Pattini-goddess, virgin, wife and mother; the folk deity of Sinhala Buddhists and Jains; and assimilated goddess of the Hindu pantheon-has been worshipped in Sri Lanks and South India for fifteen hundred years or more, as she still is today. This long-awaited book is the culmination of Gananath Obeyesekere's comprehensive study of the Pattini cult and its historical, sociological, and psychoanalytical role in the culture of South Asia. A well-known anthropologist and a native of Sri Lanka, Obeyesekere displays his impeccable scholarship and a stunning range of theoretical perspectives in this work, the most detailed analysis of a single religious complex in South Asian ethnography (and possibly in all of the anthropology).
Since 1955 Obeyesekere has observed and participated in modern performances of the rituals of worship, healing, and propitiation in the Pattini cult, particularly the postharvest ritual known as the gammaduva. He presents detailed texts of the gammaduva, placing them in their historical and mythic traditions. Using the texts, he formulates a cultural analysis of the Buddhist pantheon and a critique of empiricist notions of South Asian historiography. Obeyesekere shows that some seemingly historical figures of South India and Sri Lanka are mythic characters and that their historical significance can best be understood by an anthropological analysis of myth rather than through a reification of myth in history.
The concurrent Hindu worship of Pattini with its myths and rituals is described in detail. Obeyesekere documents the Sanskritization of Pattini, the changing physical structures of the goddess's shrines from the 1930s to the present, the assumption by Brahman priests of ritual functions formerly carried out by the folk priests, and the socio-cultural causes of these changes. He traces, too, the origins and diffusion of the cult throughout its entire history, as well as its survival today.
Of psychological interest is the problematic status of Pattini as a virgin, wife, and mother and her relationship with her god-husband Palanga and his courtesan Madevi. Obeyesekere discusses the psychodynamics of this relationship in detail and explains its role in Hindu-Buddhist socialization and family structure. Further, he uses this analysis to account for local variations in the performance and structure of the ritual. The ritual of the killing and resurrection of Pattini's husband and her role as mater Dolorosa will interest scholars of comparative religion.
Gananath Obeyesekere is an Emeritus Professor of Anthropology at Princeton University and has done much work in his home country of Sri Lanka.
Professor Obeyesekere completed a B.A. in English (1955) at the University of Ceylon, Peradeniya, followed by an M.A. (1958) and PhD (1964) at the University of Washington. Before his appointment to Princeton, Obeyesekere held teaching positions at the University of Ceylon, the University of Washington and the University of California, San Diego.
Debate with Sahlins
In the 1990s he entered into a well-known intellectual debate with Marshall Sahlins over the rationality of indigenous peoples. The debate was carried out through an examination of the details of Captain James Cook's death in the Hawaiian Islands in 1779. At the heart of the debate was how to understand the rationality of indigenous people. Obeyesekere insisted that indigenous people thought in essentially the same way as Westerners and was concerned that any argument otherwise would paint them as "irrational" and "uncivilized". In contrast, Sahlins argued that each culture may have different types of rationality that make sense of the world by focusing on different patterns and explain them within specific cultural narratives, and that assuming that all cultures lead to a single rational view is a form of eurocentrism.
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