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Cacophony or Coherence: Ethnographic Writing and Competing Claims to Ritual and Textual Authority

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image of Method & Theory in the Study of Religion

This essay describes the challenges to ethnographic writing that are raised by multiplicity, contradiction, and conflicting narratives in the fieldwork process. Specifically, the essay examines multiple and sometimes opposing articulations of the causes for, and ritual treatments of, a malignant horoscopic condition called nāga dōsam (snake blemish) in contemporary South India. This examination raises questions about the relationships between textual knowledge and ritual performance, as well as the nature of competing claims to ritual and textual authority. At the heart of these interpretive questions lies the issue of representation, or how best to characterize such multiplicity and inconsistency in the ethnographic texts which grow from our field research. Drawing on excerpts from fieldwork interviews with two Brahmin religious specialists, this essay considers how best to evoke the realities of the Tamil ritual field without simply inscribing these power dynamics on the ethnographic text.

Affiliations: 1: Program in West and South Asian Religions, Emory University;, Email:


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