Oral Exegesis: Local Interpretations of a Bengali Folk Deity

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Oral Exegesis: Local Interpretations of a Bengali Folk Deity 1

" 'They had a lot of tests, you know....' '...they said a wise man could catch the wind in a net.' '....It was a metaphor for understanding what could be felt but not seen, but of course not many people understood"' (Davies 1983: 53, 54).

Returning to the Local through Oral Exegesis

The current interdisciplinary climate in academe has led to a call for broader, more transnational, studies of culture (e.g., Appadurai 1991; Basch et al. 1994). A similar call has recently gone out in folkloristics as well (e.g., Shuman 1993). Although I am in sympathy with this analytical shift (Korom 1997a), a methodological need to return to the local remains. While it is true, as Amy Shuman (1993:357) has suggested, that localized phenomena serve "larger-than-local" interests, it is equally true that these broader concerns have important ramifications in the local contexts within which translocal concerns are initially generated. Kirin Narayan (1996:182) has recently asserted that the potential ramification of focusing too exclusively on transnational cultural flows "is frequently to ignore the socially marginalized," those people or groups of people referred to as subalterns by a select group of interdisciplinary cultural critics based mostly in India (cf. Pandey 1995). Indeed, to recover the voices of such marginalized people is to empower them, to a certain extent, by allowing the victimized, the outcast and the poor to speak for themselves about their own traditions. Elsewhere, Narayan (1995a, b) has also indicated the need to make better and more extensive use of what Dundes (1966) once referred to as "oral literary criticism," those statements made by our indigenous consultants to explicate the implicit meanings of the items of verbal art recorded in the field. While not abandoning the general theoretical framework initially described by Dundes, I prefer the term oral exegesis in the case of religion, since it suggests the hermeneutic dimension of oral statements about orthodoxy and orthopraxy (cf. Korom 1992:61-77). By utilizing oral exegesis, we correctly move away from idealized and edited religious texts, thereby allowing us to look more closely at individual beliefs within a localized "galaxy" of meanings (Brown 1994:75-83; Gill 1987:147-172).2 In so doing, we place ourselves in a better position to uncover what Wittgenstein (1976) called "family resemblances" within a cumulative tradition (cf. Korom 1997b).3

My data from Goalpara, a small, all-Hindu village located in the Birbhum district of West Bengal, suggest that many of the individual beliefs concerning the elusive deity named Dharmaraj, as well as the multiple components of his annual puja (ritual service), are fairly constant. However, we find a great amount of exegetical variation in the subtle ways people talk about the deity. Because religious texts and oral utterances generate the possibility of many interpretations by a local community, an inquiry into individual understandings can enable a move outward from the individual to the community in order to address the larger question of the interdependence between "local knowledge" (Geertz 1983), worldview (Smart 1983; 1985:74-75) and belief systems (Kopytoff 1981; Skorupski 1978).4 Taken together, these three engulfing cognitive domains dynamically inform and construct the indigenous conceptions that underlie religious practices associated with Dharmaraj in Goalpara.

In essence, the study of oral exegesis is a return to an earlier emphasis on privileging the particular over the general because "specificities have an explanatory value" (Raychaudhuri 1988:345), which is, of course, the purpose of exegesis. Further, Karl-Heinz Kohl has suggested that the study of interpretation in small oral communities might enable us to account better for religious change, since significant transformations may occur in very short spans of time (1988). …