Is it God Speaking? The Identity and Agency of Deities in the Western Himalayas
In Indian western Himalaya the local gods function as gods-kings in a type of theistic rule. Among other things, this is exemplified by their ability to move from place to place, their judicial authority, and their royal mannerisms. In my lecture I will describe the conceptual and practical changes that have taken place over the past decade. These changes illustrate a process of transition from an identity in which the local Pahāṛī element is the dominant component, to an identity in which pan-Hinduism plays a more important role. These changes are part of a wider phenomenon of elasticity (both conscious and unconscious) regarding the identity of the gods (a goddess who has turned into a god, for example). This raises a question: who are the agents of change with regard to the identity of the gods? To this end I will focus on the various roles that make up the functional array of the gods (religious priests, mediums, administrators and so on). This leads me to the question: do gods have agency?
In many ethnographies the gods are a reflection of social structures, symbolize power relations or serve as a resource for individuals. From the point of view of those who are studied, however, the existence of the gods is undeniable and the same goes for their agency, in other words, their ability to act and change. The gap between the two viewpoints is narrowed in the religious experience of Indian Himalaya. Here the locals, who customarily speak to the local gods through mediums, are grappling with an epistemological problem – how can they be sure they are indeed talking to the gods? Moreover, they do not ignore the manner in which society is present in the gods’ decisions. Through the concept of decentralized agency we can connect the ethnographic point of view with that of those who are studied.