhus' Style of Dress..........................................................................48 Figure 2: Female Sadhus' Style of Dress (2)....................................................................49 Figure 3: Female Sadhus' Style of Dress (3)....................................................................49 Figure 4: Foreign Woman Marries Indian Baba.............................................................125 Figure 5: Two Rajasthani Female Sadhus......................................................................132 Figure 6: Male Sadhu Prepares for Hanuman Puja .........................................................196 Figure 7: Gangagiri Narrates Karma Bai Story..............................................................242 Figure 8: Ramcaritmanas Text wrapped in Ochre Cloth................................................297 Figure 9: Tulsigiri sings the Ramayan ............................................................................317 Figure 10: Gangagiri recites the Bhagavad Gita ............................................................356 Figure 11: Pratap Puri sings bhajans ..............................................................................454 Figure 12: Table of Features of Brahmanical and Devotional Asceticism.....................459 Figure 13: Female Sadhus during Satsang .......................................................................461 Figure 14: Gangagiri with Daughter and Great-granddaughter......................................463 Figure 15: Male Sadhus gather in front of dhuni ............................................................467 Figure 16: Lehar Nath sings bhajans with village householders....................................486 Figure 17: Author and Gangagiri in January 2006.........................................................497

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