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The Many Faces of a Himalayan Goddess: Haḍimbā, Her Devotees, and Religion in Rapid Change by Ehud Halperin

William Sax
Bibliographical reference

The Many Faces of a Himalayan Goddess: Haḍimbā, Her Devotees, and Religion in Rapid Change by Ehud Halperin. New York: Oxford University Press. 2019, 296 pp, 9 black and white photos, ISBN 9780190913588

Full text

1Not so very long ago, ethnographic writing sought to convey an air of scientific objectivity by means of a number of rhetorical devices that served to distance the ethnographer from those about whom s/he wrote. This was counterproductive on many levels, not least because the ethnographer’s own embodied experiences, feelings and intuitions play a very important role in what s/he writes about ‘the natives’. These days, expectations are quite different: the ethnographer is expected to include him/herself in the text and this is seen as a more empirical way of writing, since it allows the reader to better understand how the text was generated.

2Halperin’s book is exemplary in this regard, since it includes the ethnographer and describes his relationship with the people being written about, without distracting from the main topic, which is the contemporary cult of the goddess Hadimba, her history and rituals. These are approached from the standpoint of what the author calls ‘lived Hinduism’ – that is, the way in which her devotees contend with a host of issues:

the place of religious practice in communities’ and individuals’ everyday lives; the effects of modernity, capitalism, and tourism on traditional faiths and practices; the implications on the ground of the politicization of Hinduism under the rule of the right-wing Hindu government; and the engagement of Hindus with global changes, including climatic and environmental challenges. (p4)

3As an author, Halperin faces the familiar problem of how to integrate so many different narratives and perspectives on the goddess into one book. His solution is to offer a ‘multi-perspective and context-dependent portrayal of the goddess’, which starts up close and then moves out to more and more distant contexts. Specifically, this means that Hadimba is a ‘compound entity’ composed of various elements that ‘are constantly reshaped and rearranged as the goddess’s devotees reconstruct her figure in multiple arenas. What often drives these reconfigurations of the goddess are the many associations, encounters, and interactions’ that they have. I find this very convincing and nicely put.

4Halperin begins in Chapter I by integrating a physical description of the changing landscape with his ethnographic observations; in Chapter II he provides a wonderful account of local gods’ agency and political engagement; Chapter III illustrates the multiplicity of the goddess by retelling a number of narratives about her, which are not necessarily consistent with each other; and Chapter IV discusses her relationship to the character Hidimba from the Mahabharata. Here the author provides a good discussion of Hadimba’s transformation from demon to goddess. This fluidity (demons becoming human, humans becoming divine, gods becoming human, intermarriage between groups, temporary movement between the ‘categories’ etc) is quite typical of Hinduism and is well elucidated by Halperin. Chapter V summarises the controversies around animal sacrifice. Here the author’s discussion of what he calls the ‘co-existence’ of vegetarian and non-vegetarian practices is important, but has been largely neglected by other ethnographers of this region, including myself. His discussion of how the buffalo sacrifice fosters unity while simultaneously perpetuating caste divisions is particularly good, as is the section on local responses to growing vegetarianism. The sixth and final chapter, on climate change, begins with a summary of the academic discussion regarding Hinduism and ecology etc. Halperin shows that for local people at the time of writing, weather is a purely local phenomenon, for which local deities are responsible. All in all, this is a subtle and complex discussion of the tensions between tradition and modernity, religion and science. The author stays very close to (often rather inconsistent) indigenous conceptualisations, which is the correct approach for an ethnographer. Most importantly, his characterisation of local reactions to climate change rings true and is, in my view, clearly and persuasively written, viz

Villagers seize new opportunities, introduced by the cash-crop economy and a virtual explosion of tourism, and thereby enjoy relative prosperity, but at the same time they suffer alienation, competition, and a perceived decline in morality as a result of the new forces and worldviews advancing around them. Simultaneously, the gradual warming of the area has destabilized weather patterns, thereby threatening both traditional agriculture and contemporary sources of livelihood, and inciting new uncertainties and fears as a result. (p236)

5This is an outstanding book: very well written, with clear arguments and lively examples. It makes an important contribution to religious studies, to the anthropology of Hinduism and to the ethnography of the western Himalayas.

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Electronic reference

William Sax, « The Many Faces of a Himalayan Goddess: Haḍimbā, Her Devotees, and Religion in Rapid Change by Ehud Halperin », European Bulletin of Himalayan Research [Online], 56 | 2021, Online since 10 September 2021, connection on 27 October 2021. URL :

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About the author

William Sax

William S. Sax, Chair of Anthropology at the South Asia Institute in Heidelberg, Germany, has written three monographs regarding the western Himalaya, the most recent being God of Justice (Oxford University Press, 2009), and is nearing completion of a fourth monograph, tentatively entitled In the Valley of the Kauravas: Divine Kingship in the Western Himalayas.

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Licence Creative Commons
Les contenus de la revue European Bulletin of Himalayan Research sont mis à disposition selon les termes de la Licence Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International.

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