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Lectures by Prof. Sukanya Sarbadhikary

The spiral conch, home, and body: An Everyday Phenomenology of Sonic Metaphysics in Hindu Bengal

Lectures of the Shivdasani Visiting Fellow
9 May 2019

This essay brings together decisive sacred archetypes of Bengali homemaking: sounds of the evening shankh (conch), the goddess Lakshmi, and the female snake-deity, Manasa; and argues that the sacred home, body, and world are tied through sonic metaphysics. It analyzes everyday home-ethics not simply through the European category of the ‘domestic’, but conceptually more elastic vernacular discourse of shongshar, which means both home and world. Thereby, it problematises notions of privacy and sanctified interiority of homes, women, and the nation, afforded by postcolonial theory. In understanding shongshar as a religious everyday dwelling, it analyzes (contrary) worship ontologies of Lakshmi, the life-goddess, Manasa, the death-goddess, and the twists of these imaginations engraved in the material contours of the shankh. Moving beyond the interiority-exteriority dialectic, I posit space as an aperture within the folded conch and vastu (home). The shankh, as a quintessential symbol of mongol (wellbeing), and its sonic turns, are analyzed as the material/spatial embodiment of shongshar’s daily texture, including both life and transcendence. Its spiral twirls are also critically linked to tantric ideas of the devotional body which is essentially constituted by and sensitive to various subtleties of naad (sound). Thus the materiality and audition of the conch, home, and breathing body are shown as cosmic counterparts, twisting through fertility and renunciation, interiority and expanse. Based on ritual texts, fieldwork among Lakshmi and Manasa worshippers, conch-collectors, craftsmen and specialists, and immersion in the everyday philosophy of sounds, I explore a new ethical anatomy of the religious home/body, reflected in the echoes of the conch.  Sukanya Sarbadhikary works at the interface of the anthropology of religion, religious studies, and philosophy. In her first work she did an intensive ethnography among different kinds of Bengal-Vaishnavas, focusing on diverse experiences of religious place and sensory affective discourses. Her book, The Place of Devotion: Siting and Experiencing Divinity in Bengal-Vaishnavism’ (University of California Press) was published in 2015. She is also passionately interested in the sociology and philosophy of aesthetics and music, and their relations with sacred embodiment. She is currently working on a range of devotional instruments and traditions of sonic metaphysics.

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Uddanda as One and Many: Meditation, Ecstasy, and Time in Vaishnava Aesthetic Experience.

Lectures of the Shivdasani Visiting Fellow
16 May 2019

Simultaneity has been a critical analytical issue in studies of Bengal-Vaishnavism and the theology of achintya-bhed-abhed (concurrent sameness-and-difference between devotee and god), but its exact phenomenology has not been duly developed. In this paper, I offer a meditative analysis of the term, uddanda, and also chitram and shavalya, to analyse whether Vaishnava emotional and aesthetic experience is one or many or both simultaneously. I develop the philosophy of simultaneity through the phenomenology of Vaishnava ecstatic dance, in particular. I primarily focus on a significant episode described in the Chaitanya Charitamrita, Madhya Lila, Chapter 13, of Chaitanya’s ecstatic dance (uddanda nrtya) with his followers in Puri (1512), before the deity Jagannath, on Rathyatra day. I use the term danda and specific connotations of it, to argue that they tell us of complex ideas of simultaneity: the dancing body as both meditative and mad, divine and human, and of times contemporary and others.  While the ecstatic dimension of uddanda nrtya has been highlighted in the said passage itself and in several commentaries, I am adding the issues of meditation and time in uddanda, for the first time. The linguistic and phenomenological universe of uddanda, as the creative interplay of meanings worlds including pole/stick, discipline, yogic concentration or mental stillness, momentum, emotional medley, excess, and time, produces tensions in the dancing body which are productive, essential, and impossible to overcome. The uddanda state has become exemplary in the world of bhakti mysticism, and been passed down through devotional texts and practices. So the paper also theorises the critical orthodox Vaishnava practice of manjari sadhana as an uddanda state, where the phenomenology of imagination produces simultaneities of times, selves, discipline, and affects. Finally, I reflect on exemplary incidents from lives of ecstatic saints, and ways in which they contribute to the discourse of uddanda.Sukanya Sarbadhikary works at the interface of the anthropology of religion, religious studies, and philosophy. In her first work she did an intensive ethnography among different kinds of Bengal-Vaishnavas, focusing on diverse experiences of religious place and sensory affective discourses. Her book, The Place of Devotion: Siting and Experiencing Divinity in Bengal-Vaishnavism’ (University of California Press) was published in 2015. She is also passionately interested in the sociology and philosophy of aesthetics and music, and their relations with sacred embodiment. She is currently working on a range of devotional instruments and traditions of sonic metaphysics.

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