Faces in the Trees
AbstractConsideration of tree worship was once central to theories of religion, which tended to view this practice as a primitive form of anthropomorphic animism that has no place in a civilized modern world. How might we regard tree worship once it is liberated from the cultural evolutionary views of the nineteenth century? Neem trees have long been associated with the goddess Shitala in Hindu religious culture. This essay examines the worship of individual neem trees in northern India, which in some cases involves clothing the tree and attaching a human-like facemask to it. Ethnographic evidence suggests that this remarkable form of anthropomorphic activity can be best understood as an intentional strategy for establishing more intimate relationships with the nonhuman world. Although it is not the explicit goal of most tree worshipers in India, this practice may serve as a possible resource for the preservation of trees.
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