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Text, Tradition, and Imagination: Evoking the Normative in Everyday Hindu Life

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For over two thousand years, the notion of śāstra has had an astonishing presence in Hindu normative thought and culture, and śāstra, as codifications of knowledge, have been composed in virtually every aspect of life from love and politics to thieving and horse rearing. The concept of śāstra yokes precept and practice in a way that perhaps no other concept in Hindu life does, and indexes a complexity that is understated by dictionary meanings of the term which include "to instruct," "order," "command," "precept," "rules," "scientific treatise," or "law-book." Drawing on my ethnographic research in the Hindu pilgrimage town of Sringeri, south India, my essay explores how the notion of śāstra, or, more widely, the "normative," is expressed in everyday contexts of Sringeri. The location of Sringeri itself is significant. A small town in the lush southwestern mountains of India, Sringeri is famous for its smārta matha (monastery) and its temples which are believed to have been founded by Śankara in approximately 800 A.D. Historical records of the matha show that in an unbroken lineage of over 1200 years, the gurus who head the matha have counseled royalty and laypersons on matters ranging from military campaigns and land disputes to propriety of marriage alliances and business practice. The matha today is an influential interpreter of the Hindu codes of conduct, the Dharmaśāstras, for a large following of Hindus in south India. To a visitor to Sringeri, the monastic institution with its emphasis on śāstra, would seem to symbolize a normative centrality in the lives of Sringeri residents. However, conversations and oral narratives from Sringeri challenge this assumption, and demonstrate that śāstra is one concept among others such as paddhati (custom), ācāra (proper conduct), sampradāya (tradition), and niyama (principle; restraint) that individuals employ to indicate moral authority and enactment. While these terms are often used interchangeably, they highlight subtle differences in agency, textuality, historicity, jurisdiction, and permissibility in the context of the normative. I argue that underlying ethical practice is a dynamically-constituted "text" that draws on and weaves together various sources of the normative — a sacred book, an exemplar, a tradition, a principle, and so on. Such a text is essentially an imagined text, a fluid "text" which engages precept and practice, and in a sense, is always intermediary. In this imagined text, the normative manifests as emergent, situated in the local and the larger-than-local, the historical, and the interpersonal.


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