Religion and Commodification

PROFESSOR VINEETA SINHA

Material objects are integral to the practice of theistic Hinduism. This book narrates the story of selected commodities, which also function as ritual objects, through their production, distribution, consumption and post-consumption moments.

Sustaining a Hindu universe at an everyday life level requires an extraordinary range of religious specialists and ritual paraphernalia. At the level of practice, devotional Hinduism requires the presence of specific physical objects as an indispensable part of its religious rituals. Traditionally, both services and objects required for worship were provided and produced by occupational communities. However, the almost sacred connection between caste groups and occupation/profession has been clearly severed in many diasporic locations, but importantly in India itself. As such, skills and expertise required for producing an array of physical objects in order to support Hindu worship have been taken over by clusters of individuals with no traditional, historical connection with caste-related knowledge. This disconnect amongst caste groups and transference of expertise to new individuals has been crucial for the ultimate commmodification of objects used in Hindu worship and the emergence of an analogous commercial industry. Using the lens of 'visuality' and 'materiality', Sinha offers insights into the everyday material religious lives of Hindus as they strive to sustain theistic, devotional Hinduism in diasporic locations--particularly Singapore, Malaysia, and Tamilnadu-- where religious objects have become commodified.

Everyday Hindu Religiosity

This project begins with recognition of the profound importance of ritual paraphernalia in the enactment of everyday Hindu religiosity. Hindu weddings, funerals and any number of daily and calendrical rituals, festivals as well as birthdays and anniversary celebrations are 'crowded' with things and marked by the colourful and lively presence of an apparently random combination of objects and materials which in fact do connote order. In fact, every item no matter how ordinary or small has a place and a value in Hindu ceremonial life. Starting with these observations, my aim is to document how material objects are used by Hindus in their everyday religious practices. Traditionally, in the Indian context, both services and objects required for the performance of rituals were provided and produced by Jati(s), occupational groups, charged with these responsibilities, the entire endeavour being ideally imbued with spiritual overtones and not approached merely as 'work.' The almost sacred connection between occupational groups such as garland makers, temple musicians and craftsmen, artisans and sculptors has been clearly severed in many diasporic locations, but also importantly in India itself, this being evident especially in urban spaces. As such, skills and expertise required for creating and making available an array of objects to support Hindu practices have gradually been taken over by clusters of individuals with no traditional, historical connection to caste-related knowledge, such proficiency having been relocated to the hands of entrepreneurs. Both the transference and disconnect just noted have been crucial for the ultimate commodification of objects that are required to sustain theistic Hinduism, leading to the emergence of a commercial industry that rests on the mass production of goods. The effortless and straightforward access to ritual objects is even more tenuous for Hindu communities in the diaspora as the resources and skills which are needed to produce them are not necessarily present in these locales. These rich and nuanced processes merit further sociological scrutiny in and of themselves but are further exciting in carrying enormous potential for theoretical reflections in a number of key fields of study, including the realm of everyday religiosity, the consumption of religious objects and material religion.

'Merchandising Hinduism'

The practice of Hinduism in a global, capitalist and disaporic context has created the need for a continuous flow and movement of religious commodities, and given rise to a group of entrepreneurs who have obliged, leading to what I am calling here a 'merchandising' of Hinduism. I do not use this word negatively here; neither do I use this to suggest the 'selling' of Hindu religion or spirituality. Rather, I mean by this the trading of a set of material objects as commodities, which are ultimately consumed as ritual objects by individual Hindus. It is further intriguing to ask if, and how, this complex process of commodification impacts the modes in which these goods are used in the ritual domain. The variety of objects required in the practice of Hinduism, and the fact of their incorporation into the global capitalist system of markets and commodities does mean their necessary commercialization, but this by no means leads to a desecration of the religious realm. For overseas Hindu communities, their easy availability as commodities, which circulate and can be exchanged across transnational boundaries, is not only enabling but often vital for sustaining everyday religiosity. In this project my aim is to explore if, and how, the unavoidable and inevitable commodification of 'puja items' impacts their ritual consumption by practicing Hindus. While I document practitioners' attitudes to this category of objects, I also give voice to the numerous retailers and merchants who trade in these goods and unpack the nature of entrepreneurial transactions they are routinely engaged in

'Diaspora Hinduism'

(The book is grounded in primary ethnographic material drawn from Hindu domains on the island nation-state of Singapore, parts of West Malaysia and Chennai in the Indian state of Tamilnadu. Theoretically, the project is contextualized in a broader awareness of 'Diaspora Hinduism,' a complex global phenomenon, which provides an important grounding for this research. My work rests on the premise that the analysis of Hinduism amongst overseas communities is a viable and dynamic field of study and carries tremendous insight for theorizing how a religion is practiced and sustained in locales far removed from its place of origin. Hindu communities the world over have constituted themselves in ways that have allowed them to sustain vibrant and energetic manifestations of devotional Hinduism, both in the public and private domains. Specifically, my intention is to engage with the issue of how one can meaningfully theorise the consumption of material objects within a Hindu sphere. But given my interest in diasporic Hindu communities, a prior question about access to ritual objects needs to be addressed: given the need for ritual equipment and expertise, how is it possible for overseas Hindu communities to continue to practice their religion at an everyday life level? Admittedly, the story of each of the items in the above-mentioned list is unique and merits independent narration in itself. Nonetheless, it is possible to make generic observations about the processes and mechanisms that render them accessible to Hindus in the diaspora and to further document their ritualistic and symbolic utilization. In the interest of specificity, I register the modes in which Hindus in Singapore approach material things that are commodities as well as ritual objects through a selection of three items that are central to sustaining domestic Hinduism - prayer altars (which house religious icons and insignia), visual representations of Hindu divinity (such as statues and framed pictures) and fresh flowers.

 

Profile

Vineeta Sinha is Associate Professor and teaches at the Department of Sociology at the National University of Singapore. She obtained her M.A and Ph.D in Anthropology from the Johns Hopkins University. Her research interests include the critique of concepts and categories in the social sciences, the history of the social sciences, teaching of sociological theory, sociology and anthropology of religion, forms of Hindu religiosity in the diaspora, religion and commodification, material religion and political economy of health care in medically plural societies. At the department she teaches the following modules: Sociology of Food, Social Thought and Social Theory, Sociology of Everyday Life, Reading Ethnographies, Sociology of Religion.

Select Publications

  • Religion and Commodification; Merchandizing Diasporic Hinduism, Routledge Religion, Culture and Media Series, London, New York: Routledge, November 2010.
  • A New God in the Diaspora? Muneeswaran Worship in Contemporary Singapore. Singapore University Press and the Nordic Institute of Asian Studies, July 2005.
  • Unraveling 'Singaporean Hinduism' Seeing the Pluralism Within: A Look at Three 'Home-grown' Hindu Groups.' International Journal of Hindu Studies, April 2010.
  • Mixing and Matching: The shape of everyday Hindu religiosity.' Asian Journal of Social Science, 2008.
  • Gods on the move: Chariot Processions in Singapore' In Knut Jacobsen (ed.), South Asian Religions on Display: Religious Processions in South Asia and the Diaspora London: Routledge, Chapter 11, 2008.
  • 'Hinduism' and 'Taoism' in Singapore: Seeing Points of Convergence'. Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, 39(1): 123-147, 2008.
  • Religious Studies in South and Southeast Asia' co-authored with Rowena Robinson In Gregory Alles (ed.), Religious Studies as a Global Enterprise, London: Routledge, pp 127- 158, 2007.
  • Constructing and Contesting 'Singaporean Hinduism', ed. Lian Kwen Fee, Ethnic Identities in Southeast Asia, Social Sciences in Asia, Monograph Series, Leiden: Brill Academic Publishers, pp 145-168, 2006.
  • heorising 'talk' about religious harmony and religious pluralism in Singapore' Journal of Contemporary Religion, 20(1): 25-40, 2005.
  • Merging different sacred spaces: enabling religious encounters through pragmatic utilization of space?" Contributions to Indian Sociology, 37, 3: 459-494, October 2003.
 

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