Why we need an anthropology of wonder, which allows for social hope to grow in communities
An excerpt from ‘The Cow In The Elevator’, Tulasi Srinivas’s exploration of the celebrations of religious festivities in India.
Suddenly, an enormous, blinding-yellow lorry arrived at the temple gate, honking its loud “heehaw” klaxon horn. On the flatbed was a gilded, crystal-covered, peacock-shaped palette illuminated by rotating lighting chains that spun in a whirling dial behind the lorry’s cab. A huge klieg light mounted to the cab sent a single ray deep into the night sky. It was bedazzled and dazzling. The assembled crowd shouted, “Ayyoo! Nodu, nodu! [Kannada: Amazing! Look, look!],” nudging one another to take notice.
As the lorry lurched into the temple courtyard, temple-goers scattered and leapt aside. Dandu Shastri, the pradhan archakar – chief priest of the temple – took charge. He quickly organised the crowd of neophyte priests, devotees, and hangers-on and had them load the heavy clay deity onto the palette, which held a wooden mantap – pavilion – decorated with flower chandeliers.
Once the deity was loaded, the driver pressed a switch, and the sound of “Ganesha Sharam, Sharanam Ganesha!,” coordinated with flashing lights, blasted into the wet evening air. The delighted devotees exclaimed, “Bombhat! Su-per! First class!” They crowded closer, pressing me against the dented green fender of the lorry.
Seated on the cab, the priest Dandu Shastri noticed me and asked, clearly expecting a delighted reply, “Yeppidi irruku? [Tamil: How is it?].” As we began our procession to the nearby Sankey tank, a local man-made lake, I assured him I had seen nothing like it.
The procession wound through Malleshwaram, rerouting frequently to avoid construction rubble, evidence of the endless building of the city. Cranes and scaffolding rose into the dark sky, a lacy network drawing solid gray boxlike apartment buildings out of the earth.
Despite a rolling blackout and the dangerous pits in the street where the government had been inefficiently laying power lines for months, residents poured out of the buildings, drawn first by the ray of the klieg light piercing the sky and then the lights of the procession as it got closer. They prayed in the streets, bowing in submission, thrilled at the serendipitous darshan, or sacred sighting. Delighted with this audience, Dandu Shastri stood beaming on top of the truck’s cab.
An hour and a half later, we arrived at the edge of Sankey tank just as the sun, low in the sky, emerged from behind the clouds. At the water’s edge, new luxury apartment buildings gleamed, while in the distance the ghostly outlines of more tall cranes were visible, marking where a brand new skyline was slated to emerge.ADVERTISEMENT
Several other processions had arrived before us. Near the shore, all the activity had churned the water into a deep coffee-brown polluted by the scum and detritus of worship: overripe fruit, sodden flower garlands, torn plastic bags, cups, and dripping clay oil lamps floating in the water. The bands of devotees struggled to plow into water deep enough to successfully immerse their deities. Many gave up and deposited their deities too close to shore, only to have them sink partially, a portent of misfortune in the coming year.
From the cab of the truck, blocked from sight by the blinding glare of the klieg lights, I heard Dandu Shastri exhort the young priests, “Time bandbittide! Bega, bega! [Kannada: Time has come! Hurry up!].” The crowd parted, expecting – as did I – that a crowd of youth would swarm onto the lorry to carry the deity into the lake and submerge it.
Instead, the lorry itself seemed to respond to Dandu’s call. Growling and whining, an enormous mechanical crane emerged from its base and towered over the cab.
The tracks of blue spotlights outlining its frame lent it a surreal, unearthly glow as it slowly unfurled to a huge metal hook at its end, from which dangled the palette, the deity – and Dandu Shastri. The hook had painted omniscient, heavy-lidded eyes in the style of popular calendar art depictions of the god Shiva. The crowd gasped at the unexpected sight and rocked back on its collective heels, pressing me further against the cab.
The crane lifted the palette and the deity swung slowly out over the water. The devotees, now joined by several hundred bystanders, craned their necks for a better view as Dandu Shastri performed the leave-taking puja (worship) on the swinging palette high above the water. He garlanded the deity and the crane, hook and all, and offered the one techno-divinity, wondrous in its fu- sion and terrifying in its monstrosity, the sacred camphor flame.ADVERTISEMENT
The crowd roared their approval, chanting their hopes for the god’s return the next year, “Ganesha banda! Kai kadubu thinda, Chikkerenall bidda, Doddkerelle yeddha! [Kannada: Ganesha came! He ate all the sweets, he fell in the small lake and then rose in the big one!].”
The crane extended further out over the water, casting its kaleidoscopic reflections over the waves, thousands of blue-lit fractal images of the deity. Devotees around me clapped and exclaimed, “Ashcharya vagi idde! [Kannada: It’s amazing!].” Others clicked their tongues in surprise; young men emitted piercing whistles and lighting fireworks.
Amid the chanting, whooping, whistling, clapping, and the sounding of the lorry’s klaxon horn, the deity was released into the deep water, where it sank quickly and completely. Mrs Shankar Gowda, a local temple-goer and connoisseur of ritual, turned to me and gave a succinct and emphatic summation of the evening’s events, “Adbhutha vagi itthu! [Kannada: It was wondrous!].”
Beaming as he was swung back over our heads and deposited on solid ground, Dandu was clearly delighted by the success of the new technology of immersion. He stayed for the next hour, accepting the crowd’s congratulations and speaking to every single person.
What exactly is wonder? The Oxford English Dictionary defines wonder as “the emotion excited by the perception of something novel and unexpected,” and extending to an “astonishment mingled with perplexity or bewildered curiosity.”
As an essential definition, it brings to the forefront the little that we know about wonder: its extraordinariness, suddenness, and seemingly divine-like rupturing of the mundane. Descriptions of the experience of wonder are even less concrete: a sudden gasp of surprise; childlike amazement. Wonder is experienced as elusive and ineffable. In an attempt to grasp this slipperiness, Philip Fisher has defined wonder as “a sudden experience of an extraordinary object that produces delight”, which turns us toward the material otherness of the wonderful in an attempt to illuminate an accompanying primary passion that manifests as creativity.
The Western intellectual history of wonder recognises it as difference that locates sublimity. Beginning with the Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle, wonder was seen as the internal state of enlightenment, possibly cohabiting with a Socratic aporia, a disorientation of passion.
Platonic and Aristotelian notions of wonder were significantly different: where Aristotle seeks to dissipate wonder and move toward reason and knowledge, Plato attempted to open us to the passions, to vulnerability and joy, to a different kind of knowing. Both understood that difference provokes wonder. Critical thinkers who wish to link wonder and alterity in their cultural histories or ethics begin in this shared focus on otherness.
This curiosity about the other manifested in the nineteenth century, in the age of exploration and inquiry. Early scientists and doctors understood wonder as that which clung to the mysterious, fuelled curiosity, and edged the curious toward experimental knowledge. Wonder, to them, suggested new realities and new possibilities – a mood that can be created and sustained as a way of contesting the received knowledge of the limits to living, as well as a way to transform the ontological possibilities of life itself.
In the twentieth century, the religion scholar Rudolph Otto wrote Das Hielige (The Idea of the Holy), a treatise on the unknowability and ineffability of wonder. He argued that wonder returned one to a feeling of the “numinous”, which encompassed, in alphabetical order, awe, bewilderment, curiosity, confusion, dread, ecstasy, excitement, fear, marvel, mystery, perplexity, reverence, supplication, and surprise.
It is also a return to passion, as something not to be discredited as lacking reason, as in the Cartesian view, but to be embraced as an interaction with the inexplicable divine. Within Otto’s physiognomic context, wonder included not only “the psychological process of affect, but in turn also its object, the holy,” a knowable attribute of the “mysterium tremendum,” the divine.
The enduring history of wonder suggests a human need for it. “Deep inside,” as Lorraine Daston and Katharine Park suggest, “beneath tasteful and respectable exteriors, we still crave wonders…We wait for the rare and extra-ordinary to surprise our souls”.
I found the spaces of the temple and the people in them – who referred to themselves as “localites” – to be that surprise to my soul. Like Dandu Shastri, they were joyful, radiant, and full of a radical hope in the possibilities of the future, despite the everyday precarity of their existence on the margins of the global marketplace. They were anxious as they were buffeted by winds of economic and cultural change entirely beyond their control, and it would be all too understandable if they allowed their humanity to be drowned in the resultant sea of dread. But instead, they seemed to be linked at a level of wondrous and joyful knowing. They joked and laughed together as they adored the gods every day. They sang and worshipped in the hope of a new tomorrow.ADVERTISEMENT
Their joyful attitude put me in mind of a poem from the Taittreya Upanishad, which I include as an epigraph to this work. Written to be sung in a Sama Vedic musical meter, it is estimated to be some 2,500 years old. Toward the end of the text is a section called the “Bhrigu Valli,” which tells the story of a seer who suddenly realises his interconnectedness with the universe of creation, as both the consumer and the consumed, the eater and the eaten, part of the circle of eternal life.
The poem is filled with long drawn- out “aaahs,” termed dirgahs in Sanskrit poetic meter, evidence of the seer’s surprised appreciation and his wonder at the connectivity of life. “Haavu! Haavu! Haavu!” he breathes, “O Wonderful! O Wonderful! O Wonderful!”
Feeling wonder, as this Upanishadic seer understood, is a practice and a pursuit that forces us back on our intellectual haunches, as it points both beyond itself and into itself, crossing and recrossing, gathering and dissipating, forcing us into new ways of thinking and recording. An experimental regime of ritual in the pursuit of wonder fuels a sense of creativity and of radical hope that I felt localites inhabit in Malleshwaram.
But it is important to note that this radical hope does not merely arise in individuals; it is social, a wider net of tough-minded yet ecstatic inspiration to action to create the world of one’s imagination.
This radical social hope was unexpected to me, another wondrous surprise. As I watched the shining truck and the deity at the lakeside and heard the crowd’s ecstatic response, I understood that social hope is a necessity in neoliberal reality, for neoliberalism argues for a corrosive individuality – biographical solutions for systemic problems – that creates both alienation and constant dread. The hope I found in Malleshwaram created spaces of resistance to this corrosion of neoliberalism, while allowing for a pragmatic capturing of what might work in the moment. This radical social hope is key to anti-alienation, to a sense of feeling and being “at home” in the modern world.
And while hope created action, it is also true that action creates hope. I saw the ways that localites understood that in the everyday lay the opportunity for a resistance to neoliberalism’s deadening effects, as well as its joyful reconstruction into something bearable. Here was the everyday building of a resilience in the face of sudden and shattering economic and social change.
And so I argue that we need an anthropology of wonder, not only as a counterpoint to wonder’s rarified existence in Western philosophical and literary texts but also in order to think about wonder as grounded, as birthed, and as stoked by human beings, and which allows for a social hope to grow in communities despite and against the losses that living in the neoliberal moment bequeaths to us.
Excerpted with permission from The Cow In The Elevator: An Anthropology Of Wonder, Tulasi Srinivas, Oxford University Press.