Pattini-goddess, virgin, wife, and mother; folk deity of Sinhala Buddhists and Jains; and assimilated goddess of the Hindu pantheon – has been worshiped in Sri Lanka and South India for fifteen hundred years or more, as she still is today. This long-awaited book is the culmination 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 anthropologists 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 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. Obeysekere 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 folk priests, and the socio-cultural causes of these changes. He traces, too, the origins and diffusion of cult throughout its entire history, as well as its survival today.
Of psychological interest is the problematic status of Pattini as 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 chairman of the Department of Anthropology at Princeton University. He is the author of Medusa’s Hair, also published by the University of Chicago Press.
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