Storytellers, Saints, and Scoundrels: Folk Narrative in Hindu Religious Teaching

Storytellers, Saints, and Scoundrels: Folk Narrative in Hindu Religious Teaching

Storytellers, Saints, and Scoundrels: Folk Narrative in Hindu Religious Teaching

Storytellers, Saints, and Scoundrels: Folk Narrative in Hindu Religious Teaching


Swamiji, a Hindu holy man, is the central character of Storytellers, Saints, and Scoundrels. He reclines in a deck chair in his modern apartment in western India, telling subtle and entertaining folk narratives to his assorted gatherings. Among the listeners is Kirin Narayan, who knew Swamiji when she was a child in India and who has returned from America as an anthropologist. In her book Narayan builds on Swamiji's tales and his audiences' interpretations to ask why religious teachings the world over are so often couched in stories.

For centuries, religious teachers from many traditions have used stories to instruct their followers. When Swamiji tells a story, the local barber rocks in helpless laughter, and a sari-wearing French nurse looks on enrapt. Farmers make decisions based on the tales, and American psychotherapists take notes that link the storytelling to their own practices. Narayan herself is a key character in this ethnography. As both a local woman and a foreign academic, she is somewhere between participant and observer, reacting to the nuances of fieldwork with a sensitivity that only such a position can bring.

Each story is reproduced in its evocative performance setting. Narayan supplements eight folk narratives with discussions of audience participation and response as well as relevant Hindu themes. All these stories focus on the complex figure of the Hindu ascetic and so sharpen our understanding of renunciation and gurus in South Asia.

While Storytellers, Saints, and Scoundrels raises provocative theoretical issues, it is also a moving human document. Swamiji, with his droll characterizations, inventive mind, and generous spirit, is a memorable character. The book contributes to a growing interdisciplinary literature on narrative. It will be particularly valuable to students and scholars of anthropology, folklore, performance studies, religions, and South Asian studies.


Swamiji lay in his deck chair. His legs, bare below the knee, were outstretched, but his eyes were alert. He was chatting with the assembled company about other Gurus. He had told us anecdotes about an eccentric saint, then about a child who was proclaimed to be the reincarnation of a popular Guru by some people but dismissed by others as a fraud. Like any day when Swamiji's doors were open, a motley array of visitors was present: Indians from various regions and castes, and a handful of Westerners. I sat among these visitors, cross-legged against the wall on the women's side of the room. A breeze lifted the curtains behind the deck chair and, suspended in the moment, I set my notebook and tape recorder aside to relax into the flow of Swamiji's colloquial Hindi. Yet I was soon shaken out of my lulled state, for Swamiji, leaping to another topic with his usual dexterity, now announced that there was a difference between the educated and uneducated. At this point his eyes, blurred and magnified by heavy glasses, became fixed on me.

"Suppose you and I are walking on the road," he said. "You've gone to University. I haven't studied anything. We're walking. Some child has shit on the road. We both step in it. 'That's shit!' I say. I scrape my foot; it's gone. But educated people have doubts about everything. You say, "What's this?!' and you rub your foot against the other." Swamiji shot up from his prone position, and placing his feet on the linoleum, stared at them with intensity. He rubbed the right sole against the left ankle. "Then you reach down to feel what it could be," his fingers now explored the ankle. A grin was breaking over his face. "Something sticky! You lift some up and sniff it. Then you say, 'Oh! This is shit.'" The hand which had vigorously rubbed his nose was flung out in a gesture of disgust.

Swamiji turned back toward me, checks lifted under their white stubble in a toothless and delighted grin. Everyone present in the room was laughing uncontrollably. I managed an uncomfortable smile.

"See how many places it touched in the meantime," Swamiji continued. "Educated people always doubt everything. They lie awake at night thinking, 'What was that? Why did it happen? What is the meaning and the . . .

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