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Death and Deification: Folk Cults in Hinduism Author(s): Stuart H. Blackburn Source: History of Religions

Death and Deification: Folk Cults in Hinduism Author(s): Stuart H. Blackburn Source: History of Religions, Vol. 24, No. 3 (Feb., 1985), pp. 255-274 Published by: The University of Chicago Press Stable URL: Accessed: 09-10-2016 19:32 UTC

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History of Religions

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Were it not better to give death the place to which it is en

reality and in our thoughts

? [Sigmund Freud]

As a source of Indian religious thought, death is

passed; no matter which historical period or cultural l

to examine, concepts lead to or from the problems it their cosmic purposes, Vedic sacrifices were designed temporarily and attain a full life span for men. A mo

of death was the goal in the philosophies of the U

dhism, and Jainism; it is this secret that Naciketas (in the Katha

Upanishad) asks Yama to divulge to him. And even the process of

samsira, the foundation of Indian thought, was first understood not as a rebirth but as continual "redeath" (punarmrtyu). Later, in the Pura- nas, death becomes a force (Time and Fate) that controls men as much

as karma and that Siva absorbs into his array of qualities. A final and

very different attitude develops in the devotional cults that enlist the intervention of a god to sidestep the problem altogether; there is Mar-

kandeya, who, by clinging to a lingam, was able to remain sixteen

forever when Siva kicked Yama in the chest and prevented him from

The germinal idea for this essay was presented in a paper read at the annual meeting of

the Association for Asian Studies, San Francisco, 1983. Field research drawn on in this

article was carried out in 1977-79 and in 1980 in Tamil Nadu and Kerala with grants

from the Social Science Research Council, the American Institute of Indian Studies, the Fulbright Foundation, and the Smithsonian Institution.

? 1985 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved.


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Death and Deification

taking his devotee. The problem of death is so pervasive that one recent study concludes: "Much-some might even say all-of Indian

religion is dedicated to the attempt to achieve immortality in one form or another."' After all, it is death (along with blinking, sweating, wear- ing garlands that fade, and standing with one's feet on the ground) that separates us from the gods. In the social world, if purity and impurity have anything to do with

the way Hindus perceive and organize it, death is all the more central

because it is the single most polluting human experience. And even if

the pure/impure dichotomy is not the organizing principle of Hindu

life, an opposition between death and life may be; this is the conclusion of several important studies of Sanskrit ritual and literary texts, and one confirmed by my own work with an oral tradition.2

This kind of rapprochement between classical and folk streams of

Hinduism is the guiding light behind this essay. To date, discussions of

the problem of death have been based almost exclusively on classical

traditions, the mythological and philosophical texts.3 Now, however,

there is enough published research on folk Hinduism (and tribal reli-

gions in India) to broaden the basis for discussion. As even the follow-

ing select and limited examination of this new data will show, the

popular streams of Hinduism, no less than the high-status ones, are centered on death. Looking at narrative, ritual, and iconography in

cults of the dead in folk Hinduism, we will see a variety of relations with classical Hinduism; in some places there is continuity, in others

I Wendy D. O'Flaherty, The Origins of Evil in Hindu Mythology (Berkeley: Univer-

sity of California Press, 1976), p. 214. 2 See J. C. Heesterman, "Brahmin, Ritual, and Renouncer," Wiener Zeitschrift fir die

Kunde Sud- und Ostasiens 8 (1964): 1-31, and "The Case of the Severed Head," Wiener

Zeitschrift fur die Kunde Sud- und Ostasiens 11 (1967): 22-43; Veena Das, Structure

and Cognition: Aspects of Hindu Caste and Ritual (New Delhi: Oxford University Press,

1977), pp. 119-20; Stuart Blackburn, "Birth Stories, Death Stories: Oral Performances

in a Tamil Folk Tradition" (1983, typescript). Compare Fr6edrique Apffel Marglin,

"Types of Sexual Union and Their Implicit Meanings," in The Divine Consort: Radha and the Goddesses of India, ed. Jack Hawley and Donna Wulff, Berkeley Religious

Series (Berkeley: Graduate Theological Union, 1982), p. 308.

3 In addition to the studies cited in n. 2 above, see J. Bruce Long, "Death as a

Necessity and a Gift in Hindu Mythology," David R. Kinsley, "'The Death That Con-

quers Death': Dying to the World in Medieval Hinduism," and David M. Knipe,

"Sapindikarana: The Hindu Rite of Entry into Heaven," in Religious Encounters with

Death: Insights from the History and Anthropology of Religions, ed. Frank E. Reynolds

and Earle H. Waugh (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1976),

pp. 73-96, 97-110, 111-24; Jonathan Parry, "Sacrificial Death and the Necrophagous

Ascetic," in Death and the Regeneration of Life, ed. Maurice Bloch and Jonathan Parry

(New York: Cambridge University Press, 1982), pp. 74-110; Alf Hiltebeitel, The Ritual

of Battle: Krishna in the Mahabharata (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1976),

chap. 10; Meena Kaushik, "The Symbolic Representation of Death," Contributions to

Indian Sociology 10, no. 2 (July-December 1976): 265-92.

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History of Religions


divergence. But even in the latter cases, folk traditions present a con- trasting and not a conflicting view.


But what is folk Hinduism? Certainly it is not an iso

rather one stream of the Hindu tradition; never trul

other varieties of Hinduism, it nevertheless differs from

tant aspects. Though we cannot wish to define folk category, we can identify its characteristic aspects.

furthermore, admit of gradations in that they point to as a word indicates a color that is only more or less pres The "folk" part of folk Hinduism depends primarily o

local control and prominence among certain social gr

first, in folk Hinduism participants and patrons tend to

geographically limited area and to be, in fact, the s

exemplary case would be a temple festival celebrated

persons resident in, or linked by kin to, the settlem

town quarter) in which the event takes place. An ex

localization are those folk temples or shrines that attrac

a large region; but even here participation and patro

overlapped. Folk performers may (and usually do) com

the local setting, but still they are controlled by local pa tion, however, does not mean that folk traditions are restricted to a

single locale; as a tradition, most are geographically widespread, but

their individual instances are under local control. By contrast, nonfolk festivals are usually controlled by a trust of far-flung, wealthy donors

or by a governmental board that does not participate directly in the

ceremonies. Thus the central difference is that the congruency between

participation and patronage in folk Hinduism brings to its events (though such things are difficult to gauge) an immediacy and an


Folk Hinduism also has a distinct sociological dimension in that it

tends to be found at the middle and low levels of the caste and class

hierarchies. High status groups sometimes do patronize or participate

in folk Hinduism, but this is atypical, and Brahmin participation is

extremely rare. Conversely, religious practices found exclusively among

high-status groups would not be folk. Note, however, that this does

not mean that these groups have no folklore; the proverbs of a Brah- min caste, for instance, are part of that group's folklore repertory. But because religion in India is so closely aligned with the social hierarchy,

its forms are readily associated with differential status. Practices of

high castes have high status, plus the authority of text and theology;

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Death and Deification

folk Hinduism has its own texts and theologians, but they are no

equal status.

Turning to the "Hinduism" or the specific religious features of folk

Hinduism, we may speak of the objects of worship and the ways of

worship. The first of these, the folk pantheon, contains several levels of gods and goddesses. At the top of the hierarchy, there is usually some local form of Siva, Visnu, or some lesser being from classical mythology

(Hanuman, Bhairava, Hariharaputra, etc.). Next, in order of progres-

sively more local deities, are goddesses often identified with some form

of the pan-Indian Devi (Sakti, ParvatT, Kali, Durga) but perceived as

belonging to the local area. On a third level are gods of even more local origins who are guardians for the goddesses or are otherwise associated

with them. On the last and most local level are those supernaturals

called "ghosts," "spirits," or "devils" in English and pisacu, bhut, jinn, pir, pey or some other term in Indian languages. Typically, these are supernatural forms of humans who lived or were

known in the locality, who died an unusual death, and who now are

worshiped. They may be helpful or harmful, are always accessible, and are usually meddlesome. When the worship of these beings is regular-

ized and elaborated with ritual, like the worship of other gods, there

emerges what one might call "cults of the deified dead."

Folk Hinduism is also characterized by elements in the worship of

this pantheon. These may be found in other Hindu contexts, but they

will not dominate there as they do in folk cults. One element, an extension of the localization in folk Hinduism, is that gods and

goddesses are seen as having curing powers that directly affect the

worshipers. Another element is that localization can become a per- sonalization: folk gods and goddesses enter into the bodies of their

worshipers and possess them. Pan-Indian gods, by contrast, do not (as

a rule) possess their devotees; even Siva, who is otherwise prone to ecstatic and "mad" states, does not usually possess his devotees but

only grants them "grace" (arul, in Tamil) to save them from an un-

wanted state of possession.

A third element in folk worship is an oral performance of the deity's

story. Stories are performed for deities at all levels of the folk pan-

theon, but those performed for the deified dead are of particular inter-

est because they touch the most local forms of Hinduism. In these

performances, the singing and music often serve as a catalyst for pos- session by the god of his human mediums. The stories themselves are typically accounts of the origins of the god or goddess, explaining how

he or she came to the specific temple in which the performance is

taking place. Furthermore, and unlike the mythological stories about

more pan-Indian gods, these stories are essentially heroic: their setting

is earthly, not celestial, and the main actors are human beings, not

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History of Religions


gods (though the human actors are often deified in the story). Finally

their theme is human struggle-the problems of love and death.

This last point is important because it explains why the oral per-

formance of these stories is the primary ritual in some cults of the

deified dead. At present there are fairly good descriptions of five such cults in which the dead are worshiped with the singing of their stories.

Two are in northwest India: the bhomiya in Rajasthan and the

khambha in Gujarat; the other three are in coastal areas of South

India: the paddana in southwest Karnataka, the teyyam in northern

Kerala, and the vil pattu (bow song) in southern Tamil Nadu.4 This

essay draws heavily on my own research with the bow song, but com-

monalities in narrative and performance suggest that these five cults

are of a piece. In particular, the narrative similarity between them

approaches uniformity; if personal and place names were suitably

changed, a story from one could be performed in the others. Though

reports of the actual performances are less detailed than those of the

stories, one shared performative element is apparent: the performances, like the texts, turn on the event of the hero's death, which is the ritual

high point when the hero/god possesses his human mediums.5 Different combinations of the religious features identified above give folk Hinduism its multiple forms. One common form, and the one that interests us here, is cults of the deified dead. But even in them there is

variation. However, the one feature shared by all cults of the deified dead is the worship of humans become gods. This makes these cults a

fundamental form of folk Hinduism and, as I hope to show, influential

in other forms of Hinduism as well. To understand these cults of the

deified dead, let us look first at the death that generates them.


To the well-known Hindu perspectives on death, the cul

fied dead add something new. In the Puranas (and in a

4 K. K. N. Kurup, The Cult of Teyyam and Hero Worship (Calcutta:

tions, 1973); Peter J. Claus, "The Siri Myth and Ritual: A Mass Po

South India," Ethnology 14, no. 1 (January 1975): 47-58; Komal Ko

Rajasthan" (paper presented at the Conference on Oral Epics in I

Wisconsin, 1982); Eberhard Fischer and Haku Shah, Vetra ne Khambh

for the Dead (Ahmedabad: Gujarat Vidyapith, 1973); Stuart Blackburn

mance: Narrative and Ritual in a Tamil Folk Tradition," Journal of lore94 (1981): 207-27. For related cults in North India, see William Crooke, The

Popular Religion and Folklore of Northern India (1896; reprint, New Delhi: Munshiram

Manoharlal, 1978), vol. 1, chap. 4.

5 See Brenda E. F. Beck, The Three Twins: The Telling of a South Indian Folk Epic

(Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1982), pp. 37-41; Gene H. Roghair, The Epic

of Palna.du: A Study and Translation of the Palniti rVrula Katha (New York: Oxford

University Press, 1982), pp. 27-29; Blackburn, "Oral Performance."

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Death and Deification

poetry) death is deified, but in these cults it is the dead themselves who

are deified. If elsewhere in Hinduism death separates humans from

gods, in these folk cults it joins them together. However, not just any

death has this effect; only a special kind makes the dead hero an object

of worship. First, the death must be premature, an end that cuts short a

person's normal life span.6 Second, and more important, the death

must be violent, an act of aggression or a sudden blow from nature.

Many deified heroes are killed in battle, some in less glorious conflicts; others (especially women) commit suicide. Lastly, the death that deifies is undeserved; the person killed is an innocent (if often fated) victim.

However, unlike the problem of theodicy, this deification does not

depend on the innocence of the victim. Indeed-and this cannot be

overemphasized-it is not moral considerations but violence that

transforms humans into deities. Although oral tradition tends to por- tray the dead hero as a virtuous champion, this is a later development

to win new adherents to a cult and not a quality required for the

original deification. This point was made clear to me while collecting a version of the Nalla Tankal story in a Tamil village.7 Nalla Tankal (the Good Younger Sister) was driven by a famine from her married home and returned to her natal house (now occupied by her brother and his wife) to seek help. When her sister-in-law insulted her and turned her

away, Nalla Taink! threw each of her seven children down a well and

then jumped in herself. During a discussion with people in a village

(the only one where Nalla Tanka! is worshiped), the question arose as

to why she and not the sister-in-law was deified. I suggested that, since the sister-in-law was evil, she would not be worshiped, but the villagers

rejected this explanation. "No," I was told, "the sister-in-law is not a

goddess not because she is evil (ketta) but because she didn't suffer;

Nalla Tainka might be evil, too, but we worship her because she suf-

fered and died."

That a violent, premature death is a prerequisite for deification in

folk Hinduism is also clear from stories performed in cults of the

deified dead. Whether in a short narrative about a household god who

(as a human) chopped up his brother-in-law for failing to repay a debt or in an epic recited for thirty hours, it is a sudden, terrible death that

6 On the significance of premature death for religious thinking, see Talcott Parsons,

"Religious Perspectives in Sociology and Social Psychology," in Reader in Comparative

Religion: An Anthropological Approach, ed. William A. Lessa and Evon Z. Vogt, 2d ed.

(New York: Harper & Row, 1958), p. 131. See also O'Flaherty, p. 212.

7 For a more complete discussion of the Nalla Tankal story from literary sources, see

David D. Shulman, Tamil Temple Myths: Sacrifice and Divine Marriage in the South

Indian gaivite Tradition (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1980), pp. 256-59.

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History of Religions


transforms a human into a deity. A typical example is a Tamil bow

song, the story of Natan Cami (Natar god), which I summarize here:

One day a young Nadar man happens on a burning funeral pyre. On top lies a

Brahmin woman, bitten by a snake and left to burn by her parents and relatives

who could not bear to watch. Suddenly, with his inner vision, the Nadar man

realizes that the woman is not dead and uses his magical powers to cool the

flames, and then extract the venom from her body. Waking up as from a

dream, the Brahmin woman declares that he must marry her: since he saved her life, and touched her in the process, he is already her husband. The Nadar

protests, but she is adamant and finally wins him over, and eventually their

families, too. In her village, however, other high-castes are incensed at the

cross-caste marriage, particularly at the Nadar's audacity, and plot to kill him.

Seizing him and tying him to a post, they send a petition to the Maharaja of

Travancore requesting permission to quarter him for violating caste rules. The Maharaja decides against their request, but in their impatience the high-caste men misinterpret the message and butcher the Nadar man anyway; following

this, the Brahmin woman pulls out her tongue. In the end, they both go to

Siva's heaven where the man is given the name Natan Cami and sent back to

earth to enjoy worship in several temples.

In other bow song narratives, death is similarly violent-men are

impaled on stakes, stabbed in the back, crushed to death with stones,

or cut down with a machete-like knife. Women are raped, thrown

down wells, or beaten to death, or they commit suicide to avoid these violations. As indicated earlier, similar stories about the deified dead

are performed in other cults from Rajasthan to Kerala.

Even more widely dispersed among these cults is the practice of

erecting a monument to the deified dead. All over India, literally from

the Indus Valley to Kanya Kumari, there are stones or wooden pillars

set up to represent the dead. From both ancient literature and contem-

porary reports, we know that these memorials are erected to people

who die a violent death-killed by an animal, in an accident, or in battle (usually defending against cattle raiders)-and to satTs (wives

who cremate themselves on their husbands' pyres).8 From the same

sources, we also know that the stones and wooden slabs are shrines,

places where the heroes/gods are worshiped. In the northern districts of contemporary Tamil Nadu, for example, the hero stones are named

8 See George Hart, The Poems of Ancient Tamil: Their Milieu and Their Sanskrit

Counterparts (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975), pp. 25-26, 42-43; and

Fischer and Shah. Hart has also argued that worship of the dead was a formative

influence on the development of devotional Hinduism in South India; see his "The

Theory of Reincarnation among the Tamils," in Karma and Rebirth in Indian Classical

Traditions, ed. Wendy D. O'Flaherty (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of Cali-

fornia Press, 1980), pp. 116-38.

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Death and Deification

after a local deity, Vetiyappan, and the sites themselves are known as

"temples of Vetiyappan."9 Even more interesting are the sculptured

reliefs on the stones, which visually present the death-deification

pattern found in the narratives of the cults of the dead. For at least one

kind of memorial, erected to men who died in battle, there is a

standard style of three panels. On the bottom panel the male figure is

shown in battle; in the middle panel he ascends to heaven; and in the

top panel he is either worshiping a god (usually Siva) or homologized

with him.10

A less elaborate form of these memorials to the dead is found in

those put up for women who die in pregnancy or childbirth.

example of this form is the cumai taiki (load bearer) found in parts Tamil Nadu. Built of three stone slabs, two upright and one across, t

cumai tahki is used to support the load carried by travelers on f

just as the dead woman carried her child. But not all these cumai tah

structures remain in their original shape. When conditions (finan

kinship, individual interest) are right, the three slabs may develop i a small shrine, surrounded by mud walls, sometimes with a wooden even iron gate, and covered with a tile roof. Now, the woman who d

in childbirth and was worshiped only by relatives will be identified w

a local goddess (usually Muttar Amman) and become the center

cult embracing more diverse groups. When festival time arrives,

little cumai tdnki will be covered with thatch and decorated with

embroidered cloth, banana tree stalks, and flower garlands while musi

ensembles perform before assembled crowds of one hundred perso

or more. Occasionally, at the base of large temples in Kanya Kuma

District, Tamil Nadu, one can find the cumai tiiki with its three stone

slabs still intact.

This kind of transformation has occurred elsewhere, too, for ex-

ample, at the Vithoba temple in Pandharpuir, Maharashtra. According

to Deleury, this major temple dedicated to a form of Visnu evolved

9 Ra. Nagasamy, Cenkam Natukarkal (Madras: Tamil Nadu Department of Archae-

ology, 1972), p. 1.

10 For the iconography of these stones and wooden slabs, see Fischer and Shah; Romila Thapar, "Death and the Hero," in Mortality and Immortality: The Anthro- pology and Archaeology of Death, ed. S. C. Humphreys and Helen King (New York:

Academic Press, 1981), pp. 293-316; Wilhelm Koppers, "Monuments to the Dead of the

Bhils and Other Primitive Tribes in Central India," Annali Lateranensi6 (1942):

117-206; Ethel-Jane W. Bunting, Sindhi Tombs and Textiles: The Persistence of Pattern

(Albuquerque: Maxwell Museum of Anthropology and University of New Mexico

Press, 1980); S. Settar and Gunther Sontheimer, eds., Memorial Stones: A Study of

Their Origins, Significance and Variety (Dharwar and Heidelberg: Institute of Indian

Art History, Karnataka University and University of Heidelberg, 1982); W. G. Archer,

The Vertical Man (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1947).

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History of Religions


from a simple stone dedicated to a dead hero." A similar case might

also be made for some of the great Cola temples of medieval Tamil

history, a few of which at least have been identified as funerary monu-

ments.'2 When we include the Buddhist stupa, it is clear that rituals

and monuments to the dead underlie much of Indian religion. A funerary foundation for folk Hinduism was first suggested to me while I was doing fieldwork on the bow song tradition. During a casual

conversation, an educated villager told me, "These [folk heroes/ gods] are all 'small gods'; they are dead people and we worship them like we

worship the dead." What he did not explain, but what others frequently

mentioned, is that not all the dead are worshiped as "small gods"-

only those who have died violently are. But a more important discovery

came later: the two groups-the dead and the small gods- are wor-

shiped with the same ritual materials and sequence. At least this is true for Natars, the largest caste in Kanya Kumari District. Though many Natars bury their dead, most burn the corpse. On the morning following cremation, the ashes are collected, washed in honey

and milk, mingled with fragrances, folded into a banana leaf, and

placed in a pot wrapped in a cloth. Near the cremation ground, two

small pTtams (rectangular mud altars) are shaped by hand, one for the

deceased and one for Ganesa. On the deceased's pitam are placed a

ghee lamp, the pot containing the ashes, and then an offering called the

pataippu (serving). This offering, arranged on a banana leaf, consists

of flowers, fruits (especially bananas), areca nut and leaves, liquor,

cheroots, and anything else that the dead person liked to eat or drink.

This pataippu on a banana leaf is also the basic puja offering in a

bow song festival. Every year in local temples, a festival is held during which all the gods and goddesses (as many as twenty-one) are fed pija, an act that gives the festival its name: kotai or "offering." In the pija

to the major deities, the pataippu is obscured, literally buried, by the

ponkal (sweetened rice), eggs, and meat (chicken or goat). But in the puja to the minor deities, the pataippu stands out, for it is the only

offering made. These minor gods and goddesses, moreover, are usually represented by a mud pTitam of the same size and shape as that used in

the postcremation ritual described above (though sometimes by a

raised mound of earth sprinkled with white powder). Even more sig-

nificant is the fact that this puja is called a pataippu and consists of the

same materials as those already enumerated for Nadar funerary rites.

Exactly this finding-that the offerings to ancestors are identical to

1i G. A. Deleury, The Cult of Vithoba (Poona: Deccan College, 1960), chap. 9,


12 Burton Stein, Peasant State and Society in Medieval South India (New Delhi:

Oxford University Press, 1980), pp. 335-39.

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Death and Deification

those for other gods-has also been reported among Tamils in two

other contexts, ancient Tamil Nadu and modern Sri Lanka.13

A more general connection between funerary rituals and worship of

ordinary gods has been described for Rajasthan by K. Kothari.'4

Beginning with deaths in the family and tracing the development of the

cult, he shows how the category "ancestor" shades off almost imper-

ceptibly into that of "god and goddess." The same phenomenon has

been observed also by writers on Indian tribal religions. In his lengthy

monograph on the Gonds, C. von Fiirer-Haimendorf explains how the

central ceremony for the dead (karun) is folded into worship rituals for

clan deities; not surprisingly, ancestral shrines often evolve into cult

centers for the clan gods.'5 A similar progression from funeral to wor-

ship, from deceased to deity, has been reported for the Kurichiya in central Kerala.'6 And in the most comprehensive study yet published

on tribal (or folk) religion in India, Verrier Elwin describes the connec- tion between ancestors and gods in eastern India this way: "Among the

Saora, the process of god-making never ceases

; every ancestor, on

entering the Under World after the proper performances of the guar

(mortuary rite), becomes one of the



This close relation, sometimes identity, between funeral rituals and th

worship of the gods is not limited to folk or tribal cultures in Ind

From an article by David Knipe, we know it exists also in the postcre-

mation rites of classical Hinduism: the sraddha rituals.'8 During th

highpoint of the sraddha ceremonies, the sapindikarana, three catego-

ries of ancestors-father, grandfather, and great-grandfather of t deceased-are worshiped by feeding them rice balls (pinda). Followi

these offerings, the dead man joins the ranks of ancestors and will be

worshiped in the first category, "father," when his son dies. This transi

tion bumps each ancestor up one level: the father to "grandfather," th

13 Hart, The Poems of Ancient Tamil, p. 82; Bryan Pfaffenberger, Caste in Tam

Culture: The Religious Foundations of Sudra Domination in Tamil Sri Lanka, Sout

Asian Series, no. 7 (Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University, Maxwell School of Citizenship

and Public Affairs, 1982), pp. 169-223.

14 Kothari (n. 4 above).

15 Christoph von Furer-Haimendorf, The Gonds of Andhra Pradesh: Tradition a

Change (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1979), pp. 363-93.

16 A. Aiyappan, "Deified Men and Humanized Gods: Some Folk Bases of Hind

Theology," in The Realm of the Extra Human: Agents and Audiences, ed. A. Bhar (Paris: Mouton, 1976), pp. 139-48.

17 Verrier Elwin, The Religion of an Indian Tribe (Bombay: Oxford University Pres

1955), p. 81; cf. the statement made by E. W. Hopkins in 1885: "It is not denied that t

Hindus made gods of departed men" (The Religions of India [Boston: Ginn Co., 188

p. 10).

18 Knipe (n. 3 above).

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History of Religions


grandfather to "great-grandfather," and the great-grandfather to the Visvedevi, the category of the "all gods" who preside over the rites and were themselves previously ancestors. Thus, Knipe's point is very sim-

ilar to Elwin's: ancestors become gods.19

Even without this ritual conveyer belt moving ancestors into the pantheon, other continuities exist between sraddha rituals and folk

cults. In the sapindTkarana, for example, the arrangement of the three

classes of ancestors is nearly identical to the lineup of deities outside a

small bow song temple. And the deceased himself in the form of a

pinda rice ball (later mixed with the pinda offerings to the ancestors) is

worshiped with the same materials-incense, flowers, ghee lamp, and

water-used to honor the minor gods and goddesses in the folk cult.

These continuities are not, of course, to be explained by any sort of

historical borrowing or derivation. Rather, the sraddha and bow song

rituals show affinities because they share the funerary foundation, or ritual attention to the dead, that underlies much of Hinduism. In

anthropological terms, both are forms of secondary treatment of the

dead: they occur after death and after the primary rites have been


But the two sets of rituals deal with different categories of the dead.

Among the castes that follow them, sraddha rites are normally per-

formed for all those who die a natural death (though women and

children are not as likely to be honored as are adult males), but the

bow song and similar cults celebrate only those who die violently and

prematurely. And these categories of the dead have correspondingly

different destinies. The natural dead become ancestors sustained

through ritual and sacrifice until they are reborn, but the viole killed are never reborn (though, as discussed below, they do retu

Furthermore, the social groups that support these two traditions ar

for the most part, different, too. Castes who participate in the

song tradition have relatively simple and brief funerary (both prim and secondary) rituals; none observe anything like the sraddha syste

Conversely, those castes (generally Brahmins) who follow the sra

ceremonies in detail are usually not involved in cults to local gods an

goddesses. Stemming from these differences, the folk cults and the sraddha

ceremonies have developed their rituals for the dead in different direc-

tions. The bow song, for example, has generated a large pantheon

'9 Ibid., p. 120. 20 On secondary treatment of the dead, see Richard Huntington and Peter Metcalf,

Celebrations of Death: The Anthropology of Mortuary Ritual (New York: Cambridge

University Press, 1979); most of their examples concern secondary treatment of the

corpse, but some concern rituals to the noncorporeal dead (see pp. 89-92).

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Death and Deification

(more than one hundred gods and goddesses in Kanya Kumari Distri

alone) who are honored with puja, long oral performances of thei

stories, possession dances, and other rituals. This folk tradition, in

other words, has developed the funerary base into that complex o

gods and temples usually referred to as village or popular Hinduism

The sraddha ceremonies, on the other hand, have developed the base in the other direction, into a system of ancestor worship.2' These variant elaborations of a common base of mortuary ritual are complementary,

for the bow song and the sraddha system emphasize opposite ends o

the human-god continuum in Hinduism. The folk tradition has created a pantheon of deities, while the high-caste practice honors a group of humans. However, when the mortuary rituals in the folk traditions an

the transition to divinity in the sraddha rituals are brought to light, th

full continuum-from human death to deified dead to god-is visible Given the nature of the Hindu world view, this human-god con-

tinuum can also be seen as a circle. Here the complementary nature of

folk and classical perspectives on the dead is even more apparent. I

the Puranas, epics, and law texts, the human-god continuum moves in

one direction: through the avatdra mechanism, gods (particularly

Visnu) take earthly forms and work in the world of men. Movement in the other direction, humans becoming gods, however, is fraught with

danger and meets formidable celestial resistance; human aspirants ar

corrupted, deceived, or beaten back.22 But, as we have seen, this deifi- cation of the dead is at the very core of many folk cults: dead heroes are recruited into, not barred from, the ranks of the gods. A combina-

tion of this deification in folk Hinduism with the avatara in classical

Hinduism forms the symmetrical circle diagramed in fig. 1.

Along the left-hand arc of the circle, humans are born, killed, and

then deified in Kailasa. Along the right-hand arc, gods exist (or are

born) in Kailasa and come down to earth for transactions with humans.

There is thus a continual flow between earth and Kailasa: humans go up, and gods come down; even the gods, though not actually reborn,

are caught in something like samsira. Finally, as the diagram suggests, this circular flow is a variation on the better-known cycle that connects ancestors with the living. This circular world view is based on a complementarity between folk cults and classical Hinduism, but the two are not mirror images of each

21 A third development of the mortuary base in Hinduism might be the state funerals

in Bali; see Huntington and Metcalf, pp. 130-32; Clifford Geertz, Negara: The Theatre

State in Nineteenth-Century Bali (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1980),

pp. 116-20.

22 See Wendy Doniger O'Flaherty, Women, Androgynes, and Other Mythical Beasts

(Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1980), pp. 66-68.

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History of Religions



deification/ascent avatara/descent

I Y ama Loka/ancestors J

death rebirth


FIG. 1

other. While the ascent of humans to Kailasa (deific

in the classical texts, the reverse-the descent of god

rejected by folk traditions. In fact, many cults cont

gods who are "born" in Kailasa and who descend to

their business and win worship; in this way, gods and

in a circular flow even without the avatara proces

tradition, for instance, neatly divides its pantheon into "cut-up spirits" (vettuppatta vdtai) and figures of "divi

vamcam). The first category consists of gods who

violent death, the second of gods born in Kailasa. Th

then, are differentiated by how they acquire the statu one must earn it, while the other is born to it.

Bow song deities born in Kailasa include the stan

Siva, Visnu, Ganesa, Murukan, and ParvatT (especial

but there are others who are worshiped more often. Th

lesser birth, born from some part of Siva's or Parva

sweat, tears, or armpits) or through their agency, usua a huge celestial vat that the devas keep heated in Kailas these deities describe how they are born in Kailasa, com

interact with human beings (both beneficially and n

ever, of all the events in their stories, it is this one alo

from Kailasa to earth-that is singled out and given kaildca varavu (coming from Kailasa).

If the birth and descent from Kailasa define the stories of these

deities, it is the death and ascent to the same place that define narra- tives of "cut-up spirits," the other category in the bow song pantheon. These stories tell how humans (like Natan Cami) are born on earth, are treacherously killed or forced to commit suicide, and then are "taken"

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Death and Deification

by Siva to Kailasa where they are given new names. Now deified, the

heroes/gods return to earth (like the birth deities) to avenge their murders and to win worship. Significantly, this last segment is ex-

tremely short in texts; instead, the death and ascent to Kailasa is the

focus in both narrative and performance. Yet, the actual act of deification itself in the narrative is uneventful,

usually on the order of, "They went to Kailasa to receive boons from

Siva." Fairly typical is the following excerpt from a performance

(which I recorded in 1979) of the Tampimar story about two brothers

(Kuincu Tampi and Valiya Tampi) murdered in the eighteenth century

in Travancore and now worshiped in a small cluster of temples in

Kanya Kumari District.

Taking out a little dagger,

he slit Kufcu Tampi's throat;

Cut like a goat or a chicken, "This is the end!" Kuficu Tampi cried,

And fell on the field

where his brother had fallen.


the two brothers went to Kailasa

to Lord Siva.

Their hands raised in worship

they stood before Mahadeva

and asked for boons.

Then Siva,

covered with snakes

many-armed and Lord of Kailasa,

Spoke to those who had died,

"Those who die a cruel death

have neither tapas nor boon; those who die by suicide

have both tapas and boon.

But, my Kuficu Tampi, those who die on the bloody field,

their purity is lost;

To rid yourself of impurity

go wash in that fire pit!"

But one should not expect that the deification process would be any

more important in these narratives. For giva, in granting new name

and boons, is only rubber-stamping what already has been conferred

on the dead by their worshipers on earth. When fortune or misfortune is attributed to the spirit of a dead person, and when formal rituals are performed to him, that person is deified.

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History of Religions



Behind the death-deification pattern identified in folk mat a basic question: Why are the dead deified in the first place nately, this problem has not been well researched, and our

ing of it has not advanced much beyond the theories o

Freud. One reason for this stagnation is that the only type to receive sustained scholarly attention is ancestor worship

this essay it has been shown that other Hindu cults of t

tered on the deified dead) share a ritual base with the ances

sraddha and that these folk cults diverge from the clas

elaborating their common base into a system of god worsh

sidering below some standard explanations for cults of t

ticularly ancestor worship, the special problems presented folk cults will stand out more clearly. One anthropological interpretation of ancestor worship, p in Africa, has been to see it as an extension of social relatio

afterworld. In this view, the authority of the elders co

death, assuring the continuity of the norms that govern so

and, as Goody has demonstrated, distributing wealth an

successive generations.23 A second anthropological app

sociological and more psychological. From this perspect

toward the departed spirit, ancestral or not, are the out

worshipers' personal relations with that person before

studies from this perspective, using data from South A

where, follow Freud in suggesting that the worshiper proje

spirit the hostility he felt toward the relative or friend (whi

worshiper's hostility then becomes the "spirit's" malevo

then must be appeased by worship.24 The aggression of

also be a form of secondary projection that relieves the gui from negative feelings toward the human turned spirit; w

23 J. Goody, Death, Property and the Ancestors (Stanford, Calif.: Stan

Press, 1962); see also John Middleton, Lugbara Religion (London: Ox Press, 1960); Emily H. Ahern, The Cult of the Dead in a Chinese Vill

Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1973).

24 Sigmund Freud, Reflections on War and Death, trans. A. A.

Kuttner (New York: Moffat, Yard & Co., 1918), and Totem and Taboo, trans.

J. Strachey (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1950), pp. 51-63. Important interpreta-

tions from a psychological perspective include Kathleen Gough, "Cults of the Dead

among the Nayar," in Traditional India: Structure and Change, ed. Milton Singer

(Austin: University of Texas Press, 1959), pp. 240-72; R. D. Bradbury, "Father, Elders,

and Ghosts in Edo Religion," in Anthropological Approaches to the Study of Religion,

ed. Michael Banton (London: Tavistock, 1966), pp. 127-53, esp. p. 150; Gananath

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

(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981), pp. 117-22; M. E. Opler, "An Interpreta-

tion of Ambivalence of Two American Indian Tribes," in Lessa and Vogt, eds. (n. 6

above), pp. 421-31.

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Death and Deification

attacks, the victim is unconsciously gratified because he feels he

deserves the punishment.25 Neither of these interpretations, however, can apply to cults of the

deified dead like the bow song and others in India. The first, the

sociological argument that worship of the dead transfers authority

across generations, is inapplicable because in these folk cults the dei-

fied dead are not necessarily kin to the worshipers. At an early stage of a cult, such as that described by Kothari in Rajasthan or illustrated by

the cumai tdhki in Tamil Nadu, the god or goddess may be worshiped

only by relatives, but this is not true for the larger cults of teyyam,

paddana, bhomiya, and bow song. In fact, in these cults, it is not

unusual for the deified dead to be of an entirely different caste from

that of the worshipers. Nor will the psychological explanation, based

on ambivalent personal feelings toward the deceased, fit the case of these folk cults. Most figures worshiped in them were not only un-

related to their worshipers during life but were even unknown to them.

How could these theories explain, for example, the case of Captain

Pole of the British Army who was killed in 1809 trying to take the Travancore lines, was buried on the seashore in Tinnevelly District,

and then (within a decade) was worshiped by local villagers with offer-

ings of liquor and cheroots?26 Neither social continuity nor psychic

projection could be said to have motivated this deification.

A third major explanation for the worship of the dead is based on

the concept of liminality. Are not the deified dead in these cults simply

pretas that were not given proper funerals and therefore are not

incorporated into the world of the ancestors? These figures are power-

ful and dangerous and worshiped, the argument would continue, be-

cause they are out of social and ritual bounds. This explanation is

more plausible because, unlike the other two, it does not require that

the spirit be related or even known to the worshipers. Still, the failure

to perform proper mortuary rites cannot by itself account for the

worship of the dead since not all who fail to receive proper funerals are deified. The liminality interpretation fails because it ignores the actual

type of death that brings deification. In fact, some of the deified dead in the bow song tradition do receive the ordinary cremation and post-

cremation rites. Finally, since the bow song festival (kotai) is itself a

form of mortuary ritual, according to this theory, it should defuse the powers of the hero/ god and transfer him to the ancestor category; but

this is not the case.

25 Gough, p. 254.

26 Rev. Robert Caldwell, The Tinnevelly Shanars: A Sketch of Their Religion, and

Their Moral Condition and Characteristics as a Caste (Madras: Christian Knowledge

Society Press, 1849), p. 27.

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History of Religions


A fourth, somewhat vague explanation for worship of the deified

dead identifies it as "hero worship." This explains the deification of the hero by reference not so much to his death as to his life-the fact that

he defended values and material goods important to the social group

that deifies him.27 Once again, this interpretation is not fully satisfying

because not all deified dead are "social heroes"; some are simply vic-

tims of violence, while others are more like villains. Folk tradition may

eventually, rather quickly, in fact, mold figures into the social hero

type, but this does not explain why they are deified at the outset.

For a more adequate explanation of the deified dead in folk Hindu-

ism, it is necessary to look back at the death event itself and at its

violence. Specifically, I would highlight three themes as keys to under-

standing the deification of the dead: (1) its (partial) triumph over death, (2) the power of the violently killed, and (3) deification as a

means to make that power accessible.

On the surface, the first seems curious. Surely death, if anything,

signifies a human defeat and not the reverse. Moreover, the violent,

premature deaths with which we are concerned would seem death's

most complete victory: its victims, as the theory of the unincorporated preta holds, are denied access to the world of the ancestors where they

could be fed and from where they could be eventually reborn. How-

ever, the deified dead do return. Though banished from the ritual

world of the ancestors, the victims of violent death return through

deification to another ritual world, the local cults of Hinduism. Killed

or murdered, these men and women manage (through the agency of

Siva) to return as gods. When their stories are sung in a festival, and

when they are honored with puja, death is beaten back, its finality

denied. Deifying the dead celebrates not a triumph of death but a

partial victory over it. Deification defeats death on the narrative level as well. Stories

(especially epics) about folk heroes/gods in India seem to develop in a

particular pattern by adding two primary motifs: a supernatural birth and then an identification with a pan-Indian god or hero. The effect of this pattern is that the human history of the deified hero is gradually

absorbed into a divine pedigree; often his birth and his death are

forgotten or simply explained away as a consequence of a prior curse,

vow, or boon from Kailasa. In this way, the deification process under- mines itself, for the ladder that human heroes use to ascend into the

world of the gods is pulled up after them-were it left dangling, others

might try to climb it. Even the stories of Shakyamuni Buddha,

Mahavira, and Sankara were constructed to establish the prior divinity

27 See Thapar (n. 10 above); and Kothari (n. 4 above).

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Death and Deification

of these "historical" figures, to show that they were, from the ver

beginning, manifestations of a transcendental reality.28

But it is not only a theological victory over death that deification

accomplishes. The fact that the deaths are violent gives that deification a more pragmatic payoff, too. In the bow song tradition, and in other local cults, the deified dead are the most powerful gods and goddesses; they may lack the status and authority of the other deities with divine origins, but they have a more immediate power. They are as powerful as death itself, perhaps because they met it in its rawest form; in other

words, the deified dead have become the violence they experienced. That force, driven inside them at death, then becomes a source tha

worshipers can call on to counteract other elemental forces of disease, disaster, and even death.

Violence and destruction, of course, are part of the Hindu world process, but much of Hindu philosophy and theology has been mar-

shaled against it. Even in the ritual realm, as Heesterman has shown death was rationalized out of the ancient Vedic (srauta) system when

the agonistic, violent elements were smothered by sacerdotal formula.29

This ritualization of violence is dramatically illustrated in a late Vedi

text by Prajapati's conquest and absorption of death (mrtyu), espe cially by their weapons: in Heesterman's words, "The 'weapons' of

Prajapati were the standard elements of the classical ritual-chant,

recitation, and (orderly) act

were typically non-srauta elements-song, dance, wanton act."30 Not coincidentally, these weapons of death are precisely the central ele-

ments of a bow song performance. Both the Vedic and the folk tradi- tions, then, achieve a victory over death, but by different means: the

classical ritual defuses it; the folk ritual embraces it. Indeed, violenc

cannot be banished from the folk ritual since, as the source of the

power of the deified dead, it is a necessary element in their worship

Instead, violence is brought within the ritual frame of bow song per-

formances where people can make safe contact with it and, possibly

direct it toward their own ends.

Here the folk cults stand against the felt need in Hinduism to isolate death as a polluting experience. It may be that village religion in South

Those of Death, on the other hand,

India and ancient Vedic sacrifice join hands in accepting the necessity

of death in the world process; it is true that both these ritual traditions,

28 See O'Flaherty, Women, Androgynes, and Other Mythical Beasts, pp. 67-68.

29 See Heesterman, "Brahmin, Ritual, and Renouncer" (n. 2 above), and "The Case of

the Severed Head" (n. 2 above).

30 Heesterman, "The Ritualist's Problem" (paper presented at the annual meeting of

the Association for Asian Studies, San Francisco, 1983), p. 4; see also O'Flaherty,

Women, Androgynes, and Other Mythical Beasts, pp. 133-34.

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History of Religions


both the ancient and the modern, are centered on the sacrificial kill-

ing of animals.3' And, as David Shulman has shown in detail, the sacrifice-the necessity of winning life from death-is the original

layer of the Tamil Puranas, later overlaid with concerns for purity.32 Perhaps the bow song and other folk cults are part of this early ethos

(continued, with Brahminical modifications, in the Mahibharata) that

did not shrink from death. But the Vedic sacrifice does not explain

much in the folk cults of the deified dead. The death in these cults may

be sacrificial and animal, but it is also unwilling and human. Death's

presence in them, furthermore, does not indicate the necessity of

destruction and dissolution in the world process; death is natural and

inevitable of that there is little doubt. What the folk cults are con-

cerned with is not the continuity of that process but the appropriat

of its power.

And it is deification that makes that power accessible-the fi

point in this explanation of Hindu cults of the deified dead. Here

preta-pitr model provides a useful analogy. Just as the embodi

subtle self must be made into an ancestor, so, too, the violently kille must be transferred to a known cultural category. However, they ca

not be made into ancestors, like the ordinary dead, because the

lence of their end makes them too powerful. Instead, another catego is needed, and this is supplied by some level in the folk pantheon lik

vettuppatta vatai (cut-up spirit) in the Tamil bow songs (and som

times by the term preta itself). Deification, then, is not just an hon

ing; it is also a category transfer that allows others to make con

with the power of death. Only when the violently killed are deified there established patterns for interaction with them. Thus the relation between folk and classical Hinduism, in terms of

the problem of death, is complex. As we have just seen, there is cont nuity in that both folk and Vedic cults involve death, but to differe

ends. This essay has also pointed to a more general continuity:

mortuary ritual base shared by folk cults and classical ceremon

There are contrasts as well: folk cults embrace violence, while the

classical sacrifice and philosophy rejected it. And, finally, there are

complementarities in the circular world view formed by the deification

31 See Olivier Herrenschmidt, "Le Sacrifice, du buffle en Andhra Cotier: Le 'Culte de

Village' confronte aux de sacrificant et d'unite de culte," Purusartha 5 (1981): 137-78;

Shulman (n. 7 above), pp. 90-93, passim. On continuities between sacrifice in the

Mahabharata and folk cults in Tamil Nadu, see Alf Hiltebeitel, "Sexuality and Sacrifice:

Convergent Subcurrents in the Fire-walking Cult of DraupadT," in Images of Man:

Religion and Historical Process in South Asia, ed. Fred Clothey (Madras: New Era,

1982), pp. 72-1 1 1; further discussion is found in Kees W. Bolle, "A World of Sacrifice,"

History of Religions 23, no. 1 (August 1983): 37-63.

32 Shulman, chaps. 3, 4.

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274 Death and Deification

of the dead in folk Hinduism and t


The study of folk Hinduism and its relations with the classical tradi-

tion is only just beginning. For the present at least, we can say that

these two streams of Hinduism are consistent in their concern with the

problem of death. Of course, preoccupation with death is not neces-

sarily a sign that a culture is pessimistic; it could just as easily indicate

the opposite. It could indicate that exuberance for life that unites

Hinduism's oldest, most esoteric literature with its most contemporary,

folk traditions.

Dartmouth College

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