Jessica Vantine Birkenholtz: Reciting the Goddess: Narratives of Place and the Making of Hinduism
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Reciting the Goddess: Narratives of Place and the Making of Hinduism in Nepal by Jessica Vantine Birkenholtz is the first significant study of the cult of the goddess Svasthānī and its transformation and migration into Nepal. The traditions and mythology surrounding this deity, while bounded by previous rites and mythos, are nevertheless unique products of the Nepalese milieu. This study provides useful examples of the socio-political influences that have subsidized the rise of folk Hinduism in diaspora communities and offers an example of how local cults evolve into migratory movements. Beyond the consequences for ritual studies, Birkenholtz’s work provides an example of the reciprocal influences of language and religion in the development of culture.
Chapter One introduces Nepal’s patron goddess Svasthānī through her defining hagiographical work—the Svasthānīvratakathā (SVK). She describes the dual function of the work as both a vrat, or vow, and as an honorific meant to provide apotropaic effects. Both Nepal’s Newar, or folk Hindus, and the Parbatiyās, or higher-caste Hindus, participate in these devotional practices and have influenced the sub-narratives within to reflect their social statuses and political histories. This creates an interesting dialectic between local concerns and globalized Brahmanical influences, and Birkenholtz effectively argues that the rite’s structure supports such layered diversity.
In the next chapter, Birkenholtz traces Svasthānī’s biography, drawing upon the extensive goddess literature to clarify Svasthānī’s ambiguous provenance. Birkenholtz effectively argues that the meaning “Goddess of One’s Own Place” is a testament to the Newar’s appropriation of Svasthānī’s mythos from the neighboring Brahmanical traditions of the Parbatiyās. Birkenholtz places this event in the history of the Malla dynasty of Nepal, an era rich in religious innovation. While placing Svasthāni in the context of the many Hindu pantheons and practices that arose during this period, she is careful not to deemphasize the uniqueness of the SVK mythos. Svasthānī’s cult seems to have originated anew from the religious stew of the Nepal Valley, with tangential roots in the larger Shakti traditions and margi tantra.
Interestingly, Svasthānī’s cult is mostly aniconic. However, her rare depiction in icons and descriptions in her eponymous scripture eventually came to straddle both vengeance and benevolence as personal attributes, leading to a dual role. Birkenholtz concludes the second chapter by tracing these shifts and the ongoing interaction of Brahmanical and Newar tantric influences. The author asserts that increasing murti darshan in Nepal led to the development of the SVK tradition from a largely textual ritual to a public cult. The role of symbolism and iconism in increasing lay spirituality is nearly universal, and Birkenholtz emphasizes this phenomenon here.
In the third chapter, Birkenholtz focuses on the SVK literature itself, asserting that linguistic analysis of the text can clarify the convoluted history of Nepal as a site of hybridization. She traces the development of the SVK from the late sixteenth century through the Nepali vernacularization process to the development of ritual manuals. Here, she compares the Newar and Nepali-language manuscripts, arguing that the late translation of the Nepali texts stems from pragmatic needs as the Newars interacted with and accommodated the rituals of their higher-caste neighbors.
Chapter Three presents a literary and cosmopolitan historiography of the SVK textual tradition from the earliest existing manuscript. Birkenholtz argues that the shifts from Sanskrit to Newar to Nepali cannot be seen as a process of pure vernacularization. She suggests that the Sanskrit in early SVK manuscripts was already vernacularized and influenced by local Newar dialectics. This chapter further establishes the extent of narrative shifts in the SVK tradition. These shifts gave expression to and challenged the policies of the ruling elite regarding language, literature, and religious identity for Newar and Parbatiyā subjects following the political upheaval in the Nepal Valley in the late eighteenth century.
Chapter Four discusses how choice traditions from the Puranic corpus were added to the original Svasthānī narrative. Birkenholtz examines this Puranicization in light of the broader social forces at work in the Nepal Valley. She first analyzes the ongoing Hindu hegemony of power in Nepal that, while engaging with Buddhism, Islam, and Christianity, was established as the primary religious force through the personal convictions of Nepali rulers. Birkenholtz concludes by describing the SVK narrative, addressing how surrounding traditions influenced Svasthānī’s myth.
Chapter Five examines the final stage of the SVK’s extension into Nepalese religious praxis. Birkenholtz points out that women form the bulk of these extended goddess narratives. The chapter explores the degree to which the emergence of patriarchal tendencies gave rise to a vision of a modern Hindu Indian woman, with a strengthened emphasis on fidelity. Birkenholtz argues that Svasthānī’s identity is tied to the pan-Hindu goddess tradition but further empowers women, influencing local and regional debates on the ideal of Hindu womanhood.
The final chapter opens with a reflection on Svasthānī’s contemporary influence and how her textual-ritual traditions continue to shape Nepal’s Hindu identity. Birkenholtz demonstrates how Svasthānī’s tradition synthesizes a myriad of narratives of place that illuminate historical developments and inform contemporary discussions of religious, cultural, linguistic, literary, and political identity in Nepal that are just starting to receive thorough academic attention. It offers a final argument for the role of the Svasthānīvratakathā as a unique lens for understanding Nepal’s sociocultural history, and more broadly, the making and study of Hinduism on the periphery.
Overall, this is a well-written and well-researched volume that offers much to those interested in Nepali Hinduism, the Hindu goddess tradition, ritual studies, and the sociocultural dynamics of a staunchly Hindu Nepal. While Birkenholtz thoroughly explains and contextualizes her arguments, this work is best suited for those familiar with the goddess traditions of the Bhakti movement and their manifestations across the Hindu diaspora. The author tends to separate the spiritual history of Nepal from that of India, and some may erroneously conclude that the many vestiges of Vedic Hinduism present in Nepal have been eroded by invasive influences. However, this concern only results from the author’s thorough analysis of the roles of ritual and tradition in the development of a significant Hindu cult.