In this paper, I seek to reevaluate Victor Turner's related concepts of liminality and communitas in the context of Hindu ritual. The primary data come from an all-Hindu village named Goalpara, which is located in Birbhum District, West Bengal. The specific ritual in question is an annual three-day event performed for the village's main deity, Dharmaraj, the “king of duty”. Through ethnographic inquiry I argue that the events during the three days seem to reinforce Turner's idea of an actual abolishment of social hierarchy, since low-caste devotees of the deity seem to take on the status of high-caste Brahmans through an initiatory transformation. However, upon closer investigation, the transformation only occurs on the symbolic level. Close observation of the ritual in question suggests that hierarchy is never abandoned. In some respects, it is even reinforced through ritual action. Nonetheless, I argue that the question of a change in social status depends largely on the interpretations provided by participants in the ritual. High-caste participants suggest that the rituals reinforce hierarchy, while low-caste devotees insist that they actually become Brahmins in ontological terms, albeit temporarily. I conclude by drawing attention to those aspects of the ritual that support Turner's basic hypotheses about liminality and communitas. However, in so doing, I suggest that liminality and communitas are phenomena that are negotiated in ritual. They do not exist as a priori universal categories. By stressing the negotiated quality of liminality and communitas, I argue, the analyst is better situated to understand how ritual allows for low-caste members of the village to become empowered, thereby offering them the ability to speak on equal terms with their Brahman counterparts. Such negotiation during ritual potentially provides a platform for egalitarian action among and within the village's local caste system after the annual ritual period has ended.
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Acta Ethnographica Hungarica
2020 Volume 65
Magyar Tudományos Akadémia
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