Postscripts: The Journal of Sacred Texts, Cultural Histories, and Contemporary Contexts, Vol 4, No 1 (2008)

"Write the Text Letter-by-Letter in the Heart": Non-Literacy, Religious Authority, and Female Sadhus' Performance of Asceticism through Sacred Texts

Antoinette Elizabeth DeNapoli
Issued Date: 5 Jun 2010


The performance of the Rāmāyan, 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 (sādhus) in Rajasthan. It is used by them, along with the singing of devotional songs (bhajans) and the telling of religious stories (kahānī), as integral to their daily practice of asceticism. This essay examines the performance and textual strategies by which non- and semi-literate female sādhus create themselves as “scriptural”—how they perform a relationship with the literate textual tradition of the Tulsi Rāmāyan—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 sādhus, Rāmāyan 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 sādhus’ identification of Rāmāyan 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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DOI: 10.1558/post.v4i1.3

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