Uprising of the Fools
Pilgrimage as Moral Protest in Contemporary India
Vikash Singh



Illegitimate Religion

Several weeks before amāvasyā (new moon) in the month of Sāvan, millions of Kanwar pilgrims stream into the holy city of Hardwar to return with sacred water from the river Ganga.1 They often walk hundreds of miles ceremonially carrying the water for libations in various Śiva shrines across northwestern India. The journey is long and arduous, with devotees carrying water vessels hanging on a wooden pole; often walking on bare, bleeding feet; and following elaborate rituals. Frequently, the pilgrims will aggravate their travail by pledging, for instance, not to remove the apparatus from their shoulders throughout the journey or to cover a segment of the journey on the ground, moving one body length at a time. The kānwa, the structure comprising the pole and the water vessels after which the pilgrimage (Kanwar Yatra) itself is named, is usually decorated with tinsel, streamers, wicker baskets, tridents, and pictures of gods and topped with iconic Styrofoam artifacts.2 In addition to the walking pilgrims—profusely sweating, in pain, and often under the effect of bhāng or sulfā (cannabis products)—the Kanwar spectacle includes cavalcades of heavily decorated tableaux illustrating mythic tales in various art forms such as sculpture, paintings, and tableaux vivants. Camps are available at various places along the route, where volunteers provide the pilgrim, called bholā (simpleton/fool/idiot) after the patron deity Śiva (Bhola), with food, refreshment, and medical assistance.

There were only a few thousand participants until the 1980s, but the Kanwar has emerged as India’s largest annual religious congregation over the years; there were as many as twelve million participants in 2011.3 Young adult men of poor or lower-middle-class backgrounds from both rural and urban areas of the neighboring states of Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, and Rajasthan constitute a disproportionate share of the participants. On their journey to Hardwar, pilgrims generally use public transport, while they walk following ritual conventions during the return journey.4 Thus, for several weeks during the pilgrimage, the busy social landscape between Delhi and Hardwar is replaced by a vibrant community, a moving sea of enraptured pilgrims in ochre clothing, carrying kānwas with all manner of ornamentation.5 According to common (though loosely defined) beliefs, it is mandatory for participants to make at least a pair of pilgrimages; they, however, usually complete many more. In previous years, a majority of the libations would be performed at noted Śiva shrines, but as these sites have become unbearably crowded in recent years, an increasing number of pilgrims now perform these rituals at their local temples. While the Kanwar obviously has a wide following, these participants are frequently ridiculed, indeed reviled, by the urban liberal middle class, who find such vulgate religiosity disgusting.

For most scholars of religion and globalization, such movements reflect a “reaction” against social change. To proponents of the “religious fundamentalism” thesis, in particular, they amount to a reactive assertion of “identity” in the face of the inevitable, if rapid, changes of globalization. Peter Berger, previously an eloquent voice of secularization, summarizes:

[This is] one of the most important topics for a contemporary sociology of religion, but far too large to consider here. I can only drop a hint. Modernity, for fully understandable reasons, undermines all the old certainties; uncertainty is a condition that many people find very hard to bear, therefore, any movement (not only a religious one) that promises to provide or to renew certainty has a ready market.6

The explanation may appear hurried, but it is nevertheless widely shared. It brings alive a wide body of literature that could as easily claim the structuralist corpus of Ferdinand de Saussure, Claude Lévi-Strauss, and Émile Durkheim as it articulates itself through contemporary theories of identity and Anthony Giddens’s neofunctionalism. Globalization, this explanation goes, causes anomie, which pushes people into seeking the security of traditional groups, based, for example, on ethnicity, nationality, or religion. Religious movements thus arise in “reaction to globalization”; they are reactionary expressions of collective solidarity as long-held traditions, worldviews, and beliefs struggle to stay aboard amid the tumultuous exchanges of globalization7—religion “originates from a world of crumbling traditions.”8 This is a dogged if futile obstruction of the wheels of history, the inevitable progress of modernization. Prophetic binary battle lines are thus drawn: “the twenty-first century will pit fundamentalism against cosmopolitan tolerance.”9

The dubious epistemology of this notion of “fundamentalism” has taken a lot of criticism in interdisciplinary scholarship in recent years. Several theoretically complex and ethnographically situated accounts of religion, community, economy, and the profound diversities and sufferings of everyday life across the world have shown that the “modern” is a much more complex, variegated, and contested ground than abstractly represented here.10 These schematic treatments of religion have likewise been proven fanciful.11 In sociology, too, “fundamentalism” has surely become a fraught term; yet beyond a certain slant of appropriate symbolism, sociological discourse continues to be intrinsically defined by the vector of modernization and the apparently infallible logic of the market society as Reason.12

The strong thrust of such inferences, however, is fraught with many perils. An unusually felicitous combination of common sense and scholarly deliberation, the perspective is deceptive. Abstracting globally and authoritatively, at a distance—on the fly, as it were—such cognitive reasoning fails to reckon with the participants’ finite lives and their lived circumstances. It is a perception circumscribed, perpetuated, and patrolled by disciplinary mandates and interests that lead into a singularly one-dimensional understanding. This dominant analytic, as this book demonstrates, is bound by a teleological morality of “progress” referencing putatively “universal” social collectives existing in abstract, endless time. This is a pervasive tendency of modern epistemology; it is precisely this imperative that impelled Martin Heidegger’s monumental critique of Western metaphysics and explains the historic significance of his work. Heidegger states, “But what does this ‘reifying’ signify? Where does it arise? . . . Why does this reifying always keep coming back to exercise its dominion?”13

In South Asian studies, such renewed attraction of religion is usually elaborated in reference to the anxieties of Hindu identity and nationality in a modernizing social context. This explanation often complexly weaves together historical specificities, such as postcolonial anxieties, Muslim-Hindu relations, and issues of Hindu identity. Yet the core focus on the reactionary character of such interest in religion persists—it represents an unwillingness to change, surmount past affects and prejudices, and face up to new social realities and horizons. This book instead directs attention to the lived dilemmas and social conditions of participants dynamically embedded in social relations and obligations, navigating concrete material realities. It proposes an analytic grounded in the finite character of human life—that is, one that reckons with anxieties and moral obligations rooted in the finitude of actual human existence and the immediacy of social circumstances and expectations.

Listening to my respondents, closely considering their life accounts and compositions of the rituals, and participating in the journey, I found little of the chimeras of religious fundamentalism or dogmatic opposition to social change and modernity—conceptions apparently self-evident, second nature to scholarly as well as journalistic, statist, and activist readings. Instead of a fundamentalist reaction to social and economic changes, I witnessed practices that enable participants to perform, practice, and prepare for a new configuration of social and economic obligations. They reflect anxious social and psychological preparation for the norms, scarcity, and unpredictable outcomes of poor, informal economic conditions at a critical point of transition into adulthood.

These were young adults and teenagers anxiously preparing to deliver on their social expectations and moral obligations to loved ones in social conditions that were often as precarious as they were hierarchical and humiliating. In conditions where the overwhelming majority of workers are informally employed, with few employment, social, and health safeguards, and the prospects of stable and respectable employment or life course are for most faint and illusive, for many the steps in the pilgrimage rehearsed their first daunting steps into adulthood. At the margins of the economy, the religious phenomenon provided an open and freely accessible, yet challenging, stage—a definite and alternative field—for participants to practice and prove their talents, resolve, and moral sincerity.

To practice and prepare, however, are only part of the figure of repetition. To repeat is also to strive to master—to use the word in all its philosophical polyvalence and sociopsychic significance as Freud has demonstrated. The religious event is also a means to contest the symbolic violence and social inequities of a hierarchical society now dominated by a neoliberal social ethic, as imposing as it is exclusive.14 This work thus dwells on the paradoxes of performance and recognition in an informal economy; questions of morality and the violence of everyday life in emergent neoliberal conditions; issues of gender and sexual anxieties; and aesthetic conflicts that invite rethinking “caste” and “race” in addition to relations between everyday social anxieties, globalization, and the politics of “religion” and “nation.”


Subtending the life of the mind, the transcendental reference of its certainty as much as its immanent medium, for a long time at least in the Indo-European world, religion was both the limit and the medium of the consciousness. In these civilizations, notes the eminent French linguist Émile Benveniste, “everything is imbued with religion, everything is a sign of, a factor in, or the reflection of, divine forces,” and hence there was no term to separately designate it.15 Where Enlightenment philosophy may have aspired for a religion within the limits of reason alone, it was religion that had traditionally defined the limits of both reason and understanding.16 Religion was the self; it was also the disavowal, the mortification of the self in the face of the other, as well as its solidarity with this other; a term for scruples, hesitation, misgivings, out of an apprehension of offending the gods. In another interpretation, religio could mean being bound to God by a bond of piety.17 Now, in the dominant mood of late capitalism, this once “omnipresent reality” is but a frightening apparition, the sinister presence of a substance persistent beyond its death. Any sign of religion—a man carrying a Koran, a woman wearing a hijab, pilgrims on a journey, a person praying in public—stirs suspicion and fear. It represents madness, a threat of irrational action and blind faith, incomprehensible to instrumental rationality. Religion represents a power of violence, which this instrumental, market rationality, conveniently aloof to its own law-preserving and law-making violence, finds intolerant and intolerable.18 The war against religion must proceed by explaining the origins of this monster that has come from the dead—a hybrid, atavistic creature crossing illegitimately with modern social and industrial technology.

Of course, the demise of religion (often seen as an alienating world of illusions based on human projections of their emotions and experiences) in the face of scientific evidence and bureaucratic systemic rationalities has been a truism of modern thought. Religion belongs to that figure of “self-incurred minority,” a lack of courage and understanding where man is unable to use his own reason from which the Enlightenment exhorted him to come out. “‘Have courage to use your own understanding!’—that is the motto of the Enlightenment.”19 Breaking free of the chains of Christianity, its grip on the mind as much as on custom and society, in favor of the freedom of ideas is so important to the Enlightenment philosophers that Peter Gay is right to call them pagans.20 Here, religion, “of the priest,” for example, “is so evidently bad that it would be losing time to demonstrate its evils.”21 For the sociologist, who inherits the guardianship of the Enlightenment from the philosophes, secularization is a teleological, historical fact and often a moral imperative. By nature, sociologists have said, religion cannot limit itself but has to encompass every other function, which is not practical in a modern society, characterized by highly differentiated functional systems.22 Religion thus more and more becomes a case of personal belief as spirituality and disappears from the public sphere, with some of its moral sentiments informing modern state form as “civil religion.”23 In any case, the gobbledygook of magic, mysteries, and miracles, which make up the sum and practices of religion, must succumb to rational thinking. In his 1967 work, The Sacred Canopy, Peter Berger thus boldly predicted the final triumph of knowledge, of industry, the commerce between objects where religion itself, if it does not subside completely, will remain only another commodity in the marketplace.

Although positive about modernist social change, classical sociology of religion, especially of Max Weber, had a sober view of science’s ability to meaningfully respond to the moral dilemmas, existential agonies, and the many contingencies of human life. “Science’s own self-misconceptions, as the path to true art, to true nature, to God, or to happiness, would reveal themselves as so many illusions.”24 Thus, for Weber, rationalism can mean many different things, and most soteriological religions have been quite rational. “In general, all kinds of practical ethics that are systematically and unambiguously oriented to fixed goals are rational” because of their formal method and their distinction between valid norms and empirical evidence.25 Notwithstanding his functionalist understanding, Durkheim was likewise cognizant of the moral value of religion and the limitations of market societies.26 Persuaded by the ideological power of the market and the dominance of the economists, later sociological studies have habitually shirked off any such care, seeing market exchanges as synonymous with reason.27 Quite in sync with the purposive rationalization of every domain of society by market forces and bureaucratic order, social scientists definitively buried religion as an irrational and archaic thing that did not belong to the modern public space.

In the 1980s, when religion demonstrated a new vitality in one country after another, in politics as much as in popular practice, breaking out of the “private” in which it had been interred in conflict with the power and reason of the state and market, sociologists were surely caught off guard.28 True believers in reason, they hurriedly probed for rational explanations to this unexpected development. Some galvanized new defenses for a stronger secularization thesis, and others found it wiser to substantively qualify it; yet others, including Berger, famously rejecting his previous prophecies, argued that secularization itself had provoked this “worldwide resurgence of religion.”29 Notwithstanding the apparent differences, a near consensus aligned to the dominant contours of a normative sociological model soon evolved. “Modernity tends to undermine the taken-for-granted certainties by which people lived through most of history,” says Berger without quite explaining this term “certainty.”30 Clearly, “uncertainty” here is predominantly perceived as a cognitive quality; for, of course, who would say, for example, that there were no material uncertainties before capitalism?31 Uncertainty, in this discourse, is caused by the disturbance of the sense of belonging in stable social practices. This cognitivist explanation of the function that religion is called on to serve amid the dynamism of modernity, its industry and radical sociopolitical achievements, receives a more assured voice in Bauman as he argues that the appeal of religious fundamentalism—and indeed contemporary religion—lies in its promise to “emancipate” from the “agonies of choice . . . those who find the burden of individual freedom excessive and unbearable.”32

According to Bauman, in the paradise of consumerism that is the postmodern world, all mysteries of death and experience have become routine and regulated, and eschatological concerns no longer occupy people who, when not actively seeking peak experiences, ultimate sensations, are only wishing or obliged to go about business as usual. Religion, in its postmodern form—that is, religious fundamentalism, which “usually refers to any sort of passionate religious movement”—appeals only to those unable to compete in the great game of the market, “left behind in the scramble for entry tickets to the consumers’ party.”33 Thus, Bauman cites Gilles Kepel to describe such religious subjects as

true children of our time: unwanted children, perhaps bastards of computerization and unemployment or of the population explosion and increasing literacy, and their cries and complaints in these closing years of the century spur us to seek out their parentage and to retrace their unacknowledged genealogy.34

These scholars could not have been more true to the extensive genealogy of children and miscegenation in Enlightenment thought. From John Locke to Immanuel Kant, man’s entitlement to freedom has been argued based on his status as a rational adult. The savage, the nonwhite, on the other hand, is an irrational child who could hardly be trusted with freedom. We thus have quite an epistemological tradition to take stock of such children, the other “races”—Thomas Hobbes’s savages in justifiable servitude since they would not resist to death, Locke’s irrational individuals and captives of a just war, David Hume’s “naturally inferior,” James Mill’s “hideous,” and Kant’s “stupid.”35 These savages, these children, like some fictitious dwellers of a Platonic cave, are unable to bear the light of the sun and rush back to find solace in the embryonic darkness of the cave.

These misbegotten, illegitimate children—Bauman, the sociologist, never really cares to ask how many of them there are. In this social order framed by the peak experiences of hyperconsumerism—their thoroughbred quality, of being true representatives of their epoch—any inability or unwillingness to immerse themselves in this particular game (of which Bauman can claim to know everything insofar as this is offered as a transparent, shining game) can only be a sign of miscegenation, of illegitimacy, of unworthy parentage. However, let us not forget the numbers here: about half of the people in the world live on less than $2.50 a day; more than 80 percent, on less than $10.00 (95 percent in non-Western countries), a brazen minimum one may benchmark for being a part of this world defining hyperconsumerist party.36 Except, arguably, for Western Europe and a small proportion of the global elite, Berger notes in his new orientation, the world is as “furiously religious” as it has ever been.37 We then have a world brimming with illegitimate people, people of doubtful parentage, the merit of whose choices and practices is hard to recognize in any legitimate ancestry—political, economic, ideological, or biological.

According to Bauman, the possibilities of postmodern culture have put the peak experiences, “once the privilege of the ‘aristocracy of culture’” (saints, mystics, ascetic monks, etc.) “in every individual’s reach . . . as the product of a life devoted to the art of consumer self-indulgence.”38 Referring, however, to peak sensual enjoyment in the hyperconsumerist culture portrayed in Bauman as the only genuine representation of this epoch, an entity fascinated by and performing to reflections in an object-world—of course, at work in the background is the neoliberal hyperrationality of the state and the corporation—one has to ask whether this involves a complete absorption as presence, an instantaneous identification, that is, if the entity has ceased to be temporally extended. Has the pleasure of these sensations been dissociated from any sense of pain, suffering, any prospect or possibility of relation to others, to the world, or to death; is this power, “infinite human potency,” without a trace of any “weakness,” any lack; is it a complete eclipse of lived time, of being-in-the-world?

In this consumerist utopia, one may indeed see how the symbolic order addresses, incorporates human experience; however, to describe this as a true representation of the Real is perhaps as misplaced as the comparison that Bauman makes with the past through the sweeping characterization of religion as focused on the “perpetual insufficiency” of the human.39 Insofar as in this “postmodern culture” there remains any concern for others, for an otherness beyond all others, any acknowledgment of a lack of absolute knowledge, insofar as there still resides the possibility of a sociality that is not completely mesmerized by the order of the system or the object, insofar as the object itself remains a product of work and labor, are we not already in the realm of the religious?

This book tells the story of one such group of “children”—religion’s illegitimate children that reason matured must dismiss as “hooligans” and “miscreants,” with no ethics and “rules to follow,” hardly capable of understanding religion, “a strange mix of tradition and modernity,” disorderly proto-fascist scoundrels with no social status.


From the contemporary sociological perspective, the Kanwar can only be a reactive assertion of ethnic, religious, or national (postcolonial) identity in a modernizing social context. Adopting a normative sociological language focused on collectivities, such a conclusion is unavoidable; if it is on the collective defined by solidarity or identity that the sociologist predicates her practice, this is what she will by definition collapse the phenomenon into. Yet both these figures are preconceived in abstract opposition to macrohistorical, teleological notions of secularist progress and civic liberalism. As the binary counterpart to this “collective” stands the notion of the “individual.” Drawing from Cartesian metaphysics, this conception of the individual prioritizes a utilitarian cognitive interest in the world—the thing, the other, or indeed the self—and is predicated on a certain economy, whether of thinking, of volition, or of goods formulated in the idiom of mastery.40

One of the primary anchors, the conditions of possibility, of this story is a consistent refusal to consider religion as a distinct domain of social life but as always implicated in economic, political, psychological, or cultural concerns. After all, the person who suffers the excesses of the economy or the harshness of power and history, whose status and identity are ascribed in a global, near-incomprehensible network of social relations, is the same person who continues to walk—among millions—carrying the sacred water for Śiva’s libations, even as his feet bleed and limbs refuse another step. Allied with such insistence on the necessary interconnectedness of life performances is the imperative not to closet them into a disciplinary or subdisciplinary enclosure such as “sociology of religion” or “anthropology of pilgrimage”—that is, an institutionally recognized social fact.

Such iconoclasm must begin with disciplinary boundaries themselves. The mandate of sociology, Durkheim (the father) had argued, scrupulously differentiating the subject matter of the discipline from biology and psychology, was to study “social facts,” an objective entity—“a new species and to them must be exclusively assigned the term social.”41 And if sociology has developed and expanded various offshoots over its historical course, it finds itself nevertheless obligated to the promise, the assurance, and the apparent profundity of its paternal origins. The stigma faced by the heretic is a social fact: no good can come from violating the father’s law. If Durkheim, however, would “exclusively” reserve the “social,” as a property belonging to the family of sociologists, it is precisely the interests of the family (and a political economy, an ethics, an ontology predicated on it) that perhaps one must renounce to approach the condition of the human today—by definition, a “social” condition. Thus, I may be accused of violating the law of the father twice over. First, I will be approaching the very domain of the psychic from which Durkheim most struggled to break sociology free. Second, in appealing to psychoanalysis, I will be subjecting the “social” to an analytical tradition found to be in breach of the father’s law and authority from the outset.

The trajectories and closures of academic disciplines are, however, no accidents. In this case, they are related to the historical dominance of functionalist and cognitivist orientations in the social sciences.42 Thus, sociological narratives of contemporary religion are often defined by grand abstract questions of the function and logical (im)possibility of religion in modernity, where both “religion” and the “modern” may be often employed as monolithic terms with self-evident meanings.43 Accordingly, contemporary religiosity may be characterized as fundamentalist and anachronistic, traced either to “postmodern” social processes or “primitive,” “irrational” psychological processes.44 Others would argue religious behavior as a “rational choice,” using the terms “reason” or “rationality” in a manner that is both colloquial and characteristic of Chicago School neoliberalism.45 The notion “rationality” may thus be used adroitly either to positively assert the instrumental, self-centeredness of a Cartesian entity in some places or to negatively exclude only the absurd in other cases.46

The growing interest in religious practices today is usually explained in terms of the cognitive dissociations and cultural threats of globalization.47 Rarely are these formulations based on thick and considered ethnographic work on religious practices and the social and existential contexts in which they are embedded. That “local” task is left to anthropologists—who carry the extra methodological and historical burden of navigating the wide chasm that separates the researcher from the object of research on distant shores, in apparently “another” time—even as sociologists and political scientists devise often sweeping, abstract statements on religious practices across the globe.48 Demonstrating the importance of a reflexive sociological methodology that is alert to the continuities of religious, moral, and economic practices and adopts an embedded analytical orientation that wards off reified subject and object divides is one of the objectives of this book. My primary goal, however, is to read, articulate, and reflect on lived social experiences as they are performed in these religious practices in contemporary India and, by extension, in the global South. Accordingly, my choice of literature is eclectic and multidisciplinary.

A clear break with the contemporary sociology of religion aside, this book is founded on the solid grounds of classical sociology, particularly the sociology of Max Weber, which clearly rests on considering religion, economy, morality, and social conflict and recognition together as more or less inseparable constituents of subjective integrity.49 Speaking of “religion” in the Kanwar outside its embeddedness in moral, economic, and sexual concerns would have been as meaningless as Weber describing the religious beliefs of the Calvinists, or of soteriological religions in general, devoid of their moral, social, and economic significance.50 While this departure may appear deceptively minor, following through with such an integral perspective in the context of the contemporary academic culture of expertise has been a challenging task, requiring something of a gestalt switch.51

The realization of this departure was conditional on another departure, the core of which is perhaps best illustrated by the Heideggerian movement from historical Time, an abstract collective temporality, to the temporality of Dasein; from considering people as things, present-at-hand to the anxieties of being human, from the individual contemplating the world detached and from a distance, to one anxiously embedded in social and material conditions and obligations and subject to all the risks and responsibilities thereof.52 To understand the Kanwar performances, it was critical to shift from a hermeneutic that privileges abstract collectives and a teleological universal Good, which is deeply ingrained in sociological discourse and practice—although the Hegelian dialectic of the World Spirit is surely its most eloquent illustration—to instead center on the temporality of being-in-the-world.53

While Hegel’s teleological universality is primarily a product of his immense interest in the progressive concretion or externalization of the Spirit and historical growth of self-consciousness as knowledge in a rather infinite progression of collective Time, Heidegger may be credited with bringing philosophical attention back to the finitude of human existence. He advocates looking first and foremost to the temporality of Dasein, being-in-the-world with one another in relations of care, concern, and solicitude. This conception is embedded in a fundamental critique of the Cartesian notion (followed through from Plato to Hegel) of the subject, which exists in the world in distance from other entities, including humans, and relates to them as but things, present-at-hand.54 Instead, Dasein is always already affectively existent in the world with other entities, other human beings. From an analytical perspective, this time comes before any expectations of sacrifice for an abstract collective history—such as for political ideals of progress and emancipation—which itself can be a motif only in her own temporality. This conception of Dasein, which has been the bedrock of this study, also helps us recover another philosophical moment vital for any conception of agency—the Kantian critique of practical reason. Kant, Heidegger would assert, already had a more radical understanding of time than Hegel did.55

The autonomy of the moral imperative, Kant found, was indispensable for any conception of human freedom. The moral will alone, as “a transcendental predicate of the causality of a being that belongs to the world of sense,” could provide a principle of freedom outside a fatalist empiricism in which time future would always have been determined by time past.56 Whether an “automaton materiale when the mechanical being is moved by matter, or with Leibnitz spirituale when it is impelled by ideas,” freedom then would be “nothing better than the freedom of a turnspit, which, when once it is wound up, accomplishes its motions of itself.”57

To such moral quality of Dasein must we attribute both the social and moral obligations of everyday existence and the more generalized passion for historical emancipation on class, gender, and such grounds that drives critical politics and thought. Such moral obligation drives both social movements based, say, on class, gender, or environmental considerations and the multitude of resistances with their paradoxical expressions and necessary subterfuges that James Scott, for example, called “hidden transcripts.” As Scott notes, “A cruel paradox of slavery, for example, is that it is in the interest of slave mothers, whose overriding wish is to keep their children safe and by their side, to train them in the routines of conformity.”58 A hermeneutic driven by this double movement—from a modernization or evolutionist paradigm with its conceptual antecedents in Hegelian teleology, Cartesian metaphysics, and Platonic forms, to Heidegger’s existential phenomenology and simultaneously to the Kantian emphasis on the ethical—has been critical to the production of this book.

Additionally, Jacques Lacan’s subversion of Hegelian teleology and a capitalist social structure in which its symbolic representations are embedded has been one of my primary anchors. For this recourse, as I have said earlier, I may be accused of disciplinary hereticism; after all, it is by differentiating the subject matter of the discipline from biology and psychology that Durkheim carved the institutional field of sociology as a robust and lasting field of inquiry—the study of “social facts,” an objective entity.59 Notwithstanding the institutional force of this separation, for my purposes, the distinction between the social and the psychic would have been fallacious. This opposition based in the knowledge formations of nineteenth-century Europe is altogether sublated in Freud, and surely in Lacan. While transcending this distinction, psychoanalysis—focused on understanding human experiences rather than a positive discipline of measuring them—also led into a more humane epistemology. It is therefore not surprising that psychoanalysis, unlike sociology that has progressively narrowed itself, has been a great factor in the development of twentieth-century thought, from cultural studies and critical theory to poststructuralist philosophy and feminist theory.


Chapter 1 begins with a narrative of observations and impressions from the initial hours of my pilgrimage. Like the rest of the book, it brings together insights from conversations, interviews, and theoretical debates and interventions and picks up the thread of the journey at different points. Juxtaposing the empirical data with Weber’s insights on the intersections between religion and economy, phenomenological theory, performance studies, and Indian metaphysical texts, the chapter demonstrates how religious practice is a means of performing and preparing for an informal economy. The narrative places participants’ performances, artworks, ritual expressions, and the excessive labor of the journey in the context of participants’ ordinary work (or lack thereof). In the context of the symbolic and structural violence of a hegemonic but exclusive neoliberal market economy—where about 90 percent of the workforce is informally employed, with few social, employment, or health safeguards—the religious field offers the possibility of an alternative sociality, as well as an opportunity for performative existence and for social recognition. It enables an “actual” identity that subverts the stigmatizing labels of “failure,” “unemployed,” and “outcast” by a dominant social order. It provides another textual medium, imagery (or mirror) for self-recognition to resist a dominant, appropriating ideology.

As part of a current habit of thought, scholars describe religious participation as a kind of market exchange. But in the Kanwar, participants express fears and anxieties regarding obligations for the life, health, wellbeing, and expectations of dear ones, expressly denying their interest in material gain. People feel justified to ask for a divine gift often only insofar as it can be seen as an obligation or gift to someone else. Chapter 2 analyzes such wishes and the speech acts of the religious vow in the context of highly precarious living conditions and widespread suffering. I look at the role that ego deferral plays. The chapter questions the functionalist idealism of some of the assumptions of sociological ideas of “uncertainty,” as seen, for example, in Giddens’s theory, to instead argue for a material, existential understanding. Engaging participants’ 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.

Chapter 3 shows that these performances in a different, radical temporality generate hope and community—and therefore work—in an otherwise disillusioning and alienating, if not punitive, social order, which holds scarce promise. Analyzing the repetitive, obsessive, and mortifying character of the religious practices, it shows how they manifest the dread of everyday life. Using extensive ethnographic detail, the chapter shows how the deities and religious practices here mediate among the subjects and their temporal horizons, becoming the foci of a community among otherwise divided subjects. In conversations with psychoanalytic theory and critical phenomenology, the chapter demonstrates that there is a gaping lack in representation of some of the most overwhelming experiences, fears, and desires of social and psychic life in a dominant consciousness usually glutted by discourses of the nation, economy, work, daily bread, or the media. The mainstream world seems to have no time and means of accommodation for these concrete realities of life in the social margins, which therefore here are deferred, displaced to, and play out in religious practice. Narrative focus on personal historicity, the profound lived time of the subject, as opposed to historical Time with its focus on collectivities—both as events and factors—makes psychoanalytic themes such as the parallels with dream work, the simple economy of the pleasure principle, and repetition compulsion very important to the text. These emerge as powerful themes with a gestaltlike effect that makes coherent and legible the otherwise complexly coded and dissimulated effects and compositions of social and religious practices.

Chapter 4 continues with the ethnographic description of my journey in the Kanwar: corpses float in the Ganga Canal while police officers turn a blind eye, even amid reports of several participants drowning. Evoking the ubiquity of violence and apathy interspersed with moments from the exceptionally violent history of the region, I describe how although the Kanwar mobilizes millions of participants every year who walk across several hundred miles, through Hindu and Muslim habitations alike, it has not caused any major incident of the notorious Hindu-Muslim conflicts that have been a defining feature of India’s late colonial and postcolonial history. Yet one can feel a palpable tension as the pilgrimage procession passes through Muslim neighborhoods. This chapter analyzes such tension in reference to the ubiquity of violence and state apathy, specific incidents of Hindu-Muslim violence in recent decades, and the exceptionally violent history of the region from a longue durée perspective. I argue that the conflict over religion is almost inevitably provoked by interests of power and politics. Differences in faith seem to take the form of actual violence only when stoked by statist actors seeking power. While notions such as “religious nationalism” or “fundamentalism” may direct attention to legitimate fears, based on real historical events and possibilities, they often facilitate misrecognitions of the social complexity of contemporary religion and systematically divert attention away from lived political and economic conditions.

The cognitive dissonances, and the religious overcomings, as Chapter 5 shows, also express deeply ingrained social hierarchies rearticulating themselves in the contemporary contexts of hegemonic nationalist and neoliberal ideologies. While the Kanwar obviously has a wide following, it is frowned on and reviled by a large section of society. Such disgust is most common in the English-language news media and among the urban middle classes. While the phenomenon is itself, I argue, a performative expression of the fears, desires, and aspirations of a majority living in India’s challenging social conditions, resentment is provoked by its aesthetic transgressions. The indiscriminate, carnivalesque performances along with the lowbrow culture offend middle-class ideals. To these ideals and sections of the populace, this is a poor, botched, illegitimate version of religion that lacks the composure of “adult” religiosity. Such aversion is partly an effect of postcolonial anxieties. In the context of a project of national redemption conceived in reference to the projections, real or imaginary, of a violated, traumatic national history, there is a compulsion to project more or less good and beautiful images of an idealized, pure self to the world. Such a seemingly gross representation of religion therefore comes across as offensive and uncanny.

I argue that this aesthetic divide is an expression of India’s vast economic inequalities, reflected in differences in habitus and cultural capital. While a liberal middle-class ideology and aesthetics dominate the society, the habitus and cultural performances of the vast majority come to be seen as gross and distasteful. The Kanwar then, I argue, enacts a conflict over habitus. Here, these sedimented hierarchies are overturned. The stigmatized popular habitus occupies the highways for several days and publicly performs itself as religious and sublime under the canopy of Śiva’s bacchanal figure. The dialectical constitution of the pilgrimage is thus an enactment of political conflict. I also show how these conflicts are accentuated by and express the contemporary legacies of India’s caste heritage.

Notwithstanding the complex social conflicts apparent here, such religious practices are rarely treated in sociological scholarship as forms of “resistance.” Even in the subaltern studies literature, where such phenomena are prolific, they are usually seen as substitutions for other, explicit social and political causes and interests. Chapter 6 shows that the notion of “resistance” in the social sciences is normatively framed by sweeping abstract ideas of individual freedom and historical progression; religious actions then are more likely to be characterized as “fundamentalist” than seen as instances of social resistance. Anchored in an exegesis of rituals and enunciations in the Kanwar, this chapter advances an alternative understanding of resistance situated in a hermeneutic that interweaves the phenomenological critiques of Hegelian philosophy, Kantian ethics, and Lacanian psychoanalysis. I argue for a hermeneutical conception of resistance considerate of the temporality of being-in-the-world instead of an abstract teleological universal Good. Bringing psychoanalytic practice together with critical ethnography, the chapter reasons that such a notion of resistance is indispensable for a radical epistemology that can encounter the new, global infrastructures of repressive power and violence.

This work is informed by observations during three different pilgrimage seasons—2009, 2010, and 2011. On the first occasion, as a resident of this part of India and pulled by curiosity, I had short, informal conversations with participants taking a break from their journeys on the streets and waiting to perform the libations in Pura Mahadeva. It was, however, only in 2010 that I started doing systematic research on the subject. In 2010 and then again in 2011, I interacted with participants in Hardwar preparing for their journey on the banks of the Ganga or visiting the several shrines in Hardwar and the adjacent sacred town of Rishikesh. I lingered in these spots for about three weeks each time, informally conversing with the participants about their travel plans, religious interests, and personal life circumstances or motivations leading to their interest in the pilgrimage. I also keenly observed the life around me in these busy centers of religious activity. Finally, in 2011, I participated in the journey myself: first, doing the libations in the temple of Nilkantha, atop a mountain adjacent to Rishikesh, and then walking a distance of about a hundred miles between Hardwar and Pura Mahadeva, the site of an important Śiva temple in the state of Uttar Pradesh. In these pilgrimages, I was accompanied by a friend, a male about twenty years old whom I will call K in this narrative. We took turns carrying a single kānwa and joined other groups at various points.

In addition to my observations and notes from the fieldwork and the many brief conversations, this work draws on sixty in-depth interviews during summer and winter of 2010 and 2011. I conducted some of these interviews in Hardwar, but the majority took place in two locations between Hardwar and Delhi. One is a town on the Grand Trunk road, which used to be a strong manufacturing center for textiles and other goods. Most of these factories shut down by the early 1990s, and the former workers and their families now usually depend on part-time employment in retail, casual labor, and an occasional job with the government or the organized private sector. The other location was a village on the banks of the Upper Ganga Canal. The interviewees were male and female, middle class and poor, rural and urban, with different levels of education, and belonged to a variety of castes. While some were seasoned veterans who had done the pilgrimage many times (with a few bringing the water from as far as Gaumukh, the source of the river in the upper Himalayas), others were relative novices still under tutelage. I interviewed people at different times—some had just returned, others had not been on the pilgrimage for a few years, yet others were preparing. In addition, I interviewed some participants in different stages of my own pilgrimage.

Settled on the banks of the Ganga, Hardwar is a buzzing center of religious activity and commerce. Beyond the priests officiating in various types of religious ceremonies, the teeming restaurants and sweet shops, stores selling a thousand varieties of religious symbols, statues, necklaces and many trinkets, it also has countless bookstalls selling religious books, booklets, and audio/video CDs. In addition to the sacred writings of Hinduism, such as the Vedas, the epics, Upanisads, and a variety of Puranas, these stores sell a lot of popular, inexpensive booklets with eulogies of various deities and shrines and rules for different types of rituals promising solace and assistance to the distressed. The number of written texts on the Kanwar are few, but there are scores of amateurish videos featuring dances, plays, and songs on the Kanwar—some earnestly devotional, others sensually provocative—that play nonstop in stores and booths throughout the route. I spent days and weeks looking for relevant bits in this heap of information and watching many such videos several times over. The following narrative veers between interview accounts, ethnographic observations, and interpretations of such content, interspersed with a discussion of scholarly, historical, political, and moral issues at stake.


1. Sāvan or Śrāvaa usually falls about July–August in the Hindu lunar calendar. Hardwar is a renowned Hindu pilgrimage center. It is the first major town on the banks of the Ganga after it enters the plains in Rishikesh. Hardwar is also one of the four sites where the great Kumbha festival takes place every twelve years. For more on Hardwar, see Lochtefeld, God’s Gateway.

2. When capitalized and without diacriticals, “Kanwar” refers to the pilgrimage, while the “kānwa” is the device that the pilgrims carry. The pronunciation is the same. “To bring the Kanwar” is an idiom meaning to undertake the pilgrimage.

3. See “Kanwar Mela Passes Off Peacefully,” Pioneer, August 9, 2010. Lochtefeld suggests that the Hardwar Kanwar may have been “transported” in the 1980s by Hindu nationalist groups from a similar phenomenon in Baidyanath (in Jharkhand state). See Lochtefeld, God’s Gateway. Although there are many similarities between the pilgrimages at Hardwar and Baidyanath, which suggest communication between the two phenomena that may well have reinforced the Hardwar pilgrimage, Lochtefeld’s claim about conscious transportation of the pilgrimage is rather speculative. On the contrary, my informants provided several examples of people, often in their own family, who had undertaken the pilgrimage much before the 1980s. There are also sufficient historical data from colonial records to establish the existence of the Hardwar Kanwar at least from the early nineteenth century. See, for example, Heber, Narrative of a Journey; and Atkinson, Statistical, Descriptive and Historical Account.

4. The pilgrimage is differentiated into types, loosely by levels of difficulty. Thus, the Jhūlā (Hanging) and Baithī (Sitting) Kanwars are the most common. The Jhūlā Kanwar requires that the kānwa should never be placed on the ground and must be kept suspended, ideally on a fruit-laden tree, but since these are supposed to have become rare, on wooden or metal railings set up at camps. In the Baithī Kanwar, the device can be set on the ground as long as the place is clean. In these cases, the water vessels are usually too heavy to be suspended. The Khaī (Standing) Kanwar requires that the device be borne on the shoulder throughout the journey and therefore requires assistance from another person, either a companion or a random stranger. In the Danavat (Prostrate) Kanwar, a companion carries the kānwa while the pilgrim advances, moving along the ground one body length at a time. In one variation called Dāk (Mail/Relay) Kanwar, groups of young, athletic men, accompanied by supplies in motorized vehicles, run relays with the sacred water and often have prior commitments to cover the distance within a brief, defined period of time.

5. The Kanwar is governed by many, though often variable, injunctions: for example, when shifting between shoulders, the kānwa may be moved only around the back; the water pots should never hang below the waist; one should not pass under the cluster fig tree; it is imperative to take a bath after using the toilet; neither the pilgrim nor his family is to abuse or hit any living beings during the pilgrimage; family members at home are not to eat fried or spicy food during the pilgrimage; the pilgrim should not enter home (domestic life) before the ritual is completed, that is, until the libations at the Śivalinga have been performed. Pilgrims generally go in groups, usually with a leader to ensure that pilgrimage rules are adhered to, since a breach would violate the kānwa’s integrity, destroying the merit of the act.

6. Berger, The Desecularization of the World, 7 (emphasis added).

7. See Giddens and Hutton, On the Edge; Kinnvall, Globalization and Religious Nationalism; and Robertson and Chirico, “Humanity, Globalization, and Worldwide Religious Resurgence.”

8. Giddens, Runaway World, 4.

9. Ibid.

10. See Mahmood, Politics of Piety; Martin, “From Pre- to Postmodernity in Latin America”; and Casanova, Public Religions in the Modern World.

11. See, for example, Asad, “The Construction of Religion.”

12. See Turner, “Reshaping the Sociology of Religion.”

13. See Heidegger, Being and Time, 487.

14. See, for example, Young, The Exclusive Society. See also Bourdieu, “The Essence of Neoliberalism”; and Goldberg, The Threat of Race.

15. Benveniste, Indo-European Language, 516.

16. Kant, Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone.

17. See Benveniste, Indo-European Language, 516–28.

18. See Benjamin, “Critique of Violence.” See also Agamben, Homo Sacer.

19. See Kant, “An Answer to the Question,” 17.

20. Gay, The Enlightenment.

21. Rousseau, The Social Contract, 120.

22. For arguments on differentiation and secularization, see Durkheim, Elementary Forms of Religious Life; Berger, The Sacred Canopy; Casanova, Public Religions; and Beyer, Religions in Global Society. See also Wilson, Religion in Secular Society; and Luckmann, The Invisible Religion.

23. See Bellah, “Civil Religion in America”; and Bellah, The Broken Covenant.

24. Casanova, Public Religions, 31.

25. Weber, From Max Weber, 293–94.

26. See Durkheim, Elementary Forms of Religious Life.

27. See Foucault, The Birth of Biopolitics. See also Becker, “Nobel Lecture.” For a rational choice theory of religion, see Stark and Bainbridge, A Theory of Religion; and Stark, “Micro Foundations of Religion.”

28. See Casanova, Public Religions; Marty and Appleby, Fundamentalisms Observed; and Berger, Desecularization.

29. Berger, Desecularization, 11. See also Bruce, God Is Dead; Yamane, “Secularization on Trial”; and Demerath, Crossing the Gods.

30. Berger, Desecularization, 11.

31. See Chapter 2 for an analysis of the severe cognitive biases of the idea of “uncertainty” in sociological theory, especially the theories of modernity and globalization influenced by Anthony Giddens.

32. Berger, Desecularization, 2; and Bauman, “Postmodern Religion?,” 74.

33. Bauman, “Postmodern Religion?,” 73.

34. Ibid., 72.

35. See Kant, Essays and Treatises, 2:76; Hume, “National Characters,” 235; and Eze, “Introduction”; and James Mill, cited in Goldberg, Racist Culture, 34.

36. Pritchett, “Who Is Not Poor?”

37. Berger, Desecularization, 2.

38. Bauman, “Postmodern Religion?,” 70.

39. According to Jacques Lacan, the “symbolic,” “imaginary,” and the “Real” are three interwoven dimensions of subjective experience. The “symbolic” is largely the meanings and identities attributed by the dominant social order, while the “imaginary” includes fantasies and the dreamlike attributes of psychic life. The “Real” is the traumatic core to the particular existence, which escapes both the ability to symbolize and to properly imagine. See Lacan, The Ego in Freud’s Theory. For a critique of the notion that religion is primarily motivated by human frailty and fear, see Durkheim, Elementary Forms of Religious Life, 225.

40. The elevation of religious “compensation” to the level of principle, as we see in Stark and Bainbridge’s widely cited “new paradigm,” may to an extent be seen as the explicit formulation of the metaphysical assumptions of most sociological theories of religion. See Stark and Bainbridge, A Theory of Religion.

41. See Durkheim, The Rules of Sociological Method, 52 (emphasis added).

42. See Craib, Experiencing Identity; and Bourdieu, “Vive la Crise!”

43. See Asad, “The Construction of Religion.” For examples of nuanced anthropological and philosophical treatments of “religion” as a category, see Mahmood, Politics of Piety; and Derrida, “Faith and Knowledge.”

44. For the “postmodern” characterization, see Bauman, “Postmodern Religion?” For work that characterizes religion as premodern, see Springett, “Religious Fundamentalism.” See also Beyer, Religions in Global Society; Lechner, “Global Fundamentalism”; and Marty and Appleby, Fundamentalisms Observed.

45. See, for example, Gary Becker, the most reactionary of the Chicago School neoliberals, boasting in his Nobel lecture on the widespread adoption of his theories in sociology, among other disciplines. See Becker, “Nobel Lecture,” 403. See also Stark, “Micro Foundations of Religion.” For a compelling analysis of Chicago School neoliberalism, see Foucault, Birth of Biopolitics.

46. Stark and Bainbridge, A Theory of Religion, and Stark, “Micro Foundations of Religion,” exemplify the former; Iannaccone, “Introduction to the Economics of Religion,” illustrates the latter.

47. See Giddens, Modernity and Self-Identity; Lechner, “Global Fundamentalism”; and Kinnvall, Globalization and Religious Nationalism.

48. See Fabian, Time and the Other; and Clifford and Marcus, Writing Culture.

49. Max Weber’s The Religion of India is a consummate example of his exceptional ability to connect the psychic, moral, and material dimensions of human subjectivity and situate them socially and historically.

50. See Weber, The Protestant Ethic.

51. See Craib, Experiencing Identity, for an insightful critique of sociological method.

52. Heidegger, Being and Time.

53. See Hegel, The Phenomenology of Spirit.

54. See Derrida, Dissemination; and Heidegger, Being and Time.

55. Heidegger, Being and Time, 480, 499.

56. Kant, Critique of Practical Reason, 99.

57. Ibid., 102.

58. Scott, Domination and the Arts of Resistance, 24.

59. Durkheim, The Rules of Sociological Method, 52 (emphasis added).