"Write the Text Letter-by-Letter in the Heart"
Non-Literacy, Religious Authority, and Female Sadhus' Performance of Asceticism through Sacred Texts
Keywords:female asceticism, Rajasthani oral traditions, scripturality
The performance of the R?m?yan, a popular, medieval Hindi text composed by the Indian poet/saint Tulsidas, constitutes an important genre in the “rhetoric of renunciation” for female Hindu ascetics (s?dhus) in Rajasthan. It is used by them, along with the singing of devotional songs (bhajans) and the telling of religious stories (kah?n?), as integral to their daily practice of asceticism. This essay examines the performance and textual strategies by which non- and semi-literate female s?dhus create themselves as “scriptural”—how they perform a relationship with the literate textual tradition of the Tulsi R?m?yan—and thus engender female religious authority in the male-dominated institution of renunciation, in which men are often considered by Indian society as “the” experts in sacred texts. For these female s?dhus, R?m?yan performance functions as a rhetorical strategy with which they construct their tradition of devotional asceticism as a non-orthodox and vernacular alternative to the dominant (and orthodox) Sanskritic textual model of Brahmanical asceticism. The s?dhus’ identification of R?m?yan expressive traditions with Tulsidas’ written text contributes a new perspective on the concept of scripture, and their textual practices provide an alternative model of scripturality to current analytical models which equate it with individuals’ engagement with the written sacred text.
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