This chapter introduces the pilgrimage and the dominant scholarly perception of most contemporary religious actors as people unable to face the freedom and choices offered by modernity. Instead, the chapter argues that these young religious subjects are trying to master through practice and performance the norms, scarcity, and unpredictable outcomes of precarious, informal economic conditions at a critical point of transition into adulthood. It argues that representations of religion are often premised on an epistemology of domination that treats human beings as things, and in a teleological frame that knows no death. This chapter instead presents an orientation drawing on the finitude of being-in-the-world, and a psychoanalytically informed perception of human subjectivity and ethics, which operates as the analytical undercurrent of the book.
This is an ethnography of desperate household finances, participants' fears about the safety and health of their loved ones, affirmations of their moral sincerity and resolve, their desire to prove themselves, as well as tales of everyday humiliation and despondency. Weaving the empirical data with Weber's insights on the intersections between religion and economy, phenomenological theory, performance studies, and Indian metaphysical texts, it demonstrates how religious practice is a means of performing and preparing for an informal economy. The narrative places participants' performances, art works, ritual expressions, and the excessive labor of the journey in the context of their ordinary works (or lack thereof). Unlike exclusive formal institutions, which are increasingly governed by neoliberal rationalities, the religious event provides an open, freely accessible yet challenging stage for participants to practice and prove their resolve, gifts, and sincerity.
Scholars have often pictured religious participation as a kind of market exchange. But in the Kanwar, participants' express fears and anxieties regarding obligations for the life, health, well-being, and expectations of loved ones, expressly denying their interest in material gain. Analyzing such wishes, and the speech acts of the religious vow in the context of highly precarious living conditions and widespread suffering, this chapter looks at the role that ego deferral plays. Participants feel justified to ask for a divine gift only insofar as it can be seen as an obligation or gift to someone else. Engaging these concerns in reference to a customary ethic of care, and through conversations with Kant, Heidegger, Lacan, and Vedic texts, the chapter interrogates the dominant utilitarian notion of the "individual" to demonstrate a subjectivity that is from the outset relational and morally embedded.
This chapter analyzes the repetitive, obsessive, and mortifying character of the religious practices, showing how they manifest the dread of everyday life. I argue that there is a lack of representation of some of the most overwhelming experiences, fears, and desires of social and psychic life in dominant discourses of the nation, economy, celebrities, or individual merit. These forms of understanding suppress the concrete realities of life in the social margins, which instead are deferred, displaced to, and play out in religious practice. This analysis of participants' narratives focuses on personal historicity, and the profound lived time of the subject, as opposed to historical time with its focus on abstract collectivities, demonstrating the importance of an analytical approach which is alert to the continuities of religious, moral, and economic practices.
The chapter continues with ethnographic description of the author's journey, and corpses floating in the Ganga Canal while police officers turn a blind eye. Evoking the ubiquity of violence and apathy interspersed with moments from the exceptionally violent history of the region, it documents the tense moments where this "Hindu" procession passed through Muslim neighborhoods. Analyzing such episodes in relation to recent Hindu-Muslim conflicts, along with imaginaries of religious violence from India's medieval history, it shows that conflict over religion is usually provoked by interests of power and politics. Differences in faith take the form of actual violence only when stoked by statist actors seeking power. In a state where a politics of religion and identity has been systematically engineered through extensive organization, and where every political party tries to outwit the others in the diligent capitalization of differences, "religious conflicts" are inevitably the product of secular politics.
While the Kanwar obviously has a wide following, it is also frowned upon, and indeed reviled by a large sections of society. To mainstream ideals, these indiscriminate, carnivalesque performances, the low- brow culture of the Kanwar, present a poor, botched, illegitimate version of religion which lacks the composure of adult religiosity. In the context of a nationalist project, it comes across as offensive and uncanny, provoking disgust. While such aversion is partly an effect of postcolonial anxieties, national self-consciousness is itself driven by the uncertainties of a highly unequal and poor society. This aesthetic chasm is aggravated by India's caste heritage—a differentiation between the subtle and the gross, the pure and the abject, which is simultaneously aesthetic and metaphysical. The Kanwar thus enacts a conflict over habitus where sedimented hierarchies are overturned, and the stigmatized occupy the highways for several days, publicly performing its religious and sublime character.
Despite the complex social conflicts apparent here, religious practices such as the Kanwar are rarely treated in sociological scholarship as forms of "resistance." They are usually seen as substitutions for other, explicit social and political causes and interests. Anchored in an exegesis of rituals and enunciations in the Kanwar, this chapter advances an alternate understanding of resistance. I conceptualize resistance in hermeneutic terms, focusing on the temporality of being-in-the-world instead of an abstract teleological universal Good. Bringing the lessons of psychoanalytic practice with critical ethnography, this chapter argues that such re-articulation is indispensable for a radical epistemology that can make sense of new, global infrastructures of power and violence.
This chapter argues that an idiom of war dominates modern political consciousness. This leads into the characterization of religious subjects as calling for war, which in turn makes them legitimate targets of political warfare. There are fundamental misrecognitions—say in the vicissitudes of market fundamentalism, state terrorism, Cartesian Individualism— involved in such construction of the other as uncompromising bigots. Epistemologically, this is because of the apathetic treatment of the individual as just another entity, a thing, a commodity; a system of thought based on the cognitive, at the cost of material conditions. This chapter analyzes the discourse of Hindu nationalism and revisits the performative and moral significations of religion in reference to the realities of global neo-liberalism. Religion, its cries, ethic and order, are being called on here for existential meaning and predictability, the possibility of trust, community, and hope in circumstances otherwise bolstering a state of paranoia.